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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:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    January 27, 2021 9:51 pm

    A couple months ago when I reread Ellroy’s early novels set in the early 80’s I was struck by the number of contemporary or near-contemporary pop culture references. It was rather surprising for someone who has often been very negative about rock music and regularly expresses disinterest and disdain for pop culture in general after a certain time period. Nowadays any Michael Jackson reference he might make is much more likely to focus on the scandals rather than the music!

    • January 28, 2021 8:44 am

      Hi Dan, yes it’s easy to forget Ellroy wrote five contemporarily set novels and they are brimming with pop-culture references. I’ve got some in mind for a follow-up post. And God yes, Ellroy would have fun with Wacko Jacko in a novel. If you ever get to speak to the Demon Dog in person he is more than indiscreet about the foibles of our latter-day celebrities.


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