Former Rolling Stone senior writer and West Coast editor Michael Goldberg was a San Francisco Bay Area teenager consumed with the golden age of rock music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This passion for the counterculture and the music that informed it shines bright in Goldberg’s semi-autobiographical novel, True Love Scars. Subtitled “The First of the Freak Scene Dream Trilogy – Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll & Betrayal”, the novel is a whirlwind tale of a young music fanatic’s quest for true love, high times and “the authentic real” (not necessarily in that order).
Teenage protagonist Michael Stein, aka “Writerman”, lives in Marin County and longs to be a musician, or at least a music writer. He’s into almost all of the musical icons of the era, especially Bob Dylan. Writerman is obsessed with finding his “Visions of Johanna” chick, who eventually appears in the form of Sweet Sarah. But conflict is ordained from the start. Chapter One begins with Writerman speaking in a sort of fever dream about how he betrayed and lost Sarah and has been on a quest to redeem his crushed soul ever since.
Writerman longs for his own “Summer of Love” and the spirit of the ‘60s, but by 1972 it was clear to all that the counterculture wave had broken and rolled back (as Hunter S. Thompson famously waxed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) “How the dream died and what there is left after. How you cope”, says Goldberg describing his trilogy. He narrates most of the tale with a retrospective viewpoint, which enables the reader to empathize more with Writerman’s youthful mistakes and sometimes naïve viewpoints. Writerman is wiser now, but he wants us to see how it all went down, because there’s meaning in the journey.
Goldberg describes the protagonist as “a caricature of his teenage self”. The prose dabbles in a semi-hallucinogenic quality, largely because Writerman is frequently “stonered”. But such were the times, and Goldberg develops a unique voice as he flashes back and forth, mostly between 1965 and 1972. The literary gold is in the details. The novel is filled with colorful references about the bands and songs that bring out the halcyon days of that influential era. But it’s Dylan’s classic ‘60s output that informs the tale the most. There’s also plenty of geographical references about the Bay Area that will appeal to anyone who ever lived there.
Like many teenagers, Writerman thinks he’s got it all figured out but keeps screwing up at critical moments. Yet the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle continues to provide fuel for spiritual inspiration to push on forward. One early scene finds Writerman landing an interview with Jerry Garcia at his home in Larkspur for a new fanzine. Garcia shows him a lighter he got from Dylan, which Writerman steals on the way out after Garcia and Robert Hunter have departed.
“Garcia don’t need it, and anyway that Hunter guy said Garcia stole it. I got as much right as him… It’s as if I know Dylan if I have the lighter. A talisman…”, Writerman says to himself to rationalize his actions. It’s one of many great anecdotes in the book that dig into the spiritual side of the rock fanatic. Legions of modern music fans have their own little shrines to their favorite artists and will relate to Writerman on such a level.
Writerman isn’t some kleptomaniac, though. He can analyze those Dylan lyrics all day. He and a girl who’s charmingly fond of speaking in Dylan lyrics pore over Dylan’s albums in a scene from 1965, going over his evolution as an artist. “First time I heard that Dylan song it saved my life,” Writerman says of “Like a Rolling Stone”. It’s a sentiment that speaks for several generations of rock ‘n’ rollers, from those who came of age in Goldberg’s era to the present. They get deep into Dylanology in the scene as Writerman speaks of how Dylan opened his eyes to “how almost nothing is what it appears to be and I think that’s when I got it in my head I got to figure out the authentic real, see the world for what it is and not the facade of delusional humans erect in front of the truth.”
That’s what great rock ‘n’ roll can do, and True Love Scars is deeply dialed in to rock’s dichotomy of enlightening powers versus stonered party time. Goldberg’s website for the book even features a soundtrack with three Spotify playlists, showing how well thought out the setting of the story is.
Writerman surprisingly never mentions Velvet Underground’s 1970 anthem “Rock and Roll”, for the song speaks directly to the cathartic quality in the music that can deliver spiritual sustenance in a world where it’s ever difficult to find elsewhere. Still, music fans of all stripes who can relate to that sentiment will dig Writerman’s quest for the “authentic real” and the “Forever Infinite Ecstatic”.