Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Glory Hallelujah, he did it! This is one event definitely worth my taking notice of here too. The Man, of the hour and the year too, was rather sober and uncelebratory in his thank-you speech last night, but he faces hellacious problems in this divided country that would stagger any of us. Good that his friends and supporters could laugh and cry across the land. Now let's all pray the new President and his beautiful family can find some joy and laughter as well as the impossible headaches and heartaches in the years ahead.

I particularly valued his quiet nudges in the direction of Martin Luther King's famous speech: "... uphill climb... we may not get there right away... but YES WE CAN!"

My political cynicism took a hit last night. God help me lose it altogether, and God help President Obama. The whole world is rejoicing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Secret Blues Life

I was born on an Air Force base in Texas in 1943, my father a young Captain from Illinois. But my mother came from a Southcentral Georgia farm family named Spivey, and all through the later Forties and early Fifties we routinely paid visits to the Spivey tobacco farm (in Mystic, a 300-person village outside Ocilla and somewhat farther from Fitzgerald).

My playmates were young black children mostly, and one summer visit I even worked in the tobacco barn, the only white boy there. Race wasn't an issue I knew anything about, but visiting local sharecropper farms with my Uncle Henry (who was an area Farm Administration bureaucrat of some sort), and listening to the older white guys talk, I later realized I was seeing and hearing white paternalism, and mild racism, in action. If I was hearing any Black Music then, it's missing from my memories.

The Spivey family had in earlier days moved from further north in the state, where Spivey forebears had been plantation folk owning over a hundred slaves (or so I was told); and years later I wondered if somehow I was slavery-connected to the Classic Blues singer Victoria Spivey, but I've never done any research to answer the question.

Meanwhile, as an AF family, we kept on the move--Oklahoma, Texas again, then a few years in New York and Virginia. I remember riding the New York Central railroad a couple of times in those years, treated with kindly attention by black porters, one of whom I swear looked like Son House as he appeared when rediscovered later--he'd been a porter working out of Rochester for many years by then. In Virginia, my Southern belle mom experienced some years of migraine headaches that laid her low and left us kids routinely in the care of a big black woman named Rhoda, our part-time maid who soon became much more.

Then we moved to Montgomery, Alabama; the year was 1955-56... which means I soon saw firsthand the results of the Bus Boycott and the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember my parents actually giving rides to the black people walking along the roads; and for years afterwards I imagined they were displaying their liberal attitude, but I suppose it's more likely they were just helping maids and gardeners and other domestic workers get to their day jobs.

Seventh grade in Montgomery was a shock to me, chubby and awkward and socially inept--and astonished by all the blatant racial remarks I'd hear every day from poor-white and upper-crust adolescents both. Boys planning to pile into a car and go "nig'-knocking." Slurs against black women. Special vituperation reserved for King and the others "interfering in our local business."

But the regional radio was amazing! Elvis and the Memphis Sun guys got air play, and more importantly so did Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and all those numerically named black rhythm groups. I was getting my first taste of versions of Blues music as well as seeing harsh aspects of black life and black/white relations. (I started buying records seriously then, adding to the Harry Belafonte 45 set I'd bought back in Virginia.)

Then we were shipped overseas for two years, to Izmir (old Smyrna), Turkey, where I unknowingly heard--drifting from doorways and open windows--the outcast Aegean Greek equivalent of the Blues, that haunting Piraeus-to-Smyrna music known as rembetika. Meanwhile, the local PX did bring in a few 45s and albums by Domino and the Burnette Trio and then Bo Diddley and Johnny and Joe, not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Yet by the time we got back to the States, the first rush of rock 'n' roll was already over, and the softer pop guys had started their ascension, along with the Kingston Trio and other folk.

It was the latter that interested me most, even though I soon began hearing too the music coming out of Detroit and Chicago, meaning Motown and a bit of Southside Blues. The nearby AF base teen club played popular r&b discs, and I danced with young black women at some teen functions--had a minor crush on one, as I kept denying the racial reality of America. (I don't know what happened to Gwen later, but her younger brother went on to a solid career as Jazz pianist and Music Dept. college prof.)

I went off to Chicago for college in 1960, but still wasn't hip or brave enough to go investigating the area Blues clubs in their heyday. I did catch a concert by Ray Charles and his amazing revue (sing it, Margie!) in a strange warehouse-like venue, but the one album that galvanized me most was this weird-sounding debut LP by a kid named Bob Dylan. I loved "Song to Woody" and enjoyed some other numbers, but was most intrigued by Dylan's covers of songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson (who?) and Bukka White. I immediately wanted to know more about the original performances and singers. (Dylan's music, of course, ranged far and wide during the ensuing decades, yet he never forgot the Blues; his Blind Willie McTell song is one of the great works of 20th Century music of any kind.)

About then, Columbia issued its first albums resurrecting the Blues of Robert Johnson and Leroy Carr... and I was a goner. Suddenly it was all Blues all of the time. Back in Seattle for the second half of college, I went regularly to thrift and junk stores and obscure Central Area disc shops in search of 78s and 45s (eventually sold the small collection I amassed to Bob the Bear Hite, lead singer for Canned Heat). And I started buying every Blues album I could find, especially the mesmerizing reissues of then-still-obscure older Bluesmen, on OJL, RBF, and then Arhoolie Records (thank God for Chris Strachwitz!), followed by Belzona (soon renamed Yazoo). I was in heaven for a while; it was actually possible in those days to keep up with all the Blues LPs being issued.

One of my favorite early buys, though, was a Vanguard set, Blues at Newport 1963, with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt, and others, including a young white guy named John Hammond (son of the famous a&r man and artist discoverer with the same name). Hearing young John's amazing reworkings of Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry--some said slavish copying, but I disagreed--cheered on by the great black elders on stage, convinced me that a white boy could play and sing the Blues. (And he was soon followed on record by Koerner, Ray and Glover, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, and other creditable white players.)

This revelation encouraged me to dig even deeper into what I could learn about the Blues. So I subscribed to England's wonderful collector mag Blues Unlimited, kept an eager eye out for Blues articles in DownBeat, scoured bookstores for histories by Paul Oliver and Samuel Charters and eventually others, and also attended what in retrospect were unique, and luckily captured on videotape: the mid-Sixties performances by John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Lightnin' Hopkins, and maybe Skip James too (I missed that one), brought out to Seattle by the Folklore Society.

I also started writing rock criticism, both locally and for newly minted Rolling Stone and then other rival publications. Among my proudest moments at Stone were key reviews of Clifton Chenier, the Memphis Swamp Jam set celebrating some of the rediscovered elders, and a major Chess Records reissue program. I also covered some interesting events for the magazine that brought me into direct contact with Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, John Mayall, Ike and Tina Turner, John Hammond, and one or two other Blues performers. An amazing couple of hours was me as "fly on the wall," backstage at a festival listening to Bo, Collins, Ike, and some of their band guys shoot the shit, talkin' smack and doin' the dozens on each other!

At the same time I had decided by 1967 that I was going to write a screenplay about Robert Johnson (somebody should, was my thinking); and I spent a couple of years researching, writing, re-writing, and finally copyrighting my fictionalization of his then-obscure life, which I titled Hellhound on My Trail. By 1970 it was beginning to circulate in Hollywood and elsewhere. A couple of agents took it on briefly, and then some fledgling producers tried their hand, but urban Blaxploitation pictures were what the studios wanted, and my script was definitely a mix of the film Sounder and some genre not yet filmed, call it maybe (excuse the pun) Blues noir.

On my own I tried to get copies to Eric Clapton and the Stones (via Jerry Wexler as I recall), but I never heard anything back. I did succeed in reaching Taj Mahal's management but not Taj himself; he told me much later that he'd never seen it. And I mailed a copy to actor-director Ossie Davis, who sent back a nice note saying he liked it and would agree to direct the picture if I could get a production going. Nothing along those lines materialized, but I did see the last portion of Hellhound published in Boston magazine Fusion.

In the late Sixties I was also writing educational films, a couple of them with race-conscious content and titles like Black Thumb and The 220 Blues; and I wrote lengthy treatments for proposed films called Betty and Dupree (more Blues) and The Arletha Jones Show (meant to be a television comedy series featuring a black pop star). But by the mid-Seventies I'd mostly become a writer-producer in marketing and advertising, and the inventive radio/TV work we did for Rainier Beer allowed me to write affectionate and successful pastiches of Blues and r&b numbers and also actually record an ale commercial with Bo Diddley. But my Hellhound screenplay languished on the shelves of Hollywood studios or wherever, and I basically forgot about it.

Over the next two decades, though, every five years or so some producer would discover a copy, call me up to praise it and ask my permission to try to get something going, and I always just said, "Okay, fine." Obviously, no movie got made. But I never stopped loving that down-child, uplifting music and I kept buying hundreds of Blues and r&b albums, new and old, and seeing the odd concert or club date by B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, the Meters, Taj Mahal, Gatemouth Brown, the Neville Brothers, and whoever else came to Seattle.

Around 1986 I remember telephoning Columbia Records' John Hammond (famous father, this time) in New York to ask what had become of the long-promised box set offering the complete Robert Johnson on record; he said there were hurdles and delays caused by conflicting financial and copyright interests, but it would appear some year soon... and when it did emerge at last, in 1990, the set went on to become a hugely successful bestseller, making Johnson a modern music hero all over again. I kept hoping for action on Hellhound too, but still nothing happened. So more years passed...

... And they just keep accelerating. I love that rich music as much as ever, even if Chicago-derived Blues by white artists has become something of a cliche. I play scores of Blues and related records and CDs weekly if not daily. And from the early Seventies on I added the Caribbean version, reggae, to that on-going, soundtrack-for-life mix. In fact I program Blues and reggae at home so much, one daughter recently commented that I must have been born a black person in some previous incarnation.

Could be, I suppose... or maybe it's just the South Georgia Spivey blood--luckily, in my case, resulting in an admiration for African-American music and culture (meaning artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, writer Ralph Ellison and those of the Harlem Renaissance, and a host of other black figures) rather than a Southern white racist antipathy.

I'm nearing 66 now, and that screenplay has been a well-kept secret for almost 40 years. Time to let it be known. That's why I've posted it now at (use the connecting button down at the bottom of this page), in its warts-and-all entirety, for anyone curious to read.

My secret's out.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Chasin' the Devil's Trail

Improving on information in the previous post, I've now added a shortcut/button to send you straight to the Hellhound on My Trail script. Just drop down to the bottom of this page to find it listed among sites worth visiting. The behind-the-scenes backstory will be posted here soon...

Monday, July 7, 2008

Blues 101

I'm back just long enough to say, yes, this blog will stay dormant. But if anyone wants to read my screenplay about bluesman Robert Johnson, just key-stroll on over to --it'll occupy my time and attention for many weeks to come, and some of you may find it of passing interest too...

Friday, July 4, 2008

Goodbye to All This

Happy July Fourth, all!

When I started writing this I Witness blog, I had no real notion of what I'd write about or what the format might require--length, frequency, subject matter, certain computer skills. I'd been egged into considering it by several friends and neighbors who thought I had interesting stories worth sharing. I thought maybe a blog mixing opinion, reviews, pop music history, and personal stuff would revive my lost or dormant verbal skills (after too many years of writing little more than descriptions for eBay and Abebooks listings), and enable me to generate a lazy, meandering autobiography of sorts along the way.

Nearly 14 months ago, I imagined maybe I could get to a hundred segments, given the wide-open range of subjects and possible stories. It took me a while to settle into a rhythm, but after a while I was happily producing a new... something every few days as memories surged within me. I even picked up some regular readers who would occasionally leave comments.

Well, this is posting #96, 14 months later, and my enthusiasm has waned. The number of readers has dropped off too, I believe--at least, almost no one's offering comments, and the counter at the bottom of this page takes longer and longer to register a new hundred. So, as the Kingston Trio used to say on stage, "in response to a diminishing number of requests," I'm skipping the last few chapters...

(Just imagine: you are now spared "96 Tears," a witty catalog of the great one-hit wonders of rock; "Wreck of the Old 97," a look at the story-songs of Blues and Old Timey music; "The Splendid Little War of '98," my support for the theory that U.S. foreign policy, and our subsequent disgraceful history of interventionism, including in Iraq, got its start in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War; "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," a tirade against the pharmaceutical company drug-pushers who show up hour after hour after hour on television, and in spam after spam after spam on your computer; and "100 Years of Solitude," well... that may be what I'll experience next; as Shakespeare put it, "The rest is silence.")

Yes, I'm skipping the last few chapters and shutting up. If there's any reason to continue--important memories resurfacing; something I really am compelled to write about; or (the least likely scenario) I Witness fans clamoring for my return--then maybe there'll be more. But for now...

Stick a fork in me; I'm done.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Salad Days

The bookstore we ran throughout the Nineties in Seattle's tourist-driven public market (still known as Pike Place Market even though it meanders over portions of several streets) was a small example of what the 100-year-old site had evolved to--expanded from its earliest stands of fresh-picked vegetables and just-caught fish, to a mega-mart offering new and used books, records and CDs, fresh and dried flowers, Asian and European groceries, bakeries and cheese shops, handmade jewelry and crafts, knickknacks and antiques, teashops and second-hand clothing, old magazines and ephemera, myriad eats and much more. You could, for example, pick up walkabout snacks or finger food, stop at a cheap eatery, enjoy an expensive sit-down restaurant, or get happy in a bar or tavern.

But tourists and locals alike still think of the Market as fresh vegetables and flying (i.e., thrown) fish; and when I'd arrive most mornings back then, I'd see the "highstalls" being set up for the day--carefully arranged arrays of oranges and lemons, scallops and shrimp, asparagus and mushrooms, salmon and cod, peaches and peas and tomatoes and all... and I'd routinely remember my own single high-school summer spent working the produce line in a USAF commissary:

Produce Man

At seventeen I sprouted—
stringbean-like, lean—
thought I knew my onions, but my salad
days grew as mixed greens…

The air base commissary
hired me to stock
bare shelves, then straightaway transferred me
into the grip of Jack,

the old-hand produce man.
In his white cap
and lime smock, Jack was lord of his domain,
and made me suit up.

The green assistant, I
crowbarred orange crates,
polished apples, top-chopped old celery,
tried to keep the beets;

but racking those stacked tomatoes,
fondling ripe melons,
softened pear-shapes, I felt small potatoes.
Bananas lacked appeal. Un-

sold truck wilted my heart.
The art was missing—
no magic in mushrooms, and none per carrot—
till Jack gave me a dressing

down and one fruitful lesson:
“Life’s a food crop;
some grow, some shrivel. Some eat with passion;
others we coax to sup.”

He said, “You think we’re swindlers?
Skimming what’s best,
trimming the rest to sell? Wrong. We’re handlers;
edibles kept right fresh.

“Yer mug would sour grapes.
Juice up there, mate,
or make yer good buys.” I stopped with the mopes,
tried harder to fake—

selling old bargain jokes,
whistling out back,
coping with cauliflowers, artichokes,
using the hose like Jack,

keeping things slick, cool, quicker
wetting the lettuce—
till the day he winked and said, “We’ll make yer
right produce man yet.”

But I quit Jack soon after.
Gave no excuse,
but lacked his touch and tact, his true gift for
minding life’s peas and queues…

Likely I spoiled my chance.
I know at best
I’ve holed up, vegetating, ever since,
with nothing fresh produced.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tennis, Anyone?

Never been much for tennis. I admire the skill and stamina of the major players, and watch matches on television once in a great while, but my own few attempts at learning the game were painfully ludicrous. I was and am more fascinated by the language associated: love, ace, fault, etc., not to forget game/set/match. (Those last words figure in the titles of Len Deighton's best trilogy of spy thrillers, by the way.)

And I did actually get to Wimbledon one year for the familiar late-June/early-July matches, as this brief excerpt from my 1986 travel journal attests:

July 4

Happy Birthday, Miss Liberty. My London fourth was considerably more subdued than the party going on back in New York (per clips shown on the BBC Late News). I read, started a new light poem in my present euphoric mood, and then went with some friendly collegiate hostellers ("Shall we invite the old fart along?" "Sure, why not...") out to Wimbledon, which lies just a few Underground stops southwest of Kensington.

For three pounds I got to watch Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver take on two young Brit upstarts who pushed them hard for a time, then knuckled under, 6-3, 6-4. And it was great fun to sit out in the sunshine with the tennis set, stroll among fancy tents and snooty socialites, savor the tha-wock, tha-wock of balls and the genteel greenery of Wimbledon.

But afterwards I was wishing I'd had some firecrackers to drop in amongst 'em all, a bit of Revolutionary rude-boy behaviour to rattle that stiff-upper-lip composure!

So: a journal entry as brief as my interest in tennis. But some years later, I did manage to find a way to express some possibly amusing thoughts, partly stemming from Robert Frost's famous remark (said of William Carlos Williams, maybe), "Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net":

Poets Playing Tennis
(Frost vs. Roethke, Kenney vs. Kinnell)

The game requires a minimum of racket,
especially if one is tightly strung.
Play will be serious, yet play—
and as offhand as life.
Judgment of the court is all.

(As this twosome shows, however,
it is not always clear to what
or whom a player’s
service has been directed.)
The Linesperson does allow a certain latitude.

In fact, many of the best shots fall
beyond the line, revealing
a mastery of the graceful backhand
compliment. And a well-matched volley—
that sweet-spot mix of smash

and return, of ace and silence—
may come to seem some dazzling juggler’s
arc of many balls aloft at once.
After a time, you may distinguish styles.
One, inclined to rush

the net with a whelming yet elegant flurry,
always risks ending
tangled in waffling imagery and stretched circumlocution.
The other tends to lay back
along the baseline, taking the defensive;

still, that one sometimes can be caught flat-
footed, leaning the wrong way.
They play from love
to momentary advantage,
with neither ever managing to gain

control of this deuce of a game;
again and again the sense of it returns
to love and service. In the end, a foot
slips, or a trope; and the result?
A standard entry in the annals of the sport.

Whichever of them leaps the net
lands in territory both have known before
and will again. Theirs is the game
you are not set to match,
you novice of the

line, with your weak-
kneed lobs and stumbling
feet, insensitive
to a fault.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Rainier Beer Lookalike

The recent post devoted to movie-marketing adventures called up some other memories--of Hollywood films I watched in the making, and of some parodies I later wrote and helped produce...

Back in 1962, Seattle staged its hallowed-in-history World's Fair, called "Century 21" (look, Ma, we made it!). This extravaganza created the Space Needle, several theatrical venues--the entire urban-park Seattle Center in fact, including the Monorail connecting it to the city's downtown--and put Seattle successfully on the world map. I was going-on-20 that year and definitely jazzed by the sudden cultural opportunities; fondest recollections are for a brilliant staging of Beckett's Waiting for Godot (still relatively unknown back then), a rollicking concert by Erroll Garner, and the chance to watch Elvis Presley make a movie, It Happened at the World's Fair by name.

Not one of his best by any means, but the filmed-on-location viewing opportunities were excellent. I remember two scenes in particular, relatively simple stuff that took the crew hours to set up and then actually "get in the can," as the director would say. One had Presley going into the entrance to the Space Needle, but needing all extras coordinated and the light and camera angles just right. And the other was more important, Elvis and the movie's darling little Oriental girl (his unwelcome sidekick, sort-of, but a plot-crucial character in fact) getting on or off the Monorail at its downtown station, the extras even more important and visible. The girl was cute as a button, and he was lean and tan and fit as a fiddle, "The King" in all his splendor, even appearing in what turned out to be a so-so film.

Sadly the next time I saw Elvis almost-live was at a concert in the Seventies, when he'd successfully come back, conquered Vegas, and then gotten fat and druggy. That particular evening his joking with the back-up singers was strained, even verging on racial-stereotype humor, and his ever-perfect musical timing slightly off--his pathetic decline acted out right before our eyes.

But before that, in 1972 I was hired for a major freelance-writing gig that required me to move to Georgetown, that upscale part of D.C., for a month to research, partially write, and also edit, proofread and then publish a 24-page one-issue tabloid newspaper called Fresh Water Journal or some such, its layout and typefaces mimicking Rolling Stone, which was just then making a splash (er, so to speak).

Why? Well, the Potomac River was in disgraceful condition, and the three states involved (plus D.C.) had united to persuade the public to vote support for water treatment upgrades--possibly even going so far as what was then called "tertiary treatment," meaning basically giving the polluted river wastewater (including sewage) enough chemicals and sunlight and filtering to make it truly potable again. A radical idea back then, but one that has been gradually taking hold around the water-rationed world ever since.

The newspaper I saw to publication was distributed free and was actually fun to read, filled with news and views and editorial cartoons, convincing science and political analysis too, making the whole river-purifying idea as palatable as possible. But free paper or not, the citizens weren't buying; the measure failed at the ballot box. Clean-up of the Potomac had to wait several more years...

At any rate, while I was inventing a newspaper, that ghastly-green horror film The Exorcist (a different sort of pollution) was also in town, filming on location in Georgetown; and the crew and I happened to be staying at the same Marriott across in Arlington. Sitting at the hotel bar in the evenings, once in a while I'd get into conversation with crew guys. They had good Hollywood gossip stories, and a general disdain for the film's director, William Friedkin. The main complaint seemed to be that Friedkin was not focussed on the daily filming; instead, he'd spend hours on the phone (pre-cell days) working to line up his next directorial jobs, neglecting the current work that was costing a whole heap every day.

I was invited to drop by the location shoot and watch, so of course I found time to flee the typewriter. One cloudy day I tracked the crew to a scene of tree-shrouded concrete steps--shooting day-for-night, I think--and watched a couple of actors go through the motions; I was hoping to spot Max Von Sydow (admired from the great Ingmar Bergman films) but no such luck. Friedkin was there but didn't seem to have much to say; I couldn't tell if his bad rap was justified or not. Pretty boring day, actually, and I chose not to view the finished film.

But I couldn't escape the movies (or television). Back in Seattle, I was soon working for the Rainier Beer creative group, and in no time involved in, and then producing, commercials that parodied Casablanca, Cole Porter, The Twilight Zone, "Indian Love Call," Lawrence Welk, Garland-Rooney musicals, TV's Archie Bunker, Star Wars, and much more. But I want to mention two projects I'm especially fond of, company sales films the public basically never saw...

The first was a collection of brief movie parodies created for a firm selling tax-deferred annuities, using familiar movie scenes to tout different investment aspects; the length of each varied from 30-60 seconds up to 2-3 minutes, with the short ones meant to be lifted out and used as TV spots. So I got to write variations on a "Pearl Pureheart" silent (using title cards, our heroine tied to the railroad tracks); the murderous Hal computer in 2001; Gene Kelly dancing and Singin' in the Rain; Robert Preston delivering his "trouble in River City" fast-talking spiel in The Music Man; Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (the classic "just put your lips together and blow" scene); and more.

Moreover, since this was one of our typical shoestring-budget shoots, I got tapped to do more than observe and approve (or critique--the agency producer job). It was my voice picked to deliver, flatly, without emotion, the speech of our "Hal" computer; and later I got to wear a hat and raincoat--"rain" drenching the Pioneer Square set courtesy of firehoses--and be briefly accosted by our singing Gene replacement. (Unpaid and anonymous, as ever!)

Anyhow, my best sales-film script was a job for Rainier. Each year we'd create some meant-to-be-comical setting in which to embed or at least introduce the coming year's beer commercials. One year, for Rainier Light, the boss dreamed up a TV spot meant visually to "marry" a beer bottle filmed in close-up with the famous silhouette (and voiceover) of tubby director Alfred Hitchcock. I wrote the words, and the production company found an L.A actor who could "do" Hitchcock. And he was so convincing (visually rounded too) that we quickly decided to expand his role--that is, to write the whole sales film around Hitchcock's familiar droll, on-camera introductions, seen each week on his popular television series. I read a couple of books of Hitchcock interviews to get the gist of his longer speeches and stated ideas about film, and then translated these into sales pitches for Rainier spots, discussing taste, freshness, the element of surprise, and so on.

Our actor did a brilliant job mimicking Hitchcock, talking to the camera in the various set-ups introducing each beer commercial (making my script sound more clever than it was), and we had a good visual trick going throughout too: what appeared to be a bomb taped under a desk, the timer dial ticking down to zero as the sales film went on and on, Hitchcock talking about suspense and "McGuffins" and other matters while the movie-viewers were watching a bomb about to explode... At the last second, the actor reached down and pulled the wires or something, as he continued to talk about denying the audience's expectations, always keeping the surprises coming.

It was a banner year for Rainier spots and sales, maybe the peak year, somewhere around 1978-1980. After that, well... subsequent sales films have vanished from my mind. I do remember scripting a fun Archie Bunker spot for Heidelberg Beer (also owned by Rainier) involving a kilted Scotsman confronting the astonished Archie, but generally (as I believed then and now) Rainier's much-honored commercials started their slow decline around then. The writer-producer (me) was bored, anyway, and ready to abandon reel world for real World.

Which I did.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nightmare Scenario

I made a first attempt at writing movie scripts in 1967. The Vietnam War and homefront resistance to it were both raging, Black people and some young whites seemed to be literally under fire; and I was an outspoken liberal fresh out of grad school--protesting publically some, arguing heatedly with my conservative parents, threatening to head for Canada if drafted, etc. (I was married and had a son, so that was unlikely.)

I tried to marshall some of those emotional issues in my first written-on-spec screenplay, titled The Wounded Man. In it, the protagonist, another war opponent who was earlier drafted, has already served a tour in Vietnam as a non-combatant medic. Now he is in pre-Med training at a university and very withdrawn and silent in general (reflecting his own traumatic experiences). At a campus rally for the Democratic candidate running for President, the lead guy meets and is attracted to a firebrand young woman, active supporter of a radical group (thinly disguised Black Panthers). The two of them argue politics, gradually become emotionally/sexually involved, and he is soon reluctantly embroiled in her (the group's) tribulations at the hands of authorities. This is all Act One lead-up to the major events of the story.

On the night of his election as President of the United States, the politically liberal winner is assassinated right on the steps of his New England home during his victory speech. The entire nation reacts first in horror and then violence, riots quickly spreading everywhere, even to Seattle. The unpopular lameduck President orders martial law measures. Various escalations occur, finally driving the woman and the hero and others into the group's headquarters, barricaded and about to be attacked full-scale by the police and whoever else is out there.

My "wounded man" has continually argued for Ghandi-styled peaceful resistance, and now from inside he tries to convince the armed Panthers to back away from this sure-to-be-disastrous confrontation. Working as go-between, he persuades the police to allow a peaceable surrender and then convinces the group's skeptical leader to give up. But when the Black man steps out into the lights, someone outside shouts that he has a gun! A fusillade of bullets strikes him down, and the woman rushes out to help him and is shot too.

Now what will the hero do? Continue espousing non-violence? Wait to be arrested or killed? Pick up the discarded gun and go to war? He chooses the last, runs out into the lights, and the screen goes to white. End of film.

Simplified in this telling, it doesn't sound like much, and probably wasn't. But the events of the last couple of weeks in the U.S. political race gradually brought this melodramatic story back into my mind. The parallels are just too bizarre to ignore... Unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a despised President; references to assassination; Bobby Kennedy memorials in magazines; a too-violent nation that won't give up its guns; Obama the winning candidate but white voters, ostensible Democrats, refusing to back him, and Republicans even less likely to elect such a man.

I mentioned some of this to my son-in-law, who immediately wanted me to resurrect and update the screenplay. But I think not. I still remember the strange post-release saga of The Manchurian Candidate, and I've decided simply to mention my script in this blog.

As a disenfranchised citizen in the past, in despair of necessary change ever coming, at different times I voted for George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, even Eldridge Cleaver. Now we have an inspiring and remarkable candidate promising Hope and Change once more. I'll warily vote for him.

"Barack the vote!" is the bumper-sticker slogan I suggested to his campaign months ago, which was (wisely) rejected or ignored. Now I say: Obama will have a tough time, both during the campaign and, if he's victorious, afterward.

I hope he succeeds... hell, I just pray he lives.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Go, Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley died two days ago.

Ellas McDaniel died too, but scarcely anyone knew Bo by his earlier name. "Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?, My pretty baby said she was a bird..."

I first heard his maracas-driven quasi-rhumba thing, that shave-and-a-haircut hambone beat, back in 1957 when some newcomer teen (a real j.d. character with white t-shirt sleeves rolled-up and sharp jeans shrunk tight) arrived in Izmir, Turkey, where I was living as a USAF dependent. This new guy, whose name I can't dredge up, brought along a 45 single on Checker by unknown-to-us Bo, which had what eventually became my all-time favorite Diddley cut on one side ("Mona"), and some other great rocker on the other.

Lines I still recall: "Tell you, Mona, what I wanna do, Build my house next door to you, Can I see you some time?, We could throw kisses thru the blinds, Can you come out on the front?, Listen to my heart go bumpity-bump, I need you, baby, that's no lie, Without your love I would surely die..."

I loved "Mona" and appreciated the flip--was it "Hey Bo Diddley"?--but mostly I was just totally blown away, age 13, by this powerhouse Black rock'n'roller, filled with attitude and style. Chuck Berry may have been the wordmaster, but Bo had the aural "I'm a Man" moves. Still, living in Turkey pretty well mitigated against a white teenager learning much more...

We moved on to pale-skin (or at least Northwest-isolated) Tacoma, Washington in 1958. Though I'd bought great albums by Fats Domino and Little Richard by then (plus Elvis and the Burnette Brothers Trio), I still didn't know much about, or hear much by, the mysterious Bo; I'd pretty much forgotten my fascination for "Mona." But my high school had its own local rockers, a group called The Wailers, and they soon had a national hit that I really craved, called "Tall Cool One."

I bought the debut Wailers album anchored by that title track, played it often, took it along when I went off to college in the fall of 1960, to Northwestern University... meaning Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Suddenly I could hear a lot more from and about Chess and Checker Records, Chicago blues and Black r&b, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and... Bo. Another dorm guy had Bo's first album, which I immediately traded my Wailers album to get, even though "Mona" wasn't on it. I didn't care; finally I could see as well as hear the amazing Black guy with processed hair and snazzy clothes and flashy f-hole guitar (not yet one of his weird-shape models), who was truly too cool. And his name-check song (plain "Bo Diddley," sample lyrics quoted up top), "I'm a Man," "Pretty Thing," "Who Do You Love," and other great tunes were.

Flash forward a decade or so... through other hits "Say Man," "Road Runner," "Hush Your Mouth," "Crackin' Up." I played Bo's first album for years, then eventually sold it or swapped it or something. But around 1975, Fate being the trickster that it is, suddenly I got the chance to write and record a song with the career-revived, guitar gunslinger himself: Black Gladiator, bag-of-tricks Bo.

Okay, it was an advertising song; but given the performer, I refuse to say "jingle." Rainier Ale needed a performer/spokesman who could appeal to the (perceived) Black audience for beverages heftier than beer. Lo and behold, Bo Diddley was coming to Seattle for a few days for a club gig. (Yeah, "Bring It to Jerome"!) I persuaded the Rainier man that the one-and-only Diddley Daddy would be perfect; we got in touch with his management, negotiated a fee, and bingo.

Nearing 50 by then, Bo in person was about what one might expect--cautiously friendly, rock-star arrogant, protective of his rep, and more. But he had great stories to tell alongside his vociferous resentment of groups like the Stones and the Who. (Both were making money off his songs, or at least what had become known by then as the Diddley Beat.) He breezed through my Rainier Ale lyrics in two or three takes, Bo and his rectangle guitar only, no back-up rhythm section wanted (he'd have had to split the money!), collected his check, and left. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

It was a bit of a let-down, yes. But, faintly, I could still hear "Mona" singing in my head... and I still can.

Say, Man... rock in peace.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, Rick Nelson

Goofing one day, I cobbled together three poetry portraits--more in the vein of light verse than serious poems--of three notable Rock stars I'd encountered briefly. All three had died young, been lamented by their fans, been both admired and admonished by critics, and still their influence continued; and I decided to put my two (or three) cents in, too. Rick Nelson, Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons... where might they be today had they been granted rich, full, creative lives?

My encounters with each have appeared--prose I wrote back at the time--in this blog in posts offered last year (Jim, 5/16; Gram, 6/25, 6/28, 7/1, 7/4, and 7/7; and Rick, 11/26 and 12/2). The title below refers to the old superstition that one invites serious bad luck by lighting three cigarettes or fuses or whatever with a single match...

Three on a Match

1. Gram

You rode in on a submarine from the Okechobee swamps—
a neat trick for a Harvard dropout with big-money kin
in Nu’Worluns. Still, you were a breath of hickory wind
in cities rocked by Beatle-knockoff, garage-punk chumps.

You and Chris ganged up on McGuinn’s mockingByrds,
from his wired crew flew off on your own weird wings,
a mule-mix of pseudo-hillybilly and steel guitar strings
with rock drums, Nudie flash, and stories like Haggard’s.

Your buttons had a lot of brass, buddy, and they shone
when we met, with Georgia and a love of Hank in common.
But wild horses couldn’t have held you back, then, from
that high-rolling life, all drunk, drugged, and Stoned.

G.P., you nearly made it, but you cut too wide a trail
of broken notes and promises, below the old high-lonesome.
You cashed it in like the other country boys too dumb
to do it wiser. I held a private wake with mugs of ale,

then muttered some in horror and chortled more with glee
reading of the last wild ride your battered coffin took
out to the burning desert and that funeral-pyre joke.
Man, what a hickory wind shook the old Joshua Tree!

2. Jim

Just another rider on the
Storm the barricades
Break on through the doors
Of perception Diony-
Scene of maenads gonads
Lizard King of self-love
And self-loathing lost
In your horse latitudes
And bad-ass attitudi-
Nizing riding in your
Limousine stoned with
Parsons giggling up front
Call-girl wriggling on
The writer’s lap in back
You on the jump-seat
Holding forth most poet-
Ically on tape recorder--
Answering questions
With orations musing
And amusing: both our
Armed forces fathers
Disarmed and hopeless:
Thousands of limestone
Sinkholes across Florida:
Social mores of Paris:
The mares of the moon:
Listening back and erasing
Exposing your Self in car
And yourself on stage
Coaxing bacchants to attack
To seize and rend your flesh
Scatter pieces of your bawdy
Poems out across the wastes
Of dust and rock and lizards
Basilisking in the sun…
You wanted the world then
But you couldn’t take it
So you did yourself in
With the usual excesses and
Misterioso horsefeathers
And bathing salts and oils
Of elation: “Here lies
One whose lies were wit
Less in water sank
You very much aussi
Can you say by the
Doors later life that
This is not The End?”

3. Rick

“Hi, Mom; I’m home”—millions
knew you by that quick phrase,
raised like brother David
on the weekly air-waves,

and then the 12-inch screen:
Ozzie and Harriet’s
crewcut kid, little Rickie,
pride of the hometown set.

But the song you took from Fats
let you walk away
as our own rock’n’rolling
All-American boy.

Slow tunes for little fools,
but rockabilly too,
James Burton pickin’ hot
behind your “Baby” blues.

You strode from Lonesome Town
to Rio Bravo’s sand,
from top-draw to quick-draw,
a restless wind and mind.

I believed what you said
but you disappeared, free
of both hits and misses
till that Garden Party

brought you back, country-rock
for beehive hairdo fans
who came for your old songs,
dragging their husbands—

“Rick” by then, easily the nicest
musician I met in
10 years of interviewing,
but one I’d plain forgotten.

So you played on, earning raves
as a rapist on TV,
watching your long marriage end,
enduring obscurity

till the no-reason plane-crash
sent you home justified,
finally with Valens and Holly,
echoing, “Hi, Mom, I’m dead.”

4. Three on a Match

So they fell—one death
ending in fire;
another, water;
the third, air and earth—

all of them at one
with the elements.
Now their atoms dance
in diurnal sun,

foreign substances
dissolved, reasons fled,
sound systems gone dead.
Still the music plays…

Goodbye, Rick and Gram
and holy-fool Jim;
we’ll skip church flim-flam
and burial hymn.

Let the ages roll
and the heavens rock:
there’s no going back
for you... or us all.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Not on the Cover of Rolling Stone

I used to write for Rolling Stone, that now-disposable but once-upon-a-time bible of the youth culture. My limited involvement was off and on, 1969 to 1971, working as a freelancer a thousand miles from the magazine's San Francisco empire. I submitted reviews only (got no feature-story assignments), mostly of LP records--though I did also get to sound off about a terrific early history of rock and roll called Rock from the Beginning, which was then reissued later as (I kid you not) Awopbabaloobopalopbamboom (haven't checked the spelling of the title, originally a musical shout by Little Richard), by wildman critic Nick Tosches who later wrote bios of Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, and obscure Southern white musicians, as well as petty-Mafia crime novels. (I mention this book mostly because it's one I forgot to list in my roll-call of sort-of book appearances; the trade paperback of Tosches' book quoted my review, but since I was a writer with no reputation, the publishing company omitted my name and just sourced Rolling Stone. Sigh... the profits of fame.)

For a time, I was happy to have album reviews appearing in RS, especially discussing LPs I felt a special musical connection with, and some pride in having been the writer who got to tug on the public's coat about this or that artist/album. For example, my first accepted review was a rave for Zydeco master, accordionist extraordinaire Clifton Chenier, tagged to his third album on Arhoolie, Black Snake Moan (no relation to the garish and controversial recent film). But I made a point of giving a bigger shout-out for his debut album, the masterpiece called Louisiana Blues and Zydeco. I'd been swept away by Chenier a year earlier when I bought that first LP, and for a few years I would play it for all dinner guests to test their response; only those who loved it got invited back! Black Snake was fine but not the stunner the other was, and still is, today.

The Chenier review appeared in the same issue with my (also positive) review of Otis Redding's posthumous album Love Man; he had recorded an amazing number of individual tracks in the weeks before his death in the airplane crash, tracks which label Stax got to issue posthumously and successfully. This fourth such LP still had great soul tunes like "Direct Me," "Higher and Higher," "I'm a Changed Man," and the title track which includes: "I'm six feet one, weigh two hundred and ten, Long hair and pretty fair skin... Which one o' you girls want me to hold you? Which one o' you girls want me to kiss you?" Had Otis still been alive, I guarantee you there'd have been some willing takers!

In subsequent reviews I mocked the hype surrounding the Blind Faith supergroup and album; gave grudging approval to heavy white blues bands Free and Fear Itself (ending that review "If only these were the last of them"!) and ho-hum quasi-approval to Janis Joplin's album Kozmic Blues; had back-to-back examinations of releases by the Byrds, Steve Miller band, and Elvis live in Vegas (only the Miller got a positive review, even though I've been hooked on Presley since 1955); had loads of fun with the debut albums by Leon Russell and Boz Scaggs; and so on.

Too much of this nostalgia crap gets boring, of course, but I would like to resurrect the two longer reviews I was proudest of--imagining, hoping, that I had some small part in the ascendancy of the Blues to its acknowledged permanent place in American roots music...

Appearing in issue #48 (December 13, 1969, important for its long interview with Miles Davis), was my take on the two-record set called Memphis Swamp Jam, recorded in that steamy city by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records and then leased (I guess) to label Blue Thumb for wider distribution. This release gave Rock era coverage to some of the oldtimers of the Blues--Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell, Sleepy John Estes, and others--and I was both pleased and amazed that such had occurred, even though some of the performances taped weren't really comparable to the Blues guys' earlier days. But at least they were getting Rolling Stone publicity. (And my review was printed as a full page with photos!)

Quoting a bit: "... the Memphis blues scene has always been special, a kind of middle-ground way-station between the Delta and the North, producing blues that were rural-strong yet urban-polished--all the way from W.C. Handy and 'the birth' back in the Teens; through the romp-and-stomp decades of Frank Stokes and the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers; to the heyday of Sun Records with its white rockabilly blues in the Fifties; and finally to the sweet soul-blues of the Stax-Volt team in the decade we're about to depart ((the Sixties, that is)).

"Blues with a difference: besides jazz, jugs, and salt-and-pepper seasoning, there've also been the popular songsters like Furry Lewis and the 'Big Mama' shouters like Memphis Minnie... ((and getting to the review proper)) Strachwitz gathered about a dozen of those unfit-for-TV black bluesmen, holed up with them in a garage or studio or something for four days, and finally emerged with enough tapes to produce this beautiful result--two records, 20 selections, in a variety of blues moods and styles ranging from Afro-rhythmic to juke-disjointed..."

And so on. Anyway, Rolling Stone got the message, and soon I was given a second plumb assignment, the full-scale review of a new Vintage Series of Chess Records albums offering rare or unissued tracks dating from the postwar period, recorded for Chess/Aristocrat/Parrot 78's. The initial six albums included reissues of two rare and classic Chess LPs (collector-market expensive, even in 1970 dollars) by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, plus four new releases devoted to sessions by Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Albert King, Otis Rush, and John Brim--a veritable feast of electrified Chicago blues.

So, from issue #50 (January 21, 1970, still remembered for the excellent, in-depth coverage of the era-killing Altamont Festival), I offer a few excerpts... "Hear Muddy, back when he was still more Mississippi than Chicago, wailing on 'Hoochie Coochie,' 'Rollin' Stone,' 'Honey Bee,' 'I Just Want to Make Love to You,' and eight other mojo workouts, while the Wolf chokes and moans through 'How Many More Years,' the 'Smokestack Lightnin' ' that every white blues group has stolen, 'Evil,' 'Forty-Four' and more..."

Harmonica giant Little Walter "was the man--the harp genius whose easy-going but pungent style became the Chicago mainstay, and from whom everybody from Junior Wells to Paul Butterfield took his chops.... two tunes that really jump, 'Oh Baby' and my favorite, 'Mellow Down Easy,' with harp and semi-African drums just naturally laying you in the groove, down and dirty..."

"For Parrot, King's singing was light and uninteresting, and the guitar sounds like somebody else was playing--one of those standard, characterless blues guitarists... Then you get to 1961, and damned if it ain't A. King after all--mellow yet forced-out vocal, his straight-arrow guitar splitting the bull's-eye every time..."

Southpaw guitarist Otis Rush "makes it all the way to the top on the basis of his vocalizing, which manages to be strangled and painful, precise and lovely all at once... The two that matter most: 'All Your Love,' a remake of his earlier Cobra hit--city blues with solid Latin rhythm--and the all-time classic, 'So Many Roads.' "

The album by Sonny Boy Williamson features his "wild, punchy-boxer singing, his wry and witty lyrics, and his spare, seemingly casual harp technique (on the road to Bob Dylanesque, as opposed to Little Walter's saxophone-complexity). Dig... the weird, sexy 'Santa Claus,' as ironic in its way as his brilliant 'Fattening Frogs for Snakes'; and the album's closing number, 'This Old Life,' mournful and moving, on the order of 'Mighty Long Time,' cut lo these many years ago for the now-defunct Trumpet label..."

Elmore James "is as justly famous as Brim is unjustly unknown. Refining Robert Johnson's bottleneck style, James perfected a sound which has long-since entered the blues tradition... a slowed-down version of the Johnson-James standard, 'Dust My Broom'; an infectiously happy jump-tune, 'Madison Blues' ('Put on your Madison blue shoes')... and the fifth number is Brim's earlier Parrot gem, 'Tough Times' (with Jimmy Reed in a rare appearance blowing back-up harp).

" 'Tough Times is here once more...' That's the way Brim sang it in 1953. Since then, the blues have fallen on even harder times--but you'd never suspect it from Chess' memorable Vintage Series... a rare chance to hear the real Chicago blues."

(Dazzle 'em with your footwork, says I! Well, the real dazzle was the photo-rich layout presenting my Chess review.)

But I stopped writing for RS a year or so later, moving on to Fusion (East Coast, with Boston attitude) and then other West Coast magazines, where I could regularly do interviews and longer pieces. Still, I quit the rock-crit game altogether in the later Seventies; I'd had a fun ride, got thousands of free records (those were the days!) and some concert tickets, and a certain writer's cachet. But I also very belatedly realized I didn't actually feel comfortable issuing my non-professional edicts; who was I to tell someone else what to listen to?

I'm older and grumpier these days, happy to gripe and state my opinion on almost anything, at the drop of a hat. But too cynical and jaded, even so, to write for today's puffery-oriented Rock mags. I-Pods? Down-loading? Phooey. Give me the glory days of Long Play records, and the rediscovery of the Blues.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shilling for Hollywood

A new collector-oriented CD appeared recently, an Intrada re-release of two film soundtracks from 1978 and 1980 offering the music from An Unmarried Woman and The Stunt Man, respectively. Usually such collector-demand items reappear with extra music, alternate cues, remixed tracks, etc., but this one simply reissues the three-decades-old LPs on a single CD. There's a small but very vocal coterie of film soundtrack fans (maybe 3000 to 5000 worldwide) who watch for these specialized items and scoop them up; recent sold-out mini-"blockbusters" have been a two-CD set devoted to Jerry Goldsmith's music for Alien and an eight-CD box set reprising the music from all four original Superman movies (much of it appearing on CD for the first time), by John Williams, Ken Thorne, and others.

Thinking about that Stunt Man movie, starring Peter O'Toole, sexy Barbara Hershey, and a very paranoid Steve Railsback, reminded me of the two or three years I spent slightly involved in marketing a handful of films from Hollywood and elsewhere. For a couple of decades, Sixties to Eighties, about, the major Seattle-area personage in art-house cinemas and some specialized distribution was an exhibitor entrepreneur named Randy Finlay who at one time owned the Guild 45th, the Neptune, the Varsity, and the Seven Gables theaters plus what eventually became the Metro Cinemas. Back then, the Emerald City was known as a moviegoers' town, with a liberal-minded audience supportive of so-called art-house movies; this was, of course, before the multiplexes took over. Finlay and I met somewhere, and after a time he asked me to help him launch a few movies in Seattle and other Northwest markets.

My memories are a bit hazy on some titles, but I do remember three in particular. The first one was then-newcomer-director John Sayles' first feature, the small independent film titled Return of the Secaucus Seven, which had a fine group of basically unknown young actors and actresses portraying leftish/hippy friends enjoying a reunion picnic, revisiting some of their past political exploits (I think; haven't viewed it since the Seventies). Anyway, Finlay asked me to help create the local advertising/marketing for the unknown film.

I loved it, thought it was so much truer to the spirit of the Sixties than Hollywood's harebrained attempts at youth exploitation. I suggested some straighforward copy for print ads and persuaded Randy that the radio spots should just be a sound montage, snippets of film dialogue edited together, presented with a minimum of hype (like the movie itself). Working at one of the sound studios we used for Rainier's radio ads, I oversaw the editing and came up with 30- and 60-second versions. These met Finlay's approval, and were then used to entice film fans in Seattle and Portland areas into the theaters, with resulting positive word-of-mouth doing the rest.

Sayles' debut film was well-launched up in this corner of the U.S., then a success elsewhere, and so his own directing career was given a small boost. (Some people claim that Lawrence Kashdan stole much of The Big Chill's plot and characters from Sayles' movie. Let's be kind and just say it was "influenced.") Sayles' working mode at the time, and often since, was to script movies for other producers and then use his writer fees to finance his own independent productions like Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, City of Hope, Lone Star, Sunshine State, and many more. I actually got to meet Sayles at the Seattle premiere of Brother and told him about my efforts of behalf of Secaucus Seven, but his response was tepid and dismissive; I don't think he even said Thanks!

Meanwhile, the second film I got called in on was a French import titled The Little Sparrow, a bio-pic on the life of, yes, Edith Piaf, whose nickname was "the Little Sparrow." This was the late-Seventies I think, 30 years before the recent international succes d'estime of La Vie en Rose, starring Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard as the living-on-the-edge chanteuse (France's own Billie Holiday/Judy Garland figure), with Piaf's voice performing the title tune, "Milord," "Non, je ne regrette rien," and other international hits. That recent film was brilliant, deserving of its surprise success, while the earlier Little Sparrow tried valiantly, but was merely sad and bleak, with lots of sex and drugs and pathos, and some fill-in singer's voice trying to recreate Piaf.

It was a downer, and I told Finlay so. He wanted the advertising to ignore that, trick the audience into expecting an uplifting, feel-good sort of film, a musical like Carousel maybe. I battled him, did my best to inject some realism and honesty, but the resulting compromise radio ads were no more successful than the film, from which Northwesterners stayed away in droves... You win some, you lose some.

Film number three was Richard Rush's long-time-in-the-making pet project The Stunt Man. He worked for a decade to get studio support and the necessary money, but by 1979 was struggling with studio bosses over their reluctance to issue his finished film. (He actually suffered a heart attack not many months later, I think, with stress no doubt a factor.) Rush picked Seattle as a test market to prove the film could succeed.

Eventually, Rush's film received Academy Award nominations and, still later, achieved major cult-film status. But anyone who saw it even at the beginning came away with strong impressions of O'Toole as a God-like director (Satanic, more like), swooping down on his camera boom, issuing edicts and tricky orders, manipulating the film-within-a-film and the people involved. Co-lead and director's-stuntman-patsy Railsback had just portrayed Charles Manson in another film (he would much later appear memorably in a couple of episodes of The X Files), and here was asked to play a Vietnam vet on the run from authorities; he acted suitably skittish and paranoid throughout.

And then there was Barbara Hershey... The woman was stunningly beautiful, at her youthful peak, with a pronounced earth-mother aura, better acting skills than one had previously known, and a startling ability to exude both charm and erotic promise; and she was obviously willing to appear naked on screen. (Railsback was naked too, but who noticed?) This was a bawdy film pushing the envelope back then, but the cut put out on video many years later was dark and poorly transferred and did not match my memory of full nudity; maybe the version I saw originally was recut for other markets, perhaps to protect an R rating?

Anyway, using the sound-edits solution again, I helped shape radio ads that spliced together pronouncements by O'Toole, music by composer Dominic Frontiere, tense moments among the actors, etc.--and came up with a couple of spots that teased and tantalized, promising suspense and intellectual trickery and, of course, the hint of sex. Finlay was pleased and told me that director Rush too was excited and hopeful.

Came opening night, the local premiere held at the Guild 45th. I shuffled around, chatted with a few folks, saw the stars from a distance (Hershey and Railsback, no O'Toole), then took a seat for the screening. As the lights dimmed, suddenly the leading lady herself sat down right next to me! She said Hi, and I mumbled something back.

I was immediately torn in two directions--I desperately wanted to gape at the gorgeous, subtly scented real woman beside me, engage her in witty conversation, but knew I should stay cool, keep my eyes on the screen 20 feet away, where the other Barbara was, er, giving her all.

Nerve-wracking? You bet. The nude scenes were many times more disconcerting with her clothed body sitting there too. But Ms. Hershey didn't shift or murmur or do anything else during the entire screening. (I was the one squirming.) And when it was over, she got up and left before the lights came up, so I had no chance to speak to her. And as the old gag goes, what do you say to a naked lady?

The Stunt Man played successfully at the Guild for an entire year and became a critical favorite, if not box office winner, elsewhere. ("Should have used my ads in the other markets too," he said modestly.)

But the one or two other minor films I consulted on after that one paled badly--in fact, I can't remember now what titles I got calls about. Dreaming up taglines for one-sheet posters just didn't have the magic and allure of sitting next to Barbara Hershey circa 1979...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Birds of a Feather?

The two most important poets writing in English during the last quarter of the 20th Century--distinctive, innovative, acclaimed, influential--were Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I came to revere the careful wit and rigorous thought of Heaney, and the sheer pleasure of his language (not for nothing was one book of his prose titled The Government of the Tongue), but originally I was quite taken with Hughes' early poems, back when he was married to then-still-living Sylvia Plath, and long before he lost the thrust of his work and settled for Poet Laureate honors instead. The Hughes of those first books (Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal) seemed to have immersed himself completely in Nature and to have attained pure dumb animal thought--owls and crows, jaguars and foxes, pike and trout, creatures great and small indeed.

One of my forever-favorite poems is his "Hawk Roosting," which begins "I sit in the top of the woods, my eyes closed..." and ends thus: "I am going to keep things like this." That is one never-to-be-forgotten, egomaniacal bird (like Hughes himself!)--and I thought of him while travelling Down Under back in 1986. Oddly moved by the duck-billed platypus shown at the Sydney Zoo, I read what I could conveniently find on that unique creature of living pre-history, and then cobbled together this on-the-road portrait, a recognition of Nature's bizarre sense of humor (the poem also a distant homage to Hughes' surly hawk). By the way, it's hard to make out, but the color illustration above shows creation of platypus--mammal, then duck, and then down below, a couple of platypi emerging:


I am mocked: leathery bill of a duck
I root with, my flat snout
nuzzling the stream bottoms, shoveling worms
out, gobbling yabbies up from stones and ooze.
Fifteen million years you laugh at—my otter’s fur,
wet, and webbed feet. I live a sleek, watery secret
you would do better not to discover,
with poison spurs on my hind legs, and claws
as needed, aft and fore. Oh, I am other
than you dream of, you with your nippled love
and blood-birthed womb. My young come
from egg, and then seek mother’s milk—
and a hard suckle they have of it with no teat
to grapple. Eons of amphibious battle,
and I am here; with elegant flair
species arrive, then go; I munch larvae
and close my ears to the cries of you brief intruders.
I am monotreme: of beast and bird the sum.
So the meal chews bitter, this life; is yours better--
eggless, dry? I outlive and am free.
Yes, call me Platypus; the name suits. But of us
which is the stranger? whose world more meagre?
I survive my each plunge. Why change?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Goodbye to All That (Burma 3)

((According to world news, a bad cyclone hit Myanmar several days ago--weather is one thing the generals can't control--with over a hundred thousand killed. Between destruction and suspicion, the West will have a hard time sending aid, and NPR's correspondent is staying anonymous and moving clandestinely, to keep getting the news out. The gentle Burmese people deserve a better fate... Meanwhile, visiting there in 1986, I was up country and ailing.))

June 28

Taking medicine, eating nothing, resting for long stretches. I roused myself sufficiently to tramp about for a few hours to visit eight or ten of the closer and more scenic jedis (pagodas). Some are massive, looming high over the dusty plains like Egyptian pyramids; others have baroquely ornate shapes and facades, like giant seashells; and many are compressed and crumbling away. The Buddhas sit unattended. Lizards and monkeys prowl the outer terraces and the stairs too worn to climb. But I did clamber up to the top of two huge platforms, to survey mile upon mile of scrub growth and hardpack fields, temples rising like tombstones in a giants' cemetery, distant smudges of mountain, and the flat, sluggish, meandering Irrawaddy River, so famous from the past, but looking just muddy and empty today.

Clearly my enthusiasm is minimal. Nothing--no design, no Buddha contemplating swarms of gnats, no breathtaking view of ancient structures stretching to the horizons--can rouse me from this drugged lethargy. Even the two metal statuettes I spent more illegal kyat on earlier, an antique opium-weight lion and a "good spirit" figure, seem just ridiculous this evening. So what? Now I must preserve the rest of my kyat to buy food (if I ever get back to eating), and my way out of Burma, come Monday.

June 29

Sitting at Pagan's dinky airport, awaiting a flight that stops here en route to Rangoon. Ordinary folk, including tourists, can be bumped off any flight if a government bigwig or other visiting fireman shows up wanting a seat; but things seem safely quiet here.

Still feeling punk. Out of illegal kyat, so I'm trying to decide if I should sell some dollars at the black market price for now ((which was about 30 kyat per dollar)), in order to get three times the amount back (in dollars!) at the time of legal reconversion. It's just crazy. Some people manage to slip around Burma spending as little as $10 legal by spending who knows how much il-legally, but I'll be out about $90 total since my sick, tired spirit demands an airplane return to Rangoon.

Well, between credit-card trouble ((I'd had Visa card removed from hotel "safe" in Thailand and a stack of forms run off, used for jewelry and other expensive stuff, that my watchful sister in the States noticed almost immediately, saving my ass)), kyat confusion, and crappy illness, I've about had it with Southeast Asia.

July 1

Stopover Delhi, about 4 a.m. My last days in Rangoon and then Bangkok seemed endless bus rides and waiting rooms and check-in lines, though I did have good conversations with an English cricketer, a Cypriot woman architect, a Scottish jewelry importer, an American farm-techniques Peace Corpsman, and a grand old dame (English) who sat next to me, Bangkok to Delhi, where she exited to head for the Taj Mahal.

Final thoughts on Asia: I guess I lack the requisite fatal attraction for the exotic East of Maugham and Conrad and company. I think one must be younger, less used to creature comforts, more flexible about dirt coating the skin, scabs dotting the legs, beggars in the streets, perennial humid heat and cold showers, smiling people eager to rip you off somehow. I'm tired of being stared at, laughed at, overcharged and under-rested. I'm ready to take on the different hassles of being an American in Europe in the summer of 1986 ((when Reagan had bombed Libya, outraging much of the world)). At least there I'll be less conspicuous, as long as I keep my mouth shut, anyway.

July 2

Yesterday's demented ravings before dawn convinced me I should concentrate first on sleep, but it eluded me for many hours more. Into Heathrow at 8 a.m., two hours getting through regulations and into the city via the Underground, then a half-hour walk lugging 90 pounds of pack and other bags to the hostel--but a good one, Holland House, an old Jacobean mansion at the edge of Holland Park, in the pricey area called High Street, Kensington. I checked in but couldn't get access to a dorm bed, had to try napping in a lounge chair.

No luck. At my nadir, 40 hours without sleep, my stomach aching steadily, feeling completely rotten, I decided to find the area hospital, for a check-up on leg and bowels.

But walking through the park got the blood pumping again, and I persuaded myself that exhaustion and lack of food might account for much, so I dragged myself to the nearby... yes, the High Street McDonalds, where I scarfed down two burgers, fries, and a cola (not a Coke, for some reason). Feeling full if not better, I strolled back to the park hoping to crash on the grass; but dogs and picnicking schoolkids had other ideas, so I returned to the hostel, where the warder studied my pallor and took pity--penciled me in as "sick" and let me go up to the bed area two hours early.

A nap worked wonders, as did the long-overdue clean-up and then a ramble around the park last evening. How civilized it is here! Soccer players and all-in-white cricketers, lovers lolligagging together on real grass, Arab-looking kids running, Caribbean men lilting and smiling, hunched old ladies mumbling to each other in their tired verbal shorthand, a popular and mobbed ice-cream seller, and--sounding forth, magnificently resonant over all--a live performance outdoors of Verdi's opera Un Ballo Maschera. I sprawled on the greensward for nearly an hour just drinking it all in. No ants, no mosquitoes, no filth evident; simply a warm summer's evening in a park in London.

I am a child of the West, however old now. There's no denying how much better I feel here than I did in Indonesia or even slickly Westernized Thailand. The hell with pretending any different.

((I guess I'm as biased and ethnocentric as the next ordinary schmuck.))

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mixed Up in Myanmar (2)

((Last post ended with me heading for the train to Northern Burma, speculating that the ride on wooden seats "should be interesting."))

June 26

That last remark qualifies as basic understatement of the week. Twelve hours of sleepless nightmare on slatted wooden seats too hard to relax on and too narrow to sprawl on, with four people packed in each facing pair. Since we tourists can't read Burmese numbers--my seat 29 looks something like "JC"--we need help right from the start. Then the train pulls out, racketing and rocking back and forth, the cloudy lights inside burning all night long, covered with insects right from the start. Metal louvers on the windows keep fresh air out, but admit bugs and rain. The toilets waft their aromas throughout the car whenever a door is opened. Yet nothing fazes the Burmese passengers, whole families travelling with every scrap of their belongings: bales, bundles, boxes and bags tied to the overhead racks and heaped everywhere else.

Gradually the bodies mount as well--determined nappers stretched across aisles, pretzeled into seats, hiding under seats, jammed among goods and feet. (I tried craning up straight, slanting across, curling down, and several other postures, to no avail.) But what a wonderful array of travellers! Dazed tourists staring blearily at nothing, mothers suckling two-year-olds, soldiers in Socialist Army olive-drab, venders scrambling over bodies and loudly hawking their wares, young girls checking their make-up, older men struggling to keep their longyis wrapped. (I was feeling like a character in Paul Theroux's famous book about Asian trains.)

Most affecting to me were a beautiful, sad-eyed woman tending her small boy, who handed me her copy of a Tourist Burma brochure, wanting me to keep it, wanting me to admire all the slick and pretty pictures of her (impoverished) country. (All this conveyed by gestures only.) And my seatmate, a handsome guy in his 30's, but with stubble on his face, violent tattoos on his arms and ankles, a blank despairing look, and bandages at both temples, as though he'd received some sort of electrodes treatment. Yet his pockets are full of rolls of kyat, and he offers friendly advice, in fair English, on Burmese numbers, expressions, even the right train station for my bus connection to Pagan.

But, before that, we watched dawn come to central Burma: dirt roads, woven-mat houses, women with baskets on their heads, boys squatting to watch the train pass, a man and his dog also squatting, but to shit. Scarecrows of flapping rags, horsedrawn carts hauling goods to market, clay pots (for water?) outside the doors of houses, stick fences around dust yards, patches of succulents and bushes and small trees, white Brahma cows pulling wooden plows, above-ground flat tombs filling the village cemeteries.

In Thazzi some of us transferred to a small mini-bus, six Westerners and 20-some Burmese all crammed in, on, and hanging off the van's slatted sides and roof. So we went, rocketing across the dusty plains for another four hours of severe discomfort--van ceiling bumping our heads, wind attacking our backs, hard seats cutting off circulation to legs, no room to stretch or avoid each other's sour breath... What can I say? I guess there's just no pleasing the ornery tourist.

June 27

And then, heaping insult on injury, after five safe months and with not many days left in Asia, last night I came down with a serious case of La Turista--cramps and diarrhea and no interest in food. Don't know whether I just got too cocky, or picked something up walking Rangoon's filthy side streets. Whatever the cause, I'm feeling listless and not real enthusiastic about tromping the ruins of ancient Pagan.

We arrived yesterday exhausted, and booked into various small guesthouses. Some tried to sleep, others to soldier on; I couldn't relax, so I walked out to explore, check prices, and wound up hiring a horsecart to take me to a lacquerware village where I swapped jeans, t-shirt, batteries, and spare cassettes for a nice plaque of Buddha, two shoulder bags, and some more kyat. So now I must go on a spending spree, once feeling better, to unload all the illegal money. What an odd system.

Last night in a stupor of pain, I had the possibly inspired revelation that the Burmese government really is slyer than given credit for. These Socialists have taken a reading on Western capitalist thinking and decided we are all greedy pirates of industry at heart; so the "pinko" bosses have devised the tourism system accordingly. Our visas are limited to seven days, which protects the Burmese citizenry from too much infectious contact with our decadent ways--and makes us think of a visit here as something special and desirable, yet kept so brief that we are easily channeled into the controlled routes to Pagan and Mandalay.

On top of that, the confusing kyat system: by turning a blind eye to our liquor/cigarette sales, goods trading, even most of the black-market dollar exchanges, the government accomplishes much more. The Burmese get enough (but not too many) Western goods, which the Socialists can disavow all responsibility for; and we tourists wind up with so much excess money that we must buy more food, drink, taxi rides, horsecarts, tour guides, and blessed souvenirs than we ordinarily ever would, thus providing economic support to both common people and cottage industries.

Diabolical, these Socialists! All the locals kept happy, all the travellers kept busy (and boring) with their scheming and dealing, working so hard to travel around for a week on, seemingly, next to nothing, laughing as they/we, uh, pull the wool over the government bureaucrats' eyes. In a pig's eye, says I! We're being led by the nose, all unknowing, every step of the way...

((Next time: seeing the sights of Pagan and bidding farewell to Asia.))

Monday, April 28, 2008

On the Road to Mandalay

((On the premise that not many people have ever managed to visit Myanmar/Burma, I'm returning to my 1986-87 journal to recount some adventures I had there--back before the military junta cracked down again, before Aung San Suu Kyi's seemingly permanent house arrest, back when Westerners could still visit, even if only for a very controlled single week.))

June 24

The Strand Hotel in Rangoon is another out-of-time survivor of the British Empire, preserved much as it was to please us romantic Westerners, but also slowly decaying beyond recovery. Patches on the carpet and cracked walls in the slightly seedy bathrooms bespeak the Socialist government's basic disinterest. But it continues to serve as a social center of Rangoon, ready for parties, weddings, and officials taking other officials to lunch.

Before heading up-country I'm sharing a double room at the Strand overnight, with Tomas, a professional photographer from Santa Cruz. He travelled here five years ago, says nothing has changed that he can see; but he hopes to rent a jeep and cruise the un-touristed countryside, something the government attempts to discourage/prevent. With my own more-limited time, looks like all I'll get to is Pagan's 40 square kilometers of temples and ruins (one of the wonders of the world, the books and visitors say), then back to Rangoon.

Turning the clock back (a suitable expression since Burma is the most placid and time-lost country left in Asia): it was pouring rain in Bangkok, with a two-hour wait at the airport till Burma Airways folk deigned to allow passenger check-in. There and on the flight, I spoke to more Americans at one time than I've seen in the previous five months of travel. (Everyone wants to see this mysterious country, I guess, envisioning Kipling and the Empire, WWII's Burma Road, Flying Tigers, etc.)

Then on arrival the customs/immigration/declarations/cash conversion process seemed interminable; my passport and one-week visa must have been stamped a dozen times. Anyway, I converted $100 in travellers checks, receiving 729 official kyat (pronounced "chaht"); these bills must be used for the government-sponsored travel and hotels. After that legal transaction, I ignored the inadequate offer from one of the customs officals and instead sold my duty-free fifth of Johnny Walker Red and carton of "555" cigarettes (total cost $14) to the taxi driver for 500 kyat, equal to about $70--which is how the traveller in Burma acquires "illegal" kyat to finance food, beverages, souvenir-buying, etc. The trick is to use up all the ill-gotten money, plus just enough of the official kyat to satisfy government watchdogs--a silly and time-consuming exercise in this land of double-think, where we have only seven days (six for me), much of which must be spent on planes, trains, or buses just getting around. Maddening, peculiar, confusing, and fun, and the long-standing Burmese tradition. Who am I to refuse?

(The other, more dangerous option is to sell U.S. dollars on the black market, at about 30 kyat each. My friend Patrick was here not long ago, was caught selling just $20, held for eight hours at the police station until the American Consulate effected his release.)

June 25

I stood in line at Tourist Burma to book an overnight train to Thazzi and bus from there to Pagan, then wandered the city. Rangoon seems almost blissfully quiet compared to Bangkok or Jakarta, but also unexpectedly dirty on the rain-splotched side streets.

Observations and encounters: Burmese women in sarong-like dresses, with streaks of a yellowish pasty substance dabbed on their faces, and the men in their wraparound longyis--a cascading human rainbow of colors and stripes and plaids, usually mixed together... The stares experienced by Westerners, neither friendly nor hostile, just watchfully blank until you make the first overture... The absence of garish advertising, with every movie poster subdued, save for the familiar James Bond scene of a woman's legs framing gun-ready 007; this one attracts a group of men who stare up, mesmerized...

Locals sidling up to tourists: "Anything to sell? Kyat for dollars?" One man's rapid-fire rap listed 20 different items he wanted to buy, but we couldn't agree on price. Another was dying to acquire two of my old shirts: "I'm a poor man. Many children. Not sell. For myself. How much you want?" He started at 20, went to 30, tracked me down a half hour later to offer 40. But, finally, I only sold him a Bic lighter for 10.

Block after block of grubby, three- and four-story, cracker-box-shaped buildings, all in need of a sandblasting facelift... Pouring rain driving me indoors to a cafe lunch of noodle soup (good) and lime pop (execrable). Suddenly a man sat down at my table, ordered his own meal, and began passing the dishes to me to share. We soon swapped names, addresses, and Burmese phrases as well. ("Thank you" sounds like "Je-zoo-te-mah-day," and "Hello" equals "Mingle-a-bah.") Then departing for his work just as quickly as he came in, Mr. Ko Kyaw Swe insisted on paying for both of our meals. "Welcome to my home," he said as he left.

On to Sule Pagoda, a tall gold-plated spire surrounded below by many Buddhas of terracotta, painted soapstone, and gold. From the many sellers clustered at each entrance, worshippers buy paper parasols, floral wreaths, braided ribbons, and incense sticks, all to offer up. Workers prowl the grounds pouring water over the Buddhas' heads. Young women stand pitching coins into buckets rotating on a lazy susan. A fascinating exhibition of photos and painting from all of the varied Buddhist countries of Near and Far East also includes three-dozen bright cartoon drawings like Disney animation cells, on the life and miracles of Gautama!

Finally, ambling back to claim my pack and head for the train, I stopped in a busy bookstore full of ancient dusty stacks of old Penguin and bantam paperbacks, most from the Fifties and Sixties, Classics and hot rods and Westerns, but also Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar and Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues! But all of these are ignored by the thronging Burmese who instead crowd the long front counter, shouting and waving their hands to obtain the latest International issues of Time and Newsweek.

The ride north on wooden seats should be interesting.

((As indeed it was, to be recounted next post.))

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Things Are Looking Up

Humans are always looking up--to the Heavens, to constellations and particular stars, to mountains in the distance, to birds and leaves overhead, to the roof and even the ceiling, to sports figures and silly celebrities, to fast-talking politicos, and, of course, to a hoped-for future.

Here are two poems of mine about looking up from inside (and please note that the first, lacking a final dot-period, ends as intended; it's not a typo):


I was thinking of rafters, of being
up in the rafters: a summer cabin,
crumbling wasps’ nests, cobwebs
misplaced with dust. A boy climbs
and becomes the inheritor of these.
Beams come together at certain angles,
and join, like the bones of the sky’s foot;
nerves and muscles ease, and he fulfills
flesh with his silence and his joy.

He is high. From his ribbed haven
he lords it over all gravity’s playthings,
exulting in his horde of small pleasures:
the planed feel of fir, knotholes
slipping through other worlds, the archeology
of dry husks, the reinvention of listening--
Stella Dallas’s torments diminished,
Green Hornet’s cousins mutable,
Jack Armstrong, All-American boy…

himself aloft. He waves his arms
and the NBC Symphony swells,
buoying the rafters, sounding
and resounding in the fiber
of sullen air. Broken wings
of wasps are made whole,
spider’s silk releases, the heel
of earth lifts. Transported
he flies, he cannot fall,

he is as he dreams in the music
of first memories where
dreaming is flying and falling
is flying and rafters are
flying and I am still


The Dormer

Rising from sleep’s undersea,
decompressing in gradations, I
see liquidly: the perfect shadows come,
hold for a moment,
then melt… or break and run.
Wrapped in the same flowing stillness but
attenuated by daily circumstance,
last night at the edge of sleep we
found each other’s heat in supine flesh,
stirring just long enough to meld
greater than we are apart.

Now from this nest of sheets and haunches
I see new wings, fleet limbs
flickering on the dormer ceiling,
spirits recreating us in light and shadow:
the cars that flutter past outside
bounce over pitted concrete, braking
for the downturn, scattering
their two-tone, heads-and-tails illumination
across the darkened pale of
walls that are not walls
to our slant, unceilinged selves.

Beyond this life,
splotches of evergreens sharpen and shift
in the brightness thrown by cars ascending;
then, bathed in red, they drift
and fall away, as we do
when we are not ourselves,
convected by each day’s disappointments.
I see the stress and hurry,
the spectres of cash and loss,
take up the trees and rush them away;

and I would become
some changing angel of the rooftops,
enveloped in loving possibilities--
who dances at his moment, then
vanishes in ambient light,
overwhelmed by morning.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Get the Full Treatment

As a freelance writer with an interest in film, I spent a pretty fruitless decade (late Sixties to late Seventies) trying to sell to Hollywood and/or the networks, first the idea for a grand documentary series devoted to the amazingly varied "Music of the South," then my script on Robert Johnson, then a host of other ventures--the subject of this post.

One of the directors at King Screen (which specialized in educational films when I was writing for the company in the early Seventies) was named Paul Preuss, who later enjoyed some success as a science fiction novelist. Paul and I teamed up to develop a few feature ideas, for which I then wrote treatments. Our Western was called Deadwood City--yes, the very place immortalized (trivialized?) by a raw and powerful series on cable TV nearly three decades later. The treatment I wrote had Calamity Jane as our scruffy and rowdy, in-need-of-a-bath heroine, residing in the sea-of-mud town of Deadwood trying to track down the killer of her (unrequited) love Wild Bill Hickok.

We also plotted out a Ross Macdonald-styled hardboiled mystery titled The Chinese Puzzle, with a disenchanted Vietnam vet who had stayed on in Southeast Asia to become a martial arts master (some bizarre combo of kung fu and Thai foot boxing!) and then returned to Seattle as a private detective; our case involved dark secrets in the past of a wealthy family, the pieces of the "puzzle" open to differing interpretations and wrong conclusions.

About then, Paul decided to move to the Bay Area, and we opted to split "ownership" of the treatments--he got Deadwood and I got The Puzzle, which I then had no luck selling anywhere. I hope Paul got something from the version of our gritty Western that finally made it to television, but probably not, since no one has a copyright on history. He'd have had to prove direct theft of our treatment somehow.

Anyway, I kept plugging away. With consulting input from a Black friend named David Carr, I wrote the pilot for a sit-com series, called something like The Arletha Jones Show, which had a pop/soul star as lead (sort of Diane Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin combined), supported by her Phil Silvers-like manager; her backing-combo led by arranger/pianist boyfriend; and her richly varied, ghetto-but-cheerful extended family. It seemed promising as a concept, but I never managed to get it read by anyone important.

I also spent a long time researching and writing a full-length script I titled Union Maid, involving labor organizing in the Northwest logging industry circa 1920, by the I.W.W., with a firebrand woman--a "Wobbly" organizer from the Eastern coal country--as lead, accompanied by a Guthrie/Dylan folksinger guy as her (unwanted) sidekick. The first half had some fairly comic, character-driven stuff, sort of "tough, good-looking woman trying to persuade crude loggers to think," while the second got tragically serious, culminating in the notorious Everett Massacre and subsequent trial.

But Union Maid got put away before it ever circulated. I couldn't quite make the two halves work together effectively, with the late trial dragging the whole film down... (But I still believe today that the largely forgotten Everett Massacre would make a powerful feature, a saleable combination of action film, tragicomedy, and historical look back, with many visual horrors revealed.)

The last script I wrote back then was also promising, and it actually got produced. But almost no one's ever heard of, much less seen, the film titled Doubles--and that's a suitable review right there.

Here's the story: another wannabe director I knew named Bruce Something asked me to write the screenplay for an idea he had. A bored Seattle dentist decides to create a second life for himself, setting up another residence and dental practice north in the Skagit Valley; not yet satisfied, he then hires a hitman to "kill" that second persona. That was pretty much all Bruce offered, but I was intrigued, pretty confident I could make something out of it.

And I did, adding the plot twists and turns (how to put the killer on the trail without him realizing that he's to kill a guy who knows he's coming; how to manipulate the hitman through a series of near successes; etc.) as well as the character details, indeed adding several other characters to flesh out the bare bones idea. My biggest contribution was to make the hitman one of a pair of twins--second brother the by-telephone contact man who serves as go-between--doubling our idea of "doubles." So when the lead guy finally manages to turn the tables, killing the killer first as it were, he thinks he's avoided any repercussions, legal or otherwise. But he then finds that he is being stalked by someone else he doesn't know about and can't control.

The twin brother is no killer, however, so he tricks the dentist into a final deadly confrontation that he (the brother) expects to lose. Then he cleverly arranges for the local sheriff and others to arrive at the murder scene before the guilty dentist can escape, with all evidence pointing to him as cold-blooded murderer.

I've spent some time detailing this plot mostly to make the next point. I finished the script, Bruce loved it, and he set out to raise money for a small-budget feature shoot. But he circulated the script with only his name on it. And when I learned this some weeks later, he persuaded me that I'd get full credit eventually, but that his apparent sole ownership would make a production deal easier.

I guess anyone reading this can pretty much guess a lot of the rest. The film did get made, but Bruce chickened out on trusting the rather hardboiled script I'd written. Oh, he didn't change the plot or dialogue or my script writing at all, but he added a framing device, a stupid dinner party setting where the whole "doubles" plot was told merely as a story, with no visual attempt to make it seem true or real; the inner story's actors even wore the same clothing in every scene! So all suspense was lost and the new ending just lame.

When I did get to see the butchered film, I also learned that my credit had gone from "Screenplay by" to the meaningless "Script Consultant." But the film was so wretched I decided I was better off not connected with it. Rather than file a grievance with the Writers Guild, I just left Bruce to make what he could out of the mess. Which was nothing.

I pretty much gave up on the notion of a screenwriting career after that. Hooray for Hollywood and its hucksters, wherever they reside...