Escaping the Past: George R.R. Martin’s The Armageddon Rag

Writers and film makers have both frequently tried to exploit what is perceived as an affinity between supernatural horror and rock music, rarely with much success.  Both tend to be unsettling, disturbing, even rebellious, and both are more likely to appeal to a younger, more restless audience. Hollywood ‘s forays have usually led to disastrous results, with The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the only obvious exception.   Horror writers have not fared noticeably better.  The Shock Rock anthology series only lasted for two volumes and novels like Stage Fright by Garrett Boatman, Rockabilly Hell by William W. Johnstone, Big Rock Beat by Greg Kihn, Music by Stephen Smoke, and Somtow Sucharitkul’s rock and roll vampire novels have not proved to be lasting successes.

            The exception is The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin, which first appeared from Poseidon Press in 1983, and which has been reprinted several times since, most recently by Bantam.  Martin’s success is due in part to the fact that he clearly was not writing a horror novel about rock and roll, or a rock and roll novel that included some horror.  He was writing about a period in time and a place in our culture during which music was more than just entertainment; it was also a reflection of what we were and what we hoped to be. 

            Even before the narrative starts, Martin asserts that we didn’t all experience the same past even if we think that’s the case.  He sets new words to the theme of the television series, All in the Family, which nostalgically – and unrealistically – referred to a time when everything seemed simpler and, colored by a disdain for the present, people were happier and life was easier.  Martin’s version substitutes casual sex, drugs, exotic religions, and a less ordered lifestyle, hinting that while the novel will be in part about what happened during the 1960s, it won’t necessarily be the same decade that his readers remember.

            The opening scene establishes the fact that people deal with the past in very different ways.  Sandy Blair is a freelance writer who formerly worked for The Hedgehog, until he was fired because he resisted efforts to cut the magazine’s ties with the previous generation’s rock music and advocate more trendy, contemporary styles.  Although The Hedgehog has become much more commercially viable, Blair still resents what he sees as betrayal of the reasons that it was founded in the first place.  He reluctantly agrees to write an article about Jamie Lynch, a controversial rock promoter who was murdered in what appears to have been a satanic ritual.  From the outset, this decision creates waves in his life.  The woman with whom he lives, a realtor, accurately diagnoses his impulsive decision as an attempt to recapture his youth, and she resents it and accuses him of immaturity.  This tension between holding onto the past and accepting the present is one of the underlying themes of the novel.  Blair recognizes that his view of the world during the 1960s was naïve, but it is that very ingenuousness that makes him so reluctant to let it go.

            In the first chapter we are also introduced to the Nazgul, a rock group whose albums are filled with grotesque images and have titles like Hot Wind out of Mordor, Napalm, and Music to Wake the Dead.  It was the last of these albums that was playing when Lynch was murdered, his heart cut out as described in the lyrics of one of the songs.  The murder takes place on the thirteenth anniversary of the break-up of the Nazgul (the number is certainly not coincidental) after their lead singer was shot to death by an unknown assassin during a concert in Albuquerque.  The dead singer’s name was Patrick Henry Hobbins, an obvious reference to Old Hob, a term for the devil, although his nickname was the Hobbit, another Tolkien reference.  The Nazgul referred to Lynch, who was their manager, as Sauron because of the draconian measures he took to control them. The names of the other band members may also be significant.  Maggio is a term applied to a form of musical ritual thought to be prehistoric in origin.  There is even a moment later in the novel when Blair speculates on the significance of names, perhaps hinting that the reader should look below the surface.  His own name, Sander, is a diminutive of Alexander, which means “protector of man”, a connotation that proves significant late in the novel.

            Blair decides to interview each of the surviving Nazgul, starting with Gopher John Slozewski, who runs a small night club and looks more like a business executive than a rock star.  Slozewski is a quiet, undemonstrative, but basically friendly type who is spending his own money to help young musicians get their first break.  He tells Blair that Lynch was still contractually the manager of the Nazgul and that this was one of the reasons they’d never reunited, had in fact recently turned down a proposition from another promoter named Edan Morse.  That restriction no longer applied now that Lynch was dead, but Slozewski prefers to stay with his club, which becomes a moot point when it mysteriously catches fire, killing scores of people.

            Martin quickly moves to dispel any lingering doubt that Blair is embarked on a journey into the past,  His next stop is to visit the first woman he ever loved, Maggie Sloane, who still has the same cat, although some parts of her life clearly have changed.  It is at this point that Blair realizes that rather than having helped to change the world, he has himself been changed, as has everyone and everything around him.  Later he will imagine her telling him that she is “not the girl I was”, and indeed none of his college friends are any longer.  As he visits each of them during the course of his trip, he discovers that even those who believe they have stepped out of the stream of time are fooling themselves.  Bambi lives in a commune and denies that the outside world has any influence, but there are already signs that their community is coming to an end, Lark has become an advertising executive, and Froggy has been forced to give up his theatrically anti-establishment attitude just to survive.  “The revolutionaries have bought tract homes and three-piece suits.”  The most revolutionary of them all, Slum, has been declared incompetent and is held prisoner by his sadistic father. 

            Blair also discovers that Edan Morse was a significant player in the violent underground of the 1960s, until he was expelled by his associates following his shift from activism to Satanism.  He arranges a meeting, openly suspicious that Morse is responsible not only for the murder of Lynch but for the fire at Gopher John’s bar.  Morse suggests that it may be possible to reverse time after a fashion, to recover the momentum of change that emerged during the 1960s, a tide that ebbed when the Nazgul lost their lead singer to an assassin. 

To prove that he is serious about setting the clock back, Morse reveals that he has found a nearly exact replacement for the dead Pat Hobbins and that he does indeed intend to bring back the Nazgul, implying that there are forces bigger than the individuals involved compelling them to reunite.  Thanks in part to cosmetic surgery, Larry Richmond is a dead ringer for the young Pat Hobbins.  Blair is also introduced to Morse’s two closest associates, Gortney Lyle and Ananda Caine.

Blair begins to experience recurring nightmares of ghastly Nazgul concerts, filled with blood and fear and horrible imagery, intermixed with distorted flashbacks to violent events in the 1960s. Although Blair still believes that the would be promoter is delusional, Caine suggests that the disturbing dreams were a direct result of Morse’s supernatural intervention.  His disillusionment has been reinforced at every stage of his journey and he feels at times that all the forces of repression are sharing the same face beneath their individual disguises, and that he himself can no longer distinguish between good and evil.  His confusion is reinforced by the lyrics of one of the Nazgul’s songs, which includes the phrase “right is wrong, black is white”.    The dichotomy of Blair’s feelings is also reflected by the fact that when he begins experiencing nightmares, he names his car “Daydream”.

This is the point when Blair begins to wonder whether it might be possible to set time back after all, to change things so that he and his friends turned into the people they wished to be rather than what they are.  He experiences an epiphany in which he remembers that Larry Richmond, the new Patrick Henry Hobbins, was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  Christ died for our sins and Patrick Henry died for his country.  But is Richmond/Hobbins the Second Coming, or the Anti-Christ?  His dog is named Balrog, but everyone calls him Bal, which could as easily be Baal.  The religious theme is reinforced repeatedly, e.g. “Edan” for “Eden”, who begins to spontaneously bleed from the palm of one hand.    Ananda Caine is doubly significant, linking the Biblical Cain to Ananda, one of Budda’s closest disciples.  Jared Patterson is the editor of The Hedgehog and Jared, which means “descent”, is named both as an ancestor of Jesus Christ and a patriarch in the Book of Mormon.  Morse’s code name during his activist days was Sylvester, and Sylvester was an Anti-Pope during the 11th Century.  One of Blair’s friends is named Cohen, which is Hebrew for “a priest”.  The Biblical legend of Armageddon itself includes rumors of Josiah’s return from the dead.  Other names hint at inhuman forces or the power of the dead, like Gort – who resents being compared to the robot in The Day The Earth Stood Still, and Reynard, the trickster from folklore whose legend includes his successful effort to get revenge from beyond the grave.  Other names like Lynch and Butcher evoke images of cruel and violent acts.

Blair’s disconnection from the world accelerates when he returns to his home.  He finds his lover in bed with another man and reads a letter from his agent severing their relationship.  His commission to write the article on Lynch’s death has been revoked and his partially completed novel seems so pointless that he destroys the manuscript.  All of his recent experiences have convinced him that the Nazgul will be return to play “The Armageddon Rag” once more, and the results will be cataclysmic.  He retreats into a disreputable apartment where he spends all of his time watching black and white television, particularly re-runs of vintage programs, one last effort to escape into the past.

Then Ananda arrives to tell him that the Nazgul are indeed back together, and that Morse wants him to run their public relations campaign.  Blair has misgivings, particularly after attending a less than scintillating rehearsal, but is determined to see things through to their uncertain end.  It is not insignificant that the first concert is planned for Chicago, the city where the innocence of the youth movement was crushed by the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention, nor that the party is staying at the Bellevue Hotel, namesake of the infamous asylum.

The opening concert is proceeding disastrously, with Richmond clearly incapable of generating the stage presence of the man he was meant to replace, when something very strange happens.  He staggers, loses his place for a few seconds, and when he recovers, it is clear that in some manner he has been possessed by the spirit of the original Pat Hobbins.  Even his dog recognizes the change.  As they continue to recreate the final tour of the original Nazgul, which ended with the assassination outside of Albuquerque, the same bizarre transformation occurs repeatedly, but only when they are playing their old material. 

Morse’s health begins to deteriorate and it is clear that he is not in control any longer, if he ever was.  Blair fears that the final concert will turn into some kind of literal Armageddon, the ultimate battle between good and evil, but wonders “Which side are we?”  Answers which seemed self evident when he was younger are now complex and contradictory.  When the last concert before Albuquerque devolves into chaos, the authorities move to cancel the next event, and even Edan Morse, now constantly bleeding from invisible wounds, wants to call everything off, fearing that the process he set in motion is now beyond his control.

The author then reveals the truth, that Morse only had the illusion of control. He was manipulated from the outset by Ananda, who was responsible for the murder of Lynch and the firebombing of Gopher John’s club.  When Morse tries to cancel the concert, she kills him and Gort but spares Blair because the visions have told her that he has a crucial part to play in the final act.  Blair, who had become emotionally attached to her, discovers once again that the boundary between good and evil is elusive, if it exists at all, and in his subsequent dream, he has trouble distinguishing between her and the sadistic, fascist Butcher Byrne.  It is only then that he decides that he must personally complete the symmetry, that he has to shoot the reincarnated Pat Hobbins during the final concert.

Ambiguity strikes again just as he is preparing to fire and avert Armageddon.  Will the death of Hobbins have that result, or will it precipitate it?  Blair concludes that the Nazgul were just an instrument, that the purpose of everything that has happened is to make him destroy the thing he once believed in.  It is Blair who is bleeding now, his stigmata inflicted during the long climb up a metal tower for the final confrontation.  Frustrated, Ananda tries to kill Hobbins herself, but even though her aim is accurate, there is no effect, because things can only advance to the desired conclusion if Blair is the killer.

The Armageddon Rag succeeds in large part because the author recognizes that music does not exist in a vacuum, that it is inextricably linked to its time, and interpreted through the skein of our individual memories.  Nor is it an easy matter to distinguish good from evil.  The reader isn’t likely to sympathize with Dracula’s point of view, but it is more difficult to say that Edan Morse or even Ananda Caine was entirely wrong.  They perceived themselves as being on the side of good, and one could make a substantial case for that position.  It is this complexity which powers the novel, and the lingering questions that make it so memorable.