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A James Ellroy Playlist: Golden Oldies

May 4, 2021

James Ellroy has always understood the power of nostalgia. In one sense, he is trying to demystify the past as a more placid or conservative time. Take, for example, his portrayal of policing in the LA Quartet, or political corruption during the Kennedy era. At the same time, Ellroy is not immune to the charms of nostalgia. He often claims to ‘live in the past’ and, judging by the fact that he doesn’t use a computer or a mobile phone, he is not being disingenuous. Ellroy views nostalgia as a form of merry-go-round. It’s easy to be taken in by the schmaltz and the music of the ride, but eventually (as in the climax of Strangers on a Train), the carousel will come off the hinges and everything and everyone on it will come crashing down.

Hop on:

Come Go With Me

Blood on the Moon begins on Friday, June 10th, 1964, ‘the start of KRLA golden oldie weekend’. Two school thugs, Larry ‘Birdman’ Craigie and Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines are planning to viciously assault their fellow pupil, Theodore ‘the Poet’ Verplanck, who has mocked their masculinity in the High School Poetry Review. They play the radio to drown out Verplanck’s screams during the assault, which unexpectedly escalates into a rape. Quite a few musical artists are mentioned as playing on the radio during the build-up, occurrence and aftermath of the assault. Ellroy name-checks the Fleetwoods, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. It’s worth noting though that Oldies Stations didn’t appear until the early 1970s, and many of the acts that are referenced in the scene would have been at the height of their career in 1964. Nevertheless, the build-up of nostalgia-tinged music is crucial to making the violent climax of the scene all the more shocking. One song is specifically mentioned as Birdman and Whitey are planning to ambush Verplanck:

Their plan of disrobing, beating, genital painting, and shaving was hatched. Now, if it all worked out, was the time. Larry watched Whitey trace swastikas in the sawdust with a two by four. The Del-Viking’s rendition of ‘Come Go With Me’ ended and the news came on, meaning it was three o’clock. Larry heard the whoops a moment later, then watched as the workmen gathered up their handtools.

Note the disturbing sexual language used to describe their plans, which perhaps makes the rape less of a surprise than it appears on first reading. After the attack takes place, ‘Cathy’s Clown’ by the Everly Brothers comes on the radio. This is the more symbolic song to the plot. Verplanck literally becomes Kathy’s Klown to Kathy’s Kourt, the female poetry group whose titular leader is the object of Verplanck’s affections. Whitey and Birdman lured Verplanck into a trap by writing a letter, in Kathy’s name, inviting him to a rendezvous. Rereading the scene though, I was struck by the symbolism of ‘Come Go With Me’. The doo-wop vocals set a saccharine tone, but as the song progresses the singer sounds increasingly desperate, until the heartbreaking final line ‘You never give me a chance’. Verplanck woke up on June 10th, 1964 thinking he had a date with Kathy. The murderous ramifications that came from the trap set by Whitey and Birdman would last for decades. Truly, he never had a chance.

Runaway

In an interview with Ian Johnston for PURR magazine, Ellroy claimed:

I like the good old romantic golden oldies of my youth, like Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, spring 1961 when I was at junior high school and in love with this girl.

Ellroy was chasing girls when Del Shannon’s song ‘roared up the pop charts on its way to #1’. Ellroy didn’t have any luck with the opposite sex at the time. In the wake of his mother’s murder, he had too many emotional issues to make much of a boyfriend. But his love of women, and of this song, would grow in adulthood. He references it again in Brown’s Requiem, when Fritz Brown is steeling himself for his violent confrontation with Haywood Cathcart.

I rose the next morning from a troubled sleep populated by my old patrol partner Deverson, a mad collector of Fab 40 records and women’s pubic hair. The songs were all there in my dreams: ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon.

Note the mixing of vintage nostalgia with perversion here, Deverson collects ‘Fab 40 records’ and ‘pubic hair’. It’s notable how often Ellroy uses cultural references in anticipation of and during violent scenes. In addition to his song-filled dreams, Brown composes a poem, or rather it comes to him in an epiphany. When he finally does confront Cathcart, the two men discuss classical music. ‘Runaway’ is a reaction to losing a woman, ‘she ran away / And I wonder where she will stay / my little runaway’. It’s a melancholy nostalgia, not giving much hope for a future. Perhaps this is why Ellroy uses Golden Oldies as a warning – safety is in the past, the present is fragile, and violence is to come.

‘Runaway’ has been covered countless times. The best cover was by Shannon himself, as the theme tune to Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story. Sadly, Shannon died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 55.

Unchained Melody

The final scene of American Tabloid (Spoiler Alert) takes place in a dive bar in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Mob hitman Pete Bondurant has gone to watch the cabaret act of his new bride, Barb Jahelka. Bondurant is complicit in the Kennedy assassination, so he knows what the crowds gathering around Dealey Plaza don’t know. The pomp and circumstance of a presidential visit is about to come to a brutal end:

The combo mauled an uptempo number. Barb blew him a kiss. Pete sat down and smiled his “Sing me a soft one” smile.

A lacklustre crowd was watching the show – maybe a dozen lunchtime juicers total.

A roar ripped through the place – HE’S COMING HE’S COMING HE’S COMING

Every patron and barmaid and kitchen geek ran for the door.

As the bar staff and lunchtime drinkers rush to get a glimpse of the Kennedy cavalcade, Pete and Barb are left alone in the bar. The song she picks at his silent prompting is ‘Unchained Melody’. One of the best songs about yearning for a lover that the singer knows, deep down, they have lost, ‘Unchained Melody’ is an intriguing coda to the novel. Is Ellroy urging the reader to let go of the myths surrounding Kennedy’s Camelot?

The timing of the scene is interesting in relation to the history of the song. The definitive version of ‘Unchained Melody’ was recorded by the Righteous Brothers in July 1965, almost two years after the Kennedy assassination took place. But the song had been a huge success from the moment in was released in 1955, with three artists having Billboard Top 10 hits of the song that same year. Many female artists, Patti Page, Cyndi Lauper, Leann Rimes, have covered the song brilliantly, so one can assume Barb Jahelka would have knocked her version out of the park.

It was originally written for the prison drama Unchained. As this seems the most closely related to the melancholy nature of nostalgia in Ellroy’s work, I have posted a clip of the film below. Performed by Todd Duncan, the song was nominated for an Oscar:

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