2020 September 25 • Friday

Robert Rostand wrote a third excellent action thriller about Mike Locken, the hero of The Killer Elite and Viper's Game.

While the two earlier books were last-minute, unprepared marathons of survival, with every move seeming to be based on something doomed to fail, A Killing in Rome is a different sort of book, though still as fatalistic, cynical and brutal.

This time the story is sraight out of Mission: Impossible. A high-ranking former KGB officer, known as "The Butcher" for his enthusiastic and highly effective activities, wants to defect. Locken's mission is to get him out from behind the Iron Curtain, despite the numerous forces—military, police, the secret services of more than one country—that will be trying just as hard to kill the turncoat.

Complicating things even further is the appearance of Locken's old partner, Jorn Perry, compared to whom Locken always felt much inferior, even giving himself the nickname of The Plodder. Perry wants the KGB target for the CIA, to extract all information they can from him. And if Locken won't step aside so Perry's team can get him, then Perry vows simply to take the man from Locken.

The story has all the pleasures of this kind of caper. In the beginning there's a very nice build up, starting with the KGB threat's first moves and some nice foreshadowing of Locken's appearance. (In the third chapter, a man searching an apartment in Rome notes, while looking through clothes in a closet, that the "right and left shoes of both pairs were worn unevenly" If you know Locken from the other books then you know that this is Locken's apartment.)

After a few murders and various other excitements and intrigue in Rome, Locken has to put his team together, which is always fun. In an interesting twist that's typical of the tone of the Locken novels, the first person Locken approaches simply says no. And this is a real no. You never see that character again. He doesn't change his mind and show up unexpectedly to rescue somebody.

In another ominous scene, Locken goes to have his shooting and moving skills evaluated by a former comrade on a professional assault course. The specialist's evalutaion is that Locken is "in shit shape" and is going to have to "count on prayer and adrenalin".

Which is how it always seems to be for Locken, facing terrible odds without any of the preparedness one would want.

Then of course there's the execution of the plan and the various things that go wrong. These are very adroitly handled by the author and it's hard to put the book down in this section.

Ultimately we end up back in Rome for a devastating conclusion. A Killing in Rome is a strangely muted title for this book. There are several killings in Rome, some even perhaps more figurative than literal, and the title seems too flimsy to handle all of what it could be suggesting.

Of course I can't think of a title that would be better so am happy to take it as it is.

The Locken novels were really good, unusual and exciting. I'll be checking out something else by Mr. Rostand one of these days.

The first line of A Killing in Rome is "On a coolish late September evening, the officer in charge of the embassy security watch was a KGB lieutenant named Melnichenko".


2020 September 23 • Wednesday

Mike Locken, the protagonist of The Killer Elite, returns in Viper's Game, also by Robert Rostand.

Locken has recovered quite a bit from his maiming in the previous novel. Part of the credit goes to tai chi. I thought that this might have been something the author picked up from the Peckinpah movie of The Killer Elite but it's hard to say.

Viper's Game has a copyright date of 1974 and The Killer Elite was apparently shot in March and April of 1974.

Of course there would have been a screenplay before that, and perhaps Rostand heard about what was in it or was otherwise somehow connected to the production or to people working on it.

Anyway, Viper's Game is, like The Killer Elite, an almost constant race for survival, scrambling to beat ever mounting odds, taking on ever more weight to carry while always running lower on supplies.

Locken has been placed on the island of São Tome as a piece in a geopolitical chess game.

A revolutionary leader names James Morais, who has been considerably well supplied and trained by some other powerful country, combines his small armed force with the considerable strengths of a Cargo Cult tribe that lives on the island.

Racial, political and colonial tensions that have been building up for years explode once Morais lights teh fuse and Locken find himself leading a small and very diverse group of adults as well as a larger group of orphaned children, in various directions over the island, simultaneously cautious and frantic, desperately trying just to stay ahead of their would be killers and, if possible, find some means to escape.

Morais quickly eliminates the military presence that was stationed on the island and takes over all means of communication, so they're really on their own.

As in The Killer Elite, Locken is aided by at least one very valuable expert: in this case a Vietnam veteran named Cooper, battle-hardened, very knowledgable and experienced and absolutely an asset when it comes to getting things done that have to be done.

Also as in The Killer Elite, there turn out to be some unpleasant surprises lurking beneath the surfaces of some of the characters.

Since part of Locken's backstory is his participation in the Cuban revolution, on the side of Castro and Guevara, he has firsthand knowledge of what's happening, and what Morais and his followers are likely to be doing.

Rostand improves on his previous novel in his handling of many of the characters. You shouldn't expect too much from the women in this book. There's a madonna/whore division without any subtlety between two of them, and for the third woman character, well she has to have sex with Locken in situations that seem like absurd times and places to have sex in. Even more regrettably and dismayingly she's a victim of rape fairly early on in the book. None of this does much for the story and she has enough of a character, as written, that I wish Rostand could have had some other things happen for her.

Otherwise the writing is extremely good.

One character, a shady and sleazy real estate developer that you know is going to be bad news in a big way and, hey, you're right, is introduced to us as he looks around the big resort hotel he's hoping to make a bundle from.

His gaze lands on giant aquarium for tropical fish that he's had installed behind the bar.

A half-dozen brightly colored fish floated on the surface, nibbled at by the other fish in the tank. The whole thing would have to go before opening. Nobnody wants to drink watching a bunch of fish cannibalize each other. Hell, maybe they do. You never know what turns people on. He'd think about it.

Rostand has a neat trick where he throws the reader into the future, a kind of foreshadowing that's not pretending to be anything other than foreshadowing. It gets you eager to turn the page. At one point Cooper rigs a booby trap with an assault rifle, so that when Morais's soldiers try to take the rifle, they get blown up by a bomb. "A chance of eliminating one or two more seemed worth the rifle. Later, Locken damned his shortsightedness."

And of course Locken has to fight himself as much as anything else. His body, which suffers numerous injuries during this ordeal—he has to get his ribs taped at one point— and his mind as well, which can only force him to keep going for so long, when it isn't trying to confuse him. "Anger, hatred, caring, they all distorted judgment."

In The Killer Elite there was something about how at least some of the characters were in it just for the action itself, to test themselves, to be victorious against overwhelming odds or to beat the best opponents they can find. Politics, money, personal vendettas, none of that mattered.

Locken floats more or less the same idea at one point and maybe there's something to that but hsi commitment seems deeper and more driven. Survival, yes, which can only be part of victory, but he gives the impression of caring as well. He's not sentimental, and when people die, they die, and there's not much point of making a big deal about it.

The first line is "A man with a gun".


2020 September 21 • Monday

Jerry Fielding's music for Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite is the 640th Soundtrack of the Week.

"Try a Little Softer (Love Theme from The Killer Elite)" is a plaintive trumpet-led ballad with gentle orchestral backing and soft brushes on snare and cymbals. It's similar in mood and feel to Jerry Goldsmith's theme from Chinatown but not as urgent or muscular.

Then there's an alternate version of the main title theme, a stolidly paced and martial sounding 9/4 piece that’s brimming with tension and suspense.

Subtle and spare percussion until the strings come bleeding in, sounding almost otherworldly, set the scene for "Locken Shot".

"Buddy Cat" is another spare and minimalist piece with gently pulsating low tones and light crystalline statements manifesting above it.

This is followed by "On the Stairs", a reprise of the opening love theme but with saxophone and flute starting and trumpet coming in later. The orchestral accompaniment is more assertive here.

"In the Limo" is similar to “Buddy Cat” but with less of the ethereal element.

After a flute intro, "You're Back In" has different string voices weave in and out, eventually joined by the rest of the orchestra to create a lush yet unsettling atmosphere.

Then there's "Bye Bye", a short reprise of the love theme.

Two pieces of source music are next.

"Mack's Garage" is country rock lounge pop with twangy lead guitar as well as pedal steel, piano and organ, while "Club Source" is a Hammond-driven 6/8 soul groove rocker with horn section and excellent drumming.

The Chinatown sequence might be the best scene in the movie. It gets started with "Garbage Truck", in which strings create a feeling tension while flutes spit out occasional stings. This continues in the next cue, "Let's Go".

"Hot Waltz on Thin Ice in Two Movements Without Pause" is a sprightly jazz waltz featuring piano with support from vibes and horns in addition to the rhythm section.

Long tones on the strings are again creating suspense while this time the vibes add statements here and there for "Hansen at Steel Yard".

There are similar strings in Crane Stance/Salmon Up the River" but with some divebombing low notes on bowed upright bass and more subdued contributions from woodwinds.

"Mack Shoots Hank" is another quiet exercise in tension and restraint, this time with some eerie sounds coming, I think, from the percussion section.

The strings get choppier and more desperate in "Hansen Gets Tokyo Tose/Hansen Gets His" and the bursts of music from other parts of the orchestra also seem more anxious and more on edge. The second half brings the energy level down a bit and is a bit more melodic.

Then there's a very short, about half a minute, ostinato with a flourish of percussion and strings and winds for "Listen Carefully".

"Sailing to Suisun Bay" conjures up motifs subtly suggestive of wind and waves while keeping the elements of danger and uncertainty very much present and "Collis Gets His" explodes with bursts of sound from piano and percussion before lightening up and then exploding again.

Strings and winds circle and weave and fly around in "Mothball Karate" while the percussionists create a pugnacious and unsettling mood. It also quotes alternate main title.

"Swords" has lots of percussion and strings and the most obvious attempts to create “Asian”-sounding music, with something that sounds like an electric shamisen or a keyboard trying to emulate it.

And then we arrive at the "End Credits", which starts in a tense and percussive mode before a segue into a robust and charging piece that might be in 9/8.

As a bonus track, there's the "Main Title", which is very similar to the previously heard alternate main title music.


2020 September 18 • Friday

Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite is a curious movie. It's not very good. But visually, the way it looks and moves, it's gorgeous. The use of light and color, camera movements and compositions, editing and of course slow motion, are all magnificent (though not as stunningly avantgarde in its intentional disorientation and use of sound as, say, The Getaway).

It's assured and vibrant film-making by a master of the medium but it's also clunky and just not very interesting for the most part.

Having sat down with the Robert Rostand novel that was adapted in the movie, it's clear that the screenplay has to take a lot of the blame.

The book is a solid and relentless violent action thriller with a twisty and downbeat plot, sort of like survival action as opposed to survival horror.

There are a lot of differences. The book takes place in the United Kingdom, while the movie takes place in California.

The character played by Robert Duvall is very different in the book. He's not friends with the protagonist, Mike Locken. They don't even know each other. In the movie they're given this intense, homoerotic relationship, presumably because the movie couldn't go near a significant and perverse element to the hero's maiming.

The driver character is fairly consistent in the two versions of the story, though there is one hugely important addition to this person in the book that didn't make it into the movie.

The character of the gun expert is wildly different. In the movie, they make him kind of crazy but in a sort of A Team way. He's also one of Locken's old and trusted friends. In the book, Locken doesn't know this person, who's very young and forced on him by his old boss who's giving him the mission in the first place.

There are no ninjas in the book.

Locken in the book is trying to help an exiled African leader return to his country before he's murdered. There are no fewer than three elite assassins (hence the title) converging on him in London.

Locken has to start as soon as he gets the assignment. And from the moment he starts it's constant mayhem.

Everywhere they go, from the apartment to the airport to wherever, they run into explosive violence.

Locken also has an interesting backstory involving finding with Cuban revolutionaries, alongside Castro and Guevara. A woman from those days, with whom he was involved but who fingered him for being counter-revolutionary, which almost killed him but instead just landed him in a Cuban jail for three years.

This woman is one of the three assassins Locken has to deal with. Another is a French Algerian explosives expert and the third is the South African man who starts the story by violently injuring Locken so that he can never work as a field agent again.

This is a book that's brutal to its characters. They're all convincing and distinct and Rostand is subtle with his positioning of them. You might realize that somebody near the end of the book is somebody you haven't seen since the very beginning. And just as you're enjoying that bit of consistency, maybe even feeling a little cozy about it, that person will die violently right in front of you.

So the movie, whatever, it has its points but it's frustratingly flawed in so many ways that it's really best watched for its aesthetic qualities and a few other bits of business, like some good acting.

But the book, the book is great, if you're into this sort of thing. And it's the first of three about Mike Locken!

Interestingly, while these sorts of books tend to be fantasies of male competence or male expertise or male excellence, The Killer Elite returns again and again to visions of male inadequacy. The hero is constantly scrambling just ahead of certain defeat and is always figuring out what's going on too late to do anything useful about it.

It's an unusual approach and a refreshing one, though perhaps it also explains why the book appears not to be especially well liked by readers who enjoy macho action thrillers.

The first line is "Locken slid his eyes away from the four repeater screens of the infra-red warning system, each etching in thermal profile, one sector of approach to the farmhouse".


2020 September 16 • Wednesday

Once you've seen Godmonster of Indian Flats, what else is there?

Not much, but there are still some bizarre and unusual monster movies out there. One of the lowest budget and most Psychotronic of these is surely Blood Freak.

It's about a biker named Herschel.

After helping a woman with car trouble on the highway, he joins her for a party that her wild druggie sister is having.

What kind of party is it? This kind of party:

There's this cool tiger painting in the house.

So Herschel sticks around, falls in love with the sister and gets a job at a turkey farm. They're doing some experiments on the turkeys, I forget what, but for some extra money Herschel agrees to eat the experimental turkeys just to make sure that they're safe to eat. Screw the FDA, I guess.

And after ingesting mutant turkey flesh, Herschel turns into a giant turkey monster and goes around killing people and drinking their blood.

The turkey mask makes it hard to show him drinking blood so it ends up looking more like he's rubbing blood on his beak.

Every once in a while the movie cuts to this guy, who smokes cigarettes, comments on the action and makes sort of general observations about life.

I don't really mind the wall behind him, though it's not very professional looking. I do wish that they'd moved that chair out of the shot, though.

The music by Gil Ward, who was also the editor, is pretty good and the movie could have used more of it. There are several silent scenes that would have played more effectively with additional music.

Too bad it's called Blood Freak. Sure, the monster is definitely a blood freak, but it's a vague title. There would be no way of knowing that this is a movie about a mutant turkey monster from that title and there must be hundreds of movies that could have been called Blood Freak.


2020 September 14 • Monday

The 639th Soundtrack of the Week is the Repo Man album.

This is a collection of songs from the movie and like many a teenager in the 1980s, I owned this on cassette.

It's also possibly unique in its relationship to the movie. Universal releaseds Repo Man for one week in the late winter of 1984—the liner notes for the Criterion blu-ray release of the movie says February and Wikipedia says March—and after a week of not much happening at the box office, Universal pulled it and figured that was that.

But then the soundtrack album became something of a hit on its own, causing the studio to put the movie back into theatres later in the year.

The soundtrack album is really good, too.

Iggy Pop's title song is one of the best things he's done in the last forty years.

The other stand-out track for me is the majestic "Reel Ten" by The Plugz. In the movie itself, there's a fair amount of score from this great band that remains unreleased, as far as I know.

Their Spanish-language version of "Secret Agent Man", "Hombre Secreto", is here as well, as is the very high-energy and multi-faceted vocal number "El Clavo Y La Cruz".

Black Flag's "TV Party" is a classic of bored, suburban, adolecent snottiness while the Circle Jerks' hilarious "When the Shit Hits the Fan", heard here as it is in the movie, performed by the band itself, acoustic and with drum machine. The lyrics are really great, even if the presentation is intentionally shabby.

With "Coup d'Etat" you'll find the Circle Jerks in their usual punk/hardcore setting with pounding energy and politically astute and acerbic lyrics. (Also really nice panning for "A push from the left and a shove from the right".)

"Bad Man" by Juicy Bananas is a menacing soul groove number about dangerous living.

Fear's "Let's Have a War" is a classic hardcore political song: "Let's Have a War / So you can go and die".

"Pablo Picasso" by Burning Sensations is a funny and somewhat snotty song in a "Peter Gunn" zone while "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies is a howl of fear and rage with blistering energy.


2020 September 11 • Friday

As of this writing you can still get Reuben Radding's third Corona Diary. The first two sold out fast because Reuben is a brilliant photographer and his work is amazing.

Get it here.


2020 September 09 • Wednesday

Other Half has been my favorite brewery for a while now and their Brooklyn location a beloved and scruffy oasis in a very unassuming area: conveniently near the F and G train, across the street from a McDonald's, practically under the BQE and a stone's throw from a junkyard and the Gowanus Canal.

Walking home from there can, if I play my cards right, take me past the Department of Sanitation block where parked garbage trucks line the streets.

With the pandemic shutting down Other Half's tap room and all bars being either closed or only a little bit open for the last half a year or so, Other Half started cranking out can releases (plus a few bottles) and has been producing some fantastic beers during the spring and summer, all available for online order and curbside pick-up (with delivery and shipping to some areas).

There have been beers brewed for charity, such as All Together and Black Is Beautiful, as well as collaborations with other breweries and Freaky Friday releases in which Other Half brews another brewery's beer, sometimes putting their own spin on it or applying their high density hop charge treatment to it.

Other Half face masks and shirts and glasses and various other things have popped up too.

But they really outdid themselves with their Green City event this year.

Since they couldn't have an in-person festival as they usually do, they went all out on concept. Their "Broccoli" beers, which do not contain broccoli, are more or less mapped to the Mario video games.

So for Green City 2020 they made this into a big thing, with Broccoli World Level 1: Broccoli Kong vs Wizard as an opening salvo.

And then came the Green City box, with levels 2, 3 and 4 plus four regional editions, a few stouts, a triple IPA and another one that I'm not remembering.

And it came in this box:

In addition to 24 cans of beer, inside were your own paper art Super Broctendo console and cartridge.

Also a pin with their Rochester, NY, location logo.

That would have been more than enough but they went ahead and made Broccoli World a real game you could play on your phone or tablet.

You talk to beer cans, find lost kittens, go into bars, do a Frogger-like level at one point, jump over moving chattering teeth, use moving platforms to get around and eventually collect five ingredients you need to brew a beer to soothe a melted cheese volcano monster. Something like that.

And then they did something on their YouTube channel that was probably great but I wasn't able to watch it live and haven't had the time to check it out yet.

Of course the beer is the important thing. I was able to get through the first three levels today, with the help of a friend. So far Level 3 is the favorite.

Looking forward to leveling up soon!


2020 September 07 • Monday

Dominic Frontiere's score for the movie Hammersmith Is Out is our 638th Soundtrack of the Week.

The main title blends harpsichord with a weird electric guitar sound, something similar to a wah effect but I don't think it's that. A breathy female voice says "Hammersmith is out!" with echo, the groove gets a little deeper, and then after a Morricone-like percussion sting, it swings into groovy psych pop. It's an unusual mixture of things but it's neat!

The next tune is "Kiddo", which is kind of a cheesy lounge pop instrumental number with a sprinkle of soul and sunshine pop and, out of nowhere, a blistering acid rock guitar solo that's quite impressive.

Then there's a proper song, "For Openers", which has lyrics by its singer, Sally Stevens. It's a country pop/rock/blues/waltz. "Many times I've tried / Walking out the door / But your fancy lies / Kept me coming back for more." It even has a recitation section.

Then it's back to cheesy lounge pop background music stuff for "Cookout Society". It's hard to listen to without thinking of wall to wall carpet and ferns. It's a nice tune but the sonics of it instantly conjure up a kind of anaesthetized decadence. Nice guitar playing on this one, too.

"Henry Joe and Jimmie Jean" is a wistful and western-tinged cue that has harmonica has the lead song and stylistically fits comfortably in between some of Henry Mancini's music for Silver Streak and John Barry's Americana concert music.

The A side is over after "Get Me Out of Here", which starts off sounding like the album's first representation of dramatic underscore but very quickly revisits the main title theme.

Side B kicks off with another song that Sally Stevens wrote lyrics for: "When Were Your Dreams Worth Remembering (Jimmie Jean's Theme)". "Sad little girl in the looking glass / Who told you wishes come true?" The vocals are provided by a female chorus and Frontiere accompanies them with lush string arrangements.

After this we go "Under the Bridge" for another reprise of the main theme with a very dramatic intro that uses what sounds like a cathedral organ.

Things pick up in energy and tempo for "Topless Rock" which is a frenetic go-go number with Hammond organ and horns adding to the electric guitar, bass and drums. It's pretty crazy and hard to resist!

It's a smooth transition from that to the bluesy and relaxed "Road House Blues", another tune that features the harmonica.

"Jimmie Jean's Theme" is an instrumental version of the vocal that started out the album side but slower, heavier and more solemn with a rich atmosphere of portentousness.

The energy level shoots up again with the acid rock funk go-go "Snake Dance", a definite highlight of this record with another burning guitar solo.

And then we just get the end title of the main theme again, and this colorful and exciting record is over too soon!


2020 September 04 • Friday

Direct from the heart of the Art Deco age, here's the September 1931 Delineator magazine.

The cover is amazing, that's for sure.

And the content is remarkable as well, with some very reasonable suggestions for talking to children about sex and intriguing short fiction and serialized novels.

This kitchen is pretty stunning.

In the book You Only Live Twice, the head of the Japanese Secret Service tells James Bond that "this Western habit of blowing the nose and carefully wrapping up the result in silk or fine linen and harbouring it in your pocket as if it were something precious" is ridiculous.

"Would you do the same thing with the other excretions of your body?" Tiger Tanaka asks him. Tanaka tells him that when "you wish to blow your nose, perform the act decorously and dispose at once, tidily, of the result".

Many of the ads are striking, exactly as they were meant to be.

There's also a large piece about the new Waldorf Astoria hotel. The old one had been torn down to make way for the Empire State Building, currently under construction.

Prior to looking at this magazine, I hadn't realized there had been an old Waldorf Astoria where the Empire State Building is.


2020 September 02 • Wednesday

Happy birthday!

If you start poking around in the mainstream pulp culture archives looking for stuff about surfing, sooner or later you'll find hot rod stuff.

The July 1959 issue of Tempo, a "men's magazine", leads with a provocative cover story: "5 Million Hot Rodders: Are They a Menace?".

These magazines tended to be all about the menace, so it was amusing to discover that the answer to this question was a firm and unequivocal "No".

They start out by noting that "Hollywood and yellow journalism" bear much responsibility for the fact that "an uninformed United States public associates the term with leather-jacketed juvenile delinquents, crazy-mixed-up kids and hell-raising adolescents".

"Nothing—but nothing—could be further from the truth", they go on.

Not only have "Hot Rodders … been highly approved by the governments, police departments and civic leagues of every city they have emerged in", President Eisenhower himself "beams his approval as he congratulates 50 finalists in a Teen-Age Road-e-O".

(And surely it's worth noting that the photo shows Eisenhower, who commanded both the National Guard and the US Army to integrate schools, affectionately shaking hands with the only non-white person in the photo.)

According to Tempo, "Hot Rodders are bound by word and deed and honor to assist any motorist in trouble" and that they have been investigated and given "a clean bill of health" by the FBI.

The article concludes by informing its readers that today's Hot Rodder is tomorrow's Engineer!

They also credit the publishers of Rods Illustrated for "statistical information and photographs".