In 1983 Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin published a standalone novel drenched in classic rock that featured the following: a sorceress marshaling a menacing army of loyal warriors, a faithful direwolf cut down in the act of protecting its master, and a scary henchman of well-nigh mountain-ous stature.
The book is called The Armageddon Rag, and a perusal of the synopses of his other pre-Song of Ice and Fire output leads me to the conclusion that the book is Martin’s most realistic novel and surely represents his most sustained homage to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien—unless, of course, the still-uncompleted Westeros/Essos series qualifies.
It also doesn’t really work.
According to the author, The Armageddon Rag nearly sank Martin’s career—and also (HBO subscribers, rejoice) prompted the writer to investigate the possibilities of writing for television.
There aren’t that many successful novels about the rock and roll life, and Martin should be credited for writing one that is at least coherent and absorbing. The book, produced in the early 1980s, is suffused with love and nostalgia for the fallen heroes of Boomer rock and roll—Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, etc.—and every bit as angry at the debasement of the original Sixties dream as, say, The Big Chill, with which it is almost exactly contemporaneous.
At the time, Kirkus Reviews found it to be “simpleminded, heavy-going nostalgia for the Sixties-rock counterculture with a murky mixture of psycho-whodunit, conspiracy-thriller, and ... vague occultery,” which is certainly somewhat accurate. The Armageddon Rag reads like an uneasy mashup of Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, without being as good as either. The book it really reminded me of is Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, which is an essential read but in truth, a very flawed model for fiction.
The full title of the book is The Armageddon Rag: A Stereophonic Long-Playing Novel. On top of its disappointing initial sales totals, the book had the bad luck to come out at a time when post-punk and MTV were redefining the rock and roll landscape—and by definition permitting frustrated Boomers to redefine their relationship to the rock and roll dream, a possibility of which seems never to have occurred to Martin. (He’s too busy castigating his protagonist for driving a fancy Mazda and wringing his hands over the sellout of Hedgehog, a counterculture magazine modeled on Rolling Stone.)
The protagonist is Sandy Blair, a counterculture journalist who came of age at Northwestern during the Vietnam protests. The pivotal band of the book is called the Nazgûl, whose galvanizing career was abruptly cut short in 1971 in a JFK-style assassination of its lead singer at West Mesa, New Mexico—kind of like Altamont times a hundred. Several years later their avaricious Allen Klein-esque manager is brutally murdered, prompting Sandy to give up his dreary novel-in-progress and track down the killer in the guise of a correspondent for Hedgehog, a decision that eventually brings him into the fold of Edan Morse, a sinister figure from the world of radical underground politics. Morse’s plan is to reunite the Nazgûl—including the slain singer—for a truly millennial concert tour that will (somehow) permit all the original revolutionary Sixties ideals to finally reach their most realized form.
George R.R. Martin as a younger man
Along the way we meet, in addition to the members of the Nazgûl and Morse’s intimidating squad, many of Sandy’s old protest-era chums, each of whom has given up on or failed to embody those original ideals in various ways.
The novel is dedicated to a loooong list of Boomer rock heroes, and every chapter starts with an epigraph from a song by the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane, Simon & Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, and so on.
Much like Stephen King, whose blurb adorns the cover, Martin is blessed with a writing style combines great strengths and great weaknesses—it’s terrifically legible and vivid while also riddled with cliches and clunkiness. Here’s a representative passage:
“Yeah,” Sandy said. “Maybe that’s all. Maybe I’m just going through a mid-life crisis, right? Mourning my lost youth. Sharon thinks so.” He looked at Maggie stubbornly. “I don’t buy it, though. It’s more than that. I remember ... I remember, hell, I know things were shitty then, we had the war, and racism, and Nixon and old Spiro, but you know, we also had ... I dunno ... a kind of optimism. We knew the future was going to get better. We knew it. We were going to make it so. We were going to change things around, and we had the youth, right, so time was on our side. We knew what was right and what was wrong, and we knew who the bad guys were, and there was a sense of belonging.” His voice got quieter as he spoke, winding down of its own accord. “It was the dawning of the goddamned fucking Age of Aquarius, remember? When peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars. Only peace and love sort of went out with bell-bottoms and long hair and miniskirts, and I sure as hell can’t tell who the bad guys are anymore.” He grimaced. “I think some of them are us.”
Fans of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire who recall the bloodbath of the Red Wedding and the prolonged sadism of Ramsay Bolton will find familiar Martin’s inherent pessimism and taste for brutality, but even I was unprepared for the obsessive recurrence of images of people “sweating blood” or otherwise being “drenched” in blood. It’s the strangest damn thing, it comes up again and again.
As for Tolkien, it won’t surprise anyone that Martin is a huge fan of his work. Not only are the main Doors-ish act called the Nazgûl, after Tolkien’s memorable Black Riders, but there are many other references strewn about. For instance, the dog mentioned above is called Balrog, and Sauron and the Eye of Mordor both get a few mentions. This book is marinated in a deep love of Tolkien’s visionary worlds.
Ultimately, setting an occult novel in something like the real world didn’t really work for Martin—Neil Gaiman is far better at that sort of thing. The failure of The Armageddon Rag may have led Martin to realize that he needed to create a fake-Earth all his own to play with, and we are all grateful for that.