Mon
Sep 8 2008 1:13pm

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.

13 comments
Joe Sherry
1. jsherry
I read this for the first time earlier this year and fell in love. This is easily one of Martin's best novels. Like you said, he totally nails the music and makes the reader hear it, and I would have hated the Nazgul's music, I think. Here, it's perfect.

I know DeLillo was trying to do something very different with his novel Great Jones Street, but with Martin I could feel the music and feel the musicians were musicians and with DeLillo I couldn't.
James Felling
2. James Felling
This novel is easily the best book I have read. I first read it in 1983, and have reread it ~ every 5 years or so since. Each time I notice new things I missed, and each time I appreciate new things about it. I keep hoping some one would make it into a movie, but they would have to make the music and that would be well nigh impossible to do right.

I have several friends to whom I lent this novel, and who were utterly blown away by it.

Read it -- I personally like it the most of Martin's books, and given that I will buy anything he writes sight unseen, the day it comes out and devour it ravenously, that is high praise.
James Felling
3. Jason Clark
Couldn't agree more. I started reading Martin by the Song of Ice and Fire, and blindly picked up the Rag since it had his name on it. After I finished the book, it kept running through my head for weeks afterward.

I'd never cared about the 60's much, but this book gave me a real sense of what it must have been like to live then, to feel like part of massive changes and then watch it slip away. Brilliant stuff.
James Felling
4. Corey Redekop
This is the only Martin I've read, but damn it's a good one.
James Felling
5. Randolph
Magic realism?
James Felling
6. Werthead
It's a great book, as most of his books are, but it's a shame I had to get an American copy as it's not in print in the UK at the moment (something to do with the rights to the lyrics). I should start campaigning to get it back in print...
James Felling
7. Alan P. Scott
I'm so glad to see this review. I read this myself in 1985 (and reviewed it shortly thereafter), and it's remained one of my favorite books too. Thanks, Jo!
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Werthead: Be glad it's in print in the US. For most of the time I've loved this book I've had to lend my own copy or buy a rare second hand find if I've wanted to share it with friends. There hasn't been a British edition since that eighties one with the black lightning-struck telecaster.

It's kind of weird -- the way Patrick said in the "tiny geeky subculture has eaten the world" post -- when something you've been quietly enthusing over in the corner becomes a mass taste. I'm delighted that the Song of Ice and Fire books have made Martin a superstar, but my bookshelves have had a substantial Martin presence since way before that.
James Felling
9. OtterB
I haven't read this, but I see my library has it. Martin was the first author I remember writing a fan letter to, after the publication of A Song for Lya in Analog when I was in high school. And there's a scene from one of the Haviland Tuf stories that's become a part of our family shorthand, something about concentration being a virtue until it allows a 6 meter tall carnivorous lizard to sneak up behind you.

I do so enjoy your reviews here. They've reminded me of old favorites (e.g. Heinlein juveniles) and sent me off adding new strata to my TBR pile. Thanks!
Blue Tyson
10. BlueTyson
Thanks.

I've been tossing up this year whether to read this one. Now that you write this I am pretty sure I read this way back when.
James Felling
11. Rob Weber
I had no idea what genre to put in when I reviewed it for bookspotcentral. I think I labelled it mystery. It's one of those books that clearly shows genres and even the distinction between genre and mainstream fiction is bull.

Despite the difficulty placing it I absolutely loved the book. I haven't read Martin's entire work yet but this one certainly stands out.

As other people have pointed out you can almost hear the soundtrack playing when reading this book. I'm 31 now, most of the music he mentions is from before I was born. Yet if I check my mediaplayer playlist an awful lot of it is 60s and 70s stuff. In fact, the first thing I did after finishing the book was play Electric Ladyland.

Music to Wake Up the Dead is an album I keep looking for even if I know it won't be there.
Blue Tyson
12. BlueTyson
Where to put it? Good question. On LibraryThing the tags fantasy, horror, sf and music all have equal weight it seems. :)
James Felling
13. ShiningV67
Lost in translation
I picked this one up in a used books sale at my local library. Having read the first 5 volumes of Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" and "Tuf Voyaging", I had to pick this one just for the name on it. So let me get this right. I have read the "Song" series in English, and "Tuf" in English, but "Armageddon Rag" was a French translation (notice how the "The" was dropped from the title...). Even though French is my native language, I am bilingual enough to prefer reading in English when the original work was written in English. But this was the one I had, so I read it. Pocket version of 500 pages, I must admit that for the first 300 I hadn't a clue as to where GRRM was getting at. I thought about throwing this book away quite a few times but decided to stick to it. In the end, it was worth it. I couldn't put it down for the last 200 pages. And I have a feeling that, should I read it again, I would find some hidden meaning to everything in the first half. I think I will have to find an original English print so I can enjoy the original style. The translated lyrics are just horrible in French! "RAGIN'!" conveys pain and rage, but the translated "en ROGNE!" just feels ridiculous. If you read this book in French, please read only the original English lyrics, don't even look at the translated French. All the emotion and flavor is lost in translation.

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