Prophets and Posers

A meditation on Zachary Lazar’s Sway.


My friend Darren gave me a novel last fall which, because I read a ton during my winter holidays, I found at the bottom of my stacks last week. It’s by Zachary Lazar and it’s called Sway. It appears to me as a meditation upon the confluence of three cultural waves in the late 1960s: the Manson family, the Rolling Stones, and Kenneth Anger. The plot parentheses are the Gary Hinman murder and the Altamont debacle.

But Lazar, in Sway, also closely examines the early days of the Rolling Stones when Brian Jones was still its leader, still as callow and lost as he would be five years later. We even get to hear Mick respond to his critics when he and Kenneth have a few minutes alone.

Lazar brings us into Kenneth’s complex emotional and artistic relations with Bobby Beausoleil. It’s a striking work, with this over-arching perspective: These things were united in the culmination of the anger and evil and destruction in the Western world in 1969.

I’ve never been one to indulge in mythologizing the baby boomers, but this book introduced me to Kenneth Anger in a way I hadn’t known of before — as a film-maker. Another of my friends, James, was, in the 1980s, an inveterate collector of images, and he had Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Entertaining as it was, it was toilet reading for me, so I didn’t think much of the man who would curate all that sordid material. What more evidence do you need, other than regular life, that humans are depraved, and that their natural degenerative vices are only aggravated by fame and wealth?

Hollywood Babylon was controversial in the 1960s, but it heralded the gossipy and decadent age we now live in, which is to say things haven’t changed much. As it was my preference, in my youth, to follow a higher road, or at least experience human moral degradation for myself without any books, I dismissed Anger and Manson. I read Faulkner and Woolf and Kafka.

But as I was reading Sway, I went to YouTube and looked up Anger’s important film, from 1969, “Invocation of My Demon Brother.” And it made a deep impression on me. I wondered how I could have missed Anger’s role in much of the occult imagery of those wicked days. The quality of the film is horrendous (which, being a punk, I approve of), and the images are uncannily scary. Clearly, David Lynch was influenced by Anger, and that’s enough for me to accept Anger’s importance.

Connected as he was to both the Stones and Manson, author Lazar has plenty of material in using Anger as the keystone of Sway. What happens to the life of perverse cultivations? Is the artist the channeler of the people? Were there truly that many lost people back then? And was Mick really just a poser?

I thought I was going to have Kenneth Anger dreams, where Lucifer would enter with his robes and lead the invocation. And then I wondered, who would reject God and then glorify Satan? A person who acts like an iconoclast but who needs iconography. The artist can say, “I’m just reflecting the spirit of the times. I have no control over how others take it.” But if your purpose is to glorify the lower orders of human impulse, to cultivate perversities, then you will reap what you sow.

That’s a common thread between Lazar’s menacing Charles, tormented Kenneth, and vain and irresponsible Mick and Keith. They were doing the easy, lazy thing, pointing out the evil in us all, exploiting it, encouraging thought into action, and watching those actions spin murderously out of control.

As a writer and person, I could not live this kind of life. I love irony. I love the fact that humans can never achieve their ideals. And I love that we still have ideals to pursue. I understand that not everybody is raised in conditions of love and integrity. I recognize that huge swaths of the baby boomers, 76 million people coming of age in vacuous, materialistic America, were going to be fucked up.

But for me, as soon as Satan arrives, it’s farce. I think Anger knew that, but by invoking the prince of darkness, he exploited the ignorance of his audience. The Stones, too. Here is where the artist might acknowledge the moral imperative that we can act as if our actions are establishing a universal moral law. In Sway, Lazar isn’t saying you have to. He’s showing how careless artists, knowing that people will respond to provocation, might throw up their hands and say, “I didn’t mean it.”

Y.S. Fing is a composition lecturer at a local university and a literary gadfly in the DC area. Recently, he has been experimenting with short essay form in Fingism and Finglish.

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