Saturday, December 10, 2005

Going Back to My Criminal Ways

This past week's server problems (all behind us now, apparently) actually came at a very convenient time for me. My temporary inability to receive e-mail or post blogs coincided with a conversation with my editor at Simon and Schuster that put me back onto a novel I wrote some years ago called The Only Criminal. It's "dark fantasy" rather than horror, but also comic, and distinctly different to The Book of Renfield -- it's also my personal favorite of all the ideas I've had for fiction.

I was a dedicated diarist in those days, so I can trace the idea back to its moment of conception: February 15, 1977. I finished it for the first time on May 26, 1978 -- it was a novelette or long short story of only 67 pages. The moment I laid down my pen, there was a huge automobile accident outside the apartment building where I lived. I gave a public reading of a chapter at the University of Cincinnati on November 25. The length of the piece was all wrong, and I was still looking for things to do with it in 1982, even cutting it down to the length of a short story that I could place somewhere like The Twilight Zone Magazine. My trouble in those days, as an unrepresented writer, was that I had little stamina for sending out the material I'd worked so hard to write. I'd no sooner finish something than become obsessed with the next project. But The Only Criminal remained insistent: I later revised it as a somewhat longer novella... and then it became a full-length novel. No matter what form it took, it was never quite right and I knew that.

The thing about this book is that it demands to be read with the open-mindedness of a child. My artist friends have always gone crazy with enthusiasm about the book's premise, or excerpts when I've let them read it -- but people who are more logical, who favor the left side of their brain, have a harder time getting it. My former agent loved the book and worked long and hard to find an editor who shared her affection for it. She tried to place it after selling Throat Sprockets, and later told me that an editor at TOR Books named Melissa Singer handed it back to her by saying, "I'll be happy to publish anything by Tim Lucas you bring to me... except this!"

The Only Criminal has been in a figurative drawer now for some years, and my current editor at Simon and Schuster (who likes the book) has had trouble getting it passed at editorial meetings in its present state. It's too unlike The Book of Renfield, and it's the Renfield author they signed and expected to be grooming. I spoke to my editor last week and made it clear to him that I don't intend to write any more Books of Renfield, that The Only Criminal is much more in keeping with what Throat Sprockets was, and the unwritten novels I still hope to write. I also told him something he'd already considered, that The Only Criminal is very much a graphic novel idea written in classic novel form. If handled properly, it is the sort of book that could lure more graphic novel people back to the unillustrated page. I also suggested it might also be a good idea to hire a well-known artist to provide spot illustrations throughout the book, to lure these people in.

So the idea is for me to deliver a draft that my editor can take to his next editorial board meeting, allowing him to pitch me and this book to the company in a new way. The switch to a new server involved a certain amount of change-over time, of which I've taken full advantage to go back to the manuscript. The original idea was to take a manuscript that clearly needs more work and make it more consistent and presentable... but, as it turns out, the book is much closer to being truly finished than I realized. Once I understood this, I decided to jump whole-heartedly back into the rabbit hole.

My average day this week has been to wake up, sit immediately in this chair and visit my usual sites for 45 minutes to an hour, break for diet pills and a big glass of water, continue visiting sites for half an hour till I can breakfast and have decaffeinated coffee, get back into this chair and work on the book till it's time for the next round of diet pills and water, continue working until midnight, and then take the last round of diet pills and water, wait half an hour till I'm allowed to eat my next (small) meal, and then -- completely zonked by twelve to thirteen straight hours of editing and writing -- find something inspirational to watch till bedtime. (Of course, these diet pills work best with exercise, which I haven't been getting, but they sure do their job as legal speed, and I have lost about 4-5 pounds.)

For my inspirational viewing, I found myself going back to Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy of BLUE, WHITE and RED. These films are not explicitly tied to what I'm doing in any way, but they do share a certain attitude and atmosphere. They put me in a creative place I feel will be more beneficial than something more explicitly connected to what I'm creating, like, say, a Franju film. It's also good to go back and examine the extras in this box set more thoroughly than I was able to do when it was first released.

I've been advancing about 120 pages per day, and that includes a modicum of rewriting. Going back to The Only Criminal has been an eye-opening experience. The most recent draft, the one my poor editor has been trying to pitch without success, was a real mess -- the first 100 or so pages had been rewritten and didn't fit the remainder at all, because the names of places and some characters had been changed. I've also gained enough distance from the book, and experience at my craft in the intervening years, to understand why some of the smaller details were preventing some readers from embracing my premise. I was giving them too many fantasy angles to deal with, when all the book really needed was one. So I've done some judicious cutting that, I believe, has strengthened the material considerably. The book does wrestle with the reader in some ways, but it's hopefully a bit like wrestling with an Angel, going through the chaos and confusion that comes before an epiphany. By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, the entire journey comes into sweet focus -- at least that's the goal.

I have only one last section to edit, so there's every chance the manuscript will be in publishable shape by Monday. And after that? It would be nice to write a book that didn't take thirty years to gestate...

Friday, December 09, 2005

"Do You Think That You Could Make It With Frankenstein?"

That's a Bob Gruen photo of the one-and-only New York Dolls, honey. Left to right: Johnny Thunders (lead guitar), Sylvain Sylvain (rhythm guitar), Arthur "Killer" Kane (bass), Jerry Nolan (drums) and David Johansen (vocals, harmonica, monkey bidness). If a band could have been born straight from the forehead of John Waters, it would have been the Dolls. Trash-mongers and chatterboxes singing about jet boys and Vietnamese babies, they ruled from 1972 to 1975, and they still rule -- even though most of them are now dead.

For die-hard Dolls fans, the limited video documentation of this most flamboyant of groups has always been a source of disappointment -- like the dearth of listenable audio coverage of the original lineup of The Stooges. But a few years ago, Rhino Handmade scratched the Stooges itch big time with a heaven-sent, nine-disc FUN HOUSE SESSIONS box set of previously unreleased studio performances (now out-of-print)... and now it's the Dolls' turn to roll out the horn-of-plenty with the DVD release of a (surprise!) feature-length, hitherto-unknown documentary and various extras, totalling an amazing 230 minutes of rude-and-ritzy Dolls-related video. Considering that all that existed of the band on video before this were some rarely-seen clips of appearances on THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and the BBC, ALL DOLLED UP: A NEW YORK DOLLS STORY (Music Video Distributors, $19.99) qualifies as a major archival rock release.

What is ALL DOLLED UP, exactly? Well, in the early 1970s, rock photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya Beck invested in a Sony Portapak video camera, which recorded half-inch, analog mono, B&W video. As Gruen explains in his liner notes, there was no commercial market for video in 1973, because video players weren't sold in stores in those days, so he and Nadya and their his friend Rick Fuller went around taping various NYC-based bands for their own amusement. After recording a Dolls concert and showing it to singer David Johansen (later known as "Buster Poindexter"), Gruen became friends with the members and was invited to regularly record what now looks like bonafide rock history in the making.

The material collected here -- which has been culled from those archives and edited into a more-or-less cohesive documentary by Jolynn Garnes for directors Gruen and Beck -- covers the period immediately following the release of the Dolls' self-titled first album for MCA, and sees them performing at NYC's notorious Max's Kansas City, then flying out west to play their first-ever west coast gigs at LA's Whisky-A-Go-Go and San Francisco's Matrix (where they were introduced by LA DJ Rodney Bingenheimer), and making their first-ever TV appearance on THE REAL DON STEELE SHOW. (To see Don Steele -- the voice of New World Pictures -- and Bingenheimer participating in a photo session with the Dolls is like seeing clips from some kind of strange prequel to ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL that never got made, and some sort of bizarre annex to MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP.) The documentary climaxes with the Dolls' return to New York, where they are shown presiding over what the local media described as the city's "first rock'n' roll Halloween party," at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The wildly costumed audience at this gig clearly eclipsed even the Dolls' outrageousness (Johansen was dressed in white tie and tails) and so claimed more of Gruen's interest than the band, but we are given a glimpse of them ending their signature song, "Frankenstein."

ALL DOLLED UP only bothers to document what paraded past Gruen's camera; it doesn't go into the band's earlier history, which ended with the drug-related death of first Dolls drummer Billy Murcia in London, nor does it make reference to the group's second album from 1974, Malcolm McLaren's failed "Red Patent Leather" 1975 makeover of the group, or the breakup of the group shortly thereafter. So don't expect a formal overview or an attempt to summarize the Dolls as a whole. Instead, you'll get a genuine you-are-there feeling of the east and west coast music scenes and privileged glimpses of the happy camaraderie that existed within the group at the time. The guys were such sweet characters that, when their stoic bassist Arthur Kane couldn't play bass at their west coast shows because he'd broken his wrist, they brought him along anyway and bought him a pair of boob-toed slippers at Frederick's of Hollywood as a consolation prize.

One thing that the film documents surprisingly well is the Dolls' chops as a blues-rock outfit. They're remembered for playing sassy, Chuck Berry-styled rock with hilarious lyrics that touched on everything from Frankenstein to the Wolf Man and Diana Dors, but as a straightforward cover of "Hootchie Cootchie Man" shows, there was clearly potential for serious growth here. Unfortunately, that promise was derailed by lead guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan's joint descent into heroin addiction, which led to the band breaking up after their second album, the formation of Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, and eventually Johnny's and Jerry's early deaths. One of the nice surprises of ALL DOLLED UP is how sweet and funny and charismatic these two guys come across in the interview material, taped well before smack made them sullen and humorless caricatures. The camera even catches punk god Thunders shyly sneaking out of a party into an LA phonebooth because he needs to call his wife back home and let her know he's okay.

ALL DOLLED UP looks like it was shot with bank security cameras, with lots of hemorrhaging light sources, but anyone who loves the New York Dolls will readily look past the flaws. In the early 1970s, I was a CREEM reader like any other self-respecting punk and I bought my copy of the Dolls' first album when it was released in 1973. So I find it kind of incredible to be able to peek in at some of the group's hometown shows at Max's and see how few people were actually there -- maybe even how few people could actually be squeezed into the room. And this makes it all the more impressive and appreciated that Bob Gruen and Rick Fuller were there to document the Dolls. The disc's biggest rush of sonic excitement comes when the band tears into a standout track destined to appear on their second album, "Who Are the Mystery Girls?", at The Matrix -- happily, one of the performances included in its entirety.

In the context of the documentary, which veers from live performance to interviews and backstage antics, the group's songs aren't always presented in their entirety, which keeps the program true to itself. However, a dozen songs are presented in their entirety in a square-up supplementary section. The disc also includes a 16-page full color photo booklet with liner notes by Gruen; Gruen's narrated photo gallery; an interview of Gruen conducted by former Dictators front man "Handsome" Dick Manitoba; and the documentary can be viewed in 2.0 or 5.1 mono, or with an audio commentary by Gruen and surviving band members David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain.

Last year, the surviving members of The New York Dolls (Johansen, Sylvain and Kane) were regrouped by none other than Morrissey, who arranged for them to appear in concert at Royal Albert Hall. That concert, played just a couple of months before Arthur Kane passed away from complications of leukemia, is available now on DVD, but I haven't seen it. The CD's pretty good, though. This music hasn't aged a day.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Sound of MURDER!

Well, it seems that our Donna's ingenuity has successfully shepherded VW's cyberholdings to another server, which we hope will bring us a greater sense of security in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

I received an interesting response to my earlier Hitchcock blog from musician/composer Neal Kurz:

"I'm still catching up with these Studio Canal sets, but I thought I would throw an observation out there, which affects the sound films included (the silents certainly seem absolutely top drawer quality-wise). I'm afraid a disturbing recent trend in French 'restoration' techniques has reared its ugly head once again. I don't know if the same folks are involved, but, as with the French-produced (and ported to Kino for US release) set of the Maurice Pagnol trilogy, someone has seen to "improve" the audio on these "creaky" early sound films (despite their including the clearest rendition of the best source material I've encountered on these titles) by adding all manner of overdubbed sound effects!

"I first noticed this problem in MURDER, which has many added sound effects, from pen scratchings to paper rustlings, and various footsteps. RICH AND STRANGE, likewise. At first, it may seem that the improvement in fidelity is what causes these sounds to stand out from the texture, but I assure you this is not the case. Once I became aware of what was going on, I became incredibly distracted, watching and waiting for the next infraction! At least they are left in the mono domain, unlike the 5.1 atrocities Ruscico has grafted on some films that really can't take this approach (Tarkovsky). I haven't gone back to NUMBER SEVENTEEN to verify this problem (since catching some of this when TCM ran this version a few months ago). I guess this is a bit ironic, seeing that VERTIGO and the Robert Harris restoration with its controversial multi-channel audio track has received much criticism, while these less seen films/discs have flown in under the radar. Also, quite frankly, I just don't see how these changes really 'improves' anything.... they still sound like 1930s audio tracks! I have not auditioned BLACKMAIL in this version, since I own the German set (with the fantastic "silent" cut of the film on Disc 2!), but if they have altered what is surely a seminal early sound film artifact with this sonic mayhem, I hope someone calls them on it!

"By the way, if you have Criterion's Eisenstein box, there's a similar problem with ALEXANDER NEVSKY, with all manner of junk added to the track..... which they seem unwilling to acknowledge, seeing that Peter Becker stopped writing back to me after I (nicely, I assure you!) called this to his attention. If I seem unusually persnickety about this, I guess it's because I'm a musician by profession, so my ears probably work better than my eyes."

I'm inclined to take Neal's eurekas on the subject seriously for this very reason. (Incidentally, if his name seems familiar, he has done a few piano scores for silent films on DVD, including David Shepard's discs of Carl Dreyer's THE PARSON'S WIDOW and MICHAEL, and the underrated CAPTAIN FRACASSE, among others.) I happened to watch Hitchcock's MURDER! a couple of nights ago, and none of the foley work Neal mentions stood out for me -- as he says, it still sounds like a 1930s track -- but I don't know the film by heart. The film's audio still has flaws, and one can see lip movements that were not given dialogue in the post-sync. But whatever work was done on the audio track was pleasingly organic, at least. Sometimes, as in Retromedia's sound effects additions to films like THE GHOST, I find these added-on sound effects fairly glaring, but if I don't notice them, it's hard to tell how seriously I should take these things as an artistic transgression. I'd need a side-by-side comparison, I suppose, which also might help to explain why such cosmetic work was deemed necessary.

Hark! I can hear the new issue of Video Watchdog being delivered downstairs! Excuse me while I go to get acquainted with the new addition to the family...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Skeletons from the Closet of Italian Music Video

Last year, I inherited many boxes of old videotapes from my late friends Alan and Mark Upchurch, all of them originally belonging to Alan (who died in 1993) but bequeathed to me upon the death of his brother Mark. I'm still making my way slowly through them all and discovering strange things. Earlier today, I stumbled across a hum-dinger.

I've been meaning to transfer a Barbara Steele film called I SOLDI to my hard drive for awhile now, and I decided to finally get around to it. While fast-forwarding/rewinding the tape prior to dubbing it over, I noticed with a sinking heart that the copy of I SOLDI I had found ran only 18 minutes. I examined the tape, which seemed to include only Barbara's scenes, fast-forwarding through the rest. As "FINE" finally spread across the screen, I was about the eject the tape in disappointment when something else started up -- an extra, unnoted on the label, occupying the last 2:30 of the tape.

It was a relic recorded from a RAI TRE program of vintage music videos called PALEOCLIPS. The clip was identified as "Julie" by Gian Pieretti, an amiable, curly-haired Dylan/Donovan wannabe. (Further research shows that the song was actually released as "Julie Julie" and dates from 1967.) The clip shows Pieretti settling down on a sofa and lip-synching his silly love song to... you guessed it, Barbara Steele! It's a bouncy, folky, pop song, sung entirely in Italian of course, and Barbara sits there for the duration smoking a cigarette, tossing her straight black hair, and shooting occasional bemused glances at the cameraman that seem to say, "I can't believe I'm doing this when I could be working for Federico!" When the song reaches its sitar solo, the camera focuses solely on Barbara, looking as nervous and embarrassed as she is glamorous. On the bookshelf behind her head rests a pair of Foster Grant sunglasses -- who knows, maybe the same pair she wore in THE SHE BEAST.

I've never heard of this curio before, and certainly Alan never mentioned it to me (or offered to share it with me), so I can only assume it was a secret he meant to hoard until the publication of his sadly-never-completed book about La Steele. With that book no longer forthcoming, at last the truth can be told. Unfortunately, the tape stopped cold after "Julie Julie," but I would have loved to see another few hours' worth of these PALEOCLIPS and find out what other skeletons might reside in their closets. Some pert young Petula Clark wannabe serenading Mickey Hargitay's Crimson Executioner, perhaps? One never knows.

On a similar note, I was surprised earlier this year to receive in the mail a complimentary DVD of an Italian television special called L'ITALIA DEI GENERE which included unused portions of the interview I had granted awhile back to the producers of the Italian Sky TV documentary MARIO BAVA OPERAZIONE PAURA. I had no complaints about the program, except how I looked in it, and was tickled to find my name on the cover, dead-center in a list of famous fellow co-stars, including Clint Eastwood and one of my heroes, Ennio Morricone. Why I mention L'ITALIA DEI GENERE has to do with the program's shock ending: a kinescope from an Italian TV variety program, circa 1958, that showed a bearded Steve Reeves (in Rome to film HERCULES UNCHAINED) walking onstage in a suit and tie and singing "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face"! (No, I am not making this up!) Reeves may have looked like a genuine earthbound god in the Hercules films, but take it from me, he couldn't have carried a tune if it had handles on it. When the song ends, he smiles radiantly as though the job was well-done! The clip ran under the end credits scroll, acknowledging what a weird embarrassment it was, but silly or not, I was stunned by the discovery -- it's the only film footage I know to exist of Reeves in his Hercules prime, speaking in his own voice.

The mind boggles at what other curios must reside in the archives of RAI TV...