Category Archives: The Holy Bee Recommends

The Holy Bee Recommends, #5: "The devil is waiting for them…the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out*…"

The 1950s and 1980s had some similarities. During both decades the country was in the hands of a slightly doddering, grandfatherly president, we were economically stable (if you ignore the skyrocketing – pardon the expression – defense spending), and American society swung toward the conservative. One of the side-effects of this swing was the screeching, reactionary killjoys who were obsessed with the damaging effect rock music was having on the younger generation. It was…the devil’s music.

In the 1950s, it was the jungle throb of the rhythm – of African-American origins – and the blatant sexuality it seemed to invite, that upset people so. Racism aside, their reaction was understandable. It was sex music. The 1980s were actually a little more hysterical. They had come to terms with the sex (mostly), but now it was the devil himself they were wringing their hands over. The cartoon Satanism espoused by second-tier heavy metal acts as a way to be provocative did just that. The 1980s were steeped in media stories about “Satanic cults” and “ritual murders.” Don’t hear too much about those things these days, because society eventually grew up and realized it was all a load of shit. There were a few blips on the radar later (Marilyn Manson, gangsta rap), but it was those two decades in which the most people got their knickers in a twist about the “devil’s music.”

Ferriday, Louisiana’s own demon-child, Jerry Lee Lewis – often referred to simply as “The Killer” – burst onto the scene in the first wave of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. From behind his poor, abused piano, Lewis bashed out the fastest, harshest, most defiantly alive music of that repressed decade. His 1957 single “Great Balls Of Fire” lasts one minute and fifty seconds, but it seems eternal – in the same way someone who holds on through a thirty-second earthquake swears it lasts forever. Just before that, his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was a blatant come-on, a declaration of sexual prowess only slightly couched in metaphor. (Only Billy Ward & The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” from 1951 was more explicit in its bedroom bragging, and guess what? Lewis covered it later.) Lewis was a howling, leering, stomping madman, and the only reason he wasn’t lynched for the length of his hair was because he kept it brushed back (unlike those Liverpool fruits who came over a few years later). All you have to do is watch the YouTube clips linked above to understand what a bomb had been dropped on the 1950s. He was an untamed force of nature, like Keith Moon and G.G. Allin. Of course, unlike those two, The Killer still lives and breathes. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #4: "Plain and gentle…and, in every respect, an estimable man."

Anyone with even a passing interest in early American and/or presidential history should take a few days with Harlow Giles Unger’s 2009 book The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, and acknowledge the enormous and unsung impact our fifth president had on the United States.

James Monroe seems to be consigned to the historical dustbin even though he was, as the title states, “The Last Founding Father.” The term “Founding Father” is somewhat elastic – it can be used to describe the first colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth in the early 1600s, the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, veterans of the Revolutionary War, or – as is most often the case – a vague, convenient shorthand for all of the above.

Monroe, if he’s remembered at all, is remembered only for the Monroe Doctrine, which was given as part of his State of the Union report in 1823: a bold statement from a juvenile country just starting to flex its international muscle, informing Congress and the rest of the world that the entire Western Hemisphere was closed to any further European colonization, and providing one of the basic building blocks of our foreign policy to this day.

The appellation “Last Founding Father” is given to Monroe, I suppose, because he was the last person to serve the country on a national level (his presidency lasted until 1825) who was of age at the time of the Revolution in the 1770s. His successors to the presidency, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, were both pre-teens in short pants when the “shot heard ‘round the world” rang out at Lexington in 1775. Monroe, as a teenage Continental Army lieutenant, made the famous crossing of the Delaware with Washington’s tattered troops (in the famous painting, he is depicted as the one holding the flag, even though he occupied a separate boat in reality.) Continue reading

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Holy Bee Recommends, #3: "Make every song you sing your favorite tune"

Today, May 18, marks the re-release of the greatest rock n’ roll album of all time, The Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic Exile On Main Street. The Institute of Idle Time ranked it #12 in our Decades book, and the fact that it was edged out of the top ten to make room for two Radiohead albums still gives me stomach cramps.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote about it in Decades: Continue reading

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Holy Bee Recommends, #2: L.A. Noir

One of my many minor obsessions is the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. Not so much in the present day, but in the middle part of the 20th century. Although many people associate the noir genre with the grimy alleyways of Chicago or the humid waterfronts of New York, its natural home is really Los Angeles. There seems to be more desperate, broken people in Los Angeles than the rest of the world combined. Many were lured there with the dream of making in big in the entertainment industry and found nothing but disappointment and despair, many others just naturally gravitated there to be in the company of thousands of other drifters, losers, hustlers, thugs, eccentrics, and full-blown psychos. What makes the darkness and ugliness of the place more palpable is it’s glamorous surface, beautiful people doing beautiful things under palm trees and hazy SoCal sunshine. But it’s all a sham. The good life in L.A. is lived by about 5% of its population.

Whether it’s a fleabag hotel downtown, or a (relatively) inexpensive apartment in Covina, on the other side of the door, there’s a good chance that someone’s soul is slowly rotting from the inside out.

Every so often, I get the urge to take a drive down to L.A. and explore. Take a cruise past where the Black Dahlia’s corpse was found. Past the nightclub where the unsuccessful hit on Mickey Cohen went down. Past the blocks and blocks of stucco apartments in West Hollywood inhabited by waiters who want to be actors. Down the notorious skid row of Fifth Street (affectionately referred to in Tom Waits songs as “The Nickel”), where any vice is available for rock-bottom prices. Luckily, thanks to Google Street View, I can get a little taste of it without driving almost 800 miles round trip, discover that the location was obliterated for a Quizno’s, or risk my soft suburban neck in insanely dangerous neighborhoods.

James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, is the greatest current purveyor of period L.A. crime fiction. He knows the subject in and out, because he lived a good deal of his life on the skids in the City of Angels — drunk and pilled up, either homeless or in jail for shoplifting – or breaking and entering plush Wilshire homes to fondle ladies’ underwear.
All of this is revealed in Ellroy’s riveting autobiographical book, My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir.

It doesn’t take Freud to uncover the reasons for Ellroy’s downward spiral. It was triggered by the brutal slaying of his mother in 1958, when he was ten years old. Ellroy admits his mother, vivacious redhead Geneva “Jean” Ellroy, was not a model parent: she was an alcoholic who was not particular about the company she kept, and would often leave young Ellroy alone at night to go drinking and dancing at the dive bars that lined Valley Boulevard in El Monte, just east of L.A. One night, she didn’t come home. Her strangled body, pantyhose tied around her neck, was found the next morning in the shrubbery next to Arroyo High School. Despite several strong leads, including several eyewitnesses who spotted her with a swarthy man in a blue convertible, the murder was never solved and the case went cold.

Ellroy was placed in the custody of his father, an embittered invalid who was dead (of natural causes) before Ellroy was out of his teens. Once he went through the crucible of being a drug-addled petty criminal pervert and emerged on the other side as a respected author (“The Demon Dog of American crime fiction”), he became interested in the incident that started him down his life’s path. Working with detectives, Ellroy re-opened his mother’s case, and began sifting through the grisly photos and statements, re-interviewing witnesses, and attempting to come to grips with the psycho-sexual hold his mother had over his subconscious for most of his existence.

There are few dark places darker than Ellroy’s, and his unflinching honesty at examining himself, expressed in the same vivid staccato prose he uses in his fiction, makes for a gripping, if sometimes uncomfortable, read.

Another young L.A. thug-turned-writer is Edward Bunker. Bunker spent the late 1940s and 1950s in and out of juvenile hall and foster homes, or living on the streets. Bunker was unable to resist the easy money of drug-dealing and armed robbery, despite an off-the-chart IQ and a taste for Shakespeare and Dickens – which he had plenty of time to peruse once he started doing hard time in places like San Quentin and Folsom prisons.

Bunker’s memoir, Education of a Felon, recounts his escapades, both as a criminal and his attempt at a “straight” job: working as an assistant and confidant for the mentally unstable wife of Paramount Pictures’ super-producer Hal B. Wallis. His descriptions of prison life make it sound not so bad for someone who follows the official and unofficial rules, at least until the race wars began in the late 1960s, and suddenly no one was safe. Upon his release in 1975 after almost two decades behind bars, he was already a published author — his autobiographical 1973 novel No Beast So Fierce was adapted into the 1978 film Straight Time, with Dustin Hoffman as the Bunker character. Bunker continued to write and also dabble in bit-part acting – culminating in his crowning achievement, at least as far as most people are concerned: his performance as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. (“I liked her early stuff – ‘Borderline’ – but when she hit that ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ phase, I tuned out.”)

A special treat: On the bonus disc of the 10th anniversary Reservoir Dogs DVD, there is a driving tour of L.A. with Bunker, where he points out the locations of his nefarious doings. It’s certainly better than ogling the locations on Street View, and you get the benefits of Bunker’s hard-boiled narration. Best part: Bunker’s story of meeting up with future Reservoir Dogs co-star Lawrence Tierney, in the process of putting a beatdown on someone outside of a bar. It was not surprising that Tierney, an actor with one foot in the criminal underworld, and Bunker, a criminal with one foot in the movie world, should have crossed paths in 1950s L.A., almost forty years before they met up again in front of Tarantino’s cameras. This fascinating tour is not included on the most recent (15th anniversary) edition of the DVD. Boo.

I’ll conclude by acknowledging of the Granddaddy of L.A. Noir, Raymond Chandler. Beginning in 1939, his iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, smoked, drank, and snooped his way through such classics as The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye. Only Dashiell Hammett equals Chandler as the primary architect of literary noir. Philip Marlowe has been played onscreen by such noted cinematic tough guys as Humphrey Bogart, James Caan, Robert Mitchum and…Elliott Gould?

Yes, Ross and Monica’s father once donned Marlowe’s trench coat and snub-nosed revolver in director Robert Altman’s shaggy-dog 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye. Disjointed and quirky as only an Altman film can be, this Long Goodbye is updated from the booze-and-dames 50s to the cocaine-and-nudists 70s. The plot of the book and the plot of the novel are distant cousins, and the new time period allows Altman opportunities to satirize the shallow and hedonistic lifestyles of most of the characters. Gould’s take on Marlowe is decidedly un-heroic, and unlike the rich shadows of traditional film noir, The Long Goodbye utilizes a gauzy palette of washed-out pastels.

Also recommended: The film version of L.A. Confidential (avoid the Black Dahlia film), Wonderland (not a great film, but an incredibly creepy tone and atmosphere), Hollywoodland, Chinatown, any one of Tom Waits’ first seven albums, Chandler’s final Marlowe novel Poodle Springs (unfinished at his death, it was completed thirty years later by Spenser author Robert B. Parker), Ellroy’s novels The Big Nowhere and White Jazz (together with Dalia and Confidential, they make up his “L.A. Quartet”), and what is probably Tarantino’s best film, Jackie Brown (yes, you read that right.)

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Holy Bee Recommends, #1: "Too ugly for a leading man, not ugly enough for a villain"

Here at the Holy Bee, music reviews are dealt with in the year-end wrap-up. Movie reviews are nigh on impossible, because I steadfastly refuse to subject myself to the modern movie theater experience, unless it’s under extraordinary circumstances. Even DVDs take me forever to get around to. (To give you an idea how behind the curve I am movie-wise, I just watched Pineapple Express last weekend. It was very good.) In Bruges and Burn After Reading still sit on top of my DVD player.

Which leaves us with books as the last item of mass culture that can be realisitcally reviewed by me. I wouldn’t call myself a voracious reader, but I believe I do get through more books than the average schmuck. Like a lot of people, internet bullshit has cut deeply into my reading time. Who wants to crack a musty old book when there are fucked-up cakes to look at?

The first item on the Holy Bee Recommends list is the over-dramatically titled Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, by Bill Davidson. If you asked any actor working from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s “Who is the finest film actor around?”, most of them would unhesitatingly respond “Spencer Tracy.” The first actor to win back-to-back Oscars (for 1937’s Captains Courageous and 1938’s Boys Town), Tracy was never #1 in audience polls like John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, but among those working in his profession, he was considered the best.

But Tracy seems fated not to be remembered as well as many of his co-stars by modern audiences, which is sadly ironic because Tracy may have been the first film actor to act in what we would consider a modern style. Unlike the stagey, larger-than-life performances of other actors in mid-20th century films, a Tracy performance could play, unaltered, in a 2009 film and not stand out as mannered or old-fashioned. He inhabited his character without drawing attention to his own “star” persona, which went against the style that prevailed in the 1930s and 1940s. “Comedians are always doing impressions of guys like me and Bogart,” said James Cagney. “Nobody does Tracy.” Every moment was underplayed and thoughtful, built around glances and expressions, and a speaking style that was down-to-earth and absolutely real. No fodder for impressionists and comedians there. That lack of imitatable quirks and mannerisms is probably a factor in why he’s so little known by modern audiences. (Case in point: Jimmy Stewart, who is distratctingly terrible in almost everything I’ve seen him in, is easy to imitate, and thus, still revered.)

Despite Tracy’s quiet style, he managed to dominate his scenes, even alongside noted scene-dominators like Clark Gable, Frederic March, Robert Ryan, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and the formidable Katharine Hepburn. (“I think I’m a little too tall for you,” said Hepburn when they first met. Tracy, predictably, said nothing. But screenwriter Joe Mankiewicz, who had just introduced them, said “Don’t worry. He’ll cut you down to size.”)

Just as he had refused to showboat in the hammy 30s and 40s, he had no patience for the “method” movement of the 50s and 60s, with all its psychological underpinnings and questions of “motivation.” “Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” was his famous advice to young actors. He even lost patience with the over-analytical Hepburn on occasion. (“Goddamn it, Katie. Just say the words the writer wrote and do what Stanley tells you to do. Quit talking like you’ve got a goddamn feather up your ass.”) What there was of Tracy’s “technique” was entirely instinctual.

He even managed to make the most stage-bound of acting traditions, the monologue, seem fresh and natural. Most notable in this area are some of his later performances: his cross-examination as the pro-evolution defense cousel in Inherit The Wind, his handing down of the decision in Judgment At Nuremberg, and, especially, his devastating defense of true love in the dated-but-still-good Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, his final film appearance. Everyone who was on the set when it was being filmed (and every audience member who has seen the film since) could see clearly that he was directing his words to longtime partner Hepburn. Tracy died seventeen days after completing the monologue scene. Hepburn refused to ever watch the finished film.

What’s the tragedy in Tragic Idol? Alcoholism. Tracy was one of Hollywood’s most notorious drunks. Or at least notorious to insiders. Unlike carousing, good-time partiers like John Barrymore and Errol Flynn who used their heavy drinking to further their public personas, Tracy’s drinking was semi-private, and came in massive blackout binges where he would lose all control. Studio publicists covered up a trail of smahed-up hotel furniture, countless broken dishes and plate-glass windows, injured journalists and co-stars, and a myriad of health problems. Everyone close to him knew of his patented “two-week lunch breaks,” where he would disappear from a film currently in production, check into a hotel with a suitcase full of whiskey bottles, strip down, climb in the bathtub, and proceed to drink himself insensible. When the whiskey ran out, he rinsed himself off, checked out with a suitcase full of empty bottles, and returned to work on the film. Tracy’s liver and kidneys were shot by the mid-1950s, and the fact that he lived until 1967 was credited to Katharine Hepburn, who essentially gave up her career for almost ten years to care for him.

It is a shame that Tracy has not received the first-class biography treatment that some of his peers have gotten. Guys like Grant and Gable (neither of whom could touch Tracy as an actor) have had multiple, deeply-researched historical tomes written about them, and the Sperber-Lax bio of Humphrey Bogart moved me to tears. What does Tracy get? A couple of gossipy co-biographies pairing him with Katharine Hepburn, implying he was not interesting enough to carry a bio on his own. And the subject of this blog entry, Bill Davidson’s slightly hack-y, show-bizzy 1987 effort. Davidson is not a writer with pretensions of literary greatness (he’s also cranked out a book on Gary Coleman), but his prose is serviceable, and at a relatively breezy 232 pages, I was able to finish the book in a single afternoon. Davidson has also been a Hollywood hanger-on long enough to get first-hand interviews with people like James Cagney, directors Edward Dmytryk and Stanley Kramer, among several others. Rather than incorporate these interviews into his own writing, Davidson simply plops large quoted passages into the narrative. A very lazy technique, but it does let a lot of the story unfold in people’s own words. The book, for all its flaws, is still recommended as a good introduction to Tracy’s life and work, along with a viewing of Bad Day at Black Rock (one of the best crime-dramas ever), Adam’s Rib (the best Tracy-Hepburn pairing, IMHO), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (which demonstrates Tracy’s ability to loom over an entire film despite a smaller role), the original Father of the Bride(showing off Tracy’s skill at light comedy beyond his team-ups with Hepburn — his performance is the only thing funny on purpose in an otherwise embarassingly outdated film), and the films already mentioned above.

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