Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

24 June 2020

Invisibles


Claude McKay apparently wrote his fifth novel,  Amiable with Big Teeth, in 1941, and nothing came of it until a Columbia grad student stumbled across the manuscript seventy years later, and got it published. McKay was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930's, if not so influential or well-known as Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. I'm no expert on the period or the people, or America's complicated relationship with race and history (much of which is clearly a history of willed ignorance), but McKay's book fascinates me because it's a social satire about black political engagement - and denial.

There were a lot of competing ideas in the 1930's, and two of the big ones at odds with each other in the Harlem of the time were Marcus Garvey's black nationalism and the siren song of Russian Communism. The actual issue in the novel is how the black community should respond to Italian aggression in Ethiopia: Mussolini's imperial ambition to dominate the Horn of Africa, and a stark demonstration of white European power deployed against a supposedly backward tribal culture, with attendant white barbarism, because their targets were African. This sideshow (not to the Ethiopians, whose estimated losses were three-quarters of a million people) took place on the periphery of a convulsive struggle in Europe between Left and Right, Stalin and his surrogates pitted against Hitler and his - although this vastly over-simplifies the internal divisions and quarrels over ideological purity the various factions tried to contain. The point here is that the same conversations are animating Harlem that fracture the body politic elsewhere.  

American politics have often been about grievance.  We want a place at the table, but when we get there, we put both feet in the trough. The immigrant experience follows a criminal model, the Irish and Tammany, the Italians using the Mafia to get political power, although this is generic. The first Vikings and English and Spaniards who landed in the New World were bent on piracy. The slave narrative, on the other hand, reverses the conventions.



History turns out to be malleable. We used to think it was hieroglyphic, etched in the stone, but like our personal history, you can walk into the house of memory by a different door, and suddenly see it turned around, from the back stairs, or the servants' quarters, so to speak.

It's not my purpose here to revisit or discredit the American origin myth, or redress old injuries. There are people far better equipped, for openers. I want to look at two things, though, one external, the other internal.

From the outside looking in, how do we understand the black presence in American popular culture? How in fact it's been appropriated, or sanitized, but certainly distorted. It's not simply that your experience isn't reflected, it's that your experience isn't represented at all. Okay, we can say the average American white experience of the 1930's isn't accurately represented by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but we wouldn't mind. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Marcus Garvey seeing himself in Stepin Fetchit.

We might pause for a moment and examine the Stepin Fetchit oeuvre, which is more ambiguous than received wisdom suggests. He made a couple of pictures with Will Rogers, for instance, and in Steamboat Round the Bend particularly, they demonstrate a very sly and subversive relationship. Step was a millionaire, by the way, and got featured billing in his pictures. The problem for black audiences, then and now, is that Step's characterizations get taken as an actual representation of black character. For a white audience, Step is a reassuring stereotype, an unthreatening lazybones. It's not far from here to Amos'n'Andy.



The second thing that bothers me is how this distorted mirror image might be internalized, by a black audience. It can't be an exaggeration to say black people are a hell of a lot more aware of their circumstance than white people are. Black people don't need white people to recognize this, as if white recognition would verify the black experience, that the black experience only matters when white people take notice. If you've been left out of the national conversation, or nobody hears the bear shit in the woods, is there silence?

I know I'm well out of my depth, but I can't help but think about what happened after the war. The fury of the years between, the 1920's and 1930's, the economic collapse, the street marches, the rise of Fascism, the cleansing of the politically impure, the scapegoating of the Jews - and then the savagery of the war itself.

I grew up in the immediate postwar era, and it was about hope. Our parents were lucky enough to get home. It was the era of noir, as well, and nuclear anxiety. We were the war children, Van Morrison's wonderful line, "born 1945." How come that generation of black kids, born 1945, got excluded? Their dads fought in the war with our dads, they beat Hitler and the Japanese with all the rest of us.

This is sad. This is stupid. This is shameful. It's just too God damn dumb. We owe an enormous cultural debt to guys like Duke Ellington, or Ray Charles. We'd be diminished without Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. It's embarrassing that I even have to make a list, or worse, search for their names. Seriously. We're still talking about who we'll choose to include as Americans, and the invisible Americans have already chosen.  

21 April 2020

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing


Can music be noir? I think so. And Nat King Cole’s song The Blues Don't Care (written by Vic Abrams and Murry Berlin) is a good example, judging by the lyrics:


The blues don’t care who’s got ’em,
The blues don’t care who cries,
And the nights don’t care who’s lonely,
Or whose tears are in whose eyes.

When someone’s heart is broken,
The blues are not to blame,
’Cause the blues don’t care who’s got ’em,
So they just added my name.

(final verse is at the end of this piece)


The blues might not care whose got ’em, but I do: Bobby Saxon, the lead character in my upcoming novel The Blues Don’t Care.

The story takes place in the 1940s on the Los Angeles home front during World War II. It’s about a young piano player named Bobby Saxon who wants to play with the house band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue, the heart of black life in L.A. If Bobby gets the gig he would be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. And if that isn’t enough, in order to get the gig the leader asks Bobby to play detective and help clear one of the band members of a murder he is falsely accused of.
Duke Ellington and his orchestra
And while the book deals with some controversial issues in the context of a historical mystery-thriller it also explores the zeitgeist of the times. And part of that zeitgeist is the music. Both the music Bobby listens to and plays in the story and the music in general, big band, swing, torch songs. Music that I’ve grown to love over the years.

Herb Jeffries
When I was a kid, my dad would play swing music on the radio. I hated it. I wanted to listen to rock ‘n’ roll. I also got to see Benny Goodman, though maybe I didn’t appreciate it as much as if I’d seen him later on. But maybe having been exposed to it it came back to me later on, especially after watching old movies from the 30s and 40s that sometimes included that music. Then, as adults, my friend Linda and I got into swing music and would go to swing dances and concerts at various venues and even went to see many bands or singers from that era that were still around. We got to see Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell sing Tangerine and Brazil. We saw Tex Beneke lead the Glenn Miller Orchestra. I got to see Johnny Otis, who took over as band leader of the house band at the Club Alabam, though I would have loved to see him there.

Benny Goodman and his orchestra
Doing the “research” for the book, especially listening to the music and watching the movies from the era, wasn’t exactly torture for me. One problem though was that I wanted the title to be The Blues Don’t Care. And I wanted that to figure at least a little bit into the story. But, as far as I could tell the song was released much later than the time frame of the story, which led me to believe it might have been written later, too. So how to get around that problem? Artistic License: we see the songwriter working on an early version of the song in the Club Alabam in the course of the story. Problem solved…I hope.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra
So, here’s some songs from the 30s and 40s that Bobby might be listening to. Also good for background music, mood music if you’re writing something set during that time or just for your enjoyment. Or maybe even to read The Blues Don’t Care by.

Duke Ellington – Almost anything by him is worth a listen. But you might want to start with the terrific Take the A Train.



Jimmy Dorsey – Half of the famous battling Dorsey brothers. I particularly like his sound. And it’s with him that Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell sang their classics Brazil and Tangerine and other songs.
Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell

Cab Calloway – A character over many decades. He even has a cameo in a Janet Jackson video: Alright, a great song and video, too. Also featuring the Nicholas Brothers and Cyd Charisse.

Billie Holiday – Take your pick. Too many great ones to choose from.

Herb Jeffries – AKA the Bronze Buckaroo, since he starred western “race movies”. His song Flamingo, recorded with Duke Ellington, is a classic and he even makes a cameo singing it in the novel.



Freddy Martin – Band leader, who for a time employed future talk show host and Jeopardy creator Merv Griffin as a singer with his band. And who maybe is an odd choice here. But I saw a clip of his band doing a two-piano piece called La Tempesta that is pretty amazing. And, since Bobby is a piano player this becomes his signature piece. I wish I could find a clip now.

Artie Shaw – Frenesi and Begin the Beguine: Two classics from the era.

The Andrews Sisters – Check out Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, but don’t stop there.



Tommy Dorsey – Opus One, I’ll Never Smile Again (vocals by Sinatra).



Lena Horne – Stormy Weather: What can you say—a classic.


Vera Lynn – The Forces Sweetheart in England. She sang a lot of popular songs during the war: I’ll Be Seeing You, We’ll Meet Again, The White Cliffs of Dover (written by Glenn Miller and Ray Eberle, which surprised me).

Kay Kyser and his Orchestra – Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.

Spike Jones and Donald Duck – Der Fuehrer’s Face. Satirical, funny song, that was born in a Donald Duck cartoon and made even more famous by Spike. You get a two-fer here, both versions: Mr. Spike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWF8iRCan7I

Mr. Duck:




Louis Jordan – G.I. Jive, written by Johnny Mercer. Recorded by many. Louis Jordan had a #1 hit with it.

Harry James – Sleepy Lagoon, from which the infamous Sleepy Lagoon incident took its name.

Benny Goodman – Sing Sing Sing, just an amazing and rousing piece of music. To me it’s sexier than some modern music with risqué lyrics. If this doesn’t get you at least tapping your toes you’re dead. And with Gene Krupa on drums, Harry James on trumpet and a band that can’t be beat. It was the Goodman band’s appearance at the Palomar Ballroom (in L.A. I might add) that really jump started the swing craze.



Count Basie – One O’Clock Jump, Basie’s theme song.

Glenn Miller – One of the most popular band leaders of the time, if not the most popular. Definitely the latter to listen to my mother. In the Mood was one of his biggest hits.

There’s so many more. It was really hard narrowing it down.

And here’s the last verse of Nat King Cole’s song:

And the nights don’t care who’s lonely,
Or whose tears are in whose eyes,
When someone’s heart is broken,
The blues are not to blame,
’Cause the blues don’t care who’s got ’em,
So they just added my name. 




If that isn’t noir I don’t know what is.

This is an album I got in the days of vinyl that I think is a pretty good starter collection and I think you can get it streaming:



So, like I said. It was pure torture listening to all this great music. Research, you know.


~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Frank Zafiro grilled me for the Wrong Place, Write Crime podcast. I survived...and so did he. Hope you'll want to check it out. (And thanks for having me, Frank!)

https://soundcloud.com/frank-zafiro-953165087/episode-75-open-shut-w-paul-d-marks


Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books – The Blues Don't Care:

 “Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40s’ L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. He is one helluva writer.”
                                                               —Michael Sears, author of the Jason Stafford series



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

06 January 2020

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda...


Most of my titles come from songs, generally rock and blues, because I originally saw the PI who became Woody Guthrie as a wannabe guitarist. He and Megan Traine, a former session musician, would solve mysteries with a musical slant to them. The band in an early version of the first book was inspired by a few real bands I knew that never quite made it. Some people remember The Electric Prunes and their one big hit. More people remember the Buffalo Springfield, probably because Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to further success.

But do you remember Moby Grape?

Five solid gigging musicians joined forces in San Francisco late in 1966. Skip Spence wanted to play guitar with Jefferson Airplane, but they already had Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner, so Marty Balin turned him into a drummer. Spence played on the band's first LP and wrote several songs they didn't use. They replaced him with Spencer Dryden, whom they stole from The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (remember them?).

Peter Lewis, a skilled finger-picking guitarist, was the son of Loretta Young. He, Spence, and Jerry Miller created a three-way guitar whirlwind with zest to rival the Buffalo Springfield. Bob Mosley played bass and Don Stevenson played drums, but all five sang, and their harmonies will give you chills. All five composed, too.

Producer David Rubinson recorded their first album for Columbia over the course of FIVE OR SIX DAYS in March and April 1967. That's demos, arrangements, backing tracks, instrumental overlays, vocals, everything. They were live performers, so they only needed a few takes in a studio with then state-of-the-art 8-track machines.

Columbia released the album in June, about two weeks after the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and three months after the Airplane released Surrealistic Pillow (Which included a song by Spence). The songs ranged from acoustic folk-rock to country-tinged ballads to sparkly pop to blues to weird psychedelia, and every song was a gem.

The first LP cover shot,
with Stevenson's notorious
 finger later air-brushed out
Moby Grape had local fame and fortune, and now world-conquering success was only a tour away.

Then it all went to hell.

Jefferson Airplane had fired manager Matthew Katz (along with Skip Spence), and when he took over the Grape, he conned the members into signing a contract that gave HIM the right to the band name. The legal battles continued into the 21st century and blocked the release of many songs. It also prohibited the band from reunion performances under that name. Katz is why the Grape's set never appeared on the film or recorded versions of Monterey Pop, too. He demanded a million dollars for the rights...in 1967.

Columbia, still basically an "old people's label," dropped every ball they could in promoting the band and the album. The release party at the Avalon Ballroom had garish pink velvet press kits with teeny-bopper bios of the band and all the album's singles--more about THAT in a minute. Thousands of orchids were dropped from the ceiling, and dancers slipped on them and fell all over the dance floor. Columbia supplied 700 bottles of wine labeled "Moby Grape" for the dignitaries, but nobody thought to provide corkscrews. At the end of the evening, police busted three members of the band on their way home...with marijuana and three under-age girls in the car.

What could get worse? Glad you asked.

Columbia, in a fit of stupidity no one has yet explained, released five singles--ten songs from the 13-song album--on the same day. They were all in the press kits. DJs didn't know which songs to play and they cancelled each other out on the airwaves. Local fans thought the band was tying for the big bucks, which cost them their local San Francisco hippie base.

Columbia wanted a second LP to recoup the losses, and brought in a different producer to "shape the band up." Remember, Rubinson got the first album out of these guys in six days.

The band sank into drug use, and Skip Spence, who everyone admitted was a genius but always a bit strange, eventually went after Don Stevenson with a fire ax. He and Bob Mosley underwent treatment for schizophrenia. The other members drifted into marital problems, money problems, and music problems. Mosley was so distraught he quit the band and joined the Marines...in 1969!

Spence died in 1999, two days before his 53rd birthday. Stevenson no longer performs, but the other remaining members have appeared with Spence's son Omar under various names, including--wait for it--The Melvilles.

There are people who will tell you the first LP was one of the great debut albums in rock history. I'm one of them.

But don't take my word for it. Find it and listen to what might have been.

27 December 2019

Jan and Dean, and the Writer Who Brought Them Back from Dead Man's Curve


Jan Berry had it all.

Jan and Dean's '63 drag race classic,
"Dead Man Curve." 
He was the Jan of Jan and Dean, the pop duo who, along with the Beach Boys, made surfing and drag racing something to sing about. Like the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, Jan wrote and produced. He was writing charts for the Wrecking Crew (if that term doesn't ring a bell, check out the the 2008 doc of the same name) while Brian Wilson and his brothers were still the primary musicians on Beach Boy records. Brian Wilson wrote "Surf City" with Jan. They appeared on each other's recordings.

Brian Wilson and Jan Berry were flip sides of the same coin. Brian Wilson was a studio progeny who stopped touring with his band so he could devote himself to creating gems like "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't it Be Nice." While Jan Berry was a technically savvy producer, Brian blossomed in the studio. He directed the Wrecking Crew like Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic.  Brian was pudgy, and younger brother Dennis (famously the one true surfer of the group) was the only Beach Boy who seemed a natural on an album cover. Though the leader of the Beach Boys, Brian was cowed by his overbearing dad until he and his band of brothers kicked pops out of the control room. Pops got his revenge by selling the Beach Boys library for, if not peanuts, peanut brittle.

Brian Wilson, '66
If you took Brian's musical know-how and combined it with younger brother Dennis' good looks and athleticism, you'd get a closer picture of Jan Berry.  Jan Berry was a BMOC, a West LA high school football player and rule-breaking prankster who took orders from no one. According to Paul Morantz's groundbreaking Rolling Stone essay "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve," Jan ran away from home for six months after his dad embarrassed him by picking him up at a party in front of his friends. "He had always been his own man and disliked authority of any kind. He was, said a friend, so much smarter, quicker, stronger than anyone else that he just made up his own rules," Morantz writes.

Jan and Dean
Jan Barry was living the dream. While making hit records and touring, Jan was, amazingly, a pre-med student at UCLA, minoring in music. He was the ultimate mid-sixties hyphenate. It's almost as if he had a duel identity, like Adam West's groovy '60s Batman.  Jan Berry, medical student by day, surfer-auteur by night. Jan and Dean even riffed on this idea in the album Jan and Dean Meet Batman. According to Dean Torrence, Jan didn't sweat it if record execs tried to push the duo around. "He's pre-med, I'm at the School of Architecture at USC. What do we care?" Dean said in a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone.  "You're going to kick us off the label? We'll start our own."

Jan dated Ann-Margret. Jan dated Yvette Mimieux. Jan drove his Corvette Sting Ray fast. Sometimes he worked while driving. "I'd seen him transpose stuff (music) while driving in his car,"  Dean remembers. "Why he just didn't ask me to drive while he changed the notes, I don't know."

Jan Barry crashed his Sting Ray into a parked pick-up truck in 1966, not far from the real Dead Man's Curve that he and Dean made a hit record about. Jan Berry suffered permanent brain damage. When once nothing seemed to exceed his grasp, now he had to relearn how to sign his name.  The go-it-alone attitude that had served Berry when he had the talent to back it up now only pushed people away. Los Angeles lowlifes leeched money from Berry, some plying him with drugs. He retained dreams of a come back, but who wanted a singer who couldn't sing? Dean, like the rest of the world, moved on.

Paul Morantz,
attorney, journalist, author
Paul Morantz is a LA hyphenate too; he's a lawyer and an investigative journalist.  As an attorney Morantz has successfully taken on shady cults.  Probably his most famous case was battling Synanon in the '70s. Synanon was a drug rehab facility based in Santa Monica that slowly morphed into a dangerous paramilitary cult. After Morantz became too big a threat, Synanon put a rattlesnake in Morantz's mailbox. The snake bit Morantz, and he spent six days in the hospital. Thanks in large part to Morantz's many lawsuits (and the snake incident), Synanon dissolved in 1991.

Perhaps Morantz's most famous piece of journalism is one of his first. According to his website (PaulMorantz.Com), Paul first met Jan Berry in 1969. Paul was a USC law student vacationing in Palm Springs, where he met a "strange figure with a handicapped body and a broken voice" sitting in the lounge chair next to him.   Paul wrote an article for the Daily Trojan about his two-day encounter with Jan Berry. This was the basis for "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve," published in Rolling Stone in 1974.

"The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve" details the rise and fall of Jan and Dean, with the focus on the aftermath for Jan. I just want to stop here and say how good Morantz's writing is. He really paints a scene with his words. Here he is describing the leeches who ripped Jan off:

They came like scavengers to a shipwreck. Strangers walked in, used his bedroom and kitchen, and walked out, some with his stereo equipment and others with his records, clothes, or liquor. For those who stayed awhile Jan bought gifts and lent his car but eventually they left, too.

The story builds as Jan slowly, painfully, puts his life back together.  Morantz gives a fully formed picture of Jan before the accident:

He was concerned only with achievement. He worked constantly and kept few friends. His mind was always working on everything at once...

Jan lost the power to concentrate after the accident. Writing lyrics became impossible, though music still flowed through him. Unlike before, Jan has no choice but to take everything slow. He spends his time taking walks. He yearns for friendships. It's clear he'll never get to where he was, but it's enough that he just gets happier. The lessons that Jan Berry has to learn apply to all of us. Morantz is cleverly writing not just about Jan's comeback, but about the human condition. It's really a beautiful tale.
TV movie Deadman's Curve

"The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve" struck a chord. Interest in Jan and Dean picked up. The duo began performing together for the first time in years. Morantz's article became Deadman's Curve, a '78 TV movie for CBS that he co-wrote.  Richard Hatch played Jan, Bruce Davison played Dean. I saw it on TV when I was a kid and loved it.  It fit in nicely with all the '50s-early '60s, Happy Days-stoked  nostalgia of the era. And it's a great comeback story.

Jan Berry was fearless and smart. If the music thing didn't pan out, he'd be a doctor. Maybe he and Jan would have their own TV show. He had a lot of irons in the fire. He wasn't interested in making sensitive music about his feelings, and he wasn't necessarily sympathetic to the counter culture that was rising around him. Even so, "Dean Man's Curve," is a stone cold classic, the best of the drag racing tunes. I like its attention to detail. The Sting Ray. The Jag. The  deserted Sunset Strip. It's a tale of hubris that ends in death.

Jan Berry did walk back from Dead Man's Curve, but unlike his former self, he couldn't go it alone. He had the help of Paul Morantz, a writer who dug deep again and again until he got to the heart of a story.

Check out PaulMorantz.com to read "The Road Back from Dead Man's Curve." Paul Morantz is a terrific writer and journalist who has many great stories to tell. 



I'm Lawrence Maddox.

My novel Fast Bang Booze is available from DownAndOutBooks.com

MadXBooks@gmail.com
Or on Twitter, Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks.

26 November 2019

P.I. Nocturne


Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa
In a couple of recent SleuthSayers posts, O’Neil and Leigh talked about pre-rock music. I’d like to take my cue from them and offer my nine cents’ worth (inflation) on the topic. Music infuses my life and because of that it also infuses much of my writing.

As I mentioned in my comment on O’Neil’s post, I think there’s a lot of good music before rock. I love baroque music and well, that’s a hell of a long time before rock. But mostly I’m talking here about the swing/big band music of the 1930s and 40s. I love a lot of that music.

I’m a rock n roller, love to sing it, play it, not saying I’m any good, just like to do it. I grew up on it. And when I was a kid and teen it was all I wanted to listen to. My dad liked classical music and swing and if we were in the car and he put those on I would gag. But somehow, as I got older I began to appreciate other genres of music besides rock. I think partially because I was exposed to it as a kid—very much against my will—and also because I like/d old movies from the 1930s and 40s and was exposed to that music in them as well.

Duke Ellington - Take the A Train

When I was a kid, I got to see Benny Goodman play. And I hated it. I didn’t appreciate it. I feel like an idiot saying that today, but it is what it is. That said, I can still say I saw him. These days, I love his music, especially Sing Sing Sing, and wish I could have seen him again as an adult.

Benny Goodman - Sing Sing Sing

A very long time ago, my friend Linda (who’s also into old movies, old music and old L.A., like me), and I would cruise around L.A. and see various swing bands and singers. It was long enough ago that we actually got to see some of the performers from the 30s and 40s, who were still around. We saw Tex Beneke leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We saw Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, who, when they were with the Jimmy Dorsey band (one of my favorite big bands), sing their hits Brazil and Tangerine. You might recall an instrumental version of the latter wafting in from down the street in Double Indemnity.

Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell - Tangerine

So, even though I loved—and still love—rock ‘n’ roll, my musical horizons expanded quite a bit as I got older. I found there was a lot of great and sinuous music pre-rock. Just listen to Sing Sing Sing, or Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train or Artie Shaw’s Frenesi and so much more.

There’s also been some great musical moments in film noirs:

Elisha Cook in Phantom Lady


Louis Armstrong in The Strip, and Mickey Rooney drumming his heart out in that.

And the jazz scene in the original D.O.A.

But the point I’m leading up to is that, as a writer, my story/novel titles are often inspired by music and songs. Mostly rock, because they’re mostly set in the rock era, but sometimes swing. The title of my upcoming novel, The Blues Don’t Care, is inspired by a Nat King Cole song. And a story I did many years ago, Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, takes its title both from the infamous Sleepy Lagoon incident in L.A. during World War II and the song of that name, which inspired the name of the lagoon in that incident. My story title Born Under a Bad Sign is inspired by the blues song of the same name that was originally recorded by Albert King and covered by Cream, so it hits two genres of music.

Nat King Cole - The Blues Don't Care

Some of my story titles inspired by music are: Endless Vacation (Ramones), Poison Heart (Ramones), Deserted Cities of the Heart (Cream), and more. In fact, I just finished a story called Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith) and another, Nowhere Man (the Beatles). Music is everywhere in my writing.

I sometimes write things set in the past. The Blues Don’t Care (coming out in 2020) is also set on the L.A. homefront during World War II. It’s largely set on Central Avenue, L.A.’s swing and big band center. And the music of that era wafts sensuously around and through the plot. Doing the research for that was so much fun that getting any writing done was difficult. (I’ll be talking more about this book closer to its release. But right now I’m just talking about the music.)


Many of my characters also listen to music, and sometimes play it, like Ray Hood, the lead character in Dead Man’s Curve, named after the Jan and Dean song. P.I. Duke Rogers (from my novel White Heat and its sequel Broken Windows, both set in the 1990’s), listens to a variety of new wave and alternative music, everything from k.d. lang to Portishead and even some Eric Clapton. His less open and less tolerant partner, Jack, only listens to classical and cowboy (not country) music, which he thinks are the only pure/legitimate forms of music (and I like those genres too). He calls Duke’s music “space case” music in Broken Windows. But the music isn’t there only to help define their characters. I use their musical tastes to highlight the difference between the two characters and their contrasting personalities.

Music is a big part of my writing, helping express character and mood, though sometimes music can be difficult to express in a “two-dimensional” medium. It’s a bummer we can’t have a soundtrack to our stories/novels, but I’m sure that’s coming with e-books, if it isn’t already here.

I often listen to music while I write and most often it’s the kind of music that can get me in the mood for what I’m writing. So if I’m writing something set during WWII I listen to big band, if I’m writing something more contemporary, I listen to one kind of rock or another. You get the idea.

Today I’m listening to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and who knows what stories they might inspire or how it will affect what I’m working on right now. That’s one of the great things about music, it can inspire you in so many ways and bring out emotions, thoughts and feelings that we sometimes stifle in our everyday lives—and it can do the same for our characters. And remember, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:


Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

20 October 2019

Viola doesn't play the Viola


Nat King Cole
O’Neil wrote about the blah saccharine music of the 1940s and early 50s. I suffered some of the same issues he touched upon. We chatted about his music-loving private eye in that period.

My parents allowed no television, so we didn’t endure dreck as much as some ruining their televisions with Lawrence dullest-of-the-big-bands Welk. At least nuclear families could participate with Sing Along with Mitch Miller.

In the 1940s, the war hit hard. Less than creative but happy, treacly songs helped people feel a bit better. Sadly, many of the best talents were killed off, most notably Glenn Miller. This resulted in the least significant digits surviving awash in bland, washed-out numbers by Lawrence uh-one-uh-two Welk whose claim to fame was outliving all the greats.

One day I started listening to recordings of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The 1920s were pretty interesting, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for example, but the 1930s blew me away. Everyone knows Glenn Miller’s great ‘In the Mood’, but Louis Prima and Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing!’ (all 6-zillion versions) blew me away. Arguably, the 1930s proved as creative as the 1960s. Unlike Lawrence God-spare-us Welk, these sounds vibrantly lived.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo’ was written on the cusp of the 1930s/1940s as WW-II geared up. Superficially, it seemed a trivial song with insipid covers and uninspired remakes. But the original, what a tune! Glenn Miller made it playful (as did gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge and the wing-footed Nicholas brothers), but underneath it was musically brilliant, embedding one of the most ingenious transitions ever. I’m grateful Lawrence put-me-out-of-my-misery Welk hadn’t ruined it for me.

As it turns out, the 1940s weren’t at all devoid of good music. Radio fans weren’t looking (or listening) in the right places– Darktown! Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. Thank God they weren’t into the Champagne bubble music of Lawrence just-shoot-me Welk.

And there was Viola Smith. Never has the world seen such a drummer. Tom-toms, snares, kettles… She featured in girl bands, she featured in boy bands. She's amazing. Currently at age 106, she’s even outlived Lawrence gag-me-with-a-pitchfork Welk.


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. 

30 September 2019

End of the Long Strange Trip


Last Tuesday, Robert Hunter died at age 78 with his family around him. Unless you were part of the counterculture of my generation, the name means nothing to you. But Thursday night, an entire room sang along when I performed one of Hunter's songs at an open mic--even though I didn't identify the song before I played it.

Hunter was the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He played several instruments himself, but wrote most of his songs in collaboration with Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir, and never performed with the band. I'd say he wrote most of the Dead's greatest hits, but they only had two legitimate hits 15 years apart. They released few singles and built their rep on long and often improvised concerts. They seldom performed with a set list and would segue from song to song by jamming. Some nights worked better than others.

Hunter's songs often feature a turn of phrase that sticks in you mind. "Truckin'" has the line about "What a long strange trip it's been," often quoted by people who don't know the source. That same song mentions a drug bust in which the band is "set up, like a bowling pin." In another of my personal favorites, "Sugar Magnolia," Hunter says of the woman in question "She comes skimming through rays of violet/ She can wade in a drop of dew."

 Hunter combined word play with concrete detail to tell stories. In "Cumberland Blues," his miner tells his beloved, "Gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine/ Make good money, five dollars a day." Because of his details, he could make his work sound like whatever time period worked best to convey his ideas. He once told of attending a Dead concert anonymously and having the man sitting next to him comment about how weird it would be if the guy who wrote "Cumberland Blues" a century before (!?!) could know now that the Grateful Dead were performing it that day.

Even though the Dead seldom showed up on radio ("Truckin'" and "Touch of Gray" are exceptions), many of their songs get play at open mics. A friend plays "Eyes of the World" regularly. Bluegrass bands often perform "Friend of the Devil," which originally featured a mandolin break in the acoustic recording. "Uncle John's Band" and "Sugaree" get lots of stage time, too. "Brown-eyed Woman," on my own set list. has a strong story-line and the comment about moonshine "The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean."

"China Doll," "Casey Jones," (Riding that train/ High on Cocaine) and "Operator" aren't rare, either.

When I played "Ripple" last week, with nature images that seem to combine the Romantic Poets and a Zen feel, the whole room joined in on "Let there be songs to fill the air" at the end of the second verse. More voices joined in from there until the "la da da da da..." fade out. They even dropped out so I could play the last line as a harmonized guitar riff.

Hunter's "Terrapin Station" Suite is an homage to story telling and creative vision. It's on the album or CD of the same name and has the invocation, "Inspiration, move me brightly."

Every writer knows about THAT. Or should.

13 September 2019

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


Beatles Vs. Stones
Photoshop by Grace 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.