Don’t get too attached to this decade: George R. R. Martin’s The Armageddon Rag

The Armageddon Rag is one of those books I’ve read a million times and bought hundreds of copies to give to friends. It’s a very hard book to describe. As you can see by the variety of cover art it’s had, it’s a book that’s been hard to market, and hard to pin down even as far as genre. It’s brilliantly and compellingly written, acutely observed, and just flat out amazing. I’ve liked everything that Martin’s written, but for me, this is his masterpiece. It’s hard to recommend a book to people when it isn’t like anything, just because it’s phenomenally good.

The short version is: It’s incredible. It’s back in print. Read it now.

The book was published in 1983, and set in about that year. I first read it in 1986, on the train from Lancaster to London as I left university to start my first real job. If people only liked to read books about people just like them, the way some people claim, this book would have done nothing for me. I was twenty-one in 1986, and it’s about boomers who are just starting to feel middle-aged. It’s about memories of the sixties that I didn’t share. It’s also a wonderfully American novel, one of the most American fantasy novels ever, with its rock sensibilities and road trip from Maine to Albuquerque. When I first read it I had no emotional idea how far that was. As far as I was concerned, it was set in the science-fictional America, and the sixties were a science-fiction decade. I hadn’t even heard most of the music. (Some of the music I went and found later because of the book.) The Nazgul’s music, which doesn’t even exist, you can hear as you read the book. This is not the least of Martin’s accomplishments.

The Nazgul were a sixties rock band. Sandy Blair was a radical journalist in the sixties and is a mildly successful novelist in the eighties. The lead singer of the Nazgul was shot dead at a concert in West Mesa in 1971, and ten years later their promoter gets gruesomely murdered. Sandy takes off to investigate the murder and finds himself caught up in an odyssey to discover what became of his generation. Through the first half of the book he looks up the band members and his own college friends. The second half is considerably weirder, as the band get back together, Sandy becomes their press agent, and things appear to be headed towards a rock and roll armageddon and revolution.

The book raises and considers the question of what went wrong with the sixties generation: how did hippies turn into yuppies?

“What happened to us? To everybody?” He waved his arms wildly in a great all-encompassing motion that took in all the hopes and dreams and demonstrations, that took in riots and assassinations and candlelit parades, that took in Bobby Kennedy and Donovan and Martin Luther King, that embraced Melanie and the Smothers Brothers and the hippies and the yippies and the Vietnam War, that swept across the memories of a turbulent decade and the destinies of a whole generation of American youth, and that nearly knocked his glass of Chianti off the arm of the sofa.

Yet it isn’t a sixties nostalgia trip that has nothing to say to anyone who wasn’t there. It highlights what was cool and significant in the sixties to show us why there are people who miss it so much they’ll do anything to get it back—but they’re not the good guys. Good guys and bad guys have always been too simple for Martin. Sandy’s lack of conviction is one of the rocks on which the novel is built. The magic is blood magic, it could all the way through be leading to armageddon or resurrection.

There’s a genre question with this book. It’s been called horror, and fantasy, and even alternate history. Having one imaginary rock band doesn’t make it alternate history for me. It isn’t horrible enough for horror, and yes, it’s broadly fantasy, but it doesn’t feel like fantasy. A lot of the fantasy takes place in dreams, and there are no fantastic elements at all until a good third of the way through. But there are people in the book who are trying, through blood sacrifice and rock music, to bring the sixties back.

The concerts lasted hours, but could human hair really grow that far, that fast? Then why did the women’s hair seem so long and clean and straight coming out, flowing down and down, stirring in the wind, when it had seemed so shagged and styled and curled coming in?

Whether you see that as fantasy or horror can depend very much on where your sympathies lie.

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