Showing posts with label Edward S. Aarons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edward S. Aarons. Show all posts

13 September 2019

Can the Beatles Vs. Stones Debate Make Us Better Writers?


Beatles Vs. Stones
Photoshop by Grace Maddox
by Lawrence Maddox

Two recent concert experiences got me reconsidering the ultimate rock 'n' roll litmus test: The Beatles or the Stones? Sure you can like them both, even simultaneously, but which one is better?


A manual on how to skirt
death, three chords at a time.
That was a no-brainer for me when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I was a Stones fanatic. My favorite albums were Beggars Banquet and Some Girls, and I played them on an endless loop. I read everything about them, including Tony Sanchez's down and dirty Up and Down with the Rolling Stones: My Rollercoaster Ride with Keith Richards. I totally lost interest in the Beatles, who just didn't seem to rock.  The Stones were fuel to all my youthful ne'er-do-well activities in a way the Beatles could never be.

Things change.

A few weeks ago I was driving home from work and I was hit by a tidal wave of traffic. Then I remembered: The Stones are playing the Rose Bowl tonight!  I live so close to the Rose Bowl that concerts sound great from my backyard, and even better from certain points in my neighborhood. I hurried home, poured a couple Makers on the rocks, and my wife and I took a stroll and listened. I have a writing assignment I have to finish, but I put it on the back burner (again).
"It just had to be done.
So we did it."

The Stones sounded great, and even though I got the requisite nostalgic ping, my long-standing take on the Stones was affirmed. I've had a growing dissatisfaction with the Stones for years, and I can narrow it down to one main reason: It's their lyrics. In my humble opinion, they don't hold up. I've looked into this, and here's what I've come up with.

The Rolling Stones recently wound up their No Filter tour, an amazing feat for four blokes pushing 80. Even more impressive is Mick Jagger going back on tour after having a catheter inserted into his aorta last April. My dad had similar surgery at a similar age, and as tough as he was I can't imagine him going on a North American concert tour afterwards.  "It just had to be done. So we did it," Keith Richards told the Toronto Sun.

Unlike the Who, the Stones at least make the pretense of touring to promote a new record.  They are masters at wringing product out of their tours. Album. Tour. Live album. Throw in well-timed greatest hits packages (they've got 26 compilation albums total, starting with 1966's High Tide and Green Grass through 2019's Honk), and you start to see the Stones for what they are: a disciplined, calculating, business-oriented music-making machine.

Keith Richards' Life.
It could seem, though I'm loathe to knock the insane success of the Glimmer Twins, that the Stones may take a mercenary approach to their songwriting as well. In Keith Richards' 2010 memoir Life, he writes that Mick would often hurriedly write the lyrics in the studio before the band had to record the song. Keith quotes Muscle Shoals engineer Jim Dickinson, who witnessed Mick writing "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses." "I watched Mick write the lyrics [to "Brown Sugar"]," Jim Dickinson is quoted as saying. "It took him maybe forty-five minutes; it was disgusting! He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand." Dickinson said Mick did the same for "Wild Horses," taking about an hour.

In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger said that he also wrote a lot of songs while on the road with the band. "You get back from a show,  have something to eat, a few beers and just go to your room  and write. I used to write about twelve songs in two weeks on tour. It gives you lots of ideas. At home, it's really difficult because you don't want to do anything really but read, and things like that."

The Glimmer Twins 
Journalist Johnathan Cott asked Jagger why he mumbled some of his lyrics. "That's when bad lines come up. I mean I don't think the lyrics are that important," Jagger answered. When pressed about the "really good" lyrics to "Get Off my Cloud," Jagger's answer was refreshingly honest and unpretentious: "Oh they're not. They're crap."

There is no doubt that the Stones have written well-crafted and thoughtful lyrics.  In a '95 interview with Rolling Stone Jagger talks about writing "Sympathy for the Devil" all on his own in his house in Chester Square.  From their own words, its seems fair to say that writing lyrics has often taken a back seat to recording. Lyrics are often written on the job, with the clock ticking. Rewrites don't always happen. Playing the song, finding the song's sound, is paramount.

Months before I eavesdropped on the Stones at the Rose Bowl, I took my family to see Ringo Starr at the Greek. My two kids are pre-teen, and I've taken this window of opportunity (while they still listen to me) to force stuff I like into their unsuspecting worlds. I've made them watch all the original episodes of Jonny Quest with me. We tune into Svengoolie on Saturday nights to watch cheesy horror films. It's jazz and classical stations when we drive. I play them Beatles music and show them Beatles movies. They love the Beatles. For now, anyway.

Ringo Starr, Honorary
Santa Tracker
Ringo has a band made up of famous people from other bands. The youngest member is Colin Hay from Men At Work,  just to give you an idea of how far back these cats go.  It's a nostalgia show all the way, something the Stones, admirably, haven't done much of (a notable exception being 2016's Desert Trip, dubbed "old-chella" by the Burning Man crowd). We sang along to all the old Beatles songs with Ringo. I'd never sang along at a concert in my life, and I've seen Frank Sinatra. I'll never forget sharing that with my kids.

A must-read for Beatlemaniacs
The Beatles wrote everywhere and anywhere, and their songs were often personal in nature.  Lennon wrote "Help" at home after a night at the recording studio. "I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help," Lennon told Playboy. "In My Life" started out as a poem Lennon wrote about his childhood. McCartney wrote the music for "Yesterday" at his girlfriend Jane Asher's home. He sat on the song for weeks, calling it "Scambled Eggs" until he could compose the lyrics. "Eleanor Rigby" was another song McCartney tinkered with for awhile. It was later finished at Lennon's home, with all the Beatles contributing.  Ringo suggested "darning his socks," George "all the lonely people."  After their trip to India, the Beatles came back with a ton of songs that became The White Album and beyond. When you listen to the Beatles, you get the impression that those lyrics are vetted. There's no mumbling through half-baked writing.

So what do these masters of pop have to do with that lingering writing assignment I mentioned somewhere at the top, or your lingering writing assignment?

Akashic's Dublin Noir,
signed by Jim Fusilli and Gary Phillips.
Courtesy of the Maddox Archives
Jim Fusilli is a Wall Street Journal music critic who also writes crime fiction.  I was introduced to him by his terrific story in Akashic's Dublin Noir, "The Ghost of Rory Gallagher." It's about the price a fan pays for his obsession with a dead rock star.  As a side note, if I hadn't been so wowed by Jim's Akashic story, I may have never written "Old Cold Hand," published in Akashic's 2010 Orange County Noir. Anyway, when I heard that Jim was giving a writer's workshop, I jumped at the chance to attend. It was a good intro to creative writing, and Jim sprinkled it with rock 'n' roll anecdotes.

Jim talked about the importance of carrying a journal and being ready to write all the time. It's been roughly twelve years since Jim's workshop, and I'm not sure if he connected the Beatles to the habit of always being ready to write or if I did it on my own, but it stuck either way. John and Paul were always on. They never stopped writing. They jotted down their ideas and sweated over lyrics until they got them right. George too. He stockpiled and reworked songs that he couldn't get on Beatles albums because, well, Lennon and McCartney. When the Beatles broke up, he put these songs on All Things Must Pass, perhaps the greatest of the fab four solo albums.

My copy of Aaron's 1956
Assignment: Treason.
The second in the series.
Don't think the Stones don't have their lessons, too. In my post from April 19 ("Edward S Aarons and the Great Spy Series That Never Came in from the Cold") I write about the insanely prolific Edward S. Aarons, the creator of the Assignment series of novels, arguably the first US Cold War spy series. From 1955 until his death in 1975, Aarons wrote 42 Assignments. His output and longevity was very Stones-esque. Aarons was one of many paperback writers of the period (I wonder which one Paul had in mind on "Paperback Writer") who wrote book after book, often labeled men's action adventure. Many of these writers weren't feted at the time, though they're being rediscovered. They churned out titles, and sometimes they couldn't stop to be too precious with the words. It's like Keith said about going on tour after Mick had his surgery: "It just had to be done. So we did it."

I could use some of that Stones "get it done" mentality right now. I'm still struggling to finish that writing project I should have been done with months ago. I could blame my lagging on things like a crashed-beyond-all-repair hard drive, but that's just whining. I need Keith over my shoulder, getting cigarette ash on my computer keyboard, saying "Time is money, mate. It's NOT on my side or yours. Get with it."

I think we reach for the Beatles, for that work that will echo beyond us through generations; but we need the lessons of the Stones.  We need to push and meet our deadlines; to keep turning out product;  to not let the drug busts, Anita Pallenberg, heart surgery, or a busted hard drive defeat us. You can't alway get what you want, but if you try sometimes...

Learn more about Jim Fusilli at JimFusilli.com. Jim's latest, The Mayor of Polk Street, is available as an Audible Original.

Music is like a true friend who understands us and sticks by us no matter what unworthy slobs we secretly are. When someone knocks our favorite musicians, it can tick us off. And by "someone" I mean me, and by "us" I mean you good folks. If you need to vent, please comment here; or on twitter at Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks; or drop me a line at Lawrencemddx@yahoo.com. Remember, it's only rock 'n' roll.

To the left is Fast Bang Booze. The sequel is the writing assignment I mentioned. To the right is Orange County Noir, 2010. I had Jim Fusilli in mind when my story got accepted.


 

19 April 2019

Edward S. Aarons and the Great Spy Series That Never Came in from the Cold


by Lawrence Maddox
Sam Durrell nears the end of his run in Assignment–Sheba
Cover Art by Richard Kohlfield

Many of my dad's generation we're in for a culture shock when the '60s rolled around.  Remember the moment in Cheech & Chong's "Earache My Eye" when the dad drags the needle across his son's rock LP? That really happened in my household in the early '70s, to my older brother when he was cranking Hendrix in his bedroom. My dad had great taste in music (R&B, Jazz, Big Band ), but he was pretty much done with Rock once the British Invasion took hold.

During the British Invasion, maybe earlier, Rock n' Roll drew a line in the sand for baby boomers. If you were on the wrong side of it, you were probably listening to your parents' music and reading Archie Comics. To varying degrees the Rock'n'Roll hegemony stuck, sustaining like Nigel Tufnel's guitar in This Is Spinal Tap ('84). The Beatles versus Stones argument drags on, even as the Rock Hall of Fame scrapes the bottom of the barrel to remain relevant.

Bachelor pads were serving up Mai Tais
Les Baxter once again
When all the other stuff that seemed so un-cool by comparison roared back with a Martini-swilling vengeance at the dawn of the '90s, I couldn't have been happier. Suddenly the Rat Pack, Tiki Culture, and dinner jackets were back in business. Sure, there was a downside. After Swingers ('96), the Dresden in Los Feliz was packed to the gills with wanna-be rat packers and it took forever to get served.

It's my impression that this nostalgia for the once-irredeemably square extended to crime genre paperbacks from that era, too. Second-hand books by the likes of Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) that once sold for a buck-or-under were now going for way more. The cover art, created by illustrators like Harry Bennett, Victor Kalin, and Robert McGinnis, was itself becoming imminently collectible–and influential.  Advertising and the burgeoning Low Brow Art Movement borrowed heavily from it.

In that era of comebacks, when Arthur Lyman, Donald Hamilton, and Robert Goulet (via Will Farrell on SNL) were once again orbiting the zeitgeist like re-launched Sputniks, there was one glaring omission.

Assignment– Sorrento Siren
Edward S. Aarons' Assignment series started in 1955 with Assignment to Disaster, two years after Ian Fleming's like-minded Casino Royale debutedAssignment's hero is Sam Durrell, a tough, resourceful Cajun who works for a shadowy component of the CIA. Durrell's assignments take him to vividly-rendered faraway places, tantalizingly dangled before the reader in book titles like Assignment–Sorrento Siren, Assignment–Sulu Sea, and Assignment–Cong Hai Kill. Beautiful women, power-hungry villains, and violence are always part of the equation. Aarons ratchets up the tension, and the Assignments build to frenzied, action-packed climaxes.

Aarons was a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction by the time he wrote Assignment to Disaster at the age of 40. His New York Times obit states Aarons "sold his first story when he was 18 and his first novel at 19. And, before turning solely to the novel form and the Assignment series, he had written 200 magazine stories and novellas." If WW2 hadn't intervened, no doubt the count would've be higher.

Assignment– White Rajah
From 1955 until his death in 1975, Aarons wrote 42 Assignments. Two were published posthumously. The series continued without him into the early '80s with six more Assignments, but it wasn't as good. Sergio Rizzo, in his New York Times biography of Aarons, writes that "the Assignment series sold more than 23 million copies and has been reprinted in seventeen languages."

The switch from detective to spy fiction was a good move for the industrious Aarons, and not without precedent. Arthur Conan Doyle did the same with Holmes in stories like "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," in which Holmes and Watson track down submarine plans stolen by a German secret agent.

For a run that stretches from Elvis to the Ramones, with Aarons writing 2 or 3 Assignments annually, the quality is consistently high. For anyone who has attended Bouchercon or is voting on the Anthony Awards (Schmooze Alert-my novel Fast Bang Booze is Best First Novel eligible), take note: Anthony Boucher judged the Assignment series "among the best modern adventure stories of espionage and international intrigue."

 In his excellent essay "Edward S. Aarons and the Sam Durrell/Assignment Series of Spy Novels" (found at ExistentialEnnui.com), Nick Jones argues that the Assignment series is important for reasons besides its longevity and popularity, writing "Sam Durrell is arguably America's first proper postwar fictional series spy." Jones suggests that Aarons may have created Durrell without direct inspiration by Fleming's Bond. "Casino Royale wasn't published in the US until 1954 and didn't sell terribly well," Jones writes. If Aarons did indeed set the framework for American spy fiction to come, his importance cannot be denied.

I've been on some memorable Book Benders, when life has given me time to catch a ride with a book series or a particular author and hang on for numerous stops.  I think a lot of book lovers read that way. For me this may have started with Tolkien. Kerouac was also an early addiction. I loved them so much back then I'm afraid to re-read them now, in case one of us hasn't held up over time.  I spent one of my longest Book Benders reading Ross MacDonald's Archer novels. That's series locks you in.
Assignment–Sulu Sea

I had the same Bender experience with the Assignment series. Just like with the Lew Archer novels, you don't have to start at the beginning. I think the books get better as they go along, and that Aarons hit his stride in the '60s and early'70s.  My favorite is Assignment–Sulu Sea ('64). Here's how it kicks off:

Holcomb did not know how long he had been running or when the sun came up, or when he fell at last in the sandy debris of coconut husks and rotting palm fronds. He was afraid off the light. The screeching of the birds and the grunting of a wild pig somewhere in the vine-shrouded wilderness beyond the beach terrified him. He knew he was being followed. The sounds of the birds and monkeys and pigs mingled with the sigh and crash of the surf of the Celebes Sea on the beach. There was a kind of madness in the noise that balanced the gibbering in the lurking shadows of his brain.

Ian Fleming is famous for researching, in person, the settings of 007's adventures. He even wrote his own travelogue, Thrilling Cities ('63), though he seems a little grumpier than in the Bond books.  Aarons' methods have been lost to time, at least until a serious biographer gets on the case.  Sergio Rizzo writes that the Assignments "were most often set in the faraway places that Aarons researched on annual trips in search of new and vivid material." I reached out to an Aarons family member, who said, "My understanding is that his research was primarily book research."

There's no doubt Aarons did his research. I also like to think that Aarons really did travel to some of the many places he wrote about, having his own adventures before sitting down to the lonely task of writing multiple novels annually. His setting descriptions are lush and evocative, written with the confidence of one who experienced them firsthand. If he visited these places or not, chalk up the immersive writing to pure craftsmanship.

Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton
I think there are a couple reasons why Aarons is unknown to the general reading public after having been so popular in his day. Unlike Fleming, or Matt Helm's creator Donald Hamilton, Aarons never left his mark on Hollywood. Low budget flick Dead to the World(1961) is based on State Departments Murders, a hardboiled novel Aarons wrote using his pseudonym Edward Ronns.  Dead to the World is directed by Nicholas Webster, best known for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), and it's not a career maker. I couldn't track down any other films Aarons is connected to.

Another issue is the way Aarons was marketed. I couldn't find any photos of Aarons on the internet. More importantly, I also couldn't find any on the paperbacks themselves. Many genre series authors were smartly branded, and it helped create a mystique around them. Micky Spillane looms large on many of his covers, wearing a porkpie hat. Fleming holds a gun. Donald Hamilton wears bitchin' sunglasses. Aarons, like a spook from one of his own novels, is nowhere in sight. He deserves to be rediscovered.

I already mentioned Sergio Rizzo and Nick Jones and their excellent essays on Aarons. Randall Masteller, writing at SpyGuysandGals.com, offers an amazing resource for spy fiction fans and has a synopsis for each book in the Assignment series. Doug Bassett provides many insights into Aarons in his piece at MysteryFile.com.