According to Lenny, “Both are hardboiled black comedy police procedurals, though early focus group results indicate SOME DEAD GENIUS is 9.6% funnier and contains 12.7% more violence. It’s about people trying to tell the difference between art marketing, serial killing and Chicago politics.” And for more of Lenny on Lenny check out this interview in Omnimystery News.
Lenny began his career in Chicago as a playwright, columnist and freelance writer. His fiction, articles, humor, and reviews have appeared in Playboy, Galaxy, Oui, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.
In 1986 he sold a screenplay to Michael Douglas, and is currently three decades into a business trip to Los Angeles. You can learn more about Lenny and his work at www.lennykleinfeld.com
Welcome, my friend.
Crime novelists aren't the only writers who cash in on robbery and murder. Songwriters are centuries ahead of us on that score. Millennia, if you count Homer. He recited his poetry while strumming a lyre. Hence, lyricist. Hence, with absolutely no claim to scholarly rigor, I classify Homer as a proto-Troubadour, even though those guys hit the road about 19 centuries after Homer retired to Mykonos and opened a piano bar. (Hence the term “blind drunk.”)
True, despite penning many topical lyrics which included tales of violence, the Troubs were best known for love songs. But all the way back to Homer, many of the best slaughter ditties had a lot to do with love. And/or lust. The English and Scottish songbooks of the 12th through 18th Centuries have rivers of blood and semen flowing through them, often connected to rape and/or incest, one reason why in the 1960s and Seventies folk-rockers like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span had so much success covering them.
But today's blog is about contemporary musical felonies. I'm sure you have your own favorites. These are mine.
My all-time Number One dope-dealing, bar-brawling, murder and romantic sacrifice number is Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen's The Road Goes On Forever, the next line of which is “And the party never ends.” It's a bone-deep black comedy, an entire Jim Thompson novel’s worth of sexy, dusty, shotgun-blast narrative in five minutes and three seconds—at least in its finest iteration, an exuberant kickass live performance by Keen’s fellow Texans, Joe Ely and his world-class bar band. I’m going to resist the urge to reveal any details about the lovers and their story; you should discover it for yourself.
The world's most ominous, ferociously sung and played song about a mobster and his obsessive love doesn’t mention a single specific crime or murder—yet you know there have been many.
It’s Richard Thompson’s Cooksferry Queen, which boasts a line worthy of Chandler: “People speak my name in whispers/And what higher praise can there be?”
In 1973, after the Byrds broke up, Roger McGuinn released a solo album, the ingeniously titled Roger McGuinn. It includes a gentle country number with a tough core, called Bag Full Of Money. It’s a droll, imaginary character study of the mysterious D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a plane, collected a ransom, parachuted into the Washington wilderness and was never found. Nor has Cooper’s true identity ever been determined. Though decades later a couple of packets of the cash turned up on a remote riverbank.
The song—which Cooper is supposedly singing as he’s “floating on down through the sky”—features a tumble of simple but memorable rhymes. One verse resonates especially strongly these days: “If you can’t get a job they think you’re insane/If the years of your youth have been washed down the drain/And you wake up one morning with nothing but pain/It was then I decided to grab me a plane.” The only link I was able to find to Bag Full Of Money has a slender love song on it before you get to the main event. Sorry. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaZvavydQf4
A jauntier yet more violent country-rock song from 1971, Glendale Train by The New Riders Of The Purple Sage, is about a Wild West gang (“Men on horses, men with guns/And no sign of the law”) who rob a train, using dynamite to blow open the baggage car: “Well Amos he was markin’ time/When the door blew off the car/They found Amos White in fifteen pieces/Fifteen miles apart.” And the track bounces along on a trampoline of pedal steel guitar pickin’ by Jerry Garcia.
For a more naturalistic, savage, yet elegantly arranged ode to desperate men, there’s Steve Earle’s 1988 Copperhead Road. It’s an update of the 1958 hillbilly-noir movie classic, Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum as a good ol’ boy running moonshine in his souped-up hot rod.
Earle’s song is told by a Viet Nam vet whose dad died when his rebuilt “big block Dodge” crashed during a whisky run. When the son gets back from Nam he goes into the modern moonshine biz: growing high-grade weed. As the Appalachian-folkie-hard-rock track thunders to a peak, with a synthesizer and keening electric guitars wailing like massive industrial bagpipes, Earle roars in fear and defiance: “Now the DEA’s got a chopper in the air/I wake up screaming like I'm back over there/I learned a thing or two from ol' Charlie don’t you know/You better stay away from Copperhead Road.” Phew.
Songwriters, like novelists, write tons more about the murderer than about the victim. There is in the pop music canon at least one brilliant song about a murder victim, Leonard Cohen’s Joan Of Arc. You remember, that kid who was barbecued by British noblemen and churchmen for the crime of being a 19-year-old girl who kicked their asses on the field of battle. No chivalric need to honor a captured enemy commander if it’s someone without a little hose dangling between her legs, right? (Not that the British captured her; their Burgundian allies had to do it for them.)
Jennifer Warnes’ soaring version on “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a studio album of Leonard Cohen covers, is a miraculous blend of voice, intelligence and emotion. The twentieth-anniversary reissue that came out in 2007 has a bonus track recorded live; Warnes’ vocal vamp at the end aches with a depth of passionate anguish usually only heard in Lisbon fado clubs after two AM. Wrecks me every time.
Still, the only place to close this is back with the killer. And with the most famous line in murder music. Here’s the live version of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, cut in that very institution, with the inmates breaking into cheers when he gets to “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”
Lenny—Guest Blogging Sunday