Saturday, December 31, 2016

Aint Got No Time For Corner Boys, Part II-Mickey Rourke’s “Diner” (1982)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Sam Lowell

Diner, starring Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, 1982

Hey, around my way, around my growing up working class neighborhood out in Riverdale about forty miles west of Boston in the early 1960s they called them, we called ourselves, corner boys (which would be immortalized in Bruce Springsteen’s song, Jersey Girl, with the line. “aint got no time for corner boys down in the street making all that noise” and that was the truth-the “making all that noise” part). Corner boys: those without much dough, those without a weekend date and no money for a weekend date even if a guy got lucky enough to draw some female companionship, someone who didn’t care about a “boss” car to sit up front in and would accept the bus as a mode of transportation and thus seldom lucky, hung around blessed Tonio’s Pizza Parlor “up the Down” (the corner of Adams and Jefferson Streets) and, well, hung out. Hung out trying to do the best we could and if defeated then there was always a couple of slices of Tonio’s secret formula pizza sauce to die for delight and a small Coke. Hung around in late high school planning larcenies great and small (great the theft of some young woman’s virtue, small the midnight creeps through back doors but maybe no more should be mentioned since perhaps the statute of limitations has not run out.      

So when I saw the film under review, Diner, with a cast of up and coming actors who all went on to other films and saw that they were six guys, count ‘em six, who in 1959 in the great city of Baltimore hung around a diner talking the talk in between bites of French fries and gravy (our pizza slices) I knew that they were kindred spirits. Knew that despite the several years different in time since they were all twenty-something gathering together for a wedding of one of their members around Christmas time they were from the same species. And as the film unwound that proved to be the case.

Here’s the plot. Wait a minute while this the place where I usually give a few lines of summary about what was what in the film this one is not driven by a plot but by the slice of life scenes of a bunch of guys who still have some growing up to do. Scenes such as one guy fake smashing up his car complete with a ketchup injury just to fake his fellows out; the classic trying to “cope a feel” from the best looking “ice queen” in town at the movies (moves I have to confess are more seemly among the middle schoolers today and even my corner boys would sneer at a guy who was into that silliness at twenty-something); guys getting into dough trouble with the constant need to bet on any and all propositions (our most famous one which I lost and am still ticked off about that I even made the bet was how high Tonio could throw the pizza dough in making the crust); guys with girl trouble from the dreaded pregnancy problem in a pre-“Pill” world, marriage issues (which we were too young to worry about in high school the high tide of my particular corner boy existence); and the endless discussions about sports (here a guy quizzed his fiancĂ©e on football before he decide he could marry her-ouch!), girls, life on the edge, the future and double-down on girls.

Yes that all looked very, very familiar to these old eyes. The difference? These guys stuck together well into their twenties. By twenty most of my guys were in the military, married, in jail, or on the run. The fate of plenty of real life corner boys making all that noise. See this one.              

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Rebels Live-From The Star War Series-“Rogue One”(2016)-A Film Review  

DVD Review

By Sam Lowell

Rogue One, starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and a cast of thousands of earthlings and others from the inter-planetary, inter-galactic, inter-universe community, 2016    

I am sure that the writers, directors, and producers of the latest sci-fi adventure, Rogue One, in the now seemingly never-ending Star War   series did not intend to make a political statement about current world politics, especially the latest developments in America (they like the rest of us probably assumed that Hillary would win) but the story line is a rather up-to-date commentary, a cautionary tale on what lies ahead if you will. The idea that a small band of multi-cultural rebels from various planets, solar systems, galaxies, the universe are compelled for their own survival to fight the evil empire for a little freedom to breathe in this wicked old universe was my take on this fast-paced (these scit-adventures always are), super-special efforts heavy (ditto) and sometimes ironic and humorous film.

The train of thought that went into this film goes something like this-a super scientist and expert bomb-maker is “kidnapped” by the evil empire (you know Darth Vadar-land a bad guy we haven’t seen for a while in this series since he was wasted back in the day) to make a doomsday bomb that will allow them to expand the empire unto the extremes of the big bang theory. Manifest Destiny let’s call it. More power and dough for the military, okay. That bomb-maker had a daughter, Jyn, played by Felicity Jones who escaped with the “force”.

Fifteen years later serious rumors are circulating among the small bands of rebels of various political and strategic concepts that the evil empire had perfected a super-weapon that would put paid to any rebellion that might pop up. And up pops Jyn (remember with the “force” so this is a shoo-in for victory when the deal goes down as we all know from the other films in the never-ending series) who is the “hook” to get to her father and find out what is what with the weapon. She is “accompanied” by a swash-buckling rebel pilot, Andor, played by Diego Luna, who has a secret mission to kill her father (and extinguish any romantic interest which you know down the road is going to happen from the first glances at each other).  

Eventually after twenty-seven action scenes where everybody, all the good people show their martial arts and sharp-shooter skills, they get to the father, who is killed along the way after confessing to the evil scientist who administers the bomb program that he had sent messages to the rebels about the weapon. The message that he sent to his daughter was that he had created the weapon with a built-in flaw. Find the flaw in the system and the evil empire is back to just a super-power without teeth. After about twenty-eight action scenes where everybody, all the good people once again, show their martial skills against the hapless soldiers of the evil empire which makes me wonder how they were able to create the empire in the first place they destroy the super-weapon and head for home knowing there will still be battles ahead to bring the evil empire down. As always a great entertainment and a nice cautionary tale as well, intentional or not.      

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Riverdale Blues-For Allen Ginsburg On The 60th Anniversary Of “Howl” (1956)

By Lance Lawrence

A sad-eyed dope hung around the back of the old-fashioned framed schoolhouse lazily drawing the summer breeze (he lied since the school had only recently been constructed in the big post World II baby boom and he had gone to school here since the place opened-he lied for the sake of lying,  lying to himself mostly especially about his sexual longing just then as he hoped to get some chick who was hanging out by the bushes to give him a hand job, give him one like Lucinda had given him that time at the movies when sitting up in the balcony she had unzipped his pants and let her hand move so fast he jerked off after about a minute he was so excited and she only twelve imagine what she will be like when she gives it all up but fat chance he would have to grab that piece since his quick spurt, his sperm, his cum,  had gotten all over her dress and she was pissed off at him when it dried and got all crusty on the way home so some other guy would grab her cherry-that  was only a matter of time), wished he could get “washed clean,” washed clean real clean which is what the guys around school called it when their Lucindas moved their hands fast, get his sperm count down, his hot flash temperature, whatever that was.
Cock sore, cock was what the guys called their hanging things, their pulsating penises, so he followed although he got flushed when some guy maybe Billy, Billy Bradley the guy who always seemed to be the first guy with the sex knowledge, first said the word and he had asked what that was-damn. Cock and cocksuckers, waiting on his corner boy, waiting on Billy, waiting on his secret comrade in arms the hazy night as he looked around over heaven’s nightshade (and the guy who would probably be the first to get into Lucinda’s panties since she had already given him her fast hand action and according to Billy something more although Billy wouldn’t  specify but at least that action which is why he had, on Billy’s solemn advise taken Lucinda to the movies in the first place, had asked if she wanted to go to the balcony and when she said yes he knew he was going to get his clock cleaned-he just wished he hadn’t gotten off so fast with Lucinda since Billy’s older brother, Max, had given them a vivid description of what was what when you got a girl all wet and then stuck your stick in her and listened to her moan, moan like humankind had been doing for a million years, and he sure could have put his stick wherever she wanted it-probably laugh at him if he got off too fast-again).
Billy at first nowhere to be found, nowhere to be found that is if he did not want to be found and then the next thing you knew Billy, secret comrade in arms, came sauntering, his style just then before puberty would turn his feet around and he would thereafter walk like some Western movie cowboy would now sing his life-song, what did the poet, the old Solomonic poet call to the high heaven’s, oh yes, plainsong for a candid world, a world before massive bombings, massive unacknowledged deaths for shady ladies and other figment s of his imagination. Come sauntering in the bejesus night looking both ways to see some straggling ungainly girls, some young Lucinda who knew the score, knew if they had hung around that back of the school just then that they had heard about Lucinda, had maybe asked their older sisters or brothers what a hand job was and how to do that. They were eager if they were hanging in the shadows and the dope was hoping that some innocent would get moved by the Billy plainsong (he would learn later that plainsong was more religious that any old rock song even big bop doo wop song but by then rock and roll was his religion anyway) hovering around the fence waiting for something, anything to happen and then a word, a sullen word came off his tongue and the night’s work had begun, maybe a generation was on its way to immortality, was ready to break out of the quiet of the 1950s night without shame and without confession.
Tripping over “she’s so fine, so fine, wish she were mine doo lang doo lang” or the corner boys, the male version of He’s So Fine by the Chiffons, the big bopping song of 1956, the guys, including the dope, backing Billy up in the doo wop frenzy that had swept tween and teen just then and the scent of the jasmine coming from the girl-shadows by the harbor, the marsh’s fetid mephitic smell giving way to the night’s splendor, maybe stolen perfumes from mother’s dresser or some girlish bath-soap all fresh and dewy. Doo lang, doo lang  along with Eddie, Jason, Frank and beloved Peter Paul slapping time and those wanderlust girls along the fences came drifting to the scent of Old Spice that the boys had splashed on father’s bureau, father’s time, father’s sweat but not to  be thought of in the hazy summer night. And as the moon hovered against the sun the girls got closer and closer, one Lucinda’s younger sister, Laura, all the sisters in that family playing off mother Lottie having “L” –encrusted first letter names,  aimed his way and he waved her over to head toward old dead sailors’ graveyard down the far corner of the school lot (oh what those sailors could have told those young bucks from their rotted graves and pock-marked burial stones about hand jobs and blow jobs too when the ante was up about what a girl had to come across with-and if out to sea some young sailor boy plaything but that latter knowledge would not click until later).  A few minutes later the dope came back out of the sailor shadows looking like the king of the hill and Laura wiping her hand with a handkerchief with a faint smile (they had already agreed to meet that next night down at that sailors’ last rest, down among the mortal stone forsaking the last ship out  and by-past the foreplay plainsong-the young learn fast so maybe those sailors would have been stating the obvious when the poured forth in their dank, damp waterfront taverns about blow jobs and hand jobs). 
But hell all that was coming of age, coming of age in a time when things were moving too fast even for quick learners and the corner boys got further and further along in their primitive sex lessons and no more stupid thoughts of red scares, Uncle Joe’s scourge in Moscow town, and Cold War down in the basement hide your ass under some oaken desk and somebody said that was real, that was okay but that scent lingered against the jimson in the jeans from Satan’s tower, look homeward, look homeward angels. Ecstasy-pure ecstasy in the hazy night of some youthful dream. 
Billy would declare (and the dope would secretly agree and write every word down to be passed around later like some latter day glad tiding-like some Mount Sinai-filched grainy stone tablet) that they were in a spin, the world was changing and although he had no empirical evidence, when did the king of the hill need hard-boiled evidence going back to Adam’s time, facts,  he had heard from his oldest brother who already had graduated from high school that not only was the music changing, not only were people, and not just kids, starting to laugh at the idea that going down some rat hole of a basement and hiding under some rotten oaken desk when the big one came [the bomb] would do anybody any good. Started to challenge everything from the whole idea of the red scare night, the whole idea that everybody needed to live their ticky-tacky lives in dread of the reds, having a big ass finned gas-eating car and not “keeping up with the Jones.” Especially day to day the latter.
Billy didn’t get most of what that oldest brother said (and neither did the dope who dutifully wrote it all down anyway which he had “contracted” with his secret comrade Billy to do, to act as scribe which became his nickname at first resented as part of the price of Billy letting a dope hang around with him and his boys and through that circumstance to get to the girls already mentioned above) but he did get that the way things were couldn’t be the future, couldn’t be the way they would have to operate in the world. Couldn’t be the down at the heel existence that he, his family and all the poor bedraggled families that resided in the Five Points “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood. His oldest brother, Jack to give him a name, the guy telling him all this stuff with the idea of making him wise to the world he was about to face in the not too distant future, had been something of the family rebel.
Jack was always heading to Harvard Square even in high school which was no mean task by bus and later by car when he came of age for a driver’s license, since that place was about forty miles from Riverdale to soak up whatever rebellion was going down (that family rebel designation would fall on Billy later in a very different way when it came his turn to figure out the freaking world and after a short attempt at a break-out rock and roll musical career turned to armed robberies and such eventually getting killed in a shoot- out with cops down in North Carolina trying to all doped up rob a White Hen convenience store). Jack was always talking about “beat” this, “beat” that, some kind of fraternity of rebels who wanted to turn the world upside down (and it was mostly a fraternity the women were mainly around for decoration and whatever sex they wanted to provide). Or maybe better resign from the “square” world and find a little breathing space to do their thing-to write, drink, travel, do dope, have sex but mostly to write for a candid world, a world where the rules didn’t make sense-no way.      
One night when Jack was home for minute during summer semester break from college-he went on a scholarship, how else would the family get the money to send the first in the family to go to college, to Boston University, Class of 1959- he decided to tell Billy and his boys in an excited manner his latest tale “what was what,” the expression all the guys used then to signify, well, they had an idea of what was what. Tell them what it was to be a “beat daddy” (not literally a daddy okay but Jack had had to make the distinction because you never knew when somebody in the neighborhood might be a daddy having knocked up some older Lucinda and had to head out of town or get hitched under the sign of the paternal shotgun). Said it was all summed up, everything that was pushing the world forward in a poem, a “beat” poem not like those rhyming simon poems Mister Riley, the old-time Jazz Age English teacher at Riverdale High  a would spout forth from some old Englishman’s pen, Alfred Lord Tennyson or Byron or Browning, guys like that, a guy named Ginsburg, Allen Ginsburg, a smart Jewish guy who was the chief propagandist for the beat-ness thing in a poem, Howl,  that was making the rounds in Harvard Square and would have its fair share of legal problems but that was later. (Jack was not exactly right about who had been the “real” max daddy of the beats-influence wise it was probably Jack Kerouac when he boiled the 1950s youth nation with his wild men travelogue On The Road, the immediate post-war whirlwind adventures of him and his buddy, Adonis personified Neal Cassady with Ginsburg playing a bit role in that one. But Ginsburg was right in the mix with that fucking long mad monk poem-Brother Jack’s exact words remembered by the Scribe-written down).              
Jack said that Ginsburg had had it right-had seen in the great American blue-pink western night stuff that would drive a guy crazy with what was happening to the world as the machine was getting the upper-hand. Ginsburg had had some kind of vision, one of the guys who hung around the Hayes-Bickford in Harvard claiming that it was dope, marijuana favored by the down-trodden cold fields braceros from old Mexico, or peyote buttons, the stuff favored by the Hopis and the “ghost dancers” out where the states are square that fueled the visions. Visions of an unkempt, unruly world where the philosopher-king was a guy named Carlo Solomon who had the whole thing down cold. Knew the West had been saturated, that there was nowhere else to go but the China seas and so he hammered home the idea that out in the Coast was where humankind had to make a last stand against the Molochs, against the fucking night-takers who have been with us forever. Only the righteous warrior-poets would enter the garden. That Hayes-Bickford clarion calling claimed Ginsburg was talking about the Garden of Eden before the Fall.   

The madness, the sheer madness making everybody from the hunger days of the 1930s and the rat rationing days of World War II hustle to the sound of steel and iron and not the freaking sound of waves slashing timidly to shore. Started ripping up words a minute not all complete phrases and without some kind of formal pacing sense, although if you heard the thing out loud it would have its own jazz-like cadence somebody who was at the recital in Frisco town had been quoted in a newspaper as saying, jazz cadence and stoned on dope or liquor was all you needed that same source ventured. Ginsburg was not hung up on form, like those old fart Englishman who were totally hung up on form almost as bad as those sonnet bastards Riley made the class memorize but talking about post-war modern minds beaten down by the sound of industry humming away talking about a meltdown, talking crazy stuff about angel hipsters (portraying a sentence of 1940s pre-beat daddies hanging around Times Square hustling and conning an unsuspecting world), talking about Negro streets which they all knew as “n----r streets” over in the Acre section of Boston, a place to stay away from, talking about taking on the monster in the mist Moloch mano y mano, talking about the new heroes of the American night all-American swordsman Jack and secret love that dare not speak its name crush on Adonis of the New Western night courtesy of Laramie Street in mile-high Denver Neal Cassady to be exact the new model of the  last cowboy standing. Neal some amazing cocksman to be envied and emulated screwing every honey who was not tied down to a chastity belt on farms, in the restrooms of diners and out in the back alley if the restroom was occupied. Damn. 

Ginsburg had actually been in the nut house in New York someplace, had dedicated the poem to some fellow inmate who was crazier that he was or dedicated to all the crazies, the looney bin Jack had called the place like the place all the guys in Riverdale did when they talked about where screwballs and goofs, even Kerouac’s holy goofs learned about later, should have landed, so he knew what deal was going down, knew that America had turned into a cesspool even if nobody else saw the drain coming. Jack had made Billy and the dope laugh when he told them the reason Ginsburg was in the looney bin was he had been sent there by some judge after he got into legal trouble, committed or was present at some unknown crime, an event which made the pair respect this Ginsburg more since cons in the old Riverdale neighborhood were looked up to with respect and admiration, to try to get rid of his faggot-ness, his homosexuality, his liking boys and not girls. (They laughed not because they knew that Jack hated fags and queers which he did and had put paid to that idea having gone down to Provincetown where all the fags and queers hung out all dressed up and all leering at anybody who came off the Provincetown boat from Boston with his own boys and raised hell with them-more than once. Beat a couple up who were eyeing him too closely and one in drag whom he thought was a girl until he got close enough to see some slight stubble on “her” face. Seems that Jack was giving Ginsburg a pass on his sexual preference just because he was a beat guy-Billy and the dope wouldn’t have given the fucker the time of day even if the guy was a prophet if he hadn’t been a con when they talked about it later since they shared Jack’s hatred of fags-and dykes like every red-blooded guy did then.)     

Jack knew what the unholy kid goofs were laughing about, about his seeing literary merit even if the guy was a faggot. The minute he said “faggot” he knew they would goof but he thought they should know what else the guy had to say. He told them a lot of good writers and poets were “light on their feet” and that was something you had to deal with if you wanted to read anything worth reading and let the faggot stuff slide, you don’t have to meet them in person anyway. So he told Billy and the dope to forget the stuff he said about Ginsburg’s queer as a three dollar bill situation and “dig” (that was the word Jack used) what he had to say to the world, to the young really. The stuff about machines devouring humankind and making the world crazier than it already was. That maybe the guys in mental hospitals like the ones who were his comrades at the time were the sane ones-that what they knew was too powerful to let them stay out on the mean streets for long. That the Molochs were in charge (“what the fuck is a Moloch,” Billy asked, interrupting, not comprehending what Jack was talking about as he droned on about stuff that seemed weird). Tried to tell the kids that this thing was Ginsburg plainsong, his way of putting in raw language his spiritual trip, his karma on the world. (the dope would run into Ginsburg later at an anti-war rally in New York City in his later incantation as a Buddhist so karma was the right word even though they were clueless about what it really meant in Buddhist traditions).

After about fifteen minutes Jack could see his audience’s eyes glazing over and so he stopped, stopped and told them that when they got his age they would be thinking about all the stuff Ginsburg laid out in that not-fit-for-public-school-classrooms poem. They laughed, snickered really and wondered what Lucinda and Laura were up to just then. The hell with Jack and his fucking homo poem.            
Take A Walk On The Wild Side- The Film Adaptation Of John O’Hara’s “Butterfield 8”(1960)-A Film Review

DVD Review    

By Sam Lowell

Butterfield 8, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, based on the novel by John O’Hara, 1960

No question in his day, the time from the late 1920s with the acclaimed Appointment At Samarra until the 1950s anyway, the novelist John O’Hara had the fun, foibles, loves, and craziness of the upper classes of the day down pat. Not the high-end Rockefeller clannish types but that level just below, the strivers of Wall Street and industry. Since that time though his star has been eclipsed as literary fashions have changed and he has been relegated to the “dead white guy” pile. But for a slice of life about how the other half lived (the other half not born on the “wrong side of the tracks”), what made them tick and how they tumbled down the hill in the middle third of the 20th century you could find no better interpreter. Not bad for a kid from Pottsville, Pa.

Which brings us to the film adaptation of his 1934 novel Butterfield 8 updated to the late 1950s from the look of the automobiles on the streets. But updated or not the story line is the same. The strivings of a “from hunger” woman, Gloria played by then I think the reigning Hollywood beauty queen Elizabeth Taylor, to get out from under the best way she could using her beauty to match up with well-funded gentleman callers. In the argot of the time she was a “party girl”, a call girl for whoever paid the freight through the escort service Butterfield 8 which gives the book and film its title.                   

Of course those who can pay the freight and who are feeling frisky or lonesome for a serious sexy companion are guys who are married and feeling trapped. That is the case with the main gentleman caller here, Wes, played by Laurence Harvey. He is a from “hunger guy” who landed on his feet by marrying a factory owner’s daughter. And like most “from hunger” guys was made to go through hoops just to keep up appearances without any real power (or much to do except hit the bars and chase Gloria). So we witness what started out as a short-haul tryst complete with cash left on the mantle which moved onto a steamed up romance between the two. Gloria finally decides that despite her great sexual appeal, her flirty “life of the party” ways, and her ability to make guys come hither with a look (or go into deep freeze when she is done with a guy) she has found love.       

Like a lot of O’Hara’s many novels there is a tragic ending here not long after Gloria has her epiphany. The couple had a serious spat over Gloria’s continued flirting. Wes crosses some line that could never be taken back despite his willingness to divorce his rich wife and take his chances out on the streets. In the end although Wes would not give her up Gloria flees and he followed in a high speed chase-she is fatally injured and he heads back to “find himself” and see if he can salvage his marriage. This melodrama is done is typical early 1960s style where Gloria “profession” is left unstated and only revealed by innuendo unlike today where the whole thing would be more openly stated. A fair film and period piece.      

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Bernie’s Revenge- With Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” In Mind  

By Seth Garth 

[Bernie, O., we will avoid his last name since he has recently retired from the force and we will let him enjoy his peace, after twenty-five of decent and honorable service. The “force” for those who are clueless any police department but here the Bay City Police Department a comfortable California seaside town as its name would indicate, although not as sleepy a town as the seaside designation would connote, That last phrase about Bernie, we can skip the “O” now that we can without rancor leave him to his peace was at one time up for grabs. Had been challenged back when he had been on the force maybe five years in the days before the war (World War II) when anything went in the fair city from gambling, dope, un-bonded booze and women, women who would take you around the world or around the block where a male confederate with a handy blackjack waited in earnest for any unsuspecting goof, not Kerouac’s unsuspecting holy saintly beaten down by the grind of modern society and left to rust along the empty roadside goof either but just some drunken wayward tourist who thought he still had that old sex appeal that his Martha used to brag to her friends about.

And that anything goes, the dope to girls action, especially that latter category since he had started out as a hustling jack-roller grabbing marks some whore he was working with was steering his way was strictly the bought and paid for territory of one Eddie Miles, Mister Edward Raymond Miles when they let him into the swanky Bay City Golf Club-or else- but plain run of the mill gangster Eddie now. We can use his last name since he is finishing up the last five years of a twenty-five year gaff at the Q for plenty of stuff-extortion, pandering, armed this and that,  everything except the one the jury couldn’t pin on him-murder one, murder for hire if you want the full kick. They had a raw assistant D.A. assigned to the case since everybody had the case down to a shoo-in for sure and the D.A. had his own set of problems having let a few Eddy non-murder crimes go under the sea (and “sponsoring” Eddie in that swanky club where he was ostracized after the rap sheet on Eddie became public- probably would have been worse except it is always good to have a D.A. sweating and forgetting stuff-criminal or country club).   

Bernie, Bernie O. when you think back about those days was the straightest rightest cop that ever put on shoe leather in Bay City. The problem back those twenty some years ago was that every other freaking cop on the force was “on the take” to Eddie, or knew guys on the take to Eddie which was the same thing. Somebody, without a shred of evidence had fingered Bernie as a bad cop in Eddie Miles hip pocket. Bought and paid for- a tough charge to defend against when everybody was on the take and wanted to cover their asses. Of course in those days a cop, a five year cop anyway, couldn’t pursuit a case on his own where he had been accused of corruption. Against Department policy. A great set-up for a set-up. So he clamped Phil Marlin, a guy who had been on the force with him, had gone through the academy with Bernie but had been fired for insubordination, fired good, when he wouldn’t tumble to looking the other way when one of Eddie’s boy took some underage girl into a backseat out on the back roads of the Pacific Coast Highway for a blow job and whatever else she was offering-or he was taking. Phil had turned private investigator, private dick, keyhole peeper to most cops. Took the case strictly as a favor to Bernie, no charge, you see, that was how tight they had been back when they had each other’s back in the days they were flat-footing beat cops down in the tough Five Points neighborhood.

Bernie had been in on the bust of Eddie Miles, after the Staties had taken over based on what Marlin had dug up from the sewer and they insisted that Bernie be in on the nab so he had some satisfaction that he was cleared by his own actions. The problem for Bernie and for Marlin came later when Marlin decided he wanted to tell the story to the general public-maybe as a cautionary tale, maybe to show how fragile a grip every human has on life, or maybe he just wanted his name up in lights in some fake private dick’s hall of fame. What Marlin did was get this writer, kind of well- known for writing racy pulp fiction crime detection novels, a guy named Raymond Chandler, to “ghost” the story for him. Between Marlin’s vivid imagination and Chandler’s excessive literary license they balled the whole story up, balled it up pretty bad. So Bernie with his own leisure time, his peace time, hired me to “ghost” his true version of the case-the Eddie Miles bust. The only thing that Bernie and Marlin, the late Phillip Marlin who had his check cashed down in sunny Mexico one back alley night when he was looking for a fugitive named Terry Manning, agreed on was that Bernie had handed him a private job for General Guy Sternwood. Yeah, Sternwood the guy who turned the La Brea tar pits into gold-for himself and his. He was having trouble with one of his wild daughters and needed a guy who could handle the fix he had been put in by her posing for raw, today they would say kinky, nude photographs and guys were looking for dough, serious dough for the negatives-or else. Here is how it really played out from that agreed point on.             

Marlin had shown up at the General’s mansion one sunny summer afternoon up in the hills of Bay City far from the humidity and dust and far from the sight of those still-producing oil pumps that got him the place on the hill. Before he could be invited into the General’s bedroom (the General would enumerate more health issues than seemed possible for a breathing human being and he had been under doctor’s to keep to his bed, his now bed-office) he was confronted by one of the wild daughters, the younger one Carol. She had asked him, once she had looked him up and down in a way usually reserved for guys and figured him for a tumbler, if once he had finished talking to her father he wanted a good time in her room. She also told him that she did not care what her father wanted she wanted those nude photos circulated, wanted to be a Hollywood starlet just like Eddie Miles had promised. Wanted all the boys to get big in the pants when they snuck a peak at her luscious body doing nasty little things (and it was luscious according to Marlin-Bernie rated her as a good afternoon fuck and then get the hell out of town).

Phil had told Bernie, and more importantly had told Chandler who retailed the story, that he never had gone into her room after speaking with the General with whom he had accepted the assignment to act as go-between to Eddie in order to get the freaking photos and negatives back to be burned. According to Norris, the trusty butler, a guy who had no ax to grind then, was the General’s eyes and ears in those days (and was stealing him blind since he had control of household checking accounts-like manna from heaven if a guy knew how to fudge the books just so and old Norris had the game down pat) told him that he had seen Marlin coming out of Carol’s room disheveled and glassy-eyed like she had taken him around the world.

That is the real reason Marlin never got anywhere trying to get those photographs back. He would always argue that the General was maybe hot to trot to get the pictures after all he could hardly face his social equals when his daughter was front and center in some low-rent “girlie” magazine (where in the end they would wind up courtesy of Carol sending an agent to one of those publications begging them to put them in the magazine). But the real reason he hired Marlin was he was looking to find out what had happened to his trusted confidante, Rex Randall, who had apparently run off with Eddie Miles’ girlfriend to parts unknown. (Phil had dismissed the run away and elope story as so much eyewash but Bernie knew, had reason to know that Eddie was carrying a big torch for the broad and who knows what he might have done with Rex). Rex a guy Phil knew from the days when Rex was managing a guy in Half Moon Bay dope operations and grapping all the ass he could from young things who were ready to do anything to get something for the head-anything. Bernie knew of him but even then knowing about Eddie’s big torch figured that Rex was sleeping out in the bay somewhere with a sack of rocks tied to him.                

So Phil went through the paces, went through the motions of trying to earn his big bonus-attached (not for the Rex part-for the fucking nude pics), and had met Laura the older daughter as he was leaving his sister’s room. He always claimed he never met her then but had been in the General’s bed-side office after having swigged a couple of high-shelf brandies to seal the deal and then left to pursue justice some such bullshit. Although she wasn’t as photograph pretty as her younger sister Carol she was just as wild, her lovely vices gambling and cases of scotched devoured. Needless to say the story gets jumbled up again when Marlin later denied that he tumbled to her bedroom eyes proposition but Norris once again put paid to that lie since early the next morning he had seen Marlin, disheveled, glassy-eyed and looking sexually-sated (how Norris knew that was the case in England where he had learned the butler trade he had had his fill of such meanderings from the nobility that he had been in service  to-said they had the morals of a great white shark-none). The worse part of that tryst with Laura was that he had spilled the beans about the General’s desire to see what had happened to Rex to Eddie Miles whom she was in hock to for gambling debts at his off-shore casino (and as it turned out had been trying to get out from under by fucking Eddie and a couple of his boys to death-yeah, the morals of a shark- a resourceful girl no question).

Marlin after having his fill of the Sternwood young women then “got to work,” hit the library to see about old rare books and their provences since he assumed that the photos of Carol would wind up in some high-end antique bookstore used as a front for select clientele to “borrow” such fare (some of them when the lists became public later friends of the General who must have gloated and a veritable who’s who at the Bay City Golf Club-yeah, the morals of a shark all the way around). (It was only later that Carol got that agent to hustle his photo-ass to the “girlies” once they had been used at Eddie’s trial since they “belonged” to her). Phil did a perfunctory search of all the old-timey bookstores in town, got nowhere and laid low for a few days before telling the General he was hot on the case and told him that he needed some walking around money to go to Eddies’ casino off-shore. Norris set him up with a cool thou-not bad for walking around money-then anyway. 

One night, the first night he ran into one Eddie Miles, he also ran into Laura losing a load at the tables but smiling about it as she gave him a come hither look that would snow (later when they were in closer proximity she offered to take him out to her car for a little off-hand tryst-which after he had finished up with Eddie he gladly took her up on funny how that time appeared on his bill when it came time to close up accounts with Norris. Services rendered. So another glassy-eyed night with a Sternwood sister. He had gotten nowhere asking Eddie Miles where his wife was and about the rumor that she had taken a powder with Rex-the General’s confidante.  Getting nowhere fast on this case. Getting nothing on Eddie either. 

Then the great break-through although it was really only Marlin falling into something after another guy, a guy he could have saved by all the evidence but he had gotten “cold feet” when the deal went down. It seems that one of the clerks, Iris, a comely female clerk that he had taken into the stockroom one rainy afternoon, at Ye Olde Bookstore had had a boyfriend who had been acting as an agent for Eddie Miles in trying to unload Carol’s sulky nude photos. Somehow he had had trouble moving the merchandise and Eddie dumped him-dumped him literally in the bay for some purpose-or np purpose. Oh, not Eddie personally-Edward Miles did not do his own dirty work but had his number one boy, The Camino Kid, a bad-ass no question throw a sack over the boyfriend’s head and put a few stones in the mix and let him sink and sleep with the fishes off the bow of  Eddie’s casino liner. Nice boy. The girlfriend after getting friendly with Phil that afternoon loosened up by a few drinks had spilled the beans about the boyfriend number one after she had got herself another beau. To even the score with Eddie though she was ready to tell Marlin where Eddie’s wife was-for a couple of hundred bucks to blow town with. Marlin agreed and was to meet the new beau, a square little guy who probably was too short for that ravishing clerk.        
That boyfriend number two, Harry, wasn’t any luckier than number one since he was acting as go-between for Iris with Marlin (Iris a girl who had her charms apparently but who always left standing unlike her beaus). They were supposed to meet at Harry’s office but the Camino Kid got there first while Phil was hiding in an anteroom. The Kid’s chore that day to get Harry to clam up about Eddie’s wife’s whereabouts. The little guy held out though-Iris must have had something he had not noticed that afternoon in the stockroom. Yeah, paid with his life for protecting his honey while Marlin stood breathless in the next fucking room. Here is where the wheels turned though. The cops, Bernie and his partner, were tailing the Camino Kid since the Iris’ boyfriend number one washed up on shore tied up in a sack just the way the Camino Kid liked to finish up his handiwork. They were able to follow him to the backroads of Ocean City the next town over where he stopped at an old house set back from the road. Waiting at the door was Eddie Miles’ wife. No sign of Rex though.         

Earlier back at Harry’s office Marlin had gotten out of his deep freeze long enough to follow Bernie’s police vehicle to that lonely country road. That is why Marlin claimed he took the Camino Kid out. That the fire -power that did the Kid in when he resisted arrest and started ban-banging had come from his weapon. Claimed he “saved” Bernie’s partner who was a dead man if he hadn’t shot the Kid first. Since he was using a police special (he had never turned in his gun when he was fired from the cops figuring he would need a weapon as a private dick) who the hell would have known. Bernie knew for a fact that he had winged the Kid and then doubled-down on him. He had heard no additional shots. Chalk one bad guy gone up for Bernie if you are keeping score. That action is what got him in on the deal when the Staties went after Eddie Miles and his henchmen.

As for Rex, well, here is where things get weird, where what the rich or do not do gets sealed with seven seals. Carol, and Marlin should have seen this coming given his own experiences with the girls, had killed Rex one afternoon when he would not give her a tumble. Carol did not like not being obeyed when she had her wanting habits on. That is why Marlin got taken around the world that day he went into the General’s hire. Laura had covered up for her sister-also why he gotten taken around the world by her. They had him figured as a sex-addled guy and they knew their mark. Marlin out of respect for the old man and his troubles with those wild sisters let it ride. Let the old man fade into his endless sleep not knowing he had sired two monsters. Before he left that hillside mansion though he made sure he got his full rate and expenses. That’s the real “skinny” forget all that other self-serving stuff.          
Where The Money Is-Martin Scorsese’ “Casino” (1995)-A Film Review  

DVD Review 

Sam Lowell

Casino, starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, directed by Martin Scorsese, 1995

The old-time bank robber extraordinaire, Willy Sutton, was once quoted as saying when asked by the authorities why he robbed banks his reply was that is where the money is. Sound enough at the time. But as the film under review, Martin Scorsese’ Casino makes at times painfully clear the banks are not the only place where there is plenty of dough-the gambling rooms in Las Vegas have plenty although despite Danny Ocean and his crew in the Ocean trilogy you probably would be better off, much better off, taking your chances against the bank vaults. Particularly during the time frame of this film in the 1970s when the Mob, the wise guys, ran the place, ran the cash cow casinos as a skimming operation. Since this film is loosely based on a true story a word to the wise should be sufficient.     
Here is the way the wheel spun on this one. Sam Rothstein, played by long time Martin Scorsese favored actor Robert De Niro, an accomplished gambler is hired by the guys with snub noses, the Mob, to run their pot of gold casino, the Tangiers. The idea apparently was that a guy who knew all the gambling angles would keep some order in a place that where there is so much money around it would be very tempting to grab a little something for yourself. And he did a good job for a long time by being a hard-case. But here is the funny thing-the Mob, the Italian mob, was happy to hire the Jewish Rothstein but he was not one of the own, neither in the mob nor Italian so they added a layer of security by sending Nicky the enforcer, played by Joe Pesci, to keep an eye on things. (And they would throw another layer to watch the wild man Nicky go through his paces once he got too crazy.       

For a long while with Sam getting rid of the card-counters and other cheaters unceremoniously and Nicky taking care of any other business that required his specialized and brutal skills everything was fine. The mob was getting their “skim” and that was in the end what counted. During this time though Sam got all hot and bothered by a, well, let’s call her a party girl, Ginger played by Sharon Stone whom, he eventually married and had a child with. He was willing to give her the world but was still hung up on a youthful love who was a loser. The tensions between them drives a great deal of the film.    

Sam’s control over Ginger got her going on alcohol and dope scenes which created nothing but havoc in their household. In casino world things were also taking a turn for the worst. The FBI started an investigation which ultimately led to the arrests of a number of Midwest crime bosses. Eventually Ginger split and wound up very dead of a drug overdose in L.A. As for Nicky, the wild man, he not only had an affair with Ginger before she split but ran his operation in Vegas like it was back in the old neighborhoods. He had to go-and died a gruesome death. As for Sam he said it himself he wound up where he started- handicapping for the mob boys. See why I say take Willie’s advice.          

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Brothers’ War-Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night” (1996)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Sam Lowell

The Big Night, Stanley Tucci, Minnie Diver, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub (1996) 

Everybody knows, everybody who frequents restaurants on a regular basis in any case knows that keeping them afloat for a long time is a tough dollar. The profit margins are low, aide only by the bailout liquor part of the bill, culinary trends change or service declines. All those conditions lead to a high turnover rate even among the better eateries. That hard fact is what sets the stage the film under review, The Big Night, in which all the problems of the industry are laid out and exacerbated by the temperamental perfection chef - owner and his manager-owner brother in the brothers’ war of the headline.   

Here is how the Italian food wars played out. A pair of Italian immigrant brothers, Primo, a perfectionist old school chef played by Tony Shalhoub, and Secondo, the manager of the restaurant find themselves in paradise on the Jersey shores. (Oops the restaurant was named Paradise there is no paradise in Jersey they have outlawed it there) They slave and strive to make a go of the place except perfectionist Promo will only plate A-1 food in a world that is on the go and happy with microwave whatever. Secondo tries to reason with him to give the people what they want to eat. But the entreaties fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile the very average joint up the street is serving “Amercianized” Italian food and succeeding. Perfection costs though and no customers as well and in the end the banks won’t lend any more money and are ready to foreclose. End of dream and maybe back to the back streets of Italy for the boys.

Secondo tries to hustle a loan from the owner of the successful restaurant up the street but no soap. What the owner does propose is to get his friend, Louis Prima, the big name bandleader who lit up the skies in the 1950s musical night (the non-rock and roll musical night which I was enmeshed in and did not come to appreciate Prima until much later) to patronize the brothers’ place one night for a food extravaganza experience. That imprimatur would insure the success of the operation in the future. What is good enough for Prima is good enough for everybody else was the hook. The brothers bought into the plan and made provision to have an all-out foodies’ paradise that night.       

The night of the big event an assortment of neighborhood people were invited as well. While they are waiting and drinking the brothers are putting on the after-burners to impress Mister Prima. As the night goes on and Prima does not show the brothers finally ladle out the food. By the end of dinner still no Prima. Then the wife of the owner who proposed the plan, Gabriella, played by the comely Isabella Rossellini, lets the cat out of the bag-her husband did not phone Prima to come. Wanted for his own reason to let the brothers go under and work for him. When the hard reality of their going under finally hits them the brothers let loose their accumulated frustrations and fight each other only in the last scene to reconcile and accept their fates.     

Oh yeah, although the pretty food was center stage here there was some romantic interest as well otherwise why have Isabella and Phyllis, played Minnie Diver, around to pretty up the human end of the scene. Get this though Secondo was having an affair with Gabriella while holding Phyllis at arm’s length on the marriage question with his girlfriend. Now despite what the trickster owner said you have a very good reason why he told his revenge the way he did. Phyllis just walked away. Good flick.      
Christmas in the Trenches, 1914

By the end of November 1914 the crushing German advance that had swallowed the Low Countries and threatened France had been checked by the allies before it could reach Paris. The opposing armies stared at each other from a line of hastily built defensive trenches that began at the edge of the English Channel and continued to the border of Switzerland. Barbed wire and parapets defended the trenches and between them stretched a "No-Mans-Land" that in some areas was no more than 30 yards wide.
British troops in the trenches
Life in the trenches was abominable. Continuous sniping, machinegun fire and artillery shelling took a deadly toll. The misery was heightened by the ravages of Mother Nature, including rain, snow and cold. Many of the trenches, especially those in the low-lying British sector to the west, were continually flooded, exposing the troops to frost bite and "trench foot."
This treacherous monotony was briefly interrupted during an unofficial and spontaneous "Christmas Truce" that began on Christmas Eve. Both sides had received Christmas packages of food and presents. The clear skies that ended the rain further lifted the spirits on both sides of no-mans-land.
The Germans seem to have made the first move. During the evening of December 24 they delivered a chocolate cake to the British line accompanied by a note that proposed a cease fire so that the Germans could have a concert. The British accepted the proposal and offered some tobacco as their present to the Germans. The good will soon spread along the 27-mile length of the British line. Enemy soldiers shouted to one another from the trenches, joined in singing songs and soon met one another in the middle of no-mans-land to talk, exchange gifts and in some areas to take part in impromptu soccer matches.
The high command on both sides took a dim view of the activities and orders were issued to stop the fraternizing with varying results. In some areas the truce ended Christmas Day in others the following day and in others it extended into January. One thing is for sure - it never happened again.
"We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land."
Frank Richards was a British soldier who experienced the "Christmas Truce". We join his story on Christmas morning 1914:
"On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'A Merry Christmas' on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours' rest - it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit - and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.
Buffalo Bill [the Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man's-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.
We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn't the only one that was fed up with it. We did not allow them in our trench and they did not allow us in theirs.
The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assured him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another's health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.
British and German troops
mingle in No Mans Land
Christmas 1914
...The two barrels of beer were drunk, and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff.
Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did. At night there was always plenty of firing by both sides if there were no working parties or patrols out. Mr Richardson, a young officer who had just joined the Battalion and was now a platoon officer in my company wrote a poem during the night about the Briton and the Bosche meeting in no-man's-land on Christmas Day, which he read out to us. A few days later it was published in The Times or Morning Post, I believe.
During the whole of Boxing Day [the day after Christmas] we never fired a shot, and they the same, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling. One of their men shouted across in English and inquired how we had enjoyed the beer. We shouted back and told him it was very weak but that we were very grateful for it. We were conversing off and on during the whole of the day.
We were relieved that evening at dusk by a battalion of another brigade. We were mighty surprised as we had heard no whisper of any relief during the day. We told the men who relieved us how we had spent the last couple of days with the enemy, and they told us that by what they had been told the whole of the British troops in the line, with one or two exceptions, had mucked in with the enemy. They had only been out of action themselves forty-eight hours after being twenty-eight days in the front-line trenches. They also told us that the French people had heard how we had spent Christmas Day and were saying all manner of nasty things about the British Army."
   This eyewitness account appears in Richards, Frank, Old Soldiers Never Die (1933); Keegan, John, The First World War (1999); Simkins, Peter, World War I, the Western Front (1991).

Thursday, December 22, 2016

When Rules Don’t Apply-Martin Scorsese’s “Aviator” (2004)-A Film Review      

DVD Review

By Sam Lowell

Aviator, starring Leonardo DeCaprio, Cate Blanchett and
an all-star cast, directed by Martin Scorsese, 2004   

Recently I reviewed a new film by an old time actor-director, 1960s-70s old time if you can believe that is now old time, Warren Beatty, under the title Rules Don’t Apply, giving his take, his homage really to the larger than life profile of Howard Hughes who epitomized for the generation of ’68 the craziness of having too much money in your pocket, of having too much discretionary dough to play around with. I led off with the following remarks:

“Billionaires these days are a dime a dozen, well maybe not that cheap but they are relatively more common than fifty or sixty years ago when a billion dollars was more than just walking around money. And like today most of the serious billionaires kept a low profile. But a guy like Howard Hughes (and today a guy President-elect Trump) liked to keep his name before the public if not his face. That simply premise is what drives this Warren Beatty-directed and written story line in the film under review, Rules Don’t Apply, although one could argue that the presence of the huge figure of Hughes was just a cover for a classic romantic comedy about the on and off again romance of a couple of underlings in his organization with a little bit of drama about Hughes’ various financial doings and exploits thrown in…”

That little film though actually only covered Hughes’ later years when he had lost some of his pizazz and maybe a great deal of his mental facilities. The film under review here Martin Scorsese’s “Aviator” takes a close look at the man when he was a swash-buckling aviator (something the film takes great care to emphasize presumably based on some comment Hughes had made when asked of all the various projects he had undertaken what did he consider himself in the grand scheme of things), inventor(including some very scary looking aircraft-scary because they from a visual perspective looked less than air-worthy), cutthroat aviation businessman (TWA when that was a huge name in aviation right alongside its vicious cutthroat competitor Pan Am)-and a devil-may-care film director with a harem (let’s call a thing by its right name) of up and coming starlets and a few stray established stars to boot (Kate Hepburn, Ava Gardner for openers).          

Hughes, played here by Leonardo DeCaprio, reflecting the youth angle that Scorsese was looking at, was a man driven by many passions and many phobias instilled at an early age. If those passions included a passion for his various flames (especially Hepburn and Gardner) as opposed to a desire to control some very strong-willed women it was not apparent from his demeanor in the film. On the other hand despite his stormy, bossy and controlling ways he really did love aviation-loved to fly and that came through as well. Also coming through was his sense of perfectionism as exhibited in the scenes where he is directing the originally silent film, Hell’s Angels, and anytime he got within two feet of any aircraft. Throughout the film we are witness as well to his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which at points paralyzed him and would eventually lead to at least one mental breakdown. In the end his was not a very sympathetic character but no question his was one of the big captains of industry in the days when humankind was taming the skies in the first half of the 20th century. The all-star cast led by Cate Blanchett (as Hepburn) aided the flow of the film which otherwise would have been overwhelmed by the personality of Hughes as Scorsese conceived this biopic.    

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Empress Of The Blues- Queen Latifah’s “Bessie” (2015)-An HBO Film Review 

DVD Review

By Sam Lowell
Bessie, starring Queen Latifah (who else in this century could do the role as well), HBO, 2015   

One sunny afternoon in the mid-1960s, come on I don’t remember if it was sunny or not but the day would be sunny for another reason, I was trolling the Paperback Booksmith in Harvard Square (that institution, the bookstore, of blessed memory long gone as have most of the brick and mortal bookstores in the age of e-commerce) when I heard this old-time bluesy woman’s voice coming over the store’s speaker system, an amenity that most such places had then to set a certain mood. (You could always tell as far as bookstores went who they were catering to –the Paperback Booksmith tended toward blues and classic jazz a la Billie Holiday, the Harvard Bookstore to classical, The Globe to folk music, hell, they were located above a coffeehouse then what else would they play, and Frank’s (mostly second-hand books) to jazz).

I was so intrigued by the voice that I asked one of the clerks whose voice was beaming over the speakers. She, without lifting an eyebrow or her head from whatever she was concentrating on said, “Come on you don’t know Bessie Smith when you hear that voice, where have you been?” Of course in those days unlike the canned random selection stuff today in most stores she had, as she explained to me once she had finished her task, the staff, her, played whatever records, vinyl records, okay, they wanted on the record player. Her thing was Bessie Smith so Bessie it was playing for all the blues-soaked world to hear.

That voice haunted me the rest of the day (as did that snippy way that clerk had cut me to the quick although the next time I went to that bookstore I wound up getting her telephone number and had a few dates with her on the basis of my new enthusiasm for Bessie and my “desire” to learn all about her music but that is a story for another day.  I was serious though when I said I was “trolling” the bookstore and had been ever since a friend of mine had told me that such places were good “pick-up” spots for intellectual young women who might give you a verbal workout and who knows what else. A guy had a fighting chance in that locale, in a bookstore, those intellectual young women figuring that if you were in a bookstore you could at least read and maybe form complete sentences and you probably were not some Neanderthal ready to pounce-they tended to work the bar scene).                       

This is Bessie’s story though so forget all that other stuff. Well it is almost all Bessie’s story once you learn how I became a devotee back in the mid-1960s and thus would have reason to pick up an HBO DVD in 2016 about her working career back in the 1920s and 1930s when she went “from hunger” to big-time stardom and back-probably one of the early crossover singers-crossover here meaning a black woman who white audiences, at least hip white audiences, could relate to long before guys like rock and roller Chuck Berry did in the 1950s when he told Beethoven to roll over a new sheriff was in town. After that voice haunted me, couldn’t get the song out of my head all day, Empty Bed Blues was the song if I didn’t mention it before I did what came naturally I went back to my growing up home in Riverdale, a town about forty miles west of Cambridge to check with my friend, Pete Markin, the now long gone late Peter Paul Markin to see what he knew about her.

See I was/am a child of rock and roll and while back then I was influenced by some blues stuff if it passed through the rock filter like that Chuck Berry who just mentioned I was not knowledgeable about the genre then. Markin was the “max daddy” as he called himself of everything in the blues night. He had become an aficionado, had dragged the rest of us somewhat kicking and screaming to at least a surface appreciation of the art form by accident. He had been trying to get Rockin’ Eddie’s Rock and Roll Hour on the locale radio station, WJDA, one Sunday night (I won’t say one dark Sunday since I don’t remember Peter saying what kind of night it was and I would not remember this far removed what kind of night it was anyhow) when he got some static on his transistor radio and then clear as a bell Be-Bop’s Benny Blues Hour out of WABC in Chicago came ripping through the night. The song that was being played when he tuned in was Howlin’ Wolf’s (via Willie Dixon) Little Red Rooster and that was all it took. (Markin had actually heard that song covered by the Rolling Stones on rock station WMEX after the ban against had been lifted in Boston but that gravelly voice of the Wolf coming out of some Delta mist had put Mick to shame.) After that night you almost couldn’t talk to Markin about sassy old rock without him coming at you with the blues genesis theory of the birth of rock and roll. He had picked up on Bessie and many of the other female blues singers like Ma Rainey, Mame Smith, the salacious Lucille Bogan, Memphis Minnie and a bunch of other women named Smith (maybe they were hiding from something or someone with that common name-or maybe Smith DNA naturally gravitated toward the blues. The women actually were more popular back in those days than the men.             

So Markin had, as was his wont, filled me in on more than I would ever need to know about Bessie, about the Empress of the Blues as he called her without a hint of mockery in his voice. (I had personally over the years drifted to the bluesy jazzy voice of Billie Holliday who I would have dubbed the Empress if we were going for royal titles in a democratic age). Told about her tough cotton field beginnings and her tragic Mister James Crow-induced death at a fairly early age. Turned me on to a few of her classics like Down-Hearted Blues, Gin House Blues  and Hustlin’ Dan. A few days later (the same day I went back to Paperback Booksmith to “pick-up” that snippy clerk) I went to Sandy’s Record Shop located between Harvard and Central Square to see what he had in stock (last I knew he was still there-at least he was a couple of years ago). Lucky me I was able to get a second-hand set of four double sides albums (with liner notes intact) put out by Columbia Records. I still have all those scratched to perdition records. Ah, very heaven.             

So when I was browsing the Amazon site for some DVDs recently it was not a stretch, I didn’t have to scratch my head to figure out who she was and to see what Queen Latifah had done with a biopic of Bessie. I am here to say that Queen Latifah is Bessie. Not necessarily in her mannerisms, in her style or even in her voice but the whole performance left me speechless. You could almost see the “ghost” of Bessie coming barrel-assing at you at one hundred and ten. If you don’t believe me check the video on YouTube of Bessie singing Saint Louis Blues.