Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Love Song For Grayson Capps by Kevin Lynn Helmick

I first met Kevin Lynn Helmick at a Noir at the Bar event where he read from his then latest novel Heartland Gothic. This week, Kevin's latest book The Rain King dropped and you, the hell, should pick it up.

I asked Kevin to contribute a piece to the Narrative Music series and this here... this is it.

A Love Song for Grayson Capps by Kevin Lynn Helmick

It was around 2005, I think when I was scanning the shelves at Blockbuster for a good movie. That was back when they actually had stores, with carpet, and people working, and you would drive there and pick out a few DVD’s and rent them, very similar to a library, only for movies. Most of you probably remember those days.

I found there, a film I’d never heard of called, A Love Song for Bobby Long, starring John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson and Gabriel Macht. I like all those actors, and I liked the description on the back so I took it home, threw a bag of popcorn in the micro and got settled in to take a chance on some film I knew nothing about. I also had no idea at the time that it would last a lot longer than the hour and a half or so that it took to view it.

Just real quick, because this column is not about the film but deserves a little mention. The setting is present day New Orleans, or close enough, where we meet an exiled literary professor from Alabama, Bobby Long (John Travolta) and his young writing protege, Lawson Pines, (Gabriel Macht) as they’ve transplanted themselves in a small run down house owned by an unseen friend/jazz singer named Loraine, and set upon a romantic quest in the tradition Capote and Fitzgerald (and many other classic writers) of drinking themselves and their haunted pasts to death.

Loraine dies at some point (not in the film) and leaves the house not only to these two educated drunkards but also her estranged daughter, Percy (In walks Scarlett Johansson.) Now they are forced to live together for a specific amount of time, (reasons for which are revealed at the end) and they don’t exactly get along, at first.

I love the film, think it’s great, one of Travolta’s best performances in my opinion and Johansson earned herself a Golden Globe Nomination. And as a lover of Southern writing it has remarkable dialogue with more than a few quotes from classic literature peppered in the conversations between Long and Pines as they constantly play the game of, name the author and book.

Now, that’s the film. But the soundtrack is just as good, and one artist in particular, (also in the film, there in the background as a house band) kept getting my attention. He sang several songs, including the one that bears the same title as the film. It plays during the end credits and I kept rewinding to hear it again and again. He sang the story, the somewhat tragic history of this man, Bobby Long, in this deep whisky soaked bluesy back alley growl and accompanied with some most interesting acoustic guitar chords and arrangements I’d ever heard.

MCE Photography, Chad Edwards
I like to think I know good writing when I see it, in this case, heard it. I knew this guy was and has the real deal, and I wanted more of it. So I ran to google and looked him up. His name is Grayson Capps and while I’d never heard of him before that, he’s is no stranger to the, New Orleans, or even the Nashville music scene.

Now if I’ve bored you enough, hang on, this is where it’s gets interesting, for me anyway. I discovered that this guy had been around more than a few blocks, at least in Deep South and has a devoted fan base there and other pockets around the country as well as, the Netherlands. Yes, the Netherlands, and Europe. I thought that was interesting too. Although, it would be great to see him get up to Chicago more, we do like our blues here.

But what’s even more interesting I learned, is that somewhere in his travels he’d taken up a conversation with writer and director Shainee Gabel, who was looking to do film set in New Orleans but had nothing solid. Turns out, not only is Grayson Capps an amazingly talented singer, songwriter, but his dad, Ronald Everett Capps is a novelist. So Grayson slaps down his fathers, then unpublished manuscript, Off Magazine Street, and says’ (I’m paraphrasing of course) “make a movie of this, and I’ll hook ya up with music.”

So she did. It’s a good book too. Not a lot like the film as adaptation go, but I’m not the type to compare film and book. I just don’t see it as the same. 1st cousins maybe, but that’s about it. And that’s one for another conversation altogether. Ronald Everett Capps’ Off Magazine Street, is a fine novel and worth checking out, but don’t expect to be reading the movie.

Anyway, I wanted to see Grayson Capps perform so I started scanning his tour dates and all was in the Deep South or far from Chicago, except 2, twenty miles from my house. Two different venues, way up here and that was all, my only shot without traveling a thousand miles deep into the heart of Dixie. So my wife and I marked the calendar and made it a mission.

It was fucking freezing that night, but we set out anyway for this place called Lovell’s in Lake Forest Illinois. Now, it had not occurred to me what an odd venue Lovell’s would be for a band like Grayson Capps and the, then, Stump Knockers. The place is upscale, way upscale, and not known for having bands at all. Lovell’s is owned by Jim Lovell, an astronaut, a guy who went to the moon and back, presumably. I’ve never met him, so I guess he’s back, he has a restaurant that caters to the very, very, rich.

So here we are, 20 below and we brave out to this place with its $12.00 watered down jack n cokes, where everybody talks like Thurston Howell the 3rd, (no, really, those people really do exist) and there he was, Capps tuning up on a stool, wearing a Canadian tuke kinda hat and a cowboy shirt with a ripped sleeve. I had ordered his CD, If You Knew My Mind, which includes the song, A Love Song for Bobby Long, but it didn’t come before the show, and still hasn’t.

I walked up and introduced myself, and told him how much my wife and I enjoyed his music and my frustration with not having his CD in hand to sign. He shook my hand, and apologized for the missing CD thing, although I’m sure he had nothing to do with it, and offered up a box of his own he brought. I gave him twenty bucks for one, he shoved it in his pocket, and looked up and said, “man, nobody here, knows who I am?” I put a question mark there because it sounded like a question.

“Well, I do,” I said and looked around at the leather and polished oak. “It is kinda weird,” I said, or at least, thought it, at the time.

Either way, there was a big fire roaring to the right of the band and Capps invited us to come up front in these big cushy couches that I’m sure cost more than my truck and we all settled in for what was probably a tamed down performance, but an amazing and memorable music experience just the same.

The guy can craft and sing a fucking song with the best of ‘em, and we were in a little bit of heaven there as they raunch n rolled through the set list.

Set break: Grayson, my wife and I, and few others all piled in a car in the parking lot (to partake in what most musicians might partake in on set break) and talked a bit about the music, books, the movie, and the man, Bobby Long, who is, or was, a real dude, and friend of his and his fathers, just like the song says. I told him, how visual his songs were to me. They’re like stories I could see and feel, stories with interesting characters, flawed characters, dealing with conflicts of life, love and pain, loss and redemption. The good shit.

He said, “yeah, good, that’s what I want.”

One of the last songs of his first set was a comical piece called, Big OlĂ© Woman, that I said reminded me a little of David Allen Coe, and I think he took offense to that and I’m still sorry I said it. I’ve bought all his records since then and Capps, music isn’t anything like Coe’s. It’s a beautiful blend of blues, jazz, rock and folk, and has not only become a favorite listening pastime for me, but my wife and my 14 year aspiring musician son, Sam, as well. Sam plays Grayson’s If You Knew My Mind, CD all the time. I hear it coming from his room often, and he loves the song, Graveyard.

Fast forward 2012: I had wrote a novella the year before, Driving Alone, a Southern Gothic and a tip of the hat to some of my favorite writing, that of the Southern writer, the Faulkner’s and O’Conner’s and Tennessee Williams’. My then publisher wanted to do a book trailer and had asked what music we might use. Well, I thought since the story was set in the Deep South and wreaked of Spanish moss and humidity it should be something swampy, bluesy, and dark. And I thought of Grayson’s music and sent some to that publisher, not even thinking really it was an option. They got a hold of Grayson’s management and through a very reasonable negotiation; one of his songs was put to images for my book trailer.

I sure never saw that coming back in 04.

I would share that book trailer with you, but don’t think I can, contractual shit. Lets’ just say it was best part of the whole experience for me.

Anyway, Capps and I have talked on social media about it a bit, where I’ve thanked him probably an annoying too many times.

But this column, in killing several birds with one stone, is about, a song about a poet/writer, a film, about that poet writer, adapted from a novel, about all the above, and delivered by an artist/poet/writer and troubadour fitting in his own right to bring these multiple vehicles and mediums together, all from a little 3 minutes or so song that I’m sure once you have a listen will be obvious why I’ve chosen this as the subject for this series.

We have music, lyric, literature, and book to film. And I’ve probably exhausted my word count so I won’t post the lyrics for A Love Song for Bobby Long.

I play it for you though. Have a listen at the musical brilliance of Grayson Capps. Buy, Off Magazine Street, by his dad, Ronald Everett Capps. It’s a damn good book. And watch the movie, A Love Song for Bobby Long. It’s a damn good movie too.

Thanks for stopping by.

Kevin Lynn Helmick is the novelist of, Clovis Point, Sebastian Cross, Heartland Gothic, and Driving Alone.  He was born in Fort Madison IA and now lives in the Chain O Lakes, near Chicago IL.
His writing has appeared in Noir at the Bar Volume 2, and The Booked Anthology, and been known to guest blog for emags like, Spintingler, Manarchy, Pornokitch, and Pulp Metal. His award nominated novella, Driving Alone, was re-released with a collection of short stories in the spring of 2014, and in July of the same year, Helmick released his fifth novel, a dark western tale of justice, The Rain King.

All are available anywhere books are sold.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

So Essited

You know what's right around the corner, cats 'n kittens? The Lonesome Go from Tim Lane. This... this is gonna be a big boost to your creative juice come release date. Nothing gets me going like Tim's haunted vision of America - the pictures and the prose are like inky Cialis for my muse. Very much looking forward to ripping into and ripping off more of Tim's work shortly.

And if that kind of thing gets you going too, check out the first offerings of the new Southwest Noir's first publication featuring a collection of illustrated short and very-short stories to be published in the fall 2014 - Volume 1, features texts by James Sallis, Larry Fondation, Barry Graham, Kurt Reichenbaugh, Steve Shadow, Mark Victor Moorhead, Scott McDonald, Jenna Duncan, Andrea Gibbons, Robrt Pela - with Illustrations by Vince Larue. Exactly how badass does this look?

Aaand if you need an introduction to the work of Barry Graham, may I suggest his excellent, The Wrong Way which has a beautiful print version from PM Press's Switchblade line ooooor a brannew ebook version with heeeey that blurb looks familiar!

And y'know what else is gonna be back in print real soon and for the first time in an electonic version? The classic revenge tale Ted Lewis's Get Carter with a forward from the director of the Michael Caine film version, Mike Hodges.

Another ebook reissue you need to know would be Joe Samuel Starnes's Calling from Seriously, if you're planning on attending Noir Con in Philadelphia this fall (which you should) you should make room for this one and be prepared to speak with Joe there.

One more you really gotta get on top of - Kevin Lynn Helmick's The Rain King just out this week. Look for a guest piece from Kevin later this week!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: June

Across 110th Street - Harry Shear - Dressed as cops, a trio of thieves rip off a mob operation and when the job goes bad, kill several gangsters and a couple of actual cops before hitting the streets wearing the $300,000 targets they'll have for the remainder of their short lives. The film follows the frustrated investigating cops led by racially-clashing Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn as well as the pissed off mobsters who're also feeling friction along racial lines in Anthony Franciosa and Richard Ward, on their separate quests for justice and money and all factions trying to claim supremacy of the streets. But the heart of the film is in following the folks stuck in the middle between the gods and kings of the urban jungle, the people driven to the extreme measures of defying their overlords and upsetting the corrupt partnership between them that keep the status quo, by inviting death by deity when they steal all that money. The hapless trio are hunted down one by one bringing zero satisfaction to those who are looking for justice and small measures of restitution to the ones with damaged images. The scenes between Paul Benjamin and Norma Donaldson are all terrific, but for the Best moment: I'm going with Ward facing off with Quinn and Kotto in the middle.

Blood Ties - Guillaume Canut - A remake of the 2008 French film Le liens du sang (Rivals) based on the novel by Michel & Bruno Papet and directed by the original film's star, this is a family drama with James Caan as the dying (single father) patriarch with two sons - Clive Owen as the older, street criminal brother just out of prison and Billy Crudup as the younger, who is a cop. The brothers alternately look out for each other and ruin the other's lives with their actions, tying the family's fate together while ripping at the more organic fabric that they can't escape. Owen's Chris reconnects with his ex (Marion Cotillard), a prostitute whom he has two children with, setting her up as the madam of the brothel he's opening (funded through armed robbery), while concentrating his woos on a girl (Mila Kunis) guaranteed to put them in the running for awkward romantic screen-pairing of the year... maybe the decade. Meanwhile Crudup's Frank busts a blue-collar career criminal family man (Matthias Schoenaerts) back to prison and zeroes in on the attentions of the con's wife (Zoe Saldana) with his heat-seeking boner while taking shit from his cop buddies for letting his un-repentent criminal brother live with him, and feeling very much and very accurately like second favorite to dad. If this sounds like a great, tangled, messy family-drama (let alone crime story) plot - it is. If it sounds like an awful lot to make room for in a two-hour movie - it didn't have to be, but it was. Not sure what elements I would have sacrificed to focus on others, but somehow this felt like too much of a good thing. The cast is impressive (I haven't even mentioned the solid supporting work from Noah Emmerich, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Ventimiglia or the woefully under-used Lili Taylor), the look of the film and its soundtrack are small-scale Scorsese-esque and immense pleasures, and the crime elements are satisfying, but the material is so dense that what should have been a far-more emotionally-invested viewing experience turned out to be one that I was conscious of rooting for and holding out for it all to come together... which I think it did - I liked this movie - but it required me to hang on and hang in more than a masterful take on the material would have. Best moment: armored car heist.

Cheap Thrills - E.L. Katz - On the day that a new father, about to see his family evicted from their small, L.A. apartment, loses his auto-mechanic job, he stops by a bar for a quick, steeling drink before heading home to figure out his life. At the bar he runs into his dodgy high-school pal and agrees to commiserate for one more drink. The two are then drawn into the orbit of an obnoxiously rich couple who throw cash around indiscriminately for the pleasure of its affect on the two pals. Soon, one drink turns into a night of partying that rides the exhilarating/terrifying edge toward riches or doom for the hapless duo. This is one electrifying, sick picture that demands and collects everything from its cast. Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton and the revelatory David Koechner draw our empathy, admiration and repulsion one beat to the next in a razor-sharp allegory for global economic exploitation. Buuuut, don't let the myriad one-to-one metaphoric parallels distract you from the immediate pleasures of this aptly titled morality conundrum because they are many, sweet and tart. The control that first time feature director Katz demonstrates is some veteran-level shit. Watch him squeeze a single scene in three different emotional directions and tease the hell out of your expectations with a sly edit, an unexpected texture, a tonal shift unexpected - yet organic - you only realize later it was swelling beneath surface from the beginning. Fucking loved this movie. Best moment: Healy underbids Embry.

Devil's Knot - Atom Egoyan - As if the 1993 murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas weren't tragedy enough, the town compounded the horror by railroading three slightly older boys into life-sentences in prison and one death sentence. Over the last twenty years The West Memphis Three have been the subject of several documentaries and books, but this is, as far as I know, the first dramatic treatment. Who better to look at this semi-rural crime story involving school children than the director of The Sweet Herafter? I dunno, but... as loaded for emotional impact as the raw materials are, I was happy to have somebody like Egoyan, who never makes loud movies, at the helm. What'd I want? I wasn't looking for a trial procedural or a thriller, but something more interested in the impact that the events had on an entire community. Unfortunately, the film seems to fall somewhere between the two and undercuts the strengths of both types of film. There are some solid performances and the cast is mostly good including Reese Witherspoon and Alessandro Nivola and features some of my favorite character actors working today - Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas and Mireille Enos - but right at the fore of this bunch is Colin Firth doing a mayonnaise flavor of dull acting, as a private investigator with a conscience. I can't lay this all on Firth - the script drove him into a bad neighborhood and then kicked him out of the car armed with nothing but an assortment of constipated looks to throw at the camera - but I will say that seeing him cast in the lead (of any movie) gave me great pause. Dunno how much is his presence and how much is his choice of pictures, but damn... I'm hoping he can take the William Hurt school for bland actors cure and start throwing some curves at us (and I hope Hurt does too - stick to the small, weird shit for a while - play against type). No more liberal crusader pictures more concerned with highlighting an injustice and what a modern day knight might look like than the on-the-ground day-to-day reality that this kind of event levels on the vulnerable, please. Best moment: discovery of the first body - sucks the air out of the room. Wish the rest of the picture had followed suit.

Easy Money: Hard to Kill - Babak Najafi - At the end of Easy Money, the disparate trio of criminals we'd been following had collided pretty spectacularly and with tragic results. The sequel picks up years later as JW (Joel Kinnaman) is being granted leave from his prison stretch to take an important business meeting with his legit partner on the outside, Jorge (Matias Varela) is prospering as an international drug-runner and Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) has made some kind of peace with his life wheelchair bound and imprisoned, working toward an eventual release and reunion with his daughter. But all upward trajectories end right there. Where the first film was a sprawling several-months-long story of the slow intertwining of their destinies, the terribly-titled sequel (hey, let's make everybody think it's a Rodney Dangerfield, Stephen Seagal buddy cop flick!) takes place in a considerably compacted time line and delivers just holy shit an amazing second chapter to what will be a trilogy (look for Easy Money: Life Deluxe to hit English language outlets soon) based on the series of books by Swedish author Jens Lapidus. This is the kind of flick I just can't get enough of - complex circuses of criminality, character and consequence. Best moment: Jorge goes out the window.

Escape From Tomorrow - Randy Moore - A man undergoing the needlessly stressful rite of a family vacation to Disney Land gets a phone call on the last day of his trip informing him that he's been fired from his job. Keeping it a secret so as not to spoil the fun, his day goes wrong in a series of escalating and possibly connected ways. Is he losing his mind, or is there an underage prostitution being run under the noses of the tourists featuring the park's princess employees? Is he being followed by mysterious young women or is he magnetically attracted to them and ready to jettison his family for a fling? Is 'cat flu' something he should be concerned about? Is the picture a paranoid conspiracy thriller or a psychological unraveling set in the happiest place on earth? Whatever the answer, the main reason you'll want to watch this one is for the thrill of the story of its making. This one has such a legend that it overshadows any emotional impact the art achieves (that it was shot at the Disney theme parks without permission with the cast and crew posing as tourists, ducking security and shooting clandestinely - the fact that the film has been distributed at all is quite an achievement). Is that a bad thing? Not really. I love to watch daring flicks that can energize me with their ballsy moves and succeed by simply pulling off a watchable piece of cinema (see Mike Figgis's Time Code, Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi or -maybe- Lars Von Trier's Dogville). Best moment: the 'Small World' ride. Man, I didn't even notice that they weren't using the real song. The original music is just swell and spooky for the scene too.

Fargo: Season 1 - Matt Hawley - Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) begins his journey from hapless schmuck to alpha-male
when he vents to a stranger in the emergency room about wishing he could have a go at the life-long bully whose behavior had necessitated the hospital visit. The stranger turns out to be evil incarnate (Billy Bob Thornton), a killer for hire who works for an organized crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota. The killer takes Lester at his word, tracks down Lester's tormentor and buries a hunting knife in the asshole's head. This is equal parts horrifying and exhilarating to Lester who begins to fumble forward along a path of self-actualization that goes to dark and evil places startlingly quickly. Not since Walter White's demon emerged from behind his mask of middle-class white-guy blandness, has a monster been created so convincingly out of more surprising raw materials. It helps of course that Freeman is playing against fifteen years of type-casting as guileless sweethearts who come through every once in a while with quiet moments of courage from Tim on The Office to Bilbo friggin Baggins in The Hobbit. It helps too that this is a TV event based on source material from The Coen Brothers and not just the namesake film. Yes, the show is set in the Northern Plains, features funny accents and contains some slight nods to the 1996 flick (including one super-awesome-sweet one involving the source of Oliver Platt's fortune), but it seems like the entire Coen oeuvre is being drawn from - ooh, ooh just like in Blood Simple! No Country For Old Men! Burn After Reading! Raising Arizona! and on and on. It might even be leveled as a critique against the show that there are so many nods and in-jokes here, but the world created for 10 episodes (will this be an on-going show like True Detective or American Horror Story with a completely separate second season, or will this simply be a kick-ass mini-series?) is one worth immersing yourself in. The characters go to surprising places and will unexpectedly please and horrify you - for instance, Bob Odenkirk's police chief I was sure would be a one-note joke, but damn if he didn't have a couple amazing character reveals - and the plot never follows the beat blueprints we've been conditioned to expect. Best thing I've seen on TV this year and best ensemble cast since... DeadwoodBest moment: so many... perhaps the blood shower, or the brothers shooting each other with crossbows, Key & Peele bickering through the massacre, ice-hole body disposal, Lester fucking the widow or lending his coat to his wife... or the African refugee story... I can't decide. Every episode has moment of sublime perfection and I can't wait to watch them all again.

Great Train Robbery - Chris Chibnall - A band of career criminals in a bit of a slump determine to turn things around with a ballsy move that pays off far greater than they imagined and will make history. This two-part miniseries was a great idea for true-crime drama - part one follows the criminals planning and executing the heist and part two follows the police investigation and manhunt. The whole thing is pulled off in a very no-frills fashion which is a mostly admirable approach, but I'll confess I ended up craving a bit more cinematic thrill-factor (like part one's opening moments - nice, stylish heist shit) instead of what felt more like a well above average dramatic re-enactment from inside a much longer documentary film. In the end, the most memorable and impressive thing from the whole venture were Jim Broadbent's dead, cold, cop eyes. Even as a villain, he's got a twinkle. Not here, boyo. Hard as granite.  Best moment: Train-driving practice.

The Rock - Michael Bay - The government has been doing bad things - specifically, to its own soldiers - and one life long GI Joe (Ed Harris) has had enough. He's had so much, in fact, that he's stolen some seriously awful naval biological weaponry and is holding the city of San Francisco hostage, from the nearby Alcatraz island, until the gubment forks over the pre-Iraq-invasion astronomical-sounding amount of $100 million - 83% of which is to be given to the families of soldiers whose deaths were covered up. Hyperbole flies - You know the president's stance on terrorism - I am not a terrorist, I'm a patriot - Gen. Hummel is an honorable man - and we're told in a dozen different grave tones that this is a fucking terrible day and the only way to stop the rogue soldiers is to send a SEAL team to the bowels of the former prison with an FBI chemist who can disarm the missiles. The final piece of the solution is a man the government erased from official existence thirty years earlier - the only man ever to successfully escape from Alcatraz to lead the aqua-team-hunger-force through the byzantine sewer system beneath the titular island. Long-defended as the 'good' movie Bay made before he became ridiculous, as well as one of the only good Nicolas Cage action flicks ever, I revisited this one for the first time since the last century and found that... holy shit, it has not aged well. From frame one it's a fire sale on Bay-cliches: the flag-porn and man of honor crap that may've caused an eye-roll or two pre-9-11, but quickly became a fucking frighteningly frequent montage of nationalism used to sell pick-ups and Toby Keith records is... especially hard to take now. And it's big and stupid. The movie, that is. Which I don't mind, but the coat of hard candy ick required to chomp through to get to the goofy chewy fun center was a little more than I was willing to any more. Best moment: Melty-face.

The Yards - James Gray - Leo (Mark Wahlberg) is just out of prison for stealing cars and hooked up by his best friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) with a job working for Frank (James Caan) who contracts with the city for repairs to the subway cars. Willie's certainly come up in the world while Leo was inside and tho he wants to get serious, grow up and stay straight, Leo also wants to be making some decent scratch and goes along with Willie on one of the illegal nocturnal drumming up of business runs that Willie's crew go out on wherein they vandalize subway cars in the shipping yards. There's anti-corruption hoo-ha happening due to the elections and the guard who usually looks the other way for a fee unexpectedly does his job and ends up dead, leading to police investigations into Frank's crew. Who will end up on the suspect short-list? Who will remain loyal to his friends? The chief pleasure of James Gray films is the atmosphere - the majestic decay of the city, the warmth of the character's relationships especially when expressed in community gatherings (the welcome home party here, the wedding in We Own the Night, the dinner in Two Lovers, the bath house in The Immigrant) and the somber daily working out of criminal pursuits including the very workmanlike executions of those jobs, and The Yards has all that, if not much else, going for it. Like a lot of my favorite film noirs, it's a flick that I enjoy getting lost in from time to time, but have only watched all the way through twice. His films are full of details I'll remember - almost none of them concerning plot. Best moment: the welcome home party. Tip for film making magic: make Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway the family matrons and just step back.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Down the River: Guest Piece by Kent Gowran

Kent Gowran knows his shit. Pulp fiction, many musics, crime and horror film. Plus parking in Chicago. Knows his shit. So, I hit him up for another piece for the Narrative Music series. Kent hit back with this piece. Check out Kent's fiction in spots like this... Meanwhile, listen up when KG talks tunes.

Down The River

In the right hands, narrative songs are as powerful as any story, novel, or movie you’d care to name.  A major contender for consistently great narrative songwriting would have to be Tom Russell, and, at first, when Jed asked me if I’d be interested in writing something about a narrative song for his blog, I intended to write about a Russell song. And while Russell does have dozens of tunes worthy of writing about, that almost seemed like too obvious a choice. So I worked up a list of songs I’d like to yammer about (truth be told, I cold talk about music all day long and never run out of worthy tunes to keep my mouth running), and as I came up with the list, a dark horse came around the bend and my choice was made.

Chris Knight has been releasing good, sometimes great, albums for a number of years now.  For his second album, A Pretty Good Guy, he teamed with producer (a former Georgia Satellite and current Yayhoo) Dan Baird and delivered a batch of songs that far surpassed the Mellencamp meets Earle by way of Kentucky sound of his eponymous debut.  I remember the first time I listened to the album, I got to the end of the sixth track, “Down The River”, and had to go back to the beginning of the song to hear it again.

The nameless narrator of the song tells the story of the murder of his brother and his own brooding, and ultimately empty, path to revenge.  One thing which strikes me as so impressive about this song is how Knight manages to tell a story, a fully realized and pitch black tale, in just under seven minutes, a story that perhaps the sharpest of prose writers could tell in a long short story but most would feel the need to stretch into novel length.  We’re told that the narrator’s brother Walter has been in a fight with a man named Wilson.  And in a brilliant bit of songwriting, Knight tells us everything we need to know about this guy Wilson…

They said you don’t mess with Wilson unless you want a war…

Wilson kills Walter and the body is never found.  The death is declared a drowning, but Wilson, as you’d imagine a guy like him would, brags about what he’s done.  Our narrator then sets out to make things right.

The violence is quick and final.  Our narrator, his song an interior monologue, tells of disposing Wilson’s body and his own retreat into isolation.  Five years go by, and our narrator can’t seem to move on.  As the song winds down, he tells us he’s not done, Walter’s death is with him daily, blood still calling for blood, and Wilson’s cousin is living on borrowed time.

It’s a beautiful and haunting song, and the kind of story that sticks with you long after you’ve heard it.  Knight has named writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay as influences, and, listening to his albums, that’s not just a bit of hip name check action.  With the best of his songs, his got that same narrative punch of the best writers, the hit that you feel in your bones, it makes you react, makes you think, makes you listen to the song again.

I was eighteen
my brother was twenty-one
one Saturday evening
when all the work was done
we went down to the river,
had some trotlines to run

my brother Walter
had a fight the week before
knocked a boy named Wilson
through the pool hall door
they said you don't mess with Wilson
unless you want a war

we put the boat in the water,
I made the engine run
loaded the lantern
against the sinking sun
and my brother Walter
was loading his gun
and we went down the river

down past the coal docks
we were running our lines
heard some drunken boaters
racing up behind
it was Wilson and his cousin,
they had trouble on their minds

they passed on by us,
probably going to tend their pots
we headed up the river
with the fish we'd caught
but before we made the landing,
I thought I heard a shot
back down the river

my brother Walter fell over the side
I couldn't find him no matter how I tried
and looked along the bank
but I couldn't find where they'd hide

they drug the river,
they searched it up and down
couldn't find his body
so they decided that he'd drowned
but I knew better
and Wilson bragged around town

so one night I floated down
right above Wilson’s shack
I hid in the woods
'til I saw him walk out back
I put a bullet in his head
and dropped him in his tracks
and we went down the river

down below the trestle
where the water runs slow
I chained him to an anvil
and then I let him go
and five years later
I ain't told a soul

and I ain't done much fishing,
I hardly wet a line
the death of my brother
is still heavy on my mind
I’ve been thinking Wilson’s cousin
better find a place to hide
cause I’m going down the river
yeah I’m going down the river

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Falling Behind

Kill the Messenger - d: Michael Cuesta w: Peter Landesman, Gary Webb, Nick Schou

A Walk Among the Tombstones - d: Scott Frank w: Lawrence Block, Scott Frank

Foxcatcher - d: Bennett Miller w: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

The Kill Team - d: Dan Krauss

Monday, June 30, 2014

CriMemoir: Mike Monson

Mike Monson's latest novella,  The Scent of New Death is out now from Gutter Books, and you know (or you should, anyhow) that anything those folks apply their brand to is gonna be some righteous slice of hardboiled criminal kablooey. I asked Mike for a CriMemoir piece and it turns out, he comes from a criminal background his own self... checkerout:

CriMemoir by Mike Monson

I used to be a thief.

It feels weird to say it now, but it is certainly true. From 1974 to 1977, I stole thousands of dollars from the cash registers of about a half dozen of my employers.

In a way, I blame my older brother Chris. Once, when I visited him at his job at Me-n-Ed’s Pizza in Long Beach, he showed me his technique. A customer came up and bought a pitcher of beer. Chris gave the man his beer and opened up the register and handed him his change. Then, in his head, he added the price of the beer to a running total.

While the transaction looked normal, Chris did not actually ring up the sale, he simply pushed the ‘cash’ button, which opened the drawer (this was back when cash registers were not digital, I doubt this method would work now). He did this periodically throughout each shift until he got up to around 40 or 50 dollars. At the same time he continuously palmed paper money and stuffed it into his pocket until he had the same amount. Chris did this for years and never once got caught.

At that time he was studying philosophy and lived in a big old Craftsmen bungalow with four or five ever-changing roommates. I loved hanging out there, and, while I was still attending high school in a spiffy Orange County suburb, I’d often spend the weekends at the house. It was all about smoking weed and eating little white pills full of speed and drinking cheap wine and listening to Led Zeppelin and James Taylor and Crosby Stills and Nash, and talking. Talking about the horrible Vietnam War, talking about whatever philosopher was popular with them that week, and talking about The Man, and how to stick it to same.

Chris and his roommates all hated The Man and they all expected to participate in the coming revolution. In this world stealing wasn’t seen as immoral or wrong, but as a revolutionary act.

One of the roommates drove a truck part time for a large supermarket chain. He had keys to the back doors of the local stores, and every couple of weeks he’d visit one in the middle of the night. He’d park his car back at the loading dock, go inside and grab whatever groceries he wanted, and bring it all back for everyone at the house. This was known as ‘liberating’ the groceries, not stealing. I don’t think he ever got caught either.

Soon after high school I moved in with my girlfriend and began attending college intermittently while working one horrible job after another. It wasn’t long before I tried to emulate my big brother.

I worked at a busy combination Chevron station and car wash called The Bubble Machine. If a customer got a fill-up, the do-it-yourself ride-along car wash was free. But, if you only wanted a car wash, it was a buck fifty. So, I started not ringing those up and taking the cash. I’m not sure, but I think I got away with about 20 dollars a day. Give or take. I also told a couple of my co-workers about it and they started doing it too. Until we got caught.

The Bubble Machine was a chain and had enough money to hire a private investigation firm to help them combat employee thefts. Apparently, there was a plastic wand at the beginning of the car wash that counted the cars that came through. By counting up all the free car washes and subtracting that number from the total cars getting washed, and analyzing the daily receipts, it was clear that a lot of money from the ‘car wash only’ customers was not making it into register.

All of us were sent to the PI office in downtown Long Beach for an interview and a lie detector test. I confessed right away so there was no point in hooking me up to the lie detector. The private eye and the Bubble Machine district manager grilled me for a while: how much did you take, how did you do it, who else is stealing?

I lied. Told them I’d just started and had only gotten about $50. I told them I had no idea any one else was stealing. I was ashamed and embarrassed and could feel myself blushing as I fought back tears.
Amazingly, they didn’t fire me. They got me to promise I’d never do it again, and made arrangements to take the money I’d admitted to stealing out of my next several pay checks. That was it.

About two years later I became the Assistant Manager of a Pizza Hut in Orange County. My girlfriend and I had broken up and I was living alone in an apartment in Anaheim. I was crazy about women and sex and beer and pot and LSD and live music and had an insatiable appetite.

As the Assistant Manager, I was in charge of the store at night. The regular Manager was always gone way before five p.m. and never came in during the evening shift. He trusted me to close out the register at night, do the books, and make the cash drop into the safe.

For about six months I had the time of my life. I took out as many women as I could talk into it and I always had plenty of money for drinks and drugs and the gas to go into Hollywood with my dates to hang out and listen to music at The Whisky, the Starwood, and The Troubadour. For a guy making 600 dollars a month, I never seemed to run out of money.

That’s because I was stealing from Pizza Hut. A lot.

It was a long time ago and much of the memory is vague, but I’m pretty sure I skimmed about $200 per night using my brother’s method. In a way I had it easier, because I could just sit by myself in the office and know exactly how much wasn’t rung up and exactly how much to take out of the drop and put into my pockets. I didn’t have to palm money throughout the shift and risk getting spotted.

One day I came in to work to relieve the manager and take over for the night. He took me out to one of the tables for a talk. He looked very serious and very sad. A basic analysis of food cost versus receipts had showed that someone was taking money from the store. A lot of money. It wasn’t him, of course, so it had to be me. I was fired.

The amazing thing is that I wasn’t arrested. I mean, come on, I’d stolen thousands of dollars. I didn’t even have to admit that I’d done it. He told me they wouldn’t fight it if I filed an unemployment claim, they would say that I was laid off. I just had to leave right then and never come back.

A couple of days later I got a job at another pizza parlor. This place was a former Shakey’s Pizza that had been bought by a local man after he’d retired as an engineer. It was a large busy place with a huge menu. He sold a large variety of bottled beer as well as draft Miller, Coors, and Bud.

Early in the morning of my first day I went to see a therapist at a County mental health clinic. I missed my old girlfriend and was depressed about that and I was feeling ashamed about what I’d done at Pizza Hut. My counselor was an intern just beginning to take on clients in order to get the hours needed for his license. For some reason, he decided to have me lay down and do some yoga-style visualization exercises. He identified all my ‘chakras’ or energy centers (bottom of spine, belly, chest, throat, forehead, crown, etc). He had me imagine that rising up from each chakra were golden lights that joined together as one bright light above my body before flowing up into the sky.

When we finished I was in a great mood.  I felt powerful, joyous, and invincible. I walked into the pizza parlor kitchen in the middle of the lunch rush. The owner’s early-20s son was in charge. I’d been warned about him, that he could be an arrogant and cruel sonofabitch.

Still feeling magical, I jumped in to help and the dude said something mean to me. So I hit him. My blow glanced off the top of his head and I don’t think it hurt him at all. He tried to tackle me right next to the pizza ovens. We ended up throwing punches and wrestling around until his dad luckily showed up.

I wasn’t fired. In fact, I became an instant hero to all my new co-workers. Even the owner respected me because he knew what a prick his son could be. I ended up working there for nearly three years.
I never stole cash again. Plus, lucky for me, the draft beer was free to employees. As long as we didn’t steal bottled beer we could have all the beer in the kegs—no limit. He paid a lot of money for beer in bottles, so he couldn’t afford to give that stuff away. But, draft beer set him back only a nickel or a dime a glass. “You guys are all going to steal my beer anyway,” the owner explained. “This way, I can at least keep the losses to a minimum.”

Mike Monson is the author of The Scent of New Death, Criminal Love, and What Happens in Reno. Mike is also associate editor of the quarterly crime journal All Due Respect. He lives in Kona, Hawaii. Check in with him here.

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014 in Crime Flicks: May

Art of the Steal - Jonathan Sobol - Upon his release from prison Crunch Calhoun's motorcycle daredevil gig is teetering atop his last aging legs and desperate to put something substantial together for his golden years he gets his rag-tag group of international art thieves get back together for a big score. What follows might taste like warmed over Ocean's 11 by way of Snatch, but it's got that thing right there in the middle that I'm a sucker for- Kurt Russell. It's a shell game of cons and double-reverses set in a universe populated with paper-thin stock characters that, never-the-less may just hold your attention for its modest running time. Fun, but I had to get drunk to do it, and I didn't particularly respect myself in the morning. Best moment: the look on Crunch's face as he makes the decision to take a fall.

The Aura - Fabian Bielinsky - Esteban lives deep inside his own head. He's either seeing to details that only he can appreciate in his day job as a taxidermist or he's meticulously planning heists in his hobby as a master criminal. Only Esteban is all intellect and zero follow through. He doesn't get his hands dirty, he only thinks up the way it ought to go - until... - Esteban ends up with a dead thief on his hands and decides to assume the man's place in a dodgy heist where things are bound to get a lot more bloody than he's used to. Oh, he's also an epileptic. This one is an exercise in mood and tone and texture, much more atmospheric and deliberately paced than Bielinsky's rollicking con-man pic Nine Queens, but lucky for me, it's an atmosphere I prefer to breathe. The tension is slow-building and not a hell of a lot happens before... well, before it all happens, but it's a pleasure getting there and Ricardo Darin has a pretty great face to tell stories with. Best moment: Making eye contact with the wolf - perfectly executed moment of Lynchian deep creeps.

Bad Country - Chris Brinker - Bud Carter, a Baton Rouge cop, stumbles onto the biggest arrest of his career when he nabs a mob contract killer named Jesse Weiland on an unrelated charge. After Weiland's family is threatened by his employers, he works with Carter to take down the syndication. Shit blows up. People die. Actually this flick, based on a true story and featuring the best mustaches since The Iceman and another strong Willem Dafoe performance after last year's Out of the Furnace, has a lot going for it: setting, performances from Dafoe and Matt Dillon up front and an appropriate sense of scale. It did itself absolutely no favors in marketing by reminding us that the director produced the awful Boondock Saints movies, and I was looking forward to Brinker having the chance to atone for that shit (which he halfway does here), but his long journey to redemption was cut short by his untimely death days before principle photography wrapped on this, his directorial debut. So, I'm not sure what to make of his vision. Alongside the solid aspects of the film, it also suffers from a few mis-steps: an over-actiony climax, a bizarre anachronism or two (the film takes place in the early 80s, so what's with the nu-metal on the radio?) and an unfortunate stray line of dialogue or three. Solid B-, but I'd like to have seen more fare in the same vein from Brinker - clearly he had some similar interests. Best moment: Bud buys diamonds.

Blue Ruin - Jeremy Saulnier - Dwight, a homeless, but seemingly carefree beach bum has his world turned upside down when he receives news that a particular man is being released from prison - end of beach life. Suddenly, Dwight is a man of action and as each new scene reveals, he's a man with a plan that he's been patiently waiting out. He follows the newly released convict and his family a short ways away and clearly intends to do the newly freed harm, but after that... who knows? Dwight's plans don't seem to extend beyond the violent act itself and what's in store for the audience is a hell of an artfully delivered, white-knuckle thriller. Holy shit. Just kapow. Wham, bam and waaaaaait for it... waaaaaaaait for it... shazam. To knock this one out of the number one film of the year spot is going to take something fuuuuuuuuuucking special (but holy crap there's some gud shit due soon). My first reaction to this piece of bloody Americana was to shoe-horn it into a couple of complimentarily-intended comparisons, like it was some kind of derivation of greater works, I think I called it Blood Simple by way of Shotgun Stories, but I rather regret even saying that now, as the film is its own thing and deserves to be encountered on its own terms. And those terms can be located within the voice of a bold and ridiculously assured film maker just beginning to speak. Best moment: buying guns from an old high school pal.

Easy Money - Daniel Espinosa - A hustler chasing the good life in the world of high-stakes finance, a recently-rabbited convict and a hit man/single-father cross paths and purposes in this elegantly complex and admirably gritty thriller from the director of (one of my favorites from a couple years back, Safe House). It's the first in a trilogy of adaptations of the Snabba Cash novels by Jens Lapidus. and if it's any indication of the quality of the films to come, this is going to be a badass crime saga for the decade. Kinda like a James Ellroy criminal underworld going through a non-comedic version of Guy Ritchie debacle - everybody's got a plan, everybody's got a good reason for what they're doing, everybody's competent, but nobody's too cool or invincible and the deck is stacked against happy endings for any of them and the film is harsh enough to have you fearing the fates of a cast of well-drawn characters you're going to be switching up loyalties betwixt. Damn, I wish we could expect this level of treatment of crime flicks in the US, but sadly... no. Typically, those of us who get off on this type of adult fare have got to seek satisfaction from other parts of the world. Happily, it's more and more available these days. Best moment: confluence of criminality. Hell of a finale.

Freedomland - Joe Roth - Julianne Moore stumbles bloodied and hysterical into an emergency room saying that she's been attacked  and had her car stolen with her son asleep in the back seat. Samuel L. Jackson is the responding detective and finds himself in for a long fucking week. Turns out, the woman is sister to one of the top (white) cops on the other side of town, making the missing kid his nephew and the investigation his priority. Add to that the racial element. White kid disappears in a black neighborhood and the cops shut the projects down to comb the area - forcibly detaining residents and interrupting the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of citizens when black kids disappear all the time without anybody seeming to notice. Riots loom. Professional disaster looms. Personal integrity isn't popular. It's a hot pot of shit, but Jackson's Det. Council steps up to keep stirring it and keep it from boiling over. When Michael Winterbottom dropped off the project (with a screenplay by Richard Price and adapted from his own novel) it was up to the guy who directed Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise to stand in the gap and maybe just get out of the way for some damn fine work by Jackson and a great supporting cast including William Forsythe, Edie Falco, Clark Peters, Anthony Mackie and Ron Eldard. I recall noting the film's box office was disappointing and the critical reaction was pretty luke-warm, which dammit... I shouldn't be paying attention to - duh, but even though I dig Price (tho, I've not read his book) I'd somehow put this one off, and that's a damn shame. Particularly because this is as engaged as I've seen Sam Jackson in a long damn time. And as good as he is phoning it in, it's a whole other thing when he means it. Is it the great forgotten film of the decade? I don't think so, but it does a great job of heaping a bunch of plausible shit on the back of a man of his time and watching the way it sorts out. It's yeah, solid. Mostly, it left me wanting so hard a Sam Jackson, Will Forsythe cop drama on TV with a big dose of Edie Falco to boot. Yeah, that's the shit I want to see. Best moment: Council visits his son.

A Hijacking - Tobias Lindholm - A Danish cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates and this film follows the lives of the hostage crew as well as the head of the company that employs them and owns the boat as they negotiate a resolution over the course of many weeks. It's pretty tense. Just a bunch of real people in a terrible, no-win situation. Am I selling you on this? It's quite good, but I dunno what else to say... It's a bit hard to watch at times, but not overdone, not a big manipulative climax orchestrated to wring a lotta tears or make you wanna break stuff, just steady, assured, observational film making that puts the viewer through some awfully effective tension. Best moment: everybody sings 'happy birthday'.

Lakeview Terrace - Neal LaBute - A racially mixed couple moves into the titular affluent L.A. suburb in 2008 and are harassed and intimidated by a neighbor who happens to be a cop and doesn't appreciate them parading their lifestyle in front of his impressionable children - he's worked hard to give them a proper upbringing and all. The twist? The cop is black. When you're going to chose a racially-charged provocative flick starring Samuel L. Jackson to spend an evening with, do you go with the one directed by the celebrated button-pushing playwright responsible for sucking the air out of the room with fare like In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors and Nurse Betty or maybe the guy who made Christmas With the Kranks? Friends... this time, go with the Kranks helmer Joe Roth's Freedomland, 'cause this one was cringe-inducing, but for all the wrong reasons. Best moment: is actually hilariously bad - when the couple meets with her father who advises them to sell their 'starter home' and move. Folks, it's a niiiice fucking house in L.A. with a pool and shit and perhaps that was intentionally in there to insult Jackson's cop character's life of hard work and dedication to his kids as a single father, that this couple's starter home was in the same neighborhood as the end of his rainbow, but... it felt more like a mis-step and a pretty tone-deaf one at that.

Let the Fire Burn - Jason Osder - Documentary about the brewing confrontation between the city of Philadelphia and the MOVE, er movement members and the tragic 1985 standoff that ended in a big body-count and devastating loss of a community as an entire neighborhood burns to the ground. The film is constructed entirely of original footage taken by news and police cameras as well as the original testimonies delivered in court by the survivors, participants and witnesses and if it doesn't get you worked up, perhaps the fact that, regardless your view of the way things were handled, a group of American citizens were publicly burned to death by government officials in the heart of a major metropolitan area only 30 years ago and this might be the first time you've even heard about it (I'd never heard of MOVE or this tragedy before), well that oughtta. A lot to chew on here. Clearly the MOVE folks had every reason to fear for their lives, and clearly the city of Philadelphia had a responsibility to address the group on behalf of their harassed citizens and certainly to look into the welfare of the children being raised on the compound, but what a fucking shame that it came to this, and how scary to watch and think... it would probably go down exactly the same way today. Best moment: Birdie's escape.

Pulp - Mike Hodges - Michael Caine is a very successful if not terribly respected writer of many genres of pulp fiction under a slew of hilarious pseudonyms. He's contracted by an anonymous celebrity (who turns out to be a flamboyant movie star with alleged ties to organized crime, played by Mickey Rooney) to ghost-write his biography. Upon accepting the vague, but lucrative, offer he goes to Malta to meet his mystery employer and after a case of mistaken identity, finds himself enmeshed in a plots sillier and seedier than anything he ever wrote under the name S. Odomy. Writer/director Hodges makes films to his very own very precise internal metronome and as much as I love Get Carter and enjoyed A Prayer for the Dying and Croupier, it's not unusual for me to feel a bit on the outside looking in at what certainly appears to be great party that I seem to have lost my invitation to. I think his films generally work even when I'm beguiled (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead) or befuddled (Flash Gordon) by them... I just can't say why. Pulp is among his more interesting works and one I'd like to revisit, but even though I laughed at appropriate times, I was left with the distinct impression I was not in on a lot of the jokes and not in step with the rhythms of the film maker. Best moment: Al Lettieri exits the shower.

Revenge - Tony Scott - Hot shit Navy pilot Cochran (Kevin Costner) retires with no particular plans for his future other than hanging out on the Mexican ranch of a rich benefactor who's life he once saved. Said benefactor is a powerful criminal and married to a foxy lady, thirty years his junior. Hijinks ensue! Generic plot, sure, but there's an atmosphere of hazy, Scottian cool hovering over the whole thing. Add to that the Jim Harrison source material and the nicely small-scale of it all, and it's always been a picture I could disappear happily into. Been a long time since I'd watched it and frankly, it doesn't hold up quite as well as I wanted it to, but I still enjoy the second half of the picture, especially when James Gammon shows up. Best moment: Miguel Ferrer takes off his mask.