The first line is "They gave me the okay from the control tower and I told the girl to take it down".
Buz Johnson is a war veteran who distinguished himself in combat as a pilot. He can still do amazing things with aiprlanes but he has a drinking problem and ekes out a living with a degrading job as an instructor at a flying school. He hates his boss but loves his boss's step-daughter. She loves him too but won't go out with him until he gets his act together.
Buz gets an offer for a much better job from an old friend but Buz doesn't want to take the charity. Instead he goes in on a bank robbery with a vile character who has a plan to rob a small bank in the middle of nowhere and use a plane to escape.
The Devil Wears Wings is a short novel, the kind that would have appeared in its entirety in one issue of one of the many fiction magazines that dominated American newsstands in the first half of the twentieth century.
It's brisk and engaging but a bit simplistic, a decent way to pass the time but not especially memorable or even that exciting. Buz is a well-realized character and the action scenes are effectively tense.
The most interesting and exciting writing in the Black Lizard edition can be found in Whittington's introduction, in which he talks about his career as a writer. I'd like to hear more of that story!
The 180th Soundtrack of the Week is a Frank Cordell double feature: Khartoum and Mosquito Squadron.
First up is Khartoum, in which Charlton Heston is a Lawrence of Arabia/El Cid-type of person willing to risk his life to save the Sudanese from a violent Muslim prophet played, embarrassingly, by Laurence Olivier in brown face make-up.
Heston is quite good in the film, making no attempt to speak with a British accent. His relaxed performance is similar to Alec Guinness's similarly soft-pedalled turn as an Arab prince in Lawrence of Arabia. About Olivier, the best I can say is that he isn't on screen very much.
Cordell's music is superb, though, offering a wealth of ethereal desert music that makes use of North African and Middle Eastern modes.
These are punctuated by heroic fanfares for brass-heavy orchestra, but the album is more often lilting or eerie than it is suggestive of military pomp and crisis.
Mosquito Squadron, on the other hand, presents a program more in line with what you'd expect from a war movie. Lots of tension, action, broken here and there by various melancholy or romantic themes for a character named Beth.
Both scores are excellent.
Here's what I got myself for my birthday this year.
Nightmare Alley is a great movie but its source, the first of only two novels by William Lindsay Gresham, is much better. It's one of the best books I've ever read.
The image above is the cover of the first edition but I read the recent New York Review Books paperback edition, which has an introduction by Nick Tosches. Tosches, who apparently has been working on a book about Gresham, begins like this.
I, too, will try not to ruin it for anybody who hasn't read it, though the restraint takes an effort.
The first line of the book is "Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek".
Once you've finished the novel, that first line is loaded with meaning.
Stan's trajectory is almost the same in the book as it is in the film adaptation. He starts out working as a magician in a traveling carnival, worms a secret code for a mind-reading act out of a fellow performer and strikes out on his own to make it rich.
This is just a sketch of part of the story. There are many more events and situations in the book than in the movie, and Stan goes places and does things—mostly despicable things—that aren't even hinted at in the film adaptation.
After we meet Stan in the book, we meet his fellow perfomers in the carnival, first by way of the barker's pitch and second by what they're thinking. (Contrasting narratives, one false and one true, form a pattern that runs through the novel.)
Molly, who has an electric chair act, gets several pages to tell us her life story. It's a great story and crucial to the plot.
Bruno is the strong man who secretly loves Molly. Major Mosquito is the small man, whose compact form contains overwhelming rage and hate.
Joe Plasky is the "Half-man Acrobat" He lost the use of his legs in childhood and keeps them tied in a knot while he gets around on his hands. Those hands of his turn out to be important to the plot also.
The other really important character is Zeena, the fortune teller, without whom there would be no story. Zeena is also the most admirable character in the book. (And let's remember that Zeena Parkins made a record called Nightmare Alley.)
The least admirable character in the book is the psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, who is, according to Nick Tosches, "the most viciously evil psychologist in the history of literature".
Psychology is the real subject of the book, in particular the source of Stan's relentless drive and his readiness to use and exploit people, and how he fails to recognize how he himself could be used and exploited.
Freudian themes are very important to the plot but not overlabored in the writing. Irony abounds, as does sex, violence, alcohol, greed, cruelty and, most of all, fear.
There's even some real magic to go with Stan's superlative cons. The Tarot deck, which gives each chapter its title—and the cover of the first edition features The Hanged Man—accurately forecasts events in the characters' lives. It's not overdone but happens just two or three times, just enough to add the right seasoning to this stew. (It's a tiny bit like the use of the I Ching in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle.)
Nightmare Alley is one of those rare books in which nothing is incidental or superfluous. Every element is in balance or harmony with another. There are no coincidences, no necesssary suspensions of belief, no characters who behave out of character. It's so perfectly structured and detailed that I kept a log of notes and observations.
And the writing is superb.
Much later in the book Stan finds himself having his fortune read. "Gypsy music was filtering out on the heated air."
That's for sure.
Nightmare Alley is amazing. I immediately ordered copies of Gresham's other novel, Tower Limbo, as well as his non-fiction book about the carny, Monster Midway. I'll read them and I'll read Nightmare Alley again someday. And I'll definitely read Nick Tosches's book about Gresham, whenever it comes out.
The 179th Soundtrack of the Week is Popol Vuh's music for Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass.
That's the original album cover but I have it as part of this box set of Popol Vuh's music for Werner Herzog movies.
When I was a teenager I saw a lot of Herzog movies at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. All I remember about Heart of Glass is that I slept through a lot of it. This seems somewhat appropriate since, for this movie, Herzog put all of the actors in trances before filming their scenes.
However sleepy the movie might have made me, the soundtrack holds my attention. It begins with "Engel der Gegenwart", which takes its time getting started and uses electric guitars to create dreamy and dissonant atmospheres. It's similar to Howard Shore's music for Crash. Then the band launches into a groove that sounds agreeably like The Grateful Dead.
"Blätt er aus dem Buch der Kühnheit" is a bit like a psychedelic rock version of a folk song or a national anthem, played not in the Hendrix style but quite soberly.
Tambura, sitar and hand percussion are the instruments heard on "Das Lied von den hohen Bergen", a wonderfully droney piece.
A heavier rock feel asserts itself in "Hüter der Schwelle". It builds in intensity very gradually, creeping up on the listener. The fade-out at the end is a bit disappointing. I was hoping for a big, cathartic krautrock ending.
"Der Ruff" has the two electric guitars playing off each other as one creates a resonant, arpeggiated background for the other's lead lines. Electric bass and drums provide the foundation for them. It's momentous when the two guitars come together for a unison B section.
The same instrumentation and similar arrange ment are used in the next piece, "Singet, denn der Gesang vertreibt die Wölfe".
Flute joins the band for "Gemeinschaft", a tune in the style of "Blätt er aus dem Buch der Kühnheit".
"Auf dem Weg — On the way (Alternative Guitar Version)" is a spacey, swirling, atmospheric piece for electric guitars.
"The last piece, "Hand in Hand in Hand (Agape Guitar Version)" actually features acoustic guitars but is otherwise similar to "Auf dem Weg".
This is a really great album. I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get around to hearing it!
While looking around for a picture of the cover I came across this piece of internet stupidity.
Bernard Herrmann was a friend and early champion of Charles Ives, becoming aware of his music and beginning a correspondence with Ives in the late 1920s. Herrmann reviewed a book about Ives in the January 15, 1955, issue of the Saturday Review.
John Cameron's music for the motorcycle horror movie Psychomania is the 178th Soundtrack of the Week.
I've seen this movie. It's about a biker gang that uses a Satanic ritual (or something) to come back from the dead after they commit suicide. The leader comes riding out of his grave on his motorcycle, which is "the shot" for the movie.
This was the last movie George Sanders made before he committed suicide. As Mike Weldon noted in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Sanders did not come back to life riding a motorcycle.
The main title music is surprisingly mellow and spacey. You'll hear another version of it as the end credits music.
Some of the other tracks, such as "Cross Over to the Other Side" and "Secret of the Living Dead", continue the main title music and/or mood.
Several of the other pieces are short atmospheric cues, even stings. These include "The Frog", "You've Got To Believe" (which has a Prisoner sort of feel to it), "Tom's Last Ride" (which sounds a bit like David Bowie), "Up From the Grave", "Hanging Jane", "It's Evil", "The Trap", "Morgue Line Up" and "Morbid Substitution".
"Secret of the Locked Room" is something of an ancestor of Howard Shore's music for Crash, though it isn't particularly dissonant or as unusual as Shore's score.
"Locked Room and Mirror Sequence" is the longest piece, at five and a half minutes, and is something of a noise masterpiece for percussion, electric guitar, tape delays and other electronics.
"Motorcycle Mayhem" is where the Steppenwolf/Black Sabbath vibe finally makes an appearance. A dirty, straight-up biker-rock instrumental. I love it. It's reprised in "Cat and Mouse with the Fuzz", "First of the Deaths", "Truck Destruction", "Breaking the Bargain".
"Riding Free" is the only actual song on the record. "And the world never knew his name / But the chosen few know of his fame / Come join his company / Riding free."
"One by One" is a high energy work-out for combo featuring wah-wah and fuzz guitars.
"Abby's Nightmare" is mostly a sensitive, pastoral type piece featuring the flute but it mutates into more menacing electric rock band stuff at the end.
Did J. G. Ballard ever see The Monolith Monsters? The idea behind that movie is similar to the idea behind his novel The Crystal World and his short story "The Illuminated Man".
Both The Crystal World and "The Illuminated Man" are about how certain areas of Earth begin to crystallize and vitrify. The Crystal World expands on and refers to "The Illuminated Man", using the story's first line (also its last line) for the novel's epigraph. The same line appears again near the end of the novel.
The first line of the novel—part one of two is called "Equinox" and Chapter One is "The dark river"—is "Above all, the darkness of the river was what impressed Dr. Sanders as he looked out for the first time across the open mouth of the Matarre estuary".
One of the themes running throughout the book is a contrast between light and dark. The action begins on the day of the equinox, and similar divisions of night and day, black and white, recur frequently. (This reminded me a bit of the subtle deployment of yin and yang imagery in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. That symbol isn't in The Crystal World, though, and Ballard's imagery is explicit.)
The other main theme is the one which has dominated much of Ballard's other writing, the idea that this apocalyptic transformation of the planet is something that we somehow have an innate memory of, from hundreds of millions of years ago. Once again the main character (and some others) welcome this development and eventually embrace it.
A new angle in The Crystal World is that not just the planet but the whole universe seems to be undergoing this change. The cause of it has something to do with anti-time, which is to time as anti-matter is to matter. This explanation was given in "The Illuminate Man" also. I don't really understand it but those kinds of things are almost always over my head. A human-launched satellite called Echo figures prominently in both story and novel.
It's not just that things turn into crystals but crystals grow out of everything in several layers, crusts of crystals on top of crusts of crystals. Everything ends up looking as if it's been frosted like a wedding cake. This goes for the animate as well as the inanimate: animals, vegetables, minerals and of course people, too. If you remove a layer of the crystals from somebody, you end up removing that part of the body, too, something Sanders discovers the hard way.
The Times Literary Supplement's reviewer was reminded favorably of Graham Greene, Edgar Allan Poe and Joseph Conrad and that seems fair enough to me. The Crystal World has Ballard's unique qualities and vivid descriptive passages.
The general plot has Dr. Sanders looking for two other doctors, a married couple who used to work with Sanders treating people with leprosy. Significantly, their last name is Clair. Sanders and Mrs. Clair had an affair, and Sanders is perhaps looking to resolve this. At least, that's what he tells himself at the beginning of his journey.
He begins a new attachment with a journalist who has come to the crystallizing jungle looking for her vanished colleagues, but the new crystal world fascinates Sanders more than anybody or anything else. Sanders manages to get mixed up in another, bizarre love triangle (very similar to a situation in "The Illuminated Man") and has memorable encounters with a strange and troubled priest (who is similar to the scientist in Ballard's story "The Venus Hunters").
—The Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 2011
The 177th Soundtrack of the Week is Werewolves on Wheels by Don Gere.
This movie probably isn't that good but the idea of a werewolf motocycle gang is pretty awesome—and so is the music!
The main theme is a stoned-out psychedelic rock stomp with some great guitar playing and nice extra percussion.
After that it's "Mount Shasta Home" which sounds like a few different classic rock hits. Sample lyrics: "On the fourth of July / We'd go down the river side / Lord, it was a dusty, dusty road / There in the blazing sun / There was no place to run / Lord, it was a dusty, dusty road".
"Ritual" has some similarities with the main theme but is sparser and weirder.
Then there's "'One'", which I guess is an incantation or some such moment from the movie. It's a short snippet of dialogue. "Shadows are the sails of night. They soon will come to hide the light."
Then there's "Ritual 2", a more rocking continuation of the "Ritual" vibe.
Then there are "The Devil's Advocates" and "The Devil's Advocates (Reprise)", more swampy classic/psych rock instrumental stuff but this time with motorcycle sounds and some crazy violin playing (or something).
"One Foot in Heaven" is another country rock song similar to "Mount Shasta Home". "There was a man / Came into the churchyard / Dirty and tanned from a long time on the road."
"Burning Grass" is another ominous instrumental rock piece, similar to the others. All of these are quite good, by the way.
"Tarot" is a short ambient piece. "Tarot Trail" is more rock with motorcycle sounds. "Dust Bowl" is also rock with motorcycle sounds but with a different feel and also some creepy haunted-house sounds.
Then are "The Devil's Advocates 2" and "The Ritual 3", which probably need no explanation at this point.
These are followed by the end theme, similar to the main theme but spacier and weirder.
The CD ends with two radio ads for the movie. "Here comes the most eerie, the most chilling, the most terrifying motorcycle horror film ever made."
Tomorrow is Robert Mitchum's birthday.
Here's a book I just read. The front and back covers describe it pretty well.
One of the things I like about the front cover is that it uses "singlehanded", not "singlehandedly". This is a point of grammar that has haunted me ever since I stumbled across a reference to it in Kingsley Amis's The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage.
I also like that there is no space before the em-dash, but we'll save that for another day.
The first line of Wasp is "He ambled into the room, sat in the indicated chair, and said nothing".
It's a surprisingly chaste book, without even a trace of sex or romance. In fact, there may not be more than one or two female characters, and they are walk-on parts.
At its best Wasp is a kind of sci-fi Mission: Impossible and slightly reminiscent of Rogue in Space and What Mad Universe, both by Fredric Brown.
The tone is mostly ironic. The planet of Jaimec is a more or less Soviet-style dictatorship, without a single admirable person, so the wasp's task is never morally complicated. Our Sirian enemies are shown to be disposable at best, vile at worst.
It moves very quickly and does a good job of impressing the reader with the constant fear and tension experienced by the main character.
The idea behind the book is rather timely, concerning a single terrorist who weakens a superpower simply by freaking it out and causing it to spend much of its vast resources on simple criminal acts.
The 176th Soundtrack of the Week is an old favorite, Les Baxter's rock/funk masterpiece for the biker flick Hell's Belles.
"Meet the debutante in the leather skirt. Too young… too tough… too itching for action to look for it — she'll make it where she is."
I would like to see this movie.
I've had this on vinyl for a long time and snapped up the La-La Land Records CD the moment it came out. It has some extra tracks but I would have bought it anyway.
"Wheels (Main Title)" is an instrumental funk/stomp that features guitar and horns taking turns with a soaring melodic line on top of rocking bass, drums, percussion, organ, harmonica and rhythm guitar.
Then there's "Hell's Belles", which is an awesome song with a killer groove. "Now you've gone and got a whole new deal / And it don't matter how I feel / Hell's Belles! / Well who needs you now?" This is insanely good.
"Soul Groove" sounds like its title, an instrumental that's somehow sunny and swampy at the same time with a descending horn line like drops of condensation sliding down your cocktail glass on a hot day. It has a Stax sort of feel to it. In fact I think there's a song by Carla Thomas or somebody like her with some similarities.
A blast of harmonica and wild drumming introduce "Dan's Theme", a mostly instrumental piece that's a variation on "Hell's Belles". The rhythm is a modified Bo Diddley beat and there's a vocal bit, some folks singing "Sha la la la la la la la la la" every once in a while.
"Hot Wind" starts with some sparse percussion and then drums come in with a huge back beat. Harmonica and guitar follow and it turns into another instrumental based on "Hell's Belles" The whole band gets there eventually and reprises "Wheels".
"Take It from Me" is a weird fusion. Part rock and roll, part easy listening, it makes me think of sitting on a California beach in the sun for way too long having had way too much to drink.
"Chain Fight" is another awesome, in your face, straight-up rocker, another one that reprises "Wheels", this time at a slightly slower pace. Good chain fighting music. The intro, bass solo and guitar ending are especially rewarding.
"Travelin' Man" is "Dan's Theme" with vocals. "I got to ride / I'm a travelin' man / I'm gonna ride ride ride / Like I know I can." It doesn't have the "Sha la la la la la la la la la" part, though, and I miss it.
"Dan Again" is another "Dan's Theme", very similar to the previous one, the main difference being that "Dan Again" is about a minute shorter.
"Hoggin' Machine" switches back and forth between plaintive harmonica and a full on rockin' version of "Wheels". Again the back beat on the drums is huge and there's some heavy bass soloing.
"Scoobee Doo" is an anomaly, a goofy track that sounds like it should be in an Italian sex comedy from the 1970s. It's a silly, uptempo noveltysong with "Scoobee doobee doobee doo" as the lyrics.
"Goin' Home" is "Travelin' Man" with different lyrics. "I've been a travelin', babe / But I'm headed home now."
The music so far is a remastered version of the original album release. Next comes music that's in the film but not on the album.
"Travelin' Man" again, the full film version. Apparently only a bit of it is heard in the film itself.
Then there's a massive suite of music: "Take It from Me (source)/Gila Monster/Cathy Left Behind/Mongoose Gets Beans". It's mostly stuff we've heard before, though the gila monster cue—featuring fuzz guitar—is remarkable.
"Cathy Reminisces/Cathy Reminisces Part 2" is a slow, sad version of "Wheels" with harmonica playing the melody.
Finally there's "End Credits" which brings back the band for a little more rocking on the "Travelin' Man" theme, though it's a bit subdued compared to what's come before.