Skip to content

A James Ellroy Playlist: Golden Oldies

May 4, 2021

James Ellroy has always understood the power of nostalgia. In one sense, he is trying to demystify the past as a more placid or conservative time. Take, for example, his portrayal of policing in the LA Quartet, or political corruption during the Kennedy era. At the same time, Ellroy is not immune to the charms of nostalgia. He often claims to ‘live in the past’ and, judging by the fact that he doesn’t use a computer or a mobile phone, he is not being disingenuous. Ellroy views nostalgia as a form of merry-go-round. It’s easy to be taken in by the schmaltz and the music of the ride, but eventually (as in the climax of Strangers on a Train), the carousel will come off the hinges and everything and everyone on it will come crashing down.

Hop on:

Come Go With Me

Blood on the Moon begins on Friday, June 10th, 1964, ‘the start of KRLA golden oldie weekend’. Two school thugs, Larry ‘Birdman’ Craigie and Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines are planning to viciously assault their fellow pupil, Theodore ‘the Poet’ Verplanck, who has mocked their masculinity in the High School Poetry Review. They play the radio to drown out Verplanck’s screams during the assault, which unexpectedly escalates into a rape. Quite a few musical artists are mentioned as playing on the radio during the build-up, occurrence and aftermath of the assault. Ellroy name-checks the Fleetwoods, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. It’s worth noting though that Oldies Stations didn’t appear until the early 1970s, and many of the acts that are referenced in the scene would have been at the height of their career in 1964. Nevertheless, the build-up of nostalgia-tinged music is crucial to making the violent climax of the scene all the more shocking. One song is specifically mentioned as Birdman and Whitey are planning to ambush Verplanck:

Their plan of disrobing, beating, genital painting, and shaving was hatched. Now, if it all worked out, was the time. Larry watched Whitey trace swastikas in the sawdust with a two by four. The Del-Viking’s rendition of ‘Come Go With Me’ ended and the news came on, meaning it was three o’clock. Larry heard the whoops a moment later, then watched as the workmen gathered up their handtools.

Note the disturbing sexual language used to describe their plans, which perhaps makes the rape less of a surprise than it appears on first reading. After the attack takes place, ‘Cathy’s Clown’ by the Everly Brothers comes on the radio. This is the more symbolic song to the plot. Verplanck literally becomes Kathy’s Klown to Kathy’s Kourt, the female poetry group whose titular leader is the object of Verplanck’s affections. Whitey and Birdman lured Verplanck into a trap by writing a letter, in Kathy’s name, inviting him to a rendezvous. Rereading the scene though, I was struck by the symbolism of ‘Come Go With Me’. The doo-wop vocals set a saccharine tone, but as the song progresses the singer sounds increasingly desperate, until the heartbreaking final line ‘You never give me a chance’. Verplanck woke up on June 10th, 1964 thinking he had a date with Kathy. The murderous ramifications that came from the trap set by Whitey and Birdman would last for decades. Truly, he never had a chance.

Runaway

In an interview with Ian Johnston for PURR magazine, Ellroy claimed:

I like the good old romantic golden oldies of my youth, like Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, spring 1961 when I was at junior high school and in love with this girl.

Ellroy was chasing girls when Del Shannon’s song ‘roared up the pop charts on its way to #1’. Ellroy didn’t have any luck with the opposite sex at the time. In the wake of his mother’s murder, he had too many emotional issues to make much of a boyfriend. But his love of women, and of this song, would grow in adulthood. He references it again in Brown’s Requiem, when Fritz Brown is steeling himself for his violent confrontation with Haywood Cathcart.

I rose the next morning from a troubled sleep populated by my old patrol partner Deverson, a mad collector of Fab 40 records and women’s pubic hair. The songs were all there in my dreams: ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon.

Note the mixing of vintage nostalgia with perversion here, Deverson collects ‘Fab 40 records’ and ‘pubic hair’. It’s notable how often Ellroy uses cultural references in anticipation of and during violent scenes. In addition to his song-filled dreams, Brown composes a poem, or rather it comes to him in an epiphany. When he finally does confront Cathcart, the two men discuss classical music. ‘Runaway’ is a reaction to losing a woman, ‘she ran away / And I wonder where she will stay / my little runaway’. It’s a melancholy nostalgia, not giving much hope for a future. Perhaps this is why Ellroy uses Golden Oldies as a warning – safety is in the past, the present is fragile, and violence is to come.

‘Runaway’ has been covered countless times. The best cover was by Shannon himself, as the theme tune to Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story. Sadly, Shannon died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 55.

Unchained Melody

The final scene of American Tabloid (Spoiler Alert) takes place in a dive bar in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Mob hitman Pete Bondurant has gone to watch the cabaret act of his new bride, Barb Jahelka. Bondurant is complicit in the Kennedy assassination, so he knows what the crowds gathering around Dealey Plaza don’t know. The pomp and circumstance of a presidential visit is about to come to a brutal end:

The combo mauled an uptempo number. Barb blew him a kiss. Pete sat down and smiled his “Sing me a soft one” smile.

A lacklustre crowd was watching the show – maybe a dozen lunchtime juicers total.

A roar ripped through the place – HE’S COMING HE’S COMING HE’S COMING

Every patron and barmaid and kitchen geek ran for the door.

As the bar staff and lunchtime drinkers rush to get a glimpse of the Kennedy cavalcade, Pete and Barb are left alone in the bar. The song she picks at his silent prompting is ‘Unchained Melody’. One of the best songs about yearning for a lover that the singer knows, deep down, they have lost, ‘Unchained Melody’ is an intriguing coda to the novel. Is Ellroy urging the reader to let go of the myths surrounding Kennedy’s Camelot?

The timing of the scene is interesting in relation to the history of the song. The definitive version of ‘Unchained Melody’ was recorded by the Righteous Brothers in July 1965, almost two years after the Kennedy assassination took place. But the song had been a huge success from the moment in was released in 1955, with three artists having Billboard Top 10 hits of the song that same year. Many female artists, Patti Page, Cyndi Lauper, Leann Rimes, have covered the song brilliantly, so one can assume Barb Jahelka would have knocked her version out of the park.

It was originally written for the prison drama Unchained. As this seems the most closely related to the melancholy nature of nostalgia in Ellroy’s work, I have posted a clip of the film below. Performed by Todd Duncan, the song was nominated for an Oscar:

Mr Campion’s Coven by Mike Ripley – Review

April 26, 2021

UK, 1971. Strikes, flying pickets, and all manner of industrial strife dominate the news headlines. Northern Ireland is going up in flames, and flares are running down the legs of Britain’s long-haired youth. Not that all of this cultural and social change matters much to the aging Albert Campion. If you mentioned Glam Rock to the Toffish detective he’d probably think it was the title of an obscure geological journal. Nevertheless, this is the changing Britain of Mike Ripley’s brilliant series of Albert Campion novels, which have developed the much-loved character who first appeared in Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).

Wicken, an Essex village where the yokels make the inhabitants of Summerisle look positively normal. The place is a treasure trove to Harvard student Mason Lowell Clay. He’s writing a thesis on a group of settlers who travelled from Wicken and landed in Harker’s Island, North Carolina. Campion is on hand to help him with his research, but the strange doings around Wicken have already lured Campion to the village. The noted actress Dame Jocasta Upcott’s yacht has run aground on a Wicken mudbank. Dame Jocasta wants Campion to find her missing dog Robespierre, whose disappearance concerns her far more than the yacht or the fact that the captain has been found dead. Campion has a mystery to unravel, but where do the answers lie? Is it a case of smuggling gone wrong, or a sinister tale of the clash between Christian and Pagan traditions?

Ripley’s novels have always had a great sense of locale and, as a former archaeologist, he knows this mud-splattered topography well. Essex is a bellwether among the Home Counties. It was key to the electoral success of Thatcher, Blair and now Boris. Thus, it is a perfect setting for a crime story grappling with the spiritual battle between covenanters and wicca pagans. A narrative best described as a cross between Deliverance and The Midwich Cuckoos. Emotional spoiler alert: Several pooches go missing in the course of the story, but dog-lovers need not worry, all of the canines fare better than the human characters in this novel or indeed, the real-life Robespierre. There is affection though in Ripley’s comic sketches of characters. I was fond of the haughty diva Dame Jocasta, and the boozy theatrical agent Maxim Berlins, a fine tribute to the great Marcel Berlins.

I don’t wish to overplay the darkness of the story, after all what is a Campion tale without lashings of wit. And Mr Campion’s Coven has wit in abundance. I found myself looking forward to the hour a day I’d put aside to read it, and rather like an indulgent cocktail hour, that sixty minutes was often extended.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Composure

April 15, 2021

Classical music is one of James Ellroy’s greatest passions, and his novels are littered with references to it. For my latest piece on Ellroy and music, I am going to examine the personalities of two of Ellroy’s favourite composers and look at how their obsessions influenced his writing.

Anton Bruckner

In Brown’s Requiem, the lead character Fritz Brown, a repo-man cum private detective, is an admirer of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner: ‘I heard the Bruckner Third the other night on KUSC. Haitink and the Concertgebouw. Lonely Anton at his peak.’ He takes inspiration from Bruckner’s chaste dedication to his craft, although Brown is too worldly a man for abstinence. He is addicted to booze and women. His admiration for Bruckner’s ideals, yet failure to adhere to them, haunts him in his final confrontation with the antagonist Haywood Cathcart. Having tracked the vicious killer Cathcart to his house in Del Mar, Brown holds him at gunpoint. Rather than beg for his life, the wounded Cathcart asks Brown to look inside his desk drawer. To his surprise, in the drawer Brown finds two ‘loving mounted likenesses of Anton Bruckner’. Cathcart proceeds to lecture Brown on Bruckner’s character:

You love Bruckner. But you don’t understand him. What his music meant. It’s about containment. Refined emotions. Sacrifice. Purity. Control. Duty. The muted melancholy throughout his symphonies! A call to arms. A policeman who loves Bruckner and you can’t feel his essence. He never wed, Brown. He never fucked women. He wouldn’t expend one ounce of his creative energy on anything but his vision. I have been Anton Bruckner, Brown. You can be, too.

Brown shoots Cathcart dead before he can continue his speech. He is emotionally devastated that a morally repugnant man like Cathcart could love Bruckner’s music as much as he does, and even understand it better. All of which might seem highly unlikely and overwritten for a crime novel. But, if you adore Ellroy’s early novels as much as I do, you can admire how Ellroy the young writer, newly sober and rebuilding his life, is emotionally engaging on a very pure level with Bruckner’s music and his Romantic ideals.

Here is Bruckner’s Symphony No.3 in D minor, conducted by Bernard Haitink for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Listen to this while you chew over the ideals of ‘lonely Anton’. Just don’t get upset if someone you can’t abide enjoys Bruckner’s music just as much you do!

Ludwig van Beethoven

Probably no other composer has been as influential on Ellroy’s life as Beethoven. He first heard the composer’s work in junior high school, ‘One day in class Hines (his art teacher) dropped a needle on a record. “Da-da-da dunnn. Over! It was just over. Immediately.”’ Ellroy still keeps a bust of Beethoven on his writing desk. In an interview I conducted with Ellroy, the author talked at length about his admiration for Beethoven:

What I love is the worse it got, the greater he got. In his famous quote when he started to go deaf, “I will take fate by the throat.” It’s just almost unfathomable courage. And the older he got, and he was dead at fifty-six, the more unfathomable and great and uncategorisable his music.

“I will take fate by the throat” became the epigraph to Ellroy’s memoir The Hilliker Curse. Ellroy alludes to parallels between his life and Beethoven’s in that when things went bad for Ellroy from 2001 onwards – the nervous breakdown, addiction issues, affairs and divorce he details in Hilliker Curse – artistically things started to get better. After recovering from this emotional meltdown, Ellroy wrote his comeback novel, Blood’s a Rover, which is among his most critically acclaimed. It features two female characters who could be considered Ellrovian versions of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’. The Immortal Beloved was the addressee of a love letter Beethoven wrote in 1812. For years scholars have debated the identity of the woman Beethoven was writing to, and it has even inspired a feature film. In Blood’s a Rover, ‘Comrade’ Joan Rosen Klein and Karen Sifakis are based on real women Ellroy became romantically involved with. The dedication reads, ‘To J.M. Comrade: For Everything You Gave Me’. In the novel, FBI agent Dwight Holly is having an affair with the married and pregnant Karen. He drives by her house at night, to catch a glimpse of her domestic life which he can never fully call his own, ‘She’d sense him on the terrace and blast Beethoven string quartets. She’d leave a kitchen light on to pinpoint the sound.’

I tend to associate Beethoven with Eurythmics, and Annie Lennox would be many a man’s Immortal Beloved. In Hilliker Curse, Ellroy describes his crush on the ‘mesmeric mezzo’ Anne Sofie von Otter. He owns several posters of her over the years, one of which was gnarled to pieces by his dog Barko. Embedded below is von Otter singing Beethoven’s ‘An die Geliebte’ (To the beloved), which the musicologist Maynard Solomon has argued must be dedicated to the same woman of the Immortal Beloved letter. Enjoy this lieder while you think of your own Immortal Beloved:

A James Ellroy Playlist: New York Stories

April 1, 2021

For the latest instalment in my series looking at music in the work of James Ellroy, we are going to look at three episodes from Ellroy’s life in New York City, with three accompanying pieces of music. Perhaps it’s appropriate for the melting pot that is New York, that none of the artists mentioned here were born in the Big Apple, although the city often factored into their lives in a big way.

Paperback Writer

Ellroy moved from Los Angeles to Eastchester, NY in 1981. Although he never actually lived in any of the five boroughs, Ellroy wanted to be close to the Mecca of American publishing that is NYC. Ellroy begins chapter seven of The Hilliker Curse with the words ‘Paperback writer’ in reference to The Beatles’ song which is structured as a query letter, ‘Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? / It took me years to write, will you take a look?’

The Beatles storming of America, and the British Invasion in general, began in New York with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. Seventy-three million people tuned in to watch as the Fab Four performed a five-song set which included ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, another song Ellroy references in The Hilliker Curse. When it comes to global fame, it’s probably impossible to top The Beatles. As John Lennon quipped, even Jesus struggled to match their popularity. Ellroy arrived in New York with a formidable ego and dreams of fame, but he would soon be disappointed with the muted reaction to his debut novel Brown’s Requiem:

It hit the stands in September ’81. It sold scant copies. There was no author photo and no woman with a cello represented. The cover sucked Airedale dicks. Fuck – a man with a gun and a golf course.

John Lennon was shot dead outside his apartment building, The Dakota, in December 1980, only a mile or so from the Ed Sullivan Theater where The Beatles first wowed US audiences sixteen years earlier. Ellroy did not write a New York Times bestseller, and by extension achieve a measure of the fame he craved, until the publication of his seventh novel The Black Dahlia in 1987. Broadly speaking, that was good for him as a writer. He honed his skills as a stylist and self-publicist in the intervening years so when his opportunity came, he grabbed it and has never looked back.

Here is that great Beatles tune which should serve as a warning to any wordsmith out there. Don’t chase fame until you have mastered your craft:

Slow Hand

It wasn’t just the professional contacts in New York that were so alluring to Ellroy. He described Eastchester as ‘sexile’. New York was a great place to meet and date women. Ellroy describes one romantic assignation:

We had dinner and a nightcap at her place. She played me a new record – the Pointer Sisters, with ‘Slow Hand.’

‘Slow Hand’ was released in May, 1981 and was an international hit, peaking at No.2 in the US charts. It’s a great scene-setter for a female seducing a male: ‘I want a man with a slow hand / I want a lover with an easy touch’. Of course there is another seduction taking place at the same time, as Ellroy describes, ‘The bedroom faced north. The Empire State Building filled the window. The spire was lit up red, white and green’. New York had cast its spell on the paperback writer.

Below is the music video to ‘Slow Hand’. The nightgowns, clinking wine glasses and roaring fire make for some sexy viewing. Overkill? Not at all. Forty years on it feels like an erotic riposte to our increasingly pornographic popular culture. Only the polar bear rug is a mood killer!

Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor

Every romantic dreamer can you tell you about ‘what might have been’. Ellroy describes several of these moments happening over the course of one evening in The Hilliker Curse. It all begins when he meets a ‘preppy woman’ at a publishing party in Murray Hill. Ellroy is sensing a vibe with the woman, but when he returns from ‘the can’ he finds that she has gone. He interrogates the other guests so aggressively about her whereabouts that the party host asks him to leave. Strolling through the streets afterwards, Ellroy is lost in his thoughts. He meets another woman named Marge at Grand Central Station. They share a train to their respective destinations. Again, Ellroy feels a vibe. She’s a commercial artist and her career is at a low-point. She’s been receiving rejections all day. Ellroy cheers her up, makes her laugh and feel better about herself. He’s good at that. But, sensing the conversation might be heading in the wrong direction, Marge informs him that she’s married.

Ellroy’s stop is first. He departs the train and stands on the platform by her window, ‘She pressed her hand up to the side of the glass. I placed my hand over it.’ When he gets home, Ellroy tells his widowed landlady about the incident. She tells him about a British film, Brief Encounter, and how he might like the Rachmaninoff soundtrack. Ellroy tracks down a copy of the film:

A man meets a woman in a train station. She’s married, he’s not. They acknowledge their love and kowtow to propriety and circumstance.

I first saw Brief Encounter as a teen and, consumed with adolescent angst, found it to be emotionally devastating. Rewatching the film as an adult, I was struck by how, this time round, Trevor Howard comes across as a professional seducer, and Celia Johnson’s return to her husband seems a far happier ending than it once did. But the raw power of the film remains undiminished by either interpretation. Rachmaninoff moved to New York, fleeing the Russian Revolution, in 1918 and lived in the city until 1942. He died in Beverly Hills the following year. Brief Encounter was released two years later, and its haunting score makes the unrequited love all the more powerful and painful.

It’s good music to have in your head for a long train journey. Just beware of the baggage that comes with good-looking strangers, whether you find them at Grand Central or in a sleepy English village station:

A James Ellroy Playlist: Sing It Like It Is

March 15, 2021

James Ellroy has often described his work as an alternative or secret history of twentieth-century America. In this world, ‘Bad White Men’ are in power and they are determined to keep a firm hold on it. Power may stem from positions of influence in the White House or the FBI, but Ellroy prefers characters whose authority comes from their status as corrupt cops, entrepreneurial gangsters or ideological racists. These are the noir characters who have discarded conventional morality in order to ‘dance to the music in their own heads‘. Ironically Ellroy frequently references music which is beyond the understanding of his racist men. For Ellroy understands that music is language, and if you are outside of its rhythm, then you cannot gain access to the world it is creating. Therefore, Ellroy can utilise jazz, Motown or soul music to undermine or mock the authority of his Bad White Men.

Twisted

One of Ellroy’s most prominent racist characters is the Mormon tycoon Wayne Tedrow Sr in The Cold Six Thousand. Tedrow Senior’s son, Wayne Jr, is a Las Vegas Sheriff who despises his father. But when Wayne Jr’s wife is murdered by a black man, Junior somewhat ambiguously embraces Senior’s racist views. Tedrow Sr’s wife Janice has a string of affairs to escape her husband’s boorish behaviour. Tedrow Sr tacitly endorses Janice’s flings as it gives him blackmailing opportunities. But when Janice sleeps with the black saxophonist Wardell Gray he is furious with her as she has crossed a (racial) line. Wayne Jr learns that his vengeful father personally beat Wardell Gray to death. One of his father’s ex-employees tells him: ‘Mommy had this unauthorised thing with a coloured musician named Wardell Gray, and Daddy beat him to death with his cane.’

To exact revenge on his father, Wayne Jr begins his own unauthorised affair with his stepmother Janice. In James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction, Jim Mancall argues that ‘It is not a coincidence that when Tedrow Jr and Janice finally consummate their lust, Junior notices that “the hi-fi was on” playing “cool jazz or some such shit-matched horns discordant”‘. The discordance of the music indicates that vows, contracts and traditions are being broken. But on a higher level, the harmonies are speaking of a love and sexual satisfaction that the sadistic Tedrow Sr will never experience. He can only view it from afar, quite literally, as he records Janice making love with her partners.

The circumstances surrounding Wardell Gray’s death are still murky. Ellroy gives some insight into how he adapted Gray’s story into fiction in this interview with Robert Birnbaum. One of Gray’s most famous compositions is ‘Twisted’. Here’s his original tune. Annie Ross added lyrics and it became a hit song for the jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1952. Their version is below. It’s a nicely comic number which now reminds me of the twisted trysts and love triangles of Tedrow Sr, Wayne Jr and Janice. Enjoy:

Tell It Like It Is

In Blood’s a Rover, Ellroy achieves some of his most effective and comical critiques of racism in his portrayal of the mental decline of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover might be considered the most powerful racist in Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. However, by the late 1960s, he is gradually succumbing to senility and faces a new threat from President Richard Nixon who clearly thinks Hoover’s time has passed. Hoover mocks Nixon’s efforts to appeal to a younger, ethnically diverse demographic through his use of the phrase ‘Tell it like it is’. In conversation with agent Dwight Holly, Hoover remarks, ‘Your telex implied that you have bad news. “Tell it like it is,” as President Nixon often states in his fawning efforts to sound au courant with longhairs and insurrection-seeking Negroes.’

The genesis of the phrase, both in popular culture and as a campaign slogan, is fascinating. Roy Milton recorded a song ‘Tell It Like It Is’ in 1954. In 1966, two years prior to Nixon’s election as President, Aaron Neville had a major hit with his song ‘Tell It Like It Is’. His version is below. For a hilarious reading by Ellroy himself of Hoover and Richard Nixon using jive phrases, check out this video. The reading begins at around the 53 minute mark.

The Tighten Up

It’s not just jive phrases that seem to be bugging Hoover in Blood’s a Rover. He develops a fascistic fixation on Archie Bell & the Drells. Hoover mentions to Dwight Holly that he heard a ‘very disquieting song on the radio’. The song is ‘The Tighten Up’ which, according to Hoover, ‘carried the air of insurrection and sex’. Early in the novel, Holly isn’t sure whether Hoover is genuinely senile or just trying to test him. How is he supposed to respond when Hoover tells him that he has instructed the ‘Los Angeles SAC to open a file on Mr Bell and to determine the identity of his Drells.’ But as the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Hoover is suffering from a sharp mental decline and all his attempts to deny it comically fail, ‘My physician, Dr Archie Bell, considers me to be an outstanding specimen’.

Here is the song that kickstarts Hoover’s dubious fascination with Archie Bell & the Drells. It’s a funky tune but I’m not sure why Hoover deemed it subversive. Maybe it’s the long intro. Bell always mentioned that the band was from Texas as after JFK’s assassination in Dallas, a DJ remarked ‘nothing good ever came from Texas’. Bell managed to prove him wrong:

A James Ellroy Playlist: It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But He Likes It)

March 1, 2021

For my latest instalment examining James Ellroy’s musical influences, I’m going to take a look at a genre of music Ellroy just loves to hate – Rock! The aim of this series was to establish that Ellroy’s musical knowledge extends far beyond his love of classical and jazz, so hopefully I can prove the Demon Dog has a sneaking admiration for Rock and its place in popular culture despite Ellroy once telling me that ‘I devoutly dislike rock ‘n roll and the mindset of rock ‘n roll, and the fact that there’s sixty-five and seventy-year old rock ‘n rollers out there in a state of perpetual reaction and perpetual rebelliousness.’

I guess I’ve always liked a challenge. Here goes:

Helter Skelter

Martin Plunkett is a unique character in Ellroy’s body-strewn literary works. He is a serial killer, the lead protagonist and narrator of Silent Terror. Ellroy’s preferred title for the novel was Killer on the Road and in subsequent reprints the novel was published under this title. The Doors song ‘Riders on the Storm’ features the lyrics ‘There’s a killer on the road, His brain is squirmin’ like a toad’. The song is a masterpiece in slow-burn menace and was reputedly based on the spree killer Billy Cook. However, Plunkett’s ability to evade the law is rooted in his anonymity. So perhaps a popular culture reference is better suited to a more visible, fame-hungry killer.

Early in his criminal career, Plunkett is somewhat in thrall to the reputation of the Manson Family. He meets two hippy Manson ‘recruiters’, Flower and Season. They give him their spiel about ‘Helter Skelter’, the supposed prophecy in The Beatles album of a coming apocalyptic race war. Later on, while serving time in the LA County Jail, Plunkett meets Manson. When he asks the self-styled prophet to explain ‘Helter Skelter’, Manson’s gives a rambling and incoherent response which includes an impromptu Beatles medley, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, let Helter Skelter make it be-et-ter. Remember, make the pigs get out of your mind-‘ Disgusted by what he sees, Plunkett proceeds to verbally humiliate Manson to the delight of some nearby deputies who cheer him on.

Bono once introduced a cover of ‘Helter Skelter’ with the words, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles, well we’re stealin’ it back.” Footage of The Beatles performing the song is rare, but in recent years it’s become a staple of Paul McCartney’s concerts. Here’s a barnstorming rendition of the song by Macca at Glastonbury in 2004. The quickfire editing of the video footage behind the musicians evokes a suitably eve of destruction theme.

Blueberry Hill

Manson’s tenuous connections to the Sixties music scene have been well-documented. Broadly Speaking, Ellroy’s more powerful characters are the criminals who are less extreme in their thoughts or deeds than either Manson or Plunkett. Ellroy is particularly good at creating dreamers with more ambition than talent who are following some half-cocked scheme to get into showbiz.

In Suicide Hill, there are two criminal brothers – Bobby and Joe Garcia. ‘Boogaloo’ Bobby is the more malicious sibling, a sexually predator who likes to hum the Jaws tune. Joe is more sensitive and too weak-willed for the criminal underworld. For years he has been trying to write a song called ‘Suicide Hill’, set to the tune of ‘Blueberry Hill’. He makes some half-baked attempts at adapting the lyrics ‘and death was a thrill on Suicide Hill’ but he is never able to finish the song. The lead antagonist of the novel, Duane Rice, is using his criminal schemes to try and fund a music career for his girlfriend Vandy. But Vandy doesn’t love him and she has no drive to succeed, so the huge risks Duane takes are for nothing. This gives Suicide Hill its melancholy tone. Dreams go unfulfilled and talent is not utilised. In ‘Blueberry Hill’ the singer laments that time cannot stand still and he is unable to hold on to that moment before his true love abandoned him.

The ephemeral nature of time in ‘Blueberry Hill’ has made it well-suited to works with an apocalyptic theme. The song is used extensively in Twelve Monkeys, in which a virus released in 1996 wipes out nearly all of humanity. ‘Blueberry Hill’ was written in 1940, but the most famous and best version was by Fats Domino in 1956. The worst cover version was by Vladimir Putin.

(I’ll Love You) Till The End of the World

By the late 1980s Ellroy’s work was beginning to have an influence on the Rock genre. Sonic Youth were big fans of the Demon Dog, dedicating performances of their songs to him during concerts. Their song ‘The Wonder’ is loosely inspired by the concept of the Wonder that Ellroy explored in Clandestine. In the novel, Freddy Underhill describes the Wonder as ‘the wonderful elliptical, mysterious stuff that we’re never going to know completely’. The song is a little too Heavy for my tastes, but by reading the lyrics without the music you can see how Sonic Youth display an Ellrovian flair.

Nick Cave declared himself a big Ellroy fan in the mid-90s. In a newsletter to his fans Cave describes how his study contains photos, lined up side by side, of three seminal figures in his life – Jesus Christ, James Ellroy and John Lee Hooker. Unfortunately, when Cave met Ellroy in London in March 1995 it was not a happy affair. Cave described Ellroy as ‘Jet-lagged and clearly deranged, he ranted on about rock ‘n roll being nothing more than “institutionalized rebellion”‘. In turn, Ellroy was dismissive of Cave when asked about the meeting some time later.

At least one good thing came out of the meeting. Cave recalls that Ellroy ‘was charitable enough to reiterate his admiration for my song, “Till The End Of The World”.’ This makes me think that Ellroy was perhaps a bigger fan of Cave than he was prepared to let on. Tucked away on the soundtrack of the film Until the End of the World (1991) the song is hardly Cave’s or the Bad Seeds’ best known work. Until the End of the World is an apocalyptic sci-fi road movie that begins by aping Blade Runner before transforming into a wonderfully eccentric series of vignettes. The year is 1999 and an out of control satellite orbiting the earth causes mass panic in the big cities. It’s an interesting film that sadly died at the box-office and is barely remembered today. But check it out. The soundtrack is particularly good, and Nick Cave’s song of romanticism and despair should linger with you long afterwards, as it did with James Ellroy.

 

 

 

 

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazette: Red Darktown

February 15, 2021

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the ninth instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, Six, Seven, and Eight.

The Great Depression’s crushing combination of high unemployment, no new housing construction, and more than half of all mortgages in default eventually led to a severe national housing shortage. The U.S. federal government responded with a policy based deliberately on segregation-fueled expansion.

According to Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law, the government deliberately excluded African Americans from newly-built suburban communities, relegating them instead to dilapidated urban housing projects, a move that Rothstein condemns as nothing less than “state-sponsored […] segregation.”

Rothstein details that the then relatively new Federal Housing Administration augmented the push for segregation with their refusal to insure mortgages in or in proximity to African American neighborhoods.

At the same time, the FHA also subsidized the mass production of whites-only subdivisions built under the binding stipulation that none of the homes ever be sold to African Americans.

According to Rothstein, the FHA’s justification for such discrimination, known as “redlining”, was the fear that if African Americans purchased homes in or near these suburbs, the property values of the surrounding white homes would plummet.

A Redlined 1930s lending map of metro Milwaukee from the Home Owners Loan Corporation. The shaded areas indicate where it was safe (or not) to insure mortgages. The red-shaded areas denote predominantly African American neighborhoods, which highly biased and racist appraisers unfortunately deemed unfit for insurance.

The term “redlining” originates from New Deal government maps of every metropolitan area in the country. The maps were then assigned colors by the FHA and the Home Owners Loan Corporation. These color codes were intended to indicate where it was safe to insure mortgages. As expected, anywhere African Americans lived was shaded in red as a warning that these neighborhoods were too risky for mortgage insurance. The maps themselves were created from appraisal categories that considered the race and ethnicity of the neighborhood as a primary factor. Consistent with the systemic racism of the era, the maps were a despicable reflection of their creators’ many prejudices.

Fans and students of James Ellroy should be reminded here of the theory of containment, a recurring motif in the Demon Dog’s canon, espoused primarily by Dudley Smith in the L.A. Quartet, and also Brown’s Requiem’s Haywood Cathcart.

In Ellroy’s world, containment is a way of controlling crime by limiting its more ugly expressions (like homicide and rape) to minority neighborhoods, while allowing its more nuanced counterparts (white collar and organized crime) to flourish in the service of wealthy white people.

From 1910 to 1970, Milwaukee would experience a residential influx known as “the Great Migration,” though it could also be termed “the Great Exodus”: Countless African American families fleeing the racial carnage of the south put down roots in several middle class Cream City communities like Bronzeville in North Central Milwaukee.

As the historian Mark Pearcy details, these families would unfortunately encounter a system designed deliberately to corral the public prevalence of African Americans. While the south achieved this by passing laws which forbade racial integration, northern cities like Milwaukee pursued the same end through brutal housing legislation and enforcement.

A ‘residential security’ map of metro Milwaukee in the 1930s. Created from appraisal categories that considered the ethnicity of a neighborhood as a primary factor, these Redlining maps viewed African Americans as an eyesore and a liability, and sought to isolate them from the wealthier white neighborhoods.

According to a 2016 Wisconsin University—Madison report on Milwaukee’s long history of segregation, the authors assert that the best evidence for redlining is found in the wording of the Realtor Code of Ethics. As just one example, Article 34 of the code—as originally written—states, “a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood […] members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”

While such incendiary language was trimmed down considerably after a 1950 Supreme Court decision, white lawyers could still argue to white judges that a newly-arrived African American family was an unwelcome “character of property” (a phrase retained from the Code’s original wording), and hazardous to the health of the neighborhood.

As police historian and Milwaukee native George Kelling has noted, redlining is just one of a host of ugly challenges shaping the contentious relationship between African Americans and law enforcement:

The relationship between police and minorities has been shaped by slavery, enforced segregation, police abuse, and/or neglect, and African American crime and victimization […] police and minorities have a history that has generated mutual distrust and animosity that is inherent in virtually every police/minority interaction, regardless of the intent of either the minority member or the police officer… Milwaukee clearly falls within this pattern.

According to Kelling, redlining and enforced segregation overall were outgrowths of state laws known as “Black Codes”. Established nationwide after the Civil War, and disregarding the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Black Codes amounted to essentially a softer slavery, as they mandated the kinds of work African Americans could perform, while also limiting where they could live and restricting their access to property. In fact, Kelling also suggests that the enforcement of American slavery, and the constant fear of a slave uprising may have birthed a precursor of the modern American police department: Known as “slave patrols”, these groups would monitor blacks in public spaces, apprehend and punish runaways, disrupt any black gatherings, and raid black homes across the southern U.S. during the early to mid-1740s.

Milwaukee Police Chief Joseph Kluchesky

Following the August, 1936 in-harness death of Milwaukee Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer, his successor Joseph Kluchesky would initiate a bold and moral counteraction to the rigid stasis and willful disregard of redlining. However, this would not be the socialist Kluchesky’s only achievement.

In response to Idzi Rutkowski’s hellacious 1935 bombing spree that gutted two Milwaukee police stations, Chief Kluchesky designed and built the nation’s first ever bomb disposal wagon. As Marilyn Wellauer-Lewis details in her brief history of the Milwaukee Police Department, the vehicle was intended to transport bombs to a location where they could be detonated without endangering lives. Chief Kluchesky also formed an auxillary police force to assist in emergencies. Prior to his appointment as chief, Kluchesky had also served as a traffic patrolman, mayoral bodyguard, and also superintendent of the Bureau of Identification.

The spark point for Joseph Kluchesky’s greatest and most memorable contribution to policing would be a wave of racial violence that swept the nation in 1943.

It began with a Detroit race riot on June 20th of that year. The riot metastasized from a fist fight between two men, one black, one white, at the Belle Isle Amusement Park in the Detroit River. As other whites and blacks joined in the fracas in one of the Motor City’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods, stores were picked clean, buildings were incinerated, and 34 Americans ultimately lost their lives…25 blacks and nine whites. Of the 25 African American casualties, 17 were killed by the police, who staunchly defended their actions as justifiable force to quell the looting. The tumult would end only when President Roosevelt, at the request of Detroit Mayor Edward Jefferies, Jr., ordered 6,000 federal troops into the city.

At nearly the same time in Los Angeles, a group of American sailors attacked a group of mostly Mexican Americans in East L.A. It was the opening salvo of a conflagration that would scar the City of Angels irrevocably. Readers of James Ellroy know this brutal conflict as the Zoot Suit Riots, and for anyone who’s read The Black Dahlia, it’s hard to forget the chaotic opening depiction of police, soldiers, sailors and pachucos tangled indistinguishably.

The roots of the melee can be traced to the Bracero Program, the 1942 deal between the U.S. government and Mexico, which allowed Mexican citizens to immigrate to the U.S. as temporary workers to fill the war-driven national labor shortage. Los Angeles already supported a large Mexican American population, and the influx of new arrivals provoked a simmering racial animosity. With the rabble-rousing L.A. media fanning the flames, L.A.’s conservative white population blamed Mexican American adolescents for the city’s crime, and particularly fingered the teens’ wool-heavy zoot suits as an insult to patriotism. (Wool, like many staples, was strictly rationed during war time).

The riots would continue for the next several days, with mobs of sailors attacking Latinos and blacks indiscriminately. The riots finally ended when military police were brought in, and all other military personnel were forbidden from leaving their barracks. While amazingly no one was killed, California Governor Earl Warren’s attempted post-riot whitewash failed when the independent citizens commission he appointed found racism as the riots’ primary cause.

In August, 1943 on the east coast, a white police officer shot a black soldier in Harlem when he tried to intervene in the officer’s arrest of a black woman for disorderly conduct. In the riot that followed, 6 people died, nearly 500 were injured, and the police made more than 500 arrests. Following the Detroit riots, New York City was one of countless U.S. cities struggling to contain their racial hostility, which the tense wartime economy, food shortages and constantly rising cost of living all contributed to.

Back in Milwaukee, Police Chief Joseph Kluchesky led a select group of police drawn from across the country in developing protocol for a host of community relations programs. According to George Kelling, the programs stemmed from the belief that antagonism between police and African Americans had precipitated both the riots themselves, and police misconduct during the riots.

Chief Kluchesky’s community relations police initiative wasn’t very popular at the outset. Most of Kluchesky’s fellow chiefs and even the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) wasted no time in ignoring it. However, as Kelling relates, these community relations programs were an early acknowledgement of the serious challenge that racial tension would present to law enforcement for the next several decades.

The community relations program was comprised of race relations training for police recruits, networking between police and African American leaders, the recruitment of black officers, and establishing behavior protocol for handling disorders.

Milwaukee’s police department would have ample opportunity to test the effectiveness of these community relations programs in the turbulent and racially charged decades to come.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

A James Ellroy Playlist: Night-Tripping

February 5, 2021

For my latest instalment examining the musical influences in James Ellroy’s work, I’ve decided to focus on a single novel. Because the Night is Ellroy’s second novel in his Lloyd Hopkins trilogy and often regarded as the weakest. It is not as compulsively entertaining as Blood on the Moon, nor is it as accomplished or profound as Suicide Hill. Still, even Ellroy below par is still pretty damn good and the epic battle of wits between Hopkins and the murderous psychiatrist Dr John Havilland makes for a compelling narrative.

Because the Night also features an abundance of groovy music references. In honour of Havilland, the sinister shrink, some of these songs have a psychedelic, drug-infused theme. So roll yourself a spliff, don those colour-tinted retro round sunglasses and crank up the strobe lighting as we dive into the musical maze of Because the Night

Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya

In the novel, Havilland is given the sobriquet ‘Dr John the Night Tripper’ while working as an abortionist and dope-peddler during his college days. The name soon becomes a full-blown villainous alter-ego for Havilland and is inspired by ‘a Creole who shrieked odes to dope and sex, backed up by two saxes, drums, and an electric organ. At the party, a heavily stoned anthropology professor shoved an album cover in John Havilland’s face and yelled, “That’s you, man! Your name is John and you’re in med school! Dig it!”‘

Havilland’s nickname is taken from the legendary musician Malcolm Rebennack Jr, who used the persona ‘Dr John, the Night Tripper’ from 1968-71.

Rebennack produced a huge amount of material during his Night Tripper years and below is the song that introduced the character:

Green Door

Because the Night begins with a triple homicide during a liquor store holdup. The perpetrator has been manipulated by Dr Havilland to do his bidding. Havilland encourages his patients to embrace an extreme form of Nietzschean philosophy, discarding conventional morality, and to go ‘Beyond the beyond’. As he walks away from the crime scene the gunman mutters “Green door, green door”.

Havilland uses the image of the green door to push his patients towards violent acts. From his childhood, he remembers Jim Lowe’s hit song ‘The Green Door’ about the allure of a private club and the mysterious goings-on behind a green door, “Midnight, one more night without sleeping. Watching, ’till the morning comes creeping. Green door, what’s that secret you’re keeping?”

Ellroy liked the song so much that he references it again in The Cold Six Thousand. Mormon kingpin Wayne Tedrow Sr is keeping a voyeur’s eye on his wife’s infidelity by having cameras installed in the hotel where she meets her lovers for trysts. His son, Wayne Jr, spots the room where the audiovisual equipment is set up through one distinctive feature, ‘Eleven brown doors. One green door as standout. One pervert-pup joke.’

Music historians are divided over what the green door in the song is supposed to symbolise. Could it be marijuana, a speakeasy or even London’s first lesbian nightclub? Well it did inspire the title of a famous adult movie!

Because the Night

Let’s not forget the title of the novel itself. ‘Because the Night’ was a hit song for the Patti Smith group in 1978. It’s raunchy lyrics by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen prove that sex is the most intoxicating drug of them all, a sentiment that Ellroy surely agrees with. He uses the title to explore the innermost thoughts of his two leading characters, thus leading to some of the most purple prose in Ellroy’s oeuvre. When Havilland muses on his dark schemes we get, ‘Because the night was there to be plundered; and only someone above its laws could exact its bounty and survive.’ And when Hopkins is thinking back on his childhood, ‘Because the night was there to provide comfort and the nourishing of brave dreams, and only someone willing to fight for its sanctity deserved to claim it as his citadel.’

It’s ironic that both Havilland and Hopkins both employ the expression taken from a powerful love song. Havilland is sexually repressed and tries to compensate through dominance and humiliation, whereas Hopkins is sexually confident and comfortable with his identity.

I love this song. Great lyrics by The Boss and Patti Smith and her voice is passion itself:

 

A James Ellroy Playlist: Teenage Kicks

January 27, 2021

High School has never been a subject James Ellroy has dwelt on in his writing. His education was erratic and limited. Shuffled from school to school due to his parent’s divorce and his mother’s murder, Ellroy was eventually expelled from Fairfax High and, despite a brief unhappy stint at a Christian Academy, never returned to formal education.

Following on from my last post about Ellroy’s musical influences, I’ve decided to continue that theme. Our High School years include some of our most formative experiences, and this includes taste in music. A few notes from a fondly remembered tune can vividly evoke our younger self. Ellroy first heard Beethoven in a Music class at school, but I’m not going to focus on the classical composers the author regularly namechecks as influences. Instead, I’m going to discuss the songs which have influenced Ellroy and have a high school theme.

Let’s Twist Again

Not all of Ellroy’s memories of school were unhappy. He enjoyed his time at John Burroughs Junior High School. After the publication of his memoir My Dark Places, Ellroy was contacted by a former classmate of JB and they eventually arranged a school reunion which took place over three consecutive nights at Ellroy’s favourite restaurant, the Pacific Dining Car in LA. Ellroy wrote an article about the reunion for GQ titled ‘Let’s Twist Again’, after the Chubby Checker hit and Twist dance craze that was at its height when he was at JB. Much of the article deconstructs the sham nature of nostalgia and reminiscence, but then the reunion is so successful that Ellroy, and by extension the reader, can’t help but be seduced by it.

‘Let’s Twist Again’ was reprinted in the Ellroy anthology Crime Wave. On the subject of nostalgia, perhaps when this pandemic is over, we’ll all twist again:

High School Confidential

Ellroy introduced High School Confidential! (1958) as part of his Denver film series. You can see why he loves this film. Russ Tamblyn is the koolest kat at high school. He speaks almost entirely in jive and lives with the sex mad Mamie Van Doren, who is posing as his aunt but attempts to seduce him in private. Much hijinks ensue, and when you watch John Drew Barrymore’s beatnik history lesson on Christopher Columbus, or Phillippa Fallon’s beat poetess recite ‘High School Drag’ you will see a lot of inspiration for Ellroy’s Demon Dog persona.

High School Confidential! has been cited as one of the most enjoyably bad movies ever made. And while I was never quite sure whether I was laughing with it or at it, the film is far too involving and entertaining to be labelled as bad. Turns out, Tamblyn is an undercover police officer on a mission to root out the mysterious drug dealer known only as ‘Mr A’ who is getting all the high school kids hooked on weed and heroin. The story is handled quite well although the anti-marijuana propaganda is hilarious, and somewhat at odds with the hedonistic tone of the film. Speaking of which, it’s nice to know that the Class of 58′ are still turning their nose at authority more than sixty years on. Tamblyn’s role as Dr Jacoby in Twin Peaks seems like an aging hipster version of his character in High School Confidential!, and at the age of 89 Mamie Van Doren is still posting raunchy pictures of herself on social media.

Here’s Jerry Lee Lewis singing the title track which opens the film.

(Thanks to Jason Carter for sharing with me his memories of Ellroy’s intro to High School Confidential!)

Cathy’s Clown

In Blood on the Moon, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Verplanck is the Kathy’s Klown to Kathy’s Kourt. He’s the sensitive schoolboy poet, and generally laughable figure, who the girl group Kathy’s Kourt continually mock and reject. After being beaten and raped by two schoolyard bullies, a traumatised Verplanck will embark on a murder spree and ultimate confrontation with the cop determined to stop him – Detective Lloyd Hopkins.

Ellroy took the idea of Kathy’s Klown from The Everly Brother’s song that was a huge hit in 1960. It might not, strictly speaking, be a high school song, but it was in the charts when Ellroy was at school and its themes of female rejection and unwanted male attention will certainly remind some listeners of their high school days. The song is playing on the radio when Verplanck is assaulted at school. Blood on the Moon is one of the few Ellroy novels to feature, however briefly, a high school setting. ‘Cathy’s Clown’ is also one of the few popular songs which are used as a plot device in Ellroy’s writing.

The song has always given me the creeps (in the best possible way), and I can’t listen to it these days without thinking of poor old Teddy Verplanck:

A James Ellroy Playlist: Torch Songs

January 14, 2021

Whether you’re a casual fan of James Ellroy’s writing or a die-hard fanatic, you’ve probably got a good grasp of the importance of music in his life and work. His love of classical music composers, from Beethoven to Havergal Brian, is well-documented and was a huge influence on his debut novel Brown’s Requiem. Ellroy’s feelings about jazz are more ambiguous. He’s not in love with the form, but he ‘understands it as the means to express confusion and disorientation’ as in the case of Dave Klein’s giddying first-person narration of White Jazz.

In the following post, I’d like to focus on a form of music that permeates Ellroy’s writing and has so far received less attention. Imagine if you were compiling a soundtrack for a film adaptation of The Hilliker Curse. Yes I know, this may be your least favourite Ellroy book and it doesn’t have one-tenth of the impact of Ellroy’s earlier memoir My Dark Places. But still, which tracks would you pick based on your reading of the text and your knowledge of Ellroy’s choice in music? Here are a few songs which are either directly tied to The Hilliker Curse, or relate to its themes of lost love and haunting memories. Love songs change with each generation and all my three choices have a period torch song feel that reflect Ellroy’s cultural upbringing.

The Big Hurt

Ellroy’s original title for The Hilliker Curse was ‘The Big Hurt’ after the song by Wayne Franklin which was a hit for Toni Fisher in 1959, and has been covered many times. It’s the age-old tale of how loving and missing someone will affect you physically ‘needles and pins’, as well as dominate your thoughts. Fisher’s recording is said to be one of the first songs to use phasing and flanging effects. I am, by no means, an expert on musical effects but once you’ve listened to this song a few times the combination of a simple melody and sophisticated effects really starts to grow on you.

 

Diamonds and Rust

Joan Baez wrote this song about her relationship with Bob Dylan. In The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy describes listening to it ‘while I waited in the dark. The song described a romantic fall from fate and old lovers as saviours and destroyers.’ You can see why Ellroy would relate to it as an author with the references to the ‘original vagabond’ and ‘unwashed pretender’. It has the most sophisticated lyrical composition of all my song choices in this post, and Baez’s voice will haunt you for long after.

Perfidia

Perfidia takes its name from the song by Alberto Dominguez which was a big band hit in the 1940s and has been covered by other artists countlessly ever since. Perfidia might be a very different book from The Hilliker Curse, but it was also the first novel Ellroy wrote after the publication of his love-tinged, sex-crazed memoir and there’s something about the novel’s heady brew of romance and danger that reminds me of The Hilliker Curse, hence the song’s inclusion here. In The Black Dahlia, Bucky Bleichert and Kay Lake dance to Perfidia played by Stan Kenton’s band. In Perfidia, an opium-smoking Dudley Smith visualises Bette Davis dancing with a ‘fey young man’ to Glenn Miller’s arrangement of the song. Here’s a clip of Ellroy singing a line or two. Miller’s version is below.

%d bloggers like this: