Sympathy For the Devils

The 1960s were all about peace and love, right? Forty years later, we know better; hindsight and all, though it was well then apparent. The assassinations, the race riots, the Asian War and the authoritarian crack-down on sometimes violent political and cultural protest all took the shine off the age of Aquarius. The decade’s last years were ripe with apocalyptic events: the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the gone-wrong Altamont concert, the Manson murders. Let’s face it, Woodstock was an aberration.

For years, the hysterical right has been blaming a host of social ills on the decade’s if-it-feels-good-do-it morality. Demagogues claim that the 1960s gave birth to a kind of cultural debasement, crudity and self-absorbed indulgence that continues to this day. Silly them. They still want to blame the hippies. Those traits, categorized collectively as “human,” have been with us for thousands of years. They’re only pinned on someone when the status quo needs a scapegoat for its repression and institutional violence. Using famous and not-so figures from the ‘60s, Zachary Lazar’s fascinating novel Sway examines the decade’s ugly side, claiming that evil is biological and cultural. It springs from both nature and nurture. It mostly thrives on indifference. And we’re all capable of it.

Tracing the rise of the Rolling Stones, the life of underground film maker Kenneth Anger and the relationship between small-time rock musician Bobby Beausoleil and Charles Manson, the book reasserts an old lesson: violence begets violence, even when it’s separated by continents. Sway exploits actual events to offer a fictional account of the decade’s truly spoiled promise. Lazar takes the colorful, intersecting threads of his characters’ lives and weaves them tightly into dark cloth. As entertaining as it is thoughtful, Sway takes us back to the day even as it touches something timeless.

It’s not as if we don’t see disaster coming. Indeed, knowing ahead that the Manson family will paint walls with blood and that Altamont will end in gang murder has the effect of pushing the preceding events forward. Lazar introduces small acts of cruelty—Beausoleil’s treatment of his girlfriend, the brawls at the Stones’ early gigs, the spankings Anger endures from his father—to foreshadow larger acts of cruelty and violence. Anger reacts to his sadistic upbringing with depictions of devil worship and acts of masochism. Beausoleil acts on ugly subconscious whims while convincing himself he’s resistant to the manipulations of the man haunting his thoughts. Mick, Keith and the others are aloof, even as Brian Jones drowns. Delusion takes on a palpable presence.

There are times that Lazar seems sympathetic to his characters, especially to Anger and Anita Pallenberg, the love interest of first Brian, then Keith. But he largely remains detached from the evil that shadows his tale, exposing it from a distance, not judging his characters but letting their actions speak loudly. The Vietnam war serves as constant background and Lazar uses it to effect. Beausoleil thinks “the war had somehow permeated everything, even things that had no relation to the war itself.” The Stones, as if going to battle, arrive at Altamont in a Huey helicopter just like the ones used in Vietnam. The class struggle in England serves the same purpose. Early on, we see the Stones living in a filthy squat, cuddling with each other at night to fend off the cold. Beausoleil bums his way through life, falling in with Anger whose life is little better. The choice between conformity and rebellion is constant. Jagger chooses between singing or pursuing economics. The decisions seems arbitrary, or worse, ordained. Manson family member Susan Atkins is quoted saying, “You didn’t think about what you were doing, you did it.”

The most innocent and indifferent character is Anger, who accepts his sexuality and finds a way past the moral and cultural confusion by pursuing his art. The Stones seem clueless, surprised by their own success, trading girlfriends like comic books and playing, just barely, at fatherhood. The relationship between Brian, Keith and Pallenberg seems especially dysfunctional.

Would Lazar’s book be as hypnotic if it were based on fictional characters? Hard to say, but my youthful attraction to the Stones certainly made me want to find out what Lazar thought was in their heads. The historical legitimacy makes for uncomfortable reading at times, heightened by actual events: the Stones 1967 bust, the Manson murder of music instructor Gary Hinman, the chaotic, Lucifer-laden content of Anger’s films and the Stones’ participation in them. These bits of reality make Lazar’s words stronger and his premise more authentic. But you can’t help wonder what Lazar might have gained—or lost—if he had just made the whole thing up. And you can’t help but wonder if this really was the ways it was. –Cabbage Rabbit

A version of this review first appeared in the OC Weekly

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