Sunday, February 27, 2011

Songs for broken hearts, no. 21

Thinking about David Ackles yesterday, my mind turned to Judee Sill, who, like Ackles, seemed to have too many things working against her to ever become a huge star. There's her weird accent, for one, which is hard to pin down. The word that comes to mind is 'flat', with a distinctly old-California timbre. Then there's the songs that are lovely but were never quite poppy enough to dominate the airwaves. Throw in her lack of physical appeal, along with the the troubled, self-destructive life she led, and the only conclusion you can come to is that it just wasn't meant to be for poor Judee Sill. She grew up in Studio City and, in spite of running away from home as a young teenager and becoming a street junkie - apparently robbing liquor stores and turning tricks to feed her habit - she had incredible talent and her debut album was the first to come out on David Geffen's Asylum label in 1972. But the record had the misfortune of being released directly in front of debuts from the Eagles and Jackson Browne, and the house hippies at Asylum spent most of their energy promoting these much more marketable talents. Sill got lost in the shuffle and never really recovered, garnering only cult status among a relatively small group of devotees. She died alone of an overdose in 1979, six years after her second and last complete album, Heart Food, appeared and just as quickly disappeared in record shops. Tonight's offering is from her eponymous first album and is about her ill-fated relationship with J.D. Souther. He's a bandit and a heartbreaker, but jesus was a crossmaker... I'm not gonna lie to you and say that I reach for Judee Sill with any kind of regularity, but she does heartbreak with the best of 'em...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no. 20

The cold, hard, driving rains returned last night with a vengence, making the freeways extremely treacherous as my good buddy and I made our monthly trip out to Woodland Hills to hear Bob Cowsill play 60s hits on his guitar at the Pickwick Pub on Ventura Blvd. When I returned home at 2am, I discovered that I had somehow lost my house key, and I had to break a window to get into my house and out of the near-freezing rain. Oh well. It's only money. The rain has subsided for a bit today, but it's supposed to return tonight, and they say it may get cold enough to actually start snowing in the higher elevations... What does any of this have to do with broken hearts and the late David Ackles' amazing 1972 album, American Gothic? Not much, except that it is what I would consider a good rainy day album, somber as hell without being a downer just for the sake of being a downer. There's a lovely warmth that comes through the tracks. It's one of those albums that grows and grows on you if you're willing to put in the time it takes to acquire the taste. My favorite albums are often ones that take some time to penetrate. American Gothic was very much under-the-radar when it first appeared. Ackles came out of a folk tradition, sort of fitting in with the confessional singer-songwriter thing, except that his songs aren't immediately accessible enough for him to have achieved the kind of mass appeal of, say, James Taylor, or Jackson Browne, or Jim Croce. Part of the 'problem' for Ackles was that he mixed folk with elements of Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville, and show tunesyness, none of which are typically the sort of thing sets the charts on fire. But the obscurity of American Gothic is part of its appeal. It feels like it might loosely be some sort of concept album about America in the shadow of the post-60s Viet Nam era. I may be reading too much into it. In any case, the overall tone is dark and harrowing, yet also very humane. The fascinating thing for me is how relevant it sounds to the troubled times we're all living through now. Today's selection is a haunting love song that will seep into your blood and stay there, if you let it...

Friday, February 25, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.19

This has already beaten this topic to death in my previous blog, but Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park captures the precise moment at which the 60s go bad. The song is a collision of maddening pretension, conceptual overreach and flowery bombast, all of which become mangled in seven-plus flatulent minutes of I still don’t know what the fuck after years of listening to it and trying to make sense of it. And bear in mind that none of this makes it a bad song, though it’s really more accurate to call it a *cantata*. I really like Richard Harris’ performance, as over the top as it is, and I find the melody in the first and final ‘movements’ to be quite tragic sounding to a degree that makes it difficult to listen to in my current state of mind. The second movement is nice enough but just seems to drag on for way too long, while the superfluousness of the dance numberish third movement comes close to ruining the whole thing before the core melody mercifully returns for the finale, not a moment too soon. ...MacArthur Park is very polarizing with probably more people hating it than loving it these days. I’m ambivalent about it myself. Its melancholy emotional tone is about as moving as pop gets, and there’s something admirable about its sheer recklessness. But at the same time I find myself thinking that the song’s ambitiousness is a product of artistic hubris. This was not a problem specific to Jimmy Webb in 1968, but MacArthur Park is an especially stark example of the growing self consciousness that eroded the mid-60s dream of uncomplicated pleasure and freedom. Number 9, number 9, number 9....

Thursday, February 24, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.18

The lonely one can’t really do Glen Campbell justice without including his pitch-perfect rendition of John Hartford’s Gentle on my Mind, which is far superior to the interpretation Elvis gave the song about a year later. The session players for the single read like a Who’s Who of 60’s LA studio rats – Leon Russell playing piano, Jim Gordon on drums, Doug Dillard picking the banjo... I have a complicated relationship with country music. I appreciate the old school purist stuff to varying degrees depending on my mood, but the singles in the contemporary country and western charts nowadays almost always have a corporate plasticity about them and give off a Born Again Hillbilly vibe that sounds like the soundtrack to a lynching. I guess you could say I’m heterodox about country music. I tend to like it plugged in, fused with rock, and performed by long haired hippy stoners. Gentle on my Mind is not the kind of thing that typically moves me, nor is it really a song for broken hearts per se. But right now it appeals to the dreamer in me because it’s such an earnest expression of love, admiration, and the warm feeling that comes with mutual understanding…

Canyon Fodder, chapter 6

Aaron Abramson and Sitting Bull were seated at the soundboard console when Zolie and Jefferson entered the control booth for Studio 3A at Sunset Sound. A large cloud of skunky pot smoke hung in the air, the booth’s poor ventilation offering it no escape. Jefferson smiled and made a show of inhaling heavily through his nose. “Ready to make some beautiful harmonies?” he asked, addressing the question to no one in particular.

“Ready for Canyon Fodder, baby,” Abramson said.

Abramson was the most in-demand session guitarist in L.A. His style and sound weren’t especially distinctive, but he clearly had some sort of magic touch for a three-year period during which he seemed to play on every top selling record that came out of L.A., including all three Jefferson White albums. Bald on top, and yet wearing what was left of his blonde hair at an ill-advised shoulder length, he sported a silky black kimono decorated with a yellow and orange Kung Fu dragon on the back, and a sizable gold medallion around his neck. His eyes were shut to the point of being two red slits.

“I dig the concept,” he said. “Canyon Fodder. I bet it’ll be the biggest thing to hit this town since Pet Sounds.”

Pet Sounds didn’t sell very well,” Zolie said matter-of-factly.

Zolie had come up with the idea for Canyon Fodder three years earlier, at a time when he felt particularly bitter about the apparent decline of his prospects in the music business. Ally Schneider, a redhead from New York and one of Zolie’s three girlfriends at the time, tried to get him to see the bright side of things.

“I wish you wouldn’t be so negative all the time,” she said one evening in response to Zolie’s typical fit of post-coital moroseness. “You’ve got an incredible track record.”

“An incredible losing track record,” Zolie said, running his hands absent mindedly through the sensual waves in Ally’s hair. “It’s a record of incredible disappointment.”

“Disappointment? You’ve written songs for the Turtles and Paul Revere. How many people can say that? And how about Richard Harris and the Fifth Dimension?”

“That’s already 5 or 6 years ago,” Zolie said. “Only things I get hired for these days are commercial jingles and boring session work.”

“You’re only 28, Zolie. Give yourself a chance.”

“I’m 27, baby, and 27 is over the hill in this town.”

Zolie paused thoughtfully as he lit a cigarette.

“Know what this place does to you?” he finally said.

“’This place?’”

“Yeah, ya know, Hollywood, show business, whatever. It lures you with its promises of easy money, easy pussy and easy fame. You see the schmucks who make it here, with their shiny new Porsches and their tables waitin’ for ‘em at Dan Tana’s, even when the line’s out the fuckin’ door. You figure, ‘if that pinheaded motherfucker can make it here, so can I.’”

“Is that why you got into it? To be rich and materialistic?”

Zolie took a drag on his cigarette. “Come to think of it, yeah, that is why I got into it.”

“Those things won’t make you happy.”

“Nobody’s happy these days, baby. And if I’m gonna be miserable either way, I’ll take being rich and famous over being some obscure loser without a pot to piss in.”

“You’re giving me very bad vibes all of a sudden, Zolie.”

Zolie ignored her. “I chased the dream,” he said. “I got sucked in with a tiny little taste of success, just enough to convince me I had what it takes. And then the distractions came. So many of them. The partying and whoring every night ‘til the sun came up.” He took a long drag on his smoke. “Problem is, every cunt I eat tastes different, and any man worth calling a man wants to taste as many flavors as he can.”

Ally gave Zolie a toxic look.

“I tried to build on the small success I had,” he continued, “but I lost something along the way. I dunno. I lost focus. I can feel myself becoming one of those people.”

“Those people,” Ally said, deadpan.

“Yeah, those people. The hangers-on. The guys who don’t have it anymore, so they start to feed off the crumbs under the table. There’s a lot of us here, Ally. We do it out of desperation. We become parasites. Slugs. We gravitate to the bright lights and the fancy haciendas in the canyons. But we’re nothing but fodder. Canyon fodder, if you will. Victims of the mirage.”

That night, Zolie sat in his apartment at the piano his father had bought him some 15 years earlier, and he began writing the music for what would become his first album, Canyon Fodder, a conceptual song cycle loosely based on Day of the Locust and Sunset Boulevard.

“Where’s Charlie?” Jefferson asked.

“He excused himself for a few,” Sitting Bull replied as he began to roll another joint.

“Yeah, and we all know what that means,” Abramson said.

“I saw Charlie when I got here,” Zolie said. “Looked like he was gettin’ himself a bump.”

Abramson smiled. “And let me guess: He was all by himself, right?”

Sitting Bull lit his joint and took a hit. “Charlie don’t like to share,” he said.

“Selfish motherfucker,” Abramson added.

Jefferson pointed towards the control booth window. “Hank’s here!”

Sitting Bull exhaled a large cloud of smoke and passed the joint to Zolie. “Hank don’t share either,” he said.

“What is it with these rock stars nowadays?” Abramson asked. “Remember the 60s, when everybody shared?

“We loved one another and shined on our brother,” Zolie said.

Sitting Bull laughed. “You got that ass backwards, man.”

On the other side of the control booth window, Hank Daly, founding member of the Coyotes, sat down on a stool in the wood paneled confines of Studio 3A, near a grouping of microphones and a brown Fender Stratocaster leaned up against a Peavey amp. Daly wore a beefy moustache on his deeply tanned face and had an unruly mane of dirty blond hair. He hadn’t shaved his beard for a few days and could have been mistaken for Jesus Christ Superstar, in snakeskin boots, faded blue jeans, and a denim shirt worn with 3 or 4 buttons open.

Jefferson spoke to Daly through the intercom from the control booth. “You ready to make some beautiful harmonies today?”

Daly eyed Jefferson through the glass and grudgingly gave a slight gesture of acknowledgement with his head, nothing more.

Jefferson’s timing in securing Daly’s participation in Zolie’s album coincided with the Coyotes earning a Platinum Record for their Cahuenga Passages. Over the previous several months, the album’s title track had blasted continually from the heart of the FM dial, filling millions of cars, homes and supermarkets with its lurid images of Rock Star L.A.

Inhale a white line
Cruise down the pass
To Sunset and Vine
To a piece of groupie ass
For a taste of the life
She’ll hum like a bee
But it cuts like a knife
‘Cause she’s just fourteen

Daly kept to himself in the studio. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small cylindrical film canister, and grabbed the latest issue of Rolling Stone off the top of an amplifier. He took great care in forming three lines of cocaine on the magazine’s cover photo of Jimmy Carter.

“Take it easy Hank,” Jefferson said through the intercom. “I can’t have you bouncing off the walls.”

“I bet that cocksucker’d fuck his own mother in the ass before he gave any one of us a goddamn bump,” Abramson said.

Sitting Bull stared into the middle distance, abstracted. “What’s it gonna take to get the suits to promote this album when it’s done?” he asked.

“If they think it has a chance to be a hit, they’ll promote the shit out of it,” Abramson said. “Otherwise it just ends up rotting away in the cutout bins.” He took a hit off the joint. “We need a single, something with a catchy chorus, a great melody, and a hook that’ll grab the girlies by their little titties and get ‘em all ready to go. Know what I mean?”

Zolie laughed. “You’re givin’ me a boner just thinkin’ about it,” he said.

Zolie thought about all the pop songs he’d written years ago. He was just trying to write hits back then. He wanted to write hits now, too, but he also wanted to make a ‘statement.’ At the same time, though, he worried that making statements might be anathema to making hit singles. He worried that he had to choose one or the other, a hit or a statement. And as much as he wanted to do something with artistic integrity, he wanted to make lots of money even more.

“You played on the basic tracks for the album,” Jefferson said to Abramson. “There’s a hit single or two in there, don’tcha think?”

Abramson pondered the question for a few moments as he sunk further into stoned-out bliss. “I’m not sure yet,” he finally said.

“Lemme take the tapes home tonight and play ‘em for my girlfriend. “I’ll let’cha know tomorrow.”

“If she fucks you like a rodeo rider all night long,” Zolie said, “we’ll know we got a Gold Record on our hands.”

Daly glared through the window, into the control booth, and pointed to the gold Rolex on his wrist. “Can we get this thing going?” he asked petulantly. “My time is money.”

“What’s your rush?” Sitting Bull asked into the intercom.

“I’ll tell you what my rush is, asshole. My Platinum-Record-selling-band is doing Kirshner this weekend. We have a rehearsal today at ABC.”

“But that’s just lip synching on Kirshner,” Jefferson said through the intercom. “What’s to rehearse?”

“Fuck you, man! There’s an art to lip synching the right way. We like to do it with feeling. Maybe you just go through the fuckin’ motions when you’re lip synching, but I like to lip synch like I mean it.”

“Tell that motherfucker to cool down,” Zolie said into Jefferson’s ear. “He’s all wound up on coke.”

Daly wasn’t finished spewing. “It’s just lip synching to you, sure. But lemme tell you somethin’. We got a vampire yid of a manager, takes 20 percent of what we earn. 20 fuckin’ percent! So we need to move merchandise. Lip synching on TV helps us do it. Gettin’ paid fuckin’ scale to sing backing vocals on a Zolie Wachs album doesn’t help us do it. I’m only helping out here ‘cause I owe you a favor or two, Jefferson. Got it? Now let’s get this goddamn thing started already.”

Back towards the end of ‘71, before either one of them were rich and famous, Jefferson lived upstairs from Daly in a decrepit duplex overlooking the Echo Park duck pond. Daly had migrated from Tulsa, Okalahoma and now played in the Sylmar Shakers, a country rock band also featuring Russ Bertrand on bass and Skip Daulton on pedal steel. The Shakers had released one tepidly reviewed album for MCA, One Thousand Oaks, and they never managed to garner much of a following beyond the local crowds that showed up for their gigs at the Troub and the Palamino.

Several days after Jefferson moved into the apartment upstairs from Daly, the sound of orgasmic squealing came wafting up through the floorboards and woke him up in the middle of the night. The noise eventually reached a loud crescendo, followed moments later by Daly’s twangy singing voice and an accompanying guitar.The following morning, Jefferson met Daly and his nubile15-year-old companion at the base of the duplex stairway. The dark foyer leading to the front door of the building smelled of pot.

“You my new neighbor?” Daly asked. He had a goatee at the time and wore a leather cowboy hat with sunglasses and a blousy white shirt.

“I heard ya singin’ last night,” Jefferson said. “Sounded real good. I almost came downstairs with my guitar to join ya.”

“You should have, man! I love a good midnight jam session.”

“Next time,” Jefferson said. “I got a bunch of new songs I wanna try out on someone new.”

Jefferson noticed the young girl smiling at him flirtatiously. She had on a tight, yellow tank top that matched the color of her hair and accentuated her pointy breasts. He wondered whether she might be Daly’s kid sister, or maybe even his daughter, but then he remembered the noise that had disturbed his sleep.
Jefferson and Daly struck up a friendship and began jamming together regularly. They walked to Hector’s Diner at Sunset and Alvarado every morning. The place was known for its rocket fuel coffee and killer Huevos Rancheros. Jefferson bussed tables there several evenings a week in exchange for food whenever he wanted it and a small share of the tips during his shift.

Daly usually dominated his conversations with Jefferson, but one morning while the two of them sat in a back booth at the diner, Daly remained uncharacteristically mum and pensive.
“What’s wrong?” Jefferson asked.

Daly lit a cigarette. “The record company’s dropping us,” he said.

“I’m sorry. What happened?”

“Nothing happened. That’s the problem. We sold about 900 records. That’s not good enough these days. Nobody gives a shit about the Sylmar Shakers.”

“Seemed like you were getting’ big crowds at the Palamino.”

“Nah. That place is a little matchbox. Small potatoes.”

“So what’cha gonna do?”

“I’ll Probably start my drinkin’ early today. Want in?”

Jefferson smiled sympathetically. Daly took a long pull on his cigarette.

“Russ ‘n me talked about starting something new,” Daly said. “Something more commercial.”


“Yeah, ‘ya know, selling out, man. It’s the thing to do these days. Same kinds of songs, but more for the radio.”

“You got any songs ready?” Jefferson asked, “’cause I got one you might wanna try. I think you could have a hit with it.”

The song, “Go Slow,” earned Jefferson his first big payday and made him a marketable commodity after Daly, Bertrand and Daulton dissolved the Sylmar Shakers and reformed as the Coyotes, adding Dave Heller on drums and Chuck Banham on guitar and vocals.

Go slow
You’re ridin’ way too fast
Go slow
Gotta learn from your past
Go slow
As you turn the page
Go slow
Through this fallen age

The Coyotes recorded “Go Slow” for Lesley Geldenbaum’s fledgling Hideaway Records, and by the summer of 1972 the band had a number 1 hit single with the song, as well as a Gold Record with their self-titled debut album. With the success of the single, Jefferson began work on Long Shadows, which was to be his first album for Hideaway.

“Has he always been such an ornery bastard?” Abramson asked, motioning with his head towards Daly, who was pacing back and forth distractedly on the other side of the glass separating the studio from the control booth.

“Hank?” Jefferson said, “Hank’s not ornery once you get to know him. He’s just wound a little tight.”

“Tight as a virgin’s pussy,” Zolie said.

“That’s pretty tight,” Sitting Bull added.

“Only reason Hank’s cool with you is ‘cause you made the guy’s career,” Abramson said to Jefferson.

Jefferson protested gently as he twiddled knobs on the soundboard. “I didn’t make Hank’s career.”

“The fuck you didn’t,” Abramson said. “There’d be no Coyotes today if you hadn’t written ‘Go Slow.’”

“And we wouldn’t be here having to listen to Daly’s shit all day long,” Sitting Bull said.

“I’ve always hated ‘Go Slow,” Zolie said, somewhat randomly.

The door behind the Soundboard opened. Charlie Watson stumbled into the control booth. He wore a sky-blue t-shirt with faded blue jeans and a pair of red clogs. His wavy blond hair grew past his shoulders and a grizzled beard covered his face. A cigarette hung from his mouth, and in his left hand he held a fifth of Jim Beam in a brown paper bag, which gave him the look of an unwashed transient. But no amount of ratty facial hair or inebriated dishevelment could completely camouflage the essential handsomeness projecting outward from his dark-blue eyes. Charlie was a rare genetic accident. The uglier he made himself, the more beautiful he became.

“Where ya been, Charlie?” Jefferson asked. “You ready to make some beautiful harmonies?”

Charlie stood in place, practically asleep on his feet, teetering on his wobbly legs.

“Toni kicked me,” he mumbled. “Told me don’t never come back.”

“What’re you talkin’ about?” Abramson asked. “Anyone know what he just said?”

“Sounds like Toni threw him out of the house,” Jefferson said. “Is that right Charlie?”

Charlie nodded drunkenly. “Told me don’t come back,” he said.

“Who’s Toni?” Zolie asked. “His girlfriend. Why’d she kick you out, Charlie?”

“Says I’m too messed up. She don’t like the drinkin’ ‘n stuff, ya know? Told me don’t never come back.”

“Sorry about that, Charlie. You got a place to go?”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.17

The signature Jimmy Webb happy/sad chord change in By the Time I get to Phoenix is a double whammy. It hits you the first time when Glen Campbell sings, I’ve left that girl so many times before. The effect is utterly devastating, to be sure, but does little to prepare you for what’s coming about a minute later with the words ‘that’s all,’ as in, but she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringing, off the wall, that’s all. ...I think what I admire most about Jimmy Webb is his knack for matching just the right words with just the right note at just the right moment. You can’t learn that sort of thing. It’s divinely inspired, one of those rare things that, for a few minutes anyway, makes me believe...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.16

Of all the brilliant songs Jimmy Webb wrote, I think Wichita Lineman is his finest. It's certainly the one I turn to instinctively when I'm needing me some Webb. And I need me some Webb on a fairly regular basis. I connect on a deep level with the approach he takes with his love songs, which are almost always written from the point of view of a lonely searcher longing for a sweetheart who's somewhere far away. There's also invariably that one happy/sad chord change that elevates each of his songs out of the realm of AM radio background music and into the sphere of sublime pop art. In the case of Wichita Lineman, it comes with the line, and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time... Glen Campbell was the perfect choice for the song, with his mild Country and Western accent expressing just enough wistful emotion to keep things squarely in the middle of the road. The simple guitar break is lovely as well, an archetypal mid-60s minimalist solo that replicates the song's basic melodic hook. ...Funny how this song is so ubiquitous but still always gets me to stop whatever I'm doing to listen every time, no matter where I am. I listen very carefully, savoring every moment of it. And as the yearning in Campbell's voice rises slightly on the fade out, who among us can resist basking in the warm glow of pop perfection?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.14

This is the Left Banke's highest charting single, reaching #5 on the Billboard Charts in the summer and fall of 1966. The heart tugging melody and beautiful orchestration create three of the best - and saddest - minutes in the history of pop...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.10

Sandy Denny's singing can at times be overwrought and pompous sounding in a distinctly English way, but when she just relaxes into a song and let's her natural gifts guide her, without overdoing it, her voice flutters like a butterfly, caressing your ears with soothing, compassionate vibes... Fairport Convention hung around with Led Zeppelin in Los Angeles, back in the day. I like picturing what that scene must've been like. LA has always been a magnet for cool brits. I think it started with Evelyn Waugh. They come here and settle in the hills, an appropriately detached location. But I think you'll agree that there's no detachment in Sandy Denny's singing tonight. She's there with you every step of the way, offering empathy and companionship, protection against the ravages of time...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.9

Another sweet tune from Ian Matthews, this one off his unjustly overlooked first solo album, If You Saw Thro' My Eyes. Richard Thompson adds some nice country inflected guitar, and Sandy Denny is among the singers providing the lovely backing vocals. Apparently Sandy and Ian hated one another. You'd never know it from the sound of things...

Monday, February 14, 2011

songs for broken hearts, no.8

Ian Matthews is an unsung hero of the 60s and 70s English folk rock scene. One of the upsides to being single again is that it's allowed me to reconnect with unsung heroes. Men and women listen to and appreciate music so differently. This has been my experience, anyway. I don’t feel comfortable indulging my OCDish fixation on music factoids in the company of women. It’s such a dorky and decidedly male thing to be into and doesn’t reflect well on a guy's eligibility and potential as a mate. It suggests that you have a lot of time on your hands, time that’s wasted accumulating pointless bits of information that have no market value whatsoever. So when I’m in a relationship, I suppress a fair bit of my hunger and passion for music. I turn that part of myself off. Women just wanna hear something that sounds nice, doesn’t matter what a lot of the time, as long as it chimes inoffensively in the background, like a Bacharach tune wafting lightly through the air while you’re waiting for your prescription to be filled. Do you know the way to San Jose? They don’t need the deep background information, the what, when, where, why and how. They don’t give a shit about the tambourine and the glockenspiel and the high harmony. But the tambourine, glockenspiel and high harmony are life itself! At least they are for me. And they can be life savers, too. Do you know how many times I’ve been able to prolong amorous acts simply by shifting focus from what I’m doing to the sound of the tambourine, glockenspiel, high harmony? It can add another 3 or 4 minutes, maybe more if the song’s got some shakers thrown in. But now that I'm on my own once more, I can get back to my obsessions. And my cats can sleep on the pillow next to me, keeping the night terrors away with that calming buzz of theirs, the one that says, ‘don’t worry big guy, we still love you unconditionally, and she wasn't right for you anyway.' It won'tbe long before I'm dusting off my copies of The Monster Manual and Bring on the Bad Guys...

Mining my record collection over the past few days has been very enjoyable. In times of personal upheaval, it's good to be good to yourself and to get back to the little things that give you pleasure. Like the weather we've been having here in the Southland this winter. Warm and perfect, kind of like Ian Matthews' pleading tenor. And silence makes a very loud reply. He could probably sing any girl out of her clothes with that voice of his. ...When I was a student in England, I contemplated making a three-hour train ride to Manchester to see Ian Matthews but didn't do it. I should have. I didn't have the perspective then that I have now. Back then, I viewed him as the secondary guy in Fairport Convention. I didn't yet appreciate the importance of secondary guys. Often times they're the ones who hold the whole thing together. Not that Ian Matthews is in any way a secondary talent. Aside from his amazing voice, he has a great feel for melodies, another case of a guy who lifts you up by bringing you right down...

pitchers and catchers in training camp today!

My teams will be mediocre at best this year, but I don't care right now because today is the first day of training camp. There is light at the end of the tunnel...

canyon fodder, chapter 5

When Sid Gold summoned Jerry Wachs to the Sit ‘n Sip on a smoldering day in July, Jerry tried to remember if he’d forgotten to carry out an assignment. As long as Sid’s soldiers didn’t hear anything from anybody upstairs, they could assume things were copasetic. But a ‘request’ from the man himself for a personal sit-down was reason to worry. Jerry searched his memory as he drove down Western Avenue through Gardena, asking himself what he might have done wrong. His nervous agitation increased with every harsh Bop beat blaring out the car radio.

Sid sat alone in his booth in the back room, smoking a cigar, drinking coffee. A ceiling fan whirred overhead. One of the usual phalanx of armed goons escorted Jerry to the booth and Sid motioned for him to have a seat.

“It’s hotter than a pistol today, ain’t it, Wachs?”

“Sure is,” Jerry said. “Very hot. Very.”

Sid removed the stogie from his mouth momentarily and looked at Jerry thoughtfully. Jerry felt the room get even hotter. His knees shook. At any moment he might feel the barrel of a gun against the back of his head. And then he’d feel nothing. Everything would go black.

“You and this Mona. You’re married, right?” Sid asked.

“Yeah, we’re married.”

“But you don’t live together.”

“No we don’t, Sid. No we don’t. Mona lives with my son, in Pedro.”

“Oh, right over here in Pedro, huh? And what about you? You live in Beverly Hills?”


Sid smiled. “I’m just jerkin’ your chain.”

Jerry ran his hand nervously through his dirty blond hair and forced a short, uneasy laugh.

“What’s the boy’s name?” Sid asked.

“His name’s Zolie.”

“Zolie,” Sid repeated. He paused for a few seconds in thought. “How old is little Zolie?”

“He’s eight.”

“Eight years old.” Sid took a long puff on his cigar. “You mean to tell me it’s already eight years since you came in here to tell me you didn’t want Zolie, that you wanted to get rid of the little guy before he was ever even born?”

Jerry looked down at the table. He suddenly didn’t care if somebody shot him. “I guess time flies,” Jerry said softly.

“Well, the kid’s here now, Wachs. So there’s no point in feelin’ bad about it.”

“I guess not, Sid.” Why had Sid called him in like this, Jerry wondered. It couldn’t have been just to shoot the shit, could it?

“Mona’s Jewish?” Sid asked, smoke billowing out his mouth.

“Yeah, she’s Jewish, just like me.”

“So Zolie’s Jewish. Good. A nice Jewish boy.”

“Wanna see a picture of him?”

“Certainly I wanna see a picture.”

Jerry pulled a silver plated money clip out of his front pocket. At the top of his wad, he kept a black and white picture of his son wearing a pretend cowboy outfit – chaps, vest, black Stetson – with guns drawn. Zolie’s thick glasses were not in keeping with the rugged frontier spirit of the rest of the photograph, but the heartbreaking smile leaking through the boy’s tough guy pose was all that mattered. Jerry handed the photo to Sid. Sid put on his reading glasses and looked at the picture for a few moments, smiling, shaking his head. “Handsome boy,” he said.

“Ain’t he though?”

Sid handed the photo back to Jerry and removed his glasses. “You’ve come a long way since you went to the can, Wachs. It did you some good. You’re all grown up now.”

“Thanks, Sid.”

“Now, what about if I told you I want you to help us run our operations down in the harbor?”


“No, Wachs, not you. Frank fuckin’ Sinatra.”

Sid and Jerry smiled at each other.

“You’re a pisser, Sid.”

“Well, what’d’ya think?”

“ Sure, Sid. I can do it. Whatever you need me to do, I’m gonna do it.”

“Yeah? Think you can handle it?”

“Certainly I can handle it.”

“Good. Think of this as… a small promotion.”

“Thanks, Sid,” Jerry said, with all the gratitude he could muster.

“To help you provide for little Zolie.”

“I really appreciate it.”

“Of course you do, Wachs! Now get outta here. Go down to the docks and see Morty. I already talked to him. He’ll get you started.”

Mona worked at the Bay Breeze six days a week. With each exhausting hour she spent on her feet, her facial features became harder, more unforgiving. But an alluring prettiness lurked beneath her stern mouth and her tired blue eyes, and she had a weakness for flattery from certain types of rough looking men. If they possessed the proper way with words – if they somehow expressed the idea that she went unappreciated and was far too attractive to sling hash and hamburgers – they would induce Mona’s coy smile, and just might end up in her bed, though only for a night. She enjoyed taming them, reducing them to prisoners of desire, and then discarding them when she’d had her fill. It was her way of getting something back for the life taken away from her. She’d learned her lesson – men were bastards and relationships only caused trouble.

Mona dressed for work one Friday afternoon and waited for Jerry to show up at the house. She could never be sure whether Jerry would be there as planned. She would not hesitate to leave Zolie by himself for an hour or two, but she couldn’t leave him alone all day. The kid was likely to walk off into the streets, in which case Mona might have trouble with the cops. Her disdainful glare greeted Jerry at the front door when he finally arrived. He had just started in his new work, overseeing the shape up on the docks. He wore a grey suit and matching hat, which he didn’t bother to remove.

“For once, you actually show up on time,” Mona said, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. “Or at least this time you’re only an hour late.”

“Always a ball breaker,” Jerry said. “Where’s my boy?”

Zolie popped up from behind the couch where he was hiding, the toy guns in each of his hands blazing in his imagination.

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! I got’cha Poppa! You’re dead!”

Jerry put his hands to his chest. “You got me, Kiddo! You shot me dead.”

Jerry fell to the floor, closed his eyes, and stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth. Mona looked down at the grown man lying on the ground and shook her head disgustedly.
“Get the hell up off the ground, Jerry,” she said.

“I think your Momma’s mad at me, kiddo,” Jerry said from the ground, his eyes still closed. “ She doesn’t like it when you and your poppa play and have a good time.”

“Don’t be mad, Momma,” Zolie said. “Me and Poppa are just playing pretend with my guns. He’s not really dead.”

“If only,” Mona said, walking away, leaving Jerry on the floor.

Jerry’s eyes twinkled as he got up off the ground. He kissed his son on the cheek. Zolie smiled, bug eyed through his glasses. He wanted always to be with his Poppa. Jerry ran a hand through Zolie’s curly blond hair. Then he put his hands on Zolie’s shoulders.

“You ready for your first music lesson, Kiddo?”

Josef Tibor gave piano lessons in his family’s bungalow, located at the top of a hill, just north of the harbor. His father, Ivan, worked the docks. Ivan had a short, stocky physique and wore the same clothes everyday – filthy khaki pants, a dark green rain slicker, and a grey wool cap pulled down over his head, out the bottom of which ran thick, grey sideburns. He did not seem to suffer from the normal dead-eyed fatigue plaguing most dockworkers, the reason being that he didn’t have to do much heavy lifting and loading of crates, instead only occasionally making a lame attempt to keep up appearances, directing the cranes with redundant hand signals. But he didn’t fool anybody. Men who worked the docks quickly learned that Ivan’s job was different.
For the previous 20 years, the International Longshoreman Workers Union, under the left-wing leadership of Harry Bridges, controlled most of the harbors up and down the West Coast. Where the union held sway, the shipping companies had no choice but to follow strict – some might say cumbersome – work rules. But in Los Angeles, East Coast-style rackets infiltrated the union and imposed their own corrupt way of doing business. Sure, there were still pockets of trouble in the harbor, a few stray troublemakers here and there, but the mob set up an efficient operation that broke strikes, blacklisted problem workers, and kept the crates flowing in and out of the harbor without much interruption. The ‘union’ in L.A. became an extension of the shippers, and the mob got a piece of every pound of cargo the union handled.

Ivan Tibor stood at the fulcrum of this arrangement. The union and the shippers paid Ivan to be observant. He walked quietly among several hundred grunting workers every day, along the windy, damp docks, where the fishy essence of the sea pervaded everything. He weaved in and out between wooden crates, 3, 6, 10 feet high, each containing the fuel of international trade, the wealth of nations. If the dockworkers knew what Ivan was doing in their midst, he still possessed an uncanny talent for uncovering valuable information. Even when he appeared to be walking purposefully from, say, a loading site to the union hall, and then from the union hall to the Rusty Pelican, where the men went to have a few beers at the end of the work day, Ivan’s ears absorbed things the shippers would want to know, emerging from casual conversations between men who had no idea Ivan was recording their words in his memory.

The younger generation of dockworkers, which included men who had served in Europe, or Japan, or Korea, knew Ivan was a stool pigeon in their midst and didn’t like having him around. But they tolerated him and left him alone, viewing him as part of the deal in working the harbor. As long as they stayed away from the agitators, they could count on regular work. But there were also still a handful of older, more militant workers who openly hated Ivan and everything he represented. They had been around for the riots and bloodshed during the 30s, and yet somehow managed to remain off the company blacklists in the 20 years since. Their firey righteousness had long ago been extinguished, save for a few low burning coals, fanned by grudges that would never completely fade. Tear gas and blackjack blows to the skull have a way of keeping these things alive. Mixing it up with Ivan had its dangers, but they had cultivated a fatalistic bravery, no less dignified for being muted and defanged. When Ivan made his rounds and passed a gang of these old timers loading or unloading a ship, they were sure to give him the business.

“Ever get the feelin’ you’re being watched?”

“Smile ‘fellas. Looks like we’re havin’ our picture taken.”

“Careful now, boys. Careful. We don’t wanna get pigeon shit on our heads.”

“Forget the pigeons. I smell skunk”

Their bitterness didn’t bother Ivan, and he never regretted the way he earned a living. He reported directly to Jerry Wachs. The two men struck up a casual friendship. Every afternoon, around 3:00, Ivan closed the door behind him and stepped into Jerry’s small, dark office at the back of the union hall, redolent of cigarettes and musty wads of cash. Ivan told Jerry the story of how he had been a schoolteacher in Budapest and escaped the country by squeezing himself into a small, secret compartment in the sidewall of a bread truck, leaving his wife and son behind. He traveled for several hours with his body flattened sideways before the truck crossed the Hungarian border and rode into Austria. He eventually ended up in Vienna.

Surviving on nothing much more than stale bread crusts and whatever money he didn’t leave back home for his family, Ivan then traveled deep into Switzerland by train. A second train carried him as a stowaway from Bern to Paris, where he stayed for six months, cleaning bathrooms at a boarding house in exchange for hot meals and a bed. By the time Ivan crossed the English Channel and snuck onto a large cargo boat traveling across the Atlantic, from Brighton to New York, and then down the East Coat of the United States, through the Gulf of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, up the Pacific Coast, and into the harbor at Los Angeles, it had been close to a year since he’d seen his wife and son. Ivan found work and companionship in L.A., thanks to the growing number of Hungarian dissidents who had formed a supportive clique amongst the dockworkers.

“Many men here who do not like me,” Ivan told Jerry one day just before quitting time. “This I know.”

Jerry laughed. “You mean here on the docks? They ain’t so crazy about me neither, Ivan. It ain’t nothin’ personal. They just don’t like the shape up, and they don’t appreciate bein’ watched all the time. But business is business. What can you do?”

Jerry lit a cigarette and nodded. He offered Ivan a smoke and lit it for him.

“I don’t care they don’t like,” Ivan said.

“That’s the spirit!”

Jerry had just come from visiting with Zolie one afternoon when Ivan came into his office for their daily pow wow.

“Didn’t you tell me your son plays the piano?” Jerry asked.

“Yes. Josef he was finest pianists in Hungary. Then I escape the country.”

Jerry gave Ivan a confused expression.

“I leave Hungary,” Ivan explained. “Jozef could play no more. No more concerts, and they take piano out my house. When my wife and Jozef escape and come here to California, we do the first thing, we go and get Jozef piano we buy. Now he gives the lessons.”

“Zolie wants to learn how to play.”

“Your boy? Jozef will teach!”

“Yeah? You think he could teach Zolie? The kid loves music.”

“You bring your boy to my house. Jozef will give the lessons, for free.”

Jerry gave Ivan a grateful smile, and then the two men paused for a few moments. Ivan stared down at his hands with a frown that accentuated the deeply formed lines in his forehead.
“What’s wrong, Ivan? Any trouble goin’ on out there?”

Ivan looked into Jerry’s eyes. “I tell you something interesting. Very interesting.”

“Tell me.”

Ivan took a deep breath and composed himself. “A big shipment of the heroin comes from Mexico. Next week.”

Jerry looked at Ivan, deadpan, took a long drag on his cigarette, and then started to laugh. “That’s your big story, Ivan? You think I don’t know about that?” He laughed harder. “Sid’s got the horse runnin’ through this port all the time. It ain’t no secret. Even the cops know about it. ‘Coupla shmucks in Narcotics get a piece, and that’s that.” Jerry stopped, looked at Ivan for a few more seconds, and then started laughing again.

Ivan didn’t like it when people laughed at him; his expression became very serious. “No, Jerry. This is not same.”

“It’s not the same how?”

“I hear this morning two men talking. Jack Williams and Howard Campbell.”

“Williams and Campbell. I Know ‘em both. Good men. Good honest men.”

“They no know I listen to them.”

“That’s why we pay you,” Jerry said, smiling.

“Yes. OK. They talk this heroin, next week it comes. $100,000.”

“Come to think of it, Ivan, Sid would never involve regular guys like that in…”

“This is what I tell you, Jerry. This different thing it is.”

“You mean these guys, whoever they’re workin’ for, have their own junk comin’ in?”

Ivan nodded.

“And it’s got nothin’ to do with Sid. Who’s behind it?”

Ivan shrugged.

Jerry whistled. “Gotta hand it to ‘ya. That’s big fuckin’ news. I don’t even wanna tell ‘ya what Sid does to guys who try to muscle in.” Jerry took a long drag off his smoke and looked at Ivan sternly. “So now what?”

Sophie Tibor, Ivan’s wife, opened the door for Jerry and Zolie. The darkly varnished wooden floors of the Tibor household amplified the sound of Jerry’s heavy footsteps. Small windows allowed only minimal daylight into the house. The tight, musty air gave off hints of cooked onions and boiled cabbage, a foreign aroma that made Zolie want to run away and forget about the whole thing. He took his father’s hand and squeezed tightly. Sophie was a tiny woman, not a dwarf exactly, but only a few inches taller than Zolie. She tied her grey hair up in a bunch and wore a non-descript dark-blue dress with white polka dots. “Jo-zef!” she called out, before saying something in Hungarian. She received no answer and turned to Jerry and Zolie. “Please, come with me.”

They followed her from the front door, past the dining room and the sparsely furnished living room, and then down a short, narrow corridor lined with shelves displaying clay figurines of cats and dogs and rabbits, and spilling over with books, mostly written in Hungarian, but a few scattered works written in English with titles like History and Class Consciousness and Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche. They passed the master bedroom. At the end of the hallway Sophie knocked at the door to Jozef’s room. She received no reply and knocked again, louder this time. A groggy, low voice answered.

“What is it, Momma? Leave me be.”

“Jozef, your lesson is here.”

She opened the door, which surprised Jerry. ‘These hunks are somethin’ else’, he thought to himself. The shades were drawn, and the dark room smelled of cigarette smoke, like a gin joint at closing time. Against the wall on the right side of the room stood an upright piano. Clothes, books, ashtrays, and plates of half eaten food covered the floor.

Jerry half-whispered to Zolie: “What a slob, huh?”

Zolie nodded quickly and gave a rude little giggle.

On the left side of the room, Jozef Tibor lay in his bed under a blanket.

“Ay yi yi,” Sophie said, followed again by rapid-fire Hungarian.

Jozef grunted and turned his face toward the wall, away from the three intruders. “Okay, Momma,” he said. “Okay. Five minutes give me. I do the lesson.”

Sophie turned to Jerry. “Please,” she said. “Five minutes.”

Jozef Tibor never saw anything like it before. Zolie had never had a music lesson. At least that’s what his father said, which was either bullshit, or the kid was some kind of genius. They say Errol Garner sat down at a piano one day for the first time and just started to play. So it wasn’t impossible. Jozef thought that maybe Zolie came from the womb knowing how to play.
Jozef normally dreaded giving lessons to complete beginners. He didn’t have the patience for it. In Hungary, bluntness was expected from teachers as a matter of course. From each according to his ability meant that not everybody had ability. When a student had no potential whatsoever to develop musical talent, a music teacher was expected to say so. Why waste time? But in America, Jozef discovered, democracy bred the delusion that people could be whatever they wanted to be. Parents brought their untalented children to Jozef for lessons and expected him to extract miracles from nothingness. Some time ago, a woman had brought her daughter to him for piano lessons. After several weeks, the girl still couldn’t even play a simple scale. So Jozef told her mother that the lessons were pointless.“Perhaps,” Jozef said, “to sewing she is better suited.”

Next thing he knew, the mother and daughter were both crying in front of him. Sophie prepared tea and biscuits to calm them down, but they continued to whine and shriek away, complaining that Jozef was horrible and unkind. Jozef sat in the corner of his room, chain smoking, looking at this pathetic woman, and her pathetic spawn. He knew he had done them both a favor. But it was the kind of favor people in America didn’t appreciate. Ever since then, he muddled through hours and hours of lessons with kids who had no hope of ever being able to play the piano, but now he kept his opinions and judgments to himself.

But with Zolie, cruel honesty was unnecessary. Jozef got out of bed and smoked the day’s first cigarette. He put on a wrinkled pair of chino pants and a white t-shirt that had yellow perspiration stains under the arms and could not completely cover his protruding belly. He slicked his oily black hair back with his hand and then called out for Zolie to enter the room. Jerry left Zolie at the Tibors’ and said he’d be back in an hour and a half. Zolie sat down next to Jozef on the bench at the piano and immediately noticed Jozef’s yellow teeth and terrible morning-cigarette breath. Jozef showed Zolie the proper way to rest his hands atop the keyboard, with the wrists straight, never at an angle.

“Good,” Jozef said. “Now we play the scale.”

He showed Zolie the C scale with his right hand, slowing down when the thumb tucked under on the way up, and again when the index finger carried over on the way down. When Zolie took his turn, he played the C scale flawlessly and then, without prompting, played it a second time, continuing up two octaves, and back down, and then down two octaves and back to the starting point. Jozef looked at Zolie, said nothing, and reached into his pocket for his smokes. Zolie looked straight ahead at the wall, expressionless.

Jozef lit a cigarette and demonstrated arpeggios up and down the keyboard. Zolie played them once, and then he played them again, only the second time he followed each arpeggio with the full chord. Jozef smiled to himself but still said nothing. He showed Zolie the D scale and the E scale. By the time they got to F and G and A and B, Zolie had figured out all the sharps and flats with no help.

The piano notes were the only sound in the silence between them. Jozef would demonstrate, and then Zolie would play, taking things to the next level of difficulty himself. As a general principal, Jozef felt students should learn how to read music. There was a right way to do things and a wrong way. Learning to read music was the right way; learning to play by rote was the wrong way. But with Zolie, normal principles didn’t apply. Jozef played four bars of Mozart and then looked at Zolie to see what would happen. Zolie stared at the keyboard for a few moments. Jozef lit another cigarette. Through the room’s closed door and in the muffled distance, they could both hear Sophie letting Jerry back into the house.
“Do it again,” Zolie said to Jozef.

Jozef repeated the four bars. Zolie watched carefully. Jerry’s heavy footsteps plodded down the hallway towards Jozef’s room. Zolie put his hands on the keyboard. A light knock sounded at Jozef’s door, and then it opened slowly. Sophie and Jerry walked quietly into the room. Zolie began to play. He played it perfectly, with feeling, with well placed accents, as if he’d done it one thousand times before. Jerry’s mouth hung open as he removed his hat and watched his boy.

A large moving truck stood double parked outside Mona’s house when the school bus dropped Zolie off at 4:00. Two hulking men dressed in green coveralls climbed down from the truck’s cab. One of the men, who had grey hair, a weather beaten face, and a bulbous growth over his left eye, held a clipboard and stopped Zolie as he approached the house.

“Kid, you live here?”

Zolie nodded.

“Your name Zooey, or, let’s see here, Zulie?”

Zolie nodded.

“And your mother, her name’s Mona, right?

Zolie said nothing now, but looked at the man curiously. “We got a delivery for you, Zulie. A piano, from, let’s see here, from a Mr. Wachs. Jerry Wachs.”

“Poppa sent a piano?”

“If this Jerry Wachs is Poppa, then Poppa sent you a piano, kid. All we gotta do is get Momma to sign for it.”

Zolie looked at the man with a confused grimace.

The man called back to his partner: “Angelo! This is the place. Open the back. I’m gonna get the broad to sign for the thing.”

“Look at those fuckin’ stairs!” Angelo said. “They didn’t tell us nothin’ about carrying the fuckin’ thing up no fuckin’ stairs!”

The man with the clipboard turned back to Zolie: “Let’s go see if your Momma’s home so we can get you your piano.”

Zolie saw Mona’s black Packard parked on the street, directly opposite the house. He climbed the concrete stairs to the porch with the moving man and they walked through the unlocked front door.

“Nice place,” the moving man said, unconvincingly.

For the first few moments, it seemed as if no one was home. But then Zolie and the moving man heard the faint sound of Mona giggling. Zolie walked quietly towards her bedroom and stopped in front of the closed door. “You’re bad,” he heard his mother say to somebody else in the room with her. “I don’t normally let ‘fellas do that.”

“Yeah? I don’t see ‘ya tryin’ to stop me.”

Mona laughed seductively.

Zolie looked back at the moving man, who stood just outside the hallway leading to Mona’s room and held his face in his left hand, shaking his head in embarrassment. Two excruciatingly sharp sensations punctured Zolie’s stomach like nails – shame and rage. He had been through this dozens of times, though usually at night, after hours. He smacked the door repeatedly with his open hand. His head and blonde curls shook with the effort and his glasses fell off his face, onto the floor. “Open the door, Momma!” he yelled as his face turned bright red. “There’s a man here, with a piano! Open the door!”

“Goddamn kid,” Mona said to her mystery guest. “Hold on, Zolie! I’ll be right there, okay?”
Zolie felt around on the floor, found his glasses, and put them back on his scowling face. The moving man gave him a bashful smile and walked back into the living room.

Frantic movements vibrated outward from behind the closed bedroom door.

“Who’s in there with you?” Zolie asked.

The moving man interjected from the living room. “Zulie, I’m gonna leave these papers here for your mommy to sign. Me and my partner’ll bring the piano while she’s gettin’ ready.”
“The man is gonna get the piano now, Momma.”

The bedroom door opened and a tall man with dark hair and a moustache zipped by Zolie. He held his coat, hat and shoes in his arms and his shirttails were not tucked in. His suspenders hung off his trousers, by his side.

The moving man stood near the front entrance to the house, on his way back down to the truck. “Have fun in there?” he asked as Jimmy, the mystery guest, headed for the door to leave. Jimmy stopped and grinned slyly at the moving man. The two of them did not realize Zolie was watching them from the other corner of the room.

“That is one good time girl in there” Jimmy said, pointing back towards the bedroom. “What a broad! She could suck the paint off a parking meter.”

The moving man simply gave Jimmy a smile, one part admiration, one part envy, Mona emerged from the bedroom and walked out into the living room in a bathrobe. Her eyes flared at Jimmy, and he obediently ran out the door and into the street.

“Momma!” Zolie said. “Poppa sent a piano. “The man says you have to sign for it.”

Mona said nothing, as she wandered towards a pack of cigarettes and some matches, sitting next to an ashtray on a small round table next to the couch. She lit a smoke and took a drag.


“Yeah, yeah,” She said. “I got it, Zolie, I got it. A piano. Figures your father would be behind all this.” She glanced at the moving man.

“Mam, sorry to interu—…Uh, alls we need you to do is sign for it.”

“Sign for it, Momma! Sign for it!”

Zolie scampered towards the front door and looked out at the other man waiting downstairs, outside the truck. Mona never unlocked her glance from the moving man. They looked at each other. A smile – that smile - formed on Mona’s face. The moving man caught on and winked at her. “I’ll sign for it,” Mona said to him.

With hands cuffed behind their backs, Howard Campbell and Jack Williams lay side-by-side, their faces down in the gravel of a small concrete clearing under a freeway overpass. Two vehicles idled on either side of them, an old Ford backed up several inches from their heads, and a Dodge pick up at their feet. Daylight would not come for another two hours, but bright headlights from an LAPD squad car, facing the scene from twenty yards away, illuminated the toxic exhaust as it dispersed into the damp air.

Williams coughed phlegmatically. “What the fuck is this all about?” he yelled over the gurgling engines. “We never make no trouble, never go on strike or nothin’.” He coughed again, this time more harshly.

Jerry Wachs stood off to one side of the men, wearing a grey wool overcoat, along with a matching felt hat with a large brim. He held a white handkerchief over his mouth to keep the exhaust out of his lungs.

Captain Pat Malone, a 25-year veteran on the force, sat in the squad car watching Jerry go to work. The two-way radio under the dashboard squelched and squawked. …Armed assault in progress, 97th and Normadie… The Captain reached over and took a flask out of the glove box.
Ivan Tibor stood up in back of the pick up truck, smoking a cigarette calmly, looking down on the two men lying on the ground.

Fats Bigman, a 6’5, 250-pound wrestler, who earned extra cash working for Pinkerton and as an all-purpose goon for Sid Gold, stood opposite Ivan, near the trunk of the old Ford, wearing scuffed work boots with frayed chinos, a green lumberjack jacket, and a grey wool derby on his shaved head. Boom Philips, another Sid Gold goon, stood next to Fats in a brown leather bomber jacket, holding a black lead pipe by his side.

“Don’t make a jerk outta me ‘fellas,” Jerry said to the two captives. “You know why you’re here. This’ll all be over if you give up the details.”

“What details?” Williams screamed, making an effort to turn on his side so he could face Jerry.

“OK, Williams. Have it your way. Boom, give ‘em a little taste.”

“Jack,” Campbell said, “maybe we should—“

“Just stay calm, Howard,” Williams said.

Boom approached Campbell and kicked him hard three times in the kidneys. Campbell coughed and moaned. Then Boom stepped over to Williams, turned him around, and smashed his kneecap with the lead pipe. Williams’ screams bounced off the concrete of the overpass and reverberated into the cold darkness. Boom stepped away.

“Want more,” Jerry asked, “or you wanna get smart and start talkin’?”

“Fuck you, Wachs!” Williams yelled, almost crying now. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talkin’ about.”

“Let’s just tell ‘im,” Campbell said to Williams. “They’re gonna kill us otherwise. If you don’t tell ‘im, I will.”

“You keep your fuckin’ mouth shut,” Williams said. “Or I’ll kill you next time I get the chance.”

“Oooo, you’re a tough guy, are ‘ya Williams?” Jerry said. “Looks like Howie here’s the only one with any smarts. Funny. I’d a figured you’d be the brains ‘o the outfit.”

“Yeah? Well you figured wrong. You’re not gonna get a fuckin’ thing outta me. And if you kill me, you won’t get nothin’ either. So you’re fucked, Wachs. Hear me? Fucked!”

Jerry glanced over at Ivan and gave him a nod. Ivan stepped down from the back of the pick up, opened the front door, and sat in the front driver’s seat. Jerry glanced at Fats and Boom. “OK ‘fellas,” he said. “Set it up.” Fats produced two more sets of steel manacles and, with Boom standing by with the pipe, he hitched Williams and Campbell by their left wrists to the back fender of the truck, and by their right ankles to the back of the old Ford.

“This is all a big bluff,” Williams said to Campbell. “You watch.”

“It don’t feel like no bluff to me,” Campbell said, panicked.

“You just keep your fuckin’ mouth shut, Howard. We’ll get outta this.”

Boom sat behind the wheel of the Ford and put it in drive. In the side view mirror of the truck, and through the rising clouds of exhaust, Ivan watched the Ford inch slowly away from him.
Captain Malone looked on intently from the squad car. He took another belt of whiskey and laughed as Williams and Campbell began to elevate, flatten, and stretch out between the Ford and the pickup. An ugly, creaky noise came from the back of the Ford as metal ground against metal, handcuffs against fender. Campbell screamed. Boom felt resistance to his forward motion and put the car back in park. Jerry approached Williams and Campbell. “Last chance, ‘fellas,” he said. “Wanna tell me about the junk?”

Boom revved the car.

Ivan put the key in the ignition and started the truck.

“We better tell ‘im, Jack. We’re fucked.”

Williams said nothing.

“You don’t need his permission to tell me,” Jerry said to Campbell. “Now come on, I’m startin’ to lose my patience. I’m gonna count to 10…”

Boom revved the car harder.

“1 – 2 – 3 --”

Ivan revved the truck.


“OK, ok, I’ll talk,” Campbell said. “The stuff’s comin’ in at the end of this week, from down South. Almost 100 large worth.”

“Who’s behind it, Howie?”

“No! They’ll kill me if I—“

“Shut up! Who’s behind it?”

“OK. Fuck! It’s Mickey Cohen. Mickey fuckin’ Cohen! Happy? He set the whole fuckin’ thing up from prison. Two guys pulled me ‘n Jack aside last week. We ain’t never seen ‘em before. One guy’s name was Francis. He offered us 500 a piece to handle the packages when they come in, deliver ‘em to a warehouse, out in Lancaster. We got 250 on the spot. We were gonna get the rest when we made the delivery.”

“Was this supposed to be a one-time shot, or a regular thing?”

“I don’t know, Wachs. But Francis said if we do a good job, there’d be more jobs comin’ for us.”

Fats and Boom unhitched Williams and Campbell from the fenders of the two vehicles and escorted them to the back seat of the old Ford. Williams could not walk on his shattered knee and was forced to hop towards the car with his arm around Boom’s shoulder. Boom sat between the two men in the back seat and Fats sat behind the wheel. Jerry walked over to the car slowly, produced a wad of cash from the inside pocket of his coat, and addressed Campbell and Williams through the open rear window.

“This is the rest of the two-and-a-half Mickey was gonna give each of you,” Jerry said. Campbell took five fifty dollar bills from Jerry, but Williams refused his offering, staring straight ahead, sullen. “Mickey’s not gonna be needin’ your services no more. Got it?”

Campbell turned to Williams. “Don’t be sore, Jack” Campbell said. “I hadda do it, hadda talk. They was gonna rip our arms and legs off. I like walkin’, Jack. Don’t you? I had no fuckin’ choice.”

Williams said nothing and only gave Campbell a surly glare loaded with promises of future violence.

“Come on, Jack. I had no choice.”

“Don’t let Williams scare ‘ya,” Jerry said to Campbell. “He’s not gonna lay a finger on ‘ya. Not one fuckin’ finger.” Jerry lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in Williams’ face. Williams closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, suppressing a cough. “Know why he’s not gonna lay a finger on ‘ya? Here’s why.” Jerry glanced and nodded at Fats, who watched from the driver’s seat, through the rearview mirror.

Fats got out of the car and pulled Williams outside from the back seat. Williams collapsed on his bum knee and fell to the concrete. Jerry approached and stood over him with Fats.

“Jerry, please don’t kill me,” Williams said pleadingly. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t wanna cross Mickey Cohen. You can understand that, can’tcha? I’ll do anything. Say the word and I’ll do it. I won’t touch Howard. I won’t say nothin’.”

“What happened to Mr. tough guy?” Jerry asked, taking a drag off his cigarette. “He was here just a few minutes ago. Now you’re not so fuckin’ brave, are ya?” Jerry crinkled his nose. “Damn, Williams. Did you just make in your pants?” He turned to Fats. “I think he just crapped himself, Fats.”

Fats laughed. “You want I should change his diaper?”

“Please, Jerry! I’ll bring ‘ya the junk. Whatever you want. I got a wife, Jerry. She can’t make it without me. Please!”

Jerry pulled a revolver out from the inside of his overcoat and held it up to Williams’ head. Jerry and Williams made solemn eye contact through the darkness. “Fats,” Jerry said, without unlocking his stare from Williams’ eyes, “make sure Mrs. Williams gets some flowers, with condolences from the union. And take up a collection.”

Echoes of the blast hung in the air for a few long moments. Jerry put the gun back inside his coat and looked down at his work, admiring the stream of blood flowing out onto the concrete from Williams’ head. Then he walked towards the Ford. Ivan and Fats put the body in the back of the pick up and covered it with a drop cloth.

“You’re in luck,” Jerry said to Campbell, handing him the other $250. “Looks like Jack’s not gonna be needin’ his half of Mickey’s money.” Campbell took the cash, noticing speckles of blood and brains on the arm of Jerry’s overcoat. “Shit, Campbell,” Jerry said, smiling. “You made out like gangbusters tonight. You haven’t even done shit yet, and you’re already up 500 bucks. Not bad.”

An inkling of gratitude worked its way into the otherwise dazed expression on Cambell’s face. “I want you to go home and rest up,” Jerry said. “Take the day off, with pay. We’ll be in touch with you. OK?”

Campbell nodded.

Boom started the car and drove off with Campbell, followed by Ivan and Fats (and Williams) in the truck. Jerry watched as the break lights lit up in the distance, and then the two vehicles each made a right turn onto Gaffey, one after another, and drove off into the chilly pre-dawn morning. Jerry walked over to the squad car and sat next to Captain Pat in the front seat. The captain started the car and drove Jerry home.

Once a week, Zolie sat with Jozef at his piano for an hour-and-a-half. Zolie would demonstrate how perfectly he could play the complicated pieces Jozef had shown him the week before. He basked in Jozef’s cigarette scented amazement. Jozef would then show him a new piece, a new challenge, often something even more difficult, and Zolie knew then and there that he’d be able to meet the challenge, even if he didn’t quite understand why. And in this mysteriously suspended frame of mind, Zolie became lost in bliss and forgot about his mother, forgot about her misery and lack of interest in anything except the strange men in her bedroom.
But when Sophie Tibor quietly knocked on Jozef’s door at the end of the lesson, Zolie’s bliss evaporated. His head, held high at attention throughout the time spent with Jozef, would go limp, his chin falling dejectedly onto his neck. The door would open and Sophie invariably stood there in her grey coat, ready to walk Zolie home. Zolie would feel something he often felt elsewhere, the withdrawal of things that made him happy, in this case the music and the learning, but also the warm, affirmative bond with Jozef.

The two of them spoke little as they sat together at the piano. The lessons consisted mostly of Zolie committing the pieces Jozef showed him to sight, sound and touch memory. If Zolie played something well, Jozef’s eyes would narrow and he would nod twice, ever so slightly, which in turn was the signal for Zolie to look down at the keyboard with his arms at his side, waiting for the next demonstration. If Zolie made a mistake or played at a level that failed to meet his usual excellence, Jozef held his nose and said “P.U.” Zolie would laugh his high-pitched laugh and throw his face up towards the ceiling, and Jozef would smile a rare smile and give Zolie two quick, warmhearted squeezes on the arm with his hand. Then Jozef’s smile would vanish and the laughing would stop as he put his hands on the keyboard and said, “I show you again.”

One afternoon, after three months of lessons with Zolie, Jozef tried something different, without warning. Instead of Hayden, Handel, or Beethoven, he played a swingin’ Artie Shaw tune for Zolie, something called “Begin the Beguine”, in three-four time.

“That’s jazz!” Zolie said.

“Yes,” Jozef replied, looking at Zolie but continuing to play as he spoke. The music had an undeniable shuffle ‘n glide. The bunny hop boogie came as much from the space between the notes as it did from the notes themselves.

“You like the jazz?”

Zolie nodded vigorously and then snapped his fingers and swayed his shoulders to the beat. Every few bars he rested his head affectionately on Jozef’s arm. Jozef smiled, enjoying himself almost as much as the little boy.

Jozef showed Zolie a section of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-ooo”, which Zolie played at home from memory and used as the inspiration to come up with his own little jazz diddies. Zolie played his jumpy creations over and over again, looking down at the black and white keys through his thick glasses, simultaneously transfixed and remote. His little fingers seemed disembodied, as if moving of their own accord, and they rarely hit a bum note.

Mona came stomping out of her bedroom wearing a see-through nightshirt and disheveled hair. “Jesus Christ, Zolie!” she said. “I’m trying to take a nap.”

“Mama!” Zolie said, turning in his chair. “Wanna hear some songs I made up, all by myself? They’re jazz!”

“You don’t listen to me when I talk to you, do you Zolie? I’ve heard you play that thing all day. Give it a rest.” She lit a cigarette.

“But can’t I just play a little bit longer?”

“Zolie, do you understand that you’re giving me a headache? I’m dead tired. I need to get some rest. You know, I swear your father got you that thing just so he could get on my nerves.”

“I wanna call Papa on the telephone.”

“If that’s what it takes to get you away from that piano, then go ahead. He’s probably at work.”

Zolie shot up out of his chair and scampered to the black telephone in the living room.
Jerry Wachs sat at the desk in his office, inspecting an attaché case teaming with bundles of cash, when the phone rang.

“Wachs here.”

“Poppa! Jozef showed me jazz and I made up some songs on the piano and I practice every day and Jozef says I’m very good and he’s goona show me some more jazz next time and I can play the songs I made up with no mistakes but Momma doesn’t want—“

“Hold it, hold it, Kiddo. Slow down just a little bit so your Poppa can catch his breath, OK?”

“Poppa, I practice the piano everyday. I wanna practice more right now, but Momma said no she’s taking a nap.”

“That’s wonderful, kiddo. The stuff about the piano, I mean. You like Jozef?”

“Yeah! He shows me lotsa neat stuff. Poppa, you wanna hear me play?”

“You mean over the phone?”

“Yeah! Wait.”

Zolie put the phone receiver down on the table, pointing it towards the piano. He ran across the living room, took a seat at the keyboard, and began to play. Jerry smiled, listening and nodding to himself as the faint jazzy paino music came through the telephone receiver. Then there was a knock at Jerry’s office door.

“Yeah, who’s there?”

“It is Ivan.”

“Oh. Ok, Ivan. Come on in. I’ll be with ya in a second.” Into the phone: “Zolie?” … Zole?…Kiddo?…” It was no use; Zolie continued to hammer away at the keys of the piano, performing for his Poppa, away from the phone. Jerry hung up. “That was my boy on the phone,” Jerry said. Ivan took a seat on the other side of the desk. “Sounds like your son is workin’ miracles with ‘im.”

“Yes,” Ivan said. “Jozef, he says your boy is very good student. No one does Jozef say this for. ”
Zolie continued to play. Mona came booming out of the bedroom again. “Are you gonna make me spank you, Zolie?” she said. “Quit it with the goddamn piano! I don’t wanna have to say it again.”

“I’m playing for Poppa,” Zolie said, pointing to the phone receiver off the hook.”

Mona glanced over at the phone and gave a nasty grimace. “Tell that jerk the show’s over. I mean it, Zolie! Quit it with the goddamn piano.”

Zolie ran back to the phone.

“Did you like that, Poppa?”

He heard a dial tone.

“Poppa?” Zolie said plaintively. “You’re not there. Where did you go?”

“What will you do?” Ivan asked Jerry.

For a few fleeting moments the night before, riding in Pat Malone’s squad car, after knocking off Jack Williams under the freeway overpass, Jerry had considered doing the right thing and going to Sid. Sid would have broken some heads and stymied Mickey Cohen’s incursion, and Jerry would have earned more of the old man’s trust. He might even get a bump upwards in the organization. Sid Gold was big on loyalty, at least when it worked to his benefit.
But the street value of the incoming junk would be worth five times what Mickey paid wholesale, which meant about a half mill gross. That’s a lot of steak dinners, Jerry thought to himself, and not no London Broil neither; we’re talkin’ Fillet fuckin’ Mignon. Then again, stealing the junk was risky. Jerry couldn’t just pinch all that horse from Mickey Cohen and expect it to be the end of the story. It didn’t matter that Mickey was behind bars. And even if Jerry did steal it, there’d be complications. He could do the good soldier routine and bring Sid into the fold, but then the stuff’d become Sid’s junk, and Jerry wasn’t about to turn his back on a huge windfall. But if he kept the stuff for himself, he’d have no safe place to store it, and no way to move it.

Jerry had tired of being Sid’s reliable lackey, a trustworthy sucker. Sure, Sid gave him a good job and paid him OK, but Jerry felt entitled to more now. An opportunity comes along, Jerry reasoned, and you have to grab it. Otherwise you end up getting left behind, with your face down in the gutter, just like all the other losers. And anyway, Jerry had come around to thinking of Sid as a loudmouth blowhard. He came across as a generous guy on the surface, but he always went out of his way to make Jerry feel like a schmuck, always on his high horse, giving sermons, trying to make like he was more than a filthy hood. Old coot.

“I’m figurin’ maybe I can cut a deal with Mickey Cohen. I’ll help him transport and unload the stuff, and I’ll keep Sid in the dark. I figure I’ll save Mickey a lot of headaches, if he cuts me in, and he’ll have no choice about that one.” Jerry lit a cigarette and took a long thoughtful drag, looking at Ivan closely. “I can do it, Ivan, if I can trust your loyalty.”

Jerry thought maybe Mickey planned it this way from the start. Devious son of a bitch.

Everything seemed to line up perfectly. Jerry would use Sid’s port and Sid’s relationship with the cops to help Mickey set up a rival junk operation. Mickey already had people in place to move the stuff and get it on the streets.

Jerry knew he’d have to pay Captain Pat double what Sid paid him, but it made smart business sense because the Captain would be getting grease from Sid and Mickey, at the same time. He’d have incentive to just keep the lines of distribution free of interference and keep his drunken mouth shut. Fats and Boom were both too dumb to know what was goin’ on. Throw ‘em a few extra bucks here and there and they’d zip it and be happy and quiet.
Then there was Howie Campbell. Poor Howie. A weak, loose lipped liability. Once the first shipment of junk came in, Jerry would have to get rid of him.

“Can I count on you, Ivan?”

Ivan looked at Jerry for a long five seconds before answering. “Fifty-thousand. This for me it seems fair. Also percentage of what you with Mickey Cohen arrange.”

“Fifty-thousand! Plus a piece? I thought you was my friend, Ivan.”

“I am your friend, Jerry. And you are my friend. So you know the value that I come to you with this information, yes? I am asking what is fair.”

Jerry shook his head in mock disbelief, smiled, and then held his hand out to Ivan. “You got a deal,” Jerry said. “Now shake on it, ‘ya crazy hunky.”