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A James Ellroy Playlist: Another Country

April 2, 2022

LP Hartley’s novel The Go Between has one of the most famous opening lines in twentieth-century literature: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Actually it’s just as famous for being misquoted as ‘another country’, which is what I thought it was until recently. It might be sacrilegious of me but I prefer the quote this way. The past isn’t foreign exactly, but it is ‘other’. Hartley, like James Ellroy and all of the great historical novelists, understood the romantic appeal of the past, and at the same time acknowledged that many of the social battles that were fought in bygone days and which ruined peoples lives have now been resolved, and the only debate that remains is why did anyone ever argue so passionately about them?

In the following post I am going to continue my examination of Dick Contino’s musical influence on the writing of James Ellroy. Contino’s promising career was virtually destroyed by the ‘draft-dodging’ stigma that stuck to him when he fled from pre-induction barracks during the Korean War. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment at McNeil Island, later served in the military and received a presidential pardon, but he never regained the stardom he had enjoyed at the peak of his popularity. However, during the 1990s, Contino enjoyed something of an Indian Summer. Thanks in part to his collaboration with Ellroy, which in turn formed part of a wider resurgence of interest in the Swing Era.

Hollywood Nocturne

Ellroy writes about the unexpected nature of memory in his essay ‘Out of the Past’. Dick Contino suddenly re-entered Ellroy’s consciousness in the early 90s. Ellroy’s recollection of him was faint. He recalled seeing Contino on television once as a child and his father making a derogatory comment about him being a ‘draft dodger’. Shortly thereafter, he saw Contino play the lead in the film Daddy-O. Ellroy did not think about Contino again until much later, although at least one event in his life paralleled Contino’s. Ellroy enlisted in the US Army in 1965. He quickly realised he had made a bad mistake and faked a nervous breakdown in order to be discharged, with the added bonus that this made him ineligible to be drafted for service in Vietnam. In Ellroy’s novel White Jazz, ‘a major sub-plot features a grade Z movie being filmed on the same Griffith Park locales as Daddy-O‘. Once he saw the influence Contino had indirectly played on his life, Ellroy resolved to find him. By the early nineties Contino had dropped off the map and Ellroy wasn’t sure if he was still alive. Ellroy re-watched Daddy-O and listened to ‘half a dozen of his [Contino’s] albums, revelling in pure Entertainment.’ Ellroy had to flesh out his personal memories to get a sense of how he might use Contino in fiction. It worked. Ellroy was able to locate Contino. They hit it off and Contino agreed to be the lead protagonist in Ellroy’s novella Dick Contino’s Blues.

Ellroy and Contino performed onstage together, with Ellroy reading from the text and Contino playing his beloved accordion. And then, as if by magic, that other country that is the past began to form around them in a big nostalgia boom. 1989 is usually regarded as the year the Swing Revival began in the US, the apex of which was the release of the double-platinum album The Dirty Boogie by The Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1998. Brian Setzer composed the song ‘Hollywood Nocturne’ for a big-screen adaptation of Dick Contino’s Blues which has yet to materialise (although those of who care hope that it will one day). The song later appeared on The Dirty Boogie. Listen to the lyrics ‘beneath a buzzing neon sign dressed in style so cool and refined stands a man from another time who’s calling out to you’ and think of Contino and how great this would sound over a Dick Contino’s Blues title sequence.

This Could Be the Start of Something

By the mid-90s Ellroy had taken to singing during public appearances on his book tours. Perhaps he wouldn’t have had the confidence to attempt this if he had not already shared a stage with Contino. With Pink Floyd the Barber (later renamed The Double Naught Spy Car) as his backup band in the US, and touring with The Jackson Code in Australia in 1996, Ellroy’s signature song was his unique cover of ‘This Could Be the Start of Something’ by Steve Allen. Ellroy considered it a great Swingers song, although he employed the term in a different sense to Swing music! He rewrote the song with profane and topical lyrics. It traditionally begins ‘You’re walkin’ along the street, or you’re at a party’. Ellroy revised this line so that the song begins ‘You’re beating up Rodney King and starting a riot’.

Imagine how incendiary this would have been to Nineties audiences when the LA riots were still a recent memory! Sadly, footage of Ellroy performing his version of the song doesn’t appear to exist. But if you watch footage of the original then you can see why Ellroy loves it, and why it was a good song to revive in the nostalgia-laden Nineties. It’s a great LA song with a dash of innuendo. My favourite rendition is below. A star-studded affair recorded for The Steve Allen Show.

Another Country? Truly, they don’t make ’em like this anymore:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    April 3, 2022 12:59 pm

    Just when I think I’ve heard everything about Ellroy…never knew about his 90’s singing “career”. Do you have a list of his whole repertoire and were they all rewritten with Ellroy lyrics?

    • April 3, 2022 2:15 pm

      Hi Dan, I don’t know the titles of any other songs he performed on stage. But Ellroy was kind enough to spend a day remembering the lyrics he had written (or rewritten) for ‘This Could be the Start of Something’. I have a copy of them but they are so incendiary that. given the current climate and the fact that they would distract from the thrust of the piece, I decided not to reproduce them in full here.

      • Dan permalink
        April 3, 2022 7:57 pm

        Understood- wise choice in the circumstances. Was the initial research that lead to this information part of the new book you have been working on?

      • April 4, 2022 8:13 am

        Hi Dan, I’ve sent you an email about this.

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