TALL, COOL ONE (Tom Wolfe, R.I.P.)

Tom Wolfe, co-creator of the “new” journalism, and one of its ablest practitioners, was, more than any other of his breed, even Hunter Thompson, bound up in Rock and Roll America. He was first on the ground to Phil Spector, the Merry Pranksters (who rolled over every other square who tried to act like one of their own and accepted Wolfe and his white suits and southern gentility because he never pretended to be anyone but himself), the Black Panthers in their Limousine Liberal phase.

Later on he wrote about the Space Race and social dissolution in the Frozen Silence. How well, I couldn’t say, though if Frozen Silences should, by chance, deserve chronicling, I’m sure he was as well-suited to the task as anyone.

But when he made his real mark, it was mostly about speed, speed, speed. Verbal speed, the speed of sound, the need for speed (all kinds–wind speed, asphalt speed, pharmaceutical speed).

And at the back of the speed it was all about cars.

Cars, cars and more cars.

The cars that forced him to notice them….and make himself a reputation.

Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Speed.

I have it on good authority that the butler who attended his last word heard a single syllable as the snow-globe fell from his dying hand and shattered on the hardwood floor.

Cars….

Well, then, I guess he should just ride on out of here.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #8: The Rolling Stones–Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), US, 1966)

hightides2

The Stones are everywhere this primary season. Closing Donald Trump’s road show is the least of it. I woke up one day this week and somebody (I think it was MSNBC but don’t hold me to it, I’ve been going to sleep with the TV on a lot and sometimes the waking and dreaming are hard enough to keep track of without getting all technical about purely three dimensional details), was using the opening and closing tracks of Exile on Main Street for bumper music.

The next evening it was “Miss You.” Maybe on C-Span or Fox. Again, I lost track.

Tomorrow, who knows?

But does anybody still want to take a look at the set of problems facing us and the choice of candidates who will lead us boldly into the future and still argue Satan’s not, as one of the minor prophets had it, laughing with delight?

The cover of the first hits package released by the Laughing One’s favorite band, the first and last to stake their claim so entirely on being that before anything else that they were that (say from roughly 1965 to 1972) or nothing (say, ever since), was a kind of perfect statement all on its own.

It said most of what there was to say without any reference at all to the great full page photos that came with the original vinyl package or the stripped down assault of the actual music:

“We may have been born clodhoppers but we’ve now made every deal that needs to be made and we’re here to burn down your cornfield and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Tom Wolfe’s famous epigram (“The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Stones want to burn down your town.” yaddah, yaddah, yaddah) didn’t cover the half of it. The Stones were more like agents from the future we’re now living in than the James boys fresh off their break from Captain Quantrill. Not undercover mind you–what could possibly be more obvious than that picture up there–just messengers.

That’s what I always liked about them, once I started working my way backward through rock and roll history from the late seventies and turned this one up on one of my first trips to the panhandle’s only record Co-op (say 1979 or 80).

They were were so refreshingly up-front. Hey, it’s 1966 and things seem a little nervy. But it’s about to get way-y-y-y-y worse. Soon you’ll be stumbling around in the dark and become so lost that most of you will live to see P.T. Barnum rise from the grave and storm the gates. And you can bet he’ll use us for exit music!

As a collection covering a period that had its share of musical rough patches, High Tide is just about perfect. It contextualizes both the half-successful “As Tears Go By” (which was a big hit despite Mick Jagger’s bound-to-be-awkward attempt at faking sentimentality), and their version of “Not Fade Away,” where Jagger sounds even clumsier chasing Buddy Holly than he did chasing Howlin’ Wolf on High Tide‘s UK-version cover of “Little Red Rooster”–by the sixties, it was much odder to sound like you’d never seen a Cadilllac than like you’d never seen a rooster.

Context is everything, too. Those two neither-here-nor-there tracks are the only side trips on an otherwise perfect collection and they don’t really take you so far from the rubber-burning highway they were running down at full speed that they amount to anything more than bathroom breaks.

Here, better than anywhere else, you can understand why Nik Cohn thought it would be perfect for the Stones to die-before-thirty in a plane crash.

That they spent the next six years mounting ever higher is still shocking.

And it’s even more shocking that the mounting was all in the music.

Purely image-wise, they never beat that photo.

Come on, how could they?

They stuck Brian Jones up front, like nobody could possibly imagine he belonged anywhere else.

They stood on rocks.

At low tide.

They stared down every other bunch of punks who ever posed for an album cover and  made it clear that all the others would be both inevitably compared to them…and found wanting.

Whatever deal you think you made with the Laughing One, they seemed to say, you can walk away from it. We can’t. Because we’ve cancelled all the bets. Ours and yours.

Brian Jones was dead within three years. The rest were pod people within five years after that. We live in the world left behind.

Kinda’ sucks for us.

But, boy, while it lasted….

NOTES FROM AN ACTUAL BOYHOOD….

[NOTE: A little while back Neal Umphred posted an essay on bullying which I highly recommend reading. (If you search “bully” on his site, he has some other interesting pieces on that and related subjects as well).  The following is in part a sequel (in the sense that I probably wouldn’t have thought of visiting this memory without reading Neal’s post), in part a prequel (to a long memory piece I’ve been developing for a while and which is nearing completion) and in part a response to my continuing push-back against Boyhood, which is a well-acted, supposedly hyper-realistic movie about a good-liberal-fantasy construct who, unlike any kid I ever met in real life, is interested in exactly nothing, and which I wrote about here, though I would now add that director Richard Linklater may well have simply inserted a fantasy of what he wished he himself had been. Anyway….]

To be honest, I was never actually bullied.

The line got pretty thin at times.

I wore glasses and read books and had what you might call a generally quiet nature so of course I got called the usual names now and again: Four-eyes, Faggot, Sissy, Pansy, Pussy, etc.

None of it stuck, though. None of it got under my skin and, more importantly, none of it acquired the degree of repetition or intensity that made it any sort of problem I had to ever seriously think about or otherwise deal with.

There were reasons.

For one thing I was a big kid who was reasonably good at sports (more about that in a minute).

For another, though I was often mistaken for being not merely quiet, but shy (not caring to speak and not being able to speak being generally considered the same thing by people who like to talk and, especially, by those who are looking for targets to pick on), anybody who leaned in close generally found themselves dealing with a mind that moved faster than their own and, in any case, never moved slower.

These two qualities combined to create a certain hesitancy in potential bullies.

What really sealed the deal, though, was something I intuited and which I found out much later had served Tom Wolfe well when he was a straight-laced, ice-cream-suited, conservative reporter, dealing with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.* That is, I wasn’t a fake.

If some kid wanted to make fun of my glasses, I smiled. If he wanted to try them on, I let him. If he said something like, “How can you see through these things,” I said something like “I’m blind and you’re not,” and I tended to say it in such a way that you could just about see him asking himself if he wanted to find out the answer to the next question.

Usually, he did not. He wasn’t yet forced to admit he had made himself look pretty stupid. But who knew where it would go if he kept it up?

It was a strategy I lucked into. I wasn’t exactly trying to be a psych major. But I had the sense to figure out what worked and to stick with it.

For instance, If a kid called me one of those other names, I usually just laughed. This wasn’t a strategy either. I just laughed because I thought it was funny–the same way I just said what I thought when somebody asked me stupid questions about my glasses because that was how I thought and I knew it wasn’t a time for keeping my thoughts to myself.

And laughing–genuinely laughing–always drew a puzzled look.

Something along the lines of Who is this kid anyway?

And again, it helped that I was usually bigger and was known to be able to hit a baseball, etc.

But the main thing was, I didn’t fake it.

Which was good, because I also noticed that a lot of kids who did get picked on would try to fake something or other (maybe just their ability to win a fight), and never once did it fail to make their situation worse.

So the upshot was that a lot of kids called me a lot of names once or twice but they didn’t keep it up.

And they didn’t try to pick a fight with me.

Except for this one kid. In the eighth grade.

Because, you know, every rule has an exception.

*   *    *   *

The way it started was the first six weeks of eighth grade Phys Ed we played volleyball.

Volleyball happened to be a sport I had never played before. I didn’t even know the rules and explaining them was not part of the class. So, for a week or two, I struggled.

That was Part One of the equation.

Part Two was that there was a kid on my volleyball team, named James, who had obviously played volleyball before and was pretty good at it.

Part Three was that one of the other two teams–who we, of course, played every other match against–consisted almost entirety of James’ buddies, otherwise known as the Cool Kids.

Part Four was that the cool kids, like cool kids everywhere, never missed a chance to mock anybody, but especially never missed a chance to mock one of their own.

Part Five was that James was a hothead who had an especially thin skin. (Part 5A was that his buddies knew it.)

Part Six was that James decided, in that first week or two, that I was the logical source of his infernal suffering because I was the reason we were losing to his buddies every single day.

Part Seven was that this already dubious narrative was not dislodged from James’ brain by my rapid and vast improvement or the fact that we kept losing because three or four other kids on our team did not, shall we say, improve, rapidly, vastly, or otherwise. In a way, by improving, I made myself a bigger target. Eventually, as his mind roamed far beyond logic (it happens a lot with natural bullies), I became somehow responsible even for James’ own mistakes.

So, for the rest of the school year, in Phys Ed or elsewhere, a certain part of the world narrative at our junior high was all down to me and him.

Or it would have been, except for Part Eight of the equation.

Part Eight was I didn’t want to play.

I used the same tactics on James I used on everyone else.

Smile and ignore him.

Don’t fake it.

Move on.

Somewhere along the way, he evidently got the idea that the unthinkable had happened.

That I was–however quietly, however improbably–mocking him.

I say that not because I ever really understood his thinking, but because it was pretty obvious he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box (whatever his insider status with the cool kids depended on, it wasn’t brains, and I should add that about half of them were sons of NASA engineers, i.e., rocket scientists, so it wasn’t one of those cases where brains weren’t respected), and I have to assume that, like a lot of not-so-bright people, he had an active imagination when it came to spotting slights and enemies.

Too bad.

Because I wasn’t mocking him.

I just didn’t think he was worth engaging.

Even in eighth grade, life is sometimes too short.

Anyway, his anger and resentment grew. I could tell he was on a slow boil and that he was waiting for an excuse to put me in his sights.

And, since we weren’t put on any more Phys Ed teams together and we didn’t have any other classes together and we didn’t exactly hang out in the same social circles, the excuse never came.

Until finally, in the spring, a month or so before school let out, it sprang from nowhere.

His big opportunity.

Just his bad luck that it was on the basketball court

 *   *   *   *

It set up this way.

We had a “free day” in P.E. Once in a while, the coaches would roll out some balls and everybody split up and played with and against whoever they could make a game with.

That particular day, the balls they rolled out were basketballs. Outdoor courts. Half-court. Make it, take it. Take the ball back past the foul line if a miss hit the rim. Lay it in if it didn’t. Play by twos. First team to twenty. Have to win by four.

Here’s the funny thing.

His team won: 20-16.

But he still got humiliated.

Sometimes, in an actual boyhood, that’s how things work out.

 *   *   *   *

Six of us went down to the far court, furthest from the coaches.

These things aren’t entirely worked out by accident.

My friend David and I were a natural pairing. James and his friend, Tommy, were a natural pairing. Tommy and David were friendly enough to make the two natural pairings another natural pairing. James and Tommy’s friend, Monty, tagged along. So did this other kid, Kevin, who was sort of part of their circle but, by virtue of being our Junior High’s resident drug dealer (by 1974, every junior high around there had one), he was mostly his own circle. His best friends were the shoplifters, but one of those happened to be James’ brother, Jerry (they were in the same grade so I assume they were nonidentical twins). That was probably why he gravitated to us as the sixth needed for a game of three-on-three.

The only problem then was that we had a natural pair against a natural four, so somebody had to switch sides.

You can guess who got the drug dealer.

There were negotiations to be sure. Pretty fierce actually.

It happened that Tommy and James were on the basketball team. But David and I took Monty aside and David assured him it would be a fair fight if he came over with us. “Trust me,” David said. “John’s really good.”

Monty had never seen me play but he seemed to take it into consideration for a bit. Then he finally looked back at James and Tommy and said, “Yeah, but there’s two of them.”

It’s amazing, sometimes, what matters in a schoolyard.

Monty opted for James and Tommy.

I should mention here that Monty had been in a serious dirt-bike accident a month or so earlier and could barely walk. He was literally dragging his right foot on the concrete because he was wearing a heavy brace and couldn’t lift it off the ground.

That’s how badly we didn’t want Kevin the drug dealer.

Not that we had never seen Kevin the drug dealer play basketball. But he had a couple of qualities common among eighth grade drug dealers. He was sort of crazy. And he didn’t exactly play well with others.

Once he threw up his first shot–from about twenty-five feet in a gusting wind, he only missed by about eight–we had our other suspicion confirmed. He sucked at basketball, he was determined not to go quietly, and we were essentially playing two against four after all.

But, before that, another interesting thing happened.

Tommy took the ball in hand and chucked it out to me for first possession and then turned to James and said, nice and casual, “Hey James, you check Ross.”

And I have to say this surprised me a little because Tommy was a much better basketball player than James was. I had assumed that he would check me for this reason and this reason alone. Meaning I had assumed the fact that I had spent the first half of the seventh grade smoking him on the indoor courts in little games of two-on-two (or the same year of Little League hitting line drives off his pitching), would not affect his decision.

I assumed wrongly. Whatever his reasons, he insisted that James check me.

James, all unawares, clearly relished what he thought was not going to be much of a challenge.

Finally, he had his chance to humiliate me. He was on the basketball team, by God. I had stepped into his wheelhouse at last.

I should mention here, as an aside, that I took no particular pleasure in smoking him, especially when the drug dealer was busy throwing up air balls which allowed the other team to convert uncontested lay-ups for about fourteen of their twenty points. That I would win my personal battle with James wasn’t really a question in my mind. He was on the basketball team, after all. All that meant was I had seen him play.

I’m not saying I took no satisfaction, but it was tempered by losing–no matter that the outcome had been decided by Monty siding with his buddies and sticking us with the drug dealer, who David and I ended up playing concrete football against, trying to wrest the ball from his hands before he could shoot again–and by one other factor.

I was raised in church. I don’t mean I merely went to church, or even that I practiced Christian ritual, though that was true enough. I mean that I embraced–and still embrace–not only the faith, but its core messages, among which none is more resonant than, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

So the only real satisfaction I allowed myself–that I believed I was permitted to allow myself, though even that may have been a stretch–was not that I had bested the boy who had been itching for a chance to ream, humiliate, gloat over me since way back in the fall, but that I had not allowed him to best me.

His team won the game. Nobody walked off thinking his being on the basketball team made him anywhere near as good a basketball player as I was.

Oh, he went right ahead and carried it to the locker room where, hilariously, he tried the “he’s a hot dog” angle on Monty, specifically referencing a couple of behind-the-back passes that set David up for lay-ups (in those days, before age and diabetes set in, my four eyes had 270 degrees of peripheral vision). Monty, son of one of those practical-minded rocket scientists who regarded hot-dogging as the worst sin known to man, just shrugged and said, “It looked to me like everything he did worked.”

I just smiled.

And, right then, not before, I truly thought it was over.

God knew he was never going to like me, and, faith or no, I was never going to like him (I was trying to be a Christian, I never aimed for sainthood). But I figured he would let it go. That there wouldn’t be any more half-sneers when we met in the hallway. No more furtive snickers when there were at least two of him and no more than one of me. I mean, what was the point?

The only thing that could take it any further now was a fight.

I didn’t think he was any way that stupid.

*   *   *   *

I still don’t quite know whether he was or not.

Only that it did seem to cross his mind.

I can only guess, in retrospect, that I had upended his brain’s natural order. That he couldn’t quite get past the idea that he was supposed to be able to bully me. I still wore glasses. I still read books. I was still his idea of a four-eyed-sissy-faggot-queer-hot-dog.

Or something. God knows what he would have thought if he had grokked that I was a Christer (which, to tell the truth, made me more of a target than all the rest combined, working class females being especially hard on anybody who thinks he’s better than everybody else, which was a working assumption with a lot of them that I was usually able to dispel if given the chance, though I frequently wasn’t.)

Just how he intended to work all this out in his own mind I don’t know.

I only know what happened next, meaning what happened last.

What happened next and last was a classic junior high lunch-room confrontation, like you never quite see in the movies–maybe because the versions you see of him are always exaggerated to villainy (instead of being portrayed as one very real side of “boyhood”) and you don’t see any version of me (though, as I hope I’ll make clear in my next piece on this subject, I was far from being a loner).

Too bad about that, because it would make a great scene for somebody:

It’s a couple of weeks after the basketball game. Haven’t seen much of James. One day I’m late to lunch (I don’t remember why) and the lunchroom is nearly empty. The mini-aisles are blocked by chairs pulled back as kids left and didn’t push them back under the table. Negotiation to your table to be managed by main-aisle circuits only.

I get my lunch. I pay for it. I leave the serving counter and start looking for a table. I move along the wall next to the counter and turn the corner to the main part of the lunch room, prepared to move down the aisle next to the wall that runs at a right angle to the counter’s wall.

And when I turn the corner, scanning the room, I see a couple of my friends sitting at the far end, on the far side, and begin to head towards them, straight down the right angle wall.

I’ve been vaguely aware that there’s a kid standing in front of me, blocking the aisle, and that he’s talking to someone seated at the end of the nearest table.

It’s only after I take two full steps down the aisle that I become aware that the kid is James. And that he’s standing there talking to his smoking hot girlfriend Celeste (who doesn’t know me from Adam).

I look down the aisles between the tables.

Chairs pulled out everywhere.

Not an option.

I consider how it will look if I back up, walk practically to the other end of the lunch room, cross over the center aisle, then walk all the way back down to where my friends are sitting.

Not an option.

It’s not a matter of inconvenience.

It’s that if I do that, he’ll think I’m a coward. Not something I would normally mind, actually. But there’s too much undecided between us. I know this because I can see, in an instant, that he has no intention of moving out of my way, and that Celeste, not knowing me from Adam, has no idea what is going on and will not be in any position to influence him towards reason, even if she could (doubtful) and would (probable but likely futile).

And because this silliness has been lingering between us for so long, I know in an instant that if he gets the mistaken impression I’m a coward, this no-longer-quite-so-silly thing will go on…and on….and on.

That was another thing I had learned.

Don’t let a natural bully smell weakness. Not even the weakness of hesitation.

So I walk on, without breaking stride.

I come within a couple of steps of where he’s standing.

I say “You mind?”

He gives me the exact same sneer he’s been giving me for six months. Backed by a little snigger, not quite all the way under his breath.

He doesn’t say a word.

I get within a step.

He tenses. He’s not even looking at me. Except for the sneer and the snigger he’s acting like I’m not even there.

He’s not talking to his girlfriend, who is looking sort of puzzled.

He doesn’t move either, though, which means he has left a foot or so of space between his butt and the wall.

I lift my lunch tray over my head.

I turn sideways.

I swivel-hip, quick-step past him and go on my way.

I don’t look back.

I don’t have to. I have 270 degrees of peripheral vision.

That means I can turn my four-eyed head a couple of inches and have a clear view of what’s going on behind me–like Bob Cousy on a basketball court.

Which also means I can see that he has turned to follow me.

One step. Two steps.

I don’t turn around.

His right foot goes back.

I don’t turn around. I keep walking.

His right foot swings forward.

I don’t turn around. I keep walking.

Neither faster nor slower.

I let him take his chance to kick me in the rear end.

I know if he connects I’ll have to turn and fight him. Right here, right now. The only decision is what I’ll need to do with my lunch tray first.

I’m thinking I’ll throw it at him. High. Towards his face. Distract him while I wade in and take the only advice my father ever gave me about fighting, which is try to end it with one punch. The temple, the nose, the solar plexus. Whatever avails itself first. Forget everything else.

I’m not going to worry about my glasses. Or a looming suspension for fighting. Or explaining it to my parents.

Every once in a while, for just a minute or two, those things can’t matter so much.

So I’m walking on, neither faster nor slower, balancing the lunch tray.

Good hard puke-green nineteen-seventies’ junior high Space Coast plastic.

Neither slower nor faster. My head turned just an inch or two.

Just enough to know his foot is taking the full swing, ending well above his waist.

Just enough to know he doesn’t miss by more than an inch or two.

But he does miss.

And I haven’t turned my head.

That makes all the difference.

By the time he makes up his mind about whether to give it another try, I’m long gone.

By not turning back, I missed the aftermath, like, for instance, how his girlfriend reacted, which might have had a lot to do with how the next time went–how much it might have meant to him–if there had been a next time.

At this distance, I’m sorry, in a way.

To this day, I don’t know whether he missed on purpose. Whether some piece of him decided at the last minute that he didn’t really want it to come to a head after all.

I’m sure I would have found out, if fate hadn’t intervened. If school hadn’t let out a week or so later, before anymore sudden, unexpected confrontations could occur. If my father hadn’t decided to become a full-time minister that following summer and moved us to another part of the state in the fall so he could attend a bible college.

I’m sure if we had stayed, I would have found out something when we got to high school, away from even the modicum of supervision–the kind that had miniature drug dealers running around the boys’ locker room, openly assuring you that the first batch was free and if you didn’t like it you wouldn’t owe a thing!–that existed even in junior high back then.

What that something would have been–Honest miss? Slight miscalculation? Attempt to impress his girlfriend (and was she or wasn’t she)? Loss of impulse control, followed by the rapid reassertion of ruling self-interest that so often marks the bully, but also the bully wannabe?–I’ll never know.

So it was, in the fall of ‘73 and the spring of ‘74. So it remains. A little incident frozen in the time and space of an actual boyhood.

It’s the little things that make us.

And one other little thing I’ll never know is whether James, too, moved away.

I never checked. Life’s too short.

But I like to think he did.

I like to think he moved to Los Angeles and went to high school with Vicki Peterson.

I like to think that, eventually, she wrote a song about him….Not for me, so much, or even for her, as for all the poor misguided Celestes running around loose in the world, so many of whom never learn better until it leaves a scar….

But surely that’s too much to ask. Even if he was made for it.

(* I saw an interview with Wolfe many years later in which he mentioned that those who weren’t really invested in the Pranksters’ lifestyle, but tried to “fit in” by faking it, were mercilessly mocked and ridiculed, while he was basically left alone. The upshot was that they may not have liked him but they respected him because he wasn’t trying to put them on. I’ll have to take Wolfe’s word for it because I wasn’t there, but it jibes with my own experience. Every “in” group hates a fake worst of all.)

THE ICE IS STILL SLOWLY MELTING: NANCY SINATRA HAS A TALE TO TELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #30)

NANCYSINATRA4

The current issue of The Believer has an interview with Nancy Sinatra which continues a process of de-bunking one of the Fundamentalist Rock and Roll Narratives perpetrated by the Priesthood of the Svengali (an especially pernicious subdivision of the crit-illuminati).

Nancy was one of many pre-Janis, pre-Aretha female singers who were perceived as the product of some producer’s singular genius which would have worked just about as well with any other lucky girl said genius happened to pick from the bunch.

Over the last twenty years or so, the young women who (outside of their records) were given no voice in the early and mid-sixties when they re-made the world as surely as Elvis or the Beatles, have told their stories (the stories that everyone from Tom Wolfe to Rolling Stone assiduously ignored both in the moment and for a long time afterward).

Those stories have a lot of common themes, most of which are voiced below.

So, joining Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Cher Bono, Mary Weiss and many others, Nancy once again assures us that, in the real world, people are not clay models or sock puppets being maneuvered about by mad geniuses (in her case Lee Hazlewood) however wonderfully talented those geniuses may have been. Unfortunately the entire interview is not available on-line, so I’ve pulled some choice quotes and highly recommend the issue (and the magazine generally) to those who can find and afford it:

On acceptance in the music industry:

NS: They had a lot of great artists join the label (Reprise) at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the womens movement or anything like that. They just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

On an enduring myth:

BLVR: At what point did Lee famously instruct you to start singing ‘like a fourteen-year-old girl who screws truck drivers’? (NOTE: Now there’s the crit-illuminati mindset and value system in a nutshell for you.)

NS: I don’t know where that twisted version of what said came from. I know that that’s been floating around in various forms for a long time. He said much more gently to me, ‘You’ve been married, you’ve been divorced, and people know that. They know that you know what’s going on in life, so you’ve got to behave on the record like you do know.’

On the working relationship between herself, Hazlewood and musical director Billy Strange:

NS: Lee’s lyrics were the guiding light for us, because he wrote these wonderful fantasies. Billy took them and put them to music. And what I did was follow along. The beauty of it was that I added enough to it to make it happen. Lee had done a lot of this stuff with other people and he didn’t get anywhere with it. Lee’s muse in those days was Suzi Jane Hokom. Suzi Jane sang on all those duets. And he sang with Ann-Margret and several other ladies. But it just didn’t have the magic that Nancy and Lee had. So I told him in no uncertain terms over the years that he really owes me a lot, too. He wasn’t the Svengali that he thought he was. So it was a symbiotic relationship that turned out some pretty damned special music. I’m proud of all of it and proud of my contributions to it.

On those fashion statements (though not this one, especially):

NancySinatra3

NS: All those clothes that I wore in the early 60’s were [Mary Quant’s]. I brought them from London to Los Angeles and wore them all around. At that point nobody knew what a miniskirt was, so I’d get people throwing me lines like ‘The tennis court is over there,’ stuff like that….And the fact that I ran into her when I was in London promoting those silly songs (from early in her career)–God’s hand must have been on my shoulder. I was at the right place at the right time. Little did I know that I would run into a song called “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and that I already had the outfits. I didn’t have to go shopping for them.

On her legacy:

NS: I’m very glad that I saw it and could take advantage of working with Lee. But I don’t know, honestly, if any other woman singing in those days would have tolerated the treatment from Lee that I put up with over the years. We had the classic love/hate relationship. I’m not ashamed to say that. I think he would say the same thing.

Just as a final note. Hazlewood passed away in 2007 from cancer. Like Shadow Morton and Sonny Bono and most of the others who either sought Svengali-hood or had it thrust upon them in that age-gone-by, he was a man who had his faults, many of which he owned up to in time. He was not, like Nancy’s close friend Phil Spector or England’s Joe Meek, a monster. Like all of them, man or monster, he made beautiful records….

 

 

WHERE WE WERE THEN…WHERE WE ARE NOW (Quarterly Book Report: April–June, 2014)

THEN:

UNDERGROUNDMAN2

 

The Underground Man (Ross MacDonald–1971)

Classic from his late period. By then, he was getting serious reviews in serious places (to the extent that was possible in 1971, which, though limited, was not quite as limited as in the decades hence). They were earned. He was always a master plotter (and almost unique in that respect among thriller writers), but his books went way beyond thrills or even the world-weary (and wary) moralism of the classic hard-boiled school (frequently, and conveniently, rearranged into amoralism by the crit-illuminati).

At this point in Lew Archer’s long journey, things like Kent State and Viet Nam are in the air without being specifically referenced. Instead, the whole sad tale is told in passing phrases, tossed off, almost haiku-style, which are both transcendent and very time-and-place specific:

I had no children, but I had given up envying people who had.

Or:

“She sounds like a kook. But it’s hard to tell about young people nowadays.”

“It always was.”

Or:

He had to live out his time of trouble as she had. And there was no assurance that he would. He belonged to a generation whose elders had been poisoned, like the pelicans, with a kind of moral DDT that damaged the lives of their young.

That, bear in mind, from 1971–before the fall, when it was still possible that the center might just hold. I’m not sure anyone writes like that now.

You know, now that the center hasn’t quite…

Which maybe means all that wary moralism was never quite as easy as he made it look.

STILL THEN:

 

RADICALCHICWOLFE

Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (Tom Wolfe, 1970)

Good…and prescient.

Not as good or prescient as Ross MacDonald, but he does come at the very same moment from a very different angle. Like Jean Renoir or Cecille B. Demille, Wolfe had/has a genuine and nuanced feeling for the travails of the upper classes which is given full reign–no pun intended–in the classic essay on the spectacle of the Bernsteins (Lenny and Mrs.), and their social circle, being fleeced by the Black Panthers back when getting fleeced by radicals was, as the title has it, “chic.” Here, where Wolfe has friends (or at least friendly acquaintances) in the fight, the zingers keep coming:

Well, anyway, one truly FEELS for them. One really does. On the other hand–on the second track in one’s mind, that is–one also has a sincere concern for maintaining a proper East Side life-style in New York Society. And this concern is just as sincere as the first, and just as deep. It really is.

Or:

…Friends of the Earth was Radical Chic, all right. The radical part began with the simple fact that the movement was not tax deductible.

Or:

These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big–these are REAL MEN!

Alas, also like Renoir and DeMille, Wolfe was a bit crude when dealing with common clay, that is anyone not perched, however precariously, inside the magic circle of some real or imagined court. And, lacking their optimism, he ends up with a curdled view of the middle and lower classes (as opposed to a rather absurdly romantic one). That cynicism shines through in “Mau-mauing” which takes up the second half of this little volume. It’s still perceptive, but–given its cast of well meaning government bureaucrats and street hustlers–there’s nowhere for Wolfe to place his small store of human empathy. Thus, for all his tactile skill, the  second part grows tiresome rather quickly. The zingers, oddly enough, lose their sting as he reaches a state of full-blown contempt.

I can see why he had to turn to fiction–and why I’m still not likely to be his preferred audience.

NOW:

HITMEBLOCK

Hit Me (Lawrence Block, 2013)

Assassin lit as pure entertainment. And, for once, it actually is purely entertaining. It’s a bit of a cheat, giving an amoral man a sort of conscience (faithful to his wife, won’t kill kids, that sort of thing). But this very cheat–once accepted and combined with Block’s considerable devotion to craft–also makes it dangerously seductive. (It’s part of a series and it’s the first I’ve read of either Block or the series, so I can’t speak to the norm–but what I basically mean by “dangerously seductive” is that one can enjoy it immensely while also recognizing such a book could only be conceived–let alone published, let alone published without fanfare, let alone enjoyed–in a society that has rotted from the inside….That is, it’s a sign we’ve forgotten everything worth knowing. Sort of like Ross MacDonald imagined we would.)

See ya’ next quarter!

APRIL BOOK REPORT–O.J. SIMPSON, ALAS and ROCK FROM THE BEGINNING (4/13)

American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense (Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth, 1996) and Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder (Vincent Bugliosi, 1996)

I actually ended up reading these side by side–a few chapters of one then a few of the other–because a couple of hundred pages into Shiller’s massive tome, I felt the need for an antidote. The way Schiller saw it from the inside, O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys–not to mention Simpson himself–were precisely the slick pieces of central-casting crapola they seemed at the time. Whatever Bugliosi is–and I find it hard to have a completely positive view of anyone so convinced of his own righteousness and general superiority to the rest of humankind–he isn’t slick.

Anyway, this is the first month of my life I’ve devoted to the Trial of the (Last) Century and rest assured it will be the last. Of the two, I would probably actually recommend Schiller’s book. Bugliosi makes his main points in about fifty pages worth of real argument scattered here and there throughout a book that (when footnotes and appendices are included) stretches well over four hundred. Beyond that you end up reading a lot about how much smarter Vince is than the rest of us poor incompetents and wishing he had chosen to transport some of that erudition through his typewriter or expend it on something other than the prosecution’s generally mind-boggling incompetence (viable as that point is, it does wear thin after a bit). Guy put the Manson family away so I cut him a lot of slack, but he’s pushing the limits of a commoner’s patience here.

As for the Schiller version…well, to be fair, he came up with an interesting angle.

With Simpson’s guilt in little doubt, the verdict already well-known to all at the time of publication, and little to be gained by heading in Bugliosi’s direction of excoriating a team of prosecutors evidently grown so fat and lazy on the high conviction rates guaranteed by a system that routinely stomps those who can’t afford “dream teams” into the ground that they couldn’t get out of their own way, he decided to make his 700 page opus about the souls of the lawyers!

On the surface this might seem, er, implausible as a subject of interest in a case where the defense team’s highest moment was the inspired decision to replace pictures of Simpson’s nude girlfriend with a picture of a Norman Rockwell print of a young black girl overcoming segregation on the occasion of the jury’s visit to Simpson’s home.

Don’t laugh, though.

It kind of works. Schiller’s real protagonist–who would be completely forgotten now if not for the strange, source less, perfect-in-its-disturbing-way celebrity of his insidious offspring–is Robert Kardashian. Mostly this is because the now deceased Kardashian was the guy who drew him into the case as the kind of “journalist” who could help shepherd the defense through the technical difficulties of transcribing Mark Fuhrman’s infamous, game-changing tapes (a “favor,” designed to increase trust and access for the improvement and/or existence of this very book, a service which one LAPD detective attached to the case deemed crucial to the single most important element in setting Simpson free, though one could, of course, argue that Fuhrman’s own vileness was more important still), all while believing fervently in Simpson’s guilt.

Certain kinds of journalists are, like certain kinds of lawyers, a special breed.

In any case, Schiller stumbled onto the one really interesting angle. Namely, what did Kardashian–the only lawyer in the case who was genuinely close to Simpson either before or during the trial, the only one who had a material role in Simpson’s cover-up, the only one who renewed his license to practice criminal law so that he specifically could not be called to testify about that role, and, oddly, the only one who seemed to possess anything a normal person might recognize as resembling a conscience–know and when did he know it. And Schiller the journalist milks this for all it’s worth, right down to never letting us know the answer but giving us all the information we need to make an educated guess.

Like I say, not a place I ever care to go again, but together, these two books certainly tell any moderately interested person everything they will ever need to know about this particular bit of madness.

Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, aka Rock From the Beginning (Nik Cohn, 1970, revised 1973)

A re-read.

Whoo boy.

One of the first “histories” of rock and roll. On the surface Cohn is pretty much a constant fingernail on the chalkboard of my particular sensibility. Whatever I like least in a smart-ass he tends to represent in spades:

Desire to be at least as important as his subject? Check.

Not too keen on the facts, especially if they interfere with his own reality? Check.

Literary pretensions sans literary discipline and training? Check. (He got past Tom Wolfe on talent alone, but I suspect he was aiming for the D.H. Lawrence of Studies in Classic American Literature at the very least, even if no torture has ever been devised that would make him admit it.)

Dismissive of anything he doesn’t like but weirdly (by which I mean, not quite sincerely) apologetic about what he does like? Check.

Hipper than thou, even when (or especially when) he’s pretending to anti-hipness? Check. 

Professional huckster? You bet! (His other main claim to fame is writing the story for New York Magazine upon which Saturday Night Fever became based. Turned out he made it up. Of course he did.)

Women problems? The rock critic’s ever-abiding occupational hazard–or perhaps job requirement?

Check and double-check.

I mean this is a guy who, privileged with a sharp brain and a front row seat–make that a Front Row Seat!–to the madness of the sixties, makes it very clear that the only two things which truly frightened and disoriented him were Brenda Lee’s pipes and Tina Turner’s butt.

Admittedly, two cosmic forces, but still….

So, with all that going against him, why is this still an essential read?

Well, for one thing he could write. Boy could he write.

Among English language critics who have covered the arts in the last hundred years, he and Lester Bangs are the only ones who I would ever recommend reading for style. Whether there is any significance to the two men being so close in age and both covering rock and roll–at least in those days, the red-headed stepchild of “the arts”–is a discussion best left to shrinks and sociologists. And I don’t mean to really compare the two. I mean, Bangs is what Cohn might have been if he hadn’t been a huckster.

All that said, he was often insightful in spite of himself and his commentary on the London scene from which he sprang is probably unparalleled, (and he was particularly good–not to mention almost eerily prescient–on both the Beatles and the Stones, not a bad trick for 1970, when seeing them clearly could not have been easy).

And believe me, for this sort of description, I can easily put up with having every single one of my buttons frequently and fervently pushed:

“I remember seeing them [Ike and Tina Turner] in a London Club one time and I was standing right under the stage. So Tina started whirling and pounding and screaming, melting by the minute, and suddenly she came thundering down on me like an avalanche, backside first, all that flesh shaking and leaping in my face. And I reared back in self-defence, all the front rows did, and then someone fell over and we all immediately collapsed in a heap, struggling and cursing, thrashing about like fish in a bucket.

“When I looked back up again, Tina was still shaking above us, her butt was still exploding, and she looked down on us in triumph. So sassy, so smug and evil. She’d used her arse as a bowling ball, us as skittles, and she’d scored a strike.”

Forget Tom Wolfe, even D.H. Lawrence himself never beat that.