Showing posts with label 1960s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1960s. Show all posts

12 January 2022

Dobie


Peter Bogdanovich died in the first week of the new year, and the gracious, ever-graceful, and utterly transformative Sidney Poitier.  And then yesterday, Dwayne Hickman.  I mean no disrespect, putting these three very different guys (with very different legacies) in the same paragraph, but Dobie Gillis stood in for a genuine cultural threshold, one worth remarking. 

Let’s start with Max Shulman.  He had a pretty lively run for a good thirty years, starting in the late 1940’s.  His first book hit the bestseller list, and he stayed on it.  He may have dated since, but people gobbled it up.  He was funny.  The novels included The Feather Merchants, Sleep Till Noon, and Rally Round the Flag, Boys!  The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis came out in 1951, a collection of previously published magazine stories.  The movie version – a musical with Debbie Reynolds – was released in ‘53.  Dobie didn’t hit TV until 1959, with Shulman on board as creator, show-runner, and uncredited exec producer.  It ran four seasons.



Dobie was slightly askew from the get-go.  The framing device: Dobie the character, with a sculpture of the Thinker behind him, talks through the action he’s about to encounter in a generally puzzled way, and steps through the Fourth Wall.  His dad, played by Frank Faylen, was a very far cry from Ozzie or Ward Cleaver.  And then there was Maynard.  A caricature, yes, but in the main unthreatening, not genuinely subversive. 

 


The series turned Frank Faylen and Bob Denver into household names.  It helped make Tuesday Weld a star.  It typecast Dwayne Hickman, who seemed good-natured enough about it, and moved away from acting, into production and programming.  He later commented that Dobie represented the end of innocence, as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties. 

This is, I think, telling.  Shulman, who grew up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of St. Paul, never engaged with Jewish themes until his last novel, Potatoes Are Cheaper, in 1971.  He himself said that the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint freed him up to tackle Jewishness.  You have to wonder about that little gem, turning it over in your hands and holding it up to the light. 



Dobie is almost aggressively WASP-y.  Is the character a more innocent - or at least less full-frontal – version of Portnoy?  Dobie is girl-crazy, and most of his wounds are self-inflicted, awkwardness being an adolescent trope.  But depending on how deeply you care to dig, it’s fair to say Max doesn’t harbor the hostility toward women that Roth clearly did.  Nor does Max seem to identify as particularly Jewish.  Maybe, though, we’re talking Jewish in the sense Mel Brooks uses, that it’s New York, not so much Jewish per se.  Growing up St. Paul, a little less, nu?  I could be wrong, but Shulman appears to have come through unscathed.  He’s not carrying the burdens of Abraham and Lot.  He isn’t playing the fool to escape bullies, or repurpose injury.

I could be reading way too much into all this.  The cliché of the clown with tears behind his makeup.  I don’t know if Max was always sunny, but he seldom comes across as dour.


So, what is it about Dobie?  Not that he’s Hamlet, mind.  Still, he’s inviting us into his confidences.  This is different from George Burns, say, who used to step out of the action on his show and comment on it; Burns was a monologist, and his comedy was a routine.  Dobie Gillis was   situation comedy, and Dwayne Hickman didn’t step out of character.  His befuddlement was Dobie’s.  Part of it, too, was familiarity.  We’ve all been stuck on a girl like Thalia Menninger, or a guy like Milton Armitage.  (And a trivia question for you: what was Warren Beatty’s big break before Kazan cast him in Splendor in the Grass?)  Dobie is like the rest of us, more or less, wondering how it’s all gonna turn out, even if right at the moment, he’s a little too fixed on whether Thalia’s gonna give him the time of day, let alone some bare tit.  (I made that up.)  I mean he hasn’t realized yet that he’ll never grow out of it.

Dobie Gillis works because Shulman gets the most basic underpinning of comedy, that you establish the familiar, the convincing detail, and whatever the consequences, they arise out of character.  In other words, you’re in on the gag.  You can accept a reversal of expectation.  The punchline is not so much a surprise, as an inevitability.    It may not necessarily be cruel, but it’s always necessary.

Dobie is very much a transitional character, and the show a moment in time.  My mom, for example, thought the books were hysterically funny, the show not so much.  Maybe she saw me as Dobie, and Dwayne Hickman as an imitation.  For a lot of us, Dobie Gillis was an imitation.  Not quite the real thing, but an approximation.  Better than Lassie, or Leave It to Beaver, or the Nelsons, it began to approach the canvas from a less obvious perspective.  It was more generous.  It allowed breathing room for a world beyond the immediate conventions, and broadened its own horizons.

Shulman died in 1988.  Here’s the punchline from the Minnesota Historical Society page, courtesy of Paul Nelson. 

“Among writers born and raised in St. Paul, only F. Scott Fitzgerald has sold more books.  Fitzgerald sold more books; Shulman got more laughs.”

29 November 2021

Post Harlem Shuffle– the Uses of Mystery


A number of famous folk have been turning out mysteries and thrillers lately. Both Clintons have published political thrillers with a little help from James Patterson and Louise Penny, while double Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead has produced Harlem Shuffle. Technically this is an historical novel that wraps a portrait of Harlem in the turbulent early 1960's around a heist scheme and a revenge plot. Our guide through this tangle of events is one Ray Carney, a good man, a faithful husband, a devoted dad, who, as the novel puts it, was "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked."

If the inhabitants of Whitehead's much praised The Underground Railroad were light on characterization and heavy on allegorical import, Ray is a man in full, hopeful, contradictory, vengeful, generous, and clever. In a word, complicated.

And he'd better be. Harlem in the '60's was a complicated place. New York City as a whole has never suffered from an excess of good government, and the Black city within the city was no exception. Stratified by wealth and color, impoverished by bias in nearly every facet of life, poorly educated, badly housed, and beset by crime, Harlem's vibrancy, creativity and vitality came despite danger and corruption.

Ray knows all about that. He owns a small furniture store, supplying a variety of new and used sofas and dinette sets, recliners and lamps. Much of his clientele buys on time and their payments are not always timely. Worse, the whole city appears to run on bribes to white cops and protection money to black gangsters or, in the lingo of the times, on the circulation of  "the envelopes."

With money going out the door, it is no surprise that Ray, whose late father, Big Mike, was a career criminal, does not look too closely at the source of the second hand radios, TV's, and appliances that cross his path. Indeed, shortly after the novel begins, what was happenstance begins to seem like fencing in earnest, thanks to his charming but feckless cousin Freddie. 

Freddie hangs out with the likes of Miami Joe, an ambitious but maybe unreliable thief, and Pepper, an ultra professional hitman. One foolish thing leads to another with Freddie, who involves his sensible but devoted cousin with Chink Montague, the big mobster of the moment.

If that is not complication enough, Ray is simultaneously attempting to move up the social ladder. He wants to grow his business and handle really quality furniture. He also wants to improve his standing with his snobby in-laws, disdainful of both his impoverished background and his dark skin.

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead

His attempt to join the Dumas Club, the prime organization for Black movers and shakers, provides more than he bargained for, namely another route to the underbelly of Harlem. There characters like Cheap Brucie and Miss Laura have interesting connections with the cream of Harlem society, presenting both danger and opportunity.

Soon Ray is juggling any number of tricky situations, endangering his marriage by flirting with criminality and endangering his life by making enemies of both outright mobsters and the seemingly legit, some of whom are white. His path through these dangers presents a picture of a society under extreme pressure. Riots that he understands 100% threaten hard-won prosperity, while the corruption that saps the economy of Harlem also provides a vital source of income.

It clearly takes a man of Ray Carney's particular talents and background to survive. His decent impulses and work ethic are as essential as his ingenuity and ability to compartmentalize, driving the novel, along with his imprudent loyalty to Freddie, the brother he never had, the companion of his youth and the spark plug of innumerable adventures.

01 February 2021

Another Good Year: The Invisible Shift


 by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed the singles that nourished my summer of 1966. 1967 was another good year for pop, but we didn't notice how things were changing until two or three years later.

In mystery terms, it was like moving from cozies to noir. We didn't see it at the time, but by 1969, FM radio gained more traction and played longer album cuts while AM singles began to lose their influence. The whole phenomenon was like clues hidden in a complex golden age mystery plot.


The top SELLING albums of 1967 were overwhelmingly pop. The Monkees' first four LPs topped Billboard's chart for 28 weeks during that year, and their first two albums ruled from New Year's Day into June. Herb Alpert and the TJ brass were up there, along with Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and the soundtrack for The Sound of Music. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Petula Clark all had big albums, too, and Peter, Paul & Mary's Album 1700 was required listening for all the folkies in my dorm.

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band rode the top of the charts from early July to October, and we didn't appreciate how it would change the landscape. Other bands were experimenting, too, both musically and chemically, and their work burrowed into our consciousness along with the Fab Four.

In January, the Doors released their first LP. It didn't sell until Elektra released a shorter single version of "Light My Fire" that got lots of AM airplay. It even got banned in Detroit during the July riot. This may have been the beginning of bands releasing a single and a different version of the same song with a long instrumental break on an album. The San Francisco bands, who began to make their presence known in '67, played long breaks for the dancers at the clubs, and it began to catch on. 

That same January, Cream released their first LP, Fresh Cream.


They put out Disraeli Gears in December, and by then the "Clapton is God" buzz was almost as deafening as their Marshall stacks. They were British, but echoed the San Francisco trend to long instrumental breaks (Jack Bruce even said that started when they played the Fillmore West). When I saw them live in '68, they filled a 75-minute set with five songs. 

Jefferson Airplane gave us Surrealistic Pillow in February, and it charted in March. Their first album was a competent collection of mostly covers before Grace Slick (Vocals) and Spencer Dryden (Formerly the drummer with the Peanut Butter Conspiracy) joined on this record, for which band members wrote all the songs. Those songs ranged from folk-rock to full-bore psychedelia (White Rabbit, 3/5 Mile in Ten Seconds) and it may have been the rest of the country's introduction to Haight Ashbury chic. Only weeks later, the Grateful Dead released their first album. It collected covers, too, but two of them featured extended jams like "Light My Fire." The Airplane LP had two hit singles, so it got AM attention. Not so the Dead.

Buffalo Springfield's first album came out in December '66, but Atlantic added their (only) hit single "For What It's Worth" and re-released the record in May, about the same time the band appeared on The Smothers Brothers TV show. FWIW was the band's big hit, but "Sit Down, I Think I Love You" made Billboard's top 20 for the now-forgotten Mojo Men, and several other songs deserve more respect. The Springfield was one of the great coulda-shoulds-woulda bands that didn't make it, but Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to produce more fine work. Like the Airplane, the Springfield record was a combination or rock, country, folk, and ballads. Nobody was looking at a unified concept for an album...yet.


In June, the world turned upside-down. The Beatles unleashed Sergeant Pepper, and AM radio stations played every song because EMI didn't release a single. This may have been the beginning of album-oriented programming.

Only weeks later, Moby Grape appeared on the scene. Their album also has folkish ballads, countryish twang and petal-to-the-metal rock and roll. All five members sang, composed, and played like monsters. They recorded the entire album, including overdubs, in five days of studio time. Guitarist Skip Spence played drums on the first Airplane LP, but he was a guitarist at heart, and here he was in his element. The Grape is another great "might-have-been" band, but Columbia released five singles on the same day, cancelling each other out and offending the hippy following. Bad drugs and bad karma haunted the rest of the band's short career. 

The Association gave us Insight Out in June, too. It had two legit singles, "Never My Love" and "Windy," but the song everyone remembers is "Requiem for the Masses," the choral anti-war song. I saw the band perform it at Yale Bowl a year later, all the stadium lights turned off as Terry Kirkman played the horn solo at the end. It gave me chills. This is the beginning of the end of albums with lots of singles.

To finish off the Summer of Love, Jimi Hendrix produced Are You Experienced? in September. Like the Beatles, Hendrix forced the engineers to dub, overdub, and re-overdub eight or twelve guitar lines onto four-channel boards. The recording industry had to make technical strides to accommodate the new music, and eight, twelve, and even sixteen-channel boards became common, the biggest advance since Les Paul perfected tape delay in the early 50s. Hendrix gave us a hybrid of blues, jazz, rock, and everything else combined with effects pedals and volume like the eruption of Krakatoa. This record did release a couple of singles in England, where it was recorded, but American stations played every song, especially late at night.


Speaking of Krakatoa, The Who released The Who Sell Out in December. It's a full-concept album (Their next release will be Tommy) with tongue-in-cheek commercials mixed among terrific songs. It's my favorite Who album, especially in the expanded CD. Townshend comes into his own as a lyricist and composer on this one, and it features "I Can See For Miles" with the all-out volume assault that's been the band's trademark forever...and the reason Townshend still suffers from tinnitus. 

December gave us the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, their most psychedelic work. It had a three-dimensional cover and no singles, and it proved Mick and Keith could do far-out, too. Then they went back to blues-rooted rock for their best work over the next several years.

December also saw Paul Butterfield reinvent himself. The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw has Elvin Bishop replacing the departed Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar, and it's Butterfield's first record with a horn section. He's learning to share harmonica solo duties with the saxes and trumpet, and it works. Nobody else I know owns this record, but it's one of many resons Butterfield is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Al Kooper was turning to horns at the same time with Blood Sweat & Tears, and Bloomfield left Butterfield to form his own horn band, The Electric Flag. 

Sergeant Pepper is the only album here to top the charts. Several of the others barely dented the basement, but their influence was huge. Think of what will emerge in the next three years: 

Led Zeppelin, Yes, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Chicago Transit Authority, Bitches Brew...

Not so cozy anymore.

18 January 2021

A Very Good Year


I've heard it said that the music we hear in our teens defines our taste because those are such formative years in our lives, and I won't argue. The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in my junior year, but for me the biggie was 1966.

After my freshman year of college, I scored a night shift job at a sheet metal plant. My hours were 6:30 pm to 5 am Monday through Thursday and 3:30 pm to midnight on Friday. There were only nine of us, a 31-year-old foreman, four welders, and four machine operators, three of us college kids. I worked a two-man shear with Al, who was missing an upper incisor and smoked a pack a night.

The 52-hour week meant 12-hours of overtime. I still lived with my parents and drove my mother's car to work, so that summer paid for the remaining three years of my undergraduate degree. It put me on "normal" time for the weekend, which meant I could have a social life...except that my midnight lunch break made it hard to call a girl for a date. It let me play golf almost every day, too, and that was the summer I broke 80 for the first time.

Swell, you say. So what?

Well, we played the radio most of the time, but all the metal around us interfered with reception so we could only pick up one local station, WSGW, which had a trasnmitter two miles away. At midnight, the DJ piled singles on the spindle. After they all played, he'd lift them, read the news headlines, and play that same stack again. And again. Between lunch break at midnight and punch out at five, we'd hear the same songs ten or twelve times. That was the year my first girlfriend dumped me and the year I fell in love for the first time, so those singles trigger a lot of emotional baggage.

Were they all great songs? Not by a long shot, but some were. The Rolling Stones released "Paint It, Black" and the Beatles gave us "Paperback Writer/Rain." The Hollies offered "Bus Stop," The Kinks "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," and Paul Revere and the Raiders were "Hungry." The Mamas and the Papas released "Monday, Monday." But the local DJ promoted home-grown groups selling their new single at the Battle of the Bands at Daniel's Den on Saturday night.

The Rationals at Daniel's Den, Saginaw's teen hot spot


Southern Michigan's music picked up the heavy metal thunder of the automotive plants, where Dad could make enough money to buy his kid an electric guitar and amplifier. Those kids formed bands and practiced in their garages, the DIY movement that became the flagship of garage rock, the grandfathers of Punk. It was democratic music, the kids stealing their licks and lines from the songs they heard on the radio, so simple ANYONE COULD DO IT. And if you got a fuzz-tone for your birthday, even better.

? & The Mysterians



That summer, "96 Tears" was huge. ? & The Mysterians, a Saginaw band, played Daniel's Den and the Blue Light constantly. Terry Knight and the Pack (Later to morph into Grand Funk Railroad) had a cover version of "Lady Jane," but it got pulled because the Rolling Stones hadn't released theirs yet. DJ and the Runaways had "Peter Rabbit," featuring the octave riff they lifted from "Wooly Bully." The Bossmen (Never big, but members went on to play with Lou Reed, Meat Loaf, Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper) released "Thanks to You." The Standells from LA had their biggest hit with "Dirty Water" and the 13th Floor Elevators gave us "You're Gonna Miss Me" with the full-bore reverb and an electric jug. Really.
The 13th Floor Elevators, Tom Hall on Jug...



Bob Seger and the Last Heard scored their first single, "East Side Story," recycling the riff from "Gloria" into flash-fiction noir. Seger wouldn't hit nationally for several more years, but he was probably the biggest act in Detroit behind the Motown groups (Where Stevie Wonder was also from Saginaw). He would have several more hits that don't appear on any of his greatest hits collections, too, maybe because they were on the tiny Lucky Eleven label, swallowed up by Cameo Parkway, which submerged in the late sixties.
Young Bob Seger



The Rationals from Flint had the first version I heard of Otis Redding's "Respect." Contrary to local myth, Glenn Frey was NOT a member of the band, but he did hail from Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb. 

The Syndicate of Sound's "Little Girl" came out then, too, along with the Music Machine's "Talk, Talk," and Love's take on "Little Red Book." Composers Bert Bacharach and Hal David preferred Manfred Mann's version of that song and loathed Love's take on it. The Shadows of Knight put out "Oh Yeah," the follow-up to their cover of "Gloria."

Those were the songs I heard while a two-man shear pounded out the rhythm for my summer. I bought my first guitar a few months later. When I look back at these songs, they evoke a very good year, and I can play pretty much all of them now without even thinking about it. The only surprise is that I've never used any of those songs as story titles. 

13 May 2020

The Tingler


Bringing in the wet dog, my pal Carole made a joke about Odorama – the provenance here being that she's a Baltimore girl, and Baltimore native son John Waters used a gimmick in his more-or-less mainstream debut, Polyester, that was a scratch'n'sniff card, smells keyed to scenes in the movie.



Lest you think this utterly without precedent, think again. John Waters, like Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, is very much a movie nut, and knows his history. Tarantino might champion Sergio Corbucci and a picture like The Great Silence, Scorsese is of course hugely influential in the preservation of significant landmark pictures, many of them marginalized or forgotten. It's no less serious of John Waters to find inspiration in the movies of a Russ Meyer or William Castle.



Russ Meyer was, famously, a schlockmeister. You could argue that Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is at least on some level a masterwork, but it's still trash. Terrific trash, maybe. On the other hand, Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss it ain't. Meyer doesn't even come close. Sam Fuller made his share of exploitive B's, but he always had thorough discipline. Russ Meyer, let's be honest, was only in thrall to the great state of mammary.




William Castle is a different story. His career begins in the late 1930's, and lasts into the 1970's. A lot of it is pretty lame; some of it is eye-popping. He was on Welles' Lady from Shanghai. Twenty years later, he bought the rights to Rosemary's Baby, but Paramount wouldn't let him direct - they thought his track record with quick-and-dirty horror would hurt the word of mouth on an A-picture.



So, those horror movies. This is where Castle hit his stride. (He's actually contemporaneous with the glory days of Hammer gothic, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.) The first was Macabre, in 1958, and it was the first where Castle used medicine-show marketing. Along with your ticket, you got an insurance policy from Lloyd's of London: IF IT FRIGHTENS YOU TO DEATH - YOU'LL BE BURIED FREE OF CHARGE. The House on Haunted Hill, Vincent Price, where the theater went completely dark and the spooky soundtrack started before the picture did. And a plastic skeleton dangled over the audience (Castle pitched this as Emerge-O).  Then his second picture with Price, The Tingler. The Tingler had an even better device: a few of the seats in the theater were wired for a slight tingling effect, which signaled that the parasitic creature was creeping up your spine - and at which point the ushers were supposed to scream. You see the pattern, here. Even as late as Strait-Jacket, his Joan Crawford ax-murderer picture, he passed out party favor tie-ins, cardboard axes smeared with stage blood.



My personal favorite of Castle's movies is Let's Kill Uncle, which came out in 1966, and is apparently not really considered part of the canon. Maybe because Castle often used name Hollywood actors whose fires were no longer burning bright, like Crawford and Vincent Price, those pictures have a certain camp acidity, and they're not to be taken entirely seriously. Let's Kill Uncle, however, has the great Nigel Green, deliriously over-the-top, as the retired SAS commando major out to  murder his nephew for the kid's inheritance. And the shark in the swimming pool.



Castle himself never tried Smell-O-Vision (used but once, Scent of Mystery, 1959) or AromaRama (Behind the Great Wall, same year), so the mischievous sniff test of Odorama John Waters releases in Polyester is more of an homage, Castle-esque rather than a direct application of the Castle merchandising touch. It's satisfyingly retrograde.



Clearly, there are advances which work. Sound, and color. Widescreen, or Dolby digital. 3D is back, not a novelty this time, but here to stay. Smell is of course evocative. They say the most of all our senses. It's probably genetically hard-wired. Who argues? Maybe there's a way to do this. Easy enough to make a theater seat vibrate, after all, to rumble underneath you, or even tip left and right with the G-forces, so you're in the cockpit with Maverick. On the other hand, we'd probably need warning labels, like a product containing peanuts. You get to choose, 3D or flat, subtitles or dubbed, earthbound or zero gravity, scented or fragrance-free.

[In a cute piece of stunt casting John Waters actually got to play Castle in the miniseries Feud, about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford surrounding Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In an Oklahoma publicity appearance for Strait-Jacket, Crawford "decapitates" Castle.]

22 January 2020

Once Upon a Time


This is a quixotic sorta thing, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood got me thinking about Who It Might Really Be. Granted, it's a counter-factual narrative, and part of its weirdness is how and where the real world overlaps the fantasy. Sharon going into the matinee and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew is an enormously charming conceit. Her murderers going to the wrong house and finding Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind is a lot more disturbing, because in real life the Manson crew did actually go to the wrong house, and Terry Melcher wasn't home.

Anyway, some of you might have noticed that Edd Byrnes died last week. He was obviously most famous for 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie. He was also from a generation of actors who caught the last gasp of the studio system. He was under contract to Warners, along with Ty Hardin, and Peter Brown, and Troy Donahue. Doug McClure signed with Universal, as did James Farentino and Guy Stockwell. They did a lot of series TV with their respective stablemates, for their specific studios, and they got feature work, but again, they were locked into longtime studio commitments.



The part that Leo gets in the pilot for Lancer was in fact played by Joe Don Baker, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. Jim Stacy and Wayne Maunder, series regulars, were in that same age band. It's one of those simply odd things, that one of these guys breaks out. Steve McQueen, for instance, after Wanted: Dead or Alive, the model for Rick Dalton's show. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood came out of the same Petri dish, but bear in mind that for every one of them there was a Vince Edwards or a George Maharis.




Of this group of actors, what you might call male ingenues - like Robert Wagner or Jeffrey Hunter a couple of years earlier - I've always thought Guy Stockwell was the most poignant. He got some really good breaks. So did Doug McClure, for that matter, but Guy was an actor with more range. (They worked together twice, in Beau Geste and The King's Pirate, both of them dogs.) Brad Pitt has himself remarked that there are a lot of pretty boys out there, and a lot of pretty boys who can act, but it's still purely a crap shoot. Guy did a bunch of guest shots, and then he was signed for Adventures in Paradise. A year after that, he joined Richard Boone's repertory company for Boone's anthology show, which unhappily only ran one season. Then we get The War Lord, with Boone and Chuck Heston (and James Farentino), Blindfold and Tobruk,  with Rock Hudson, and Banning, with Wagner, and Farentino again, and Gene Hackman - right before Buck Barrow. Not too shabby a playlist.




He doesn't catch fire. It doesn't help that he gets cast in some real stinkers, but he goes back to guest work in television, much like Rick Dalton. Lancer (you guessed it), Bonanza, The VirginianThe F.B.I. (more cross-collateral with Once Upon a Time), and like as not, playing a charming psychopath. As he gets older, character parts.



It isn't that his career went in the tubes. That's not what happened. It's that he couldn't or didn't leverage his early advantage. Maybe he was disappointed in the parts he was offered. Maybe he didn't have enough animal magnetism. He reinvested himself in theater, and was a highly-praised acting teacher. It's not like he lost his chops. It's one of those unfathomables. He should of been a contender, along the lines of Bob Culp or Brian Keith.



All the same, he's got a legacy, whether or not he's the real-life model for Rick Dalton or not. That's just a conceit on my part. Every time I watch The War Lord, I think, Jeez, this guy is good. And this is a picture, basically, where everybody overacts. On the other hand, it seems so physically authentic. The bare stone tower, the winding stairs. When do any of these people bathe? you can only wonder to yourself.

So there it is. My little paean to Guy Stockwell, probably over-thinking on my part, conjured up by Tarentino.

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound


Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.







20 May 2018

Crime Song


My brother Glen never met a music genre he didn’t like. He came by it honestly, learning brass and reeds as a kid while he tinkered with a marimba. Glen went on to learn guitar and keyboards as I messed with percussion. We’ve attended rock concerts, symphonies, and baroque chamber orchestras. We’ve enjoyed progressive rock, hard rock, fusion, and blues. He’s gone on to embrace electronica, trance, industrial, rap, and world music.

Recently he sent me a link to a familiar early 60s Mersey band, The Hollies, one of the few British Invasion bands still performing. As well as they were received in the US with The Air that I Breathe, Bus Stop, He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother), and numerous other songs, The Hollies grew even more wildly popular overseas.

One of my favorite tunes was the echoic Long Cool Woman, but I’d never listened closely to it. Glen’s link contained lyrics and I suddenly realized it’s a crime song. I found it easy to imagine RT Lawton penning a ballad like this.

Take a listen. Here’s Long Cool Woman:


… and here find the lyrics:

31 July 2017

RIP Dick Wagner


A few months ago, I wrote about Chuck Berry, a household name even if you don't like rock 'n' roll.
Three years ago yesterday, Dick Wagner, one of rock's great unsung pioneers, passed away from respiratory failure at age 71. I never saw a word about it in the newspapers or online, and only learned about it because Susie Woodman, my high school classmate and ex-wife of Dick's first drummer, posted it on Facebook.

When I mention Dick's name, most people say, "Who?" When I mention certain bands or records, their eyes widen and they say, "That was him?"

Dick played on over 30 gold or platinum albums and CDs, usually as an unnamed session guitarist, but those records include the blazing duet (With Steve Hunter) on Aerosmith's cover of "The Train Kept A-rollin'," backing Lou Reed on his Rock and Roll animal tour, and several Alice Cooper hits--most of which he co-wrote. He also played or wrote for Kiss, Meat Loaf, Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra.

Back in my deformative high school years, I knew of Dick as the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/arranger of The Bossmen, a Beatles knock-off band in Saginaw, Michigan.
Dick wrote practically all their material, and you could hear him grow and develop as the Beatles did. By the time his band ended its run in 1967, it included Mark Farner, who would later perform with Terry Knight & the Pack, which morphed into Grand Funk Railroad. Dick went to Detroit and fronted The Frost, a good band that didn't make it, and started writing and producing. Other musicians and producers called him "The Maestro" because he could read music (a rarity for guitarists), write like a devil, and play guitar like a monster.

In the early seventies, he released an LP, but his label decided to call it "Richard Wagner." Of course it ended up in the classical bins and sold about twenty-six copies.

Dick's brilliance led to problems. He developed an Olympian cocaine habit--maybe from hanging out with Aerosmith--and he admitted to a sex addiction that led him to cheat on his first two wives with possibly hundreds of women. Eventually, he developed heart problems and had a nearly-fatal coronary in 2005. That and pressure on the brain paralyzed his left arm and he had to re-learn guitar after surgery and a long bout of physical therapy.

He began to tour again, often with musicians he'd known in Detroit including Mark Farner, and Dennis Burr. At about the same time, I connected with him on Facebook through my high school classmate, who still plays session keyboards and performs around Detroit. When I was looking for blurbs for my first Woody Guthrie novel Blood On the Tracks, Susie--who inspired my character Megan Traine--said I could drop her name to various Michigan musicians.
She knew or played with Dick--and Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, and members of both Savage Grace and ? and the Mysterians.

Most of them, surprise, surprise, never got back to me, but Dick said, "Send me your book. When do you need something?"

A few months later, he emailed me his blurb, short, sweet, and perfect. It's on the back of the book, and I sent him a copy.
By the time it came out, though, his health was deteriorating and he never mounted the comeback tour that was in the works. I read his memoir and found a CD of the Bossmen's songs on his old website. I was amazed how many of them I remembered from fifty years ago.

At an open mic last week, I played on of Dick's best-known songs as a thank you to a star who didn't have to give me a boost, but did.

"Only Women Bleed."

Thank you, Dick.

22 November 2016

JFK, the Beatles and the Beginning of the Sixties


What were we doing fifty-three years ago and a day from today? As a country, many of us were listening to and/or watching Alan Sherman, Victor Borge, Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, Mitch Miller, Perry Como, Bobby Darin, the Dick Van Dyke show, Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Ben Casey, Leslie Gore, Peter Paul and Mary, Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto, the Ronnettes, the Shirelles, the Drifters, Jan and Dean, Vaughn Meader, and Jose Jimenez (yes, I know, but that was then and this is now). And more.

On November 21, 1963, four guys did a gig at the ABC Cinema, Carlisle, England. In the summer and fall of 1963, a young folk singer was recording his third album, but still not too many people were aware of him outside of a small circle of friends (to paraphrase another Sixties folk singer). Some people might have known some of his songs as done by other people, but they didn’t really know him…yet.

The President and his wife spent the day in Fort Worth. A loser and lost soul spent the night at Ruth Paine’s home, a friend of his.

As the sun came up the next day, November 22, 1963, everything seemed fine.  A group called the Beatles released With the Beatles in England, but they’d yet to make their mark on this side of the pond. And that folk singer, Bob Dylan, was a long way off from his Nobel Prize.

And then it all went to hell.

JFK said, “If anyone is crazy enough to want to kill a president of the United States, he can do it. All he must be prepared to do is give his life for the president's.” Unfortunately this was a prophetic statement. Someone was crazy enough.

There’s been a lot written about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I doubt I can add much to it. Some say it was the end of innocence for the country. The country went into a deep depression after his death. We started slipping waist deep into the big muddy. The 60s happened: protests, riots, hippies, counter culture, the Summer of Love, Woodstock , Altamont.

So where was I that winter day in 1963? I was a school safety, standing in a hallway monitoring student “traffic”.

***

“Stop, don’t run,” I shouted to some kid charging down the hall, wearing my AAA safety badge on
my arm. He slowed down, but I could hear him hard-charge again as soon as he rounded the corner, out of my sight. I could have given him a written demerit, but chose not to. I guess I was in a good mood. Either that or I hadn’t yet learned the power trip that the badge could give me.

A few minutes later, he ran back down the hall. I was already getting my little ticket book out when he shouted, “The President’s dead.” I dropped the book in dazed silence.

In class later, the principal’s voice came over the tinny sounding loudspeaker. “I have the bad fortune to announce that President Kennedy has been shot.” A collective gasp escaped through the room. Even Jamie Badger (name changed to protect the guilty), the class bad boy, was stunned long enough to stop making spitballs. The principal continued, “It’s unknown what his condition is, though it’s thought that he’s still alive.”

But we found out that wasn’t the case after all.

We were young, but that didn’t stop us from being stunned. Even the boys cried. Teachers tried to control themselves, they had to keep it together for their students. Mary Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) nearly collapsed in my arms – she was the first girl who’d ever sent me a love note.

That long weekend and week that followed the assassination, my parents and I (and my younger brothers to a lesser extent) were glued to the television, as was the rest of the country. LBJ taking the oath of office. The capture of Oswald. Speculation on the whys and wherefores and whos. John-John saluting as the caisson carrying his father rolled by. Jack Ruby shooting Oswald. Conspiracy theories forming.

So we watched in silence as the procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. And there were no psychologists, no shrinks to salve our wounds. It was like landing in Oz, only to find the Wicked Witch of the East in control in the dark, forbidding forest of snarled trees and flying monkeys. And we hung our heads. And we cried. I cried. And we didn’t know where we were heading on that cold day in November, 1963.

***

The very popular Vaughn Meader, who’d made a living and career impersonating JFK and the First Family, was out of a job. And we were out of laughter and joy. No more touch football on the White House lawn. No more pill box hats and white gloves. And somehow none of our backyard barbecues would taste as good or as sweet for a long, long time to come, if ever.

Here's a YouTube video of Vaughn Meader.

We needed something to buoy our spirits through the dark winter months of 1963/64. And for many of us that something came on February 9, 1964 in the form of those four mop tops from Liverpool and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan, which was most people’s first exposure to them. My dad called me into the den to watch and I’ve been hooked ever since. But they helped a good part of the country bounce back, at least a little, from the events of a couple of months before, with their effervescent sound, happy music and wit. So at least for a while we could forget about the darkness in our hearts.



It’s hard to say when one decade begins and another one ends or vice versa, because the zeitgeist of the times doesn’t necessarily coincide with the years that end in zero. But I think the Sixties really began with those two events, the assassination of President Kennedy and the coming of the Beatles and the British Invasion, and it ended with Watergate in 1973.

Several year later, when I was in DC, I made a side trip to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia in part to see JFK’s grave (see photo). I know Kennedy wasn’t perfect and Camelot wasn’t all that, but seeing the memorial made me remember a time when there was hope and optimism and maybe even a sense of innocence.



So, what were you doing 53 years ago, if you were around?

***

And now for something not quite completely different: My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” is in the brand new, hot off the presses December 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Get ’em while you can. And if you like the story, maybe you’ll remember it for the Ellery Queen Readers Award (the ballot for which is at the end of this issue), and others. Thanks.



Oh, and that is, of course, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast. And more on this in a future blog.

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