Take Your Time

I’ve been listening to my old David Bowie cds this week, and watching Bowie videos on YouTube thanks to an endless supply of links via Facebook and Rolling Stone online. Weeks later, and I still miss him. And though never an Eagles fan, I was sorry to hear about the passing of Glenn Frey, too. And Natalie Cole. And Alan Rickman. And Abe Vigoda…

And now, Paul Kantner. What the hell is going on here? I mean, these folks were so young. (Well, okay, maybe not Abe, but he always seemed old even when he was young.) And as I write these words, I realize that only someone of my generation or so would make the observation that these actors and musicians were still young. To a 20-year-old, they must seem ancient. But they’re young to me, and that’s the point. Because the 70s were just yesterday…the 80s only just happened…the 90s a blink away…the 00s…

What is this marvelous creation that we constructed for ourselves called Time? And how is it that a guy in his Sixties considers Paul Kantner at 74 to be young when there was a time when it was hard to imagine being 30, much less twice that. I don’t see a 63-year-old in the mirror. Who is this grey-haired guy who gets an automatic senior discount at all the restaurants? Can’t be me. Because I’ve still got a head full of Ziggy Stardust, the Mothers of Invention, T. Rex, Captain Beefheart, Iron Butterfly, the Sons of Champlin, the Beach Boys, the Suburbs, Kraftwerk and the Residents still ringing in my ears. And they’re all so young up there on the stage, dancing, playing, transforming, making grand and glorious music.

Those days just happened. In my head, they’re still fresh. And I still get a chill thinking about the first time David Bowie takes the stage…or the first time I see all the Beach Boys, my teenage heroes, all lined up on a stage, faces filled with dark beards that were never part of the surfing image … or the first time the Mothers come to San Rafael, to a black-lighted palace called Pepperland, where Frank Zappa makes his way through the crowd (yeah, walks right in front of us) and up to the stage, steps to the mike, and says, “It’s fucking hot in here,” in that droll drawl of us that I had heard so often on his albums.

Magic times.

And it’s hard to admit that all my rock & roll heroes are, well…old. Sure, the Rolling Stones are still touring like there’s no tomorrow. But for most of the bands and musicians I’ve followed over the years, their touring days are drawing to a close. I just read that Brian Wilson is taking “Pet Sounds” on its last world tour. I’m impressed that at Brian’s age, he still wants to get up on a stage and perform it. (Considering his psychological issues, I’m impressed that he wants to get on stage period, but that’s another story, and more power to him.)

But as we all wind down, locked in our shared nostalgia for a wonderful music-filled youth, I still resent the loss of all my heroes. It may seem weird, considering that I never met the man, but when Frank Zappa passed away back in 1993, I felt like I had lost a dear friend. And then, two years later, Jerry Garcia. As I blogged a few weeks ago, I felt the same way at losing Bowie. And now Paul Kantner, guiding light of the Jefferson Airplane, the guy who brought us all those acidy guitar and vocal harmonies. He and Grace Slick created the Jefferson Starship with their Blows Against the Empire album, and even though I was never a big fan of the Starship, I was glad that he kept the spirit of the times alive. And held it together all these years.

And wherever they are, alive in spirit, they’re one with the music of the spheres now. As we all will be. Jim Morrison reminded us all a long time ago—or not so long ago, depending on how you look at it—that no one here gets out alive. But I still miss them. My shiny-faced, sweet-voiced, long-haired heroes.

—Greg Shepard


David Bowie

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to experience David Bowie live and on stage when he first came to the U.S. to promote Ziggy Stardust back in 1972. There was a small group of us. We dolled up for the event. I painted my index fingernails black for the occasion. I think someone else had eyeliner. The event took place at Winterland in San Francisco, an ex-ice skating rink turned music hall under the auspices of Bill Graham Productions.

If memory serves me correctly, Sylvester, formerly of the Cockettes, opened the show. Flo & Eddie came on second, making several comments about the weirdness of the headliner during their show (which, considering they had just left The Mother of Invention, seemed a little presumptuous). The crowd thinned after each act left the stage. It was hard to believe. Here we were, the chosen few, ready to receive David Bowie on stage for the first time, and the crowd was actually thinning!

Winterland didn’t have seats. It was one vast open area—the rink. All the tall people, of course, stood in front. The seats were in the balcony overlooking the rink. We were on the floor. Behind the tall people. As always. However, by the time that Bowie was ready to hit the stage, the crowd had thinned enough that for once, I actually had a great view of the stage.

And there he was! David Bowie. And the Spiders from Mars—Woody, Trevor and Mick. The ultimate glamstar power trio!

Bowie was dressed in a black leather jacket. He looked like he was trying to cop a little of the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground vibe. He looked nervous. And I wish I could remember all the songs he performed, but I don’t. Lots of Ziggy Stardust. “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvets, of course. I was in rock’n’roll heaven, so who remembers the details?

One year later, he came back to the West Coast, but didn’t get any closer than Los Angeles. I flew down, stayed with friends, and we caught the show at the Palladium. It was packed! No thinning of the crowd this time. Bowie was in supreme form, total confidence. He owned the stage. I don’t even remember who opened the show, if anyone. Opening acts were insignificant. By the time Bowie and band hit the stage, the crowd surged to the front. I was packed with the rest of the ecstatic sardines in the event of the decade. Bowie didn’t have a black leather jacket this time. He was in full Ziggy regalia—tight, colorful outfit, full makeup, shiny forehead disc—climaxing the show with “Rock’n’roll Suicide”… “give me your hands!… you’re wonderful!…give me your hands!” He we gave him our hands.

What a show. That was, what? 1973? A lifetime ago.

The last time I saw David live was in Mountain View at one of those monstrous outdoor events in the early 1990s when they first started using the giant screens for the folks on the hillside. It was supposed to be his last live greatest hits tour. It wasn’t his last tour, of course, but it felt like the climax of a career. So many great songs, so many hits, so much love pouring from the audience to the stage. Even if it wasn’t to be his last tour, it felt like a climactic event. Every time David Bowie hit the stage, it was a major event. He owned the crowd. Has there ever been such an androgynous rock star commanding so much unconditional love and adoration?…

I can’t believe David Bowie is gone. I kept buying his albums as they came out. I’ve played his 1970s and early 80s albums to death. But gradually I realized that David Bowie was moving on to new paths, and leaving me behind. Tin Machine left me completely cold. Then came Black Tie White Noise, which perked my interest a bit, but not much. Though I appreciated it, I began to fade out on Bowie’s career with Outside. I don’t even remember Earthling or Hours. Need to listen to them again. Then, after a long absence, came The Next Day. Another masterpiece! Bowie was back! And just when I was ready to hail Blackstar as the dawn of a new Bowie era….I find that it is his last and parting gift to his fans. His swan song. His final album. His farewell.

It’s been a long time since I first listened to The Man Who Sold the World back in 1970. That was when I discovered David Bowie. Found the album in a promo bin, loved the cover and took a chance on it. It was love at first listen. Forty-five years later, I must bid adieu to an old friend, and it hurts. Was David Bowie the best musician of his generation? “Best” is a term that has no bearing here. Simply put, there was no one else like him. David Bowie was the most original musician rock has ever seen. He kept the changes coming. I consider myself lucky that I got to share the planet with him.

And hey, I’ll always have Winterland….

—Greg Shepard

Gil Brewer guns the dame down

We’ve been doing so much traveling this September, I only just finished the latest newsletter, which will post on Saturday, Sept 26th, just squeaking by before the end of the month. I talk a little about more the new Gil Brewer book, The Erotics/Gun the Dame Down/Angry Arnold, plus the upcoming October titles. It’s easy to get excited about the Brewer book.

Working on Gun the Dame Down was the real labor of love. The original typewritten manuscript was too faint and had too many corrections to scan. So I started from scratch, and retyped it page by page. Nothing quite gives you a feel for an author’s style like typing out an entire novel. I could see Brewer trying out some of the tropes of the wise-cracking detective novel, inserting quirky little character traits to make his characters come alive while creating the steamy feel of a hot summer night in Florida. I’m not such a great typist that I would want to do this with every previously-unpublished manuscript, but it was a lot of fun transcribing Brewer.

I could be wrong, but I think this is the first book where he introduces the dynamic of the older man and the seductive under-age nymphet that he used in some of his later books. You really can’t get much less politically correct than writing about that combination these days. I’m not going to take a moral stand on the issue myself, but the fact that the original editor had crossed these sections out doesn’t surprise me, even without the context of early 1950s censorship. The fact that I put them back in makes sense to me, because they help define the characters.

The main character, Bill Death, encounters just about every form of temptation and abuse a down-at-heels detective should have to take in a 24 hour period when he takes a case and walks into the household from hell. An over-sexed teen is only one of them. And let’s face it, part of the charm of Brewer is his sexual tension. His characters are usually after two things: sex and money. In Gun the Dame Down, it’s mostly sex. It took Brewer a couple more books before he got the balance right. But that doesn’t make Gun the Dame Down any the less obsessional, and certainly no less readable. For me, it’s the highlight of the collection.

Which brings me to George Tuttle, who first introduced me to these unpublished gems of Brewer’s. As far as I know, George was the first one to create a web page for Gil Brewer, which offers a very thorough look at all of Brewer’s works. His favorite is Angry Arnold, the serial killer book, and the last unpublished work in the collection. And a sick little serial killer Arnold is. He’s been in a car accident, and something has shaken loose in his moral makeup. He gets urges. Of course he does—he’s a typical over-sexed young man—but he himself has the sex appeal of a wet noodle. He resents all the beautiful women that won’t give him the time of day. So he kidnaps them, and….

Well, you get the picture. Were there a lot of serial killer books in the 1970s? I don’t think so. But by then, Brewer was trying all sorts of approaches to get back into print. At one point, he wrote an Executioner novel for Don Pendleton called Firebase Seattle. Everyone loved it except for Pendleton himself. And so it sits in storage. Brewer also wrote a spy thriller called The Paper Coffin which reads like a real period piece, when Euro-spy fiction was all the rage. Unusual for Brewer, the sex and money angle is toned down in this one.

Probably the most unusual book from Brewer’s slush pile is House of the Potato, a curiously static novel about a poor family in the Erskine Caldwell tradition. It feels very autobiographical, and reads like a first novel. Before Brewer developed the frantic style he started to develop in Gun the Dame Down, he didn’t seem to know what to do with his characters. In House of the Potato, they mainly seem to move from room to room, this character pining for that character, each one pissing the other off and interiorizing the pain. When someone gets around to writing Gil Brewer’s biography, I’m sure this book will get much discussion. In the meantime, it stands as the only book by Brewer that I’ve read that I most emphatically have not wanted to publish. And I’ve got pretty broad tastes.

Still, I think we put together a pretty good selection from these previously-published manuscripts of Gil Brewer’s, and since the book is out this week, I can now say, I hope you enjoy them.

—Greg Shepard

Travels of a Time Tripper

This week I’ve been editing a Sax Rohmer book called The Golden Scorpion. And by editing, I mean that after scanning a book and turning it into a Word document, I then go through the whole book and make sure all the original folios and page numbers are removed, all the italics and accent marks are accounted for, and that no weird misspellings are left over from the scanning software remain. I miss a few, and that’s why I have a proofreader go over the book one more time.

I only mention this process because in reading through the book as I just did with the Rohmer thriller, I find myself immersed in the world of early 20th century London, traipsing about the Limehouse area with master detective Gaston Max in pursuit of an criminal Asian mastermind. But in addition to the book I’m currently editing, I usually have two or three other books going.

In this case, I am also reading Tall Dark and Dead by Kermit Jaediker, a marvelously dry-witted murder mystery published by Lion Books in 1951. A gossip columnist receives a knife in the back. Suspects abound. Could a reprint be in the offing? Perhaps. I love the author’s voice for this one. The feel of old New York is a bonus as the detective dashes all over the city, from warehouse to penthouse to flophouse, to solve the crime.

But that’s not all. I am also enjoying a new novel by an author I would rather not name at the moment, but which is very intriguing. A psychological drama set in modern day Philadelphia, an area that is almost totally foreign to me. Might become a Stark House book, might not. Doesn’t read like one, but then, what is a Stark House book but that which I call a Stark House book? Anyway, that’s not all.

I am also in the midst of Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend by Casey Tefertiller, which is totally fascinating to anyone who has any interest in the history of the Old West. The author has done his homework in trying to separate fact from colorful fiction, referencing new source material to give us a very even-handed version of Earp, Doc Holliday, Tombstone, the OK Corral and its aftermath. I love this stuff. This I read just for fun.

So, in one week, I have skipped from fog-bound London of 1920 to late 40s New York to modern day Philly to late 1800s Arizona. Quite a bit of mental leaping about. I’m sure a lot of you out there read multiple books. It’s what makes reading so enjoyable, the moving about between different worlds, different points of view. I usually top this off by watching a film in the evening. The other night I sat through Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner, just to compare it with the book. The movie seemed even more formulaic than it did when I first watched it. I’ll stick to the book.

Last night my wife and I viewed an early 70s crime drama, Cisco Pike, with Gene Hackman, Karen Black, Harry Dean Stanton, Viva, Antonio Fargas and, in his big debut, Kris Kristofferson. This took my head in a completely different direction than The Golden Scorpion—from 1940s New York back to L.A. of 45 years ago, when the big score involved keys of weed (at $200 per, and how’s that for inflation) instead of bags of coke or heroin. Back to a time when new-Hollywood began introducing the concept of the crooked cop—the Man!–who puts the screws to an innocent guy who just wants to go straight. Also, back to a Harry Dean Stanton who still looked old and worn even when he was young. I thought this was such an IMPORTANT FILM when I first watched it back in 1971. It still gets a thumbs up, but now more for the nostalgia than the message.

And today, I’m in L.A. again as I begin to edit my scan of Gary Phillips’ Only the Wicked. Only this time we’ve moved up to the late 1990s. Detective Ivan Monk is trying to tie some seemingly natural deaths to the machinations of a powerful white supremacist against a background of baseball and vintage jazz. Oh yeah, I can’t wait to wrap my head around this one.

–Greg Shepard