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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.





2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    March 1, 2021 10:47 pm

    Fascinating stuff about Sonic Youth and Nick Cave-never knew of any Ellroy connections. That was also an interesting link that quoted Ellroy’s opinion of country music and the blues. Even if it’s a broadly accurate representation of Ellroy’s thoughts it’s always difficult to tell when he’s in performance mode and deliberately exaggerating for the sake of being provocative.

    • March 2, 2021 9:05 am

      Hi Dan, Yes, I guess it’s to be expected that Ellroy has many fans in the Rock genre given the exhilarating style of his work. I suspect there are many more celebrity fans of his out there. Also, fully agree it’s difficult to separate the Demon Dog persona from the man himself.

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