Saturday, November 19, 2011

Los Angeles Stories by Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder the writer might not be as incisive and exact as Ry Cooder the musician, but, for me, the near-amateurish quality of Los Angeles Stories constitutes part of its charm. Not that it's badly written, it's just that those who've covered other aspects of this terrain-  Cain, Chandler, Ellroy, Fante, Mike Davis, Joan Didion, DJ Waldie- have set the bar extraordinarily high. Still, Los Angeles  Stories is more than admirable, coming across as the work of someone trying not only to resurrect the past, but to make sense of it, while, at the same time, looking for a way to tell a story,  trying things out on the page. That Ry has long been able to mix musical styles with tasteful flourishes only adds to the mix, generating its own demand and interest.

For me, these stories, whatever their surface deficiencies, function like a memory theater, conjuring up  an LA of fifty to sixty years ago, with its anti-Communist witch-hunts, Red Cars, City Directory, Bunker Hill rooming houses, downtown burlesque houses, bowling alleys and, of course, music, whether country, jazz or Mexican.  It was a time when Town Hall Party was on TV every Saturday night, Jazz Man record store was still situated on W. Pico, Pershing Square rang out with gospel singers, preachers and Oakie wannabes, radio stations like KGFJ and KXLA blasted across the airwaves, Chavez Ravine was little more than a dusty neighborhood and Angel Annie's voice could be heard behind third base at Wrigley Field. Ry writes about that time, centering on ordinary and forgotten, people, whether jobbing musicians, dental technicians, petty criminals and scam artists. Then there are those who make peripheral appearances, like d.j. Hunter Hancock, legendary guitar honchos Merle Travis and Joe Maphis, and the infamous cross-gender pianist and band-leader Billy Tipton.  I found myself wishing Cooder had written more about Tipton, who undoubtedly deserves a novel all her own. 

Like Ry, I grew up in the twilight years of that period and rarely a day passes when I don't travel back there in my mind. So even though Los Angeles Stories might be something of a one-trick pony, it has charm and no small amount of historical value. Likewise, it doesn't surprise me that Cooder should have branched off into story writing. Because this book also works as an addendum to Cooder's recent albums Chavez Ravine, I, Flathead and Pull Up Some Dust, which exists as texts in their own right. Los Angeles Stories reflects the fact that Cooder's music has become increasingly narrative and political. But then Ry's a product of the Ash Grove, where the civil rights movement and the Peace and Freedom Party rubbed shoulders with Lightnin Hopkins, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Stu Jamieson and Sleepy John Estes. As anyone who was there can attest, it was a time and place from which no one escaped unscathed.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Give + Take by Stona Fitch

Judging by what's out there, writing a decent crime/noir novel about music must be difficult. In fact, you can probably count the good ones on one hand and still have a couple fingers leftover to pluck out Blue Monk on the piano. Which is strange since crime/noir fiction and music, or, at any rate, jazz, have always been inextricably linked. In his latest novel Give +Take (published by Two Ravens Press), Stona Fitch manages to carry it off and then some. This isn't just an excellent novel about a working jazz musician- in this instance, Ross Clifton, a lounge piano player schooled in the likes of Monk, James P. Johnson and the Great American Songbook- it's also about a working thief who, when not improvising on melodies, steals BMW's from rich motorists and diamonds from wealthy women. A talented but, in the end, pedestrian musician with gifted hands, Clifton is anything but an ordinary thief. After all, this is someone  goes out of his way to give away what he makes from his one man blitz on conspicuous consumption, stuffing any profits into anonymous mailboxes, dumping it in trashcans or throwing it on side of the road.  Meanwhile, Ross'  brother, who makes his living as a counterfeiter, sends his sixteen year old son, Cray, to his uncle mostly to put some of those ersatz bills  into circulation. The idea being if we live by a fiat currency, then counterfeiting becomes something close to a legitimate business. Though reckless, immature, and forever driving his uncle up the wall, Cray is no fool, but intelligent enough to comment to his uncle that, although his financial contributions might be making people happy in the short-term, eventually the money will run out that they will have to return to their miserable lives.

As well as being a fast-moving, dark and often humorous novel that focuses on the politics of crime in our present economic climate, Give+Take is also something of a road novel. So Ross moves from town to town, playing various types of establishments, always with an eye out as to how to play the crowd, milking them for all their worth, extracting from them whatever he wants, whether applause, or getting them to part with their money.  His never-ending itinerary, arranged by his agent provocateur, Malcolm, invariably overlaps with  jazz torch singer Marianne London. When the two finally meet they immediately fall for one another, only for Ross to discover that Marianne has her own line in scams, preying on elderly rich men just as he preys on rich women. But together, giving as well as taking, they discover that everything comes at a cost, and even the best laid scams can sometimes go astray. 

This is no simplistic anti-capitalist screed, but a novel that examines what it takes to get by in a world under economic siege,  while questioning the ethics of the black economy, and considering where work ends and crime begins. Certainly, anyone who enjoyed the knife-edge quality of Fitch's earlier fiction, in particular the nerve-jangling Senseless, will want to read Give+Take.  If you haven''t read Senseless, with its anti-globalist theme, you'll want to once you've finished this book. Both are  intelligent crime novels with incisive social commentaries written by one of the best practitioners of the genre around.  But there is even more to Fitch than his critique of the culture. Because this former jobbing musician has recently put his money where his pen often strays, with the establishment of Concord Press ( which gives away its high quality books by formidable writers like Scott Phillips and Lucious Sheppard, in exchange for a charity donation (a concept that fits perfectly with the title Give+Take) and the promise the book on to someone else.  In this day of corporate publishing, celebrity-oriented lists, and the pursuit of profit margins over literary quality, we need more publishers like Concord Press and more books like Give+Take.