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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:

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