Music-Making Mutants: Rock ‘n’ Roll in George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series

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When Wild Cards Volume 1 was first published back in 1987, a reviewer for Locus called the book an episode in “the saga of mutant Americana.” The writer couldn’t have known that the alternate reality depicted in the series would quickly grow in scope, oftentimes taking readers all around the entire mutant globe. Still, they crystallized so succinctly one of the great joys in reading the Wild Cards saga: The way it re-contextualizes the familiar, through a lens of “mutation.”

A favorite example of mine: popular music in the Wild Cards universe.

Starting all the way back with that first volume, various authors have provided views—some detailed, some fleeting—of what rock ‘n’ roll looks like in the Wild Cards Universe (or the WCU, if you like).

Vic Milan’s “Transfigurations” in Book 1 is set in Berkeley, California in 1969-70, during what the story itself calls America’s “Vietnam epoch.” The rock ‘n’ roll of the late 1960s is evoked at length; in one memorable short passage, the pop-cultural landscape is mutated only slightly as Milan notes that Mick Jagger was “arrested for lycanthropy.” However, in the case of Milan’s creation Tom Marion Douglas—lead singer of the band Destiny—the musical pantheon of the WCU is altered much more significantly.

Douglas is identified as part of a triumvirate of rock ‘n’ roll gods of the late 1960s, alongside “Jimi and Janis.” Those two touchstones are easily pegged (and, in the WCU, presumably un-mutated as well), but who is Douglas?

The clue is in his ace ability, a hallucinogenic aura that occasionally causes his own head to appear as that of a hooded cobra, and which has earned Douglas the nickname “Lizard King.” There’s your smoking gun: Destiny are a stand-in for the Doors, and Douglas is a fictionalized version of a legendary American rock martyr, Jim “the Lizard King” Morrison.

A lot of mutated versions of real-life personae appear in Wild Cards with their names unchanged, of course. Book 1 alone features cameos by Paul Robeson, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and several others. However, since Tom Douglas is a significant character in “Transfigurations”—and one who gets involved in activities of dubious legality—it stands to reason that either author Milan or editor Martin felt a full substitution was necessary in this case.

(Some trivia-minded readers—aware that the Doors got their name from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception—may wonder where Douglas got the name “Destiny.” Author Kevin Andrew Murphy squares that circle in Volume 13, Card Sharks, revealing that the Wild Cards version of Huxley titled his book Destiny and the Doors of Perception. Sneaky!)

In a melancholy turn, Morrison’s stand-in doesn’t last any longer in Wild Cards history than the legend lived in reality. Tom Marion Douglas dies in 1971, the same year as his real-life counterpart. That said, even after the character dies, details about the man and his career emerge in later volumes. In Book 4, Aces Abroad, for example, we learn that–just as the Doors once covered Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song”–their WCU stand-ins Destiny recorded a version of Weill’s “Mack the Knife.” Later, in Book 20, Suicide Kings, the medium Ellen Allworth channels Douglas for a fabulous “cameo” appearance written by Daniel Abraham.

Milan’s tantalizing little hint of a world where the lead singer of the Rolling Stones is a werewolf is not significantly expanded upon—that is, until Knaves Over Queens. Caroline Spector’s entry, “Needles and Pins,” offers an all-too-brief look at Swingin’ London, set in 1967 (when else?). It’s a bloody tale about the Wild Cards iteration of East End mobsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray. The prose creates a lovely narrative tension as it takes the dark details of the Kray twins’ crimes and dresses them up in the bright hues of Carnaby Street fashions, courtesy of Spector’s ace creation, the Seamstress. And the best part: Mick Jagger pops in for a cameo, fangs and all. Curiously, it’s implied at one point during Jagger’s walk-on that in the WCU, the Stones haven’t yet hit it big in the United States by ’67, an interesting little alteration of real-life history.

“Night Orders,” another entry in Knaves, features a cameo by a singer simply called “David,” whose band—all jokers (mutated horribly by the virus and thus very much an underclass)–are named the Spiders From Mars. The story is set in 1973, and it is implied that David is still a fairly obscure act at this point in his career–a setback which seems to be due entirely to his decision to work with joker musicians.

Assuming that this David is indeed David Bowie, the WCU careers of both the Stones and “David” will presumably sync up with their real-life versions. “Warts and All,” a Kevin Andrew Murphy tale appearing in Volume 4: Aces Abroad and set in late 1986, assures us that there is still a film called Labyrinth, starring Bowie as the Goblin King, even in the Wild Cards universe.

Our David will also end up on the celebrity-packed bill for a Wild Cards benefit concert held in New York City in 1987. More on that in a bit.

Meanwhile, a 1980s incarnation of Jagger shows up in the updated edition of the first book, the Tor reissue that features added stories. As originally presented, Milan’s “Transfigurations” was the only detailed look at WCU rock ‘n’ roll in Volume 1, but Carrie Vaughn changes that via “Ghost Girl Takes New York,” set in 1981.

Before she became a Wild Cards contributor, Vaughn was already no stranger to mixing pop music and prose. (See the Kitty Norville series) Vaughn does it again when she sets a WCU tale partly in CBGB during its Punk/New Wave heyday. After all, as she notes, that legendary music club “was located on the Bowery, right next to Jokertown,” and Jokertown is the geographical–and arguably thematic–heart of the series’ mutant Americana.

Vaughn’s story captures the effervescent tone of the musical era it celebrates, with a narrative style that grooves like a Tina Weymouth bassline. It also suggests, with its cameo of Mick alongside girlfriend Jerry Hall, that by 1981 the Stones’ biography in the WCU achieved a parity with their real-life counterparts.

Only some other British-Invasion acts have appeared in the WCU: The Who didn’t get their due until 2019, with Bradley Denton’s story “Naked, Stoned and Stabbed“, only one year after Jagger’s howlin’-wolfman role in Knaves Over Queens. Anyone still hoping to see their favorite band show up in the series, recent developments have proven that time is on your side. (Yes it is!)

But what about the lads who got the 1960s British Invasion rolling in the first place? As it turns out, we never see much in the way of a mutated Fab Four. That said, I’d feel derelict in my duties if I failed to mention Flattop, the joker who shows up in Walter Jon Williams’ “Mortality” in Volume 5, Down and Dirty, and then again in Murphy’s “Cursum Perficio” in Card Sharks. There’s nothing explicitly rock ‘n’ roll about the character, but when he first comes grooving up slowly onto the scene, he’s described as having long hair, a strangely colored eye, and a joker mutation that allows him to inject a glass bottle of soda directly into his arm. So: Hair down to his knee; a “juju” eyeball; he shoots Coca-Cola…It’s almost as if Flattop has got to be a joker; he just do what he please. (A shout-out to Wild Cards expert Greg O’Driscoll for pointing this one out to me.)

Beatles-themed walk-on parts aside, textual clues indicate that the Liverpool lads themselves had a career in the WCU identical to how things played out in reality: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was one of their earliest hits; “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was amongst their latter-day recordings; in 1987, George Harrison put out his critically acclaimed solo album, Cloud Nine. Both timelines seem to match, given the above information–all of which was dutifully doled out in Edward Bryant’s “The Second Coming of Buddy Holley.” That title that certainly requires some explanation…for the curious spelling of “Holley,” if nothing else.

Appearing in Volume 5: Down and Dirty, Bryant’s “Second Coming” is a gigantic catalogue of pop-musical mutations. Bryant clearly delights in the opportunity to paint an alternate portrait of rock ‘n’ roll history, from Buddy in the fifties all the way down to 1987.

Bryant’s deviations begin in February, 1956. That’s when Charles “Buddy” Holley signed a contract with Decca records, and the contract had his surname misspelled as “Holly.” In the WCU, however, that error apparently did not occur. Small ripples in the alternate timeline of Buddy’s Wild Cards career extend into the man’s catalogue as well. He and the Crickets never had a hit in 1957 called “Peggy Sue.” They put out “Cindy Lou” instead. As it happens, in our reality, the song started out as “Cindy Lou” but was changed by Crickets drummer Jerry Allison to be about Peggy Sue Gerron, his girlfriend and future wife. But in an alternate reality, it all went down differently. Oh, WCU, I love you-oo-oo-oo …

However, this is all burying the lede: In 1987, the Wild Cards version of Buddy is still alive and well!

At one point in Bryant’s tale, Buddy refers to “Ritchie and the Bopper” dying in a plane crash in 1968, along with Bobby Fuller. In the real world, of course, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly all died in a plane crash in 1959. Since that crash seems never to have occurred in the WCU timeline, Bryant puts Valens and the Big Bopper on a plane to perish instead with Bobby Fuller in 1968.

The real story of Fuller’s death is more opaque. He died mysteriously in 1966, having recently scored a hit with a cover of Holly and the Crickets’ “I Fought the Law.” The 1968 plane crash is Bryant’s way of conflating two tragedies into one, while also sparing Buddy. (I wonder, did the WCU version of Don McLean ever write “American Pie”?)

Buddy is thus able to play in a benefit concert held in 1987 for victims of both the wild card virus and HIV, along with David Bowie, U2, Springsteen, Steven van Zandt, the Coward Brothers, and C.C. Ryder.

Familiar names mostly, but what about those last two? The Coward Brothers are another example of Bryant having a bit of fun in the alternate reality. In our world, Elvis Costello appeared in an actual benefit concert (Live Aid), and also recorded a single (“People’s Limousine”) with T-Bone Burnett, the two of them releasing the track under the “Coward Brothers” alias.

So Bryant playfully suggests that perhaps in his fictional universe, “People’s Limousine” wasn’t just a one-off, but rather the first of many hit singles by a duo who is, was, and perhaps always will be known in the WCU as the Coward Brothers.

As for C.C. Ryder, she is one of several popular musicians in the WCU who are unique to that timeline—i.e, with no single, direct, real-world analogue (the allusion to Ma Rainey’s classic “See See Rider Blues” notwithstanding). Characters like C.C. do speak, however, to particular eras and genres. Ryder first debuted in Book 1–in Lewis Shiner’s “The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato,” set in 1969—and is emblematic of the socially-conscious American folk scene of the mid-to-late 1960s, as epitomized by Bob Dylan, amongst a slew of others.

In Book 16, Deuces Down (recently re-released by Tor in a swanky new edition featuring–once again!–three brand-new stories), Kevin Andrew Murphy introduces the Jokertown Boys. A band made up entirely of joker youths, they’re the stars of Murphy’s “With a Flourish and a Flair,” set in 2001 when acts like Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync still received plenty of airplay. Murphy was kind enough to share some of his thoughts in a Facebook post as to what this colorful ensemble might actually sound like. He pointed out that, in-story, they are packaged by their label as a “boy band” in order to capitalize on the popularity of the craze. However, if one could hear it, their music wouldn’t necessarily at all resemble the kind of tunes you’d hear from Justin Timberlake. Murphy pointed out a variety of musical touchstones—bands, genres, individual artists—to help illustrate the diverse sounds that a person might experience at a typical Jokertown Boys concert: Steeleye Span, Burt Ives, Kenny Loggins, and Taco are just a few of the names that were dropped.

Volume 18, Inside Straight, introduces us to another all-joker band, a hard-rock group called Joker Plague. Inside Straight is set roughly midway through the ‘aughts: the era of Godsmack, The Darkness, Papa Roach and My Chemical Romance. Joker Plague’s music–as described by their creator, S.L. Farrell–seems to embrace the same dark, melodramatically loud aesthetic as some of those acts.

Both the Jokertown Boys and Joker Plague become huge sensations in the Wild Cards universe, which speaks to some of the progress made by the long-suffering jokers over the course of the alternate history. Thirty or so years after “David”’s all-joker Spiders From Mars were considered a detriment, we see that a joker ensemble can take the musical charts by storm.

At the end of the day, though, one might be moved to ask, what’s the point? Prose is a silent medium after all; we’re not going to actually hear the music of Bowie, George Harrison or Buddy Holly/Holley emanating from the pages of a Wild Cards volume.

I’d argue there are two benefits. First, it’s a gentle reminder not to take our pop-cultural touchstones for granted. We see musical icons like Mick Jagger or Morrison/Douglas portrayed on the page in a twisted way, and can come away with a new appreciation for the genuine articles.

Meanwhile, our reading experience is enriched, and the Wild Cards universe seems that much closer to home. It’s not just that the authors have taken something familiar and shown us the mutant version; they’ve also taken their world of mutants, and made it that much more familiar.

There are, of course, plenty of other pop-musical moments throughout the Wild Cards series. WCU aficionados, assemble! Did I leave out a favorite of yours? If so, sound off in the comments.

Jason Powell is the author of The Best There Is at What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont’s X-Men, and of several original musicals and operas. His sci-fi musical Invader? I Hardly Know Her, was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2010. On YouTube he calls himself The Man in Orange, and performs various original songs about topics such as Chris Claremont and Wild Cards (go figure). You can hear his tunes at https://www.youtube.com/user/MrDooteronomy.

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