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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.

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