Santa, Kim and Ray Liotta's brother...
The greatest concert I've ever attended came from a guy in his seventies.
The guy was Link Wray and the place was some shithole in Portland Oregon. A good few years had passed since Quentin Tarantino featured Wray's famed "Rumble" in Pulp Fiction so he attracted a smaller crowd. The better for all of us. A lot of die-hard rockabillies, a smattering of old people, varied Wray fans and me. I stood in the front and watched one of rock n' roll's most influential guitar Gods kill. The highlight was when Wray handed me his guitar in the middle of "Rumble" and, in some bizarre trance-like state, I passed the thing through the crowd. It was safely returned back to Wray who, in spite of his dark image (Wray was one of the greatest looking leather clad rockers ever) and menacing sound, smiled broadly. I still have his pick, stashed safely in my jewelry box.
So Link Wray, born May 2, 1929, passed away (if you can read Danish here's his official obituary). The U.S. news is, so far, not reporting this--a major shame given how much Wray brought to American rock music. Distortion, feedback, the power cord and a raw, dirty, crunchy, heavy sound that everyone from Poison Ivy to Pete Towsend credit as most influential. Some even claim him the father of heavy metal. "Ace of Spades," "Jack the Ripper" and one of my favorites "Comanche" are just a few of his classics. And I've always loved that in 1957 "Rumble" was banned from a number of radio stations--banned for its menacing suggestion. There were no lyrics! Forget all those silly devil worshiping bands and industrial crap, Wray made true evil music! And he was a Christian.
Link Wray is gone. One of the coolest of the cool. Another true American original. In a sea of poser rock stars, poser non-rock stars, poser tough guys and poser musicians, he was pure rock and roll. He will not be forgotten.
To me, one of the saddest departures in recent TV history was Tracy Morgan from Saturday Night Live. The seven-year member was my longstanding favorite. From his lounge lizard, sexually obnoxious Astronaut Jones to his poignant homeless romantic Woodrow to the hilariously self absorbed, flamboyant "Safari Planet" host Brian Fellow, Morgan always nailed it with a unique sense of timing and delivery that's incomparable to other funny-men. The frequently genius Will Ferrell is deservedly, the bust out star of the show, but Morgan’s characters were as consistently funny, as perfectly weird and as wonderfully timeless. And, as much as I love Dave Chappelle, I still think “I’m Brian Fellow” is funnier than “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”
Here to discuss the DVD release of Are We There Yet?, in which he voices Ice Cube’s advise-giving bobble head Satchel Paige and his newest film, The Longest Yard where he dons drag as a prison transvestite, the Brooklyn native took time out to talk with me on the phone. Funny, but often very serious (why is that not surprising?), Morgan is an ingratiating, thoughtful guy who's proud of his profession ("the most noble"). After discussing our similar last names (no, shockingly, we're not related) and a brief chat with his wife (Tracy passed the phone over so I could talk to her), Morgan covers his films, his days at SNL, his new career path, growing up in poverty and his old pal, Mike Tyson.
T. MORGAN: Kim! How ya doing?
K. MORGAN: I’m good.
T. MORGAN: I’m sitting here with my wife watching The Godfather—one of my favorite movies.
K. MORGAN: Which part are you at?
T. MORGAN: Right now is when Michael Corleone after he kills the cop and the gangster and he meets his first girlfriend—they’ve just met that’s what I’m watching right now…
K. MORGAN: Oh she’s going to die soon…that part’s so sad.
T. MORGAN: I know…but I’m totally into this interview so shoot!
K. MORGAN: I know this is an oft asked question, but I’m always curious about people’s influences, especially comedians—because they’re not always who people think. And how that shapes your humor.
T. MORGAN: Well, I had a lot of funny people in my life—my uncles, my father—all funny. And then there are legends like Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason and Eddie Murphy—all those people. But you know, there’s also my natural ability that I was born with. It’s just a feeling I get. Comedy is a feeling—you feel funny. Some people are funny when they open their mouth and then some people are funny when the walk into a room.
K. MORGAN: I think you fall into both of those categories.
T. MORGAN: Thank You!
K. MORGAN: It was especially apparent on SNL where you could really just stare at the camera in say, Brian Fellow mode, and be funny. Just the way you moved your head would make me laugh. You were so damn good on that show.
T. MORGAN: Thank you! Wow, that’s nice; I don’t really know what to say. [But SNL] that was a learning time for me. Like, being on SNL prepares you to do a voice over of Satchel Paige [in Are We There Yet?] — that’s where I learned to do voice-overs.
K. MORGAN: I like that the film and really, Ice Cube who made the final decision, chose Satchel Paige as Cube’s sport’s hero, not someone more current or obvious.
T. MORGAN: I hope I did Satchel Paige some justice. He’s a great American hero. Also for me it was great being a big fan of the Negro league. A lot of people forgot about that league.
K. MORGAN: What else attracted you to this film?
T. MORGAN: It was working with the kids, it was working with Ice Cube, it was a culmination. I really wanted to do a movie like that. I thought it was good for the young people.
K. MORGAN: You just had your premiere for The Longest Yard—how was it received?
T. MORGAN: I’m excited about this movie. I don’t know if its career defining or anything like that and I don’t set out to have a career defining movie or anything…I just hope that people enjoy the movie and enjoy the role that I play. And, if I was a football player or one of the guards I wouldn’t have stuck out. I hope people enjoy it and have fun with it
K. MORGAN: You’ve played in drag before, but were there any extra challenges in doing drag in this case?
T. MORGAN: Yeah! This is a guy’s guy movie; it takes place in a prison, and you all know the nature of a transvestite in prison. I mean, and there so much testosterone on the set ,so many guys and like, 3000 extras so my character sticks out as pretty controversial. But you know, I’m committed to the character and so probably made people uncomfortable. No guy wants to get caught smiling and laughing with a transvestite
K. MORGAN: How was it working with the cast?
T. MORGAN: It was the coolest working on that set. Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds. And Adam Sandler is one of the coolest, most down to earth guys so we all had fun. And Burt’s an icon— he’s the coolest dude in the world. AND the thing about this movie is that this generation will now be familiar with the first movie and Burt. He’s back on top again. He’s got a whole new fan base of kids who weren’t even born 30 something years ago. The first one came out over 30 years ago! I hope I achieve that level of longevity and success in this business.
K. MORGAN: I hope so too.
T. MORGAN: I don’t know…but God bless your soul Kim…
K. MORGAN: How did you get started in the business—I’ve never really known.
T. MORGAN: The answer to that is like this: I don’t know either. I really don’t. It’s been in me. What’s in us is our nature and we can’t really change our true nature. It’s just in my true nature to be funny. Whatever you see Kim is natural for me. Outside of me, people are going to say this or that about me, trying to define me. They like to psychoanalyze us comedians, but again, it’s in our nature! That’s what I believe.
K. MORGAN: So you’re basically saying it’s genetic for some people to be funny. What about your environment?
T. MORGAN: It’s genetic—but some of it was shaped by our environment. [In my case] Growing up in poverty, we had to entertain ourselves. Growing up in poverty you didn’t have the money to go to Disneyworld. So, it was like a sedative— the guys getting on the porch and Jones-ing on each other— that made us forget the pains of poverty. That’s what helped me along the way, not just SNL but all of that shaped me. Like when my Uncle would come out with mismatched socks on, he got jones’d on; snapped on (laughs), so all of that shaped me. And, in high school, in that social structure I was the class clown so I had a title.
K. MORGAN: And you started in and still do stand-up
T. MORGAN: Standup is my foundation; it’s my freedom. It’s the most noble thing in the world. Being a comedian is the most noble thing in the world. People may not agree but look at me in [The Longest Yard]; it takes a real man to put a dress on in prison. I could have got torn apart but I’m strong. And the women love that. My female fans love me, and I love them back. I identify. . I’m not just relying on my macho side…being in a room with women and studying them; the details…female fans go crazy: “Wow! He knows us!” That’s ‘cause I got a wife, I got a sister, I was hatched out of an egg. I’m not that self centered and self absorbed, I’m reflective. And women love men who are affectionate and open up. When they’re not afraid of showing that feminine side. And every man, I don’t care how muscle bound or macho you are—you came from a woman dude! Your mother used to kiss you dude. We grow up and egos flair up and machismo, I never let that define me, I’m a comedian. I’m not Nelly, I’m not Michael Irvin. What I do is funny, I don’t do the sexy. And women find that sexy. If you can make a woman laugh, they’ll love you forever.
K. MORGAN: Let’s talk about some of your SNL characters. I loved Woodrow...
T. MORGAN: He’s reality based—if you look at Woodrow, he’s a tragic figure. All in ten minutes you cry and you laugh.
K. MORGAN: And Brian Fellow…who was he based on?
T. MORGAN: Oh man! Me and my wife! My wife knew a flamboyant guy like that. But we all know a Brian Fellow— the outfit the glasses and the lip-gloss. And he doesn’t care about nothing but plugging his name. But you know what people love about Brian Fellow? His attitude, all those feminine characters I play have that attitude.
K. MORGAN: And Astronaut Jones…
T. MORGAN: He’s just a perv. He’s the sexual harassment charge of NASA. And with the music and introduction, I was thinking in terms of Sammie Davis Jr.
K. MORGAN: Do you have a favorite?
T. MORGAN: I don’t know if I have one favorite character but the one closest to me is Woodrow, because he was an underdog but he was passionate and caring.
K. MORGAN: You must have had some strange fans come up to you all the time.
T. MORGAN: (Laughs) They’re going to be even stranger when they see this movie!
K. MORGAN: What’s the weirdest thing that ever happened?
T. MORGAN: What’s the weirdest or the worst?
K. MORGAN: Either or both.
T. MORGAN: The freakiest is when female fans like to bare their breasts at me. I was on stage one time and a female fan threw her panties on stage—putting me in the range of Teddy Pendergrass! But I think the worst was…this white guy, a big fan, walked up to me and said “You’re a funny nigger” and I said “Thank you.” That’s America I guess, but then, I don’t judge a culture by one person, everybody’s not like that for the most part, people are kind to me and they appreciate my art and craft.
K. MORGAN: You must have people coming up and doing your SNL characters at you.
T. MORGAN: All the time. Brian fellows, Astronaut Jones…there’s like a Brian Fellow movement.
K. MORGAN: Any celebrities contact you about impressions?
T. MORGAN: No, Star Jones didn’t mind…
K. MORGAN: What about Mike Tyson, you guys are friends.
T. MORGAN: I’m good friends with Mike Tyson. I grew up with him. That’s my dude.
K. MORGAN: Mike Tyson is actually a really funny guy.
T. MORGAN: People don’t know that about him! People won’t give the other side a chance…he’s so sweet man, he’s cool. He was just so young and successful at such a young age, and…he didn’t have nobody, not nobody that cared about him…you know at this point of my career, I’m only caring about people who care about me.
K. MORGAN: Is that easier or harder when it comes to the business?
T. MORGAN: I don’t think of it as a business, I think of it as life, cause if you’re hanging out with people that don’t care about you, that’s bad I don’t care about how much money or business you’re doing…its just not good, it doesn’t make sense. One and one still make two to me. You know, at some point we’re human beings, that’s the bottom line, that’s the deep reality of things. We gotta start caring about each other on this planet, I mean; we’re at war and wars like all around us. That’s the little white dove inside of me…
K. MORGAN: So what’s next for you?
T. MORGAN: Oh Darling…My favorite answer to that question is, I like to leave it in God’s hands.
I love Faye Dunaway. I loved her from the first movie I watched her in (Bonnie and Clyde) to the time I saw her in the flesh a few years ago at the Arc Light Theater on Sunset. Standing behind a small woman in the concession line before dipping into I Heart Huckabees, this woman began yelling at the employees. They were taking forever and she wanted her root beer now dammit! Not knowing who the person attempting to start a mutiny against the Arclight employees was and noticing the poor workers maniacally fixing a broken till, I said, “Come on. Calm down. They’re having some problems.”
And then, to my shock, the head that whips around to take a look at me is none other than Faye Dunaway. She says (with that unmistakable Dunaway boldness mixed with a giggle): “But we’re going to be late to our movie!”
Shocked that I had just unknowingly told one of my favorite stars to “calm down” and agreeing that being late for a movie is a huge pet peeve of mine, I was happy that she didn’t mind my slight admonishing. Instead, she became sweet (to us patrons anyway) and asked people what movies they were seeing—“I Heart Huckabees.” “Oh, I heard that’s good—I need to see that.” What was Ms. Dunaway going to be late for? “Shark Tale.” Giving me that nervous smile, and grabbing her soda, the diva in her shiny sweat gear and baseball cap bolted into the crappy animated adventure.
I almost wanted to cry.
The guy in line said: “Did you know who that was?”
Well yes, but not at first. Though she did have that something—even while standing behind her I noticed it. And when she turned to look at me it was absolutely electric. I don’t care how much older she is. I don’t care if she’s had work. I don’t care if her hair was scrunched into a not-too-concealing cap—This is a star.
Which is why I always found it disconcerting that the WB reality show, The Starlet, would call Faye Dunaway the ultimate of its title. The gorgeous, powerful star of (to name just a few) Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Chinatown, Network, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Mommie Dearest and Barfly a starlet? I think not.
Just as the word “diva” has been distorted by the likes of Mariah Carey (though Whitney Houston has earned her, drug problems alone), "starlet" is Norma Jean before Marilyn, Lana Turner as a teenaged sweater girl, Alicia Silverstone in all those Aerosmith videos. Sure, Faye had to start somewhere—but she was always off the charts. She must have been born with that neurotic poise, that quality in Chinatown that made the scene in which she discusses the flaw in her eye so vulnerably unique. I always love her small moments—like when she wolfes down her hamburger in Bonnie and Clyde or when she grabs all those corn cobs in Barfly, or the horror movie flicker of pent up rage directly before she smacks the shit out of Christina Crawford over the wire hanger fiasco. And no one, not even Joan Crawford could say, “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” with such beautiful determination.
Watching the past The Starlet, I had a mixture of pride and sadness for Dunaway. This was just proof that the Paddy Chayefsky penned Network—the film Faye won her Academy Award for— was brilliantly prophetic. But I loved watching Dunaway, even if the show revealed less about any of the aspirant's talents (they all had very little) and more about Hollywood's harshness for interesting women. Interesting older women. Yes, I was sucked into the competition, even though none of the girl’s showed the charisma of a Faye. And yes, the life imitating art/ “acting” in “realty” vs. “acting” for “real” aspect was a wonderfully entertaining satire in itself. Many of these girls acted better when being “real.” But knowing that superstar Faye has so much more in her than being TV’s greatest Simon Cowell (she’s more Addison DeWitt really) makes me kinda mad.
Not mad at her mind you, just mad at the dirt.
Now before you get all "but he did it!" on me, let us take into account the evidence. No eyewitnesses, no physical evidence, not even the gun could be traced to Blake. So whatever you think of Mr. Blake, it would have been seriously unjust had be been found guilty.
After keeping up on this trial, covering it on the radio long enough for me to move to another city and the station to change call letters, watching Baretta on DVD (which has an interesting first episode involving dinner, driving and the death of his fiancée) and most recently, Electra Glide in Blue I am relieved the same kid who played a young John Garfield in Humoresque is walking free. Sorry. No matter how dimestore novel this got (which made it all the more interesting), no matter how much Christian Brando's name came up (a friend of mine believes Christian Brando is connected to every major crime in Los Angeles) no matter how much motive the guy ("Little Sleazer" as James Ellroy coined him) had involving that mail-order huckster, well...you just never know.
We shall see what's next for little Mickey.
This is my LA Weekly essay and interview with Legs McNeil over his new book, "The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry." Added note--the prettiest porn actress was Marilyn Chambers who later went on to make David Cronenberg's masterful "Rabid."
One thing about pornography — it’s fucking hard to write about (pardon my French). I mean, how does one approach the subject? By striking a kind of swaggering, self-congratulatory, pro-pornography posture? (“Yeah, I really do like to ejaculate to Jenna Jameson!”) By taking the moral high ground? Or, God forbid, by making yet another lame joke about how bad the dialogue is in porn movies?
The truth of the matter is that most images of sex, moving or otherwise, are incredibly boring. Ditto discussions of sex, to say nothing of dissections of same. Though I revere Camille Paglia’s earlier, groundbreaking essays on pornography, my mind begins to drift when I read Charles Taylor waxing — honestly, but a bit too poetically for my taste — about “the golden age of porn,” or when Sally Tisdale starts talking dirty to me. When ingesting essays and books like these, I actually find myself longing for the insane rants of anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin, who’s at least entertaining in her psychotic fervor.
So much for the literati. What say pornographers themselves? Many insiders — responding eagerly to the opportunities presented by the nostalgia-tinged neo–“porn chic” so many writers and critics and professional sex enthusiasts have glommed onto of late — have indeed begun to find their voice. This revival of interest in the “good” old days, spurred on by porn star tell-alls (Jenna Jameson in particular) and, most recently, by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s entertaining if nothing-new documentary Inside Deep Throat (precipitating a re-release of the film that brought porn into the mainstream), offers a kind of “look but don’t touch” approach to the industry. Sure, the Deep Throat doc touches on the nasty side of things, but we also get the standard, self-serving tales of sexual liberation, First Amendment battles, cute ’70s clothes, and funky cars à la Dirk Diggler. But as Legs McNeil, co-author and indefatigable promoter of the exhaustive and immensely informative The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, remarked to me recently over lunch at Musso’s, “Deep Throat is a much bigger story than that. If your movie downplays the role of the Peraino family, then you don’t have the true story.”
That’s right, the Peraino family, its patriarch a made member of the Colombo crime family. Though the film well discusses the mob, you can forget Deep Throat filmmaker-cum-hairdresser Gerard Damiano, and Gore Vidal, and Helen Gurley Brown — all those preening pundits on Susskind and Cavett and Tom Snyder. It was the mob released Linda Lovelace’s sword-swallowing “little giggle” (as Norman Mailer put it), one of the most profitable independent films ever made.
This is just one of the many vital tidbits to be gleaned from The Other Hollywood, a smorgasbord of war stories — some funny, some wistful, many sleazy, many tragic, but all intriguing in the epic and ongoing chapter of the “other counterculture.” As those who’ve trudged in the frontlines discuss “the industry,” pornography becomes, finally, absorbing. McNeil, who also wrote that seminal bit of oral punk rock history Please Kill Me, eschews the familiar theoretical approaches to porn, citing Fordham University professor Walter Kendrick, who wrote in his book The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture: “Pornography turns writers and readers alike into amateur psychologists, who never ask what an object is; only what is meant by it . . . Pornography names an argument, not a thing.” Says McNeil: “What we [co-authors Jennifer Osborne and Peter Pavia] were trying to do was show you what it is. Then you can argue about it.”
Beginning with the relative innocence of what McNeil et al. term “nudie cuties” — e.g., Bettie Page, Bunny Yeager and underground genius Russ Meyer — The Other Hollywood traces porn from its original sleazy, mobbed-up business dealings as an illegal industry to its present status as a corporate entity reaping billions of dollars in profits. And they really get the people — Lovelace, Georgina Spelvin, Harry Reems, Marilyn Chambers, John Holmes, Annie Sprinkle, Traci Lords, Christy Canyon, Ginger Lynn, Savannah, Al Goldstein, Ron Jeremy and Larry Flynt, to name just a few. There are also the fascinating stories of the non-players at the periphery, the undercover FBI agents (including the one who took the pink-Cadillac, gold-medallion lifestyle so far he was eventually fired for shoplifting) and the girlfriends, like Dawn Schiller, John Holmes’ put-upon teen lover, who talks about how the nicest thing her dad ever did for her was hold her hair while she puked.
Though some of these participants and bystanders get out of the business alive, many don’t fare as well. There was Linda Lovelace’s claim that her manager and ex-husband Chuck Traynor held her captive while making Deep Throat (and her dog-sex loop as well), a story no one interviewed in the book believes. (The authors don’t believe her either.) There’s the murder of porn auteur Jim Mitchell by his porn-auteur brother Artie. There’s the infamous John Holmes’ Wonderland murders and, of course, his drug addiction and eventual death from AIDS. There’s Savannah’s suicide, Traci Lords’ jailbait. And everything in between, from sex clubs in New York (like Plato’s Retreat) to the Los Angeles blond-video-vixen scene, to Pauly Shore, Vince Neil, and Pam and Tommy.
Though The Other Hollywood may awaken your grudging respect for the attempts at artistry by some of the porn pioneers (the Mitchell brothers’ Behind the Green Door being the extreme case), you won’t develop much in the way of nostalgic, fuzzy feelings for the business. What you more often learn is what your grandma told you: Porn is a sleazy business, run by icky men and populated with flaky or downright fractured people. According to McNeil, though, this is no more the case in the porn world than it is in the world of “straight” Hollywood. “Hollywood,” he told me, “is dumber than porn. Personally I found E.T. more offensive than any porn film I ever saw.”
Within a culture of Paris Hilton tapes, College Girls Gone Wild TV spots, and Britney Spears videos directed by Greg Dark, a sort of pornification has spread throughout the culture and shows no signs of abating. For the koom-by-yah sex workers, porn isn’t just a living; it’s a cause. We (as in the collective voice of some hypothetical, un-uptight “we”) all love supporting pornography. Ever since the porno revival of the mid-’90s — when sex work became less white heels and acid-wash jeans and more (frankly tiresome) Bettie Page–banged burlesque performers — sex workers have cast themselves as warriors in the fight for sexual freedom. Do strippers demean themselves? No way! That’s outmoded feminist jive — it’s the men under their spell who cut the truly pathetic figures. You say the porn world is hard on women? Consider the fact that, in the aggregate, female performers make five times as much as their male counterparts. And if you watch Margie Schnibbe’s “home” video Pornstar Pets, while you may be disappointed to learn that it’s not about pets who work in smutty movies, you will learn about how porn stars love little critters just like Grandma does. Women as victims? Just listen to Annabel Chong after her famous gangbang: “I am the stud!” And check out the tattoos and journal entries of the Suicide Girls, self-styled “wild” chicks who don’t conform to the Playboy aesthetic (just the Hot Topic one). So sex work is, like, okay. Right?
Well, I don’t know. Should it be okay? I don’t mean in terms of legality or morality, but rather, should porn become so accepted by mainstream society that it’s no longer taboo, that it loses its outsider status — its mystery, if you will? (Paglia, in her pro-sexuality, pro-beauty, pro-porn stance, always underscored her dislike of the “demystification of sex.”) In other words, porn should be dirty.
McNeil agrees. “I want porn to be dirty,” he told me. “I want it to be illicit. I don’t want every homemaker on television looking like a porn star. I’m not for healthy sex. I don’t want porn spammed over the Internet. I’d like to keep it in the closet, where it belongs.”
Sorry, Legs, too late. Unless, of course, there’s something else, something truly exciting, lurking somewhere in the dark corners of our closets.
Merry Christmas. What am I thinking about? Dead people. Or rather, dead musicians who actually make me sad. No Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix here. Instead, I’ve focused on those talents (my favorites) who are really, really, really tragic. Obviously no list is complete (like, Elvis and Hank Williams are not included; neither is Patsy Cline, Nick Drake, Bon Scott, Sam Cooke, Serge Gainsbourg or Chet Baker) but this is as depressed as I’m going to get.
Johnny Ace (June 9, 1929-December 25, 1954)—Murder or accidental death? Russian roulette was the fatality for this young, gorgeous pianist/singer. But how weird that Ace decided to play the deadly game during a five minute break in a concert? And on Christmas day? His posthumous hit is the one most have heard if they’ve seen Mean Streets, Bad Lieutenant and yes, Christine—the plaintive, haunting ballad “Pledging My Love”—but everything on the "Johnny Ace Memorial Album" is peerless. RIP ACE.
Otis Redding (September 9, 1941-December 10, 1967)—One of the most important, influential and heart stopping soul singers ever, Otis Redding gave us about four years of gorgeously gravely voiced/smoothly sexy/heartbreaking music. Recording on Stax, Redding’s output is near perfect with songs like “These Arms of Mine,” “I’ve Been Loving You,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Open the Door” (one of my favorites) and of course, [Sittin’ On] The Dock on the Bay” which only proved he was at his artistic peak. But fate is one f'ed up hitch and 26-year old Redding perished in a plane accident in 1967. The idea of what he would have furthered in his career is too maddening to ponder. Life is just too unfair to make sense of sometimes.
Marvin Gaye (April 2, 1939-April 1, 1984)—If you don’t think the loss of Marvin Gaye is tragic than I don’t consider you human. His credit, influence and scope is too numerous to list but briefly—he started as a crooner at Motown, moved on with the revolutionary “What’s Going On” (a record Berry Gordy claims to have never understood), worked it with his erotic bit of velvet “Let’s Get it On” and created one of music’s most brilliantly bitter accounts of divorce, the acid entitled “Here My Dear” (the royalties of this album all went to his ex-wife). There were the tax problems, the cocaine and then, the 1980’s hit “Sexual Healing.” But Gaye’s ups and downs hit a massive sink hole while arguing with his father in 1984. What happened? Gaye’s father shot and killed his son. Not sure if there’s too many acts to top the horror of murdering your own son. The tragedy is all the more terrible when thinking how Gaye Sr. must have felt.
Jackie Wilson (June 9, 1934-January 21, 1984)—if you look at the singer’s career at his shady label, Brunswick, Jackie Wilson’s entire life was tragic. The “Lonely Teardrops,” “(No Pity) in the Naked City” singer with the range of Mario Lanza (no one could touch his upper register) was one of music’s most brilliant talents, but his influential mixture of R&B and soul never crossed over to the extent it should have. Too many of his recordings were string-tied when they should have been raucous. If you’ve not been initiated into the magic and moves of Jackie Wilson, just rent his appearances on Shinding and you’ll become a believer. Shot in 1961 by a female fan (he was seriously wounded but recovered), a career slump, a hit in 1967 (“Higher and Higher”) and yet another downturn, in 1975 while singing “My heart is crying, crying…” he collapsed on stage from a heart attack. He lived for years in a vegetative state and died in 1982. It’s said that Al Green (he better not go anytime soon) was Jackie’s most generous supporter in the hospital.
Dennis Wilson (December 4, 1944-December 28, 1983)—I’m not into the Beach Boys all that much—though I do recognize their merit. And though I like the record, I’m just not one of those people who claim "Pet Sounds" to be the greatest musical achievement in the history of popular entertainment. Nevertheless, Dennis Wilson’s unfortunate death bums me out. Maybe it’s because he starred in one of my favorite films of all time, Two Lane Blacktop (he's high on my if-I-had- to-find-a-boyfriend-from-a-movie list). Maybe it’s because he actually knew how to work on cars. Maybe it’s for all that guilt he felt about the whole Charles Manson connection. I don’t really know for sure. I just get really sad. Worse, the ex-Beach Boy had to die in the water.
Eddie Cochran (October 3, 1938-April 17, 1960)—Eddie Cochran isn’t talked about enough outside rockabilly circles. Most casual music listeners and even, Elvis fans, don’t even know who he is which is a shame given his innovative work with both the power cord and the overdub. If you’re not aware of him, he wrote that staple cover “Summertime Blues” (big for The Who) and the sexy, rough “Somethin’ Else” (which Sid Vicious covered and you saw done by Gary Oldman in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy). He also gave us “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Weekend” and “Nervous Breakdown.” While touring with Gene Vincent, the boys got in a car accident leaving Cochran dead. Everyone talks about the youth of Jimi and Janis but no ones got it on Eddie Cochran—he was only 21.
Marc Bolan (September 30, 1947-September 16, 1977)—A guy who loved cars, sang about cars ("You're built like a car you’ve got a hub cap diamond star halo…”) but was terrified of actually driving a car has to DIE in a car. And with his wife, Gloria Jones, at the wheel. The Founder of the preeminent (and greatest) “glam” band T-Rex with classics like “Bang a Gong,” “Baby Strange,” “Ride a White Swan,” “Children of the Revolution” and “20th Century Boy,” the elfin creature who looked like Jimmy Page before Page did (but better) was on the verge of another breakout before his untimely death at 29. Spaceball Richochet.
Curtis Mayfield (June 3, 1942-December 26, 1999)—57 is too young if you ask me, even if you haven’t produced music that matches your output in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And if Julia Roberts can’t live in a world without Denzel Washington winning an Oscar (eyes rolling here) then I can’t live in a world where Curtis Mayfield is dead. Well, Julia got her stupid wish while I have to live the delusion of pretending Mayfield is still out there singing "They Don't Know." Responsible for a record I listen to at least once a week, The Impressions epic, genius, unmatched “This Is My Country” (it was finally just re-released on CD and vinyl—go enrich your life and musical taste and buy it) and “Superfly” as well as other standouts, the musical pioneer and one of the first outspoken black power movers had to go on and die in 1999. So, so, so wrong. I don’t even like writing about it. Especially since after a 1990 accident on stage (a lighting rig fell on him) he had been paralyzed from the neck down. The guy who famously sang the words “Every brother is a leader” and admitted to being a “Fool for You” does not deserve this. I’m a fool for him.
Halloween was horrible. After discussing what babies people were over rushing out for their beloved flu shots, after I stupidly bragged about how I never get sick, certainly never the flu, I woke up the next day, sick with what would appear to be a cold/flu. So as I write feeling as if a knife is scraping the inside of my throat, I can only say that, well, I don't feel like writing much. I'd rather take more Xanax (I know, I know. It does nothing for a cold. But at least I'm calm) and watch Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance for the tenth time.
But. I will report that Halloween weekend was still perfect for the unexpected pleasure that occurred the day before. Never having seen one of my favorite blonde, psychopathic movies on the big screen, I journeyed over to Long Beach to witness The Bad Seed, writ large. But get this, not only was I allowed the joy of watching a larger than life Rhoda Penmark "tap, tap tapping on the walk" but I was granted the honor of seeing Ms. McCormack in the flesh! I've been to Q&A's, big deal, but this was like viewing Pretty Poison only to have Tuesday Weld saunter out. questions.
I rarely bound up to celebrities but I had to at least shake Patty's hand. So not only did I get to meet Ms. McCormack (who was charming, funny, warm and just dark enough to understand why she was such a genius at age ten) but talk to her about what that movie meant to some girls (like me). We, Bad Seed fans would all like (or secrectly have) a little Rhoda Penmark in us, and Patty, with relish, agreed. "It's scary for men," she said, "but girls get it! They want to do all these things, maybe not kill, but you know, work it..." Of course.
In honor--I'm running my Bad Seed piece again and then, going to bed, dreaming of the future of Monica Breedlove, who would have been iced had the movie not changed the ending to cute little Rhoda getting hit by that lightning bolt which always pisses me off. She could have grown up to become...Pretty Poison.
The baby blonde. That symbol of purity, beauty and goodness. In 1950’s America who wouldn’t want to have a lovely, flaxen haired child to adore and spoil? Who wouldn't now? But by 1956, two important films emerged -- showing the underbelly of these perfect specimens. The more esteemed, and notorious (it was condemned by the Legion of Decency) was Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, in which the gorgeous child bride Carroll Baker destroys Karl Malden’s masculinity whilst sleeping in a crib and sucking her thumb. While other relevant issues pervade Kazan’s masterful take on Tennessee Williams, the lingering image is of Ms. Baker in that crib is an iconic, powerful vision of arrested sexuality.
But just as viewers took a heated look at Baby Doll, they had another blonde to contend with -- a younger and deadlier one -- The Bad Seed. Pretty 10-year-old Patty McCormack playing an 8-year-old, owning her pig tails and pinafore skirts as Rhoda Penmark, a curtsying, cutie-pie brat who’ll manipulate, terrorize and kill anyone who gets in her way. Both actresses’ were deservedly Oscar nominated for their performances, both pictures became the more cultish pictures in these filmmaker's canons (Bad Seed and Baby Doll fans are a devoted group) and both have felt a touch underrated through time.
In the case of The Bad Seed, part of the problem may lie in the transfer from play to film. Director Mervyn LeRoy rightfully transported nearly all of the actors from the successful stage play (adapted by Maxwell Anderson from the novel by William March), but was forced to change the ending. In the play, an unstoppable Rhoda continues her evil while after her killings, she chillingly plays her continual practice piece, "Claire de Lune" on the piano. Perfect. In the picture, however, she is socked with a lightning bolt. O.K, also perfect. But, (and I'm not endorsing the harm of children here, even evil children), Warner Brothers instructed LeRoy to further punish Rhoda, or in this case Patty, by having cast members spank little McCormack, assuring the audience this was all a bunch of fun. You know, burning, drowning, murdering kids with tap shoes...
But The Bad Seed is fun. Gleefully, unapologetically and relevantly fun. In its own way, the tweaked ending just makes the picture even more inadvertently subversive, experimental, calling out to the audience that you've just seen a motion picture and haven't you enjoyed watching this cute little killer? The picture knows how we love to hate little Rhoda, and some of us, how we love to love her. She’s just too damn full of vicious personality. I'd even go so far as to nearly (I say nearly) champion her spirit (even if patholoical) and wish she would invoke more of that personality before her inevitable demise. She's such a fascinating vixen villain. More women, or little girls in this case, should be blessed with such material.
Living with her mother Christine (an understandably neurotic Nancy Kelly) and mostly absent father (William Hopper, Hedda Hopper's son) Rhoda's life is one of privilege and attention. When kissing her father goodbye he asks “What would you give me for a basket of kisses?” Rhoda coos back: “A basket of hugs!” Landlady and supposed expert in psychology, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) dotes on Rhoda, applauding her out-moded manners and showering her with presents, one, being rhinestone movie star glasses. Of course Rhoda loves those glassess and admires herself in the mirror like a little movie star. As Breedlove (the name!) prattles on about Freud and abnormal psychology, the rather ridiculous woman simply cannot see the freakish behavior in front of her. She's blinded by all that bright, beauteous blonde and fakey, clenched smiles.
But Leroy (a scene stealing Henry Jones), the disturbed, somewhat perverse handyman disrespected by the household can see right through Rhoda. You even get a sense he's got a thing for her, splashing her with the hose and harassing her tea parties. He understands her pathologies because he's pathological -- they'd make a fine pair. He's just not as smart as she is. Their moments provoke some of the picture's most inspired moments. Man, does Leroy get off digging into Rhoda after a fateful class outing leaves one child dead; not coincidentally, the class-mate who won the penmanship medal over the all perfecting Rhoda (“Everyone knew I wrote the best hand!” she sulks in sour grapes dramatics). The little boy is drowned and Rhoda returns home as if nothing happened. "Why should I feel bad? It was Claude Daigle got drowned, not me" she insists. And then she goes roller skating. Meanwhile, her poor mother becomes increasingly rattled and the boy's mother (a heartbreaking Eileen Heckart), stumbles around in a dipsomaniacal stupor, trying to understand the death of her son by making everyone uncomfortable, which is refreshing. Everyone should feel uncomfortable.
Though some have a tough time with The Bad Seed’s talkier sequences (especially when Rhoda’s not around), to me they are an intriguing look into ideas that would later be seriously considered in American life. They also point out how psychology can’t explain everything (hence, a bad seed) as the one woman (Breedlove) who brags of her knowledge, fails to sense anything wrong with a child who is, at the very least, self obsessed to the point of dangerous narcissism. Never mind she’s a murderer, she's an ungrateful, vapid manipulator.
And, the golden moments come, again, between Leroy and Rhoda who argue like two prison inmates waiting for lockdown. Though Rhoda finds him revolting, he’s the only adult who can actually frighten the child with his taunts of “stick blood hounds” or the dreaded electric chair, a fate he swears she'll meet. “They don’t send little girls to the electric chair!” Rhoda protests. “Oh they don’t?” He answers. “The got a blue one for little boys and a pink one for little gals!”
Films like The Omen or The Good Son have tried, nothing compares to The Bad Seed -- and no child actor has out-seeded McCormack. Calm and cool, she can also rip into fits of rage that are both terrifying and hilarious. Perfectly balancing a disarmingly adult demeanor with the tantrums of a little girl, her performance is even more impressive in that it’s the blueprint. Where did McCormack learn this wonderful balance of over-theatrical camp with an icy, realistic serenity? And before John Waters became obsessed with her?
A first of its kind, the then shocking Bad Seed holds up, albeit with a tad more camp to some. Though I would say stylized and intriguingly formal, while also terrifying, touching and real, particularly in moments between mother and daughter. Nancy Kelly is superbly moving in her need to believe and her realization that she can't any longer. But the psychotic gusto of Rhoda! You hate her. You love her. And she's so devilishly entertaining. Revel in her. Agree with Leroy who spits out: “I thought I saw some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest!” What a character. The itty bitty ultimate ice queen bitch goddess.The first Pretty Poison. The original Curse of Millhaven. "My hair is a yellow and I'm always a combin,tad more camp to some. Though I would say stylized and intriguingly formal, while also terrifying, touching and real, particularly in moments between mother and daughter. Nancy Kelly is superbly moving in her need to believe and her realization that she can't any longer. But the psychotic gusto of Rhoda! You hate her. You love her. And she's devilishly entertaining. Revel in her.' La la la lie, la la la lie."