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?
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.
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.
I know of fervent movie fans who play out elaborate rituals before their favourite films. Prom dresses and pigs’ blood for Carrie, chain smoking in the shower and Benzedrine for All That Jazz. And don’t even think about Single White Female.
Xanadu (1980) is one of those movies that never quite achieved its full potential, a coulda’ been shoulda’ been masterpiece, a disappointing sum of numerous wonderfully satisfying parts. It’s a musical that is the glittering wrapping around a grand love story set against a 70s roller disco backdrop.
The best way to fully appreciate this criminally under-rated slice of movie magic is to dress the part: leg warmers and roller skates, the old style not the in-line, and something acrylic and flowing. Natural fibres just won’t give you the same feeling.
Roll up the flokati rug to expose the bare boards. A large unencumbered viewing space is a necessity especially for the final, glorious dance scene when you must skate with your arms stretched above you, wrists crossed, lycra-sheathed hips bumping out the sensuous disco beat, your entire body held straight and proud. Beware of small, enclosed spaces. There’s nothing so humiliating than being in the midst of a major dance number and sprawling across a nest of coffee tables.
The beating heart of Xanadu is Australia’s darling, Olivia Newton-John, known proudly throughout the length and breadth of that great brown land as Our Livvy. Australia has always adhered to a carefully-qualified paraphrasing of the “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” ethos except in this case it’s more akin to “give me your Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-grabbing, Oscar-adorating, million-seller masses from across the oceans and we’ll make them our own”.
Thus, Our Livvy was born in England but, more importantly for our celebrity-embracing culture, settled in Australia with her family at the age of five. The roll call of Australia’s adopted entertainers include Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees (born in England); AC/DC (England and Scotland); The Easybeats (England, Scotland and the Netherlands); Jimmy Barnes and John Paul Young (Scotland); Split Enz, Crowded House, Dragon and Russell Crowe (New Zealand), and Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson (United States). The best Australia can rightfully claim as their own is one half of Air Supply.
Through the 70s, Olivia Newton-John was a recording sensation, topping the charts worldwide with such hits as If Not For You, Banks Of The Ohio and I Honestly Love You before breaking into the movie big-time with her stellar turn as the squeaky-clean good girl out to snare bad boy John Travolta in Grease (1978).
The hits continued and it seemed as if she could do no wrong. She was attached to Xanadu before there was even a script, not that one actually appeared until well into the shooting schedule.
Our Livvy is cast as Terpsichore, one of the daughters of Zeus and a muse, a goddess who inspires creativity in mortals. In modern day Los Angeles is artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who earns his living from turning record covers into giant advertising murals and fears he will never find his true creative calling.
“Sometimes I see more in the covers than what is really there,” he says tellingly; deep inside, he knows that in the right circumstances he could be the da Vinci of promotional painting. But he anguishes over his craft. “Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.”
As an aside, this seques beautifully with a comment I overhead recently at a TEDx conference where two trend spotters were discussing Xanadu. One said: “At its core, Xanadu seeks to examine the deepening chasm between continental and analytic philosophy up to and including Hegel, the emphasis on metaphilosophy on one hand and its repudiation by the continentals and the development of the logical positivist approach on the other; in particular, and it’s a question Wittgenstein agonised over until late in his career, should leg warmers ever really be paired with lycra?”
At the lowest point in Sonny’s artistic journey, Terpsichore and her eight muse sisters spring from a wall on the Venice boardwalk. In a flowing white peasant dress with ribbons decorating her blonde hair, she decides it more prudent to disguise herself lest she be confused with the numerous other muses already flooding Los Angeles and adopts the name Kira.
She straps on a pair of roller skates, leaving her sisters behind to dance to a rock-symphonic Electric Light Orchestra number in an alley and goes in search of Sonny. Her virginal beauty, thick Australian accent and habit of answering questions with more questions while skating in circles, beguiles and inspires Sonny.
Later, Sonny meets up with a clarinet player, Danny Maguire (Gene Kelly). Danny was a featured player in Glenn Miller’s big band in the 1940s but gave up music after loving and losing the girl of his dreams (a dance sequence between Our Livvy and Gene Kelly reveals that girl to be Kira only he doesn’t appear to recognise her; time and bedevilling disappointment has coloured his memories to a fetching shade of Alzheimer’s).
Sonny and Danny set out to find a venue in which to open a disco. Kira magically leads Sonny to the cavernous Pan Pacific Auditorium, a real-life Art Deco landmark located in the Fairfax district near Farmers Market. (It burnt down in 1989, something of a metaphor for the film itself.)
While debating a name for their new club, Kira suggests Xanadu, which implies either she was also a muse to Coleridge or that the lending library on Mount Olympus is unusually comprehensive. When Sonny declares his eternal love for Kira, she discloses her true identity and says they can never be together.
Skating the gravel-pocked pavement of true love, Kira and Sonny fall desperately in love; he travels to the alleyway mural at Venice Beach and leaps through into Mount Olympus which looks like a cross between an empty stage set and Tron, where he implores Zeus for Kira’s hand.
It looks like his quest will be in vain. He returns to the real world in time for Xanadu’s opening where Danny, Sonny and Kira skate in circles for the final dance number leading a cast of hundreds of colourfully-dressed guests; it’s an explosion of satin shorts, feathered hairstyles, lycra, jersey dresses, body shirts, undulating hips, and leg warmers.
Just when all seems hopeless with Danny broken-hearted amidst the celebrations, a waitress who bears a startling resemblance to Kira brings him a drink. Double-take on Sonny’s part and fade out.
On release, the movie bombed badly; one magazine reviewed it with the unnecessarily harsh: “In a word – Xana-don’t”. The soundtrack, however, with such numbers as Xanadu, Magic and Suddenly, with writing credits split between ELO and long-time Livvy collaborator, John Farrar, charted well.
It’s difficult to know exactly where it went wrong. Our Livvy and Gene Kelly were absolute delights. Michael Beck, with an acting style as wooden as Pinocchio, much less so, although he’d just come off the cult hit, The Warriors (1979), and was considered a hot property. Beck’s passing resemblance to singer Andy Gibb has since created some confusion and many still think it’s Our Livvy and Andy Gibb together in Xanadu; the combination is certainly worth entertaining.
There were also reports from the set that the script was constantly being rewritten throughout production; by the time shooting wrapped, there were six different versions of the script.
Overall, though, Xanadu remains a delight, even if it’s somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It is one of the most comprehensively satisfying movies of the disco genre, just slightly above Can’t Stop The Music (and that’s saying something, although I’m not quite sure what) and Thank God It’s Friday.
With so many fans and so much timeless attention lavished on this paean to love and artistic inspiration, Olivia Newton-John and roller disco, Xanadu will remain a muse to all its fans.
Maybe I’ve seen far too many horror movies but when you’re in a place as bizarre as Bombay Beach you can’t help but constantly look over your shoulder. Once a thriving resort area in the desert east of Los Angeles, it now resembles the backdrop for a George Romero zombie movie.
Bombay Beach lies on the shores of the Salton Sea, which is anything but. It’s a lake, covering some 970 square kilometres in the middle of the Sonoran Desert that takes in parts of California, Arizona and north-western Mexico. It lies 69 metres below sea level and, throughout the ages, has alternated between lake and salt pan.
In its current state, it was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke its banks. In the 1920s, it became a resort area for the growing population of Los Angeles and communities began to spring up on its shores. By the 1960s, the lack of freshwater infill and low rainfall saw salinity levels rise high enough to periodically endanger the fish life.
Although boating is still popular, the towns of the Salton Sea withered to the point of death. The romantically-named Bombay Beach is just such an example. An hour’s drive north is Palm Springs, a fabulous enclave of mid-century architecture and wealthy celebrity residents, eternally stylish and forever locked in a time capsule of swimming pools, backyard fire pits and a classic car in every Richard Neutra-inspired garage.
Turn off the highway, past the sun-parched Welcome To Bombay Beach sign, and you enter another world. The official population hovers around 300 but you’d never know it. Mobile homes, modest cinderblock houses and run-down timber shacks line the streets. There’s a fire department, general store and tavern but, like the streets, they seem abandoned.
It doesn’t help that temperatures sit above 40 degrees Celcius throughout summer so the residents aren’t likely to be out welcoming curious tourists but Bombay Beach appears, with its faded air of depression and decline, unlikely to ever win any Tidy Town awards. If Palm Springs is Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bombay Beach is Norma Desmond waiting for the mortician to bury her dead chimpanzee.
At the lakefront, where a storm decades ago swamped the town and necessitated the building of three metre-high dirt levee, Bombay Beach becomes a set for the zombie apocalypse. A resort and caravan park was abandoned after almost being washed away; its mobile homes, cottages and outbuildings were slowly pulled into the earth, the salt eating away and almost devouring everything.
The silence, along with the pungent stench of thousands of dead fish, is unsettling. Taking photos requires on eye on the viewfinder and another checking for anything odd, or at least odder than this, coming up behind you. The other tourists laugh nervously, get back in their cars and get out of Dodge real quick.
My curiosity sated, I do the same. After a quick drive through town, I debate whether to stop at the general store but decide that’s a bit too much like the plot of a horror movie. And everybody knows how that ends up.