This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 19 2015.
Howard Male described his first novel as: “An airport novel with ideas above its station. A literary novel that’s having too much fun for its own good.”
“We have the skeleton of a philosophy but, as you know, it’s primarily a philosophy committed to its lack of commitment to the very ideas it puts forward”.
So says Barney Merrick in Howard Male’s novel Etc Etc Amen. The novel is stimulating and entertaining on a number of levels. Male says: “It’s a love story, a hate story, a murder mystery, a suicide mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a satire on organised religion, it’s not sci fi, it’s not horror, it’s not a rock novel – despite the fact it has elements of all those genres.”
My own interpretation is that the novel’s main thrust is as a satire on religion but it also provides a wry picture of the rock music business. I think I also detect a satire on the parasitic nature of journalism in general as well as rock journalism in particular.
There is a strong element of the page-turning thriller- I received a few surprising jolts as I was reading so I must take care not to emit any spoilers. There is also a vivid evocation of Marrakech, which brought back happy memories for me.
Male’s main creation in the book is rock god Zachary Bekele, who founds a non-religion (which becomes a cult) called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis. The St Paul of KUU is erstwhile rock journalist Paul Coleridge. The novel is structured upon extracts from The KUU Hypothesis, selections from The Life and Death of Zachary B by Paul Coleridge, a narrative written in London 2005 about the 1970s, and accounts of a visit to Marrakech in February 2007 by a female journalist, August, and a photographer, Damian. They are investigating a series of deaths of KUU followers and are awaiting an interview with the cult’s Leader Who Is Not a Leader
Rock journalist Paul Coleridge is assigned to interview Zachary Bekele who is a 70s glam rock star. We piece together Zac’s biography from extracts from Paul Coleridge’s memoir and from the visit of August and Damian to Marrakech. Zac’s father, Girma Bekele, had made a fortune selling stolen icons from Ethiopian monasteries. His dodgy reputation adds further intrigue to Zac’s persona.
Paul gets an early warning about Zac’s character when the star plays table football in an unsportsmanlike manner and then reneges on the promised interview. Paul has to work up the Man of Mystery angle to meet his deadline. Paul begins to feel that his articles have played a significant role in promoting Zac’s success. Between 1972 and 1975, he was one of only two journalists to whom Zac would talk. Zac seeks Paul’s opinion about new tracks, but will not accept anything but praise.
Coleridge recalls Zachary’s early performances in the 70s: “vocally, he was part Scott Walker and part Marvin Gaye”. He was an intellectual as well as a rocker; he told an interviewer, “CS Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis were guiding lights.” He acknowledges his English roots – he was born in Chelmsford and loves the Kinks and the Stones- but his father was from Ethiopia. “We’re about soul music from Saturn. Vibes from Venus”. There is something of Bowie and Bolan about Zachary B. Memories of seeing Arthur Brown perform as the God of Hell Fire in a blazing helmet came back to me as I was reading.
Nick Valentine, Zac’s manager says: “Don’t let all that peace and love bullshit fool you. He needs fame even more than he needs money”. Zac develops delusions of grandeur. As well as the attentions of the usual kind of groupies, he also has a stalker who hoards his cigarette butts like religious relics.
When Punk came along in 1976, or so the received wisdom goes, it was a rebellion against pretentious “progressive” rock. In fact, Johnny Rotten often talks about his respect for artists like my former neighbour Peter Hammill of the “progressive” band Van der Graaf Generator. As long ago as 1977 Lydon said: “Peter Hammill’s great. A true original. I’ve just liked him for years. If you listen to him, his solo albums, I’m damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves, just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff”.
Zac is not ready for punk. Changing musical tastes make him redundant and a spectacular at Trafalgar Square intended to resurrect his career instead finishes it off. Zac’s solipsism makes him deaf and blind to the discomfort and displeasure of the audience and the other musicians. “Since Trafalgar, in the eyes of the public, he’d come to represent the more farcical, cartoon-like aspects of the rock world: he’d become lumped in with Gary Glitter rather than David Bowie, and it must have hurt like hell”. He succumbs to the degenerate rock lifestyle of groupies and drugs. “During 1975 and 1976, Zac’s coke and cocaine habit gathered further momentum”. Paul and Zac’s wife Jody bond as they both become sidelined.
This novel deals, in part, with the early pre-punk 1970s that gave birth to a strange phenomenon known as Glam Rock. I lived through that era and survived to tell the tale. Glam Rock did not appeal to me but I can appreciate Male’s respect for the more talented practitioners, such as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Roxy Music and their rougher US equivalents, the New York Dolls. Even the better acts toyed with androgyny and sexual ambiguity – “gods dressed as goddesses”. Lower class versions hit the charts with other people’s songs but were mainly ludicrous bandwagon jumpers – “mutton dressed as lamb Second Division”. Zac describes them as “builders dressed as princesses with their stubble and acne-pocked jaw lines making a mockery of their meticulously glossed lips”.
Rock and Religion
I recall seeing live performances by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Brown wore outlandish costumes (although he sometimes stripped naked) and a flaming helmet as he declaimed: “I am the god of hell fire!” The record was produced by Kit Lambert and Pete Townshend and issued by The Who’s Track Records label. It sold over a million. Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was in Brown’s band when I saw them. Brown was also notable for the extreme make-up he wore onstage, which would later be reflected in the stage acts of Alice Cooper, (there is a character in Male’s novel called Alice Cooper- she is female) and Kiss. Brown’s behaviour was so outrageous he was even kicked off a Jimi Hendrix tour. Brown is still performing 50 years later.
Townshend himself has had spiritual moments. Since the late-’60s, Townshend has been a disciple of Indian mystic Meher Baba “I heard the voice of God. In an instant, in a very ordinary place at an unexceptional time, I yearned for some connection with a higher power. This was a singular, momentous epiphany – a call to the heart. “Jimmy Page spoke about: “that fusion of magick and music… alchemical process.” Dylan flirted with born-again Christianity and then explored his Jewishness. Later he said: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music”. Alice Cooper himself (Vincent Furnier) says: “It doesn’t matter how many drugs I take, I’m not fulfilled. This isn’t satisfying. There’s a spiritual hunger going on. Everybody feels it. If you don’t feel it now, you will. Trust me. You will…Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s the real rebellion.” Male mentions John Lennon’s notorious comments: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right, and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
More on KUU theology next week.