Follow Ups To Past Posts…

A Good Spot For A Gratuitous Photo Of Jane Birkin Who Is Not Mentioned In This Posting

Some follow ups to past Houndblog postings: Last December was a posting about Sun Ra’s rock’n’roll output, well my pals over at Norton Records have just released three volumes of the stuff, most of not on the Evidence Saturn 45’s box. The first is Rocket Ship Rock which features the most incredible Yochanan, including his masterpiece Hot Skillet Mama b/w Muck Muck as well as the previously unheard Rocket Ship Rock and more. Also represented are Lacy Gibson’s insane verion of I Am Gonna Unmask The Batman, and Ebah’s un-issued rendition of the same, and the ultra rare Pink Clouds disc Space Stroll by Don Dean. The second two volumes Interplanetary Melodies (Doo Wop From Saturn Beyond Vol. 1) and The Second Stop Os Jupiter (Doo Wop From Saturn and Beyond Vol. 2) have classics by the Cosmic Rays and Juanita Rogers, and lots of recently unearthed (or un-Saturned) rehearsal tapes from the Nu Sounds, the Qualities, Crystals (Sun Ra does Don & Dewey!) and Sunny his bad self with Stuff Like That and Tony’s Wife. Great liner notes by Miriam Linna and Michael D. Anderson make these essential.

Andre Williams was the subject of a posting last Nov. and earlier this month, his first novel (!)
Sweets and Other Stories (Kicks Books) is out, I just read it, and it’s a doozie. If you like Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Robert Deane Pharr, Herbert Simmons and that sort of ultra realistic ghetto fiction, than this is for you. He’ll be doing a reading from it in Chicago on November 14th, at Phyllis Musical Inn, 1800 West Division St., 8 PM. While on the subject of Mr. Rhythm, his version of the Stones “The Spider & The Fly”, issued by Norton as part of their ongoing Stones’ cover 45’s series is one of his best recordings in years. My other favorites in the series are the Church Keys’ “Who Driving Your Plane” (best Stones b-side ever), and the Dirt Bombs’ No Expectations. The entire series is worth owning.
While you’re over at the Norton site the two volumes of early Kim Fowley productions– One Man’s Garbage (Lost Treasures From The Vaults 1959-69) Vol. 1 and ...Is Another Man’s Gold (Lost Treasures From The Vaults 1959-69) are indispensable, containing, just as described some of the best and worst from the king of the Hollywood hustlers. Great notes by the man himself (as a non-drug user, he has an incredible memory, the Library Of Congress should sit him down like they did Jelly Roll Morton to get an entire oral history of the L.A. scene from Kip Tyler & the Flips to Hanson, since Fowley saw it all). Both discs come in deluxe fold-out sleeves. It’s nice to have some actual new records to play around the house again.
In May, I wrote about John Gilmore’s eye popping Laid Bare, well Gilmore has a new novel out, his second– Crazy Streak (Scapegoat Publishing). It’s sort of a white trash take on the Lolita theme set in the part of Southern California that sees more trailers than limos, and Gilmore captures that world with an unflinching eye. Gilmore is his own genre, and this book is well worth searching out.
Last April I wrote about William Lindsay Gresham, his classic noir novel Nightmare Alley is being re-issued in the spring with a forward by, but of course, Nick Tosches. There’s also a musical with book and songs by Jonathan Brielle, directed by Gilbert Cates that will open at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. on April 13 and run until May 23 (my birthday). I’d like to see
an amusement park ride based on Nightmare Alley myself. And perhaps a movie version of Monster Midway. There’s other doings in the world of Gresham but I’m not sure if I can divulge the info yet or not, keep an eye on this space.
Bill Wyman turned 73 last week, he’s still on tour and he’s still ugly.
With the demise of The Wire and The Shield (best cop shows ever), TV’s been pretty lame as of late, the best show on right now is in an awful time slot (Sunday at Midnight, AMC) and not available on In Demand, but Breaking Bad, the best TV drama about Meth chefs ever, is worth setting your Tivo/DVR/whatever your cable company calls it. It’s nice to see Bob Odenkirk revive the character he played on the Larry Sanders Show– Stevie the agent, this time as a sleazy drug lawyer, also named Stevie.
I love reference books, especially slang dictionaries, and Stephen Calt, whose previous books were biographies of Charlie Patton and Skip James (both great and both sadly out of print, the latter is one of the most telling books ever written about “the blues” and it’s not a pretty picture) has put together Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary (University Of Illinois Press, 2009). If you need to know what “Polack town”,”bug juice”, and to “dust one’s broom” mean, this is the book to find it in.

William Lindsay Gresham

William L. Gresham’s Nightmare Alley (1947) is that rarest of all beasts, a great book that became a great movie. A hard boiled noir set in a traveling carnival, it’s main character Stan Carlisle, a hustler turned spiritualist, may be the most cynical character in American popular culture. Tyrone Power played him well– oily, unctuous, not quite likable, it’s easily Power’s most memorable role (full credits can be found here)
Nightmare Alley was written by William Lindsay Gresham, who was born in Baltimore in 1909, raised in Brooklyn, New York, and wrote only five books in his lifetime. Largely forgotten today, Gresham deserves to be remembered as one of America’s best low life chroniclers.
There’s not a whole helluva lot of info on Gresham’s life. Growing up in Brooklyn he was fascinated by the Coney Island sideshows (which are still there, probably the last in the world). He worked there as a kid and may have traveled with a show as a young man. Like all good young leftist would be writers of the era, he volunteered and served as a medic on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (see George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia, 1952, for an excellent look at that war from a volunteer medic’s viewpoint). Returning to the U.S. he went to work as an editor for various pulp mags, many of which he contributed short stories to, and published his first novel Nightmare Alley in 1947. Nightmare Alley was well received on publication and would eventually go through dozens of paperback editions. It’s still the easiest of his books to find today and was included in the Library of America Crime Novels of the 1930 and 40’s collection in 1998 along side classic works by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, and Cornell Woolrich (edited by Robert Polito, this is one of the Library of America’s best collections and worth searching out). The movie was released the same year, directed by Edmund Goulding, it would later become a staple of late night TV and is considered a film noir classic.
Gresham was an alcoholic and a mean drunk and today is better remembered for being an abusive husband to poet Joy Davidman, his first wife, who would leave him for C.F. Lewis before dying of cancer, a chain of events used for the basis of the Richard Attenborough’s film Shadowland (1993), than as a writer. After Davidman left him he quickly married her cousin Rene Rodriguez.
The above card which reads “You Would Rather Die Than Face Truth” was something he carried in his wallet for many years, I bought it from the same guy who sold me his insurance card (also above). In the same sale of Gresham artifacts Nick Tosches ended up with the original Tarot deck whose cards are reproduced as chapter headings in the original, hard back edition of Nightmare Alley.
Gresham’s drinking kept him from being able to capitalize on his initial success and he often found himself drying out in the nuthouse. This setting would provide the material for his second (and final) novel Limbo Tower which appeared in 1949. Set in the mental ward at a New York hospital, it didn’t sell and no movie was made from it. It’s easy to see why Limbo Tower, fine as it is, didn’t find an audience. Limbo Tower is a relentlessly grim book, and I like grim books but grim is not a selling point. It had none of Nightmare Alley’s color and a double dose of its cynicism. It’s commercial failure hit Gresham hard and he would spend the next ten years on an extended bender, supporting himself by writing stories for pulp mags for quick cash, and not much of it. His final three books were all non-fiction.
In 1954 Gresham revisited the world of traveling shows with the wonderful Monster Midway, another look at the world of freaks, hustlers, and all manner of sideshow flotsam and cretins that road shows attract. It’s first chapter is a glossary of carny lingo. The characters are sketches of real show folk Gresham knew. Although hard to find, Monster Midway is well worth looking for, I’m sort of amazed it’s been out of print since the mid-50’s.
Gresham would publish two more books– a quickie bio of Harry Houdini– Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959) and a book on bodybuilding: The Book Of Strength: Body Building The Safe and Correct Way (1962) written as he was dying in a shabby, rented room at a time when he could barely lift a toothbrush never mind a barbell. Although Gresham joined A.A. and quit drinking a year or two before his death, he had already ruined his health and once sober, Gresham deteriorated rapidly. First he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, then cancer which resulted in having part of his tongue amputated, finally he started going blind. With nothing but poverty, darkness, and a painful death in his future, Gresham checked into a cheap SRO hotel in Times Square and took an overdose of sleeping pills, killing himself. His exit was nearly as bleak as the end of Nightmare Alley itself (“…it’s only until we get a real geek…”).

His death received almost no attention, as a writer he was long forgotten. The only obituary he got was in the bridge column of the New York Times (although that final factoid comes from
the notoriously unreliable Winkapedia so don’t hold me to its accuracy, I’m feeling a bit lazy this morning).
I’m no literary critic, but I do like to read, so for those of you out there that have never read Gresham or have never seen the movie Nightmare Alley (which after years of legal problems with producer George Jessel’s estate is back in the regular late night rotation on the Fox Movie Channel and is readily available on dvd) here’s something I think you’re really gonna like. Step right this way…

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