Eighties rock and roll heartthrob Rick Springfield is still touring like a madman. We caught General Hospital’s “Dr. Noah Drake” in concert here in Ohio just three weeks ago, in fact, and the guitar-slinging dude from down under put on a hell of a show in support of his latest album, Songs for the End of the World.
But in recent years the Renaissance man has been writing more prose than song lyrics; his 2010 autobiography Late, Late at Night became a New York Times bestseller and was named one of Rolling Stones all-time best rock memoirs. Now the man who gave the world “Jesse’s Girl” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is dipping his foot into the shimmery waters of fiction.
The results are impressive—and downright apocalyptic.
Coming in May 2014 from Touchstone, Magnificent Vibration is, in many ways, a long-form story version that extrapolates upon themes Springfield first spun into song for End of the World. It’s a cautionary tale wherein the pop star / author deftly weaves armchair philosophy, science fiction, romance, and adventure into one witty (and often brilliant) Zeitgeist-tapping, eve-of-destruction romp that challenges readers to engage in a little self-actualization of their own.
Horatio “Bobby” Cotton is a recently-divorced 32-year old haunted by his past. He’s lonely, hates his job dubbing audio for Cantonese karate films, and misses the “red golden retriever” he lost to his unfaithful ex-wife. He celebrates his loser-hood by wearing T-shirts bearing the logos of famously inept sports teams like the Cleveland Spiders and Houston Texans.
Springfield knows what the view’s like at the top, and he appreciates better than most of us the impact of a public fall from grace. He reciprocates the devotion lavished by fans but maintains awareness of how one’s artistic output can be co-opted and commercialized. He’s seen his work reduced to cardboard sleeves and pin-up posters for the benefit of image-hungry audiences, and was privy to that reduction. For better or worse, Springfield’s been a willing—if somewhat repentant—“player,” and we spot more than a sample of his contrite, blue-collar esthetic in our bedraggled, ADD-afflicted, perpetually horny protagonist. But (also like the singer) Bobby’s honest to a fault. A clever, working-class dog who keeps rolling with the punches, braving one loss after another.
Has success spoiled him yet?
What success? Bobby (aka “Tio”) is Springfield’s Holden Caulfield, a Salinger / Kesey-ian confab caught up in society’s Cuckoo’s Nest of liars, cheats, adulterers, and superficial phonies. He’s a malaise-ravaged miscreant begging for lobotomy—but unwittingly bound for transfixion.
Bobby’s plagued by memories of a childhood spent in a volatile home governed by his prim and proper Presbyterian mother (and vacated by his womanizing father). [We’d call it a “dysfunctional” home, but that term suggests an opposite “functional” home actually exists, which, hypothesizes Rick, may not be the case.] As a boy he busies himself with model toys, guitar lessons, and marijuana. His sole confidant is his frail, mentally ill older sister, Josephine, a gentle spirit who can’t cope with the harsh realities of this world and retreats, tortoise-like, into a deaf-mute shell. He dreams of serpent Nessie swimming her dark loch in the Scottish Highlands, and isn’t bothered that most photos of the mythical beast have been proven fake.
As an adult, Bobby can’t reconcile his accumulated religious guilt with his still-hyperactive sex drive; his libido is hopelessly, gloriously amplified by Old Testament edicts, soft-spoken prayer, church incense, and myriad other spiritual stimuli in some bizarre yin-yang dichotomy of flesh and soul. His first erotic memory is that of his own mother dressing for mass, and his first crush is the mysterious, Vampira-esque girl who converts him to the Mormonism (Bobby’s erection outlasts his faith). Later, he’s seduced by his sister’s nymphomaniac Christian caretaker. Now, even in the throes of depression, he can’t begin to process religious data without rousing “Woody.”
Bobby’s life just gets weirder after he steals a self-help manual from an L.A. bookshop and discovers—scrawled in pencil on the inner jacket—a 1-800 number purportedly belonging to God. Having arrived at another “desperate ledge,” Bobby dials the digits and engages in strange conversation with the Big Guy himself. Naturally, he’s skeptical, but the omnipotent respondent knows Bobby’s deepest secrets, can light brushfires in dingy barroom lavatories on a whim, and scroll emergency messages across car windshields. Turns out the Creator has a sharp sense of humor and is “kind of a dick.” He quotes Freddie Mercury, and thinks humanity’s most profound epithet is “Shit happens.”
His advice? Go for some pizza. Have a coffee.
Following God’s directives, Bobby meets lapsed nun Alice Young and gigantic Mexican landscaper Lexington Vargas—each with a custom copy of Magnificent Vibration (procured from a store than no longer exists) and a hefty amount of emotional baggage. The middle-age misfits bond like exiles en route to Oz’s Emerald City, each exquisitely broken and unfulfilled but dimly aware their fates are entwined. The apparently mismatched outcast / seekers hole up in Bobby’s apartment to ponder the fantastical evidence and meanings behind fresh clues. Later, they attempt to outrace (or embrace) the inevitable in his trusty Kia, which has the constitution of the Millennium Falcon.
Ferreting out their common future isn’t easy: God is effusive on the cell phone, and Bobby is distracted by his lust for the sweetly pious (but tech-savvy) Alice. Then an enigmatic, impossibly-handsome stranger miraculously emerges from a catastrophic plane crash on the 101 freeway and starts tailing them around town, antique pirate gun in tote.
Springfield’s a more gifted writer than his Top 40 hits let on. We always suspected the guy was smart (based on articulate comments made during TV interviews and documentaries over the decades), but Vibration is next-level stuff. One detects traces of his Cold War childhood amidst his colorful, thought-provoking descriptors and self-deprecating barbs. The idyllic homesteads of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” are scrutinized, dissected, and exposed as culture-wide fraud: His words loose and the spigot of his cerebellum left running, Springfield disarms the “nuclear” family and sends up the meaning of “normal.” Magnificent Vibration addresses mental illness and skewers society’s maltreatment of the afflicted and their kin. Institutionalized religion is set on a pedestal—only to be swiped off with an angry arm. Love is deemed sacred, and the giving and receiving of it approached with the same reverence as the Eucharist.
Springfield masterfully leap-frogs several seemingly incongruous sub-plots and narrative strands over one another until all are united in a singular cosmic Technicolor ribbon, and employs a different font for each: Bobby’s present-tense odyssey is printed in a standard typeface, while his flashbacks unfold in italics (until the two timelines converge). God, the “OSB”—the Omnipotent Supreme Being (he prefers “Arthur,” actually)—thinks aloud in an ornate, divinely script. Sinister agent provocateur Merikh is assigned his own devilish font, and background information regarding an old Scottish fisherman and the fabled Loch Ness Monster (both of whom are pertinent later) are likewise distinguished.
Given its freakish chain of events, otherworldly ramifications, and looming religious overtones, Magnificent Vibration echoes the ruminations of other well-regarded “thinking” books and film that mash pop culture with the paranormal / metaphysical. Indeed, Springfield’s novel reads like a wacky puree of the five (yes five) installments of Douglas Adams’ beloved Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy series and John R. Powers’ iconic The Last Catholic in America (and its sequel, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?). Like Hitchhiker’s Guide, Vibration ends abruptly, and with a cliffhanger climax (calling for an unorthodox act of love / sacrifice on the part of the heroes) that puzzles more than it pacifies. Shades of Donnie Darko and X-Files abound, and yes, we want to believe.
The characters and phenomenon depicted in Vibration are significantly strange and progressively preposterous enough to warrant total suspension of disbelief, always going “north of the impossible," and priming us for whatever happens next. Springfield (Mr. Mission: Magic! himself) could base a follow-up in Scotland, outer space—even heaven itself—without a single reader questioning the setting or circumstances.
Here’s hoping he does.