Friday, January 23, 2015

Boxing's Last Chance Saloon: Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own and Scream: The Tyson Tapes

I've long been fascinated by boxing, no doubt stemming from having spent my childhood watching televised boxing in the 1950s and 60s with my dad, who, as a ringside photographer in Chicago and Detroit during the 1930s and 40s, shot photos of any number of fighters like Joe Louis, Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. So I have fond memories of watching fighters like  Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Kid Gavilan and Carmen Basilio, on TV every Friday night, as well as local boxers like Art Aragon, Carlos Ortiz, Lauro Salas, and Pajarito Moreno on Wednesday and Saturday night live from the Hollywood Legion Stadium (presented by Lenny Bruce's pal Hank Weaver) and the Olympic Auditorium. I continued watching, following it fairly closely through the era of Ali, then Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, up to early Tyson. I also watched, but was usually disappointed by most British boxers, with the possible exception of the Sheffield boxer Herol Graham, known, during the 1980s, for being unhittable until a glass-jaw contradicted that notion, turning the canvas into his best friend.

Still, it's the precision and intelligence of fighters  that I've always liked, which is why I've always preferred boxers rather than battlers. It was only during the Tyson's era that my interest really began to wane. It seemed that boxing had turned into even more of a spectacle- though I suppose that began The Rumble In the Jungle- and, in addition, more blood thirsty than ever. Maybe it was Tyson's remarks about wanting to make his opponents suffer, or watching what amounted to vengeance fights. In the UK, boxing, for me, reached its saturation point in the Eubanks and Benn and Eubanks and Watson fights. The atmosphere in those fights was genuinely scary.  Moreover, by that time it had become normal for a fighter to bad mouth his opponent. Perhaps that also had started with Ali, though no one after Ali did it with the same panache and humour. Suddenly fighters and fans alike seemed to be baying for blood, as if they were watching animals rather than humans fight. Boxing was never pretty but suddenly it had turned downright ugly.

Having said that, I still enjoy reading about past fighters, particularly from the era when I first started watching the sport. And there are a number of such books to choose from, most, if not all, typified by an  strong emphasis on style, a quality they share in common with their subjects. Amongst my favourites are  classic texts by A.J. Liebling (The Sweet Science), Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Fall) and Mailer (The Big Fight), but also Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing), Katherine Dunn (One Ring Circus), W.C. Heinz (The Professional), F.X. Toole (Rope Burns), as well as Jose Torres and Geroge Kimball. And, of course, my favorite boxing novel, Leonard Gardner's Fat City (also my favorite boxing movie).

To that list of books I'll gladly add  Jonathan Rendall, having recently read Jonathan Rendall's This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own (1997) and the posthumously published Scream: The Tyson Tapes (2014). Both provide an inside look into the sport, from everyday, even low-life, aspects to how it functions at the highest level.  Rendall, an Oxford-educated Brit, died a few years ago, at age 48, was legendary amongst journalists. His ability as a writer matched by his inability to meet a deadline. Yet he could conjure up the atmosphere of the sport with the best of them, a sport that he, like myself, loved and hated in equal measures.

In between the above two books he managed to grind out two others. In 1999 there was Twelve Grand: The Gambler as Hero. An offer he couldn't resist: a publisher fronting him £12,000 to gamble with as he saw fit on the condition that he would write about it.  With an obvious nod to his literary hero, Dostoyevsky, Rendall recounted his adventure with humour and pathos. He then parlayed that book into a three-part Channel 4 TV series, and, of course, another twelve grand. In the TV series he travelled to various race courses and gambling sites in Britain, Las Vegas and Australia, always observing, always involved in whatever action happened to be going down, including a two-day relationship with a woman he picks up in a casino.

Then there was Garden Hopping in 2006, about the search for his birth mother- a search that ended in disappointment. He also penned a drinking column for the Observer, entitled The Last Chance Saloon, as well as writing for the Times, The Correspondent, The Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday. Clearly, Rendall had problems when it came to drinking and gambling, which led to some tricky situations. Like the time a Sunday newspaper commissioned him to interview boxing trainer Brendan Ingle, which ended in Rendall hiding out in a sauna to avoid some thugs who wanted to beat him up. Or in This Bloody Mary... when he's held hostage in a hotel by some menacing security guys who demand money from him.  The opening sentence of The Last Bloody Mary... captures Rendall's writing style and full-tilt manner perfectly: "It was a few hours after Frank Bruno attacked me at Betty Boop's bar in the lobby of the MGM Grand that I decided to get out of boxing."

This Bloody Mary... was good enough to win the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, previously awarded to Angela Carter, John Le CarrĂ©, Ted Hughes and Dorris Lessing.  Rendall not writes about boxing, but he writes about about writing about boxing. Which is unusual. Or maybe I'm partial because I share with Rendall an appreciation of the nimble Herol Graham and his shadow Prince Naseem.  Not only does Rendall enjoy hanging-out with old-timers like the East Ender and former champion Jack Kid Berg, as well as an assortment of insiders, might-have-beens and never-would-bes, but he wasn't afraid to actually manage  the formidable and stylish Colin McMillan, which he writes about in some detail.  Sad, funny, obsessive and insightful, This Bloody Mary... gives you a picture of the fight game that few other books offer. And worth reading if only for Rendall's search for the legendary Cuban boxer Kid Chocolate, whom he eventually finds living in distressing circumstances in Havana:
"Kid Chocolate sat down on one of his chairs and opened his mouth to speak. But rum trickled out instead through his cracked lips stained with tobacco, like lava suddenly spewed from a long-extinct volcano. His voice when it emerged was a hoarse whisper, and he formed words with difficulty, each syllable accompanied by the widening of the eyes and a grin, as if greeting every tortured sound as an old, forgotten friend."

Scream: The Tyson Tapes once again displays Rendall's double-edged attitude towards the sport, but he demonstrates this in a totally different way. Unlike This Bloody Mary..., Rendall is anything but the centre of the narrative.  In fact, he's barely present at all. Edited after Rendall's death  by the always perceptive sports and music writer Richard Williams, it offers, through a number of voices, a total picture of Tyson, not missing out on any of the latter's ups or downs. You come away from the book feeling pity for the former heavyweight champion,  who, given his early years, seemed to lack the most rudimentary social skills, relying, instead, on a jail-house mentality that demanded he use others before they could use him. Which both he and they did, including his former friends and boxing team, as well as the women around him. Rendall lets them all speak for themselves, with everyone contributing a different take on Tyson. In the end it's a rather touching if not totally sympathetic portrait of a once great fighter.  Rendall, like a gaming table version of Hunter Thompson crossed with an adventurous Jeffrey Barnard, died too young, having produced too little.  But what he did produce is well worth seeking out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Young Bird: Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch

Though I've sometimes disagreed with him,  I've always had a soft spot for Stanley Crouch. Even in that hot-house tete-a-tete with the likes of one-time Miles sideman Mtume, I admired Crouch's defence of pre-electronic Miles, though I also had time for his adversaries. And I've long admired Crouch's essays in books like Notes of a Hanging Judge and Celebrating Genius. A musician, essayist, novelist, poet and radical traditionalist, Crouch is as qualified as anyone, and more than most, to revise Charlie Parker's life and legacy. Thirty years in the making, Kansas City Lightning covers Bird's early Kansas City years, up to his first trip to New York and return to K.C..

Crouch has certainly done his research, a good deal of it deriving from oral testimony.  The opening section on the Jay McShann's arrival at the Woodside in Harlem, with young Charlie Parker on alto, is pretty much worth the price of the book on its own.  Every sentence is a gem:

"The rest of the country may have been gearing up for war, but these musicians, known as the Jay McShann Orchestra, had been at war most of their lives. They were jazzmen, and that meant fighting with many a rival band for the affections of the dancers, and fighting with other individual musicians and aggregations for a place in the world of music- whether second chair or first chair, local fame or national recognition... The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you'd produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your own voice. Just as an outstanding individual has a walk, a way of carrying the body through space, or a way of adding unique particulars to a dance, an outstanding player had to work till he developed his own phrasing, his own rhythm.  Like a cook who can reinvent a familiar meal, he had to know how to mix his own musical batter, how to balance his own spices, how to fry an idea on one side before turning it over. All those things formed your style and style was what led to recognition. It was the difference between being an artisan and an artist."

While Ross Russell's forty-year old Bird Lives remains an excellent and important book by that Chandler and Hammett-influenced writer, Kansas City Lightning fills in the gaps in greater detail,  and does so in a manner that befits its subject, Crouch's style an amalgam of black bop prosody and American modernist prose. Though, as Crouch points out, Bird, during this period, was an elusive figure, like a character in a film in  one scene only to vanish and pop up somewhere else.

But Crouch responds with a vengeance, delving into Bird's early life. And there seems to be much there to discover.  Evoking America during the Depression,  Crouch is particularly good when describing the music coming out of those territorial bands, both with and without Bird. And he's fond shifting from the particular to the general, in this case from the biographical to the cultural. Some segues might seem a bit stilted, but they are invariably interesting and thought provoking. For instance, when Bird holds a gun to his wife's head after Rebecca has called him out for lying about a sexually explicit letter from another woman, Crouch shifts from Rebecca's defiance- "If you're going to point at my head ahead, you'd better kill me"-  to what lies behind that defiance,  i.e., how African Americans, particularly women, were meant to behave as opposed to how they were being portrayed in news reels of faraway places, making the gap between fact and fiction more than superficially important, the gun being something real rather than a prop or something carved from the imagination. In the real world, the likes of Rebecca were ready to give it all up for the truth. As was Bird when it came to his music. In fact, Crouch's book is as much about world surrounding Bird, as it is about Bird himself. Which doesn't nor shouldn't obscure the fact that KC Lightning is about the education of a musician, and no ordinary musician at that.

It's also about how Bird came to sound the way he did. Crouch is quick to point out that it wasn't that his playing was a reaction to Lester Young, Chu Berry or Coleman Hawkins. He wanted to be playing with, if not like, them, to be recognised for who he was and what he played. Of course, Bird had and an ear and an ability like no one else. But this is certainly no hagiography. In fact, Bird as a person doesn't come of it looking all that great. After all, because he gave himself totally to the music, personal relationships, unless they were directly related to the music, were likely to take a back seat. Likewise, Crouch doesn't shy from depicting Bird's callous treatment of his wife and child, whether selling Rebecca's clothes to buy drugs, or leaving her to fend for herself.

Because there are blank spots in Bird's day to day Kansas City life, Crouch is left to improvise on what he has uncovered or suspects. And he manages to improvise admirably. This is particularly the case regarding Bird's initial visit to NY. Though that period remains sketchy, Crouch points out that during that time Bird managed to stay drug free, though perhaps he felt he had to lest he trade his music for a life of crime. Still, the paucity of information doesn't stop Crouch from riffing on his subject, while deploying some stylish prose:

"By the time Charlie Parker arrived in New York that winter, he'd been wearing his shoes so long that his feet and legs were swollen out of shape. He had come the hard way, freezing in boxcars between towns, getting a roof over his head and breakfast from the Salvation Army, then taking to the rails again. But he took the bumps, scrapes and pricks of his journey in stride, because he'd finally gotten to the place at the far end of the country where he wanted to be. Slight or acute, pain was a traveling partner by now. He'd learned the weight that hypocrisy and chaos brought to his sense of life, how it felt to be alone and the target of contempt; how to bear the soreness that came with mastering his instrument..."  

Of course, Crouch has much information here that will be new and illuminating to those familiar and unfamiliar with Bird's biography. But Crouch moves from the particular to the general, interpreting Bird, and sounding fairly convincing in the process:

"There was a high-minded, contemplative side to Charlie, too, a habit of wondering how things would feel if the world were vastly different. As fascinated as he was by innovation and invention, he was more intrigued by the inspiration behind the invention- by how some human mind thought of each new idea. He recognized that thought was a pure thing not impeded by social circumstance. It had independent power. A C scale was a C scale, no matter who played it or why, which gave those notes- any notes- a spiritual quality. That's why the bandstand was a sacred place, and why it would have been difficult to ascertain much about the social conditions of the 1930s by listening to the Negro musicians of Charlie's era. They didn't evade life when they performed, whether in public or private; they entered its condition of freedom through their craft, discipline and inspiration. In the pure universe of musical tone, they were able to express themselves as exactly who they were, not as the limited icons that others, black or white, might mistake them for."

Parker's elusiveness even extends to the date and circumstances of his first known recording- Body and Soul/Honeysuckle Rose (see the clip below). A private recording from either 1939 or 1940, location unknown, on which Bird plays unaccompanied. It's there that Crouch ends the book, suggesting, with that recording, that something monumental was about to take place: "Parker, the young talent, was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was his and his alone."  One thing for sure, this book will make you want to dust off or acquire recordings by the Blue Devils, Bennie Moten, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and, of course, Bird.  It also made me want to go back to some of the old school critics, like Albert Muarry and Ralph Ellison, not to mention Langston Hughes. Based on this volume- another is in the pipeline- Crouch's combined book looks certain to be, if not the definitive Bird biography, one of the best biographies of a jazz musician you are likely to read in this or any other year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Undeerrated Hyperbola: Perfidia by James Ellroy

"The city would build up and out after the war. The war gave him L.A. ablaze with crazy purpose. The war let him love L.A. one last time as it was."  Perfidia, p. 574

Perfidia: nearly 700 pages of hyper-driven narrative, forensic detail, fevered declarations and musings populated by a cast of warped and obsessive individuals in Los Angeles, December 1941, before, during and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That about sums it up, and, to my surprise, I found Perfidia, despite initial misgivings, to be an interesting, provocative, even innovative novel from a writer whose recent work has been, to my mind, disappointing. Yet I still highly rate his work up to and including American Tabloid, which, for me, constitute one of the major post-Chandler revisions of the genre, not only because of their narrative power, but in their portrayal of male anxiety in an era of trickle down economics, political correctness, feminism, hegemonic decline, not  to mention Ellroy's psychogeographical (with an emphasis on psycho) portrayal of his native city.

For me, novels like The Cold Six Thousand and Blood's A Rover were too dispersed and lacked the edginess and personal investment of Ellroy's earlier fiction. Maybe he'd grown complacent, or had become too reliant on his own hype and image, which tended to play into the hands of Hollywood producers and readers seeking surface thrills over noir substance. It wasn't so much that he was beginning to parody himself as lost in a world that wasn't quite his own, one not nearly as personal as that which formed the backdrop of earlier fiction. Even My Dark Pages, despite it subject matter, seemed more distant and less interesting than his The Black Dahlia, the central event of which stood in proxy for his mother's murder. Then there's the matter of Ellroy's writing style: the condensation of his sentences into police reportage and sound bites, his machine-gun, often comic book, prose. Not to mention those films which were, at best, mediocre and, at worst, barely watchable.

Such was the hype and adulation that it seemed too easy to criticise or characterise him, or even write about him. In a sense, Ellroy as a commodity had become so over-inflated, if not over-rated, that he was looking distinctly underrated, or, at any rate, appreciated for the wrong reasons. Which is partly why I was interested in reading his latest. Or it could be I was just curious to see if Ellroy had changed tack. So I approached Perfidia with low expectations, but intrigued that he was going back to the period prior to when the L.A. Quartet takes place, with characters from those and related novels.

Yes, Perfidia's length makes it a long slog, but then Ellroy, never one to do anything by half-measures, has always sought out sufficient space to spin out his narratives. And this one is as narratively complicated as anything he's written. Moreover, in terms of style, Perfidia is something of a compromise between his earlier hard-hitting prose and the short sharp shock-prose of his later fiction. One could even say that Perfidia, mixing historical data with Ellroy's off-centered take on the world, is modernist crime fiction with a vengeance.  It's also quite a political novel. Or, at any rate, it takes place within a political context. Though Ellroy's novels have always been, in a sense, political, albeit from a libertarian point of view. But, then, how could a novel about the treatment of Japanese-Americans post-Pearl Harbor, not be political, particularly with obvious comparisons to 9/11 and its aftermath, with Japanese Americans rather than Muslims the objects of public vitriol.

Though Perfidia has a large cast of characters, it revolves around the complicated adventurer and informer  Kay Lake. Smart enough to critique the prevailing LAPD ethos- The lie that  race defines human beings. The lie that dissent defines sedition....The definitive lie of fearful hatred."- and, on the other hand, add a Ballardian end-times perspective when, looking out on Sunset Blvd from her apartment, she says, "Sirens would sound; the city would go dark within moments. I wanted to be here for that." It's Kay's journal entries that provide the glue which holds the novel together. But don't expect logic or clear thinking from Kay, who is as obsessed and weird as Perfidia's  other characters, from the Japanese American forensic cop Hideo Ashida who must negotiate the dangerous post-Pearl Harbor landscape (according to crime writer Naomi Hirahara, a Niesi on the LAPD in 1941 was highly unlikely), to Dudley Smith, already a encrazed force of nature; and the deranged William Parker some years before becoming LA chief of police. And if only a fraction of what Ellroy writes about Parker is true, no wonder, under his reign, the LAPD would go on to have such problems.

Since it takes place prior to the L.A. Quartet, it, of course, works overtime to adds substance and backstory to the latter. Though knowing what we know, it might be hard to countenance Dudley Smith's intimacies, one has to remind oneself of that fact.  Written in what Ellroy describes as real time (as opposed to what, unreal time?), Perfidia cuts a thin line between history and the author's jump-cutting imagination. That the book lacks suspense isn't surprising, since Ellroy has shown little interest in the whodunnit aspect of crime fiction, opting instead for rambling, complex character-driven narratives. So there's barely any point speculating on a given perpetrator, because, in Ellroy's world, everyone is, to one degree or another, guilty, and, in any case, he's more intent on putting across his particular view of history, which, as he sees it, is created by events that conflict with obsessive and paranoid personalities. Conspiracy?  What else is there?

Filled with evidence of human weakness, fallibility, duplicity and capitalist land-grabs, politely known as redevelopment, Perfidia, as much fiction as fact, evokes an era and society torn apart by fear, racism and nationalism. Written in Ellroy's typical pulp prose, sometimes poetic, sometimes tedious, repetitious or excessive, but always in the vernacular, Perfidia moves from grand gesture to apocalyptic banality. With its strengths and weaknesses are intertwined,  the novel began to run out of steam late on, at the point when Dudley and Parker form a pact,  after which Kay's journal seems to take a dive plot-wise. And what on earth is Ellroy's obsession with starlet lookalikes and surgical makeovers, which seemed to have cropped up in earlier novels? Nevertheless, Perfidia is definitely  a novel to be reckoned with, and a welcome return from the author's sojourn into gangsterland. One thing for sure, Ellroy knows his history, allowing him to "love L.A. one last time as it was." And to demonstrate that, whether before, during or after, the city was, for many, never the most comfortable place to be. And there are three more novels in the series to come. As rightwing cop Carl Hull says to Dudley Smith, "The real war starts when this one ends."

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Dirty Baker's Dozen: My Thirteen Favorite Crime Novels of 2014

Not necessarily the best, but my favourites of 2014, in no particular order, with links to my reviews where applicable:

- A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder)

- The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little Brown/Picador)

- Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf/Random House)

-The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine (Tam Tam)

- Brainquake by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime/Titan)

- Half World by Scott O'Connor (Scribe)

- There Ain't No Justice- by James Curtis (London Books)

- A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury)

- Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol (Old Street)

- Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Arrow)

- The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette, trans by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYRB)

- Third Rail by Rory Flynn (Houghton Miflin)

- Futures by John Barker (PM Press)

Bubbling under:

Chance- by Kem Nunn (Scribner)

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura (Bitter Lemon)

The Getaway Car by Donald Westlake (University of Chicago)

North Beach Girl/Scandal On the Sand by John Trinian (Stark House)

Death's Sweet Song/Whom Gods Destroy by Clfton Adams (Stark House)

Midnight Road by Jada Davis (Stark House)

The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson (Arcadia)

An annotated version of this list can be found at the L.A. Review of Books.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pulping the Nazis: A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

This has to be one of the more subversive books I've had the pleasure of reading this year. A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, a well-travelled Israeli currently residing in London, concerns the warp and woof of what was, what might have been and, to some degree, what still is. In Tidhar's book, it's 1939 and a writer of pulp fiction, Shomer, incarcerated in Auschwitz, imagines a book about Wolf, a once formidable German dictator, who has escaped from his native land following a communist take-over, and is now in London working as a private-eye. Not that Wolf is the only ex-Nazi in London. Pretty much all of the big guns have decamped in the capital where anti-semite fascist Oswald Mosley is about to become prime minister.

Still a megalomaniac, hough no longer a leader of men, Wolf has hit rock bottom, just another fallen schlemiel, traipsing London's mean streets, humiliated by one and all (including a circumcision scene that's not easy to forget). Naturally,  his reputation has preceded him, so he's hired by a young, beautiful, wealthy and sex-obsessed Jewish woman to locate her sister, as well as by Mosley who wants to know who might be after him.  Throw in the time-honoured cliche of murdered prostitutes and you get a parallel universe, or xenophobic dreamscape of a London that is just about imaginable, depending, of course, on who is doing the imagining. Here everyone is compromised- Nazi and Jew alike. Of course, the police think it's Wolf who has committed those murders. And as yesterday's news, the poor guy can't even make any money from his autobiography Mein Kampf. Only Leni Riefenstahl seems to have escaped unscathed, to Hollywood, where acting opposite Humphrey Bogart, she's starring in a film called Tangier, which is Casablanca, written, of course, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whom Wolf claims to admire. In any case, a nightmare landscape that becomes, for Wolf, all too real.

Uncategorisable- think PK Dick crossed with Jim Thompson's King Blood- but  what makes it subversive isn't the warped alternative universe Tidhar establishes, but that he's out to muddy the waters when it comes to the perceived Manicheistic wisdom regarding the history of that era.  Nudged by some, do we dare to call it, the author, a supreme being, here, on one level, in a concentration camp, and, in another, in a room in front of a computer screen,  and things might look somewhat different. Merging fact, fiction and fantasy, Tidhar also delivers an interesting take on the state of Israel, the  holocaust industry and the power to imagine what  might previously have been unimaginable. Here Jewish guilt takes on a new meaning, while the characters who inhabit the novel-  whether Hitler (trans. Noble Wolf), Mosley, Diana and Unity Mitford, Goering, Barbie, Hess, etc.- are only a step off-centre, imagined by someone who, in turn, is being imagined. Like the Watcher in the novel, who tracks Wolf, as he himself is watched, imagined, written, etc..

So subversive and darkly humorous is this novel that I couldn't help but wonder about author's safety in certain quarters. But, then, this is the same guy who wrote an earlier novel entitled Osama. Clearly, this is someone who deserves a certain amount of respect. As for Hitler...well, there are all too many Hitlers around these days. Not quite  the "banality of evil" that Hannah Arendt spoke of, but more like its distant, drug-addled and boisterous cousin. But, then, maybe, within time every dictator, no matter how degenerate and  horrible, becomes just another object of disgust and ridicule.  

Interesting that a pulp fiction writer named Shomer actually did exist, and, as Tidhar notes, was roundly criticised by none other than Sholem Aleichem for indulging in such penny-ante fantasies. Tidhar also quotes from a concentration camp pulpist Ka-Tzetnik, who, in The Code, wrote, "Auschwitz was not created by the devil, but by men, like you, or me." No wonder, in Tidhar's book, everyone, whether as instigators or out of retribution, is capable of anything. Citing Ka-Tzetnik made me want  to track down the latter's House of Dolls, about the camp's notorious Joy Division, and look into the holocaust porn and Naziploitation pulp that, according to Tidhar, has been so popular in Israel. In the end, reading A Man Lies Dreaming (lies meaning what exactly?), I couldn't help but think about the equally subversive notion put forward by my late friend, the actor Bradley Porter, who liked to maintain  that if  Israel was meant to come into existence, as religious Jews were wont to say, only after the coming of the messiah, then that country could only have been founded on false pretences. Or, if that religious prerequisite was true, that, combined with the notion that the holocaust necessitated the state of Israel, must mean the person who instigated the holocaust which led to the state of Israel could only have been the messiah. As  Bradley liked to say, "Oy vey, in spades... " In any case, it's definitely something for Tidhar to consider.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime: Stories Behind the Story


Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime takes place in Los Angeles in the summer of 1960. JFK is in town, about to nominated by the Democrats for the upcoming presidential election; Dodger Stadium is under construction; the political influence of the Los Angeles Times’ Chandler family is at its height; Mickey Cohen is the city’s top mobster; rhythm and blues is being co-opted by large record companies; and the line separating business from organised crime has grown extremely narrow. So Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime sets out to investigate the various morbid symptoms produced by that particular period of transition and circumstances, fitting it all into the noir tradition of grand gesture and obsessive personalities, false turns and femmes fatales, corrupt individuals and absurd declarations, secret lives and shady pasts.

It’s also an era in which news photographers are forever snapping photos of movie stars, sports personalities, politicians and gangsters, plastering them across the pages of newspapers and scandal sheets. Which is one reason I wanted to place at the centre of my novel’s narrative an unscrupulous freelance news photographer,  Abe Howard, who makes his living shooting photos of celebrities in compromising positions and dead bodies in the early stages of decomposition.  Abe comes from Chicago where he grew up alongside a litany of shady characters. Soon he was working for various newspapers, taking photos of gangster including some unsolicited shots of Capone, which landed Abe in some extremely hot water. Now living in Pasadena with a wife and two kids, he does whatever he has to do to make a living. It’s only when he gets off some shots of a dead up and coming jazz musician, he finds himself in serious trouble with the mob, not helped by his involvement with a femme fatale record executive out to exploit black music for the sake of rock and roll.

In fact, Abe is very loosely based on a mixture of my father, Albert Haut, with a dash of Weegee thrown in for good measure. Though he worked as a news photographer during the Capone era in Chicago, and then Detroit, Albert Haut, unlike Abe, was no philanderer, nor was he working as news photographer in 1960, having long since traded in his press card for a Pasadena camera store. Yet Abe and Albert share a common background. Both were autodidacts schooled amongst anarchists in Chicago’s Bug House Square. Both served as a copy boy to Ben Hecht and Carl Sandburg. Picking up a camera, both would be amongst
the first (along with W.R. Burnett) to arrive at the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Later, both, would be roughed up, their camera smashed by Al Capone’s gang for picking the wrong moment to take an unsolicited shot of their boss, only, on the following morning to receive a letter of apology from Capone, along with a new camera. Both would photograph John Dillinger in the courtroom, then, after a tip-off from his girlfriend, after he was gunned down outside the Biograph, pinning his eyes open, so the story goes, to make it look as though he were a frightened fugitive. And both were present at the Ford strikes in Michigan, took photos in the Ozarks for the WPA, and travelled with FDR on his campaign train.

It was no doubt seeing some of those photographs and hearing such stories that, from an early age, instilled in me a life-long interest in noir fiction and film, and, consequently, gave me the impetus to choose a freelance news photographer as the protagonist of my novel. And it’s why I intertwined those stories and the ethos of a freelance news photographer scrambling to make a living with what I knew about that period of Los Angeles regarding organised crime, music, baseball, politics, and geo-politics of the city. Not as nostalgia for a world gone by, but as the story of the city at a particular time and place, when, as someone once said, the old world was
dying and the new had yet to be born.




Music- jazz, blues and rhythm and blues- plays a big part in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime. Right down to the title of the novel, which, of course, comes from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by bluesman Robert Johnson:

“Please Ida Belle, don’t cry this time,
  Ida Belle, don’t cry this time,
  If you cry for a nickel, you’ll die for a dime,
  She will cry, put your money on mine.”

As the title of the novel implies, everyone in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime appears to have a price, or, if not, are going to be forced to pay a price. Put another way, cry all you want, if you compromise for so little, you’re bound to give up everything for just a little bit more. But freelance news photographer Abe Howard, relatively uninformed when it comes to music, much less the record business, has no idea of the trouble that’s about to come his way when he photographs the body of a young jazz musician, a rising star in L.A. in 1960, and son of a local baseball legend. To complicate matters, Abe falls for Kim who works for Insignia, a local record company hoping to corner the market on R&B in order to make a killing off of rock and roll. To climb the company’s ladder, Kim has, on the one hand, to collude with some unwholesome characters, and, on the other, gather information from Felix, an eccentric blues 78 rpm record collector, has at his disposal.

Felix, a walking contradiction, really is partly fact and partly fiction, based, as he is, on the legendary 78 blues record collector James McKune, about whom I’d been interested in for some time. I’d heard his name back when I was a teenager hanging around The Jazz Man record store in Los Angeles. Born around 1910 on the east coast, the eccentric McKune was one of the earliest, perhaps the first, collectors of blues 78s. A nondescript type,  he was said to always wear the same clothes- white shirt, black pants, black shoes, white socks. Gay and an alcoholic, he worked as a New York Times sub-editor, a mail sorter for the Post Office, a desk clerk at the YMCA, and checker for a beer distributor, but was never able to hold down a steady job.  A storehouse of information and a collector par excellence, he quickly turned into a legend amongst blues collectors and the eminence grise of a group of collectors, called by some “the blues mafia.” Interestingly, McKune prided himself on never having any more than 300 records at any one time, which he constantly refined through trades and bargain purchases. Sadly, McKune was murdered in 1971. He was found strangled, bound and gagged in a welfare hotel on the Lower East Side, the victim of what was thought to be a homosexual serial killer, responsible for at least a half a dozen other murders in the area.

CIRCA 1945
Felix, in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, has many of McKune’s characteristics. To the point where I’m no longer sure where McKune ends and Felix begins, or, for that matter, what I’ve made up and what is known to be true.  In my novel, Felix is idolised by his small band of fellow collectors- a west coast version of the east coast blues mafia. Like McKune, Felix is gay with a penchant for rough trade, can’t hold a job, angers easily, lives at the YMCA, stores his 300 records in boxes under his bed, is offended by the inflationary costs of blues 78s, and willing to go anywhere in search of records.

While no art form exists in a vacuum, the politics of collecting and its relationship to the music hasn’t often been written about. In many ways Felix, like McKune, confirms the image of the  obsessive collector as a marginal type- think Steve Buscemi in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 movie Ghost World- who insulates himself in an alternative world, one which looks back to the past as a way of escaping the present, even if that means sanitising the more dangerous and subversive aspects of the music he- and usually is he- loves.

But one of the collectors in Cry For a Nickel… does manage to connect collecting blues 78s with the politics of the culture. Though he looks and dresses like a banker, Ira, as well as collecting 78s, plays a National guitar, and sings classic blues songs in a voice that’s barely above a whisper. He idolises Felix, but is willing to engage with the world. He not only lends a helping hand to Abe’s wife, but he puts his body where his soul is, travelling a couple years later to Mississippi to register voters, only to be beaten up by the Klan, his hands broken so badly he’s unable to ever play his guitar again.

Back in 1960, when Cry For a Nickel… takes place, Los Angeles was a musical paradise. Teenagers, white and black, were listening to the likes of Johnny Otis and Little Richard and rhythm and blues radio d.j.’s like Hunter Hancock and Huggy Boy, maybe even going to the El Monte Legion Stadium on Saturdays nights to hear Don Julian and the Meadowlarks and Little Julian Herrera. It also had a lively jazz scene, even though it was a period that, just a few years before, had witnessed the demise of the Central Avenue club scene, once described as the Harlem of the West. Of course, these days L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world, but in 1960, smart record company hustlers, like Kim, had figured out that whoever controls the music might one day be able to call the shots, and, who knows, maybe even control the culture. What crime boss wouldn’t want to get in on that kind of action? But one false move and you’re bound to sing the blues. After all, if you cry for a nickel, you will most definitely die  for a dime.