29 July, 2010

Chandleresque

Introduction:
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I'm an ex-teacher. I now work at the office of the Victorian state authority in charge of regulating the teaching profession. It's not a bad spot.Teachers have to pay $70 per year to be registered so to say we're about as popular as a Jap on ANZAC Day with some of our constituents is putting it mildly.
Every so often, staff organize lunchtime seminars on topics of general interest. A guest speaker will come in and talk and answer quesions for about 45 minutes. They've all been very entertaining. At one of these lunchtime seminars earlier this year, the guest speaker was writer Shane Maloney. He's published quite a bit of crime fiction and it's very good. He told us that he'd been influenced by writers like Hammett, and Chandler and Peter Corris in building a distinctive style that was of Melbourne's milieu, and he's right, you do get that feeling from his books.
What happened was, Shane Maloney arrived a little late on this particularly hot day. He apologised and then told us a bit about himself. His wife was a teacher so he understood us. We were in the extortion racket, he said. Pretty funny guy. And he'd been Cultural Director of Melbourne's 1996 Olympic bid. Somebody may have organized hookers, but it certainly wasn't him.

Anyway, there's a staff newsletter that goes out once a week and I put together a review of Shane's visit. Being something of a Chandler afficionado I thought I'd have some fun with it. But the Communications Manager couldn't publish it and I was inclined to agree with her. One of the characters was based on a colleague, you see. And there was just the one key phrase that made it inappropriate. See if you can figure out which one it was.

The Writer Who Arrived Late
I wasn’t doing much that day. The frosty blonde who walked into my downtown office looked like she might change that. She eyed me slowly and carefully, like I was something she’d just stepped in, and arched a manicured eyebrow at the Clayton’s bottle on the desk. I shrugged. All class, she raised the bottle to her mouth and uncorked it using her teeth.
She took a long, slow swig and shuddered. Giving her the once over, I could see she was a little on the short side, but with the kind of upholstery that could make a bishop want to kick a hole in a stained glass window.
“Call me Bridget,” she said. “I know a guy wants to meet you. Name’s Maloney. He’s waiting outside.”
“I bet you know a lot of guys, Bridget. Can’t think why any of them would want to meet me. What’s his angle?”
“His bio’ll say he’s a crime writer. The funny stuff. Booked him to crack gags at a lunchtime seminar and he didn’t show. I found him impersonating a foetus in a lane outside. The guy’s a mess.”
“Suppose you tell me how else you’re mixed up in this.”
“Me? I’m a fan of his. Least, I used to be.”
“Okay, show the comedian in. And then scram. Floozies like you I can get wholesale."

He was the kind of tall, stoop-shouldered streak of misery who looked like he’d been slapped around. By a dame. All his life. His oversized glasses sat crookedly on his sallow face. Plenty of laughs so far.
“What do you want, Maloney?”
“I need some protection. The tough guy kind. I think my wife’s trying to get rid of me.”
“What makes you think she’s not on the level?”
“She’s gone and got herself registered with VIT. Then I get this phone call from some dame in the VIT office asking me to come in and shoot the breeze. I’m supposed to be there now.”

“Can’t help you, Maloney. I don’t do matrimonials. But that’s not the whole story either. In my line of work, you get used to taking slaps from guys the size of beer trucks. Or the occasional slug from a pearl-handled .22 straight out of an alligator purse. But if there was any sort of law in this town, it’d say don’t tangle with VIT. I don’t like ‘em. Nobody does. And I don’t like the racket they’ve been running shaking down teachers these last eight years. But we both know a bankroll fed by a guaranteed $70pa from 110,000 chalk-jockeys can buy a lot of nasty friends. So far, only the ambulance chasers and yellow press have had the guts to try to put a kink in their hose. I figure if your wife’s mixed up with them, you’re already near the top of the coroner’s dance card. And I’m not going to be the sucker wiping up the grease stain left behind once they’re through with you.”
His bottom lip trembled like a Liberal leader making a concession speech on election night. He was drenched in sweat. Sure it was hot, but not enough to explain that amount of perspiration. It was starting to spread out across the carpet like ink on blotting paper. And I was almost starting to feel sorry for him. Almost.

“Tell you what, Maloney: I’m not taking your case, but I’m damned if I can let a string-bean like you go in there without some kind of cover story. I’d feel like an accessory. So listen and listen good. This may be your only chance. Walk in all hot and bothered like you are now. That way, it’ll look like you at least tried to be there on time. Make all the right apologetic noises but don’t labour it. Nobody likes a milquetoast.

Turn on the charm. Start with a slow smile. And let ‘em know you’re onto ‘em. That you’ve got a make on their racket. Hell, even show a little knowing admiration for the kind of cunning needed to get a stranglehold on the teaching caper in this town. Do that, and they’ll be grinning at you through their shark-teeth like you’re one of them, a co-conspirator.

Once they’re hooked, you can take ‘em through the reading process from their point of view and then hit ‘em with an insightful history of your writing. Why it reads the way it does. How your main character, ALP drone Murray Whelan, came into the world and how he makes his way down its mean streets. Then give ‘em the inside dope on the crime-writing schtick: how you gotta play the game the way other crime writers have, but with your own angle, not following a recipe.

Throw in a few celebrity name-drops whenever you can too. Everybody loves insider gossip. That kind of stuff’s been filling seats since before Vesuvius gave Pompeii a makeover. And don’t back off on the zingers, either. They’ll get restless if the wisecracks slow down to Monash Freeway speed.”

He was nodding like one of those toy dogs all the Sunday drivers used to have in their back windows.
“Have you got all that?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Just one more thing Maloney: if you had anything to do with that failed cheapskate Olympic bid all those years ago, don’t mention it. There’s a lot of people still sore about that.”
“Thanks. You’ve probably saved my life.”
“Think so? You’re wife’s a registered teacher. They don’t let go easily…“

Epilogue:
Maybe you had to be there. But I've read a couple of Shane Maloney's books and they stack up pretty well. During his talk, he explained how he'd worked out who his protagonist was going to be. He thought Peter Corris' private investigator Cliff Hardy was a good fit for Sydney, and Bondi in particular, but he couldn't see a shamus quite suiting Melbourne. So his protagonist Murray Whelan is an ALP staffer whose chief domain is Melbourne's northern suburbs. Two of his novels have been adapted into a couple of pretty good films, Stiff and The Brush Off starring David Wenham as Murray Whelan.

So, did you work out which bit rendered it unsuitable?

25 July, 2010

Some Classic Albums: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly I: The Good

I was almost resigned to a relatively music-free existence. We had nothing at home even remotely up to date in the way of a sound system and I'd been reduced to playing CDs through our less-than adequate desktop PC, and even then only when home alone. Too many complaints about my "weirdo music" y'see. It was like being in my early teens again, only with a lot less hair and fewer pimples.

My CD catalogue was limited, and overshadowed by my vinyl collection and my most recent el cheapo turntable had given up the ghost years ago. No matter, I wasn't listening to much music anyway.

But as luck would have it, we needed a new car. And the one we settled on came with a six-stacker CD player. I was back in town!

So I decided to get all systematic. That's anal retentive to you. I was going to buy classic or near-classic albums. The kind that I'd heard of, but never got around to listening to. That way I'd be broadening my horizons. A noble imperative. This is pretty much how it turned out:


Liege & Lief - Fairport Convention - 1969:


This is just a superb album. On first listen, I immediately regretted not getting into Fairport Convention about thirty years earlier when a drummer I knew couldn't shut up about this seminal English folk-rock outfit. The drummer had been into Led Zeppelin, and because Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny had sung so beautifully on their song Battle of Evermore from the album Led Zeppelin IV, it made sense to him to explore her regular band. And become a big fan.

I'd listened to a few bands that had accommodated the English folk influence. Bands like Wishbone Ash and Led Zeppelin. I'd also listened to a bit of Steeleye Span as well, who had formed late in 1969 by way of a breakaway from Fairport Convention.

Liege and Lief represents the realization of a group decision to concentrate solely on English folk-derived rock music in the wake of a terrible accident. Their drummer, Martin Lamble, and guitarist Richard Thompson's girlfriend had been killed in a motorway accident in the band's van early in 1969 and the surviving Fairport members were unsure whether to wind things up or keep going. They decided to continue, but to make themselves stand out from the folk-rock crowd by delving into English folk. Their previous album, Unhalfbricking, had been a success with some of that influence present among some more contemporary folk stylings and a couple of Dylan covers.

Pleasingly, for those among you who might be a little skeptical about English folk, there's not too much "diddly-diddly" on this album. It kicks off with the rollicking Come All Ye, where Sandy Denny's pure as snow singing is beautifully complemented by some earnest backing vocals and Dave Swarbrick's rich, melodic violin. While some might find the unwavering intensity of Denny's voice across this album a little too much of a good thing, it somehow manages to fit the character voices in the traditional Matty Groves, perhaps Fairport's signature tune, without changing at all.

She continues with Richard Thompson's poignant Farewell, Farewell, and the anti-war ballad The Deserter. The instrumentation is arranged especially handsomely for the urgent, halting Tam Lin, and further augments Denny's voice without ever overpowering it on the last track, the despairing murder-ballad Crazy Man Michael.

Both Denny and drummer Dave Mattacks would depart soon after this album to form Fotheringay and Steeleye Span respectively, thus expanding the English folk rock universe. But while Fairport Convention would continue for the next three decades, Denny was to die tragically after a fall at home in 1978 at the age of 31. Thankfully, her beautiful voice lives forever.

UPDATE!:
This clip is a slideshow backing the song Farewell, Farewell from the album.



Still Alive & Well - Johnny Winter - 1974:




Guys I knew when I was a teenager back in the 70s were into Johnny Winter. Guys who were, like me, right into the blues. So I knew he was a Texas born-and-raised albino with a similarly pigmented keyboard-playing brother named Edgar, that he was famous for slide guitar, that many great players rated him highly, that he had a long association with Rick Derringer, and that he liked to do Rolling Stones covers. But somehow, I just never got around to checking him out at all.

And as with Liege and Lief, here was another album to evoke the question "How Long Has This Been Going On?". In Johnny Winter's case, since his childhood: he and brother Edgar were a popular duo on Texas country radio during the late 50s. They were also one of the acts at Woodstock but didn't make it onto the original film, only the 40th Anniversary Edition.

1974's Still Alive and Well was titled in response to a rumour that Johnny had died, as his hard-living, abusive lifestyle was common knowledge. Produced by Rick Derringer, the album features an affecting version of his almost-misogynistic Cheap Tequila. Winter adds a stinging rendition of the ubiquitous blues Rock Me Baby and the authentic soulful country ballad Aint Nothing To Me. The title track and covers of the Stones' Silver Train and Let It Bleed are great blues flavoured rock tunes, the way he does them.

This is a fine album, well worth purchasing and if you're anything like me, you'll feel a pang of regret that your older sisters' boyfriends didn't get you into Johnny Winter sooner.

UPDATE!:

This clip is from a Johnny Winter live appearance on German television in 1970. The Song is Mean Town Blues.