2018 December 12 • Wednesday

Nick Tosches once wrote something along the lines of how trying to pinpoint the first "rock and roll" record was like trying to find the exact point on the spectrum where blue becomes azure.

Something similar goes on in trying to draw a border between "fiction" and "literature". There are some works of unpretentious genre fiction that deliver an unexpected epiphany and are so solidly crafted, intelligent and scintillating to read that when you put them down you think, there was really something in there, not just a story, not just action, but that all turned out to be about something that really got to something inside me and connected that something with the outside world and maybe humanity itself.

Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios (a.k.a. A Coffin for Dimitrios) and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend are two that come to mind. (The former provided the template for Citizen Kane and several other movies.)

The experience you have with a book is important to you and it is whatever it is. Arguing about whether such and such a book rises above whatever fiction is to become whatever literature is, is a waste of time, if you ask me. And yet, it's the kind of waste of time that generates a lot of noise and a lot of heat and gives people something to talk about, which is apparently something that a lot of people need.

All of which is just my way of saying that I read Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel.

I really like these New York Review Books editions. They're handsomely made and a pleasure to read. That is, the physical experience of holding the book and looking at the text on the pages is pleasurable.

Black Wings Has My Angel was originally a Gold Medal paperback back in 1953 and I also like to read Gold Medal books. They generally have sensationalistic and beautifully painted covers and deliver on their promises of sex and violence.

In its original Gold Medal incarnation, Black Wings Has My Angel looked like this:

It's a fairly wild ride and one of the strongest such books that I've read. But I can't agree with Barry Gifford's assertion that it's "an astonishingly well-written literary novel that just happened to be about (or roundabout) a crime".

This is making a claim for the book that the book itself doesn't support. It could have been a book like that. It starts out as a heist story but instead of the usual male crew, the conspirators are a man and a woman locked in a fatalistic crazy sadomasochistic love sex fever.

About halfway through, though, you might get the impression that Chaze didn't know where this thing was going to go when he started it.

And so what began as a solid coherent narrative starts to fragment and go in different directions. Even while reading the first half of the book you might have noticed how the main character occasionally gets injections of "character" and back story, perhaps as the author realized that his people weren't particularly real or more than surface.

In the second half there's a contrived return home for "Tim Sunblade" (not his real name), and it's brutal in at least a couple of ways and for more people than just him.

This is also where Chaze takes a turn to ultra-violence. While there was already plenty of violence, the reader is taken to unexpected extremes, still disturbing today and who knows how shocking to readers sixty years ago.

"When he came back to me he broke the fingers of my left hand, one by one, neatly and with no wasted action, the way you'd snap celery at the table, almost politely."

The celery comparison is horrifyingly apt. Earlier the same people, police officers, have him tied naked and supine to the hood of their police car. "And they had a game. It seems all three of them smoked cigars and in this game they tried to figure out every possible way to use me for an ash tray. Sometimes the cigars went out. But they lighted them again and kept inventing new ways and places to stub out the cigars. They had plenty of matches."

The "It seems" at the beginning of the second sentence might be the most gut-wrenching touch here, almost an over-understatement of violence.

Violence is inevitably partnered with sex in crime stories, and Tim's partner Virginia can keep pace with him and easily take the lead in both departments. She's often too much like a nympho Lady Macbeth and doesn't seem to interest the author as much as the book's narrator does. Often her actions seem to derive from the necessity of driving the plot than from the realistic motivations of an actual person. She's the classic femme fatale, the bad girl, however you want to put it. Like the violence in the novel, she's more extreme than what you're used to, and I suppose it's this over-the-top quality that most distinguishes the story.

In an absurd scene apparently played straight, she passes on huge chunks of information to Tim while they're locked in separate cells of the same jail, by singing hymns along with the other prisoners, just changing the words to tell him what she needs him to know. It's not clear to me how this would work and I think that's because it wouldn't.

Given enough of a shove in one direction or another, this could have been some kind of surrealist or absurdist risky masterpiece, or possibly one of the greatest smash and grab, sex and violence paperback originals of all time. It might have also been just a great, solid "literary" novel. But it just doesn't have the qualities I associate with such books.

It's certainly worth reading if you're interested in this kind of thing, but it didn't convince me as some kind of lost literary classic. It is a wild ride, though, and definitely a classic of mid-century sex and violence and drinking and crime and corruption and despair and betrayal and much that is both uplifting and dismaying about the so-called "human condition".

The first line is "I'd been roughnecking on a drilling rig in the Atchafayala River for better than sixteen weeks, racking the big silver stems of pipe, lugging the sacks of drilling mud from barge to shore, working with my back and guts and letting my mind coast".

2018 December 10 • Monday

Sometimes only ELO will do. And that's why the 547th Soundtrack of the Week is their score for Joyride.

It isn't 100% ELO. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote a theme song, "The Best That I Know How", which Barry Mann sings. It's the first track on Side A. I guess you could describe it as '70s gold. It has strings backing up a session combo that uses mostly drums and electric piano, though with some very minimal and tasty guitar embellishments. It's a tender song and you'll hear it again as the last song on Side B.

There's also an instrumental version arranged by Jimmie Haskell. It opens the B side of the record and uses what sounds like a Fender Rhodes to great effect.

Haskell also contributes four original tracks to the Joyride soundtrack.

"Dancin' in Alaska" is a country honky-tonk tune that’s brasher than most and with a sharp edge, some of the electric guitar playing giving it a pleasantly nasty sound.

Harmonica takes the melody for "Eatin' Dog Food", a subdued country instrumental that sounds haunted and lonesome.

“The Getaway" is a late-night piece with an eerie elctronic instrument creating an instant atmosphere of shadows and intrigue, floating over a percolating disco-ish foundation. It’s short and resolves quickly.

And then the last one from Haskell is "Train Stuff", a savage disco instrumental that has a tense and aggressive energy with relentless drums amd rhythm guitar as well as some acid rock electric lead guitar work. Easy to imagine this as being for a car chase or similar action scene.

The rest is ELO.

First up from them is "Tightrope", which has a big rich sound with different voices playing lines of different speed and mood before swinging into a straight rock groove with vocals about having more losing days than winning days. There are “classical music” influences and elements that increase the drama.

"Can't Get It Out of My Head" is a moody and atmospheric love song. Was this a hit or does it just sound a lot like some other song that was a hit? It’s a really nice song with a somewhat daring keyboard solo.

After that is "Boy Blue", an upbeat, relatively normal rock/pop song with an interesting mix of triumph and melancholy and an unexpected mixture of breaks from acoustic instruments playing “classical” influenced lines and electric instruments delivering the 1970s sounds.

“So Fine" opens with a chorus of angelic voices and then the band bursts in with a bright and fast energy and a mixture of rock, pop and soul that would probably go over okay with the disco crowd. As usual, ELO does interesting and unexpected things with instrumentation and arrangement. This song has a startling cut to a totally different soundscape with percussion up front and then effortlessly slides back into the song we started with.

Computery bleeps and bloops introduce "Telephone Line", which is actually a piano ballad enhanced by ELO's strings and electronic sounds.

"Rockeria!" starts with an opera singer presenting what sounds like a fragment if a delicate and lovely aria before the band smashed down the door with pounding drums and slide electric guitar. Of course the band plays hide and seek, disappearing and being replaced by the opera singer and strings, only to come crashing back in again. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, there’s a surf drums break.

And that's it! Probably there's music in the movie that isn't on the record. Maybe someday there'll be a complete release of Joyride!

2018 December 07 • Friday

First things first.


John Le May's book of lost Japanese giant monster films inspired me to get my own copy of one of his sources, a handsome volume that's called something like Godzilla Toho Tokusatsu Unpublished Material Archive: The Era of Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka.

It's all in Japanese, of course, but there are a few neat photographs.

Most impressive is how they printed an image of Godzilla on the edges of the pages!

2018 December 05 • Wednesday

After two books that explore sixty years of Japanese giant monster movies, what do you do? If you're John Le May, the author of those books, you turn your attention from films that were made to films that were never made—or might have been made but were lost or banned or never commercially screened except maybe one time at a convention or something. That kind of thing! It's The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: The Lost Films.

The most interesting reading in this book is in the first part, "Unproduced Scripts", where you can try to imagine what a Toho-Hammer Loch Ness monster co-production might have looked like, or Batman Meets Godzilla...

That last title gets a very detailed synopsis in the bok's first appendix, "Short Treatments for Unmade Films". There are nine appendices in total, each one narrower in range than the one before.

Part Two of the book is "Proto-versions of Finished Films", which is less of a revelation but still has interesting information for the fans.

Part Three, "Banned, Unreleased & Lost Films" is all over the place, with tantalizing glimpses of two Japanese King Kong movies made in the 1930s (probably lost forever) as well as exciting titles such as Legendary Giant Beast Wolfman vs. Godzilla.

One of the most intriguing pieces of information was that the first Gamera movie started out as Giant Horde Beast Nezura, a movie about giant rats invading Tokyo. The miniature city built for them would end up being given to Gamera.

The production began to fall apart once the real rats arrived on set and containing them proved to be a nightmare. Soon, the set was plagued with fleas, ticks, and lice. Ironically, another of the problems with the rats was cannibalism, an element ironically scripted for the film's climax. As pesticides were sprayed across the studio, the crew had to begin wearing gas masks. Eventually the neighboring businesses began to complain about the runaway rats.

You might have noticed that the author uses the word "ironically" twice in the same sentence there. It's one of his favorite words and is rarely used to indicate something actually ironic. While this book is a terrific achievement and labor of love that should be on every Godzilla fan's bookshelf, it would have been improved by editing, copy editing and proofreading.

2018 December 03 • Monday

Sonia Rutstein's music for Igor and the Lunatics is the 546th Soundtrack of the Week. And it's on groovy lunatic vinyl!

You can see this whole movie on YouTube. It's extremely low budget and was apparently a production fraught with conflict and difficulty. It was also filmed in "Dementovision"!

In addition to composing the music, Sonia Rutstein also contributed rhythm guitar, synthesizers, keyboards and vocals, and was aided by Bill Monroe on electric lead guitar, Donna Bowman on electric bass and Janet Guerra on drums and percussion.

The first track is a country song called "All Across the Cornfields of My Heart". It's a nice tune with relaxed vocals from Rutstein and catchy melody and lyrics.

Synth arpeggios are a foundation for other soaring and stinging electronic sounds in the sci-fi sounding "Bedroom Scene".

Electric bass guitar belts out a rhythmically inviting but menacing line for "Sucker Punch". Guitar, synth and drums come in gradually, building up the song from its foundation. Sounds like there could be some Gobin influence here.

“More Murder and Mayhem” returns to the same idea as "Bedroom Scene" but with a different keyboard sound and a more active electric guitar part.

And it's only after all this that we get to the "(Opening) Theme for Igor and the Lunatics". It's a prettier number than you might expect, kind of ethereal and poppy at the same time, even though it's just a simple repeated keboard phrase.

Things get more intense with "Paul's Theme", a driving rock instrumental with a snarlingly primitive bass part and some exhilarating wailing from other instruments on top.

"Murder Theme" uses musical blocks and lines to create a strange atmosphere, somewhat reminiscent of Doctor Who scores from the 1970s and also deranged calliope music.

Then comes "Heroic Feat", which does sound heroic, with a martial snare drum pushing everything forward and bright synth horns playing various motives that suggest strength and energy.

“Marianne Finds Hawk" begins with lush keyboard pads creating a rich sonic atmosphere. It could lend itself to a few different moods but the occasional minor chord does suggest danger or at least unease.

Feelings of suspense and peril are, unsurprisingly, immediately up front in "Running in the Night Woods — Paul's Been Shot" There are some startlingly low rumbling keyboard sounds and some plaintive and vulnerable higher frequency voicings also. It's a short cue but covers a lot of ground.

The B side opens with "Cops Beat Up Scene", a groovy number that owes a lot of its success to the drummer in this combo. The music is well written but the drums give it a great feel.

“Just When You Think It's Safe — Marianne's Back Home” is somewhat similar to "Bedroom Scene" and "More Murder and Mayhem". There's wailing electric guitar soloing here, as there was in the previous cue and several others.

One keyboard plays a stabbing motif in "Barn Scare Massacre — Marianne Fights Back", while another keyboard part jumps all over the place doing different things.

"Old Friends Gone Astray" is a really nice song form, a nice set of chords played by the cool band on this session.

Moody synth swells are the setting for "Hank Saves Marianne".

Another nice set of chords, similar to "Old Friends Gone Astray", make up "Hope for the Innocent".

Then things get creepy and unsettling, with some low, solo synth voicings for "Worse Than Your Imagination". The low synth is soon joined by rough and jagged synth parts in a higher register.

"Derangement" doesn't sound particularly deranged. It's a short cue, actually sounds kind of hopeful.

Then we get to what might be the best track on the record, "Leave Me Alone", a straight-up rock song with vocals by Rutstein and echoes of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". It's just too short, though!

It segues into another great rock/pop number, again with Rutstein singing, "Now Is the Time". Both of these last two songs are great and if they had been a little longer and the movie had been a lot better, they could have been a nice single to release as a tie-in to the picture.