Diamonds and Dog Droppings: Getting Down and Dirty On The Trail Of Weird Christmas Music


Amongst my many interests, I’m a collector of what I’ve come to call weird Christmas music. Each December, I put together a CD compilation for my friends of the treasures I’ve found, the strangest of the strange plus some favourites that the season wouldn’t quite be the same without. I started in 2002 and I still keep coming across notable tracks although I have to dredge through a lot of crap to uncover the truly sparkling gems.

Back in 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald ran my article about weird Christmas music. It was cut quite dramatically and PC’ed. Here is the full version, edited and updated. Enjoy.

Santa’s Dirty Secret: The Strange Tale of Weird Xmas Music

It’s fair to say that there’s never been much for Australians in Christmas music. Most of us wouldn’t know what a chestnut looked like, let alone seen one roasting on an open fire. And when was the last time we went dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh?

Which is why our rebel hearts cry out for a suitable soundtrack for the times. Christmas music that tells it like it is. More National Lampoon Christmas Vacation than It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s ain’t no angels at Christmas, George Bailey, and if you jump off that bridge, there’ll be no second helpings of pudding, either.

Flip through the racks of Christmas CDs, or endure shopping centre musak and it’s all Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey and Kenny G. Yet there’s a whole nether world of Christmas music out there, charting a darker place, sardonic and questioning, playful yet with the traitorous kiss of a razor blade. A true post-9/11 take on the world and the way we look at it.

Ditch Sarah Brightman and Barbara Streisand and listen instead to Tom Waits, Spinal Tap, AC/DC, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Booker T and The MGs, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Tiny Tim, The Partridge Family and The Ronettes. There’s something for everybody. Biting satire and loving homage. Jazz, swing, country, R&B, punk, comedy, novelty, pop and blues. There’s gay Christmas songs, Jewish Christmas songs (OK, Hannukah, then) even songs for people who really want this Christmas to be their last.

Uncovering a great weird Christmas song is like finding a redback nestling in Nanna’s fruit cake. It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.

When Tommy Dorsey recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” in 1934, the snowy sluice-gates of popular, commercially-driven Xmas music opened wide. In 1947 the Singing Cowboy and star of radio and silver screen, Gene Autry, wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus”, inspired by the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade. It was a hit but not as big as the one he had just two years later.

“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” has been spinning around record players so long he’s generally assumed to be a traditional member of the North Pole community. Yet Rudolph was invented by a Chicago copywriter, Robert May, for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.

It started as a Christmas story given out to the store’s customers in 1939 until May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks (who would later pen “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, an enormous hit for Brenda Lee, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”), immortalised the rosy appendage in song.

Gene Autry’s 1949 version sold 2.5 million copies before the year was out and total sales now hover around the 30 million-mark.

In 1948, Spike Jones and His City Slickers weighed in with “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”. Jones’ trademark was to cleverly deconstruct the wildly popular Big Band craze, hacking away its sophisticated allure and subverting it with complete chaos. There weren’t many sound effects, including gunshots and blood-curdling screams, that couldn’t be incorporated into a Spike Jones song. Think the Goons crossed with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre meet Glenn Miller.

By the 1940s, the greatest of all Christmas songs (and even weird Christmas music fans will admit to it) was well and truly established. In May 1942, cardiganed crooner Bing Crosby recorded a number of new songs written by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn. One of these was “White Christmas”. It became an instant classic. So much so, that the record’s original master was worn out by 1947 and had to be re-recorded. It is this, the second version, that people know today.

The curious Xmas completist should check out the two-CD Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas – The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook (MCA 1998), which has four versions of “White Christmas” – the 1942 “A” take discarded due to a slight fluff Crosby made near the end of the recording, the released second 1942 “B” take, the 1947 re-recording, and a 1954 version with Peggy Lee and Danny Kaye.

Bing Crosby, strange as it may seem, is the patron saint of weird Christmas music. This has as much to do with “White Christmas” as it does with his duet on “Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie in 1977. So if “White Christmas” in all its schmaltzy glory is hip, what’s the cut-off point?

A sense of fun is the deciding factor. And irony. It’s safe to assume that Dean Martin is cool but Neil Diamond is not. Dean’s irony may be martini-enhanced but it’s fair to say that Neil Diamond considers irony to be something that happens to his satin shirts. The Carpenters and Nat King Cole, although skating dangerously close to an ice-thin saccharine crust, are nonetheless cool and thus reside on that outer edge of the weird music spectrum.

It’s when Christmas music enters the Twilight Zone that things really get interesting. It becomes the perfect antidote for those who consider Christmas music to be aural wallpaper, agreeable background static to the frantic Yuletide season.

Many of the best are novelty songs such as the 1953 hit for 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”. A child star in her native Oklahoma City, Peevey’s song inadvertently became a case of life imitating art. After blitzing the nation, a publicity coup saw Peevey presented with her very own baby hippopotamus, which she promptly donated to the Oklahoma City Zoo.  Named Matilda, the mammoth mammal led her own famed existence until 1998 when she was due to be transferred to Disney World in Florida. In a sad twist to the Xmas tale, the Matilda died en route.

By the 1950s, Christmas turntables were swinging with such classics as Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby”, Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”, and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” from pint-sized package Brenda Lee.

Over the years, there’s been some great novelty Christmas songs. Comedian Martin Mull lent the Big Red Guy some street cred with “Santafly”, a take on 70s blaxploitation movies, while Weird Al Yankovich tells what happens when the pressure gets too much in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”.

In 1999, The Little Stinkers, fronted by seven-year-old Mary Beltrami, fanned the winds of Xmas with “I Farted On Santa’s Lap”. Fashion tips also get a look-in with Canadian satirist Nancy White telling us “It’s So Chic To Be Pregnant At Christmas”.

The king of novelty Christmas songs must be Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio DJ with a series of parody CDs. In deconstructing popular songs, he comes up with such Pythoneseque tracks as “Chipmunks Roasting On An Open Fire”, “Wreck The Malls”, “I Came Upon A Roadkill Deer”, and “It’s The Most Fattening Time Of The Year”. Rivers also contributed a parody AC/DC Christmas song, “Hell’s Bells”.

But who needs a parody when you have the real thing? AC/DC released their own, “Mistress For Christmas”, in 1990. The roll call of rock’s tinsel-tonsiled hard men include The Damned, The Ramones (with the festive “Merry Christmas – I Don’t Want To Fight”), Blink 182, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Slade, and even Spinal Tap. Most are individual tracks available only on compilations although an exception is the entertaining A Twisted Christmas from heavy metal cross-dressers, Twisted Sister.

Lou Reed’s “Xmas In February” gets a mention not only for almost being a Christmas song but as one of the very few that deal with Vietnam (along with Johnny & Jon’s 1966 curiosity “Christmas In Viet Nam”, and “There Won’t Be Any Snow (Christmas In The Jungle)” by Derrick Roberts).

Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” is a Xmas song in title only but is worthy of inclusion nonetheless. Waits, however, waited for a truly Gothic moment to enter the Xmas annuls with the darkly roiling, thumping excesses of “Christmas Sucks”.

And for those who think “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” can’t be weird, try Henry Rollins and his muscular steamroller of a version.

Television shows and celebrities are well represented with Xmas selections from The Waltons, Ren & Stimpy, South Park, Jerry Springer and a truly great album from The Partridge Family.

Mae West’s Mae in December (1980) is so obscure it appears in very few of the film star’s discographies but it’s a great album with such choice cuts as “Put The Loot In The Boot, Santa”.

Another swag of weird but worthy Christmas outings include “Homo Christmas” by 1990s gay San Francisco punk band, Pansy Division, drag queen RuPaul’s Ho Ho Ho album and Merry MeX-Mas from El Vez, the renowned Mexican Elvis Presley impersonator.

Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album, an important inclusion in any collection, was recorded in Sydney in 1993 under the guidance of Martin Sharp. Australian band Girl Monster (fronted by Campbelltown-born and now US-based alt country songstress, Anne McCue) recorded “Dead By Christmas”, one of the very few seasonal songs that stress the ultimate in self-determination.

Dread Zeppelin, a reggae band fronted by a 130-kilogram Elvis impersonator and best known for its individualistic interpretation of Led Zeppelin songs, released The First No-Elvis in 1994.

Big-band, swing and lounge music provide some brassy Xmas distractions with special mention going to the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, 60s space-age bachelor pad purveyor Esquivel, and Canadian crooner Jaymz Bee & The Royal Jelly Orchestra.

There’s so much great R&B and soul that it’s almost impossible to catalogue. My faves include the evocatively-titled “Back Door Santa” from Clarence Carter, and The Harmony Grits, comprising members of the original Drifters, who in 1959 recorded a bouncy interpretation of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. And 14-year-old Frankie Lymon, reaching way beyond the top shelf where the presents are hidden for the high notes on “It’s Christmas Time Again”, which dates from around 1957.

The grand-daddy of all R&B festivities is Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963) with The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love battling to be heard above Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound. The album has been reissued so many times and in so many forms, it’s one of the easiest to find (the 1988 CD release inexplicably includes a couple of turgid Elvis Presley tracks).

The Big Red Guy’s transportation dilemmas was an underlying theme of many country songs including Alan Jackson’s duet with Alvin and The Chipmunks on “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Pickup Truck”, The Tractors’ “Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train)”, Toby Keith’s “Hot Rod Sleigh” and Buck Owens’ “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Stagecoach”. Joe Diffie, however, preferred a country-fried reinvention of another legend with “Leroy, The Redneck Reindeer”.

The Twilight Zone Award for weird Xmas music goes to songwriter Red Sovine. His 1978 mistletoe missive, “Faith In Santa”, otherwise known as “Billy’s Christmas Wish”, tells of a street Santa who meets a sad and sickly little boy with a story that distends even country music’s already flexible definition of tragedy. Just as listeners think the song can’t get any more heart-rending, the final twist is beyond description and extremely creepy. Keep the Kleenex handy and a bucket even closer.

Like much of the Xmas season, disappointments abound. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Christmas album from 1962 has only two cuts that even come close to the group’s successful formula of soaring falsettos high enough to make dogs’ ears bleed. The Three Stooges recorded a number of seasonal songs very late in their careers and it tells, the boys sounding so tired they seem to nap between choruses

Albums by Fats Domino, Liberace, Elvis Presley, The Monkees, Cyndi Lauper, Melanie, and Jackie Wilson sadly gather in the why-bother category. More often than not, Christmas albums by some of the 60s biggest rhythm and blues acts, including Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, fall into this trap and the label most guilty of such infringements is Motown, whose releases are generally so earnestly devout, so busy over-stuffing the Christ into Christmas they bleed the joy from joyous. One happy exception is The Jackson 5 Christmas Album from 1970, an infectiously boppy celebration of the season.

My own Christmas wish? Certainly not a new release from the Jingle Cats, whose 1994 album Here Comes Santa Claws was enough to threaten goodwill to all our four-legged friends. No, each year I beg Santa for a Leonard Cohen Christmas album.

Like so many people on Christmas morning, I know I’ll end up disappointed. But conjure the possibilities, if you will. Pass the razor, please. I’ll have an egg nog and a hot bath.

Words  © David Latta

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Thanks For The Music: The Enduring Gifts of Alan Lancaster and Status Quo


Recently, at a friend’s birthday celebrations, I met Alan Lancaster, one of the founding members of Status Quo. The party attracted a fair representation of the arts, with a leaning towards musicians, songwriters and music industry personalities. Some performed, others shared their recollections during speeches, a few simply mingled and chatted, relaxed in their relative anonymity.

Alan spent much of the evening talking with long-time Quo fans. He is small, almost boyish, with the lean insouciance of a rock star and a shock of gray hair. His features recall the 13-year-old who, with fellow schoolmate Francis Rossi, honed their musical skills in the school orchestra at Sedgehill Comprehensive in Catford, a south London suburb that produced talents as diverse as guitarist Robin Trower, comedian Ben Elton and author Andy McNab.

At that tender age, Alan and Rossi formed a band that would evolve to become Status Quo in 1967. They were together through the hard-rocking period of chart dominance in the early to mid-1970s and when they racked up a fair proportion of Quo’s 64 UK Top 40 hits.

As is so often the case in the world of rock, Alan fell out with his partner and played his last gig with Quo at Live Aid in 1985. He’s been living in Australia since then.

At 64, he’s a little frail, a little unsteady on his feet, a result of his ongoing battle with MS, which was first diagnosed in 2002. Doubtless he’s been asked everything over the years so he’s heard it all. His recollections are mercifully free of the venom that would normally be excused from someone who has survived fame, fortune and the music industry.

Even a sideways swipe at the question du jour of pretty much every fan he talks to these days – the ignominious serving up for Coles supermarkets of Quo’s biggest hit like a slab of cold delicatessen lunchmeat, complete with current band members performing in giant red hands – diffuses the revulsion he must undoubtedly feel with a deliciously ironic sense of humour.

Alan Lancaster

As he was leaving, I shook his hand and asked if I could say something. He was probably expecting yet another request for a photo opportunity or some probing analysis of bass riffs on Piledriver.

Instead, I simply thanked him for the music, for being so much a part of my teenage years. If he thought it a strange comment, if he was taken aback, he hid it well, maybe a moment’s hesitation before he answered and maybe his eyes were a little brighter and a little shinier and maybe his handshake was a little firmer than it would ordinarily be.

It could be that a lot of people say what I did and it’s just another ordinary day for a former rock god. I don’t mind that much. I meant it. Music is so immensely important to me. It carries the full weight of my life, of the memories of all the years that have passed. There’s rarely a day that I don’t share with the music that means so much. My iPod turned high in the room where I’m writing, in the kitchen when I’m cooking, in the car while I’m driving. Each song is a hermetically sealed vessel containing emotions of a time and place and mood and sometimes even a person; vividly bright pieces of the jigsaw that is me.

Music unites our past and present, and most likely our future as well. I can listen now to a song that I first heard when I was young and callow and know that it may still be bouncing around my brain when I take my last breath. It will endure. It’s the same for those of us for whom music is more than just background noise.

Alan Lancaster (middle back row) and the classic 70s Quo line-up

My tastes meandered widely in those days, from Karen Carpenter and Van Morrison to Chicago, the Bowie of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. And while, as the 70s progressed, my nights were increasingly given over to disco, the long summer days were bracketed by Status Quo at their most potent, pounding out across a thousand hotel beer gardens and backyard parties.

I most likely had cassettes of Hello! or On The Level to play in my car. Quo were unavoidable and their songs seeped into my conscious like osmosis. Roll Over Lay Down, a song co-written by Alan, remains as vitally anthemic as it was then.

As is to be expected, the boffins have weighed in with a scientific rationale for why music means so much to us. In early 2011, researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute found that people listening to their favourite songs experienced a rush of dopamine near the frontal striatum, the brain region associated with anticipating rewards, in tandem with a similar dose in the rear striatum, the brain’s pleasure centre. In essence, music activates the same pleasure responses as food and sex.

While music gives me such enjoyment, it can also take me to darker places. The weight of the past can become too heavy and there are those favourites I carried in my heart for decades, such as Bryan Ferry, that eventually came to represent my failures, far too painful to bear.

So while I was thanking Alan for his music, I was also thanking him for all the music. In essence, Alan was standing in for Karen and Van the Man and Peter Cetera and David Jones and Vincent and Lou and thousands more, everybody I’ve ever played more than a few times or nodded along to on the radio. I’ll never get the chance to personally thank all those great boys and girls so Alan had unwittingly become my conduit to the past and the person who grew up, for better or worse, with a love of the music of the times. For a moment, he was every singer of every song I hold dear.

He took it well, I thought. We shook hands, the barely heard echo of the passing decades gently faded and he wandered off into the night. I wish him well because a little bit of what make us all what we are travels with him.

Words © David Latta

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Sometimes A Schnitzel Is More Than Just A Schnitzel: Essen Restaurant And The Schnitzilla Challenge


There are many people who say there’s a time and place for fried food. And there’s the rest of us who exclaim “anytime and anyplace!”. For those in the latter category, a trip to Essen, a restaurant specialising in northern European cuisine, is a must. It’s located on Broadway close to Sydney’s CBD.

My love of this kind of food started in the early 1970s with regular visits to Una’s in Kings Cross. Una’s has always been dependable; great breakfasts and especially great schnitzels including the jaeger schnitzel (with mushroom sauce). When original owner Maggie sold out (and later opened a namesake operation just across from the El Alamein Fountain), the new owners branched out with a couple of satellite Una’s. One was on Broadway, sandwiched between the University of Sydney and UTS. That was seven years ago; a couple of years later, the partnership that took over Una’s split and this branch became Essen.

It’s been as dependable as the original Una’s; great jaeger schnitzel (in a choice of pork, veal or chicken) and superb slow-roasted pork knuckle with bread dumpling and sauerkraut. Essen is also notable for its excellent beers and ciders including a malty dark Dreher Bak beer from Budapest (a brewery better known for its export Pilsner Urquell). Essen on Broadway is especially good for those of us for whom Kings Cross has lost its charm.

The Contenders Await The Challenge

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Essen’s schnitzels are comparable to my all-time favourite, the legendary Figlmüller in Vienna, Austria. It’s here that the humble wiener schnitzel has been elevated to an art form. Figlmüller opened on Wollzeile, a short walk from St Stephen’s Cathedral, in 1905. I’d often reflect on the famous (and infamous) personalities who may have found their fried version of heaven within these walls – Freud (who undoubtedly would have suggested that a schnitzel is sometimes just a schnitzel); an unsuccessful painter of watercolours who just missed out on being named Schicklgruber; and Orson Welles, legendary lover of food in prodigious amounts who filmed The Third Man in the streets nearby

Figlmüller’s claim to eternal fame lies in a single piece of pork tenderloin, pounded into wafer-thin submission, crumbed and fried. At around 30cm in diameter, it smothers the plate on which it is served. It was always the first place I’d eat whenever I arrived in Vienna and the memories stay with me today.

When it comes to food, as with so many things, I claim observance to Dirty Harry’s creed that “a man’s just gotta know his limitations” and so it was at a recent media launch for Essen’s Schnitzilla challenge. I was on hand to watch a bunch of overly-ambitious journalists and media types attempt something no-one else had been able to achieve – defeating a man-made mountain of schnitzel.

Disbelief Sets In

The Schnitzilla is Essen’s newest menu item. Inspired by the Man v. Food television program, it encompasses a 3.5kg platter of chicken schnitzel, side dishes such as roesti and cabbage salad, and jaeger sauce. The idea is that if the dish is consumed within 45 minutes, the diner gets a limited-edition “I Got Schnit-Faced At Essen” T-shirt (presumably Size XXXL).

In the first month of the Schnitzilla, 70 diners tried but none reached the goal; the best performance was leaving 1.2kg. They get to take the leftovers home, where they will undoubtedly be recreating their challenge for the next few days.

There were more than enough contenders at the media launch. They took their places, their optimism as bright and eager as little bunny rabbits. But the Schnitzilla was the headlights on the highway. All were flattened by the juggernaut of fried meat. The best performing diner left 1.39kg.

Craig Donarski At Battle Stations

Human nature is such that we always believe we can conquer the impossible, tackling Everest or visiting Ikea on weekends being the most notable examples. So the Schnitzilla will continue to seduce thrill-seekers but it appears unlikely any will ever succeed.

On the other hand, the Schnitzilla –  at $49 – can be seen as outstanding value. It roughly equates to about four or five servings so do your best but don’t overdo it; the leftovers will feed a large family or 27 Russian supermodels.

Essen

133-135 Broadway

Ultimo, NSW, Australia

Tel: 612 9211 3805

The Schnitzel Will Always Win

Words and photos © David Latta

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Adventures In Bread Pudding: An Easter-Themed Hot Cross Bun Bread Pudding


If you have a sweet tooth, like I do, Easter is heaven. While Christmas is traditionally savoury, with its emphasis on a wide variety of roast animals, Easter is all about chocolate and hot cross buns (spiritual considerations aside, of course).

Well known in Australia and the United Kingdom, hot cross buns might not be as traditional a fare in the United States so I’ll fall back on Wikipedia and describe them as sweet buns spiced with cinnamon and containing raisins, currants or mixed fruit. I have them toasted with marmalade jam which only points out just how recklessly I red-line my sweet zone. The traditional buns have been supplemented in recent years by such variations as chocolate chip, white chocolate and cranberry and even non-fruit (presumably washed down with a weak decaf non-dairy lattè with Equal).

This Easter, I was a little more careful than usual (maintaining my 20 kilogram weight loss from last year) but couldn’t entirely neglect my chocolate and hot cross bun habit. But once the Easter festival drags on and you’ve served them fresh, toasted, over easy, on horseback and every other which way, what else is there to do?

Try them in a bread pudding, of course. This recipe uses the traditional New Orleans-style Bread Pudding found in the Silver Palate Cookbook (Doubleday, 1981). The original recipe calls for one loaf of stale French bread or baguette but works equally well with ordinary stale sliced white bread or even brioche. Just about any bread or bakery item is fair game although maybe Cinnabon is going a bit far. There’s also a whisky sauce that comes with the original recipe but it’s your call as to whether it would be too much with the compounded richness of the hot cross buns. I say – you’ve gone this far, why not!

Oh, and before I forget, like all desserts, a scoop or two of ice cream is the perfect accompaniment.

Ingredients:

8 Hot Cross Buns

3 ½ cups milk

160 grams butter, softened

7 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 cup icing sugar

4 tablespoons whiskey

For the PUDDING, in a large mixing bowl, tear buns into small pieces. Pour milk over and let stand for one hour.

Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Grease a baking dish (ceramic or Pyrex is fine – dimensions of about 30cm x 18cm x 7cm).

In another bowl, beat 6 eggs, sugar and vanilla extract. Stir this into bread mixture.

Pour into baking dish, place on the middle rack of the oven and bake until browned and set. It should take about 70 minutes. It’s better if it’s moist in the middle. Cool to room temperature.

For the WHISKEY SAUCE, blend the softened butter with the icing sugar in the top of a double boiler over simmering water until all the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot. Remove from heat. Beat remaining egg well and whisk it into sugar mixture. Remove pan from base and continue beating until sauce has cooled to room temperature. Add whisky to taste.

To serve, preheat griller. Cut pudding into squares and transfer to a heatproof serving dish. Spoon whiskey sauce over the pudding and place under the griller until bubbling.

Words and photo © David Latta

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You Like Me, You Really Like Me!!!!!!


Many, many thanks to long-time reader and avid travel blogger Ashley Paige (no, not the Californian bikini designer – for those who fret about such things – but the East Coast anthropology student) of the fortheloveofwanderlust blog for nominating me for a Versatile Blogger Award.

As a condition of my nomination I must list 15 of my favourite blogs, a tricky task as I subscribe to so few. I’ve put in a little research and found some wonderful blogs that align with my interests.

My list comprises:

1/ Alice Writ Large

2/ Cliff Bott’s Blog

3/ Espacio de Manon

4/ Get Up And Go

5/ The Licentiate

6/ Aaron Leaman

7/ The Thought Experiment

8/ Classic Las Vegas

9/ Fossil Cars

10/ Dear Old Hollywood

11/ Black Dahlia Reader

12/ The Daily Mirror

13/ Old Hollywood Glamour

14/ The Oz Hitztory Blog

15/ Blame Mame: A Classic Film Blog

I must also open up and list seven things readers may not know about me:

1/ I prefers cats to dogs and just about any other animals with the exception of monkeys.

2/ I wasn’t a child prodigy and I’ve been paying the price ever since.

3/ I’m a blue guy rather than a brown guy.

4/ Disco died for me sometime around 1981.

5/ Bacon is my favourite food group.

6/ If I had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Chinese (Hunan preferably but Cantonese runs a close second).

7/ If it’s your shout, I’ll have a Ketel One martini, very cold, very dry, with a twist. Oh, and a bag of pork rinds, thanks.

Sorry for gushing (although with the Oscars approaching, my Sally Field moment is perhaps excusable) but thanks again to Ashley Paige and to all my readers.

Words and photos © David Latta

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Nuts and Cream: Bircher Muesli and Nineteenth Century Dietary Radicalism


For more than 20 years, I travelled extensively around the world and one of the things I looked forward to was staying at hotels I’d normally never be able to afford. There’s something wonderfully indulgent about five-star hotels, whether they be in New York, Hong Kong or Paris, and my first mornings would always follow the same path – trooping off to the hotel dining room with that day’s copy of the Herald Tribune and the heady anticipation of what the breakfast buffet would hold. I’d first check that bircher muesli was available; I considered then, and still do, that a hotel could best be judged by the quality of that one dish – moist, creamy, sweet and welcoming, the perfect introduction to a new destination.

This was especially so in Asian hotels during the 1990s, when the international five-star brands were more often than not staffed by European food and beverage executives, trained in classic traditions by the finest Swiss hotel schools. Even if the eggs were incinerated at blisteringly high temperatures and the “bacon” was beef or turkey, I could generally count on the bircher muesli as authentic.

In recent times, my travel has tailed off but my love of bircher muesli has not. In my local neighbourhood, I’ve found only one café that serves it and, while it’s a fair approximation, it’s not exactly my ideal.

Maximilian Bircher-Benner With A Few Of His Favourite Things

With this in mind, I started fiddling with the numerous recipes available on the Internet. Most create the muesli from scratch, with oats and nuts, then adding grated apple, yoghurt and milk, at which point they often spin wildly off into a galactic black hole of improvisation. It’s not unusual to find such oddities as agave nectar, sunflower seeds and apple slices pan-fried in maple syrup and cinnamon.

I wanted something simpler. I figured there’s no reason I couldn’t start with readily-available pre-mixed supermarket muesli. Through trial and error, mostly error, I’ve devised one that comes pretty close to those wonderful concoctions I remember from my travels. Just how wicked it becomes, calorie-wise, depends on whether you use cream or milk or a combination of both. You can even substitute low-fat or skim milk and the taste will not suffer that much.

Firstly, though, a little background. Hats off to Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, a late 19th century Swiss doctor and early advocate of healthy eating. The basis of his teachings was to avoid meat and concentrate on fruit, vegetables and nuts. Around 1900, at his clinic in Zurich, with the Alps resonating in the background, he mixed together a few of his favourite things and came up with museli.

John Harvey Kellogg Says Nuts To Healthy Living

Interestingly, across the Atlantic, this philosophy was mirrored by John Harvey Kellogg. At his Battle Creek Sanitorium in rural Michigan, Kellogg pushed the boundaries of healthy living way beyond his Seventh-day Adventist adherence (which already renounced alcohol and tobacco) and embraced vegetarianism. A firm believer in the benefits of nuts and whole grains, in the late 1890s he started a company with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. No prizes for guessing where this is going, right? Along the way, Kellogg invented Corn Flakes and no suburban breakfast would ever be the same again.

And while I have Max to thank for my favourite breakfast, I have to admit that Kellogg was a much more interesting individual. He took weird and perfected it in ways that defy definition. As evidence, seek out the 1994 bio-pic, The Road To Wellville, with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg and Dana Carvey as his brother and a supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda.

Kellogg’s overall philosophy was one of moderation and abstinence from all vices, sex included. Self-determination, if I may employ a euphemism, was especially abhorrent; Kellogg considered that such practices led to urinary disease, impotence, epilepsy, cancer, insanity and, eventually, death. These days, he’d probably throw in global warning and Republicanism.

So, keeping in mind the matter of full cream over low fat, what better time to segue to my bircher muesli recipe?

DL’s Bircher Muesli Recipe:

Ingredients

2 cups supermarket muesli (raw, not toasted)

250 mL milk (any type, even low fat or skim, or full cream)

125 mL apple juice

175 mL tub of yoghurt

1 tablespoon honey

½ medium apple, peeled and grated

Method

1/ Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2/ Before serving, the mixture may need a little extra milk. It should be moist but not wet, with a consistency a little on the porridge side.

Words  © David Latta

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Will The Real Holly Golightly Please Stand Up: Truman Capote Mines His Friendships For Art


Truman Capote As A Young Man

If ever there was a subject worthy of a Broadway musical, it would be the coterie of elegant swans that surrounded Truman Capote. Beautiful, stylish and inevitably wealthy, they came from all manner of backgrounds but what they had in common was that New York City was their world and the world was their playground, much as it was his.

That Capote could charm such creatures was no real surprise. His wit, as sharp and entangling as razor wire, was the perfect accompaniment to every dinner party and social soiree.

When Breakfast At Tiffany’s appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine in November 1958, the burning question became: who was the real Holly Golightly? Even more pressing, amongst his circle of friends and admirers, was – could it be one of us?

Early in Capote’s novella, the unnamed narrator meets one of Holly’s friends, a West Coast agent by the name of O.J. Berman. He tells the story of “discovering” a 15-year-old Holly at the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. She was involved with a jockey at the time and, despite thick glasses and an almost impenetrable Okie accent, he detected certain qualities that could have made her a star.

“…it took us a year to smooth out that accent,” Berman confides. “How we did it finally, we gave her French lessons; after she could imitate French, it wasn’t so long that she could imitate English. We modelled her along the Margaret Sullivan type, but she could pitch some curves of her own, people were interested….”

Babe Paley photographed by Horst P. Horst

Berman arranges her to test for an upcoming movie, The Story of Dr Wassell, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The day before she’s due to audition, Berman gets a phone call from Holly saying she’s in New York and has no intention of returning.

This is one of the principal clues towards identifying the real Holly. There actually was a Story of Dr Wassell, with Cooper and DeMille, which was released in 1944. Gerald Clarke in Capote: A Biography (1988) ventures that this was a reference to Doris Lilly, described as a “tall, pretty, streak-blonde starlet”. Wassell is Lilly’s only Internet Movie Database entry, where she is rather ingloriously listed as “Civilian (Uncredited)”.

Lilly went on to become a journalist and author, best known for her 1951 bestseller, How To Marry A Millionaire. Interestingly, the 1953 movie adaptation co-starred Marilyn Monroe, a close of friend of Capote, who had futilely championed her as Holly in the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

Lilly was interviewed by George Plimpton for his 1998 book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.

“There was a lot of wondering about who the original Holly Golightly was,” she said. “Pamela Drake and I were living in this brownstone walk-up on East 78th Street, exactly the one in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Exactly. Truman used to come over all the time and watch me put make-up on before I went out…There’s an awful lot of me in Holly Golightly. There is much more of me than there is of Carol Marcus and a girl called Bee Dabney, a painter. More of me than either of these two ladies. I know.”

C.Z. Guest photographed by Cecil Beaton

Carol Marcus had fallen in with a teenage Capote in the early 1940s and introduced him to a circle of friends, including Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who married a 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 years old) and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and the group prowled such celebrated nightclubs as El Morocco and the Stork Club.

Marcus had a short-lived career in Hollywood as Carol Grace; she was best known for marrying author William Saroyan twice (the first time when she was just 16) and then actor Walter Matthau. “I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn’t believe how terrible it was the first time. I married Walter because I love to sleep with him,” she later said.

Bee Dabney was an artist who was briefly engaged to George Plimpton although it ended badly; she ran off with a man she met at the engagement party.

With the hardcover publication of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Capote’s career soared further and, inevitably, the search for the real Holly became more frantic. A woman who shared Holly’s surname sued Capote for $800,000 but the suit quickly stalled. Capote was quoted as saying: “It’s ridiculous for her to claim she is my Holly. I understand she’s a large girl nearly 40 years old. Why, it’s sort of like Joan Crawford saying she’s Lolita.”

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Doris Lilly would later become a close friend of Crawford, from 1967 living in the same apartment block.)

Gloria Guinness

Capote himself was not beyond muddying the waters to maintain interest in his most famous creation. In a 1968 Playboy interview, he spun an elaborate story about the real Holly being a German immigrant he met when they both lived in the same brownstone on the Upper East Side.

Another interesting clue comes by way of another of Capote’s friends, author James A. Michener, whose novel Tales Of The South Pacific (1947) was adopted as a Broadway musical and subsequent movie, South Pacific. In an essay penned as the foreword for Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations With Capote (1985), Michener tells of a woman he firmly believed to be the model for Holly. Although he doesn’t name her, he describes her as “…stunning would-be starlet-singer-actress-raconteur from the mines of Montana. She had a minimum talent, a maximum beauty, and a rowdy sense of humour. Also, she was six feet, two inches tall, half a head taller than I, a head and a half taller than Truman.”

This occasioned a competition between Michener and Capote for the woman’s affections, although she leaned (in more ways than one) more towards Capote. “They made a stunning pair, this statuesque miner’s daughter soaring above the heavens, this rotund little gnome dancing along beside her,” Michener wrote.

As an accompaniment to his celebrity status, Capote undoubtedly loved the attention as much as the scarlet swirl of notoriety that swept along the discussion of Holly’s origins.

In all probability, Holly was a mix of many women. A little of this one, some more of that one. Doris Lilly, Carol Marcus, Michener’s unnamed companion, Capote’s mother, Capote’s own idealised alter ego, and maybe even splashes of his very own coterie of gorgeousness he called his “swans” which included Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, and Slim Keith.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's

Capote’s fiction draws so heavily from his own life and the people he knew that sorting the real from the imaginary is a Herculean task. In his most famous work, the 1966 In Cold Blood, he approached this from a different angle, creating an ambitious mix of real-life events and improvised reportage that, for want of a better description, was labelled a non-fiction novel.

Yet, unknown to anyone, let alone the beguiling members of New York society who had allowed this strangely beautiful interloper into their lives, he had another agenda. He was planning a literary masterpiece peopled with his friends and foes. In essence, he’d been planning it even before he finished Breakfast At Tiffany’s, giving it the title of Answered Prayers.

He finally signed a contract for it in 1966, hot on the heels of In Cold Blood; deadlines, however, came and went, contracts were renegotiated and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a couple of unconnected chapters appeared in Esquire.

By that time, Capote was well used to people quizzing him about whether they would appear in the book, whether they could expect literary glorification or abject and enduring humiliation. The longer the project meandered, the more it seemed the result would be the latter rather than the former. He was well aware of, and even delighted in, the power he held. When the question inevitably arose, he would tease: “Not yet but, like Forest Lawn  cemetery, I’ve reserved a plot for you”.

When Esquire printed these tantalising glimpses in 1975-76, it made for turgidly compulsive reading. The overall effect was to rankle his social circle. Secrets that had been shared with him, sometimes over decades, made their way into print. Mojave was a thinly-disguised tale of one of his closest and oldest friends, Babe Paley and her husband, television executive William S. Paley. Le Cote Basque followed; if Mojave was a snide aside in a crowded room, Le Côte Basque, which referred to a fashionable restaurant preferred by New York society, was a screaming hissy fit that, however artfully, made public all manner of indiscretions.

Doris Lilly

Babe never talked to Capote again, the real-life model for one of the main characters committed suicide and New York society turned their elegant backs en masse. He had driven his swans away. By the end of the decade, Capote was alone with the demons that had always haunted him, increasingly filtered by prescription drugs and alcohol.

Answered Prayers was never to see publication beyond the chapters that originally appeared in Esquire. Through the late 70s and early 80s, whenever questioned about its progress, he continued to obfuscate. Close to the time he died in 1984, he even handed a close friend a safety deposit box key, claiming it held the completed manuscript. No trace of it was ever found.

Words © David Latta

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