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Fallen angels

Sway A Novel Zachary Lazar Little, Brown: 260 pp., $23.99

January 06, 2008|Mark Rozzo | Mark Rozzo is the articles editor of Men's Vogue.

"HE was a pain in the arse, quite honestly," Keith Richards said not long ago of his late bandmate Brian Jones, with whom he, along with Mick Jagger, founded the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s. Amazingly, Jones -- the troubled blond waif who played a Vox Phantom Teardrop guitar as well as an untold number of exotic instruments on a slew of Stones records -- still has the power to rile people up: By name alone, the prolific indie band Brian Jonestown Massacre (a subject of the surprisingly resonant 2004 documentary "Dig!") suggests an enduring cultish fascination with the doomed musician, who was found dead in his swimming pool on July 3, 1969.

"Sway," Zachary Lazar's second novel (after 1998's "Aaron, Approximately"), places a fictionalized Jones in the midst of a triumvirate even more uneasy than the one completed by Richards and Jagger. By highlighting the little-known links among Jones; Kenneth Anger, the notorious filmmaker behind such oddball, darkly camp creations as "Kustom Kar Kommandos" and "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" (he is also the author of "Hollywood Babylon"); and Bobby Beausoleil, the would-be California rock star who became Charles Manson's murderous yes-man, Lazar has created a powerful, infernal prism through which to view the potent, still-rippling contradictions of the late '60s. It's no mean feat. Despite the era's nearly impossible richness, fresh insights are hard to come by. (Witness, if you must, Tom Brokaw's recent prime-time retread, "1968.")

In Lazar's telling, Jones, Beausoleil and Anger turn out to be strange mirrors of one another: compelling, sometimes annoying personalities driven by the times, making the most of its catch-as-catch-can hipster opportunism; spirited dabblers whose ambitions are thwarted or dwarfed by their cohorts in a period of zooming possibility; dreamers whose divergent fates -- death, prison, survival -- illustrate how the decade's long and winding road forked into many paths, not all of them leading to happiness or enlightenment or money-minting commemorative world tours. The connections that Lazar forges are not entirely whimsical, either: The Stones were apparently introduced to Anger's work through the London gallery owner Robert Fraser, a.k.a. Groovy Bob. And Anger did, in fact, cast an unknown Beausoleil as the Lucifer figure in his short film "Invocation of My Demon Brother." (Jagger would score the film.)

Told in appropriately kaleidoscopic episodes that veer from Los Angeles to London and beyond, "Sway" opens with a lazy afternoon at what seems to be the Spahn Ranch above Chatsworth, the Manson family's preferred hide-out, circa 1969. The ragged collection of hippies and Brentwood runaways holed up there doesn't make much of an impression on the wayward Beausoleil, a good-looking kid who briefly played with Arthur Lee before that Angeleno legend went on to form Love.

"It was like a lot of other places he'd been in the past two years," Lazar's narrator observes, in the first of many evocative passages that sum up the times. "[E]verywhere along the coast now there were groups of young people with nowhere to go and no money to spend. It was as if they were living in a fort or a tree house." But as with any fort or treehouse, there needs to be a bully. Here, it is Manson himself, who has an eerie way of getting inside Beausoleil's head: "Not bad," Manson tells his skittish sidekick when they take a drive to break into a house in Benedict Canyon. "Just driving around on a Thursday, getting high. Why don't you just cool off and relax?"

There's nothing relaxing, of course, about those words, which echo throughout "Sway." Lazar ingeniously elevates this innocuous catchphrase of the era to the level of creepy mantra. Similar words are tossed at an increasingly unstable Jones in 1967, after the famous drug raid on Richards' country house and during the Stones' subsequent journey to Marrakech. Anger uses them when coaxing his straight subjects -- including Beausoleil -- to appear in his homoerotic films. And, most famously, they're uttered by Jagger at Altamont on Dec. 6, 1969, as Manson and his followers faced murder indictments: "Everybody just cool out," the caped singer pleads, while nearby a member of the local Hells Angels kills a pistol-wielding black teenager in the crowd.

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