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A James Ellroy Playlist: Sweet Dreams

September 18, 2021

James Ellroy’s White Jazz is written as ‘a fever dream’ of Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein. The stark power of Ellroy’s prose style carries the reader through the nightmarish, barely lucid mind of Klein. The musical references in the novel reflect this confusion. Whether it be in the dizzying influence of black bebop jazz or in the folkloric tales that Ellroy adapts to a 1950s Los Angeles setting, White Jazz is awash with musical power.

Take a stroll through its Dreamworld:

Will o’ the Wisp

One of the most intriguing sub-plots of White Jazz concerns a serial killer who is preying on the homeless. Hush-Hush reports that ‘three wino bums were found strangled and mutilated in abandoned houses in the Hollywood area. Very Hush-Hush: we’ve heard the still-at-large killer snapped their windpipes postmortem, utilising great strength.’ Hush-Hush might be a disreputable rag, but it uses its tabloid clout to put pressure on the LAPD to solve the killings. While it shines a spotlight on murders which would otherwise go unreported due to the low profile of the victims, Hush-Hush salaciously gives the killer a sense of dubious celebrity as the magazine:

hereby names this fiend the ‘Wino Will-o-the-Wisp’ and petitions the LAPD to find him and set him up with a hot date in San Quentin’s green room. They cook with gas there, and this killer deserves a four-burner cookout.

Will-o’-the-wisp is an atmospheric light, similar to St Elmo’s Fire. It is a natural phenomenon which, in centuries past, inspired many ghost stories and folklore. In metaphorical terms, Will-o’-the-wisp can refer to a ray of hope that can lure someone but proves elusive or, when found, is finally revealed as sinister and destructive. It’s clear why Ellroy would find it a good name for a murderer who preys on winos who, in their malnourished state, would be easy to lure to a secluded spot where they would meet a grisly end.

White Jazz is set in 1958-9 and is crammed with jazz references of the era. Miles Davis began recording his Sketches of Spain album in November 1959 and it was released the following year. One of the tracks is ‘Will o’ the Wisp’, a reworking of the famous Manuel de Falla composition. Merging Spanish folklore with the lonely trumpet of the noir world, Davis’s version has a wonderfully seductive beginning that peters out with a tinge of melancholy as it goes on.

Just remember where that seductive ghost light leads you in Will-o’-the-wisp folklore…

Hushabye

White Jazz is divided into five sections which are named after classic jazz tracks. The concluding section is named ‘Hushabye’. ‘Hushabye’ is a jazz standard performed by a number of noted musicians, but it’s also the name of a hit song by The Mystics released in 1959. This song is, I feel, the piece Ellroy is most likely referring to in the novel’s denouement. As with many of the golden oldies tunes Ellroy references in his historical fiction, the song feels cloyingly sentimental by contemporary tastes. But that may well be the point. The ‘Hushabye’ section of the novel moves at a breakneck pace, consisting of six chapters and an epilogue spread over thirteen pages. Some of the chapters are less than half a page long, and the section contains two murders, a vicious beating and a summation of the fates of all the prominent characters.

You could probably finish reading Ellroy’s ‘Hushabye’ in about the same time it takes to listen to the song, and its sickly sweet nature provide sharp contrast to the violence in the text. Ellroy is aware of how the songs of the era used sentimentality as a mask for darker themes. The lyrics refer to the ‘Sandman will be coming soon / Singing you a slumber tune’. The Sandman has his genesis in Scandinavian folklore. He sprinkles sand into the eyes of children to bring on sleep and dreams, and has been portrayed as both a benevolent and a sinister figure. As with his use of Will-o’-the-wisp, Ellroy understands the frightening power of this folklore and much of the novel is obsessed with eyes and voyeurism. The two murders which occur in the ‘Hushabye’ feature the victims being shot ‘faceless blind’. Klein undergoes plastic surgery which leaves him ‘one eye squinty, one eye normal’.

By the end of the novel, Klein’s delirious nightmare is concluding. Yet rather than transition into a peaceful state, he is revving up for more confrontation: ‘I’m going back. I’m going to make Exley confess every monstrous deal he ever cut with the same candour I have. I’m going to kill Carlisle, and make Dudley fill in every moment of his life – to eclipse my guilt with the sheer weight of his evil

Sleep tight:

Pervdog Panic – New Ellroy Boys Episode

September 12, 2021

It was my pleasure to appear with the Ellroy Boys in their latest podcast exploring James Ellroy’s Freddy Otash novel Widespread Panic.

We discuss the novel, Otash’s personality and life of misdeeds, Film Noir, the Hollywood Left, Rebel Without a Cause and so much more. You can listen to the entire episode here.

Write From Wrong by Craig McDonald

September 1, 2021

Hector Lassiter returns in dazzling form in Craig McDonald’s latest book Write From Wrong. In case you are unfamiliar with old Hec, allow me to introduce you. Lassiter is a novelist, adventurer and warrior who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor William Holden. As befitting someone with movie-star looks and an inexhaustible supply of courage, Lassiter is catnip to the many beautiful women he meets on his travels through the past century. Being Lassiter’s female companion often proves dangerous, though, as the author is stalked by tragedy.

Lassiter was born on January 1, 1900, and is imbued with longevity. He witnesses the seminal events of the twentieth century: the Punitive Expedition, the Great War, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two and its many after-effects. This rich history influences his writing as he drifts through the literary movements of one era to the next. Hector can be found hanging out with the Lost Generation in Paris in One True Sentence, or coming to blows with a cabal of murderous artists in Toros & Torsos. The latest volume in the Lassiter saga, Write From Wrong, is a collection of short stories in which McDonald deftly moves the setting from one country and time period to another. We see Lassiter plying his trade with the Black Mask boys in LA and New York in the 1930s, scribes whose hardboiled prose is still influencing crime writers ninety years later. In ‘F For Fake’ Lassiter meets his aging pal Orson Welles in Paris at the tail-end of Welles’s more than two-decade long exile in Europe where he went in search of artistic freedom. As Lassiter observes, there is ‘something almost majestic about the big, bearded actor – a kind of air of a noble ruin or grand half-collapsed abbey.’

The novella that ties this collection together is set in and around Put-in-Bay, a tiny village on South Bass Island in Lake Erie in 1927. As remote as it seems, these waters were the sight of a decisive naval battle during the War of 1812. By the 1920s they had become a major bootlegging route during Prohibition. Lassiter arrives to find that people have been turning up dead with alarming regularity and in mysterious circumstances, including an old army buddy of his. He suspects the loathsome Usher Krutch. Supposedly an associate of Al Capone, Krutch is a villain so evil he may well be the devil incarnate. Lassiter’s weakness is women, and his private investigation into Krutch is almost derailed by the appearance of the alluring Verity Chisholm. Beautiful and intelligent, Verity appears to be the perfect woman, but in vino veritas (even in the age of Prohibition) soon shows his new squeeze isn’t everything she appears to be.

A Lassiter tale is a mixture of Chekhov’s gun and the Butterfly Effect. A firearm introduced in chapter one must go off by chapter two, but the full ripples of that discharge might not be felt till seventy years later. Case in point, doesn’t that crime writer named James who Lassiter meets at a Baltimore Convention in 1986 bear an uncanny resemblance to Armand Ellroy, his old comrade in arms from the Punitive Expedition? There are many great crime writers referenced in Write From Wrong, and with the Hector Lassiter series, Craig McDonald has carved his own unique place in the genre. Treat yourself to a copy of Write From Wrong, and delve into the world of Hector Lassiter – the world’s greatest fictional crime writer.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Sentimental Education

August 15, 2021

For my latest piece on music in the work of James Ellroy, I have decided to focus on a single novel – White Jazz. Ellroy has described the novel as the story of ‘a white racist cop in 1958 LA whose life is burning down and who gets hooked, inexplicably, on black bebop jazz’. Ellroy uses jazz to parallel Klein’s confusion and disorientation. But what I will explore in this post is how Ellroy references sentimental love songs to shield either twisted or forbidden love.

Tennessee Waltz

LAPD Lieutenant Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein has long harboured incestuous feelings towards his sister Meg. In their youth these feelings manifested themselves physically: ‘It was always there scary wrong – and we touched each other too long to say it.’ Now an adult, working for both the police and the Mafia, Klein is driven to extreme acts of physical violence at the thought that men could be abusing Meg. LA Mob Boss Jack Dragna takes full advantage of this when Kansas City goombah’s Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino move out west and try to muscle in on the lucrative LA rackets. Dragna wants ‘the Two Tony’s’ dead and he makes it happen by showing Klein a photo of ‘Meg – bruises, hickeys – Trombino/Brancato verified.’ Klein is enraged and murders both men. The real-life Two Tonys were shot to death on August 6, 1951. Several years after the double murder, Klein’s dubious brotherly feelings for Meg come coursing back when he hears a certain song on the radio, ‘Skim the dial, ballads – ‘Tennessee Waltz’ – Meg ’51, that song, the Two Tony’s’.

Red Stewart and Pee Wee King wrote ‘Tennessee Waltz’ in 1946, but it didn’t become a major hit until it was recorded by Patti Page in 1950. It’s easy to see why Klein finds the imagery in the song so powerful and painful. A man and a woman are dancing together happily in love. An old friend of the woman comes over and the singer laments, ‘I introduced her to my loved one and while they were dancin’ my friend stole my sweetheart from me’. Klein and Meg’s love for each other was forged through the shielding role he assumed for her in the abusive household they both grew up in. He doesn’t lose her to an old friend, but rather time itself as she grows into womanhood and wants a new life independent of her former protector.

Later in the novel, Klein braces Tilly Hopewell, the hophead consort of hoodlum Tommy Kafesjian. When approaching Tilly’s apartment door he peeps through the keyhole and sees a stoned Tilly flipping channels on the TV, ‘Flip – Perry Como, boxing, Patti Page’. The sight of the beautiful Ms Page does not inspire Klein to show any kindness towards Tilly. In fact, the memory seems to provoke more violence in him, as he is very rough with Tilly, grabbing and dragging her to the bathroom to sober her up with a blast of cold water.

Perhaps this is the broadcast of Patti Page that Klein caught a glimpse of through’s Tilly’s keyhole:

Harbor Lights

One of the most memorable characters in White Jazz is the black singer Lester Lake. Lake seduces the girlfriend of movie mogul Harry Cohn. Cohn puts a ten grand contract on Lake’s head. Klein uses his mob clout to get Lake’s sentence ‘reduced’, but he still faces the grisly punishment of having his vocal chords sliced. After this punishment is carried out, Klein arranges for Lake to have immediate medical treatment by a disbarred doctor who moonlights as an abortionist. Lake’s singing career is saved but ‘his voice went baritone to tenor’, and he is now obligated to be a police informer for Klein.

When Klein visits Lester Lake at the Tiger Room he walks in on him singing ‘Blue Moon’. His signature song however is ‘Harbor Lights’. The Tiger Room is operated by two Mob brothers who took part in Lake’s macabre punishment. They feel some sort of karmic responsibility to the old crooner, ‘Long as they run the Southside slots and vending shit for Mr. Cohen, Lester Lake’s rendition of ‘Harbor Lights’ will be on that jukebox’. Klein regards the song as ‘pure schmaltz’ and when Lake plays the tune on the jukebox during another visit Klein tetchily asks ‘why you played that goddamned song’. Dudley Smith’s minions Breuning and Carlisle try to pin a murder on Lake and knock his teeth out during a brutal interrogation, taunting him to ‘try to sing ‘Harbor Lights’ now’.

‘Harbor Lights’ was first recorded in London in 1937. The first American recording was by Frances Langford later that year in Los Angeles. The song became a massive hit in 1950 when it was recorded by the Sammy Kaye orchestra, and since then it has been covered countless times. As with ‘Tennessee Waltz’, the song is rich in story and character. The singer looks on at harbour lights in the darkness, as a ship carries his/her sweetheart away. A Hawaiian melody gives the song an island flavour, and alludes to where the voyage will end.

Why does Lester like the song so much? After he is attacked Lake appears not to be sentimental about love, telling Klein that ‘my ladyfriends. I make them think I gots queer tendencies, then they works that much harder to set me straight’. However, one suspects that Lake’s rendition of ‘Harbor Lights’ reminds him of the love for which he paid a horrific price. Klein, in turn, feels a fraternal affection for Lake, providing him with an alibi for the murder rap he was facing and meting out some physical punishment to Breuning and Carlisle for the way they treated him. Klein’s forbidden love was for Meg. Lake’s mistake was falling for a white woman. They have both paid for their transgressions, and share this odd bond over a cloyingly sentimental song.

The version of ‘Harbor Lights’ below was recorded by The Platters:

James Ellroy: From Author to Character

August 1, 2021

James Ellroy’s Demon Dog persona has certainly helped to make the author’s presence felt in both media and literary circles. Even if you have never read Ellroy, you are probably somewhat familiar with that lanky, bald author in the Reyn Spooner shirt with a penchant for barking like a dog. With a literary personality as distinct as Hemingway, Mailer or Vidal, it was only a matter of time before Ellroy became a character in the work of other authors.

Several novelists have been able to draw upon distinct chapters of Ellroy’s life, and create radically different characters as a consequence. If you were to read these novels and didn’t know that Ellroy was the inspiration for a certain character, you’d probably never guess they were all based on the same person. Let’s take a look:

Days of Smoke

Woody Haut’s Days of Smoke is an intimate portrait of Sixties rebellion, which works both as a noir thriller and a drama about intersecting lives. The novel begins with its lead character Mike Howard walking into the office of the regional US Draft Board to declare himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Mike’s friend Jonathan attends the predominantly Jewish Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, where he gets himself in constant trouble for his nutty behaviour and Far-Right political views. Sound familiar? Jonathan is a thinly-veiled portrait of Lee Ellroy – the troubled teenager who would become the adult James Ellroy.

Haut understands Ellroy well after interviewing him for his book Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, and also being my keynote speaker when I arranged an academic conference which examined Ellroy’s work. Jonathan goes by Juan, as he reasons being a Cuban right-winger will make him even more detested, and he craves the attention that comes with being hated. Mike says of Jonathan ‘(he) had more than his share of misfortunes, which had turned him into the person he now was, that this right-wing thing was just a guise, a way of separating himself from others, allowing him to become someone different, that the death of his mother was the beginning of a process that simply allowed him to shed one skin for another, though what he was today might not necessarily be who he would become tomorrow.’

Which leads us to our next portrayal.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is the sixth novel in Andrew Vachss’ Burke series. Vachss and Ellroy were friends for several years, and Vachss discussed their friendship in interviews with Craig McDonald and John Williams. In the novel, the vigilante Burke drives from NYC way out to the sticks of Dutchess County to see his friend, an ex-con counterfeiter named Elroy (note the spelling). The scene is largely comical. Burke brings his dog Pansy and Elroy suggests she should breed with his white pitbull Barko. When Burke first glimpses Elroy he describes him as ‘a tall, rawboned, slope-shouldered man with a doofus moustache. Hair cropped short, wearing tiny round sunglasses.’ Elroy demonstrates Barko’s latest trick, fitting him with a harness and urging him to pull forward ‘a low-slung four-wheeled cart […] piled high with solid-concrete blocks.’ Barko succeeds in his task, to the delight of Elroy.

This is one of the strangest portrayals of James Ellroy, as in a sense it is not Ellroy at all. This ‘Elroy’ is a backwoodsman who lives off the land. He ‘blows ducks off the water with his shotgun. Anything that had fur, feathers, or scales. He wasn’t a hunter, he was an armed consumer.’ That said, we can detect elements of Ellroy here, particularly his wild-man Demon Dog persona. This Elroy is far from being the distinguished author we know today, but he does make an offhand comment to Burke that “All I been through, man, I’m gonna write a book.”

Bandbox

In Thomas Mallon’s delightfully witty novel Bandbox, the titular magazine is a monthly publication run by the bombastic Joe Harris. The setting is 1920s New York, and the decade of Prohibition led to boom times for bootleggers and ample work for crime reporters. Working the crime beat for Bandbox is Max Stanwick, who is described as:

a successful writer of hard-boiled mystery novels, now also wrote features for Bandbox on the nation’s ever-burgeoning crime wave. The fact-checkers sometimes muttered that he had made no discernible shift from the methods of his old genre to those of non-fiction, but Stanwick’s pieces were immensely popular and the occasion of some of Harris’s more memorable cover lines: LEND ME YOUR EARS had announced Max’s recent report on a spate of loansharking mutilations in Detroit.

Mallon and Ellroy first met when they were both working for GQ magazine in the 90s. Joe Harris was based on GQ’s then editor-in-chief Art Cooper. Ellroy, like Stanwick, employed a similar prose style as a journalist as the one he had developed in his novels. If anything, the short fiction pieces Ellroy published in GQ pushed that Ellrovian style to the limits. An article Stanwick writes on the hoodlum Arnold Rothstein has the copy chief, Nan O’Grady, all of a flutter. At first Harris thinks Nan is complaining about Stanwick’s urban grammar again “some people in his piece saying ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ they’re gangsters.’ But it transpires that Nan is displeased about Stanwick making a reference to Rothstein’s ‘schvantz‘, a term she pronounces with ‘the lilting precision of a lieder singer’.

Ellroy, the Man and his (Demon) Dog

Ellroy would have never have made it into the pages of these novels were he not such a larger than life character in person, and all of that raw energy can be found in the pages, first and foremost, of his own classic works. However, whether you’re an Ellroy devotee or more of a casual reader, I can highly recommend these three wonderful novels – Days of Smoke, Sacrifice and Bandbox. Set in different eras – the 20s, 60s and 90s – and featuring three very different characters all based on the Ellroy each individual author knew, they present humorous and fascinating caricatures of the self-styled Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. And if you struggle to find much similarity between the three characters, remember that Ellroy has always believed in standing out. No matter how much his personality may change one thing remains constant – he won’t let you forget him.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Age of Innocence (1958-1963)

July 16, 2021

James Ellroy is well-known for his dislike of Rock ‘n’ Roll and popular music in general, but when asked by Allen Bara if there was any type of popular music he enjoys, Ellroy response was both direct and intriguing, ‘I don’t mind sappy, oldie kinds of tunes – say, 1958 to 1963.’ This five year period was pivotal both in the evolution of music styles and in America’s political and social history. Ellroy was ten years old when his mother was murdered in 1958, and fifteen when JFK was assassinated in 1963. It was his age of innocence, if it can be said he ever truly enjoyed one, and also the time-frame he returned to in some of his most powerful historical fiction. The music he absorbed in this period is therefore crucial to an understanding of Ellroy as an author, and to why his affection for popular music abruptly stopped in 1963.

A Thousand Stars

Benoit Cohen directed a documentary examining Ellroy’s life and work. It aired in 2000 as part of the French television series A Century of Writers. Towards the end of the episode Ellroy describes an epiphany he had when he happened to hear a song on the radio:

I recall the evening of September 10th, 1961. I was thirteen years old. I was out on the grass and it was a very hot, early September night in LA with my buddy Randy Rice. We were both lying on the cold grass in front of his apartment building at 1st and St Andrews. Randy had a portable radio and he was playing a song by Kathy Young and the Innocents and it went ‘A thousand stars in the sky makes me realise you are the one love I’ll adore’. And I thought: Ellroy, you motherfucker. You tall skinny-ass big dick motherfucker (big dick in my dreams). You are gonna be a big dog in this life. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. And now that I’ve achieved a measure of success I don’t think that way any more, but I vividly recall that moment.

Cohen was able to get copyright clearance on the song and played it over the closing credits of the documentary. When Ellroy viewed the documentary and heard the song again he cried. It was the first time that he had heard the song in almost forty years. Kathy Young was only fifteen years old when ‘A Thousand Stars’ was a huge hit in that Summer of ’61. It made her a star, but her subsequent records were not as successful. Ellroy had to wait a long time before he achieved the fame that ‘A Thousand Stars’ made him yearn for, and there were many traumatic episodes and professional stumbling blocks along the way. Nevertheless, he is the big dog of American literature he always wanted to be.

Kathy Young is still performing and her rendition of ‘A Thousand Stars’ seems to get more beautiful with the passing of time. The original recording is below:

Chanson D’amour

On November 22, 1963, CBS had been due to run a report on the increasing popularity of The Beatles. JFK’s assassination led to the report being shelved, but it ran the following month when Walter Cronkite felt that the American public desperately needed some positive news. The Beatles made their US television performing debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and Beatlemania and the subsequent British Invasion began sweeping across North America, pushing aside the popularity of Doo-Wop groups, which had already gone into decline.

It was around this time that Ellroy’s hatred of popular music seems to have kicked in. It was a difficult time for him personally as he was expelled from Fairfax High School, joined the army and quickly dropped out again, his father died and Ellroy had years of substance abuse, homelessness and jail time ahead of him. Truly, Ellroy’s innocent years were behind him, as they were for America. The sixties became the decade of political assassinations, deadly riots in the big cities and escalating involvement in the Vietnam War. Musical trends reflected the rebellious, anti-establishment mood of the time. Arguably, the music Ellroy enjoyed from 1958 to 63 was not strictly ‘innocent’. It dealt with themes of sexual longing and rejection. But there’s little doubt that the sexual frankness of a band such as The Rolling Stones made older star acts seem chaste and quaint.

My next musical choice comes from the 58 to 63 Golden years. Ellroy references ‘Chanson d’amour’ (love song) written by Wayne Shanklin and performed by Art and Dotty Todd in his debut novel Brown’s Requiem. Fritz Brown recalls it when he is reminiscing about songs he enjoyed listening to with his old patrol partner, ‘the songs were all there in my dreams’. He references it again in White Jazz, when Dave Klein is listening to a covert audio recording of Lucille Kafesjian and an unidentified man she is sleeping with ‘Click – figure a radio – ‘…chanson d’amour, ratta-tat-tatta, play encore.’ Blurred voices, click.’ The reference is somewhat cynical, as Lucille and the man have been playing twisted ‘father-daughter games’.

In 2010, Ellroy chose the song when he was a guest on the BBC Radio 4 show Inheritance Tracks. The format of the show is that guests pick tracks which they ‘inherited from their parents and songs they’d pass on to their children’. Ellroy’s choice is tinged with melancholy given his mother’s murder and how her unhappy marriage with Armand Ellroy had ended in divorce:

The song I inherit is Art and Dotty Todd singing ‘Chanson d’amour’ because it is closely associated with my mother’s murder. It was a big hit then. I cannot hear it without travelling back to that time, sight, sound, smell.

British readers may be more familiar with Manhattan Transfer’s cover of ‘Chanson d’amour’ which reached No.1 in the UK in the 1970s. However, the original version remains the best:

A James Ellroy Playlist: The Wheels of History

July 2, 2021

James Ellroy’s novel This Storm begins with the epigraph ‘Blood alone moves the wheels of history’. They are the words of Benito Mussolini, whose ruthless rise to power, disastrous attempts to build a new Roman empire and wretched fate almost served to prove his point. In the novel, Ellroy examines the work, politics and personalities of three composers whose lives, as with everyone else who lived through the tumultuous years of the Second World War, were bound to the wheels of history.

Nikolai Medtner

Kay Lake is studying music under the ‘Maestro’ Otto Klemperer. One of the key pieces she studies is Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza. Her diary entries express frustration at its complexity, ‘the shifts in tempo continue to perplex me’. And yet as she slowly begins to master it, she is astounded by its beauty: ‘It is both pictorial and diffuse. The piece depicts recollection and portrays the sweet heartbreak of time lost and recalled’.

Nikolai Medtner was born in Tsarist Russia in 1879. He was a contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff who left Russia, fleeing the revolution in 1917. Medtner left Russia in 1921. Rachmaninoff, who became a major star in the west, secured Medtner a tour of the US and Canada in 1924. However, Medtner was ill-suited to the commercial realities of the music business, and he and his wife Anna settled in London, where he led a modest life composing and teaching. At the outbreak of World War Two, his regular income from German publishers suddenly disappeared and, near destitute and increasingly ill, he was given shelter by his pupil Edna Iles for much of the war. The 1942 setting of This Storm was a low point for Medtner, but he continued to compose and his reputation was revived after the war, albeit his health never recovered. He died in London in 1951.

‘Comrade’ Joan Rosen Klein tells Kay Lake that she detests Medtner because “he hates the Bolsheviks.” Furthermore, Kay is “really not much of a comrade if you like Medtner.” To which Kay retorts “Rachmaninoff hates the Bolsheviks. Scriabin hated them, as well. I’d say that puts Medtner in good company.”

Below is Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza performed by the Russian pianist Anna Zassimova who has been described as ‘a pianist of a kind rarely still found, the sort you’d imagine in the pages of a 19th century novel.’ Listen to this beautiful rendition and think of Kay Lake, in the pages of Ellroy’s epic historical novels, learning this to perfection at the behest of the Maestro.

Dimitri Shostakovich

It’s not just music that Kay is learning from Klemperer. He is also teaching her the art of politics. Klemperer has played a role in the smuggling of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 (also known as ‘the Leningrad’) into the west from war-torn Russia. He tells Kay, “The finished score will reach me in advance. Smuggling plans now proceed. I will put together a vast assembly of film-studio musicians. Exorbitant ticket prices will assure vast sums for European war relief.”

Shostakovich made a microfilm copy of the score in Samara, and it was sent to New York via Tehran and Cairo. In the 1930’s, Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin and the Soviet regime became strained. He had been denounced in Pravda after Stalin disliked a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. By the time of the Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich’s position had improved considerably as his music could be employed for propaganda purposes. The symphony premiered in London and New York before it was performed in Leningrad, then still enduring a devastating German siege, on August 9, 1942. Musicians were suffering from starvation and three died during rehearsals, but the Leningrad premiere still proved a major rallying cry to the city’s, and indeed all of Russia’s, resistance to the German invasion. The intense suffering of Leningrad’s citizens bleeds into Shostakovich’s composition. Klemperer tells Kay how in the score you can hear the German tanks “descend upon Leningrad. Dimitri errs on the side of the descriptive and polemical here. He hates Hitler and Stalin equally.”

The German tanks Klemperer refers to can be heard during the ‘Invasion Theme’. Here it is performed by the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Alfonso Scarano:

Otto Klemperer

Otto Klemperer was born in Breslau, Kingdom of Prussia in 1885. He held a number of positions as a conductor in Germany before fleeing the Nazis, and moving to the United States in the 1930s. In the US, Klemperer was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Klemperer had ambitions to be a great composer, but his work is largely out of print and rarely, if ever, performed today. As a conductor he was second to none, albeit at a cost to his health. He suffered from manic-depressive episodes and was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1939. Kay witnesses his physical and mental suffering, ‘Klemperer half-slurred. He pushed words and made himself understood’. Despite being a naturalised American citizen, Klemperer was unable to renew his US passport in 1952 (due to his left-wing views). He returned to Europe and died in Zurich in 1973, at the age of 88. Although the surgery to remove the brain tumour led Klemperer to suffer from paralysis, he continued to work regularly.

In the audio file below Klemperer is at the peak of his career in the US, conducting Mozart at the Hollywood Bowl in 1938, a year before he fell ill. Check out that rock star audience…

A James Ellroy Playlist: South of the Border

June 20, 2021

A shorter post today. I’m swamped with work on other projects right now, which gives me less time for this site. However, continuing my series on James Ellroy and music, I am going to highlight a couple of musical pieces which have been inspired by the Demon Dog’s work. Any artist who takes inspiration from Ellroy is not afraid to go to some dark places, and today’s choices have a rather mystical, dangerous or downright head-tripping flair.

Pour yourself a shot of tequila and prepare to ‘go with the music – spin, fall with it.’

Tijuana Bible

Tom Russell is a singer-songwriter, author and painter with an enigmatic persona to match Ellroy. In an interview with Craig McDonald, Russell tacitly admits that his song ‘Tijuana Bible’ was inspired by Ellroy’s writing. The song is rich in story and character. McDonald describes it as ‘Ellroy’s entire LA Quartet distilled down to a single, intoxicating song’:

LA mobster Mickey Cohen’s stooge Johnny Stompanato gets shanked by movie queen Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane. “Stomp” rides “an ice truck down the brand new Harvard freeway.” A MacArthur Park-based PI investigates. Seeking a treasure map, the Eye digs up Johnny’s corpse, looking for riches… and finds an LA Confidential-style “Tijuana Bible” full of smutty sketches of Cary Grant doing the nasty with Donald’s drifting squeeze Daisy Duck “in a Tijuana bedroom.”

And here is the song. It’s a fantastic song crammed with LA lore and a quintessentially noir sense of humour, which reminds me of a joke the author Steve Hodel once told me. – ‘I remember back in the Fifties as a young man trying to learn a new dance. It was called, “The Stompanato Stomp”. It’s where the girls cut in.’

Out Walked Bud/in Walked Bud

Double Naught Spy Car are a band that provided atmospheric background music to several of James Ellroy’s public readings during the mid-1990s. Variously described as ‘surf noir, jazz on acid, spaghetti middle eastern, and “difficult”’ Double Naught Spy Car have produced great instrumental music, as colourful and surreal as the world of Ellroy’s fiction. Their first album, Comb in Blue Water, was released in 1998, shortly after their collaborative readings with Ellroy. It’s a great album to play while reading Ellroy (particularly if you’ve just bought a copy of Widespread Panic). Below is one of my favourite tracks, ‘Out Walked Bud/in Walked Bud’. It’s a homage to the Thelonius Monk tune ‘Bud Walked In’, but for our purposes, play it with Bud White in mind. And pity the wife-beater who opens their door one evening to find the ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’, inviting them to ‘dance with a man for a change’.

Widespread Panic by James Ellroy – Review

June 8, 2021

Fred Otash is back! Actually, he’s dead. He’s stuck in ‘Penance Penitentiary, Reckless-Wrecker-Of-Lives Block, Pervert Purgatory’. Otash decides to pen a confessional in the hopes of improving his eternal fate. The action jumps back to 1950’s LA, and Freddy’s in his prime.

Dig: He’s verifying salacious stories for the scandal-rag Confidential. He’s an informer for LAPD Chief William H Parker, who wants to lure Confidential into a honeytrap that will topple its tabloid crown. Freddy’s got the goods on everyone in Hollywood. He knows that James Dean is the ‘Human Ashtray’ gimp for his studio masters, aka Nazi-obsessed Afrika Korp fetishist director Nicholas Ray.

Look alive Kats: Ray is a flamer who flings himself at good-looking starlets and actors faster than he can get into bed, figuratively speaking, with Caryl Chessman. Chessman is the robber, kidnapper and rapist whose scheduled appointment with the green room in San Quentin has become a cause celebre to Hollywood figures such as Ray and Marlon Brando who are determined to halt the execution.

Woof Daddy-O: Otash sees the libertine, hypocritical side of Hollyweird which is closed off to the public. He knows that Phyllis Gates ain’t gonna turn her husband Rock Hudson straight, but frankly the portrayal of that couple is relatively tender given the sordid conduct of everyone else. Then Otash falls in love with the actress Lois Nettleton, and we are reminded that behind the glitz and glamour, Hollywood is still the land of dreamers and hopeless romantics.

Tomorrow is a drag, man! Tomorrow is a king-sized bust!: This is the dawn of the age of Camelot, and a certain Senator for Massachusetts with Presidential ambitions can’t help but dip into the boudoir delights that Hollywood has to offer. Such is the confluence between politics and entertainment, tabloid journalism and the silver screen, which makes the Devil’s work and Fred Otash’s payday in Widespread Panic.

The world I am describing could only stem from the fertile mind of James Ellroy, and Widepread Panic is a wild jazzy ride that readers will storm through in one or two breathless sittings. Reviewing the book for the Financial Times, Barry Forshaw describes Widespread Panic as the novel that will ‘win back the legions of fans who have deserted him’. It’s a sobering thought to think that Ellroy has lost fans. I would argue that they have become a bit jaded by the excessive demands that Perfidia and This Storm put on the reader. With Widespread Panic, Ellroy has found a comfortable middle-ground. The tone here is comic, but not in the outrageous-style of the Danny Getchell novellas. It’s Freddy’s first-person narration and Ellroy has a nice distance from the character. In interviews, Ellroy goes to great pains to specify that although he may have liked Otash and found him a veritable goldmine of information, he never actually respected or admired the man. He does succeed in reining in Otash’s more callous, venal nature at crucial junctures, such as in his love for Nettleton.

The structure is also Ellroy at his creative best. Widespread Panic is composed of three novellas – ‘Shakedown’, ‘Perv Dog’ and ‘Gonesville’- – which, when taken together, can also be read as a single novel. Widespread Panic may not be as epically perfect as Ellroy’s best work, but it will, I suspect, reassure a few waverers. And, as Ellroy has already indicated that there are more Fred Otash books to come, it signals a return to the 1950s Los Angeles setting of which he is the undisputed master.

Spreading the Word

May 26, 2021

Recently, I’ve been contributing to the wider blogosphere/podcast world and spreading the word about the Demon Dog. Firstly, the Ellroy Boys invited me on to their podcast to discuss LA Confidential, both novel and film. I had huge fun discussing all things Ellroy with Sam, Brendan and the rest of the guys. You can listen to the podcast here.

I was also interviewed by Hannah Stevenson for her blog The Dorset Book Detective. We talked about my love of crime fiction, the books I’ve written and, of course – the Demon Dog! You can read the interview here.

Photo by Sterling Davis on Unsplash
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