By Lee Valentine Smith
On the 50th anniversary the enigmatic performer’s seventh album Nilsson Schmilsson, veteran authors David Roberts and Neil Watson recently spoke about the new project by phone from the UK.
Journalist Lee Valentine Smith chatted with the writers about the book, Nilsson’s many fans – and that lucky kitchen appliance on the cover.
An incredible spirit of community runs throughout the project.
David Roberts: Our expectations were that it would be a fun thing to work on, but it exceeded everything because the fan base of Harry Nilsson is just the most amazing bunch of people. We’ve had contributions from literally everyone – from a 93-year-old nun in California to a 16-year-old schoolgirl in England. They’re an amazing bunch. I’ve worked on a few music books before but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fan base as fascinating as the people who contributed to this one.
It’s not just a standard biography – anyone can do one of those. For this one, you’ve included the real voices of the fans. Of course, some of them are quite famous, including Harry’s old pal Micky Dolenz of The Monkees.
Neil Watson: That’s right. I think for me, the point at which I thought, ‘Oh, now this is really becoming exciting,’ was when I was in Essex, picking up my sister who lives there. I was telling her partner that I’d just started doing a book about Harry Nilsson. I think he did know who Harry was, but he wasn’t a fan. I said to him that he’d worked with loads of people. Then I mentioned Micky Dolenz. At that point, he said, ‘Oh yeah, well he used to live in the town in England where I used to live, Saffron Walden.’ That was a fact I didn’t know. Then I put something on the town’s Facebook page, Saffron Walden – Old and New, I think it was called. ‘Is it true Micky Dolenz used to live there or very nearby?’ I was inundated with people saying, ‘Yeah, we used to see him go on the train down to London.’ ‘He got married in a church that was not far from us.’ Things like that. So that was what initially spurred me on. Micky’s quote was the first celebrity that I had success with it. From then on, other cool people came on board, like Randy Newman and Mark Cohn.
You’ve placed everyone on equal status.
Watson: Exactly. If it was Nilsson’s teacher or someone who was a fan or a well-known musician who’d worked with him, they were all given the same status. I mean, we didn’t get Paul McCartney in the end, though I did try. But if we had gotten him, it would’ve said, ‘Paul McCartney, Musician.’ It worked to have everybody on the same terms – with the common denominator being their love of Harry Nilsson.
Roberts: Neil was already a fan but I really grew to love his music. I found out so much about the man as a comedian, poet and a loving father. He liked a bit of fun. But the friends that he drew to him – it wasn’t just a coincidence that some of his best friends were people like John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Some of the stories are quite riotous. So all of that combined, contributed to a great story.
Harry & Me contains actual laugh-out-loud moments.
Roberts: I’m glad you picked up on that because that was our feeling. The publisher said to us, ‘How do we describe it to the designer?’ We said to him, ‘Think Monty Python.’ Because there are, as you see, lots of connections. Harry was friends with various members of the Pythons. I think that is the sense that comes through. There are some hilarious stories. Harry’s own experience of comedy was so formed by Monty Python – but much earlier than that with Laurel and Hardy. There’s a lovely story, actually, where as a fan, young Harry, I don’t quite know how old he was, but I think he was in his teens, managed to get the telephone number of Stan Laurel and rang him up.
Watson: He’s just got this wild and wacky sense of humor which hopefully, we’ve portrayed. Even with the cover.
Yes, tell us about the significance of the refrigerator on the cover.
Watson: We were thinking about what type of cover to do. I thought, my goodness me, right across where I live, in the next house, is a very, very fantastic artist called Alison Stockmarr. I’ve known her for a while. She does these fantastic pieces of art where she cuts out little, tiny things and puts them onto books or record sleeves. They’re just fantastic. When I went and asked if she’d be interested in doing the cover, she said yes, straight away. But she didn’t know anything about him at all. So David and I had a meeting with her and almost straightaway, she got it. She got who Harry Nilsson was, what he stood for and what he was all about. We were talking about the fact that it is going to be coming out, more or less, in time with the 50th anniversary of Harry’s most commercially successful album Nilsson Schmilsson, which came out on the first of November 1971.
Roberts: [The cover is] a black and white picture of Nilsson in a bathrobe standing in front of his fridge. Well, we call it fridge. I think you call it refrigerator.
Watson: Alison said, ‘How about if we get a ‘fridge and use that as a sort of centerpiece for the front cover?’ The next problem was, where do we get one that looks similar to the one that Harry used? But we did find one for sale in a town about 50 miles from where I live. I think the guy wanted 30 or 40 pounds for it. On the day I was due to go pick it up, he’d obviously checked it out to make sure it worked. He phoned me up, just as I was leaving to go get it. ‘Look man, I’m really sorry. I’ve just checked it out and it doesn’t work.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I still want it.’ So he was thinking it’s his lucky day because he’s selling me a ‘fridge that doesn’t even work, right? I turned up at his house, picked it up and put it in the back of my car. I took it to Alison’s house where she’s got a garage that she’d turned into a makeshift studio. As I took it out of my car, I must’ve taken it out the wrong way and it fell. The door fell backwards and it broke off. So I ended up with this ‘fridge with a door that had fallen off. All the pieces that were inside had fallen out onto the pavement on the street. There was an old couple walking by just at the moment when I said a few expletives as the door had broken off. This poor couple, they were sort of feeling sorry for me, picking up all these pieces off the street and carrying them ‘round to the garage studio. We set it back up but we weren’t able to fix the door back on. So in the picture, actually photographed by Alison’s husband – you can’t see it, thank goodness – but I’m actually crouched down behind the door with my fingers underneath it, holding it in place. That became the photograph that was used for the cover. Then Allison cut out loads of little tiny pictures of things that related to Harry or the songs. So you have Laurel and Hardy and the lime in the coconut. The rug is an homage to his Pussycats album. All these tiny little clues that Allison picked up on, from what we had told her about Harry. I’m delighted with it. For me, it is a real piece of art.
So what became of the ‘fridge? Obviously you preserved it in some sort of shrine to Harry, right?
Watson: Well, we didn’t have the proper space for it, so I’m afraid I had to take it to the rubbish dump. It’s gone to ‘fridge heaven.
But now it’s immortal.
Watson: Yeah it lived to tell another tale, didn’t it? If we hadn’t bought it, I suppose the guy who used to own it would’ve just plugged it in one day, realized it didn’t work and taken it to the dump as well. But we got some mileage out of it, that’s for sure.
Harry & Me: Memories of Harry Nilsson – by the fans and musicians that loved him the most is available for pre-order from most major retailers and via This Day In Music Books, www.thisdayinmusicbooks.com. Note: the first 1,000 copies include Harry On Harry, a limited-edition bonus CD featuring rare Harry Nilsson interviews from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
The Glorious Corner
GORDON OH GORDON — (from The Guardian) In the 1960’s and 70’s, no serious rock fan viewed the drummer Jim Gordon with anything but awe. By the 80’s, none of them viewed him with anything but contempt, a 180-degree turn that led to his virtual erasure from the culture. Even four decades later, when the veteran music journalist Joel Selvin first tried to sell publishers on a book meant to tell Gordon’s story with nuance and depth, they balked. “They would debate it for months and then say, ‘Nope, can’t do it,’” Selvin said. “It was almost impossible for them because of what he had done.”
In 1983, he entered his mother’s house and began to attack her with a hammer, crashing it into her skull four times before grabbing a knife and stabbing her repeatedly, the final time with such force it pinned her to the floor. Soon after her resulting death, Gordon was arrested, charged and convicted of murder, and spent the next four decades in prison, before dying this past March at 77. Over the years, several prominent articles have been published that tried to trace the outlines of Gordon’s story, ascribing his heinous act to an diagnosed case of schizophrenia that forced him to hear voices and experience hallucinations. Yet only in Selvin’s new book, Drums & Demons, does the reader get a feel for the full horror of his disease and the mess it made of his mind. “In one of his hallucinations, he thought he was in a jail cell that was on fire,” Selvin said. “To me, that was a metaphor for Jim’s whole life. For him, life was a jail cell that was always on fire.”
Despite the chaos that created, both for Gordon, and increasingly, for those around him, Selvin aimed to tell his story with empathy. Only after the drummer’s death was, he able to finally convince a publisher to go along. “The guy got so little compassion,” he said. “I wanted readers to know just how impossible Jim’s life was and how brave he was in battling the disease.”
At the same time, the author meant to “restore Jim’s peerless legacy. Who has done more to put his mark on our music than Jim Gordon?” Selvin said. “What a playlist he was on!”
Just tracing the surface of Gordon’s contributions reveals more than 100 classic songs powered by his invention and finesse. In his early studio work, he appeared on an entire chart’s worth of pop hits, by acts like the Beach Boys, Ike & Tina Turner, the Byrds and Glen Campbell. By the 70’s, he became a key member of pivotal rock bands, including Delaney & Bonnie, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Derek and the Dominos and Traffic. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley of California, Gordon became entranced by the power of the beat from childhood. He played in bands by puberty and, by 17, helped flesh out demos for the publishing arm of Liberty Records. That same year, he joined the Everly Brothers on a tour of England and, afterwards, became part of the storied Wrecking Crew, a loose collection of studio musicians who played on a dizzying range of 60’s hits. “Back then, there were loads of great studio drummers,” said Lenny Waronker, a legendary producer and record executive whose career started in the same west coast studio milieu of the 60’s. “Jim was able to plow through that. All the other musicians were amazed by him.”
Gordon’s role on those storied sessions extended way beyond the simple task of keeping time. “He wasn’t just a backbeat guy,” Selvin said. “He was a fully musical drummer who embedded his playing into the core of the composition.”
For instance: in the 70’s hit, Grazing in the Grass, by the Friends of Distinction, Gordon’s drum elaborated the song. “Even though there was a chart in which every note was written out for him, he added a Latin boogaloo feel that exploded the whole record,” Selvin said.
The fills and intonations he added to Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain contoured the melody and directed the listener’s ear to the record’s subtler touches. “Jim orchestrated that entire song from the drum stool,” Selvin said. In Maria Muldaur’s number one smash Midnight at the Oasis, he added a key samba groove, while in Steely Dan’s Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, the tricky beat he devised deepened the song’s debt to jazz. In doing so, “Jim became an important part of the hit-making process,” Selvin said.
Mark Lindsay, frontman of the hit group Paul Revere & the Raiders, immediately noticed Gordon’s gift after he was hired to drum on their song The Great Airplane Strike. “He was doing this polyrhythmic thing with a kick, a snare and a high hat, accented by tom-toms,” Lindsay said. “He changed the song up so much that I wound up rewriting half of my lyrics to fit was he was doing! Jim became the conductor of the track.”
Waronker recognized the same level of creativity on Sundown, a song he produced for Gordon Lightfoot that became a number one hit. “His drum part made the song move in its own way,” he said. “It’s a specific rhythm that Jimmy picked up from Gordon’s guitar. It became one of the most important parts of the song.”
In the 70’s, Gordon expanded his range to work with rock’n’roll’s most cutting-edge bands on the road. “When you listen to his live work with Mad Dogs & Englishmen or Derek and the Dominos, he’s unleashed,” Selvin said. “The ideas just flow from him.”
At the same time, the voices that were roiling inside his head began to find disturbing external expression. In an infamous incident on the Mad Dogs tour, he hauled off and punched his then girlfriend, the singer Rita Coolidge, in the head. “Here was a guy who was noted for being gentle, smiling and laid back,” Selvin said. “But that was just the mask he wore.”
Some people were already beginning to see through it. “[The singer] Claudia Lennear said she always wondered about that smile,” Selvin said. “It was too simple. She felt he was hiding behind it.”
“Jim had such genius,” Lindsay said, “but I sensed there might be something lurking behind the curtain.”
To Selvin, Gordon’s talent can’t be separated from his torment. “The level of intuition that Jim displayed
in his playing requires a certain electro-chemical makeup,” he said. “His highly personal style had to come from the same place in the brain that produced his schizophrenia.”
At the same time, the focus and power involved in playing drums gave Gordon a refuge from the cyclone of thoughts whipping through his head. “The combination of the resonance of the drums and the rhythmic entertainment of the groove produces a hypnotic feeling that can lift you out,” Selvin said. “Nothing calms a schizophrenic faster than a Walkman and a pair of headphones. For Jim, the drums provided a place where the voices couldn’t follow.”
Strangely enough, the herculean amount of recreational drugs Gordon took at the time also had a calming effect. “You would think that the massive amounts of cocaine he did would make things worse,” Selvin said. “But I talked to psychiatrists who said that it would normalize his dopamine levels. He was doing blow to feel normal.”
Similarly, the crazy rock’n’roll lifestyle of the 70’s, which Gordon exemplified, served as a cover for his increasingly aberrant actions. “The rock scene of the time was nearly indistinguishable from psychotic behavior,” Selvin said with a rueful laugh. “Jim just blended into the background.”
It helped that, at the time, he was still soaring creatively. In 1973, Gordon devised a pair of drum patterns that proved crucial to the development of two separate genres. His work on the Hues Corporation’s smash Rock the Boat, with its high-hat syncopations and danceable beat, helped patent the rhythms of disco. Similarly, his extended break on the song Apache, paired with the congas of King Errisson, became a foundational pattern in hip-hop that was later sampled ad infinitum. “When Kool Herc found Jim’s long drum break on Apache, he discovered that he could make it bound from one turntable to another forever,” Selvin said. “He was driving crowds nuts with that sound.”
By late in 1973, however, Gordon’s beat, and sanity, were beginning to seriously waver. He viciously attacked his wife Renee Armand, cracking several ribs in the process, ending their marriage. His work with the would-be country-rock super group Souther-Hilman-Furay Band grew so erratic they had to sack him. While he managed to keep it together in the studio for a few more years, by 1978 Gordon proved too unreliable to be employed.
In a reporting coup, Selvin acquired research that helped fill in Gordon’s inner life during that pivotal time. He found two women who, in the late 80’s, had gained the drummer’s cooperation for a book that never got off the ground. The notes they took gave Selvin access to jail house interviews with Gordon along with his medical records and related court documents. (Selvin sent several written requests to interview Gordon himself but they went answered.) Regardless, the research he acquired from the women allowed him to put the reader deep inside the musician’s roiling mind.
The voices Gordon heard shamed him so deeply, he rarely told anyone about them, which contributed to him never getting a proper diagnosis. His mother, one of his closest witnesses, believed that drinking and drugs were his problem rather than a symptom of something far more corrosive. While Gordon began to imagine that many people were torturing him at the time, the main voice in his head was his mother’s. “Because Jim’s father was a practicing alcoholic, his mother became the sub rosa leader of the household,” Selvin said. “That’s why she became the major figure in this panoply of voices hectoring him.”
As a result, it was her voice that he felt the most urgent need to silence. Once details of the subsequent murder came out, some observers who knew Gordon in his high functioning days were floored. “When I knew him, he was a tremendously nice person,” Waronker said. “He was the all-American boy.”
Selvin’s book describes what led up to the murder in granular detail, but he doesn’t write much about Gordon’s subsequent decades in prison because, he said, he found it undramatic. Often keeping to himself, Gordon became a virtual zombie due to the anti-psychotic drugs the prison pumped him with. Rare as Gordon’s particular case was, one key reason Selvin said he wrote his book was to let readers know how common various forms of schizophrenia are. “To me, the single most astonishing fact of the research I did was that schizophrenia affects one in 100 people,” he said. “Let that sink in: Multiple sclerosis affects one in 10,000! We see these people out in the street, hearing voices all the time. Their world is totally frightening. And I have nothing but compassion for them. Unfortunately, society doesn’t.”
The other key reason Selvin wrote Drums & Demons, he said, was to restore Jim Gordon to the popular music world. “He’s gone,” he said, “and he needs to come back.”
Drums & Demons: The Tragic Journey of Jim Gordon is out on 27 February.
SHORT TAKES —New bio on the Bee Gees by music-wiz Bob Stanley. The group, one of my all-time favorites, were huge, but in many ways never got the respect they deserved. Many people don’t realize that Robert Stigwood, who masterminded them to the top, used to work for Brian Epstein.I’m eagerly waiting for this one. From Pegasus Books … We watched Anatomy of a Fall and loved it. Its long, but fascinating and intense. A French legal drama, directed by Justine Triet from a screenplay she co-wrote with Arthur Harari. A great cast, especially Milo Machado-Graner, as the boy Daniel …
I watched the opening SNL monologue, with host Shane Gillis -who was fired from the cast for some racial slurs-. A sort of Adam Sandler-wanna be, I didn’t find him funny in the least. He actually reminded me of a low-rent Louis C.K. -remember him?
I don’t know why Lorne Michaels would even want him back, except for some splashy ink – which wasn’t terribly kind. This appears to be Michael’s next-to-last year on the show and he’s clearly choosing to go out quietly. No more gas in the engine I fear …
NAMES IN THE NEWS — William Schill; Anthony Noto; Tom & Lisa Cuddy; Derek Taylor; Charles Comer; Howard Bloom; Mark Bego; Phil Goldstein; Tropique Records; Marsha Stern; Beth Wernick; Marion Perkins; Les Schwartz; Liz Rosenberg; Bob Merlis; Obi Steinman; Andrew Sandoval; Warren Lawrence; Jodi Ritzen; Jeremy Long; and CHIP!
Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley
I am so pleased to announce our guests for Valentine’s Day are Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, the founders of BroadwayHD.com, an online streaming service on a mission to promote and preserve live theatre, extending the reach of Broadway and Broadway-caliber shows to anyone, anywhere. BroadwayHD currently has a catalog of over 300 full-length stage plays and musicals available for streaming on demand, so when you can’t get to Broadway, go to BroadwayHD on your tv, phone, or tablet!
Mr. Lane and Ms. Comley have collectively produced over 40 films and 45 Broadway shows, garnering nine Tony Awards and another 14 Tony nominations. They have also won Olivier Awards, Drama Desk, Drama
League, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for their stage productions. Lane has co-owned Broadway’s famous Palace Theater for almost 40 years.
The theater community has honored the couple for their philanthropic work, including The Actors Fund Medal of Honor, The Drama League Special Contribution to the Theater Award, The Paul Newman Award from Arts Horizons, and The Theater Museum Distinguished Service Award. The stage at Boston University’s new theater center is named in their honor, as is the Music Theater Program. The Musical Theater Society Room bears their name at Emerson College, and the 500-seat theater at the University
of Massachusetts Lowell is known as the Comley Lane Theater. Lane is a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award at Boston University, and Comley is Distinguished Alumni of both Emerson College and UMass Lowell.
Mr. Lane is a theater historian and playwright and has written the critically acclaimed “Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way” (Square One Publishers), “Jews on Broadway” (McFarland Publishers), “Let’s Put on a Show” (Working Arts Library), and the plays “In The Wings (published in spring 2008 by Hal Leonard), “If It Was Easy” (published by Performing Books and nominated for Best New Play by the American Theatre Critics Association), and the musical “Back Home Again” (with music
and lyrics by John Denver) which he was awarded The 2011 John Denver Spirit Award for his work.
“Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents ”, is a new show that will be filmed live every Wednesday from 5 – 6 in the lobby of the iconic Hotel Edison, before a live audience. To see our first episode click here.
Originally our guest was Maury Yeston, but he had to reschedule. He will be our guest at a later date, however Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, our guests for Valentine’s Day could not be more perfect. They are the epitome or Love and Broadway.
See you at The Hotel Edison.
Another Advanced Chapter From City of Angles
(With the special permission of my publisher, Post Hill Press, Jonathan has given T2C a few of his chapters from his recently published novel, City of Angles. To purchase a copy, go to:https://www.amazon.com/City-Angles-Jonathan-Leaf/dp/1637587880.)
Billy gets a meeting at the Studio
The following afternoon Billy was waiting for a meeting, one confirmed an hour earlier. It had been rescheduled seven times.
He had been in Los Angeles long enough not to take offense. It was how the business was. The apex predators—producers, executives, actors, directors, and agents—told their assistants to follow the practice. Those not at the summit were phoned each day to say that their scheduled conference had been put off. This would happen up until the moment when a hole suddenly appeared in the predator’s schedule and the lesser light might be slotted in. The reason for this practice was that if Meryl Streep were to decide at the last minute that she wanted to see you, you rearranged your afternoon. So it often took weeks for someone like Billy to have a meeting that had been previously scheduled—if it took place at all.
As he was led into the offices of the production company, which were on the studio’s lot in Culver City, he reminded himself to be warm but not intimate, friendly but not effusive. The woman receiving him was the company’s principal assistant (as the head of their operation was in London, where they were about to begin shooting a picture based on the Arthurian legends). Her name, she had explained with a beaming look that he had learned meant nothing in the way of genuine interest, was Gwendolyn Weiner. The name puzzled Billy as she certainly did not look Jewish. Her butch haircut and manner suggested that she was gay. Was this, then, the last name of her female companion, and, if so, why had it not been hyphenated, as was customary? He knew better than to ask. Rather, he took his cue and seated himself opposite her in a handsome, burnt sienna leather chair that matched to expensive beige carpeting.
Her eyes were of a contrasting color, a watery blue-green that glinted as she fixed them upon him. Behind her, light slanted in from a large third-floor window.
“Susan told me how amazing your idea was,” she said, referring to the absent executive. “But we wanted to hear about it from you. In person. We’re glad you could finally come.”
Billy tried to keep the necessary straight face when he heard this as they both knew that he had waited weeks for the meeting.
“The idea is to shoot this as a backdoor pilot, yes?” she went on. This was a term for a TV movie that could be used to set up a subsequent series with the same characters and setting.
“That was one idea I’d had.”
She paused, and then leaned forward, clasping her hands together and smiling officiously. “Tell me more.”
“Well, at some level, it’s just a variant on a detective show. Because that’s part of what a bounty hunter is: a licensed detective. And the first thing she has to do is figure out where the person she’s supposed to capture is. Then she has to bring that person back, which could involve shooting, car chases. The runny-and-jumpy stuff. Each episode involves some kind of mystery. Why has this person fled? What happened? Is the fugitive guilty? And then this is also a feminist story, because it’s about a woman with a kid trying to make it in this male-dominated business of bounty hunting, or, as it’s called among the professionals in the trade, skip tracing. It’s a whole vibrant subculture we’d have to explore. With its own laws, jargon, customs…”
Billy had practiced this pitch in front of his apartment’s plate-glass mirrors, and he was surprised by how cleanly it had come off, even somehow sounding fresh in his own ears. He could see, though, that Gwendolyn was not persuaded by it, and he knew from experience that it was unlikely that she had done anything more than read the initial scene or two from the script, the part called the teaser—this along with the notes on it that had been given to her by her own assistant. The trick at this point was to project a relaxed mood when you sensed resistance. If you tried to push back, you were bound to lose them for good.
Yet he was one month behind on the rent, four months in arrears on student loans. What was more, he was in that unfortunate spot which every writer in Hollywood is bound to be at some point: His agent wasn’t taking his calls, and he wasn’t sure if this meant he no longer had an agent or if it simply indicated that he didn’t have an agent who cared in the slightest degree about him as a client. (There is a not insignificant difference). So, he tried to come across as blithe and relaxed as he was able, awaiting her reply.
Short as Gwendolyn Weiner’s hair was, it bounced nonetheless as she nodded. It was the sort of response that was most common in Hollywood: a grinning, bright-eyed, shake of rejection.
“It sounds like every plot—every episode—would have to be shot in a different state. Sounds awful expensive.”
Billy hesitated. How could he properly agree with the criticism while also dispensing with it? Although the executive had been compelled to smile as she rebuffed him, he was now obliged to thoughtfully and graciously absorb this blow without seeming too desperate in his acceptance of it.
“Yes,” he began, “that’s right. Quite right. My agent thinks with all the neighborhoods and styles of architecture and terrain we have around here that we could film most of it locally. But there are obviously scenes—every so often—that would have to be shot out of state.”
“Interesting,” she said, pausing to reflect and to consider whether she might be risking some of her accumulated capital as an executive to express interest in a pitch from a writer who appeared to stand on the totem pole below the line at which the timber meets the soil. “Maybe I should think about this more.”
The translation into ordinary English of this last part was easy enough for Billy. She was asking if she should read the script. What Billy was unsure of was how to prod her to do this without saying this directly, thereby breaking the unstated protocol that a writer was never to challenge an executive for her dereliction in not reading what she had professed to.
“I have a thought,” she said, sitting back in her chair. She was serious and not smiling. The blue-green eyes seemed to be looking partly inward. This, he knew, was a welcome sign. After all, executives had no need to be glad-handing when they were contemplating doing you a favor, and if they wished to do business with you they would not want to show weakness.
“We have a script that needs a polish. On a few scenes,” she said. “Would you be interested in doing that? Then, when you’ve finished and we’ve looked at it, we could talk more about The Bounty-Hunter with a Curling Iron.”
“I’m actually pretty available right now,” he allowed. “Go ahead.”
“It’s with Arthur Rex. The studio thinks that the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot doesn’t have enough subtextual elements.”
“Well, I’m good at subtextual. I mean, I think I’m known for that.” He waited for this statement to sink in. “I take it you’re looking for ideas from several writers.”
She nodded once more, this time without smiling. “Yes. And you’re all right with that—though it means we might not use anything you give us?”
“How fast do you need it?”
The number she quoted to him as pay was enough to live on for at least six months, and, as he had nearly depleted a small inheritance that he had received in an IRA account, he was not about to argue over the amount. There was even the added benefit that the money would have to be sent through his agent, and that might—ever so possibly—resurrect that relationship. With all this in mind, Billy focused himself and made a determined effort not to show that he was all that pleased or surprised by the outcome of the meeting, retreating with a polite clasp of palms and the most matter-of-fact smile he could summon.
Leaving the office, he almost felt like skipping, and he glided back to the studio parking lot in a cheery mood, one only broken by an unexpected sight. Quite suddenly, as he gazed to his right, he saw that Vincenza Morgan was traipsing along, parallel to him. But, as she was wearing large sunglasses and seemingly preoccupied, he was invisible to her.
Another Advanced Chapter From City of Angles
Yesterday, we presented an advanced chapter from Jonathan Leaf’s new book City of Angles. Today we are printing Chapter Two: An Audition Unlike Any Other,
(With the special permission of my publisher, Post Hill Press, Jonathan has given T2C a few of his chapters from his recently published novel, City of Angles. To purchase a copy, go to:https://www.amazon.com/City-Angles-Jonathan-Leaf/dp/1637587880.)
(With the special permission of my publisher, Post Hill Press, I’m including a few chapters of my recently published novel, City of Angles. These excerpts will appear on Mondays. The book has received rave reviews. Even the famously difficult folks at Kirkus Reviews called it “light, literary entertainment at its best.” To purchase a copy, go to: https://www.amazon.com/City-Angles-Jonathan-Leaf/dp/1637587880.)
Vincenza loved film noir. She adored Veronica Lake and Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall and Jane Greer. Her hairstyle imitated Bettie Page, and she liked to wear the sort of stockings that so consistently flattered Barbara Stanwyck. She had coffee table books on these old-time stars, and she sometimes wondered how she would look in a black and white picture with dramatic lighting and moody shadows.
That was a fantasy. What she was confronted by the following afternoon was real. It was as tangible as a bridge or an airplane, and, while it had the same quality of mystery as an old movie, those tales were a retreat from the struggles of her life. But she was faced by a terrifying problem: A corpse lay in her trunk, and she had no idea where it came from.
Set to audition for a role in a Reese Witherspoon movie, she was in an underground garage across the street from the studio in Culver City where her tryout was to take place. There is an elaborate social structure attached to movie parking spots, and her first reaction to being told to park outside the studio lot was irritation. Now it was gratitude. It was fortunate that her car was where no one paid attention. She had gone to the trunk because its warning light had come on, and, after getting out of the car, she had walked around, put her key in the lock and started to lift the lid. She stopped when she realized that what was peeking out was a pair of legs folded, crosswise, over a man’s torso.
As no one was around her, she reached in with her left hand, feeling his calf. It was room temperature and stiff. Accidentally biting her lip, she resisted the impulse to scream and closed the lid of the trunk shut.
Yes, she needed to phone the police. Yet she had no time. Mad though it was, this had to wait.
If the existence of a cadaver in the trunk of her car inspired shock and dread, she could not drop the audition. She remembered it too well: She had called off another tryout three months earlier when she was in the grip of a high fever, and, afterwards, her agent had scolded her in a way meant to leave no doubt that he was open to dumping her as a client. There was no subtext. She was not to miss an audition again, not if she were receiving chemo and confronted by the amputation of a limb. So there she was, trying to tell herself that it would be all right and that she should just go ahead and perform.
She wished that she was Lizabeth Scott or Claire Trevor and about to be romanced by Robert Mitchum or Sterling Hayden. The man would be wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a gat in his hand, and together they would tackle the whodunit, puzzling out the nature of the crime and the malefactor responsible. But while she knew from experience that there would be many handsome, square-jawed men on the studio lot, none was waiting for her.
Exiting the underground lot, she came out into the afternoon sun. Facing her was the gate in front of the studio complex, and crossing the street, she approached a security guard. Showing him her pass, she was waved in. She put on her oversized sunglasses and marched towards the soundstages and offices. Mercedes, BMWs, and Bentleys were all around: glistening autos with thick coats of paint. She tried not to think about how the California sun had faded the leather of her shoes and bag. She told herself that she was in control. She tried to remind herself of all those necessary clichés, starting with “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” If what was happening made no sense, somehow or other it was all going to be all right.
Pulling her phone out of the bag, she checked the time. She needed to compose herself. This was not merely to regain her poise. She had to redo her makeup and hair. Perspiration was accumulating around her wrists, forehead, and armpits. She had ten minutes before she was due for the audition. Experience told her that she might have another hour waiting outside the producer’s office. The sides—the pages of script that she was to perform—were in the bag draped around her shoulder. The part was small but significant, and she had rehearsed it for three and a half hours.
In the last few years, several friends had gotten these sorts of roles, built up their resumes, then won leads on TV shows or in studio features. It had happened for them. Why couldn’t it for her? This, not the body, was what she needed to focus on. Breathing deeply, she asked herself what the movie was about and what her chances of being cast were. Witherspoon was the star. The part was that of a bitchy stewardess who didn’t want to let the heroine, arriving late, onto a flight. Marked on the sides were directions telling her that she was to go to a room in building number twelve, and she examined a map of the lot. Streaming past her were those employed at the studio: D-girls, secretaries, flunkies, gophers. There were also directors, producers, and actors. On other days in better circumstances, these were people she would have liked to meet.
Reaching the building, she opened the door, turned left, and headed along a wide, carpeted hallway. Other actresses were already present. Among this number were familiar faces, women she had been up against before. Taking off her sunglasses, she gestured her hellos. A D-girl noted her arrival and instructed her to park herself on one of the chairs.
The greetings she received from the other actresses told her that they had heard about the indie picture she had just finished shooting. There was envy and resentment in their supposedly joyful congratulations. They knew who else was in the film. The “how amazings!” were laced with strychnine. How was it that this—the dead man in her trunk—had come to be there? It had happened right when she was on the cusp. She had not run away. But it seemed that was what this city and life itself were: You went on with things, playing your role, pretending that everything was fine when a catastrophe was happening. Now this was occurring on a thousand times greater scale. None knew. No one sensed it. Just the opposite: Perhaps it was the hint that she was about to be someone which prompted the D-girl to slide over to her, mentioning that they wouldn’t be seeing her for at least forty minutes. Did it say something that she didn’t need to ask where she was in the queue?
So notably solicitous, the assistant next directed her to the bathroom, which was down a flight of stairs. Reaching it, Vincenza checked herself once in the mirror, brushing her hair, fixing her lipstick, straightening her dress. Then she advanced into a stall. Not sitting down but closing the door firmly shut, she pressed her cell phone tightly to her ear. There were two messages from friends, asking what was she doing that night. That everything went on as it always did: This was simultaneously comforting and petrifying. How could it be that the other actresses didn’t suspect the trouble she was in, that what they saw was just a woman on the verge?
Checking herself in the mirror a second time, she brushed her hair once more, swallowed a mint to cover the smell of cigarettes, and exited the bathroom, walking up the steps and reentering the room. Sitting down on one of the metal folding chairs they had put out, she felt something she had not in some time: heart palpitations. She knew that all they saw was her legs and her enhanced chest and her lips and mascara.
Staggering into the audition room, she was faced by four people placed behind The Table. This is one of the established institutions of the entertainment industry, one whose sole purpose is to humble actors. For The Table is an otherwise superfluous piece of furniture whose sole value lies in its creation of an artificial barrier establishing a division between those who are casting and those anxious for their favor. Most often it is faced by a single chair. Placing yourself in this seat can feel a bit like undergoing interrogation, if with the difference that you must first spend hours learning lines, teasing up your hair, painting yourself with blush and lipstick, and working on the correct presentation of your cleavage, after which you linger for long stretches, waiting to be called. Within the room, there is usually a casting aide who serves as the “reader.” This person performs the scene with you. To make matters still more stressful and difficult, frequently he is not of the same age, race, or gender as his character.
And that was indeed the case. Thus, in trying to present her rendition of a snotty stewardess who refuses to let Reese Witherspoon onto her flight, Vincenza was acting with a “Reese” with the height and build of a middle linebacker. Where she had practiced the role by literally staring down at what was supposed to be a somewhat older five-foot-two-inch woman, she gazed up at a heavyset young man with a soul patch.
The producer, Vincenza gradually deduced, was the one providing the guidance, though it was hard to believe that the producer could be an attractive woman younger than she was.
Vincenza tried to tell herself that she was not distracted. Yet she knew that this was not the case. One thought preying on her was this question of how soon it would be until the carcass began to smell, and, in the run-up to her audition, she had pulled her phone close, taken off her sunglasses, and searched the internet to find out. Then she had asked herself if this might be potential evidence against her and if there was any way to bury the query with the body. As it happened, the minimum amount of time was said to be a day. She tried not to ponder it. She needed to be present. So she looked to the petite bottle blonde in the fancy suit: the producer. A Brit, she spoke in a deep, staccato voice, one continually punctuated by a snorting sound that suggested that she had a deviated septum. Gazing down and away from Vincenza, the woman stared at her resume, set on the back of her eightinch-by-ten glossy.
“Vincenza,” she began with an unexpected gentleness, “you’re doing one thing I really like, one thing which we really haven’t seen from anyone: not focusing on Reese’s character. Showing the audience that she’s the least of your concerns. And that’s exactly right. I guess what I’m saying is that you’re the first who actually understands the scene. But what I’m not getting is the full meanness. Can you do a bit more of that? Show us what a cunt you are?”
Even after twelve years in Hollywood, Vincenza was unnerved by the producer’s use of the word. But she knew to nod, taking her note. Inhaling once more, she looked to the windows left of her, just above eye level. Outside, the sun was dipping below the horizon, the sky taking on a striking medley of tones: lavender and scarlet, bronze and magenta. Could it be that her preoccupation with the body’s possible odor was assisting her in the audition? Instinct told her to stand up and to instruct her scene partner to take his place in the chair. She was in command. She had to play that.
She tried not to let them see her anxiousness. Had they liked this reading? It was always impossible to tell if you were going to receive a callback. What she knew now, though—and had not grasped before—was that she had done the right thing in scrupulously following the script: that it was better to be examining it than to be staring at the casting agent and the producer but changing the words. She had learned, too, how important it was to depart the room with a professional but bland politeness, a manner verging on indifference.
Back in the waiting area, she took off her pumps, slipping them into her handbag. In their place she put on her faded, open-toed, low heels. Departing, she switched her phone back on and gazed up. Light came from many directions: illumination from the studio buildings and from the overhead lamps in the lot. A sliver still emanated from the descending sun, falling below the western edge of Culver City.
Trudging forward, she went through with her customary review. (She did not want to call this one a postmortem. That was a little too apropos.) The movie’s director had not been present. Nor had the casting director. But she had managed to impress one of the producers, it seemed.
Making full use of the large sunglasses she had set back on her face, she tried not to make eye contact with the passing faces. Then, when she reached her car, she gazed about once more, making sure no one was nearby. No, there were just a great many automobiles fitted in between painted lines. So, inhaling deeply, she stepped to her car’s trunk and pulled out her key chain. Yet her hands were shaking, and she knew that she was not going to be able to put the key in the lock. Nor was she able to dial the police.
Pulling out her phone, she searched for the nearest police station. It was almost around the corner—on Duquesne Avenue—barely two blocks from the studio gates. Flipping the ignition, she drove down Culver Boulevard, past an old-fashioned post office building. That was on her left. Turning right onto Duquesne, she passed the Culver City Hall. Next to it was the police station. It, too, was designed in a Depression-era Works Progress Administration style: a long, white-stucco building flanked by flagpoles and palm trees. A half dozen black-and-white police cruisers were planted in front. Vincenza felt her heart beating. The palpitations were almost audible, and she drove past, circling around and driving up to Irving. Then she threaded her way down Washington back to Duquesne.
She passed the police station three times. The immediate question was where to park. The real concern was how to enter and tell the police that there was a dead body in her trunk, and she had no idea how it had gotten there. It was as though she was choking.
Whom might she call? Her first thought was her frequent scene partner, Sara Kertesz. But what could she do? The men she worked for in her day job were the types who might know how to dispose of a corpse. She did not want to be indebted to them. She did not want to think about her parents who were 2000 miles away. The only person she could think of potentially of use whom she could trust was an acquaintance in the religious sect she was attached to, the International Church of Life. A new faith, it attracted its members for a multitude of reasons. One bore relevance: The Church did things. She had assumed that this faculty would be employed to save the species. Perhaps it might be put to use saving her.
Pulling over and parking in a strip mall, she opened her driver’s side door, sat down, and lit a cigarette. Who was the man in the car’s rear? How had he gotten there? On at least two instances she had provided her car to other members of the Church. It struck her that in making her independent film she had also loaned the vehicle to her producing partner and the crew members. Who might have made copies of the key.
Here Is An Advanced Chapter From City of Angles
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist. His drama Pushkin was selected as one of the four best plays of 2018 by the Wall Street Journal. He has been nominated in the Innovative Theater (IT) Awards for Best Play of the Year for The Caterers and has received rave reviews for his work in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Daily News, The New Criterion, BroadwayWorld, Show Business Weekly, National Review, and many other publications. Since 2017, he has premiered five new plays in New York, San Francisco, and Paris.
As a journalist and critic, his writing has been featured in National Review, The Daily Beast, Spectator (USA), Tablet, Mosaic, the New York Post, New York Press, City Journal, Humanities, The Weekly Standard, Modern Age, First Things, The American, The American Conservative, The New York Sun, and many other publications.
(With the special permission of my publisher, Post Hill Press, he has given T2C a few of his chapters from his recently published novel, City of Angles. To purchase a copy, go to:https://www.amazon.com/City-Angles-Jonathan-Leaf/dp/1637587880.)
There is a kind of apartment building that everyone in Hollywood has been in. The design of the rooms is identical, or nearly so. Plate glass covers the closet doors, and cheap ceiling fans are above your head. A pool sits in the middle of the structure, and, though constructed in a prime earthquake zone, it stands on stilts. Beneath are the coveted parking spaces.
Because the insulation in these buildings is virtually nonexistent and the heating is poor, they can be chilly on summer nights and frigid in the winter. The tenants are warmer, though. Consistently friendly and affable, they await that one big break that’s surely around the corner: the guest starring spot that will be a recurring role, the pilot script that’s about to be picked up, the financing for the picture that only requires one well-heeled benefactor.
Were they all delusional? Billy Rosenberg saw them in passing every day as he lived in such a building, and one morning in the year before the pandemic he asked himself that question.
As he was possessed of a large DVD collection, several movie posters, and a great many books, these reflected back to him from the plate glass, making his apartment seem cramped. It struck him that he had spent too much time in the room, alone, often when the sun was shining. Too many hours had passed, surfing the web or typing scripts that were unread. So, grabbing his laptop, he strode over to a local coffee shop. His reaction upon entering it was the one he had each time he walked in: astonishment at how many attractive folk were inside.
Sitting down, he flipped on his computer and began working. Stopping, he watched the people. The prettiest individuals from towns all over the country, they had been uniformly drawn to Los Angeles by the firm conviction that they were singular and fated to a special destiny. Awareness of that prompted him towards other ruminations. Gradually, then, he realized that he had fallen into a fugue state, and thunderously loud as it was, it took him a moment to recognize that a woman at his side was addressing him. As such, he could only be sure of her second sentence. She was asking if they had met in an Alexander Technique class.
The voice was low and soft, but there was nothing in the expression of her eyes that corresponded to the smile she offered. It was as though the bottom half of her face was hysterically intent on seduction, and the upper half appraising him like an expensive tennis racket. Yet he knew the accent. Even with the decibel level, it was unmistakable. It was what they called RP: received pronunciation, the precise, crisp, non-regional mode of speech taught in acting classes.
He examined her more closely. Her eyes were intensely blue, and her nose was fine and straight. What you could not miss was her chest. Her breasts were large, unnaturally taut and fake. Trying not to stare, he admitted the truth to himself: While he might insist that he did not find silicone implants attractive, and though he really was, in a measure, repulsed by them, his penis was twitching as he tried to keep his eyes at the level of her gaze. Reflecting on this, he hesitated before saying that it couldn’t have been there that they’d met, but he was sure they had been introduced, they must know each other through mutual friends.
“Do you smoke?” she asked.
Since she was inviting him outside, they left their coffee mugs and put their laptops in their cases in a safe spot behind the counter, near the barista. Then they ambled out to the sidewalk.
Taking one of her cigarettes and her match, he yielded to a habit he did not possess. Since she was obviously a natural flirt, he asked himself how much she believed that they knew each other and how much she was interested in him. His face was not preternaturally lovely, and his shoes said every bit as much about his level of success as his car—and the way he held himself—did. Was this an exercise for an acting class? A response to a momentary fit of tedium? Spitefulness towards a boyfriend for some soon-to-be-forgotten slight?
The sky was gray, and the February air chill. Not wearing tights and garbed in a top calculated to show off her cleavage, she was getting goose flesh, and, as she observed him noticing this, they exchanged warmer expressions. Then there was that strange sense of intimacy that you can have with another person when you’ve wandered off together from a party in the early hours. This feeling was so strong and sudden that he asked himself if he could invite her back to his apartment, just two blocks away.
Then, as though this thought—and the doubt prompted by it—registered in his eyes, this demonstrating his uncertain place, he felt her again cooling, apprising him clinically once more, shaking her black bangs with a mixture of possibly assumed sexual assurance and vague mocking.
So, an hour later, as he reentered his apartment, he asked himself why everything in the city was so alluring yet so inconstant. Picking up his phone, Billy stared at the number she had punched into it. Her name was Vincenza Morgan.
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