True Love Scars – By Michael Goldberg (Neumu Press, pb)
Reviewed by Des Cowley
Readers of this website will no doubt be familiar with the name Michael Goldberg. Aside from posting regular music reviews and features for Addicted to Noise, he also authors the online column The Drama You’ve Been Craving. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Goldberg was associate editor and senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine for a decade or so stretching back to the eighties, and has written about music for Esquire, Vibe, Downbeat, New Musical Express and a host of other magazines. Should you wish, you can trawl the best part of a hundred of his music articles and interviews via rock’s backpages library, an eclectic array that takes in everything and anything from Captain Beefheart, Black Flag, Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia, Lou Reed, Brian Wilson, The Minutemen, Frank Zappa, The Ramones, James Brown, Neil Young, Patti Smith, R.E.M. or Sonic Youth. And did I mention his own blog Days of the Crazy Wild, where you can find over fifteen hundred more posts? Or the fact that he founded the US internet website Addicted to Noise back in 1994, which went on to win a Webby award for best music site and a Yahoo Internet Life award? Does this guy never sleep? Or, more to the point, does he never not think about music?
I suspect the correct response to the first question is a resounding NO, particularly given Goldberg has also found time to produce his first novel True Love Scars, billed as the first instalment of a trilogy.
And the second question? Ditto. True Love Scars ostensibly covers the teenage years of one Michael Stein, music-addict, sex-addict, and sometimes dope-addict. The novel’s action moves from the late sixties to the early seventies. But it’s not your typical coming of age story. Stein – and we’re talking serious understatement here – is a total music tragic. He filters his entire world view through the lens of music. Shades of Goldberg himself? I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.
Right from the get-go, the music references tumble off the page: Zappa, Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Keith Richards, Sabbath, Brian Wilson, Blue Oyster Cult. And that’s just the first few pages. But nowhere is this more apparent than in narrator Stein’s obsession with Dylan and his music.
When it comes to Dylan, there’s no turning back:
I wanna be Dylan so bad and my mind exploding, shards of electricity falling around me. Flash and burn. I try to jam along but I don’t know the chords. Scream with Dylan, for I know that you know that I know that you know, something is tearing up your mind. I wanna break free so bad. From this house. From my parents, from my high school. Something is tearing up your mind. And I’m screaming man, screaming for the truth. Wanna be Dylan so bad but I ain’t him.
Every girl Stein meets has to conform to a Dylan song, or an aspect of Dylan’s life, or you can forget it. These girls are twinned with their relevant doubles: Sarah or Visions of Johanna. Stein even owns Dylan’s lighter, nick-named The Dylan, having stolen it from Jerry Garcia after interviewing him at his ‘Spanish-style stucco house in Larkspur’ in 1969.
The other ghosts that hover over Goldberg’s novel are literary ones. The teenage Stein has a touch of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield about him. At a more fundamental level, though, Goldberg’s writing is informed by the crazed renegades of American literature: Henry Miller holed up in Big Sur; Ferlinghetti; Ginsberg, who saw the best minds of his generation ‘destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked’; but most of all by Kerouac, and his mad pursuit of the road, eating up the empty miles as if there were no tomorrow. Goldberg’s novel almost feels like it could have been typed onto a 120 foot scroll, whilst on a twenty-one day coffee and Benzedrine-fueled bender.
Aside from music, Stein, from an early age, is pretty much obsessed with girls. There’s Lauren, who ‘looks the same as Suze Rotolo, the chick holding on to Dylan’s arm as they walk down Jones Street in the Village on the Freewheelin’ cover’, and who wears shades ‘same as Sara Lownds wore in the photo of Sara Lownds and Dylan’, and who can endlessly quote from Dylan songs and nominate the exact date that ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was released as a single (July 20, 1965). Pretty hot stuff admittedly for a Dylan-obsessive like Stein.
Then there’s Sweet Sarah, ‘a teenage Ali MacGraw, you know, when she was in that film “Love Story,” if Ali been even more crazy-beautiful, if Ali been pure and bright and smart enough to beat her dad at chess.’ These adolescent dalliances inevitably end in tears, courtesy of a couple of unwanted abortions; and, when love goes wrong, it leads to a brief sojourn in the ‘loony bin’, aided and abetted by Stein’s serious pothead lifestyle.
I have to admit there were times when I wished Goldberg had taken his foot off the accelerator just a little. For much of the novel, the Beat-fueled language powers along at such break-neck speed, so pumped up on adrenaline, that I found myself pausing to draw breath, wishing for the odd adagio passage. That said, his novel is aimed at anyone who thinks about music, dreams about music, or listens to music more than is humanly healthy. Or anyone who can – like me – recall in detail the mind-shattering experience of listening to Hendrix, the Doors, or Floyd, for the first time and knowing that life was never going to be the same again.
When we take our leave of Michael Stein, he’s just met Harper, who has the voice of Nico, and the looks of Anita Pallengberg circa Performance. She has the whiff of trouble on the horizon; and after a momentous fuck, we are left with the only aphorism a spent Stein can muster: a mis-translation of Descartes Cogito ergo sum – I fuck therefore I am. No doubt, we’ll be hearing more from Harper, but for that we’ll have to wait for the second novel in Goldberg’s Freak Scene Dream trilogy, due out in 2015.