There's a scene in Michael Goldberg's new rock 'n' roll novel, "True Love Scars," that takes place in Mill Valley's Depot Bookstore and Cafe, where the author was sitting one recent sweltering afternoon, sipping a hot coffee, despite the heat, and talking about this first book in what he's calling his "Freak Scene Dream Trilogy."
An ex-Rolling Stone associate editor and senior writer cum online music pioneer, the 61-year-old author describes the narrator of his coming-of-age story, 19-year-old Michael Stein, aka "Writerman," as "a caricature of his teenage self," a rock-crazed kid with raging hormones who's obsessed with Bob Dylan and the "Visions of Johanna chick," Sweet Sarah, he meets and falls in love with at a meditation center in Woodacre.
In Goldberg's tragic love story, set in Marin County in the late '60s and early '70s, young Writerman begins his betrayal of Sweet Sarah at the Depot and its downtown plaza.
"It's the first time he looks at another woman," Goldberg explained, noting the parallels between the arc of his fictional tale and the maturation of the music he's spent his career writing about. Novelist Tom Spanbauer calls Goldberg "a total rock 'n' roll geek," a characterization that's borne out in the rock references on just about every page.
"There are so many songs about teen love in the early days of rock n' roll, and that's a big theme in the early portion of this trilogy," he said. "Then things change and get more sophisticated and evolved as the books progress, just as rock music did. I was taking emotion from songs and from albums and manifesting that into my fiction."
Raised in Mill Valley, Goldberg went to Tamalpais High School (class of '71), where he wrote about rock for the student newspaper and once convinced the late Mill Valley guitar god Michael Bloomfield to play at one of the dance concerts, replete with psychedelic light show, that he produced on campus.
In an early chapter in "True Love Scars," Goldberg's Writerman recalls seeing Janis Joplin, the Doors, the Byrds and avant-garde rocker Captain Beefheart at a music festival in an amphitheater on Mount Tamalpais.
In real life, he was a wide-eyed 13-year-old when he took in the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, a seminal rock fest on Mount Tam featuring those bands and many others over two history-making days in 1967, the Summer of Love.
"It was really mind blowing for a kid that age to experience the Doors and Big Brother and the Jefferson Airplane," he remembered. "It was also this total countercultural scene up there. There were booths selling beaded necklaces and peace symbols, all this stuff that hadn't become a cliche at that point. It was early on, it hadn't started to get real weird yet."
Goldberg wrote most of "True Love Scars" while living in Inverness, later moving to the East Bay with his wife, former San Francisco Examiner reporter Leslie Goldberg, to be closer to their son and grandchildren. His wife created the novel's surreal cover art.
The novel is set during a golden period in Marin's rock history, a time Goldberg experienced first hand. Marin readers are likely to recognize many of the names and places he mentions in "True Love Scars."
In one scene, Writerman steals Bob Dylan's lighter from Jerry Garcia at the Grateful Dead guitarist's house in Larkspur. He gets his first kiss and smokes his first joint at Tam High. The Lion's Share, a gone-but-not-forgotten nightclub in San Anselmo, is mentioned, as is Mill Valley's 2 AM Club.
Like most teenagers then and now, Goldberg's adolescent narrator is trying to forge an identity, toying with the persona he wants to present to the world, searching for what he calls the "authentic real."
"In the case of Writerman, he's got his Keith Richards snake skin boots, he wishes his hair looked more like Bob Dylan's and, if you squint, he kinda looks like John Lennon," Goldberg said. "He's consumed with that kind of superficial stuff. That's a theme that runs through the book. Everybody has two or three names. It's who are we?"
It took Goldberg years of scuffling as a freelance rock journalist before he managed to get himself hired at Rolling Stone in 1983. After a decade as the magazine's West Coast editor, he went on to become a highly successful online music entrepreneur. In 1994, with $5,000 of his savings, he started Addicted to Noise, a pioneering music web site, in his spare bedroom.
Details magazine called it "the future of music." In 1995, when most people were clueless about what was then known as the World Wide Web, Newsweek hailed him as an "Internet visionary."
In 1997, when ATN merged with SonicNet, Goldberg became its senior vice president and editor in chief, winning a string of Webby and Yahoo awards for best music site. After a series of big-fish-eats-little-fish corporate acquisitions, ATN and SonicNet were swallowed up by Viacom and folded into MTV's online operation, MTVi.
Goldberg's mum about how much he made on the deal. "I did OK," is all he'll say, chuckling. "I definitely did OK."
He did well enough that he's been able to devote the past six years to working on "True Love Scars" and the other two books in his rock trilogy, "Days of the Crazy Wild" and "Beautiful Dying," due out next year and the year after. Following the lead of indie rockers who release their own albums in this digital era, he decided to publish his trilogy himself.
In the time it took him to write his trilogy, he developed a prose style that David Browne, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, describes as "hallucinogenic in all the best ways."
It isn't all style over substance, though. Goldberg strives to incorporate larger themes and social issues in his trio of novels. For example, a leitmotif of all three books is Writerman's relationships with women during a turbulent time of shifting gender politics.
"In a way, what Dylan is dealing with in 'Blonde on Blonde' runs through all three books," he said. "That album has different women in every single song, and that's what Writerman is trying to do -- make sense of his relationships with different women. In book one, he just starts to deal with the rise of feminism. In books two and three, that's a major theme -- a young man trying to deal with these women who are very empowered. It's messy."
But then isn't rock 'n' roll?