Saturday, November 10, 2007

Springsteen Cases The Promised Land
(Part One)

by Bart Bull (published in Sounds, 1975)

It's Wednesday,  no show tonight, and Bruce and his guitar player, a guy called Miami Steve Van Zandt, and another guy, remarkably and conveniently named R.M, who turns out to be road manager for something called Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, are all wandering around the Arizona State Fair, looking for something to do in Phoenix F. Arizona on their night off. Bruce was more than a little disappointed at only getting two encores at last night's show, and now . . . now there's this Hollywood business. It's getting to be a real drag. 
 "They got me going to California on Thursday after the show," he's grumbling, "to talk to some guy."    It sounds especially ominous the way he delivers it. " . . . some guy . . . " And then, even worse, to actually have to talk to him. Striding down the midway with his tough guy punk walk, the tough punk walk that fits him right in with every other tough guy punk who's cruising past the corn-dogs, sauntering beyond the all the flashing bulbs on all the Tilt-A-Whirls and the Swedish Bobsleds and the Haunted Houses of Horror, and Bruce is mostly and mainly distinguished by his distracted thoughtful look, and by the fact that there's a red-headed photographer scrambling over all kinds of obstacles to grab just the exact right perfect shot off this one particular tough-walking punk at the State Fair. 
 It's real late on a real slow week-night in those last final days when the State Fair has pretty much shot its wad (they've got to be losing money just by being open) and the carneys aren't hustling like they would if there was anything that vaguely resembled a crowd. It's empty, pretty much, and pretty much dead. Besides, Springsteen and R.M. and Miami Steve (Bruce never calls him Steve, and never even just shorthands it down to "Miami," it's always "MYYY-AMI-STE-Eee-EVE!") are spectacularly easy marks. You'd never guess they grew up within stumbling distance of the Asbury Park, New Jersey boardwalk. Matter of fact, Miami Steve even falls for that one where you try to toss ping-pong balls into glass ashtrays, with the ashtrays floating and spinning as they swirl around a blue-green plastic wading pool. A genuine sucker's shot, one that nobody ever wins, nobody ever, except maybe that long and lean lantern-jawed cowboy over there, the one with larceny in mind, that Cottonwood cowpoke who's looking surreptitiously side to side, waiting ultra-obviously until the carneys allegedly aren't looking — because, you know, they've never ever had any local Wednesday night cowboy attempt to put one over one 'em before — and then, leaning way, way, wa-a-ay over, and ever . . . so . . . gently . . . and — Da-amn! But eventually he somehow finally manages to actually slip one in, and then the carneys grab up a big giant stuffed St. Bernard and toss it back and forth among themselves, semi-bored, chanting "Anothah winnah! Anoth-ah win-nah!!" and big Tex is grinning his jaw so hard it looks like he actually believes he won a stuffed dog on the up-and-up square and so, to properly focus her attentions, he keeps a steady pumping motion of his elbow right directly into his cowgirl companion's ribs all the while.
Miami Steve catches all the hoopla and decides, the perfect victim of the shill, that this has got to be his game. He plunks down his buck, gets his dozen ping-pong balls and commences tossing. The astonishing experience of watching ball after ball hit dead center and then bounce blithely right back out again begins to get to him, so he sort of sidles over to the blond kid in the ponytail and gets him to secretly slip him some of the balls that have rolled under the counter. It's a ploy that nets him maybe a couple of extra balls, but to no avail whatsoever.  He strikes out. Daunted but entirely undaunted, only just slightly dejected, he rushes and hustles to catch up with Bruce over at the video machines. The two of them start out with a duck hunting game, then they move over to "Anti-Aircraft," shooting down fighter planes as they jet across the screen to the sound of engines roaring and calamitous explosions. "We got it! This is our machine," chortles Miami Steve, a winner at last, yanking at his artillery controls. "This is our machine, Boss!" The Boss is leaning back grim-lipped and silent, trying to gun down the jet that just shot past Miami Steve. The game trailer attendant is eyeballing them impatiently —as soon as their last plane goes down with a sputtering spluttering buzz, he reaches up to lower the trailer's siding, which has been propped up to create a roof. Bruce and Miami Steve are searching their pockets for more quarters, entirely oblivious, but when the carney starts to lower the siding right down on top of them, Miami Steve stage-whispers, "I think they're trying to give us a message..." 
 Looking for a way out, winding around the fairgrounds, they break into two bunches. Miami Steve and the redheaded photographer are profoundly engaged in a philosophical discussion at a volume level right on the borderline between debate and armed combat. Springsteen, R.M., and the blond kid are lagging. "I kinda O.D.'ed on interviews," Springsteen says, scuffing his boot at an empty popcorn box. Within the week, he'll be on the cover of both Time and Newsweek simultaneously. "Everybody wants to spend all their time talkin' about what we're doin'.  All I want to do is do it, but it's gettin' harder and harder." His speaking voice is surprisingly identical to the pained Brando-esque voice on his recordings. It would sound affected if it didn't come so easily. Maybe it was an affectation back in some dim and obscure adolescence, when some skinny kid first tried it on in front of his friends, like a too-new leather jacket, unworn, unstained, with not a rip or a scratch. Now, nicely broken-in, nothing could fit more naturally. 
Both the two small groups pass by the flag-draped stage only just vacated by "Poncie Ponce — TV's Favorite Hawaiian cabdriver!" and "his Royal Hawaiian Revue." (Poncie Ponce was once a sort of sub-sidekick on "Surfside Six;" with a billing like that, you can't help but wonder who works out to be TV's least favorite Hawaiian cabdriver.) Outside the Exhibition Hall, where prize cattle and sheep are settling in for the night, there is a wooden box, painted as if to resemble an old fashioned red barn, but with a glass showcase in front. On the other side of the glass resides a chicken, a white hen who will, if a dime is shoved into the slot, begin to tap-dance. 
Miami Steve sees the sign over the miniature barn, "Dancing Chicken," and hollers back over his shoulder to Springsteen: "Hey, here's one of them chickens!" There is a metal floor beneath the bird, and when the dime drops, electricity is conducted, and the chicken hops and skips and jumps and does its best to keep from touching the hot-wired floor it must necessarily touch. And it dances.  
Springsteen swings his hands-in-pocket shuffling to steer by the chicken's cage, staring in silently. Concerned, perhaps, or maybe just reconciled, the bird stares back. No wisdom is exchanged. "Those poor chickens. In Jersey, it's against the law to do that." This, however, is Arizona; not every state is so enlightened. He jams his hands into his pockets even more fiercely, then begins to mumble to himself. Looking up at R.M., he says, "I don't think I wanna go. Mike keeps tellin' me I gotta go, but I'll just get on some plane and go there and meet this guy and then get back on some other plane. I don't think I'm gonna go." His boot heels are dragging hard against the fairgrounds. The chicken is still staring as he goes. Maybe it's waiting for the next dime to drop. "Okay with me," says R.M. "You're the Boss." (follow this link for more)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Aphorism Number Fourteen; (One of a Series; Collect 'em All

There's one universal, undeniable truth: We're all going out the same door.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tracey Ullman: Just Being Herselves

by Bart Bull
(published in Vogue)

To get to Tracey Ullman's closet, you need to go through the bathroom. You don't really need to go through there, but she wants you to; it makes for a more colorful tour. The color is purplish, in fact, or lilac, sort of, or actually a turbo-charged neon mauve. "The man who lived here before was a Czechoslovakian plastic surgeon," she says, delivering the next line in the cigar-chewing gurgle of an elderly Las Vegas lounge comic, complete with perfectly-timed pause for the drummer's rim shot: "And if he does this to his house, what does he do to your body?" Ullman plans to have his remarkable upholstered toilet seat enshrined in a clear Lucite case and mounted on the wall.

She has fewer shoes than Imelda Marcos but they make a far more interesting mess at the bottom of her closet. She's down there now, flinging out Tony Lama cowboy boots and alarming French wedgies with rock star photo patches sewn to the heels and then this . . . this fairly restrained bustier. "Every girl has one of these Madonna bodice-type tops, these slaggy Stevie Nicks-type things. Though they look terribly sad on someone like me, who breast-fed a nine pound infant." She sweeps an unmatched pair of her daughter Mabel's Barbie dolls off the dressing table to clear more room and discovers a complicated sweater by her idol, her all-time absolute favorite, Jean Paul Gaultier. "My friend last night said it falls into every cardigan category. He said, 'You like it because you're not wearing one cardigan, you're wearing every cardigan.' But I do love it, because you wear it and people get frightened."

When it comes to Gaultier, it's impossible for her to keep from rhapsodizing, and she readily admits it. "He's the king for me. I just think he's brilliant, I really do. He still has an element of street about him as well. I went to his shop in Paris last summer — I'd never done any shopping in Paris until last year. I told my husband, 'Go bog off — I'm going shopping in Paris.' First time I'd ever had the money, I'm in Paris, and it was a truly debilitating experience. They were so rude to me. [Smarmy French accent, wreathed in Gauloise smoke]: 'What do you want, stupid British girl?'

"They were so rude — the only people who were nice were a couple of Japanese people who had just opened a shop and were desperate to sell gear. It was horrible. At one boutique, they practically spat at me. Until I got my Platinum American Express card out and said, 'Look! Look!'" She laughs uproariously at the sheer folly of it. "They didn't give a damn.

"It wasn't good fun at all shopping there. Then again, in Beverly Hills, the people who work for the top places are all like [pursed lips, dysfunctional adenoids]: 'Millie, seventy-two, I've worked in sales a long, long time . . . Oh, this is just beau-ti-ful! The colors this season are so gwargeous!'"

"Here's a bit of Christian Lacroix," and she yanks free a finely detailed glass-beaded top. "Had a skirt that went with it — it's here somewhere. I wore this to an awards show and the zipper burst as I went onstage.

"I love clothes," she declares from deep inside the closet, where the hangers are all clumped together. "I love fashion. I used to work in shops on the King's Road when I was sixteen. I was always one who saved up weeks for a decent skirt." Her head is buried deep in the closet again. "And always somewhere I have a leather miniskirt. I just bought another one, and I know it will be the last one of my life, 'cause I know I'm getting too ridiculously old to wear leather miniskirts. I put it on and I do look a bit tragic.

"I mean, I don't even keep my clothes in a very nice state or anything. I'm like a magpie; I'll wear anything unusual or bright. But when yousee these Beverly Hills women who pay twelve thousand dollars and they're sitting at one of those functions with their big freckly armpits hanging over the edge of their bustier— I'd like to bring Christian Lacroix to a Beverly Hills function. 'Don't look now, Christian, but there's a fat tart in one of your frocks.' 'Merde! '

"The Japanese gear, I haven't really gotten into that — the black, baggy, shapeless trousers with the big sort of platform shoes. I mean, some people spend like four thousand dollars they look like a bag of spanners. So they have to keep reminding you who designed it. [Voice of a schlumpf]: 'Djya like the jacket? It's by, uh, Matsudo, ya know?'"

She's back in the closet. "This is the first piece of Gaultier I ever bought," she says, cradling a charcoal shirt in both hands. [Elaborate stage whisper] "Cost me three hundred pounds. I couldn't believe i had a Gaultier shirt. It was like a dream. Always looked a bit strange on me, though.

"Here's my Tracey Ullman Show jacket." It's a perfect example of what fashionable Hollywood cameramen can be seen wearing in supermarkets. "Can you imagine if I wore that? [Dopey TV star]: 'Hey, that's ME! It's MY SHOW!'"

Her own closets revealed, Ullman can't resist invading her husband's. "these are the suits he buys now he's got a bit of money. These over here are the ones he used to buy off the back of the lorry. All men in England have to buy stolen suits. They can't bear to pay the retail price. And these" — she laughs even as she touches them — are his trendy shirts."

Mabel's closets are next. Ullman sweeps up a blue wool coat with wooden toggle buttons down the front. "I love this, her little Paddington Bear coat — so very British. She wore it once and threw up all down the front. You can still smell the vomit on it." She acquires a thoughtful, puzzled look. "So hard to remove the smell from designer wear, you know."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Aphorism Number Fifteen; (one of a series; collect 'em all)

Love the sinner; like the sin.
—Bart Bull

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Nina Hagen — That kooky krautzer babe with the New Wave hooker wardrobe cranks up your chakras

by Bart Bull
(Published in SPIN)

You only get one guess who Nina Hagen's favorite star is. This is her loft (if the pot on the stove is any indication, we're all going to be having boiled potatoes a little later), and the walls are covered with souvenirs from the brilliant international career of someone truly special to Nina. You know — posters and photos and paintings of the really special people, icons of inspirational heroes, photos of lovers near the bed, pictures of dear friends taped to the refrigerator next to the kids' current fingerpainting triumphs. And here at Nina's place – her space – right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles' struggling but brave post-industrial art-loft district, the walls are plastered with posters and paintings and photos of Nina Hagen.

Here's a poster from a concert last summer in Germany – Nina as a pink-haired Jayne Mansfield in bazooming flashbulb ecstasy, from the cover of her latest album, Nina Hagen in Ekstasy. Up by the stairway is one from another show a few years back — Nina as Batgirl, pointed ears and all. Over there, an earlier shot, from the cover of her first American record — Nina in a black leather jacket with "Mein Kampf" stenciled over the pocket, a gilded coronet atop her head, and her lips painted into the elaborate exaggerated cupid's-bow kissyface of a Hamburg whore.

Up there, near where she's sitting meditating, the cover of her 1983 album Fearless is pinned — Nina hieroglyphing her limbs in danceclub semaphores, a gold tinsel Cleopatra wig, a black bra set strikingly against skin white and pasty enough to do the Pillsbury Doughboy proud, with a couple of graphic-arts arrows aimed at her image just so nobody misses the point. The other side of the album shows her as an ectoplasmic TV vision — Botticelli's Venus with bad reception — being sucked up into a flying saucer, but the biggest picture of Nina Hagen in the whole joint is a six-by-six-foot painting modeled after the cover of her Nunsexmonkrock album. It may be the single most restrained picture on any of her records, or on any of her walls. It may well be the most restrained Nina Hagen picture in existence. No startled eyebrows akimbo, no Little Egypt eyeliner, no Catwoman cape'n'cowl ensemble, no Mata Hari harem pants, no stiletto heels — just a humble woman in a Virgin Mary veil, her lips a little less bee-stung than usual, her look calm and placid, her baby Cosma Shiva in her arms. Madonna (not that one) und child. Except that in the painting's version of the record cover, Cosma Shiva is no longer the sweetly bewildered babe in arms with a built-on halo. Instead, the artist has transformed the swaddled infant into a maniacal Mad magazine cartoon baby with bulging eyeballs and dangerous grinning teeth. Halo's still there though.

Nina doesn't want anyone shooting photos of Cosma Shiva — it's OK if they take pictures of Nina herself up on the meditation pad but she's — Wait! Hold it! We're all going outside, all of us, up to the roof. All 25 or 30 of us, we're going to file through the kitchen, past the potatoes, up the stairs and out onto the rooftop. But she wants us all to be careful going out there, because we're each going to have to scrunch past the building's main electrical panel box to get out the door to the roof and she'd hate to have any of her flock get sent heavenward with a crisp crackle and a slender puff of smoke, hapless insects gotcha-ed by a bug-zapper. "There is this force," she explains, queen bee addressing a small troop of dim but willing drones, "EEE-lek-TRRI-I-I-zity! Do not touch it! So don't die and be very concentrating when you are crossing the exit of that roof." She'll join us there once she's checked the potatoes.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Finish Line; The Death of Ascot Park Raceway

by Bart Bull

(published in Details)

Ever since the hot rodders of the 1930s began raising dust on the dry lakes of the Mojave Desert, Southern California has been the place where motors and Manifest Destiny meet. Ever since Clark Gable commissioned a custom rod that could smoke Gary Cooper's damn Duesenberg, ever since Big Daddy Roth and George Barris and Darryl Starbird created blown-and-injected objets d'art, ever since Mickey Thompson invented the slingshot dragster, Southern California has been home to more rodding and racing than anywhere else. And through it all, Ascot Park, a half-mile oval near Long Beach, has been the hub of dirt-track racing for the entire Southwest.

In the last few years, insurance costs have killed off most of the drag strips and soaring land values have finished off the speedways. When the sprint-car season ends this fall, and when the last trophy dash winner flings the final mud clod through the chicken wire into the grandstand as he power-drifts through Turn Four, it won't be just the usual acrid smell of racing fuel that makes race fans wipe their eyes. Ascot Park is going condo. Gentlemen, stop your engines.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The World Beyond Barbie;
New York's Toy Fair

By Bart Bull
From the Washington Post

NEW YORK—It’s only appropriate and ever-so-cute that the little darlings from “Children’s Express” will ask the first official question to be entertained at the opening press conference of the 1987 American International Toy Fair. “Children’s Express” is that TV show where kids hold microphones in front of a video camera and ask questions just as dopey as real reporters’ questions, and little Albert Lin stands right up and asks, "What’s the current trend in war toys?”

Since his company manufactures GI Joe ("A Real American Hero"), Alan Hassenfeld of Hasbro is selected to handle this hot potato. (Hasbro also produces Mr. Potato Head, incidentally, and in the wake of the Cabbage Patch proliferation, Potato Head Kids.) “We do not consider GI Joe a war toy,” Hassenfeld announced. “GI Joe as a product has been a defender of peace.” Since he is, after all, impersonating a TV news person, Albert doesn’t bother to question this, or even burst into hearty guffaws.

Besides, toys are too big not to be taken seriously. The stats stack up like so many cubic tons of Silly Putty. Nearly 450 million Barbie dolls have been sold since 1959. The toy industry produces more than 150 million cars per year. Thirty-five million Cabbage Patch adoption papers have been signed since June 1983. If all the Golden Classic dominoes sold in 1984 were laid end to end, it would take nearly seven hours to drive by them at 55 mph. If the 6 billion Lego bricks produced each year were snapped end to end (the publicity handouts never mention how many billions of man-hours all of this laying and snapping is going to take), they would stretch around the Earth almost five times. More than I billion feet of Golden Books Video has been sold since 1985, equaling 50,000 full-length film versions of ‘Gone With the Wind.” Put together all the rolling stock Lionel produces in one year and you’d get a toy train 150 miles long. More than half a billion Duncan yo-yos have been sold in the United States since 1929. With 20 million fashion items sold annually, Mattel Toys is the largest manufacturer in the world of petite women’s wear. Parker Bros., having constructed more than 2.5 billion little green Monopoly houses since 1935, is the largest housing developer in the world.

You get the picture. Toys are big.

And not just big, but expensive. And not just expensive, but obnoxious. Consider, moms and dads, the advent of roller skates in the shape of pickup trucks and Corvettes that roar when they roll and make horrific brake screeches when they stop. Consider, dear parents, purple and orange rock star wigs, ectoplasm in cans, Laser Erector sets, Furrever Friends and Fluppy Dogs and Michael’s Pets (“They’re the only animals on the shelf/ Cool enough for Michael Jackson himself!") and WingDings and Softies and BabyTalk and Razzcals. Consider, dear bags of loose loot, My Little Pony’s pink plastic Pleasure Estate.

And not just big and expensive and obnoxious, hut cynical. “Are you going to see Mr. Gameshow and Janice Pennington?” asked one of the lovely hostesses who escort lonely buyers from installation—display is too modest a word—to installation. Janice Pennington is one of the Vanna-ettes from “The Price Is Right,” and Mr. Gameshow is Galoob’s animatronic quiz master. “They make a perfect pair,” the hostess says venomously, “they’re both plastic.” Mr. Gameshow’s real name is Gus Glitz, and he has severe Max Headroom damage. “I just had my teeth capped,” he Sajaks. “How do you like ‘em?” He has his own commercials, his own nasty patter and his own theme song: ‘Let’s all play the game/Gameshow from Galoob/Don't be such a rube..."

Cynicism sells this season, but the big buzzwords are “pets” and “power” and “price points” and “interactive.” Mattel is banking big on Captain Power And the Soldiers of the Future, and hedging its bets by syndicating a live- action television series (guess the title) to be distributed by the industry leader’s new TV syndication division. Beverly Cannady, manager of Mattel’s licensing division, told one of the trade magazines she’s confident that ‘Power On!” will be next season’s prepubescent battle cry, but failed to mention whether parents will be charged each time little Jimmy uses it.

Force III, Tech Force, Centurions with Power XTreme—it’s a rough universe out there and it calls for power, force, and more power. ‘Now more power for the Centurions heros.” “Now more power for the villains!” ‘But wait! Here’s even more power for the Centurions!”
As Axion’s Tech Force characters battle evildoers in a television show, the idea goes, their toy counterparts will charge around the living room floor firing laser lights, in response to inaudible signals sent via the cartoon’s sound track. Nolan Bushnell, creator of Tech Force, envisions moving the vidoo game off the screen and making it three-dimensional. “3-D is not when you put silly glasses on,” he said, “it’s when something runs over your left foot.”

Action for Children’s Television, a TV watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission, asking the agency to stop the development of television-interactive toys, or to at least launch a public inquiry into the matter. Outside the Toy Fair, the War Resisters League waged a Stop War Toys Campaign, charging that such toys “desensitize” children to the “horrors” of war.

Frankly, it’s the male action figures who are responsible for the big power grab in today’s toy world (She-Ra, Princess of Power notwithstanding) and as little boys’ toys have gotten power hungry, little girls’ toys have achieved ur-wimpiness. The age of nonsexist toys is dead and buried. In booth after booth, sales reps can be heard assuring buyers, “Little girls love to comb and brush.”

If My Little Pony set standards for insipidity that made Care Bears seem profound, the cuddle-horses with silky plastic manes have just been left at the starting gate. The Fluppy Puppies have long hair, the Shimmers have long hair, the Fairy Tails have long hair, the Furrever Friends have long hair and Tail Topper attachable tail pieces. “I only hope I have a little boy,” said one nervous buyer.

Barbie has long hair too, of course, and so does her archrival, Jem. They’re both rockin’ like crazy these days, but Hasbro’s Jem has at least one innovative edge on her longer-lived nemesis: She has her own guitar. Her illustrations show her with microphone in hand just like Barbie the rocker. Each the very picture of the chick singer, just one step removed from retiring to the lounges of Las Vegas. But among the accessories to Jem's available accessories is the KJEM Rock On Guitar. Full-size, with built-in microphone and no strings at all, it’s actually an air guitar meant for posing in front of mirrors, but it’s a step. She-Ra would be proud, sort of.

Inadvertent or not, the grander installations seem perversely naive, It’s unnerving to come upon one designed to resemble some little tyke’s comfy, cozy bedroom and discover a full-scale adult woman model in jammies and booties cuddling Dozzzy, an interactive little nipper who’s murmuring “being in bed with you is better than having a birthday party.” Worse yet, a lot of spokesmodels who’ve been given interactive infants of one brand or another, and instructed to cuddle the dickens out of them, seem to have already moved past that stage and developed what can only be called an unhealthy affection.

In fact, so many toys on display can make any affection seem unhealthy. The hourly shows for Kenner’s Amazing Friends feature sweet, sweet little child actresses with pink ribbons in their hair who chat right along with toys Tricia & Tooner. “You’re my best friends,” they bubble. “I love you! Both of you!” And then they simulate a giggle.

Big Bird is chattering away with actual moving beak, and nearby a group of buyers and reps are settling down to debate the price of birdseed. ‘$49.99 for this item—this is ridiculous.” “Don’t matter,” the rep tells him. “You got no choice. You want the item, you got to pay the price.”
And behind him, soft and fuzzy and yellow and kind, Big Bird says, “I give the order and you do what I say.”

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Aphorism Number Thirteen (One of a series; collect 'em all)

Nothing, but nothing, is as washed up as a rock star past her prime.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Runaways (their first record reviewed)

published in Sounds

Rock'n'roll has always
been the domain of the ignorant, the immature, the idiot. It's not, let's face it, the most advanced musical form around in terms of cerebral stimulation, but there's a certain undeniable satisfaction to be derived from a particularly brash bass line, a sudden Chuck Berry lick, from those damn dumb drums. Intellectuals can't rock. Or, as The Runaways might put it: Brains suck!

Noted Hollywood hypester Kim Fowley has gathered together these nubile young females, each absolutely guaranteed to be sixteen (one exception: the lead guitarist is an old maid of seventeen), each absolutely guaranteed to play her own instrument. He's been flooding the pop journals with juicy little tidbits, assembling an image for The Runaways as the girls in your history class who could never stay awake because they'd been out until three the night before. Sex! Drugs! Beer!

Fowley's publicity overkill is almost certain to result in the type of backlash that nearly swamped the careers of both Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith last year, with program directors, rock critics, radio deejays and the public lining up arm-in-arm cha-cha-chanting "Hype!" Which is kind of unfortunate because when all considerations of package and product and pimp are over, this is great strong rock'n'roll. Ok, so the album does sound like it was recorded in a galvanized garbage can (Fowley produced) and the playing is unspectacular but it works nevertheless. It takes a certain degree of naivetee to make rock'n'roll and The Runaways are nothing if not genuinely enthusiastically naive. The Who may have a hard time keeping a straight face while doing "My Generation" these days but when Cherie Currie shrieks "Her life was saved by rock'n'roll," (from Lou Reed's "Rock And Roll"), there's no doubt she believes it. It may be dumb, but so what?

Most of the album consists of single-sized punchers with titles like "Cherry Bomb," (the band's logo carries a cherry, just in case you missed the point), "Thunder," and "You Drive Me Wild," most of them underscored with orgasmic moans. The album's capper though, is a seven minute rock epic entitled "Dead End Justice" that, if nothing else, will put Springsteen's more dramatic yarns in a new light:
"Where am I?"
"You're in a cheap, rundown teenage jail, that's where!"
"Oh my God!"

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tom Waits — After A One Night Stand

"Tom may be a bit. . . ." and there were many long moments before he finished the sentence. The road manager — his name was John — had a molded golden eighth-note on a chain around his neck.

".... A bit cranky...." he said at last.

Out of the elevator, take a left, first door on the right. John held the door open. Tom Waits was piled up on the chair next to the bathroom door and a couple of the guys in the band were on the couch. It was sometime after one in the morning. Waits had just played two shows in front of two half-empty houses, and he had to pull his fingers out of the ropy lengths of his hair to shake hands. Then he headed for the bathroom.

While Waits was out of the room, I took inventory of the pile of stuff dumped in front of his chair. There were matchbooks and a couple of packs of cigarettes, an obscure brand, smaller than most, called Delicados. Phone numbers with and without names scrawled on scraps of paper. A torn-off piece of the Greater New Orleans Yellow Pages. Half-buried beneath was a silver-scaled hip-flask, the kind with curved sides to hide the bulge. It was all great material to toss in to a story about Tom Waits, and listing it helped keep me from dozing off to the lull of the musicians' voices from the couch. I hadn't been getting all that much sleep lately myself, and it was beginning to tell. I felt slow.

Earlier that day, I'd gotten a message from a woman, a photographer who wanted to do some photos of Tom Waits.. "I'm not into taking pictures of rock stars or anything," she told me. "it's just that Tom Waits . . . he seems different." So okay, I can understand that, but I had a photographer already. I told her I'd see how Waits was, and if he really wanted his picture taken, I'd give her a call back.

Waits came back into the room, sat down and pulled off his shirt. His face was younger than any of his photos seemed to reveal; he was obviously tired and restless and none too thrilled with the prospect of answering some guy's questions while another guy stared at him through a camera lens. You could feel it — anybody could have.

My first thought was to call it, call a halt to the whole thing right there, get the hell out, get gone, go home. Can't do that, though. You've hung on this long, gone this far, so you might as well try to get him to open up, give you enough quotes to throw a story together, and get out of here. Try and start a conversation with him.

Except the answers came back in words of one syllable or less. I was trying to draw him out somehow, trying to get him to say things I could quote him on but no dice. Time to try a new tack. "I'd like to talk about Kerouac," I told him. Obviously Waits had been influenced by Jack Kerouac, and one of the songs on his latest album, "Jack & Neal" was loosely biographical. Besides, Kerouac is about as close as I come to having a hero.

"Okay, so you wanna talk about Kerouac." He'd pulled a deeply worn brown leather jacket from the floor onto his lap and was lost in contemplation of its every wrinkle.

Dead end. Things were beginning to look a little grim. "Anything at all you want to talk about?"

Waits jumped all over that one. "No. No! That's your job. You're the journalist. I've just gotta stay here and answer the questions but you're the one that's gotta ask the questions."

I was tired. My feelings were hurt and I had no more use for this guy, no desire whatsoever to pull an interview out of the shambles. "Look, if you don't wanna do it, let's not do it." I slapped my notebook shut and stood up.

"Well, I don't want you to ask me what I want to be asked — I can do that all by myself." He pointed to my notebook. "You obviously came prepared with some questions but . . ."

"I came prepared with some questions but man, you know -- I'm not gonna. . . I don't want to sit here and beat my head against the wall." I don't know which one of us was glaring harder.

"Well, I'll . . . y'know, I'll answer your questions."

It got no better. I asked a long and vague and rambling question about his stage persona as opposed to her personal identity, the image of Tom Waits as a late night bar-crawler, and how it related to his actual life — something like that, probably even less coherent -— and now he thought I was calling him a drunk.

"I'm not a drunk," he said, sucking hard on his Delicado, then shooting smoke out the corner of his mouth. "I'm not a lush. I work real hard all year. If I was a drunk I don't think I'd have five albums out, I don't think I'd be able to stay on the road eight months out of the year." He was pissed.

"No, what I mean is—" I was trying to get things back on track. " .—do people expect you to be Tom Waits the hard-living bar room character, do they meet you and immediately try and drink you under the table?"

He waved his cigarette in the air, a little streak of smoke in the room. "That's a line in a song. What does—"

"And it's an old phrase. What I'm saying is do people expect you to be just like the characters you write about, do they react to you or do they react to your image?"

"I don't know. Are you reacting to me or are you reacting to my image?"

"Hey, I don't know — that's why I'm asking?"

"Do I look like a drunk?""

I nearly hesitated too long. It would have been so easy to say yes, to say yes and piss him off good and well and just get the hell out of there. With his hanked-off hair, his pale drawn face, his ragged black slacks and his battered black shoes, he could have blended right into the scenery on the corner of any metropolitan Tailspin Alley . . . but the clothes and the hair were matters of choice and the paleness of the face was plainly exhaustion, not alcohol. I hedged. "How should I know? What's a drunk look like?"

Waits dumped back in his chair." Look, why don't you ask me something about what I do, about writing songs or traveling on the road eight months out of the year. I've written a lot of songs." His voice was tight and pinched now, the coarse threads of his usual growl stretched taut. "Do you know anything about the tunes I've written, the . . ."

Up yours, Jack. "Yeah.. . ."

"They're not just about drunks. They're about murder and car wrecks and love and. . . and. . ." He sucked at his cigarette. "I write about a lotta different things."

Okay, all right, let's talk about the songs. That's only fair. "Okay, it seems as though your songs are all very American, very American subjects . . ."
"Which one?" he snarled. "Which song?"

"Your songs in general, your songwriting . . ."

"Which one?" We were glaring again. "Do you know 'em?"

"Yeah, I know 'em. It doesn't matter whether it's 'The Heart of Saturday Night' or 'Ol' '55' or . . ."

"That's two . . ."

". . . or 'Pasties And A G-String. -- look," I yelled. "What do you want? You want me to list all the titles."

He was memorizing the ceiling. "Yeah."

I shut the notebook again and reached down to pick up my tape recorder.

"I can do it." he said in a low voice, just less than a whisper.

"Yeah, well, you know, that's great. . . that's swell. . ."

"And if you can do it, we all have to do it." It was John, the road manager. He'd come back into the room without me noticing it, and now he was making a valiant effort to josh Tom along, to lighten things up. "We will all write the Tom Waits songbook on the blackboard." Then he left us.

"Listen," I said, "let's just call it."

Waits pushed his hand through his hair. "Look, I don't know what you want from me. I'm not a geek, I'm not a drunk, I'm a regular guy —"

"Hey, wait a minute, wait a—"

".—I take shits, I've got a girlfriend, I live in a hotel—"

" —minute, wait a minute. You know, I don't . . . Either I . . . Either I did a really poor job of explaining myself or you took it the wrong way. I don't know which but I wasn't saying any of that shit. I was just trying to find out if the whole thing about Tom Waits being certain things, being a person who spends all his time in bars and stuff, if that really fits."

"I go to bars, I do all kinds of things. I do everything that you do. Except maybe a little more. And a little more often." He rubbed at his nose. "I travel a great deal, all over the United States and, uh, I'm in a nightclub every night. I play bars, mainly, still play bars. And it's got its moments, you know, and then again, you know . . . some nights, it's a pain in the ass. I get pissed off, I get tired, I get . . . y'know. . ." His voice dropped off, still high-pitched and tight, just above a whisper. "Just a regular guy. . . Right now I'm pissed-off, I'm tired. . . We had two half-houses out there, with a lame promoter who's obviously—" here he pointed to his forehead "—operating with an unfurnished apartment. I mean, the guy seems like he must be about a quart low to me," he said bitterly. "He had a very lame sound department and a real antiseptic little environment here . . .

"You know, I'm tired. I been on the bus. I don't sleep. I just got up. I haven't had a night off in three weeks. I've been entertaining and talking to journalists and getting my picture taken and playing in nightclubs and it gets to be a little too much." His voice was beginning to sound like a record being played while someone slowed it down with their thumb.

"I'm on my way home. I can't wait to get home and just get twelve hours of sleep . . . some twelve-year-old scotch and a twelve-year-old girl. That's what I want."

I wasn't so pissed off any more. He was so obviously exhausted,. "Well, let's do one of two things then: Let's either start all over again and if I've been antagonistic, I'll cool out, or else let's just, you know, maybe we're better off just letting you get your sleep, whatever you prefer — but be honest."

"Alright . . . why'ntchya go out and come back in, and we'll start all over again. We'll shake hands, you can introduce yourself, tell me who you write for and all that." He looked over at the photographer. "You can just turn your back."

So I went out the door, shut it. There was reason to listen for the sound of the lock clicking but I opened the door again. Waits had his head turned away. "For Christssake what a fuckin' damn — " [big jolly fake voice] "— Oh, hel-lo....."

Things loosened considerably. Tom started unreeling tales about buying hundred-dollar cars and testing them out by driving them to Arizona. "I've broke down in Gila Bend, Buckeye, Tucson . . . uh. . . Camp Verde -- know that joint? Spent a night in Stanfield. On New Year's Eve. New Year's Eve. I went to a church, Pentecostal church, you know, holy rollers? And this old lady, Mrs. Anderson, put me up. I was in the back of this church -- it was real cold and, uh, my car was busted and I had it at the gas station and she had me come to this four-hour marathon New Year's Eve church service, so I could stay inside. And afterwards they took up a collection -- the whole church took up a collection and gave me all the money to get my car fixed so I could get out of town. About fifty bucks -- I got a new water pump."

"Yeah, I used to come here a lot -- but I haven't been here for a while. I think the last time I was here was two albums ago. That's why I was really disappointed that nobody showed up." He was scratching under his chin with a matchbook.

It wasn't twenty minutes later that we wrapped it up. We made our goodbyes, apologized back and forth for our initial fracas and then the phnotographer and I headed for the door. "Okay, you take it easy now," said Tom.

But as it turned out Waits and John the road manager came around the corner while Tim and I were still waiting for the elevator. "Looks like we're all going up together," said John nervously. I think he was concerned that Waits and I might start screaming at each other again.

No one said much as the elevator went down. No one says much in elevators anyway. I took one last look at Waits as he slumped back in the corner. He had his leather jacket on now and he'd acquired a matchstick between his teeth. It took us a moment to re-establish where we were when we got to the ground level but then we were all walking the same direction — me and the photographer to my car and Tom and John to the highway cruiser bus that was dieseling at the curb.

It was cold. I stuffed my hand into my pocket for my keys and pulled them out with a piece of paper that fell to the ground. As I bent to get it, I knew what it was, it was the phone number of the photographer who'd wanted me to ask permission so she could take pictures of Tom Waits too. I'd forgotten all about that.

"Later," called Waits, and the bus door closed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Aphorism Number Twelve: On Technological Innovations (One of a Series; Collect 'em All)

Just because an engineer can build it doesn't mean he should.
And just because he built it doesn't mean you've got to use it.
And just because you used it doesn't mean all the rest of us ought to admire you.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Aphorism Number Eleven;
Pickle Packing
(One of a series; Collect 'em all)

The pickle packing game is no place for a lady.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Bat Masterson: They Called Him Bat

by Bart Bull
(published in SPIN)

Bat Masterson, gunslinger, gambler, buffalo hunter, Army scout, sheriff of Dodge City, murderer, card dealer, boxing promoter, brawler, finished his life in deep disgrace as a New York City sportswriter. Discovered slumped over dead at his desk, the sheet of paper in his typewriter read: "There are many in this old world of ours who hold that things break about even for all of us. I have observed for example that we all get the same amount of ice. The rich get it in the summertime and the poor get it in the winter."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Springsteen Cases the Promised Land

by Bart Bull
published in Sounds, 1975 (excerpt)

[Scene: Arizona State Fair, middle of the week, late]

Springsteen is brooding still, walking, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched, only slowing his pace to look sideways at a big heifer. The heifer grunts as he goes by. Leaving the barn, a security guard lets them out a gate and they converge on the now-empty lot where the car is parked. Somebody put the homemade cardboard parking sign on the windshield. Miami Steve's discussion with the photographer is getting more and more, uhm, involved, and R.M. the road manager has gone over to supply reinforcements to Van Zandt, who's punctuating a very important point by prodding the photographer with his stuffed snake. The kid and Springsteen are standing off together, over to the side, and the the kid is saying something about a hype. "Like I said, I ODed on publicity," Springsteen mutters. "I mean, I like it, I like to talk to people about my music, but it's gettin' to be so much, ya know? I mean the only people who read what a writer's got to say is other writers."

But aren't you a writer?, the kid asks.

"Yeah, but what I'm doin' . . . it's like I'm here, and that's all you can say. I'm doin' what I want. I mean, all I ever wanted to do was make records, have a band like this . . . " His hands, which had been pulled out of his pockets to illustrate his intentions, get jammed back in, and he rocks back and forth on the heels of his boots. "I don't want all this other stuff, ya know?"

[More excerpts will appear until this story is complete and entire]

Friday, August 31, 2007

William Burroughs; Old Bull Hubbard Meets The Mild Boys

by Bart Bull

There had been copies of William Burroughs' most recent book, Armies of the Red Night, in the window of Moe's Books and piled on the display table downstairs, all marked down to the remaindered-by-the-pound price of three bucks a pop. Now, today, under the circumstances, they were $14.95 first editions, two stacks of them just within the reach of Burroughs' left hand, the one with the little finger that ends just past the first joint. Both of his hands were red with the declining circulation of age, and the right one held a Bic, one of the real cheap clear ones with a black cap.

"Look," said a guy waiting in line with books to be signed, "he uses a Bic."

The guy with him looked to confirm it and half of the rest of the line did too. Burroughs put his Bic down for a moment between customers and turned to steal a sip from his cafe au lait. The coffee had spilled from the cup into the saucer, and from the saucer onto the table, where it had gathered into a series of puddles precisely the color of Burroughs' shirt and tie. He hunched to sip his coffee without dripping it onto his pants and then he turned back to face the next in line. Two dozen sets of eyes followed every move.

The next fellow in line presented Burroughs with a collection of hardbacks and paperbacks and chapbooks that stacked a foot-and-a-half high. "I feel like a total ass," he said. Burroughs withheld comment. He signed methodically, metronomically, the tip of his Bic enunciating each letter in William S. Burroughs. The head of the fellow with the stack of books bobbed in time with Burroughs' pen. So did the head of the guy behind him, and the girl behind him, the one with the braces and the Elvis Costello glasses and the plaid skirt and the little skulls stencil-painted onto her stockings.

The line moved to the beat of Burroughs' Bic, slowly, steadily, with pauses from book to book, from customer to customer. Most of them were pretty young, sophomores or thereabouts. You should be able to pick up autographed copies of Burroughs' work at used bookstores all over Berkeley at the end of the spring quarter. One of them got up the nerve to address Burroughs directly. "Did you really marry a White Russian countess?"

"She wasn't a White Russian countess," he said. "And I never had a trust fund, and Kerouac was writing fiction." He had the voice of a bank branch manager, preoccupied with his sinuses, who has been asked to explain Federal Deposit Insurance at three minutes to six on a Friday.

"What do you think his most under-rated text was?"

"Huh?" Burroughs' voice suggested that it was now two minutes to six.

"What do you think Kerouac's most under-rated text was?" The kid actually said "text." "Tristessa?"

"Vanity of Duluoz,"
he says.


"Vanity of Duluoz." Burroughs is prominently featured in it.

Aphorism Number Ten: Video Games (One of a Series; Collect 'em All)

Very simply, here is the purpose of any video game:
Electrical impulses jam-ass their way toward an adrenal gland that had previously been engaged in the equivalent of watching "Laverne And Shirley" re-runs. It's a jolt of jazz-juice right up the ol' survival instinct.

Mingus Takes A Full Minute To Shuffle To Center-Stage

published in Sounds

I suppose you could use Charles Mingus' very apparent declining health as some sort of grand metaphor for, oh, I don't know — the general condition of "pure" jazz, or something, but at the time, as I was watching Mingus shuffle slowly . . . slowly . . . ever . . . so . . . slowly . . . across the stage, I wasn't thinking metaphorically.

I wasn't aware that Mingus had been in ill health. In fact, the idea of Charles Mingus hobbling feebly across a stage, entirely dependent upon a cane in order to stay upright, would have seemed ludicrous if I hadn't been witnessing it. It was hard to think of a man whose music exhibits such a dynamic humanity — is dynamic humanity — as being in ill health. Aging, yes, sure — I could easily imagine an elderly Mingus, a patriarchal figure, old and weathered and full of vinegar and piss — but not as a near invalid. So while it took Mingus nearly a minute to cross from the wings to Gammage's center-stage, it took a lot longer to reconcile to the idea that the Mingus we would hear tonight might not be a Mingus in full command of his powers.

And it may not have been a Mingus in full command of his powers, but then, I can't say for sure — how can you gauge the strength of someone like that? I saw a Mingus who, as ever, had a mastery of his unwieldy instrument that was complete and idiosyncratically individual at the same instant. I heard a Mingus whose compositions, born in full bloom, have miraculously become brighter and broader and bigger as time has held them in its hand and turned them over and around, a man as deserving of the title "Composer" as any jazzman who has preceded or followed him. I saw a man whose vitality was as full and strong and available as his weakness. Full command of his powers? Who am I to say?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Aphorism Number Nine; Continuity (One of a Series; Collect 'em All)

"Continuity is for sissies."

Jack Nicholson, to Tom Waits, to Bart Bull in SPIN

Bill Graham — Through the Turnstiles

by Bart Bull
California magazine, (excerpt)

You! Out!” It’s Bill Graham, and he’s charged over to a grizzled Deadhead standing in line at the soup counter wearing something woven and dirty from Mexico. Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill could be called lacking in enthusiasm, energy, panache. Graham is ranting in the Deadhead’s face, yelling, hollering “Get out of here!” Every single other Deadhead has stepped back away from them, pressing back against the wall or somewhere, and now this one finds himself walking backwards toward the door, shoved along by sheer decibels.

Graham keeps after him, top volume and full speed, until he’s backed him all the way out of the building and across the sidewalk to the gutter. Graham’s howling. “You think you’re gonna come in this building tonight?” There’s not an inch between his significant beak and the broken bridge of the Deadhead’s nose. The guy has two inches and 30 years and a lot of weight on Graham and there’s not a BGP person anywhere in sight — no big Event Security guys, no security bluecoats, nobody. Graham doesn’t seem to have noticed. He’s about to get killed.

“I got a ticket for tonight, Graham” the Deadhead snarls. He’s keeping his hands jammed inside the woven jacket’s front pockets.

“I see you in here, I’ll bust you wide open,” Graham growls. His voice clatters off the Civic Auditorium’s gray granite blocks. “You threatened me with a gun last night — remember, asshole? I see you on this sidewalk, I see you near this building, I’ll bust you — you don’t believe me, go get your gun! Split! You got a ticket, I’ll give you money for it but you ain’t comin’ in this building!”

As he turns away, a big-shouldered kid in a plaid flannel shirt comes up. He’s from New York, see, drove out here with his two buddies because he hadn’t heard one way or another as to whether his money order for tickets had been cashed and now he has no tickets and no way of knowing if he’ll ever see his 80 bucks again and the Grateful Dead guy in the ticket booth won’t even talk to him about it. He knows Bill has nothing to do with the situation, but he was wondering if there wasn’t something he could do -- not so much about the tickets, maybe but at least the money, or at least maybe get the guy at the window to at least listen to him.

“I’m sorry,” Graham says. “I really feel for you. There’s a lot of people in your position tonight, and they’ve really made a mess of things—” a quick nod in the direction of where the Grateful Dead’s own people are manning the ticket booth “—but it’s really out of my hands.”

The guy says he understands but thanks anyway, and he goes back to his pals, who’ve been watching expectantly off to the side. Graham watches them go, watches them walk away, then he calls over a security bluecoat. “See those three guys? Go get them. Take them and walk them through, around the turnstiles. Tell the person at the door I said it was okay.”

(For Mark Wellins, a true friend; In memory of Bill Graham, mensch)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Jimmie Rodgers; Singing Brakeman, Father of Country Music, God of Sex

published in SPIN

Jimmie Rodgers, "America's Blue Yodeler," a rambler and a rounder, has gradually been given the ill-fiting title "The Father of Country Music," primarily by those who've never heard him. Much more wisely, he is alleged to be worshipped by the Kipsigi tribe of East Africa, who have heard his 78's but lack the good fortune to have seen any of his portraits. Known to them as "Chemirocha" and considered to be a centaur-like spirit, half man and half antelope, young Kipsigi maidens are alleged to dance their most seductive dances and beg him to join them. I'd bet he does.

Aphorism Number Eight; Character and Plot (One of a series; collect 'em all)

With a full-fledged character, the plot can simply stand him next to a rack of coats and we start to know which one he'll be wearing in the next scene. In most movies, the character is the coat rack.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Muddy Waters — Sons And Fathers

by Bart Bull
published in Sounds (an excerpt)

There isn’t anybody in the room that he doesn’t outweigh by 40 years. What album? somebody wants to know. Muddy rears back and shouts it —"Hard Again!” — his voice cutting through the cigarette smoke like an electric fan. One of the more truly drunken musicians wants to know if the title means what it says. Muddy rolls off another big laugh, a boomer. “Hell, I look like it, don’t I? Sometime it do and sometime it don’t!”

Another one of the acolytes crouching at his feet asks “You’re a grandfather now, right?”

“I’m a great-grandfather now. I got two great-grandchi’ren. I got one of my big grandsons here with me -- where is he? Six foot somethin’ . . . I got four grandchi’ren and two great grandchi’ren . . . and a young wife! Woooooooo-oooooooo! Gahdamn right! I got a young woman! “

Muddy’s rollin’ now. He’s got the whole room entranced. “See, my wife passed in ‘73 and I got a young woman! Gotta keep playin’, boy! ‘She got ways like a baby child! Sleep with her hand open, not her fist doubled up!' Yessir! Ahh, boy . . . so young she still have milk on her breath! At’s a young baby! And I like her, too! I run home every time I get a chance, I’m on my way. Three days there, and that seem like a month! Ready to play again!”

Muddy’s son, who serves as his father’s road manager, has been moving in and out of the room through all this. A slender, dapper little man, he stops to watch the last few moments of his father’s impromptu performance and then turns away. In the grand tradition of sons and fathers everywhere he’s a little embarassed by the old man and his hi-jinks.

[Excerpts will follow until this story is complete and entire.]

Frank Zappa — "Ich Bin Das Wasser"

by Bart Bull
published in Sounds (excerpt)

He was scratching the stubble under his chin again. “I figure that ninety per cent of the people that came to the concert tonight came for one reason and that was to hear ‘Dinah Moe Hum.’ I think—”

“I loved the way you played that!” It was pudgy Nancy’s friend, the cute one. She wanted an autograph. “Who’s got paper?” she hollered. Finally, she pulled out her checkbook, tore a check loose, and handed it to Frank. “There,” she said. “And over there.”

He scribbled, then handed it back. Nancy came over and wanted to see too. “What’d he write for you?”

“I don’t know, I can’t read that.” She pulled out another piece of paper and held it in front of him. “Write something . . . really sentimental . . . No!! Something really Zappa-ish, you know?”

“Yeah!,” said Nancy. “Something really Zappa-esque.”

Frank took the pen and paper again, looked at it a moment, then wrote “Ich bin das Wasser.” Nancy’s friend loved that. “Write that on my leg, will you? Please?”

Nancy had a piece of paper now too. “Write something for me now too.” He looked up at her slowly; his eyes were dead again.

“I’m sorry to hassle you.” she said.

“You are hassling me,” Frank snarled.

She went sweet. “I’m sorry...”

“You’re as bad as your uncle.” [Back story: Her uncle was Clive Davis.]

I’m sor-ry.” Her voice was warm limp syrup. “If I smile nice for you, will you–”

“Nobody smiles as nice as he does.”

Nothing slowed Nancy down. “We’re going up to Las Vegas and see you.”


Us -- your fans. Can we have backstage passes?”

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Aphorism Number Six - Urban Planning (One of a Series; Collect 'em All)

Urban planners have killed off the center of any number of major American cities in the last fifty years and Phoenix, though late for the bandwagon, has been hustling to catch up ever since.

Walter Matthau Cleans The Pool at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club

by Bart Bull (published in The Washington Post, Arena, others) Walter Matthau is cutting a deal. No, Walter Matthau is slicing a deal. Across the table is a gentleman who looks like a movie producer. “I’m going to talk to you in code,” Matthau tells him, “and see if you understand.” 

 The producer says he doesn’t understand. 
 Matthau is carving the air with big red hands. “I’m talking about I want four parts of the pie and you’re talking about three parts. Do you hear?”
 If anyone ever seemed in his element, clam happy, at peace, it’s Walter Matthau at this moment, slicing movie pie in the air. “Now wait a minute. Of those three parts, think about one part having pure raisins in it. Pure raisins. Now do you understand me?” 
 The producer looks studiously blank. 
 No matter; Matthau begins again. “Awright, we’re talking about a pie, right? Now I want four parts of the pie, you only want to give me three. If I take three parts, I want one part to have pure raisins in it....” He’s really doing a tremendous job of building his special piece of solid raisin-packed pie right there in the air of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club dining room, but somehow the producer is unable to see it. 
Never mind. Right now Walter is busy describing the funniest thing he’s ever seen in his entire life, which is the big gastric ulcer scene from the Japanese film Akira. A photographer would like Mr. Mathau to move outside near the pool for a few shots and Mr. Matthau is glad to oblige but first he’d like to show her his leg. He pulls his pants-leg up past his knee and displays a calf swaddled in a surf-style Body Glove wetsuit and gives her the full and complete details of how he tore two fibers in the— he savors every syllable — gastrocnemius muscle above the Achilles tendon while running across the risky Pacific Coast Highway. It was like getting shot in the leg, he says, and he shows her the extra five-eighths of an inch he’s had added to to the heel of his right shoe to relieve the pain. Handicap established, he gets up slowly, glacially, eternally, creaking and groaning out of his chair and then stumping out to the poolside tables, looking like nothing so much as Captain Red, peg-legged pirate protagonist of Matthau’s latest movie, Roman Polanski’s Pirates. 
Pirates are a matter Matthau researched extensively when he took the role of Captain Red, finding, according to his favorite book, that most pirates were homosexuals, if only through necessity. “Well, what did you do in the 17th Century if you weren’t an aristocrat, if you weren’t a land-owner. You were either in commerce or in the serving class. I think these guys in the back of their minds knew they would have a surprisingly delightful but short life if they were bandits.” The pirate he plays in Polanski’s movie, however, lives anything but a short life, scheming, dealing, wheedling and taking huge risks, but always surviving, always plunging onward. The allegorically-inclined might find in Pirates a parallel to the life of either Polanski or Matthau or perhaps both, while the more trusting reader of movie studio press kits will discover that Matthau was on his absolute best actorly behavior for Pirates, bending mildly before Polanski’s genius, willing and eager to accept the director’s every word of guidance. 
For a moment, Matthau himself is capable of buying into that charming fantasy as well, since it’s almost too lovely to deny. “Yeah, you almost have to know that Polanski’s the star of any film that he’s working in. Some people have that need and that magnetism.” You can tell it’s an alien concept to Matthau. “It’s a Polanski film is what it is, and, uh, sometimes you fight with that, all the. time knowing there’s no way you’re going to win. But it’s the fight that you like, and the revelations that come from it. I fight with my wife a lot, and afterwards I know more than I did before I started, because in the middle of the fight I extricate truths that I didn’t know exited or I wanted confirmed.” He says it, “confoirmed,” exactly as Walter Matthau would. 
"Well, with a guy like Polanski, that happens all the time. Polanski, who is used to getting his way, and dominating every facet of the making of a movie....” and now Matthau is warming to the subject. “ Well, if you challenge him in some way, on some piece of direction he may give you, if the piece of direction has some social disharmony, you say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ And then you start an argument for a half hour. Then he says, ‘Well, alright, I don’t agree with you but do it whatever way you want because I have no more time to discuss it.” And then you walk away and have a long face”-- and Walter Matthau can have a long, long face -- “and you do it badly. Then he says, “Hey, you’re doing it badly now, is there something wrong?’ And then you have another hour’s discussion. Well, then you go to dinner."
 “You see, I always did that. I remember it was a picture called Voice In The Mirror that I did with Richard Egan and Julie. . . Julie London? I had a role in it, I played a doctor.” And that was appropriate enough; after a couple of coronaries and a quadruple bypass and a pair of bouts with hepatitis and a near-miss on a broken neck doing a stunt-on a picture with Jack Lemmon -- not to mention his grievous torn gastrocnemius -- because Matthau pals around with doctors, cardiologists and cardio-vascular surgeons, and even here by the pool he’s wearing a t-shirt from Centinela Hospital Health Center. Anyway, he was making this picture with Julie London and Richard Egan. “And I had a line in it about alcoholism being an incurable disease and I objected to the line, but I mainly objected to start a fight because I wasn’t introduced to Julie London or Riochard Egan and I didn’t know the director very well. I had just come in from New York and I wanted to start a rumpus so I could get to know people and have them argue with me. And so Richard Egan explained, ‘Listen, he’s not really fighting. He’s a New York actor, and he wants to get to the bottom of things.’ Well, the director apologized then, and said he wasn’t a read director, that he was a cutter. The point of this story is about Roman Polanski, and now that he’s gotten to it, it seems only too apparent: “Polanski is very uncomfortable unless he’s in control.” 
The photographer would like it if Walter would take off his sunglasses, and Walter is perfectly glad to oblige, but he has a theory about having your picture taken. He’d like to share it. “You must never just pose. You must always say something to the camera like, ‘You see that camera? ‘ He’s pointing right down the lens. ‘That’s a rotten camera. That camera’s no good. It’s one of the worst. That camera sells for a dollar thirty-five cents.’ You know?"
The photographer would also like it if Walter would go over closer to the pool. “No, that would be fakery, giving people the idea that I’m an oudoor person, a pool person. I was once a pool man, I cleaned pools but . . . “ Someone suggests a shot of him cleaning the pool (his character in The Bad News Bears was a pool cleaner, at any rate, whether he ever cleaned pools professionally or not) and he’s taken with the idea, fakery or not. “Hmmmm. Cleaning the pool. You want a shot? Wait a minute, I have to hobble over. . . .” 
 The grunts and groans begin again, the richly dramatic hoisting and leveraging from the deck chair. When he comes back Walter has a story about acting, a Yiddish dialect story about the little guy who comes in to the theater and says, “Igscuse me, do you do here the auditions for Hamlet, the title role?’ and before you know it he’s delivering stentorian pear-shaped To Be Or Not To Be’s with the best of them. Better, even.  “Better than Olivier, better than Gielgud, better than Barrymore......” And of course everybody’s impressed and amazed and wants to know how the little guy does it, to which the kicker is, [Yiddish accented] “That’s acting.”
“An actor is supposed to have a lot of different parts about him, that’s why he’s an actor. If you wanna be, in quotes, a “movie star,” then you have to be typecast, because the banks are not gong to put up money for anything new or strange. They’ll put up money for a recognizable product.” And which is he?  
“Well, I’ve fallen into the trap of 'movie star,' I’m afraid. You see, you can’t earn, just being an actor, the money that I’ve earned as a 'movie star,' and live in a big house, with a lot of flowers and a swimming pool and a lot of nice objects, furniture and stuff, and have a nice car . . . . I couldn’t really earn that as an actor. So I pretend that I’m still an actor. “And I pretend that I’m still encrusted with the veneer of desire to be truthful. I’m not. I’m really a sort of businessman-whore. Pretending.” 
 The money, of course, is not just for big houses with flowers and swimming pools and the answer is nowhere near so easy. Matthau loves acting, always has, always, and he’s always needed money, lots of it. Always. 
 As a kid, at ten or eleven, he sat on the toilet in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and read Shakespeare, practicing his melliflous pear-shaped tones until his speech became so notable that his brother Henry had to explain him to the other kids. Walter got in a lot of fights as a kid -- he broke the young Rocky Graziano’s nose one day outside the 10th Street Boys Club -- and for years he told his interviewers that the size of his nose was due to “bulbous cartilege” developed during his early years after being punched in the nose so often. He told them as well that he was raised in an orphanage; in fact, his father Milton Matthow (Americanized from Melas Matuschansky) abandoned his mother when Walter was three; his mother supported the family and Walter was deposited at the Daughters of Israel Day Nursery, which is not to say that it didn’t feel like an orphanage. The kid who was fascinated with acting got a job in a Yiddish theater on Second Avenue selling soda and ice cream. Tall for his age -- at 12, he was six-foot-two and weighed 85 pounds -- someone onstage drafted him to fill in at an adult’s role. He’d play his part, strip off his costume just before intermission, then run up and down the aisles dispensing drinks and candy bars. Already a mix of businessman and actor, he got fifty cents a night for his onstage work.
 “Fifty cents a night, fifty cents a performance, would be four dollars and fifty cents a week, nine performances, and I would only make two dollars and fifty cents a week as a soda or ice cream vendor. And in this way I could make six or seven dollars a week, which was a great deal of money then, especially for a twelve or thirteen year old boy. Half I gave to my mother, who would use it wisely, and the other half I’d lose gambling. Because I enjoyed gambling, I enjoyed the discomfort and the misery and the aggravation of losing the money. And I still do.” 
Walter Matthau’s gambling is legenary, and his debts are a matter of record. He’s told interviewers over and over again throughout the years that he’s quit gambling for good; he’s told them again and again the exact figures he’s dropped, althought these days, after at least one extortion attempt, he’s slightly, just slightly, more reticent. (George Burns once said, ”When he makes a $500 bet he won’t tell you, he’s ashamed it’s so small.”) 
 In the late Fifties, long before he’d achieved anything like fame as an actor, much less as a movie star, he once dropped $183,000 in two weeks --- and spent the next six years paying it off. He started his second marriage owing $175,000 to a bookie while paying $60,000 ayear alimony and child support. And in 1958 he dumped $48,000 on a ball game between the Yankees and Baltimore. He did and still enjoys the pain of losing. “It’s an emotion that’s much larger than the pleasantry of winning. Winning is a small emotion compared to losing.” 
One of his cardiologist acquaintances has infomred him that at a certain race track there’s always a heart attack every day and the victim is always clutching a losing ticket. “Never a winning ticket. Never seen a guy get a heart attack from a winner.” Even with his own history of heart attacks and his voluminous file of disastrous losses, Matthau also has a reputation as a hardnosed negotiator, a tenacious and unflappable dealmaker, a winner. His salary has climbed steadily whenever it wasn’t skyrocketing; his son Charlie has been worked into a half a dozen parts in his movies and even received credit at age sixteen as an associate producer. His bold litigation -- some might call it piratical -- against Universal for a larger slice of the pie when The Bad News Bears was sold to television was settled lucratively out of court. For a guy with a big urge to lose, with an entire philosophy formed around his need to lose, he’s done pretty well by his career. 
 “I guess maybe one balances the other. Like the fellow in the Somerset Maugham story who goes for a job and the guy says, ‘Well, I see you at the club -- don’t you win a lot of money at poker ’ he says, ‘Yes, I do, but I lose it at bridge.’ Maybe one helps the other. Maybe I want to work all the time and so I force myself by steering the course, of getting money, losing it, giving it away to charities, needing money again, gong to work again, havng to constantly replenish the coffers. . . . maybe this is what keeps me going.” 
 Because he does, after all, love acting, love to think and talk and theorize abut acting -- although it’s not necessarily his own acting he loves. “when I see some of my pictures, I wince at the groveling for a laugh. ‘ Please laugh, this is funny now,’ and I just hate myself for doing that. But now I’m getting better -- see, I don’t think anybody can really reach an understanding of how a character should behave until he’s at least eighty, eighty-five. And by that time he’s usually physically unable to do what he’s supposed to.” “
All this humility about his own work doesn’t mean he’s any easier on any of the players in his life. Maybe one day he’ll get back around to that play he was going to write, The Critics’ Murder Case, the one where the curtains part on opening night and the actor comes out with a Thompson sub-machine gun and mows down every pen-pusher in the house. And then there’s his agent, the one he once called a first-class idiot in print. “Oh, yeah, he is a moron of the first rank. He’s an imbecile.” Why keep him on ? "Because I think all agents are imbeciles and since I can scream at him and call him all kinds of names, you know. Another agent might take umbrage, get insulted, have feelings.” The businessman in him appreciates a guy who can take it; the actor enjoys booting an agent’s butt; the habitual loser likes the fact that the agent always leaves the room with his piece of the action in his pocket; and the movie star is pleased to see that when they need a Walter Matthau type, with the squinty eyes and the lump of a Walter Matthau nose, they’ve got to come to Walter Matthau and to nobody else 
 “My nose. Speaking of my nose, at 4:30 I have to have another biopsy on my nose because the pathologist took a biopsy last week and he lost it. He lost a piece of my nose. A piece of my nose is floating around somewhere. They have to take another piece off. I don’t know why I’m letting him do this. He thinks maybe there’s some basal carcinoma there.” The gambler in him seems pleased with the risk. Matthau’s nose is, in an odd sort of way, his fortune. It kept him from being a movie star; it helped him become a movie star. In the old Hollywood days of Tab and Ty and Rock and Rip, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper took Walter under her wing and gave him a piece of advice: “Get it fixed, Walter.” His mother felt the same way. And in Pirates, Polanski seems almost fixated with it at times, shooting upwards into nostrils that seem large enough to sail a square-rigged CinemaScope brigantine through.
 “My mother used to apologize for my nose. She used to say, ‘This is my son Walter and the reason his nose is so large is because he used to have a lot of fistfights when he was a boy and they punched him in the nose a lot and so he developed a lot of cartilage.” Bulbous cartilage? “Bulbous Cartilage! That’s a good name for an actor -- Sir Bulbous Cartilage!” 
 “I had a lot of fistfights, no question aboutit. I picked up my mother’s excuse for why my nose was so large. I keep looking in the mirror, you know, every day. Is it really so large ? Doesn’t seem so large to me. Then again, I’d look kind of silly if I had a smaller nose.” His nose has been his fortune in a way, but if that’s all there was to Walter Matthau, they could hire Karl Malden. As to what exactly it is that makes for a Walter Matthau type, Walter Matthau says he’s totally in the dark. Or almost totally. He has a thought. “An actor is supposed to have a lot of different parts about him, that’s why he’s an actor. If I was going to play Walter Matthau, I’d do it badly. I wouldn’t know where to start. Or if I did, I’d pretend not to know because it would be too painful.” And with his thumb at the edge of one nostril and his forefinger at the edge of the other, he tugs on his nose and listens to hear how that sounds, hear how it plays.

Hollywood Hookers and Parisian Pimps

(Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were dear friends for decades. I thought maybe since this piece has a Lemmon-y twist to it, I'd plunk it in here. Et voila!)
So I’m watching, this very moment, “Irma La Douce,” a movie I’ve never seen before, and not one I’d ever even once considered watching either, even back in the day when the Catholic Church -- you remember them -- gave it the dreaded “C” rating. That’s “C” for “Condemned,” as in You Will Be Condemned Right Straight To Hell if you dare sneak in to watch the voluminously-cleavaged divorcee Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra,” or the licentious James Bond of “Goldfinger,” or theTechni-Colorful Parisian pimps and gold-hearted Parisian prostitutes of “Irma La Douce.”
(Admittedly, I haven’t been keeping up lately with contempo-Catholic doctrine/dogma/dictae, so I don’t know if I’m going partly to Hell on account of only watching part of it so far, or whether that merely gathers me extra time in Purgatory, Roman Catholicism’s metaphysical DMV. I do solemnly confess that I scrolled back during Shirley MacLaine’s bathtub scene to confirm the fact that you could absolutely certainly see a bare hint of bare left breast, one of the left breasts I’m personally least interested in seeing in all the world , true, but one that I can Confirm. With a capital “C." I am, after all, both a noted critic and an intrepid reporter.)

Set in Paris, this is movie Paris, a Paris set in Hollywood on a Hollywood set, a 1963 Hollywood set, a 1963 Hollywood Paris already weeping drippy nostalgia for a bygone Paris before that Paris has gone by. And 1963, I should probably remind you, is the last year of the 1950s. This is a Billy Wilder picture, but a Billy Wilder picture he didn't really write, based on a play, a Parisian sex farce, and based on Billy Wilder’s own nostalgia for his own brief sojourn in Paris, from back when he was working his way out of the Austro-Hungarian provinces en route to Vienna to Berlin to Paris to, finally, permanently, Hollywood; as a journalist working his the way up to screenwriter working his way up to director working his way up to screenwriting-director-producer, and working to keep his sardonic Viennese Jewish aesthetician’s ass out of Hitler’s frying pan.

But nostalgia, easiest and ickiest color in the whole box of cinematic crayons, is especially unworthy of Billy “All Laughs Cut On All Edges” Wilder, that impossibly rare creator of great comedy and great drama, the guy who maybe invented film noir, who wrote with Raymond Chandler, roomed with Peter Lorre, and worked with Marilyn Monroe and Ernst Lubitsch and Gloria Swanson and Eric Von Stroheim and Jimmy Cagney. Who escaped the Nazis but lived to learn that his family didn’t.

And who worked, again and again and again, in “Some Like It Hot,” and “The Apartment,” and “The Fortune Cookie,” and in “Irma La Douce,” with Jack Lemmon, determined clown-poet of corporate failure. Here he’s a hapless policeman, fired for putting too fine a point on his job of rounding up prostitutes, ending up a hapless pimp. (As you do.) All very Billy Wilder-esque, but inevitably, Jack Lemmon, genius film actor that he is, plays Jack Lemmon. Jack Lemmon in Paris, perhaps, Jack Lemmon, Parisian policeman, then Jack Lemmon, failed Parisian pimp {or mec, as the patois has it; you can bet we’ll be exploring and hyper-linking the hell out of that one, Mec-daddies) but above all, Jack Lemmon, the ultimate buttoned-down Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Organization Man with the extraordinarily empty existential briefcase. Never a boss, always a sheep, but an especially nervous, neurotic one, a sheep who can’t help foreseeing the shearing to come and the mint sauce to follow.

Lemmon would go on to age visibly, to wear and tear palpably, to fray at the Brooks Brothers cuffs of his nervous system, to survive the shearing sheds but to show every moment of humiliation in haunted eyes, in ever more poignant tics and twitches. Wilder’s movies declined, oddly, curiously, strangely, for so accomplished a master, and “Irma La Douce” marks the beginning of the end. It wouldn’t be long before he wasn’t makiing movies any more, Hollywood being Hollywood. It wouldn't be long, either, 1963 being the start of The Sixties, before Hollywood was done with Paris. A decade of post-WWII musicals served up to former GIs meant "Irma La Douce" was pretty much, uhm, the last time we saw Paris for the better part of a decade. London was swingin', the youth market was about acquire British accents and Beatle haircuts, and Paris sounded too much like accordions.

Style notes: Shirley MacLaine's Irma La Douce wears Paris green (we'll be discussing this at length some time further on down the road) throughout: hosiery, bra, negligee. And this despite the traditional French theatre ban on green costume. I bet there was some point to this. Maybe you know what it was.

Oh, and Floyd the barber was the helpful desk clerk at the hooker's hotel.

Percy Mayfield; Poet of the Blues

by Bart Bull
(from Details)

A man who is downhome and urbane in the same instant knows more than most. The man who wrote "Lost Mind," "Wasted Dream," "Nightless Lover," "Memory Pain," "Life Is Suicide," "The River's Invitation, " "I Dare You, Baby," "You Don't Exist No More," and "The Big Question," knows more than most, and wishes it weren't all true.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Luke The Drifter — Hank Williams Blows the Foam Off the River of Life

by Bart Bull

By 1950, Hank Williams was the biggest thing in country music, the biggest thing there'd ever been in country music, and he was making real good progress at killing himself. Haunted by guilt, by sin, by God, by his wife, by alcohol, by chronic physical pain and the pills that dulled it, by the periodic binges that seized the reins of his life if he so much as blew the foam off a beer mug, haunted by the idea and spectre and facts of divorce, and haunted as well by a fierce case of precisely what has haunted hillbilly music from the night it first hit town, by that weird dislocated experience of being a country boy in a city world even if you weren't actually a country boy, or even in the city, either one. Ever.

All alone and lost, lost on the river of life, Hank Williams could no more help but repent than he could keep free of sin. He began to go in the studio and cut remorseful monologues like "A Picture From Life's Other Side" and "Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals" and "Be Careful of the Stones You Throw" and "Men With Broken Hearts," songs that were often fierce old stump-speech leftovers from a time when minstrel shows and religious revivals were both showbiz tentpoles. The word "maudlin" was created for songs such as these. They're parlor pieces of the sort that bloomed up out of the fantastically enriched soil, Southern and Northern alike,  that followed the slaughter of the Civil War. (When Bob Dylan's first album included a Blind Lemon Jefferson song called "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," he was aurally illustrating Samuel Charters' recent epoch-defining book, "The Country Blues," wherein Charters had located the great blind bluesman's neglected grave and had painstakingly drawn arrows all around the irony. What neither Charters nor Dylan knew was that Jefferson's deep blues had been his adaption of the Civil War parlor hit, "See That My Grave Is Kept Green." No matter; somebody collected the publishing funds, and it wasn't a blind street-singing Negro, that's for sure.)

Between him and his publishing company and his record label and Hank again, somebody was slick and sober enough to make sure that these here ones, these morally down-lifting ditties, didn't hit the jukeboxes with the name "Hank Williams" displayed on them anywhere but just only inside of those little publishing-money parentheses where the songwriter credits get listed — even in the cases where Hank hadn't actually wrote 'em. Instead, these records were released under an unlikely old-school alias, under the name "Luke The Drifter."

Which didn't stop Hank from singing them — he couldn't help himself. A month after he was dead and buried and the loose earth stomped firmly over top of him, an Alabama reporter remembered Hank Williams asking of "Men With Broken Hearts," "Ain't that the awfullest, morbidest song you ever heard in your life?" By which he meant, the reporter explained, "Ain't that somethin?" But then, that same reporter described yet another time Hank had played the exact same song and afterward, Hank spoke with wonder and dread of his own work: "Don't know why I happened to of wrote that thing. Except somebody that fell, he's the same man as before he fell, ain't he? Got the same blood in his veins. How can he be such a nice guy when he's got it and such a bad guy when he ain't got nothin'? Can you tell me?" If anybody piped up with an answer, the reporter didn't mention it. Smarty-pants small town Georgia teenager Flannery O'Connor could certainly have launched a rocket-shaped response, especially being as she may have been the only one within a tri-state area who would've been inclined to make a joke about it. Never a giant big hillbilly music fan, young Miss O'Connor was not in attendence at Hank's funeral in Montgomery, which yet again made her one of the few — she would eternally be one of the few. It was his funeral but our trial. Her mordant joke is missed to this very moment.

Luke The Drifter was an ideal way for Hank Williams to watch himself get killed off before the picture ended, to ride the black stallion and still sit in the cheap seats too, to split his personality into two, to cleave his own head in half with a hatchet and see what in hell sprang forth. Who could resist the urge to attend their own funeral?  Especially if Hank Williams was the headlining act? Plainly, Luke had wandered out loose from the deep backwoods and the long lost old days with their old ways, while Hank himself was streamlined, jet-powered, chrome-plated, a two-toned pink-and-black Rocket 88 among men. The difference between Hank Williams's own music and rockabilly is a song by song thing, a matter of degrees and drumming, but it ain't much, most often, and it's very few rockabilly rebels who wouldn't have given it all up to be Hank Williams for a week or so, even if they came back chastened, head hanging low and tail 'tween their legs.  Hank Williams only just wanted to give it all up. He couldn't, but Luke The Drifter could carry some of his load.

Aphorism Number Five: American Urges (One of a series; collect 'em all!)

There's something in an American that makes the urge to save souls and cure cancer and steal votes and sell something -- anything -- all at the same time absolutely irresistible.
Bart Bull, from SPIN

David Lynch; Mild At Heart

When David Lynch was a boy in Boise, he blew things up and burned things down.
In Hollywood, he burns things up and shoots movies.
by Bart Bull
(published in Vogue)

There is a house on fire in a park in the desert just below a dam. The lights are on. Standing outside, looking through wide picture windows the way no neighbor is supposed to look into someone else's home — especially at night —we see a man on fire stumble through the kitchen and toward the living room, his clothes in flames, spreading fire everywhere. He grabs at the curtains, knocks over the table, lurches to the piano, and collapses on the floor as the fire takes the house.

The pyrotechnicians extinguish him first, then spray the curtains, the table, the piano. When the smoke and the dense fog from the fire extinguisher clear, they'll prepare the house for another burn. It's cold out here in the desert. People are drinking coffee and hot chocolate.

When David Lynch was a boy in Boise, Idaho, he blew things up and burned things down. "We were all, um, heavily into making bombs at that particular place and time." The time was the 1950s, and Idaho was the idyllic Pacific Northwest, pines and cedars and alders, wild blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries. His father was in the U.S. Forest Service. David had a friend down the street who blew his foot off with a homemade rocket. "Kinda stupid in a way, but he was tamping the match heads down with a metal rod, just to keep 'em packed. And his mother was pregnant..." — all this has the offhand, somewhat nasal sound of a David Lynch plot, macabre and matter-of-fact —"and it went off, the rocket went off, and these match heads had such a force that it drove the rocket through his ankle and it blew fire and burnt match heads all over the porch. He fell down because he couldn't stand up, and he was in a pool of blood with these little burnt match heads and smoke all around him. When his mother saw that, she almost lost the baby." The boy's brother was at the swimming-pool when he heard about the accident, and passed out and had to be saved. An orderly row of dominoes tumbled, and then, even more mysteriously, order fell back in place. "They took him and sewed his foot back on, and he was OK after that."

And when David Lynch was in art school, he built a machine. It was during the 1960s, and painting was widely considered an archaic and outmoded practice, lacking conceptual rigor. David's machine was an orderly contraption, a Rube Goldberg art operation. A ball rolled down a pipe, was routed along a series of ramps, rode teeter-totters, tripped hair-triggers, and completed electrical connections that caused the mouth of a sculpture woman to fly open and a red light to come on. Then a match would strike and light a firecracker. The firecracker would blow up and the sculpted woman would scream. Then David could reset all the triggers and do it again.

It's wrap day, the last day of shooting David Lynch's next movie, Wild at Heart, his first since Blue Velvet, and Laura Dern is handing out gifts, small, southwesterly adobe huts made to burn tiny cedar logs from inside. Parting gifts to the crew from Nick --- Nicolas Cage --- and herself. This is her second David Lynch movie. Is there a better way to feel? Is there a more respected director today than David Lynch? Directors are a debased currency in today's Hollywood --- producers count, studio heads are stars, stars are social philosophers, agents inspire fear, but instead of wielding the staff of power as they once did, directors stand in line now for a chance to kiss it. In our day, David Lynch seems to be a genuine exception, seems almost accidental. He may well be. In any case, Laura feels just wonderful. She's gifted everyone now and cuddled in alongside David. "Da-vid," she calls him, accent on both syllables. She wants him to hear about her shopping trip. "Da-vid, I want to shop for you! Let me shop for you!" Laura Dern was raised in Los Angeles. It seems a sensible thing to offer.

Most of the boutiques on Melrose are likely to be fresh out of long-billed fishing caps like the one David is wearing, though smart money suggests they'll be available at The Gap by next fall. Lynch takes the businessman's slant on the Artist of the Eighties look: shirt buttoned up against the Adam's apple, mildly anonymous khaki pants when at work, hair left thoughtfully long at the crown and trimmed severely at the sides. A charter member of Esquire magazine's very embarrassing "Register" of yuppie achievers, Lynch did, after all, in his 1977 film Eraserhead, successfully predict the fashionable art guy's hair architecture for the eighties. So far, he's managed his look without Laura Dern's help.

Eraserhead began in film school, where Lynch landed after art school — he's something like the quintessential grad student. He attended the prestigious American Film Institute on a fellowship from the Center for Advanced Film Studies, which placed him prominently among the first generation to receive academic training in filmmaking. A boxed set of wonderful stories from this period is available: he supported himself with a paper route that paid forty-eight dollars a week; he lived secretly on the Eraserhead set at the mansion that housed the AFI; and, in what could be viewed as a perfectly executed conceptualist's joke about grad student thesis-release anxiety, he spent five years completing Eraserhead. The movie went on to enduring success on the midnight movie circuit, assembling Lynch's core audience from hipsters who had grown past The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

His next movie, The Elephant Man, did nearly as much to help his artistic case as it did that of the producer, Mel Brooks. A critical and financial success, nominated for eight Oscars, it left Lynch established. Hollywood had been waiting, it appeared, for someone exactly like David Lynch, someone with vision and taste and the nerve to make his own kind of movie. Critics adored him if only for giving them the chance to use the term "painterly"; studio heads loved the idea of making money and art and awards all at once.; producers loved the idea of happy studio heads. Any direction David Lynch turned, a door opened before him.

Someone asks about Pepino, Lynch's dog. Pepino has wandered off into the Hollywood hills behind Lynch's Frank Lloyd Wright home, out Lynch's forbidding yard of cacti to the hills where the coyotes prowl. He's worried, he says, about what might have happened to Pepino. He wonders. And then he wonders aloud, "How many times can we burn the house down?"


Something rotten is out there, corrupt, diseased, only just hidden by the smoothest surfaces, the most placid of facades. If hip taste in our time is embodied by David Lynch -and there is no other creative figure as uniformly admired by those with even the least claim to hipness - the queasy imagery that invariably appears in each of his films, the secret shocking squirm that stirs beneath the mundane, is surely a source of his power. Giant intestine-ish sandworms, malformed bodies, vicious bruising sex, membranous tissue in a slick and sticky-wet state  — these occur in Lynch's films as predictably as other movies avoid them. Rather than truly upsetting anyone — for only those who know nothing of David Lynch are really shocked by such stuff — the images confirm the faultless taste of his audiences. They are his peers, after all: graduate students and the art-inclined, city dwellers who need make no leap of the imagination when confronted with the idea that something icky is going on out there in the woods. Partly the classic modernist tactic of shocking the bourgeoisie while elbow-nudging the hepcats, it's also a case of making aesthetically sophisticated gross-out movies — films that will make even the most icily urbane date squeeze your hand with Saturday night drive-in dithers.

"Because of his AFI background, he's a classically-trained director," says Mark Frost. "He just applies it in unconventional ways. But if you were to put up his work against any major director of the last thirty years, the strength of his visual work is every bit as good as theirs, in a structural or formal sense." Frost and Lynch are partners, collaborators, friends. Frost types, Lynch doesn't. Together they wrote One Saliva Bubble, a script that acquired a certain legendary status as it made the rounds and managed to stay unmade, and they wrote and directed Twin Peaks, an episodic television series debuting on ABC prime time as a midseason replacement. Twin Peaks is an ambitious multistoried melodrama, compared in its own publicity to Dickens, Peyton Place, and Blue Velvet. However much Frost, who wrote for Hill Street Blues in its palmy early days, had to do with it, Twin Peaks feels like nothing so much as David Lynch's sensibility stretched at full length, hour upon hour of oddities piled on banalities piled atop non sequiturs. It can't miss, at least as far as the converted are concerned – it's nothing if not Lynchian — while more typical television viewers have yet to be consulted.

What may be most fascinating about Twin Peaks is the degree to which the show acknowledges actor Kyle MacLachlan as the director's alter ego. MacLachlan, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, looks like Lynch's younger brother, and just as he was an impromptu investigator in Blue Velvet,  in Twin Peaks he plays an FBI agent mysteriously endowed with the abstract mannerisms of Inspector David Lynch. "In a way," says Lynch, "Agent Dale Cooper – and Kyle would admit it – takes some things from me, you know. It may be a bit of an influence." He'd really rather talk about detectives. "To me, a detective is the most magical type of character, because mysteries are to me the greatest thing. Puzzles and things like this are thrilling, clues, things like finding money. Everything is a mystery and we're all detectives. Even scientists are detectives and they're all looking for clues to solve the big mystery. There are so many detectives going around, and so many mysteries."


Dune was intended to be a blockbuster among blockbusters in the Christmas season of 1984. An extravagant special effects epic in the science fictional mode, Dune was supposed to be Star Wars, actually, but with the mark of Lynch's hand on it – the merchandising deals called for Dune toys, T-shirts, vitamins, sleeping bags. After The Elephant Man, Lynch had signed a multipicture deal with Dino De Laurentis: he would make Dune, then a picture called Blue Velvet and another called Ronnie Rocket, and then he was obligated to do Dune II and Dune III.

Dune was a disaster. Hazily remembered these days by Lynch aficionados as something of an art film hurt by unsympathetic editing. Dune was merely a wildly ambitious mainstream movie gone bad. Everything went wrong — it had all been a mistake. As in any David Lynch movie, something rotten, diseased and corrupt squirmed just below the surface, but in this case, it was giant lamprey-style sandworms, plus an evil warlord whose pustular boils were popped in place of the action the plot failed to supply. It wasn't the sort of thing that sells sleeping bags.

"In retrospect," Lynch says, "I can see that I started getting into trouble on Dune early on, and it wasn't just the final editing that did it, although I think the film could be way, way better. I still worry that I don't know if it could ever be a great film, or even a real good film. I don't know. I forget so much about it."

"Like they say, nobody sets out to make a bad picture. And when you make a picture that's very successful but you don't like it or one that's not successful and you don't like it – both – that's a devastating thing. Devastating. What's amazing to me is how you can play tricks on your mind, or your mind can play tricks on you, and it keeps you from seeing what's really happening. I don't know. I really suffered a know, kind of...depression, and filmmaking was no longer fun at all. It was filled with fear and I questioned everything. All the great things you have with success, I felt the opposite in every category and it was bad news. You don't trust yourself. You don't trust anything. It's very bad." There was every reason to believe his career in Hollywood, his career as a director, was entirely over. It had all been a mistake. The doors had closed.

In the days of Dune, the art student in Lynch had created the very conceptual Fish Kit and Chicken Kit, made up of actual animals that had been dissected and disassembled and labeled so as to resemble the kits sold to kids to make model planes or cars. After Dune, he painted. He has been working with oils for the past two years. Art school was twenty years ago, and painting is perfectly acceptable now. Lynch's work has little dabs of paper stuck onto a lightly underpainted surface, with little hand-done block-type capital letters inked out to say things like "WHEN I RETURNED THERE WERE BUGS IN THE HOUSE AND FIRE AND BLOOD IN THE STREETS BY GOLLY," "IT'S A GREAT BIG WONDERFUL WORLD," and "ON A WINDY NIGHT A FIGURE WALKS TO JUMBO'S KLOWN ROOM." (Jumbo', just so you'll know,  is a reasonably sordid topless bar in a seedy section of Hollywood.) Just to make certain no one mistakes the work for mere abstraction lacking in irony, sketchy elements like house shapes are etched onto the cake-frosted surface, and sometimes there are oddly shaped clouds. These are paintings that could hang over the bed in any tasteful postmodern hotel room.

He's a cartoonist as well, in an appropriately conceptual sort of way. For the last seven years, his four-panel cartoon has run in the weekly Los Angeles Reader — the same relentless four panels.  The exact same ones,  The strip's title is "The Angriest Dog in the World." Each of the panels features a growling dog shaped much like a pollywog: "The dog is so angry he cannot move...Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis." Word balloons appear in one or two of the panels, with the words phoned in each week from Lynch and printed by one of the paper's staff. A few month's back, the paper's art director whimsically added a bone and then more bones and at last a pile of bones directly in front of the dog, explaining instantly why it had been so rigorously straining against its leash for so long. It took several weeks for anyone to notice, and when it at last came to Lynch's attention, he was more than a little miffed. Seven years, week upon week, of precisely nonlinear conceptual rigor ruined. It was bitter.

He starred in the film Zelly and Me with his girlfriend, Isabella Rossellini. His album, Floating Into the Night — singer Julee Cruise has her name on it, but it's a David Lynch project – was released last fall. Already known for this role in helping revive Roy Orbison's career with Blue Velvet's masterfully incongruous use of "In Dreams," Lynch has attempted cloudy, atmospheric mood music in the manner of Orbison, although if there is anything that David Lynch seems unlikely to achieve, it is the grand unfettered emotion available in any Roy Orbison hit. Something seems a little frantic about all this ultrabusy creativity, about a maker of movies doing television shows and comic strips and paintings and chicken kits and moody albums, and that's even without mentioning Industrial Symphony No.1, a sort of dream-sequence performance-art experience with music that he's racing off to stage at the New Music America festival. Even in today's Hollywood, where every star leads a Renaissance existence, no one has more irons in the fire of Art. His coffee-table book of writings, sketches, and photographs is forthcoming from Harper & Row.

His own home, the Frank Lloyd Wright dwelling in the Hollywood hills, has no coffee table. That's because, said one journalist, paraphrasing Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," "he's never found any furniture he likes." He lacks a dog now as well, since Pepino never returned. "He's gone now. Pepino was a mutt, given to me by Isabella. When she met Pepino, she said, 'Aha, this is a dog for David.' I didn't really want a dog that much. I had a dog, Sparky, that was the love of my life. I got him on The Elephant Man. I think Spark died of old age — that's what we're hoping. Anyway, Pepino was a smiler. He really and truly smiled. And it was out of happiness. A real smile, not one that you think because you' re the parent your dog is smiling. Everyone saw it. Big smiles. Sometimes just on one side, sometimes a full smile, and it depended on what was going on. But Pepino was shaping up to be one of the all-time great dogs, and then one day he disappeared. For the next two days, I saw coyotes in front of the house. This coyote really looked guilty. Skulking, skulking. And almost...I, I, you know. I knew. And the coyote knew that I knew."

When David Lynch was a boy growing up in Boise, in the idyllic timber green woods of the Northwest, and one of the other boys nearly blew off his foot, and got it sewn back on,  did the others learn their lesson at last? "No. We blew up South Lake Junior High swimming pool. I was arrested. We made the Salt Lake City papers and the Boise papers, four of us. We didn't blow it up, we set off a bomb in there – actually for safety reasons. The pool was built off the ground. These bombs we were making were pipe bombs, and they would hit the ground and not explode until they were about eye level. And they would explode with such a force that the pipe would just completely turn inside out, and shrapnel would blow. We threw it in the pool so that the shrapnel would hit the side of the pool. We threw it in around ten o'clock Saturday morning, and the smoke came up shaped like the pool. This thing rose up just instantly shaped like the pool. Just for a moment, till the wind blew it." In his pause, you can see it too, a cloud in the shape of a pool. "It filled the pool with smoke and it just took that shape. And you could hear it for, I don't know how far, but it shook windows supposedly for five blocks. It was a big bomb."

The last scene, the last shot on the last day of David Lynch's next movie. A house is on fire, all lit up behind plate-glass picture windows, living room walls painted swimming-pool aqua green. Flames are moving everywhere now, first small and almost too slowly, then almost too quickly. Much too quickly, far too quickly, much too quickly. Technicians yell, "Save it!" There is no saving it. One of the front window cracks, goes gray with smoke, shatters. It's hot. There is nothing inside but flame now. The other windows explode with the heat. The heat is a wall, solid, moving out from the house. David Lynch and the cameramen are pushed back, pushed away from the house. They run away, they leave the cameras behind. The fire roars. Lynch stands and watches the cameras standing alone watching the flames swallow the house. A cloud of smoke is overhead. He has his hands in his pockets.