Latest Goodreads Reviews

Hoping for a proper post tonight, but in the meantime here’s the latest set of Goodreads reviews:
Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll LifeWild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life by Graham Nash
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nash comes across mostly as I’d always imagined him — by far the most decent of CSNY as a person, though not overburdened with a sense of modesty — I lost count of the times he praised the insight and beauty to be found in his own songs.
The story he has to tell about his own life is so exactly the same as his contemporaries that one could almost write it without actually knowing anything about him. The impoverished childhood (with every “grim up North” cliche imaginable, right down to his dad going to prison and saying “you’re the man of the house now”), copying the Everly Brothers with his best mate at school, pop stardom with fun pop songs, taking dope and wanting to grow as an artist, leaving the schoolmates and first wife behind, hanging out in California with other “serious artists”, everyone taking too much cocaine and being a complete arsehole to each other, then second marriage and stability.
But where, for example, Ray Davies’ autobiography manages to capture much the same sequence of events with wit and insight, Nash’s book reads like it was written by a bright fifteen-year-old, and is all simple declarative sentences. The only real colour or character in the writing comes when one cringes at the repeated hippyisms (money is always “bread”, dope smoking is always “smokin’ it”, and so on).
The book is no doubt useful for discovering more about Nash’s life, but there’s little deep insight into the work, or into the events that he lived through. Disappointing.

FiccionesFicciones by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s almost impossible to say anything sensible about Borges in the short confines of a GoodReads review (I plan to write a longer piece, to be called “Andrew Hickey, Author of Borges”, on my blog at some point…)
Suffice to say that without Borges, literature — and thought itself — would have been unimaginably different after 1940 or so. Long before I grew aware who Borges was in my late teens, I was already living in an imaginative world Borges created.
Borges is that rare thing — a “literary” writer who is an unalloyed pleasure to read. In fact, the pleasures of reading Borges are often on the lowest level imaginable — Borges sometimes triggers the same part of my brain that responds to roleplaying sourcebooks — though more often the pleasure one gets is more akin to that of a good late-Victorian or Edwardian Gothic story by M.R. James, Dunsany, or Machen.
But Borges’ concerns are more philosophical than theirs, and consequently his work has much more bite. I don’t think it an exaggeration to say he is to literature what Russell was to philosophy, Godel was to maths, or Welles to film.
Certainly the concerns in the first half of this short book are very similar to theirs. In that half (which contains at least four of the finest stories ever written — Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius; Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote; The Library of Babel; and The Garden of Forking Paths) Borges mostly uses the form of the literary essay, but writing about nonexistent books and authors, to deal with questions of authorship, the distinction between imagination and reality, and the distinction between signifier and signified:

“The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary. Thus proceeded Carlyle in Sartor Resartus. Thus Butler in The Fair Haven. These are works which suffer the imperfection of being themselves books, and of being no less tautological than the others. More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.”

The second half is, to my mind, weaker (though this is a relative, not an absolute, weakness). In this, Borges mostly writes more conventional stories, all based around themes of sacrifice and betrayal, but also with the idea that all people are really one. If we are all really one, then was Judas also Jesus? This, and variants (was Brutus also Caesar?) is the theme of the second half, explicitly in Three Versions of Judas and implicitly in the other stories. To me, this is a less interesting question than those dealt with in the first half, and the more straightforward style less interesting than that of the essays, but objectively there’s still much of value in there.

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This Week’s Goodreads Reviews

As I’ve not been doing very well at reviewing books on here — and as I’ve not had the energy to write full blog posts recently because of my health — I decided this week to write a short review, only a few paragraphs, of each book I finish on Goodreads as I finish it. Every week or so I’ll pull those reviews into a single blog post and put them here…

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the many books you would expect me to have read already, given that the basic elevator pitch would be “Sherlock Holmes argues theology with Borges, in what purports to be a murder mystery but is actually a discussion of the extent to which, when we’re thinking, we’re doing so with reference to the outside world or just to our own symbols for it”

It’s pretty much exactly as good as that description makes it sound. Truly remarkable book.

(And since writing this, I’ve looked through the Goodreads reviews, and seen a lot of people reviewing it, even those who like it, complain that it wasn’t the page-turning murder mystery they thought it would be. It isn’t — in fact it’s not really a novel, rather it’s what Northrop Frye referred to as an anatomy, or Bakhitin called a Menippean satire (rather different from the classical form of the same name). The point isn’t, as with a novel, the plot and characters, rather it’s the way these things can be used to discuss ideas. The “story” is incidental to the book.)

The Anatomy of FascismThe Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All the reviews of this book pointing out its good points are quite correct, but I think that the structure, while deliberate and part of the author’s intention, lets it down somewhat.

Paxton attempts to delineate the way fascist regimes act — or acted, he thinks that the Italian fascists and the Nazis are the only two examples of such regimes –and from looking at the way they grew, the compromises they made, the internal structures of the parties, the structures of the governments they formed, and so on, to come to a working understanding of fascism.

However, while he leads the reader to conclusions rather than starting from them, his conclusions feed back into the earlier chapters, before the justification for them. Thus he makes several controversial assertions (for example that neither Franco nor Peron was really fascist) and doesn’t give the reasoning for them for several chapters. Thus for me at least, while everything is eventually explained, I spent much of the book with mental “[citation needed]” clauses after every expressed opinion (though statements of fact are scrupulously cited in endnotes). Knocking one star off purely for that.

Postscript to the Name of the RosePostscript to the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, which I read under the title “Reflections on the Name of the Rose”, is a very short (the book comes in at 88 pages, but many of those are illustrations) essay on the composition of Eco’s novel (though not the interpretation, which as one would expect from him, he leaves to the reader).

Having myself recently written a novel with multiple nested unreliable narrators (though not, I fear, one of which Eco would approve) I was fascinated to read his description of the process that led him to do the same thing with Name of the Rose, as it’s more or less the same reason I always write fiction in someone else’s voice (and why my recent attempt at serialising a third-person novel on Patreon failed so badly).

Eco talks about how it feels impossible to start a book with “It was a beautiful morning at the end of November” without feeling like Snoopy, but if you have Snoopy — or at least someone who is unaware that starting a book that way is a cliché — be the narrator then suddenly it becomes acceptable. In fact he later goes on to talk about postmodernism as a whole as somehow all about avoiding the embarrassment of cliché while reclaiming it — about how a lover who knows that “I love you madly” sounds like a line from a Barbara Cartland novel might say “As Barbara Cartland might put it, I love you madly” and thus take the sting from the cliché. This certainly seems to sum up some of the appeal to me as a writer of postmodernism, though not its appeal as a reader. (On the other hand, when I read that passage to my wife, she said “why not just say what you mean?” — unlike me, she is capable of expressing her emotions openly in public without multiple insulating layers of irony).

I can’t recommend this unreservedly — Eco is a literary snob, which I’m fine with, but he’s judgmental about the people who read lowbrow stuff, rather than about the work, which I’m not — but for anyone who is interested in the writing process it’s utterly fascinating.

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Lock-In by @scalzi

Before I start this review, a brief note to say that the reason I am tagging the author is not some kind of ego thing, but because John Scalzi has said that he’s specifically interested in hearing some of the kinds of criticisms that I’ll be bringing up here. I’d normally just put the relevant bits in a comment on his blog, but he’s turned off comments this month…

As with all my reviews, there will be SPOILERS here. In particular, this book is at least in part a murder mystery, and I will be giving away the identity of the killer (though not mentioning the name) further down, so stop reading here if that kind of thing might spoil your enjoyment.

Lock-In is a rather simpler book than Scalzi’s most recent novel, Redshirts. Where that played various postmodern games with narrative and levels of reality, this is a straightforward near-future crime thriller, in some ways very reminiscent of Charles Stross’ Halting State and Rule 34, but told in a much plainer style. In fact, other than a couple of “fucks”, it could practically be a Heinlein juvenile or a Terrance Dicks Doctor Who book or one of John Christopher’s Tripods books — it’s written in the kind of prose style that people describe as “transparent”, told mostly in dialogue, and told in a linear fashion from the viewpoint of a single narrator who seems a thoroughly nice, decent person. It’s a light adventure story that would probably appeal to anyone who enjoyed Asimov’s robot mystery novels (though Scalzi’s prose style is much better than Asimov’s) more than to fans of dense, impenetrable, complex narratives.

That sounds like a harsh criticism, but it’s really not meant to be. This is a book that’s pure story, and from an entertainment point of view it absolutely delivers. In fact it’s precisely the kind of story that the “sad puppy” people like Larry Correia were insistent moderates like Scalzi are incapable of writing, and I would be very surprised not to see it turned into a film or TV series soon

I was also glad to see that Scalzi takes a decent attitude to representation in the novel. I can’t remember if it passes the Bechdel test (several characters’ genders are only mentioned so fleetingly that I can’t remember what gender they were, and it didn’t really matter for story purposes), but the nature of the story means that a large number of the characters are disabled or Native American, and there’s also a general level of pleasing unemphasised diversity — only two long-term relationships are acknowledged in the novel, one same-sex and one mixed-sex, while the narrator is mixed-race (a fact we discover in an aside on page 330 — his race, or the races of his parents, aren’t mentioned before or after).

But one area where I thought more could be done, and where I hope more will be done in the sequels Scalzi has suggested may happen, is in the disability politics that form part of the background for the novel.

Scalzi’s book is set in a time when a substantial number of people have succumbed to an illness that renders them completely paralysed but still fully compos mentis, “locked in” to their heads unable to communicate, but where brain-computer interfaces have been developed to allow them to control robot bodies — or even, for a price, rent another person’s body for a few hours and use that. They’re also able to go and spend time in purely virtual worlds, where they can interact with each other — some of them go so far as to spend all their time in them, and never to “visit” the real world at all.

Now, while HuffPost have described the book as being “about wheelchairs”, I’d argue that the locked-in people are as much a metaphor for autistic people as for physically disabled people, and in particular the way that non-verbal autistic people (I’m a verbal autistic person, and so don’t have quite the same communication difficulties as the people I’m talking about, though I have plenty of my own) have found themselves able, since the advent of communication-assistance technology and particularly the internet, to communicate with other people.

Now, I have very particular views on the subject of “curing” autism, and have had a lot of very emotional conversations on the subject in the last week or so, because there seems to have been substantial progress made towards such a “cure”.

My own feelings on this are roughly those you could imagine a gay person in 1950 to have about a “cure” for homosexuality, except if anything stronger — autism is a far more integral part of who I am than my own sexuality is, and I could imagine a “me” who is gay or bi but still me, whereas a neurotypical version of me would be so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I do not doubt that there are a small number of people who would benefit from a “cure”, for whom their autism causes such distress that they would rather be someone else rather than continue to be their autistic selves, I also have no doubt that in the current political and social climate there would be far, far more people on whom the “cure” was imposed against their will, either by parents wanting to have a more “normal” child or by healthcare systems that focus on profit more than on the patients’ needs. What I would like to see, myself, is a world where total social acceptance of people with autism spectrum “disorders” came first, and then (and only then) a “cure” was developed for those who it would genuinely benefit, but sadly far more money and effort is being put into the latter than the former, and I am horribly worried that this will lead to the effective eradication of people like myself.

Now this debate does, in fact, come up in the book, and both sides’ arguments are presented fairly well — there’s even a character who is roughly speaking an Amelia Baggs analogue (note that I’m not going to touch the ongoing arguments about whether Ms Baggs’ self-representation is accurate even with someone else’s bargepole). We get the following at one point:

“Bring us back from what, exactly? From a community of five million people in the U.S. and forty million worldwide? From an emerging culture that interacts with but is independent of the physical world, with its own concerns, interests, and economy?”

“No, making people change because you can’t deal with who they are isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. What needs to be done is for people to pull their heads out of their asses. You say ‘cure.’ I hear ‘you’re not human enough.’ ”

The problem is that these arguments are put in the mouth of the villain, who it later turns out is trying to suppress research into a cure in order that he can continue to profit from the other people with the condition, and whose profiteering leads him to commit a variety of hugely evil crimes, including controlling other people’s brains (which may be triggery for some people who find such things all too reminiscent of abusive relationships), bombings, and multiple murders and forced suicides.

While it’s made clear that there are other people in this world who agree with this view and who aren’t evil psychopaths, the villain of the piece is the only one who advocates this view at any length, and the person with whom he is arguing is presented as an entirely sympathetic figure — an employer who wants the best both for his employees and the world, and who attends a memorial services for the janitors who worked at the company he owned when it’s blown up. Putting the pro-cure argument in the mouth of a good, caring man while the anti-cure argument is being made by something close to a creature of pure evil does seem to be stacking the decks rather.

This is very much a background detail in the book, but I suspect from the way it’s brought in that it will be a theme in any future books in this world, and if so I hope a rather more balanced portrayal will be shown…

Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop, And Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972

(Sorry if this review’s a little disjointed — I’m not particularly well today).

This review will, to an extent, be a matter of comparing the book to my own work, and there’s very little I can do about that — simply put, had I known this book, which came out last month, was being written I probably never would have Kickstarted my own California Dreaming book. Not that it’s actually much like my book, but because it fills the same niche my book was designed for.
I’ve been saying for years that someone should write the whole story of the LA music scene in the 1960s, and Harvey Kubernik has done just that, taking forty years’ worth of interviews, and condensing them into a coffee-table book full of Henry Diltz photographs that manages to cover, at least lightly, the whole vista of LA music in a sixteen year period. Kubernik has got interviews here with pretty much anyone who was involved at all in the music business in LA during the years it was the most vital town in the world.
The book’s strength is also its weakness. It tries (and to a large extent successfully) to cover everything. This means that it covers a lot of music that I’m ashamed to say won’t be in my book on LA music, particularly a lot of music by black and Latino musicians, who dominated the late 50s LA scene — by choosing 1956 as his starting point, he can talk about a lot of musicians like Johnny Otis, the Coasters, and Richie Valens — hugely important figures who my own book, concentrating as it does on 1960 to 1970 and a fairly small number of individuals, simply can’t deal with. (And this does make me question my own book somewhat, because I haven’t really dealt with the way the surf scene and the music that followed it — the music I’m writing about — essentially involved a load of white boys dominating a town that had previously been dominated by black music. This is something I *need* to think about when revising the book for print.)
The downside, though, is that Kubernik can’t really do justice to any of the people he talks about. Not only does he deal with pretty much every major figure to come from or be based in LA, he deals with every major figure from elsewhere who had a connection with LA. So we get longish sections on Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Ike & Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones… anyone who recorded in LA at all.
This means that no one act can get dealt with in any real depth, and the book is full of anecdote with very little through-line, but the anecdotes are marvellous. Kubernik has managed to get interviews with *everyone* — scenesters like Kim Fowley and Nik Venet, pop stars like Roger McGuinn and Brian Wilson, session musicians, record company executives, DJs, songwriters… anyone who had anything to do with the record industry during that sixteen-year period at least gets to tell a couple of their best stories. Everyone from Carol Connors (who sang with The Teddy Bears, Phil Spector’s first group, before later writing hot-rod songs like Hey Little Cobra) to Dan Kessel (the son of Barney Kessel, the Wrecking Crew guitarist) gets interviewed, by way of Lou Adler and Bones Howe.
The result is sometimes frustrating, simply because a tighter focus might have allowed for more detail, but at the same time there’s something to be said for a book which covers (to just take a handful of the people whose photos are shown in the endpaper) The Monkees, Nat King Cole, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Jackson, Brian Jones, and the Doors.

Everyone is guaranteed to discover some new interesting fact or story from this book, from almost every page. As an example I just chose a random page, and even though I have written books about the Beach Boys and the Monkees, I never knew that the Beach Boys’ song Breakaway was inspired by a Monkees song (presumably Someday Man, though Brian Wilson doesn’t say which one).

This is a coffee-table book, with all that that entails, but it’s a good one, and those of you who are more visually oriented than me will love the photos (about half of them by Henry Diltz, and many that I’ve not seen anywhere else).

It’s not quite an essential book, simply because the scope is so broad it will put off people who are only interested in some of these bands, but it’s a really, really good one, and it’s one that everyone who has a real interest in LA music from 1956 to 72 will appreciate.

Faction Paradox: Against Nature by Lawrence Burton

Full disclosure before I start this — I am friendly with the author and the publisher, and I also potentially have a book coming out from this publisher. I don’t think that this has biased my opinions in any way — I became friendly with them because we shared a lot of tastes, so it’s unsurprising that I would then enjoy this book — but it’s only fair to point out up-front.

I’ve been putting off reviewing this one for quite some time, because as I’ve said before I’ve not been thinking very well for the last few months due to ill-health, and this is a book that deserves a more considered, thoughtful response than perhaps I am able to give. However, I’m still not fully well, and don’t know how long I would have to wait otherwise, so this is my best assessment given my limited faculties.

Against Nature is a fascinating, difficult book, that makes no concessions to the reader but is all the better for it. It’s dense, allusive, and expects its reader to think — but it gives plenty to think about. This is Faction Paradox in big, important, thoughtful mode, rather than light adventure mode — think Newtons Sleep or, especially, This Town Will Never Let Us Go rather than Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia. I’ve read it twice, and I still haven’t got all of it, but that’s a good thing — this is a book that absolutely rewards rereading.

I loved it.

I’m mistletoe, Todd thought, I was living on that tree, and now I’m cut off, just moving forward until I sputter out. He wondered if this life might present him with other obvious symbols for his consideration, truths revealed in the everyday details. It felt a little like this whole world was all for his benefit, so maybe.

Against Nature is about sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice, about dying-and-resurrected gods (and ones that die without resurrection), about what it means to be cut off from one’s culture and one’s past. It’s a book that could only have been written by someone profoundly disconnected from his own culture — and it’s no surprise that between writing the early drafts of this, and its final publication, Lawrence emigrated to the US.

The same injustice had befallen Europe a few centuries earlier, barbarians at the gates and so on, swords turning out to be mightier than pens despite the proverb. It was always the stupid idea that caught on, the story that even the village idiot could follow without giving himself a headache. Human history was a ratings war, and people would always choose the flashing lights, special effects, and generic hero pleading you don’t have to do this! over things of value.

One of the ways in which Lawrence creates this effect has been misunderstood by several of the readers, particularly on some Doctor Who forums (Faction Paradox still has a residual connection to what Lawrence refers to as Magic Doctor Who Man Telly Adventure Time). The book is set in multiple times, in multiple locations, with multiple cultures. Two of those cultures — the Great Houses and the medieval Mexica people (the people we think of, wrongly, as “the Aztecs”) are ones which are very, very different from the likely cultures of any of the readers, not only in behaviour and attitudes, but in language.

Lawrence throws us in at the deep end, cutting rapidly, every two or three pages, between wildly different locations and time periods, with stories that parallel and comment upon each other, but do not link up until near the end. Each of these different cultures is presented to us without comment or explanation, so our first glimpse of the Great Houses’ culture comes with:

The blinkers were fashioned from the clothing of the deceased, specifically a pressure suit once belonging to Herrare, the material cut to form a collar of hide curving around the eyes in the manner of goggles. Emioushameddhoran vel-Xianthellipse adjusted the knotted strips of fabric which kept the blinkers in place and took a moment to inspect herself in the cheval glass

while the Mexica strand of the story starts:

It was the day Ome Ozmatli of the trecena Ce Izcuintli as reckoned by the Tonalpohualli calendar of the Mexica — Two Monkey, presiding Deities being Xochipilli, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl. This was hardly an auspicious combination by which to embark upon travel, but there being only nine days left before the occasion of the impending New Fire Ceremony, Momacani was left with little choice.

The cultures involved are ones which Lawrence has an expert understanding of — he has been studying the Mexica people for decades, and has been involved in Faction Paradox fandom (for want of a better word) for almost as long. The result is that he can write about these cultures fluently, from the perspective of someone who lives there, because he does, at least internally.

Several readers complained about the fact that they had to keep track of unfamiliar names like Emioushameddhoran and terms like Ce Izcuintli, and there is no question that this does make the book many times more difficult to read than it otherwise would be. But this seems to me to be entirely intentional — the reader experiences a miniature culture shock every two to five pages, and has to assimilate everything with no background. One is as rootless as Todd, the closest thing to an audience-identification figure in this book.

But I’m making this sound like it’s a hard slog, something to read out of a sense of duty, and it’s anything but. It’s a clever, thoughtful, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking book, and will almost certainly prove the best novel I read this year.

Against Nature can be bought from Obverse Books as a paperback or ebook.

In other news, I’ve decided to start putting my book reviews on Goodreads, since Amazon don’t want authors posting book reviews on their site. I’ve had the account a couple of years, but only just started using it. Add me here if you want. Or not.

Shell-Shocked by @howardkaylan

For the next month or so, most of my writing time will be taken up with copy-edits on the Beach Boys book and on my novel (along with the Doctor Who posts and How To Build Your Own Time Machine). So for the next month most of what’s posted here will be rather light book reviews.

To start with, Shell-Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo And Eddie, Frank Zappa etc. by Howard Kaylan.

For those who don’t know the name Howard Kaylan, he’s probably most famous as the lead singer of the Turtles. He sang lead on all their hits, as well as writing Elenore and a lot of their album tracks, but after they split up in the late sixties, he and Mark Volman (the Turtles’ backing vocalist, tambourine player, and comedian to Kaylan’s straight man) went on to do an immense amount of other interesting work — lead vocalists with the Mothers of Invention for a couple of years, backing vocals with T-Rex, backing vocals on Hungry Heart by Springsteen, and much more, as well as their own albums of hippie comedy-folk-pop under the name Flo And Eddie.

Kaylan’s autobiography is a fascinating, but frustrating read. Kaylan is clearly one of the more intelligent, thoughtful, 60s rock stars, and some of the insights given into the actual working methods of the bands he’s worked with are absolutely fascinating. I hadn’t realised before that Kaylan modelled his vocal style on that of Colin Blunstone (musically he and Volman were definitely Anglophiles, working with Ray Davies and covering the Small Faces at a time when those musicians were nearly unknown in the US), that he and Volman patterned their stage double-act on Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or that the Turtles’ stylistic change from their early folk-rock to the bouncy pop of Happy Together was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but all these things are very obvious once you know.

When he talks about this stuff, the book is at its best — I found the discussions of his writing the great Turtles song Marmendy Hill, or the recording of Lady-O (the last and best Turtles single) riveting, and also loved the insights into Zappa’s working methods, and little details like Springsteen being unable to sing on-key without holding his guitar.

Those portions of the book are, to my mind, easily the most interesting, and I wish there could have been more of them — the recording of the Turtle Soup album, for example (one of the best 60s pop albums of all time) is covered in a little over a page, although this is possibly because it was the Turtles album with least active involvement from Kaylan.

Almost as interesting are the anecdotes about other pop musicians, ranging from the heartbreaking :

When “The Puppy Song” played, Nilsson’s eyes filled with tears. “Dreams are only made of wishes and a wish is just a dream you hope will come true.”
“I was a pretty good singer once, wasn’t I?”
“You’re the best there ever was.” I told him, meaning every word. I was tearing up too.
“He took it from me. He stole my voice and I never got it back!”
The “he” that Harry referred to was John Lennon, who famously produced the Pussy Cats album for Nilsson in 1974. Harry spoke of the primal screaming contests that John would coerce him into.
“I can scream louder and longer than you!” and John could. But, sweet, gentle Harry couldn’t do it. He tried. The competition was fierce, and by the time Lennon returned to London, abandoning May Pang and the lost California years, it was too late; the damage had been done. Harry’s vocal cords were abraded beyond repair and the new stuff was scratchy and desperate. Harry cried.
“Once I was a king, Howard. Now look at me. I’m just waiting to die

to the… well, to this:

Tom Jones was an education all by himself. Every day, when the tour bus arrived at our venue, there were hundreds of waiting, screaming teenage girls, and Tom taunted them mercilessly from behind the safety of his window. He actually pulled out his legendary-for-good-reason schlong, which he had nicknamed Wendell, and waved it at the befuddled girls, who hooted, hollered, and pushed their friends aside to get a look at the one-eyed monster.
“Ooh, you’d like to meet Wendell, wouldn’t you, ladies? Arrrgh, here he comes, girls.” Tom was very advanced.

The best of the anecdotes reveal a huge amount about the musicians Kaylan has known (which seems to include almost every major figure from the 60s and 70s). The worst are just the usual stories of hedonistic excess that pad out every rock bio. For those, you had to be there, I suspect.

What’s rather sad here is that Kaylan’s personal life seems to have been a mess. I lost track of the number of wives he had (I *think* I counted five or six) because each marriage seems to be described in pretty much identical terms — Kaylan meets a woman and marries her. He is convinced that she is The One and he will never need another woman, she promises she’s going to get off the booze and drugs Real Soon Now. Cut to a year or so later, and he’s sleeping with every woman in the continental United States while she’s permanently off her head. Rinse and repeat. (Thankfully, his current wife seems to have been with him about twenty years, so maybe things are better for him now).

Frankly, the book is too short for what it’s trying to do, which is to be both a straight autobiography and a collection of anecdotes and reminiscences about other people. There’s almost nothing, for example, about Kaylan’s working relationship with Mark Volman — despite the fact that the two have been colleagues for fifty years now, I came out of the book knowing next to nothing about him.

But what *is* there, particularly in the first half, is essential reading for anyone who’s interested in the LA music scene of the 60s.

Penn Jilette’s foreword, as well, is fascinating, and makes me think rather better of him than I did previously:

Years later, brilliant voice actor Billy West would say, “There’s one show business.” I didn’t have those words for it then, but Frank Zappa, Howard Kaylan, and Mark Volman taught me that there was only one showbiz that night in Boston. These lightweights were onstage with the heavyweights and they were doing the best show I would ever see. Their voices were beautiful. The music was hard, and they were still having fun. Some of the jokes were very serious and over my head (what the fuck was going on singing in German about a sofa?). Some of the jokes were just stupid jock cock jokes that I would sneer at in my school. It was all mixed together. It was a show that was smart and stupid, heavy and light, beautiful and more beautiful.
They were doing a show with cheesy jokes, and it was also art. How could that be? It wasn’t stuffy—it was funny, entertaining, showbiz, vaudeville, and fun, and it still had content. Those turtlefucking Mothers with those motherfucking Turtles.
They did “Happy Together” in this Mothers show, and it was a really good song. And the music was more sophisticated than I had ever thought. Those perfect AM voices doing art. I loved hearing something I knew from the radio in a smarty-pants show. Were they making fun of it? Yes. Were they also playing it for real? Yes. Were they playing it because it was fun? Yes. My view of showbiz and art came together. It was that moment, during that show in Boston, that the line between showbiz and art was erased for me. If Turtles could be Mothers, maybe a hick juggler could speak his heart in a magic show.
I drove back to Greenfield and now did my best to look as much like the Phlorescent Leech as I could. When people said, “You look like that guy,” I said, “Yeah, the guy in the Turtles, he’s also in the Mothers now.” I was proud of being in showbiz and I was proud of how I looked, and I knew what I wanted to do in life. That’s a lot to learn from a couple of Turtles.


Or what does this have to do with Promethea anyway?

Crossposted at, for reasons that will become apparent.

On March 7, 2007, I was at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre, which has been the scene of some of the most profound artistic experiences of my life — seeing Brian Wilson play his first two UK shows, seeing him premiere That Lucky Old Sun there and seeing Van Dyke Parks (and Wilson and Parks will both show up in these essays again, assuming we go the whole way with them) perform most of Orange Crate Art. It’s also the prison where the Doctor and Jo Grant were held in the 1973 Doctor Who story Frontier In Space, but that’s probably not so important.

But on that day I was there for something rather different. The writer Robert Anton Wilson had been one of the biggest influences in my life, the writer whose works finally showed me how to actually think, as opposed to glibly performing string manipulations and priding myself on my intelligence. I was sat there next to the woman I’d married a year earlier (and who is co-author of this series of essays), someone I would never have met without Wilson’s writing.

Wilson had died the previous January, and in his last months had, thanks to the American health-care system, become literally penniless. We were fairly close to penniless ourselves, but we’d still felt the need to Paypal him $23, a token amount, to help. Enough other people had done the same that he was able to die in his own home with money to spare.

The show in 2007 was a tribute to him, and to his work, and it was mostly for that reason that Holly and I had travelled down to see it. But it wasn’t just for that reason. There were three speakers there, all of whom I wanted to see. One was Ken Campbell, the great actor, writer and director, and one of my great heroes. The second was Alan Moore, of whom much, much more later. And the third was Bill Drummond.

Drummond was the one I was least interested in, because I was least familiar with his work. Oh, of course I loved Doctorin’ The TARDIS, had enjoyed 45, and The Manual is still one of my favourite books, but beyond that I knew nothing of his work.

Drummond’s first line was:

I’m a total fraud even being here. I don’t actually know much about Robert Anton Wilson, and I couldn’t be arsed to help him when he was dying.

So, you know, fair enough.

(And when I watch that video, I realise that I’m completely misremembering that, and probably remembering from this blog post rather than the event. Oh well. But it’s how I remember it.)

The reason I’m telling that story is so I can tell you this. A couple of months ago, the writer J.M.R. Higgs sent me a comp ebook copy of his new book, KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money, because he’d liked my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. I said I’d review it, but I ran into a problem when actually writing the review, because I am precisely the wrong person to review this book.

You see, Higgs’ book takes as its starting point the day when Drummond and his artistic partner Jimmy Cauty (known variously as The KLF, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, The Timelords and The K Foundation) set fire to a million pounds, and tries to figure out exactly why they did this — something they admit themselves they are completely unsure of.

Starting from this, and in pursuit of an answer of sorts, Higgs explores a whole web of ideas and associations. He writes about Robert Anton Wilson, and sampling culture, describes the 1990s in a way eerily similar to the Ghost Point from the Faction Paradox books, discusses Doctor Who and the alchemical ideas that David Whitaker planted in it, the legitimacy of copyright, the Kennedy assassination, the work of Ken Campbell, Discordianism, the immorality of lending money at interest, Situationism, the Pookah and the wicker man in modern pop culture, Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, and questions whether the K Foundation’s burning a million pounds was a magical rite which eventually led to the economic problems we’re seeing today.

My kind of thing, in other words.


Except that the book’s climax is when Higgs talks about the Festival Hall event I discussed above. He talks about how the event actually inspired Drummond to read the whole of Illuminatus! for the first time, and how Drummond (who had used tons of ideas and images from the first 138 pages of the book, which is all he’d previously read, in his work) was shocked to find that most of his life seemed to be in there in some way. Higgs then goes on to say:

I had written 90% of this book before I finally got round to reading Illuminatus! myself, despite having a copy on my shelf for twenty years. Upon reading it, I was startled to discover that it contained a number of subjects which I had already been writing about, unaware of their inclusion in Illuminatus! and unsure if I could justify their inclusion in this book. I had written about usury unaware that the founding reason for The JAMs was to destroy usury, and I had written about Lucifer unaware that a Satanic mass was the initiation into The JAMs. I had noted the surprising number of paedophiles in this story whilst unaware of the character of Padre Pederastia. Such is the way with this particular novel. Reading it almost seems superfluous; it is possible to be swept along just by the idea of it. It is a novel that is perfectly content to sit on a shelf for decades waiting for you to be ready for it.

And this is the thing about the book. Its conclusion is, to me, the stuff that I’ve been thinking about and discussing and writing about for my whole adult life (I read Illuminatus! when I was 18, and have more than a passing interest in most of the subjects mentioned in the book). It’s a book that goes from a premise that I know little about to a conclusion that is familiar, solid ground to me. And the parts that I found most interesting were the parts where Higgs talks about the KLF themselves, precisely because that was the least familiar part of the net of ideas he was talking about. Higgs is mapping out an area in IdeaSpace, but it’s a map that takes this reader from Fairyland to his own front room.

I doubt it would have that effect, though, on anyone without my own precise set of obsessions. Unless you’ve basically read the exact same books and comics I read between, roughly, the ages of 18 and 26, and you’re also a big fan of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who work, the parts that seemed familiar to me will seem unfamiliar to you, while if you pay any attention to pop culture at all the parts that seemed unfamiliar to me will be old news to you.

So…I can recommend Higgs’ book unreservedly to anyone reading this, but I can’t say you’ll be reading the same book I am.

But what does this have to do with Promethea, again?

Well, Higgs’ book is basically a map of a mental landscape, but a rather odd one — he’s trying to give an impression of why Bill Drummond thinks the way he does, by writing enough about Higgs’ own obsessions. It is, if you like, a map of the border between Higgs’ area of Ideaspace and Drummond’s.

About six months ago, Plok, of the blog A Trout In The Milk, was visiting us and practically ordered Holistic Tendancies to write a book on Promethea, because he wanted to hear what she had to say about it. However, she was unsure about this, because she’s never written anything longer than a couple of thousand words before, and doesn’t believe me when I tell her that if you write the material, it structures itself and practically writes itself. I had to take a break from writing my previous book about comics, An Incomprehensible Condition, because I was seeing patterns relating to the subject everywhere, and had to get back into a more rational frame of mind — that’s the extent to which this kind of subject writes itself. But Holistic Tendancies is unsure, so she’s asked me to help her. She wants to write the book with me, and I’m in charge of structure.

So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to write ten more essays. Some of them will be on my blog, and some will be on Mindless Ones. You can follow either blog and not miss out, because we’re going to do this in a Choose Your Own Adventure style.

We’re going to look at Promethea as a comic, the way Alan Moore writes and the way J.H. Williams and the other artists put pictures on the page. But we’re also going to look at the ideas floating around it in Ideaspace — the Kaballah, Wonder Woman, America’s Best Comics, causality, Aleister Crowley, Platonism, topology and more. A lot of it will overlap with the ideas in Higgs’ book, but we’ll be travelling from different directions.

By making it a Choose Your Own Adventure, and having it run over two different blogs, we’ll let you wander round the parts of it that you find most interesting, and do a bit of sightseeing. But even IdeaSpace needs a map, so here’s the one we’ll be using:


Next stop: Yesod.

And just to reinforce how all this works, literally as I was typing the last sentence I received an email from Plok, who I mentioned before, about another collaborative project, one we’re working on with Illogical Volume and others. The email heading? “topological order”. And the first sentence proper of the email?

Topological order, so I’m told, being what they call a way of classifying substances with identical symmetries — by measuring their interactivity in an entangled system. Thus, the helpful analogy for the layman goes, the topological order of New York City would not describe the buildings and the streets, but would identify the city more finely, uniquely by a catalogue of the phone calls being made inside it.