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Heroes and Villains
Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture
By David Hajdu
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The Beach Boys have been rolling, like the tide their great songs evoke, for more than thirty years, reaching professional peaks and tragic personal depths. In this electrifying account Steven Gaines reveals the gothic tale of violence, addiction, greed, genius, madness, and rock ‘n’ roll behind the wholesome, surf-and-sun image. Through candid interviews with close friends, family, and the Beach Boys themselves, Heroes and Villains portrays and evaluates all those who propelled the California myth, and the group who sang about it, into worldwide prominence: Murry Wilson, the corrosive father who abused them as children and exploited them as adults; Dennis Wilson, who explored every avenue of excess (including welcoming the entire Manson family into his home) to his inevitable self-destruction; the Wilsons’ cousin, frontman Mike Love, whose devotion to Eastern religion could not quell his violent temper; the wives (more than ten), mistresses, managers, and producers who consumed huge pieces of the “musical pie”; and of course, the band’s artistic center, Brian Wilson, the mentally fragile musical genius who achieved so much and then so little. With dozens of photos, Heroes and Villains recounts the bitter saga of the American dream realized and distorted and the music that survived.
ALSO BY DAVID HAJDU
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn
Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
by David Yaffe
Miles Davis, who was as discriminating in his praise as he was in his playing, provided a terse comment for the cover of the album Everybody Digs Bill Evans, which was released by Riverside Records in 1958. “I’ve sure learned a lot from Bill Evans,” he wrote. “He plays the piano the way it should be played.” Dare I conjure up Davis’s spirit to apply a comparable hymn of praise to the essays included in this volume? David Hajdu plays culture writing the way it should be played.
This is not to say that there is only one way to write great essays on culture—just as Miles Davis would surely have said that Bill Evans hardly represented the only way the piano should be played. But the essays in this book do contain something definitive, distinctive, and very rare about how, exactly, one should write about the arts. This book offers a broad range: a reconsideration of standards from Tin Pan Alley to hip hop; a revisionist look at the land where blues began, thrived, and mutated; aging pop icons; technology; weirdos; and more. Hajdu approaches these topics from the standpoint of a provocateur, but he is also supplicant to music, or the muse in general. His novelist’s gaze can be merciless in the groves of music—think Balzac in a jazz club—but his appreciation for beauty can be boundless. He is, needless to say, a tough room, but tough in the sense of tough love.
I first came across the writing of David Hajdu when I was an undergraduate and happened upon Lush Life, his biography of Duke Ellington’s then-under-appreciated collaborator Billy Strayhorn. I knew every chord and every word of the title song of Hajdu’s book up and down. (My attempt to imitate Johnny Hartman’s version was a sure-fire room clearer.) But I had never dared think about how Strayhorn, as a nineteen-year-old in Pittsburgh, 1937, could write, in the opening line of “Lush Life,” “I used to visit all the very gay places” and mean it with all its contemporary ramifications. But of course! Cary Grant did the same thing that year in Bringing Up Baby! Why didn’t I think of that? But then Hajdu showed me how, in prose that was so entertaining, it didn’t even feel like the academic scholarship I was also taking in. Yet it was just as startling, bold, and complex as any arguments I had seen from the scholars I was reading, even if it felt more like reading a novel.
The essays in this collection—on subjects as diverse as Mos Def, Paul McCartney, Billy Eckstine, Starbucks, Joni Mitchell, Bobby Darin, and Elmer Fudd—are, in the tradition of Edmund Wilson’s Classics and Commercials, all instances of cultural criticism. That is to say, they do the kind of work that academics do, they just do it implicitly, aphoristically, and for a broad intelligent audience. Before Hajdu came along, there was little writing on pop music and jazz in the pages of The New Republic (at least since the Otis Furgeson years) and The New York Review of Books, and as I was reading those publications in the midst of college procrastination (important things do happen in these moments), it didn’t even occur to me that there was a place in these venues for topics that had consumed my misspent youth. The reason, perhaps, that such publications spent little time on these topics was not because they were of no cultural relevance, but because so much of the writing on pop and jazz is too fig-ural and self-referential. How, in short, does writing on pop and jazz—not to mention comics and gadgets—fit into the literary world? There’s not necessarily a plot in the work of the work of the creative figures in this book—at least not the musical ones—but there is a story about them.
The stories are vast in this book, and the stories about the stories are even vaster. In his definitive profile of Wynton Marsalis, he shows how one stolen moment at the Village Vanguard could demonstrate both his brilliance and his moment of crisis, which is also, in turn, jazz’s moment in crisis. In the scene, Marsalis is in the middle of playing a glorious solo on the standard ballad “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” when an interruption from a cell phone threatens to ruin the magic:
The cell phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation, which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo, and ended up exactly where he had left off: “with . . . you . . . ” The ovation was tremendous.
This is jazz writing at its finest. We are viscerally there, nursing our drink minimum in Manhattan’s most illustrious cellar, taking in a moment of spontaneity and virtuosity. (When I taught the essay in a graduate seminar, a student said, “I wish I could have been there,” and I explained that such moments occur frequently in New York jazz clubs but are seldom reported.) Here we see a fall and a rise, but with a question that’s harder to resolve than an impeccably crafted solo. Marsalis won the moment, but there will be more cell phones, fewer record labels, and smaller audiences for the next young lions. Or not—Hajdu will be ready at the next cultural moment, whatever it is.
It is fitting that Hajdu would be so dead on when reporting in depth on Marsalis’s—and jazz’s—midlife crisis. Many of these pieces deal with subjects that began as youthful obsessions that matured into considered, elegant thought. Maturation is not usually appreciated by pop audiences, even by those who are getting on in years themselves. But Hajdu is no nostalgist. He can wear the hat of the professional fan, or he can be the intrepid anthropologist. The culture of music can be seductive up close, but Hajdu tends to cast a colder eye, or at least let the temperature drop a little. He is attuned to the irony about what happens when rock and roll stars stay in one place or veer into ambitious directions. On Elvis Costello, he is gentle; on Joni Mitchell, a little tougher; and on Sting, he is absolutely devastating. Hajdu begins the Sting essay with a portrait of the survivors of the first generation of rock and roll. Before he even contemplates the mixture of pretension and shamelessness that makes Sting’s career so frustrating and ripe for critical ribbing, he pulls back the lens on what happens when rockers never evolve:
Rock and rollers, as they age, sometimes find themselves outgrowing a music they cannot outlive. Rock, a style invented for teenagers—or more precisely, one adapted from an older style made originally for adults, the blues—endures as a bluntly, rudely cogent expression of adolescent anxiety, rage, and sexual fantasy. Long live rock and roll! The beat of the drums, loud and bold! Over the decades since Berry wrote that pithy, hard-driving couplet, Berry has sustained a career into old age by serving as a nostalgist.
This paragraph continues to deliver splendors, which you must turn the pages to attain. But even in this beginning of a beginning, it is already apparent that what will follow will be thorough and brimming with a finely tuned irony. The joke is that septuagenarian icons like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Berry are still singing songs about adolescence as very old men performing, usually, for rather old consumers, ignoring what could be deeper art about the indignities of age, if only they could summon their inner King Lears. But then the payoff is coming: Sting, coming upon fifty, and an uncommonly skilled musician among his pop peers, looks further back—all the way to the seventeenth-century lutenist John Dowland, but it is ridiculous, a shameless audition for knighthood. Keeping up the teenage anthems in one’s seventies is poignant; egotistical rock stars with delusions of grandeur can make royal asses out of themselves, and Hajdu calls them like he sees them in prose that is as merciless as it is meticulously crafted.
If there is a grand theme that unifies all the essays in this book, perhaps it is the collision between youthful exuberance and maturity. I should know. When I was ten years old, while other kids were playing Dungeons & Dragons or reading Lord of the Rings, I was supplementing a subscription to Rolling Stone with as many dusty old issues as I was allowed to bring home. I thought at the time that there would be nothing finer than to write for the magazine, interview rock stars, get free records, and find an ink-stained way into the rock and roll fantasy. Then I learned about jazz, and realized most of the world wasn’t paying attention anymore. By the time I was a college sophomore, when I was listening to an increasing diet of classical music, I thought it was time to put away childish things. I was filling my head with great books, and found myself at a crossroads one day at the campus post office. One postcard came from Rolling Stone, and said something like, “Hey, dude. Roll up your buds and renew your subscription.” Another came from The New Republic, and began, “Dear Intelligent American.” I want to be addressed as an intelligent American! I thought, and flipped my subscriptions. Almost immediately after, I became a critic, and I found myself, like so many others that came before me, negotiating high and low, and learning through experience that only certain publications truly allowed one to be smart in public. Eventually, as David Hajdu became music critic for The New Republic, I realized: He’s a little ahead of the rest of us. It turned out that it was possible to draw upon subjects of my youthful ardor while also being an Intelligent American—or intelligent human, for that matter. The proof is right here. The essays in this book are for intelligent readers everywhere, but they also swing, rock, and draw funny pictures. All of it is played the way it should be played.
David Yaffe is the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton, 2006). He is at work on The Many Roads of Bob Dylan (Yale, forthcoming) and Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (FSG, forthcoming).
Billy Eckstine The Man Who Was Too Hot
On the morning of August 27, 1986, five federal agents broke into a pastel-green bungalow on the grounds of the Las Vegas Country Club and hunted the premises, hoping to find a quarter of a million dollars worth of removable contents. The U.S. Treasury Department had ordered a raid to settle a tax debt that the resident, William Clarence Eckstine, had failed to satisfy, despite more than a dozen liens on his property over the preceding eight years. When the agents left, they had 110 items for the government to sell at public auction—nearly all of them artifacts of Eckstine’s sensational, ground-breaking, and ultimately tragic life as a pop singer.
The IRS agents took three of the gold records awarded to Eckstine three decades earlier, when he was the most popular male vocalist in the country, more successful than Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, with twelve top-ten hits on the charts between 1949 and 1952. (One of those records happened to be titled Everything I Have Is Yours.) The agents took dozens of musical instruments, reminders of Eckstine’s days as the leader of a legendary jazz orchestra—a radical young group that virtually invented a new style called bebop, which changed the course of American music. The Billy Eckstine Orchestra had a roster never matched in the history of jazz, with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Dorham, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, Frank Wess, and a second singer, Sarah Vaughan.
What else filled the crates the IRS labeled as “memorabilia”? There might have been a movie poster or a lobby card from Billy Eckstine’s days in Hollywood, where he became the first performer ever signed—for an unprecedented million dollars, when that represented incomprehensible wealth—to make both films and records for a major studio, MGM. There might have been a few samples of the fashions he designed and marketed, setting an original standard for hipster style that sparked crazes for the “Mr. B collar” and the “Mr. B wrap-around coat.” If Eckstine kept his correspondence, letters alone could have filled a van; his fan clubs once had some 100,000 members organized in groups whose names said much about their numbers’ enthusiasm, such as Girls Who Give In When Billy Gives Out and The Vibrato’s Vibrators. At one time, a thousand Eckstine fans mailed requests for photographs every week.
Meanwhile, less tangible effects of Billy Eckstine’s life and work were everywhere in 1986. Nearly half a century after Eckstine started in music, his influence on American music and American pop culture was pervasive, and it remains so two decades later. The once jarring, outré style of music he pioneered, bebop, grew on others with time and became jazz’s dominant style; ever since, it has been the common language of jazz. When Miles Davis wrote his autobiography, he began with the moment that had inspired him most: seeing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra perform. He described hearing the Eckstine band as “the greatest feeling I ever had in my life—with my clothes on.” He went on,
“Man, that shit was so terrible it was scary. I mean, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, Buddy Anderson, Gene Ammons, Lucky Thompson, and Art Blakey all together in one band, and not to mention B: Billy Eckstine himself. It was a motherfucker. Man, that shit was all up in my body.” If Miles Davis represented the birth of the cool, Billy Eckstine was its conception.
As a singer, moreover, Eckstine simply redefined what it meant to be black and a celebrity in America. Gorgeous and smart, fiercely gifted, and defiant in his projection of black masculinity in the era of segregation, Eckstine strode coolly across the old line dividing the worlds of white and black singers. On one side, the likes of Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra had become pop idols and movie stars as surrogate lovers, crooning love songs to young women; on the other, African Americans such as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller sang “cute” as funny, sexless novelty figures, unthreatening to womanhood of any color. Eckstine, physically magnificent as he sang in his rich, mellow baritone voice, gushed sex appeal. He introduced an overtly carnal, black masculinity to American popular culture.
“He was just a knockout,” says Tony Bennett. “He was just so handsome, everybody was envious of him.”
“The interesting thing and the important thing about Eckstine was that he was such an influence beyond music,” said Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. “He was about style.”
“He stood out like a sore thumb, because there weren’t a lot of masculine-type singers, and the girls loved him,” says Dr. Billy Taylor, the pianist and broadcaster. “Boy, he’d just knock ’em on their knees.”
Billy Eckstine defied the rules, changed them, and became a new kind of role model for generations of black singers, from Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye to Diddy and Kanye West, and actors, from Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. For them and their peers, expressing a savvy, daring, masculine black intelligence in music or film—or venturing into both fields while, say, exploiting one’s sense of style by designing a fashion line—is to play the game by the rules Billy Eckstine laid down. The paradigm Eckstine established, B’s world, is the world we live in.
“I packed up and left Jamaica when I saw what Billy Eckstine made possible,” Harry Belafonte told me. “He opened the door for me and a thousand others who came after us.”
Why, then, isn’t Eckstine better known today? How could his star have fallen that far from such heights? What forces—within him or in the world he challenged—provided Eckstine with so much, only to reclaim it in the end?
An internal tension underlay Billy Eckstine’s public image—one that had to do with class as well as race, at least in the beginning. Like two of the great white heart-throbs of twentieth-century film, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, Eckstine embodied two realms of social strata at once. Bogart, a Yalie blueblood (related distantly to the English crown family), made his name playing New York toughs; Grant, a Cockney waif who grew up in Dickensian poverty, created a persona synonymous with aristocratic savoir faire. Eckstine was much like both of them. Raised in relative comfort in a predominantly white, middle-class district of Pittsburgh called Highland Park, Billy (whose father was a chauffeur) was drawn to the street, where he cultivated a bad-boy reputation and, initially, rejected the arts as effete. “I thought guys in music were a little on the lavender side,” Eckstine later recalled to an interviewer.
“He was like the black sheep,” remembered Linton Garner, the Pittsburgh-born trumpeter and pianist (and older brother of jazz composer and pianist Erroll Garner), who was close to Eckstine in their youth. “He wanted to be his own man. We used to hang out down around what we called the Hill, and he was with the pot smokers. The girls liked him, and girls down in the Hill district were pretty fast girls.” By adulthood, when Eckstine started emceeing and singing in Pittsburgh nightclubs, he had learned to contain his unsavory side, upending racist presumptions by projecting an almost parodic air of sophistication.
Pittsburgh was an efficient incubator of jazz talent. According to the late drummer Kenny Clarke, the cooperative, multicultural nature of jazz has something in common with work life in the Pittsburgh steel mills. As he explained to Dr. Nathan Davis, the musician and jazz historian, the “mentality of Pittsburghers” is ideally suited to jazz: “Even though there was racial discrimination, they got along,” Davis said, “because they all had to go down in the steel mills, and down there, everybody watched everybody’s back, because if you were an asshole, you might end up in the fire.” Pittsburgh contributed a disproportionate share of important musicians to jazz during the early decades of the last century: among them, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Buddy De Franco, Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines, Lena Horne, Amad Jamal, Billy Strayhorn, and Mary Lou Williams, in addition to Eckstine, Clark, and the Garner brothers.
While still a youngster in Pittsburgh, Eckstine found himself fronting his first big band, hired by the musical director primarily for his athletic good looks. Eckstine was always a stunning man: tall and olive-skinned, with crystalline hazel eyes and a jaunty, pencil-thin mustache. His appearance served as a social lubricant for most of his life, easing his way personally and professionally—perhaps too well; according to the pianist with whom Eckstine would work most closely, Bobby Tucker, his good looks imparted in him a sense of privilege that veered into one of entitlement. As Linton Garner, who was playing trumpet in the band, recalled, “It was just because he had the personality. It wasn’t because of his musical ability. Billy had the looks and everything, and he just sort of waved a stick, and it looked good. He had all the moves.” The job proved to be an enlightening apprenticeship: The group specialized in recreations of Duke Ellington music, advanced orchestral jazz that Eckstine needed to learn well enough to convince the audience that his presence as conductor wasn’t entirely ornamental.
Eckstine was also starting to develop an original vocal style. While no recordings of his work at this stage exist, Eckstine, Garner said, was beginning to sound as he would for the rest of his life—that is, like no one else. “Maybe the most important thing was that I never modeled myself on other singers,” Eckstine once told a columnist. “I was inspired by instrumentalists, by real musicians. There wasn’t any singer I tried to pattern myself after.”
From early on, Billy Eckstine’s voice was instantly recognizable and irresistible to imitators, like Louis Armstrong’s: a primary sound. It was a deep, rich, strong baritone, vigorous and sure, yet warmly sensuous. Bing Crosby, the most popular singer of Eckstine’s day (and, as such, an inevitable influence on anyone singing then, if only as a point of departure) had a style that was elementally romantic and swinging, like Eckstine’s, but not so muscular. Paul Robeson sang with much of Eckstine’s force, but his approach was more cerebral, his passions tempered. Eckstine communicated carnal authority and a sensitivity to the delicacies of its application; he put whatever he learned on “the Hill” in Pittsburgh to creative use.
If Eckstine sounded like any instrumentalist, he was Ben Webster, the tenor saxophonist renowned in jazz circles for his dark, earthy tone, his lyrical melodic sense, and his signet feature: a sumptuous and dramatic vibrato. Eckstine’s vibrato was so wide and so emphatic that it verged on excess—surely, part of its appeal. Hearing him turn one note into a chain of long, voluptuous warbles, you wonder: How far from the realm of the ordinary will that fellow go? He seemed unfettered by conventions, a man without limits—beneath his elegant veneer, perhaps a bad boy, too.
Pittsburgher Earl “Fatha” Hines was a thirty-four-year-old jazz veteran, esteemed for his piano work on Louis Armstrong’s historic “Hot Five” sessions from the 1920s, when he asked Eckstine, then twenty-five, to sing in his big band. This was in 1939, the swing era, though some adventurous young musicians were beginning to experiment with an edgy, demanding musical style called rebop or modern jazz, eventually named bebop or simply bop. Eckstine had an ear for it—and an eye for the aura of sophisticated cool that association with the music conferred. For all of Hines’s brilliance and importance as an innovator a decade earlier, his big band was relatively conventional, until Eckstine and his allies persuaded the pianist to hire a couple of players in the new school, the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The orchestra steadily expanded its ranks of like-minded spirits until it was composed largely of bop-oriented musicians, including an unknown singer (doing double duty as a second pianist) named Sarah Vaughan, whom Eckstine brought in and mentored. Although most of the arrangements the group performed on the bandstand were fairly traditional, its members used their time on the bus and backstage jamming, conspirators plotting the coming musical revolution.
Eckstine was the chief agitator—de facto band contractor, headlining singer, and also instrumentalist now. Determined to become a “real musician,” he decided to take up the trumpet under the tutelage of his bandmates, only to confront the tyranny of their example. “Dizzy Gillespie does so well playing that instrument that in order to beat him you have to be able to make a hot dog come out of the end of your horn,” Eckstine explained in an interview. “So I’ve taken up the valve trombone, which is easier to play and adds a little color to the band.” And which no one else was playing in Hines’s troupe.
Lee Young, the jazz drummer and record producer (and younger brother of the late tenor saxophonist Lester Young), was playing in the Lionel Hampton big band while Eckstine was with Hines, and they met in a hotel in Oakland under Asian ownership, one of the nicer places in the area hospitable to African Americans. Young was resting in his room after the night’s gig when he heard a ruckus in the hall—it was Eckstine, reveling. “Billy had gotten a little high that night,” Young recalled, “and he came out in the hall and started shooting [a pistol] at the roof of the hotel. I just thought that was so funny. That was the first time we met. Billy’s shooting, and this little Chinese guy is running around, calling for the police.”
Encouraged by Gillespie, Eckstine left Hines in the spring of 1944 to start a big band of his own, and he took with him the bebop heart of his boss’s organization: Gillespie, Parker, Vaughan, arrangers Budd Johnson and Gerry Valentine, saxophonist Wardell Gray, trumpeters Freddie Webster and Shorty McConnell, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Shadow Wilson. Jazz has never had a bloodier uprising. Earl Hines refilled the chairs of his big band and carried on in proficient inconsequence, while Billy Eckstine assumed leadership of the first orchestra devoted to a new type of jazz.
The Billy Eckstine Orchestra was a startling, fearless, intelligent, sexy group—the Clash or NWA of its time. To a generation of jazz enthusiasts and musicians accustomed to the infectious dance beats and buoyant riff tunes of the swing bands, the angular rhythms and vertiginous instrumental solos of Gillespie, Parker, Dexter Gordon, and others under Eckstine were a musical catharsis. “I never heard nobody play that,” Art Blakey told an interviewer. “The only big band I ever liked was Billy Eckstine, ’cause everybody in that band could play. Now, that is a jazz orchestra! I’ve heard a lot of big bands, and they sound good, perfect, but . . . too perfect. Jazz is not clinical. Jazz is born by somebody goofin’. So if you feel that band hasn’t got that looseness, they’re not creating. In that band, it was a pleasure; it was like working in a small combo.”
There is some film footage of the group, shot in 1946 for the Negro-circuit movie short Rhythm in a Riff
- Winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for best Pop Music Book
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2009
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Da Capo Press