“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.
Meanwhile, we follow Anger’s course from an L.A. childhood in which he gravitates toward an Aleister Crowley-esque text called “The Sephiroth” and experiences terror at any thought of the future. A sensitive boy growing up in a not particularly gay-sensitive time, he realizes that “people like him ended up living in residence hotels. They worked as floorwalkers in department stores, cooked their meals on a hot plate.” As Anger embarks on his singular career -- cobbling together films that win the attention of Jean Cocteau (and eventually inspire the likes of David Lynch and John Waters) -- we find that he shares with Jones and Beausoleil an outcast quality that will become emblematic of the 1960s: “Everyone under thirty has decided that they’re an exception -- a musician, a runaway, an artist, a star.” (Variations on this riff turn up throughout.)
Perhaps the most compelling of Lazar’s three intertwining story lines is that of Jones and his bandmates. We first find them in 1962, huddling in their squalid Edith Grove flat with their filthy socks drying on a radiator and struggling to work their way through the simplest of Chuck Berry songs. Jones is the glue that bonds the creative partnership of Richards and Jagger. As he teaches Jagger harmonica and steers the nascent Stones through their paces, we come to understand that this young man -- already a father -- will never again have so much power in the band. Jones is there at the crucial moment of inception: “They’re trying to be serious and sarcastic at the same time.” It’s a duality -- adroitly pinpointed by Lazar -- that expresses so much of the ‘60s, which were as much about the idea of the put-on as they were about the celebration of innocence.
Lazar’s vision of the Stones at their genesis is echoed in another haunting guitar-strumming scene in which Beausoleil attempts to accompany Manson’s musical ramblings. Like the Stones, particularly Jagger, Lazar’s Manson has a “way of miming his emotions, acting them out so that they came across as artificial and sincere at that same time.” Connections like this abound in “Sway.” If they sometimes feel forced, they are almost always pleasantly jarring: In the murdered Sharon Tate, we find a doppelganger for Anita Pallenberg, Jones’ imperious German girlfriend, who endures his beatings until finally leaving him for Richards, a blow that may have led to his death. In their brazen invasiveness, the Manson break-ins resemble the various police roustings of the Stones. And the bikers of Anger’s cinematic and erotic fascinations resurface, in decidedly hellish form, at Altamont.
Then, of course, there’s the spirit of Lucifer, who binds it all together: For Anger, he is the Satan of Blake, “a god of light, a child god, the fallen angel . . . finally coming back.” But as the decade slouches toward its bummer of a conclusion, Lucifer reverts from red-hot symbol of Eros to grim avatar of Thanatos: Lazar’s crowning irony is to reveal how the revolutionary ‘60s unraveled under the heel of a retrograde Satan. “That was how the Lucifer role had played itself out,” Anger notes with a shudder when he hears that Beausoleil has turned cold-blooded killer. And he looks on with amazement while the Stones struggle, much as they did back in their cold flat, to lay down “Sympathy for the Devil,” the ultimate invocation of the demon. “They spoke of evils wrought by humanity in the sway of a sly, sophisticated con man who in the end was just a bewildering reflection of themselves.” In “Sway,” the fun-house ‘60s are nothing so much as a hell of mirrors. *