DOING TIME ON PLANET SLADE: THE PAUL SLADE INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)

One look at Paul Slade’s web-site (Planet Slade) is all you’ll need to understand the author of the new tome, UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM. You will see that Paul is not only one of the busiest men in the realm of journalistic endeavor, he is also one of the most inquisitive; that innate need to know has taken the man down some very dark backroads and alleys, into the sewers of London and the very bowels of England’s Parliament; that need to know has forced this gentle being to explore the warped psyches of criminals and vicious murderers. The time and effort put into researching the subject matter for his essays (which fall into three basic categories: “Murder Ballads,” “Secret London” and “Miscellany,” which Slade describes as “anything else I damn well feel like including”) is a full time job in itself; turning that research into entertaining pieces on significant or historic events is an art form. Working and living on Planet Slade led Paul to the idea of turning the “Murder Ballads” page of the site into a book on the subject. And, now, without further ado, we’re off to visit Planet Slade to discuss, among other things, Paul’s new book (the interview was conducted via e-mail; Iv’e kept intact the original English spellings from Paul’s replies)…

PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW

THE MULE: Paul, thanks for the great book and for taking the time to answer a few questions. First, let’s get into a bit of personal history. You’ve been a journalist for nearly 35 years. What led you down this path? Where did you start your journalistic career and what were the first stories you covered?

PAUL: When I finished my Business Studies degree in 1980, I had no idea at all how I wanted to make a living. The Watergate affair of the early 1970s had left me with a rather romantic view of journalism and I’d always enjoyed writing, so that was one of the very few areas that appealed to me, but I had no idea how to go about making that dream a reality. Then I stumbled across the media recruitment ads which THE GUARDIAN carried once a week and realised for the first time that it was possible to apply for entry-level reporters’ jobs on magazines and newspapers all over the UK.

I spent the next six months or so applying for any job in that section that looked remotely feasible and eventually struck lucky at CHEMIST AND DRUGGIST, a weekly trade magazine for retail pharmacists. They took me on to write a couple of pages of business news every week and that’s where I got my start. I was reporting company results, industry rows, boardroom changes and that kind of thing. The editor there drilled the basics of good journalistic practice into all his young team, so it proved a very good foundation.

I spent four years on C&D, then got a job on a new launch called MONEY MARKETING, which took off very rapidly and won several awards. That led to some freelancing for the nationals’ personal finance sections and the occasional bit of freelance music writing. Gradually, I managed to shift my output more towards the popular culture journalism I really wanted to do, and PlanetSlade followed in 2009.

THE MULE: I’ve been listening to music – including several of the songs chronicled in UNPREPARED TO DIE – for a very long time and, I must admit, the term “Murder Ballad” was unknown to me until Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS version of “Delia’s Gone.” Can you give the readers a quick definition of the term and a brief history of the oral and lyrical traditions involved?

PAUL: I suppose a murder ballad would be any song which tells the story of an unlawful homicide – whether that story is fact, fiction or a mixture of the two. That’s a very wide field, though and I knew I’d have to adopt a tighter definition for my own work if I was ever going to do more than scratch the surface of any given song. Hence, I limit myself to those songs which tell the story of an identifiable real murder. I also decided to concentrate on songs which had been covered many times by many different artists, as these varying interpretations add an interesting extra dimension to the song’s history.

I always envisage this process as roping off a single square of turf in an enormous meadow and digging down as deep as I can in that one area alone. If I tried to excavate the entire meadow, I’d never penetrate more than an inch or two below the surface, which would not be very satisfying for either me or my readers.

Although the word’s used much more loosely these days, a ballad is actually a strict poetic form with its own rules – just as a sonnet or a limerick is. The basic structure is provided by alternating three-beat and four-beat lines, with the second and fourth lines of each verse rhyming. The opening verse of “Knoxville Girl” is a good example and here it is with the beats marked:

I met a little girl in Knoxville,

That town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening,

Out at her house I’d dwell.

The ballad form is fairly bursting with narrative momentum, which makes it an excellent way of telling a story. In the case of that “Knoxville Girl” verse, we’re only four lines into the song, but the story’s already well underway and we’re anxious to find out what happens next. The words’ steady rhythm means they’re half-musical already and easy to remember, so small wonder written ballad verses are so often transformed into songs. Whether used by the gutter poets of the Victorian age or by great artists like Coleridge and Wilde, the ballad form is irresistible.

Murder stories aren’t the only ones ballads tell, of course, but it’s only natural that this form should have been selected when 17th, 18th and 19th century British people had a murder tale to tell. Printed ballad sheets telling the killer’s story were sold at public hangings all over Britain until around 1850 and sometimes sung by the sellers to advertise their wares. The most popular sheets sold well over two million copies.

Folk singers have always loved the ballad form too, and are never happier than when a good juicy murder is the ballad’s subject. Traditional songs like these are polished by each new generation of singers which adopt them, constantly editing the song till only the core of the story and its most memorable images remain.

Many of the classic American murder ballads have their roots in much older British songs recording real murders. Early settlers took these songs with them across the Atlantic, later adapting them to their new surroundings. “Knoxville Girl” traces directly back to a British ballad called “The Bloody Miller,” which was written around 1683. “Pretty Polly” began life as a British ballad called “The Gosport Tragedy,” which dates back to the first half of the 19th century. In their new Americanised form, these songs retain not only their ballad structure, but also much of the language and imagery coined by their original versions – sometimes word-for-word.

Just as happened in Britain, the American songs were taken from town to town by travelling musicians. Home-grown American ballads could be used to spread news from one isolated rural community to another. This was a time long before radio, remember, when even those people who could read might have access to a newspaper only on their monthly trips to the nearest town. Ballads were sung to tell all kinds of stories, but a good sensational murder always been hard to beat for grabbing the audience’s attention. Murder songs’ appeal springs from the same quirk in human nature which makes us watch cop shows on TV or read true crime stories in tabloid newspapers.

THE MULE: How much of your previous work can be seen as a genesis for the material in UNPREPARED TO DIE and on your website, planetslade.com? Where did your interest in the murder ballad genre originate? Which song, in particular, fueled that interest?

PAUL: I’d done odd bits of writing for the music press before turning my attention to murder ballads, but nothing that involved analysing individual songs in any depth. That’s about the extent of the heritage as far as subject matter is concerned. More important were the skills and good habits I’d picked up in journalism of all kinds. This work had taught me the importance of getting my facts right, given me the research experience to chase those facts down and allowed me to hone my writing to a point where I could articulate exactly what I wanted to say in a clear, gripping and entertaining way.

I think I also benefitted from the fact that I’m old enough to have worked for many years in the pre-internet era. Where younger writers might assume any information that’s yet to be digitised simply doesn’t exist, I knew to dig deep among the dusty book shelves of Britain and America’s bricks-and-mortar libraries too. For all the convenience of Google, there are vast swathes of human knowledge which remain stored on paper alone, and my advanced age meant I was lucky enough to realise that.

I can think of three things which got me started seriously researching murder ballads and they all date from the noughties. Two of these three prompts directly involve “Stagger Lee,” so I guess I’d have to say that was the single most important song which drew me in.

It all began when I heard the radio DJ Andy Kershaw mention on his BBC Radio 3 show that he collected recordings of “La Bamba.” The idea of collecting one particular song in this way appealed to me, so I began collecting different recordings of “Stagger Lee.” I can’t remember why I settled on that particular song, but I’m sure Nick Cave’s stunning 1996 version of it played a part. Also, I already knew there were an awful lot of recordings of “Stagger Lee” to collect, which made finding as many as possible of them an intriguing challenge. The internet was then still in its infancy, so hunting out obscure records hadn’t yet become too easy to provide any satisfaction.

About a year later, I bought THE EXECUTIONER’S LAST SONGS, a 2002 Bloodshot Records compilation put together by Jon Langford of the Mekons. He’d taken the album on to raise funds for a death penalty moratorium project in Illinois. Langford’s approach was to team the best of our era’s Americana performers with classic murder ballads of all kinds: “The idea was to use death songs against the death penalty”, he told me.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Cover for Bloodshot Records' 2002 compilation, THE EXECUTIONER'S LAST SONGS)

The album’s highlights include Steve Earle’s version of “Tom Dooley,” the Handsome Family’s take on “Knoxville Girl” and Neko Case doing “Poor Ellen Smith.” Hearing so many great versions of these ballads on a single album got me thinking about the songs much more deeply and noticing the strands they had in common. Often, the killer’s logic seemed to be, “I love you, therefore I must kill you” and that stuck in my mind. What an odd way to look at the world.

Fast forward now to San Francisco in 2003, where I was enjoying a holiday. I spent one afternoon there mooching around in the basement music section at City Lights, the legendary counter-culture bookstore, where I found a copy of Cecil Brown’s STAGOLEE SHOT BILLY, a book telling the true story behind “Stagger Lee” itself. Reading that in a bar the same evening, I understood for the first time that many of the classic murder ballads were based on real crimes – and that those crimes were often recent enough to be researched in the newspaper archives. I started writing about murder ballads on my website a few years after that, and it’s those essays which eventually led to the book.

THE MULE: Your research into the eight ballads included in the book is painstaking. How long did the research into the true facts in this collection take? The murder ballad seems to be, primarily, a phenomenon of the American South. Did the origins of one tale prove more difficult to trace than the others? Did you discover information about these eight stories that surprised you?

PAUL: It’s hard to put a firm timescale on this. I started researching murder ballads properly in 2009, when I was getting PlanetSlade started, and finally published my book at the end of 2015. I was doing all sorts of other writing throughout those six years as well, though.

The bulk of my early work on murder ballads went into PlanetSlade’s essays (but again proved very useful when the book deal came up). Whenever I could manage a vacation trip to the US, I chose a city with links to one of my chosen ballads, where I’d spend a few days visiting the murder scene and all the relevant graves. These trips took me to Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Indiana.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family's eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family’s eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)

Writing the book ate up most of 2015, though I took a month away from the keyboard for one final research trip. The area around Winstom-Salem and Charlotte seems to be “Ground Zero” for the killings that inspire songs like these, so I gave myself three solid weeks in North Carolina researching “Tom Dooley,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Murder of the Lawson Family.” As on all my research trips, I took the opportunity to interview local historians and musicians there, as well as to walk the killers’ own streets and make them as real as I could in my own mind.

On my way down to North Carolina, I paused in New York for a meal with the country singer Laura Cantrell, who I knew was particularly interested in “Poor Ellen Smith.” Laura gave me some useful clues on the song’s origin, but I had a lot of difficulty tracing these back to the song’s birth. With the book’s deadline looming, I’d resigned myself to admitting this failure in print. I did decide on one final plunge into the newspaper archives before giving up altogether, though, and this time a lucky chance produced exactly the information I needed. A few hours later, I had not only found the 1893 article which printed this song’s first-ever lyrics, but also identified the jailbird mule thief who wrote them. That was a very satisfying moment.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)

There were surprises in the research for every song. I’d had no idea how deeply the “Stagger Lee” killing was embroiled in Saint Louis’ party politics, for example, with Republicans determined to see the killer hang and Democrats lobbying for his early release. The central role syphilis played in “Tom Dooley’s” murder of Laura Foster came as a shock too, as did the revelation that “Pretty Polly’s” parent song was so closely tied to Britain’s Royal Navy. I hadn’t known that “Frankie and Johnny’s” Frankie Baker had sued two Hollywood studios over distorted adaptations of her song’s story either – let alone that she’d dragged Mae West into one of those actions.

THE MULE: Obviously, this book was not written in a day or two. From the time the idea came into your head ’til you finished it, how long did you work on this project? Did your research and work extend to other ballads? Would you be interested in working on a sequel?

PAUL: As I said above, I’d been researching murder ballads – at least intermittently – ever since 2009. The bulk of the book’s work got done in 2015, though. I started writing it in February that year and delivered the finished manuscript six months later.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula's grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula’s grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

It was a fairly tight deadline, so I had to keep all my focus just on the eight songs covered in the book, which are “Stagger Lee,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Tom Dooley,” “Pretty Polly,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” “Murder of the Lawson Family” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I was determined to interview at least one relevant musician for each of the songs, which gave me a good excuse to arrange conversations with favourite songwriters like Billy Bragg, Dave Alvin and the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey.

I do have one idea for a follow-up book, this one looking at the British gallows ballads which were sold at public hangings, but it’s a bit too early to talk about that.

THE MULE: The psychology behind these acts is as interesting as the stories and historical references. Was there one story that caused you to reevaluate your stance, once you researched the psychological aspects of the parties involved?

PAUL: There was one song that really got to me, but it’s one I wrote about on my website rather than in the book. It’s called “Misses Dyer, the Old Baby-Farmer” and it tells the true story of a woman in Victorian London who took in disgraced girls’ illegitimate babies, promising to give them a home. As soon as she had the money the girl paid her for this service, she’d simply stifle the baby and dump it in the Thames. This happened at the end of the 19th century and she’s thought to have murdered more than 40 babies in all.

I spent about a week researching this squalid, nihilistic tale and writing it up. By the time I’d finished I had a very bleak view of the human race and just wanted to scrub my brain clean of the whole tale. I often wonder how spending a full year or 18 months immersed in the life of a serial killer must affect the writers of these people’s biographies. Inviting Jeffrey Dahmer into your head to write a book about him is one thing, but persuading him to leave again when the job’s done may not prove so simple.

THE MULE: I was surprised to learn that both “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” were based on events from just across the Mississippi from my home. The story of Frankie Baker, in particular, touched something inside me…. the fact that at least three movies have used the lyrics, or simply the song title, as a jumping off spot for their script, but her real story has never been told in any meaningful way. Why do you believe her story remains largely unknown?

PAUL: I think the fact that the song’s twice been a chart hit – once for Elvis Presley and once for Sam Cooke – has worked against the real story. Neither of these chart versions bear any resemblance to what really happened, and all the movie adaptations just create further confusion. In Presley’s version, Frankie’s a singer working the Mississippi riverboats, in Sam Cooke’s she’s rich enough to buy Johnny a sports car and in Mae West’s 1933 film she marries an FBI agent. Plus, of course, she’s always a white woman.

The real story – young black sex worker kills her pimp in self-defence – is far more interesting than any of these sanitised versions, but it’s been obscured by so many distortions over the years that the genuine Frankie Baker gets lost.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)

The quote from Frankie herself that lingers most strongly with me came when she was protesting yet another cavalier Hollywood treatment of her story and the unwelcome attention which these films always brought. “I know that I’m black, but even so I have my rights,” she pleaded to one reporter. “If people had left me alone, I’d have forgotten about his thing a long time ago.” The humility and resignation of that remark breaks my heart every time I hear it.

THE MULE: Aside from your very entertaining pieces at PlanetSlade, what future works can we expect to see from the mind and desk of Paul Slade?

PAUL: I’m working on a new PlanetSlade essay at the moment, which springs from a very interesting artefact I recently discovered. It was made to commemorate a real 19th century US murder of the 1880s and, like all the best objects of this kind, leads anyone researching it into some very interesting tangents and unexpected discoveries. I don’t want to say anything more about that piece for the moment, but it looks set to keep me busy for at least the next month or so. After that, who knows?

PART THREE: UNPREPARED TO DIE

(Paul Slade; 290 pages; SOUNDCHECK BOOKS, 2015)

Front cover

Let me begin by stating, “What a great read!” Most of us have heard at least one version of at least one of the eight ballads discussed in UNPREPARED TO DIE, whether it be the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” or Sam Cooke’s “Frankie and Johnny.” I hadn’t heard the term “Murder Ballad” until it was used in reference to “Delia’s Gone” from Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS in 1994; I certainly didn’t know that tunes so named were based on actual killings (after reading Slade’s book, it’s kinda hard to call some of the cases “murder”). Maybe it was because songs like “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stagger Lee” and “Tom Dooley” were such fixtures on radio and television and in the movies when I was a kid that I never really paid much attention to the dark stories told through the lyrics. Whatever the reason, those tunes were simply background noise in my youth, with a melody so stunningly simple yet so immediately captivating that they ended up getting lodged in the old brainpan and tended to make their way to the top of my internal playlist at the oddest times. I now have a deeper understanding of where those songs originated and more than a passing respect for the original balladeers and the musicians who have kept the songs alive for so long… in some cases several hundred years.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)

Slade’s writing throughout these eight essays, while scholarly in its depth, is very conversational in its delivery. In other words, he manages to get to the heart of the matter with decades (or centuries) old facts without boring the reader. As it turns out, the least compelling story is the one surrounding Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which tells of the sadistic murder of a 51 year old barmaid in Baltimore in 1963, the year Dylan wrote the song. Miss Carroll was black, her attacker was a wealthy and arrogant white man. While reading Slade’s account and history of the brutal act, as well as the grossly inappropriate sentence meted out to her attacker, one thought that ran through my mind was, “None of this right! This should never have happened,” but, I also thought, “Let’s get back to some more of those hundred-year-old cases.” I hate to say it, but… it appears that Hattie Carroll’s murder was just too recent and too mundane to keep my interest. Obviously, though, it piqued enough interest in both Dylan and Slade to be the subject of a song and a chapter in UNPREPARED TO DIE.

UNPREPARED TO DIE ("They all were buried in a crowded grave." Paul Slade at the Lawson family's plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (“They all were buried in a crowded grave.” Paul Slade at the Lawson family’s plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

The other pieces, “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” in particular, really managed to keep me involved in the stories of both the victims and the killers. In the case of Frankie Baker, who was charged with murdering her boyfriend, Allen Britt, for “paying attention to another woman,” the song is far more famous than the actual Saint Louis case. The song actually led to Miss Baker leaving Saint Louis, settling first in Nebraska, then moving on to Oregon; it seems that wherever she went, the song and the rumors followed. It’s amazing that, in the nearly 120 since Frankie killed Allen, at least three different movies (one starring Mae West, another Elvis Presley) have been produced based on the “Frankie and Johnny” song, but not one has bothered to tell the real story. “The Murder of the Lawson Family” is a gruesome tale of mental illness, probable incest, a guilty conscience and – after the fact – unimaginable greed. On Christmas Day, 1929, North Carolina tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson slaughtered his wife and six of their seven children before killing himself. Slade’s examination of the case presents several possible scenarios for what led to such a very bloody Christmas present, including an earlier brain injury and an incestuous rape of the Lawson’s oldest daughter. The latter theory posits that Lawson’s wife, Fannie, had discovered that daughter Marie was pregnant and that Charlie was his grandchild’s father. These and other factors led to a perfect storm of despair in Charlie’s mind, leaving only one solution. Several moneymaking schemes from Charlie’s brother and nephew after the tragedy are nearly as grotesque as the actual killing spree.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)

Along with the retelling of events for each of the eight killings (more than a few are of the jealous rage or “you done me wrong” variety), are interviews with historians and, more compelling, many of the musicians responsible for keeping the “Murder Ballad” alive as a viable musical genre. Insight into the art form and the songs themselves is offered from Dave Alvin, Billy Bragg, Laura Cantrell and others. Following each chapter is a list of ten of the most iconic versions of the song discussed therein, dating from the early 1920s through to some of the most recent versions, performed by many of the musicians interviewed for the book. And, like most good releases nowadays, UNPREPARED TO DIE includes several bonus features, which can be found here. The bonus material includes additional thoughts from the various musicians on each song, the genre in particular and much more (like Dave Alvin’s musings regarding killer bees), as well as play lists for each chapter. Whether you’re a music fan, a history fan or a true crime fan, UNPREPARED TO DIE should be right up your dark alley. UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM is available directly from Soundcheck Books, Amazon or any of the usual outlets.


THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN

(Jill Lepore; 410 pages; ALFRED A KNOPF PUBLISHING/RANDOM HOUSE BOOKS; 2014)

secret history of wnder woman cover

If you’re going into THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN expecting a major discourse on some secret comic book origin story of the Amazon princess, you are definitely looking in the wrong direction. The book is more of an historical look back at the suffrage and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and the first eight decades of the twentieth centuries. It also works as, quite possibly, the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who was – to say the least – a deeply flawed individual. Many of Marston’s flaws and foibles were at the core of the character’s creation and writer Jill Lepore’s examination of his early scripts and notes highlights his attempts to forward his fervent feminist beliefs through a series of failed teaching positions and “scientific” experiments that were – and, I’m being generous here – borderline, at best.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

Almost from birth, William Moulton Marston surrounded himself with strong, independent thinking women; he had to… he was far too lazy to have any job other than the odd “professorship” that allowed him to practice his borderline kinky experiments virtually unmolested. His aunt, his female students and lab assistants and his wives carried the financial burdens of the classroom, laboratory and household. A student aide and paramour (Olive Byrne, niece of famed feminist and trail-blazing birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger) was brought into the home as nanny to his two young sons; when she became pregnant, Marston made her wife number two, telling the two Missus Marstons that the third (and eventually fourth) child would continue under the tutelage and care of number two, while the more successful number one would be called “Mother” to all four and continue to bring in the household funds. The fact that these women didn’t kill him (or each other) must be proof that females are, indeed, the superior sex… cuz I woulda beat the guy like a baby seal.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

But, anyway, the great character of the women in his life DID give Marston the template for the first female super-hero; the fact that he was able to snow the editors and publisher of DC Comics with the concept that Wonder Woman’s strength was best exhibited by her continually being bound in some form or other (almost always by the male of the species, with chains being the favorite mode of bondage, though the Amazon was also harnessed into a straightjacket, locked in an electrified cage and hogtied with a rope) speaks volumes to the man’s mastery at the art of humbuggery. When the thought police came a-calling, he would be sure to have all of his Amazons in a row, usually in the form of one of his smitten female colleagues or some borderline-legitimate psychologist who moved in the same semi-reputable circles as Marston, ready with their own convoluted explanations of how depicting such scenes of bondage would, ultimately, empower women to become the family, political and social leaders that is their destiny; disputes and wars would cease, leading to a Utopian society with peace and love and dancing.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

The guy musta been doing something right, however, as Wonder Woman became wildly popular. And, not just among the young boys who were the vast majority of comic book readers at that time; Princess Diana had found a new audience as young girls all across America began reading her adventures and emulating her amazing feats in their backyards and living rooms. When two members of the Justice Society of America, the Flash and Green Lantern, were awarded their own books, the editors of ALL STAR COMICS conducted a readers poll to which hero should take their place within the ranks. Wonder Woman was far and away the victor. However, Marston wasn’t writing the adventures of the JSA, so the Amazon was made official secretary of the team, in charge of holding down the fort while the men were off fighting evil and in charge of coffee and snacks during meetings. These tales were, by and large, written by legendary comic scribe, Gardner F Fox, though it has long been rumored that Robert Kanigher may have ghosted several of those JSA adventures. That would actually make some kind of since, as Kanigher hated not only Marston, but his creation, as well. This visceral dislike of the character led to the eventual dumbing down of the Wonder Woman strip, as Kanigher was named as Marston’s replacement upon the latter’s death in 1947, a post he held for more than 22 years; suddenly, Diana Prince’s alter ego became a besotted and lovelorn member of the weaker sex, falling prey to ridiculous scheme after ridiculous scheme as she pined away for her boss in Military Intelligence, Captain (eventually Colonel) Steve Trevor. Trevor ended up saving the Amazonian warrior as often – or more often – as she saved him.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

As the turbulent sixties were coming to an enlightened end, Kanigher finally relinquished his hold on Wonder Woman in 1968 and Diana relinquished her powers to become a mortal woman, working as a secret agent to clear Steve Trevor of a bogus murder charge. The death knell for this “liberated” Wonder Woman came with the December 1972 issue, a “special Women’s Lib issue.” Denny O’Neil was gone, too, replaced by… Robert Kanigher, back for another (short-lived) round. The damage to the venerable character had been done during Kanigher’s first monumental run and, seemingly, month after month, the poor scripts and ill-conceived attempts at relevancy piled degradation upon degradation on the Amazon princess, even as a new publication from the National Women’s Political Caucus called MS featured her on the cover of their debut issue in 1972 (which may have prompted the return of the original Wonder Woman costume and powers a few months later). Wonder Woman remains a stalwart of DC Comics, considered to be an integral part of “the Trinity,” with Superman and Batman. A couple of generations of new creative teams have removed the layers of tarnish to return the character to something much closer to the character William Moulton Marston originally envisioned nearly 75 years ago. Lepore has delved deep and dissected every aspect, every historical event that has gone into the creation of the first female super-hero; likewise, she points to the many ways that Wonder Woman – and, by extension, Marston – has molded the history of the women’s movement since she first burst onto the scene in 1941. You don’t have to be comic book fan to enjoy THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN, nor do you have to be a woman or a feminist to appreciate the history and politics that led to Wonder Woman’s creation and longevity; the book is just a good, thought-provoking read.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

It should be noted that since the book’s publication, several descendents of the Marstons have come forward to dispute many of the assertions that Ms Lepore puts forth regarding the family and their lifestyle; for what it’s worth, much of this information has been floating around for quite awhile and I tend to support the Lepore’s version of events. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.


MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES

(Ben Ohmart; 706 pages; BEARMANOR MEDIA; 2012) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

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Even if you don’t recognize the name or the face, if you’ve been on this planet for any time in the past 80 years or so, you most certainly recognize the voice… or, to be more accurate, the voices: Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble, Foghorn Leghorn… the list of animated A-listers voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc is improbably long. Though Blanc’s is a familiar name to aficionados of early radio and classic animation, few among us know much about the man himself. In a concise 220 pages (more on that HUGE page discrepancy a little later), we are given insight to, and learn the life story of, the most famous voice actor of all time. Author and classic radio, television and movie historian Ben Ohmart heavily relies on Noel Blanc’s unpublished biography about his Dad, as well as Walt Mitchell’s extensive interviews, conducted over a decades-long friendship. Under Ohmart’s deft hand, MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES is the most comprehensive exploration of the life of the man who would be Daffy (and Porky and Woody and Secret Squirrel and… well, you get the point).

Mel Blanc (photo credit: GAB ARCHIVE/REDFERNS)

Mel Blanc (photo credit: GAB ARCHIVE/REDFERNS)

Ohmart covers the extraordinary story, from the birth of Melvin Jerome Blank on May 30, 1908 through his childhood in Portland, Oregon, his first, tentative steps into the world of radio at age 22 and through one of the most storied careers in the entertainment industry. During a lengthy radio career, Mel performed alongside such luminaries as Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen and Judy Canova and on weekly programs like THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW, THE JOHNSONS WAX PROGRAM (in the “Fibber McGee and Molly” series), THE LIFE OF RILEY (starring William Bendix) and many others. As his radio work continued to (barely) pay the bills, Mel began making appearances on the movie screen, as well as doing voice work for Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Starting his cartoon career as one of several actors voicing the different characters (much like his radio work), Mel was so accomplished (his nickname was “First-take Blanc”) that he was soon doing most – if not all – of the voices for the Warner cartoons, demanding and receiving one of the most lucrative contracts in the business. He would also work (surreptitiously) for competing studios (including Walter Lantz Productions for Universal Studios).

Mel Blanc with, from lower left, Jack Benny, Don Wilson and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (publicity photo)

Mel Blanc with, from lower left, Jack Benny, Don Wilson and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (publicity photo)

Mel’s family life is expertly documented, an amazing story of love, devotion and sacrifice; his wife, Estelle, was always supportive of Blanc’s aspirations and her love and caring hands were instrumental in the long healing process after a devastating car wreck almost took his life in January, 1961. Their son, Noel, remained at Mel’s side throughout the ordeal, as well, helping to set up a home recording studio so his father could continue the work he loved from his bed; Noel eventually became Mel’s business partner and made it possible for the actor to explore other avenues for his talents, including the Mel Blanc School of Voice and Commercials. Noel Blanc (it was an unfortunate coincidence that the Jewish parents had given their son a name, that in French, translates to “White Christmas”) also became the voice of many of his father’s characters after Mel’s death. Jack Benny remained a close and trusted friend, one of the few “show biz” people Blanc elevated to that status. Mel always had a kind word (usually in character, as Bugs Bunny) for any and all children, making numerous appearances at hospitals; he never refused an autograph, though he usually signed them “Bugs.”

Mel Blanc (uncredited photo)

Mel Blanc (uncredited photo)

Ohmart’s style is warm and friendly, like his subject and, early on, it’s quite obvious that he’s also a fan; with the addition of excerpts from Noel’s biography and Mitchell’s interviews, by the end of the narrative, Mel Blanc is as familiar as any of his legendary characters. That, my friends, is the hallmark of a good biographer. The great – sometimes rare – photos are an added bonus to the story, even if they’re all black and white.

SPEECHLESS (Warner Brothers' Mel Blanc tribute artwork)

SPEECHLESS (Warner Brothers’ Mel Blanc tribute artwork)

Now… about the nearly 500 unaccounted-for pages. There are tributes (from the modern voices of Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny, Bob Bergen and Joe Alaskey; Walt Mitchell and others), a transcript of the speech given by Mel at the 1964 convention of the American Association of Advertising and – most importantly – a comprehensive listing of all of Mel’s work in radio (compiled by Martin Grams, Junior), feature films (contributed by Randy Bonneville), television (including cartoon work on THE FLINTSTONES, THE JETSONS and various Saturday morning shows from the Hanna-Barbera production machine), recordings (compiled by Mitchell) and an exhaustive, 300 page list of cartoons and short subjects, compiled by Bonneville and Keith Scott; that final category is virtually indispensable for any fan of Mel Blanc or his Warner Brothers cartoons output. The price is a hefty 44 dollars, American, but the memories alone make it money well spent.


TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE, AND MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD

(William J Mann; 463 pages; HARPER BOOKS/HARPER-COLLINS PUBLISHERS; 2014)

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William J Mann’s new book is an historical, scholarly and meticulously researched look at the earliest days of Hollywood that reads like one of the best murder mysteries you’re likely to come across this year. The story delves into the lengths that an entire industry would go to to cover up a scandal… any scandal. As “moving pictures” or “flickers,” as they were called, began to take hold of a public looking for the next new thing in entertainment, there were no rules; churches and civic groups didn’t like that and began crusades to censor the industry in hopes of crippling it to the point that it would fold in upon itself and just go away. Those moguls who were making money hand over fist were, naturally, not inclined to let that happen.

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

Beginning in 1917, and through 1923, drugs, suicide, murder, rape and lasciviousness of every nature befell the motion picture industry, as the hard-living individuals who appeared on the nation’s silver screens carried on their private lives. In retrospect, these things were happening in virtually every walk of life but, the utility worker down the street stepping out on his wife wasn’t as glamorous or newsworthy as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s reportedly drunken soiree where a young actress named Virginia Rappe was one of the guests. Arbuckle was, famously, accused of raping the young woman in a drunken stupor, his enormous weight causing her bladder to rupture, leading to her death. The courts (and three separate juries – the first two unable to come to a verdict) eventually acquitted Arbuckle of all charges, but his career was, ostensibly, over from the time he opened the door of his hotel room to the revelers on that day in September, 1921 when Virginia Rappe took ill. He was brought back to Paramount Studios on a probationary status; the studio released one of the movies Fatty had made before his arrest and all seemed well… until the 1920s’ version of the thought police threatened to close down every theater that would show such filth as a Fatty Arbuckle comedy. The Roscoe Arbuckle story and trial play as a backdrop to the real tale here.

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

Hollywood, in the ’20s, was a very different place than it is today; the movie industry was definitely more concerned with the public’s opinions of their stars. Paying off newspaper editors to keep their stars’ names out of the headlines, covering up evidence and flat out lying to the authorities was standard operating procedures from studio heads (one, in particular, Adolph Zukor of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount, was especially adept at keeping the tarnish off of his stars). One of the foremost directors of this early era of movie-making was William Desmond Taylor; Billy, as the ladies called him, worked for Zukor. Sometime around eight in the evening of February 1, 1922, Taylor was murdered in his home. The list of suspects in the crime was a crowded one, including stars and former stars of the film industry, friends, employees and former employees of the deceased, the haves and the have-nots and the power players of the Hollywood movie machine. The murder was virtually forgotten until 1964, when one of the original suspects made a dying confession to the son of a neighbor; still, it took years of digging and research before a definitive answer to an eighty year-old mystery could be laid to rest. As ghoulish as it may sound, the fun of this story is wading through the murder and the depravity that led to it. Mann is a master storyteller, delivering a riveting look at the early twentieth century’s movers and hustlers, all the while never losing sight of the facts of the case; sometimes those facts and the wildly over-the-top personalities involved seem far to bizarre to be a true crime story.

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

The suspects include the four notable women in Taylor’s life: Mabel Normand, a hard-living comedy actress (she was alternately known as was “the Queen of Comedy” and “the Female Chaplin”), best known for a series of films co-starring Arbuckle and a very public dalliance with cocaine and other illicit drugs, including bootleg liquor (it was, after all, the height of prohibition); Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, a struggling actress and two-bit scam artist who fell out of favor at the major studios after being arrested for prostitution in 1917, the first of the many scandals to hit the industry over the next six years (she tried to reinvent herself by trimming five years off her age and calling herself Patricia Palmer… she was marginally more successful); Mary Miles Minter, a teenage beauty touted as the “next Mary Pickford,” with an all-consuming schoolgirl crush on Taylor; Charlotte Shelby, a bullying stage mother who had forbidden her daughter, Mary, to see Taylor and threatened Taylor, telling him to keep away from her meal-ticket. Most of the circumstantial evidence suggested that Mary Minter’s mother was the guilty party, a fact exacerbated by a district attorney seemingly protecting her at every turn in the case. As much as the life and foibles of William Desmond Taylor are laid bare here, Mann, likewise, does his due diligence in uncovering even the minutest detail in the lives of these four remarkable women; no stone is left unturned.

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

Other candidates included Edward Sands, Taylor’s former valet, who was fired for forgery and other indiscretions (some believed Sands had been blackmailing the director, who’s secret life – lives, actually – would have destroyed him and embroiled the studio in another scandal); Don Osborn, “Blackie” Madsen or any of the other two-bit thugs and confidence men that “Gibby” took up with in her never-ending effort to be “somebody,” which to her, meant someone with an endless supply of cash; an unknown drug dealer that Taylor threw out of Normand’s house after the man tried to sell dope to the recovering addict; one of the many religious zealots who saw Taylor’s life and work as morally abhorrent. Some of the suspects were dismissed out of hand, particularly the cute, little eighteen year-old, Mary Minter, because… well, who ever heard of a little girl killing someone? Others were investigated and cleared, including the first suspect, Taylor’s then-current valet, Henry Peavey; that scenario seemed to make the most sense initially, as Peavy had a record (for soliciting young men for sexual purposes… not only was that illegal, it was “send-a-guy-to-Hell” immoral) and, of course, he was black.

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

As Mann relates all of the available information, peeling away the layers of cover-ups, lies, innuendo and downright fiction, he breathes life into the long-dead bones of, not only Taylor, but everyone related in any way to the concentric circle of his influence. Obviously, there is much more to this story than I’ve related here; my job is to pique your interest about the book without giving everything away. Any fan of the silent film era, of historic insights into the years leading up to the dawn of what became known as “the Roaring ’20s,” or of a good old murder mystery will find much to like about TINSELTOWN. It would have been very easy to turn this story into a boring, sterile thesis, offering the facts and nothing but the facts in a very precise, analytical fashion. But, then, who would want to read something like that? Certainly not me! Thankfully, William J Mann understood that and, without ignoring evidence and substance in favor of literary glitz, has written what is generally referred to as a “page-turner.”


EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY): A MEMOIR

(Ron Perlman with Michael Largo; 297 pages; DE CAPO PRESS/PERSEUS BOOKS GROUP; 2014)

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I’ve always liked Ron Perlman’s quirky choices of roles… especially HELLBOY. His voice is immediately recognizable, with a depth of emotion and a sonorous quality that defines the man every bit as much as his character studies… maybe more. When I saw that he was writing his memoir, I was stoked to wander around through the noodle of one of the most adventurous actors of the past 35 years. I wasn’t disappointed with the journey. Well, not much.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

Like many of us, Ron Perlman grew up in a home where the Dad went above and beyond to give his kids the kind of life that he didn’t have; like many of us, Ron Perlman was not an exceptional child and was bullied and abused at school; like many of us, Ron Perlman’s parents made him a better person (not just a more successful person); like many of us, Ron Perlman has taken what he learned from his parents and made a better life for his children. Unlike most of us, Ron Perlman did everything in front of the world. The story he tells is poignant, funny and irreverent; it’s the story of a young kid dealing with a nearly crippling lack of self worth and how, as an adult, he has learned to live with – even embrace – these feelings of inadequacies.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

A young Perlman was infected by the acting bug in high school when, as a member of the swim team, his coach picked him to try out for the school play because they needed bodies and his body wasn’t getting a lot of time in the water at swim meets. In college, he was offered an internship as a production assistant with a very, very off-Broadway company that would occasionally take their show on the road. Ron was on the road when his girlfriend and his cousin came to deliver the word that his father had died; he immediately went home to help his mother with his older brother, a man incapacitated by manic depression (years later, at 39, Les Perlman committed suicide). So, like his father before him, Ron Perlman put his dreams and aspirations on the back burner because that’s what families do. All of this is told in a forthright, warts-and-all narrative in Ron’s inimitably… uh… flowery turn of phrase.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

Perlman (ably assisted by Michael Largo) is fearless in his assessment of his career (and, for long spans of time, lack thereof). When he was cast in the 1981 movie QUEST FOR FIRE, he was certain he was on his way to being a household name; his next job didn’t come until three years later, when he was cast in the STAR WARS spoof, THE ICE PIRATES. That has seemed to be Ron’s career trajectory: A defining moment in front of the camera followed by long lulls when the actor was doubting his choice of career followed by a job he would take to put food on the table. He seemed to be getting typecast in an odd sort of way, also; as varied as most of his early roles were, nearly all of them buried Ron’s face in makeup and prosthetics, including his next big role, as Salvatore in THE NAME OF THE ROSE. The role that defined him for quite a few years, Vincent in the highly successful CBS television series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, was one he told his agent to pass on because he was tired of his face being an artist’s canvas for four hours every day. When things weren’t happening in front of the camera, Perlman started getting work behind a microphone, doing voice-overs and cartoons.

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

A life-long working relationship and friendship was formed in 1992 when Ron was told that a guy named Guillermo del Toro wanted him to star in a movie called CRONOS and was anxious to meet the actor. As fate would have it, that meeting led to the two working together several more times, including BLADE II, PACIFIC RIM and, of course, HELLBOY and its sequel (another is rumored to be in the works). His work as the lead character in the HELLBOY movies directly led to his being cast in the FX series, SONS OF ANARCHY. Guillermo has had a great calming effect on Ron, helping him to keep his feelings of inadequacy in check (Perlman has been diagnosed with clinical depression, a lesser form – though equally as debilitating – than his brother suffered from). The other calming effect in his life has been his family; he’s been with his wife, Opal, since 1976 (they married in 1981) and they have two kids, Blake and Brandon. Opal was by his side through some of the leanest of Perlman’s lean years and continues to be a solid pillar for him to lean on. When he speaks of Opal and his children, you can tell he has a deep and abiding love for his family and an undying respect for the woman who has stayed with him through thick and thin.

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY) is a wild ride through the life of one of Hollywood’s true characters and, as mentioned, Perlman does not pull a single punch. The only problem I find in the book is in the final two chapters, in which Ron does the standard Hollywood political stance thing. I’m not gonna tell you which side I come down on as regards the last few residents of the White House, but I do find it disingenuous and more than a little unfair to label everyone who didn’t vote for our President a racist; I don’t agree with that assessment. I think my real objection here is that, unless I’m reading a biography or autobiography about a political figure, I don’t particularly want to read about someone’s political leanings. Nothing personal… I feel the same way about political statements coming from the stage of a nightclub, too… or from the pulpit. It seems to me that a celebrity making their political thoughts known is well on the way to alienating half of their audience. And, with Ron Perlman, that would be a shame because I believe that he really is one of the good guys.


PROCOL HARUM: THE GHOSTS OF A WHITER SHADE OF PALE

(Henry Scott-Irvine; OMNIBUS PRESS; 308 pages; 2012)

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For some odd reason, I never owned a Procol Harum album until I picked up a Canadian reissue of LIVE IN CONCERT WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA sometime in the early 1980s. Don’t get me wrong… I had long been a fan of the band, having been introduced to “Conquistador” first, probably on AM radio and probably the version from the ESO show. A year or so later (September, 1973), they appeared as “hosts” on an episode of THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, performing “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog,” “Grand Hotel” and, of course, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Anyway, I digress.

The Paramounts, circa 1966 (Gary Brooker, Dix Derrick, Phil Wainman with glasses, Dix Derrick, Robin Trower) (publicity photo)

The Paramounts, circa 1966 (Gary Brooker, Dix Derrick, Phil Wainman with glasses, Dix Derrick, Robin Trower) (publicity photo)

Scott-Irvine’s comprehensive view of the Procol Harum story begins where all good stories should begin… at the beginning. The author has shown enough foresight to quickly move past the whole “Gary Brooker (or Keith Reid, or BJ Wilson, or Robin Trower) was born in a small log cabin… ” kind of stuff and get right to the lads’ first dalliance with the demon, Rock and Roll. That dalliance occurred for Trower, Brooker and Wilson, who would become integral parts in the history of Procol Harum, in their hometown of Southend-On-Sea, as the Paramounts. As Gary Brooker became more serious about the business of making music, he began writing tunes and, as the tunes were in need of lyrics, he went in search of someone who could add their words to his music; he was eventually introduced to and paired with lyricist Keith Reid, forming one of the best-known and most potent songwriting teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 1966, Gary and Keith, with the aid of influential music industry insider Guy Stevens, began working and demoing material as Procol Harum. After several stabs at the perfect sound and a committed group of musicians, Deram Records released the group’s first single in May, 1967. And, what a single it was! The group that recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was Brooker (vocals and piano), Matthew Fisher (organ), Dave Knights (bass), Ray Royer (guitar) and Bill Eyden (drums); before the recording sessions were even over, Eyden had been replaced by Bobby Harrison (Harrison was told that the drum track he recorded would be used for the release and didn’t know otherwise until he heard the tune on the radio). Before the band started work on their second single, Harrison and Royer were replaced by ex-Paramounts, BJ Wilson and Robin Trower. This version of the band was to be the most fertile and best-remembered, though the line-up was in a seemingly continual state of flux.

Procol Harum, 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Bobby Harrison, Ray Royer and Matthew Fisher) publicity photo)

Procol Harum, 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Bobby Harrison, Ray Royer and Matthew Fisher) publicity photo)

The author painstakingly documents each and every coming and going (and the occasional coming again) of every musician who ever appeared on stage or on a recording (released or not) as a member of Procol Harum. He also reviews each album and single, noting the differences in the UK and US versions (as well as releases from other countries), giving insight into what was happening within the band, with the producers and the record companies and the global reception of each release. Through extensive interviews with the primary members of the group (Brooker, Reid, Trower and Fisher), as well as other musicians who did time in the band and others within their circle (friends, family members, journalists, former producers and managers), Scott-Irvine is able to piece together a very compelling narrative of the ups and downs of a bunch of guys who just wanted to play music that people would enjoy listening and dancing to. Here in the States, those “ups” were limited to the singles, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and “Conquistador,” the albums A SALTY DOG and LIVE IN CONCERT WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA and a string of concert successes through about 1976 or so; the “downs” were, well, just about everything else. On a more personal level, which many of us here weren’t privy to, the “downs” included Wilson’s increasingly erratic behavior due to alcohol and drug use, a mismanagement of funds (usually involving paying off former members and managers) and, eventually, a court case in which Matthew Fisher sued Brooker and Reid for a co-writing credit on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Procol Harum, circa 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Robin Trower, BJ Wilson, Matthew Fisher) (uncredited photo)

Procol Harum, circa 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Robin Trower, BJ Wilson, Matthew Fisher) (uncredited photo)

Scott-Irvine also delves into the solo and other work of the various players, focusing particular attention on Fisher and Brooker; oddly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed all of Brooker’s solo albums even though, as I mentioned, I didn’t own a single Procol record until the early ’80s. The various reincarnated versions of Procol Harum are discussed at length and we read in greater detail than was originally offered regarding the horrendous head injury Gary Brooker suffered on May 29, 2012 (his 67th birthday) and just how close we came to losing a true musical legend to a fluke accident. The book itself is a solid read from front to back, meticulously researched and annotated, with several appendices (including the appeals ruling of the House of Lords regarding the authorship of “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) and a comprehensive discography of Procol, Brooker, Wilson and Trower.

Author Henry Scott-Irvine (uncredited photo)

Author Henry Scott-Irvine (uncredited photo)

In short, THE GHOST OF A WHITER SHADE OF PALE should be in the library of every lover of ’60s and ’70s progressive rock music. Just don’t expect an answer to the one question that everybody is still asking some 47 years later: “Exactly what do the lyrics of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ mean?” Even Gary and Keith, who both take halfhearted stabs at explaining them within the pages, can’t answer convincingly. But… maybe that’s part of what makes the song so great.


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.


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!