Los Angeles, 1969. The Hollywood Hills shine dully through a drifting haze of smog and marijuana smoke, rock music echoes from the canyons, and the horror of a war seven thousand miles away is felt in the protests, be-ins and end-of-an era craziness that grips the younger generation. It's the sixties, peaking, and Robert Dunn's The Sting Rays captures the mood to a tee. When best friends Steve and Peter and a group of college buddies decide to start their own semi-hippie "gang" instead of just hanging out, the resulting movement is bigger than they ever imagined it could be. Their adolescent cravings -- for sex, drugs and rock n'roll, for love, for a reason to believe and to belong, are for a brief shining moment fulfilled. But just as the music had to die, their scene -- the long hair, the headbands, the hash and acid, and the sure belief that their generation would at last escape the eternal karmic circle, has to die too. Against a background of evil news from Altamont and evil vibes from the Manson gang, Steve and Peter come of age and confront an end to innocence. The Sting Rays is an ode to the late sixties, a literary epitaph to an era that no one who was there could ever forget.
Excerpts from THE STING RAYS
Excerpts copyright©2000 by Robert Dunn
The Sting Rays were born Monday morning, and there was no question this time that Steve would be in charge. He was immediately and unanimously voted president. The usual gang was sitting on the edges of the tables, stacks of denim-covered notebooks and history and biology textbooks next to us, and we raucously shouted, "Speech, speech."
Steve stood up on a table and blushed. He had a long, pleasant oval face, with sharp blue eyes. Today he wore jeans and a sky-blue Penny's T-shirt with a sewn-on pocket. He had a gold chain linked around a belt loop, at the end of which he kept, in his pocket, his Hungarian grandfather's gold pocket watch.
When he finally spoke, his expression was serious, almost solemn.
"We're the Sting Rays," he said. "What're you going to do about it?" He stared at us, and we were all, I'm sure, surprised at his passion. "That's our new motto. But what does it mean?"
"Means no one's going to mess with us," Tom Alotti said in his best street punk voice.
"You're right, there," Steve said. He put his hands deep into his pockets, pushed his right shoulder forward. "The Sting Rays go their own way."
"Right on," someone cried.
"But what I want to tell youse is why I think the Sting Rays can say that. I want to say why I think the Sting Rays are going to be special."
We were quiet, looking up at Steve.
"First of all, any of youse can be a Sting Ray," he went on. "That's what's going to make us great: We ain't going to play choosies. Becoming a Sting Ray's going to be as easy as going to the supermarket or giving your grandmother a kiss. You just have to choose to be one. And, anybody who is a Sting Ray can make another Sting Ray. You'll just initiate them there on the spot; there ain't no voting or taking it up with me."
The there ain't was Steve slowly sliding into what I came to think of as Sting Ray speech, streetside slang chewed up with mumbled bravado. We all watched him with great curiosity.
"Here's how it's going to work," Steve went on. "Let's say you're hanging here in the cafeteria and you see some righteous dudes or ladies who look like they'd make good Sting Rays, well, all you got to do is give them the Sting Ray handshake, which goes like this-"
Steve squatted then reached out and took Tom Alotti's hand and extended it palm up, then slapped it. He snapped his fingers and waited for Tom to realize he was supposed to snap his. The guy just hung there a moment, then popped 'em. We all laughed. Then Steve held out his hand and Tom right-away slapped it back.
"You see, anybody can do it," Steve went on, poking Jim in the shoulder, then standing up. "It's just a slap, snap, slap. Now all of youse try it."
We filled the air with slap, snap, slaps.
"That's it, youse just tell the other person, 'Now you're a Sting Ray.'" Steve was slipping further into Sting Ray talk. "Then youse ask them to make up their Sting Ray name."
"Now there's one more thing." Steve stood to his full height. "I'll be the prez of the Sting Rays because you want me to, but I won't be in charge-you will. Like Dylan said, no leaders, no parking meters. The Sting Rays are youse, and me, and everyone who's a Sting Ray. We're all in this together. Got it?"
"We're the Sting Rays," we cried. "What are ya gonna do about it?"
What was a Moon Storm? Her real name was Maria, she was in her early 20's, and she was a squat Mexican-American woman with thick, springy black hair, who had left San Bernardino for Hollywood and that free, anything-goes life we were all chasing, at least in our dreams. She was renting a small two-bedroom house, wood-shingled and rickety; a place that felt more like a shack washed up on a deserted beach than a place a block off eastern Hollywood Boulevard in the shadow of the stack-o'-discs Capitol Records building. On the front of her house, above the front door, was a sculpture of a rising moon, and beneath it a woman with Botticelli hair and two comically melonish breasts (in some ways, an uncanny portrait of Moon Storm). The house had been built by a famous astrologer in the '20s, and throughout there were carvings of stars and moons. The bedroom ceiling was a midnight painting of the heavens, star-flecked and constellation bedizened, as if it were in the Griffith Park Observatory. All this was enough to dub Maria Moon Storm, and for her, by the time we got to know her, to be fully living up to her name.
So what was a Moon Storm?
She had an ethereal, other-worldly streak as well as steel-trap pragmatism. She was very Catholic, with crucifixes and colorful, shimmering naked Christ portraits hung in corners of her bedroom, and she was a militant vegetarian. She made her living as a physical therapist downtown, and because she hated driving as much as she hated meat, she commuted there on the buses, which in those days carried nobody but a few derelicts with bottles tucked into too-loose, beltless pants. (The full buses carried black cleaning women and Hispanic maids from downtown out to Beverly Hills and Westwood.) We never heard much about her work, where, no doubt, she was still Maria; no, to us young guys from the Valley, she was just Moon Storm, an almost fairy tale figure, the free spirit in the funny little house over the hill; the woman who seemed to be waiting just for the Sting Rays to appear and kiss her-and who then fell in love with us as a gang and agreed to hold all the Sting Ray meetings we could arrange.
The afternoon of the first party at her place I drove over the hill with Steve in the afternoon to check things out and get provisions.
"Vegetables," Moon Storm said after she and I'd been introduced and Steve had volunteered to do the shopping. We were standing in her narrow kitchen, carefully moving around each other. Moon Storm was wearing a white sheet wrapped around her Hawaiian-style. "We need lots of vegetables."
I don't remember all the bands at the benefit, but I do remember Wild Man Fischer, this local demento who walked up and down Sunset Boulevard singing one song over and over, whose sole lyric was, "Merry go, merry go, merry go round," and Lenore Kandel, author of the infamous Love Book, a recently busted (thus large-selling) book of cryptic pornographic verse (she got up and screamed, "The ocean is a cosmic fuck!"). Then came a biker band from San Bernardino called Smoke that Steve fancied, and then there he was. I was hovering at the side of a crowd of four, five thousand people when I heard the announcer say, "Now, here's the president of the Sting Rays, Biff," and then Steve's usually shy voice loud now, raised, calling out.
"The first thing I want to say," he said through the scratchy p.a. system, "is that I'm not the president of the Sting Rays, all of you are the presidents of the Sting Rays."
There was a curious silence.
"Now you probably all want to know what you're president of. The Sting Rays are, well, they're sort of a fraternal order, like the Raccoon Lodge on The Honeymooners, except we never get out bowling as much as we'd like-and we let sisters in, too."
It seemed like people were listening, but I could tell most of them were scratching their heads.
"But the Sting Rays are more than that. They're like a movement, you remember, like in 'Alice's Restaurant Massacree'-if we all sing together, it's not a conspiracy, it's a Movement."
"I like it," someone cried.
"I know you do," Steve called back in his Desi Arnaz voice. He shifted from side to side, then moved in again on the mike.
"But the Sting Rays are even more than that-when you're a Sting Ray, wherever you are, the Sting Rays are. Even when you're not thinking of them, you're a Sting Ray-you give off Sting Ray vibrations. We call it the Sting Ray aura. Tell me, can you see mine?"
"Woo-woo-woo," some in the crowd went.
Steve laughed, then said, "And Sting Rays are smart." He leaned into the mike. The people near me were all looking forward, checking this guy out. "And because Sting Rays are smart, we're going to take over the world."
"How's that going to happen?" Steve asked. He was rolling now, I could feel it, we all could. "Because anybody can make anybody else a Sting Ray. It's easy." He leaned back, cleared his throat, then said, "I just got to teach you all the Sting Ray secret handshake. It goes like this-"
"If it's a secret, how come you're telling everybody?" someone up close yelled.
"Because youse already are all Sting Rays." Steve fell into his prez of the Sting Rays voice, half-stern and lecturing. "Youse not listening."
"We are, we are."
"Good," The jocular tone was back. "Now, everybody turn to the person next to you. Youse doing that?"
And everyone I could see, the whole blooming throng, from bikers to wispy flower children even to guys in chinos and short haircuts, obvious undercover cops, turned and faced a partner.
"So here's what you do, you stick out your hand, one of youse slap, both of you snap, then the other dude or dudette slaps back. You got that? Slap, snap, slap." And Steve, half contorted, his arms held high over his head, slap, snap, slapped himself.
Whap, whap, whap-like muffled gunfire all around me people gave each other Sting Ray handshakes.
She was a young, casually pretty girl, with an oval-shaped blank face that, in front of the microphone, suddenly lit up in a wide, winning smile. She was wearing a white cotton shirt, black embroidered vest, and jeans (pretty much what Steve was wearing), except that she was barefoot. Her long red hair fell in easy curls over her shoulders. She looked innocent and demure, though her smile was full of girlish enthusiasm. I'm sure it was a surprise to most of us that she was here to give a speech.
She cleared her throat.
"Hi!" she said in a strong, pleasant voice. "How you all doing? I'm here to ask all of your help in righting a wrong. I've been hearing about you Sting Rays, and what I know is that you're all about justice and fairness; and I'm here tonight to tell you about a very beautiful man who is in a lot of trouble.
"This is a man who means more to me-more to a lot of us-than our parents, or the principals of our schools, or the ministers of our churches, or the man who reads the news on television, or even Jesus Christ or God-" she was being a little sardonic, her nose wrinkling with a rodent-like twitch "- to some of us this man means more than anyone who was ever in the world.
"I gotta tell you what happened. This man came to me when my boring life-in-the-suburbs pig existence was making me feel dead, and he gave me color and energy and friends and lovers and endless beauty. This man stole me from my parents and gave me back to myself!"
She was speaking with animation, her features fully expressive. I also noticed that she licked her lips a lot, and the thought came to me that, like the rest of us, she was stoned and had cottonmouth.
"This beautiful man did for me exactly what the Sting Rays and your far-out president Biff are doing for you. He made us all one family."
I looked over at Steve to see how he was taking this reference to himself and was surprised to see his features wrinkling in consternation.
"What's wrong?" I whispered.
"Shhh," Steve went.
The girl went on. "He taught us how to love by holding nothing back and letting us do anything we wanted." She suddenly flashed her teeth. "He made us understand that love is infinitely strong and infinitely mad-it's crazy, crazy!"
She'd stepped forward now, and there was a new insistence to her voice; it was higher-pitched, less controlled, more wild.
"But do you think the Man can let someone as beautiful and free-as stone fucking loving as this man is-go on normally? Do you think the pigs will allow such beauty and communal love to exist in this horrible city?" There was a screech to her voice now, rising and falling. "Of course not! So what did they do? They took this beautiful man Charlie and put him in jail."
I heard Steve behind me whisper under his breath, "Oh, shit!" and when I turned around his face was pale. But I still didn't get it.
"Why'd they put Charlie in jail? Because he makes beautiful, strong music that makes people happy, makes them change their lives. Because they're afraid of his music. They put him in jail to keep him from getting his music to the people the way they need it-just like they put Jesus Christ in jail."
A terrible chill gripped my throat; I had to quickly suck in three or four breaths. I got it, I got it now-I understood. And with a jumbled, shaky mix of fascination and horror I kept listening to the young, barefooted woman.
"They've said all sorts of horrible lies about Charlie and made all kinds of ridiculous, trumped-up charges against him, but they underestimate the power of his music. They don't realize that when he comes to court he's going to play his music and then everybody is going to rise up and demand that he be set free." She pumped her fist in the air. "Charlie Manson is going to be free!"
By now everybody knew that this had to be one of the Manson girls, they'd been all over the TV news, parading with the other un-arrested Manson family minions through the media day in and day out. I wasn't sure then, but later I always wondered if this tiny, red-haired waif was Squeaky Fromme, who would later go on to try to assassinate a President of the United States. We all watched with fascination. I was back up on the bricks, back up on my toes.
"You have to come out and help Charlie," she said, her voice rising with a desperate insistence now, her face suddenly more rodent-like, her eyes hooded and staring out with a mad energy, her whole demeanor transformed from cute girl to tough street chick. There was swagger and danger in every swing of her shoulders, every tilt of her chin-yet she never lost all of her image of demure innocence. "You have to help him because Charlie is just like us. Charlie's said many times that he's just a reflection of anybody who looks at him. The horrible pigs in their uniforms and black robes see in Charlie only what's in their own hearts. That's why they say Charlie is a murderer, that he carved up Sharon Tate and those other rich piggies. But those of us who know that Charlie is the epitome of perfect love know that it would be impossible for him to do anything like that, as much as the rich piggies deserved it. Those of us with love in our hearts see only love in his."
Some people up front were getting upset now, there was a clamor to get the Manson girl down from there, and two guys were trying to grab her legs, though others were holding them back. Then she pulled out a knife.
It was a long buck knife, suddenly appearing in her right hand. She waved it back and forth. The guys at her feet backed off, but she wasn't looking at them, didn't give any indication she knew they were there. The impression I had was that she had pulled the knife not to ward them off but just because it was time to get it out.
"Why am I here with our brother Sting Rays?" the Manson girl said, figure-eighting the knife in front of her. "Because Charlie needs your help. We know he'll be free soon no matter what, but we can't stand to think of Charlie in jail even another day-"
She paused, slowed the waving knife and brought it up to her face. She held the shiny metal blade in front of her. Then she kissed it.
"- and so we're going to get him out. We need all the help we can get, and so any of youse Sting Rays who want to help us, I want you to come talk to me right now."
She lowered the knife, smiled; her brown eyes lit up. She was a little girl again.
"And thank you all for being so groovy and listening to me."