George R R Martin’s The Armageddon Rag

I’ve never ever watched Game of Thrones.
I did start reading the books, working my way through the first two in quick succession, but by the time I got to the end of the third – which was so long, it had to be divided into two volumes for the paperback edition – I just ground to a halt, unable to summon enough interest to continue trying to follow this sprawling story.
But I was something of a George R R Martin fan at an earlier time, for most of the Eighties and into the early Nineties, and had a solid collection of his short stories and novels. Back then he was a primarily SF writer with a leavening of Fantasy, who was also straying across the border into Horror.
I still have one of his books to this day, my favourite of all his work. It was a departure in that it was neither SF nor Fantasy nor yet Horror, though there is a substratum of the latter that playing a growing part in the second half of the book. But it’s primarily a realistic work, albeit with some unusual dimensions.
And it wasn’t until last year that I discovered that this book was Martin’s commercial nadir, that it performed so badly that it almost ended his career!
The Armageddon Rag (1983) is set in the mid-Eighties and centres upon Sandy Blair, a failing novellist living in New York with a realtor (i.e., estate agent). Sandy’s first, very Sixties-journey oriented novel was very successful but his second and third sold in decreasing quantities and his fourth, which is just edging over the border into being overdue, is terminally stuck on p37.
Which is when Sandy gets a call from Jared Patterson, owner and editor of the Groundhog, which he and Jared co-founded as a more radical Rolling Stone back in the late Sixties when Sandy was an optimistic radical and proponent of the counter-culture. Before Jared swindled him out of his co-ownership. A once prominent rock group manager has been murdered violently, the manager of Sandy’s favourite band, the counter-culture’s most famous, successful and revolutionary group, The Nazgul. The Nazgul came to an abrupt end in 1971, playing a free festival at West Mesa, when an unknown sniper shot the band’s lead singer, Patrick Henry (‘Hobbit’) Hobbins on stage.
Will Sandy write an article on the killing, and the band’s surviving members? It’s a diversion, for a relative pittance, and both his partner Sharon and his Agent think of it as irresponsible, immature and an excuse to go back to his adolescence. But Sandy jumps at it, and almost immediatey starts reverting to his disreputable past. It turns out that the killing had a decidedly ritual aspect to it, a ritual relating to the Nazgul, West Mesa and the band’s last album, Music to Wake the Dead. When Hobbit was shot, the band were playing the long track that took up side two of the album: ‘The Armageddon/Resurrection Rag’.
One thing that must be accepted before reading this novel is that George R R Martin’s musical tastes are fixed upon the Sixties, by which I mean the late Sixties, a period that extends into the early Seventies. His Nazgul are the voice of a generation, and their West Mesa festival is the end of the Sixties: Woodstock, Altamont, West Mesa, the great trilogy. And because the Nazgul were cut off at their prime, the promise of the Sixties, the prospect of betterment, the hope, the peace, the change, was cut off and left to wither.
Martin makes no bones about it throughout The Armageddon Rag that any music from after that period is shit, commercial dross, tasteless, boneless pablum (and that doesn’t even count disco!). Like it or not, for the duration of this book, you have to accept that anything you like is below contempt. Because the Sixties ended, because the new world, of peace and love, was prevented from being born. Because its potential was snuffed out.
Because Sandy’s investigation doesn’t only take in the three remaining Nazgul members: guitarist Rick Maggio, bloated, confused, stillfull of unrealisable belief, drummer Gopher John, slimmed down, club-owner, ruined when a fire burns out his club, killing half a trapped audience, and bassist/writer Peter Faxon, pale, cool, still prolific, but hollowed out.
But as he travels, Sandy takes the chance to drop in on all the old gang, all his old friends, widely dispersed and living lives that are in some way broken by their pasts: Maggie, Lark Ellyn, Bambi Lassiter, Froggy Cohen and Slum, all misfits, either trying to fit in, running, hiding or, in Slum’s case, tortured by both past and an evil present.
Even though the article vanishes out from underneath him, even though his relationship with Sharon dries up and blows away, even as he is filled with a growing despair at what happened to his generation, Sandy keeps digging. Certain patterns are beginning to form. There’s somebody out there, someone who used to be part of the Underground, with a mission to put the Nazgul back together, and with a startling approach to replacing Hobbit.
And there’s the growing realisation on Sandy’s part that something, be it deep intelligence or else something with an entirely less rational basis, is shaping events around Music to Wake the Dead. Simultaneously afraid and unable to avoid what’s happening, Sandy accepts the post of the Nazgul’s publicist, on a tour that’s a growing disaster until something – let’s not be too dogmatic about what – starts to come to the band’s aid.
Only on certain songs, mind you. Certainly not the new ones, the one’s Faxon insists on playing, fervently opposed to being a nostalgia act. But something creeps in, into the ever increasing number of Music to Wake the Dead songs that have to be played. And with the tour coming to an end in a re-staging of West Mesa, where the band will play the album in its entirety, including rthe complete, never-played ‘Armageddon/Resurrection Rag’, Sandy knows that whatever is being planned will come to fruition that night.
He has two things to do. He has to find out who ‘Charlie’ is, the one missing element, the ‘Joker in the Deck’ from Side One. And he has to decide whether to let the Armageddon Rag last loing enough to cross the musical bridge into the Resurrection Rag.
To read this book, you have to check in at the door any belief that there was any worthwhile music after the end of the Sixties. That may sound to be a somewhat trivial point, but it is an intrinsic part of the story that Martin is portraying. Music is both a symbol and at the centre of what Martin wants to get over: this is a book whose thesis harks back to those few years or hope, freedom and change, that sees them as something unequivocally good, that was forced back and broken. That the world that ensued is cruel and hollow, a world full of chains, seen and unseen.
That if only something can be done to reverse it, to restore the path things were on, then lives could once again begin to grow towards an ideal that we are far from realising.
It’s an ideal that many will see as naïve, but it’s a powerful one, especially to those of us that were, however peripherally, part of that time when things were possible, and who have seen possibility shut down in the most horriying fashion over long decades until a rich and greedy few have fenced it off for their private pleasure.
It was an ideal that was naïve at the time the book was written, on the eve of Yuppiedom and red braces, though it’s late enough to be directly contemptuous of the forerunners of that age.
And it’s a bloody good book, which handles its growing revelations and implications with skill and care, and it certainly does not deserve the obscurity it suffers. I can only think that it sold so badly because so many of its audience were scared of its message, or were too personally close to the Sixties and feared being swallowed up into something larger than their own times offered.

4 thoughts on “George R R Martin’s The Armageddon Rag

  1. I love the Armageddon Rag, and also Fevre Dream from around the same period. I have not read anything of Mr Martin’s since then, and probably won’t. Joe Haldeman (clearly a friend of Mr Martin) described him in his blog once as making a fortune out of writing the same book over and over agan, which struck me as hilarious and seems to fit your description of the first three volumes of whatever the series is called. I reread Fevre Dream and The Armageddon Rag this year (or last) and will probably do so again – every 30 years whether I need to or not!

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for commenting.

      I also read Fevre Dream – up to The Armageddon Rag, I owned all Martin’s books – which was good but, being a horror story, did not appeal too much. From what I remember of the first three Games books, they were well-written but too massive. I read 1 and 2 in succession, but by 3 I had forgotten virtually everything but the odd highlight and they weren’t appealing enough to reread just so I could remember who the hell everybody was. I love Haldeman’s comments, though it’s so long back that I really can’t remember if it’s spot on or just delightfully bitchy, and I’m not going to re-read anything to check!
      I’d love to see the same kind of budget and production values lavished on Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, even though they couldn’t possibly hope to deal with the under-story on TV/film. But it would be fun.

      1. I loved the books of the new sun, but suffered from the forgetting what had gone on before syndrome that you mention above. I have actually stopped reading series until they end (where possible – sometimes it is not obvious a series has started) or rereading the earlier books when a new one comes out.
        for example, I read the Neutronium Alchemist trilogy more or less in one go and suspect it would have been horrible to try to remember the characters with more than a week or two between them. I have a feeling that Peter Hamilton actually wrote an encyclopaedia of all the characters in it, so it wasn’t just me.
        anyway, that aside aside, I will go back to Gene Wolfe one day, given time.

  2. On the other hand, I remember no difficulty in picking up on the New Sun books when I first read them at yearly intervals, and I reread them so regularly (and still pick up on new elements thirty years later) that the books are as familiar a landscape to me as is the Lake District.

    I’ve never heard of the Neutronium Alchemist series, but then I’ve not generally read SF/Fantasy for twenty years or so. Although my favourite writers are all SF/Fantasy: I just rarely stretch beyond them.

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