Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2024 January 31 • Wednesday

While I didn't manage to watch The Executioner on Christmas Day, it was one of the first movies I watched in 2024.

It turned out to be a bit more subdued than I expected it to be and I actually did fall asleep at one point, so I really need to watch it again.

There was one big surprise in it, though, namely a random cameo by Stan Getz.

The cop and doctor characters go to his concert, which is supposed to be happening in Battery Park. And maybe it was. That doesn't look like Battery Park to me but who knows what was going on down there in the mid-'80s.

Getz is in the credits as well, and so is the tune they're playing.

So the next time someone gives you a weird look because you casually mention watching The Executioner you can just be like, look, I like jazz.

2024 January 29 • Monday

The 815th Soundtrack of the Week is John Simon's music for Last Summer.

The main title theme is a delicate and slightly melancholy yet sunny instrumental with touches of country pop and summery indolence.

A host of different artists perform Simon's music and "Temptation, Lust and Laziness", a kind of acid folk bluegrass pop song, is realized by Aunt Mary's Transcendental Slip & Lurch Band".

Then we get a groovy sort of stripped down psych rock song, "Drivin' Daisy" by Cyrus Faryar. It fades out just when there starts to be some potentially interesting guitar work.

The next two songs are performed by Buddy Bruno, "Cordelia" being an electric soul blues pop number with harmonica and electric guitar and "Sonuvagun" is more of an anthemic, horns-driven soul number with soaring back-up vocals.

John Simon himself does "Hal, the Handyman", a kind of goofy, jaunty song with "Yellow Submarine" energy and a touch of soul.

Side A wraps up with an instrumental called "Beach Romp", which starts out in an upbeat ebullient way, with piano as the main voice, then downshifts into a slower solo piano reprise of the main title theme.

The B side starts with "The Subtle Evanescence of Now",a pastiche of classical Indian music with sitar playing by Colin Walcott.

Ray Draper sings "Lay Your Love on Me", a sort of sunshine psych rock soul song that uses the title as roughly half of the lyrics.

"Magnetic Mama" by The Electric Meatball, a pleasantly swaying acid rock number with some throwback piano playing and nice changes.

Then it's Henry Diltz with "Safari Mary", a curious mix of ecstatic group chorus and sing-songy lead vocals with a Bo Diddley beat and thick organ playing throughout.

The record wraps up with "Firehouse Blues" by Bad Kharma Dan & The Bicycle Brothers. (How many of these names are really John Simon?) This closing number is a laidback, smoky, wannabe Stax kind of thing with a nice groove.

2024 January 26 • Friday

Don Tracy’s Criss-Cross, the source novel for an esteemed film noir of almost the same name (no hyphen in the movie title), is a logical follow-up to the harrowing Round Trip.

The earlier novel is a tragedy and not a crime story, although there’s a lot of crime in it. Criss-Cross oozes crime noir DNA out of every pore, being the story of a Johnny, a washed-up boxer hopelessly enthralled by cask-strength femme fatale Anna who spurns him and marries local gangster Slim.

Slim has been strictly small time but Johnny works as a guard for an armored car company and with someone on the inside, how hard could it be to pull off a heist?

The fatalism and doom are on a Cornell Woolrich level and Johnny also has to worry about taking care of his mother and naive, stuttering younger brother.

Sex, alcohol and violence abound.

Interestingly, the book goes an unexpected direction in the end, showing Johnny using his new knowledge of vicious and predatory behavior to climb the corporate ladder and succeed in all-American business culture.

The movie is so wildly different from the book that you might wonder if they needed the rights to it.

The book contains many of the usual trigger warnings, as well as a high (or low) point in Anna, who is misogyny incarnate. It’s a powerful and shocking example of the genre, though, and was presumably way ahead of its time in 1935.

After an employee report on the narrator, the first line is “It was a hot day and the inside of the truck was awful”.
2024 January 24 • Wednesday

Stark House Press has reissued two 1930s novels by Don Tracy in a small two-for-one paperback edition as part of their Staccato Crime imprint. Criss Cross is known because of the classic movie adaptation.

I don't think Round Trip is known much at all. It certainly wasn't to me. But I just read it.

So, wow. There's hardboiled fiction and then there's something like this, which is wall-to-wall sex, violence, drunkenness, you name it.

The narrator, a press photographer who's probably meant to remind you of Weegee, drops us right into the action as he ventures out of Baltimore to the sticks to cover the aftermath of a lynching.

It starts with brutality and only eases up to catch you off balance for the next kick in the head.

Eddie Magruder is telling us a story of how he got here, in this nowheresville town, swilling whiskey and enduring the company of a newspaper writer he can't stand (rather obviously named Hackett) and nearly getting killed by the lynch mob himself and getting no sympathy from anybody else.

When he makes it back to Baltimore his editor refers to a tragedy in his past, from which comes the book's title:

"Sure," I said. I've been in this racket too long to let something like that throw me. It's over and I'm back at work. It's like a vacation. A guy can't be that happy for long. He has to take it when it's over and get back to work.

"Sure," Heath said. "It's going to heaven on a round-trip ticket."

"Yeah," I said. "With stop-over privileges at hell on the return trip."

So then we find out about Eddie's past, his abusive fatherhood, his precocious sexual adventures as not much more than a child, how this blended into pimping until he got busted and got a job as a commercial photographer and then, after that, as a press photographer.

There is a lot of drinking and, without ruining the story, forays into manslaughter, child pornography, rape and torture, drunk driving, a court room interlude, the miracle of child birth….

It's all pretty amazing, like a Lost Generation exploitation novel. And Tracy also includes just enough details about the mechanics of being the kind of photographer that Eddie is, plates and bulbs and dark room work, that the narrator's voice is vivid, realistic and persuasive.

It probably goes without saying that some of the language and concepts found in the book would not make it to page one of a book being written for today's reader.

Tracy's neatest trick is that, when you get to the end, it's really just sad and actually quite moving.

The first line is "I had a hell of a headache when I woke up".

2024 January 22 • Monday

A Jerry Goldsmith double feature, courtesy of a superb reconstruction and re-recording from the Intrada label, with the great William Stromberg conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, is our 814th Soundtrack of the Week: Black Patch and The Man.

The "Prologue" begins with a trumpet fanfare, quickly followed by the orchestra with a powerful and sweeping statement. The mood immediately shifts to a quiet, pensive, suspenseful one that's interrupted by staccato piano and horns making the tension more active. The orchestra comes sweeping in again for a quick action flourish, after which the main titles play over "Player Piano", a classic saloon piano piece but with some other calliope-ish sounds.

Clarinet begins a beautiful love theme, with strings playing a counter melody, for "Carl Meets Helen". Stormy horns and piano come in, followed by uneasy string figures and tense percussion, signalling that all is not well here.

The love theme is brought back but this time allowed to grow in "Welcome Home". There are a few moments of tension but otherwise it's a reassuring and health musical environment.

The previous cues are built on for the oboe-led "Clay Meets Helen", a lovely and serene piece that seems to express longing. The same theme is developed more fully for "Love Reunited".

The tense staccato bits from the prologue dominate "Hank Gives Up", which is followed by shadowy long tones and Herrmannesque use of harp and strings in "Lock Up".

The piano keeps stabbing away at low notes under some suspenseful string passages in "The Fight", which eventually bursts into intense action before simmering again.

The "Clay Meets Helen" theme is more or less the main theme and it's played in very high register by the strings in the Twilight Zone-ish "The Discovery" then suggested by cello and bass in the short "Town Gossip".

Solo clarinet starts out "The Gift”, a somewhat melancholy and pastoral piece that ends with tension reasserting itself.

"Mixed Emotions" plays around with the now familiar theme, deconstructing and dancing around it before reiterating it.

The harp gets a chance to shape "Carl's Love", which also features clarinet and more sinuous writing for strings and other woodwinds, before flutes take the spotlight for the surprisingly playful-sounding "The Gun".

More sound of foreboding with some interesting legato figures winding around the sharp violent outbursts and ominous quieter sections make up "Tough Guy".

"The Showdown" begins in the same mood but ends on a calmer note, though not a happy one, which slowly builds to a strong resolution, making way for the powerful brass opening of "The Duel", which also has lovely sparse sections using harp and piano.

A return to the main theme happens in "Finale", which has two versions here, one as heard in the movie and another, longer one.

So that was Jerry Goldsmith's very first film score, from 1957. Now we jump ahead to 1972 and a Rod Sterling-scripted, James Earl Jones-starring TV movie called The Man

"Douglas Dillman (Main Titles)" starts with ceremonial brass and then shifts to quiet timpani and snare drum.

The main title theme starts off "They Wanted a President" and gets expanded on in a long clarinet line before getting picked up by flute.

Another take on the main theme runs through "The Lincoln Memorial", this time on flute with string support before brass and snare take over.

Snare rolls kick off "The Oval Office", only to recede so that individual instruments from the orchestra can come forward to suggest the main theme. Ultimately the whole ensemble comes together for a strong statement, after which things get quieter again.

Bluesy sounds and a hint of a swaying rhythm begin "An Invisible Man", soon joined by a statement of the main theme, which is then brought back on different instruments for "Mrs. Blore".

It sounds to me like "Let Him Loose" has a pattern of three bars of 5/8 followed by one bar of 6/8 but of course "opinions vary", as we say at the road house. It's an exciting cue, though, a blast of energy, and sets up a contrast with the next track, the foggy and atmospheric "Fishing", whose first half could have been easily dropped into Goldsmith's score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The second half is a sweet and sunny pastoral piece, however.

Suspense is on offer in "Will They Make It?" as long low tones create uneasiness as delicately placed offerings from brass, strings and harp make way for a minor-key ending.

"Protests" is a short burst of dissonance from the orchestra and then the score conlcudes with a rendition of "Hail to the Chief" and one more run through of the main theme.

2024 January 19 • Friday

Charles Moore's three-volume authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher doesn't exactly fit in with most of the books mentioned here, but it's been the bedside reading at Gutbrain Headquarters for, well, years, I guess.

And so I finally reached the end of Volume 2, subtitled in the UK Everything She Wants, in reference to the 1984 Wham! single, which is appropriate both for its contemporaneousness as well as its aptness to the book.

Strangely, the US edition just goes for The Authorized Biography: Volume Two.

One reason to read these books is simply for the quality of the writing. Moore presents so much complicated information and such a huge cast of characters, of whom several are always in conflict, with such relaxed assurance and effortless command of the language, that it's hard to stop reading.

Instead of just quoting the first line of the book, here's the first paragraph of the preface:

The life of Margaret Thatcher constantly confounds the philosophers. I noted at the beginning of the first volume of this biography how she had wrong-footed Socrates. His dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living cannot be applied to hers. She also disproved Francis Bacon, who famously said that 'All rising to a great place is by a winding stair.' Her climb began lower — and therefore reached further — than those of her predecessors, but she moved upwards as straight as she could. And although she could certainly be more cunning in tight situations than she would ever admit, her method was rarely circuitous. The man rising up the winding stair cannot see where he is going. The woman fighting to reach the summit and stay there had the end always in view. She was impelled upwards by a combination of intense personal ambition and her fervent belief in the capacities of a free country, particularly her own country. She had enough time at the top to try to unlock those capacities and realize much of that vision.

Margaret Thatcher's politics were certainly not my own but after reading about who she was and how she approached her job, it's impossible not to see her as one of the last, perhaps the last, of a kind of political leader who worked incredibly hard and genuinely cared. Certainly we can assert that any number of her policies or decisions were "wrong", but they were never done for the wrong reasons.

Nelson Mandela considered her an ally, for example, while P. W. Botha did not. And she realized forty years ago what almost everyone considers to be obvious now, that sanctions profoundly hurt those alread victimized and do little if anything to the oppressors.

Interestingly, Ronald Reagan comes across in this book as obsessed with ridding the world of nuclear weapons, total nuclear disarmament, which is not how I remember him, but this really freaked Thatcher out and she put considerable effort into pressuring him to shut up about it.

(A footnote reveals that when Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition party during Thatcher's run, met with Reagan, the US president "read from postcards cut into shape in the palm of his hands".)

There is a lot of detail about wrestling with policy, economic, foreign, whatever, and most of it is just way too complicated for me.

Simpler but ghastlier are episodes such as the IRA's attempt to murder Thatcher and many members of her cabinet, by setting off a bomb in the hotel where they were staying. There were five deaths and thirty-one injuries but not to Thatcher.

The IRA made a public statement to her which noted that "Today we were unlucky, but remember, we have only to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always".

Of course Margaret Thatcher's being a woman in a male-dominated world is foundational to this story. There were many things she had to handle differently just by virtue of her sex. Gorbachev's aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, for example, apparently wanted Gorbachev to pursue negotiations and meetings with Thatcher because Chernyaev thought she was hot and fantasized sexually about her. TMI?

There's an interesting survey of how Thatcher and Thatcherism were treated in popular culture, particularly fiction, and Thatcher's acting with Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne in a Yes, Prime Minister sketch at an awards ceremony is also covered.

Thatcher loved the show, as do I, but Moore says that she "even agreed to take part" in this sketch, which makes it sound like it was the idea of the writers and creators of the program, when my understanding was that they were pressured by "No. 10" to do it.

Who knows? Volume Three is on deck now!

2024 January 17 • Wednesday

There was a time when the 87th Precinct series, written by Evan Hunter under the name of Ed McBain, was a fairly colossal franchise. The books, of course, but also TV shows and movies.

They went for decades and there are a lot of books. Since I'm always looking for trouble, I thought it might be neat to embark on the project of reading all of the books, in order.

And that's how I found myself curled up with Cop Hater in the mountains of Utah. These are things you can do if you eliminate skiing from your list of activities.

This edition has an interesting introduction by Hunter in which he explains his original idea, that it would be a series in which the series character would actually be an aggregate character, all the police officers in a certain precinct.

Different cops would come in and out of focus. The main character of the first book, for example, is Steve Carella, a plainclothes detective in love with a deaf woman.

Other books would select one of Carella's colleagues as a central protagonist. And of course Carella can return to center stage and other characters we meet might leave, return or get killed and new people can always be folded in as necessary.

The city itself is a character as well. Hunter spent a lot of time with NYC police officers to find out what their lives were like and how actual police procedures worked.

The emphasis on accuracy was admirable but also kind of a never-ending research project. For the sake of getting the actual writing done, Hunter created a fictional city that was a reimagined New York, always with options for expansion and alteration, like Batman's Gotham.

Cop Hater is a strong opener for the most part. It's very 1950s in its tough and unsentimental prose style. Someone is coming up behind cops and blowing them away with a .45. Nobody knows who or why. There are no leads and, at first, no clues.

The treatment of both sex and violence is understated but frank and blunt. In addition to the police world, the reader is also introduced to the city's red-light district, street gangs and newspaper industry.

The different police officers are quickly sketched but satisfactorily fleshed out characters. The suspense builds relentlessly as the reader is aware that any of them could be suddenly murdered at any time.

The conclusion is a bit of a disappointment, recycling an Agatha Christie plot reveal from the 1930s. But on the whole this was a good book and the series reading project is on!

The first line is "From the river bounding the city on the North, you saw only the magnificent skyline".

2024 January 15 • Monday

The 813th Soundtrack of the Week is John Barry's score for Hammett.

The main title theme is a sultry, bluesy jazz number played just by piano and clarinet. It has a lilting quality that balances out its melancholy feel.

You hear it again right away in “Hammett’s Dream”, this time as solo piano, and then halfway through the strings come in and introduce a secondary theme, the kind of gently insistent and slightly modern piece that Barry was so good at creating and building on.

Some east Asian instruments get added to the mix for “Ryan Is Missing”, a suspenseful cue whose harmonic movement looks back toward some of Barry’s Bond movie cues.

The Asian instruments keep a rhythmic pulse going for the moody and atmospheric “Chinatown Incident” and then take center stage entirely for “Moonlight Over Spring River”.

A melody reminiscent of the main title theme but played by boozy and woozy sounding New Orleans-style combo brings us to “Cookie’s Speakeasy” while “Shoeshine Blues” is a bluesy small combo tune that features the trombone.

The secondary theme comes back for “Shadow Man” and then some low bass tones introduce “The Library”, which dips into the “Chinatown Incident” cue.

“Hammett Meets Salt/Suicide Is Fascinating/I’m Calling It In” is basically the main theme again until an orchestral wrap up at the end.

The boozy speakeasy band sounds like they’ve returned for “Look for Me at Fong’s”, thoug a little less drunk this time, followed ny what’s probably source music, “classical” sort of background music for “Potted Palms”.

The first really tense notes open “The Opium Den/Escape from Fong’s”, leading to a prettier and more relaxed section before the strings starts bowing frantically, driving the escape cue at a frantic pace.

The main theme gets another go round in “Hide and Seek” and then the secondary and tertiary (“Chinatown Incident”) themes return for “The Numbers Ticket Cue/A Belly Full of Daylight”.

No surprise that “Dixieland” brings back the speakeasy band for another very loose swinging tune. The Chinese instruments come back as well for “You Can’t Forget Her/Don’t Be a Chump, Let Her Go”, which begins with the secondary theme and ends with some very heavy, pounding chords for dramatic underscore.

After a suspenseful introduction “A Cool Million” segues into the main theme while the secondary theme gets brought back for “Waterfront Rendezvous”.

For “The Wrap Up” several of these themes are hinted at, deconstructed, flirted with and finally, in the case of the main theme realized.

Of course you hear the main theme again for the end credits, of which there’s also an alternate take, as well as a few other source music pieces at the end.
2024 January 12 • Friday

Ever watched an Elvis Presley from beginning to end? I did. It was called Wild in the Country and was sort of a prototypical mid-century Good Will Hunting with some diluted dashes of Tennessee Williams thrown in.

Elvis is a put-upon young man dismissed as a no-good punk by most people except every single woman within a certain age range, who are all in love with him.

He gets into trouble right away and it's not his fault but he gets blamed anyway and is put on probation while therapist Hope Lange hopes to bring out the good in him for everyone to see.

Eventually she falls in love with Elvis. Elvis is in love with a "good girl" with mean, phony parents, the father of Elvis's nemesis is in love with the therapist, the nemesis guy might be in love with the good girl, I forget.

Meanwhile Elvis is lodging with and working for a sleazy snake-oil manufacturer and salesman. Also present is young single mother Tuesday Weld. Bizarrely, no one's in love with her.

It's all pretty complicated.

The real story is in the set design, though. Hope Lange's home and office are filled with all these statuettes and figurines, with roosters as a motif almost to the point of fetishization.

This goes along in a fairly familiar way, with Elvis being revealed as a Great American Novelist just waiting to blow everyone's mind with his natural prose genius.

Mid-century prurience causes things to flying off the rails at the end. It all had to go somewhere.

There isn't a ton of music. Elvis sings the title song over the credits, sings and plays guitar for Tuesday Weld at one point, sings along with a song on the car radio and has a humorous duet with Hope Lange at one point.

The CinemaScope photography is really nice and Kenyon Hopkins's score is terrific and deserving of a soundtrack release. The acting is good from everyone, including Elvis, who manages to balance the requisite "smoldering intensity" with a gratifying amount of relaxed underplaying.

2024 January 10 • Wednesday

Streaming is hot, pretty much the only thing a lot of people do. This seems to mean that "optical media", "discs", are not in high demand. Which I guess means they're cheap. Which I guess means this is a golden age for those of us interested in the unusual and the obscure, as we see absolutely gorgeous blu-ray box sets of Ray Dennis Steckler movies and the like show up on our doorstep thanks to some buzzed online shopping.

Arrow, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin… when I think of all the money I gave to Video Search of Miami way back when. But of course they were kind of the only game in town for a lot of things. And then there was Kim's Video in its 1990s heyday…

But this is a golden age. I've been hearing people talk about it as being a golden age of television but most of these shows are actually a waste of time and it's really a golden age of television viewers. So many people are ready to invest so much time and energy into a show and apparently as long as you throw some money at production values, that's good enough. Who needs a story?

Uh, so, this is just my way of saying, wow, here's this great movie called The Hard Part Begins, a Canadian movie from 1973 about a country band still grinding it out in small-town honkytonks even though nobody really cares and and country bands are being steadily replaced by rock bands.

The blu-ray is a beautiful presentation with lots of extras that I haven't even started to check out yet. The director of this movie went on to make Prom Night, which I guess is his claim to fame.

The blurb on the back tries to sell you this movie, even though you can't see it before you buy it since it's in a slip case, by saying something about "the moral complexity of New Hollywood staples like Five Easy Pieces" but that's not a relevant or maybe even a coherent thing to say.

There are lots of good things about The Hard Part Begins and they are what I like to see in most movies: story, photography, music, acting, texture, excitement.

Jim King's band King and Country is still out there doing the circuit even though everything is falling apart. He's romantically involved with his younger bandmate who plays bass and sings and has more commercial potential than he does. He's got an ex-wife and a troubled son. The band's van is on its last legs and so, too, is the band.

None of this would really add up to much if it weren't so well done. The location photography and visual compositions are arresting and interesting pretty much 100% of the time and nothing is overstated or dumbed down.

I've always thought that a documentary about just a regular band, noboody famous, would be so much more interesting than a movie about people who are kind of making it. You see some glimmers of what this might be like in The Hard Part Begins, as Jim drinks beer while standing at a urinal, or the band stops at a local diner.

This is a real movie with a real story, though, and I got caught up in it. I hope there are more like this one out there.

2024 January 08 • Monday

A new release of a Henry Mancini soundtrack! And it's from the 1960s!

Moment to Moment has to be the 812th Soundtrack of the Week.

It has a great main title theme, starting with trumpet and then introducing a John Barry-ish chromatic structure with guitar and rhythm section. A chorus comes in with the lyrics, which are fine, but I prefer this piece as an instrumental.

The "'Moment to Moment' Prologue" begins somewhat eerily with long string tones and electric guitar picking at single notes repeatedly with lots of reverb, the whole thing sounding somewhat like Morricone in experimental mode. Then it switches to a "modern" section for woodwinds, going in and out of dissonance, before returning to how it started.

A gently lilting piece with nice use of piano and featuring the accordion, "The Flower Stalls", comes next.

Beautiful solo acoustic guitar takes the listener more than halfway through "Daphne Drops In" before strings and harp come flowing in at the end. The very last note sounds like it might have been played on piano.

"Chicken Salad" and "First Goodbye/Invitation" are both reprises of the main title theme, the first being another achingly lovely acoustic guitar solo and the second a classic Mancini piano and strings combination at first, soon with the addition of electric guitar and harp.

Then we swing into what might be a samba for the accordion-driven "Hotel Terrace".

The main theme returns for "On the Road", which starts with a very dramatic orchestral introduction and then alternates between that full-bodied approach and sections that feature the accordion as a solo voice. It has a dance rhythm as well, not bossa nova or cha cha but something in that neighborhood. The chorus returns again but this time singing wordlessly.

Another piano and accordion number, a brisk minor-key waltz called "Mougins", gets things moving before another reprise of the main theme in "Pier Parting".

A simple electric guitar chord with a gorgeous tremolo sound announces the beginning of "Missing Mark", with buzzing strings, lonely sustained piano notes and what sounds like a second, prepared piano creating very exciting sonorities.

I thought "Beach Party" might get us a surf tune but it's a loungey version of the main theme. This is followed by a slower version of the same piece, for "Gallery Montage".

Acoustic guitar starts off "Stormy Romance", soon joined by saxophone and the rest of the orchestra for another version of the main theme.

"Pick It Up/Help" starts with some ominous low tones and suspenseful, "modern" string writing. A piano chord stops the strings and solo trumpet comes in, soon joined by cello and then eventually harp and viola or violin, all playing melodically around each other before returning to more of a horror movie mood and ending on a suggestion of the main theme.

A more subdued feeling of suspense is created in "Scene of the Crime", which also makes use of the main theme's shapem while "Passport" is pure tension, again with piano chords providing final punctuation.

Then there's a return to a cheerier mood that settles into a more bluesy and pensive sound for "Homecoming".

A stripped down version of "Missing Mark" comes next for "Mark's Return/Something Clicks" and the same buzzing strings and electric guitar stick around for "More in Mougins".

"Flower Stalls Dance" is a slower take on "The Flower Stalls" and "Moment to Moment Dance" is the main theme with violin and accordion as the featured voices.

Following this comes the very atmospheric and unsettling "The Missing Piece", with great use of space, letting a few instruments do just the right amount of work in just the right places.

Moody dramatic underscore with nice vibraphone playing gives us "Mark Remebers", which quotes the main theme. That theme returns for "The Terrace and End Title ('Moment to Moment')" and again in its vocal version for "'Moment to Moment' End Cast".

The CD concludes with alternate takes of "The Flower Stalls" and "Hotel Terrace", plus a beautiful duo guitar version of the main theme.

2024 January 05 • Friday

Ed Lacy's Room To Swing might look like a standard private detective novel from the 1950s but there are some interesting and crucial elements that make it stand out.

The main character, Toussaint "Touie" Moore, is framed for murder in New York City and leaves town to follow his only lead to small-town Ohio in the hope that he can find the real murderer and clear his name.

That's pretty standard. Except Moore is actually kind of a lousy detective. Mostly he pays the rent—and he doesn't even have his own place, he has roommates—by working security in a department store on weekends. He's a big guy, WW2 vet, used to play football, but he's not an action hero. He saw action in the war and that's about it.

Now that he's got a real crime on his hands, as opposed to tracking down people who aren't keeping up on their installment plan payments, he's totally out of his depth and wishing that real life could be more like the movies, where the private detective just swaggers through everything.

The other big difference is presented to the reader in the very first pages, when Moore arrives in the small Ohio town and goes into a drug store to look in the phone book for the one person's name he has, which is all he has to go on.

As soon as he walks in, everyone at the drug store basically freaks out and stares at him and a moment later the town cop has come in also, wanting to know what the hell Moore is doing there.

Because Touie Moore is black.

In most books of this sort, the hero can be tough and flippant and tell cops to go boil their heads or some other Philip Marlowe-ism like that.

Touie Moore has to suffer abuse from gas station attendants and everyone else. Mouth off to a cop? No one would ever see him again.

The exploration of Jim Crow-era America is fascinating and not overdone. Coming from NYC, specifically Harlem, Moore finds small town America to be totally alien and has enough trouble just trying to figure out how to manage in such a place.

The book flashes back to the city and why this all got started and Lacy directs the reader's attention to several nuances of life lived on racial fault lines, from the unconscious prejudices of white lefty types who are desperate to show Moore that they're "down" while accidentally betraying a lack of real concern or understanding.

There are also several gay characters involved, as well as people struggling with poverty and class, all nimbly and persuasively conveyed and sewn into an engaging, fast-moving and engaging mystery story.

Interestingly, some random person saw me reading this book on the subway and mocked me for wasting time on what he assumed was some kind of pulp trash. Wrong on both counts, since this is actually an intelligent, original, thought-provoking book and fascinating document of a different time, and also because reading actual pulp trash isn't a waste of time.

The first line is "I broke par in Bingston".

2024 January 03 • Wednesday

Here's a crime novel by an author I had never heard of before. I bought it because I liked the cover but I almost never buy a book without at least intending to read it someday and I recently got around to this one: A Matter of Opportunity by Catherine Arley.

This is an English translation of a French-language novel that takes place in the Netherlands. This edition has a 1968 copyright date.

Right away this got me wondering where this story would go. Because the protagonist, Herta Rohner, is a killer for hire and generally such characters are not allowed to succeed or go unpunished for their murders.

Arley takes an unusual approach, however, in making her main character a nurse who quietly euthanizes sick and aged wealthy people for the benefit of their heirs.

She falls into this line of work accidentally, assisting a family with what appears to bea true mercy killing. After they make their gratitude known to her, financially as well as personally, she makes this something of a specialty.

Since she's typically accelerating an inevitable demise, arguably sparing a terminally ill patient needless suffering, it doesn't seem so horrible. And the money is very, very good.

A Matter of Opportunity is centered around a very different sort of case, a young man recovering from a car crash that killed his father. He's not old, he's not sick and he's going to be fine.

But nonetheless, his stepmother wants him dead to protect her rather tenuous claims to her late husband's fortune. And so she comes to Herta, knowing about her past accomplishments.

Herta, though, sees this not as just another job but as a chance to make one last big score and then retire while still young enough to enjoy life in a big way, which includes marrying the only real man she's ever known, a veteran named Miodrag.

(The cover image is not merely metaphorical, by the way. Herta was married before and keeps her former husband's ashes in an hourglass.)

This plan involves out-manipulating the stepmother and mainpulating the youong man into becoming Herta's husband, just temporarily, so she can scoop up half of the huge estate and then get on with her life with Miodrag.

As you can imagine, it's not that easy. Miodrag is already uneasy about the developing relationship between Herta and the young heir. Plus, he has a good friend who's a police detective…

A Matter of Opportunity was a brisk and enjoyable read, even in translation, and is somewhat Highsmith-adjacent. Buying it for the cover turned out to be a good investment!

The first line is "A rich man's funeral is always pompous and wordy, and Herta Rohner was afraid she might have caught a cold at the cemetery".

2024 January 01 • Monday

Happy New Year!

The 811th Soundtrack of the Week is John Williams's music for The Fabelmans.

I guess this movie didn't do too great at the box office but I loved it and I've seen it twice so far.

As a soundtrack composer John Williams occupies a place similar to that of, say, Henry Mancini, in that everyone knows at least one of their film themes (Jaws, The Pink Panther) and also in that while each is immediately identified with a certain kind of sonic emotional identity, they're both actually a lot more versatile than most people seem to realize.

So if I say that the main title theme from The Fabelmans sounds like "a very John Williams" solo piano piece, you probably already have an idea of a gentle and sweet melodic composition that glides around and hits the occasional minor note as a reminder of the sadness that's usually found in happiness, in at least trace quantities.

There's more sadness and longing in "Mitzi's Dance", in which Williams seems to be channeling Erik Satie. Considering that Mitzi's character is a pianist who's struggling with feelings of remorse regarding unfulfilled ambition and potential to have a career as a concert pianist, this is appropriate. Strings, harp and celeste or glockenspiel or whatever it is are used especially well here.

Speaking of concert piano, the next piece is Friedrich Kuhlau's "Sonata in A Minor, Op. 88 No. 3: III. Allegro Burlesco", solo piano as performed by Mitzi in the movie. I'm not exactly a classical music ignoramus but I hadn't hear of Kuhlau before. It sounds a little Bartok/Chopin to me and perhaps it's chosen for the burlesque qualities of Mitzi's dance, making a connection there.

Low ominous long tones from the bass section begin "Midnight Call", with equally unsettling harp notes creeping in. This could be a cue for a horror movie. Strings and winds come bleeding in softly, smoothing out the tone and the feeling into something less worrying.

"Reverie" is a reiteration of the "Mitzi's Dance" theme, this time for solo piano with the sustain pedal held down.

Acoustic guitar leads us into "Mother and Son", another very sweet and quintessentially John Williams-ish melody, soon joined by strings and harp.

Another classical piano piece comes next, Muzio Clementi's "Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36 No. 3: I. Spiritoso". Seems good to me.

For "Reflections" we get what sounds like a variation on the "Mitzi's Dance", once again featuring something that might be a glockenspiel, combined superbly with the harp.

If you've got a classical pianist in your movie, there's going to be Bach, right? And so here's "Concerto in D Minor, BWV 974: II. Adagio", probably a good performance, I don't know. It sounds sad, anyway, which is probalby the point.

"New House" is a pensive piano feature with string accompaniment, another sad number.

The "Mitzi's Dance" theme gets another bit of a reprise in "The Letter", which starts off sounding a bit like a music box before the orchestra comes in to make everything more substantial.

The CD presentation of the score (which leaves out a lot of music heard in the movie) concludes with "The Journey Begins", a cheerful, upbeat, buoyant and energetic cue, quite short, which includes a bit of Haydn's Sonata No. 48 in C Major, HOB.XVI 35: I. Allegro Con Brio as well as a run through of the other themes from the film.