2020 February 28 • Friday

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was an okay movie, suitable for watching on a plane or drunk in a hotel room.

It claims to be based on a true story but I would bet that almost all of it is made up.

The premise is that there's a serial killer going around serial killing people. And there's a hot-headed young cop who simply won't do what his boss tells him to do! And then there's a crime boss whose power is being tested, teetering on the brink of a turf war.

At just about the worst possible time—just like the kidnaping in Kurosawa's High and Low—the serial killer attacks the gangster, thinking he's just another random guy of the sort he likes to serial kill.

But, whoops, gangster guy is tough, fights back, both are injured, and now the cop has the only survivor and witness to this mass murdering psycho.

The hospitalization of the gangster weakens his position in the crime scene and makes him vulnerable to attack from his power-hungry rivals. (Peter Rabe could have done something good with this premise, and sort of already did with Kill the Boss Goodbye.)

The cop wants the gangster to help him catch the serial killer but the cop and the gangster hate each other and the gangster is interested in handling it his own way and isn't really interested in the legal niceties.

And believe it or not, nobody believes the cop that there even is a serial killer!

Bottom line is that it's not actually that exciting, despite being smartly filmed with nice use of color, having a decent score, and deft handling of action scenes.

The story isn't much and the characters are less. The serial killer is a walking plot device and the police officer is more annoying than anything else.

Without Ma Dong-seok in the role of the gangster, it wouldn't be worth watching. He has an intensity and a presence that enliven every scene he's in. Lucky for us, he's in a lot of scenes, and joins the ranks of great fictional gangsters such as Bob Hoskins in the The Long Good Friday or James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano.


2020 February 26 • Wednesday

These two long stories or short novels are among the most riveting things I've ever read and Elizabeth Engstrom is one of the most unsettling and powerful writers I've ever come across. I don't suppose that everything under the Paperbacks from Hell banner is going to be up to this level, but it's shocking that she isn't better known.

When Darkness Loves Us starts with the title story, apparently the first thing Engstrom ever wrote, and continues with "Beauty Is …", a longer piece, long enough to be a novel by mid-century standards but perhaps more akin to a novella now.

The pace, economy, strength and horror of both texts are intense. This is the kind of writing that grabs you and sweeps you along. There are no dead spots, no inefficiencies. As a child Engstrom was reportedly a dedicated admirer of Shirley Jackson, and there is a similar perfection to be found here.

There are really only two minor faults that I can think of. One is the titles, which are not strongly connected to the stories, though they do appear in both of them, spoken by a character in one, thought by a character in another.

The other slight imperfection would be the endings. One of these stories ends so abruptly, after generating such incredible interest and suspense, that I turned the page and was genuinely baffled to discover that there wasn't more. That it was over. That's it? The ending of the other story comes at the right time, everything having built inexorably to a conclusion, but the ending itself was a bit of a disappointment. Engstrom is so good that I expected a heavier, more solid, more rigorous conclusion.

Also, this cover is stupid and has nothing to do with the book.

But no matter. This books is one of the most bizarre and exciting I've ever read and I look forward to reading more of her work.

"When Darkness Loves Us" is about a pregnant teenager who gets trapped underground and lost in a maze of tunnels and caverns. With the help of either the ghost or hallucination of her dead boyfriend, she has her baby and makes a life for herself down there in the darkness, where there is no light at all.

Her son grows up there and is quite content in his blind world. He doesn't believe in another world, in sunlight, in the outside, in his father or anything else. His mother thinks she must share this with him.

And all of that is just in the first dozen pages or so. She takes this idea and runs far with it. It's extraordinarily creepy and brilliantly crafted.

"Beauty Is …" goes back and forth between two timelines. In one, a developmentally disabled middle-aged woman named Martha attempts to navigate life on her own after her parents die.

She comprehends little and can communicate less but she can bake bread and feed the chickens and can go into town to buy the supplies she needs to survive.

On one such visit she attracts the attention of some cruel, violent and bored young men, who decide to make her the target of various impulses.

Sadly, this is based on a true story.

The other timeline begins in the past and tells the story of Martha's parents, particularly her mother, how they met and came to the farm in Morgan, Illinois, how her mother discovered that she had supernatural healing powers—deftly and persuasively handled by Engstrom, understatedly and convincingly presented—and how Martha was born and came to suffer a mysterious life-changing trauma.

This earlier timeline ends where the story begins, giving the story an elegant structure and shape.

The first line of "When Darkness Loves Us" is "Sally Ann Hixson, full with the blush of spring and gleeful playfulness as only sixteen-year-olds know it, hid around the side of the huge tree at the edge of the woods as the great tractor drove past her" and the first line of "Beauty Is …" is "Martha Mannes was forty-seven years old when her parents died".


2020 February 24 • Monday

Happy birthday!

For the 610th Soundtrack of the Week #we've got Jonny Keating's music for the movie Robbery.

It starts with a song called "Born To Lose" that has a metronomic pulse running all the way through it even though it's otherwise a swinging '60s pop number sung by Jackie Lee. "When a man treats the world like a toy / Just a plaything / Born to lose!"

A more explicit metronome sound, though probably meant to suggest a ticking clock, comes in and out of the tense and suspenseful "Diamond Robbery", which also features vibes and bongos and horns.

The mood is continued, but with a flute taking over the constant pulse, in "Accident", which adds sounds of danger, via bursting horn lines, to the tension and suspense.

Then there's the lovely, tender "Kate's Theme", no doubt a love them, a very nice melody with harp and a lush and unhurried feel.

"Robbery!" closes Side A and despite the exclamation mark, it's a mostly quiet piece that features the bassoon and has lots of space that's sporadically occupied by snare drume and some other winds and percussion. It eventually builds to an action climax.

The B side kicks off with an uptempo jazzy number in 3/4 called "Breaking into the Mail Van". It's really fast with a lot of tough blaring horns and especially good work from the rhythm section. This tune is reprised soon after as "Passing the Mail Bags".

Beautiful harp playing starts "Robinson—Portrait of a Loser", another break in the action that gets a lot of melodic input from the flute and has a leisurely and pastoral feel.

"Gang's Arrest" is a surprisingly cheerful number, an instrumental version of "Born To Lose", in fact. (Was Born To Lose the original title?) I guess it's a happy ending because the criminals get caught. I've seen this movie but I don't remember.

The record ends with "Paul's Goodbye and Main Theme", reprises of "Kate's Theme" and "Born To Lose".


2020 February 21 • Friday

It's almost always rewarding when enthusiams collide. I love harp records and Hawaiian music and hear they are together!

The music is lush and very relaxed. The accompaniment is limited mostly to brushes on the snare, upright bass and flute on a few of the numbers.

It's absolutely charming an soothing.


2020 February 19 • Wednesday

The Murder of the U.S.A. by Murray Leinster under the pen name Will F. Jenkins, is a short, quick read.

It begins with atomic war. An unknown enemy launches hundreds of missiles at the United States, wiping out every city and every other place of significance. When the Secretary of Agriculture, the only surviving cabinet member, foolishly signals his location, declaring it to be the new national capital, a missile immediately strikes there.

The survivors are almost all in one of numerous Burrows, underground missile launching stations designed for complete self-sufficiency. You could live down there forever. Enough food is grown there, there are shops and even tennis courts. And of course there are missiles, lots of missiles, for retaliatory strike against any nation that launches such a strike first against the US.

The other countries of the world had also agreed to retaliate on behalf of the United States. But retaliate against whom? Nobody knows who perpetrated the attack.

And in the other cities of the world, fear of another such attack has cause panic and hysteria, resulting in massive destruction and the deaths of hundred of thousands of people scramblng for escape.

So in a sense, as our heroes attempt to discover, from their underground sanctuary in Burrow 89, the identity of the mass murderer, The Murder of the U.S.A. is an extreme example of an armchair detective mystery.

Time is a factor as well. The Burrows are also being targeted and destroyed as the enemy discovers their locations, through networks of spies. Burrow 89 does not remain a secret and while they ingeniously fend off the first attack, they won't be able to repel every such offensive action.

Add to this the coming of the Perseid meteors, which can provide interference and noise for their detection technology, and excellent cover for incoming bombs and missiles...

A decent read, nothing great, but certainly unusual in concept, presumable originally published complete in one issue of a science fiction magazine, The Murder of the U.S.A. is dedicated by its author to the writer and editor John Campbell.

The first line is "More than a third of the people of the United States never knew anything about the war—not even that it had happened".


2020 February 17 • Monday

Who knew that Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones did soundtrack work? Not me but I do now! His music for Scream for Help is the 609th Soundtrack of the Week!

The record opens with "Spaghetti Junction", a peppy '80s rock instrumental with Jimmy Page on guitar. It's basically a repeating riff with some keyboard and guitar playing over it. It's got good energy and as you might expect, the guitar playing is solid. John Paul Jones plays all the instruments besides the guitar.

After this comes "Bad Child", in which Jones plays everything and also sings. It's a slinkier and groovier number: "Walking down the street / Got no place to go / Hear some music playing / From a radio". Like the first track, it sounds familiar, a comfortable fit in the mid-'80s rock and pop landscape.

"Silver Train" again has Jones on all the instruments but this time with Jon Anderson on vocals. It starts with a snarly and impressive guitar riff that sets up a tough and loud country rock vibe, just right for Anderson to start singing about hearing the whistel of the silver train arriving. This is one of the strongest songs on here.

Side A closes with "Crackback", in which Jones is joined by Jimmy Page again and also Graham Ward on drums. This is a very Zeppeliny track, reminiscent of "Black Dog" and "Dancing Days". It's pretty cool.

Side B opens with "Chilli Sauce", a very '80s electropop instrumental with Jones playing everything.

On "Take It or Leave It" Madeline Bell joins the one-man Jones band to sing a love song which starts with an unusually sinuous line before getting into a jumpy sort of poppy new wave disco groove. "You always thought you were out of danger / Well I'm here to say / It's your turn to pay / And get what's coming to you."

Jon Anderson returns to sing on "Christie", which also has Colin Green on guitar. It's a piano ballad love song and I guess it might be on the cheesy side but I like it.

"When You Fall in Love" has Graham Ward on drums again as well as John Renbourne on guitar with Jones once again adding vocals to the various instruments he plays here. This one is really kind of swinging and haunting and has a feel like, I don't know, "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" or something like that.

The record closes out with "Here I Am", featuring Madeline Bell, Colin Green and Graham Ward with Jones. It's a slow 3/4 song with piano, brushes on the snare, and a laidback, late-night jazzy feel with Bell singing about "Watching the clock tick away / Not sure if it's night or day / Wishing my sadness away".


2020 February 14 • Friday

Did The B-52's ever hear "Can't Get Through to You" by The Honeycombs? It seems like the kind of thing they would have heard and liked and, you know, maybe been inspired by, "Rock Lobster"-wise.


2020 February 12 • Wednesday

Happy birthday!

If we haven't written much about beer here lately, it's because we just amble over to Other Half anytime we want some. They're our favorites and probably account for 90% of the beer we consumer here at Gutbrain.

Other Half always has really nice can designs, but they outdid themselves recently with their witty TV Dinner double IPA.

In real life it contains Vic Secret, Mosaic Cryo, Mosaic Incognito, Nelson Sauvin, Citra Cryo, Citra and Sabro.

And it's delicious!


2020 February 10 • Monday

For Soundtrack of the Week #607 we offer a record that we bought in Chicago, at Dusty Groove, of course: Themes and Cues for Movies and Television composed by legendary trombonist J.J. Johnson.

So this is maybe somewhere in between soundtrack music and library music. According to the label, this record contains "recently discovered audition reels" that are from the early 1970s.

Side A kicks off with "Here Come De Fuzz", which does have some fantastic fuzz guitar soaring over a killer groove.

"Ballad for Bobby" is a jazz/lounge piece with lush strings and an easy sway that might remind you Henry Mancini or Elmer Bernstein.

After this comes "Mr. M", a peppy vocal number that's actually a cigarette commercial, Mr. M being Mr. Menthol. This track does sound very much like an audition. I don't think Mr. Menthol was a real thing but this piece could be easily tailored for any menthol cigarette brand.

"The Hugger" uses hand percussion, electric bass and wind instruments to create a tense action cue that's reminiscent of some of the 1960s soundtrack work of Laurie Johnson and Peter Thomas. There's also a nice subtle use of vibraphone.

Then we're back in Mancini-ish easy listening and lounge territory with "Cosmetics", which reminded me of the song from The Party.

"Chox" is a fairly strange number, perky, upbeat and sunny, almost aggressively so, with some weird electronic sounds bubbling up here and there.

If the point is to show a wide range of different musical ideas, the these audition recordings succeed. "Five/Four Opus" is indeed in 5/4, very short, and featuring electric harpsichord. It ends on a fade out much too quickly. But there's not much of a melody, just a great groove and cool sound.

Things get much more underscore-like with "The Zeroids", which sounds like it could get dropped into an episode of UFO. It also fades out very quickly.

Then we're back in killer funk groove land with "Hot Flash", which has some subtle weird sounds peeking out from behind devastatingly deep rhythmic playing. There's even an unexpected drop out and back in.

Can Mr. Johnson write some music appropriate for westerns? They were all the rage on TV in the '50s and '60s. Sure, why not? "Sun Country" is about a minute of that kind of sweeping, galloping across the scenery score.

"Mistoso" is suspenseful and dramatic and tinged with exotica. Breaking into a safe at the Swedish embassy in Algeria? This is the music you need.

Out of nowhere comes "Moog Rock", a demented collection of woozy electronic sounds over a simple beat. Catchy and kooky.

Side A wraps up, appropriately enough, with "Finale", which is an orchestral number that has some similarities with the famous music for 2001 (the one that everyone knows and I can't be bothered to look up; not the Blue Danube waltz).

The B Side begins with "Percussion Chatter: intro to main title from Across 110th Street", perhaps Johnson's best known score.

Then there's a suite of music from Top of the Heap.

First up there's a title song: "Freedom's just a word that gives you the right to be wrong". It's a really catchy, groovy, hard-hitting soul number.

The rest of the tunes are more or less what the titles suggest, though with a generous helping of wah-wah guitar and hand percussion and other staples of the early 1970s "Blaxploitation" soundtrack. You get "Suspense", "Melodic", "Agitato" and a "Chase". These are all pretty classic.

"Melodic" is actually one that could be from any number of different movies, a string-led, pensive, wistful sort of piece.

The last cue from Top of the Heap is called "Angry Astronaut", an interesting tune with lots of space in it, through which loat fuzz guitar, snare, vibes and some other, harder to indentify sounds.

"Better Days", from a movie called Man & Boy, a western-tinged (harmonica melody) piece that's haunting and groovy at the smae time, concludes the record.


2020 February 07 • Friday

The Larry Sanders Show might be our favorite TV show. It's certainly one of the best TV shows ever made.

And so we were interested to read It's Garry Shandling's Book, a hybrid of Shandling biography and oral history with copious amounts of photographs and pages from Shandling's handwritten journals.

It's edited by Judd Apatow, a friend, fan and colleague of Shandling's, who also put together the two part Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, pretty much the same thing as this book but presented as a documentary film.

The book seemed more focused and more sympathetic to me than the movie, but both are essential for anybody interested in Garry Shandling's life and work.

Shandling's journal entries can be a slog at times and he appears to be writing the same things about the same struggles for decades. The oral history contributions of people who knew him are especially valuable. Best of all are the examples given of Shandling's jokes. They are brilliant and timeless.

How much did Garry Shandling stress about his work? Consider how he marked up his script here for his part of the voice of Verne the turtle in the animated children's movie Over the Hedge.

My first thought was that this was insane. But then it occurred to me that maybe it was actually just the opposite. Instead of somebody doing a bullshit job in a bullshit way for money, every creative activity is another opportunity to explore the depths of emotion and psychology, of what it means to be human, of motivations and desires, another chance to dig deeper into vulnerability and authenticity.

This is what Shandling's life work truly was, apart from the products of that work.

The first line is "When Garry died suddenly we were all lost".


2020 February 05 • Wednesday

Reactions to the book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, written by Tom O'Neill with Dan Piepenbring, seem to be very divided. People love it or hate it and not much in between.

It's not the kind of book I normally read. Urged by a friend many years ago to read Ed Sanders's The Family—he lent me his copy— I did so, and that was more than enough Manson for me.

The subtitle is of a sort that made me feel presumptively fatigued. I'm not interested in going down rabbit holes.

And yet, a brief recommendation of Chaos by a TLS contributor who selected it as his Book of the Year made me curious enough to pick it up. And once I started reading it I didn't want to put it down.

Some of the disappointment voiced by the book's detractors seems to stem from the fact that Chaos raises questions that it cannot answer.

But the existence of these questions themselves, often based on real evidence of crimes committed by our society's law enforcement officers, should be enough for investigation at the highest possible levels.

These same questions also involve CIA mind-control experiments and the dreaded JFK assassination and investigation. O'Neill is very aware that he puts his credibility on the line as he pursues the lines of inquiry that lead him into these areas.

And that's the real story of Chaos. This is not a book about Charles Manson, who plays a relatively small part here, managing to be somehow central and peripheral at the same time.

The real subject is an investigation and an investigator: a journalist who asks some questions that lead him to more questions that lead him to more questions. By the time he's gathered everything into a book, he's spent twenty years following a trail that involves threats, lawsuits, huge amounts of debt and immeasurable sacrifice and ends in the demolition of most of what we always thought we knew about the Manson Family.

O'Neill can't replace the old picture with a new one. If it had been possible, I believe that he would have done it.

But the old picture is also impossible. And the author's straightforward, coherent, methodical and dispassionate account of his deconstruction of that old picture is entirely convincing in its conclusion: that war crimes, corruption, conspiracy, murder, manipulation, abuse and cover-up are all in a day's work for some of our so-called protectors.

His sources are often the FBI and CIA's own files as well as agents' testimony at congressional investigations. In other words, the least impeachable evidence you could ask for.

It was a horrible time. You could violate the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam, then go home, transfer from the military to law enforcement and violate due process. After that you get into politics and you stay there for the next several decades doing God knows what.

Consider one of the threads O'Neill follows, one of the shorter and less tangled ones.

The most promising but frustrating of my inquiries concerned an LAPD officer named William W. Herrmann. … Concurrent with his time in the LAPD, he'd worked under contract for a dizzying list of American intelligence and military agencies: the air force, the Secret Service, the Treasury Department, the President's Office of Science and Technology, the Institute for Defense Analysis, the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office, and the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency.

You'd think these projects wouldn't have left much free time, but Herrmann piled on even more work, taking leaves of absence from the LAPD to pursue side gigs with defense firms. These had opaque, generic names like Electro-Dash Optical Systems, System Development Corp., and Control Data Corp. This last, a weapons manufacturer in Minneapolis, relied on Herrmann's services for ten years, from 1961 to '71 — or so Herrmann told the FBI. When the Burea went to Control Data Corp. for a background check, the company claimed that Herrmann never worked for them.


O'Neill suspects CIA involvement but the agency responds to his Freedom of Information Act request by refusing to confirm or deny any connection with Herrmann.

Herrmann also spent time in Vietnam and O'Neill notes that everything about him and the dates he was there "made it abundantly likely that he was working for a CIA project called Pheonix".

What was Phoenix? In the CIA's own words, it was "a set of programs that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Viet Cong".

According to a 1971 congressional investigation, the program violated the codes of the Geneva Conventions and rivaled the Viet Cong's own terrorism in its mercilessness.

During the Senate hearings, a number of Phoenix operatives admitted to massacring civilians and making it appear that the atrocities were the work of the Viet Cong.

Their attempts were sometimes even more unhinged. In 1968, CIA scientists at the Bien Hoa Prison outside Saigon surgically opened the skulls of three prisoners, implanted electrodes on their brains, gave them daggers, and left them alone in a room. They wanted to shock the prisoners into killing one another. When the effort failed, the prisoners were shot and their bodies buried.


When Herrmann comes back from Vietnam, he quits his job with the Los Angeles Police Department and accepts Governor Ronald Reagan's offer to take charge of a newly created Riots and Disorders Task Force. At the same time the FBI's COINTELPRO program and the CIA's CHAOS program were attempting to attack dissidents and activists from the inside, as well as conduct illegal surveillance on thousands of American citizens.

What does any of this have to do with Manson? This and many other operations and people like Herrmann, are shown in this book to be extremely close to Manson, and Manson himself bafflingly immune from arrest or punishment for parole violations. Almost as if powerful people wanted him left alone.

It probably sounds crazy. But there's no easy way of just saying it or even suggesting it. That's why O'Neill spent two decades slogging through thousands of documents and thousands of hours of interviews and countless hours of work and travel and frustration and, well, chaos.

The first line is: "Vincent Bugliosi was on another tirade".


2020 February 03 • Monday

The 606th Soundtrack of the Week is Ennio Morricone's groovy score for Slalom!

It's on pink vinyl!

Slalom was apparently a Eurospy movie from 1965 and the main title is practically compendium of mid-'60s Morricone: bells, whistling, electric guitar, rhythmic vocals ("Slalom!") and a groovy beat. There's an alternative version of this on the B side.

"Sestriere" is a feature for the vocalists of I Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni, who are feature on several sountrack works by Morricone and other Italian composers. Here they alternate between group sounds and solo whoops and slides. There's also an alternative version of this on the B side.

Combo of guitar, organ, vibes, bass and drums with brushes give us the laidback late-night sound of "Un Caffè Sulla Banchina". The guitar sound is exquisite.

A Middle Eastern sound gets introduced for "Un Agente in Egitto", presumably because the action moves to Egypt. A John Barry Bond influence also becomes so noticeable here that it must be intentionally trying to call our attention to it.

"Incontro Magico I" is the other side of pure Morricone: dreamy, lush, romantic and mysterious with a bewitching use of space and dynamics. Two reprises of this piece can be heard on the second side of the record.

Things get a little odder with "Assassinio Nella Sciovia", in which a low drone is accompanied by sharp percussion with heavy reverb and some irregular statements by horns and strings and some eerie organ playing.

After that long and unusual track, we slide into some medium-tempo easy-listening small-combo jazz, "Una Sera in Albergo". It's a very pleasant West Coast-style tune with some nice clarinet playing.

But then there's "Un Omicidio Misterioso", a short piece mostly for horns, mildly tense.

After that we're back in small jazz combo territory with "Sul Treno", a tune that could have been slipped into an episode of Peter Gunn without most people noticing.

Side A wraps up with "Corsa Nel Deserto", a percussion piece that particularly features the cuíca.

After "Incontro Magico II", Side B gets Middle Eastern again with "Sperduto A El Cairo I", which begins with solo wooden flute that's eventually joined by other instruments that sound like they're geographically appropriate. There's a "Sperduto A El Cairo II" a little bit later on, as well as an "Incontro Magico III".

After the two alternative versions of "Sestriere" and "Slalom"—they both have some additional percussion, I think—comes a combination jazz/lounge/airy sort of cue, "Paseggiata Nella Neve", which also reprises the melody from "Un Caffè Sulla Banchina".

After revisiting "Sperduto A El Ciaro" and "Incontro Magico", we get to the end, a reprise of the "Sestriere" cue.

It's a really fun record and a gem from one of Morricone's most exciting periods!