Saturday, 12 October 2019

Book Review: JAN KEROUAC 'Baby Driver'




THEY CALL ME 
BABY DRIVER: 
JAN KEROUAC 

 Book Review of: 
‘BABY DRIVER: 
A STORY ABOUT MYSELF’ 
by JAN KEROUAC 
(Andre Deutsch, July 1984, ISBN 0-233-974873, £7.95, 288pp)



A book to assault your cosy feminist preconceptions.

America’s greatest contribution to modern literature is arguably the visionary drunk, the hobo high on zen beatitude, the Bum finding transcendental illumination through faster-miles-an-hour restlessness at the night-end of living. Life seen through the distorting lens at the bottom of a drained bottle. Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Hubert Selby Jr, and King Beat himself – Jack Kerouac, whose demon-charged cross-continent thumb-trips laid blueprints for bohemian generations of hipsters, Beatniks, hippies, and guerrilla poets on campaigns against all that’s most normal and bland in polite straight society.

Janet Michelle ‘Jan’ Kerouac was conceived during a brief six-month marriage in 1951, a period that coincided with ‘the famous wino’ writing his most acclaimed tome ‘On The Road’ (published September 1957) in Manhattan’s 454 West Twentieth Street. He quit the marriage two day’s after the manuscript’s completion, never officially acknowledging Jan’s paternity – although photographs leave little doubt of genetic continuity, and he met her only twice. The initial meeting was the day America’s first astronaut was blasted into space ‘and the TV up in the corner by the ceiling was showing him in his capsule all bundled up in glaring black and white.’ Kerouac peré ‘talked to me, but seemed shy, like a boy on his first date.’ The second meeting was in Lowell, Massachusetts where Jack managed to tear himself away from canned beer and TV long enough to grudgingly suggest ‘you go to Mexico an’ write a book. You can use my name.’


The marriage – Kerouac’s second of three, was legally terminated in 1957 through a quickie divorce, by which time Jan’s mother Joan Haverty was casually involved with, and pregnant by an abstract painter called Don Olly. It was another station in ‘life’s dark order of tragedy’ that carried Jan like ‘a gum wrapper in a hurricane’ through the B-side of the Beat lifestyle. From an East Tenth Street slum across the road from Allen Ginsberg, to bored prostitution in a New Mexico cat-house. From adolescent acid trips to adult heroin and coke – ‘eyes pinned and vacant, irises lost galaxies inhabited by one black dwarf star swimming in the middle.’ From a juvenile detention centre, pregnancy at fifteen, stillbirth in the ‘mad Mexican night’ to the ‘mad wonderful intensity’ of a climatic quest down through the jungles of Peru in the company of narcotic jags and manic lovers. Her autobiography is one of constant directionless movement, compressing more elements into this one book than her father lived in ten! – which is probably why the accumulative effect of Jan’s life thus-narrated is often ultimately shallow and pointless. ‘How awful to have lived this life… and then not be able even to produce a halfway serviceable book out of it’ as one critic accurately sniped (Sean French, ‘Sunday Times’).

Her best passages deal with her childhood in the New York derelict subworld of romantic squalor beerscent and junkshooting, which she observes with naive eyes and ears from tenement fire-escapes. She lives ‘intentionally apart from the social tumult of the sixties,’ briefly in – but not part of, the hippie Haight Ashbury mecca, and finding the Grateful Dead at Albuquerque ‘an enormous cavern of orange gleaming pot smoke and terrific noise that seemed to drag on for hours and hours.’ Her writing style comes across as a dilution of her father’s. His multiple-adjective phrases ‘deep and brown joy’ or ‘the country highway night’ churned in with the chic American pseudo-hip mysticism which refers to people by their astrological signs. Her own sign is Venus in Capricorn – the planet of love in the sign of use, the mark, she rationalises, of the whore. Which is where the sexual double standards kick in.

The Beat-life of transient but passionate relationships, drug flirtations, compulsive promiscuity, and stylish vagrancy has implicit macho profiles, roles and standards, that Jan reveals almost unintentionally by such self-objectification. While the elder Kerouac – who comes across here as a self-obsessed slob, enjoys his celebrity, ex-wife Joan lives in a Lower East Side slum desperately scratching money for the child he rejects by writing a magazine feature about their marriage. The Beat archetype hangs out with low-life hookers, while Jan lives out that harder reality, the one she sees her star-sign has determined for her. The one readers might feel has more to do with heredity and cultural climate.

This is an awkward book of nomad Americana. A book that anyone vaguely interested in that milieu should read – just once!


Jan Kerouac with Gerald Nicosia

Janet Michelle ‘Jan’ Kerouac was born 16 February 1952 in Albany, New York.
She wrote three semi-autobiographical novels,
Baby Driver: A Story About Myself’ (1981, St Martin’s Press ISBN 0030625386) with an expanded edition (June 1998, Da Capo Press ISBN 1560251840).
Trainsong’ (August 1998, Thunder’s Mouth Press, ISBN 1560251654).
Parrot Fever’ (2000, Thunder’s Mouth Press, ISBN 1560252081) written 1992-1993 and published posthumously.
Beat archivist Gerald Nicosia tells her story in ‘Jan Kerouac: A Life In Memory’ (2000, Noodlebrain Press, ISBN 0615245544). She died 5 June 1996 in Albuquerque following a spleen-removal operation.


Thursday, 10 October 2019

Movie Review: 'SPARROWS CAN'T SING'



BETWEEN ‘CARRY ON’ 
AND ‘EASTENDERS’: 
‘SPARROWS CAN’T SING’ 


DVD Review of: 
‘SPARROWS CAN’T SING’ 
 Elstree Distributors, 1963. Director: Joan Littlewood. 
With Barbara Windsor, James Booth, 
Roy Kinnear, Victor Spinetti, Avis Bunnage 
(DVD, 2009, Optimum Home Releasing) 

Barbara Windsor has been a celebrated part of two great British institutions – a spread of ‘Carry On’ films, and as ‘Peggy Mitchell’ in BBC-TV’s ‘Eastenders’. Her central role as ‘Maggie Gooding’ in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ positions her pretty much mid-point between the two, or more tactfully, points up the continuity between the character-parts she’s best known for. The scene where she flounce-wiggles down Jamaica Road towards the ‘Red Lion’, as the feral children sitting on the wall wolf-whistle at her is so pure ‘Carry On’ you expect a leering guffawing Sid James to be the taxi-driver. While the plot-premise, the returning errant husband turning up looking for his equally feckless wife who is shacked-up with a new, also married man, is pure Soap storyline. Charlie Gooding (James Booth), is the tearaway merchant-seaman home from a long voyage – ‘two years in the wrong ship’, who find his terrace-house has been razed in slum-clearance, its demolition-site remains left in an island of rubble overlooked by shiny new towerblocks. He’s told that they pulled ‘em down before they fell down. While the bush-telegraph alert goes around the manor that he’s back, intent on warning missing wife Maggie (Barbara Windsor). She’s now living with bus driver Bert Briggs (George Sewell), with Cristobel, a new baby of dubious parentage. A likeable rogue, Charlie’s soon reconnecting around the neighborhood, although they’re all protectively vague about where he’ll find Maggie. There’s a conspiracy to conceal the truth. He’s misdirected to a rooming house with Sikh and African family-residents. And asks her supposedly former-employers at the Jewish bakery. Meanwhile Charlie’s niece Nellie (Barbara Ferris) and Georgie (Murray Melvin) are tasked with taking the warning direct to Maggie. At first she’s dubious, last she heard of him he was in Venezuela, in the nick, ‘he won’t show up again, not in this manor’. She’s wrong.

The upsurge of gritty working-class film-dramas that shook up the cosy British cinema of the 1950’s led off with angry northern-based ‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’ (1960), ‘A Kind Of Loving’ (1962), and ‘A Taste Of Honey’ (1961). If the 1960 play originally-titled ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ is a London retaliation, it’s a curiously odd one-off collision between realism and comedy. There’s no trace of dignified leftie idealisation, instead, it portrays an underclass as deviously disreputable as in ‘Shameless’. Equally, although shot at Merton Park Studios with locations in Newham and Stepney using local residents as walk-ons, with even Ronnie and Reggie Kray making a cameo appearance, it’s also stranded far from the ‘Swinging London’ of myth. Pundits who blithely talk today of ‘austerity’ need only glance back at this third-world version of London to see real deprivation. Kids run amok on the wasteground beneath the railway arches. Charlie’s brother Fred Gooding (Roy Kinnear) retreats to the ‘music room’ – an outside bog across the yard, with his newspaper. While the kind of towerblock where Maggie now lives, despised by the 1970’s Punks, are new all-mod-cons in the sky rising above the back-to-back past. The lifts work. And there are venetian-blinds, ideal for signaling to those below.



There are two confrontations. Both happen in the kind of pubs that have dart-boards on the wall, and where drinkers do knees-ups to the old Joanna. Charlie waits in the ‘Red Lion’ for Maggie to show – ‘or else there’ll be trouble’, as she gets stranded on a lifting-bridge while heading for the rendezvous! He’s a charmer. ‘There’s only going to be murder, that’s all’ he threatens – only half-joking, ‘I can wring your neck or smash your head in. I’ll cut you up into little Oxo-cubes’ But he works his way around her. Spends £5 buying her flowers from a gypsy. ‘Don’t take liberties’ she warns him. ‘You’ve still got my ring on’ he points out. ‘I’ve been having a good time while you’ve been away’ she scolds him, ‘I’ve gone off you’. They obviously have a volatile history, ‘if I hadn’t liked you I wouldn’t have bashed your head in, would I?’ he reasons. And as she later rationalises, apart from the boozing and his going with other birds, he was ‘right good to me’. While he tells his mates ‘you can’t help but laugh at her, can you…?’ And no, you can’t.

The cast consists of a tick-list of every reliable character-actor familiar from films and TV sit-coms clear across the period. Written by Stephen Lewis, he appears as the whining small-minded health-and-safety-obsessed janitor of Maggie’s Wickham House towerblock, pretty much the same petty official that would define his ‘On The Buses’ role as ‘Blakey’, and later in ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’. A role that he’s rewardingly reprised throughout his career. The bluff inarticulate Arthur Mullard, as drayman Ted, fills the part that would safely see him through a life’s career. Roy Kinnear has a comic window-cleaning sequence that could have been lifted directly from his ‘Dick Emery Show’ sketches. There’s both Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce of future sit-com ‘George And Mildred’, plus Harry H Corbett, Victor Spinetti, and George Sewell (of kitchen-sink classics ‘This Sporting Life’ (1963), ‘Poor Cow’ (1967) and ‘Get Carter’ in 1971) – all present and reassuringly familiar. The play was first staged by influential left-wing director Joan Littlewood at the ‘Theatre Royal Stratford East’ in 1960, using her Theatre Workshop company, the same cast she’d use for the film. And while grounded in Stephen Lewis’ script, it works as essentially an ensemble piece, using Littlewood’s innovative improvisational techniques.



The excellent Murray Melvin had already appeared as the supportive gay friend in Littlewood’s original stage-production of Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste Of Honey’, as well as Tony Richardson’s subsequent film version. And Littlewood’s follow-up project – ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’, successfully transferred to the West End ‘Wyndham’s Theatre’ in 1961. From where it was picked up by producer Don Taylor, who brought in Stanley Black to score the incidental music, and Lionel Bart to spin the title-song for Barbara Windsor to sing over the credits. For Joan Littlewood, it was not only her directorial film debut, but her only film as director, returning to theatre-work afterwards, and writing credits for ‘Oh! What A Lovely War’ (1969). For Barbara Windsor, it would lead to her first ‘Carry On’, ‘Carry On Spying’ (1964). Generally well-received, this was the first ‘English language’ film to be released in the States with subtitles, leaving the ‘New York Times’ to comment ‘...this isn’t a picture for anyone with a logical mind or an ear for language. The gabble of cockney spoken here is as incomprehensible as the reasoning of those who speak it.’ Well, maybe.

Charlie spends time drinking in a near-empty ‘Kentucky Club’. While she contrives with Bert to get to see Charlie behind his back. She’s torn. She wants to see him, but knows she shouldn’t. If she meets him she’ll only get involved again. Of course, she does. And they flirt in the park. There’s a final showdown at ‘Queenies’ where Georgie sings “My Baby Won’t Rock” with the local band, Eve ‘Queen of the Strippers’ does a turn for the boys, and Maggie drinks Babycham. Then Bert walks in, wearing his bus-drivers uniform, and the rivals for her attention go face-to-face. When Bert asks her ‘what about our baby?’ she shrugs, ‘sorry Bert, you was right first time’. So it’s not Bert’s kid. But as Charlie’s been away two years, it can’t be his either. She tells him as much, ‘who’s the kid?’ he demands. ‘well, it ain’t yours’ she snaps back, protesting ‘I can’t help it if people fancy me’. Charlie threatens to go down the bus depot and let Bert’s tyres down. When Charlie drags Maggie outside she attacks him as a fight breaks out inside the Pub too. The slapstick brawl provides a fittingly uproarious knockabout climax. It’s obvious that dull reliable Bert has lost out to shifty raffish bad-boy Charlie, but he consoles himself by saying he was already resigned to going back to his wife anyway. And Charlie has his conjugal rights to look forward to.

So, it’s not a great movie. And if it represented an opportunity for Babs Windsor to prove she had real acting chops, a missed opportunity too. More a novelty period piece stranded somewhere between the ‘Carry On’ films, and TV’s ‘Eastenders’.


 

‘SPARROWS CAN’T SING’: 
‘A WILD AND WACKY FROLIC’ 
 (review in the ‘New York Times’) 

‘SPARROWS CAN’T SING’ (original title ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’, Elstree Distributors, Studio-Canal/Optimum Releasing, 26 March 1963. Premiere at Stepney ‘ABC Cinema’) Black-and-white. Producer: Donald Taylor. Director: Joan Littlewood. Screenplay: Stephen Lewis. With James Booth (as Charlie Gooding), Barbara Windsor (as Maggie Gooding), Roy Kinnear (as Fred Gooding), Avis Bunnage (as Bridgie/Bridget Gooding), Brian Murphy (as Jack), Yootha Joyce (as Barmaid), George Sewell (as Bert Briggs), Barbara Ferris (as niece Nellie Gooding), Griffith Davies (as Chunky), Murray Melvin (as Georgie), Arthur Mullard (as Ted), Peggy Ann Clifford (as Ted’s Wife), Wally Patch (as Watchman), Bob Grant (as Perce, he later plays cheeky ‘Jack Harper’ in ‘On The Buses’), Stephen Lewis (as Janitor), Victor Spinetti (as Arnold), Jenny Sontag (as Momma), May Scagnelli (as Gran), Fanny Carby (as Lil), Janet Howse (as Janet), Queeenie Watts (as Queenie, she also sings “Blues For Queenie”), Harry H Corbett (as Greengrocer) Marjie Lawrence (as Girl), Glynn Edwards (Charlie’s Friend), Gerry Raffles (as Lorry Driver), John Junkin (as Bridge Operator), Eve Eden (as Pub Stripper, a real-life pin-up in ‘Parade no.1122’ 10 June 1961) and Rita Webb (as Towerblock neighbour), baby Christabel is James Booth’s real-life daughter, Sarah! Music: Stanley Black. (94 minutes) DVD ‘Optimum Home Releasing’ August 2009

 

Title-song issued as a single. “Sparrows Can’t Sing” c/w “On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep” by Barbara Windsor with Geoff Love And His Orchestra (HMV POP 1128)

As well as his movie-roles in ‘The Vengeance Of She’ (1968), ‘The Haunted House Of Horror’ (1969) and ‘Doppelgänger’ (1969) George Sewell had parts in TV’s ‘UFO’ and the 1988 ‘Doctor Who’ serial ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’

Confusing to those born since, the quote ‘Who do you think you are, Bronco Layne?’ refers to the 1958-1962 ABC-TV Western series ‘Bronco’ starring Ty Hardin, screened in the UK by BBC.

Locations include Limehouse and Isle Of Dogs, while Cable Street and Fraser Street are used with Vallance Road residents involved as background extras


Originally featured on website:
‘VIDEOVISTA (July)’ (UK – July 2012)



Friday, 27 September 2019

Poem: 'ANOTHER LANGUAGE FOR LIGHT'




ANOTHER LANGUAGE 
FOR LIGHT 
(notes from the Greek Diaries: 
August-September 2004)



catamaran out from Marmaris
ignites wake of spilt jewels, as
Greek TV-Soap endlessly spools
on-screen above the Bar

Rodos town,
an abrupt sunset,
night tinged with day in the
jittery animation of bats

local coach through to Lindos,
speaking in pauses,
separated by breaths,
here, only time extends
without end

an ant ascends
the curve of your breast,
flicking it away,
my fingers continue
its climb

a million white pebbles
mosaic our courtyard,
each one a breath,
each one a life,
monastic arches, ancient beams,
a wall of photos, a silver laptop,
a circular bowl of grapes

pleasurable navigations
give shape to
chance meanders,
which we enchant
across the night
with poems

an ant threads
your triangulation of hair,
flicking it away,
my tongue completes
its journey

a cockerel crows,
a cat sleeps away
day-heat, lean beneath
cerise bougainvillaea
until
slow ferry
to Symi cleaves
new stories…



Published in:
'MINOTAUR no.49'
(USA - February 2008)


Thursday, 26 September 2019

BOBBY DARIN - Things About Bobby Darin



‘THINGS’ ABOUT 
BOBBY DARIN 

 BOBBY DARIN lived his short life on a time-fuse, no time to waste, 
nothing to lose. He lived fast. Died Young. The regular Rock ‘n’ Roll 
blueprint – sure, so why should we care now…? Well, there’s 
‘BEYOND THE SEA’ (2004) – the biopic that provides a 
contemporary relevance, tied in with the odd renaissance of ‘Swing’ 
that charges at least one of his career-stages with a curious resonance



‘BORN WALDEN ROBERT CASSOTTO’ 
 (1968 album) 

Bobby Darin lived his short life on a time-fuse, no time to waste, nothing to lose. He lived fast. Died Young. The regular Rock ‘n’ Roll blueprint – sure, so why should we care about him now…? Well, there’s the biopic in which Kevin Spacey portrays this problematic American Idol. It provides a kind of curious relevance, tied in with the odd renaissance of ‘Swing’ that charges at least one of his multiple career-stages with contemporary resonance. But there are other reasons too.

Born in Philadelphia on 14 May 1936, he grew up in New York unaware that ‘big sister’ Nina who raised him was really his (unmarried) mother. And from that point on Walden Robert Cassotto’s star-crossed life zigzags uncontrollably. Yet was always driven by insatiable ambition. A child victim of triple rheumatic fever, sister Viv recalls ‘just walking across the floor would be agony for him.’ So he stays indoors a lot. Listens to Mom’s Big Band 78rpm records, soaking up rhythms.

They said he’d be lucky to survive beyond his teens, and certainly never reach thirty. And that’s the point. He had a lot to achieve. And little time left to do it. Listen to his records now and it’s hard to find the real Bobby Darin, or even the direction he’s travelling. They’re more a series of deliberate counterfeits, infused with a sense of restless quest – an odyssey of identities, a Pop ‘n’ Roll trickster. He could likely have earned a career by sticking at any one of them, but he had no time for perseverance. Instead it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile those several personalities co-existing within the same body. And that’s also the point. He compressed more lives and living into the short time he had allocated than most could reasonably expect to achieve in longevity.

A single-term college drop-out, hungry for experience, his ruthlessness was legendary. As was his ambition. Determined ‘to establish myself as a legend by the time I’m twenty-five’, he goes straight from the Bronx High School to hunting acting roles. Selecting a new name, inventing a new identity from a malfunctioning Chinese eaterie sign advertising (Man)darin cuisine, it’s 1956 and he connects with fixer-mentor Don Kirshner. But instead of stage-work he finds himself serving an unsuccessful year at Decca records, covering Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line”, and cutting atrocities such as “Blue-Eyed Mermaid”.


Disappointed, he up-shifts to Atlantic stable-label Atco, a token white kid alongside the Coasters, the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter and La Vern Baker. Recruited to such a high-profile roster as a back-atcha, perhaps, at the white teens who’d creamed off Atlantic’s black hits, but one benefiting from Ahmet Ertegun’s production skills, and the label’s new eight-track machine. It’s here he initiates his first career as young teeny-bop rocker, co-writing “Splish Splash” (with DJ Murray The K’s mother!) – a no.3 party-style smash-hit (he’s in the bath unaware that downstairs there’s ‘a party going on’). It’s a novelty-hook that enables comedian Charlie Drake to undertake the UK chart-cover duties. Then “Queen Of The Hop” (‘she’s my sugar-time baby, I’m her lollypop’), and “Plain Jane” – both rocketing up the US charts through sheer force of enthusiasm (his West-coast sessions were also propelled by Nino Tempo’s deep-throated sax).

Never quite destined for full pin-up status Bobby’s round-faced dark-haired Italianate smile nevertheless soon guarantees him a presence in the fan-mags, if some ways less prominent than surly sexually-charged Elvis or doe-eyed Ricky Nelson. He’s the Bronx-brash kid grown up poor, who’d ‘splish-splashed’ onto the precarious first rung of stardom, but as a developing writer and performer those early hits prove respectable efforts. He’s never less than an inventive craftsman. Atlantic doesn’t deal in non-achievers.

For Darin, though, there’s no time for smug satisfaction, he’s already turning his ambition towards elevating himself higher, by creating an all-time Pop-Rock classic. He selects the proven C/Am/F/G7 chord sequence to do it with. And “Dream Lover”, with its shrill yearning adolescent angst, easily ranks as a fifties teen-anthem up there alongside Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely” and Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”. The powerfully ascending ‘cos I want – da-dah!, a girl – da-dah!!, to ca-all – my own!!!’, each line punched out in higher register, rising to erupt into the full revelatory passion of ‘I wanna Dream Lover, so I don’t have to dream alone’. The perfect fairground record, a blaring jukebox vinyl 45rpm, a sound exactly attuned to trebly transistor radio-play. And he’s rewarded with his biggest hit so far.



‘TWIST WITH BOBBY DARIN’ 
 (1962 album) 

‘I have Rock ‘n’ Roll hits’ he brags, ‘but I have to go beyond Rock ‘n’ Roll. I have to prove I can sing.’ So it’s after “Dream Lover” that he first switches roles, drastically emerging in a tuxedo on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night ‘American Bandstand’ ABC TV-show – with “Mack The Knife”. Suddenly he’s a finger-popping Sinatra hipster oozing ‘oh the shark has pearly teeth Dear’ with a sinister adult-friendly slickness. Time has softened that tectonic-shift. Now ‘The Rat Pack’ is a smart pose for a Robbie Williams or the sad fragments of Westlife. But back then Sinatra’s smooth sophistication was for the oldsters, while Rock is the new thing for the kids. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll is lewd – in plain fact, dirty,’ says Ole Blue Eyes, ‘it’s phoney and false, and sung written and played for the most part by cretinous goons.’ Sinatra merely swung, he couldn’t Rock.


And Darin’s sudden volt-face was seen as a betrayal. He might even be one of the ‘Bobbies’ – alongside Vinton, Rydell, and Vee, who Jerry Lee Lewis was accusing of destroying that first great age of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But ‘Dazzling Darin’s’ ambition is vindicated when the record becomes massive, the US list-leader for nine weeks, and Atlantic’s biggest-selling single to date. Soon there are classy brassy jazzy albums too, ‘That’s All’ (1960), ‘This Is Darin’ (1960) and the live supper-club cabaret-circuit ‘Darin At The Copa’ (1960) drawing on Brecht-and-Weill, Hoagy Carmichael (“Lazy River”), Gallic swing with “Beyond The Sea (La Mer)”, scat, smooth show tunes and standards.

A time of gold disks and Grammy awards. Yet for Darin, it’s a phase that lasts little over a year. Not quite cute enough to be a true bobbysoxer idol, not quite tall enough to be a Sinatra, already he’s Been there, Done that, Move on. He discovers Ray Charles. He writes “You’re The Reason I’m Living” – an artful fabrication of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” which becomes an American smash in 1962, and gives a full Raelettes-treatment to “I Wonder Whose Kissing Her Now”. Both for Capitol – ironically a label he’s moved to as its replacement for Sinatra. And there are more hits. Just consider these two examples, first – the cheekily suggestive “Multiplication”. Staid BBC-programmers found it a little too smutty for polite radio, Bobby’s assertion that – when it comes to sexual reproduction, ‘mother nature’s a clever girl, she relies on habit’, especially when he adds ‘in each generation, they play the same’, before growling ‘they’d better!’ into the fade. Then there’s Jack Nitzche’s Spanish guitar arrangement for the remarkable “Eighteen Yellow Roses” with its torrid overtones of incest. In the second verse he sings of furtively reading a card tucked into the ‘eighteen yellow roses’ that came today, to learn that ‘though you belong to another, I love you anyway.’ Darin’s injured hurt and passion at the implied adultery carries through into the final line, which explosively reveals that this is not a marital infidelity, but that ‘a father’s love will never fade away’. Yet there is too great an emotional intensity for it to be a purely paternal love, and too possessive to be considered strictly parental. Two very dissimilar records, both undeniably unique. Elsewhere, he hits with the jaunty country yodel of “Things”, covers Nat ‘King’ Cole’s curiously inspired “Nature Boy”, writes a ruggedly bluesy “But Not For Me” – later associated with Sammy Davis Jrn, while his other writing credits extend to “Early In The Morning” – a defining hit for Buddy Holly, “I’ll Be There” which will chart for Gerry And The Pacemakers, and “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’” for Ruth Brown.


‘THINGS AND OTHER THINGS’ 
 (1962 compilation album) 

Admit it, Kevin Spacey comes close. About as close as you can get. In stills and movie-sequences he’s almost there… as close as it’s now possible to recapturing that long-lost time. As close as, say – Ian Hart and Gary Bakewell’s impersonation of Lennon-and-McCartney in ‘Backbeat’ (1994), or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison on Oliver Stone’s ‘Doors’ (1991). A Darin for all phases. Spacey tells the ‘Observer’ that Darin ‘is probably next to Sammy Davis Jnr as the greatest nightclub entertainer we’ve ever had.’ It’s a movie project that began with producer Arthur Friedman negotiating the life-rights from son Dodd Darin’s book ‘Dream Lovers’, while the movie roll-call of possible ‘Darins’ – from Bruce Willis to Tom Cruise, from Leonardo di Caprio to Johnny Depp, eventually alights on Spacey. And for him it’s more than just a role. He worked at Abbey Road with Phil Ramone and a 48-piece orchestra to perfect the soundtrack, he also directs and promotes the movie by touring a Darin show around American night-clubs. ‘My aim’ he tells interviewers, ‘is to bring attention to his entire catalogue.’

And by the dawn of the sixties that catalogue had rung the changes many times. Long before Bowie or Madonna would take out the chameleon-patent. He’d even fulfilled his original career-plan with acting roles in a number respectable movies, appearing in ‘Heller In Pink Tights’ (1960) with Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn, the glossy comedy ‘Come September’ (1961) with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida, the musical ‘State Fair’ (1962) with Pat Boone, a fine role as jazz musician ‘Ghost’ Wakefield in John Cassavetes’ ‘Too Late Blues’ (1961), and – significantly, the ‘screwball comedy’ ‘If A Man Answers’ (1962) as newly-weds with Sandra Dee. He married her in real life too. She’s played by Kate Bosworth in the Spacey movie. Like Darin, she had personal problems – a history of child-abuse that left a legacy of alcoholism and anorexia. And Bobby could be ‘rude and brash’ even to her. There are persistent stories of his voracious sexual appetites, Dodd arguing that ‘I’m sure he never forgot for a moment that he was going to die’ to explain his involvement in ‘swinging’ threesomes. Yet, they’d become the season’s golden couple and everything seemed fine... until the Beat Boom abruptly sidelined him. Music changed, Brit-groups were all over the charts, leaving his career stranded on the lounge-lizard night-club circuit.

But perhaps there are other factors at work? The world had stopped, and he’d got off. He’d been involuntarily relieved of the urgent compulsion to achieve legendary status, although he can reasonably claim he’s given it his best shot and come so close he’d been a contender. His health isn’t good. His marriage is failing. He’s even begun losing his hair. What the hell? It’s tempting to suggest that, for the first time in his life, the lull provides him a space of release. A freedom to assess and reflect how far he’s come, and where he might yet go.

He only manages to pick up the pieces in the late Sixties by stumbling across the aching fragility of Tim Hardin’s second album. Unable to compete himself with material written by this new breed of singer-songwriter, he instead does for “If I Were A Carpenter” what the Byrds had already done for Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”, taking the original arrangement, strengthening it with electricity, but replicating Hardin’s cracked vocals to such an extent that the writer painfully exclaims ‘he’s stolen my voice’ when he first hears Darin’s single on the radio. But it’s a startling interpretation of an exquisite song. One that inevitably takes its rightful place at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, championed by the hippest of the hipperati, with Andrew Loog Oldham even taking out press-space at his own expense to champion its excellence. I bought it, before I bought the original. I still value them both. But for Darin, there had been life-changes, ‘really, I don’t care whether I am in the charts or not’ he comments at the time, ‘I don’t need to be in the charts. I’m not that sort of artist, but I suppose it’s nice to know that people still remember you.’ It was to be Bobby Darin’s last real success, coinciding with his 1966 return to Atlantic, and his divorce. He covered more Hardin – including a fine “Lady Came From Baltimore”, and then turned the tables by writing “Simple Song Of Freedom” – the closest Tim himself would ever come to a chart record.

Bobby Darin lived his life on a short time-fuse. Later on he was forced to carry a back-up oxygen supply as part of his touring equipment, with the constant awareness that every show he gave, every song he sang, might be his last. Living on the edge of borrowed time. During his hectic final years he cut singles for Motown, hosted his own syndicated NBC-TV show, guested on both ‘Sonny And Cher’s Comedy Hour’ and ‘Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In’, and acted in a movie with Patricia Neal (‘Happy Mother’s Day, Love George’ aka ‘Run Stranger Run’, 1973). There’s also vital surgery to insert artificial valves into his weakened heart. Warned that he’d never survive into his third decade, his life was always time-coded. Yet he works on into the early-1970s. Until eventually, during dental work the dentist neglected to administer antibiotics, resulting in septicaemia, a blood-poisoning infection that stressed his implant-valves to malfunction. Rushed to hospital he underwent some eight hours of surgery, before succumbing to heart failure on 20 December 1973. Until – eventually, there was ‘Beyond The Sea’, the biopic that opened 26 November 2005. And the odd renaissance of ‘Swing’ charging at least one of his multiple career-stages with a curious relevance. These are just some of the reasons why we should care now…



TEN MORE ‘THINGS’ 
ABOUT BOBBY DARIN 

(1) Among his more unusual records there’s a solo piano instrumental “Beachcomber” (1960), plus a spin-off US top thirty single – “Early In The Morning” c/w ”Now We’re One” under the guise of the Rinky Dinks (no.24 in July 1958), and a 1967 album of Leslie Bricusse songs from the movie ‘Dr Dolittle’ including “Talk To The Animals”. He also plays piano back-up on the Buddy Knox single “That’s Why I Cry”

(2) A reggae version of “Dream Lover” was issued in November 1972 by Greyhound (Blue Mountain label). The Plasmatics record their own version on their 1980 album ‘New Hope For The Wretched’ (Stiff)

(3) On his album ‘L.A. Is My Lady’ Frank Sinatra adapts “Mack The Knife” by singing ‘oh Satchmo Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, they did this song nice/ and Lady Ella too/ they all sang it with such feeling/ that Old Blue Eyes can’t add nothing new…’

(4) Bobby Darin’s early-sixties backing group includes future-Byrd Roger (Jim) McGuinn

(5) His first major hit, “Splish Splash”, is included on the 1978 soundtrack album to the Alan Freed biopic ‘American Hot Wax’ (AM). His second hit – “Queen Of The Hop”, name-checks other current hits of the time, from ‘sweet little sixteen’, to ‘you can talk about your Julie and your Peggy-Sue, your Miss Molly and Mary-Lou’. His early hits can also be heard on the soundtrack of ‘Apollo 13’ (1995) and ‘American Beauty’ (1999)


(6) In her 1984 autobiography ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ Connie Francis tells how she and Darin had ‘an innocently romantic love affair’ when she was just eighteen. Her enraged father turns up at the rehearsals for a TV spectacular in which they are both appearing, and chases Bobby through the studio waving a gun!

(7) A long-time Democrat and Civil Rights activist the shock of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination causes Darin to re-evaluate his life. The tangled truth about his parentage also emerges – at age thirty-two, when he considers standing for public office, and it’s feared such details might be used by the opposition to slur his name. ‘My entire life has been a lie’ he confessed. He got rid of his possessions and Beverly Hills home and moves into a trailer in Big Sur (writing ‘How many steaks can you chew boy/ how many cars can you drive/ how many moon in June-type tunes can you write, before you’re a lie’ in “Song For A Dollar”). His subsequent album, the self-penned ‘Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto’, includes his “In Memoriam” tribute to his friend Kennedy

(8) As an Italian-American there are inevitable Corleone-style ‘horse’s head in the bed’-style rumours about Darin’s career, such as the one about Bobby’s change of style away from ‘Swing’ so annoying an organised crime boss that Darin wound up beaten-up with his head stuffed down a toiled bowl until he nearly drowns

(9) During a late Las Vegas engagement he stunned the straight-laced audience by ripping off his toupee to achieve the honesty necessary to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”

(10) In the moody monochrome ‘Too Late Blues’ – perhaps his finest movie, he says ‘I sold me, man, but never my soul...’

Originally on website:
‘SOUNDCHECKS’ (January 2005)



‘In The Era Of Cool, 
He Was The Soundtrack...’ 


DVD review of: 
‘BEYOND THE SEA: 
THE BOBBY DARIN STORY’ 
 with Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin (also writer/ producer/ director), 
 Brenda Blethyn as ‘Mom’ Polly Cassotto, Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee, 
 Caroline Aaron as Nina Cassotto-Maffia, William Ullrich as ‘Little Bobby’, 
Bob Hoskins as Brother-in-law Garbageman Charlie Maffia, 
John Goodman as manager Steve ‘Boom Boom’ Blauner. 
 (Entertainment In Video EDR4064TC)


Movie-makers love biopics. Always have. Biographical-pictures, from Al Jolson, Glenn Miller, through the Doors and Jerry Lee Lewis, and on. But they can only ever replicate. The best they can achieve is a close approximation. And an artist – after all, is unique, that’s what makes them artists. That’s the problem with tribute bands. They can aspire to simulate, but the best they can ever be is ‘near’. And who needs a good substitute? Sure, as a crash-course when the original’s no longer available, a speed-read, or a career primer, bio-pics can be useful. Perhaps that’s enough? And Kevin Spacey comes closer than most. His subject, and personal vanity-project – Bobby Darin, was sporadically high-profile, but too much of a quick-change chameleon to ever totally dominate his era. And movie compression over-stresses the Supper-Club Lounge-Lizard aspects of his career over his more interesting Rock ‘n’ Pop moments. I guess editing and life-streamlining is a necessary fiction? 

So yes, there’s ‘THE VOICE: THE PASSION: THE CONFIDENCE’, as it says on the box. But for the non-initiate Darin-virgin, not a great deal more. The screenplay opens at the ‘Coconut Grove’ where a ‘brash, cocky and arrogant’ Darin encounters his younger self. ‘You’re playing me?’ he asks. ‘I am you’ says Little Bobby, ‘you want some truth, I’ll give you some truth…’ And time-warps them back to the 1940s Bronx with knowing talk-over, street dance-routines (‘I know, it’s a fantasy sequence’), and mood-enhancing black-and-white TV inserts. From that point on the story is fairly straight-forward, the obvious plot-hook about his ‘Mom’ really being his Gran, and drag-act ‘sister’ Nina his real mother is clamped down until later. That could usefully have been trailered, or at least planted as a ‘secret tease’ by the narrator-voice. Instead the peg is pretty much left to ‘Sir Splish-Splash’ versus Sandra Dee (she’s already a rising starlet of the ‘Gidget’ (1959) and two ‘Tammy’ films, 1961 and 1963). ‘There goes the girl I’m going to marry’ he brags as he meets ‘Sandie’ doing a Rock Hudson movie-shoot together in Italy, with one eye on how the Darin-Dee celebrity tie-in would look in the fan-mags, and he romances her to an extended “Beyond The Sea” dance-sequence. Her mother would have preferred her to link up with Rock Hudson – some hope!

In a snigger of retro-awareness, of course we know – but they didn’t, that he-man Hudson was gay. Nevertheless, Darin’s pushy charm wins out. A stormy marriage follows, until they’re competing for who-leaves-who first, set to slapstick comic pacing. The real Sandra Dee, a child-star troubled victim of child-abuse, alcoholism and anorexia, dies 20 February 2005, shortly after ‘Beyond The Sea’ premiered. And in real life they divorce in 1967. But hey, this is a movie. Here Darin is reconciled with his Sandie. He makes his peace with his mother-sister. And he leaves a personalised legacy for son Dodd ‘Moose’ Darin. While the second movie-theme is developing around Darin’s growing political awareness.

First glimpsed when he opens pilled-up at the ‘Copacabana’ with “Hello Young Lovers”, but insists on black comedian George Kirby opening for him, against the management’s more segregationalist opposition. This leads into his radical alliance with Robert Kennedy as part of an increasingly divided ‘country at war’. Jotting the lyrics for “Simple Song Of Freedom” into the margins of the ‘Los Angeles Times’ around the ‘Vietnam Draft’ headlines, his lines ‘we the people here don’t want a war’ returned with renewed relevance in the year of the Iraq debacle. But no, the real movie-theme has got to be that of artifice. Firstly ‘Bobby Darin’ is an escapist persona deliberately assembled by sickly Italian-American kid Walden Robert Cassotto as a vehicle to propel him to stardom – at one point he insists to producer Ahmet Ertegun ‘when the delivery guy knows me, then I’m a star!’ And he becomes that star. Until his life crashes down, with Kennedy’s assassination coinciding with the final revelation of his confused parentage, which tears apart his own sense of identity. The artifice behind the structured artifice of stardom. Which becomes Spacey’s parting shot. The true Bobby Cassotto is dead. But the fiction he created persists. This DVD is more than just a biopic, it is that persistence.

Originally on website:
‘VIDEOVISTA’ 



Tuesday, 24 September 2019

SF Book Review: KIM STANLEY ROBINSON 'The Gold Coast'



KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: 
LESS THAN GOLD 

 Book Review of: 
‘THE GOLD COAST’ 
 by KIM STANLEY ROBINSON 
 (Tor Books, 1988, UK Orbit SF, May 1989
 – £3.99 – ISBN 0-7088-82951-1) 

This is one TEDIOUS book. Basically a mainstream novel with tacky genre tack-ons, consumer-friendly packaging, and the kind of blockbuster vacuousness in which empty people say Jackie Collins things like ‘everyone is beautiful these days, we’re in California’. The ‘Gold Coast’ is Orange County, an endless bland Shopping Mall where they have loose but involved talk-through relationships and ‘lid’ eye-dropper hallucinogenics, where they have hi-gloss recreational sex as unerotic as a Jane Fonda Work-Out video, and ‘track’ programmed autos from nowhere to nowhere else particularly interesting. The hackneyed SF add-ons detract from whatever mainstream relevance – if any, the book might possibly have had if the characters were remotely interesting or the plot anything like engaging – which they aren’t, and it isn’t.

Dennis works in Defence, on Stormbee and Ball Lightning Projects – which are Ronald Reagan’s late unlamented ‘Star Wars’ by other names, cue TV-Soap power-glam Corporate Manoeuvres, while bratty son Jim, 27, is a ‘pacifist bleeding-heart pseudo-radical’ who writes cut-up verse, agonises over motivation (‘you have to do something new, but there’s nothing new left to do’), and gets into minor guerrilla sabotage as a reality fix. It’s well-tracked Randolph/ Patty Hearst radical chic territory which signals in neon a trashing-raid on Daddy’s ‘Laguna Space Research’ plant with a side-order of accidental patricide as climax – but Kim Stanley Robinson even funks out on that, and the denouement trickles out in tedious compromise instead.

There’s nothing here that’s not already happened, there’s no theme here that’s not already been done to extinction earlier, better, and more extremely. It’s probably unfair to snipe about his obsolete Warsaw Pact First Strike mind-set, or SDI projects – both already document-shredded by history, or his tiresomely dated American Imperialist vision – ‘Orange County is the end of history, it’s purest product’, flipping through the world – Moscow, Egypt, Crete, all he sees is an extended California – ‘the great late surge of corporate capitalism.’ But his ideas drag – and THAT’S unforgivable, his ‘autopia’ would be shallow even before JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’ got hauled off to the car-crusher. If this is the best new SF can do (which it isn’t) no wonder Horror and Fantasy are stealing the game. Tracking through these 389-pages is a major chore, you skip sections and speed-read others hoping to minimise boredom through compression. But on the evidence of this one TEDIOUS book, it’s goodbye to SF’s lurid garish past, and not really a good buy for the future…


Part of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Orange County’ trilogy,
which consists of:
‘The Wild Shore’ (1984)
‘The Gold Coast’ (1988)
‘Pacific Edge’ (1990)


Sunday, 22 September 2019

Book: 'CAVERN CLUB: THE INSIDE STORY'



A CELLARFUL OF BOYS 

 Book Review of: 
‘CAVERN CLUB: THE INSIDE STORY’ 
by DEBBIE GREENBERG 
 (2016, Jorvik Press) ISBN 978-0-9863770-4-4 
Softback. 176 pages



Like Graceland or the Abbey Road crossing, the Cavern Club in Liverpool’s Mathew Street is a shrine for Rock-music devotees. There’s been a lot written about Brian Epstein’s ‘Cellarful Of Noise’, books by Phil Thompson (1994) and Spencer Leigh (1984 and 2008) diligently chronicling the beat-by-beat history of the venue, and its role in Pop mythology. But from her first visit – in December 1960, ‘greedy for our fix of non-stop beat music’, mini-skirted Debbie was a regular there, so hers is a more personal account, her first-hand fan’s-eye gossipy chit-chat and fashion-notes have tactile authenticity. From resident DJ Bob Wooler’s ‘hi there, all you cave-dwellers’, to bassist Stuart Sutcliffe standing with his back to the audience ‘so no-one could see how he was playing’, and Pete Best ‘sultry, fiercely good-looking and oozed sex appeal’. They showcase more groups than Merseyside had dock strikes, according to Wooler. With Debbie and Sue running down to the Pier Head afterwards to catch the last bus home.

The added dimension is that – following Ray McFall’s bankruptcy (no.1 in the writ parade) and the original closure of the club in 28 February 1966, while still aged just twenty she became very actively part of the family concern that took over the lease. There’s a lot about those ‘magical and breathtaking’ moments, rich with photos and rare memorabilia. An opportunistic Harold Wilson is there for the re-opening, Solomon Burke, Long John Baldry, Edwin Starr and Chuck Berry (‘a wonderful musician but not a particularly nice man’) all play. They book Ike & Tina but only get the Ikettes. Paul and Linda call around. The Chants play, who later become chart-toppers as the Real Thing. The Iveys play, who become Badfinger after Dad Alf Geoghegan adds the ‘bad’ to Paul McCartney’s original name for them – Finger. Enjoying ‘Good Times Again’ until the club’s 1970 sale, and the dubious events surrounding the compulsory purchase order and demolition of the original site in 1972. Of course, the reconstructed Cavern is still a Mecca for Macca-fans, Beatles-aficionados, and tourists in general. I’ve been…


Saturday, 21 September 2019

CD Review: SPENCER DAVIS 'SO FAR'



SPENCER DAVIS 
KEEPS ON RUNNING 

Album Review of: 
‘SO FAR’ by SPENCER DAVIS 
(2008, Evangeline GELM4123 – 


Although frequently seen as a catalyst in the ascent of others – Steve Winwood, Hardin & York, Spencer Davis insists he’s ‘not running’ from his past. In fact, he’s always been a hard-working hard-touring Bluesman. And this reflective autobiographical album traces the contours of that ride from the deeply personal aspect of the tender “Mulberry Avenue”, which is the kind of song you wish you’d written for your mother, to the global perspective of the Berlin Wall going up, then coming down, set to a loose Stonesy riff. “Mumbles Train” paeans the Dr Beeching-lost tram system circling his childhood Swansea, where his Uncle Herman used to play magical mandolin, and where he was later tossed an adolescent rope by ‘Elvis, Fats and Buddy’. In Birmingham the Blues came to Hill Street (!) with his introduction to Sonny Boy, Hooker and Leadbelly. Then he rails at, and scores points against the ‘Viper’ record company exploiters who plagued the hit-making years, with harmonica to choppy guitar, using boogie-piano to propel “Can’t Stand Still” to prove he’s risen above them, defiantly still performing ‘door to door, coast to coast’. It’s an engaging, easy-going tale, told in a soft-core less than forceful vocal style. But how the closing cover of William Bell & Judy Clay’s “Private Number” became a Dusty Springfield duet is not explained, in fact barely mentioned, although I suspect its origins lie in the work they did together for Spencer’s solo 1983 ‘Crossfire’ album. Whatever, Spencer’s not running – but reflecting across thirteen likeable tracks, about how his life has been a good ride, before cautiously adding, as Joe Walsh did before him – ‘so far’.


Published in:
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.13 (Jan/Feb 2009)’ 
(UK – January 2009)


Sunday, 25 August 2019

Poem: 'HERITAGE'



HERITAGE 

old men with white beards 
stand on podiums, pontificating, 
pay attention, we can benefit from 
their wealth of life-experience 
and accumulated learning, 
old white men with beards 
lecture interminably, listen, 
we are fortunate they deign 
to gift us with their wisdom, 
tell us how to think and behave 

old white men with white beards and 
portly waistlines, poets, professors 
curators and clerics, novelists, 
critics, politicians and historians 
pause for power-point punchline 
punctuation and dramatic effect 
as we hang on their every word, 
these venerable old custodians of 
whiskery white male cultural values 
fixed ideas, intractable philosophies 
and academic elitism 
…everything we reject 
and don’t need to learn, 
listen, 
I’ll tell you how to dance in sunshine




Also featured online at:
‘IT: INTERNATIONAL TIMES’
(24 August 2019)
http://internationaltimes.it/heritage/

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Michael Moorcock's first 'ELRIC'



MICHAEL MOORCOCK: 
ELRIC, DABBLER 
IN WILD DELIGHTS 


 ‘Science Fantasy’ no.47 – published in June 1961, 
introduces the world to a new fantasy character, the dark 
doomed-laden Elric of Melniboné, created by a 
 ‘new author to our pages’, Michael Moorcock. 
 This is where the legend begins…




In the 1981 novelette “Elric At The End Of Time” the sorcerer is described as ‘a somewhat unhealthy-looking albino with gaunt features, exaggeratedly large and slanting eyes, ears that were virtually pointed and glaring, half-mad red pupils.’ This is not quite the swashbuckling image that adorns the cover of ‘Science Fantasy no.47’, marking the first-ever print appearance of the brooding doom-laden Lord of Melniboné. The issue is dated June 1961, with editor John Carnell writing ‘this is the first of a new series of stories by a new author to our pages.’ Moorcock would later acknowledge ‘the encouragement and help given me when writing them (the Elric tales) by John Carnell.’ 

It seems strange to think of Michael Moorcock being introduced as a ‘new author’. It seems strange to imagine a time when Elric was not a vital part of genre Sci-Fi mythology. There have subsequently been prequels, novels, graphic novel adaptations, and all manner of tie-in elaborations. But as far as the world was concerned, “The Dreaming City” was the first glimpse of Elric. Born 18 December 1939, Michael Moorcock was twenty-two and a bit. Born some time later, I was halfway through fourteen. I did not discover ‘Science Fantasy’ until some years after, when I happened upon a cache of old issues on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop off Princes Avenue in Hull. But I was instantly captivated, and drawn into the dark imaginings of the savage destiny it describes. Carnell adds in a neatly summarised thumbnail sketch of what is to come, that ‘unlike many central characters, Elric is puny on his own, but as a wanderer in another place and time he has the power of sorcery to boost his strength,’ alluding to ‘Stormbringer’, the semi-sentient battle-blade that is also ‘The Stealer Of Souls’.


In that remote time-lost June 1961, eternal cowboy hero Gary Cooper died aged sixty, as well as psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung – aged eighty-five, whose concepts of ‘archetypes’ may well have contributed to the mix of influences feeding into Moorcock’s tale. American astronaut Alan Shepard followed Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, albeit in a sub-orbital shot, as the superpower ‘Space Race’ gathers momentum. Elvis Presley was no.1 for the month’s first three weeks with “Surrender”, with Del Shannon, the Shadows, Everly Brothers and Billy Fury vying for chart places beneath him. Tony Hancock’s ‘Half-Hour’ was on BBC-TV. Stirling Moss won the Brands Hatch Silver Cup Trophy. Although, at the time, I was more caught up with Dan Dare adventuring on ‘The Platinum Planet’ on the ‘Eagle’ front-page. In ‘Lion’ Keith Watson was illustrating the large-scale Space Opera ‘Captain Condor And The War In Space’. While over at ‘Tiger’ Jet-Ace Logan was encountering the shape-shifting ‘Giants From Space’.

Brian Lewis became one of the few artists to work on all three of those UK Space Hero picture-strips, which meant I immediately recognised his style in the glossy cover-art for ‘Science Fantasy’ no.47. It shows Elric looking more like a Roman soldier, wearing emerald cloak ‘of rustling green velvet’ draped over his shoulder, decorated armour with ‘breastplate of strangely-wrought silver’ and ornate flared runesword held loosely, with the faint futuristic lines of a ghost city behind him. Lewis was one of Britain’s finest and most imaginative graphic artists, producing a gallery of beautiful highly distinctive covers for all three of John Carnell’s Nova Publications. Of course, the portrayal of Elric would become increasingly stylised and sophisticated as the mythos developed through further tales. In fairness, this commission was the first attempt to capture his appearance, a preparatory sketch from which future images would evolve. There are no illustrations on the cheaper-quality interior pages.


Priced at just two shillings and sixpence, ‘Science Fantasy’ was a uniquely niché’d little magazine, straddling the fault-line its title suggests – the word ‘Science’ in clear black font, ‘Fantasy’ in more playful italicised script. A slipstream title more ‘Weird Tales’ than it was ‘New Worlds’. The issue also includes a second novelette – John Rackham’s “The Veil Of Isis” (pseudonym of John T Phillifent) – an amusing sequel in which the protagonists from earlier story “The Black Cat’s Paw” confront reanimated Egyptological undead slaves. Plus two short stories – “Blood Offering” by John Kippax, where a trader on a tropical island is menaced by the local’s Shark God, and the charming “Valley Of The Rainbirds” by WT Webb, a poetic offering in which a man called Peabody is devoured by a storm of starlings. The issue is wrapped up by the twelfth in Sam Moskowitz’s ‘Studies In Science Fiction’ series, a scholarly essay on Stanley G Weinbaum – creator of “A Martian Odyssey”. There’s a back-page panel advertising the current ‘New Worlds’ – no.106, highlighted by John Rackham’s “Blink” (also cover-illustrated by Brian Lewis), alongside tales by JG Ballard (‘The Terminal Beach’ story “Deep End”), Philip E High, Alan Barclay and John Ashcroft. While the Brian Lewis cover of ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ no.20 – advertised on the inside back-page, illustrates Robert Silverberg’s “The Wages Of Death” and Kenneth Bulmer’s “Wind Of Liberty”.


The annals of Moorcockiana continue to debate the provenance and authorship of earlier tales and comicstrips that the young Moorcock scripted, frequently in various combinations with the other teenage protégé Barrington J Bayley. Moorcock’s official adult debut came with “Peace On Earth”, in collaboration with Bayley – under the byline ‘Michael Barrington’, in ‘New Worlds SF’ (no.89, December 1959), the magazine he was later to edit. Carnell extends a welcome as ‘a new author makes his debut with a different approach to the immortality theme – two men with eternity before them searching for an ancient Earth-type antidote for restlessness.’ Two immortal post-humans two-million years hence, Fra-Thala and Bulik are on a galaxy-wide quest for meaning, guided by Aber Juillard’s black-bound Book. With an earnest striving for significance, they find the answer lies in accepting the finality of death on an arid empty Earth, because only death gives life meaning. He would follow the story with “Going Home” for ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ (no.25, March 1962), in which Bayley may also have had some input.


But the first adult publication as Michael Moorcock is in ‘Science Fantasy no.47’. Hold that issue in your hands now, plucked direct from the newsagent’s display. Smell that freshly-minted aroma of new paper. Flip past the ‘Contents’ page… pretend you’ve never seen those story-titles before. Read it as though you’ve never heard of Elric, or ‘the cruel, brilliant and malicious’ Bright Empire of Melniboné ever before, or Stormbringer ‘forged by an ancient and alien sorcerer’, or alternately ‘forged by gods before the world gave birth to human offspring’. Before the follow-ups, the rewrites and the reconfigurations. This is the original text. Re-experience that first time.


Commencing on the issue’s page two, Moorcock’s ‘Introduction’ to “The Dreaming City” sets its time-fix into the chronoflow as an aspect of ‘an agony of Now, and so it will always be’. Yet it’s also located ‘ten-thousand years before history was recorded – or ten-thousand years after history had ceased to be chronicled.’ There are further hints. ‘Ravaged, at last, by the formless terror called Time, Melniboné fell’ and ‘then history began: India, China, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome – all these came after Melniboné.’ Which places these fictional events firmly in prehistory, as we understand it. Science Fiction has colonised the far future. But Robert E Howard had populated his archaic Hyborian age with a miscellany of monsters and magic, in which Conan has become an iconic archetype for mighty-thewed imitators clear down through heroic fiction to Sláine of ‘2000AD’. Also in those 1930s issues of ‘Weird Tales’ Clark Ashton Smith set his Poseidonis as a Miocene remnant of lost Atlantis, which plumbs into another persistent myth-strand.


Academic recorded history commences with the receding of the last Ice Age, a mere ten-thousand years ago. Although proto-humans have existed for around six-million years, within which modern humans evolved some 200,000 years ago. Either way this time-span is wide enough for entire chunks of earlier culture to be carelessly mislaid. We can speculate if there had been such an earlier protean civilisation that evidence could easily have become eroded by environmental change, flooding on one hand – inundation from melting glaciers causing rising sea-levels, and on the other, desertification as habitable zones shift. Which is not to say that the realms of Conan, Atlantis and Elric are likely, merely that there’s the vaguest tenuous wisp of possibility that distant antiquity is big enough to hold secrets as yet unsuspected by academe.

Moorcock was enthusiastically familiar with Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and had already chronicled the exploits of his own Conan – with a cycle of ‘Sojan The Swordsman’ tales for the juvenile ‘Tarzan Adventures’ comic under his own editorial regime. But Elric was a step beyond anything that had come before. Deeper, more nuanced and sophisticated. Closer in character development to Fritz Leiber’s ‘Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser’ series set in the Swords And Sorcery dimension of Lankhmar. Only more so. Elric attunes to the dark adolescent Gothic lure of fin de siècle decadence, as much Aubrey Beardsley as it is Brian Lewis. The florid prose revels in diseased pain and nihilistic decay, with Stormbringer as a powerful addiction metaphor. Huge in scope and dramatic, forged from incandescent anger out of Moorcock’s own furious impatience at the world’s intractable dullness, Elric captures the generational rebel angst burning within the time, and is yet timeless. There was as yet no such genre as Young Adult Fantasy, but it’s clear to see how its moody shadow appealed to the messed-up adolescent in me.


The story itself opens with an alliance of six marauding Sea Lords awaiting Elric’s arrival. He will guide the ‘mightiest fleet to sail the Sighing Sea’, using sorcerer’s powers to enable them to pass through the formidable seawall and treacherous waterways of the five-doored maze of high-walled channels to the secret ports of Imrryr the Beautiful, the Dreaming City. In doing so, he is betraying the last stronghold of the ten-thousand year Melnibonéan empire, where a decadent narcotic aristocracy play sadistic games of ‘soporific desolation’. In the romantic tradition of heroic fiction, outsider Elric is rightful King Of The Dragon Isle, the Ruby Throne to which his cousin – Yyrkoon, is usurper. With Yyrkoon’s sister, and Elric’s beloved Cymoril, held in an enchanted sleep. Yet, at odds with those fictional expectations, Elric regards ‘crowns and rulership’ with disgust. His motives are the revenge of nihilistic destruction.


First he ‘crooned his hideous mind-juddering song of sorcery’ and uses ‘unthinkable pacts with the elementals’ to draw a concealing mist down upon the fjord to hide the swift vessels of the fleet. He makes a solo reconnaissance journey to the city. Then, subverting mythic archetype themes, from the Sleeping Beauty fairytale image to the Homeric fleet attacking and ransacking Troy, ‘Elric hacked a blood-drenched path’ through the Imrryr defences. Again – as in all classic dramas, there’s the decisive confrontation between the two arch-protagonists, Elric faces Yyrkoon who wields runesword Mournblade, a twin to Elric’s sentient hellblade. Yet Moorcock turns the solo combat in unexpected ways. The blades take on urgencies of their own. In supernatural torment Elric becomes puppet to Stormbringer. Laughing ‘like a gibbering demon from the foulest depths of hell’ Yyrkoon deflects Elric’s blade, causing the albino to kill Cymoril. He is now not only outcast, but woman-slayer.

The prose is raw and vivid, loaded and overwrought with darkness, piling charged adjectives one upon the other where more calculating writers would show reticence or restraint, establishing a relentless momentum towards the inexorable climax. In a penultimate sequence the freebooter fleet leaves the ‘flame-spewing ruins of Imrryr’ even as the city inflicts a posthumous revenge in golden battle-barges and unleashed dragons. Elric summons witch-winds for his own escape, leaving the reavers to face decimation. All is destruction. Nothing remains. The past burns. There is no future. In his terrible misery, the Proud Prince of Ruins unsheathes his blade, ‘the frightful thing had used its wielder and had made Elric destroy Cymoril’, he loathes his dependence upon the runesword, without which he will lose vitality, and ultimately his life. He attempts to hurl it away into the depths of the sea. Yet it impales itself in the surface, refusing to sink. And despite his fear and resentment, he’s forced to retrieve it. Accepting the Faustian pact that bonds them, less parasitic, more a symbiosis. ‘They rode together, sword and man, and none could tell which the master.’


Elric, ‘the last mighty Nigromancer left in the world,’ returns to ‘Science Fantasy’ with “While The Gods Laugh” (no.49, October 1961), where more familiar elements fall into place. There is Moonglum the Outlander, from Elwher of the Young Kingdoms. There are the Lords of Entropy, and the eternal struggle/ balance between the forces of Law and Chaos. The tale opens as, guided by Shaarilla, the wingless woman of Myyrrhn, the duo cross the Silent Land and the Marshes of the Mist, face the Devil-Dogs of Dharzi and the Mist Giant, then sail a vast subterranean sea in search of the ‘Dead God’s Book’ which holds ‘the ultimate truth of existence.’ A distant cousin, perhaps, of Aber Juillard’s black-bound ‘Book’ from Michael Barrington’s “Peace On Earth”? For Moorcock strikes at the most primal myths of the collective unconscious, black castles, swords, epic crusades, caves, darkness and light… books that turn to dust.


Then there is “The Stealer Of Souls” (no.51, February 1962), as Elric – ‘poor white chosen plaything of the Gods of Time’ forms a pragmatic alliance with Imrryrian exiles, using supernatural forces in order to attack the gloomy fortress of Nikorn of Ilmar. Within the stronghold, Yishana, Queen of Jharkor is loved by Theleb K’aarna, rival sorcerer of Pan Tang, but she yearns for Elric, her lost lover. The plotting is occasionally porous, as when Theleb incapacitates Elric by stealing Stormbringer, Moonglum simply uses Yishana to steal it back, as ‘her breasts heaved beneath the flimsy fabric.’ Just as, similarly, it’s a useful narrative device having a sorcerer protagonist, as in the next Elric story. Chained to the sacrificial menhirs of the Org surrounded by flesh-feasting ghouls, Elric merely calls upon the Demon-God Arioch who responds with a convenient lightening bolt to smash the stones asunder and free him. Not that it matters. The tales work in weaving their enticing moody spell. Continuity is for nitpickers. Reality is there to be suspended.

It’s interesting that in no.53 Moorcock was already commencing his parallel “The Eternal Champion” cycle, in first-person prose, separate, but related – ‘a story of the dim and distant past, or the far-flung future, whichever way you look at it.’ The scale of massacre and extermination is horrific as the resurrected Erekose, with his own ‘poisonous blade’, switches allegiances to aid the alien Eldren and end human life on Earth, while uniting and linking up fictional continuums towards the multiverse ‘where myriad dimensions blended under a never-setting sun.’ To what extent the pantheon was already worked out, or if it continually evolved as stories emerged is open to conjecture. But the strands were already coming together. Among the aspects of the Eternal Champion are ‘Roland, Ilanth, Ulysses, Alric…’


Elric returns in “Kings In Darkness” (no.54, August 1962). Hounded from Nadsoker, the City of Beggars, they meet Lady Zarozinia in the evil Forest Of Troos, and agree to escort her home to Karlaak, the City of Jade Towers. Their journey is interrupted by the bestial Orgians who unleash the millennia-dead King From Beneath The Hill, once ruler of the Doomed Folk. There’s a further temporal blurring in that the malignant forest and devolved beast-men are the result of a race ‘who had wrought such destruction upon the Earth an entire Time Cycle before…’ using ‘tremendous forces’ that ‘caused terrible changes among men, beasts and vegetation.’ The obvious inference, particularly within the context of Cold War SF, is gene-mutating radioactivity. Moving away from whatever Conan connections we’d maybe once assumed, and into pure Moorcockiana.


Bringing the story-cycle to a close, “The Flame Bringers” – cover-illustrated by James Cawthorne debuts in no.55 (October 1962). Now contentedly married to Zarozinia and settled in Karlaak, using Troos drugs to control his albino-needs, Elric learns from Moonglum that the Genghis Khan figure of Terarn Gashtek leads a barbarian army of five-hundred-thousand warriors across the Weeping Wastes to loot and pillage the Young Kingdoms of the west. And that the enslaved sorcerer Drinij Bara is compelled to do his bidding. Elric calls upon Meerclar, Lord of the Cats, to free Bara’s soul, then uses the Melnibonéan dragons – first glimpsed in “The Dreaming City”, to wipe out the horde. In another pleasing circularity he again attempts to rid himself of Stormbringer. Yet again the hell-blade returns of its own volition.


This trove of the first five Elric stories were collected into ‘The Stealer Of Souls’ (Neville Spearman, 1963), followed by the Mayflower paperback in 1968 with a JG Ballard cover-quote to the effect that this is ‘Moorcock’s most original creation’. Leslie Flood reviews the collection in ‘New Worlds’ (no.137, December 1963), the full review reads ‘Michael Moorcock’s stories of Elric, mythical hero-adventurer, apparently filled for many readers of ‘Science Fantasy’ an aching void caused by the lapse of similar material by the late Robert E Howard (to whose Conan stories a great debt is surely owed for the conception of Elric) and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Mr Moorcock adds an individual touch by deepening the purpleness of his prose and double-dyeing his mighty warrior with a dabbling of sorcery and insatiable bloodlust. All his five adventures are now collected in ‘The Stealer Of Souls’ (Neville Spearman, 15/-).’


Inevitably there’s a wealth of academic speculation concerning the antecedents and influences acting upon the tyro Moorcock feeding into the character of Elric, from Norse mythology, through Poul Anderson’s ‘Three Hearts And Three Lions’ (1961, expanded from a 1953 ‘Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’ novella), Fletcher Pratt’s ‘The Well Of The Unicorn’ (1948), as well as the albino ‘Sexton Blake’ antihero Monsieur Zenith, created by Anthony Skene. Moorcock himself has – perhaps playfully, suggested other inputs to tease and confuse, including Bertolt Brecht. I prefer to reread this original story in the pages of ‘Science Fantasy’, and envisage the young Moorcock sitting there hacking out the text on an old manual typewriter, and attribute its rich creativity more to Moorcock’s fertile imagination itself. In the same way that the early Beatles took from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Motown Records, but remade it into something wholly new and original.

Needless to say, as a surly and messed-up adolescent myself, I was instantly captivated by Elric’s ghastly aura, and began seeking out further Moorcock tales. Something that I’ve continued to do through to… pretty much, now. Igniting a lifetime’s addiction. Begun with this beautiful and treasured little issue of ‘Science Fantasy no.47’.



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