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A James Ellroy Playlist: Age of Innocence (1958-1963)

July 16, 2021

James Ellroy is well-known for his dislike of Rock ‘n’ Roll and popular music in general, but when asked by Allen Bara if there was any type of popular music he enjoys, Ellroy response was both direct and intriguing, ‘I don’t mind sappy, oldie kinds of tunes – say, 1958 to 1963.’ This five year period was pivotal both in the evolution of music styles and in America’s political and social history. Ellroy was ten years old when his mother was murdered in 1958, and fifteen when JFK was assassinated in 1963. It was his age of innocence, if it can be said he ever truly enjoyed one, and also the time-frame he returned to in some of his most powerful historical fiction. The music he absorbed in this period is therefore crucial to an understanding of Ellroy as an author, and to why his affection for popular music abruptly stopped in 1963.

A Thousand Stars

Benoit Cohen directed a documentary examining Ellroy’s life and work. It aired in 2000 as part of the French television series A Century of Writers. Towards the end of the episode Ellroy describes an epiphany he had when he happened to hear a song on the radio:

I recall the evening of September 10th, 1961. I was thirteen years old. I was out on the grass and it was a very hot, early September night in LA with my buddy Randy Rice. We were both lying on the cold grass in front of his apartment building at 1st and St Andrews. Randy had a portable radio and he was playing a song by Kathy Young and the Innocents and it went ‘A thousand stars in the sky makes me realise you are the one love I’ll adore’. And I thought: Ellroy, you motherfucker. You tall skinny-ass big dick motherfucker (big dick in my dreams). You are gonna be a big dog in this life. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. And now that I’ve achieved a measure of success I don’t think that way any more, but I vividly recall that moment.

Cohen was able to get copyright clearance on the song and played it over the closing credits of the documentary. When Ellroy viewed the documentary and heard the song again he cried. It was the first time that he had heard the song in almost forty years. Kathy Young was only fifteen years old when ‘A Thousand Stars’ was a huge hit in that Summer of ’61. It made her a star, but her subsequent records were not as successful. Ellroy had to wait a long time before he achieved the fame that ‘A Thousand Stars’ made him yearn for, and there were many traumatic episodes and professional stumbling blocks along the way. Nevertheless, he is the big dog of American literature he always wanted to be.

Kathy Young is still performing and her rendition of ‘A Thousand Stars’ seems to get more beautiful with the passing of time. The original recording is below:

Chanson D’amour

On November 22, 1963, CBS had been due to run a report on the increasing popularity of The Beatles. JFK’s assassination led to the report being shelved, but it ran the following month when Walter Cronkite felt that the American public desperately needed some positive news. The Beatles made their US television performing debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and Beatlemania and the subsequent British Invasion began sweeping across North America, pushing aside the popularity of Doo-Wop groups, which had already gone into decline.

It was around this time that Ellroy’s hatred of popular music seems to have kicked in. It was a difficult time for him personally as he was expelled from Fairfax High School, joined the army and quickly dropped out again, his father died and Ellroy had years of substance abuse, homelessness and jail time ahead of him. Truly, Ellroy’s innocent years were behind him, as they were for America. The sixties became the decade of political assassinations, deadly riots in the big cities and escalating involvement in the Vietnam War. Musical trends reflected the rebellious, anti-establishment mood of the time. Arguably, the music Ellroy enjoyed from 1958 to 63 was not strictly ‘innocent’. It dealt with themes of sexual longing and rejection. But there’s little doubt that the sexual frankness of a band such as The Rolling Stones made older star acts seem chaste and quaint.

My next musical choice comes from the 58 to 63 Golden years. Ellroy references ‘Chanson d’amour’ (love song) written by Wayne Shanklin and performed by Art and Dotty Todd in his debut novel Brown’s Requiem. Fritz Brown recalls it when he is reminiscing about songs he enjoyed listening to with his old patrol partner, ‘the songs were all there in my dreams’. He references it again in White Jazz, when Dave Klein is listening to a covert audio recording of Lucille Kafesjian and an unidentified man she is sleeping with ‘Click – figure a radio – ‘…chanson d’amour, ratta-tat-tatta, play encore.’ Blurred voices, click.’ The reference is somewhat cynical, as Lucille and the man have been playing twisted ‘father-daughter games’.

In 2010, Ellroy chose the song when he was a guest on the BBC Radio 4 show Inheritance Tracks. The format of the show is that guests pick tracks which they ‘inherited from their parents and songs they’d pass on to their children’. Ellroy’s choice is tinged with melancholy given his mother’s murder and how her unhappy marriage with Armand Ellroy had ended in divorce:

The song I inherit is Art and Dotty Todd singing ‘Chanson d’amour’ because it is closely associated with my mother’s murder. It was a big hit then. I cannot hear it without travelling back to that time, sight, sound, smell.

British readers may be more familiar with Manhattan Transfer’s cover of ‘Chanson d’amour’ which reached No.1 in the UK in the 1970s. However, the original version remains the best:

A James Ellroy Playlist: The Wheels of History

July 2, 2021

James Ellroy’s novel This Storm begins with the epigraph ‘Blood alone moves the wheels of history’. They are the words of Benito Mussolini, whose ruthless rise to power, disastrous attempts to build a new Roman empire and wretched fate almost served to prove his point. In the novel, Ellroy examines the work, politics and personalities of three composers whose lives, as with everyone else who lived through the tumultuous years of the Second World War, were bound to the wheels of history.

Nikolai Medtner

Kay Lake is studying music under the ‘Maestro’ Otto Klemperer. One of the key pieces she studies is Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza. Her diary entries express frustration at its complexity, ‘the shifts in tempo continue to perplex me’. And yet as she slowly begins to master it, she is astounded by its beauty: ‘It is both pictorial and diffuse. The piece depicts recollection and portrays the sweet heartbreak of time lost and recalled’.

Nikolai Medtner was born in Tsarist Russia in 1879. He was a contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff who left Russia, fleeing the revolution in 1917. Medtner left Russia in 1921. Rachmaninoff, who became a major star in the west, secured Medtner a tour of the US and Canada in 1924. However, Medtner was ill-suited to the commercial realities of the music business, and he and his wife Anna settled in London, where he led a modest life composing and teaching. At the outbreak of World War Two, his regular income from German publishers suddenly disappeared and, near destitute and increasingly ill, he was given shelter by his pupil Edna Iles for much of the war. The 1942 setting of This Storm was a low point for Medtner, but he continued to compose and his reputation was revived after the war, albeit his health never recovered. He died in London in 1951.

‘Comrade’ Joan Rosen Klein tells Kay Lake that she detests Medtner because “he hates the Bolsheviks.” Furthermore, Kay is “really not much of a comrade if you like Medtner.” To which Kay retorts “Rachmaninoff hates the Bolsheviks. Scriabin hated them, as well. I’d say that puts Medtner in good company.”

Below is Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza performed by the Russian pianist Anna Zassimova who has been described as ‘a pianist of a kind rarely still found, the sort you’d imagine in the pages of a 19th century novel.’ Listen to this beautiful rendition and think of Kay Lake, in the pages of Ellroy’s epic historical novels, learning this to perfection at the behest of the Maestro.

Dimitri Shostakovich

It’s not just music that Kay is learning from Klemperer. He is also teaching her the art of politics. Klemperer has played a role in the smuggling of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 (also known as ‘the Leningrad’) into the west from war-torn Russia. He tells Kay, “The finished score will reach me in advance. Smuggling plans now proceed. I will put together a vast assembly of film-studio musicians. Exorbitant ticket prices will assure vast sums for European war relief.”

Shostakovich made a microfilm copy of the score in Samara, and it was sent to New York via Tehran and Cairo. In the 1930’s, Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin and the Soviet regime became strained. He had been denounced in Pravda after Stalin disliked a performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. By the time of the Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich’s position had improved considerably as his music could be employed for propaganda purposes. The symphony premiered in London and New York before it was performed in Leningrad, then still enduring a devastating German siege, on August 9, 1942. Musicians were suffering from starvation and three died during rehearsals, but the Leningrad premiere still proved a major rallying cry to the city’s, and indeed all of Russia’s, resistance to the German invasion. The intense suffering of Leningrad’s citizens bleeds into Shostakovich’s composition. Klemperer tells Kay how in the score you can hear the German tanks “descend upon Leningrad. Dimitri errs on the side of the descriptive and polemical here. He hates Hitler and Stalin equally.”

The German tanks Klemperer refers to can be heard during the ‘Invasion Theme’. Here it is performed by the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Alfonso Scarano:

Otto Klemperer

Otto Klemperer was born in Breslau, Kingdom of Prussia in 1885. He held a number of positions as a conductor in Germany before fleeing the Nazis, and moving to the United States in the 1930s. In the US, Klemperer was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Klemperer had ambitions to be a great composer, but his work is largely out of print and rarely, if ever, performed today. As a conductor he was second to none, albeit at a cost to his health. He suffered from manic-depressive episodes and was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1939. Kay witnesses his physical and mental suffering, ‘Klemperer half-slurred. He pushed words and made himself understood’. Despite being a naturalised American citizen, Klemperer was unable to renew his US passport in 1952 (due to his left-wing views). He returned to Europe and died in Zurich in 1973, at the age of 88. Although the surgery to remove the brain tumour led Klemperer to suffer from paralysis, he continued to work regularly.

In the audio file below Klemperer is at the peak of his career in the US, conducting Mozart at the Hollywood Bowl in 1938, a year before he fell ill. Check out that rock star audience…

A James Ellroy Playlist: South of the Border

June 20, 2021

A shorter post today. I’m swamped with work on other projects right now, which gives me less time for this site. However, continuing my series on James Ellroy and music, I am going to highlight a couple of musical pieces which have been inspired by the Demon Dog’s work. Any artist who takes inspiration from Ellroy is not afraid to go to some dark places, and today’s choices have a rather mystical, dangerous or downright head-tripping flair.

Pour yourself a shot of tequila and prepare to ‘go with the music – spin, fall with it.’

Tijuana Bible

Tom Russell is a singer-songwriter, author and painter with an enigmatic persona to match Ellroy. In an interview with Craig McDonald, Russell tacitly admits that his song ‘Tijuana Bible’ was inspired by Ellroy’s writing. The song is rich in story and character. McDonald describes it as ‘Ellroy’s entire LA Quartet distilled down to a single, intoxicating song’:

LA mobster Mickey Cohen’s stooge Johnny Stompanato gets shanked by movie queen Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane. “Stomp” rides “an ice truck down the brand new Harvard freeway.” A MacArthur Park-based PI investigates. Seeking a treasure map, the Eye digs up Johnny’s corpse, looking for riches… and finds an LA Confidential-style “Tijuana Bible” full of smutty sketches of Cary Grant doing the nasty with Donald’s drifting squeeze Daisy Duck “in a Tijuana bedroom.”

And here is the song. It’s a fantastic song crammed with LA lore and a quintessentially noir sense of humour, which reminds me of a joke the author Steve Hodel once told me. – ‘I remember back in the Fifties as a young man trying to learn a new dance. It was called, “The Stompanato Stomp”. It’s where the girls cut in.’

Out Walked Bud/in Walked Bud

Double Naught Spy Car are a band that provided atmospheric background music to several of James Ellroy’s public readings during the mid-1990s. Variously described as ‘surf noir, jazz on acid, spaghetti middle eastern, and “difficult”’ Double Naught Spy Car have produced great instrumental music, as colourful and surreal as the world of Ellroy’s fiction. Their first album, Comb in Blue Water, was released in 1998, shortly after their collaborative readings with Ellroy. It’s a great album to play while reading Ellroy (particularly if you’ve just bought a copy of Widespread Panic). Below is one of my favourite tracks, ‘Out Walked Bud/in Walked Bud’. It’s a homage to the Thelonius Monk tune ‘Bud Walked In’, but for our purposes, play it with Bud White in mind. And pity the wife-beater who opens their door one evening to find the ‘Ghost of Christmas Past’, inviting them to ‘dance with a man for a change’.

Widespread Panic by James Ellroy – Review

June 8, 2021

Fred Otash is back! Actually, he’s dead. He’s stuck in ‘Penance Penitentiary, Reckless-Wrecker-Of-Lives Block, Pervert Purgatory’. Otash decides to pen a confessional in the hopes of improving his eternal fate. The action jumps back to 1950’s LA, and Freddy’s in his prime.

Dig: He’s verifying salacious stories for the scandal-rag Confidential. He’s an informer for LAPD Chief William H Parker, who wants to lure Confidential into a honeytrap that will topple its tabloid crown. Freddy’s got the goods on everyone in Hollywood. He knows that James Dean is the ‘Human Ashtray’ gimp for his studio masters, aka Nazi-obsessed Afrika Korp fetishist director Nicholas Ray.

Look alive Kats: Ray is a flamer who flings himself at good-looking starlets and actors faster than he can get into bed, figuratively speaking, with Caryl Chessman. Chessman is the robber, kidnapper and rapist whose scheduled appointment with the green room in San Quentin has become a cause celebre to Hollywood figures such as Ray and Marlon Brando who are determined to halt the execution.

Woof Daddy-O: Otash sees the libertine, hypocritical side of Hollyweird which is closed off to the public. He knows that Phyllis Gates ain’t gonna turn her husband Rock Hudson straight, but frankly the portrayal of that couple is relatively tender given the sordid conduct of everyone else. Then Otash falls in love with the actress Lois Nettleton, and we are reminded that behind the glitz and glamour, Hollywood is still the land of dreamers and hopeless romantics.

Tomorrow is a drag, man! Tomorrow is a king-sized bust!: This is the dawn of the age of Camelot, and a certain Senator for Massachusetts with Presidential ambitions can’t help but dip into the boudoir delights that Hollywood has to offer. Such is the confluence between politics and entertainment, tabloid journalism and the silver screen, which makes the Devil’s work and Fred Otash’s payday in Widespread Panic.

The world I am describing could only stem from the fertile mind of James Ellroy, and Widepread Panic is a wild jazzy ride that readers will storm through in one or two breathless sittings. Reviewing the book for the Financial Times, Barry Forshaw describes Widespread Panic as the novel that will ‘win back the legions of fans who have deserted him’. It’s a sobering thought to think that Ellroy has lost fans. I would argue that they have become a bit jaded by the excessive demands that Perfidia and This Storm put on the reader. With Widespread Panic, Ellroy has found a comfortable middle-ground. The tone here is comic, but not in the outrageous-style of the Danny Getchell novellas. It’s Freddy’s first-person narration and Ellroy has a nice distance from the character. In interviews, Ellroy goes to great pains to specify that although he may have liked Otash and found him a veritable goldmine of information, he never actually respected or admired the man. He does succeed in reining in Otash’s more callous, venal nature at crucial junctures, such as in his love for Nettleton.

The structure is also Ellroy at his creative best. Widespread Panic is composed of three novellas – ‘Shakedown’, ‘Perv Dog’ and ‘Gonesville’- – which, when taken together, can also be read as a single novel. Widespread Panic may not be as epically perfect as Ellroy’s best work, but it will, I suspect, reassure a few waverers. And, as Ellroy has already indicated that there are more Fred Otash books to come, it signals a return to the 1950s Los Angeles setting of which he is the undisputed master.

Spreading the Word

May 26, 2021

Recently, I’ve been contributing to the wider blogosphere/podcast world and spreading the word about the Demon Dog. Firstly, the Ellroy Boys invited me on to their podcast to discuss LA Confidential, both novel and film. I had huge fun discussing all things Ellroy with Sam, Brendan and the rest of the guys. You can listen to the podcast here.

I was also interviewed by Hannah Stevenson for her blog The Dorset Book Detective. We talked about my love of crime fiction, the books I’ve written and, of course – the Demon Dog! You can read the interview here.

Photo by Sterling Davis on Unsplash

A James Ellroy Playlist: Set It To Music

May 22, 2021

Over the course of my series on James Ellroy and music, I have focused on the various musical genres, performers and composers that have inspired Ellroy and how he has worked these influences into his writing. This latest instalment is a bit different. I am going to explore how Ellroy’s fiction has inspired an eclectic range of music in film, theatre and symphonies. As I, and many readers of this website can attest to, engagement with Ellroy’s work encourages obsession and inspiration. So, I’m writing this as a tribute to the musicians who have produced great work by daring to enter the noir world of the Demon Dog.

Here’s to them.

The Victor

LA Confidential is the best of the four films that have been adapted from Ellroy’s novels, and a great film in general (although Ellroy’s opinion of it has cooled in recent years). The setting, story and characters of the film are accentuated by a beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith composed the score to Chinatown, so he knows the noir milieu of Los Angeles well. The highlight comes with the piece which concludes the film, ‘The Victor’. It commences with a lonely, elegiac trumpet which switches to fast-tempo action which plays as the credits roll. Exley is triumphant, having both killed Dudley Smith and played the system so adroitly that he is hailed to the press as a hero. Bud White’s severe injuries from the Victory Motel shootout have left him disabled and his police career is over, but in many ways he is the more fortunate of the two men. He has a woman, Lynn Bracken, who loves him and will care for him in a new home far away from the City of (Fallen) Angels. Exley just has his rank, gold medals and a helluva a lot of ghosts in his head. As Lynn says, ‘Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.’ Which would you choose?

Jerry Goldsmith died in 2004. His reputation as one of the greatest composers in Hollywood history is unassailable. Ultimately, Goldsmith’s beautiful composition ‘The Victor’ reminds me of Ellroy himself. If you know anything about his remarkable life-story, then you’re likely to conclude he could also be the victor of the title.

The Lee Ellroy Show

SOIT are a Brussels based performance group who set about the ambitious task of staging Ellroy’s life through dance and theatre. The Lee Ellroy Show is loosely inspired by Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places and the unsolved murder of Jean Ellroy. Directed by Hans Van der Broeck, and with Jacob Ingram-Dodd and Anuschka Von Oppen performing all of the roles, The Lee Ellroy Show is wild, surreal and has enough wonderful weirdness in it to surprise even the most dedicated Ellroy readers. Below is a clip from the show. You can watch the entire performance here.

Black Dahlia

If the murder of Jean Ellroy can be depicted through dance, then the unsolved murder of the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short, seems a ripe subject for musical interpretation. Mark Isham’s soundtrack to the film version isn’t bad at all, but a great soundtrack needs a great film and Brian De Palma’s adaptation doesn’t have any of the grandeur or epic scope that made LA Confidential such a wondrous melding of film and music.

Instead, I’d like to focus on Bob Belden’s jazz opera Black Dahlia which was released in 2001. Variously described as based on or inspired by Ellroy’s Dahlia novel, Belden described his take on the story:

“Essentially, my piece is about dying and how to get there,” Belden quips. “James Ellroy created a world around the Black Dahlia murder case but he really didn’t delve into her character, he delved into the Los Angeles that he grew up with and had in LA Confidential. And so for Ellroy, it was just a matter of taking that murder and creating a story around it. I was more interested in the character of Elizabeth Short, what she was thinking and feeling right up to the moment of her death.

I’m not sure I agree with Belden’s analysis of the novel. Bucky Bleichert’s first-person narration introduces the story with the line: ‘I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them.’ By learning about Elizabeth, he discovers more about himself, but he can never truly know her because she’s gone, and unlike the heroine in Laura, she is not coming back. Belden tries his best to understand Elizabeth Short and ‘to create music around what I imagined she was feeling and thinking.’ The result is a fantastic noir album, haunting and thrilling in equal measure. Sadly, Belden died of a heart attack aged only 58. He left behind an impressive body of work, of which Black Dahlia is definitely a highlight. Below is the title track. You can watch a performance of the entire work here.

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:

Mr Campion’s Coven by Mike Ripley – Review

April 26, 2021

UK, 1971. Strikes, flying pickets, and all manner of industrial strife dominate the news headlines. Northern Ireland is going up in flames, and flares are running down the legs of Britain’s long-haired youth. Not that all of this cultural and social change matters much to the aging Albert Campion. If you mentioned Glam Rock to the Toffish detective he’d probably think it was the title of an obscure geological journal. Nevertheless, this is the changing Britain of Mike Ripley’s brilliant series of Albert Campion novels, which have developed the much-loved character who first appeared in Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).

Wicken, an Essex village where the yokels make the inhabitants of Summerisle look positively normal. The place is a treasure trove to Harvard student Mason Lowell Clay. He’s writing a thesis on a group of settlers who travelled from Wicken and landed in Harker’s Island, North Carolina. Campion is on hand to help him with his research, but the strange doings around Wicken have already lured Campion to the village. The noted actress Dame Jocasta Upcott’s yacht has run aground on a Wicken mudbank. Dame Jocasta wants Campion to find her missing dog Robespierre, whose disappearance concerns her far more than the yacht or the fact that the captain has been found dead. Campion has a mystery to unravel, but where do the answers lie? Is it a case of smuggling gone wrong, or a sinister tale of the clash between Christian and Pagan traditions?

Ripley’s novels have always had a great sense of locale and, as a former archaeologist, he knows this mud-splattered topography well. Essex is a bellwether among the Home Counties. It was key to the electoral success of Thatcher, Blair and now Boris. Thus, it is a perfect setting for a crime story grappling with the spiritual battle between covenanters and wicca pagans. A narrative best described as a cross between Deliverance and The Midwich Cuckoos. Emotional spoiler alert: Several pooches go missing in the course of the story, but dog-lovers need not worry, all of the canines fare better than the human characters in this novel or indeed, the real-life Robespierre. There is affection though in Ripley’s comic sketches of characters. I was fond of the haughty diva Dame Jocasta, and the boozy theatrical agent Maxim Berlins, a fine tribute to the great Marcel Berlins.

I don’t wish to overplay the darkness of the story, after all what is a Campion tale without lashings of wit. And Mr Campion’s Coven has wit in abundance. I found myself looking forward to the hour a day I’d put aside to read it, and rather like an indulgent cocktail hour, that sixty minutes was often extended.

A James Ellroy Playlist: Composure

April 15, 2021

Classical music is one of James Ellroy’s greatest passions, and his novels are littered with references to it. For my latest piece on Ellroy and music, I am going to examine the personalities of two of Ellroy’s favourite composers and look at how their obsessions influenced his writing.

Anton Bruckner

In Brown’s Requiem, the lead character Fritz Brown, a repo-man cum private detective, is an admirer of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner: ‘I heard the Bruckner Third the other night on KUSC. Haitink and the Concertgebouw. Lonely Anton at his peak.’ He takes inspiration from Bruckner’s chaste dedication to his craft, although Brown is too worldly a man for abstinence. He is addicted to booze and women. His admiration for Bruckner’s ideals, yet failure to adhere to them, haunts him in his final confrontation with the antagonist Haywood Cathcart. Having tracked the vicious killer Cathcart to his house in Del Mar, Brown holds him at gunpoint. Rather than beg for his life, the wounded Cathcart asks Brown to look inside his desk drawer. To his surprise, in the drawer Brown finds two ‘loving mounted likenesses of Anton Bruckner’. Cathcart proceeds to lecture Brown on Bruckner’s character:

You love Bruckner. But you don’t understand him. What his music meant. It’s about containment. Refined emotions. Sacrifice. Purity. Control. Duty. The muted melancholy throughout his symphonies! A call to arms. A policeman who loves Bruckner and you can’t feel his essence. He never wed, Brown. He never fucked women. He wouldn’t expend one ounce of his creative energy on anything but his vision. I have been Anton Bruckner, Brown. You can be, too.

Brown shoots Cathcart dead before he can continue his speech. He is emotionally devastated that a morally repugnant man like Cathcart could love Bruckner’s music as much as he does, and even understand it better. All of which might seem highly unlikely and overwritten for a crime novel. But, if you adore Ellroy’s early novels as much as I do, you can admire how Ellroy the young writer, newly sober and rebuilding his life, is emotionally engaging on a very pure level with Bruckner’s music and his Romantic ideals.

Here is Bruckner’s Symphony No.3 in D minor, conducted by Bernard Haitink for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Listen to this while you chew over the ideals of ‘lonely Anton’. Just don’t get upset if someone you can’t abide enjoys Bruckner’s music just as much you do!

Ludwig van Beethoven

Probably no other composer has been as influential on Ellroy’s life as Beethoven. He first heard the composer’s work in junior high school, ‘One day in class Hines (his art teacher) dropped a needle on a record. “Da-da-da dunnn. Over! It was just over. Immediately.”’ Ellroy still keeps a bust of Beethoven on his writing desk. In an interview I conducted with Ellroy, the author talked at length about his admiration for Beethoven:

What I love is the worse it got, the greater he got. In his famous quote when he started to go deaf, “I will take fate by the throat.” It’s just almost unfathomable courage. And the older he got, and he was dead at fifty-six, the more unfathomable and great and uncategorisable his music.

“I will take fate by the throat” became the epigraph to Ellroy’s memoir The Hilliker Curse. Ellroy alludes to parallels between his life and Beethoven’s in that when things went bad for Ellroy from 2001 onwards – the nervous breakdown, addiction issues, affairs and divorce he details in Hilliker Curse – artistically things started to get better. After recovering from this emotional meltdown, Ellroy wrote his comeback novel, Blood’s a Rover, which is among his most critically acclaimed. It features two female characters who could be considered Ellrovian versions of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’. The Immortal Beloved was the addressee of a love letter Beethoven wrote in 1812. For years scholars have debated the identity of the woman Beethoven was writing to, and it has even inspired a feature film. In Blood’s a Rover, ‘Comrade’ Joan Rosen Klein and Karen Sifakis are based on real women Ellroy became romantically involved with. The dedication reads, ‘To J.M. Comrade: For Everything You Gave Me’. In the novel, FBI agent Dwight Holly is having an affair with the married and pregnant Karen. He drives by her house at night, to catch a glimpse of her domestic life which he can never fully call his own, ‘She’d sense him on the terrace and blast Beethoven string quartets. She’d leave a kitchen light on to pinpoint the sound.’

I tend to associate Beethoven with Eurythmics, and Annie Lennox would be many a man’s Immortal Beloved. In Hilliker Curse, Ellroy describes his crush on the ‘mesmeric mezzo’ Anne Sofie von Otter. He owns several posters of her over the years, one of which was gnarled to pieces by his dog Barko. Embedded below is von Otter singing Beethoven’s ‘An die Geliebte’ (To the beloved), which the musicologist Maynard Solomon has argued must be dedicated to the same woman of the Immortal Beloved letter. Enjoy this lieder while you think of your own Immortal Beloved:

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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