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

12 July 2019

Weed Meets Greed in Matt Phillips' Countdown + Interview

by Lawrence Maddox

Prop 64 Noir?
In 2016 many saw the passing of Proposition 64, which finally legalized the recreational use of marijuana, as the dawning of a new day in California. It seems like ancient history when Robert Mitchum saw jail time for toking a little Mary Jane in Laurel Canyon, but consider this: in 2003 Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in jail for selling bongs through his California company Nice Dreams. Prop 64 reflected how the Golden State had, at long last, mellowed out about getting high.

The full force of the new law didn't happen until last year, when legal sales for non-medical use were allowed. Licenses for dispensaries were granted. Everything was supposed to be chill for those in the bud business.

All that went up in smoke when the harsh reality of local, state and federal taxes hit legal dispensaries. According to a McClatchy article, between state and local taxes, weed could be taxed up to 45 percent. The IRS has gone after state-legal dispensaries for a tax rate of up to 70 percent.

The result hasn't been the well-regulated pot industry Californians voted for. Instead, illegal underground marijuana dispensaries are everywhere in California.  According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 200 illegal marijuana businesses operate in Los Angeles alone. Illegal dispensaries are attractive because their untaxed kush is up to 50 percent cheaper than what you'd buy from a licensed dealer. What becomes of all that untaxed ill-gotten revenue?

Matt Phillips' Countdown (All Due Respect), a timely, gritty tale of weed and greed, is the first novel (Please correct me with other titles if I'm wrong!) of what I'll call Prop 64 Noir. It takes the plight of underground dispensaries with a lot of illegal cash-on-hand and chases it to a bloody and riveting conclusion.

Donny Zeus Echo and Abbicus Glanson are two ex-soldiers, tweaked by their violent combat experience in "Eye-Rack," trying to make their way in a seedy San Diego that has literally gone to pot. Jessie Jessup is a transplanted Texan who uses aquaponics –"that's right, fucking fish"–to grow some righteous weed. LaDon Charles is her unlicensed dispensary's muscle, providing street smarts and neighborhood connections.

With dispensary robberies on the rise and forced to keep their black market money from the prying eyes of the I.R.S. Jessie and LaDon turn to Abel Sendich, another vet. Abel runs a one-man security operation that stashes illegal cash under lock-and-key, safe from the I.R.S. and armed robbers. When Sendich and Glanson bond over their military background after a chance encounter, Sendich recruits Glanson to help him in his faux Fort Knox operation. Glanson has other plans, and his former "battle buddy" Echo is only too glad to help. When LaDon suspects that Glanson and Echo are targeting Jessie's shop, a suspenseful countdown to mayhem begins.

Though Countdown marches to its inexorably violent end, Phillips takes time with his characters. Jessie pursues a crush. LaDon plays a cat-and-mouse game with a pimp. Glanson agonizes over a physical trait that dooms his chances at romance. Echo, suffering from PTSD, unravels. You get to know Phillips' characters so well, you almost feel sorry for them when the bad things start to happen.

Phillip's San Diego isn't the sunny, upscale enclave it's often portrayed as. It's not the San Diego of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It's a pit filled with mini-malls, dive bars, and shabby apartment complexes.  Iraq vets at loose ends roam strip joints, pimps run hookers. Marijuana is the drug of the moment, but heavy drinking is the order of the day. Like the weed and booze, the money is a means to one end: escape. Countdown is a sunny SoCal postcard in negative; an invitation to get out of the Golden State before the good times turn deadly.

Author Matt Phillips
Lawrence Maddox: Countdown is the first crime novel I've read that tackles the failure of Prop 64 to fully regulate California's marijuana dispensaries, which were licensed last year. I'm officially naming it Prop 64 Noir, and you may have invented it! How did you jump on this in such a timely way?

Matt Phillips: Prop 64 Noir-I freaking love it! It's about time somebody created a new genre. I agree with you that Prop 64 has failed in some ways. There's no doubt this legislation has failed when it comes to fair "regulation." Lot's of small growers are losing out to corporate folks.  And, yeah, that means growers and sellers are forced to stay in or resort to the black market. Another paradox is that now I can stroll into a dispensary and buy whatever I want.  Tell the truth: I kind of miss the mystery of texting a guy I slightly know to get in touch with a hookup he slightly knows for a dime bag of weed. I think they call that nostalgia.

Anyhow, I was interested in the money behind the herb. If these growers, sellers, etc, can't put it in a bank, what do they do with it? After speaking with some law enforcement folks I know, I had a pretty solid idea for a great story. That's how Countdown began for me.

Beyond that, right near where I live in San Diego–a pretty hip neighborhood–an illegal dispensary was raided and shuttered. That pretty much solidified the idea for me. I just ran with it.

Speaking of Prop 64 noir, check out the novel 101 by Tom Pitts. He did Prop 64 Noir before I did.

LM: I highly recommend Pitts' 101 too. 101 depicts the weed biz before Prop 64, though.  Your book deals with the aftermath of 64. Countdown is about the illegal dispensaries, the need to hide the money, the tax burden that forces the sellers underground. 







A crime novelist in the making. Matt Phillips training to be a journalist at
North Carolina Central University.
How much does your journalism background influence your crime fiction?

MP: The biggest way journalism has impacted my fiction is through dialog. There is no substitute for listening to people speak and trying to write it down as they say it. That helps a writer learn the shape of a person's speech. It means getting into rhythm and cadences and the musicality of speech. Dialog, to me, is about capturing language.

From a weed-perspective (Been waiting for that one!), I wrote a story for the food section in The Denver Post a few years back. I interviewed a chef who makes cannabis edibles. The whole idea was to treat cannabis like any other ingredient. We published a recipe and everything. Gave it the regular food writing treatment. The story got a lot of pushback from readers, but the editors defended it heartily and it got me interested in marijuana as something natural that–and I'm being blunt here–has a major impact on the power dynamics in our society.

Make no mistake, what we're seeing with marijuana now is still about power. Who will own this "thing" that everybody wants (and some people need)? Who gets the profits? Who calls the shots? And even worse:If we can't put a bunch of people in jail for using it, how the hell can we make money off it? That's pretty much the way things are, though I've purposely avoided the nuances here.

LM: San Diego used to be considered LA's sunnier, better-behaved sibling. You vividly depict it as a pit. What's going on with San Diego?
"No awesome surfing to be seen here."
San Diego's Pacific Beach

MP: Ha! Maybe I'm just trying to lower housing prices, right?  "San Diego is the absolute worst! Close your eyes if you see our tourism commercials on your TV! Stay in the midwest! DO NOT VISIT! Stand-up paddle boarding sucks. So does surfing. You do not want to catch a giant tuna! We do not have as many palm trees as you think! The beer is not great!"

Okay, fine. Truth be told, San Diego is exactly what you describe. More sun. More chill. More fun, for chrissakes. We've even got more beer. But like any American city, we've got our gutter punks and our hookers and our pimps and our drug addictions.

I'm writing noir, not a tourist commercial or a convention proposal. I need to find what's really out there...And pass it along to thee.

Important note: I love that I can "vividly depict" my home city as a pit. I'm sure those fine scholars who make selections for the National Book Awards are well-aware of my excessive accomplishments as a prose stylist.  I await their accolades!

LM: Do you think California will ever be able to regulate marijuana sales? There are around 200 illegal dispensaries in LA alone. I drive by many of them daily.
I like to take pictures of dispensaries that have the same names as
people I know. Grace got a kick out of this one.
Grace Marijuana Pharmacy, totally legit, located in
Santa Monica.

MP: Simple Answer–no. This is something I could grow in my house. And I could do it well. Marijuana is more than a product.  It's a cultural object that carries with it lore beyond what can be bottled by some shit-ass corporation. I remember a drifter I met while working at TGIFriday's. He worked with me about a week. Crappy busboy. But he had a tiny cedar box wrapped in a purple ribbon. He kept his weed inside with a small pipe. He talked about how it wasn't the high that drew him into weed, but the pleasure of its secrecy and subculture and "funny little conversations." Not exactly sure what he meant, but how do you regulate that?

Talking about those illegal dispensaries: The first thing that needs to happen is the federal government needs to remove its tweed sweater vest and put on a freaking t-shirt. Legalize it. It'll be like the craft beer industry. People flying to cities and taking weed tours.  It'll solve some money problems and it'll make life more simple. After that, I think cities and towns need to make sensical regulations about where and how a dispensary can operate.  The fees need to be akin to any other upstart business fees. Make sure every operation is up to health and quality standards and tax them based on revenue. I'm not an economist, but it seems like common sense is part of the answer here.

LM: What's next for Matt Philips?

I have a new noir novel slated with Fahrenheit 13, the rebels who published my noir novel Know Me from Smoke. The new one is called You Must Have a Death Wish and follows one of the characters I introduce in Countdown. No solid news on a publication date, but that's on the horizon. I've got a brutal PI novel written and I need to put on the finishing touches. That'll be a series (I think) and I have the second novel underway to about 20,000 words.

What else? A small town noir novella nearly finished for a super-secret project plus I'm banging away at a short story collection. And the day job, right? My production has slowed over the last year with some day job stuff, but I keep plugging away at my stories. Fingers crossed that people like them...

Matt Phillips is the author of numerous crime novels, including Accidental Outlaws and Know Me From Smoke.  I highly recommend Chris Rhatigan's interview of Matt Phillips at ADR Interview w/ Matt Phillips . For more Matt Phillips, check out MattPhillipsWriter.com.



As for me, I'm currently writing my sequel to Fast Bang Booze. On a related note, know of anyone in the LA area good at recovering lost data from busted hard drives? More to follow.

If you have any cool photos of dispensaries with funny names that you'd like to share, tweet em my way at LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks. 










21 June 2019

Power Pop with a Bullet –S.W. Lauden's That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist

by Lawrence Maddox

That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist
Power pop is complicated. Its throbbing beats and distorted guitars will rock you, but its sweet melodies and longing lyrics will shoot an arrow straight through your heart.  When Big Star, power pop royalty, sing "I feel the pain, but I'll try again," (in Try Again), they're summing up the power pop ethos.

On the other side of the dial is punk rock, the world that author S.W. Lauden traverses in his Gary Salem punk PI trilogy of novels. Lauden switches stations and embraces the best of rock's most melancholy medium in his newly released novelette, That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist. It's a tale of rock 'n' roll redemption, a crime story that explores power pop's yearning and burning while cranking up the suspense.

Brothers (and bandmates) Jack and Jamie Sharp's heist of $100,000-worth of vintage guitars would've been a success if Jack hadn't stopped to strum a sweet '59 Les Paul Standard. Instead, Jack got busted, Jamie got the guitars, and their band is tossed in the dollar bin indefinitely. That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist opens three years later as Jack steps out of the Oklahoma State Pen on parole, looking to get his $50,000 cut of the burglary. He's packing heat in case anyone, including family, stands in his way.

Jack is too much of a badass to admit it, but he's also bugged that neither Jamie nor his little sister Jenna came to visit him while he was locked up.  This familial diss picks at a long-festering wound in Jack's soul: Jack's father abandoned the family, without explanation, when Jack was twelve.

S.W. Lauden dares you to say no to more cowbell.
Thus ensues an odyssey of crime, brotherhood, and the ultimate cache of rock 'n' roll memorabilia; a record store wet dream that blossoms into a collector's equivalent of Moby Dick.  Along the way Jack and Jamie discover that their band, and family bond, is a bigger deal than they ever imagined.

Power pop, a passion for both brothers, is a non-stop topic of conversation for the Sharps. It's a way the brothers (and the reader, if you remember the '70s) can reference their common past. It's also the novelette's perpetual, handcrafted soundtrack. Unlike the mindless hedonism of the worst of arena rock (there's more than one way to rock, Sammy-a lot more), power pop often invokes yearning, loss, and melancholy. The music plays out-loud the feelings that Jack, forced since childhood to be tough-as-nails, can never openly express. It's a brilliant device, like a Greek chorus amplified through a Fender Bassman.
20/20's debut album

Fans of power pop, reading to see to see if their fav bands are mentioned, won't be disappointed.
How about the highly underrated 20/20, who had a minor hit with "My Yellow Pills"? 
They're in.
The tragically doomed Bad Finger?
In.
Big Star, adored by critics, ruined by their record label?
In.

The Bob's Big Boy Beatle Booth plaque.
From The Maddox Archives



I feel That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist was tailor-made for me. I've been in bands, slowed down vinyl to learn guitar solos, and consider Lester Bangs a twentieth century giant. I still get a pang of excitement when I'm seated at the Beatles Booth at the Toluca Lake Bob's Big Boy, a corner section where John, Paul, George and Ringo (power-pop godfathers) sat in the summer of '65.





Raspberries give you one of rock's greatest 45s.
At one point while reading That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist I had palpitations because I hadn't seen the Raspberries mentioned. Their hit "Go All the Way" epitomizes power pop. It's a perfect single, a rocking confection that leaves you feeling somehow, well, a little sad. I saw the Raspberries on their reunion tour at West Hollywood's House of Blues (now sadly defunct) in 2005, and they sounded as good as they do on their records released 30 years earlier. In true power pop fashion, I'll always wonder why bigger success eluded them. I'm happy to report Lauden gives them, as well as every power pop practitioner you can imagine, their just due. Lauden realizes just how important his subject matter is to its fans; how brittle not only the songs are, but the power pop icons themselves, and he mines them intelligently.

I love crime fiction where bad deeds are just a shadow play of bigger issues at work; issues like personal reckoning and, as is the case here, family reconciliation (or lack thereof). Ross McDonald made a brilliant career of this, and his best work reads like mini-Greek tragedies.  Lauden offers an alternative, a song of hope for the broken and abandoned. Jack may never get the payback he wants, but you'll root for him to get the family he deserves. Easily a one-sitting read, That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist is power pop with a bullet, and will shoot to the top of your playlist.

Two of my favorite topics of conversation are rock music and crime fiction. S.W. Lauden lives and breathes both, so naturally I had a few questions.

Lawrence Maddox: Punk is key to your Greg Salem PI trilogy. Greg is a detective by day, and in a punk band by night. Was it hard going from punk to power pop?
The Greg Salem punk PI trilogy
S.W. Lauden: Not really, but mostly because That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist was the unexpected consequence of my co-editing a power pop essay collection with Paul Myers (it's called Go All the Way and will be released by Rare Bird Books this October). I mostly curated/edited other writers for that project, but also wrote an essay myself about Fountains of Wayne.

Then, in the midst of doing research on the history of power pop, I read about this super rare single by the pre-Beatles band called The Quarrymen (featuring Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon–among others–covering the Buddy Holly song). That's when my crime writer brain kicked in.

LM: Your fictional band Bad Citizens Corporation (from the Greg Salem trilogy) also began as a band of brothers. Why is brotherhood an important theme for you?

The original line-up of The Kinks in 1965.
Pete Quaife, Dave Davies, Ray Davies, Mick Avory.
SWL: I'm not sure what you charge as a therapist, but there are several reasons. First and foremost, rock and roll has a long history of brothers in bands (The Beach Boys, Devo, AC/DC, Red Kross, Nelson, etc.), but I've always been interested in the ones that brawl, like Noel and Lima Gallagher from Oasis or Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks.

Secondly, I had older brothers growing up who were musicians (a bass player and a guitarist) who started a heavy metal band when they were in high school (and I was in elementary school). The original reason I chose drums as an instrument was so I could join their band one day (never happened–single tear).

Third, the brothers in the Greg Salem punk rock PI novels and Jack and Jamie in That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist are their own characters, but they're also two extremes of my own personality–one is more self-loathing/self-destructive and the other is more of an egomaniac.

I feel emotionally drained. Happy now?

Keith Morris' autobiography My Damage.
LM: We talked about Keith Morris' riveting autobiography, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, at last February's Noir at the Bar LA. What are some of your other favorite books about rock?

SWL: How much time do you have?

Speaking of The Kinks, I just read Ray Davies' batshit crazy autobiography from the 90s, X-Ray. I loved it. I also recently read Boys Don't Lie about the Zion, Illinois power pop band The Shoes (power pop royalty and a band featuring brothers!), and A Man Called Destruction about Alex Chilton. I loved Trouble Boys about The Replacements (the Stinson brothers!), as well as John Doe and Tom DeSavia's book about the original LA punk scene, Under the Big Black Sun. What else?

The Closer You Are, about Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices, was pretty great. So was The Beastie Boys Book, and the 33 1/3 book about Big Star's Radio City. A super weird one that I highly recommend is Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group by Ian Svenonius.  That one's in a category all its own.

S.W. Lauden recording for The Brothers Steve.
That's a Murder & Mayhem t-shirt btw.
LM What's next for S.W. Lauden?

SWL:Well, they say write what you know...

I just played drums on an album with an LA-based garage rock/power pop band called The Brothers Steve. It's the first full-length album I've played on in a few years. The self-released vinyl comes out in late July, but a few songs will pop up here and there before then. And we're playing at Molly Malone's in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 27, as part of the International Pop Overthrow festival. Good times.



That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist
is available on Amazon. As mentioned earlier, S.W. Lauden is the author of the Greg Salem punk PI trilogy (Bad Citizen Corporation, Grizzly Season and Hang Time). His Tommy & Shayna novellas include Crosswise and Crossbones. S.W. Lauden is the pen name for Steve Coulter, drummer for Tsar and The Brothers Steve. Check him out at swlauden.com.



I'm the author of Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey). Publishers Weekly said "Fans of offbeat noir will have fun." I'm currently working on the sequel.

Want to discuss power pop to punk?  The secret behind Bob's Chili Spaghetti? Come hang out at the Beatles Booth or find me on Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@madxbooks.




31 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 2: The Be-Bop Barbarians and Beyond

by Lawrence Maddox

In Gary Phillips' graphic novel The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), three African American comic book artists, struggling to make it in the face of daunting racism, are caught up in 1955's burgeoning civil rights movement.  It takes place in Harlem, and happens at the moment when comics, jazz, and the civil rights movement were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.

The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. When I finished it I felt I'd just put down an important work. I don't feel you can read it without thinking about the tensions, racial and otherwise, that are happening in America now.

In Part 1, I got to talk with Gary about some of the historical elements that influenced The Be-Bop Barbarians. These included the civil rights campaign that was ignited by Rosa Parks at the end of 1955; the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial; and the real-life artists who were the inspiration for his three main characters. But wait, there's more!

Lawrence Maddox: Last year you won an Anthony for The Obama Inheritance, which riffs on right-wing conspiracy theories and treats them as if they were true. I feel the '50s, the era of The Be-Bop Barbarians, had its share of conspiracy theories too. Any connection between The Obama InheritanceThe Be-Bop Barbarians, and how conspiracy theories are used to manipulate public opinion?

Gary Phillips: We've always had those who have been able to pull the wool over people's eyes and play into their audience's weird fears and night sweats, whether it's Alex Jones, or The Amazing Criswell, who was in Plan 9 from Outer Space. People are entertained by them, but some can get sucked in.

Soundtrack Beat Battle Judging Panel March2011 (cropped).jpg
Nipsey Hussle in 2011
Just recently, there was this conspiracy around Nipsey Hussle and Dr. Sebi. [NOTE: Dr Sebi was a Honduran herbalist whose remedies were said to be a challenge to the medical establishment. He died in police custody.]  The rumor is that Nipsey was murdered because he was planning this documentary about Dr, Sebi, and big pharma took him out. These things always persist. Are there truths to them? I just worked on this show [Snowfall on FX] that purports that the CIA helped bring cocaine into South Central in the '80s. Do I believe it? Well actually I do believe it, but there are others that say it didn't happen.

LM: When your graphic novel Big Water (2013) came out, I reviewed it for All Due Respect Magazine.  This is my second crack at one of your graphic novels.  Any connections you'd care to draw between Big Water and The Be-Bop Barbarians?

GP: Both of them, in various ways, deal with some parts of the socio-political landscape.  Big Water is about the fight, in a fictional municipality, to keep the water a public right as opposed to allowing the water rights to be sold to a private company. It was also about community organizing; it was about people coming together to work for a common cause.  Certainly we can see some of that in The Be-Bop Barbarians. That hearkens back to my days as a community organizer. Invariably my experience as a community organizer will show up in some form in my work. Not in all my work, but time and again it's a part of what I write about. For me it's still a fascination to place that world in the context of crime fiction. It's something I always come back to. It's the stuff I dig, it's the stuff I watch, read. Not exclusively, but it's the thing I always gravitate to. I guess I try to figure out ways to overlap those two worlds as seamlessly as possible.

LM: In your work you often have heroes, or antiheroes, that are destroyed by forces that are much larger than them. I'm thinking of Zelmont Raines in The Jook (1999).

GP: (Laughs) He's also done in by his lack of impulse control.

LM: Other examples are Deke Kotto and Tim Brady from Cowboys (2011). 

GP: For sure.

LM: Sometimes you've got heroes like O'Connor from Warlord of Willow Ridge (2012) who are able to make a difference and overcome these dark and powerful forces. 

GP: There you go,  but only in incremental ways, right? Only these little tiny victories.

LM: Can one person make a difference?

GP:Yes. The true heroic answer, Larry, is yes, one person can make a difference. They have to. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks to Delores Huerta, yes.  Absolutely. But as we also know, no matter how much will and drive one has, which no doubt is important, which no doubt sets a certain standard for people to rally around, in the end it is about people working together and making these things happen.

I do believe that certain things happen because an individual steps out, or something happens to that individual, but then other things start to work together to make bigger things happen. So even if we talk about Rosa Parks that evening not going to sit in the back of the bus, she was actually not the first black woman to do that. The difference was she was a part of a bigger thing, the NAACP.  She'd already gone to non-violence training school. She was already part of something. This incident became the thing, like Ollie in the book became the thing that could advance some tougher work. It shows you have to have these mechanisms in place so that when something like that does happen, you're ready to act. You're ready to move.

LM: You've got a lot going on this year besides The Be-Bop Barbarians. Let's talk about the The Movie Makers.

GP: It's out now. Down & Out Books is reviving the old serial thing.  It was Frank Zafiro's idea to center on a grifter couple, and they asked various writers to do a kind of, I guess it's not really a novella, it's too short.  It's an extended short story, a novelette. My story is twelve or thirteen thousand words, and we're doing these episodes centering on this grifter couple. Mine takes place in the land where make-believe is the coin of the realm, Hollywood. It's Harold Robbins meets Jim Thompson.

LM: I really liked your story "Demon of the Track" from the wickedly fun anthology Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror that came out earlier this year.  I noticed that Ollie from The Be-Bop Barbarians and Deacon Coles from "Demon of the Track"are both Korean War vets. What was your inspiration for Deacon?
I attended the Pop the Clutch signing in Burbank
 earlier this year. It was an incredible line-up of
authors, including Gary Phillips. Hoping to get
John  Floyd's signature on this baby one day!

GP: Deacon Coles in "Demon of the Track was inspired by Ed Dwight. [NOTE: Ed Dwight was a military pilot with a B.S in aeronautical engineering.] Kennedy was pushing to have a black astronaut and Ed was put into the program. He faced opposition due to racism. When Kennedy got killed Ed got squeezed out of the program. He actually became a sculptor after all that. Ed Dwight has always fascinated me. I thought it would be interesting to take this guy and make him a jet ace during the war.  Because of racism, he can't get a job as a pilot. So what does he do? He starts racing cars.

LM: You've also been writing for TV.

GP: Coming up I have a co-writing credit on an episode of Snowfall on FX.

LM: John Singleton was one of Snowfall's Creators and Executive Producers. His sudden passing must've been a shock.

John Singleton in 2013
GP: Crazy that John is gone. Fifty-one is way too young, but he got a lot done in that time. He had a drive and a love for all kinds of stories, but of course he really made his mark telling a tale of South Central,  Boyz n the Hood (1991), where he and I grew up. As a Co-Creator of Snowfall, he would often be in the writer's room with us, or on set. John would crack me up because there'd be a time when he'd insist on this or that detail, but it would be about authenticity. In the episode I co-wrote there's a scene set in the projects. When the cops arrive he had me add the "crip whistle," a distinctive call-out that trouble was coming.  A seemingly small thing that did so much to capture that time period.

LM: You've written books, short stories, graphic novels, comics, and now TV.  Is it hard to switch between these different mediums? Is there another medium that you still want to explore?

The many mediums of Gary Phillips.
From The Maddox Archives
GP: You're a storyteller, so you know that each medium defines how you tell the story. A script, as you know, is all short hand.  This is also the great thing about writing comic books and graphic novels. You have to think visually. Similarly in TV, you have to boil everything down. On Snowfall we'd spend hours of the day just talking about the motivation of the characters. Then you'd have to figure out how you'd boil all that down to this one thing. You'd have to get it right so when you're at the table-read the actors aren't saying, "What the hell are you talking about?"

I always think about a scene in Scorsese's Howard Hughes flick The Aviator (2004). It's that scene where DiCaprio can't touch the door knob because of his own weird germophobia. It's such a great scene because it boils down so much psychologically about Hughes. Here's this guy who does all this incredible stuff, but he can't touch this door knob because it's full of germs and other people have touched it.

As a writer I'm always asking, "What are those things, those images, that one thing that will symbolize and crystallize what my character is about?" So whatever medium you're writing in, be it comic books, scripts, prose, or radio plays, whatever the hell it is, you just got to figure out how to convey the complexities in a simple and straight forward way, yet keep some of that richness that you want to maintain. I think we all try to figure that out as writers and storytellers. Not that you get it right all the time. You keep trying rework it and achieve that clarity on the page, or as presented by the actor, or what have you.

I'm very happy that I've been able to work in different mediums, and I hope to keep being able to do that.  It's always the next idea that fascinates me, or the next set of complications for my characters that keeps me going. Sally Wainwright, who wrote Gentleman Jack on HBO, said she likes to write the things that she wants to see. That's true for me, too.  I write the things I want to read or that I want to see. In my work, if I'm entertained, I hope others are entertained too, as well as intrigued. I also hope I've given my audience a little something to think about.

Gary was an initial believer in my debut novel Fast Bang Booze and helped it see the light of day. 

If you have a favorite Gary Phillips work, let me know on Facebook or Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks. 



10 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 1: The Be-Bop Barbarians

by Lawrence Maddox
Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips' crime novels (or short stories, anthologies, comics, or in this case, graphic novels–he really does it all) not only deal with with laws broken, but also with a broken social order where racism and corporate greed run amok.

In Gary's Violent Spring (1994), P.I. Ivan Monk, working in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, must unravel layers of racism to solve the murder of a Korean merchant. The Warlord of Willow Ridge ( 2012) depicts a city where neighborhoods are destroyed by the greed of the housing financial crisis. The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir (2017), an Anthony Award-winning anthology that Gary edited, treats the zany right-wing conspiracy theories flung at the Obama presidency as if they were real, often with comic results. His latest graphic novel is no different. Gary (along with artist Dale Berry) goes back to 1955 to shine a light on the social ills of today in The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), a wildly successful mixture of jazz, comics and civil rights.
The Be-Bop Barbarians
Pegasus Books, 2019

The Be-Bop Barbarians opens on a jazz-feuled party raging deep into the Harlem night. We meet African American comic artists Ollie Jefferson, Stef Rawls and Cliff Murphy, three friends who lean on each other as they battle racism in their careers. Gary notes in his introduction that these three are inspired by real cartoonists from the same era.

When Ollie, a decorated Korean War vet, is beaten by a white police officer, Harlem's community leaders (and their Communist counterparts) use the incident to ignite a burgeoning battle for civil rights. As racial tensions escalate, our three heroes face life-altering decisions as they get swept up in Harlem's fight for justice. The Be-Bop Barbarians is an engulfing page turner, and Gary deftly brings to life the personal struggles of his comic book warriors as they navigate the rising tides of change.
Kukla, Ollie and Fran welcome you
to the 1950s.

The Be-Bop Barbarians takes place right in the middle of a decade often seen as history hitting the snooze alarm. In other words, an innocuous bore. World War II was over and the '60's Counter Culture was still in its pajamas eating Sugar Jets cereal and watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie.  In reality, much was bubbling under the surface of the Happy Days decade that would change everything.  Jazz, comics, and the fight for civil rights, all so important to The Be-Bop Barbarians, were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions that continue to ripple right down to the present day. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.

Bebop turned jazz on its head, making the Big Bands of the previous decades look like clumsy dinosaurs. Charlie Parker died in 1955, just as the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane would take the lessons they learned from Yardbird and eclipse him.

The Avengers, straight outta
the Silver Age. Ever hear of them?
Courtesy of The Maddox Archives.
Comic books were entering what collectors call the Silver Age. Marvel's stable of heroes, such as Spider-Man and The Avengers, created by innovators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, would soon revolutionize the medium in a big way. Comic characters would be more human, grapple with real-world problems, and be more representative of minority communities.

Rosa Parks, on the day buses in
Montgomery were integrated in 1956. 
The events in The Be-Bop Barbarians point directly at the civil rights campaign that would occur at the end of 1955 when Rosa Parks would refuse to give her bus seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery Bus Boycott would ensue, led by, among others, Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. Jim Crow Laws would be declared unconstitutional a year later. The Be-Bop Barbarians puts you right there at the beginning, when so much was at stake.

The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. I was excited by it, and when I finished it I felt I'd just put down an important work. I don't feel you can read it without thinking about the tensions, racial and otherwise, that are happening in America now. I couldn't wait to talk to Gary about it.

Lawrence Maddox: Gary, what inspired you to write about Harlem in 1955?

Cartoonist Jackie Ormes, holding
a doll based on her cartoon
character Patty-Jo
Gary Phillips: I have a fascination with history and the idea that there are unsung stories that have not been chronicled. In this case, the three characters in the story are inspired by real life black cartoonists who serve as the models for them. Stef is inspired by Jackie Ormes, who was the first black woman to have her own comic strip, which ran in the Pittsburgh Courier and several other black newspapers as well. Cliff is loosely inspired by Matt Baker, who was one of the first black artists working in comic books. He died young, I think he had a heart condition. Ollie is based on the real life Ollie Harrington, who was kind of a radical cat, who officially left the United States and lived in East Germany.

Zoot Suit ('81), starring
Edward James Olmos, deals with
the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial
LM: I really like your Millie Hanks character, the African American lawyer who takes on Ollie's case and acts as a go-between for the black community leaders and the communists. Is she also based on a real person?

GP: Not particularly. She's an amalgam of different people. There's a little bit of the real life Alice McGrath, the woman who helped the defense in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. That was a famous case here in LA in the '40s in which some young Chicano Zoot Suiters got railroaded for a murder that happened in Sleepy Lagoon,  which was in East LA.  Alice was in the Communist Party, and she was also a lawyer. Her and people like Dorothy Healey are the inspiration for Millie.

LM: You go into detail on the how the leaders of the black community use Ollie's beating to gain greater reforms. Are you pointing to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that happens at the end of the year?

Adam Clayton Powell Jr
GP: In '41 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,  who was a congressman who represented Harlem, led a week-long bus boycott that was about hiring black drivers and mechanics to work on the bus lines. I allude to this in the book. That resulted in more hiring of black folk in those jobs for the city of New York. That boycott preceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was about equal rights and not having to sit in the back of the bus. There had been other kinds of actions before Montgomery.

It is important that  our story takes place when the civil rights movement is starting to ramp up. It's starting to coalesce and things are starting to happen. It's not as if the folks in Harlem or elsewhere in New York had just been sitting on their thumbs. As any good community organizer knows,  you had an incident like what happened with Ollie, when he's beat by the cop, it's only natural that you'd try to use it to highlight important issues.  Ollie himself is seduced into it as well, and then tries to move forward on fairer hiring in places like department stores or police stations that were located in the black communities.

LM: Barbarians has cameos from Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Ditko cracked me up. Care to elaborate?

Ditko-drawn
The Amazing Spider-Man!
The Maddox Archives
Ditko was a big Ayn Rand fan. She's all about elevating the individual and foregoing altruism,  and apparently you see some of that in the early Spider-Man. Ditko must have had some conflicting ideas about that, though. As we know, one of the things that propels Peter Parker to become Spider-Man and use his abilities in an altruistic way, is he's driven by this fantastic guilt. In the beginning when he's trying to make money with his new powers, Parker lets this robber go by him and that robber then kills his Uncle Ben. The phrase that Stan Lee came up with was "With great power comes great responsibility."  He had shirked his responsibility and now he's responsible for the death of his beloved Uncle. This is what sends him to chase the robber down and propels him to become Spider-Man. Maybe that is akin to Ayn Ran but I'm not really a fan of her stuff so who the hell knows.
Steve Ditko's Mr. A

I guess really the more pure expression of that thought from Ditko is the character he created at Charlton Comics, The Question, who had no face. But even The Question was kind of a crime fighter so it is always interesting that Ditko tried to meld Objectivism with the notion of being a superhero. That becomes even purer when he does the Mr. A character. He did several of those strips that were more for fanzines, after he more or less left formal comics. Ditko remains a very interesting character to me, in the sense that on one hand, he was a big believer in that stuff, but then on the other hand some people say he was getting checks for Spider-Man and squirreling them away in his little rent-controlled apartment in Midtown.

In Part 2 of Gary's interview, read about JFK's push for a black astronaut, Nipsy Hussle conspiracies, and Gary's work on the FX crime drama Snowfall.  Drops Friday, May 31, only here at Sleuthsayers.





Gary has edited many anthologies, including the aforementioned Anthony-winner The Obama Inheritance. I was fortunate to have stories in Gary's anthologies Orange County Noir (Akashic), and 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback (Moonstone), which Gary edited with Robert J, Randisi. 
I'm honored my stories passed through his hands before hitting print.






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.