In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Duke Haney takes a unique and insightful view into Hollywood past in Death Valley Superstars’ essays.
Jonathan Evison wrote of the book:
“A kaleidoscopic investigation of American pop culture and cinema, at turns dark, intimate, and hilarious.”
I began Death Valley Superstars without intending to begin it. I had been contributing essays, some of them film-related, to The Nervous Breakdown, Brad Listi’s online magazine, and Brad suggested that I put together an essay collection devoted exclusively to film and Los Angeles, knowing I had worked as an actor and screenwriter for the majority of my adult life. (Brad’s imprint, TNB Books, had published my previous essay collection, Subversia, which had no unifying theme.) I resisted the idea initially. Such a book would suit a writer in the mold of, say, Dominick Dunne, not me; but I was getting nowhere with a follow-up to my first (and, to date, sole) novel, Banned for Life, and eventually I thought, Oh, what the hell; I can bang out a nonfiction collection in a couple of years and return, refreshed, to fiction.
That turned out to be six years, so whatever else may be said of Death Valley Superstars, it certainly wasn’t banged out. I don’t regard it as a book about “old Hollywood” and “faded celebrity” as some do and will; the era it covers most is the sixties, after old Hollywood ended, and most of its subjects were rebels, whether quietly or violently so, and that drew me to them far more than their celebrity. My own story serves as the book’s through-line or spine—actors tend to use the first expression, writers the second—and I sequenced the essays with that in mind. These notes were sequenced with sound in mind, so that if someone were to actually compile a playlist based on them, the songs won’t (hopefully) transition too jarringly from one to the next, despite their disparate genres and subgenres.
“Burn Hollywood Burn” by Public Enemy
I’m not uniformly anti-Hollywood—a lot of great movies were made under the old studio system, just as a lot of great movies were made in the seventies, after the studio system collapsed—but I deplore the Hollywood of the last two decades or so, with its CGI blockbusters that, though few recognize or anyway acknowledge it, greased the path for today’s idiocracy. Hollywood has lost and will continue to lose its cultural supremacy now that youth prefers gadgets and gaming to movies and television, so destruction by fire, a la Public Enemy’s cri de guerre, is superfluous: apathy will deliver the coup de grâce.
“Playboy’s Theme” by Cy Coleman with Orchestra
“Playboy in the Dark,” my piece about Hugh Hefner and the moribund media empire he founded, came about by default. I wanted to profile Victoria Vetri, Playboy’s 1968 Playmate of the Year and a B-movie queen who was incarcerated for shooting her husband, but she didn’t respond to my interview request, and I had spent months researching Playboy history and was struck by the profound influence of movies on Hefner, the slant of “Playboy in the Dark.” The title derives from Playboy After Dark, one of two TV variety shows Hefner hosted stiffly in the sixties, both with a cocktail-party format—guest stars would perform “spontaneously” for comely extras in evening attire—and both featuring this lush, seductive jazz confection as their intro and outro music.
“All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain” by Alex Chilton
Death Valley Superstars opens with “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” which, in tracing my love of movies from childhood to adulthood, lingers in adolescence, when movies kept me relatively sane—I was a pariah at school and my relationship with my parents was, to say the least, strained. A number of my subjects had strained relationships with one or both parents, from Lee Harvey Oswald, about whom I write from a cinema-centric perspective, to Mark Frechette, who robbed a bank after starring in Antonioni’s only American film, Zabriskie Point. The “them” of this delicate neo-folk song may be the parents of Alex Chilton, who recorded it when he was a rock & roll has-been at nineteen—and that’s a perfect segue to the next song, my favorite on the list.
“We’ve Been Had” by the Walkmen
See me now age nineteen, Hamilton Leithauser sings over a jangle-piano riff, with some dumb haircut from 1960, moving to New York City. Like Leithauser’s narrator, I moved to New York almost as soon as I was done with high school, though I adopted some dumb haircut from 1960 after arriving. The narrator doesn’t care much for the go-go or the retro image, but I was in love with the retro and aimed to become an actor per the holy trinity of postwar Method avatars: Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift. I don’t write about any of them at length in the book, but I describe my teenage encounter with Elizabeth Taylor, who worked with all three.
“Pictures of You” by the Cure
Another Elizabeth figures in “The Phantom of the Public Theater.” Elizabeth McGovern was possibly the hottest young actress in America when I decided that sparks might fly if only I could meet her. By the time I finally did, in a sense, meet her, I was beginning to have some career success, yet I hadn’t quite outgrown puerile fantasies based on screen images, or to quote Robert Smith here: I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you that I almost believe they’re real. The meeting, as might be surmised, did not go according to desire.
“Welcome to the Boomtown” by David & David
In my first few months in Los Angeles, when I listened often to this wailing communiqué from hell, I hardly noticed its drug references; I thought the song was about a type of lost soul specific to L.A., as well as a specific kind of L.A. eccentric. I write about such an eccentric in a piece titled “The Purple Lady Sends Her Regards,” which also concerns the gentrification, a recurring theme in Death Valley Superstars. The soul of New York has already been gutted by sky-high rents and the proliferation of philistine careerists, and L.A. is fast losing what soul it ever possessed.
“Man with a Gun” by Jerry Harrison
With its drum machine and moody synthesizer, “Many with a Gun” sounds like so many records of the eighties, yet it holds up better than most. Like “Welcome to the Boomtown,” I listened to it on repeat in my early days in L.A., when I was writing a screenplay for “King of the Bs” Roger Corman. I wrote at least nine movies for Roger and acted in a few of them, including the one I detail in “You Will Become Short of Breath,” but the main topic of that piece is nudity—mine, alas, onscreen.
“Love Is Here to Stay” by Frank Sinatra
Champagne and Sinatra LPs were musts for Marilyn Monroe’s modeling sessions, and partly because there’s an essay about her in the book, this moonlight-and-magnolias tune is on the list. Then, too, it’s here as a token of the postwar era. The second longest piece in the book is about Steve Cochran, a scandal-plagued movie star of the postwar era, remembered now mostly by fans of film noir. An anecdote that helps to explain why I was impelled to profile Steve Cochran: while naked at a New Year’s Eve bacchanalia, he clobbered an interloper with a softball bat.
“What’s Happening?!?!” by the Byrds
Another lengthy piece concerns a séance that I organized at Jim Morrison’s former residence in West Hollywood, hiring a psychic medium who claimed to have contacted Morrison in the great beyond. Everybody knows the Doors’ music, while relatively few know this psychedelic gem by the Byrds, monarchs of the Sunset Strip when the Doors came on the scene. The punctuation of the song’s title as well as its lyrics—I don’t know what’s going on here / I don’t know how it’s supposed to be—convey the confusion and spiritual yearning of the sixties, which inform so much of the book’s background.
“Sean Flynn” by the Clash
Sean Flynn was the dashing son of the legendary Errol Flynn, and discovered by Hollywood at his father’s funeral in 1959. He subsequently made a few movies, but, never much interested in acting, he became a photojournalist and disappeared in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. I was moved to write about Sean after an odd encounter with someone who knew him—we met in the basement of the L.A. courthouse, where I was researching Steve Cochran—and clearly the Clash were as intrigued by Sean’s story as I was, though they handle it elliptically in their opium-dream tribute to him.
“I’ll Never Say Never to Always” by the Manson Family
The Manson Family recorded, as far as I know, three versions of this song. The briefest sounds like a schoolgirl chant sung a capella in a haunted convent. The one I have in mind, a minute and twenty seconds long, is on the Family Jams album, with Manson’s girls accompanied by one of his male minions, later convicted of stabbing a Family associate to death. The Manson case figures in a piece about Christopher Jones, an ascendant star who cracked up after Sharon Tate was murdered, claiming to have had an affair with her months earlier, and was often seen, bedraggled and incoherent, on the Sunset Strip for a while afterward.
“Emma” by Hot Chocolate
A rare radio hit about suicide, its eponymous character had a face like an angel, so that when she said she’d be a movie queen, nobody laughed. Stardom eluded her, however, and she offed herself in despair, evidently by sleeping pills, since she was found lying still and cold upon the bed—a circumstance reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s mortal overdose, though it’s unclear whether Monroe took her life intentionally or accidentally. The deaths and near-deaths of a number of my subjects are similarly ambiguous, and to the extent that Hollywood was the catalyst, “Emma” is here as an emblem of them.
“Thank You (Fallentine Me Be Mice Elf Again)” by Sly and the Family Stone
Friends of mine had read that Sly Stone was broke and living in an RV in South-Central L.A., and they asked me to accompany them on a day-long search for the RV, hoping for an audience with Sly. This song, arguably Sly’s funkadelicious best, specifically inspired the search: one of my friends was obsessed with it. Whether the search was successful would depend on the definition of success, but I jotted notes about everything that occurred that day and decided eventually to write an account of it.
“Jerry’s Video Store” by the Grabs
Nigel Harrison of Blondie was or is a member of the Grabs, so it isn’t surprising that “Jerry’s Video Store” sounds a little like Blondie. It’s half spoken and half sung by Eleni Mandell, who was apparently, like me, a regular at Jerry’s Reruns, an offbeat video store in Los Feliz, and as sorry to see it close as I was. I decided early that I would eulogize the store in Death Valley Superstars, but it took me a long time to work out an approach. Unfortunately Jerry didn’t read it, having died a few months earlier, so I’ll never know whether he would have appreciated it as much as he was touched by Eleni Mandell’s memorial—I learned of it from him.
“Dine Alone” by Quicksand
Originally I planned to conclude the book with “Hello Stranger,” a short essay about my growing disenchantment with L.A. and transition from screenwriter to novelist, in part because I liked the notion of an ending that began with “Hello.” Ultimately I went with a different conclusion, one with “The End” in its title. In any case, I was besotted with the Fugaziesque “Dine Alone” during the “Hello Stranger” period, when I rediscovered the kind of heavy music I loved in my early teens; and that love would lead me to write a 400-page novel that concludes with the protagonist leaving L.A., a cage oddly difficult to escape, despite its wide-open door.
“Drink Deep” by Rites of Spring
Rites of Spring are the punk equivalent of a dazzling but fleeting film star: they left behind little, but that little is finally a lot. Why do I chase when all I want is near? the narrator of “Drink Deep” wonders, a question so many Hollywood aspirants must have pondered. Perhaps, like the narrator, they believe in moments / Transparent moments / Moments in grace / When you’ve got to stake your faith. It takes guts to forgo domestic comforts in the pursuit of a dream, and if the dream proves disappointing, even dire, when attained, I would say its legacy outweighs the cost, since life without transparent moments, in image or in song, is no life at all.
Duke Haney and Death Valley Superstars links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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