David Latta is an award-winning editor, journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in scores of Australian and international newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Courier-Mail and Travel & Leisure.
During the last two decades, he has largely concentrated on travel and tourism, editing more than a dozen B2B titles and major conference and incentive travel publications.
He is the author of critically-acclaimed books on such subjects as architecture and design, Australian history, literary criticism and music. These titles include Lost Glories: A Memorial To Forgotten Australian Buildings, Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, and Australian Country Music.
He is currently working on a book about the nightclub scene in 1970s Sydney as well as a sprawling thriller set in Sydney during World War II.
As an arts commentator, humourist and trend-spotter, his opinions are sought across the gamat of traditional and social media.
Even by the standards of Sydney crime figures of the first half of the 20th century, Sidney Patrick Kelly was particularly vicious. A member of the so-called “razor gangs” that terrorised the inner suburbs of Australia’s largest city, Siddy (as he was known), slashed, shot and bashed his way through his many enemies and, occasionally, even his friends. And that was just the men. For women who fell victim to his short, volcanic temper, he arranged even harsher retribution.
Readers of Larry Writer’s Razor volume may vaguely recall him although he was, at best, a peripheral character. So, too, within the highly-romanticised mini-series that inevitably resulted, screening as Underbelly: Razor in 2011.
Siddy Kelly was an associate of Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine, Nellie Cameron, Guido Calletti, and even infamous Melbourne gangster, Squizzy Taylor.
Standing just 160cm, he always had something to prove and even much bigger men moved, and spoke, carefully in his presence. Early in his career, he was a cocaine dealer and police informer; gradually, he gained a fearsome reputation as an enforcer.
What he lacked in stature, he compensated for with a mercurial unpredictability. Siddy ran with a bunch of equally tough, though much larger, friends. Amongst them was his elder brother, Tom.
They were a fine pair, the Kelly brothers though Siddy seemed to have a slight edge on Tom in the cruelty stakes. The gang muscled their way through the Sydney underworld, restraining Siddy’s targets while he ceremoniously unfolded his straight razor and deeply sliced a face or, if negotiations had progressed beyond all resolve, a throat.
As a boy, he worked as a jockey and remained fascinated by horseracing throughout his life. He owned racehorses but was caught out with batteries under the saddles of some of his mounts and banned from the sport. Later, he operated illegal baccarat dens.
At the peak of his activities during the 1940s, his share of the profits amounted to around £1,000 a night (about $72,000 in today’s dollars) In comparison, the average weekly wage in 1946 was £6/9/11 (6 pounds, 9 shillings and 11 pence – somewhere around $470 in current terms).
In 1947, Kelly and his wife, Theller Omega, known as Poppy, moved to grander surroundings. A two-storey mansion at 2 Martin Road, Centennial Park, adjacent to the parklands and within sight of the Sydney Showgrounds, was purchased for £8,500 (about $615,000 in today’s dollars).
Located on a 1948 square metre block and including extensive gardens, the house had been built around 1919 in the then-fashionable Inter War Free Classical style. It was designed by the prestigious Sydney architectural firm of Burcham Clamp and Mackellar.
At the time of Kelly’s purchase, the mansion was known as Babington. Later, and perhaps as a result of its notoriety, it was renamed Stanton Hall.
A gangster moving into the silvertail suburb of Centennial Park was notable enough to attract significant press coverage. Kelly didn’t shy away from the limelight. One newspaper quoted him as saying: “I have had a pretty busy life. I figured it was about time my wife and I had a slice of reasonable comfort in a home where we will not be cramped.
“I have always wanted a place where I could put up my friends and guests, and I have always wanted gardens, lawns and fishponds,” he continued. “The place is a good investment, and I have always said that nothing is too good for the Kellys.”
He continued to make money hand over clenched fist, primarily via his baccarat operations or gambling on horse races. Yet, a huge fortune and glamourous home could not inoculate Kelly from the vagaries of fate.
On the evening of Wednesday 1 September 1948, Siddy Kelly complained of not feeling well. The next morning, brother Tom went to his room to check on him but found him dead. An attending doctor listed his cause of death as heart failure. He was just 49 years old.
Dozens of journalists camped outside his home. One newspaper dryly noted he was “a well known figure among the exotic elements of Kings Cross”.
His funeral was held at Botany Cemetery. It was a private ceremony, attended by no more than 50 mourners including Poppy. Press coverage mentioned the floral tributes, estimated at £300, that adorned the casket as it made its way from his Centennial Park home.
Of all the mysteries associated with Siddy Kelly (principally, how a man with so many enemies had managed to stay alive so long), one final mystery was about to kick into high gear.
On his death, Kelly was said to have squirrelled away between £50,000 and £100,000 ($3.5 – $7 million in today’s dollars). Keep in mind, Kelly’s five-bedroom mansion on the best street in the suburb had cost less than £10,000. A police source was quoted as saying: “He was a man who never gave money away.”
On rumours that some of the money had been buried in Centennial Park, gangs of crims armed with shovels and flashlights spent weeks digging indiscriminately throughout the extensive parklands, all to no avail.
Sensing a windfall, the Taxation Office descended but were perplexed to find that the gross value of the estate barely grazed £8,800 ($637,000 today). Net worth was just £2,768 (just north of $200,000 today). It didn’t help that Siddy’s long-time solicitor, Harold Joseph Price, had earlier in 1948 been sentenced to 12 years in jail for misappropriating clients’ funds.
Although Price had stolen some £34,000 ($2.5 million today) from a number of accounts under his care, the general consensus – in the underworld and elsewhere – was that he wouldn’t have been so stupid as to steal from Kelly himself. The money was out there, it was felt, but nobody knew just where. And it was never found, despite the best efforts of the police, the tax office and Sydney’s criminal elite.
Babington, later known as Stanton Hall, today remains largely in its original state, though undoubted refurbished many times since. It was last traded in 1976 for $90,000 and is today estimated to be worth in excess of $10 million.
What happened to Siddy Kelly’s fortune will probably never be known. As to Poppy Kelly, that is also somewhat of a mystery although just a few years later she was briefly listed as living in much humbler surroundings in nearby Randwick. There is only one mention I’ve found so far on an electoral roll for Poppy. That’s not to say there’s aren’t others; I just haven’t found them yet.
However, if Siddie had stashed away a substantial amount of money, maybe – for whatever reason – he hadn’t got around to telling his wife about it. How long she remained in Babington remains a mystery as well.
But a visit to Kelly’s grave deepens the mystery somewhat. What was formerly known as Botany Cemetery is now the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Gardens. Close to the shores of Botany Bay and today encompassed by heavy industry and maritime and port facilities, it opened in 1888. The area was traditionally sandhills which, even today proves challenging to excavating graves.
I was hoping to find that Poppy shared her husband’s grave (by which I could then confirm her name) but that wasn’t the case. Kelly’s grave was in an older part of the Roman Catholic section and, unusually, the burials along this particular row occurred by date, beginning in early September 1948 and running until late in the month. It was the only row I could find where this occurred.
The headstone was also of interest. Probate was granted on Siddy’s estate in the first week of November 1948, by which time the word had well and truly circulated about the dire state of his finances. It was just eight weeks after his funeral and probably about the time a headstone was ready to adorn his grave.
Yet the granite headstone misspells Kelly’s name. It reads Sydney Patrick Kelly. Could this have been Poppy extracting an enduring revenge for her husband’s failure to provide for her?
Maybe another clue lies in the Biblical quote included on the headstone.
“God forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I was first drawn to the story of Sidney Patrick Kelly back in early 1989. At that time, I was working away at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, most likely researching one of my books; from the date, it was Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, published later that year.
All the books I worked on during that decade (and into the next) necessitated extensive research at the Mitchell Library so it was very much a home away from home. In fact, I’d been a regular there since 1979, when I started writing for various encyclopedias published for Rupert Murdoch.
Before the universal prolificity of computers and the internet, historical research was libraries and card catalogues. In the process of looking for one thing, I often found something else equally or even more interesting. In this case, it was an article on Siddy Kelly published in People, an Australian news and general interest magazine from 1955.
I have no idea what I was initially searching for. It may have been something about Arthur Upfield, creator of Bony, the indigenous Australian detective. Or Carter Brown, the pen name of Alan Geoffrey Yates, credited with almost 300 pulp crime novels and novellas from the mid-1950s on. Or maybe even Berkeley Mather, English-born but Australian-educated, a now-almost-forgotten creator of eloquent spy thrillers who also co-wrote the script to Dr No, the first official James Bond movie, and did uncredited rewrites on From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.
Difficult to know but somehow I stumbled across this People article on Sidney Patrick Kelly and thought it’d be interesting to follow up at a later date. So, risking a hernia, I lugged the bound quarto volume of People magazines to the Mitchell Library’s copying department (self-service photocopy machines being some years in the future).
At a later date, I received from the copying service photographic negatives of the relevant three pages (can’t recall why it would have been photographed and not photocopied), which went into my desk drawer, survived several home relocations and various major and minor life changes, until I dug the negs out last week and determined it was about time I did something about the article.
Only took 33 years. Pretty good, considering.
However, there is a coda to Siddy Kelly’s story. The opening photograph of Sidney Patrick Kelly, with his blue-steel gaze and snappy attire, comes from the collection of the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney. It is part of an archive encompassing more than 100,000 mug shots, crime scene and related photographs from the NSW Police Department.
Included are some 2,5000 “special photographs” taken of prisoners at Central Police Station, Sydney, between 1910-25. These photos are remarkable, shot on large-format glass negatives. The subjects were allowed to pose as they wished in quite informal settings, totally unlike traditional institutionalised mug shots.
This photograph of Kelly was taken on 25 June 1924 and appeared in the NSW Police Gazette. It was captioned “Illicit drug trader. Drives his own car, and dresses well. Associates with criminal and prostitutes.”
Museum curator Peter Doyle (a crime writer of note, although he arrived too late on the scene to be included in Sand On The Gumshoe), collated some of these highly atmospheric photos for publications under the titles City Of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 (2005) and Crooks Like Us (2009).
The books were an outstanding success in Australia, deservedly so, although their influence extended even further. In 2011, the Justice and Police Museum was approached by the corporate head office of Ralph Lauren in New York. They wanted to licence images from the collection, notably the “special photographs”, to be enlarged to wall-size murals for display in their New York City and London flagship stores.
The Siddy Kelly photo at the beginning of this blog was one of the photographs selected. It’s interesting that a man as essentially evil as Sidney Patrick Kelly would continue to exert an influence on popular culture so long after his death.
Befitting the modern era, Kelly had become a commodity. A sharp dresser with the promise of danger in his level gaze, he was now the personification of edgy fashion. Perhaps it would have amused him. Certainly his acquaintances would have had a laugh.
What to do when Netflix et al no longer holds whatever meagre charms they once did? Rifle through your own stash of DVDs and beg, borrow or steal the treasures of cine-loving friends. The rewards can be considerably more satisfying.
As a HUGE Ken Russell fan, it’s frustrating that so much of his catalogue is mired in rights issues that keeps them out of circulation. So to get a copy of The Boy Friend (1971), usually only available as a special order from the Warner Archives, was a coup.
Straight off The Devils (another classic never available in its full theatrical form), Russell transformed a 1953 West End musical into an all-singing, all-dancing acid-laced Biba-esque extravaganza. A musical-within-a-musical-within-a-musical, it’s set in the 1920s, amongst a direly-talented English seaside theatrical company, regularly spinning off into Busby Berkeley fantasies steeped in Clarice Cliff palettes. Twiggy (in a role that marked Julie Andrews’ stage debut ) is all dewy-eyed ingenue in a cast of English stalwarts (such as Barbara Windsor and the George of George and Mildred fame).
An uncharacteristic affection dissipates Ken Russell’s usual bombast and makes it so much more enjoyable.
Shake a tree in any UK locale and it’s a pretty safe bet that a rock music connection or two will fall out. The most notable difficulty with the inner London borough of Wandsworth will be, firstly, to find a tree. However, once you do (having taken a breather with a pint of bitter, a pork pie and a cork-tipped Pall Mall or thirteen), the rock links come thick and fast. The Battersea Power Station and its association to Pink Floyd, for example.
Or what passes these days as a vaguely quaint medical centre nearby that, in 1973, was a storage building for The Who’s equipment. An out-of-work circus troupe were hired to transform it into a recording studio (as you do), initially named The Kitchen and then Ramport Studios.
It was there that Quadrophenia was recorded, although the control booth had not yet been completed. The Who positioned Ronnie Wood’s Mobile Studio in the street outside to facilitate recording.
Ramport Studios were later utilised by Bryan Ferry, Joan Jett, Sparks, Thin Lizzy, and the Sex Pistols. Supertramp recorded Crime Of The Century there.
The studio was located at 115 Thessaly Rd, on the corner of Corunna Rd, and these days it is known as the Battersea Fields Medical Practice. For a glimpse into the studio, check out The Who’s video clip for Who Are You, shot in 1978 for the documentary, The Kids Are Alright.
Wandsworth was also a hotspot (maybe THE hotspot, considering its rather limited reach) of the all-female heavy metal band movement. 1977 was the year in question and the band is Rock Goddess. Sure, the blank expression is perfectly understandable; Rock Goddess is barely remembered these days by even the most anally-retentive heavy metal genealogists.
But, surprisingly, in a genre where quality is generally in pretty short supply, this band was something special. Rock Goddess formed in 1977 when 13-year-old Jody Turner, influenced by The Runaways, decided to start a band. With Jody on lead guitar and vocals, she enlists schoolfriend Tracey Lamb on bass. While they search for a drummer, Jody’s nine-year-old sister, Julie, filled in and never leaves.
The Turner’s father, John, was a former musician who owned a record store on the Wandsworth High Street. It was in a back store room that the fledgling band initially gather to rehearse.
Years of hard slog, shitty gigs and frustration followed. Their talent, along with a dogged perseverance, began to pay off. They headlined the Marquee club, mounted their first UK tour and, in 1982, played the Redding festival where they were scouted by A&M and signed to a record deal. The first self-titled album was released in February 1983 with ten songs all penned by Jody Turner. The second, titled Hell Hath No Fury, appeared in the UK later that year.
Inbetween, a fourth member, Kat Burbella had been added but she didn’t last long. Tensions, which had been building between Tracey and Jody, finally came to a head and Tracey left the band. The bass spot for the recording of the second album fell to Dee O’Malley.
The UK release of Hell Hath No Fury contained ten original Jody Turner tracks. By the time, it appeared in the US the following year, the track listings looked a little different. Two of the UK release tracks were dropped. Replacing them was Hell Hath No Fury (not a bad idea considering it was the album title) and a cover of Gary Glitter’s I Didn’t Know I Loved You (Until I Saw You Rock and Roll).
The most successful singles of the period, Heavy Metal Rock’n’Roll and My Angel (from the debut album) and the Gary Glitter cover didn’t so much graze the charts as gaze longingly at them from across the abyss, waving forlornly.
They did, however, get lots of attention which led to gigs and offers of tour supports. The one problem they run into in the early 80s is that Julie, as a high school student (and technically a minor) could only play limited dates. Eventually, though, they toured as support to Def Leppard and Iron Maiden.
In the meantime, Tracey started her own band, She, followed by The Perfect Mothers, which never played live. And numerous other projects which, in the way of rock history generally, ended up like numerous other projects throughout rock history.
Eventually, Tracey joined Girlschool, another all-girl heavy metal band that started in Wandsworth in 1978 (hence the 1978 Wandsworth connection) but had a tad more commercial and critical success via its association with Lemmy from Motorhead and Lemmy’s own GWR Records.
The early 80s were the glory years of Rock Goddess. Despite developing quite a huge fan following, the band sputtered along as best they could before eventually breaking up in 1987. Since then, they’ve been on-again, off-again, on-again ad infinitum (with Tracey almost but never quite coming back).
Jody has been alternately pursuing numerous other projects which, in the way of rock history etc etc. Julie married, became a fitness instructor and relocated to Spain.
Around 2015, a big thing was made of Jody and Julie Turner reuniting with Tracey Lamb under the Rock Goddess banner. By 2018, Tracey was out; she later rejoined Girlschool. A mooted and heavily-publicised Rock Goddess album never eventuated although a three-track EP of new material became available in 2017.
That’s rock’n’roll, kids. The promise that burns so bright leaves a mountain of ashes. A third album, Young & Free, recorded while still under the A&M contract but never released at the time, appeared via a French label in 1987. It featured the Turner/O’Malley line-up.
If you want to experience a time capsule of prime early 1980s all-girl heavy metal exotica, you can’t go beyond Rock Goddess. For the historic progression, the trifecta of The Runaways, Rock Goddess and Girlschool will provide everything you need.
Early January marks the birthdays of some of my favourite performers. Both Elvis and Bowie were born on 8 January, David Johansen, Jimmy Page and Scott Walker on the 9th, Rod Stewart and Donald Fagan on the 10th, along with a whole stack of others sprinkled through the month such as Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton, Janis Joplin, Mick Taylor, Clarence Carter, Greedy Smith, Michael Hutchence, Johnny O’Keefe, and Doc Neeson.
Which is my way of dragging out one of the Bowie archive photos from my collection. This one dates from the China Girl video shoot in Sydney and is date stamped (12 September 1983) on the back. Bowie, who also shot the music video for Let’s Dance in Australia during the same period, is shown with Geeling Ng; a New Zealand actress, Ng was working as a waitress at one of my favourite hang-outs of the time, Dean’s in Kellett St, Kings Cross, when Bowie first met her.
Bowie and Ng made the China Girl video, romance bloomed (as it did for many of Bowie’s co-stars), and eventually Ng returned to New Zealand where she became something of a media celebrity. Although there’s no photographer credit on this, it was most likely shot by Patrick Jones.
Bowie owned a Sydney apartment close to the Cross, in Elizabeth Bay’s historic Kincoppal building, and would spend several months at a time there. He only sold it after his marriage to Iman in the early 1990s and the realisation that a bachelor pad on the other side of the world was somewhat redundant for a married man.
Jeff Duff, the Australian entertainer, who fronted the jazz-rock band Kush before beginning a long and artistically diverse solo career, had known Bowie in the late 1970s. Duff had relocated to London where he terrified and energised the music scene. His notoriety attracted other artists who were comfortable on the very edge of society’s expectations and Bowie was certainly one of them.
Fast forward to the early 80s and Duff and Bowie became neighbours, with Jeff living next door to Kincoppal. They’d frequently run into each other in the neighbourhood and members of Tin Machine, Bowie’s band at the time (their second album was recorded at EMI’s 301 Studios in 1989), would turn up for Duff’s performances around Sydney.
Given Duff’s eclectic musical tastes, and immense talent, it’s no real surprise that he’s become well known these days for his Bowie tribute shows. He’s even played the Sydney Opera House a few times. He’s also mounted shows dedicated to Lou Reed as well as Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers.
But it’s Bowie that Jeff has become most celebrated for; he even conducted a thematically impressive experiment in mixing the styles of Bowie and Frank Sinatra. There’s some physical similarities between Jeff and Bowie, and his interpretation of the songs are well worth experiencing.
I’m lucky that, owing to Jeff being a friend of a friend, I’ve had a few opportunities to not only see Jeff in concert but spend time with him as well. An erudite gentleman (a description that, sadly, is much under-utilised these days) with an innate elegance, Jeff has a quick wit leavened with a refreshing self-deprecation, a world away from the onanism generally shown by those in showbusiness.
Bowie life and musical career has been extensively charted and dissected, Jeff Duff much less so. His memoir, This Will Explain Everything (Melbourne Book, 2016), is highly recommended and you end up with the realisation that his contribution to music, and Australian culture in general, is most under-appreciated and unrecognised.
You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.
The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King, Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.
Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.
There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).
He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.
Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.
Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.
Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.
“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.
“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”
What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.
Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.
With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.
Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.
The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only one ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.
And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.
This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.
In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.
In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.
That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.
Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.
Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.
Crudup’s 1946 original of “That’s All Night (Mama)” kicked up the pace of the traditional Delta blues; Elvis, most likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, took that as a template and mixed in some rockabilly for his own white interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; it was exactly what he’d been waiting for. The genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.
Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.
Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.
That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.
Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.
To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.
At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.
Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.
He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. As Hal tells the story, most likely for the millionth time, his father had some supernatural premonition that this shy young man was about the change the world and staked him his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.
When Hal was a child, he’d often spend Saturday mornings riding horses at Graceland or accompany his father dropping off new outfits to Elvis. Hal fondly remembers Elvis as never less than welcoming.
“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. Elvis never forgot what my father did for him.”
In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.
In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.
Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that during his lifetime Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).
(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)
However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.
Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.
Further suggested reading:
Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)
Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)
Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)
Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)
Happy Birthday!!! Sonny Corleone (no, the other one) turns 40.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking Mario Puzo’s ill-fated member of the fictional crime family but my 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. So the first issue to address is…..why the hell Sonny Corleone?
He’s (and here I’m referring to the car) that’s kinda guy. A loveable lug. Powerful as much as powerfully built, dependable and loyal. Protective of all who come in contact with him but sensitive enough to show a girl a good time (at a wedding, no less). Got it? Good.
On Thursday 15 June 1978, Sonny Corleone was welcomed to the world, rolling off the Ford assembly line in Wixom, MI, to the cheers of hundreds of assembled factory workers. There was portent in the air; they knew this was something special, despite this plant having largely concentrated on Lincolns since it opened in 1957 (and it was a Town Car that was the last off the assembly line when the facility closed in 2007).
In reality, the Lincoln was shipped off to Rotman Lincoln-Mercury, a dealership in Maquokta, Iowa, about 300 kilometres west of Chicago. But I like to think that Sonny had a parallel existence in some other reality, cruising the streets of New York City as a treasured member of a prestige limousine service. His dayswould be blocked out by stockbrokers and other Wall Street types, pre-generational Masters of the Universe, hoovering up lines of cocaine as they shuttled around town. The nights were blocked out with celebrities, models, disco dollies and more executive types who, depending on their proclivities, travelled from high-end restaurants to Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat or any of a number of bath houses where cleanliness was not a prerequisite.
If you were wondering just what these passengers might have been listening to within Sonny’s encompassing velvet confines, here’s just such a list. OK, maybe it’s more what I was and would have been listening to during the same period but same same.
In terms of music, 1978 is one of my favourite years, just as the 1970s is one of my favourite decades. It falls within the Golden Era of disco, rich with lush orchestrations, before the 80s ushered in synthesizers. So we’ll start the list with the most obvious:
1/ The Tramps – Disco Inferno: Although initially released in 1976 (when it reached Number One on the Billboard Dance charts), it became an even bigger hit in 1978 with a 10 minute 54 second version via the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. This time around, it made the mainstream charts, reaching Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Coincidentally, I’ve previously noted that I want this song played at my funeral. I anticipate a cremation. Burn, baby, burn.
2/ Bee Gees – How Deep Is Your Love: Again from the biggest movie of 1977-78. It’s difficult to choose just one Bee Gees song off this amazing double album; maybe More Than A Woman, although it wasn’t released as a single, or Night Fever but I’ll stick with this sensuous ballad. Interestingly, Saturday Night Fever is one of only six albums to reach sales of more 40 million. Even more interestingly, it may be one of my favourite soundtracks but it’s not necessarily my favourite disco movie; that honour would go to Thank God It’s Friday.
3/ Donna Summer – Last Dance: Speaking of which, Donna Summer was a HUGE part of my disco years; her first Casablanca single, Love To Love You Baby was in 1975, when it really started, disco-wide, for both Donna and myself. Last Dance was off the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, a truly great song, and historically notable for being the only disco song to ever win an Academy Award (Yes, I hear you say, Xanadu was robbed!!!!).
4/ John Paul Young – Love Is In The Air: As much as I was huge Countdown fan (as indeed anyone of a certain age was in Australia), I never saw the 30 April 1978 live broadcast of John Paul Young singing Love Is In The Air. I worked Thursdays to Sundays at an inner city Sydney disco so I didn’t see the first televised performance (or, at least, its most celebrated) but it was impossible to miss this Vanda & Young-penned musical juggernaut, either when it was demolishing music charts around the world (Top 5 through much of Europe, Number 3 in Australia and topped Billboard US’s Adult Contemporary Charts) or since then. I love it still.
5/ Village People – Macho Man: 1978 was the year of two of the Village People’s biggest hits – Macho Man and Y.M.C.A., but it’s the later that stands out. Number One around the world, except for the US where Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy blocked it from the top spot. As the song surged up the charts, things became more heated than a bunch of Village People fans in a YMCA sauna when the organisation threatened to sue for breach of copyright. Things were “settled” out of court and the YMCA later officiallydeclared it a “positive statement” about the YMCA. In recent times, co-writer (with VP producer and Svengali, Jacques Morelli) and lead singer, Victor Willis, won his long-running legal battle to have his copyrights restored to him; a consequence is that Willis is now touring with a reconstructed VP without any of the other surviving original group members.
6/ Rod Stewart – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy: Speaking of which, this marks Rockin’ Rod crossing to the dark side, cashing in on disco, as his traditional fans accused him. To anyone who frequented discos or nightclubs (or anywhere really, in the late 70s), it struck a chord in describing the machinations behind the boy-meets-girl scenario and what goes down (no pun intended, no, really) afterwards.
7/ Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights: While I missed the clip on Countdown (like many Australian hits, it was due largely to exposure from this one program), I would have seen it on Donnie Sutherland’s Sounds show (wherever I woke up on Saturday mornings). Like everything else on my list, I love it still although I’m no great fan of Kate’s other work. Honourable mention to another version that populates my iPod playlist; from the UK’s Puppini Sisters, which presents the song as the Andrews Sisters would interpret it.
8/ Bob Welch – Ebony Eyes: Just to prove I’m not entirely disco obsessed, here’s some West Coast rock. On the back of a splendid video clip, it was a much bigger hit in Australia than the US (heeeelloooooo again, Countdown). Welch is probably best known for his time with Fleetwood Mac (part of the ninth line-up along with Mick Fleetwood and the McVies); he left the band in 1974, to be replaced by Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. The rest, as they say in showbiz, is history. He then formed the under-rated Paris, then followed with a couple of solo albums. The first, French Kiss, from which Ebony Eyes is from, shipped platinum, the others consistently fewer. I still play French Kiss, and the Paris albums, and none of Bob’s Mac work. Go figure.
9/ Dragon – Are You Old Enough: Technically, I could include April Sun In Cuba on this list, although it was released in 1977; that was off the Running Free album which was still yielding singles into the following year. But I’ll side-step the inevitable whinges and choose Are You Old Enough instead. Typical boppy, poppy sunshine rock, I’ll always associate the late 70s Dragon output with lazy summer days, which stretched into lazy spring, summer and autumn months working on my tan at Tamarama or Lady Bay beaches. Dragon was Marc Hunter as much as he was the very essence of the late 70s sunshine lifestyle and he died way too young. Despite their best efforts, I just can’t warm to Dragon without Marc (just as the Doors and INXS could never replicate the magic after losing their lead singers)..
10/ Bruce Springsteen – Because The Night: This choice will court some controversy but demonstrates how rich our legacy of old music has become over the intervening years, repackaging classic albums with bonus and archival material being the norm these days. Strictly speaking, the only version of Because The Night that Sonny would have known in 1978 would be the Patti Smith version; early drafts of this song were written by The Boss and recorded during June and July of 1977, for the Darkness At The Edge Of Town sessions. Bruce wasn’t entirely satisfied with what he had (although the melody and chorus were constants) and it was eventually dropped. Smith, who was recording at an adjoining studio, completed the song and recorded it; it became her biggest US chart hit. According to the exhaustive www.springsteenlyrics.com, the official studio version that Bruce recorded for Darkness had Smith’s lyrics, while alternate versions digressed quite sharply in attempting to imprint his blue collar ethos. He started playing it live, with his own lyrics, during the Darkness tour. It was included on Live! 1975-85 (1986) but the alternate version released in The Promise (2010), which collected Darkness session tracks, has Smith’s lyrics. So maybe we should just stick with Patti Smith.
11/ Andy Gibb – Shadow Dancing: In truth, it should be I Just Want To Be Your Everything (my favourite Andy Gibb track) but that came out in 1977. Gibb, younger brother of Barry, Robin and Maurice, renowned collectively as the Bee Gees, had a fitful early careerwhich didn’t take off until the mid-70s when Robert Stigwood, at that time his brothers’ manager, also took on Andy. The Bee Gees’ involvement in his debut album, from playing to providing songs, worked the right kind of magic. Two Number One singles, including Everything, resulted. In April 1978, the second album, Shadow Dancing, was released with the single of the same name also going to Number One. His tragic death at the age of 30 tinges these recordings with such sadness. Let’s remember him as he was.
12/ Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band – Old Time Rock And Roll: Right through the 1970s, it seemed as if most of the music America wanted to listen to was coming out of a virtually unknown part of northern Alabama called Sheffield. Four sessions musicians, known collectively as the Swampers, left employment at the renowned Fame Studios (which had been churning out R&B hits since the 1960s) nearby and set up their own facility, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. While R&B continued to be an important revenue stream, they also extended into mainstream artists such as the Rolling Stones (tracks from Exile On Main Street), Cher, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan. Detroit rocker Bob Seger recorded a number of tracks there including one of his most enduring, Old Time Rock and Roll. While Bob’s Silver Bullet Band is credited on the album, the track itself was originally a demo produced and played on by the Swampers themselves for a co-write from George Jackson and Thomas E Jones III. While Bob tried recording the song with both the Bullet and the Swampers, he wasn’t happy with the result; in the end, he laid his own vocals over the top of the demo. And although Bob amended some of the original lyrics, he saw it more as filler than serious chart potential and passed on a song writing co-credit; royalties flow straight back to Muscle Shoals. Bet Bob is still kicking himself.
13/ Steely Dan – Deacon Blues: We unquestioningly accept the rock’n’roll aesthetic; slim, jaded, impossibly attractive young gods, prowling the manicured meadows from centuries-old English manor houses to their stages via green rooms where magnums of French champagne and supermodel groupies await to be plucked from their respective receptacles. Walter and Donald were not rock gods. They looked pretty much the way you’d expect anybody called Walter and Donald would look in the 1970s. Except dorkier. And, please understand, I mean that in the nicest possible way. Like they were on top of calculus and were just marking time until the Atari was invented. Which, as Atari was founded in 1972 and Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974, is maybe a little closer to the truth than anybody suspected. So, as for the perks of being rock stars, when it comes to Steely Dan, the mind enters boggling territory. What would a Steelie Dan groupie even look like? Perhaps it’s best not to know. Whatever, Steely Dan were an integral part of the sound of a generation and that generation was mine. Do It Again, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Reelin’ In The Years, Hey Nineteen. I didn’t understand the lyrics then and still don’t. But the sound is unmistakable. Thus Deacon Blues, coming close towards the end of their chart successes, gets my 1978 nod.
With these, and so many other great songs of the 70s, Sonny cotinues – 40 years later, to rumble the bitumen, turning heads and drawing crowds wherever he goes.
Some people don’t get it. And, most likely, never will. Some do. Of those who get it, a few will never move beyond it. They embrace it in all its forms. The rest are spectators, no matter how inflamed their interests, they’ll never cross that great divide, turn fantasy to reality, embrace the actuality.
Although this applies to collectors in general, it’s especially so for those whose main interest is cars. Most people out there are content (happy may be stretching it) with their late model Fords or Toyotas, even with the current trend towards the bland homogeneity, that has rendered all cars pretty much the same, the choice narrowed to a handful of designs and a handful of colours. Good luck finding your car in a shopping centre car park.
Yet there are those of us who want more than mere transport. Prestige, perhaps, individuality, certainly, a statement of style or their love of design excellence or nostalgia. These people really enjoy driving. It’s a pleasure for them. An adventure.
I love old cars, in particular the American variety of the 1950s to 1970s. I’ll leave it up to qualified experts to explain my preferences. Certainly, my last three cars fell within that grouping – a 1968 Ford Galaxie, a 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car.
I had the Cadillac for almost 20 years and it’s appeared in previous posts, as much for its fascinating back story as the collective joys of owning and driving a classic car.
For those not familiar with the backstory, check out:
The Cadillac has long been America’s mainstream luxury car, an aspiration noted lyrically in so much of the country’s music (especially blues and early R&B songs) and pop culture. I never doubted I’d be a Cadillac owner forever.
But it was not to be and, instead, I found myself switching alliances (perhaps a little too easily). My Caddy was what is now termed a survivor. Although mechanically excellent, the original Silver Mist paintwork needed a respray and the red leather interior (an expensive option, along with the bucket seats, in its day) also required extensive attention. I was looking at big bucks for the quality finish it deserved.
Then the engine blew a cylinder. It took me ages to mull over the options (limited as they were – fix or not) and it was probably more the case that I didn’t want to make the hard decision. What I didn’t want to face was the possibility of the Caddy ending up in a wrecking yard. In the meantime, I needed something to drive.
As I started shopping around, I ruled out another Caddy as they were priced beyond what I wanted to pay. In what turned out to be a timely combination of dumb luck and divine intervention, I found a beautiful midnight blue 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. It’s the default limousine used extensively in the United States for airport transfers, while it’s substantial bulk and moderate retro stylings gave it something of the flavour of a Mafia staff car.
The price was right, ridiculously so, and everything else checked out so I flew to Adelaide for an inspection. It was in immaculate condition; it’d been purchased from a deceased estate in Maquoketa, Iowa, brought to Australia, complianced and fully registered in South Australia just two years before.
Maquoketa is some 200 kilometres west of Chicago but the pristine undercarriage revealed the previous owner to be extremely fastidious; bless him, he was exactly the sort of person people like me dream of buying a second-hand car from. There was nothing to indicate the Lincoln had ever poked its shiny chrome beyond the shelter of its garage between late autumn and early spring in its entire existence. In fact, throughout the car, there was very little indication of the almost 40 years since it had rolled off the assembly line in Wixom, Michigan.
On the leisurely drive back to Sydney I became acquainted with the Lincoln’s left-hand drive (not as difficult or confronting as initially expected) and the rapid response of the 460 cubic-inch (around 7.5 litre) engine.
It didn’t take me long to come to terms with the idea that I should keep the Lincoln and sell the Cadillac. Still, it did take a while to finally list it on eBay, expecting a fairly low selling price considering its condition. But, once listed, the magic manifested. The opening bid landed almost immediately and, ultimately, 14 bidders duelled like wine-soaked Musketeers; it eventually realised just a little over what I’d paid for it some 20 years before (and, incidentally, more than I paid for the Lincoln). Try that with a late-model Toyota.
It’s little wonder, then, that I seek out car museums whenever I’m in the United States. Give me the opportunity to tour the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, or the America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, and I’m in like a shot.
I have no more understanding of the intricacies of the internal combustion engine than I would the opening chapter of Quantum Physics For Dummies, so the technicalities matter little (that’s where a good mechanic is essential); it’s the excess, the unashamed kitsch, that gets me far more than any technical appreciation.
And it’s not just Americans who still treasure the more outrageous examples of their automotive heritage. I have taken tours of Paris in classic Cadillacs and seen a fleet of 1950s and 1960s American cars on a club run through rural Finland.
Australians also have a similar fascination which is how I came to discover Lost In The 50s, a private collection at an industrial area in Newcastle, New South Wales.
Open just one day a month, it’s the culmination of more than 30 years of collecting American cars and pop culture memorabilia of the 1950s and 60s by businessman Glen Jennings and his family. Lost In The 50s is devoted to the Atomic Age (a sub-strata of the so-called Golden Age of US automobile design, pegged between 1948 and 1973).
It was a time when the post-war economic boom fuelled the rapid rise in US consumer culture and influenced car companies to produce ever more ostentatious designs. Immensely powerful engines, vast surfaces of brightly-hued steel panelling offset by bulky chrome flourishes and all the mod-cons consumers never knew they needed but soon came to expect (and then some – under-dash record players, anyone?).
All packaged in enormous designs that recalled missiles, rocket ships and the gleaming futurism of 1950s Hollywood science-fiction movies. The aim wasn’t so much to get from Point A to Point B but to do it in the most style and comfort.
The space race, honed razor sharp by the Cold War, dominated the skies while Detroit car manufacturers mimicked their own ever-skyward quest for dominance. In feverishly competing to make their products as attractive as possible to American consumers, there also occurred an inevitable competition between brands. And the late 1950s to mid-1960s saw the rise of jaw-droppingly audacious automotive design, as shamelessly brightly-coloured as metallic peacocks, the likes of which had never been seen before.
There was a staggering range of choice to entice consumers. The major automobile companies – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – along with a handful of smaller independents, including AMC and Studebaker, fought to differentiate their products. And each of these also had an array of brands.
Ford had, amongst others, such brands as the Lincoln, Mercury, Fairlane, Galaxie, and Mustang (best not mention the Edsel), while GM boasted the Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. Chrysler’s included the Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Imperial and New Yorker.
Many of these are represented in the Lost In The 50s collection. It ranges across family sedans, pick-up trucks, hot rods and a couple of notable movie cars. The most instantly recognisable is the 1966 Batmobile, from the Adam West television series. Adapted from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept vehicle by legendary US custom car creator, George Barris, an original and three replicas were created for filming.
All are now in private ownership. Barris’ original, designated the #1 – which remained in his personal collection – was auctioned for the first time in 2015, fetching $US4.6 million. However, there’s a thriving industry producing driveable replicas, fibreglass bodies often mounted on Lincoln Town Cars chassis. I’ve lost count of the number I’ve seen at motor museums around the world and the one at Lost In The 50s is a prime example.
My pick from this smaller section of the museum is the pearl grey 1950 Buick Roadmaster Fastback Coupe. The front grille, with a rictus of chromed malevolence, looks like something out of a Stephen King novel (small wonder as a 1953 Buick Roadmaster was the supernatural lynchpin of King’s From A Buick 8).
But it’s the central hall of the museum that holds the most glittering of prizes and it’s here that the truly wonderful over-the-top 50s and 60s cars are in evidence. Here’s my personal favourites:
1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe in two-tone green with a continental kit. The Pontiac was one of General Motor’s earliest brands, beginning in 1926, and soon became one of the favourites of American consumers. The Bonneville emerged initially in 1957 as the luxury convertible edition of the Pontiac Star Chief. The following year, the Bonneville became a stand-alone model.
The 1958 was available as a two-door hardtop or convertible. The base price was $US3,481 (against an average income of $US5,100 per annum) for a V-8 370 cubic inch, 255hp engine with a Carter four-barrel carburettor. Options went all the way up to a 330hp with triple Rochester twin-barrel carburettors.
1958 Oldsmobile Model 98 4 door sedan in cherry red. Until 2004, when the company was shuttered, the Oldsmobile was America’s oldest operating car company, dating back to 1897 when Ransom E. Olds started manufacturing in Lansing, Michigan. General Motors purchased the company in 1908.
By the late 1950s, the Oldsmobile was powered by an 8-cylinder Rocket V-8 engine (it first appeared in the 1949 models) and was the first post-war overhead-valve V-8 engine. The Oldsmobile was one of the fastest American cars of its time, capable of 0-60mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit more than 12 seconds and an absolute top speed of 97mph (156 km/h). In 1949 and 50, 88s won more than half the NASCAR Grand National Races. General Motors had the OHV V-8 market pretty much to itself for several years.
The 1958 Oldsmobile had an option of a J-2 Golden Rocket with three two-barrel carburettors. Revolutionary as the Rocket 88 engine was to General Motors and the automotive industry in general, it also played an indirect role in the development of rock’n’roll.
A paean to speed and power (and ipso facto sex), “Rocket 88” was a song written by Jackie Brenston in 1951 at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, MS. Brenston was saxophonist with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm band. The song was recorded by the Kings at the recently-opened Memphis Recording Service studios in early March 1951 but released as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston sang vocals while the sax breaks were by 17-year-old Raymond Hill.
In the petri dish of American culture that was slowly but surely fermenting gospel, rhythm and blues, and country music during that decade, black and white influences travelling parallel tracks, many music historians identify Rocket 88 as the first rock’n’roll song. It’s passionately argued for and against but within that Memphis studio was recorded one of the first, if not the penultimate, song in the development of modern music by people who would also play their own important roles.
In 1956, a precocious 16-year-old by the name of Anna Mae Bullock, first sang with the Kings of Rhythm and soon became a regular member of the band. She started dating Raymond Hill and they eventually had a baby; when the relationship floundered, she began dating Ike Turner. In 1960, she adopted the stage name of Tina Turner when Ike formed the Ike And Tina Turner Revue.
But the most enduring of rock’n’roll’s fickle flourishes of fate involved the Memphis Recording Studio. It was opened in 1950 by Sam Phillips who, two years later, inaugurated his own label, Sun Records, there. For the first few years, Phillips concentrated on emerging black musicians such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf although he was intrigued by the possibilities inherent in finding a white singer who could convincingly handle black music.
In July 1954, a nineteen-year-old blonde blue-eyed Memphis local, Elvis Presley, recorded a number of tracks, of which “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, became the first of five releases on the Sun label. The rest, as they say, is history.
1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe two-door in ice blue. The Imperial was Chrysler’s luxury brand from 1955 until the mid-70s and it was to Chrysler what Cadillac was to General Motors or Lincoln to Ford. As beautiful as this car is externally, some of its more notable refinements are inside.
Although dash-mounted push button transmissions were available in a handful of American cars, only Chrysler maintained it for any great length of time. The two-speed PowerFlite transmission was available in all Chryslers from 1954 to 1961, with the three-speed TorqueFlite appearing in 1956. Push buttons disappeared at the end of the 1964 model year.
The oblong steering wheel and seeming lack of steering column is another stylish Space Age design feature. The tyre-shaped hump on the trunk is known as the FliteSweep Deck Lid and was an option on 1957-61 models. In 1961, it cost $US55.45 extra.
At 227.1 inches (5.76 metres) long, it was the longest non-limousine car on the market.
1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser gold two-tone with continental kit. This is one car that polarised the market back in the day and continues to bedevil collectors today. Is it amazing design innovation or just amazingly kitsch?
The flagship of Ford’s Mercury division, the Turnpike Cruisers (which included a convertible option) were only available for the 1957-58 model years and didn’t exactly set the market afire; only 17,000 were sold in 1957, for example.
This is despite some entertaining innovations including the Breezeway power rear window, the Seat-O-Matic automatic adjusting seat, and a push-button transmission known as the Multi-Drive Keyboard Control, which lent the vehicle severe sci-fi street cred. A 383 cubic inch 330hp Marauder V-8 was standard under the hood, with a 430 cubic inch optional upgrade available. Zero to 60mph in well under ten seconds.
The Continental Kit, which extends the rear bumper and mounts the spare tyre externally, was perhaps the ultimate in flash. Despite all the bells and whistles, the Turnpike Cruiser was short-lived, with 6,407 produced in 1958. It didn’t help that the US was in the midst of a recession at this time and, when consumers had fuel economy at the top of their shopping lists, a shiny aircraft carrier on wheels seemed an unnecessary indulgence.
Its rarity these days, however, along with a renewed appreciation makes it highly prized.
The electric retractable rear window, a somewhat dubious innovation, was maintain by Ford for some time, possibly hoping the marketplace would eventually respond. Mercury revived the Breezeway in 1963-66 in its Monterey, Montclair and Park Lane models; within the Lost In The 50s collection is a beautiful black 1960 Lincoln Continental Sedan with a Breezeway back window.
It’s easy to spend the entire day at Lost In The 50s. Members and friends of the Jennings family act as docents, answering questions and generally acting as proud hosts of an extraordinary collection. Car clubs often set up in the forecourt along with food trucks. Check out their website for upcoming opening dates. Purchasing tickets well in advance is recommended.
But, sometimes, the story behind the story is even more interesting.
Ipso facto, the story behind the story becomes the thing. If you catch my drift.
By way of illustration, take Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles. It’s an old-time cafeteria, a place of much wonder, even magic. Clifton’s opened in 1935 and it’s continued almost uninterrupted ever since, except for a few years earlier this decade at which time it was lovingly restored, refurbished and reborn into something even more wondrous.
In its time, spanning world wars and social upheavals of so many kinds, Clifton’s served up countless millions, maybe even billions, of meals to customers who were happy to dip into their wallets and pocket books for the privilege as well as those for whom a hot, nourishing meal was simply beyond their financial means.
Due to the humanitarian principles of Clifton’s owner, there was a company policy that nobody should go hungry. And that was part of the wonder, though it wasn’t widely publicised or recognised, and especially notable as the restaurant was opened in the very midst of the Depression.
What is remembered about Clifton’s, by generations of Angelinos and visitors alike, is that visit was such a special occasion.
Because they never felt like they were just sitting in an anonymous restaurant, eating an ordinary meal. With murals and props equal to any of the Hollywood dream factories, patrons found themselves dining indoors in the Great Outdoors, in a setting reminiscent of the forests of northern California, surrounded by majestic towering redwoods and woodland creatures.
The tranquillity of nature enveloped patrons while, outside, the city throbbed. They may have just stepped off a streetcar, dodging the hectic crush of traffic, or be relaxing after a busy morning shopping at Bullock’s department store or getting ready to catch the latest Tyrone Power swashbuckler in the French Baroque splendour of the Los Angeles Theatre, or enjoying downtime from the office routine by casting a critical eye over the front page of the Examiner as it dissected the latest challenges for President Roosevelt.
Inside, with a tray of comfort food, whether it be pot roast or corned beef and cabbage, maybe followed by Jello, customers were transported to a tranquil sanctuary of their own imagination. Sure, Clifton’s was a theme restaurant, one of the earliest in a city that has always held an enduring as well as endearing fascination for the genre, and gimmickry is what this branch of the hospitality industry is all about.
But Clifton’s was special, to people both famous and not-so. Walt Disney was a regular, often with his daughter, and it’s said that Clifton’s influenced the creation of Disneyland; other frequent diners over the years include Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Lynch. Maybe it’s not too much of a reach to suggest that imaginations such as these were entranced by the juxtaposition of Jello and a faux redwood forest (certainly there’s a thematic similarity between Clifton’s and the north-western setting of Twin Peaks).
The Clifton’s on Broadway that exists today, and others in the chain that at one time existed throughout Los Angeles, was the creation of Clifford Clinton. His father, Edmond Jackson Clinton, was a restauranteur in San Francisco; although they were Quakers, the entire Clinton family – E.J., his wife, Gertrude, Clifford and his siblings – travelled overseas as a Salvation Army missionary.
In 1905, when Clifford was just a young boy, he accompanied the family to China; the incredible hardship and poverty he witnessed stayed with him his entire life. The San Francisco earthquake of the following year devastated his father’s businesses and the family returned to the States although, as soon as possible, they returned to China to continue helping the poor.
He worked long hours, up to ten hours a day, in his father’s restaurants, gaining invaluable experience, while still at school. In 1911, E.J. Clinton opened a relatively new kind of restaurant, called a cafeteria, where the diners served themselves. The Quaker Cafeteria, as it was called, was the first of its type in San Francisco.
He served in Europe in the later stages of World War I, returned home, married and had children, working in his father’s restaurants.
Eventually, as a married man with a young family, he felt it was time to start his own business. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1931, opened a cafeteria on South Olive Street in the downtown area. After searching for the right name, he settled on Clifton’s, a contraction of Clifford and Clinton.
As much as the restaurant trade coursed through his veins so, too, did his ingrained Christian values; his business plan formalised the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity – treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself.
From opening day at the Olive Street Clifton’s, two policies went instituted – “Pay What You Wish and Dine Free Unless Delighted” and “No Guest Need Go Hungry For Lack Of Lunch”.
For all his good intentions, however, his timing could not have been worse. It was the midst of the Depression and so many of the hungry and impoverished flooded through the doors that the fledgling company seemed likely to be swamped; ten thousand people were served free meals in the first three months of operations.
Clifford addressed the problem not by limiting the Golden Rule at Clifton’s but by opening another cafeteria, The Penny, nearby on Third and Hill streets, in 1932. There, nutritious servings cost just one cent each; a full meal could be had for four cents. Within weeks of opening, the Penny was serving 4,000 meals a day. The restaurant was so well run, it survived the Depression; by the time it closed, it had served some two million meals.
And it wasn’t just the customers who were well looked after; employee benefits were far ahead of their time, including a medical plan that paid for hospital stays. It’s fair to say Clifford was the very model of the perfect employer, especially as he wasn’t afraid of hard work and could often be found during busy periods bussing the tables.
In 1935, he opened a new Clifton’s at 649 South Broadway, just near 7th Street, in the very heart of Downtown’s theatre district. It was there that Clifford set out to create a point of difference with his new endeavour, something that would attract attention and make it stand out from the competition.
For five months, while the new cafeteria operated night and day, workers transformed it into something otherworldly.
As an inspiration, Clifford recalled visits as a youngster to the Brookdale Lodge, a famous landmark set amidst the redwood forests of northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. He had always remembered the Lodge’s dining room which had a real creek, with live trout, winding through it.
It was his intention to recreate a tranquil forest setting amidst the chaotic bustle of Downtown. Murals of redwood forests were painted on the walls, columns were masked in tree bark, a fully operating creek and waterfall, though without the trout, brought the sounds of nature into the dining hall. Backlit mountain scenes, and taxidermied forest animals added to the ambience.
When the renovations were complete, the new cafeteria was renamed Clifton’s Brookdale. It was an instant hit.
Theme restaurants were relatively new; the first appearing in Paris in 1885. This was a café decorated as a prison with waiters serving as the convicts. Another, also in Paris, with a medieval theme, had its wait staff dressed as nun and monks.
The first American theme restaurant appears to be the Pirate’s Den in New York City. It was opened by restauranteur Don Dickerman in 1917 and became wildly popular. A Los Angeles branch, bankrolled by entertainers Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, opened in 1940.
Certainly the most enduring theme, and one that is again increasing in popularity, is the Tiki bar. The best-known chains were Don The Beachcomber, famed for inventing the Zombie cocktail (its LA bar opened in 1933), and Trader Vic’s, which lays claim to the Mai Tai (the first opened in Oakland, California, in 1936).
While Clifford’s business went from strength to strength, his sense of social justice occasionally led him along strange paths.
It happened by accident but, by the mid-1930s, Clifford’s business precision, combined with his commitment to humanitarian endeavours, drew him into the role of political reformer, fighting corruption and government waste. This occurred quite innocently as a result of reviewing a nearby hospital’s food delivery services; his unsparing findings highlighted vast inefficiencies, wastage and supplier contracts tied to supporters of local politicians.
Ultimately, much of the corruption was traced to Frank L. Shaw, a businessman who had entered city council in 1925, and in 1933 became Mayor of Los Angeles.
Although there were some agreeable aspects of Shaw’s administration (LAX and Union Station were both commenced during his time), a lot of people, including the city’s more notorious organised crime figures, depended on the status quo being maintained and didn’t appreciate efforts to interfere.
Political opponents co-opted Clifford’s assistance on a Grand Jury investigation; Shaw, feeling cornered, pushed back.
The city’s Health Department started leaning on the Clifton’s restaurants with trumped-up violations. The Los Angeles Police Department also targeted him; in 1937, a bomb blast demolished part of Clifford’s house. Luckily, nobody was hurt. When a car bomb seriously injured a private detective working for the Grand Jury and evidence led back to an LAPD captain of detectives, the tide turned and a special recall election was held for Mayor in 1938. Support for Shaw evaporated and he lost office.
Once his career as a political reformer came to an end, leaving only his restaurants to occupy his attention, he managed to squeeze in a holiday in Hawaii. But Clifford even managed to turn this to his advantage.
Cognisant of how well his Brookdale restaurant was performing, and aware that the original South Olive Street property was in need of attention, once faced with the exotic South Sea charms of the Hawaiian Islands, he determined he’d found just the right decorating idea.
Returning home to Los Angeles, the renovations commenced – while the cafeteria remained open. In total, some $US100,000 was spent. Clifton’s Pacific Seas, as it was named, debuted in 1938. It was a riot of flamingo red neon, jungle murals, live ferns, eight-metre-tall rubber palms trees, waterfalls, aquariums, a volcano and a rain hut where a tropical storm played out every 20 minutes.
Its critics called it vulgar and tatsteless. The general public couldn’t have agreed, or cared, less. Clifton’s South Seas was an enormous success. At the peak of operations, it served 12,000 meals a day.
And its peak lasted for quite some time, although not quite as long as Clifton’s Brookdale. The South Seas closed down in 1960 and, echoing Joni Mitchell, the building was demolished to become a parking lot.
Don’t it always seem to go /
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
Indeed. Vale Clifton’s South Seas.
And the other Clifton’s branches throughout Los Angeles, all of which had varying degrees of success and longevity. In the 1950s and 60s, such outposts as Lakewood, West Covina and Century City all boasted outposts of the Clifton’s empire. None exist today.
The thing that worked in the Brookdale’s favour was that it was Downtown. Once the throbbing heart of LA’s retail and entertainment, by the 1960s its importance had declined at the same time the suburbanisation and decentralisation of the city headed in the other direction.
In such a sprawling city, Downtown quietly slipped into a kind of hibernation. The land wasn’t considered important enough, economically or socially, to redevelop. The grand old department stores, the Art Deco office buildings, the multitude of opulent movie palaces were repurposed for other uses.
Nobody went Downtown anymore, unless it was really necessary. Clifton’s Brookdale puttered along, a lovely baked anachronism with a side of Mac and Cheese. Progress would eventually have had its way with it; like so much of old-time LA, the Brown Derby (both of them), Bullocks Wilshire, the Mocambo, the Coconut Grove (indeed, the entire Ambassador Hotel), Clifton’s would have been sucked stealthily below the surface by time.
First you lose your relevance. Then, years down the track, you lose your life.
But something wondrous happened. Followed by something entirely unexpected.
Firstly, Downtown began to awaken. Developers moved in to refurbish the historic office buildings as condos and loft apartments. Now in many other places, the appearance of developers would not bode well, but the heritage protections put in place, along with a market eager to live in a revived CBD, proved a fortuitous convergence.
Secondly, the family of Clifford Clinton, who had been managing Clifton’s since his death in 1969, sold the restaurant to Andrew Meieran in 2010. Meieran is an interesting hypen, a developer-filmmaker (one of his intended projects is a bio-pic of Twlight Zone creator, Rod Serling).
On the developer side, he is best-known as the man who transformed a former Downtown power station into the ultra-hip Edison Bar. Meieran paid $US3.6 million for Clifton’s; he then spent four years and upwards of $US10 million to not only restore the entire place back to what it was but to also make it better.
Nobody knew what to expect when the hoardings came down but on the grand day of re-opening, when June Lockhart (Dr Maureen Robinson of television’s Lost In Space) cut the ribbon, the curious flooded in. It’s pretty safe to say they were enthralled by the changes.
While adhering to the original design concepts, Meieran added some audaciously original touches of his own. In the rear dining area, a central atrium has been cut through the above floors and a giant faux redwood, reaching up twelve metres, was created. On the bottom floor of the redwood, which has a fireplace built into it, is the Monarch Bar; on the floor above, is the Gothic Bar.
Meieran’s creation of hip bars is a canny commercial decision, extending Clifton’s dining hours and clientele beyond the traditional. As Downtown becomes more populated, the reborn Clifton’s, now a destination dining and drinking establishment, will become an integral part of the local community.
There’s another bar tucked away within Clifton’s, this one a little more difficult to find though certainly worth the effort. Behind a mirrored door on an upper floor, and up a few flights of stairs, is the Pacific Seas, a respectful nod to the old South Seas, and already celebrated as LA’s newest Tiki Bar. Its centrepiece is a full-size 1930s mahogany Chris-Craft speedboat.
During the day, the new revived Clifton’s does great business, drawing in the faithful as well as visitors (invariably curious tourists) who stumble a few steps inside the door before having their WTF moments. At night, it’s a whole new ballgame. Cashed-up millennials with a penchant for the offbeat, clubbers, artists, actors and the wealth of creatives who make Los Angeles their own.
While it may be a romantic notion, I like to think it’s a whole new breed of Bradburys and Bukowskis, Lynchs and Disneys, people whose imaginations power their futures and who are drawn to Clifton’s because it’s a place that, externally, complements their own internal dialogue. And makes the wondrous just that little easier to manifest. Because the story is the thing.
For further information, consult Clifton’s & Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader (Angel City Press, 2015), written by Clifford’s grandson, Edmund J. Clinton III. I’ve drawn heavily from this biography to populate this post.
A great way to experience Clifton’s is via Clifton’s Living History Tour. Conducted by the charming and erudite Kahlil Nelson, it puts the past and present into perspective in a most entertaining fashion. I highly recommend this tour. Contact via Facebook, Instagram or http://www.cliftonstour.com.
There’s a reasonably well-known Monty Python sketch in which Pope Alexander IV critiques Michelangelo’s The Last Supper (OK, OK, yes, we know, but that’s how British comedy occasionally rolls). While a complete outline is unnecessary, sufficient to say the Pope is somewhat peeved that the finished work has three Christs (two thin and one fat), 28 disciples and a kangaroo. It ends with an exasperated Pope exclaiming, “Look, I’m the bloody Pope! I may not know much about art but I know what I like.”
I may not know much about art. But I know what I like.
I get that. Because, like most people, I know fuck all about art but I know what I like.
Regrettably (because not only does it date me horribly but places me at the very outer limits of contemporary art’s target market), part of what I appreciate is that it requires a certain level of skill. I like to look at something I know I couldn’t do myself. Something that requires talent and hard work and dedication.
Or, at least, it did.
It’s an old-fashioned conceit, to be sure, in this Age of Inclusiveness. Where anybody can be an artist. Where all you have to do is declare yourself an artist and, voila, an artist you become. And, in very many cases, be very well rewarded for it.
In my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in art galleries, checking out my favourite artists. I’ve seen monumental works by Dali across the world, from Madrid to Yokohama, Klimt and Schiele in Vienna, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud at the Tate Britain, Jackson Pollock as far afield as Canberra and Venice, Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus at the Uffizi, and, without fail, whenever I was in Chicago, there had to be a stop at the Art Institute for Edward Hopper and Nighthawks. There were even times I grew to appreciate an artist by seeing their works in the flesh (so to speak), the best example being Van Gogh from viewing his works in the Hermitage.
Not surprisingly, I’m a great believer in the traditions of a formal art education, the apprenticeship system that started out with the Guilds of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, that evolved into the Academies and continue in some shape or form to the present day at the conservative end of the art spectrum.
Hundreds of years ago, young artists would learn their craft from the ground up, literally from sweeping the stone floors of their masters’ studios, along with a range of ancillary skills such as grinding pigments and priming panels. If they showed promise, there were years rigorously developing their draughtsmanship skills by copying the works of established artists; Michelangelo, for example, spent much of his youth in Florentine churches, slavishly imitating Giotto.
The last two hundred years has been marked by a rolling tide of rebellions against such tradition. Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art. Just a sampling of the movements that railed against what had come before.
In some garret somewhere in the world, there seemed always to be some paint-splattered personage, with a catchy didactic ready to be flung, knife-like, at their betters and a band of followers eager to man the barricades.
The result is that art is no longer a spectator sport. The rebellions have come so continually and spun so fast that we are all now our own Che Guevaras with the merchandise to match. With our smartphones at the ready, we’re Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and each and every one of the Kardashians in one underwhelming multi-media package.
Power to the people. And even if we have no traditional tangible talent, point and shoot, upload to Facebook or Instagram and, as the likes and comments swamp us with the toasty satisfaction that comes from the approval of complete strangers, we become not only the artist but the art itself.
And so we arrive at the 14th Factory, which has recently completed its run in Los Angeles. The organisers call it a “monumental, multiple-media, socially-engaged art installation” as well as the “largest experiential art project” the city has ever seen.
And, in a city that can lay claim to inspiring more social media than most, the crowds came, saw, recorded and uploaded in record numbers.
Its home was an empty warehouse complex in Lincoln Heights, on the edge of downtown. Hong Kong-based artist, Simon Birch and 20 collaborators put on a show that perfectly exemplified art in the age of instant gratification. Utilising video, installation, sculpture, painting and performance, it was satisfyingly snappy and tactile in ways that traditional art galleries can never be.
The audience became complicit in the exhibits, smartphones poised, making sure every trout-pout, upwardly tilted face and angled body is immediately shared with their followers. Can’t do that with the Mona Lisa.
There is, of course, a word for all this. The “artselfie” was coined by art critic Brian Droitcour in 2012. It is, he has said, part of the “…aestheticisation of everyday life in social media that has leeched the authority of image-making from mass media and from art”.
But is an art gallery that celebrates the artselfie really art? Who knows. And, really, who cares, when it looks as good as it does and provides so many self-interacting opportunities.
A room with 300 pitchforks hanging from the ceiling has a line of onlookers waiting patiently to take their own artselfies underneath. A reflecting pool in an outdoor courtyard contains dozens of salvaged airplane tail sections. The queue starts over there. A video installation showing, across multiple screens, a red Ferrari in a slow-motion car crash, with the adjoining room presenting smalls pieces of wreckage on a long table. Best you come back later.
And, at least to my undiscerning eye, the best of the lot. A full-size recreation of the eerily-lit Empire-inspired bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey (at a point in the film when the astronaut Bowman appears as old man before transforming into the Star Child). Masterminded by Birch and architect Paul Kember, it’s a major hit with the crowd and full points to the organisers who limit only a few visitors into the room at any one time. Instagrammers and Snapchatters swooned with delight.
Of course, the inevitable had to happen. In mid-July, a woman taking selfies accidently demolished one of the exhibits, causing an estimated $US200,000. Simon Birch, contacted in Hong Kong, was philosophical (though most likely delighted with the world-wide publicity which, invariably, led to claims the incident was staged). Any publicity, in the age of Insta-art, is good publicity.
So while there may be some who decry today’s “technically impoverished” artists, you can’t help but feel Simon Birch and 14th Factory have given the public exactly what they want. And what these precocious times need the most. In an ironic post-modern kinda way.
For such a long time, I had a glass heart. I have no idea how I acquired it or when. Most likely, I was suckered, as is my way occasionally when travelling, into donating to some worthy cause. The glass heart would have been my reward.
It was slipped absent-mindedly into an outside pocket of my camera bag, where I’d rediscover it from time to time while rummaging for keys or spare change. Small, about two centimetres across by a centimetre thick, its iridescent surface reflecting light through a thousand rainbow shades. It made me smile.
It came to mind only once, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the tiny sun-seared town of Joshua Tree, California. In the courtyard of the relatively nondescript Joshua Tree Inn, an establishment with a name as utilitarian as its unadorned appearance, the one notable feature of which is an outsize statue of a guitar that stands in the dusty courtyard like one of Kubrick’s monoliths.
Around the concrete base is a scattering of tributes: candles, dice, cigarette lighters, violin bows, marbles, a white angel with wings spread wide, a CD, a tiny Day of the Dead figure, empty liquor bottles, coins, badges, a candlestick shaped like a palm tree, dead flowers, a plaque showing a skeleton under the word Grievous. The flotsam and jetsam of everyday life refashioned as pop cultural fetishes.
Etched into the guitar is the legend: Gram Parsons. Safe At Home. 11/5/46 – 9/19/73.
Turn around and there’s Room 8. It’s where Gram Parsons, widely credited as the father of country rock, died. Young, vital, brimming with promise, though underappreciated in his time. A few months short of his 27th birthday.
I want to see inside Room 8. The Inn is booked out; I’ve checked. But, on this weekday early afternoon, under a fading blue canopy of lung-searing heat, it’s deathly still. There’s nobody around the swimming pool or in the shade of the verandahs. The housekeepers have packed up and disappeared, the reception desk unattended.
The tortured artist, dead before his time, is an overly-familiar trope. It gets all the publicity, the gritty biopics, the ironic hipster t-shirts. If all the people who now profess their eternal admiration had been around back then to buy his albums, Gram Parsons may still be alive. Making his music, older than the heroes he worshipped when he was too young to be taken seriously by them.
Gram Parsons’ story is anchored firmly in the southern Gothic tradition that has become as much a cliché as that of the haunted artist too pure for this world. Except that his story was agonisingly real. It didn’t need the embellishment or romantic exaggeration of modern popular culture.
Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on 5 November 1946. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of John A. Snively, a pioneer of the Florida citrus industry; his father, Cecil Connor, known in those parts as Coon Dog, cut a dashing figure as an ex-Army pilot. Coon Dog had been stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Later, he flew combat missions in New Guinea and was hospitalised in Australia after contracting malaria.
The Snively family was Florida royalty, immensely wealthy from catering to a nation’s desire for breakfast refreshment. Winter Haven was their fiefdom. The head of the family may have been cool to his daughter’s choice in men but he brought Coon Dog into the family business, putting him in charge of a packaging operation in Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was born and raised.
Both parents liked their cocktails a little too much; Avis was what was considered “highly strung” and had a dependence on prescription medicine. Due to his war service, Coon Dog exhibited symptoms that would later be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Family life wasn’t comfortable for a boy as finely tuned as Gram and he took to music as an escape. He loved playing records and holding parties. He picked out tunes he only just heard on the family piano and was soon writing his own songs. His interest turned to something far deeper, like it did for many of his generation, when he saw Elvis perform at the Waycross City Auditorium. in February 1956,
Two years later, when Gram was 12, the careful balance of his world began to falter. Coon Dog committed suicide. Avis, Gram and his sister, known as Little Avis, returned to the safe haven of the Snively family’s Magnolia Mansion on the shores of Lake Eloise.
Gram felt the loss of his father keenly. To dull the pain, he retreated further into music and his mother’s limitless supply of prescription drugs.
Avis eventually married a charismatic salesman, Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and supported his musical endeavours, to the extent of opening a local music venue. Derry Down, as it was called, became part of a network of Florida youth club venues that nurtured such emerging musical talent as the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell.
And a young musician with a burgeoning reputation by the name of Gram Parsons. The bands he became involved with reflected the musical styles of the time, first rock’n’roll, then folk. His musicianship and stage presence developed well with time although it was his plaintive presence, the inner sadness that dwelt behind his steady, intelligent gaze, that resonated most deeply in audiences, especially amongst young women.
The death of his mother in 1964, after a long agonising decline hastened by alcohol, shattered Gram anew. But if it did one thing, it propelled him out of Florida towards his musical future. In 1965, he enrolled at Harvard but lasted less than a semester. Studying wasn’t really high on the Gram Parsons curriculum. Girls and drugs, not necessarily in that order, consumed his time.
He put together the first incarnation of the International Submarine Band. After Harvard, they moved to New York City but west was where everybody with any musical ambition was heading, to the sunshine and agreeably hedonistic lifestyle of Los Angeles.
The International Submarine Band set up in Laurel Canyon and, by 1967, had a deal with LHI Records, fronted by singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. One of the stranger characters of the 1960s West Coast music scene (admittedly, a pretty crowded field), Hazlewood is generally best known as partner, musical and otherwise, to Nancy Sinatra. The International Submarine Band joined LHI in a roster that, in many ways, defied description, artistic endeavour and sound business sense.
Meanwhile, Gram and Los Angeles in the late 1960s became a potent combination. Lanky and boyish, he was quietly spoken with an endearing Southern drawl and impeccable manners, an agreeable combination of attributes that turned heads. Pamela des Barres, whose experience of such things was as vast and all-encompassing as the desert sky, famously described Gram as “totally countrified in a slinky bedroom-eyed way”.
That he had an affinity for girls, drugs, booze and music just made him one of many in the landscape. That he enjoyed a certain level of wealth (by the late 60s, the proceeds from a trust fund established by his grandfather was paying off to the tune of about $US100,000 a year), set him a little further apart and ensured he could indulge his interests in high style; it was a fact of life in southern California, however, that wealthy young gods were still ruling the landscape then as now.
His distinctions were in an increasing dedication to the more traditional elements of country music (unusual amongst his contemporaries who were all seeking, in their own ways, the alchemic formula to successfully fuse folk, pop and rock into chart gold) and his song writing.
The latter was on display during his ISB days; the first International Submarine Band single cut for LHI was pure Gram – “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes”, with the resulting album including two more Gram compositions, “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” and “Strong Boy”.
By the time ISB’s album was released, in March 1968 after a considerable delay, the band had split and Gram had moved on to another project.
The Byrds had gained attention with a line-up of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, cruisng through a folk repertoire with dreamily tight harmonies that, as the 1960s progressed, merged into psychedelic rock.
Members came and went; by late 1967, Crosby and Clark had gone and The Byrds were looking for new blood. Early the following year, by the time their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released, Gram had been accepted into the fold. With the support of Hillman (and opposition from McGuinn), Gram steered The Byrds towards a more country sound.
They immediately launched into a new album, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles a mix of country standards, Bob Dylan compositions and three of Gram’s own songs, including the now-classic “Hickory Wind”.
It was in Nashville in March 1968 that The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry, the spiritual stronghold of the highly-conservative country music establishment. Gram’s youthful exuberance for country music (and his fellow band members’ self-regard as contemporary music royalty) left them in little doubt of a warm, even rapturous, welcome.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The audience seemed stunned by the long-haired hippies in their midst (though long-hair was always going to be a relative term when set against conservative Nashville; photographs of the group on stage at the Opry reveal what we would now call “preppy” attire and their hair, barely over the ears, looks no more menacing than the Beatles’ mop tops).
The Opry’s executive elite couldn’t have been less hospitable if The Byrds had harmonised the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t helped by Gram’s last-minute decision to substitute Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (some reports state it was to be Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) as the announced final song in their set for his own “Hickory Wind”, even if he did dedicate it to his elderly grandmother.
Gram suffered a double disappointment on the release of The Byrds’ latest album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in August 1968. Lee Hazlewood and LHI considered they still had Gram under contract and most of his vocals were redubbed, much to McGuinn’s delight. And, despite his unswerving dedication to country music, Sweetheart was the worst performing Byrds album to date, nudging only as high as #77 on the Billboard charts (in comparison, the previous album reached #47, still a disaster for a band of their stature but at least, though barely, in the top half of the charts).
All the public needed, as Gram so consistently expounded, was country music played by a new generation of long-haired rock musicians. Regrettably, the public never received that memo. Fusing folk, pop and rock and any number of barely-like-minded influences was becoming quite the musical fashion but too many young people saw straight-out country music as something their parents, small-town cousins and six-fingered distant relations looked to for life lessons. It just wasn’t cool.
Gram pressed on regardless, devising new ways to describe his music, desperately trying to intellectualise it and sneak it in through the back door of hipsterdom. Cosmic American Music was his favoured term; he even started calling it roots music, decades before the term gained widespread acceptance.
He was bummed by Sweetheart’s frosty reception but he’d moved on from The Byrds by then anyway; leaving by summer 1968, ostensibly because he objected to a proposed tour of apartheid-era South Africa, although it was more likely that continued friction with McGuinn played a more central role.
In record time (excuse the pun), he founded another band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, to do his philosophical bidding. Joining him was Chris Hillman, who’d also fled The Byrds around this time. They signed to A&M Records and launched into their first album.
Musically as well as philosophically, The Burritos were closer to Gram’s concept of long-hairs playing country music; Gram also took control of their stage image by steering them to a Ukranian-born tailor working out of North Hollywood. Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohan, created fantasias of elaborate Western styling that became popular amongst such country performers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hank Williams, and then spread to others in the music industry including Elvis and John Lennon.
The Burritos pretty much blew their A&M advance on the outfits but they sure looked sharp in the publicity photos. Nudie was renowned for personally styling the suits to its clients’ tastes and Gram’s own choices were those that defined his life: marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, naked women and a cross.
The Burritos and their Nudie suits were emblazoned across their first album. The Gilded Palace Of Sin, released in February 1969; musically, it typified Gram’s dedication towards fusing traditional country with folk, rock, pop, even soul (in the latter instance, “Dark End Of The Street”, best known as a 1966 hit for James Carr). As satisfying as the album was, and it did garner considerable critical attention, the public remained underwhelmed and ignored it.
Sin stalled at #164 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, released in May 1970, didn’t even make the Top 200. Shortly after that, Gram was fired from his own band, the victim of his own overindulgence in drugs and alcohol although the rest of the band were no less guilty of such transgressions.
While renowned for their studio work, in concert they were hit-and-miss, preferring to get shit-faced and play poker instead of taking the stage. The situation wasn’t helped by such unfortunate decisions as turning down Woodstock but playing Altamont.
Gram’s drug and alcohol dependence showed no signs of mellowing; it seemed the more the record-buying public rejected his heart-felt musical intentions, the more he sought escape by chemical means. The situation wasn’t helped by an important friendship forged in the late 1960s, one of two that would define as much as emphasis his musical journey.
On 7 July 1968, The Byrds played the Royal Albert Hall in London; amongst the glitterati trawling backstage was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The two immediately hit it off; while autobiographies and memoirs are the most infuriatingly inexact of sources, Richards’ own Life (2010) pays considerable tribute to Gram Parsons’ influence, musical as well as personal, both on Richards and the Rolling Stones.
“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me,” writes Richards. “Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”
The first question Gram asked Richards was whether he had any drugs. It was shared interests – drugs as much as music – that underpinned their friendship. Following the English concerts, The Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa but Richards and the other Stones enlightened Gram on the issue of apartheid; the result was that Gram left the tour, and the Byrds, there and then. The next few months, he spent in England with Richards.
Just as the Stones, like many English musicians in the early 1960s, had adopted the blues, so Keith Richards, by the decade’s end, immersed himself in country music, tutored all the while by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable Gram. They spent long periods jamming, writing songs, experimenting with styles, building influences one atop the other like building blocks, continuing to refine the things that worked, tossing aside those that didn’t.
The late 1960s, into the early to mid-70s, was a period of musical transition for the Stones. Mick Taylor was brought in to replace Brian Jones and the band’s direction changed remarkably. Jagger was in favour of emphasising a harder sound, one that would eventually emerge as stadium rock; Richards, fired up by Gram’s intensive tutoring, was determined towards Americana, roots music and country.
Gram was never too far away from Richards for the next few Rolling Stones albums, from Let It Bleed (1969) through to Exile On Main Street (1972), and his influence as much as his direct involvement is the subject of considerable speculation by music historians. Listen to “Country Honk”, the hillbilly-ish version of “Honky Tonk Women” that appears on Let It Bleed and try if you can to ignore the spirit of Gram Parsons that haunts it; doubly haunted, perhaps, as it’s this track that was the last Stones session Brian Jones played on before his death.
On Sticky Fingers (1971), Gram’s influence is apparent on “Dead Flowers” although it’s “Wild Horses” that gets all the attention. Despite the Jagger/Richards song writing credit, there’s long been a conspiracy theory that Gram co-wrote it (most likely untrue; the song is far too straight-forward, lacking his Southern Gothic complexities). That’s not to say, however, that Gram didn’t contribute much to how the song sounded.
“Wild Horses” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over a two-day period in early December 1969. It was one of three tracks (also including “Brown Sugar”) recorded at the session and the first tracks that would form Sticky Fingers. Gram was not in the studio for it.
The Stones were at the end of a US tour that had started on 7 November; they’d been developing new material and were eager to record it while it was still fresh. After a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, they had a few days before the final date. As a strange quirk of their visas, they could play concerts but couldn’t record so a quiet, out-of-the-way location in northern Alabama was hastily arranged. That Muscle Shoals was already legendary for recording such R&B giants as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett worked on one level; on another, a bunch of white English boys went noted but barely recognised.
A few days later, the Stones travelled to California for the final date on the tour, meeting up with Gram and the Burritos who were also appearing at the free concert, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The date was 6 December 1969. The location was the Altamont Speedway. And the rest, as they say in the music industry, generally in a most ominous tone, is history.
Something that did come out of this is that Keith Richards gave Gram a demo tape of “Wild Horses” along with permission to release his own version before the Stones. It appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, a full year before the Stones version appeared on Sticky Fingers.
Mick Jagger has been quite open about the influence Gram had on the country feel of such Sticky Fingers tracks as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, as well as a few from Exile On Main Street. The version of “Wild Horses” released on Sticky Fingers (there were two takes recorded at Muscle Shoals; the second could well be the acoustic version available on the 2015 Deluxe edition re-release of Sticky Fingers) is quite a restrained country ballad, displaying little in the way of Cosmic American Music, but somewhere, forgotten, in an archives may be a version of even more interest to Gram Parson aficionados.
There is mention, amongst the multitude of GP biographies and associated material, that Gram was asked to suggest a pedal steel player to add to “Wild Horses”. His choice was Peter Kleinow, otherwise known as Sneaky Pete, who he held in high regard and worked closely with in both the Byrds and the Burritos.
As an aside, Sneaky Pete has another of the quirkier stories in American music. An accomplished pedal steel player and champion of the Fender 400, Pete had a secondary career as a Hollywood visual effects and stop motion animator, working on such film and television shows as Gumby, Land Of The Lost, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminators I and II.
Meanwhile, Gram’s departure from the Burritos in mid-1970 left him rudderless and his periodic episodes of depression deepened, a situation not helped by drugs and alcohol. His relationship with Keith Richards tided him over and he was on hand during the latter stages of recording Sticky Fingers, much of which was put down at Jagger’s UK estate, Stargrove, in rural Hampshire.
It was, however, during the recording of the next Stones album, Exile On Main Street, that things came to a head. Gram and Keith Richards were drinkin’ and druggin’ and jammin’ for what seemed like weeks on end, often to the exclusion of everything else. That the druggin’ included heroin and often left Richards disinclined, if not even physically unable, to contribute to the new album strained relations with Jagger and other members of the band and surrounding entourage.
While some of the leftover tracks from Sticky Fingers made their way onto the next album, new tracks were recorded at Nellcôte, an estate Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice on the French Riviera (the Stones had fled the UK as tax exiles). Gram arrived at Nellcôte in June 1971, one of a flood of visitors that included such figures as William S. Burroughs. Both Gram and Richards were into heroin heavily during this time. The album languished. Eventually, the chaos had to be managed and Gram was kicked out in July 1971.
It was inevitable that Gram’s next move, if his attention could be wrested from other matters, would be a solo album. And, despite the lack of financial success accorded his work with both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, record companies continued to display interest.
The first was A&M, where he was teamed with yet another of the more interesting characters populating the LA music scene. The son of actress Doris Day, Terry Melcher had already produced such acts as The Byrds and The Beach Boys but is most infamously remembered for an act he didn’t produce – Charles Manson.
Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had befriended Manson who, amongst other interests, was an aspiring songwriter and introduced him to Melcher to further his musical career. Although Manson was under the impression that Melcher would be producing an album for him, the project never eventuated.
At this time, Melcher and his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, were living in the hills above Los Angeles, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the midst of Benedict Canyon. Manson had visited Melcher at this address several times but the producer moved out early in 1969. In August, Manson sent his followers to the house, which had since been rented to film director Roman Polanski, telegraphing a not-so-subtle message. While Polanski wasn’t at home, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were. The rest, as the ominous saying once again goes, is history.
The A&M solo album didn’t get off the ground with Melcher having a hard time swaying Gram’s interest. But another attempt was already in the pipeline, and it would lead to the second friendship and musical partnership that defined Gram’s career.
In 1971, Chris Hillman of the Burritos suggested he catch the performance of a young folk singer at a Washington club. Emmylou Harris had already recorded her first album, Gliding Bird, but the record company disintegrated soon after and it had attracted little attention.
It would seem that Gram and Emmylou, at least musically, had little in common but each could see opportunities in the other. Emmylou was anchored firmly in folk but her career to date had been going nowhere fast and she needed the work that Gram offered; Gram saw the need for a female singer and trusted Chris Hillman’s initial judgement. When he heard Emmylou and conjured the possibilities of what could be, he realised that this was something, at least musically, he never knew he needed.
Together, their voices melded into the most divine harmonies. But it didn’t happen instantly. It was the result of dedication and hard work. The mechanics of generating those harmonies is visible in a studio out-take on the 1995 release, Cosmic American Music, rehearsing “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” (a track on Gram’s first solo album, GP), repeatedly exploring the same line, addressing it in different ways before reaching an arrangement they were both comfortable with.
Gram and Emmylou gradually built up their harmonies, honed in their live performances, and if his initial intention was for just a female voice, he soon found he’d ended up with something more vitally important.
Thus, when Gram relaunched his attempt on a solo album, this time under the aegis of Reprise Records, this emotionally powerful duet partnership was put down for posterity.
Recording for what would become the first of only two Gram Parsons solo albums, simply titled GP, began in September 1972. His backing musicians, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, previously recorded with Elvis Presley in the TCB Band. One of Gram’s heroes, Merle Haggard, was to have produced the album but dropped out at the last moment.
Gram did not weather the recording sessions well. He was close to breaking point, binging on alcohol and drugs, including cocaine. His fast lifestyle was evident to his increasingly concerned friends; photographs of the period show him bloated and unwell. Yet the resulting album was nothing short of magical. This was especially so on the tracks he shared with Emmylou; she added something emotionally invaluable to the mix, shades he’d never been able to achieve in his previous recordings.
Yet, once again, despite raves from such publications as Rolling Stone, GP (released January 1973) didn’t get close to entering the Billboard Top 200.
Gram and Emmylou toured through the spring of 1973 but he was spending increasing time out of LA, in the high country of the Mojave Desert. He first come to this area in the late 1960s, returning more frequently to the small town of Joshua Tree. His preferred accommodation was the Joshua Tree Inn, where he could walk, stumble or sometimes even crawl to such bars as the Hi Lo Lounge.
If he wasn’t bar-hopping, he’d retire to his favourite Room 8 with a range of friends including Keith Richards, girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Gram’s road manager/protector/confidante, Phil Kaufman.
The desert was Gram’s own haven. It didn’t temper his dependence on drugs or alcohol but it was a spiritual safe zone from the disappointments of work and personal concerns. Occasionally, he attained moments of clarity when he’d recognised the self-destructive nature of his existence and his own mortality.
During one such moment, Gram instructed Phil Kaufman that, upon his death, he wanted to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park and his ashes scattered on a local landmark, Cap Rock. It would prove to be a prophetic request.
However disheartened he was by his continued failures to break his music to the wider world, Gram pushed ahead with a second solo album. He gathered the band, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, along with Emmylou Harris, and entered the studios in summer 1973 with a batch of songs. Included were several of his own, including “Brass Buttons”, a scarring song about his mother that he’d written while at Harvard, and “Hickory Wind”, already recorded during his time with The Byrds. Other songs, such as “Love Hurts”, showcased Gram and Emmylou’s extraordinary gift of harmony.
The album would be called Grievous Angel. During recording, Linda Ronstadt would visit the studio and add harmonies to the track “In My Hour Of Darkness”. While Gram and Ronstadt (who had also become close to Emmylou) were friends, her involvement, however limited, carried a certain bitter synchronicity.
After three albums in the late 1960s as part of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt embarked on a series of solo albums. The musicians involved in her third, self-titled, album, released in 1972, included Bernie Leedon, who had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the Burritos Deluxe days, and Randy Meisner, both of whom toured with Ronstadt to support her previous Silk Purse (1970) album.
Also joining Leedon and Meisner were Don Henley and Glenn Frey; in the small-town world of the Los Angeles music scene of the period, Gram knew everybody and everybody knew Gram but he knew Frey particularly well as the musician was often to be seen at Burritos’ gigs, avidly studying Gram’s stagecraft.
The four approached Ronstadt after the album’s completion. They recognised a chemistry they wanted to explore and, as a courtesy, declared their intention of forming a band. Not yet settled on a name, they signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 and started playing live gigs.
Eventually, and different people have varying perceptions of the reasons, they settled on the name Eagles. Marked by tight harmonies and a soft country-rock styling that would typify that originating on the West Coast, their self-titled debut album was released in June 1972.
It yielded three singles; “Witchy Woman”, reached #9 on the Billboard charts, the lowest, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, scrapped into #22. The album itself just missed out on the Top 20. This was far from a failure; the market was proving receptive to the Eagles’ brand of countrified rock. By their fourth album, One Of These Nights (1975), they reached the top of the Billboard album charts, and the next, 1976’s Hotel California, went to #1 around the world.
Gram’s vision of country music being played by a new breed of young musicians was gaining popularity. It just wasn’t popular if he recorded it. Technically, the West Coast aesthetic was hardly country rock, barely country and much more pop than rock. Easy listening as we’d know it now. However, it was a close second to Gram’s ideals and the distinction was not lost on him
Meanwhile, Gram completed his second solo album and, in mid-September 1973, set out for the sanctuary of the high desert country and the Joshua Tree Inn. So much has been written about the circumstances of Gram’s death by overdose (including the ignominious role that the third-party posterior positioning of ice cubes played in temporarily reviving him) and the subsequent hijacking of his body by Phil Kaufman and friends to carry out his last wishes at Cap Rock, that to go over them here would be redundant.
Sufficient to say, Gram Parsons died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on 19 September 1973. Drug toxicity, as the coroner later declared. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday.
Even in death, however, Gram couldn’t get the recognition he deserved. The following day, singer-songwriter Jim Croce (whose biggest hit – indeed only hit outside the US – was a novelty song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) was killed in a plane crash. Any publicity attending Gram’s demise was quickly swamped.
Even worse, there was barely enough curiosity generated by Gram’s death to suck Grievous Angel to #195 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart when it was released in January 1974.
Life, and the music industry, went on without him, much as it had done when he was alive. Emmylou Harris, who had become extremely close to Gram during their professional partnership, was – due largely to Linda Ronstadt’s influence – signed to Reprise. The Pieces Of The Sky album was released in 1975 and eventually reached #7 on the Billboard album chart.
Although she would record a number of Gram’s songs, and become a continuing, enthusiastic champion of his music, in the early years, and well into the 1980s, Emmylou avoided talking about him. It was just too painful a loss.
Gradually, though, the accolades rightfully due Gram Parsons and his pioneering work began to attract increasing attention. In time, rightly or wrongly, he’s been elevated to a “founding father” position, publicly revered by successive generations of musicians, with all the attendant grovelling. His Nudie suit can be found in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame (established by the same CMA establishment that gave him and the other Burritos such a hard time at the Grand Ole Opry). There’s any number of Gram-inspired festivals and tribute albums and, not surprisingly, hipster t-shirts. And Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, where Phil Kaufman farewelled Gram in a suitably incendiary manner, continues to draw devotees from around the world.
The graffiti they leave behind draws largely upon his music. One particularly popular couplet paraphrases “Brass Buttons”, Gram’s song about his mother and which applies equally well to his own life and death.
“The sun comes up without you, it doesn’t know you’re gone”, it says.
Gram’s legacy is embodied in the unswerving, inextinguishable courage of his convictions. Not so much that he could revive country music, because it was doing very well without him, but that he could make it relevant for his own and future generations. And although he didn’t do that in his own short lifetime (and just eight albums), he did ultimately achieve that aim.
If Gram had lived, if he’d been able to subdue his demons, lock them away where they could do the least amount of harm, he’d most likely have side-stepped country rock, for his chosen interpretation was too pure. In truth, he was an early adopter, a strong influence on many who followed, but he didn’t invent country rock any more than he did orange juice or tortured southern Gothic sensibilities.
Gram, if he had lived, would have taken his rightful place as the grand old man of alt country or Americana.
Those who flock to the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn know his music, and some may even appreciate the legend behind the man. The trinkets they leave behind hold a totemic significance for each of them.
I thought about that as I stood in the blast furnace afternoon. I’d played Gram on the car stereo in the days before and on the drive up from Palm Springs. Everything I had, which was pretty much everything, and I was on the second run through Grievous Angel as I pulled into the motel’s parking lot.
It was eerie out there, with not a living being in sight, no noise, no breeze, nothing but the insistent heat. I spent a while photographing the shrine then slung my camera across my shoulder and headed back to the car. As I packed my camera bag away, I stopped.
There was something I had to do. I unzippered the tiny front pocket and dug out the glass heart.
It had travelled the world a few times over, most of the continents, and rarely gained a second thought. But it felt right, this glass heart of a thousand rainbow hues, to leave it here. Under the bright desert sun that had doubtless hammered so many of Gram’s hangovers. Another tribute, from a disciple to the master, a spiritual offering, a thanks-for-the-music from one side of the Vale to the other.
And as I pulled away towards Yucca Valley and the turn-off that would take me to Barstow and, eventually, Las Vegas, I turned “Brass Buttons” up high.
For most of its history, Los Angeles has been the Dream Factory, for those who already make their living from the entertainment industry, the countless thousands arriving each year hoping to do the same, and even those who know it only from its enduring myth and legend.
There’s history aplenty for those interested enough to seek it out, some in the most unlikely places. I’ve been a regular visitor for decades and even I find places and stories I never knew.
For just that reason, I would generally base myself in Hollywood; in one easily navigated area were so many of my favourite places, all steeped in history and still existing pretty much as they always had – restaurants such as Musso & Frank, and Miceli’s; bars – Boardners and the Frolic Room; cinemas – the Chinese and the Egyptian, and slightly more modern classics as the Cinerama Dome; bookstores and purveyors of entertainment ephemera – Larry Edmunds; and music and DVD stores – Amoeba Music.
Although it was more than a touch Midnight Cowboy with its hookers and hustlers, I was happy there, staying at a very humble hotel behind the Hollywood & Highland development. The facilities were basic but the staff friendly and breakfast included for less than $US100 a night.
As Hollywood gentrified, the sex shops and strippers’ outfitters gradually edged out by hip bars and cafes, prices edged up and my humble accommodation now runs towards $US250 including taxes. Even the formerly run-down 1960s motels along Sunset or on Hollywood Blvd east of the freeway, that used to rent out by the hour, are now made over with little more than a retro pallet and cost the same.
In terms of accommodation prices, LA is now the New York City of the West Coast. Anywhere worth staying is astronomical. Santa Monica? Forget about it. Beverly Hills or West Hollywood? The same. Even downtown, where squalid once-abandoned office buildings have been transformed into shiny minimalist loft apartments and there seems to be a Whole Foods on every corner
On the last trip, I took a chance on a reasonably-priced airport hotel and really hit the jackpot. I knew the location – the corner of West Century (the main artery leading into the LAX terminals) and Aviation Boulevard, the price was right (about $US160 including tax and breakfast, about half the price of the anonymous big chain brands) and it had a retro look that piqued my interest.
If I’d paid strict attention to TripAdvisor, perhaps I’d have passed it by. Comments were pretty evenly split between “hidden gem” and “dump”, service between “friendly and efficient” and “cold and rude”. Even factoring in the “reading between the lines” factor necessary for TripAdvisor, something told me it was worth further investigation.
And, boy, am I glad I did.
The Travelodge Hotel At LAX is a charming retro throw-back, a low-rise (just two stories) mid-century survivor with motel-style units grouped around a large swimming pool. There’s parking on-site and a Denny’s restaurant with attached cocktail bar.
There’s a couple of aspects of the Travelodge that immediately impressed me. The first was the check-in. The front desk staff were friendly and personable; disregard the TripAdvisor complaints, put them down to the usual impossible-to-please whingers who tend to populate feedback sites.
The second was, considering the vintage of the property, just how well-maintained it was. Throughout the public areas, and particularly around the pool, the gardens were splashed with vivid colour. The neatness and tidiness spoke of an evident pride. The pool furniture was arranged just-so, the pathways swept clean, no rubbish or cigarette butts littering the garden beds.
I was just as impressed with the accommodation. Over the years, I stayed at just about every LAX hotel and the Travelodge is now my favourite. Sure, it’s an older property but it’s clean, extremely comfortable and, perhaps most importantly, the bed was just as comfortable as a Westin or Sheraton.
The furnishings are plush and have an agreeably retro feel, quite in keeping with the property’s historic charm. During my stay, I posted on Instagram that my room was like staying in the Captain and Tennille’s pool cabana and that pretty much sums up the ambience.
And although the wing I was in ran parallel to Aviation Blvd, with the air-conditioning on, I couldn’t hear any traffic noise. For an airport hotel on a major intersection, it was miraculously quiet.
LA is the sort of city where a car is a necessity. However, if you’re there for a short stay, public bus stops are a short walk away; in the one direction, the Big Blue Bus goes to Santa Monica. In the other, a shuttle runs to the Aviation/LAX station, part of the Green Line of the city’s Metro Rail system. From there, it’s easy to access Long Beach, Downtown, Hollywood and as far north as Universal Studios and North Hollywood.
So there I was, happy enough that I’d found such a charming, cosy and comfortable, well-situated and reasonably-priced hotel with friendly and personable staff. What more could I ask for?
The answer was awaiting me tucked inside the guest compendium. It told the history of the Travelodge At LAX with quite a few surprises in store. For example, the little-known background to one of the country’s most prominent hotel chains (no, not the Travelodge).
Although initially I was pretty sure the hotel was vintage 1960s. I was off by a decade. The hotel opened in 1953, built and operated by an LA businessman and man about town by the name of Hyatt van Dehn.
It was originally called the Hyatt House and was the first hotel to support an airport that had opened in 1930 as Mines Field. The city had a number of small private airfields and, by the time commercial airlines started operating following the end of World War II, the major airport was Lockheed Field at Burbank, now known as Bob Hope Airport. But, by the closing years of the 1940s, such major airlines as American, Trans World, United and Western switched across to Mines Field and in 1949 it officially became Los Angeles International Airport.
Business was good at the Hyatt House and added another wing in 1955. Hyatt was young, handsome and wealthy and, while a well-connected businessman, he was more frequently mentioned in the gossip columns for his love life. His second wife, Ginny Sims, was a singer and actress, a featured vocalist with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. In the 1940s, her records sold in the millions and she had a long movie contract with RKO studios, later moving on to MGM.
Hyatt and Ginny lived in a Beverly Hills home designed by renowned modernist LA architect, Paul Williams (incidentally, he co-designed the iconic flying saucer form of the Theme Building, part of the 1961 redevelopment of the LAX terminals as we known them today).
Hyatt and Ginny had what could best be termed a tempestuous relationship and by 1951 had been married and divorced twice. They remained friends, though, after the final separation and Ginny, who also embarked as a career as an interior decorator, was involved in furnishing the Hyatt House.
In 1957, a Chicago businessman by the name of Jay Pritzker was sitting in Fat Eddie’s, the coffee shop of the Hyatt House. He was the grandson of Nicholas Pritzker, who had brought his family from the Ukraine to the United States in the late 19th century and opened a law firm in Chicago in 1902.
Jay’s own father, Abram, was prominent in the family business; something of a prodigy, Jay, graduated from high school at the age of 14 and took a managerial role in steering the company towards owning and managing extensive real estate holdings.
Jay was always on the lookout for investment opportunities; the Hyatt House was uncommonly busy and it got him thinking. Then and there, he decided the Pritzker family should get into the hotel business. He scrawled an offer of $2.2 million on a paper napkin and asked that it be forwarded along to Hyatt van Dehn.
The offer was accepted; Jay was in something of a bind. The impulse purchase of the family’s first hotel had him at a loss as to a name. It was well recognised as the Hyatt House so he kept it as such.
Years later, Jay told the Chicago Daily News that the Hyatt was “simply the first first-class hotel that I had ever seen at an airport”. He kept the strategy going along the West Coast. Jay’s second Hyatt hotel was at Burlingame, near the San Francisco International Airport. Within four years, there were six Hyatt hotels and the company went public in 1967 (it became a Travelodge, part of the Wyndham branding, in 1994).
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Travelodge had its share of celebrity guests. Cowboy movie star Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, would stay in Room 131 when they were flying in and out for personal appearances. Greg Morris, an actor best known for his role as Barney Collier on the hit television show, Mission Impossible, preferred Room 232. Rock’n’roll performer Little Richard and actor Patrick Stewart were also frequent guests.
The history contained within the guest compendium gave me a deeper appreciation of the Travelodge At LAX. Although there is at least one whimsical detail.
We’re told that Howard Hughes and Jane Russell occupied Room 225 during the filming of The Outlaw. It does make a good story, and that’s what the Dream Factory has always been about. Except for the fact that The Outlaw was filmed in 1941, twelve years before the hotel was built.
And Russell was one of the least likely Hollywood actresses to have an affair (discounting her association with actor John Payne in the early 1940s). She was extremely conservative, a devout Catholic and married her high school sweetheart in 1943, a marriage that lasted for 25 years.
The occasional fact-checking glitch aside, the Travelodge is still an endearingly authentic historic Los Angeles artefact, a piece of history that also a fun, comfortable, friendly and centrally-located hotel. And whenever I’m heading to the US, what else could I really ask for?
In the 1960s, Mantovani, the 101 Strings and their ilk were stomping all over pop music with their Easy Listening jackboots, providing a hip yet culturally neutral backdrop to key parties around the globe. Andrew Oldham, then manager to the Rolling Stones, had a radical thought. In 1966, he gathered a host of studio musicians including, some say, the Stones themselves, anointed them as the Andrew Oldham Orchestra and produced The Rolling Stones Songbook. Popular Stones tracks, such as (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Time Is On Our Side became sweeping orchestral instrumentals. The cardigan-clad swingers briefly broke from their flokati-bound labours and cried “it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas”.
Almost fifty years down the track and key parties are quaint anachronisms, replaced by Tinder and evangelical Christianity but.the Rolling Stones Songbook sounds not unlike a parallel universe, one where Sergio Leone directed Performance for which Morricone reworked the Rolling Stones anthems of angst and rebellion into a compelling soundtrack. I’m playing the Australian pressing of Songbook, released by the World Record Club in 1968 with an original psychedelic cover (the original UK release had a cover photo of the Stones in what looked suspiciously like a cage). Equal parts bizarre and creepy, baby.
Note: It’s these little stories that divert me from the main path; it started out as a piece on Gram Parsons (nearing completion, believe it or not) but I was soon hung up on the relationship between Gram and Keith Richards. Picking over several biographies and autobiographies for clues until I’m as satisfied as I’ll ever be that I have a firm grasp on the subject. All looks well and good. Then I unpack the latest box of vinyl and rarities destined for auction and find the Songbook. While researching that, I discover the existence of Fred Goodman’s 2015 book, Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out The Beatles, Made The Stones, And Transformed Rock & Roll. Klein figured large in the Stones history (he was their business manager and ended up owning their pre-1972 publishing rights), just the sort of story I love. Nothing to do with Gram Parsons but I can’t resist a good yarn.
It’d be boring as batshit to weigh in on the political arguments demonising fashion via the objectification of women (or hunky men if you’re so inclined) and the rampant promotion of consumerism but, just so you know at the outset: fashion is OK by me.
Call me a dilettante, and very many people do (even in their kindest moments) but I kinda like fashion, both as an observer and consumer. I’d prefer to flick through Vogue than Rugby League Week and I can tell the difference between Suzy Menkes and Suzi Quatro (even blindfolded).
So when the opportunity arose to attend Australian Fashion Week 2015 (or the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, as it is formally known), I jumped in. True, it wasn’t the REAL Australian Fashion Week. It was the Weekend Edition, when the general public, fashion’s ultimate target market, gets to peek behind the curtain (a little like the end of The Wizard Of Oz, except the costumes are more restrained) .
Anybody and everybody is allowed to attend. All you need is a ticket; mine came courtesy of a friend who won a double pass in a radio competition. I arrived armed with a Nikon 300S, a Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 zoom, a Nikkor 24mm F2.8, and all the best moments of Zoolander on an endless loop in the multiplex of my mind, ready to capture the weird and wacky aspects of life in the fashion industry.
As indeed did everybody else there that weekend although they would have been sorely disappointed. Australian Fashion Week itself functions pretty much like Paris, Milan or New York in all its bizarre glory, especially the stratification of the haves and have-nots, the front rowers and those eternally exiled to the nosebleed bleachers (four or five rows behind, although no less of a social divide) that everybody knows from fashion magazines and tabloid television.
By the time the Weekend Edition rolled around, the designers had long-since fled, leaving only a phalanx of models to protect the industry’s dignity.
Which they did superbly with their serene beauty and perfect postures, horizon-gazing and even, occasionally, the hint of irony teasing their glossed lips. Perhaps they were gratified that they finally had an audience paying avid attention, happy to be there, interested in the clothes rather than each other or where they were sitting.
And, unlike the usual portrayal of models as gaunt waifs, flushed of physical substance by caffeine, nicotine and diuretics, I didn’t feel any necessity to toss the occasional sandwich onto the catwalk. True, they may have won first prize in life’s genetic lottery but they also looked like they could tell one end of a Steak frites from the other.
What do I know? I’m a bloke and, ipso facto, mere collateral damage in the fashion wars. But I know what I like and I liked my time at the Weekend Edition even if it was only Australian Fashion Week lite. The designers – which for those who know about such things ranged through Bianca Spender, Manning Cartell, Betty Tran, Steven Khalil, Serpent & The Swan, Watson & Watson, and Kate Sylvester, among many others – and their creations came and went from the catwalk too quickly to note, especially as I was having so much fun snapping away. And the people-watching opportunities were priceless.
Inherent Vice didn’t make it far in the 2015 Oscars race, having gained only two very minor nominations (of course, as every member of the film community acknowledges, it’s an honour just to be nominated although you’re more likely to get laid or have the late night scribbles on the back of a Polo Lounge napkin green-lit by a major studio if you get one of the little golden guys. But that’s another thing. Entirely.).
Josh Brolin did tie for Best Supporting Actor (with Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher) at the prestigious Central Ohio Film Critics’ Association awards. So someone from the production does have a trophy to show for all their hard work, even if they only get to gaze upon its luminous presence every other week and maybe a little longer when Ruffalo is off doing Avengers sequels.
I should stop right here for a quick admission: I’m a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson. If ever there’s a theme park ride based on a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I’ll be first in line. Especially if it’s Boogie Nights and roller skates are involved. But that’s another thing. Entirely
Until now, my favourite Anderson outing was There Will Be Blood (2007), a movie that was just so impressive on first viewing and gets better as time goes on. Granted, I’d never been much of a Daniel Day-Lewis fan (although he was one of best things about Gangs Of New York, another favourite). However, it was Day-Lewis’ titanic performance in There Will Be Blood that nudged him several points higher in my estimations.
Ditto for Joaquin Phoenix. Maybe it’s just a latent animosity that stems from having a name that’s so needlessly difficult to pronounce (what happened to the good old days when actors would go out of their way to create audience-friendly names? Whether they were born with something puzzlingly unusual – we’re looking at you, Marion Morrison – or just plain vanilla, they could be transformed into a Rip Torn or Tab Hunter?).
No, Joaquin doesn’t so much trip off the tongue than plummet screaming to the ground (note to self: it appears to be pronounced WAW – KEEM but please correct me if I’m wrong). As for his acting chops, I’ve never quite understood the adoration.
In Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phoenix is a revelation. He’s so comprehensively immersed in the character that it’ll be difficult to believe him in anything else. That, my friends, is what acting is all about.
I generally don’t write about current release cinema. I leave that to the bulk of the blogging universe. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, a movie I know will stay with me a long time, I’ll make an exception. It helps that it encompasses two of my favourite things – detective stories and the history of Los Angeles.
Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an idealistic hippie stoner who, inexplicably, holds a private detective license. He lives in a scummy apartment in an equally scummy LA beachside community. Most importantly, deep down inside, Sportello is nothing more and nothing less than a reincarnated Philip Marlow.
Like Marlowe, he’s a hopeless (and occasionally helpless) romantic, a tilter at windmills, a champion of lost causes. The story begins when his lost love, Shasta, she of the long limbs and evocatively Southern Californian name, reappears with a plea to help her current lover, a wealthy married real estate mogul.
The time is 1970. The Summer of Love got the ultimate Dear John letter with Manson and Altamont the year before. Optimism and the hope for a better world has faded like reefer smoke on a Santa Ana. It’s a new decade and, despite the best efforts of Sportello and his ilk, big changes are in store.
On the mean streets that Sportello wanders, he must dodge skateboarders, neo-Nazis, an angry sociopathic cop who may or may not be his best friend, and Shasta, who maintains a vice-like grip on his heart. The cases he pursues fold back on themselves like Escher staircases. He’s beaten regularly, never paid, hardly accorded thanks. But he continues doing what he does because it’s all he knows. And the world, or at least Los Angeles, is a slightly better place because of it.
The mystery of Shasta’s missing boyfriend isn’t that important and logic really plays no part. It’s the figures in the landscape, the people he encounters along the way. It’s what they bring to him rather than how he addresses their problems.
Inherent Vice is another section of a much larger canvas slowing being assembled by Paul Thomas Anderson. From Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to Punch Drunk Love (2002) and on to There Will Be Blood (drawn from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, and loosely based on oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, who dotted the landscape of early 20th century LA with thousands of oil derricks), Anderson’s larger intentions seem to lie in creating a grand narrative of Los Angeles, its life and times, on par with a Diego Rivera mural.
In doing so, he’s contributing to a much grander artistic tradition; Hollywood (and, by association, LA) and the film industry grew up together. They are intertwined by far more than just geographic proximity. Inherent Vice (and, to varying degrees, There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights), stands alongside the very best depictions of the city – LA Confidential (1997), Day Of the Locust (1975), Chinatown (1974), Robert Altman’s unconventional interpretation of The Long Goodbye (1973), and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
With Inherent Vice, the traditional narrative stream is both enlivened and complicated by two factors, the most obvious being its LA noir overtones. The next is that it’s based on a Thomas Pynchon novel.
I have no idea of the source material and would barely know where to find Pynchon in a bookstore if I didn’t have a few rather obvious clues to work with. I’m not a literature kind of guy, preferring genre anytime. It’s a survival thing. I’ve already died once and have no intention of being bored to death so, when that trusty reference resource, Wikipedia, says that Pynchon is noted “for his dense and complex novels”, I’m already reaching for the nitroglycerin tablets. Just in case.
On the other hand, I’ve been told Pynchon (note to self: PIN – CHIN) delights in inside jokes, popular music references, sex, drugs, and freaks, all thrown against the wall like a monkey with a handful of shit. Some sticks, some doesn’t. He’s beginning to sound like my kinda guy.
Then, invariably, someone, somewhere, compares Pynchon with James Joyce and I recall the fateful words of Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!” So I’m back to square one, literature-wise. I’ll just have to be content with Pynchon on film. This may well be the perfect example of not wanting to read the book in case it spoils the movie.
I’ll admit Inherent Vice has its challenges. It pays not to anticipate too eagerly a conventional three-act format, no neatly-wrapped mystery with the guilty party named, shamed and brought to justice before the closing credits. Rather, the mystery lies in the journey (and in Sportello himself, in a Carlos Castaneda kinda way). It’s the story of Los Angeles as much as the temporary travails of the characters who bump around on the screen.
The exceptional supporting cast is a joy in itself. Josh Brolin in a man-mountain police detective with anger management issues who alternates between Portello’s worst enemy and saviour.
Special mention to Katherine Waterston as Shasta, Portello’s Guinevere in a black Cadillac Biarritz convertible. This is very much her breakthrough role; up till now, the acting accolades in her family have been heaped on her father, Sam, better recognised these days for his 16-season run as ADA (and later DA) Jack McCoy on television’s Law & Order (although also fondly remembered as Nick Carraway opposite Robert Redford in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby).
Like Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson also has an appreciation for in-jokes and musical references. In a scene featuring his real-life wife, Maya Rudolph, the soundtrack swells with the coloratura soprano of Minnie Riperton on Les Fleurs (Google is your friend. I’m not here to provide all the answers.)
Is Inherent Vice a genuine masterpiece or a “coulda been, shoulda been” of the sort I generally love? Only time will tell. In the meantime, repeated viewings uncover details you may not have noticed before (much like a prog rock gem will still offer up undiscovered facets decades after it was first relegated to the remainder bin).
In all, it’s fair to say that Inherent Vice is a worthy addition to Paul Thomas Anderson’s evolving cinematic mural. And, at least to me, it’s as enthralling and intricate as Chinatown or The Long Goodbye.
In the late 1940s, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, during a period of Polynesian procrastination, opined “there’s nothing like a dame”. They were writing about soldiers on a Pacific island, yearning for female companionship, so it’s understandable if the focus of their attention was a little narrow.
As a passionate and committed wanderer, I’d say that – of all the things there’s nothing like – there’s nothing quite like a five-star hotel.
Style is the one thing that never goes out of style, although it’s occasionally obscured by the clever marketing of shiny baubles, talismans of trend that convinces consumers they want or need such modern variations of the inn-keeping tradition as boutique or design hotels. They look great, shiny and up-to-the-minute, resembling sets built for Wallpaper magazine. Ultimately, though, the sterility just isn’t comfortable.
Call me old fashioned (and many people do) but I love the grandeur of a traditional five-star hotel. It’s a special occasion that lasts as long as you want, where you check in but don’t ever want to leave.
That’s why, when I think back over the past few decades of hotel stays around the world, it’s places like the George V or Le Bristol in Paris, the Dorchester in London or the Essex House in New York City that I remember the most vividly.
There’s no flash or ostentation, no showing off for idle effect. There’s no need. Just plush comfort, efficient and unaffected service, an attention to detail. The ability to anticipate the needs of an exacting clientele and to provide exactly what is needed at precisely the right time.
The true five-star experience is the sum of very many parts and it’s indulgence, pure and simple, that makes such hotels so enjoyable. I was reflecting on this in the Club Lounge of the InterContinental Bali Resort at Jimbaran Bay. It was early evening on the second day of my stay and the wait staff remembered, as good staff do, that my preferred cocktail was a Negroni, with a few drops squeezed from a freshly sliced orange to soften the bitterness. The Negroni, perfectly prepared, along with an Aperol Spritzer, appeared at our table almost as soon as we ordered, as if they had been awaiting our arrival.
You can’t help but smile at moments like this, an instance when the stars in the hospitality heavens align and everything is as it should be. It’s the mark of the five-star experience and one that would be repeated so many times during my stay at the InterContinental Bali.
Make no mistake. This is a tropical resort, albeit on a huge parcel of land on a grand sweep of beach with the rocky Bukit rising to the south and the frantic bustle of Kuta just 15 minutes’ drive but seemingly far away and certainly out of mind to the north. The InterContinental has 417 guestrooms spread across a series of low-rise accommodation wings; with six swimming pools and extensive gardens across 14 hectares, even when it’s busy it never seems so. There’s a tranquillity here, a sense of ease that masks the friendly efficiency of the staff. This is a holiday destination, a place to relax and unwind, but with a five-star level of dedication.
From the moment guests arrive under the sheltered portico and are led into the enormous open-sided reception pavilion, an imposing first impression of monumental proportions, there’s the sense that this is something very special, the beginning of a holiday that will be hard to beat.
For those in the know, it’s on to the Club InterContinental Lounge, an elegant space with its own check-in area. It’s where breakfast is served, along with High Tea in the late afternoon, cocktails and canapés in the early evening, and refreshments throughout the day. It’s such extras afforded by the Club InterContinental that make it so special, and such good value, but you’ll be even more convinced once you experience the guestrooms.
The Club guestrooms are like small apartments with every possible inclusion including a supremely comfortable bed (surely the most important aspect of all hotel rooms), an equally-comfortable full-sized daybed, large balcony, big screen television with an outstanding selection of cable stations, free wifi, iPod connectivity via the in-room sound system, pod espresso coffee maker, even the International New York Times delivered each morning. There’s a separate dressing area with good indirect lighting, large closets and electronic safe, and a huge bathroom with separate bathtub and enough counter space for an army of narcissists.
I’ve spent a lot of my life in hotel rooms with a very critical eye being the inevitable result but even I couldn’t fault this guestroom. Two nights later, I still couldn’t. Even more impressive is that the room is whisper quiet, as if the walls were bunker-thick. There’s no sense of being surrounded by other guests. It’s like you have the whole place to yourself.
The Club wing has its own private swimming pool with cabanas, but perhaps the most impressive area is the Inspiration Room. Exclusively for Club members, this space has numerous quiet nooks for reading or relaxing, a refreshment area, balcony and an extensive and eclectic selection of books, CDs and DVDs for loan.
The Spa Uluwatu is the centre of the resort’s wellbeing area but massages and other treatments are also available in the secluded Villa Retreats. Each Villa within this complex, located on the beachfront perimeter of the resort, is a peaceful haven for singles or couples to enjoy such indulgences as a Balinese or Thai massage, the InterContinental Signature Massage or the four-hour intriguingly-named Sea Of Love.
Dining is an important aspect of the five-star experience and the InterContinental Bali certainly doesn’t disappoint. After the first morning in the Club Lounge, it was time to try breakfast at the Taman Gita Terrace. It is range as much as execution that differentiates a good buffet breakfast from a truly great one, a distinction that the Taman Gita effortlessly demonstrated by way of an extensive selection of Indonesian, Asian and Western dishes (including a roast carvery and dim sum), a fresh juice bar, egg station, espresso coffee and a masterful bakery spread.
Dinner was even more spectacular. Bella Cucina, the Italian fine dining restaurant, was helmed that evening by an enthusiastic young Italian chef. Charmed (and possibly inspired) by my companion’s fluent Italian, he suggested we leave the menu selection in his hands. The result was three sublime courses including carne cruda, a Tuscan version of beef tartare topped with poached egg, followed by risotto, and finishing with a lamb fillet glazed with a coffee crust
The InterContinental Bali just kept ticking boxes until it ran out of boxes to tick. At each and every turn, expectations were surpassed. A hotel or resort, however, is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s the people who make it the pleasure it can and should be.
With labour costs so low, tourism in developing economies is often more about quantity than quality. The result can be vast hordes of staff who have little inclination to provide anything beyond the basics. This is where established tourism operators, and especially the richly-experienced international hotel chains, with their tried-and-tested systems, make the greatest contributions.
As tourism becomes the dominant economic force across the globe, training is all about building a culture of service that has nothing to do with servitude but establishing confidence and a sense of pride in a job well done, in motivating and inspiring workers to understand different cultures, expectations and desires, no matter how alien to their own, and doing so with good humour.
The staff of the InterContinental Bali are truly delightful, demonstrating that it’s possible to be professional without sacrificing anything of their innate background and personality, giving guests a taste of traditional local hospitality in a very indulgent setting. All in all, the makings of a great holiday.
Over the span of more than 35 years as a journalist, mostly writing about the tourism industry, I’ve experienced some truly remarkable hotels and resorts. Those forever lodged in my memory have a consistent thread. They’re not the usual, cookie-cutter mass-market properties of bed, bathroom and balcony, marble vanities, 1000-thread counts, pillow menus and duck down duvets.
The truly special have a blatant disregard for the ordinary. They’re flights of fancy, balancing whimsy and imagination with an occasional nod towards function.
The wow factor (to use that hollow phrase so beloved of marketers) is, to me, something that tilts expectations off the axis and spins them far out into the Twilight Zone. They’re usually the pet projects of truly inspired individuals, people who can only function in what the rest of us call the real world by taking their own dreams and ideals and fashioning them in bricks and mortar, stone and glass.
Some work, many don’t, for the simple reason that, all too often, that which the mind can envisage can never be satisfactorily realised in the real world. The visionary mind is an abstract; trying to fit it together like Lego compromises its very essence. Luckily, that doesn’t stop people from trying; we mere mortals can do little more than pick our jaws up from the floor upon experiencing the truly transcending.
As I did at the Michi Retreat in Ubud, Bali. I’m not sure I’d ever want to stay there but I’m sure I’ll go back, time after time, just to marvel at the audaciousness of the place, wonder at what could have been and hope it never goes away.
The Balinese town of Ubud is said to have magical properties, a place of healing and spiritualism, and it has long attracted those seeking a different path than the rest of humanity. It’s no surprise, then, that in a place where alternative therapies, past lives regression, crystal healing, kinesiology, transformational breathing, reiki, aura cleansing, chakra realignment and dozens of different kinds of yoga are considered normal avenues for the attainment of enlightenment, that there are places to stay that complements such beliefs.
Ubud accommodation veers across the spectrum. There’s the Four Seasons Resort Bali At Sayan, which is a monstrosity or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. The Four Seasons spills down a deeply rainforested ravine with the Ayung River at the base, anchored by an ultra-modern tower that looks either like a spaceship or an airport terminal, again depending on your mood, inclination and generosity of spirit.
Further along that same ravine and river is the Royal Pita Maha, encompassing a selection of private pool villas. Owned by the royal family of Ubud, it is much more a traditional villa resort except for the long entrance driveway with some startlingly explicit statues of animals – elephants, pigs, frogs – with generously proportioned human genitalia.
Traditional guesthouses, modern resorts, private villas surrounded by Ubud’s impossibly green rice paddies, there’s something for every budget and level of consciousness.
And then there’s the Michi Retreat.
The official website tells the story of a retired Japanese-American professor of history and sociology who built his dream some fifteen years ago. On the edge of yet another steep ravine, this time tumbling into the Wos River, the sacred river of Ubud, at the village of Jukut Paku, and opposite a rural vista of palm trees and rice terraces, he drew on a lifetime of influences to craft a rambling hotel complex where no one part is the same as any other and surprises await at every turn.
Standing in the midst of Michi, as we did on a hot cloudless spring day, was a very different experience. There was an eerie, deserted atmosphere. The doors were open to the rooms and we wandered from one to the other, checking out the studios that evoke an ancient hillside Berber village as envisioned by Hundertwasser and the upstairs suites including one with subcontinental Indian and elephant motifs.
And the bathrooms! In every room, it was hard to tear our attention away from the bathrooms, each wildly different and supremely exotic confections.
Mosaics, stone, pebbles, mismatched ceramics, mirror fragments of all sizes; on the pool terrace, undulating concrete benches studded with jig-sawed tile pieces evoked the Parc Guell. The adjoining restaurant area postulated a fantastic pop-cultural meeting of the minds, its shabby post-apocalyptic opulence like a Eurotrash 70s disco designed by Gaudi.
Aside from the restaurant, there were few signs of life. There were areas, dusty with neglect, that must have been, not that long ago, shops, a beauty parlour, a spa. The jacuzzi is dry, the swimming pool not quite sparkling. There’s no reception at Reception except for leaflets announcing houses and apartments for rent within the complex on a daily and monthly basis. Amongst the facilities are listed “Kafe – Restorant”.
Where is everybody? A clue may be on the website with the bizarrely honest admission that Michi’s “management is journeying through a paradigm shift” although there doesn’t seem to have been an update since 2011.
Michi is a hotel you’d expect to find on the edge of the American desert, perhaps envisioned by Sam Shepard and directed jointly by Antonioni, Jodorowsky and Ralph Bakshi with Tarantino relegated to second unit, run by a guy who looks disturbingly like Harry Dean Stanton.
It’s a familiar theme. You don’t want to stay there, it doesn’t feel right but your car has broken down, there’s a suitcase full of cash in the trunk and the cute little blonde at your side, the one with the elongated vowels and even more elongated limbs whose humid gaze can melt metal, is the mistress of a Texas cattle rancher with no sense of humour whatsoever.
You know the movie. You’ve seen it dozens of times under a variety of titles. And Michi seems like the perfect setting, even with the rice terraces and palm trees and the slim sleek tabby with high-stepping elegance who guides us around like a new best friend.
As the fantasy fades, so the realisation dawns that, quite possibly, despite the air of neglect, Michi may be as magical as Ubud is meant to be.
I’ll come back to Michi. I’ll eat in the Kafe, swim in the pool, maybe even stay a night or two. Hopefully, I’ll meet the Professor. In a 2009 magazine article republished on the website, it mentions he’s 79 years old, which would now put him in his mid-80s. He’s had an amazing life, wandered the world, made fantastic friends, appreciated the arts and turned his dreams into a potent reality. I’d really like to hear his story.
There aren’t many opportunities to understand the genesis of a place as special as the Michi. If the Universe allows, I’ll get that chance. If not, then the mystery will have to do. I just hope the Michi endures.
In early March 2017, the founder of Michi, David S. Kung, otherwise known as The Professor, passed away. He was 86 years old. He was in Japan, where he’d travelled as part of a continuing book project that, as of this time, no further details are known. He will be cremated in a traditional Balinese ceremony quite near his beloved Michi on Friday 10 March.
Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to meet one of their heroes? Over the course of a career careening towards its fourth decade, I’ve had quite a few chances although experience has taught me to be wary. Singers, musicians, writers, actors, you may love their work but that doesn’t necessarily mean meeting them will be enjoyable or that they’ll enjoy meeting you. The celebrity ego, deeply-ingrained sense of entitlement, the after-effects of substance abuse, age, world-weariness, there are so many factors working against the average Joe being in the company of greatness, self-perceived or otherwise.
While I love their work, for example, I know enough about Jerry Lee Lewis and Hunter S. Thompson to acknowledge I’d never want to spend any time with them (not that I’ll have much of a chance with Hunter this side of the vale of tears).
There’s also the matter of timing. Your heroes are only human after all. Everybody has good and bad days. You just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
However, and I’m inclined to bold, underline and italicize however, there are those glorious moments when celestial bodies align and the people you’re most looking forward to meeting are everything you’re hoping for. And more.
As it was recently, aboard the cruise ship Sun Princess, on a voyage from Sydney to Auckland. I’d been commissioned to interview actor Gavin MacLeod, better known as Captain Merrill Stubing of The Love Boat; the editor knew I’d get a kick out of it and she was right. I’m a huge fan of 1970s television shows and The Love Boat is at the very top of the list.
It just so happened I had a copy of Gavin’s recently-released memoirs, This Is Your Captain Speaking, and one of the local Sydney television channels had run the complete series of Love Boat episodes in chronological order, most of which I’d watched.
For those too young to remember or not of this galaxy, it’s difficult to describe just how popular a show it was. It ran from 1977 to 1987, ten seasons in all. At its peak, it screened in more than 90 countries. It probably still is.
The Love Boat revolved around the adventures of a cruise ship crew – the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr Adam Bricker, generally known as Doc, purser “Gopher” Smith, bartender Isaac Washington, and cruise director Julie McCoy, overseen by a kind yet firm father-figure, Captain Merrill Stubing. A year into the run, producer Aaron Spelling decided it needed younger blood and introduced Stubing’s teenage daughter, Vicki, to the group.
For a one-hour show, it had something of a radical narrative in that each episode consisted of three stories. One emphasised the crew, another the passengers, and the third veered between the two. The guest stars provided a large measure of interest, anybody and virtually everybody who was reasonably ambulatory and within travelling distance of Los Angeles in those days appeared on the Love Boat; casting favoured well-known, if slightly overlooked, movie stars, some going as far back as the silent movie days.
So, you are asking, how did Captain Stubing come to be on this cruise ship more than a quarter of a century later? Soon after production wrapped in 1987, Gavin MacLeod was signed as an ambassador by Princess Cruises, which had provided the ships used in The Love Boat. The Love Boat itself was, as you’ll find in the opening credits, the Pacific Princess, although others in the Princess fleet stood in from time to time although only for exteriors or location shoots. The cast spent most of their time (at least for the first five seasons) on sets at 20th Century Fox in Century City, Los Angeles.
That Gavin has been an ambassador for Princess Cruises for far longer than he was captain of the Love Boat is remarkable. Founded in 1965, the company was acquired in 1974 by P&O, then taken over by Carnival in 2002. In the meantime, it’s gone from strength to strength; the 18th ship in the Princess fleet, the 3,560-passenger Regal Princess debuted early in 2014. Despite the vagaries of the tourism industry, Gavin has been retained as ambassador and today continues a busy schedule of promotions and appearances. In 2011, he celebrated his 80th birthday aboard the Golden Princess.
Gavin was born Allan George See in 1931 and grew up in an upstate New York town with the unlikely name of Pleasantville. At the age of four, he appeared in a Mother’s Day play at his local school and there experienced an epiphany. His young heart responded to the siren call of applause. He loved it, craved it, wanted more of it. As small as he was, at an age when most of us are still giddy with the novelty of walking or stringing half-intelligent sentences together, he knew he wanted to do whatever it took to hear that applause over and over again.
He was determined to be an actor.
It came to be so. Once out of high school, he moved to New York City where he worked as an elevator operator at Radio City Music Hall while he studied acting. He was young and inexperienced, on the very bottom rung of a career ladder he was anxious to climb but he had one more drawback than most of his contemporaries. He lost his hair at an early age and, as agents and casting people were quick to point out, that didn’t exactly make him the next big thing.
His confidence improved remarkably upon obtaining a second-hand hairpiece. Gavin (by this time, he’d taken another step upwards by changing his name to a more marketable one) readily admits it turned his life around; he even started dating a Radio City Rockette.
In short order, his future looked rosier. His performance in his first Broadway play garnered interest although another cast member, who went by the name of Steve McQueen, ended up on a far faster track. He made friends, including an actor by the name of Marion Ross, of which more later, and director Blake Edwards, and followed the trail of many actors heading west to Hollywood.
If the 1950s was the East Coast, by the end of that decade he was well established on the West Coast. He took on some movie roles, playing opposite Susan Hayward in I Want To Live (1958), Orson Welles in Compulsion (1959), and Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat (1959), and through the 60s seemed to pop up on every television show of note. Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Dr Kildare, The Munsters, Rawhide, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Flying Nun, the list goes on. He spent two years on McHale’s Navy with Ernest Borgnine but, as an ambitious actor, he felt under-utilised and under-appreciated.
Then, as the 1970s dawned, things got a whole lot better. He was offered the role of Archie Bunker in a new sit-com called All In The Family. It was edgy and subversive, far ahead of its time, and now regarded as ground-breaking for shattering the staid orthodoxy of American television. Bunker was a blue-collar American, rigidly conservative, bigoted, sexist and misogynistic. To creator Norman Lear, it was a satire although many viewers considered it more a documentary.
Gavin was uncomfortable with the material and immediately knew he wouldn’t be able to portray such a character, even in a comedy. He turned it down. Carroll O’Connor took it on and it became a hit. It ran for nine seasons and netted a trove of Emmy Awards (including four for O’Connor). There were no hard feelings. All In The Family wasn’t the door of opportunity he’d failed to knock on but it led directly to his first great television success.
Almost immediately after turning down All In The Family, Gavin auditioned for the role of Lou Grant, boss of a fictional television news team that would be at the centre of a new comedy called The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, he sensed that a hard-nosed yet soft-hearted martinet wasn’t quite his speed and he asked for and won the role of Murray, a sort of Everyman.
Murray was much more a Gavin creation and it resonated with audiences. The show was an ensemble project with even the titular star barely bigger than her supporting cast. Many of the friends he made on set, such as Betty White, continue to the present day. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a huge success, running for seven seasons and picking up an unprecedented 29 Emmy Awards (a record not broken until Frasier in 2002).
When it ended in 1977, Gavin wondered whether he’d come close to having the same experience, the same enjoyment in turning up each day to work with a close bunch of friends, ever again.
The answer came soon enough. Gavin was offered two pilots. One was a Western with Jeff Bridges in the lead. The other was actually the third pilot to be filmed for an idea that producer Aaron Spelling couldn’t and wouldn’t let go. The first two efforts hadn’t quite gelled and were turned down; some of the previous cast were held over for a third try.
The role of Captain was begging (the first pilot in 1976 had Australian actor Ted Hamilton – known to local audiences from Division 4 – as the Captain; the second Quinn Redeker, an actor best remembered for Days Of Our Lives but who notably received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Deer Hunter).
Just a few months after the second pilot had been turned down, Gavin and the cast were shooting exteriors aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. In an echo of his Lou Grant experience, the initial Love Boat script called for the Captain to be quite strict, a disciplinarian. Gavin suggested softening the character, making him more of a father figure. Spelling agreed, the pilot was completed. And the top-rating US ABC network, which was already airing smash-hit Spelling productions of Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island, jumped aboard.
And this, as they say in the classics, is where I came in. At the appointed time to meet Gavin MacLeod, I was ushered to his suite, armed with notepad, pen, copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking (and an Extra Fine Point Sharpie in black, for the all-important autograph), camera and digital voice recorder.
Oh, and eight pages of notes. Did I mention I was a huge fan? Of The Love Boat, 70s televisions and Hollywood in general? Just saying. So, anyway, eight pages of notes didn’t seem excessive for a one-hour interview, although the 42 points I’d bullet-marked for discussion may have tipped the scales slightly into the overly optimistic category.
In an interview situation, I’m happy to take a passive role. Turn the recorder on, chat a little while assessing the interviewee, point them towards the desired subject and do the occasional sheep-dogging but, if they want to digress and it seems relevant or interesting, let them.
An interview will rarely progress the way you envisage. It can be one of those brightly-wrapped parcels under the Christmas tree that reveals a lump of coal. Or it can hold the most magical, enthralling of treats. You just never know what you’re going to get. Some of my best interviews have come from the most unlikely of sources, often because I allowed them to talk about what interested them, without too much in the way of interruption or continually dragging them back to the designated subjects.
Gavin MacLeod greeted me warmly, his handshake firm, his smile genuine. It was soon obvious that this was going to be one of those magical times, when all I needed to do was to switch on the recorder.
Stories, anecdotes, recollections, they all came thick and fast, a lifetime of funny, heart-warming recollections, delivered in a style that recalled Milton Berle and a million other Borscht Belt comedians that Gavin would have associated with in the old days. Gavin was raised a Catholic and remains a committed Christian but there’s a certain rhythm to the delivery, a way showbiz veterans tell a story that borrows much from Jewish traditions; comedic, self-effacing, annotated with a little gentle kvetching.
Aside from the acting roles he did land, an interesting aside were those that were almost his. It was his long friendship with director Blake Edwards that provided the best instances. Edwards put him into the comedy classic, The Party (1968) with Peter Sellers and allowed him to improvise a quick, wonderful scene with a hairpiece. Such was the high regard that Gavin was held by Edwards, that he was considered for numerous other parts. Gavin almost took the Peter Falk role in The Great Race (1965) and the part of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) that was eventually played by Mickey Rooney. It was on the set of Breakfast that Gavin first met Audrey Hepburn.
Yet I’m more eager to learn more about The Love Boat and Gavin is happy to accommodate me. He revealed that one of the pleasures of playing Captain Merrill Stubbing was in meeting so many of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Having three plots running in each episode allowed any number of actors the chance to shine and it’d be easier to list those in Hollywood who didn’t appear on the show.
In terms of oldest to youngest, Love Boat guest stars ranged from silent movie stars Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor (in 1929, she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress) and Luise Rainer (still living in London at the age of 104, she has the distinction of being the first actor to win two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actress, for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in 1937), to such 70s pop cultural staples as Andy Warhol and designers Halston and Bob Mackie.
Gavin was often awestruck when meeting so many he’d idolised over the years, yet their own reactions could be even more surprising.
“Can you imagine going to work, and there would be people like Helen Hayes, the first lady of American theatre, and Mildred Natwick. I’ve been on the stage since I was four years old and I wanted to be like all these people, and here they are on my set and they’re saying how nervous they are. Helen Hayes said to me that she did one appearance on The Love Boat and was seen by more people than had seen her in her entire career on stage.”
It was such a great honour working with so many fine actors, Gavin says. “They all knew their lines, they were all prepared.” The difference between traditional and modern actors was readily apparent, though. “If they were from the theatre, it’d be one, maybe two takes. If they were from television, it may be eight or nine takes.”
Gavin gleefully recounts those actors who appeared the most. He mentions Charo, an exuberant Spanish-American entertainer who shtick revolved around her generous figure and penchant for mangled English (a 70s version of Sofia Vergara), who racked up eight appearances. “She was so much fun,” he offered. And close friend Florence Henderson (Mrs Brady from The Brady Bunch), the record holder with 14 times.
Gavin’s wife, Patti, who he married in 1974, divorced in the early 80s, and remarried in 1985, played five different roles on seven episodes.
There were also the cross-over episodes with other Aaron Spelling shows, where the Love Boat cast interacted with characters from Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island.
Among Gavin’s favourite episodes, he keeps returning to a two-part episode in Season 5 called The Love Boat Follies. It had an amazing cast including Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ann Miller, Della Reese, Van Johnson and Cab Calloway in a tribute to old-time Hollywood musicals. Incorporating several dream sequence song-and-dance numbers, it allowed Gavin, resplendent in a sequined captain’s uniform, to effortlessly show off a different range of skills.
Gavin recalls that Merman and Channing got on each other’s nerves due to a long-running dispute about who would be collected first each morning by the studio’s limo service. “That episode was one of the highlights of my career,” he says. It didn’t win favour with the critics but that’s no surprise; those who felt obliged to determine the public’s taste rarely cut The Love Boat any slack, a situation that, all these years later, still makes him laugh. “It’s great to be part of something the critics hated but was so successful.”
Another favourite was also a two-parter from Season Five in 1981, which was filmed in Sydney although the visit wasn’t quite everything Gavin could have anticipated. The plot line revolved around the Love Boat crew gathering for the wedding of cruise director Julie McCoy.
Filming had progressed well and included the usual scenes of petting kangaroos and other wildlife. The wedding was scheduled for the day before they were to return to the United States and the penultimate scene was where Captain Stubing would give Julie away to her fiancé, played by Anthony Andrews.
The church was St Mark’s in Darling Point, which would gain a further soupcon of notoriety just a few years later as the place where Elton John married Renate Blauel. On this day, however, rehearsals went well but, when filming commenced and Gavin had to chase Julie as she fled the church in tears, he fell on the uneven flagstones and broke his ankle. For the last few scenes remaining, he was strapped to a trolley and photographed from the waist up.
He has since returned to Sydney a few times. “I just love the people,” he enthuses.
A good friend of Gavin’s who made multiple appearances on The Love Boat is Betty White, who was also part of the ensemble on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “She’s a National Treasure,” he says. Gavin joined her in filming a recent Air New Zealand air safety video and became the target of tabloid newspapers, reporting they’d had an on-set affair. He laughs it off. “Betty is 93, I’m 83; we’re just happy we can walk.”
The ship on which we were conducting this interview, the Sun Princess, has its own Love Boat connection. In 1998, it was the setting for The Love Boat: The Next Wave, a short-lived continuation produced by Aaron Spelling and starring Robert Ulrich as the Captain. It lasted just two seasons but one episode brought together the original Love Boat crew for a reunion.
While Captain Stubing by this time has been elevated to Commodore, the most disturbing aspect has yet to be verified. The series hasn’t been released on video or DVD and only the sketchiest of synopsis is available on the Net yet such that is available suggests that Julie McCoy and the lovable yet romantically-indiscriminate Doc express their long-submerged passions for each other.
Gavin has no memory of this storyline and is rather horrified at the prospect. “That’s so unrealistic, it couldn’t happen,” he says finally. “I would see her more with Isaac. They were very close friends.”
For those who are wondering, the original Love Boat hasn’t fared so well. The Pacific Princess, launched in 1971, had a long and illustrious career, serving under the Princess Cruises banner until 2002. In 2013, it was broken up for scrap metal in a Turkish salvage yard; in a bizarre coda, two workers dismantling the ship died when overcome by toxic gases.
Gavin could have carried on this conversation for far longer and I would have been more than happy to listen. Over the next few days in his company, I watched him interact with the passengers; he was always gracious and patient, happy to answer their questions, scribble an autograph or pose for photographs. At the Princess Theatre, he hosted a chat about his career in front of a capacity crowd, and charmed them all.
For someone of his age and experience, it would be excusable if he wished some peace from his ever-adoring public but he never disappointed. He had a genuine commitment to giving his fans his best, to returning the complement they’d shown him over the years by keeping his shows at the top of the ratings and paying to see his movies.
Unlike many celebrities, there’s no sense that he feels more privileged than anyone else. He’s just like you and I, only his gifts have led him along a different path. He’s had a good life, his hard work and talent has paid off, and he seems genuinely delighted that he is still attracting the love and respect of people he’s never met.
Gavin MacLeod is a fine ambassador for Princess Cruises and doubtless a marketing asset. But he also reminds us that nostalgia isn’t such a shallow pursuit, that in recalling the good times, whether twenty-five months or twenty-five years ago, is a way of commemorating our lives, loves and experiences and those special to us. Of putting aside our differences, the mis-steps and tribulations, of slipping into that deep timeless reservoir of remembrance and bathing in its warm waters.
For me, all it took was meeting one regular guy who has lived a most extraordinary life.
Note: For those who have been paying attention, this article will seem familiar as it originally ran in May 2011, not long after I started this blog. Over time, it’s slipped so far down the listings that it’s virtually inaccessible but I thought it worth resurrecting as a good example of how a sense of place can be evoked just as much by a person as anything else.
Of the twenty to thirty times I’ve visited New York (I’ve lost track of exactly how many), it’s this incident that I most associate with the city. It brings back so many ancillary memories. While I’d never want to live there, New York remains in my Top Five favourite places.
It was in the late 1990s and I was in New York researching an article on the newest and trendiest martini bars. In reality, this turned into something of a continuing quest and, several visits later, I was still hard at work. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it. I owed it to my readers to be as thorough as possible and damn the consequences to my liver and other vital organs.
On this particular trip, I planned to cover four martini bars a night for the duration of my stay. That evening, I’d started out at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, went on to the historic Algonquin Hotel, then to Pravda, a very fashionable bar just south of Houston Street, virtually next door to the building where Grace Adler works with Karen Walker in television’s Will & Grace.
Pravda was below street level with vaulted ceilings and a run-down quality that lent it, at least to New York bar-hoppers, an authentic Russian appearance. By this time, dangerously, I was on my third martini and feeling no pain. To those whose sole experience with cocktails is with the stunted Australian variety, carefully measured out with laborious precision, it’s worth pointing out that an American cocktail is much, much bigger. Alcohol is cheaper and the size of the drink is often governed by the tip you left for the last one.
At Pravda, I had my fourth martini of the evening in a plush private booth, washing down caviar and blinis. Just as I was considering calling for the bill, the hostess rushed up explain that a VIP group was imminent and would I mind terribly vacating the booth? If I’d be happy to move to a table in the middle of the room (in reality, about 20 feet away), she’d send a round of drinks on the house.
Who was I to turn down such a kind invitation?
Within minutes, in walked Nicole Kidman, the Academy Award-winning actress of The Hours (2002), The Others (2001), To Die For (1995) and, one of my all-time favourite movies, Moulin Rouge! (2001). She was accompanied by her sister, Antonia, and another woman I took for a minder. I was aware that Nicole and husband Tom Cruise were then filming Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick in London; it appeared she was in New York briefly for an awards ceremony.
Our Nicole, as she is known in Australia (born in Hawaii of Australian parents, there’s long been a national pride in her achievements and we even went so far as to consider Tom Cruise, during their marriage, as a sort of Australian-in-law) looked radiant that evening, every inch the movie star, in a body-skimming strapless black evening dress that highlighted her pale flawless skin. She was the embodiment of a movie star. Although not generally the type to intrude on celebrities, I’d certainly consumed enough rocket fuel to think Nicole would be happy, even eager, to greet a fellow Australian.
I held back for a while, aware that the true measure of a celebrity encounter is in the exit line, something witty and sophisticated and memorable. After a suitable period of reflection, it came upon me in a hot rush of originality and creativity. I knew without a doubt that she would be impressed; one Aussie chatting without artifice to another. The skillfully-rendered exit line would be the perfect way to sign off. My sharp but self-deprecating humour, delivered with typical Australian panache, would, I felt sure, be well appreciated after the endless parade of phoneys and sycophants she endured in her professional life.
In hindsight, I recognize that the tingle I felt was not really anticipation but more likely a premonition of rapidly approaching disaster, a train wreck of truly momentous proportions. The engine was tearing down the track, the throttle on full. The bridge was down and the river high. I was in the driver’s seat, Casey Jones cap at a jaunty angle, martini glass in hand, and a maniacal cackle issuing from my frothy lips. The inevitable was rapidly approaching and there was nothing I could do about it, even if I wanted to.
Standing a little too unsteadily, I pointed myself towards Nicole’s table. Three anxious faces turned at my approach but, once Nicole heard my accent, she seemed to relax. As far as I can remember, she was enchanting and attentive but I have no memory whatsoever of the conversation.
Suddenly, the time seemed right. I deftly maneuvered the conversation towards the exit line and then, just as I was about to permanently impress the Greatest Living Actress of Our Generation………my mind went blank. I stood there uncertainly, my mouth moving but nothing coming out, a sense of helplessness and growing hysteria compounding by the second. If Travis Bickle had suddenly pressed a handgun to my forehead, I still wouldn’t have been able to remember the line.
The combination of my apparent consternation, my mouth motioning silently like a goldfish and my swaying from side to side may have led them to believe I was about to be ill. They shrank back in the booth. I was desperate to flee so, after what seemed an eternity, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.
“You’ve come a long way since BMX Bandits.” I then turned for the door and stumbled inelegantly into the night.
Not long after, Nicole and Tom split up. Was it one of those wild coincidences, I wondered, or had our encounter coloured her decision? Had Our Nicole realised that what was missing from her life was the meat and three veg of a down-to-earth Aussie guy just like she’d met that fateful evening in New York, like the ones she’d left behind when stardom, and Tom Cruise, came calling?
Later, of course, she married Keith Urban, the singing country superstar from Caboolture, Queensland, and her fairytale was complete. Coincidentally, I’d met Keith a few times in the early 1990s when I was working on a book on Australian country music and always found him delightful and entirely uncomplicated. I’m sure he’s still so.
That niggling sense of guilt continues to this day. I can’t help but think that, in some miniscule way, I was responsible for Nicole and Tom’s divorce. Had a nameless Aussie guy with an easy repartee and far too much vodka brought a Hollywood marriage undone? Only Tom’s eventual autobiography will tell.
A friend called, inviting me along to a preview screening of the new movie, Pompeii. I was bemused and more than a little curious. The trailer was interesting and I was quite looking forward to seeing it. But I also knew my friend and his taste in movies, which ran to what were once referred to as art-house.
He has a well-honed disdain for anything resembling commercial Hollywood cinema (a few days before, we’d seen Nebraska together. I’d sat through so many like it in the 1970s when the kite that was the New Hollywood was as high as many of its participants and there were no reasons I could see to revisit those days. True, Bruce Dern, who was never the most engaging of character actors, rating slightly below Warren Oates for his capacity to engender excitement, was excellent even if I was too often reminded of Jack Nicholson the morning after an Oscars after-party. That director Alexander Payne was constantly signalling the movie’s “importance” by a) filming in black-and-white and b) unfolding the narrative at a pace that made the downhill progress of treacle on a winter’s day seem like NASCAR sailed a little too close to emotional manipulation in my book.).
I wondered, then, if my friend hadn’t mixed up his directors.
Pompeii is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whose career has a joyfully unashamed popcorn aesthetic. His Resident Evil series, starring his wife, Milla Jovovich, was based on a computer game as was his Mortal Combat (1995), while his other films, as director and, generally, producer and scriptwriter, includes Death Race (2008), AVP: Alien Vs Predator (2004) and an ever-so-slightly steampunk version of The Three Musketeers (2011).
The W.S. (which stands for William Scott) delineates him from another Paul Anderson, that of Paul Thomas Anderson, another hyphenate, with an output definitely more attuned to the mature demographic. This Paul Anderson attracts acclaim like shit to a Shih Tzu, having been responsible for Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012), all of which were garlanded with Academy Award nominations (eight in the case of There Will Be Blood).
I didn’t want to miss this preview or the reaction of my friend. As it turned out, the difference in directors hadn’t occurred to him. Like me, he’d seen the trailer and thought it had potential. I was still along for the ride, though; Pompeii was never going to be anything more than the sum of its parts (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. To me, movies are enjoyable flights of fancy, narrative wonders that temporarily eclipse the disappointments of everyday life. These days, a frozen Coke and a Choc Top far outweighs the appeal of Mahler and the emotional root canal of Death In Venice).
I try not to count the anomalies in popcorn movies (continuity errors are another matter). Too distracting. But there was something I couldn’t ignore. The hero, who goes by the name of Milo (don’t ask), as a small child with more than a passing resemblance to Emil Minty, is the sole survivor of a massacre of his Celtic village by Roman centurions. He is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator.
Much is made in the production notes of Paul W.S. Anderson’s extensive research into his subject material. Which leads us to Milo’s casting; the character’s people are Celtic warriors, the most feared of the barbarian hordes who rampaged across Europe, ruffling the togas of the ancient Greeks and, later, Romans, in the process.
Celts were renowned warriors, generally characterised as tall and muscular, towering over their Mediterranean foes. So in casting the lead role, it appeared Anderson had a certain inclination towards Orlando Bloom (who he’d worked with on The Three Musketeers). Bloom, being otherwise occupied, the casting call went out, which must have attracted every barista, indie musician and underwear model in North America. Kit Harington, who knew his way around a sword from playing Jon Snow on Game Of Thrones, eventually got the gig. That Harington was even smaller than Orlando Bloom didn’t seem to bother anybody.
Anderson’s female lead of choice, Milla was also busy but, in the spirit of feisty waifs, Emily Browning was signed as the love interest, Cassia, the daughter of a Roman nobleman. Already well-known to fanboys for the saucy bits in Sleeping Beauty (2011) and Sucker Punch (2011), Pompeii was well on the way to satisfying its target demographic. At least on paper.
In surveying the result, it’s worth reflecting on why so many actors in swords-and-sandals epics are required to emulate mid-century BBC radio announcers. Kiefer Sutherland, as the arch baddie, Corvus, a Roman senator with more than a touch of the Jack Bauers, except crueller, crash-tackles the accent conundrum with characteristic flair. Variety, in its review of the movie, suggested Sutherland was impersonating Boris Karloff. That’s fair although I also detected Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet, all of them delivering their lines while wearing ill-fitting dentures.
If another of the Roman baddies, played by Joe Pingue, is anything to go by (doing a wicked version of Frank Thring in his Biblical epic days) is anything to go by, there may well have been a competition on set to impart the fruitiest menace.
Competitive acting aside, Pompeii is an enjoyable hyphenate – action-adventure-disaster-movie-romance. The characters and situations may be well-worn but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The art direction and digital effects are good, and the 3D (filmed, not post-production) immersive if a little muddy.
The forbidden love between the Roman noblewoman and barbarian gladiator is contrasted with the volcano as it glowers over the city, bubbling, threatening to break its confines, in cutaways that will have even the most naive of teenage boys simmering along. The explosion of molten heat grows closer by the minute and so too does Mt Vesuvius.
Kit Harington is buff and affects a take-charge demeanour but doesn’t totally convince. Emily Browning is effulgent as ever. Their pairing is not the most electric but there’s an undeniable drama in their quest to escape the city and the engulfing firestorm, which threatens to transform them into ashen Lladro.
Sutherland is the true delight; he chews the scenery in big meaty hunks, spits it out and whips it up into a double-baked cinematic soufflé.
A notable quibble is Pompeii’s curiously muted approach to the violence and eroticism that should be expected from such a storyline; bodily fluids flowed more prominently in the cable Spartacus. Overall, though, Pompeii is enjoyable and, in the right circumstances, worth the price of admission.
Perhaps, as Anderson did with The Three Musketeers, the movie could have benefitted from a bit of steampunk. Or even, as in Resident Evil, zombies. Nothing wrong with injecting a little originality into a bog-standard plot.
As I consoled my friend, who had been hoping more for Bergman or Bertolucci, I noted that while W.S. definitely wasn’t Thomas, there were far worse things he could be. For example, he’s certainly not Uwe Bole, a director with a similar aesthetic who has fashioned something resembling a career from movies based on video games. While W.S. in most cases pleases the fans, even ultra-finicky fanboys, there’s a general consensus that Bole has come closer than anybody in history to achieve alchemy in that he consistently manages to transform celluloid into stinking piles of dog turd.
Pompeii mightn’t be Paul W.S. Anderson’s best movie but, on many levels, it does what it sets out to do. It’s an enjoyable companion for an empty couple of hours, a fizzy drink and some snack food. Sometimes, that’s all someone needs.
Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.
Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.
And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.
I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.
On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.
It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.
Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.
What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.
Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).
While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.
From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.
It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.
However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.
Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.
It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.
Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.
What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).
In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.
It’s the realisation that chills many of us, haunting those early morning hours before dawn, when our subconscious is at its most vindictive.
You live, you collect, you die. And a new generation of collectors are waiting and eager to pick through the pieces and the cycle starts all over again.
I’m not even sure when I started collecting, or even why, but it would have been sometime around the mid-1970s and I was drawn to Hollywood movie posters, lobby cards and stills. Collecting was in its infancy and there were few places, especially in Australia, to acquire such pieces. Prices were ridiculously low. An avid movie-goer, it was a way of extending my interest in film, of acquiring things that other people didn’t have.
In those pre-Internet days, collecting was a solitary occupation. I had no idea how many others, with interests like mine, were out there. Eventually, with eBay and other on-line marketplaces, the market exploded and I discovered many, many others like me. The walls came down and we were able to obtain choice items, often from the other side of the world.
No matter how obscure our interests, whether it was vintage Hollywood memorabilia (like me) or barbed wire, airline sick bags, fossils, shellac 78rpm records, 19th century cookbooks, farm machinery, or anything else people collect (and it’s likely that there’s nothing out there that doesn’t attract a hardened core of collectors like birds of prey on roadside carrion), the Internet brings us all together to discuss, critique, evaluate, acquire, disperse and/or regift.
The Net giveth and the Net taketh away. Collectors like to think they’re in control. They buy what they want, decide on the extent on their holdings, and sell their duplicates or weaker pieces to acquire better ones.
The elephant in the room is the one thing they can’t control – their own mortality. They can spend their entire lives amassing the most fantastic collection, ticking every box they’ve ever envisaged. But time is running out. Eventually, the fruits of their labour will outlive them. And, in most cases, it will be dispersed. At fate’s most humiliating, it will be simply dumped or destroyed by relatives who have no idea what they’re dealing with. Or it will go to auction houses or eBay, parted out, item by item, to people with the same interests, merging into other collections.
As Sammy Davis Jr. was wont to observe: the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.
Take Lester Glassner, for example. Ring any bells? No, thought not. No reason why it should. The only reason I know about Lester is that his name was on the back of some classic Hollywood publicity photos (some of which illustrate this article) I purchased on eBay. Dear Dr Google provided the rest.
I have no idea whether Lester was a Catholic but, for collectors, he must rank as a patron saint. To be a collector, it’s necessary to have something of an obsessive nature. Lester turned obsession into an art form, in the nicest possible way.
It all started, innocently enough, for Lester in the early 1960s when he purchased a Mickey Mouse lamp from a junk shop in Buffalo in upstate New York. It was the mere hint of a breeze, an almost imperceptible dropping of barometric pressure that quickly built into a cyclonic frenzy of collecting which never abated.
He gained such recognition as a collector of what became legitimised as pop culture that, on his death in 2009, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both published lengthy obituaries.
He concentrated not just in one area but across an almost unlimited range and scope, with so many different collections that he was probably uncertain of what he had. His holdings of vintage movie stills, for example, eventually totalled more than 250,000 pieces and he made a considerable income from licensing these for newspaper, magazine and book reproductions.
His four-storey townhouse on East 7th Street in New York City became crammed with his holdings.
As the New York Times observed: “Dolls and wind-up toys, plastic fruit sculptures and costume jewelry, sunglasses and makeup kits, greeting cards and matchbooks, salt and pepper shakers and Christmas ornaments, not to mention movie stills, posters, cardboard cut-outs, books, magazines, records and 8- and 16-millimeter films: they made up a museum-sized collection. And they turned his long-time home, a brownstone on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into, literally, a private museum, one that Mr Glassner would gladly show to friends, and friends of friends.”
His personality had much to do with affection and respect he generated. Again from the New York Times: “Soft-spoken, with a gentle manner, Mr Glassner was by most accounts an eccentric man but not an antisocial (or even unsociable) one, as consumed hobbyists have been stereotyped. He was apparently gifted (or cursed) with the contradictory attributes of an avid collector. He could be terrifically discerning but he could also be omnivorous. He was a relentless browser of antique stores, Internet marketplaces like eBay and collectors’ catalogues.”
He published a book about the influences on his collecting in Dime Store Days (Viking Press, 1981). It had a foreword by Quentin Crisp and introduction by Anita Loos, author of the 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; when Loos died in 1981, she left Glassner her hat collection.
Some of his collections remain intact. In 2001, he donated almost 500 vintage movie posters to the Library of Congress. The earliest was a 1921 poster of The Adventures of Tarzan, starring Elmo Lincoln, while others included Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz (two of his favourite films), Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, and Rebecca.
A collection devoted to vintage African-American memorabilia including some 2,500 rare children’s, theatre and film books, was donated to Buffalo State College.
Many other items were dispersed through auction houses and eventually made their way onto eBay. While most movie stills available on eBay are modern reprints, and to the practised eye readily distinguishable as such, it’s still possible to find original vintage stills at remarkably reasonable prices.
An original movie publicity still is a remarkable item. The weight, wear and look (a sepia-like tint of age), with a back marked by photographer or studio stamps, archive notations (from such as Lester Glassner’s collection) or press releases. Some in my meagre collection (at least compared with Lester’s) are 80 years old and it’s not entirely necessary to be a romantic to feel the hands they’ve travelled through in that time – from studios to newspapers or magazines, buried for years in filing cabinets then liberated to collectors and archivists such as Lester and, finally, to me.
I’ll let them go one day, these treasured pieces of Hollywood’s lost art, carefully arranged, hair and make-up exactingly so, costumes draped and stylised, poses held stock still, breath in, backs straight, while bulky plate cameras drew agonisingly long exposures under the florid heat of arc lamps on airless soundstages for movies that no-one now remembers and indeed may no longer exist.
I may let them go voluntarily or not. But it’s a cosy realisation that I’m part of a continuum, a guardian of sorts for something special. That I’m in rarified company with people like Lester and, although I’ll never be in his league, I recognise some of his qualities as my own. And, hopefully, what I will pass on will continue to be treasured as others who preceded me did.
For once, I’ll be relatively succinct. I’ve spent a couple of New Year’s Eves shoulder-to-shoulder with the hordes cramming the shores of Sydney Harbour and vowed never to do it again. In 2012, it was a case of “never say never”.
It must be said there are many better uses for $5 million than sending it high into the air where it explodes noisily in bright colours. But nobody asks me. So each year, NYE dutifully rolls around and more than one million Sydneysiders and visitors stake out their places around the edges of the Harbour at first light and wait through the day for darkness to fall and the bread and circuses to begin.
There are two rounds of fireworks – at 9pm, ostensibly for families, and midnight. Seven fireworks barges are anchored along the harbor with other pyrotechnic units on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and several office buildings at Circular Quay.
For the more sensible, the television coverage, beamed around the world, offers a distinctly better vantage point. What it lacks is the sweaty, crowded, intoxicating bonhomie of sharing the moment with countless others, oohing and aahing as the explosions rattle the bones and the night sky is stitched with light. They probably said the same thing about the Western Front.
The A-listers party at the Sydney Opera House, amongst celebrities, politicians and the beautiful and connected. At Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Botanic Gardens, a canapés’ throw away, ordinary folk do exactly the same thing but without the French champagne or, in fact, any alcohol of any kind.
The police had closed off Circular Quay and The Rocks by early afternoon, when it was deemed to have reached capacity, and BYO alcohol was not allowed in although hotels, restaurants and numerous food stalls were operating.
While Northern Hemisphere celebrations can be distinctly frosty, in Australia – if the weather is right – it’s balmy and still. NYE 2012 was just such a night. It had been a hot sunny day, a showpiece of summer, and by 9pm it was still about 21 degrees Celcius.
I would never have entertained the thought of doing it again except for a friend’s kind invitation to spend it on the 15th floor of her mother’s East Circular Quay apartment, which as can be seen from the accompanying photographs had spectacular views from the CBD and Circular Quay to the Bridge and up the Harbour as far as South Head.
Traversing the police road closures was quick and highly efficient and an official pass allowed a picnic basket crammed with champagne to proceed unmolested. Travel into the city was easy by train; and out again just as painless. It was the perfect demonstration of crowd control, how to disperse countless thousands of people quickly and without drama. Police, check-point security, public transport workers, everybody that could have been pissed off that they had to work such a major public holiday weren’t and those who could be expected to have attitude didn’t. At least as far as I could see, NYE in the Sydney CBD was one big love-in, brimming over with good humour and respect.
Sometimes, human nature can be a surprising thing. Consider the magnitude and you have the makings of a very special event.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8 Hot Cross Buns
3 ½ cups milk
160 grams butter, softened
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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….”
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
To state the bleeding obvious, our perceptions are molded (or mouldered, as the case may be) by what we know. Yet it’s occasionally delicious to explore what could be and this is certainly the case with film when the final product is often radically different than what may have been. Would our enjoyment of so many great movies be the same if, as producers originally intended, Christopher Walken or Al Pacino had taken the part of Han Solo in Star Wars, Tom Selleck played the lead in Raiders Of the Lost Ark, John Travolta appeared as Forrest Gump, or James Caan was the 1978 version of Superman (or even the bizarre casting of Nicolas Cage in the abortive mid-90s Tim Burton remake)?
The faltering bridge between literature and film provides even more wondrous examples. Perhaps the best of these is Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The 1961 Audrey Hepburn vehicle has become so ingrained in pop consciousness that few people today even realise it was based on a book, let alone have ever read it.
Yet it’s a prime example of how a literary property, so celebrated as a work of art by one of America’s most celebrated novelists, was turned into something entirely different by Hollywood. And, despite such apparent limitations, it becomes such a classic of its own right.
Compare the movie to the book and the shortcomings of Audrey Hepburn become obvious. Yet, read the book and it’s impossible not to hear Audrey’s voice in Holly Golightly’s dialogue. Her dark-haired, pale-skinned feisty fragility, her elegance, the black dress and gloves, tiara and long cigarette holder, all create the Holly as we know her rather than the Holly as she sprang from Truman Capote’s imagination. Audrey was the daughter of a baroness and her Holly is regal in the way very few from her character’s background (a dirt-poor former child bride from Tulip, Texas) could ever hope to be.
A raft of other changes were made along the way; Hollywood scrubbed Capote’s novella to remove anything that could compromise an image of Audrey that had already been set in place with Roman Holiday, Sabrina and Funny Face.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s was written in 1955-57 at a time when Capote generously considered himself to be America’s Proust. Although described as a novella, it is more an over-long and occasionally meandering short story; Capote’s self-indulgence, which had been gavaged out of all proportions by the critical acclaim of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948, had his editors too terrified to wield the blue pencil.
The story opens in the 1940s, just after America entered World War II. Upon moving into an apartment on Manhattan’s East Side, the unnamed narrator meets his upstairs neighbor. Holly Golightly is 18 years old and blonde (“the ragbag colours of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino and yellow…”, as Capote described it). She’s also a hooker although, to be fair, it’s in an unorganised, amateur sort of way. She attaches herself to wealthy men who give her money and expensive gifts but her philosophy to such a career choice is unambiguous. “…you can’t bang the guy and cash his cheques and at least not try to believe you love him. I never have,” Holly explains rather ingenuously.
The narrator is an aspiring novelist and it’s soon obvious that Capote is describing himself; his birthday, 30 November, is Capote’s own.
It’s also apparent that Holly is another version of Capote, the person he would prefer to be – independent, self-confident and worldly. Some of Holly’s biographical details have been cribbed from Capote’s mother. Holly grew up in a dirt-poor rural backwater; Capote’s mother was born and raised in Monroeville, Alabama. Holly leaves her husband (who she married at 13) and step-children behind to reinvent herself in New York City; Capote’s mother abandoned her husband and young son to move to New York City to be close to her married lover (one of a string that included world champion prizefighter Jack Dempsey). Holly’s real name is Lulamae Barnes but changes it to Holly Golightly to assume an urbane sophistication; Capote’s mother’s real name was Lillie Mae Faulk but adopted Nina to camouflage her origins. The most prominent of Holly’s lovers in Brazilian; Capote’s mother’s was Cuban.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s appeared in the November 1958 issue of Esquire, then collected with some short stories and published in book form by Random House shortly afterwards. It attracted significant attention; another young lion of American fiction, Norman Mailer, was fulsome in his praise: “He is the perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not change two words in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”
As was to be expected, Hollywood came calling but the experience eventually left Capote bitter and twisted. He had always envisioned his good friend, Marilyn Monroe, in the part of Holly and rejected any offers that would compromise that choice. “Marilyn was always my first choice to play the girl, Holly Golightly,” Capote was quoted at the time. After much deliberation, he sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures; although the wheels hadn’t yet come off, they were wobbling precariously.
As Capote explained to Lawrence Grobel in Conversations With Capote (New American Library, 1985): “It was the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up…And although I’m very fond of Audrey Hepburn, she’s an extremely good friend of mine, I was shocked and terribly annoyed when she was cast in that part. It was high treachery on the part of the producers. They didn’t do a single thing they promised. I had lots of offers for that book, from practically everybody, and I sold it to this group at Paramount because they promised things, they made a list of everything, and they didn’t keep a single one. The day I signed the contract they turned around and did exactly the reverse. They got a lousy director like Blake Edwards, who I could spit on!”
The film kept very little of the novella: the title, setting and some characters, Holly’s ginger cat and her guitar playing (while inserting the abysmal Henry Mancini-penned Moon River, a song that is as annoying in its inability to fathom as Send In The Clowns).
One of the greatest changes was in transforming the unnamed narrator, such a mirror-image of Capote that he radiated the confused emotional yearnings of a young gay man not yet comfortable with his life choices, and turned him into George Peppard, a vibrantly hetero Hollywood leading man as Holly’s love interest.
Still, if you had no previous knowledge of the book, you could understand why the film of Breakfast of Tiffany’s became one of Hollywood’s great classics and Hepburn a style icon who has transcended the ages. The little black dress, designed by Givenchy, that Audrey wears at the beginning of the film is most likely one of the most famous clothing items of all time. Another of the dresses that Givenchy designed for the film sold at auction in 2006 for $US947,000, such is the power the film still holds.
Having a wildly successful book and film didn’t stop there. In 1963, a Broadway producer optioned the book with the intention of turning it into a musical. Legendary choreographer, writer and performer Bob Fosse was brought in as co-writer, intending his long-time partner, Gwen Verdon, to play Holly.
Capote objected, saying Verdon was far too old (in her late 30s) to play Holly and the project died. A few years later, Capote OK’d the 30-year-old Mary Tyler Moore to star in a musical version. The production, beset by numerous problems, closed on Broadway after four performances.
In the early 1980s, plans were well advanced for a remake of the movie with Capote enthusiastically endorsing the choice of a 22-year-old Jodie Foster as Holly. Although he went as far as declaring Foster as “ideal for the part”, nothing ever happened and it remained in the realms of what if?
Would Marilyn Monroe have made a better Holly Golightly than Audrey Hepburn? It’s difficult to even begin to consider this point. At her best, she would have offered up a completely different interpretation; Marilyn’s vulnerability would have been a fitting counterpoint to the froth and bubble and have shaded the character more realistically. Certainly the abandonment issues she shared with Capote and, by extension, Holly, would have provided a stronger core and drawn out a motivational complexity.
But in the closing months of 1960, when filming took place (Marilyn was then on location for The Misfits, her final complete film), she was far from her best. Her life, like her career, was starting to slide precariously close to the chasm that would swallow her up less than two years later.
While Capote had been such a strong supporter of her initially, he later amended his views. As his own glory days were behind him, at which time he was more famous for the parties he attended and the barbed bon mots he indiscriminately tossed out like hand grenades, he had no sympathy for those whose own fortunes so closely resembled his own.
In an essay he wrote on Marilyn, collected in The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (Random House, 1973), he was merciless. He excoriated his once-favourite dance partner and confidante for “…her slippery lips, her over-spilling blondeness and sliding brassiere straps, the rhythmic writhing of restless poundage wriggling for room inside roomless décolletage – such are her emblems”.
Maybe we should just be content with Audrey as Holly and the cat named Cat and that horrendous song and the little black dress and leave what could be alone. Sometimes, when you get to where you’re going, it hardly seems worth the journey.
For many guests at The Del, as San Diego’s historic Hotel del Coronado is often known, their stay recalls the line from The Eagle’s Hotel California – you can check-out any time you like but you can never leave.
This massive and stylishly majestic pile, opened in 1888 and today one of the largest wooden structures remaining from the grand era of late nineteenth century resort building in the United States (not surprisingly, most burnt down), is a place of mystery despite the sun-washed resort ambience of its Pacific Ocean-front position. Ghost stories abound and, within minutes of setting foot inside, I’m drawn to asking the question that I’m sure the staff have heard a million times before.
I’m in the gift shop, just off the main lobby. Amongst the copious Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that fills this area almost to overflowing (Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, ranked by the American Film Institute as the funniest US movie of all time, was filmed at the Coronado), I ask a staff member if any of hotel’s ghosts cause problems.
“Heavens, yes,” she replies readily enough, although not without a touch of nervousness. “It constantly rearranges the shelves.” The saleslady seems exasperated by the extra work. It’s bad enough when the earthly visitors leave the place a mess, let alone long-dead guests adding to the workload.
“It doesn’t like anything to do with Marilyn,” gazing back at the lunchboxes, fridge magnets and books to check they are still in a general sort of order.
The Coronado’s flesh-and-blood guests have long reported strange occurrences, from sudden plunges in temperature and ghostly footsteps to televisions and ceiling fans that turn on and off without warning.
The usual culprit is claimed to be Kate Morgan, a young woman who checked into the hotel in November 1892 and spent five days waiting a lover who never arrived. She was found dead on an outside staircase with a bullet wound to the head. The San Diego Coroner ruled the death as suicide.
Kate is said to be still seen wandering the halls while guests in her room (Room 3327) report all manner of unexplained disturbances.
Thankfully, the Coronado is not exactly the Overlook Hotel. It’s a most amazing building, designed in the Queen Anne revival style by Canadian architect James W. Reid, and dominated by a massive red turret.
Construction of what was envisaged as the grandest resort hotel in the United States began in March 1887. At its peak, some 2,000 workers toiled on this sandy wasteland but, when it opened the following year, it was an immediate success.
It has somewhere around 675 guestrooms and dominates the southern end of Coronado, a peninsula that is linked by a 16 kilometre-long isthmus known as the Silver Strand to the San Diego mainland. At Coronado’s northern end is the sprawling Naval Air Station North Island, comprising some 35,000 personnel and 23 aviation squadrons.
From the early days of manned flight, North Island was an important aeronautic location. Before being commissioned as a Naval Air Station in 1917, it was the site of an aviation school that attracted trainee pilots from around the world. One such aviator was Sadayoshi Yamada, who rose through the ranks of the Japanese armed forces to become Vice Admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.
Over the years, the Hotel del Coronado has welcomed royalty, American presidents and movie stars. One of its most famous turns in the spotlight was during the filming of Some Like It Hot, which used the beachfront and hotel exteriors to great effect (the interiors were recreated in the Culver City studios of MGM).
Another famous guest was Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz series of books. Although from the East Coast, he was drawn to California’s more welcoming climate. He spent months at a time at the Coronado between 1904 and 1910, after which he built a home in Hollywood that he named Ozcot.
The Coronado also inspired novelist Richard Mathieson (whose 1954 novel, I Am Legend, has been filmed four times, the last with Will Smith in 2007) to create Bid Time Return (1975), that deftly interweaves a love story with time travel. When it was filmed as Somewhere In Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the setting was changed to the equally-elegant Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.
However, one of the most interesting connections with the Hotel del Coronado is actually one that could have happened but didn’t. When Bessie Wallis Warfield married Earl Winfield Spenser Jr. – an aviator and lieutenant in the United States Navy – in 1916, no-one could have foretold the effect it would have on the world.
Win, as he was known, was posted to San Diego in 1917 to oversee the establishment of the nation’s first naval air base. Wallis, as she was known, was the dutiful but ultimately unhappy military wife of a dissatisfied and alcoholic officer, a woman who loved to entertain and be entertained.
On 7 April 1920, the Hotel del Coronado hosted a ball in honour of Edward, Prince of Wales, who had arrived aboard the British warship HMS Renown en route to a royal tour of Australia. In later years, Win himself recalled he was on hand that evening with his wife who was introduced to the Prince.
Such is the cachè of such a momentous meeting that it has passed, unchecked, into popular legend. Even the Coronado’s website hedges its bets by stating that “many have speculated that they may have first met at The Del”. However, as Anne Sebba reveals in That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2011), the reality is more like the golden opportunity that never occurred.
Several days before the ball, Wallis left San Diego for San Francisco to visit a socialite friend and didn’t return until the week after. This is confirmed by newspaper social columns of both cities.
In actuality, it would be another 11 years before Wallis finally met the Prince. In the interim, Wallis divorced Spenser in 1927, moved to England and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. She met the Prince at a country house party in 1931 and they became involved sometime around 1934. He ascended the throne as King Edward VIII in January 1936, Wallis and Simpson divorced in October 1936, and Edward abdicated in December of that year. In June 1937, Edward and Wallis married.
And the rest, as they say, even in the character-saturated hallways of the Hotel del Coronado, is history.
It was said, by the artist himself, that the only painter who exceeded him in wealth was Picasso and the two certainly had many other things in common, including an excess of self-confidence and an appreciation of the female form. But while Picasso was always the art world’s darling boy, revered and feted by critics, Vladimir Tretchikoff could never temper the derision of the establishment.
Yet, while critics maintained their apoplectic outrage, Tretchikoff quite happily turned his undoubted talents towards making money. In the process, he captured the imagination of the middle-classes throughout the western world in the 50s and 60s. His most famous image, Chinese Girl, sold in the hundreds of thousands and seemed to be on every suburban lounge room wall; by the late 90s, urban hipsters revived the craze, pushing the price of vintage prints to extraordinary levels.
And still the art world carped. While no major art gallery in his South African home ever acquired a Tretchikoff, the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town drew sell-out crowds to a recently concluded retrospective of his work. The exhibition brought together 92 original works including Chinese Girl, on show for the first time in 50 years.
While the public were delighted, there were those who couldn’t resist the opportunity to put the boot in; South African art critic Lloyd Pollak, who spoke at a panel discussion during the exhibition, was quoted in the Cape Times as saying: “An academic recently stated that Tretchi’s paintings ‘represent the worst kind of prejudice, voyeurism, crass racial stereotypes, sexism, cultural paternalism and white colonialism’ and I heartily concur.
“[The exhibition] has resoundingly vindicated the judgement of critics of the 50s and 60s who dismissed Tretchi’s work as excruciatingly vulgar and beyond redemption. The general consensus is that his style was crass and without technical or artistic address and his content vapid and maudlin. The ideas underpinning his paintings are of a heart-breaking banality and his work has no intellectual significance whatsoever.”
Tretchikoff, who died in 2006 at the age of 93 and whose obituary appeared in the New York Times and a range of British newspapers, would hardly have been surprised.
Tretchikoff was born in Petropavlovsk, Russia. His family fled to northern China following the outbreak of the 1917 revolution. A gifted artist from an early age, at 15 he made his way to Shanghai where he worked as an illustrator. There, he met and married another Russian exile, Natalie Telpregoff, then moved on to Singapore.
With the outbreak of war in the Pacific, he loaded his family onto a ship headed for South Africa. He later followed but his ship was sunk by the Japanese. The survivors rowed first to Sumatra and then to Java where he was interned in a prisoner of war camp. While working in Jakarta, then still under Japanese occupation, he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson, otherwise known as Lenka, who became his mistress, muse and most famous model.
When the war ended, Tretchikoff was reunited with his family in South Africa and his career as an artist gathered full steam. He held his first exhibition in 1948 and his fame spread, first to the United States where he had sold-out exhibitions that attracted thousands of people, and to England, where similar scenes ensued.
The brightly-coloured, almost photorealistic Chinese Girl was painted using a local model, the daughter of a Cape Town laundry owner (who earned about R20 for her work), but the original was damaged in 1953 during one of his frequent absences touring and he repainted it with the inspiration of a San Francisco model. The blue-green tinged portrait struck an unconscious nerve, quickly becoming one of the best selling prints of all times.
Prints of other Tretchikoff works, including Miss Wong and The Dying Swan (featuring British ballerina Alicia Markova, who joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the age of 14), had similar success.
Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl was one of the first fateful breezes in the far-off rumblings of pop culture. In terms of defining a popular zeitgeist, it achieved for the mid-20th century what Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun did 30 years earlier. To those closeted homogenous 1950s minds, Tretchikoff’s exotically-coloured Asian women were romantically erotic symbols of lands and cultures far away and beyond their understanding.
So pervasive is Tretchikoff’s better-known and widely-circulated works, it’s difficult to find a comprehensive example of his oeuvre. A prime resource for collectors is his 1950 self-titled book, published by Howard Timmons Cape Town for George Allen & Unwin Ltd London; aside from the inevitable nudes, often featuring Lenka, it includes skilful and exacting portraits, self-portraits, allegories (including a stunning Art Deco-like representation of a space-age aviator and an atomic bomb exploding on a modern city), landscapes and still lifes. Although never reprinted, it is possible uncover copies in good condition via the Internet and the illustrations in this blog are drawn from this volume.
In an upmarket suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, former juvenile delinquent and lead singer of hit 50s all-girl rock’n’roll band The Suedes, Leather Tuscadero – younger sister of Pinkie, one of the few of Fonzie’s girlfriends ever to have a name or any semblance of longevity – is not in any mood for growing old gracefully. After her initial rush to stardom was derailed in the early 60s by the British Invasion and spending some time in the musical wilderness, her career was revived with a long-running musical theatre in Branson, Missouri, before being discovered by a new generation of music lovers via MTV Unplugged. One of the first inductees (and the first woman) into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and a series of chart-topping albums produced by Rick Rubin, Leather Tuscadero’s current smash is an album of duets with Tony Bennett.
In a parallel universe, someone who still looks a lot like the Leather Tuscadero of long ago is rocking out on stage at the Enmore Theatre in inner-city Sydney. Suzi Quatro tells the cheering capacity audience that she has just turned 60 and it’s obvious she has quite the same disregard for entering what many others would consider life’s twilight years.
Tight-fitting leather molded to a petite frame and wielding a low-slung bass guitar, Suzi has whipped the crowd into a fervor that recalls a full-throated old-time tent revival meeting. Britain, Europe and Australia provided her greatest successes over the years and there’s an even bigger roar when she mentions this is most likely her 25th tour of the country. Her fans have never had to wait too long to worship at the altar of Suzie Quatro but their enthusiasm make it clear they never tire of her presence.
I must admit that, initially, I wasn’t one of the converted. I was a teenager when she had her first hits – Can The Can, 48 Crash and Daytona Demon in 1973 and Devil Gate Drive in 1974 – and well aware, as anyone of my generation would be, of her music. But it was a friend who talked me into attending the concert, on this early spring evening, with the added lure of meeting her afterwards.
From the moment she burst on stage, it was obvious that this was going to be much more than just another dip in the warm waters of nostalgia. Susan Kay Quatro was born in 1950 in Detroit, Michigan. Her father was a jazz musician who not only openly nurtured the emerging talents of Suzi and her siblings but taught them enduring lessons in professionalism.
She was discovered by legendary UK music identity Mickie Most and relocated to England where she formed a partnership with songwriters and producers Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn (responsible amongst so many other things for such touchstones of our generation as The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz, Smokie’s Living Next Door To Alice, Racey’s Some Girls, Toni Basil’s Mickey and Exile’s I Want To Kiss You All Over).
Can The Can, 48 Crash,Daytona Demon,Devil Gate Drive, and, in 1979, Stumblin’ In, were the results of that collaboration. Although American success eluded her (with the exception of Stumblin’ In), Suzi appeared on the hit television show Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero in 1977-79 after producer Garry Marshall noticed a Suzi Quatro poster on his daughter’s wall. She continued her acting roles in such shows as Minder, Absolutely Fabulous and Midsomer Murders.
Fifty million records later, Suzi is in Australia for a 21-date tour that takes in the usual capital cities plus such regional spots as Toowoomba, Deniliquin and Narrabri. In the crowded auditorium, the vast majority of the audience match her age and, in some cases, possibly even exceed it. But, for two hours, they’re catapulted back to their youth, clapping wildly, cheering, waving their hands above their hands like kids at a Countdown taping. The long years, with their successes and failures, the optimism and inevitable appointments, the loves and lost loves, trials and disappointments, have evaporated and their hearts soar into one unified whole.
Backstage, it’s obvious that her two-hour performance has been punishing, yet she’s kind and gracious to a total stranger, taking the time to chat and discuss her career before slipping away for a well-earned rest. Upstairs, the Enmore Theatre is empty. The roadies are dismantling equipment in preparation for the move to the next venue. Her satisfied fans, smiles planted firmly in place, have filtered out into the slightly chilly night. They may not consider what the private Suzi Quatro is like; there are far too many stories of musicians as self-appointed gods and conscienceless monsters. For many of the fans, the music is more than enough.
One newly transformed fan, however, can allay such apprehensions. Like them, Can The Can, 48 Crash and Devil Gate Drive helped to colour the soundtrack of his teenage self with a vibrant permanence that does not fade with time. It’s gratifying to report that Suzi is just as warm and friendly as she appears on stage.
During the concert, she’d reported that her father continued gigging until the age of 89; retirement, she intimates, is far from her mind. As evidence, she played songs from her latest album, In The Spotlight, marking a return to working with Mike Chapman; time will probably judge the song, Spotlight, to be one of her best. She’ll continue touring with the same passion and commitment as long as her fans demand it and, most likely, I’ll be one of them. Her father would be proud and, even for a sweet little rock’n’roller entering her sixth decade, that’s probably pretty important.
They ride high in the saddle in Tombstone. Cause a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do. And what most men and a lot of the women in this historic Wild West town gotta do is dress up like cowboys, gunslingers, dancehall girls and regular town folk and party like it’s 1889.
Tombstone is a dot on the map of southern Arizona, about 40 kilometres off the 1-10 that runs through a sun-baked landscape that anybody who has ever watched a Hollywood cowboy movie would instantly recognise.
It’s a hot, dry, inhospitable landscape. You don’t come across Tombstone by accident. You have to be heading there and the attraction is its name – one of the best known of all the old Wild West towns. It’s redolent of outlaws and lawmen, the site of the O.K. Corral and its infamous gunfight. And it draws tourists from around the globe who find, once they reach this otherwise unprepossessing place, that it’s a lot better than they were expecting. And a lot more fun.
Tombstone was founded in 1879, quite late for an Old West town, and its fortunes were built on silver mining. From 1877 until 1890, local mines produced more than $US50 million in silver bullion. In the heady days of the 1880s, Tombstone had a population of 14,000 and proudly boasted four churches, a school and two banks. A little less proudly perhaps, it also had 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls and numerous brothels.
The miners and cowboys, who weren’t above regular cattle rustling forays into Mexico, kept the town jumping.
The glory days lasted for little more than a decade, however, when rising water levels in the mines made extraction unprofitable. By the late 1890s, Tombstone was virtually a ghost town.
It was tourism that uncovered the gold in thar hills. When the inhabitants began to leave Tombstone for more economically viable climes, much of the Old Town was boarded up and left undisturbed under the baking desert sun. Tourism began to take off in the mid-20th century; luckily, most of the main thoroughfare, Allen Street, remained intact.
Nowadays, some 500,000 tourists a year come to Tombstone, which has a population barely exceeding 1500 people. The Bird Cage Theatre is a favourite. In the 1880s, the saloon and gambling hall operated 24 hours a day; its name comes from the small mezzanine rooms overlooking the main hall where prostitutes plied their trade. Whiskey-fuelled brawls regularly took the place apart and gunfights barely raised an eyebrow but the main claim to fame was a poker game, with a minimum $US1,000 buy-in, that ran for eight years without a break.
When it was closed in 1889, the Bird Cage was boarded up with all its contents still in place and remained that way until it reopened in the 1930s. Most of the interior, from the wallpaper, light fittings and red velvet curtains to its magnificent cherrywood bar, is original.
It helps that the highway connecting the I-10 with areas to the south, skirts Allen Street; the dusty red dirt street is closed to regular traffic. Visitors dodge horses, carriages and stage coaches while the locals, dressed in character for the Wild West, provide Kodak moments.
Each day at 2pm, there is a re-enactment of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, where Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and his brothers went up against a bunch of ornery outlaws in October 1881. Allen Street is lined with museums, saloons, restaurants with staff dressed as dancehall hostesses, and – inevitably – lots of gift shops.
Even the Boot Hill graveyard, which operated from 1879 until 1884, is carefully preserved and tourist-friendly.
It’s easy to get a little sniffy about this kind of pasteurised history, a Westworld where nothing goes