Showing posts with label JFK assassination. Show all posts
Showing posts with label JFK assassination. Show all posts

17 January 2020

The Chet Baker Conspiracy


Chet Baker in Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost.
Rumors that jazz legend Chet Baker was murdered started shortly after his death.

Filmmaker Bruce Weber was still in post production on his Chet Baker documentary Lets' Get Lost when he got the news that the jazz trumpeter had fallen to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam. "...it wasn't really Chet's style to jump," Weber told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, seventh months after Baker's death. "He was always getting into trouble with drug dealers. He called me a month-and-a-half before his death and said, 'Something might happen. This cocaine dealer is after me.'"

If drug dealers were after Chet Baker, it wouldn't be the first time.  According to John Wooley in "What Happened, Man," Chet Baker was attacked in 1966 by multiple assailants outside a San Francisco jazz club. "Whatever its motivation," Wooley writes, "it had cost Baker several teeth." Wooley guesses it was drug related. Jeroen De Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music affirms this, describing five thugs sent by a drug dealer to beat Chet.  Born to Be Blue, starring Ethan Hawke as Baker, chronicles the same beating, and how the damage knocked Chet, along with his teeth, out of the jazz game.

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker.
Drummer Artt Frank, who started playing with Baker in the '60s, writes about Chet's attempted comeback in his 2013 memoir  Chet Baker: The Missing Years.  Frank discussed his book in a radio interview with James Paris, and he made some provocative statements about Baker's end. He claimed that Baker contacted him before he died and said he was being followed. Frank said that Chet's widow also believed her wayward hubby was murdered. Speaking for Chet's widow is mere hearsay. Claiming Baker told him he was being followed the night before his death, especially since it echoes Bruce Webers statement, is more convincing

Robert Budreau, the director of Born to Be Blue, also made The Deaths of Chet Baker, a short film about Baker's final moments.  It depicts a drug dealer knocking a very high Baker out the hotel window. It's total conjecture. There's a brilliant three second moment that captures Chet right after doing heroin as he experiences the highest of highs. I was inclined to believe that Budreau got us as close as we'll get to the truth of Chet Baker's end. Case closed. Cue up the album Playboys (made with fellow hardcore junkie Art Pepper) and lament the days when smooth was in and distortion was seen as a mistake.

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet.
Then I read Tom Schnabel's article for KCRW's Music Notes, "How Chet Baker Really Died." Schnabel was the music director for KCRW (he's largely responsible for making Morning Becomes Eclectic a drive time juggernaut). Here's what Schnabel has to say about Chet's fall:

I got a call from a patron at Santa Monica's now-deceased music store, Hear Music, and was told that he knew what happened. He was there at Amsterdam at the same hotel. He said that Chet was chatting up a woman in the lobby, went upstairs to get some cigarettes or keys, and found he had locked himself out of his hotel room. The door to the room next door was open. He entered, went out onto the balcony and tried to get over to his own balcony. He lost his footing, fell and died. The caller told me, "Ask Little Jimmy Scott, he was there at the hotel and remembers."

Little Jimmy Scott
A few months after Schnabel spoke with the caller, he met with singer Little Jimmy Scott. Schnabel writes that the jazz vocalist "corroborated every detail the caller told me about Chet's accidental death."

Schnabel's version lacks intrigue, and if it wasn't for the tragic outcome, is really pretty silly. This only makes it more believable to me. Chet had drugs in his system when he died. Trying to cross from balcony to balcony like Errol Flynn seems like the impulsive move that someone high would pull. Especially if a hotel hook-up was at stake.

What's interesting is that the Chet Baker murder rumors lingered unabated after Schnabel's article was published in 2012. It was like it was written in a vacuum. Wikipedia didn't notice until 2019. The Chet Baker murder rumors live on to this day, though Schanbel's article should probably lay them to rest.

I think "How Chet Baker Really Died" proves two contradictory things about conspiracy theories.

First, it shows that sometimes the answer isn't some complicated plot or deep cover up. Sometimes things happen. It's hard to believe that someone revered, worshipped, viewed as special, out of the ordinary, could meet their end like the rest of us jokers.

Stephen King's  11/22/63:
 Time Traveller vs Lone Gunman
Take the Chet Baker murder rumors, multiply them by what ever number that the hopes and dreams of America equals, and you have the JFK conspiracy theories. Stephen King begins his 11.22.63, his tale of time travel and the JFK assassination, with this quote from Norman Mailer:

It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.

Occam's Razor tells us that if there are two explanation for something, take the easiest one with the least assumptions. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone. Tom Schnabel proved that Chet Baker slipped and fell. It's an absurd world, folks. Don't make things more difficult than they need be.

Yet there is a second, and very different, conclusion to be drawn: Sometimes the truth is ignored. Or worse.

A series of fateful deaths that defy the odds.
You wouldn't think that the JFK assassination and the purported cover-up that followed would make good stand up material, but I saw Richard Belzer (standup veteran and TV's Detective John Munch) deliver a hilarious set on exactly that. He was at West Hollywood's Book Soup presenting Hit List:An In-Depth Investigation Into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination. Maybe you had to be there. Anyway, I won't recite the litany of people who claimed to have special knowledge of the assassination and then died shortly after. To quote Belzer:

An actuary engaged by the London Times calculated the probability that at least eighteen witnesses would die of any cause within 3 years of the JFK assassination as 1 in 100,000 trillion.

I've heard people say that the assassination of a president is too big to cover up; if there was something there, it would've come out by now. Belzer argues that it did, and it was stepped on.

Schnabel's little essay for KCRW was ignored, but eventually it did change Chet Baker's Wiki page. If you hear the murder rumors now, all you have to do is check Wiki. We all do that. In a way, Schnabel got to rewrite the ending. Richard Belzer is just one in a long line of researchers and crusaders trying rewrite an ending, to reach the tipping point on another Wiki page. The truth is out there, the X-Files tells us. The implication is, you have to find it. 

I'm Lawrence Maddox.


My travels are taking me away from Sleuthsayers for a few months. If during that time you need your fix of Yours Truly, check out my novel Fast Bang Booze, available from DownAndOutBooks.Com.

Madxbooks@gmail.com.

Tweets are welcome: Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks

Cheers!




10 October 2012

CHARLES McCARRY: The Tears of Autumn




by David Edgerley Gates

[A late-breaking rant---

PBS.  It means to me, of course, TINKER, TAILOR, and DR. WHO, and THIS OLD HOUSE.  If you’ve got kids, it would conjure up Fred Rogers, SESAME STREET, and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY.  Some people first learned to read, or count, from watching these shows, and they introduced a framework for basic social skills, learning how to play well with others.

Quite a few years ago, the early ‘60’s, in fact, I worked as a cable-puller for WBGH in Boston.  This was back in the day of Julia Child and Joyce Chen, say, before they got to be household names, and before ‘GBH became one of the major PBS content providers.  It was pretty much a shoestring operation, and it wouldn’t have survived without viewer contributions and a subsidy from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For reasons I’ve never understood, public television has been a target of the Right since the get-go.  Perhaps there’s a perceived Leftie, or elitist, bias.  Or, going in the other direction, the risk that so-called “public” broadcasting would simply be a government propaganda tool, like the Voice of America.  (In its early days, for example, the BBC was usually seen as a mouthpiece for whichever party was in power, Tory or Labor.)  But the most widely-used argument has always been the creeping Socialist one: taxpayer money shouldn’t support television programming.  PBS first got legs, it should be remembered, in the heyday of the commercial broadcast networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, their shows collectively labeled by Newt Minow as a “vast wasteland.”  The point of public TV, known back then as “educational” television, was in fact that it wasn’t market-driven, and this alone seemed to lacerate the Right into a fury---public TV didn’t pay for itself.

Well, it’s not supposed to.  Public television is like public transportation.  It serves a greater good---okay, that’s the creeping Socialist in me, but the benefits seem so self-evident, to society at large.  Public TV provides a window on the world that isn’t hostage to money, although they’re always short of it.  Some of it is pablum, while some of it might be outside your comfort zone.  Its purpose is to entertain, certainly, but also to provoke thought.  It’s not meant to numb, it’s meant to evoke your curiosity. That’s what makes it necessary.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled post.]


Charles McCarry doesn’t need me to plump him up.  I got turned on to him when a friend loaned me THE SECRET LOVERS ---one of the best titles in spy literature, if I may be so bold---and then another friend recommended THE TEARS OF AUTUMN.  (This is where I give a shout-out to Matt Tannenbaum and his long-running independent bookstore in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.  McCarry hails from Pittsfield, and Matt knows him well enough to call him Charlie.)

McCarry was career CIA, or close enough as makes no difference.  Reading, for example, THE MIERNIK DOSSIER, his first book, where farce veers into tragedy, you feel a visceral sense of how the real world unhappily intrudes on the hermetic calculations of the spymasters.  McCarry is nothing if not unsentimental.  Nor does he have much patience with the Ayatollahs of Langley.  His concerns are more parochial.  He works in the trenches.  This isn’t to say his books have no political dimension, and in fact McCarry is well to the right of, say, LeCarré, whose active dislike of the Thatcher regime, for example, pushes his compass off true north, as a storyteller.  McCarry shows a few of these same weaknesses, on occasion, although from the other side of the aisle.  We can take the longer view, and forgive a partisan outlook, if these guys simply tell a rattling good story. 

No single event, in my living memory, generated more sorrow and more controversy, than the Kennedy assassination.  I’m of course of a certain age.  There are people still alive who’d say nothing affected them more than Pearl Harbor, or the death of Franklin Roosevelt, and younger people who’d point to John Lennon, or Princess Di, or the attack on the World Trade Center.  It depends whose ox is being gored, or what importance we attach to it, and where our sentiments lie.  It’s easy to forget that Jack Kennedy wasn’t really a very popular president.  He was roundly hated in certain circles, foreign and domestic, so when he was shot, fingers got pointed in a lot of different directions.

The first to circle the wagons were the Russians, who of course didn’t want it laid at the feet of KGB.  Then there was Castro.  Lyndon Johnson apparently believed up to the day he died that the Cubans were behind it.  And then there was the mob, in particular the New Orleans boss, Carlos Marcello.  They said he’d hooked Jack up with Judith Exner, or even Marilyn Monroe.  But maybe that was Sinatra. 

The genius of THE TEARS OF AUTUMN is that it doesn’t speculate about any of this crap.  McCarry cuts right to the chase.  In late October of 1963, a plot to depose the Diem regime was floated by disaffected Vietnamese generals  and Kennedy signed off on it.  The coup was effected, and Diem didn’t survive.  Kennedy was by all reports shocked by what he’d put in play, not realizing what the consequences had to be.  THE TEARS OF AUTUMN suggests that Vietnamese personal family honor, not politics at all, was behind Kennedy’s death, and McCarry lays in an utterly convincing back story, from Cuban mercenaries in Angola—--a great scene where Paul Christopher half-drowns a guy in a latrine trench---to their Russian patrons.

Do we believe any of this?  Does in fact McCarry?  I don’t know.  There are a lot of big ifs.  If, however, you happen to believe that Oswald wasn’t the only shooter, or that he was a patsy, THE TEARS OF AUTUMN has credibility.  Not some horseshit scenario, not Oliver Stone and how Clay Shaw was a right-wing queer in the pay of the CIA, or Howard Hunt was in Dallas that day, wearing the same fright wig he wore at Martha Mitchell’s deathbed, or why Marina Oswald’s dad was a GRU general.  (Actually, an intriguing question, that last.)  None of this is answered.

My own opinion, Lee was a lone nutjob who got lucky.  He was a Marine, you shoot iron sights at three hundred yards.  He was a discontented cranklypants.  He couldn't get it up, he had thinning hair or bad skin, who would care less?  The plain fact is, he was just an asshole.  They always are.



Why, then, is McCarry’s book so compelling, and what makes it so convincing?  Well, because the mystery isn’t in the end the assassin, the guy who shot Jack Kennedy, or the Archduke Ferdinand, or Abraham Lincoln.  The mystery is, as always, the rough draft of history.