RED ARMY FACTION BLUES
review by Andrew Darlington
As Ada Wilson reads excerpts from his novel Red Army Faction Blues there are projected movie-shapes crawling and slithering all over him, as though he's a living sequence from Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable. At this book-launch at Wakefield's Red Shed, in the shiny new consumerist-shadow of Trinity Walk, Ada wears a Ché beret and a commie-red T-shirt. The light-show film he's reading against is screening Rainer Langhan's tactile-atmospheric Revolution agit-prop DIY-movie, an evocative add-on documenting and delving back into those far-past chaotic 'Kommune 1' years, because Red Army Faction Blues is a kind of 'speculative history' of that time.
As fellow Wakefield scribe David Peace proclaims on the book-cover, this is "a moment in history, the moment when terrorism became the new rock 'n' roll." And it is. It's a cleverly-crafted factional novel choreographing aspects of the early-1970s German 'Baader-Meinhof' thing, and the event-ripples it sent out through time, tying it all in with the mythic mind-games of Peter Green in Munich, his subsequent exit from Fleetwood Mac, from sanity, and from the world.
It's Easter Sunday, 1967, "with flower-power blowing into West Berlin on a California breeze." But everywhere the intoxicatingly-scented wind-of-change blows, it mutates into new configurations, adapting to regional variations. America has direct involvement in Vietnam and civil rights. Paris has its insurrectionary Commune. Britain has the Angry Brigade, who blow-up Tory minister Robert Carr's kitchen. While "here in Germany the young are demanding that all music should be free," - for they are "the spoiled children of the economic miracle." They are also Hitler's children, a generation whose parents are lost to them. As poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger explains elsewhere, "you had all these professors, judges and chiefs of police who were old Nazis, and you had to get rid of them, and a certain violence was necessary to clear up the mess." So leftwing terrorists embark on an armed struggle against the state. Unfurl the colours; blood red.
Ada Wilson takes a vivid scalpel to it all. "There can be no arguing with the Auschwitz generation. Violence is the only answer to such violence." What else can a poor boy do? Rock is the new currency. Divided Cold War Berlin is a city sprawled like a hit-and-run victim. A place of pretty boys and girls with their leaflets and principles, ideals and raging hormones, dirty jeans and sandals, beards and disrespect, red Chairman Mao button-badges, the decline of civilisation, and the 'Fall of the West', and their infernos of hair. They are street-fighting men... or yobs and hooligans, depending on your stance.
There are manifesto-transcripts stuffed tight with fax 'n' info. The Situationists are the 'Guerrillas of Fun'. The wandering hash rebels are the 'Pied Pipers of Anarchy'. "Revolution is the festival of the oppressed," with Rudi Dutschke as both "a scarecrow in a baggy jumper" and a poster on the wall, alongside Hendrix. Andraes 'Andy' Baader is a "loudmouth, show-off, dark, good-looking, compelling." And there's Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, urbane guerrillas of anti-consumerism. Property is theft, so everything is communally owned, including each others bodies. Amon Düül add the dissonant soundtrack. Herbert Marcuse propounds the concept of 'repressive tolerance'. Their linguistic games may be cordoned off from street polemics, but they provide its political contours and vocabulary. Even Günter Grass gets a walk-on part. When everything is possible, be realistic, demand the impossible. Expropriate the expropriators.
The fictional element in this time of tawdry coalition politics and fractured allegiances is Peter Urbach, an agent provocateur, an unlikely undercover antihero, "a ragged scarecrow of a man in a battered hat." Betrayal seeps from his pores like sweat through his suit, each detail noted and filed. He has the "soft but powerful hands possessed by all master butchers, soft on account of the animal fats and grease, and powerful, since they are constantly exercised in the daily practice of his craft." Does he love the people he infiltrates this incredible summer? "Yes I do, very much." And will he betray them? "Yes."
There are uncomfortable parallels to today. Men in bare rooms hacking phone lines with wire-taps, except they're called bugs, in anticipations of the surveillance society. It's a prose-scape that bombards readers with unflinching intricately-rendered newsreels, in a relentless accumulation of detail and nuanced observation that threatens to overwhelm the narrative. A Babel of voices, a babble of rhetoric. Dialogue conducted in sharp razored text. Prose on its toes, dizzy with adrenalin. Trigger-happy word-jams rapping with the beat of Polizei truncheons on skulls. Smudgeable word-traces that - like print from the Axel Springer Press, spreads like the spores of an infection. The church, the state and the nuclear family are the usual suspects. In its place is the coming revolution, with socialist creches to liberate women. Another ball to run with, another Molotov cocktail to throw, another situation... Lyndon Johnson napalming Vietcong villages. 'Ho, Ho, Ho chi Minh!' Moon-faced vice-pres Hubert Humphrey visiting West Berlin.
Then there's a sudden 20-year fictional lurch into 1989. The Berlin wall is coming down, opening up new endless possibilities; this time free-enterprise market-led, the launch-pad for 'greed is good' casino-capitalism. Attention spans are shorter, but information is infinite. Having an opinion is more important than the opinion itself. Peter Urbach has been hiding out incognito in Miami, as Peter Novak, protected from reprisals and recriminations by his new identity. Now he's in England in time to see the two halves of divided Germany healing. In an England ruled for two centuries by the German Houses of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg.
England - where, even as the youth rebel against their parents, unlike as in Germany, they're never totally ashamed of their past. He's awoken one morning by a startling phone call from Rainer Langhans that reignites old paranoid questions. The ghosts of old events rising, the guilt of old betrayals. Night sweats, flashbacks, bad bad dreams. Addled ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan gets a walk-on part, long enough to tell how Peter Green sold his soul for rock 'n' roll, sold out to the Devil in exchange for hits. Then there's the encounter with Peter Green himself - "ancient wise and long beaten. Thin hair, wild bushy beard."
3rd January 1990, 11am. Peter Green is waiting in a battered Land Rover in a deserted rail station in Essex. He meets the man who calls himself Peter Novak. They talk in a pub called 'The Bells'. Peter Green recalls Augustus Owsley Stanley, and the Grateful Dead. How acid deactivates the filters of perception, opening up the paths to total freedom. The Dead, he says, were dolphins that move magically together in schools, or owls that have the most sophisticated sound equipment in their brains or bats that use ESP to navigate their night-flights. Swimming in sound, melting into each other, they feel each other on fully-interactive psychic wavelengths. With Peter Green in Munich, there are secrets yet to be revealed. With 'Peter Novak' as the fictional cipher who activates them all.
The Peter Green that Novak meets as the strands come together is not the one I recognise from my own meeting with him. He's far too together, and too articulate. But this is a novel. Peter Green draws the novel's diverse elements into a kind of focus. It's these fragmented characters who map out the constant points of the narrative's increasingly disassociated rhythms. As though the Green God has the answers, the code to what happened; to why it all went wrong.
There have been earlier sporadic attempts to probe and map the tangled enigma that is the Red Army Faction. Jillian Becker's Hitler's Children (Harper Collins, 1977), emerged while the drama was still ongoing, and so is unable to draw rational conclusions. Ulrike Meinhof's own writings, from 1960 through to the title-essay from 1969, are collected into Everybody Talks About The Weather... We Don't (Seven Stories, 2008), dense with dialectic. Then Stefan Aust's book (UK translation, Bodley Head, 2008), which was turned into Bernd Eichinger's screenplay for the Uli Edel directed German movie The Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008), with Martina Gedeck as Meinhof, the liberal journalist inexorably drawn into direct action, and Moritz Bleibtrau as charismatic Baader. Janis Joplin sings over the credits. It seems to get the pitch about right. The angels of anarchy wear cool shades and give good face, like a doomed agit-prop Bonnie and Clyde. Ada Wilson does it differently.
At the Red Shed, in the shiny new consumerist-shadow of Trinity Walk, Adrian 'Ada' Wilson wears a Ché beret and a commie-red T-shirt. He says the first album he ever owned was Fleetwood Mac's early singles-compilation Pious Bird Of Good Omen (1969), with Albatross, Black Magic Woman, and the aching string-augmented Need Your Love So Bad, recorded with the original Peter Green line-up. The group's later Green Manalishi, its 'banshee slide wailing', stunningly documents the Green God's mind being ripped apart, consumed by guilt and self-loathing. It encapsulates the March 1970 Munich mindset that ignites the first chapter of the novel, and the revelation that then closes it. Ada wasn't there. He couldn't have been. The mathematics of the years don't stack up properly. But it's very much as though he was. Every line of the novel throngs with authenticity.
Instead, he became the guiding intelligence behind power-pop group Strangeways, with a run of catchy singles. He cut a solo seven-inch 45-RPM, In The Quiet Of My Room c/w I'm In Control Here (1979), as by Ada Wilson & Keeping Dark, nominated as Sounds' single-of-the-week. There were other projects with strange names such as Tattoo Hosts Vision On and the vaguely-lysergic Magnificent Everything. I have his tracks on the Hicks From The Sticks double-LP compilation. There was a stint as N.M.E. reviewer 'Bart Bartle' - witnessing Johnny Ray performing at the Wakefield 'Pussycat Club'. And then there were the novels - The Righteous Brother, a very fine coming-of-age legal thriller set in Wakefield featuring solicitor James Turner, and Very Acme (2005), "a story about two and a half streets" which is also a mutant factoid-history including some Strangeways biog-data, both from Route publishing. He also produced and assumed editorship of a 'Tubthumping' Yorkshire Arts Circus' New Writers anthology (with an Alice Nutter intro).
As he reads excerpts from his novel at its book-launch, projected movie-shapes crawl and slither over him, like a sequence from Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable. And Red Army Faction Blues unexpectedly stirs up all kinds of odd reactions within the audience. The issues the 'RAF' stood for remain unresolved. A million people protest, petition and campaign against the Iraq invasion, to no noticeable effect on government policy. But confront the state directly, beating your head repeatedly against the solid wall of the state, and you smash only your own head to pulp. Of course, no-one likes people getting killed. No-one actually agrees with that. But at the same time, when it was all happening, the Red Army Faction was kind-of 'right on', part of the general generational movement, they were on our side - part of the same irresistible momentum forward into a better, more open, and egalitarian tomorrow.
Maybe - just thinking aloud, protest is a little more muted this time around precisely because there are no flag-waving rock 'n' roll rebels anymore, no Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix or Mick Jagger or Peter Green? Yet now, you think 'terrorist' and it conjures mad mindless faith-images of suicide-bombers dragging the world back into some hellishly intolerantly medieval repressive mindset, and the two related but dissimilar phenomena spark off all manner of unresolved dilemmas about where exactly you stand on that ideological spectrum, this way or that, the same or different... a novel capable of provoking such mental gymnastics has got to be one worth conjecturing with. But in truth, the best way to read Red Army Faction Blues is by skipping such over-analysis, by assuming a comfortably seated position, and by just turning the pages.