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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:

 

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