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A James Ellroy Playlist: Sentimental Education

August 15, 2021

For my latest piece on music in the work of James Ellroy, I have decided to focus on a single novel – White Jazz. Ellroy has described the novel as the story of ‘a white racist cop in 1958 LA whose life is burning down and who gets hooked, inexplicably, on black bebop jazz’. Ellroy uses jazz to parallel Klein’s confusion and disorientation. But what I will explore in this post is how Ellroy references sentimental love songs to shield either twisted or forbidden love.

Tennessee Waltz

LAPD Lieutenant Dave ‘the Enforcer’ Klein has long harboured incestuous feelings towards his sister Meg. In their youth these feelings manifested themselves physically: ‘It was always there scary wrong – and we touched each other too long to say it.’ Now an adult, working for both the police and the Mafia, Klein is driven to extreme acts of physical violence at the thought that men could be abusing Meg. LA Mob Boss Jack Dragna takes full advantage of this when Kansas City goombah’s Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino move out west and try to muscle in on the lucrative LA rackets. Dragna wants ‘the Two Tony’s’ dead and he makes it happen by showing Klein a photo of ‘Meg – bruises, hickeys – Trombino/Brancato verified.’ Klein is enraged and murders both men. The real-life Two Tonys were shot to death on August 6, 1951. Several years after the double murder, Klein’s dubious brotherly feelings for Meg come coursing back when he hears a certain song on the radio, ‘Skim the dial, ballads – ‘Tennessee Waltz’ – Meg ’51, that song, the Two Tony’s’.

Red Stewart and Pee Wee King wrote ‘Tennessee Waltz’ in 1946, but it didn’t become a major hit until it was recorded by Patti Page in 1950. It’s easy to see why Klein finds the imagery in the song so powerful and painful. A man and a woman are dancing together happily in love. An old friend of the woman comes over and the singer laments, ‘I introduced her to my loved one and while they were dancin’ my friend stole my sweetheart from me’. Klein and Meg’s love for each other was forged through the shielding role he assumed for her in the abusive household they both grew up in. He doesn’t lose her to an old friend, but rather time itself as she grows into womanhood and wants a new life independent of her former protector.

Later in the novel, Klein braces Tilly Hopewell, the hophead consort of hoodlum Tommy Kafesjian. When approaching Tilly’s apartment door he peeps through the keyhole and sees a stoned Tilly flipping channels on the TV, ‘Flip – Perry Como, boxing, Patti Page’. The sight of the beautiful Ms Page does not inspire Klein to show any kindness towards Tilly. In fact, the memory seems to provoke more violence in him, as he is very rough with Tilly, grabbing and dragging her to the bathroom to sober her up with a blast of cold water.

Perhaps this is the broadcast of Patti Page that Klein caught a glimpse of through’s Tilly’s keyhole:

Harbor Lights

One of the most memorable characters in White Jazz is the black singer Lester Lake. Lake seduces the girlfriend of movie mogul Harry Cohn. Cohn puts a ten grand contract on Lake’s head. Klein uses his mob clout to get Lake’s sentence ‘reduced’, but he still faces the grisly punishment of having his vocal chords sliced. After this punishment is carried out, Klein arranges for Lake to have immediate medical treatment by a disbarred doctor who moonlights as an abortionist. Lake’s singing career is saved but ‘his voice went baritone to tenor’, and he is now obligated to be a police informer for Klein.

When Klein visits Lester Lake at the Tiger Room he walks in on him singing ‘Blue Moon’. His signature song however is ‘Harbor Lights’. The Tiger Room is operated by two Mob brothers who took part in Lake’s macabre punishment. They feel some sort of karmic responsibility to the old crooner, ‘Long as they run the Southside slots and vending shit for Mr. Cohen, Lester Lake’s rendition of ‘Harbor Lights’ will be on that jukebox’. Klein regards the song as ‘pure schmaltz’ and when Lake plays the tune on the jukebox during another visit Klein tetchily asks ‘why you played that goddamned song’. Dudley Smith’s minions Breuning and Carlisle try to pin a murder on Lake and knock his teeth out during a brutal interrogation, taunting him to ‘try to sing ‘Harbor Lights’ now’.

‘Harbor Lights’ was first recorded in London in 1937. The first American recording was by Frances Langford later that year in Los Angeles. The song became a massive hit in 1950 when it was recorded by the Sammy Kaye orchestra, and since then it has been covered countless times. As with ‘Tennessee Waltz’, the song is rich in story and character. The singer looks on at harbour lights in the darkness, as a ship carries his/her sweetheart away. A Hawaiian melody gives the song an island flavour, and alludes to where the voyage will end.

Why does Lester like the song so much? After he is attacked Lake appears not to be sentimental about love, telling Klein that ‘my ladyfriends. I make them think I gots queer tendencies, then they works that much harder to set me straight’. However, one suspects that Lake’s rendition of ‘Harbor Lights’ reminds him of the love for which he paid a horrific price. Klein, in turn, feels a fraternal affection for Lake, providing him with an alibi for the murder rap he was facing and meting out some physical punishment to Breuning and Carlisle for the way they treated him. Klein’s forbidden love was for Meg. Lake’s mistake was falling for a white woman. They have both paid for their transgressions, and share this odd bond over a cloyingly sentimental song.

The version of ‘Harbor Lights’ below was recorded by The Platters:

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