Lazar distills certain aspects of the Sixties, linking particular individuals in a dense tapestry that exudes the mélange of place, love and freedom that infected a generation with unfocused urgency, fueled by drugs: “Everyone under thirty had decided to be an exception.”
From the newly-forming power group the Rolling Stones in London to the incipient murders on the western coast of California inspired by the evil genius of Charlie Manson, Sway lurches through an impetuous growth of self-awareness and spiritual seeking that creeps through the country as disaffected youth stumble upon a movement. The most prominent theme is pursued by filmmaker Kenneth Anger, whose otherness prompts him to embrace an artistic interpretation of existence, seeking significance in the simple acts of rebellion, a grandiose projection that drives him to the edges of a dark world where mysticism purifies his homoerotic encounters.
The connections are tenuous, but Lazar ties them together, primarily through Anger’s films and the beautiful young men he fixates on while fulfilling his cinematic visions. There is a meeting with Brian Jones, who first brought the Stones together in early collaboration when they are still on the edges of an emerging musical revolution, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards having yet to discover the raucous sounds that would propel the boys to worldwide fame.
Jones dies at the height of the group’s power in 1969, but by that time he is at best peripheral and at worst unable to contribute significantly to the new sound they are creating. While this group is still struggling for purpose, Anger has begun a series of outrageously shocking films that perfectly capture the confused angst of a troubled generation who will cling to visions of peace and love as they experiment with a variety of drugs in loosely-knit communes where they attempt to escape the shackles of convention.
The first part of the decade has little relevance to political issues, most wallowing in the pleasures of the moment. But with the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedy sons and Martin Luther King, Jr., the disaffected focus on their anger. Kenneth meets beautiful Bobby Beausoleil, later one of Manson’s acolytes, choosing the boy as the subject for his latest film. Bobby disappears, leaving Anger desperate, his life spiraling through destitution and depravity. The filmmaker eventually meets with the Rolling Stones, who express interest in being filmed but aren’t committed much more than the impulse of the moment.
Lazar captures all of this ambivalence, including the hyper-sexualized activity of those lost in a fog of drugs and sex. However, the author seems more focused on the filmmaker, whose distorted perceptions color everything, a tortured soul ill at ease with his own homosexuality, forever splicing violence and beauty in a confused collage. The result is a view of the birth of the Rolling Stones, the shocking brutality of Altamont and the Tate-LaBianca murders instigated by a megalomaniac and his pathetic devotees, an elusive freedom short-circuited by a pharmacopoeia of induced nirvana.