BLACK LOTUS

(K’wan; 128 pages; INFAMOUS BOOKS/AKASHIC BOOKS; 2014)

BLACK LOTUS

Halfway through the first chapter of K’wan Foye’s new novella, BLACK LOTUS, I knew that this story must be made into a movie and that the lead character, Detective James “Lone” Wolf, is destined to be a franchise hero. The edgy, no nonsense persona immediately put me in mind of a cop with a cool Odafin Tutuola (Ice T’s LAW AND ORDER: SUV character) vibe with a hair-trigger anger-management problem like Fin’s SUV colleague, Elliot Stabler. Toss in the swaggering confidence and well-earned street cred of a John Shaft and this character is a no-brainer superstar property; in fact, almost immediately, my mind’s eye put Richard Roundtree in the role of Wolf. Wolf’s backstory puts him at the top of the anti-hero heap and, of course, it doesn’t hurts that BLACK LOTUS is an absolutely riveting read.

BLACK LOTUS author K'wan (publicity photo)

BLACK LOTUS author K’wan (publicity photo)

The story opens with the brutal murder of a well-loved priest, an action that sets in motion a series of events that will force Wolf to face the demons that have haunted him since his last case as a homicide detective, the disappearance and murder of a small boy. Wolf had since moved to the narcotics division and, having just busted (and busted up) a few dealers in and undercover sting, his mentor and former captain in homicide contacts him for help in tracking down the priest’s killer. The detective reluctantly agrees, but only after the captain promises to make some of Wolf’s questionable past actions disappear from his record, specifically, the stigma that he murdered his former partner (a claim which was unsubstantiated and, of which Wolf was ultimately cleared). From that point, Wolf is thrown into a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, political intrigue and the answer to the murder of the little boy so many years before. Along the way, the Black Lotus killer leaves a trail of mayhem and retribution. The story is an edge-of-the-seat nail-biter that packs a surprising amount of action and character development into the short 128 pages. With no shortage of suspects, the twists and turns lead to an unexpected ending that, ultimately, is one of the most satisfying in recent memory.

INFAMOUS BOOKS founder Albert Johnson, AKA Prodigy (publicity photo)

INFAMOUS BOOKS founder Albert Johnson, AKA Prodigy (publicity photo)

BLACK LOTUS is the fourth title from the Infamous Books imprint, which is curated by Albert Johnson, better known as Prodigy, of the iconic hip-hop group, Mobb Depp. He brings a street level grittiness to an audience that has never before been afforded a viable voice in the literary world. And, make no mistake about it… this is literature – a uniquely American form of literature that should be read and treasured. BLACK LOTUS and other Infamous titles are available at all the usual places or direct from akashicbooks.com. Treat yourself… you won’t be disappointed.


HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: MARIE ANTOINETTE AND THE DIAMOND NECKLACE AFFAIR

(Jonathan Beckman; 386 pages; DE CAPO PRESS/PERSEUS BOOKS GROUP; 2014)

How To Ruin a Queen cover

I’m a history buff; I love studying and reading about America’s past and the people who have molded us (for better or worse) into who we are today. However, when it comes to French history, here’s what I know: Notre Dame signed a deformed bell-ringer to play hunchback… I mean, fullback, even though he kidnapped a dancing girl and was charged with murder; a homeless dude with bad skin took up residence under the Paris Opera, causing major problems for performers; some guy named Napoleon wrote the hit single, “Waterloo,” for ABBA and, for his crime against humanity, was sent on a permanent vacation to a resort island called “Elba.” Plus, the country’s leadership usually folds like a cheap hammock rather than defend home and hearth.

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: The purloined necklace was so heavy that the two larger strands were used as a ballast, hanging down the back (uncredited photo)

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: The purloined necklace was so heavy that the two larger strands were used as a ballast, hanging down the back (uncredited photo)

Actually, I do know a bit about the storming of the infamous prison, the Bastille, and the Revolution with which that action was associated. That’s the one that supposedly prompted the Queen, Marie Antoinette, to exclaim, “Let them eat cake.” when told that the people of Paris were starving. As a result of that revolution, the monarchy was overthrown and, eventually, a despot named Napoleon Bonaparte named himself emperor and sought to expand the empire through military might. He was, indeed, exiled to Elba, though he escaped a year later and recaptured the throne of France only to meet ultimate defeat three months later against the British at Waterloo. This time he was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, where he died. Wow… I guess I know a little bit more about French history than I thought! And then, there’s the incident – commonly referred to as the Diamond Necklace Affair – explored by Jonathan Beckman in this new book. If not the specific reason for the revolt, it was certainly sewn into the fabric and… I knew absolutely nothing about it.

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: Author Jonathan Beckman (publicity photo)

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: Author Jonathan Beckman (publicity photo)

So often, books on historic subjects are very dry and rather analytical. Terms like “very dry” and “rather analytical” are reviewer speak for “boring” or, more accurately, “B-O-R-I-N-G!” This book is anything but. No one can say with any great authority exactly what happened and exactly who was involved in the caper, since very little remains as far as records and unbiased memoirs from the period. Beckman has done an amazing job of pulling together every existing court record, memoir, oral history and rumor about the Court of Louis XVI, the theft (and subsequent possible fates) of the necklace and the other principal and ancillary people who were even marginally involved. There is enough intrigue, lust, power-mongering, lies and deceit to keep anyone interested as they try to unravel what happened to the extravagant necklace created for (and ultimately rejected by) the Queen of France. The narrative style reads as much like a detective thriller as it does a historical treatise.

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: Cardinal Louis Rene de Rohan (uncredited image)

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: Cardinal Louis Rene de Rohan (uncredited image)

The entire affair centers around a young woman, Jeanne La Motte-Valois (nee: de Saint-Remy), who claimed to be descended from French royalty. While there does seem to be – at least – enough evidentiary remnants to support her claims, there were a laundry list of consequences that kept her from benefiting from her supposed ancestry. Jeanne continued to pursue the lifestyle that she felt was her birthright, most often to the detriment of all around her. She used those who cared for her, discarding them once they had outlived their usefulness to her self-consumed cause. One of those people is the other major player in the game: Cardinal Louis de Rohan. The Cardinal was highly motivated by the possibility of upward mobility but, having fallen out of favor by the Queen, his ambitions were effectively stifled. Jeanne realized that the malleable Rohan and his desire to reingratiate himself with the Queen and at Court could help her in her quest to regain her rightful place (and the wealth that accompanied said place) among the French aristocracy. The introduction of the overtly gaudy necklace (2,800 carats) was nothing more than a happy coincidence as far as Jeanne was concerned. From the point she decided to use the jewelry for her own greedy means, the “conspiracy” embroiled the jewelers responsible for the piece, the Church, several families of French nobility, a young prostitute, shady lawyers, at least three governments, five countries, the infamous Count Cogliostro, the King and Queen of France and their Court. The lies perpetuated by Jeanne and her husband/confederate, Nicolas de La Motte, nearly brought down the monarchy and the Church and precipitated the Revolution that did bring an end to the monarchy system shortly after the trials of many of those directly involved (and two who simply had the bad luck to show up in Paris a short time before the whole scheme came to light, the Count and Countess Cagliostro).

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: A wax head of Marie Antoinette shortly after her appointment with the executioner, created by a witness at the event, Madame Tussaud (uncredited photo)

HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN: A wax head of Marie Antoinette shortly after her appointment with the executioner, created by a witness at the event, Madame Tussaud (uncredited photo)

So, bottom line, HOW TO RUIN A QUEEN is a great read whether you’re into history or not. Beckman’s research is impeccable; his writing style, entertaining and informative.By the way, one of the things I learned from this highly enjoyable book: Marie Antoinette never uttered the phrase, “Let them eat cake.” Apparently, the Austrian-born Queen of France cared more deeply for the poor and down-trodden of her adopted home than even her husband, the King. She may have been extravagant in her spending but, she would also disguise herself and bestow kindnesses on the less fortunate. Who knew?


GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE

(Kris Needs; 352 pages; OMNIBUS PRESS; 2014)

George Clinton book cover

This comprehensive history of George Clinton’s life and career is the ultimate peak inside the ups, downs and around the corners of shady dealings, larger than life mayhem and the unconquerable spirit of the Funk. Written by P-Fan turned P-Friend, Kris Needs, the book covers George’s early life in 1940s North Carolina through the 1997 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with an epilogue that briefly updates things through January 2014. Along the way, we get a glimpse of the driven musical genius of Doctor Funkenstein and the raft of musicians (and, occasionally, their families) who have been a part – no matter how ancillary – of the Parliament-Funkadelic circus. Needs began covering the band(s) for his own Zigzag magazine, reviewing the albums alongside the rock and punk music then holding sway in the United Kingdom (particularly London), eventually interviewing everyone from Clinton himself to Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey and William “Bootsy” Collins to legendary guitarists Eddie Hazel and Garry Shider and future Talking Heads keyboard player Bernie Worrell. While it is abundantly clear that Needs is as huge a fan as you’re ever going to come across, he basically lets the hours and hours of interviews with the various involved parties drive the narrative. In other words, he doesn’t sugarcoat much of anything, making GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE a definitive read on the subject.

The Parliaments, 1966 ("Sugar" Ray Harris, Calvin Simon, Clarence "Fuzzy" Haskins, Grady Thomas, George Clinton) (publicity photo)

The Parliaments, 1966 (“Sugar” Ray Harris, Calvin Simon, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Grady Thomas, George Clinton) (publicity photo)

A young George relocated to Newark, New Jersey with his family, where he met the proto-girl-group, the Shirelles; He likewise became enamored with the acapella street corner performers and a new musical style called doo-wop. It was also in Newark that he began frequenting the cultural epicenter of the black community, the neighborhood barber shop, where he would hone the skills that have served to make him one of the most successful businessmen of his time and, of course, a musical icon. Hanging out at the barber shop, George learned to cut and style hair and run a business. He also began singing and harmonizing with other like-minded shop patrons; from there, George and his friends formed the nucleus of the P-Funk empire, the Parliaments. Needs goes into great detail as he examines the intricacies of 1950s black culture, the phenomena of doo-wop and the histories of several acts that had a great influence on the development of the young boy who would become, not just “George Clinton,” but GEORGE CLINTON. The author also introduces and details the lives of each individual member of the Parliaments, following their trajectories toward becoming part of, first, Funkadelic and, then, Parliament.

Guitar wunderkind Eddie Hazel, circa 1977 (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

Guitar wunderkind Eddie Hazel, circa 1977 (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES)

The group, through the barber shop, found Billy Nelson, incendiary guitarist Eddie Hazel and others, all recruited to the cause. That cause, at first, was to become rich and famous and to get as many girls as possible; eventually, with George managing affairs, the cause became “make George rich and famous so he can get as many girls as possible” but… none of the others seemed to care at that point. The book follows the original group through a growing period, a bitter disappointment and an eventual “meteoric” rise to the top of the R and B and rock heaps. Along the way, the group adds and subtracts members as some become disillusioned with George’s business dealings. Again, Needs examines the lives of the numerous vocalists and musicians who passed through the group, giving each their moment to shine (a good number of them posthumously).

Funkadelic, circa mid-1970s (publicity photo)

Funkadelic, circa mid-1970s (publicity photo)

Surroundings, historical and musical events are detailed, as well, giving the reader perspective on George and the group’s actions at any given time. The move to Detroit, discovery of a psychedelic counter-culture (which was partially responsible for the group’s eschewing the matching jackets for a… uh… funkier mode of attire or – in George’s case, lack thereof) and eventual descent into drug addiction is handled matter-of-factly, as is George’s rather disreputable dealings with record labels (in an attempt to amass a stable of performers akin to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records) and the conniving double-talk that allowed him to keep all royalties and most tour profits from his fellow band members, co-writers and co-producers of the P-Funk stable. I was well aware of Clinton’s great musical acumen, but had never really considered that he could be a dictatorial genius, a la Frank Zappa (whom he admired), Don Van Vliet or Miles Davis; I always pictured him more of a free spirit, Sun Ra type of leader. One thing is certain: He knew what he wanted and knew exactly was needed to draw it out of the talented people with which he surrounded himself.

The Parliament-Funkadelic machine, late 1970s (publicity photo)

The Parliament-Funkadelic machine, late 1970s (publicity photo)

As the ’70s became the ’80s, both Parliament and Funkadelic were huge successes, as were individual members: Bootsy had become a “solo” star with his Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein were dance floor monsters (so to speak) and several other former or current members of the crew were releasing albums to critical (if not public) acclaim. George had been playing major label spin the bottle for some time: Funkadelic and Bootsy were both on Warner Brothers, Parliament ended up on PolyGram after Casablanca chief, Neil Bogart, sold the label. He went one step too far when he tried to convince Capitol Records to sign him as a solo artist. From that debacle came a raft of legal problems, some of which George is still working to extricate himself from. All of these dealings and subsequent fall-out are handled like everything else in the book: Straight-forward, with very little sugarcoating.

George Clinton exits the Mothership, circa 1978 (uncredited photo)

George Clinton exits the Mothership, circa 1978 (uncredited photo)

As the story moves forward, into the hip hop era (late ’70s and after), George’s light begins to shine a little bit brighter once more, as rappers begin to sample the music of P-Funk. George Clinton, who had fallen from grace as an entrepreneur was still a well-respected producer and artist. It’s hard not to like a guy like George and, after more than five decades in the business, root for his success. It’s hard not to feel a touch of remorse for those musicians and friends that George left by the wayside on his march toward becoming the dominant force in Funk Music. Some of them have been left bitter by their experiences with Clinton and some, quite simply, not here anymore. Kris Needs makes sure that each and every person who ever entered the Mothership’s galactic sphere are remembered and, where he could, he offers updates on them all.

George Clinton, circa 2012 (photo credit: WILLIAM THOREN)

George Clinton, circa 2012 (photo credit: WILLIAM THOREN)

As much as GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE is a biography, it also stands as a cautionary tale of how not to succeed in the music business. It has some bumps and editorial rough spots, but the book is thoroughly enjoyable. As an added bonus, there are 24 pages of black and white and color photos (some rare) of every stage of George’s life and the group’s career. The book is available at Amazon (in hardcover and Kindle versions), Barnes and Noble (in paperback and Nook versions) and the publisher’s web-site, www.omnibuspress.com.


THE 50 GREATEST PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS OF ALL TIME: THE DEFINITIVE SHOOT

(Larry Matysik; 464 pages; ECW PRESS; 2013)

50-Book

A lot of you may not recognize Larry Matysik’s name but, in Saint Louis wrestling circles, he looms large as an elder-statesman of the business. Larry started his career at the age of sixteen, working with legendary promoter (as well as president of the National Wrestling Alliance), Sam Muchnick and learning the ropes (so to speak) and the inner workings of the wrestling game. By his 22nd birthday, he was THE announcer in Saint Louis, calling the play-by-play on the influential WRESTLING AT THE CHASE, acting as ring announcer for the bi-weekly house matches at the Keil Auditorium (and, later, the Saint Louis Arena/Checkerdome), and holding his own in interviews with some of the top names in the business, including Harley Race, Jack Briscoe, Ted DiBiase (before he was worth a million), Dick the Bruiser, Baron Von Raschke, Ox Baker, Dick Murdoch (an absolutely hilarious interviewee who once chased Larry around the ring) and – whoooo! – that limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’, dealin’ son of a gun, the Nature Boy, Ric Flair. To say that it was an honor to sit down with the man for a few minutes and pick his brain regarding the industry that gave me a closeness with my father that few of my generation ever knew is an understatement of epic proportions. Larry and I talked about and debated the greats, near greats and never weres, the state of the game today and, of course, his latest book, THE 50 GREATEST PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS OF ALL TIME: THE DEFINITIVE SHOOT.

The Author discusses the 50 greatest with Larry Matysik (photo credit: SCOTT HARTMAN)

The Author discusses the 50 greatest with Larry Matysik (photo credit: SCOTT HARTMAN)

This was originally intended to be an interview piece with Larry, but we did the Q and A session before and during the breaks at a house show for a small, independent promotion and, well… it was LOUD! When the time came for me to transcribe the tape, I was getting maybe about a third of what was said. So, since the gist of the interview was the book, I decided to turn the piece into a fairly standard review, with a few of the pearls that I could salvage (or remember) from the interview. Thus, without further ado…

Harley Race and Ric Flair, in one of their numerous, bloody matches (uncredited photo)

Harley Race and Ric Flair, in one of their numerous, bloody matches (uncredited photo)

I don’t agree that some of these wrestlers are, indeed, among the all time greats; I don’t agree with the placement of several of the performers listed. But, then, that’s the fun of a book like this, isn’t it? Mister Matysik, however, took painstaking measures in his choices and their positions. In fact, the first 106 pages of the book outlines the criteria he implemented in compiling this list. Most of my likes and dislikes and disagreements with those choices are personal, generally fueled by a visceral dislike for a certain “rassler” or the company they worked (or work) for. For instance, I can fully understand why Terry (Hulk Hogan) Bollea is on the list: He became the most recognizable face of the World Wrestling Federation (now known as the WWE) and the industry, catapulting the WWF to the top of the promotional heap, actually going “world wide” at a time when territorial promotions were the norm; Hulk literally changed the industry, making wrestling far more marketable than just a weekly local television show and a monthly house show. However, in my humble opinion, he ruined the wrestling game for fans like me and, as such, there is no way that he deserves to be listed above Harley Race; always loved Race (the greatest ever in my eyes) and truly hated what Vince McMahon (Junior) did to him when he signed on with the then WWF; likewise, I always loathed the Hulkster, a poor worker with minimal ability who would be beaten mercilessly for ten minutes, bug his eyes out and point a menacing finger at his opponent who, naturally, would cower in fear and succumb to the Herculean effects of Hogan’s finishing move, the giant leg drop, in less than a minute. But, again, that’s just me; Larry, after all, is the expert and lays out the pros and cons of every member of this elite conglomeration in a studious and – above all – entertaining fashion. And, as one of the pros happens to be marketability (as well as the ability to bring in a big payday for the promoter), Hulk Hogan has his place near the top of the heap.

Multi-time World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz (publicity photo)

Multi-time World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz (publicity photo)

Matysik is a scholar of the game and is quite jealous when someone berates it, especially when they call it “fake.” He worked with and befriended many of these athletes (yes… I said athletes; they may be “entertainers” but what they do requires great athletic ability), even becoming business partners with one, Frank (King Kong/Bruiser Brody) Goodish. Larry brings his encyclopedic knowledge of the professional wrestling business to this book, drawing from every era and every promotion to compile his 50 greatest list. Out of curiosity, I asked him about some of my favorites (and not so favorites) over the years. Guys like Baron Von Raschke, Lord Alfred Hayes, Bulldog Bob Brown, Ken Patera, Dick Murdoch, Paul Orndorff and so many others. Most he knew personally, others he knew by reputation only, all he had an opinion on. So, were any of these guys considered for the list? Yes they were. Every professional wrestler who ever stepped into the squared circle was considered for a spot on Larry’s list. Some were great at drawing heat as a heel (a bad guy) and were real gentlemen out of the spotlight but, for whatever reason, never reached the upper echelons of the business, which precluded their garnering a spot on the list. Another thing to consider is, “How would a particular performer fair in any other era outside his own?” Taking all of Matysik’s criteria and applying them to that question eliminated a good number of candidates, including some dominating names from certain periods of wrestling history.

Hulk Hogan, brother! (uncredited photo)

Hulk Hogan, brother! (uncredited photo)

As an interesting sidebar, we also discussed the business side of the industry, in particular, the type of business practices utilized by one Vincent Kennedy McMahon (or VKM, as Larry calls him). While we both agree that VKM’s take-no-prisoner approach has manifestly harmed not only the game as a whole, but his brand, as well, we also recognize that he elevated public interest in a dying industry that – even some 30 years later – it still enjoys, though the WWE brand has more recently been responsible for continuing diminishing numbers on television and at house shows. McMahon is also notorious for “scorched earth” tactics that virtually guarantee that, eventually, every major star at rival promotions must sign with him or find another line of work. He then buries them in mid-card matches or stooges them out (like he did it with Harley Race and so many others), simply because they had the nerve to work for a competitor. If he sees a performer who becomes more popular than VKM’s chosen, he puts them in not only ridiculous, but untenable situations; the most recent example being Phil Brooks, better known as CM Punk who, rather than playing the game, chose to retire. Larry alluded to the fact that Punk was definitely in the running for this list and probably would have made the cut had he not walked away, citing a dearth of ring time (which, we are assuming he would have had if he hadn’t retired) as the primary reason that he didn’t get the nod. As the only truly viable alternative to Vince’s WWE currently is Total Nonstop Action (TNA), the discussion eventually turned to the problems within that promotion; even though he thinks that president Dixie Carter and her creative team are making a bad situation worse, Larry hopes to see the ship righted. At the time of the interview, rumors were rampant that McMahon had already or was going to initiate a hostile takeover of TNA (as he did with WCW and ECW); Matysik agrees that such a move would, ultimately, do more harm than good, stifling a healthy, competitive corporate atmosphere and further muddying WWE’s already murky talent pool. Several months removed from our talk, rumors abound that TNA’s ship is sinking faster than ever and, apparently, the hull is so badly damaged that even McMahon has no interest in acquiring the brand. He’s content to just sit in his WWE lifeboat and drag anyone he deems worthy of saving aboard… as long they’re willing to bow to his mastery.

Kurt Angle, one of the 50 greatest, puts an ankle lock on Samoa Joe (photo courtesy: TOTAL NONSTOP ACTION)

Kurt Angle, one of the 50 greatest, puts an ankle lock on Samoa Joe (photo courtesy: TOTAL NONSTOP ACTION)

As you can see, Larry certainly doesn’t pull any punches, making this book a must have for any true wrestling fan. Since we will all have our opinion as to who should be on the list and who shouldn’t and why, this could definitely serve as a starting point for spirited debates among the kindred (maybe even a headlock, a diving headbutt or – at the very least – a hip-toss takedown for the truly vociferous patron of the art). Each entry has a great black and white picture of the wrestler and a five to ten page overview of his career and why Larry chose him for the list (and why he placed him, numerically, where he did). And, while most of today’s fans know only the likes of John Cena, the Undertaker, Brock Lesner or Kurt Angle (all on the list, by the way… for better or worse), THE 50 GREATEST PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS OF ALL TIME is a fantastic history lesson for them and a wonderful look back for us geezers who remember the National Wrestling Alliance, the American Wrestling Association, World Class Championship Wrestling or any of the other regional promotions. The names are legendary: Edouard Carpentier, Classy Freddie Blassie, Pat O’Connor, Fritz Von Erich (father of the ill-fated Von Erich wrestling clan), Nick Bockwinkel, Lou Thesz and, of course – whoooo! – that limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’, dealin’ son of a gun, the Nature Boy, Ric Flair. See what I did there? I just brought this whole review back to the beginning!

John Cena, one of the 50 greatest, dropkicks Bray Wyatt (photo courtesy: WORLD WRESTLING ENTERTAINMENT)

John Cena, one of the 50 greatest, dropkicks Bray Wyatt (photo courtesy: WORLD WRESTLING ENTERTAINMENT)

Uh… yeah… so, anyway, you’re gonna have to pick up your very own copy of the book to see just where your favorites place; it’s available at most book stores, through Amazon online and, of course, directly from www.ecwpress.com, as are Larry’s other books, including BRODY: THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF WRESTLING’S REBEL and WRESTLING AT THE CHASE: THE INSIDE STORY OF SAM MUCHNICK AND THE LEGENDS OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING.


IT’S (STILL) A MAN”S WORLD: THE EVELYN MCDONNELL INTERVIEW

Part 1: RANDOM MUSINGS

Rock and roll was, is and probably always will be a man’s game. True, there have been a few ladies who were able to transcend that mystical barrier… at least, from a fan’s perspective. But, ask them about the business end or ask them about how they are generally treated in the media. There, the stories are much different. Marketing strategies usually accentuate the sexual aspects of a woman who rocks over how well she plays her instrument, sings or writes music. And, the music press, of course, goes along for the ride with photo shoots that dwell on the physical appearance – the female form – of their latest cover girl. If an instrument (usually a guitar, for – no doubt – its phallic properties) is on display in the photo, it’s used as a sexual device. So, how do we change this thinking? That’s the underlying question posed in the work of Evelyn McDonnell, a journalist, an educator, and… a woman. She has been exploring the subject for close to 30 years, while schooling a few people along the way about some of the trend-setting, door-opening heroines who made it just a little cooler for a lady to rock. One such group of teenage girls wanted to rock and, while suffering unimaginable degradation (everyone from their manager to their record label to the music press held these five young ladies in the lowest regard, treating them as – at the very worst – a group of over-sexed nymphomaniacs or – at the very least – a novelty act), managed to not only open the door, but kick the door down with their platform boots.

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976, debut album gatefold (Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Sandy West) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

That group of young girls was the Runaways, who have recently been the subject of a major (though tragically skewed) biographical movie, based on the memoirs of lead singer Cherie Currie. Ms McDonnell’s latest book (QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS, published by DeCapo Books) takes a more balanced look at the Runaways, from the first meeting between drummer Sandy West and guitarist Joan Jett through the ugly splits with, first, bassist Jackie Fox, then, Currie. It really is sad to say that many of the stories and legends about West, Fox, Currie, Jett, lead guitarist Lita Ford and those who came before and after are true. Their manager/guru, Kim Fowley, treated them like product… a means to an end. The end, of course, for Fowley was huge amounts of money. The fact that he didn’t get filthy rich off of his “gimmick” was, in my opinion, a case of his own hubris, putting too much stock in his creation and then turning the reins over to men even more unscrupulous than he. His (and his minions) handling of the young ladies who were Runaways (including, during the band’s infancy, future Bangles bassist Michael Steele) left mental and physical wounds that may never heal. Sandy West died, still trying to recapture what made the Runaways a great band; Jackie Fox has just, very recently, started opening up about her time in the band. McDonnell’s no-holds-barred account is a must read for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll music, but also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone – male or female – looking to be the next big thing.

Part 2: THE INTERVIEW

Queens of Noise cover

THE MULE: Evelyn, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your latest book, QUEENS OF NOISE: THE REAL STORY OF THE RUNAWAYS. Before we jump into that, could you give us a brief overview of your careers, as a journalist and as an assistant professor of journalism?
EVELYN: I’ve been a writer or editor for daily newspapers, magazines, trade publications, alternative weeklies, and websites for almost 30 years. I’ve primarily done cultural journalism, specializing in music and women’s issues. I’ve won several awards, including an Annenberg fellowship, which led me to get my Master’s at USC. After that, I began teaching at LMU, where I have been ever since.

 

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

Evelyn McDonnell (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: QUEENS OF NOISE started as a treatise on drummer Sandy West, right?
EVELYN: Yes.
THE MULE: How did you become interested in Sandy and what prompted the change to writing a book about the entire band?
EVELYN: You answer this in the next question, really. First, I always have a thing for drummers, probably because I wanted a drum set when I was a little girl, and unlike Sandy, I did not make my parents give me one. Second, I, too, was deeply moved by Sandy’s responses in EDGEPLAY. My advisor at USC, Tim Page, had also seen the movie and had the same response. In talking about the Runaways and EDGEPLAY, we both agreed that for the thesis, I should focus on Sandy. We wanted to know more about her story. To this day I remain entranced by her.

 

Sandy West doing what she loved... playing live (uncredited photo)

Sandy West doing what she loved… playing live (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I was brought to tears watching Sandy’s segments in EDGEPLAY. The sense of desperation and of a deeply lost soul struggling for just one more chance. Did you have the chance to interview her and spend time with her before her death? Had her outlook and mental state changed by that time?
EVELYN: Sadly, I never met Sandy. I really hadn’t thought about writing any of this until I was suddenly moving to LA, and she passed several years beforehand. I think we would have been good friends. Even now I have a crush on her.

 

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

The Runaways, circa 1975 (Micki Steele, Sandy West, Joan Jett) (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

THE MULE: When I was listening to QUEENS OF NOISE in 1977, it seemed – from the outside – that Cherie Currie was rather like the whipping post for, not only Kim Fowley, but also Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Before Cherie joined the band, it seemed as though songwriter Kari Krome took the brunt of the abuse. Reading your book, it seems that maybe a lot of the anger and vitriol aimed at her, at least from her band mates, may have been a reaction against Kim’s take-no-prisoners pattern of verbal abuse toward anyone associated with the Runaways. Am I misreading this or did you get the same feeling as you interviewed these women?
EVELYN: Actually I think you were very perceptive; you must have followed the band closely! I think Kim picked his victims, first Micki, then Kari, then Cherie. Sadly, I’m afraid that some of the members of the band fell for his power dynamics and sometimes even played along. But I also think that Cherie was very difficult. I don’t think Kim was wrong in accusing her of having a huge ego. She and Joan got along. It was mostly Lita Cherie fought with, and Kim.

 

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

The Runaways, circa 1977 (Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford, Sandy West) (photo credit: CLAUDE VAN HEY/LONDON FEATURES)

THE MULE: I enjoyed Cherie’s biography, NEON ANGEL, and was entertained by the movie, THE RUNAWAYS, but these gave a very skewed perspective on the story of one of the most influential bands to come out of the LA rock scene. Your book allows every member of that group to have their input into what has become a very muddled history. I was particularly interested in Jackie Fox’s perspective. I’d always read that she was somewhat a whiner when she was a part of the band and, after she left, that she absolutely refused to discuss the band or her part in it with anybody. So, I guess to get this thing moving, was that mostly a mythology concocted by the band and their management or is it that Jackie has softened on her stance? Is there a sense that had THE RUNAWAYS happened now, instead of four years ago, she would have somehow been involved in that and given her okay for the producers to use her name in the movie?
EVELYN: Thanks for understanding what I was trying to accomplish with this book. Jackie was the most accommodating member of the band, though she took some convincing. She is quite willing to talk about her experiences, and in fact has in the past written blogs about them. She did change her mind about cooperating with the movie, but too late. However, I think she was very different from the other girls: book-smart, an overachiever, feminine, neurotic. She really didn’t fit in, and she was simply too smart – and not interested in partying enough – to enjoy a lot of what went on. There are members of the Runaways – okay, mostly Joan – who really do not trust her, or like her. They have their reasons; I want to be very careful not to take sides in these fights. But I was very happy to be able to present Jackie’s point of view. I hope we haven’t heard the last of her!

THE MULE: The band’s albums were right in my musical wheelhouse, so to speak. In fact, both Joan and Lita are less than two weeks younger than me. Of course, when that first album came out, I was drawn to the picture of Cherie on the cover, but when I got home and put the record on the turntable (boys and girls, I’ll give you a chance to Google those words… okay, so we’re back), it was quite obvious that this was something pretty special. It was – to say the least – very strange for a bunch of teenage girls to be playing rock and roll like this. Even though I never looked at it as anything other than talented musicians playing music that I liked, there was a stigma placed on the Runaways. Now, nearly 40 years later, there are women who owe their careers to these ladies. Even so, do you still get the impression that – particularly among knuckleheaded journalists like me – women who rock are still looked down upon as almost a novelty act? I’m continually hearing things like, “She plays pretty good for a girl.” How do we get past that kind of gender bias?
EVELYN: Okay, you made me LOL. But think about it: Where are the girl bands today? Beyonce plays with one, bless her. And there are a bunch bubbling up from underground, inspired by Pussy Riot and THE PUNK SINGER and, yes, the Runaways: Pottymouth, Cherry Glazerr, Girlpool, Girl in a Coma, etc. But they are still marginalized and treated as “cute,” by and large. The Girls Rock Camps of the world are training a new musical army. YouTube and the Internet allow artists to circumvent the old gatekeepers. But new media outlets like PITCHFORK largely replicate the boys club of the old media. We still need more female, and feminist, media voices.

 

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

The Runaways, 1976 (Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Jackie Fox, Sandy West, Cherie Currie) (photo credit: TOM GOLD)

THE MULE: That bias was rampant from a journalistic standpoint. I remember the first thing I ever read about the Runaways was in CRAWDADDY (probably the only time I actually bought an issue). The sometime irreverent magazine seemed to go even farther in turning these teenage girls into something that was closer to strippers and nymphomaniacs than serious musicians. I recall, in particular, the writer spending a fair amount of column space discussing Cherie’s problems with a silver jumpsuit; the article went into great detail (with quotes) letting the male rock listening majority know that since Cherie didn’t wear underwear, she was suffering from a rash that required her to place a piece of paper between her skin and the crotch of her jumpsuit. I’m not sure that anyone – before or since – was ever subjected to that kind of “journalism,” yet the underlying sense that rock ‘n’ roll is still very much a “boys game” persists. Do you think that the day will ever come that such thinking is completely left behind?
EVELYN: Wow, I never saw that CRAWDADDY piece. My first book, ROCK SHE WROTE, co-edited with Ann Powers, was all about storming the boys club of criticism; it came out almost 20 years ago. But even though I had studied the terrain well, I was not prepared for just how chauvinist some of the coverage of the Runaways was. The Wilson sisters talk about this in their memoir, too, how loutishly the media treated Heart. Meanwhile, the publishing industry just paid some guy 7 figures (!!!!!!) to write a hagiography — er, biography — of Jann Wenner. Makes me want to puke.

 

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

The Runaways, 1978 (Vicki Blue, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Lita Ford) (photo credit: BARRY LEVINE)

THE MULE: Though Lita and Cherie seem to be on board with a Runaways reunion, Joan has said publicly that doesn’t see what a reunion would accomplish. Do you feel that we will ever see anything close to an official reunion?
EVELYN: I doubt it. The water under that bridge just won’t calm down.

THE MULE: What’s next for you? As an old rock ‘n’ roller from the ’70s, I would be interested in a book about another “all girl” band, Fanny. Would you be interested in exploring something like that?
EVELYN: I’m not sure yet. I have one project along those lines I’m considering. But a part of me wants to, er, run away from all things rock ‘n’ roll related. It’s a ghetto, especially for a woman. Maybe it’s time to move on.

THE MULE: Thanks for your time, Evelyn, and for giving the Runaways story the respect it deserves.
EVELYN: Thank you for your careful reading and thoughtful questions.


LUNAR NOTES: ZOOT HORN ROLLO’S CAPTAIN BEEFHEART EXPERIENCE

(Bill Harkleroad with Billy James; 125 pages; Gonzo Multimedia, Re-released 2013)

LUNAR NOTES

Short and to the point (94 pages of text plus a preface and foreword along with several pages of rare and personal photos), Bill Harkleroad recounts his days as one of the most well-known members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Dubbed Zoot Horn Rollo by the Captain himself, Don Van Vliet, Harkleroad joined the group as an eighteen year old, just in time for the grueling rehearsal sessions for what would become – arguably – the band’s most-beloved (by the fans, anyway) album, TROUT MASK REPLICA.

TROUT MASK REPLICA (Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton (photo: Ed Caraeff)

TROUT MASK REPLICA (Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton (photo: Ed Caraeff)

Like Van Vliet’s high school buddy, Frank Zappa, the Captain was a dictatorial band leader. Unlike Zappa, however, Beefheart’s musical vision was scattered and unfocused, relying on the musicians to turn his various thoughts into a close approximation of that vision. He would dub a different member of the band “the bad guy” each day, fraying nerves and causing friction. This practice led to a heavy rate of turnover, eventually leading to Harkleroad becoming the “musical director” of the Magic Band. He would be the person that Van Vliet would call in the middle of the night, whistling a melody or thematic thread into the phone. It was his job to turn those threads into musical notations and to help the rest of the band turn them into a somewhat cohesive tune. The process was exacerbated by Van Vliet’s reluctance to practice with the band (if he bothered to show up at rehearsals at all). At least, Zappa actually attended his marathon rehearsal sessions, armed with ideas and music ready to play.

Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad onstage, circa 1970) (uncredited photos)

Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad onstage, circa 1970) (uncredited photos)

So, this is a “let’s bash the eccentric frontman” type of memoir, right? Wrong! Harkleroad (and, really, just about every player who ever shared a stage – or recording session – with Don Van Vliet) did butt heads with the enigmatic Captain, but maintained a deep, heartfelt love and an emotional tie that continued, at least, until the original taped remembrances (LUNAR NOTES was originally released in 1998 and has been out of print for more than 10 years) that make up this book. In Harkleroad’s preface, he mentions his reticence to doing a book like this, primarily because he wasn’t a writer. Noted publicist, musician and biographer of several outre artists (The Mothers, Todd Rundgren, Michael Bruce among others), Billy James, took up the mantel of “co-author.” James’ involvement allowed Bill to reminisce in a rather scattered, stream-of-consciousness way, with Billy cleaning up and streamlining the stories into a chronological order that takes us through Harkleroad’s first meeting with the Captain and His Magic Band in 1967 through his departure from the group in 1974 and the formation and dissolution of the band Mallard. The final part of the book recounts his life to that point (approximately 1996 through 1998) following Mallard and his ultimately coming to terms with his history and pedigree. That final chapter is entitled “I Am Zoot Horn Rollo.”

Bill Harkleroad, 1998 (photo: MAGNUS TOREN)

Bill Harkleroad, 1998 (photo: MAGNUS TOREN)

I have long been a fan of Captain Beefheart’s music. Yes, his lyrics and vocal delivery are a large part of what I enjoy about the music, but – equally important to me – was the musical acumen of the Magic Band. The inherent groove of almost every album draws me in, something I don’t believe would have been possible with other players. Bill Harkleroad, as Zoot Horn Rollo, was a major part of those late ’60s and early ’70s albums that I love so much. This book gives me insight into those times and the imaginative and talented musicians who created that music. For that, I must say, “Thank you, Rollo, for this book.” For any Beefheart or Zappa fan, this is a must read!


ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RENAISSANCE MAN: THE GREG KIHN INTERVIEW

Greg Kihn is a man of many talents, as you’ll see as you read this interview. For nearly an hour, Mister Kihn reminisced on his life, his family, his music career, his radio career, his writing career, his new book – RUBBER SOUL, the Beatles, Bret Michaels’ sex appeal, Sammy Hagar’s sexual prowess and Willie Nelson’s appendage. So, strap in, boys and girls… this is Greg Kihn uncut and unfiltered. The conversation took place over the phone on August 29, 2013, a few days before the release of RUBBER SOUL. My apologies to Greg for the delay in posting this but, computer glitches have been kicking my butt for the past several weeks. To paraphrase some dead guy named Bill… “Read on, McDuff!”

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

THE MULE: First of all, RUBBER SOUL. Awesome book. It’s really intriguing and it’s actually a really nice, fun read. How did you come up with the idea… obviously, a coming of age story. But there’s also murder, foreign intrigue and… the Beatles.

GREG: You know, it all came to me after I had interviewed Ringo. It was back when he was on tour with his All-Starr Band. So I had the privilege of Interviewing Ringo and I asked him, “Where did the Beatles get their records?” You know, in the early days, you couldn’t buy this stuff in Liverpool. They didn’t have import shops and so forth. He said, “You know, we got ’em from Merchant Marines that were traveling back and forth from the States to Liverpool.” Liverpool’s is a big port town, obviously. And these guys would come back and bring all the latest records from the States with ’em and you had to know a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy so that you could get your hands on these rare American 45s. They normally wouldn’t come out for six to twelve months over there… if they came out at all. A lot of ’em never made it out. So, that gave me the idea for this character, Dust Bin Bob, who’s a young guy… a young and penniless guy just like the Beatles when they started. He’s got a booth at the flea market in Penny Lane and he’s getting these American 45s from Merchant Marines and he’s selling them at his small stall at the flea market. One day the young Beatles walk by… this is years before they made it and they see these records and they flip out. They become life-long friends with Dust Bin Bob because he furnishes them with music for their whole career; suggesting songs, turning them on to things. Of course, that became their early repertoire and, really, the backbone of their sound.

RUBBER SOUL cover

RUBBER SOUL cover

You know, it was… that was really interesting because I didn’t expect that answer. But it gave me the idea for Dust Bin Bob. “Dust bin,” by the way, is English for “trash can.” So… kinda like “Trash Can” Bob because he’s got a stall at the flea market, he’s rummaging through trash cans. Obviously, they’re all poor; this is years before they made it. And it just gave me the idea for a story. You know… “How do you become life long friends with the Beatles?” Well, obviously, you gotta be their age and start out with them before they become famous and help ’em out by giving them the records. So, they become life long friends, all through Beatlemania and it climaxes in the Philippines with the assassination attempt by the Marcos regime on the Beatles.

Now, a lot of this stuff was based on interviews. I got to interview Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles. He told me all about the Hamburg days. I got to talk to Ringo. I even got to talk to Paul and I got to talk to their driver, Alf Bicknell, who really had some hair-raising stuff to say about what happened to the Beatles when they got to Manila. It was just nuts. But, I don’t wanna give to much away! You gotta read the book, man!

THE MULE: Oh, absolutely!

GREG: It’s unlike anything that you’re probably going to read in years. I know it’s unlike any other Beatles book because it’s Beatles fiction.

THE MULE: Exactly. So, the character of Dust Bin Bob is, basically, a composite of… I would guess… the Beatles’ persona as well as the people that provided the music to them early on.

GREG: That’s correct. You know, it was a composite character, which is always fun when you do a guy like that. What I was able to do – once I created the character – I was able to fit my story over actual events in the Beatles’ lives. There’s lots of juicy tidbits in there about the Hamburg days, the early days at the Cavern, and you see it through their eyes, through the eyes of Dust Bin Bob. And, really, it’s a unique… I’ll tell you, it came to me after the Ringo interview and once I got this far, I asked everybody where they got their records and, you know what? They all had the same thing to say: Merchant Marines coming back from the States. So, I thought, well that just helps me bolster my character of Dust Bin Bob. And, I’m telling you, everybody that’s read the book so far has loved it! It’s just completely unique and different. You don’t really have to be a Beatles fan because it’s a murder mystery, too.

THE MULE: Exactly! And, that’s the one thing… you say that a book is a page turner and this one, literally, is. It keeps you engaged and intrigued from the first sentence to that final sentence. So, kudos to you, my friend.

GREG: Hey, that’s why… You know what? I really appreciate it because when you read it, it’s as much fun for the reader… I had so much fun writing it! Though it was fun, I didn’t really do that much research. I know… All this stuff was already inside my brain and based on a couple of interviews. Some things write themselves. I couldn’t wait to get home every day to work on the book. It seemed like it was just writing itself. The story was just bigger… It seemed like I was just channeling the story. Every day, I’d get home from the radio station and I’d just write for two or three hours and the thing was just writing itself. It was like I had a ghostwriter in my brain! It may have been the ghost of Stuart Sutcliffe. I don’t know.

THE MULE: Could be. Or was it John and George, also, you know? Who knows?

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

GREG: Oh, I agree. I gotta tell you, Darren, I’ve been really… I don’t know if you know my story but, back around last September, I got fired from KFOX, where I’d been for 17 years, doing the morning show. Of course, that’s devastating when you’ve been doing something that long. But, that was a good kick in the pants! I’m really glad that happened now, because I really made good use of my time. In the last six months, I wrote and published RUBBER SOUL; I’ve got a brand new internet radio show that’s up and going, which you can find it at gregkihn.com. It’s really good. We put out a show every day; of course, I’ve got the Kihncert coming up… a big bash that we do out here in California. This year we’ve got Bret Michaels for our headliner and then the Greg Kihn Band and the Tubes. It’s gonna be a fun, fun concert.

But, you know, the cool thing is Bret Michaels draws beautiful women. Women love this guy! When you go and look out into the audience, you are going to see nothing but hot looking women. You’re gonna see a lot of leg, you’re gonna see a lot of leather, you’re gonna see a lot… probably a lot of tattoos. I’m really looking forward to it this year. He really does… I really haven’t known guys that drew women before. When we were… We did a tour with Rick Springfield. That guy drew incredible, beautiful women to every gig. In fact, it was 99% women at every gig! I’m kind of expecting that this year at the Kihncert. Of course, all that information can be found, for anybody that would want to travel… it’s gonna be a hell of a party! It’s all at gregkihn.com. It’s one stop shopping there, Darren.

THE MULE: Yeah. You’ve also… to spread a little bit more info here, you have re-released all of the Bezerkley albums? Is that true?

GREG: Yeah. You know, I got ’em back, man. It took me years and years. I’ve been working on this for, like, the last 15 years and one by one, I got every album back. Believe it or not. Some I bought… you know, I paid for; some I had to sue… I had to sue Universal to get a couple of the albums back; some of ’em were just outright released to me. So, we’ve putting together all of the albums. And, I’m one of the few musicians… I know Todd Rundgren’s the other one… who owns all of his own stuff. So, that means that I can put out my own greatest hits packages. And, what we’ve done, we’ve released the entire catalog over the last 12 months or so… every album, in order. You can go to iTunes, download all that stuff. Then we put together a BEST OF BEZERKLEY package, which I think is one of my favorite albums of all time because I hand picked every song. There’s, like, one song from every album and it’s got all our greatest hits on it. The nice thing about that was, I got to do liner notes and I include in a little booklet with lots of pictures of the old days and how the band looked and little stories about each song and how we recorded it.

Greg Kihn Band: THE BEST OF BERZERKLEY cover

Greg Kihn Band: THE BEST OF BERZERKLEY cover

You know, I’m older than dirt. My first album came out in ’76. I’ve had a hell of career, man! Eighteen albums all total, in 18 years; I had a bunch of hits, with “Jeopardy” and “The Breakup Song.” Then, I got into radio and did that for 17 years straight. Held down the number one spot in the morning, so you know that’s a toughy! No less than San Francisco, which is a major market… the whole Bay Area there. Definitely, the odds are a jillion-to-one that I could have done that.

So, I started writing books in there somewhere and now, I’ve got this new book out and I’m thinking this could be a best seller. It’s certainly got all the earmarks. And all of the reviews have been great. So far everybody’s loving it. Wouldn’t it be cool… I mean, I’m not gonna make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I’m gonna definitely make a whole bunch of little Hall of Fames. I’m in the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame. I got fired the same week I was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame. I’d already won the ratings war but, you know how it is, man… it’s all the bottom line and you work for these companies… you know… you take your chances. I’m not bitter about it. In fact, I think we had a great run. I’m very happy to have 17 years on the air and what it did was set me up really comfortably. I’m workin’ for myself and it’s a lot of fun.

THE MULE: Plus, you have the time to do all this other stuff.

GREG: Yeah. That was the key. When you’re doing a morning show, you’re getting up at four, you’re going to bed at nine… you don’t have time to do anything else. Really, you don’t have time for anything. What time you do have, you’re pooped… you’re ready to take a nap. So, you know, suddenly I had all that time and I really fell right into writing the book. In fact, I’m about one third of the way through the sequel to RUBBER SOUL right now and that should be coming out next year around this time.

THE MULE: Really? That sounds awesome. Is this going to be another book… Is it gonna be just Dust Bin Bob or is it gonna continue the Beatles theme?

GREG: Yep. It’s going to be the continuing adventures of Dust Bin Bob. I don’t wanna let the cat out of the bag but, it’s, like, the next chapter in Dust Bin Bob’s life. It’s real exciting. Once again, he’s involved in a murder mystery. It’s a lot of fun. You know, I gotta tell ya, life’s been pretty good to me so far. It’s just a little complacent being on the radio and, now, it’s nice to be out there doing stuff… You know what we’re going to do next? The audio book to RUBBER SOUL. We’re going to follow this up… because the book comes out on September 3, which is Tuesday. That’s the actual street date for the book. So, I’ll be doing a bunch of book signings and promotions all around California. But, then I’m going to start working on that audio book here in my own little studio. I have no idea how long that’s gonna take. You know what I did? Dig this, Darren… I got a guy to help me, ’cause I’m reading this and there are a lot of parts that require Liverpool accents. I got this vocal coach. This guy does a great Liverpool accent and he’s going to coach me on all the Liverpool parts so, when I do it, it’s an authentic Liverpool accent. So, all of that stuff’s here and I wouldn’t be doing any of this… It looks like I’m going to continue to enjoy life. I really love being footloose and fancy free and working on what I wanna work on.

THE MULE: So, let’s stay with the books for a little bit. This is not the first book that you’ve written.

GREG: That’s correct. This is actually my fifth, right? Yeah… it’s my fifth. My first book was HORROR SHOW, which came out in ’96. That was my first novel. And, that was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel. I was very flattered. We’re trying to get… Here’s another thing that I’m going to be doing in the next year. We’re trying to get funding to make a movie of HORROR SHOW. I wrote a script for it and it’s just a really crazy horror movie. I just think it would be a lot of fun. So, that may be something that we’ll be doing a year from now.

But, HORROR SHOW… the second one was BIG ROCK BEAT. No… I’m sorry. The second was SHADE OF PALE. BIG ROCK BEAT was the third one and that was the sequel to HORROR SHOW. And then, MOJO HAND was the fourth one, which was the sequel to BIG ROCK BEAT. So, I tend to do things in sequels. I mean, once I get some characters, I like to transform through their lives to see what’s going on. So, I’ve done that multiple times and that’s going to be fun doing it with Dust Bin Bob because this guy leads an incredible life.

THE MULE: Oh, yeah! The adventures in RUBBER SOUL are really phenomenal and, you know, you start reading a book like this and you think, “Aw, man! That’s pretty impossible!” But, I think, maybe by you introducing real people into the story and into the plot, I find it pretty plausible. I mean, some fairly weird things happened to the Beatles.

GREG: Oh, yeah. Well, they certainly lived an exciting life.

Greg Kihn Band, circa 1977 (Steve Wright, Dave Carpender, Greg, Larry Lynch) (publicity photo)

Greg Kihn Band, circa 1977 (Steve Wright, Dave Carpender, Greg, Larry Lynch) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: Yeah, there’s no doubt about that! Also, let’s talk a little about the music again. The Greg Kihn Band now features your son, is that correct?

GREG: Yep. My son, Ry, plays lead guitar in the band and he’s phenomenal. He started off as a student of Joe Satriani when he was in the band. He’s got a little touch of Joe in him. That kid can play. He’s graduating with a guitar master from Cal Arts and he went to the Berkley School of Music in Boston so, he’s… Actually, unlike his old man, he can read music and he’s legit. The kid can play any style. Now, having him in the band ’cause he grew up watching all the great guitar players we’ve had in the band… we had Joe Satriani, Jimmy Lyon, Greg Douglass, Dave Carpender… we’ve had great guitar players and he grew up watching these guys! So, he knows how everybody played each solo and he’s been in the band now for awhile so, he’s real comfortable. I tell ya, I’m very proud. When I’m onstage, It’s an extra kick for me to look over there and I see my son. I’m really proud of the way that kid plays. You know, he gets a lot of standing ovations for a lot of his solos. It’s fun! I gotta tell you… I’m a proud papa!

Also… here’s another thing: I’m a grandfather now. My daughter had got two sons. They’re four and one-and-a-half. Now, these kids are both lovin’ the guitar! They love to play with grandpa on the guitar. We got them all kinds of toys… you know, various musical instruments. I’m tellin’ you, give us about 15 more years and we’ll have three generations of kin in the Greg Kihn Band. Wouldn’t that be a kick? We’d probably teach Nate how to play keyboards, we’ll teach the other one how to play bass and we’ll have a great time!

THE MULE: It’ll be like the Partridge Family, almost.

GREG: Yeah! There you go. Life is good. You know, I think part of it is, you just gotta kick back, enjoy life and not work so hard and grind your face into the wall. You know what I mean? You just gotta enjoy life and take things as they come. You gotta have… as a guy once said, “You gotta have rubber soul.” The title of RUBBER SOUL comes from a conversation that John Lennon is having with Dust Bin Bob. And, he says, “What do you think the human soul is?” I think the measure of a man is how you bounce back from adversity. You know? ‘Cause everybody feels good when they’re doing good but, when you’re bouncing back from adversity, and there’s a lot going on, you’ve got to have a rubber soul to bounce back. And, John goes, “That’s brilliant!” and writes it down. Of course, they used it for that album title years later.

THE MULE: There’s a lot of stuff that you put into the book that is really – you know – like I said, it’s very, very believable. Even though, upfront, you’re telling us Dust Bin Bob is a fictional character, this whole thing is fictional… you know, some of this stuff with the Beatles really happened but these are fictional accounts. But… reading something like that, you think, “You know what? That is a conversation that John Lennon could have had with anybody. That topic could have come up and, it’s very believable. So, “What are we gonna call the album?” “Oh. How about RUBBER SOUL?” It works!

GREG: Yeah. Exactly. And a lot of the stuff, little things like that… Like, did you know that, originally, they were called Long John and the Silver Beetles? And that they changed their names to Paul Ramone and George was… Well, they all had different names.

THE MULE: Yeah. His was Carl Harrison, right? After Carl Perkins.

GREG: Yeah, that’s right… Carl Harrison. By the end of the first year, they got back to their old names and they changed the group to the Beatles with the B-E-A and Dust Bin Bob goes, “That’s the dumbest name I’ve ever heard. You guys’ll never make it with a name like that!”

THE MULE: Yeah. I mean… it really is just – like I said before – it’s a fun read! It’s a good read. It’s a page-turner, because it is exciting and, you know, it feature’s some people that just about everybody on the face of the planet has a feeling about.

GREG: I agree. And, it was really fun working with them because they are so famous, we know so much about John and George and Paul and Ringo. We know these guys. They’ve been part of our lives for so long and, I don’t… This book, like I said before, wrote itself, man. It was real easy.

THE MULE: Obviously, you’ve already told us that Dust Bin Bob will make a… will have a sequel. Do you look forward, maybe, to any other books featuring different musical artists?

GREG: Well… As a matter of fact, I do. I’ve been making notes for probably two or three books down the line. I have always been fascinated with the life of Hank Williams – Hank Williams, Senior… the original Hank Williams – and I’ve got some notes on an idea for a book called THE DEVIL AND HANK WILLIAMS that I think will be a hell of a good read. All about Hank makin’ a deal with, you know, the Prince of Darkness and then trying to get out of it for the rest of his life. Of course, he died on his way to a gig in 1953. A lot of people thought, “Hey, the Devil came to reclaim ol’ Hank,” ’cause he had a hell of a career. He was only, like, 27 when he died. It’s ridiculous.

THE MULE: Yeah. Was he even that old? I was thinking he was even younger, but I… you know, I could be wrong. I mean, I’ve been wrong before.

GREG: Yeah, I’d have to check that. But, there’s so much about Hank and I thought, “You know, here’s a guy… “ and I was gonna draw a parallel to Paganini, go all the way back to the FAUST thing. And, it really is a retelling of the FAUST story. But, back in the 1800s, people thought that the great violinist Paganini had sold his soul to the Devil. Another claim… People claimed that in concerts, they could see the Devil over his shoulder, guiding his fingers; that he played these insane things that only he could play. And, I thought, “You Know, that’s kinda like Hank Williams.” The Devil was looking over Hank’s shoulder the whole time and the poor guy suffered his whole life. I think there’s a great novel in that so, I’ll probably be working on that next year.

THE MULE: Sounds good. I’m in, man! Whatever you write, I will read!

GREG: (Laughs) That’s what I love to hear!

THE MULE: You write it, I’ll read it.

GREG: I’m trying to start this new genre. You know how Tom Clancy writes techno-thrillers and John Grisham writes the legal thrillers… I’m trying to write music thrillers, trying to spark a new genre here. And, I like the fact that I use historical… you know, it’s like historical fiction. It’s like you’re writing about… Abraham Lincoln, or something. You can write about these historical characters because, really, all you’re doing is taking facts and adding your story to them.

THE MULE: Yeah… exactly. You know, a lot of people were kind of upset about ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER or whatever the heck the name of it was…

GREG: Exactly. You know, here’s another thing… Another thing, I’d like to say this because I think it’s important. I’ve always treated the Beatles with respect. I mean, I love them, they are a part of my life, they’re talented, creative people. I think that a certain amount of respect… that was the trouble with …VAMPIRE HUNTER. Really… that’s so disrespectful of, you know, Abe Lincoln. The whole thing, I find it repugnant. I always try to treat my guys with respect. All I can say is… I think what goes around, comes around and a lot of it is just having good karma.

THE MULE: Yeah. Anything new on the music side of things? Are you still writing…

Greg Kihn onstage (photo credit: BR COHN)

Greg Kihn onstage (photo credit: BR COHN)

GREG: Well, we have the Kihncert coming up and we’re starting to rehearse. Yeah, I’m starting to write songs again after years of not writing hardly anything. And, we may going back into the studio maybe this winter. Right now, I’ve got so much on my plate, I’m not gonna have time. But, we just leased a beautiful warehouse in Martinez, California… which is where I’m talking to you from now. We’ve got one room set up like a radio station and we’re doing the internet show from there. We’ve got the other huge studio room with 20 foot ceilings there. We’re going to change that to a recording studio and, we’re going to have the band rehearsing in there. Then, as we get… as we come up with the material, we’ll cut it right here. You know, there’s a lot on my plate and there’s going to be a lot on my plate as time goes by but, I tell you, man… I’d rather be working than not working, you know?

THE MULE: Yeah. You know, it sounds like you’ve got some things mapped out there and you are definitely keeping busy!

GREG: (laughs) You’ve got to, man! It’s what… It keeps you young, it keeps you moving, man! I’ve got to wrap it up here in a second. Let me just end this with a little story that happened to me a couple of months ago. I was at a big charity gig at a winery out here in Napa. Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani were there and the Doobie Brothers were there. We were all backstage, yakkin’ away… talkin’ and I was bragging to Sammy. And, you know, you don’t brag to Sammy! First of all, the guy could buy and sell all of us… twenty times over! He’s got more money than God. He told me he’s got more money than he can spend from his tequila thing. So, anyway, I’m sitting there, kinda bragging to Sammy: “Hey, Sammy, you know, I’m a Grandpa now! Got two kids, got two grandsons! Two grandsons, four and one-and-a-half!” And, he looks at me and he goes, “Hey, man, we’ve got children younger than my grandchildren!” And… I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, that means that you’ve boned your wife in the last… twelve months?” I thought to myself, “Wow! That’s impressive!” His own kids are younger than his grandkids! That’s insane! It shut me right up. Sobered me right up! You can’t brag to a guy like that. He’s still got bullets left in the chamber… I was blown away!

I just read on the air yesterday a funny poem by… you should look this up on the internet… it’s a funny poem by Willie Nelson and it’s called, “I’ve Outlived My Pecker.” He’d just turned 75 and it’s this poem about how it used to get him trouble and he was proud of it and now it’s just hangin’ there. It’s really funny but, you know, in a way, it’s kinda true. I mean, when Sammy told me that, I didn’t know what to say except, “Well, Sam, you got me beat, buddy!” I don’t think I could go out there and have babies at my age, at this point in time. Not that I’d want to but, apparently, he’s still bumpin’ ’em out and he’s older than me and you! Anyway, that guy is amazing!

So, I’ve got to wrap it up, Darren. Anything else you want to ask me in closing?

THE MULE: No… We’re just talking about www.gregkihn.com. You’ve have the radio show that’s on there. RUBBER SOUL is coming out on September 3. That’s next Tuesday. You have all of the Bezerkley albums that have been released over the last few months, actually. The Kihncert… when is that again?

GREG: October 12 in Morgan Hill, California and it’s gonna have me and Bret Michaels and the Tubes.

THE MULE: Sounds awesome! Thanks for the time.

GREG: Hey, thank, Darren! Great interview, too.

THE MULE:Take care, Greg. Thanks.

So, there you have it. Again, my apologies to Greg for the delay but, I guess – as the old adage goes – better late than never, huh? Greg’s a great guy and a real character. It was an extreme pleasure to just let the tape roll and see where his stream-of-consciousness, kamikaze approach to an interview would lead next. If you haven’t done so yet, go to Greg’s site (or any of the usual places) and pick up a copy of the coming-of-age, murder and espionage thriller, RUBBER SOUL, starring the Beatles. You will not be disappointed! It really is as good and as fun as I said. Obviously, the Beatles, their likenesses and their voices are so familiar to most of us who are of a certain age and I was really having fun reading the book, imagining the voices of John, Paul, George and Ringo actually saying their lines. All right, Greg, I’m ready for that sequel!


MATT MORING: PULP MASTER GENERAL

Altus Press logo

PART 1: AN INTRODUCTION

I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s. I loved the comics then, especially the early 1970s Marvel stuff. I used to make the 20 mile trip to the closest comics repository to buy every Marvel (and, eventually, every DC) title the day they came out. THE AVENGERS is and always will be my favorite book, but there was a lot of – for the time – cutting edge material being released back then, also. Some of my other favorites included books based on characters and series from the age of pulp, an art form that was – if not the father of the comic book, then at least, the cool uncle. These comics based on the pulps included Robert E Howard’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN (and, later, KULL THE CONQUEROR) and DOC SAVAGE from Marvel and THE SHADOW and TARZAN (and other Burroughs characters and worlds) from DC. During that same period of time, paperback publishers like Bantam, Ace, Lancer, Del Rey and Tor were reprinting a lot of the original pulp stories and, naturally, I had to have those, too. Of course, I knew that those few characters weren’t the only ones to ever star in pulp magazines. It was just that I had no access to any of the other stories or series. Now, obviously, I’m older, but I still love those old comics and those old pulp stories and, thanks to publishers like Altus Press, a whole new world of pulp adventure has opened up to me.

Pulp magazines were so called due to the quality of the paper they were printed on. The same paper used for comic books, by the way. The stories (more like novellas, actually) offered exciting adventures, exotic worlds, charismatic and mysterious heroes (and villains) and set the standard for 20th Century horror, sci-fi, detective, fantasy, western and crime stories. The list of those writers who toiled for the pulp magazine publishers reads like a who’s who of popular fiction: Howard and Burroughs, mentioned above, as well as Dashiell Hammett, Sax Rohmer, L Ron Hubbard, F Scott Fitzgerald, Louis L’Amour and HP Lovecraft. These men (and others like them) have placed their indelible marks on every form of entertainment since the early 1900s, from movies to radio, from television to comic books. Sadly, however, like early comics, these magazines weren’t intended to be kept and cherished by fans of a particular genre, writer or series. They were cheaply made and totally disposable. Thankfully, some forward thinking individuals saw the inherent beauty within the pages of such fare as WEIRD TALES, SPICY DETECTIVE, AMAZING STORIES, and DOUBLE DETECTIVE. Thank you, all!

PART 2: AN INTERVIEW

There are several publishers dealing in reprinting classic pulp stories (aside from the major writers, like Burroughs, Lovecraft, Howard, and others). None, however, had convinced me that what they had to offer was worth spending money on. Altus Press changed that. I became intrigued with the Green Lama when I purchased the first Dark Horse Archive edition of the character’s comic series, based entirely on the artwork of Mac Raboy. As I read the blurb on the volume’s back cover, it became evident that I would have to search out the source materials – in short, those DOUBLE DETECTIVE stories. A quick web search led me to the Altus Press site and an amazing array of some of the best characters, stories and collections of the pulp era. I knew immediately that my relationship with Altus must begin by ordering hard cover copies of the first two volumes of THE GREEN LAMA: THE COMPLETE PULP ADVENTURES. I mean, the choice was obvious, right?

Matt Moring receives the 2012 Munsey Award (uncredited photo)

Matt Moring, on the right, receives the 2012 Munsey Award (uncredited photo)

A little more digging and I had a quick history of the publisher. Matt Moring, a long time fan of the genre, started Altus Press in 2006 as an outlet for reissues of several out-of-print pulp histories and “new pulp” stories. Since then, Mister Moring has published more than 100 titles, including a very popular series of new Doc Savage novels. Matt is the 2012 recipient of the annual Munsey Award, awarded to the person who has done the most for the betterment of the pulp community and presented at PULPFEST, the genre’s equivalent to San Diego’s COMIC-CON. He will be presenting the award to another deserving person at this year’s convention, scheduled for July 25 through July 28 at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, Ohio. The Mule is proud to present the Matt Moring interview.

THE MULE: These magazines, like comic books, were cheaply produced and deemed disposable at the time of their publication. Obviously, though, someone thought enough about them that they took care to preserve them. Now, with publishers such as your own Altus Press, many of these exciting stories are finding new life and a whole new audience. What drew you to these amazing magazines and stories and how did you become involved in the reprinting of these series in book form?

MATT: I’ve long been a fan of the pulps. I think I was first turned on to them when my parents were pushing me to start reading something besides comic books all the time. So one day at the antiquarian bookstore I bought many of my old comics, I saw a copy of this incredible-looking paperback called THE FLYING GOBLIN. That Bob Larkin cover really drew me in and that purchase really started me on the path I’m on now. It was cemented even further when I saw all those seemingly unobtainable pulps in THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS. At the time, they looked so foreign, so old, that I was certain I’d never get the chance to own one. But, that eventually proved not to be the case.

THE MULE: What was your favorite pulp magazine, series or character, who was your favorite writer – the ones that made you want to read and explore more?

MATT: That FLYING GOBLIN paperback led me to eventually collect all those Doc Savage paperbacks, and the Avenger ones, too. Doc will always be a favorite, thanks to Lester Dent, but in recent years I’ve really gotten a lot more enjoyment out of the genre titles like SHORT STORIES, ADVENTURE, ARGOSY, and detective titles like DIME DETECTIVE and DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY.

DIME DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, MAY 1947

DIME DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, MAY 1947

So I’ve been buying and collecting pulp material since my teens. Of course, apart from the Doc, Avenger, and occasional Shadow or Spider paperback, there wasn’t much to buy. And in the days before the internet, it was really tough to find information on other material coming out. The only place I knew to look was an occasional article in THE COMICS BUYERS’ GUIDE, which led me to the PULP VAULT fanzine. Still, not a lot of cohesive reprints were coming out. However, I kept in touch with what fandom there was from afar.

THE MULE: For each successful pulp series or writer, there are probably three less successful or marginally successful. What and who are some of the lesser known series and writers that you discovered later on?

MATT: There were a lot of successful pulp series, but there are many more that are inventive enough or by good writers that they deserved to be returned to print. I’ve tried to concentrate on these more than anything else, so finding more gems is what I always look forward to. My favorites include Old Thibaut Corday of the Foreign Legion by Theodore Roscoe, The Griffon by Arch Whitehouse, and The Whirlwind by Johnston McCulley. I should qualify these series, though: I’d consider those series I mentioned as “successful,” as they all ran for many installments… they’re just not well-known in 2013.

THE MULE: What prompted you to jump into the publishing business?

Matt Moring (uncredited photo)

Matt Moring (uncredited photo)

MATT: Fast forward a number of years. I’d been working as a designer for a number of years, and I read an article about some low-cost online printers specializing in print-on-demand publishing. I’d long considered doing some collections of pulp material, but I didn’t want a basement full of unsold books. With this new option, I could handle all the production on my own and assemble the type of collections I personally wanted on my bookshelf. So with a few projects in mind, I reached out to some other pulp fans who were much smarter than I to help put these together. I was determined to make the kinds of books people would be proud to display on their bookshelves, and that meant not just good design, but also including new, authoritative introductions and articles. The pulp fandom world is filled with so many generous, kind, and enthusiastic members… really, these books are from them, not me.

THE MULE: How much work – editing, layout, design, etc – goes into each book you publish? Run us through a basic timeline from decision-making to publishing.

MATT: Every book’s timeline is different. Sometimes things take years; conversely, there was a recent book that was assembled in just two days. Then there are other things that take more planning… for example, when planning a complete reprinting of a series. Take Frederick Nebel’s Cardigan series from DIME DETECTIVE. It ran for 44 installments, many of which were really tough to track down. There’s that aspect. Then there’s the scanning, OCRing, and initial proofreading. Cardigan turned out to be almost half a million words, so that was a task in itself to go through all that material. Once that was done, I had a book design in mind, and I blocked that out. At about the same time, I needed to commission a new introduction. And then there was an issue of locating a quality photo of Nebel himself… all those that had seen print weren’t the best. So there’s a lot of research that goes into these, too. Once the books were laid out, I had to have them proofread by careful people who are much more detail-oriented than I. Proofreading is a really under-appreciated art. Once that’s done, then they’re ready for release.

THE MULE: More recently, Altus Press – and you – have been involved in a new series of Doc Savage adventures. How did that come about? What obstacles – licensing and so forth – did you encounter leading up to the publication of that first new story? Do you have plans for more originals featuring other characters?

DOC SAVAGE: SKULL ISLAND (cover by JOE DIVITO)

DOC SAVAGE: SKULL ISLAND (cover by JOE DIVITO)

MATT: Publishing new Doc Savage stories is a dream come true, especially when I reflect on that FLYING GOBLIN paperback. Author Will Murray had been shopping the new stories around for some time before we came to an agreement on publishing them. I’m quite pleased with how they turned out, and they’ve generally been received with glowing reviews and feedback. In packaging them, I tried to keep some echoes of the Bantam editions that most of us read, but also bring in some of the original pulps’ influence in order to play up the “wild” part of the “Wild Adventures” tagline on the series. I also got to do a new, de facto Doc Savage logo, which was a privilege.

THE MULE: Where can our readers purchase Altus Press books? What’s next for Matt Moring and Altus Press?

MATT: What’s coming up for Altus Press? We’ve got dozens of titles in various states of completion… from initial planning to actual production. We’ll continue to put them out as long as people like them.

You can always find our books at www.altuspress.com. The softcovers and e-books can also be found at Amazon.

Thanks, Matt. The man has been working overtime on a whole slew of new Altus Press titles for the 2013 edition of PULPFEST. Here’s the list of 13 books that will debut the final weekend of July:

HIDDEN GHOSTS: THE LOST STORIES OF PAUL S POWERS

HIDDEN GHOSTS: THE LOST STORIES OF PAUL S POWERS

DOCTOR THADDEUS C HARKER: THE COMPLETE TALES
ADVENTURES ON HALFADAY CREEK
HIDDEN GHOSTS: THE LOST STORIES OF PAUL S POWERS
THE COLLECTED TALES OF SANGROO THE SUN-GOD
SKULLDUGGERY ON HALFADAY CREEK
THE SAGA OF HALFADAY CREEK
DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE
WORDSLINGERS: AN EPITAPH FOR THE WESTERN
THE MASKED DETECTIVE OMNIBUS, VOLUME 1
THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF HAZARD AND PARTRIDGE
THE COMPLETE TALES OF DOCTOR SATAN
THE COMPLETE CASES OF MAX LATIN
THE MASKED RIDER ARCHIVES, VOLUME 1

Oh, my! Looks like I’m gonna hafta start savin’ up for some of those hardcovers… they’re looking pretty good! Keep checkin’ the Mule for reviews of these and other releases from Matt and Altus Press.


MASTERS OF THE GALAXY

(Mike Resnick; 216 pages: PS PUBLISHING, 2012)

Masters of the Galaxy cover

MASTERS OF THE GALAXY is Masters… Jake Masters. Okay… that was lame. Jake Masters is a hard-boiled private dick with a heart of gold and a not-too-well-hidden soft spot for the underdog, much in the vein of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. The difference here is that Jake works on an out-planet of a galaxy-wide Democracy and his clients tend to be alien governments, alien crime lords, or just your average everyday alien. This book collects all four Jake Masters novellas (roughly 50 pages each) and a brand new short story to sweeten the pot.

Guardian Angel” introduces us to former cop turned detective Masters, as he’s hired by a distraught mother to bring back a wayward son. The father, the head of a criminal empire exiled on another planet, is the most logical place for Jake to start his search. Once our hero figures out that the son has very good reason to hide (in an interplanetary circus, no less) from both Mommy and Daddy, he takes the young man under his protective wing. It is, as they say, all down hill from there. “Guardian Angel” is an excellent way to kick things off as the detective work is believable, the action exciting and the outcome… not even close to what I was expecting!

Some of the detective and mystery genre’s best tales come from stories called “locked-room mysteries.” Even though “A Locked-Planet Mystery” works on a much larger scale, the feel is the same. A retiring corporate head has been murdered at his solitary retreat on an otherwise uninhabited planet. The solar system’s sole police force is located on the only inhabitable planet, four worlds away and they don’t even know what a murder is. The head of the police force, a being characterized by the detective as “a purple beachball with legs” comes to Jake for help. Everyone at the retreat has good reason to want to see the murdered being dead and, with the help of the beachball (who has an unpronounceable name that Jake shortens to “Max”), ferrets out the murderer in the best “locked-door” manner. Max is a fairly likeable character and since, as mentioned above, Jake Masters is really a softy, he takes the alien under his wing and makes him his partner. The fact that he was kind of a blank slate and an entertaining sidekick makes the third story, “Honorable Enemies,” a bit of a let down, as the case sends Jake to the “Alien Quarter” of his home planet, Odysseus, to search for Max’s killer. Along the way, he meets an alien crime lord and a potential rival kingpin, a human from a planet called New Warsaw. As both vie to have Masters as an integral piece of their empire, Jake only cares about avenging the death of his friend. There are plenty of twists and turns in “Honorable Enemies,” as alliances are made and broken on almost every page.

If the Frame Fits… “ is a very entertaining piece of political intrigue, as a primary peace negotiator of a planet outside of the Democracy is murdered at a Democracy embassy on a planet nicknamed “Purplehaze.” Security issues and a general distrust by and of the three distinct life-forms at the embassy make Jake’s job even harder than the close-mouthed bureaucrats who hired him. As he is wont to do, Masters enlists the aid of a being from each of the alien races involved in the peace negotiations. The story is rather fast paced and, like the rest, is one fun read.

Mike Resnick (uncredited photo)

Mike Resnick (uncredited photo)

Author Mike Resnick has truly captured the feel of those old mystery books and film noir movies, as well as the essence of a really great science fiction yarn with this series. As such, I really wish that he’d fleshed out the new short story, “Real Jake,” more. As you can probably guess from the title, there’s a Jake Masters imposter leaving a trail of upset life-forms in our hero’s home base of Homer. The story’s good, I just wish there was more! For a fast-paced mash-up of sci-fi and detective mystery genres, you absolutely cannot go wrong with MASTERS OF THE GALAXY.


GUTSHOT – WEIRD WEST STORIES

(Conrad Williams, editor; 319 pages; PS Publishing, 2011)

Gutshot

The title says it all, though the first story (“Passage” by Alan Peter Ryan) seems to be a rather traditional, if a bit gory, Western. There is, I suppose, an underlying sense of the sinister and it could be interpreted as a tale of demon possession. Maybe that makes it more of a traditional Horror story featuring cowboys and Indians. James Lovegrove’s “The Black Rider” is more straight forward with its message… even if it does blur the line regarding what is considered “Western fare.” It is a fun read, though a bit obvious.

The Alabaster Child” is a post-apocalyptic tale that hearkens back to Old West stories of gold rushes and prospectors and claim-jumpers. Just to mix things up a bit, Cat Sparks also tosses in an odd little sub-plot involving slave trade. While there’s really nothing overtly horrific about it, it definitely gets high creep-factor points from me.

The Ghost Warriors” comes from the always fertile, generally warped mind of Michael Moorcock. Maybe the most well-known story here (by, certainly, the most well-known author featured), it was originally published in Moorcock’s 1997 collection, TALES FROM THE TEXAS WOODS. Most recently, it saw print in 2007’s THE METATEMPORAL DETECTIVE, a series of 11 stories starring Sir Seaton Begg, the dimension hopping head of the British Home Office’s Metatemporal Investigation Department (got all of that?), which fits quite well within the framework of Moorcock’s career-spanning “multiverse” (including, I’m certain, the Blue Oyster Cult songs “Black Blade,” of which a similar weapon plays an integral role here, and “Veteran of the Psychic Wars”). The story here reads like a standard masked hero Western, with the Masked Buckaroo (!) on the trail of a raiding party of Apache led by a supposedly long-dead Indian legend called Pale Wolf. This is the first tale in GUTSHOT to overtly feature any weird or supernatural overtones and is, as is generally the case with anything by Michael Moorcock, a great read.

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

Zander Shaw’s first published work, “Blue Norther,” is as fine a piece of Old West ghost story as I’ve seen. A tale of love, revenge, redemption and – ultimately – death. As Shaw says, “As a child, the most crushing thing that I learned was that everybody dies. That my parents would one day leave me affected me profoundly, more so than the impact of my own mortality. My mother and father died within ten months of each other in 2009. I wrote this story for my five-year-old self.” His five-year-old self must have been scared to close his eyes after reading “Blue Norther.” The next offering, “In the Sand Hills,” is a “geographic” Western by Thomas Tessier. Set in modern day Nebraska, it’s kinda like a “force of nature” horror story, though in the strictest Western sense of things, it’s about a hired gun sent out to bring back the ornery galoot that stole the payroll from his boss. The term “psychological thriller” comes to mind when reading this one.

If the last story was a “geographic” Western, then Stephen Volk’s “White Butterflies” is a “philosophic” Western. Staying in modern times, the scene changes from Nebraska to a setting that just screams “Western.” I’m speaking, of course, about Kazakhstan. The modern day fortune-hunters, seeking their wealth in the form of fallen rocket parts, is most assuredly the philosophic descendants of the dreamers who traveled to the American West in search of gold and riches. The claim-jumpers are more brutal but, like the Old West, Kazakhstan is a very brutal place for dreamers.

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

El Camino de Rojo,” by Gary McMahon, is Clint Eastwood meets Stephen King at Satan’s desert resort. McMahon’s story feels and reads the most like a “true Western,” with its year long trek for vengeance, stopping along the way to bathe in the gore and blood… the kind that can only come from a truly dark and evil place. In a book of great stories, this one (to this point, anyway) is the centerpiece that binds them all. A masterpiece of short story telling.

A good portion of the stories in GUTSHOT seem to deal with those looking for an easy score or that big payday that’s just over the next rise. Such is the case with Joe R Lansdale’s “The Bones That Walk.” The twist here is that the protagonist of the piece knows that he’s already ruined his life for something that he wasn’t even sure ever existed. While, on the surface, Lansdale’s story appears to be the standard “hero buys a treasure map” type, it turns into something more. But that would be telling! Amanda Hemimgway comes as close to poetry as you’re likely to see in a collection like this with her piece, “Ghosts.” She says that, rather than writing a Western parody with gunslingers and vampires, she ended up “ …writing a pocket history of the West from the viewpoint of all its ghosts… “ Works for me.

Christopher Fowler’s “The Boy Thug” is, in Fowler’s own words, “an odd one.” It takes the idea of outlaw gangs to its base level, introduces a psychological angle and a cute kid to the mix, and stuns you with the ending. Fowler says that while he was having problems with the tone of his tale, he visited Northern India. “By melding the two attitudes (Wild West and the Indian frontier), the story came in one clear run without a single word change,and was one of my most satisfying writing experiences.” Likewise, it has been one of my most satisfying reading experiences. “Kiss the Wolf,” from Simon Bestwick, is another modern day yarn. A story of apocalyptic proportions, with dark riders, cannibals, witches (well, one, anyway) and… but, you should read for yourself. I don’t want to spoil the fun!

Mark Morris gets all psychological and philosophical (and maybe even a bit metaphysical) with “Waiting For the Bullet,” a story of four adventure seeking Brits in the wild and wooly United States. The story unfolds as a cross between WESTWORLD (although no robot Yul Brynners are involved) and a rock festival with a little temporal disturbance tossed in, as well. The moral of the story is, basically, the old war-time maxim of “You can’t dodge a bullet with your name on it.” Paul Meloy explores the Lakota Indian legend of the mischievous imp Iktomi and his cunning adversary, Coyote, in “Carrion Cowboy.” The story has the feel and flow of one told by the tribal elders to the youngsters as they sit around the fire, which is part of its charm and why it works better than it would in a standard Anglo writing style. SPOILER ALERT: There’s a part of the story that is strictly horror movie fare, as it explains why zombies (and other dead things) prefer the taste of flesh.

Some Kind of Light Shines From Your Face” is part Greek mythology, part Oklahoma dustbowl and Hoover shantytowns and part women’s empowerment. Gemma Files’ tale reminds us that the old gods never truly die and that legends can be true. Peter Crowther (publisher and editor of PS Publishing) and Rio Youers are a formidable tag team on the excellent “Splinters,” a story of love and loss, life and death, faith and resurrection and the healing powers of music on the tortured soul. Oh, yeah… there are zombies and a shoot-out, too. Really, though,“Splinters” is, when all is said and done, a magnificent love story.

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

GUTSHOT (jacket art by Caniglia)

All Our Hearts Are Ghosts” continues the sentimental vein, as Peter Atkins delivers another tale of love lost and revenge taken. Set in 1934 Los Angeles, the story is not so far removed, chronologically, from what we’ve come to know as the “Wild West.” It’s a story that offers the type of poetic justice thing that the movie industry loves. So, of course, that means that there’s a shoot-out on a dusty Main Street of a long-dead ghost town.

Sarah Langan’s “Beasts of Burden” is like an Old West version of THE OMEN… well, sort of. The child of Satan is orphaned and taken in by a farrier, a man with seemingly magical powers when it comes to caring for a horse’s feet and… soul. As the child grows, he learns the craft but is haunted by the voice of his father and the lost souls of men, women and horses. He also learns that the word “horse” has more than one meaning, especially to one such as his dear old dad.

What God Hath Wrought” is an historical piece, but only in the sense that it is set in Utah and centers around the Mormon Church (kinda). Adam Nevill uses certain points in the history of that church to move his story to its ultimate conclusion. The starting point is their exodus from Illinois in 1846 and ends at the “Great Dead Sea” in Utah, two years later. As it turns out, the Church is mere periphery to the actual focal point, a vampiric shaman called Prophet Lehi. Another great story of revenge in the Old West. Finally, we have Joel Lane’s“Those Who Remember.” Set in modern (or slightly future) times, it’s a ghost story with, again, revenge as its basis. Unfortunately, the tale falls flat for me; the premise too shaky to be very engaging. Not a great way to end this collection, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re talking about one mediocre story out of 20… that ain’t bad at all!

Conrad Williams, Editor (publicity photo)

Conrad Williams, Editor (publicity photo)

Conrad Williams, the editor of GUTSHOT, has taken an odd angle that allows the authors of these tales as much latitude as possible with a genre that is due for a grand revival. I’m not saying that this book is the salvation of Western fiction, but it sure won’t hurt the future of the genre.