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.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Many Sides of Donald Westlake: The Getaway Car and The Comedy Is Finished

I am certainly no expert when it comes to the work of Donald Westlake. Nevertheless, he's someone I've been reading for more years than I care to remember. And I've enjoyed just about everything I've read by him. I guess my first Westlake book was The Hunter, which I probably read after seeing John Boorman's neo-noir classic, Point Blank.  That one, of course, was written under the name Richard Stark, who would become known as Westlake's hardboiled doppelganger. Around that time I also read The Juggler, which apparently was Westlake's least favorite Stark novel. Then I found a copy of Hot Rock, a Dortmund novel written under Westlake's own name, and part of a series typified by Westlake's sharp humour. That must have been before the movie came out, because, unlike Point Blank, the 1972 film by Peter Yates wasn't exactly a film that would have encourage me to read the novel. Likewise, the 1973 Cops and Robbers, based on another Westlake novel. On the other hand, I've long admired John Flynn's The Outfit, adapted from a Stark novel. And, of course, Westlake's screenplay Stephen Frears' The Grifters could be the best adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel. However, the two Westlake novels I think I've enjoyed the most were The Ax and The Hook, both devastating critiques of late American culture. I guess that leaves a fairly hefty number of  Westlake novels I haven't read, as well as a few movies that either I've  haven't seen or don't recall seeing.

However, you don't have to be an expert on Westlake's fiction to be charmed by the recent volume of Westlake ephemera The Getaway Car, edited by Levi Stahl, published by University of Chicago Press. Though you probably have to be somewhat familiar with the range of Westlake's work over the years. Because Donald Westlake was one of the last of the working writers, even more so than his long-time friend, Lawrence Block, who provides an introduction to the book. The Getaway Car  contains a range of Westlake's non-fiction:  a fragment of an autobiography, essays, book intros, interviews, letters, and even a couple recipes. Particularly enjoyable is his article on Peter Rabe. It's essential reading for anyone interested in one of the best pulpists around. And it's probably the best essay on the writer. Though Rick Ollerman's introduction to a recent Stark House edition of Kiss the Boss Goodby and Mission For Vengeance comes a close second. Also illuminating is the interview with Westlake conducted by Patrick McGilligan. And, of course, it was nice to read Westlake's appreciation of Charles Willeford and his extended essay on Rex Stout.  Likewise, his take on Jim Thompson, that Westlake was initially reluctant to adapt The Grifters, thinking it too grim, until Frears pointed out that the story really belongs to the mother. Moreover, just about every entry in The Getaway Car contains a sampling of Westlake's self-deprecating but cutting humour, no more so than Hearing Voices In My Head, which is a tongue-in-cheek panel discussion, its participants being Westlake's various pen personalities- Tucker Coe,  Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver as well as Westlake himself, with each incarnation acting out their part in an appropriate manner, until it descends into chaos.

Donald E. Westlake: The Sixties crime novel was joky (as opposed to funny), smart alecky, full of drugs, and self consciously its cast of blacks and homosexuals. The only Sixties mysteries with any merit at all were written in the Fifties by Chester Himes. On the other hand, the Sxities Westerns were even worse: Remember Dirty Dingus Magee?
Richard Stark: Okay, this has gone on long enough. Everybody on your feet.
Moderator: Good God, he's got a gun.
Richard Stark: Empty your pockets on the table. Come on, snap it up.
Timothy J. Culver: You can't mean this, Dick. We're your friends.
Richard Stark: No book published since '74 How do you think I live? Give me everything you've got.
Donald E. Westlake: Will you take a check?
Richard Stark: Beat the Devil, 1954. Robert Morley to Humphrey Bogart. They ought to ask me where you get your ideas. You, Tucker Coe, on your feet.
Moderator: He's not moving, he...

Another recent posthumous Westlake book is The Comedy is Finished,  recently published by Hard Case Crime/Titan. According to the Publisher's Note, Westlake wrote the novel in the late 1970s, but shelved it because he thought the novel too similar to Martin Scorsese's 1982 King of Comedy. Fortunately, he had sent a copy to Max Allan Collins, who stashed it away, only to reveal its existence after Hard Case published Westlake's Memory, which they claimed to be Westlake's final unpublished novel. Which is when Collins revealed the existence of this book. Westlake was partly right. The Comedy Is Finished does have an over-arching similarity, but the sub-plots and the characters are qualitatively different. Though I would personally prefer to re-read Westlake's novel than re-view Scorsese otherwise excellent film. One could just as easily say that Westlake's novel bears a resemblance to Don Carpenters A Couple of Comedians, though any such similarities would be equally superficial. Because Westlake's book distinctly his own, as is his absurdist view of the world. For me, its topicality- at least when it comes to the ear in which it was written and takes place- relates to those two favorites of mine- The Ax (mental note: must track down Costa-Gavras's screen adaptation) and The Hook.  In all, The Comedy Is Finished is a perfect showcase for  Westlake's writerly skills- that unique mixture of hardboiled prose and edgy, but razor sharp, humour.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick

I'm of the opinion that Samuel Fuller was a national treasure. If that's the case,  his films and autobiography, A Third Face, should be required viewing and reading in every high school and college. After all, his life not only covered most of the twentieth century, but he played an active role in that history, as both witness and participant. Unfortunately, he was never been accorded such accolades, at least not when he was alive.  Hopefully, Samantha Fuller's  heartfelt  hundred and twenty minute eulogy to her father might help change that.

A Fuller Life movie centres on Sam's own words and images taken from his films and personal archive,  including some hitherto unseen footage Samantha discovered after her father's 1997 death at age 87. Sam's words mostly come from his autobiography  read in Fuller's work-room by the likes of James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Buck Henry, Constance Towers, William Friedkin, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Wim Wendars and Bill Duke, who reads as though he's channeling his subject.  All, or most all, had dealings at one time or another with Fuller. Also thrown into this mix are a smattering of Sam's cartoons, articles and covers of his long-underrated novels.  

Samantha Fuller's film moves seamlessly from her father's years as a teenage journalist- a protege of Gene Fowler's- mostly as a crime reporter,  onto to Hollywood where he worked as a screenwriter. Only to give it up when the war arrived. Joining the infantry so he wouldn't miss out on "the biggest crime story of the century.", he participated in, and filmed, various campaigns including the Normandy landing ("War itself is organised insanity."), and the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp where, as Fuller says in his daughter's film, "I made my first movie." Then back to Hollywood and a long career making hard-hitting, and often controversial, films, in some ways the visual equivalent of his populist tabloid journalism, always chasing down a story or pursuing the truth.

My only criticism  is that I would have liked to have had a few more personal asides. As it is only Constance Towers, still alluring some fifty years after appearing in Fuller's Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, is given sufficient on-screen time to reminisce about working with Fuller. But that's a minor point in what is an extremely watchable and valuable film, whose simplicity never fails to work in its favour. This is a film that will interest all Fuller fans, and no doubt some who have only the vaguest notion of this most formidable of American directors.

An added note:  I thought I'd seen just about every Fuller film out there. But while watching A Fuller Life I discovered I'd actually missed one. Made for TV in 1990, starring Jennifer Beals, The Madonna and the Dragon is said to concern two journalists covering the People's Revolt in the Philippines. It would also be Fuller's final film. How could I have overlooked that one? Though I couldn't find it for sale on-line, the French version is on YouTube.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Anything Goes In Tinseltown: The Hollywood Trilogy by Don Carpenter

You can be sure that I'm never going to miss a chance to write about Don Carpenter. Not only is he one of my favorites, but no one writes about Hollywood better than he does. Which he ably demonstrates in The Hollywood Trilogy, recently published by Counterpoint. It's a volume that comprises three long unavailable novels:  A Couple of Comedians, The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan and Turnaround.  They, of course, come off the back of  the republication of Hard Rain Falling and, just a few months ago, Fridays at Enrico's, and represent those years Carpenter toiled in Tinseltown. The result of which was fairly meagre: the incredible film Payday, a TV movie and an episode of High Chaparral, not to mention a  purported screenplay based on Bukowski's The Post Office, which would never be made. No doubt there were many other unrealised projects.

All of which reminds me of the time I was visiting a writer friend.  It was sometime in late 1969. I was driving the graveyard shift for Yellow Cab,  the Zodiac was on the loose, and it was my night off.  I arrived at my friend's place to ask if he wanted to go out and hear some music. I think Tony Williams' Lifetime was playing at the Both/And club on Divisidero, the band that included Larry Young, Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin, which everyone was talking about.  My friend said, "Nah, I'm going to stay home and watch High Chaparral." I said, "High Chaparral?" He said, "Yeah, the episode that Carpenter wrote is on tonight." I rolled my eyes. Like, who cares?  I never watched TV and only knew a couple who owned one. "You know, the guy who used to work at Discovery," he said.  I said, "I know who he is, but I'm not going to sit around watching some fucking cowboy show just because he wrote it. Not on my night off."

Which is to say that we knew even then that Carpenter had some kind of form in Hollywood, though one senses that, other than the drugs and everything that goes along with that particular activity, it might not have been the happiest of times for him. However, it did result in these three novels, and a handful of stories, such as those that comprise The Art of Film from that early collection of his, The Murder of Frogs, another Carpenter book that thoroughly deserves republication.

Originally appearing in 1979, A Couple of Comedians is about a comedy team- think of a hip, drug-taking, women-chasing equivalent of Martin and Lewis.  In that usual Carpenter blend of humour, pathos and tragedy, the novel, narrated by one of the comedians, moves from Northern California down into that den of vipers known as Hollywood, where the two comedians encounter various types, pick up women, do as much dope as they can and meet up with their director, an egomaniac responsible for enhancing the careers of the duo. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that one of the two men, and consequently their comedy act, is about to collapse. The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, first published in 1975, concerns a young woman who, from an early age, has wanted nothing more than to be a Hollywood actress.  She's had a rough life, moves through various men, using them and getting used by them, until, in her mid-thirties, she ends up with a Hollywood producer who just might give her the break she needs, even if it's a B-movie at best. The title sounds as though it might been something that would have appeared in Photoplay magazine in the 1950s, but the story is anything but that. Turnaround, which first appeared in 1981, is a coming of age novel centered around a young screenwriter, who has to learn the hard way how Hollywood works. Instead of writing screenplays, he churns out copy for Pet Care Hotline and gets advice from someone who runs the local porn bookstore.

When it comes to writing about Hollywood, Carpenter, who died in 1995, is, for me,  up there with Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories, or the gonzo-infested fiction of Bruce Wagner.  Still, there was another writer I kept thinking about while reading Jody McKeegan. At first I couldn't think who that writer might be.  Then I realised it was Jim Tully. That might sound odd, given Tully's reputation, but Carpenter's novels have the same narrative arc, are written in the same clear prose, touch on the low-life as well as the high-life, whether Hollywood, pool hall hustling, card playing or prison life. Though, unlike Tully, and, to some extent, Fitzgerald and Wagner, nothing in Carpenter's world is clear-cut or one-dimensional. What's more, The Hollywood Trilogy is as complex and honest a portrayal of Tinseltown as you are likely to come across.  Now if I could only track down that episode of High Chaparral.