Showing posts with label Lawrence Maddox. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lawrence Maddox. Show all posts

15 November 2019

Don't Shoot the DJ: Moby's Then it Fell Apart



Moby
Reader's of crime fiction are used to grappling with unlikeable lead characters.  The badder the lead, the better the read. Jim Thompson's Nick Corey, Donald Westlake's Parker, and Larson's Lisbeth Salander are just three of the countless  characters enjoyed from a safe distance. I really do like them, but if they called, I probably wouldn't pick up.

For obvious reasons, autobiographies do the opposite. Even when the authors are famous for being less than savory, a character emerges in their books we eventually cozy up to. This seems especially true for show-biz memoirs. The Errol Flynn offered up in My Wicked Wicked Ways commits his swashbuckling with a wink and a smile. Few readers would turn down an invite to Flynn's Zaca, the ultimate party boat. I recently finished all three of Artie Lange's books, including his latest, Wanna Bet? He's a stand-up comedian who's also a hopeless addict, and he turns his self destruction into comedy routines. He's cleaned up (again), and I'm rooting for him.  Julia Phillips made a lot of powerful tinsel-town enemies with her tell-all You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again.  She was a film producer who duked it out in 1970's Hollywood , a boy's club where few women producers were invited. I was in awe of her by her book's end.

I just finished Moby's Then it Fell Apart (2019). I'm not necessarily a fan, but his book promised a particular look at the 2000s that interested me. By particular look, I mean raves, nightclubs, parties, sex, drugs, and a mega-star rave-king's access to such. It's over three hundred pages long, and I gobbled it up in a few days. Much like My Wicked Wicked Ways or You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, I couldn't put it down. It didn't seem to matter that by the book's end, I was dubious of Moby. I wasn't sure I liked him, or if I was even rooting for him.

In case you've never heard of Moby and you've never been been to a rave, you're not alone.

I haven't been to a rave either, but I'm not ruling it out.

House, trance, techno, all the dance music you'd hear at raves (ecstasy-fueled DJ-driven dance parties), seemed to me (at first) like disco with the soul hoovered out. This music often used loops and samples, bits and pieces, from others songs. I didn't immediately embrace musicians who used parts of other songs to create their own songs. Where's the musicianship in that? It seemed like cheating at best, stealing at worst.

Moby DJ'ing in 2004
I've lightened up. Some techno broke through the noise. Movie scores have been adopting techno elements for years now. Daft Punk scored the 2010 Disney reboot of Tron to positive results. Sampling is everywhere in pop music too, and it's here to stay. Some of it really works. I like "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand" by Primitive Radio Gods, which samples a B.B. King song from 1964. When it's B.B.'s turn in the song, it's like a lovely lost memory from the the distant past, remembered again.

Moby came out of this world of raves and sampling, and for awhile he owned it. His album Play blended all of these modern mix master elements into a huge commercial and critical hit. With Play Moby busted out of the bounds of electronic dance music and he became one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Moby's breakthrough .

Then it Fell Apart is a kind of fall and rise and fall again story. It alternates between Moby's troubled youth and his life as a star. It begins in the late 90s, the period right before Play came out, when Moby had alienated his dance music audience with his last album Animal Rights. He was playing sparsely attended gigs, and he had to use pre-recorded vocals because he couldn't afford to hire a real live singer. During this period, he was unabashedly desperate for fame, recognition, and all the women that stardom could bring. He roamed nightclubs and bars, looking to hook-up, hoping to be recognized, only to end up going home alone.

Moby, hanging with Lou Reed and Steve Buscemi
Play wasn't a success when first released, but eventually the album rocketed into the stratosphere and changed everything for Moby. Moby hit the waterslide of success head first, mouth open. His heroes, like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Joe Strummer of The Clash, become his pals. He partied non-stop, all night long, day-after-day. Everything Moby had ever wanted in his wildest star-struck dreams was his. His claims of bedding women are Wilt Chamberlain-esque.  One-nighters were every night. Yet emotional troubles were bubbling up into Moby's pulsing nightlife like a sampled voice from a troubled past.

If he met women he really liked, Moby suffered untold mental anxieties that prevented him from establishing relationships. The few times he was able to forge a lasting bond, he was unable to stay monogamous and the relationship fell to pieces. And there was no way Moby was able to stay monogamous.

Moby said "no" to cocaine, until he didn't.
 A big part of the problem was Moby's vast intake of alcohol and drugs. Pretty much anything went, except cocaine. Moby feared it, and it's the only drug on the platter that he consistently turned down. While reading Then it Fell Apart, I knew his aversion to booger sugar wouldn't last, and once he started using it his life would spiral and the book would get better and better. I wasn't disappointed.

By the mid-2000s, Moby's star was on the wane. Again. His follow up to Play was moderately successful, but he wasn't able to recapture the magic. As he grew desperate to hang onto stardom, Moby turned into a creature of the night. His dream was to buy a bar with a basement, so he could sleep underground like a vampire during the day, then go topside at night and consume.  When he finally succumbed to Lady Caine's siren call, things got scuzzy. In one story, he woke up in a van covered in poop. The party escalated beyond Moby's control, but now Moby felt numb to the non-stop action. His self-hatred grew, and he considered suicide numerous times.

Like a line of coke cut with baby powder, Moby balances his tales of electronic dance-music glory with a recounting of his wretched childhood. Moby serves his book well by alternating his childhood traumas with his adult excesses. You forgive adult-Moby's debaucheries because of child-Moby's destitution. Moby writes that his parents were unstable beatniks. His dad committed suicide by driving into a bridge when Moby was two. Afterwards, Moby and his mom survived on food stamps and the occasional secretarial job she could get. His mom dated bikers and participated in orgies and drug use. Moby was witness to both. Moby's mom often left him to fend for himself, and he was molested at a young age. His maternal grandparents were wealthy (his grandfather was a banker), and they were the only hint of stability in his young life.

Moby's great love was music, especially punk and New Wave. This new music, abhorred by the popular and affluent kids in his neighborhood, saved Moby and gave him an identity.  He joined bands, played real instruments, and wrote real music with lyrics. DJ'ing was right around the corner. Moby's ability to so spectacularly rise above the bad hand he'd been dealt is his most endearing quality.

Mick jagger in 1965, the year
Moby was born.
A couple incidents in the book, beyond the party stories, sharpened the image of Moby for me. One is when Moby is introduced to Mick Jagger at a party Moby is throwing for the Black Crowes. Richard Branson asks Mick if he'd heard Moby's new album. Mick replied "Oh, I've heard it." Mick doesn't follow up with Moby, and you can feel the silence. Before Moby can say "Nice meeting you," Mick has moved on to talk with a beautiful woman. I wonder if Mick sized Moby up (can you believe this DJ who uses other people's music) and found him wanting. For decades Mick has seen them come, and he's seen them go. He knows talent, and he's witnessed colossal flame-outs. I wonder why Mick didn't curry favor with this new star as other older rock stars, like the late-great Bowie, did.

Natalie Portman
Moby describes an incident where he beats up a banker at a bar he owns. This story gave me pause. For all his talents and success, for all his fame, Moby will never be viewed as a physically intimidating person. Perhaps he's aware of this, and that's why the story is in the book. Moby says he was able to throw a good punch because he'd been taking kickboxing lessons. Through all the sex and drugs and music making, Moby had left out the kickboxing lessons. It made me wonder if there were other, even more mundane things like kickboxing lessons, that had been left out. Was it really all drugs and women and parties? How much of this is Moby's Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy?

Moby, 2009. Sobriety.
Moby is a student of fame. He loves the famous. He makes no secret of it. It makes sense that his book is cultivating his own brand first, his own new chapter of being famous, facts be damned.  Moby details in the book a time when he briefly dated Natalie Portman. She denies it (boy does she deny it), and it sparked a twitter feud. She remembers Moby as being "a much older man being creepy with me when I had just graduated high school." Moby eventually backed down and apologized. He even cancelled his book tour, which I think was a mistake.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm not part of Moby's fan base. I was wired in from the beginning. I'm not sure I believe all of it, but I have no doubt that Moby created himself from nothing, and is still creating himself in some fashion today. I went along for the ride, like the narrator in his song "Southside." I went on Moby's crime spree, as if I was reading Westlake's Parker. If you've loved any kind of popular music over the last sixty years, if you like crash-and-burns, rise and falls, modern-day myth-making, pick it up.


I'm Lawrence Maddox. 

My novel Fast Bang Booze is available at DownAndOutBooks.Com. 

You can reach me at MadxBooks@Gmail.com. 

Party on.


25 October 2019

Spooky Writers, Forgotten Graves, and Vengeance from Beyond the Tomb




It's that time of year, when Pumpkin Spice becomes a thing, and sketchy Halloween costume shops take over even sketchier strip malls.  As the fall chill settles, one starts to wonder: Are those spookiest of writers, Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Biercetruly in their final resting places? Like, tucked away, with at least six feet of hallowed earth separating them (the dead) from us (the living)?





I can offer you no such surcease of sorrow.

In this corner, the friendly,
modern-day
Jack O'Lantern...
...and in this corner, a
Samhain-era Jack O'Lantern.
It's made from a turnip, and it
will swallow your soul.
Halloween, based on the Celtic Samhain (which itself is comes from Chthulu-era pagan rituals), is the night when the dead come knocking. Some for treats, some for tricks, and some for righteous beyond-the-tomb payback.








Edgar Allan Poe. I dare you to photo shop
a straw hat onto this.
Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce specialized in tales where death wasn't always a sure bet. Both left this mortal coil with scores to settle. And there is grave uncertainty as to where either is interred.  These are three good motives for any unrestful spirit to don a hockey mask (or William Shatner mask, or fedora and sweater combo or, ok, there are a lot of costume options), grab a machete (again, options), and come calling this Halloween. One would hope that enough post-mortem praise has been heaped on Poe and Bierce to put contented smiles on their rotting faces; to sway them to let bygones be bygones.

Don't count on it.

If there's anyone who'd warrant vengeance from beyond the grave, its Edgar Allan Poe. The means are questionable, but the motives are as clear as a gold bug on a black cat.

First, Poe's death is shrouded in mystery. I don't believe he ended up in that Baltimore gutter wearing someone else's clothes just because he was at the tell-tail end of a bender. I like the cooping theory. In those days of rampant voter fraud (not to diminish our own era of Russian meddling), travelers were kidnapped, cooped up in rooms (hence "cooping"), and force-fed booze and drugs. A pretty sweet deal for some, but deadly for others. The blitzed-out saps were coerced into voting repeatedly at different polling stations. Their clothes were switched so they wouldn't be recognized.

Poe was found near a polling station, out of his head. He was wearing farmer's clothes, including a straw hat. There's no way that The Godfather of Goth cavorted amongst the literati of Virginia and New York in a straw hat like some Leatherstocking Tales reject. This man was cooped.

Rufus Griswold wrote a scathing
review of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
(pictured here). Whitman mockingly included
the review in later editions.
Second, Poe's reputation was sunk by Rufus (rhymes with doofus) Griswold, a third-rate literary rival. In popular culture Poe is often seen as a drug addicted outsider who mirrored the creepiness he wrote. Actually, Poe was a respected writer and editor, a literary celebrity who made a lot of his money in live appearances. He is probably the first American writer to live solely off his writing. Rufus Griswold was a hacky "anthologist" and the target of one of Poe's biting you'll-never-live-this-down criticisms. When Poe kicked off, punk Griswold saw his chance for cowardly payback.

Griswold wrote a scathing obit of Poe for the NewYork Tribune that was widely reprinted. Next, Griswold conned his way into being Poe's literary executor. He wrote a fake biography of Poe that appeared in Poe's anthologies.  It portrayed Poe as an addict, gambler and army deserter. This false image of Poe as an evil, pathetic genius stuck.

Edgar Allan Poe's grave marker.
It's likely that Poe is nearby.
Lastly, in 1849, Poe was dumped into an unmarked grave in the Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore. It wasn't until decades later when a succession of grand headstones attempted to mark the great man's final resting place. In a scene reminiscent of Poe's fiction, the city of Baltimore repatriated Poe's corpse to a more scenic view. The sloppy handling of Poe's remains gave rise to conspiracy theories.

In 1978, the Maryland Historical Magazine published Charles Scarlett, Jr's "A Tale of Ratiocination: The Death and Burial of Edgar Allan Poe." Scarlett proposes that through a series of grave-marker mix-ups, Baltimore botched Poe's reburial. Instead of digging up Poe, Baltimore disinterred the remains of Phillip Mosher, a young fallen soldier from the War of 1812.  Scarlett presents a pretty interesting theory.

George W. Spence, a sexton who oversaw the first exhumation of Poe, said that he lifted up Poe's skull, and "his brain rattled around inside just like a lump of mud." Brains rot pretty quickly. Bullets don't. If Phillip Mosher was killed in the War of 1812 by a shot to the head, the hunt for Poe's corpse continues.

Ambrose Bierce and skull.
Around the time when the search for Poe's grave began, a young soldier and Poe fan was facing real-life horrors that rivaled those that Poe wrote about.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez
put their own twist on the Ambrose Bierce
legend. Edited by yours truly.
I'm a film and TV editor, and I cut a horror flick that stars Michael Parks (lead on the ultra-cool TV series Then Came Bronson) as cantankerous author Ambrose Bierce. In it, Bierce falls in with outlaws, battles vampires, and eventually joins the ranks of the undead. That's one way to explain Bierce's mysterious disappearance.

Bierce, most famous for The Devil's Dictionary and his short story "An Occurence at Owl's Creek Bridge," was a Civil War vet who saw the bloody horrors of war up close. Bierce hilariously said war was "God's way of teaching American's geography," but he found little humor on the battlefield. He fought on the Union side in hellish battles at Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain. His writing is imbued with those experiences.  Bierce suffered a head wound at Kennesaw Mountain, which some claim was the cause of his bouts of booziness and unmatched orneriness.

Bierce's most famous story collection, which
includes "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge."
In his lifetime Bierce was known as a San Francisco journalist, but his lit legend is based on his short horror stories with surprise endings. "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge" is one of those works of fiction that has been repeated so often, and in so many mediums, that many are unaware of it as the source. It's the story of a Civil War Southerner about to be hung from a bridge. He is dropped off the side, but the rope breaks. The Southerner escapes to his home. As he's running into the arms of his wife he's stopped by a heavy blow to his neck. In the most famous of Bierce's twist endings, we learn the man imagined the escape during the time between his fall from the bridge and the rope breaking his neck.

Pancho Villa: General, Mexican revolutionary,
and maybe one of the last people to see
Ambrose Bierce alive.
In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce travelled by horseback, first to visit Civil War battle sites, then to Mexico. His stated aim was to report on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Many claim Bierce was running away from old age, seeking a one-way ticket to an adventure that would carry on into the after life. His last postcard was mailed from Chihuahua City, Mexico. Bierce was intending to ride out with Pancho Villa. What happened next is shrouded in mystery, but according to numerous eyewitnesses, Bierce died many deaths.

Bierce was killed at the Battle of Ojinaga, fighting the Federales alongside Villa.

Bierce was only wounded at Ojinaga, but eventually succumbed to his injuries at the Marfa refugee camp.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Icamole.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Sierra Mojada.

Others believe Bierce offed himself somewhere in the Grand Canyon, one of his favorite hangouts. There are no eyewitnesses, reliable or otherwise, to support this claim.

At least Poe got a coffin and a handful of mourners. If Bierce died in battle, he was likely dumped in a mass grave and burned. Death by firing squad meant he got his own hole in the ground but none of the other trimmings. There's a small monument for him at Sierra Mojada, but the remains of Bierce are nowhere to be found.

I'd say the best way to placate Poe and Bierce this Halloween is to read their works. You don't even have to read the scary stuff. Poe's tales of ratiocination starring amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin are a must for any fan of crime fiction. Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary holds up as a manual of biting-though-meaningful sarcasm.

You may want to read some Shakespeare, too. In 2016, archaeologists examined Shakespeare's grave using GPR scanning. The study showed that the grave was disturbed after Shakespeare was buried. GPR images also revealed that Shakespeare's skull is missing.


Happy Halloween!

I'm Lawrence Maddox. My latest novel Fast Bang Booze is available from Down and Out Books (downandoutbooks.com). You can contact me at Madxbooks@gmail.com.

04 October 2019

Beatniks and Bad Guys: Barry Gifford and David Lynch



David Lynch's Wild at Heart, based on
the novel by Barry Gifford.
Beatniks and Bad Guys was nearly the sole title of this piece, but I felt it just wasn't cool to leave Barry Gifford off the headline. Gifford is, after all, the Kerouac of crime fiction.  David Lynch's connection to Gifford's Sailor and Lula crime-novel series, beginning with Wild at Heart, also warrants room on the marquee. Though I like the way Gifford's writing blows Beatnik riffs in a film noir world, it was Gifford's non-fiction that grabbed me first.

Before cable, film noir (and crime film in general) was all over TV. If you we're a kid planted in front of the small screen,  you we're bound to come across films like The Big Sleep or The Big Heat or The Big Knife. If you weren't put off by black and white, and you liked the dirty dealings, the thrilling bad-assery of it all, likely you were hooked. Those movies kick-started my interest in film, and like most film buffs, I read what I could about how these flicks came to be. When I came across Barry Gifford's love letter to crime cinema, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, I knew I'd come across a kindred spirit.

It wasn't just the subject matter of Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride that intrigued me; it was the soulfulness of his writing, the off-kilter way he came at crime films. When I discovered that Gifford's first non-fiction book was Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, it started to make sense. Gifford had one foot in Birdland and one in Chinatown. He was a Beatnik who dove deep into crime fiction. Technically, he was a little late on the scene to be a real Beat, but he had the heart of one. I wasn't the first kid to read On The Road and have it stick with me for life. Finding an author who mashed up two of my great interests into one unique vision was a big deal.

Author Barry Gifford
Barry Gifford was born in 1946, just a couple years prior to Jack Kerouac's actual road trip that would be the basis of On the Road. Gifford's father was associated with the Chicago mob, and Gifford spent his early years living out of hotel rooms. Regular schooling wasn't in the game plan. "He learned from late-night noir movies and the strange characters that passed through the hotel lobbies," The Paris Review wrote. A stint in the merchant marine (Kerouac did time in the merchant marine, too) sent Gifford to swinging London in the mid-sixties, where he partied with the likes of John Lennon and Eric Clapton.

In 1967 Gifford moved to San Francisco and befriended the Beats who were still living there, including Allen Ginsburg. It was a momentous relocation. He was soon writing for Rolling Stone, and he met his future wife there. Many of the Beats he met provided their stories for Jack's Book. Novels, poetry collections, and more non-fiction followed. He even started Black Lizard Press, through which he published many of his favorite-though-forgotten pulp authors. I'll bet the first Jim Thompson book I ever read was a Black Lizard edition. Black Lizard was a big part of the neo noir boom of the 1980s. This noir comeback included films like the Coen Brothers Blood Simple and David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

When David Lynch asked Gifford to write the screenplay for Wild at Heart in 1990, based on the first of Gifford's Sailor and Lula neo-noir novels, Gifford initially refused. Gifford was busy writing the sequel to Wild at Heart (titled Sailor's Holiday) when Lynch called.  Lynch was fascinated by Sailor and Lula, who keep their love light alive in a dirty rotten world. "It was like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad," Lynch later wrote.

David Lynch at Cannes in 1990
with Wild at Heart
Gifford told Lynch to write the Wild at Heart screenplay himself, and then send it back to him for notes. They eventually shared credit for the screenplay. Wild at Heart was a success, winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes and planting its freak flag into the head of the '90s. It made Gifford's book a best seller. The Sailor and Lula series ended up running eight novels long.

The next time Lynch came calling, he wanted Gifford to adapt  one of the stories from Gifford's book Night People. Southern gothic meets the Lynchian edge of darkness in Night People. It might be for the wild at heart, but not for the feint of heart. It's also smartly hilarious. 

Gifford didn't want to adapt one of the Night People stories, though. He wanted to create something new, featuring a character who wakes one day as a totally different person.  Lost Highway's non-linear structure makes it a more difficult film than Wild at Heart, and one viewing isn't enough. It's bizarre and unique, a perfect pairing of two one-of-a-kind storytellers. I don't think Lynch ever had a more perfectly attuned collaborator than Barry Gifford.

I recently finished Barry Gifford's Writers (2015), a collection of short one act plays that feature famous authors in vulnerable situations. I felt he really got to the heart of these scribes in a deceptively quick and fun read. You have to be good to say so much in a such a thin tome, and Gifford succeeds.  "The Last Words of Arthur Rimbaud," featuring the dying moments of the French poet, is haunting and sad. The same can be said about "The Nobody," about Emily Dickinson's relationship with her sister.

"Spring Training at the Finca Vigia" is a masterful portrayal of Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn. Along for the ride are Hugh Casey and Kirby Higbe, real-life pitchers for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's 1941, and the setting is the Hemingway household outside Havana, Cuba. Hemingway comes off as a moody knucklehead, having drunken sparring sessions with the jocks while the cool-headed Gellhorn delivers Martini-dry insults.

At night a hammered Hemingway shoots at imaginary Cuban rebels who he believes are trying to rob him. Gellhorn pleads with him to stop, but Hemingway goes so far as to booby trap his yard with explosives. It's both funny and scary, a combo Gifford specializes in. For me, this mirrored Hemingway's belief that the US government was spying on him. This paranoia is one of the things that's suspected to have driven Hemingway to suicide.  The kicker is that is was revealed that the FBI really was spying on Hemingway, even going so far as to read his mail. Hemingway was right all along. Gellhorn took her own life years after Hemingway did. The same with pitcher Hugh Casey.

Jack Kerouac meets infamous New York mobster Joey Gallo in "One Night in Umberto's Clam House." It's as literal a representation of the Beat-meeting-the-noir that Gifford could have written. Gifford's whole unique vision is kind of summed up in thirteen pages. It also feels like a moment in a Lynch film when there's a snatch of dialogue that's casual and dangerous, past and future, with darkness and murder tiptoeing all around a diminishing edge of light.

For more Barry Gifford, take a trip down that lost internet highway to BarryGifford.Net.

The following articles, excellent all, helped me prepare for this piece: Michael Bible's "Still Weird on Top"; Jim Ruland's "Barry Gifford's Lifetime of Outsiders"; J.W. McCormack's "Barry Gifford is America's Offbeat Dostoevsky"; and Ron Wells' "Interview: Lost Highway Screenwriter Barry Gifford."

I discuss Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride in my earlier two-part Sleuthsayers blog "My Dinner with Lawrence Tierney," from February 8 & 29. Tierney threw punches. Check it out.

I'm Lawrence Maddox, author of Fast Bang Booze, available at Down&Out Books. You can reach me at Lawrencemddx@yahoo.com. Tweets welcome at Lawrence Maddox@MadXBooks. 

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.


 

23 August 2019

The Heart of Hollywood is in....Pasadena?


by Lawrence Maddox
Pasadena Playhouse alumnus Charles Bronson

I've always felt that the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame are the biggest sightseer scam ever. I see the tourists get excited about finding their favorite celebrity's name on the sidewalk and all I can think is: rubes. Perhaps the best thing about the Walk of Fame is the Kinks' song Celluloid Heroes. It's a little maudlin, but Ray Davies gets to the hollowed-out heart of stardom in his infectious way.

The foot and handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater, located near Hollywood and La Brea, make more sense as a tourist draw. They're an actual artifact of the glory days of Hollywood, like those cigarette lighter ports in cars (now used as power sockets) are remnants of the glory days of smoking.   You place your hand in the cement print of Humphrey Bogart or Judy Garland, and with enough imagination and movie magic, you're shaking hands with yesterday.  It's kind of neat, but it's a half hour diversion, tops. A bigger diversion are the "actors" dressed up as action heroes or old time movie stars that hang around the Chinese, offering to pose for photos. If you snap a selfie with one in the vicinity, they will hunt you down until you fork over some cash.

Besides Grauman's, what else does Hollywood have to offer? Paramount is on Melrose, southeast of of Grauman's. If you're a tourist hoping to hang out on a movie set, good luck getting past the gate. Disney, Universal and Warners are all out in the San Fernando Valley, north of Hollywood. Fox and Sony (formerly MGM) are a traffic-jammed trip to the westside. Besides the Universal Tour, the studios are busy places of hustling crews working long hours. Editors are locked in their windowless rooms pouring over hours of dailies. Gawking tourists looking for selfies aren't welcome.

The original Brown Derby ca 1968. RIP. 
The powers that run Hollywood-land  have gleefully torn down its past in favor of strip malls and parking lots. The Hollywood Hotel, built in 1902, stood at Hollywood and Highland. It was demolished fifty years later. It's said the stars on its ballroom ceiling were the inspiration for the Walk of Fame. The Garden of Allah Hotel, party central for writers like Fitzgerald & Hemingway, and actors like Bogart & Bacall, was torn down in '59.  The iconic Brown Derby, south of Hollywood on Wilshire, was a world-famous tinsel town symbol. Lucy met William Holden there in an I Love Lucy episode. It bit the dust in 1980. Schwab's Drugstore, where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered, was leveled in the late '80s. The Cinerama Dome and the Hollywood sign have been on the chopping block, but both we're saved by massive public campaigns.

An original postcard from The Formosa Cafe.
The Maddox Archives.
Greed wins out over history in Hollywood, and it burns those of us who grew up loving not only the movies, but also the historical hang-outs that catered to show biz. I used to frequent  the Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard in the '90s. The Formosa was a cozy asian-themed bar that officially dates back to 1939, but the owner claimed pre-dated prohibition. A bartender named Lindy Brewerton had worked there since the 1950s, and he regaled patrons with tales of the drinking habits of movie stars. He told us of John Wayne's whiskey binges, and how Dean Martin would deliver his alimony checks there. Elvis tipped a Formosa waitress with a Cadillac.  When the original owner died, the place was gutted. A tacky second story was added, along with a techno vibe.  It was a typically short-sighted Hollywood move that failed. After that it pained me just to drive by the place.

Twelve miles east of the hype is Pasadena. When Hollywood Boulevard was a dirt street and America's only movie studio was in New Jersey,  Pasadena was a vacation spot for wealthy east-coasters who wanted to soak up some rays during the winter. With them came vast vainglorious mansions and a deep turn-of-the-century thirst for culture.

The Pasadena Playhouse was built in 1925, two years before the Chinese Theater. It was such a big hit that Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw called the Playhouse the "Athens of the West."  Authors such as Eugene O'Neil and Tennessee Williams had world premieres there. When talkies became the rage in the 1920s, Hollywood needed a place where actors could learn to "speak." Twenty-four students enrolled in the first class in 1928.

The Pasadena Playhouse awaits.
The Pasadena Playhouse really hit its stride when it became a college of theatre arts. Tyrone Power took classes there in 1932.  TV Superman George Reeves was a local kid who interned at the Playhouse before his supporting role on Gone With the Wind.  Dana Andrews hitchhiked from Texas to California to become a star. He was a Playhouse darling before hitting it big in films like Laura. Carolyn Jones, another Texan, dreamed of joining the Playhouse when in high school. She made it in 1947, and went on to become a unique screen presence in films such as The Big Heat and Career. Most remember her as Morticia Addams in TV's The Addams Family.

Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman became fast friends while studying at the Playhouse in 1957. Hackman was voted least likely to succeed, and he moved to New York to prove the Playhouse wrong. Hoffman soon followed, as did Robert Duvall, who moved to New York to study with Randall Meisner after serving in the Army. The trio became the epicenter of a group of actors who were just a few years away from taking Hollywood by storm.

The Mechanic-Bronson at his detached best.
Perhaps my favorite Playhouse alum is Charles Bronson. After serving in the Air Force during World War Two (he earned a Purple Heart), Bronson moved to upstate New York. He picked onions, studied art, and even joined the local bakers union. Nothing seemed to fit, so he moved to NYC to study acting. When Roger Ebert asked Bronson why he chose acting, he said, "It seemed like an easy way to make money...I had nothing to lose."

Bronson left New York for the Pasadena Playhouse, where he took classes and acted in several plays. Steady work soon followed. In 1951 he landed a role in the Gary Cooper film You're in the Navy Now.  Two years later he joined fellow Playhouse alum Carolyn Jones in the Vincent Price horror-hit  House of Wax. Bronson starred in a slew of classic movies, including The Dirty DozenOnce Upon a Time in the West, and Hard Times. My favorite Bronson film might be The Mechanic, where he plays an expert hit man who takes on an apprentice.

Inside the Pasadena Playhouse.
If I mentioned that Eve Arden, Leonard Nimoy and Nick Nolte were also Playhouse players, I'd still be scratching the surface. Okay, William Holden was one too. Still surface scratching. The Pasadena Playhouse went bankrupt in 1975 and was shuttered. You're probably thinking, "What a bummer. I bet they tore it down to build a plush new parking lot." Dig this. The city of Pasadena bought the building and held onto it for seventeen years until in reopened in 1986. Unlike Hollywood, Pasadena takes pains to protect its history. It's not perfect, but it tries. Pasadena is a mecca for lovers of old-time LA, Greene and Greene architecture, and craftsman bungalows. The Pasadena Playhouse is a thriving part of Pasadena today.

If you find yourself standing over John Tesh's star on Hollywood Boulevard and you have that cold clammy feeling that you've been scammed, jump on the 134 East towards Pasadena and its famous Playhouse. There's plenty of street parking. Across the street from the Playhouse is Vroman's Bookstore, where I've had the good fortune to attend readings held by literary heavyweights like Frank McCourt and James Ellroy.  On the way to Pasadena is Eagle Rock, where Dragnet's Frank Gannon fictionally lived, and where some of the action of Fast Bang Booze goes down. Stop at the family-owned Casa Bianca for pizza. Steve McQueen ate there.

My latest novel is Fast Bang Booze, from Down & Out Books. The sequel is coming soon.

02 August 2019

Dark Duet, Eric Beetner's Deadly Double Feature + Interview


by Lawrence Maddox

Eric Beetner's Dark Duet (released last month by All Due Respect) is a two-novelette excursion to Bishop, a small midwestern town where the strong prey on the weak and violence erupts without warning.  It's John Mellencamp's Small Town re-imagined by GG Allin. It's Mayberry with Sam Peckinpah at the helm.

The first novelette, the previously published White Hot Pistol, veers from dark to pitch black. It's a superbly written tale of small town dystopia and family chaos, where the violence careens from gunplay to sexual mayhem.

Prodigal son Nash has come back to Bishop, "a speck on a map, a town full of dead ends," to rescue his teenaged stepsister Jacy from a horribly abusive home. Their stepfather Brian Thorpe is a sociopathic sexual predator who happens to be the town Sheriff.  On their way out of town, Nash and Jacy have a deadly encounter with a meth head that, like nuclear fallout, spreads menacingly fast. Soon the town's psycho drug lord wants them dead.  Brian will stop at nothing to keep his dirty secrets hidden, but his step children prove remarkably resilient. The body count is high, and the action sequences are dynamite. Everything builds to a bullet-riddled showdown where the outcome is always in doubt.

Author Eric Beetner
Photo by Mark Krajnak
We're back in Bishop for the suspenseful Blood on Their HandsThree high school friends, Garret, Trip and Kyle, break into the local Smart Mart to steal beer and junk food. When the owners, brothers Rafael and Troy, show up unexpectedly, juvenile hijinks turn into a deadly game of cat and mouse. Garret's dad Hank Sutherland is the new Sheriff (he was a well-meaning deputy in White Hot Pistol), but he's too preoccupied with spying on his cheating wife to be much help. Garret decides to turn the tables on his attackers, but things spin out of control for the Sutherland family.

Bishop is Beetner country. When Eric's not prowling its dangerous streets he (along with Steve Lauden) is promoting other writers via the Writer Types podcast, as well as the LA chapter of Noir at the Bar. Eric also designs book covers. Did I mention he edits TV shows too?  I felt guilty for drawing Eric away from his many endeavors to answer a few questions, but he happily obliged.

Lawrence Maddox: Your last novel All the Way Down is a tale of big city crime, while Bishop in Dark Duet is "a speck on a map." How does setting dictate what kind of story you write?

Eric Beetner: I tend to write more about fictional places than real ones. I don't like to be bogged down by getting all the specifics right or deal with the readers who will tell you when you got it wrong, even if it was in service of the story. So I make up places or set stories in totally unnamed places, like in All the Way Down.

Now rural or urban I don't differentiate much between. It does dictate the characters in the story and the characters set the tone. Different people live in a small midwestern town versus a big city. You don't need to look any further than our increasingly divided country to see the stark difference. So I think setting will set the tone for who populates the book you're willing to write and everything else flows from there.

LM: I love Bill Crider's quote about you, saying that if you were writing in the '50s you "could've had a nice career writing for Gold Medal or Dell First Editiion." I remember spotting you buying paperbacks at Glendale's Vintage Paperback Collector's Show a few years back. Are you influenced by the prolific paperback crime and adventure novelists of the '50s through the '80s?

EB: That quote from Bill is my favorite, and man, I miss him. But yes, I try to read a fair amount of classic or vintage books each year. I don't love everything, just as I don't love everything contemporary I read, but I've found some of my absolute favorite books in vintage reads. Some of those writers were so inventive. Look at a writer like Lionel White and you see such a diversity in his plot lines and every one of them works. I've never read a book of his I haven't really loved. Same with Charles Williams. If your a fan of crime fiction I think Hell Hath No Fury (later renamed Hot Spot after the movie) is a must-read. Then he wrote a bunch about his passion for boats and came out with stone classics Dead CalmAground, and Scorpion Reef.

Too many people only know the run-of-the-mill detective novels from the past and series like Perry Mason or The Saint, which aren't that inventive and not that different from contemporary mysteries. But if you think writers in the '40s and the '50s didn't do edgy hardboiled you clearly haven't read something like Fool's Gold by Delores Hutchins, or Do Evil in Return by Margaret Millar.

LM: Chris Rhatigan recently wrote a piece about your ability to create great action sequences. I find your action very cinematic. Do movies influence the way you think about writing?

I was so flattered when Chris chose one of my scenes for that piece. Movies are the basis for my writing DNA. I never set out to write novels. I wrote screenplays for years and went to film school, work in the biz, all that stuff that feeds how my brain is hardwired to a cinematic story sense. It's why I tend to write shorter novels, why I tend to read shorter novels too.

Just a sampling of Eric Beetner's original
screenplays. Are you reading this, Netflix?
We've all seen stories told in two hours or under that are fully realized and resonant stories that stuck with people for years and in many ways change their lives. Movies have shown that a story can be efficient and tight and still have a deep impact. I try to bring that to my novels. And if you're writing action your job as a novelist is to get the reader to see it in their heads. That's a movie! All you're doing is writing it with enough detail and clear, easy to follow action that the reader can play director.

And get out of here with that tired old "the book was better" crap. They're different. And frankly if you love a book I don't know why you'd go see the movie anyway. You already know the story and you know it all can't be in there. So let's let that old trope die out, can we?

Since you and I are both editors we know how important clarity and good geography are. Knowing who is where and who is talking and not interrupting the flow by writing a line or leaving out a detail that trips up the reader even for a second or the spell is broken. It's why what we do is such a valuable skill for writing. We're all about maintaining pace and knowing when to speed up or slow down, when to inject some humor to diffuse tension. We know how to work the difference between shock and suspense.

All those skills I use in my day job I find incredibly useful when I'm writing, and especially in action scenes. And with editing, I think one really valuable lesson is that sometimes the best way to fix a problem with a scene is to eliminate something. A little judicious trimming can work wonders.

LM: As a fellow TV editor I can attest to the long hours and the mental drain that can be a part of the gig. How have you made it compatible with writing?

Eric Beetner at work. Without Eric's expert editing, Fear Factor 
would've been just another show about eating bugs.
EB: People often ask me how I can be so prolific with a full-time job and two kids and the podcast, and, and...

It's true that our job uses so much of the same parts of the brain that it's not like we're on the assembly line all day and waiting to get home and use our right brain when we write.  We're draining those batteries all day long. It does impact the way I write. When I sit down I have about an hour to 90 minutes in me. I usually start around 11 at night. So there's also physical fatigue in there as well.

But you make yourself do it. It's like an athlete at that point. You gotta get in the gym, no excuses. But I've found that even when I have time off and can write during the day and get to pretend what it would be like if I were a full-time writer, I can go about 60-90 minutes and then I'm drained. I can get up, walk away for a few hours and come back and do it again and then again at night and get a ton written in a day, but I marvel at those people who say they sit for 5-6 hours at a stretch. I couldn't do that. Part of me also doubts if they're really writing that whole time.

LM: What's next for Eric Beetner?

EB: I have another novel, Two in The Head, out next January and it's a wild one. Very different. Very Hollywood ready, if anyone is out there taking pitches. I also have a novella in the Grifter's Song series that will be out next year and a novella in the Guns & Tacos also out in 2020. A few short stories in anthologies. Beyond that I might lay low for awhile. I'm on the hunt for a new agent (call me!) and looking to see what I can do to switch thing sup since I've been poised for a breakout for years now and it hasn't happened yet.

It's hard to talk about the set backs in a writing career without seeming like you're complaining, but it has been a rough few years of one step forward, two steps back. There have been incredible artistically satisfying moments for me and I've been proud of all the work I've done, but facts are facts and I just don't sell very many books. So I'm working on what that next step is because if I hear one more time I'm "on the verge" or that this "next one is the breakout" or if I end up on another list of "best writers you've never heard of" I'll drive off a cliff.

All that said, I have about a dozen ideas fleshed out and outlined that I want to write. I've written three TV pilots I'd love to get into some hands. I'll continue to do the podcast, Writer Types. I'm sure my version of slowing down will seem odd to others.

Care to catch the last Greyhound to Bishop? Book your one way ticket at www.EricBeetner.com. 



I'm Lawrence Maddox and my latest novella is Fast Bang Booze. My Name is Earl creator Greg Garcia liked Fast Bang Booze's "incredible attention to detail and humor." Our resident Sleuthsayer Paul Marks called Fast Bang Booze "a noir fever dream that shoots out of the station like a bullet."  Publishers Weekly said "Fans of offbeat noir will have fun." I'm currently working on the sequel. Available from Shogun Honey.

I thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was great, maybe Tarantino's best.  Care to discuss? Find me on Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@madxbooks; Facebook.com/lmaddox; or drop me a line at lawrencemddx@yahoo.com.