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Tom Graves: Louise Brooks, Frank Zappa, & other charmers & dreamers
Tom Graves | Devault-Graves Digital Editions eBooks
§ Have a Jack Daniel's, maybe a Colt on the side. Tom Graves is this kind of writer. Southern... Memphis, clear and personal, always courtly, with a sense of Southern Gothic ruling his tastes. A bit dangerous. He likes his femme fatales from the trailer park or the lost mansions of urban America; he likes his gunfights in the cinema; he likes his women for eyeshot ESP, and sitting close on the bench seat of a big Cadillac cruiser; he likes books for gonzo, barbecue ribs for a long life, gospel singers for religion, impersonators for Elvis... likes Roger Miller, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cajun women, Cajun singers... biography assassins... and, believe it or not, Paul Revere and the Raiders.
How do you know? Just read Louise Brooks, Frank Zappa & other charmers & dreamers, a compendium of his greatest hits as a journalist. It's all there, although sometimes you have to read below the lines.
Hemingway. The "iceberg effect".
Tom Graves... hmm. Rock & Roll Disc Magazine... and he wrote a book on Bluesman Robert Johnson, Crossroads. Your eyes move to the ceiling, remember the box set of the Complete Robert Johnson Recordings propped beside your vintage Bob Carver gear upstairs... have you listened to it recently? No. Got the Crossroads book in your music library? Don't know. Maybe. These days amnesia is just a nameless, familiar melody or a sleeping black guitar that's been below the couch for 15 years.
He writes about the movies like a fan, not a mechanic trying to pull the narrative apart. Picture of Louise Brooks, the silent screen star, on the cover of the book. Has the fatale look, the Surgeon General Warning, this chick is dangerous for your health. Interesting profile in the NJ style, the story-of-the-story, part biography (Louise), part autobiography (Tom). Was she Kenneth Tynan's lover? Suicide is part of the conversation. She's awfully interested in George Sanders... you remember when he checked out, 1972, Nice or Barcelona or someplace in between. "I'm bored with it all," his note said.
What's interesting about this cryptic biography by TG is not how Linda ends but rather how he ends.
a lonely woman with many bad men in her past
So cherchez la femme, folks. Following the aborted Louise Brooks project, Graves uses the mystery narrative as an envelope to profile Linda Haynes, the seventies B-movie star that some might remember from the cult movie Rolling Thunder (1977). Where is she now? Why did she drop out of sight around 1980 after generating some heat with Paul Newman (The Drowning Pool, 1975) and a walk-in with Robert Redford (Brubaker, 1980)? Maybe the last shoot, Guyana Tragedy -- about the horrific Jim Jones mass suicide -- fried her head, so you're thinking, son-of-a, did she become a victim of one of her own parts as so many artists do... writers write their destiny, actors act their fate sort of thing... Mishima... Tony Scott... Hemingway... Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath... the Black Dahlia... Diana Dors... Pamela Moore... Diane Arbus, et al. Or is she just another Hollywood cliche, you know how they finish, rob a bank and end up on a warm beach or die before they get there.
As he paints the portrait, Graves develops the enigma while seeking aesthetic justice. She was "white trash beautiful" and "a woman who walked the edge between prostitution and respectability", says Graves, drawing the fantasy from her on-screen persona. Sounds like a Cornell Woolrich woman, available in dream, unavailable in life.
The film that throws the switch for Graves is Paul Schrader's Rolling Thunder, in which Linda Haynes plays a waitress working in a diner who drops everything to tag along with Major Charles Ranes, a Vietnam vet just repatriated back to Texas after several years of incarceration in the "Hanoi Hilton", and now looking for justice. His wife and son have been murdered by a gang of home invaders looking for his blood money, some silver dollars gifted by his home town during his return ceremony.
Yes, you've seen it, late night TV... the gunfight in the whorehouse. William Devane with a hook and a Winchester. Maybe you yawned, or maybe you thought, cool.
Devane -- you know, the guy who sells gold and silver on TV. Appeals to survivalists in the Age of the Bullshit Derivative. He's good at it.
Rolling Thunder was eclipsed by Rambo as the more popular vet-returns-for-revenge movie of the era, even though the director Paul Schrader had established his killer credentials with Taxi Driver. Rolling Thunder... sounds familiar, right? Maybe you saw the Bob Dylan and friends tour of that name in 1976 but this isn't where the handle comes from... that's right, it was President Johnson's code for the B-52 carpet bombing campaign that was meant to take the Vietcong back to the Stone Age. So, fits good with this neo-western where Vietnam reverberates in the Homeland as a violent and bloody festival of repatriated violence.
Is/was Linda Haynes really worth getting hot and bothered about? Fantasy drives the submerged bicameral mind without regard to reality. While we supposedly left all this behind thousands of years ago, a case could be made that military training, for example, reintroduces the "command voice" so that the ability to kill without question is always latent, no self-awareness necessary. Seems to work for Tommy Lee Jones in Thunder. So maybe this is also true for film in general, which, as a form of sensory immersion and hypnosis, re-introduces the bicameral proto-consciousness.
A classic of this sort of schizophrenia would be Sunset Boulevard, where Norma Desmond appears to take instructions from the celluloid version of her former self.
Just thinking, just saying.
But Linda Haynes... would she drive a man mad? All it took for Tom Graves to lose his infatuation with Louise Brooks was to actually enter the hive, meet her and her drone friends. Linda was different.
Once again the Jack Daniels brushes your lips. You think, should I get myself a Ranes hook and a trigger bitch like Linda or should I make a piece of toast and continue reading? You make the toast.
"I played to the camera and no one else," says Linda.
There is a certain beauty in the Tom Graves method, an artifice that allows two appositions to mingle. He's a writer in search of a subject, not a voyeur in search of a lover. His extensive telephone trawling finally pays off and he finds Linda Haynes -- neglected and forgotten -- living in Florida. Well, not completely forgotten; it seems that the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has recently phoned, suggesting she come to Los Angeles, test for a part. She declines to test, so it comes to nothing, yet reading her story you sense no lasting disappointment, no permanent defeat. TG's portrait is sympathetic -- perhaps overly so -- downplays the drug abuse and so on, yet you have to admire a journalist who has some moral restraint in a world where neither morals nor restraint are common. Reading this story, you might be reminded of Max Cherry's gentlemanly crush on Jackie Brown in Tarantino's film of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch.
Or you might think of Joe LaBrava when he gets involved with Jean Shaw... eh, when you enter a darkened cinema and look up, beware of the 50 foot woman!
I know who Ray Wylie Hubbard is, so why don't I know who Harry is
Who is Harry Crews? Another New Journalist? A novelist? Name seems familiar, like a porno star or a fictional detective from the pulps. You missed this guy, you have to admit. Southern. Has written all kinds of well-received novels but you missed him. As you read TG's gritty interview with the gritty Crews, you realize what a multifarious ghetto the whole lit scene is, and truly, in the post-modern world there are more writers than readers.
But the Darwinian Crews is interesting, his character vivid even if you haven't read him. "Florida is not the South," he insists, and goes on to make some pithy remarks about Norman Mailer, Truman Capote... boxing, pit bull fighting, even the photag Diane Arbus. And Graves baits the hook, feeds him the verbal meat, has him going. The beauty of an interview like this is that the reader becomes a voyeur, the conversation, fiction.
Graves also writes on music, and has included several profiles, reviews and interviews. His extended essay on the white gospel group the Blackwood Brothers Quartet is educational. So much of rock journalism is a blurry impressionism where you can't separate the hype from the reality, the worship from the dream. Not these pieces.
a kind word for Albert
"I have a confession to make: I like the work of Albert Goldman, rotting carcasses and all."
Rock music... and those who feed off it. Often you just end up writing info commercials, especially if you like the stuff. It's hard to get aesthetic distance; it's like booze, gets you drunk, mission accomplished, move on. But when you politicize and fictionalize the profile in order to create a sensation, as Albert Goldman did, then you wonder about the moral boundaries. Yeah, you know Goldman... you read his outrageous bio of Elvis, and you read the John Lennon assassination job. Good writer... but prurient. Fame and fortune got to him. Bad disco. He became a member of the Mile High Club, died from a heart attack on a transatlantic flight... like Paul Kossoff, the Free guitarist, although Albert was no guitarist, had a shitty Pioneer stereo setup.
So TG tells us. He did some research/editing work for Goldman, certainly has some reservations about him, his way of doing business... yet withal remains fond of the man, even after Goldman "grew tired" of him. Picked up some chops, realized the Lennon bio was slanderous... yet the brutal humour of the New York iconoclast tips the scales.
Do we all lie the minute we set pen to paper? The Cuban novelist Gabriel Infante has a good line about this sort of phenomena: "Everything you write is fiction, even the grocery list."
Re Elvis, some of those stories about the Memphis mafia had to be told, y'know. Maybe Goldman was like a sewer worker -- somebody has to do it. "(He) came up with a morality tale and an American nightmare... no one explored the dark side of Elvis better than Albert Goldman," says Graves.
The Goldman piece is a good read, and all too brief. You wish there was more... because, well... because you know there is more. Well, you can always speculate, go meta. How about Albert ending up as a drug-crazed Elvis impersonator before he implodes?
The Sex Pistols... first of the Art Rock bands? Did they really burgle their amps and PA system from Keith Richards' Chelsea pad when he was away? Your mind wanders back to the time, the late seventies, early eighties when psychedelic rock was just about done. There were new oilers in the engine room, the "Punks". Everything about these jeering Morlock reactionaries who took music back to the Jurassic is apocryphal, although you can take it to the bank that TG's account in When The Sex Pistols Played Memphis in 1978 isn't. In a town where an Elvis impersonator like Bill Haney can draw a full house, these guys should've been playing a local art gallery instead of a "former dilapidated ballroom (the Taliesyn) attached to the Twentieth Century Club on Union Avenue." $3:50 a ticket, 900 inside, 200 left standing outside in the freezing drizzle, according to TG who was there with his young wife and a friend. Imagine if they'd been a band of Brixton blacks, not cockney white trash, same act... what kind of crowd would they have pulled? You sigh. Didn't the singer, Johnny Rotten, say, "Gandhi is my life's inspiration" or something like that?
The idea of the Pistols playing Memphis stuns the imagination, like Woody Allen playing Mecca, say. Or American Idol.
'Sid Vicious, none of us knew at the time, could not play bass guitar at all. His sound was so thick and muddy, you could not distinguish the notes; all you could hear was a huge, earth-swallowing throb. Sid was shirtless and had red markings all over his torso that I originally thought had been made by a red felt-tip marker. I didn't know until much later that he had carved a message into his chest with a knife: "I need a fix."
Anyone who has followed rock and jazz from the fifties probably knows about Les Paul's pioneer work in developing multi-track recording, but did you know that Frank Zappa had one of the first multi-track studios in Los Angeles in the early sixties? This is something that you learn in TG's interview with Zappa. Killer stuff for those interested in early analogue recording and the start of the shift into digital (early eighties). For those seeking info on Zappa's fractured music narrative -- face it, he used rock as a subterfuge -- check out In The Ocean [a film about the classical avant-garde] which includes a clip of Zappa's BeBop Tango. Here he says, "Progress is not possible without deviation."
Sure... Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
Zappa: his name is like a cigarette lighter, and his approach to music just as incendiary. The man looked like a Sicilian bandit, and although he was pure L.A., he really came out of the fantastic Italian avant-garde tradition. Think of people like Luigi Russolo... even the over-exposed Ennio Morricone has done some off-the-wall, so Frank was no surprise inside the Academy even though he worked the street.
It was well-known that Zappa was anti-dope, and he reiterates this here. "Anything with a needle, give me a break," he says (although he didn't mind some nicotine).
Graves: What kind of hate mail do you get?
Zappa: Little or none. Well....
Remember when he joined John Mayall, the English blues singer who sounded like a eunuch? Sure... "Bare Wires" and "Laurel Canyon", best stuff Mayall ever did, some nice psychedelic blues going on in there, and Mick was perfecting his version of the "woman tone", roll back the treble and go sinal, that warm tube harmonics sound Clapton based his fortune on. Sure, you know him, admired that killer solo on the coda of the Stones' Can't You Hear Me Knocking (Sticky Fingers 1971). Yes, he was good, and he walked away from it all after six years.
The Graves interview is from 1988, originally published in Rock & Roll Disc Magazine. It's long, and very good. Taylor is quite forthcoming. His first rock concert? Bill Haley & the Comets, 1958. Check (you saw them at the Belfast Opera House, 1957). His first guitar? A Hofner President. Check. His first Blues album? B.B. King Live at the Regal (1965). Check. Why did he leave the Stones? Personal, not saying. Check (uh, you read too much coke blah blah). What do you think of Stevie Ray Vaughan... and so on. Yes, it's mostly life-style evaluation, with some Guitar Player technical, but it's good stuff for those interested in the greatest rock period, that is, the British re-colonization of America... and the world.
So, you say, where can I get this book? Do I have to go to Memphis?
© LR January 15 2016
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