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Book Reviews

A mystery involving a real-life rocker, a perfume that will knock you out and a cast of characters ranging from drug-crazed Italians and mist-making Persians to wannabe musicians and star-struck Jersey girls.


Levine’s first novel, billed as book one in the Spec Time Trilogy, takes the reader through four fictionalized days in the life of rocker Jon Cells. But the rock’n’roll mystery really involves a U.S. Customs/FBI/NYPD investigation, a botched raid of a Persian perfume family and the Italian brothers who stole some of their intoxicating Princess Mist formula. The mystery carries through right to the last chapter, failing to keep the reader on the edge of his seat only because of side stories involving a dozen other characters, descriptions (sometimes repeated) that slow the story and digressions that provide interesting details but don’t necessarily lead anywhere. Levine puts forth Cells as the book’s hero, but where does he fit into the action? Cells works for Laden Imports (the Persian perfume factory) at a job (required by his probation—another story) he barely tolerates. His real interests are sex, drugs and rock and roll—and violence (he has a nasty temper). The real Jon Cells (born John Edward Neulinger, aka Jon Neulin or Slide) had a brief underground career in Denver, New York and Los Angeles. Lyrics from several tracks of his Cracked House album creep (or stomp) into Levine’s narrative, and Levine’s obvious appreciation of Cells generates some tantalizing sentences: “Jon’s long, raspy, blood-curdling screech capped the insanity-tinged climax of ‘Mental Disorder’ with a mesmerizing urgency that unraveled in a frenzy of strangled lead notes, blistering bass runs, and piercing cymbal crashes, eventually ending in abrupt sonic seizure.” Still, Cells plays only a marginal role in the story, perhaps a reflection of his marginalized relationship with society. With any luck, we’ll be able to follow him through the rest of his short life (he died in 1994 at the age of 44) in the next installments of Levine’s trilogy. For now, this book, especially chapter 67, would be best enjoyed with Cracked House cranked up in the background.


This book offers up a worthy mystery just short of gripping, along with an insider’s tour of the dark underground of the early 1980s New York City music scene.

review of Spiritualized:

"Spiritualized is a raucous rock and roll mystery, part of Victor Levine's Spec Time Trilogy series of books, which follow the exploits of Jon Cells, an aspiring rock star (based on a real person and real musician). Spiritualized acts as a kind of prequel to Vaporized, taking place four years before, over four days in 1978. This novel covers everything from coke deals, to cow mutilations, to New Age Buddhists, to rock stardom, to Hollywood filmmakers, and more in this spirited and literary epic novel.


As in Vaporized, the city is a character all its own. Whereas in Vaporized, it centers on New York City, Spiritualized takes the story to Boulder, Colorado. Levine clearly knows his territory inside and out, as there is interesting detail about Colorado's history peppered throughout the novel. Being an epicenter of both the wild west and hippie ethos makes it the perfect location for this wild novel to unfold.


One of the issues with Vaporized is it tells several different stories that aren't necessarily woven together. Though Jon Cells is a vibrant and engaging lead character, he is kind of peripheral to the main crux of the plot. Having now read Spiritualized, this structure is clearly by design. Levine's aim is more a snapshot of a place and characters' lives, i.e. more attuned to the rhythms of life. He's writing a big-picture narrative, akin to Dos Passos' USA in Boulder, Colorado. Levine is concerned with conveying the history of a place through a cast of several characters, and doesn't get overly cute with weaving the stories together in an overly neat, and unrealistic, package.


However, though Spiritualized does connect the different stories together more than its predecessor, at times it feels like three different novels running concurrently, which doesn't always work to its advantage. This literary construction would be fine if each section were equally riveting. The most fun material is when it's focused on Jon Cells, following the down and out, disgruntled rock star-in-waiting. There are great scenes about band practice, discovering synthesizers (relatively new in 1978), and hearing Kraftwerk for the first time. As a music producer himself, Levine's affection for his characters shines through here, more than it does in the sections about FBI agents and drug dealers. A book centered entirely around John Cells would be very effective, as he is the most urgent and fully-realized character.


Another issue dragging down the narrative is the amount of dialog. Though it's wholly comprehensive and true to life, there is a fair bit of dialog that could have been left out of the novel without affecting the story's breadth or scope. An example, we get to read someone's entire answering machine message, which is not entirely necessary.


Aside from these criticisms, Spiritualized is an entertaining and epic ride, which should appeal to anyone who likes a good rock and roll novel with a side of crime, and other assorted lunacy. It's certainly a good companion piece to Vaporized, making Levine's Spec Time Trilogy an ambitious and satisfying read."


Review of Spiritualized: 

Robert Margouleff Grammy Winning Producer and Filmmaker

Although many people know me as the filmmaker of the Warhol and Sedwick film, “Ciao Manhattan”, they don’t know the real me. The real me is now one of the few survivors of that era, thanks to the grace of God and the twelve step program. My career as a record producer (Stevie Wonder, Devo, etc.) was a direct result of my ability to recover and guide the potent creative forces in others that were often accompanied by addictive behavior. That is why I found so much to relate to in “Vaporized.” The read left me with a feeling of bittersweet melancholia, knowing that I too was a part of that world. 

Jon Cells, the fictional character whose career mirrors the real Jon Cells, is a typical rock musician living in New York in 1982, trying to make a name for himself. The story takes place during the time that glitzy New York nightlife and the business of music was an endless cycle of drugs, booze, and beautiful young people, but in reality, was a desperately unhappy and morally bankrupt experience. Jon Cells’ ride through the steamy and sleazy underworld of the music business encounters many obstacles, but his own addictions are the hardest to overcome. 

I was struck by the fact that we both “lived at the same house at the end of the block”. It really was “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll”, but most of us never realized that it was slowly taking our lives. The struggle of addiction is moving from one drug or drink to the next with no regard for anything or anyone else-- even one’s self, but I was fortunate to realize that there was something wrong before it was too late to recover. Jon did “die trying”, but he survives in spite of himself, as his legacy, however, tattered and delayed, lives on in his music and life story. I am saddened that he is not here to enjoy the fruits of his success. 

The climax and the final chapter for Jon was to have been top billing to perform for the record company A&R big wigs at Max’s Kansas City. The betrayal of that promise made to Cells to play for the big wigs, the 12 AM top billing, was suddenly taken from him and given to his arch rival. It left Jon going on stage very late, angry and disappointed from the previous band’s disastrous set.. Everybody was drinking and drugging by the time Cells played and the night turned into a drug-induced and tragic free-for-all. And guess who got arrested? 

Prior to reading the book, I was asked to remix a few songs from the Jon Cells catalog by his lifelong friend and studio collaborator, Victor Levine. Jon met his maker in 1994, addicted, drunk and alone in a hotel room in Seattle, but his songs have lived on because Victor, who I know from the studio business, had the foresight to preserve his multichannel master recordings. Now, as my mixes of his tracks are experiencing worldwide acceptance, the recognition Jon craved and deserved has finally come. 

I’m grateful that my higher power has given me a chance to help bring Jon’s music into the light, and I hope that others who walk the popular path to musical stardom will benefit from reading the entertaining but cautionary tale told in “Vaporized.” The descriptions of the recording studios, musicians' lives, and behind the scenes power plays are faithful representations of the New York Underground I knew, and the unexpected 

tie-in to the history of perfume making tells the wider story of the “happiness formula”, something we are always looking for.


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