In a compelling coming-of-age novel, rock journalist Goldberg charts his hippie-era protagonist’s progress one Dylan album and one fat doobie at a time.
BY FRED MILLS
In 1970 I was 15. It’s safe to say I didn’t have a clue. Well, I had been given some clues—plenty of ‘em, from the underground rock ‘n’ roll I’d absorbed for three or four years (the first record that genuinely blew my mind was the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and soon enough I’d be mesmerized by albums from Hendrix, Cream and Steppenwolf) to the countercultural missives of the day as transmitted by magazines like Time and Life and, eventually, Rolling Stone (my mom inexplicably sprung for a subscription to the latter, which rapidly supplanted Mad in my teenage imagination) to a chance neighborhood encounter one afternoon with three older hippie types who were jamming away on a primitive electric blues in a garage.
But a clue is only as good as how you use it to tackle a problem or solve a mystery. Back then I hadn’t yet figured how to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
That’s more or less the situation in which we find the protagonist of True Love Scars (Neumu Press, www.truelovescars.com). In the case of Michael Stein, it’s 1972 and he’s 19, but as the narrative dwells a good deal in the past—1965, and having his mind blown by Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”; 1969, and having his libido set ablaze by a sassy young hippie chick; 1971, and tacking up psychedelic posters on his college dormitory room—it’s safe to say that the dude spends the majority of the book feeling and acting clueless while trying to project an image of someone who’s got the answers already. Veteran rock journalist Michael Goldberg, of Addicted To Noise and Sonic Net fame, is clearly working through some personal demons in his debut novel, a kind of poetic-license memoir rendered in a vivid 1st person voice containing echoes of Holden Caulfield, Sal Paradise and Danny Sugerman (who of course was not a fictional person, being a member of the Doors inner circle, but certainly wrote with a definite ego swagger in his own memoir). And in a very real sense, True Love Scars contains echoes of my own voice, because in reading the book I felt some of my demons from that time being stirred up, including initial musical alliances with key albums/concerts, mixed feelings toward my relationship with my parents and friends and memories of my first few crushes (not to mention losing my virginity).
Indeed, Stein’s recollections chart an emotional arc as striking as I’ve seen a novel’s lead character experience, from naïve and tender to streetwise and hip to cynical and wounded, with Dylan lyrics seeming, to him, laden with meaning and Rolling Stones tunes, likewise, churning with prophecy. When he meets, for example, the girl he calls Sweet Sarah and they embark upon a doomed courtship, Dylan’s there as their guide and their muse. Later, though, following a breakup and a dark descent into teenage debauchery, Stein’s haunted by mental echoes of the ominous slide guitar riff powering the Stones’ “Sister Morphine.” Similar musical reference points from the time abound, as befits novelist Goldberg, who cut his teeth as a rock writer and came of age in that same era; it’s tempting to play the is-it-or-ain’t-it-autobiographical game with the book, since Goldberg has a temporal, geographical and personal backstory that mirrors, to a degree, Stein’s. (Stein’s nickname in the book is “Writerman,” which should tell you something.)
The frequent nods to albums and musicians and other cultural touchstones from the hippie era lend TLS an authenticity, and the dialogue spouted by Stein and his friends rings generally true as well. But it’s the personal travails at the heart of Goldberg’s book that makes it a compelling read. Anyone who lived through the countercultural upheavals (and even folks who didn’t) could probably craft a narrative full of credible time-specific name-, place- and event-dropping. But Stein’s saga is painfully real, a portrait of a sensitive young man who’s in the process of coming of age, a kid who has the potential to be a saint but all too frequently succumbs to his sinner side, with the inevitable collateral damage accruing in his wake. Not the least being Sweet Sarah, whom he describes as his idealized “Visions of Johanna” girl yet who he seems destined to damage. Other characters get used or nearly so by our hero—there’s a remarkably uncomfortable scene in which he comes close to sleeping with a 14-year old, which of course is statutory rape, only to come to his senses at the last moment—but he doesn’t emerge unscathed himself, like when the Generation Gap rears its inevitable head and he has a physical confrontation with his father, or when he tangles with a steely woman who proves to be his sexual match:
“I get out the doobies I got off Lord Jim, light one with the candle and take a mouthful of the harsh. Harper pulls my arm to her, and if how Harper’s fingers feel against my fingers were a sound, the sound is Nico when she sings ‘Femme Fatale.’ Harper licks the end of the joint, and that joint, seconds earlier in my mouth, between Harper’s lipstickpink lips, and she sucks at it, holds the smoke… I’m trippin’ on Harper’s face. She has black eyeliner, not a lot, but enough to make her Keane eyes extra spooky, and those eyes got hooks, hooks she’ll hook into me, hooks same as indelible ink, once you’re hooked, indelible, and good luck unhooking ‘em.
“Some of the glowing ash falls on the paisley bedspread. Harper presses her palm down hard on the ash.
“’Don’t burn yourself,’ I say.
“’Why not?’ Harper says.”
Goldberg advises us that True Love Scars is the initial installment of his “Freak Scene Dream Trilogy,” full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll plus the inevitable heartbreak and roadkill that comes with the whole package. “How the dream died and what there is left after,” he concludes. It’s worth noting that despite the timeframe outlined above, Stein/Writerman is actually narrating in retrospect from some as-yet-unspecified point in the near-present. So we know that despite the gradual sense of dread building up over the course of the book and present at its abrupt ending, he will manage to survive in some form and fashion despite whatever adventures—good, bad, ugly, tragic—will go down over the course of the next two volumes of the trilogy. I can’t wait to read ‘em.
I suggested previously that not only does the author seem to be exorcising demons, the memories he awakened in me were profound. In 1970 I was basically just waiting for something to happen to me. Happenstance arrived in the form of a sassy young hippie chick who moved to town and wormed her way into our small social clique of freaks and wannabes. Or more accurately, we entered her orbit because she was not the type to settle for anything less than being the center of attention (another friend would dub her “Queen Of the Underground,” from a line in the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”).
Sundry adventures and misadventures would follow for all of us, in the service of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. At the time it seemed like life itself was accelerating, we teens hurtling toward the future in a wave of anticipation and hedonism. Eventually the dream died for us, too, and we each had to face, on our own, what was left. Over the years I would hear from the hippie chick from time to time, although gradually the frequency of correspondence slowed and then petered out altogether.
One morning not long ago I got a call from a friend who informed me that the hippie chick had taken her own life. She’d been hospitalized at least once as a teenager for a suicide attempt and battled chronic depression for most of her adult life, but it always seemed to me that she’d managed to pull back. Obviously in the end, she hadn’t.
This review is dedicated to K.F., then, because True Love Scars’ Michael Stein’s story is her story just like it’s my story, about how we navigated (and sometimes failed to navigate…) the late sixties and early seventies while the world spun crazily around us. If you were present during that time frame—and even if you weren’t, because adolescence isn’t all that different no matter what era you find yourself in—it just might be your story, too.
More Michael Goldberg: www.daysofthecrazy-wild.com