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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rock 'n' Roll -- and Anarchy -- in a Nation in Decline

The Triangle
By J. Buck Williams
221 pages
(Gutter Books; April 3, 2015)
eBook:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: The Triangle didn’t blow up the Pike Place Pig. Buck has his suspicions about who did, but the evidence is largely circumstantial.

On the other hand, there’s no question the band was responsible for the arson fire at The Rocket, Seattle’s premiere rock dive. And they blew up the millionaire’s yachts at the Anacostia Marina just outside D.C.  And helped spread trimethyl-L-triptophan 47, the illegal drug known to users as “Zone.” And they did shoot down the National Guard helicopter in Cleveland and destroy the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The band's cryptic logo: an equilateral triangle happy face smoking a spliff, , , 

Let’s see Nirvana beat that. It’s not a bad record for a four-member punk group from Seattle – almost as good as Nevermind!

The Triangle is a book about the exploits of the group and its rise from anonymity to . . . well, to anonymity.

The band’s middle-aged leader, Buck (he just happens to have the same name as the book’s author, J. Buck Williams) has held a variety of jobs, but keeps returning to music as his first love, despite his lack of success as the front man, singer and lyricist for a variety of groups.

Author Joe Buck Williams
He despises those he knows who have adopted dull middle-class lifestyles with the requisite SUV in the driveway, the pool in the back yard and the kids underfoot. He will either succeed on his own terms or fail so spectacularly he will at least become a footnote in musical history.

“All at once, I saw my choices laid out in front of me,” he says at one point in the book. “You could sell out and end up with enough money to want more, but never enough to be at ease. You could maintain your dignity and toil in poverty for the rest of your life. Or you could pick your fight and be so loud that they couldn’t ignore you. I decided I’d be the loudest of them all.”

Through sheer luck, he finds himself thrown together with several much younger musicians. At least two of them appear to have more raw musical talent than Buck. As an aggregate, the quartet has the kind of sound that catches the casual fan’s ear while firing the serious fan’s imagination. 

The band becomes a huge – if unlikely – hit. Its success is pointed up by the fact that the country is quickly flooded by bootleg copies of its first set: a low-fi recording of its performance at an anarchist gathering in Seattle’s Pikes Place Market that turns into a disastrous riot.

The Triangle’s involvement in the riot and a subsequent series of violent acts not only puts the group on the music lover’s map, but also squarely on the FBI’s radar.

The band makes its way to Southern California, the desert of the Southwest, Texas, the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. On the road, they meet rowdy roadies, band chicks, dope dealers, cookers and lifestylers and a group of drug-addled followers who seem a lot like Deadheads – if Deadheads all had felony rap sheets. Even a group of mercenaries hired to provide the band with security ends up in the shit by trading in illicit firearms.

At the same time, Buck’s anti-establishment lyrics aim to foment red revolution: The Triangle’s music is a scathing critique of consumerism, conventional politics, corporate culture and the one percent.

Despite the hijinks, the rather open criminality and the front man’s downer political prognosis, The band’s popularity and notoriety grow steadily. The tour comes to a head in Cleveland, where an unadvertised Triangle concert is surrounded by police and federal agents, National Guard helicopters buzz the crowd and all hell breaks loose.

To say anything more would be the spoiler to end all spoilers.

Don’t get me wrong: The Triangle doesn’t simply consist of one grim incident followed by another. Williams recognizes that even the most depressing message is more likely to stick with a reader if it is served up with a smile or two.

The smiles offered by the book are plentiferous.

At one point, for example, Williams counts off the various instruments and the contribution they can be expected to make in the hands of the right musician.

“A bass is limited by the low register it’s stuck in and its necessary role as a bridge between
the other instruments. A drum kit may be more or less elaborate, but it always sounds exactly as good as the person playing it, with no way to hide insufficient practice or talent. A sax sounds like a sax. A cello sounds like a cello. Keyboards sound like limp dick unless they were manufactured before 1983. Bagpipes sound like hell. Ask Bon Scott.”

Later, Buck’s ex-wife Anastasia recognizes his voice when he and his crew sweep a group of imposters from the stage at a nightclub and take over. Knowing the band is wanted for blowing up the Pike Place Pig, she threatens to turn him in unless he writes a song about her and records it. He does, but it isn’t exactly a romantic serenade:

She’s the only woman that I ever knew
who could smile even when she was crying.
She hated her nose and she hated her hair,
but she never ever gave up trying.
We slept in the same bed for five long years;
it was meaningless, shallow, and blunt.
She always washed her hands before mixing a drink,
my beautiful Campari Cunt.

In the final pages, Buck tries to summarize why rock is important. The passage goes on for most of three pages and ends with this: “You think it’s about vinyl. Sex. Fashion.
Drugs. Death. Bombs. Guitars. Love. Rockets. Amps. Candles. Triumph. Warfare. Excess. Mayhem. Chaos. Disorder. Anger. Loudness. Bass. Guitar. Drums. More guitar. Always more guitar! You can never have too much guitar.”

While the descriptions of the band, its life on the road and its followers are frequently humorous, it is clear that author Williams has wrapped them around a serious analysis of a U.S. society in utter decline.

As he says in his prefatory remarks, “I wrote this book in 2008 and 2009, when it seemed like the country was collapsing. Things aren’t quite as dire as they were then, but for most of us, the world hasn’t changed all that much. The middle class is still hollowed out and suffering, even though company profits have returned to record highs. The economy is still crummy, despite a lower unemployment rate (caused in part by so many discouraged workers giving up). Politicians are still useless, bordering on hostile. We’re not exactly at war in Iraq any more, but things are heating up in the Middle East again and you’d have to be a fool to assume we’re going to sit on the sidelines.

“These are the themes I set out to describe and explore, and sadly they’re just as relevant today as they were then.”

Maybe when you set aside Buck’s anarchy, his critique of corporate culture and his conviction that Twentieth Century life is empty and meaningless, the book’s message is really very simple. As Buck puts it, “There are people in this world, in your world, who do not live for anything else. Playing rock and roll music is all we want to do, and all we can do that makes sense to us. It’s beyond desire, beyond addiction.”

Williams has written a righteously enjoyable book here. There is enough criminal activity in it to satisfy a hard-boiled fan, enough cynicism about the social structure of the U.S. to fuel a rebellion and enough humor to tie the other ingredients together into a satisfying whole.

Take it from me, if you like rock ‘n’ roll, ever played in a band good enough to tour, spent any time in a recording studio or ran from the feds, you should like this book.

Hell, the only instrument I play these days is an iPod and I thought it was swell.

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