Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let’s Exploit This Sleaze: Answers 1-7

Here are some of the answers.

1. One character, based on real-life record producer Phil Spector, goes on a shooting spree, murdering a man and two women in his spacious mansion.

Answer (e), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Starring Dolly Read Martin (wife of comedian Dick Martin), this film had a fascinating history. It began as a sequel to the successful 1967 movie Valley of the Dolls, starring Patty Duke and Sharon Tate, and based on the popular novel by Jacqueline Susann. The studio, 20th Century Fox, had a hard time developing it. So they gave it to director Russ Meyer.

Meyer hired Roger Ebert (the future film critic) to write the screenplay. It eventually evolved into a story about a Josie-and-the-Pussycats type rock band (the Carrie Nations) that works its way up the ladder of fame and success, while downing all sorts of mind-altering substances.

The fallout was immediate on release. Susann sued Fox and Meyer for screwing up her story. The studio tried to smooth things over by inserting a title card during the opening credits sequence saying that this wasn't really a sequel to Valley of the Dolls after all. The author died before her estate could settle for $2,000,000. When Fox board member Grace Kelly saw the picture, she wanted the studio to fire Meyer immediately. But, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls grossed ten times its cost during the initial run. So Fox was loath to let Meyer go. They finally did when his next picture, The Seven Minutes, flopped.

Answered by Malcolm.

2. After murdering a cop, her girlfriend, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s mistress, the protagonist of this picture gets raped by a giant lobster.

Answer (t): Multiple Maniacs (1970)

Such bizarreness could only come from the mind of John Waters, the Baltimore-based auteur who has since achieved considerable success in mainstream Hollywood and on Broadway.

In this story, a woman and her boyfriend (played by Devine and David Lochary) put on a sideshow of sexual freaks so that they can rob their audience. The cast includes Dreamland regulars Mary Vivian Pierce (as Lochary’s mistress), Cookie Mueller (as Devine’s daughter), Mink Stole (as Devine’s girlfriend), and Edith Massey as herself.

3. A radio evangelist interrupts her video game so that she can have sex with a Nazi war criminal in his coffin.

Answer (d): Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979)

This, Russ Meyer’s last completed film, starred his girlfriend Francesca Natividad, who plays a frustrated housewife who longs to rid her husband (Ken Kerr) of his particular, um, perversion. The husband ultimately finds salvation in the faith healing of the Reverend Eufaula Roof (Ann Marie), who also ministers to Nazis when she’s not busy playing Pong.

After Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (an amalgamation of his earlier film titles), Meyer spent the rest of his life working on his masterpiece, of which he shot approximately eighteen unedited hours. During World War II, he served as a cameraman, a frontlines scout documenting the carnage of battle so that generals miles away could make their plans in safety. He obtained some of these movies, and juxtaposed that footage with newly shot sex scenes taken at the actual site where these bloody battles took place.

4. This screen adaptation of a literary classic depicts the male lead as a shoe salesman.

Answer (ae): Venus in Furs (1967)

Barbara Ellen both wrote and starred in this film adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel of the same name. The movie starts almost verbatim as the book, but immediately jumps ahead to the twentieth century, where through a number of surrealistic scenes and dialog women habitually degrade and assault men. While played up for eroticism, the movie misses the gender equality message of Sacher-Masoch’s original work. But hey! What can you expect from an exploitation flick?

5. An exasperated extraterrestrial fumes, “All you of Earth are idiots!” and “Your stupid minds! Stupid, stupid!”

Answer (v); Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

This has the reputation of being the worst film ever made. I agree. It’s stupendously horrible. Of course, I’ve said all that before.

Generally considered his worst film, Ed Wood personally regarded it as his masterpiece. It stars his regulars: Bela Lugosi, bald-headed Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), and The Amazing Criswell, a psychic so inept he couldn’t predict sunlight at noon. This film received a lot of interest during the 1980s because of the need for material to fill extended broadcasting slots and cable stations. Ironically, the worst film ever made has grossed millions of dollars. What’s more it has inspired a stage play, and two remakes both due out this year.

Figure 1. Plan 9 from Outer Space trailer

Answered by Ray.

6. Mental patients kill the villain by eating her alive.

Answer (n): Greta: Haus ohne Männer (also titled Ilsa the Wicked Warden--1977)

In 1975, Dyanne Thorne starred in what would be the first official Ilsa movie, a Canadian exploitation serial in which she played this over-the-top sadistic authority (Ilsa) in charge of female prisoners. In every film, the title character died some horrible death at the end. Although this was a German film made in Spain about a nasty mental health administrator named Greta, Thorne used pretty much the same characterization as she did for Ilsa. Moreover, this movie used the Ilsa formula (including the grisly death at the end). Thus, people didn’t see this as an independent pic, but rather as another of the Ilsa franchise.

Spanish director Jesús Franco, the acknowledged master of the European women-in-prison genre, must have given up explaining that Greta and Ilsa were two different characters. After its release, he and producers acquiesced to fan perception, and renamed it Ilsa the Wicked Warden.

7. To simulate the cutting out of a human tongue, an actress spits out an appetizing (ahem!) mixture of cornstarch, red food coloring, and Kaopectate.

Answer (g): Blood Feast (1963)

I don’t think I’m overstating when I say this movie is perhaps one of the most influential in cinema history. This prototypical splatter flick produced by the aforementioned David Friedman, directed by his partner, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and written by Lewis’ wife, Allison Louise Downe, is the grandmother of all the super-gory, super-violent horror films to follow: from Friday the Thirteenth to Bride of Chucky.

Up until Blood Feast, violence had a tendency to be bloodless, both in mainstream flicks (because of the Hays Code) and exploitation films. Moreover, because producers still shot most horror movies in black and white, what blood there was didn’t have the same impact.

If you think you can stomach the trailer, click here.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Let’s Exploit This Sleaze

People have called them many things: ‘exploitation movies,’ ‘b-pictures,’ and ‘grind house flicks,’ to name a few. More important, many have watched them. From their birth in the 1930s as a reaction to the Hays Code, to their slow decline during the 1970s, they were colossal moneymakers.

Often treated like a red-headed stepchild by film critics and historians, these movies provided an interesting reflection into the psyche Americans (and later Europeans) would prefer to hide. While the Hays Code prohibited the salacious material one could often find during the 1920s and earlier, such exploitiers as Kroger Babb and his young protégé David Friedman quickly filled the void, working hard, traveling the country, to give Americans all the sleaze they secretly craved.

Okay, besides the nudity, sex, gore and violence, you might wonder why someone would actually watch these movies. Well, as a fan of them (since teenage) I often marveled at the creatively high concepts, ludicrous writing, indifferent acting, and bizarre situations that constantly crept up in the plotline and in the production itself. Often the titles were entertainment in themselves.

To understand what I mean, see how many of the descriptions (1-33) you can match with the titles (a-ag). If you don’t laugh at least once, you’re just not paying attention. If you’re not shocked or offended at least once, you’re probably a sociopath.


1. One character, based on real-life record producer Phil Spector, goes on a shooting spree, murdering a man and two women in his spacious mansion.

2. After murdering a cop, her girlfriend, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s mistress, the protagonist of this picture is raped by a giant lobster.

3. A radio evangelist interrupts her video game so that she can have sex with a Nazi war criminal in his coffin.

4. This screen adaptation of a literary classic depicts the male lead as a shoe salesman.

5. An exasperated extraterrestrial fumes, “All you of Earth are idiots!“ and “Your stupid minds! Stupid, stupid!”

6. Mental patients kill the villain by eating her alive.

7. To simulate the cutting out of a human tongue, an actress spits out an appetizing (ahem!) mixture of cornstarch, red food coloring, and Kaopectate.

8. A mild-mannered man turns into a psycho sex killer whenever he sees gold earrings.

9. This movie simultaneously spoofed a literary classic and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

10. In this movie, Jack Nicholson steals one scene as a masochistic dental patient (“No Novocain, please. It dulls the senses.”).

11. A businessman, at the insistence of an important client, reluctantly hires a bunch of prostitutes to entertain the guests of a sleazy party, only to find that his wife is one of the call girls.

12. A tuxedo-wearing man shooting hoops at a playground goes up for a slam dunk only to be riddled with bullets by the time he reaches the basket.

13. Yankee tourists are lured to a Southern town that exists for only a few days every one hundred years. The inhabitants, in an effort to gain some measure of revenge for the Civil War, involve the visitors in a number of degrading games that culminate in their horrific deaths.

14. A Peeping Tom blackmails a killer before feeding her to his giant man-eating plant.

15. Crazed hippies beat an old man with his walker, and then dump a crying tot into a garbage can.

16. A woman drowns in quicksand as her friends passively look on and do nothing. The last thing we see of her, before she goes completely under, is her outstretched middle finger.

17. An advertising agency has to deal with an executive who can’t stop exposing himself, and pressure from the President of the United States, who orders them to come up with a campaign for a Nazi war criminal’s corporation.

18. A biker gang quakes in fear when its members realize they are in a fight with (gasp!) lesbians.

19. Communist agents recruit American schoolgirls to wreak havoc as juvenile delinquents.

20. A Dr. Frankenstein clone and his monster have to teach a visiting extraterrestrial about love.

21. A biker gang strings up a piece of piano wire between two trees so that when a biker from a rival gang passes by, he, um, loses his head.

22. The protagonist, dressed as a matador, picks a professional wrestler (played by boxer Jake LaMotta) to death.

23. A woman wreaks revenge by smothering the bad guys to death in her, um, décolletage.

24. This 1968 movie spoofed Star Trek.

25. An artist can’t find just the right hue until he cuts himself.

26. An African-American man has to explain to his grown white daughter that they aren’t biologically related.

27. A group of swingers clean up their act when one of them attempts suicide.

28. An old man rescues wayward women so that he can force them to fight and kill each other.

29. In order to simulate the eating of human flesh, the actors in this movie chowed down on ham covered with Bosco Chocolate Syrup. (According to them, this tasted about as good as it sounds.)

30. After getting shot in the head, the protagonist tries to survive by rubbing weight-loss cream all over his belly.

31. A pornographer lectures a young coed: “It's time for straight talk, Kim. It's not my fault you posed for Harmon. It's not my fault you posed for Larry in the nude. You did it. It’s your problem. It’s pretty late to act prissy and prim. All you kids make me sick! You act like little Miss Muffet and down inside your dirty. Do you hear me? Dirty! You’re greedy and self centered and think you can get away with anything. You’re no better than the girl who sells herself to a man. You’re worse because your a hypocrite. And now little Miss Muffet is in trouble and she's all outraged virtue. Well you listen and you listen well: you’re damaged merchandise and this is a fire sale. You walk outta here and your reputation won't be worth fifteen cents. You'll do as I tell you! Do you hear me? You'll do as I tell you!”

32. Harvey Korman (yes, that Harvey Korman) plays a pornographer who falls in love with the centerfold. His partner (the centerfold‘s husband) falls in love with a statuette.

33. A crime boss finds ever-inventive ways to torture her underlings when they disobey.

34. Col. Harlan Sanders (yes, that Col. Sanders) unwittingly helps a sleazy record producer con a rock band out of its money.


a. The Acid Eaters
b. The Agony of Love
c. The Amazing Transplant
d. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens
e. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
f. Blast-Off Girls
g. Blood Feast
h. Color Me Blood Red
i. Come Back, Charleston Blue
j. Confessions of a Psycho Cat
k. Deadly Weapons
l. Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend
m. Five Loose Women
n. Greta: Haus ohne Männer
o. Just for the Hell of It
p. Kiss Me Quick!
q. Little Shop of Horrors
r. Living Venus
s. Mr. Mari’s Girls
t. Multiple Maniacs
u. Night of the Living Dead
v. Plan 9 from Outer Space
w. Please Don’t Eat My Mother
x. Putney Swope
y. Scum of the Earth
z. She-Devils on Wheels
aa. Space-Thing
ab. Suburban Roulette
ac. Swamp Girl
ad. The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet
ae. 2000 Maniacs
ae. Venus in Furs
af. The Violent Years
ag. White Slaves of Chinatown

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Grounded Walrus: A Socially Dramatic Epilogue

To read this series from the beginning, click here.

Our personal stories reveal who we are. They tell the listener how we think, what we think about, what motivates us, our personal histories and so forth. Such is the concern of the psychologist who tells us to lie on the couch and tell us all about ourselves.

As one of my professors used to tell me, the main difference between psychology and sociology is that the former is retail, the latter wholesale. The stories that societies tell about themselves often reveal the same things as personal stories, but on a mass scale.

Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner coined the term ‘social drama’ to describe the collection of cultural symbols, often propagated through mass media, which expresses who we are as a people. As Fred Fogo put it, social drama describes “…a transcultural phenomenon by which cultures reveal their fundamental tensions, their meaning systems, and their relations to power.”

Social drama theory describes cultural narratives within four stages of their development. The first is the ‘breech’ stage, where something so anomalous has occurred that we’re forced to take notice of it. The second stage, ‘crisis,’ happens when the story, and the import of its meaning, expands to more segments of society. It is here where the conflict over the interpretation of facts and the symbols begins. ‘Redress,’ the third stage, describes the practical means by which we act or react to the anomaly, according to how we interpret it. The last stage, ‘reintegration,’ is the resolution of the crises brought on by the anomalous event and the conflicting meaning it has to various parties. On occasion, reintegration entails the complete acceptance of one view by either a vast majority of the people or through a virtual consensus. Sometimes it involves a compromise between one or more opposing viewpoints. Most times, however, all sides simply acknowledge their disagreement, and propagate their cause, each hoping that someday their efforts will propel their beliefs into the mainstream.

We can perhaps sympathize with Ringo Starr, and his anger towards a teeming mass of people for reducing such a close friend to a mere symbol. Yet John Lennon’s life, despite its flesh-and-bone reality, also had profound ideological and semiotic ramifications. Because of how the story of his life unfolded in the press and within popular narrative, Mark Chapman too became symbolic. Between these two men, we have two separate social dramas, each of which has played out a number of times over a number of years.

The first social drama is one you’ll find scripted many times in The X-Spot: namely, the story of the lone angry nut. Over the years, we have watched an endless parade of amateur killers, people who have in fact never committed any serious crimes at all, undergo extraordinary measures to murder a politically or ideologically significant figure for, as Professor Melanson would say, “muddled personal reasons.” President John Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin all succumbed to the bullets attributed by some angry loner, portrayed by contemporary accounts as someone not quite right in the head. Despite the fact that some political faction (in the above cases, the hardliner right wing) had something to gain in each of these slayings, the pronouncement of guilt upon the angry lone nut was immediate, no more than a few hours at most.

The second social drama deals more with the symbology of the 1960s, the role of the Beatles during that era, and the role of Lennon in the Beatles. From the 1980s on, many have contested the meaning of that particular time in history. These conflicts reflect an ideological divide that most Americans and Europeans have seen widening over the course of their lifetimes. On the one hand, there are people who see the ‘60s as a period of growth, a period in which the public took collective action to right the wrongs of previous eras. On the other hand, some see the ‘60s as a turbulent period of endless strife, and narcissistic rebellion against authority. For both sides, Lennon’s death represented not just the passing of an individual, but a continuing struggle to define the meaning of a dead decade.

Of course, we don’t see the violent death of famous people everyday. So Lennon’s death was the anomaly, the point of contention, which triggered the social dramas. As two of the first public figures to comment on the event, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford epitomized the shock felt by many. The subsequent newspaper coverage, the attention paid to Chapman during those first few days in the press, the live coverage of the memorial service in Central Park, and so forth, marked this as the kind of singular event that would stay in public consciousness for the next thirty years (and counting).

Before Lennon actually died, the police had a suspect in Chapman, just as Dallas police had a suspect in Lee Oswald only hours after President Kennedy’s assassination. Moreover, both the NYPD and Dallas Police attributed the actions to only one person almost immediately. Such authors as (the recently disgraced) Gerald Posner championed the narrative of the single shooter in the JFK assassination, as did the Warren Commission, and former Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. All of these narratives really focused on Oswald, in the same way that Jack Jones focused on Chapman in Let Me Take You Down. In their interpretation of this drama, the angry lone nut becomes a force of nature, a reckless killing machine destined for only one individual. Perhaps they do it to become famous. Maybe they do it for personal reasons. In the end, however, the killers’ motivations do not matter, for this narrative relies in part on the suspect’s presumed mental illnesses (characterized by their failure to live “normal” lives) to explain away why this crime occurred.

This conflicts with another interpretation of the angry lone nut scenario, one often championed by so-called ‘conspiracy theorists.’ This contending interpretation readily points out that the other side has fixated on the accused killer, sensationalizing, demonizing, and dehumanizing him in the process. Moreover, the angry lone nut scenario often doesn’t take into account other evidence to the same degree as the potential pathology of the presumed shooter. In this interpretation, the facts are usually not in dispute. The dispute lay in what they mean.

Here, the facts in toto, replayed a number of similar events that immediately come to mind. The immediate and conscious comparison, by attending emergency room doctors and police in the hours after the event, between Lennon’s death and the JFK assassination most aptly shows the presence of a pre-established narrative taking hold. For the most part, society redressed the crime by arresting Chapman and allowing him to plead guilty to the offense. Reintegration came mainly in an overwhelming belief in the dominant narrative, that of the psycho killer. Yet there are those who vehemently disagree. While both have some means to make their sides known, they have not had, nor do they currently hold, equal public attention.

Perhaps more important is how some have used Lennon’s death as commentary on the 1960s in general. For those who saw that particular decade as an assault to hierarchical order and little else, Lennon’s death represents the danger and natural consequence of permissiveness: excessive drug use, excessive sex, sloth, irresponsibility, hypocrisy, and, of course, naiveté. In his 1994 book I Read the News Today: The Social Drama of John Lennon’s Death, Fred Fogo asserts that Albert Goldman and others used Lennon to attack the graying counterculture, writing, “Goldman goes for the jugular of both the Lennons and the sixties generation in a dramatic refutation of the last hippy image of Lennon presented in the media just before and after his death.”

Goldman’s biography relied on interviews with such people as Marnie Hair, a neighbor of John and Yoko at the Dakota, who sued them after her young daughter sustained injuries at a party for Sean. Ono fired another Goldman informant, their personal assistant Fred Seaman, when she discovered that he had stolen her late-husband’s journal/diary and a number of photographs, which he then showed to author Robert Rosen (who in his book Nowhere Man pokes fun at Lennon’s friend Elliot Mintz for suggesting the author might have been a CIA agent). According to Rosen, Seaman misrepresented Lennon’s wish that they collaborate on a biography based on said documents. These and other informants had an animosity towards John and Yoko. Not surprisingly, a number of friends and family, including each of the surviving Beatles, condemned Goldman’s work as bordering on pure fiction. Even Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner panned it, despite the fact that Wenner had a major falling out with Lennon.

Here in the Twenty-First Century, we can see that redress comes in all forms and all sides. The anti-war activists protesting the Iraq invasion immediately pointed out the similarities between that conflict and Vietnam. They used similar tactics to influence their respective governments—by enlisting public support through demonstrations, during which many sang Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”—not to go ahead with plans for offensive war.

Fogo also discussed the post-mortem use of Lennon as a commodity, or as social historian Stuart Ewen might put it, a symbol divorced from its cultural context. This is another form of practical action, or redress that stems from Lennon’s death. Recently, Sean Lennon has found it necessary to defend his mother for giving permission to use John’s image in an automobile advertisement. From his comments, I gather he wasn’t too happy about the commercial, although he accepted Yoko’s reasoning for going ahead with it.

It stands to reason that once a person is dead, they’re hardly in a position to object to how their thoughts, their work, or even their identity can be manipulated by others. In Forrest Gump, for example, we see an unrealistically depoliticized Lennon who can do little more than understand a simple mantra (“give peace a chance”), but only after the title character voices it first. In the movie Chapter 27 we see Lennon (ironically, played by an actor named Mark Chapman) as an empty icon, a mere tool through which the protagonist (the other Mark Chapman) realizes his aspirations. In some really-far-out-right-wing-(are-they-serious?) pages linked to by earlier commenters in this series, Lennon becomes a decadent, hypocritical figure of little true talent but great hype—something rather close to Goldman’s depiction.

It’s clear that in regards to the cultural meaning of Lennon’s death, it has been reinterpreted in the context of so many other rock stars of that era who suddenly died before their time. Some see this as meaningless coincidence. Others see it as a likely consequence of lifestyle (drugs are frequently mentioned in this respect). Mae Brussell, Alex Constantine, Fenton Bresler and their ilk see this more as one assault against an ideology by eliminating the iconic figures of its culture. While this last interpretation of the hippy narrative receives derision from the mainstream, it often has at least some evidence to support its basic tenets, as is the case here.

Depending on your point of view, your education, your ability to understand (or as John himself might say, “imagine”), your prior beliefs and so forth, the social drama that you might weave of this might be your own, or more in line with either the conspiracy or mainstream beliefs. You can see it as an assault of the ‘60s and the New Leftism associated with its counterculture, or you can see it as affirmation of the period’s most negative stereotype.

In other words, the depiction of Lennon’s death—just like the depiction of the ‘60s and the JFK assassination—will continue to reveal breaches in the social fabric between generations, between left and right, and between those who presume power maintains itself passively and those who believe that shadowy forces sometimes plot and scheme (or in other words, “conspire”) to preserve the status quo.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Grounded Walrus: Summary

To understand the reasons behind John Lennon’s death, we have to determine the motivation of Mark Chapman. Here, we have examined four types of explanations: official, quasi-official, those involving non-psychotic mental disorders, and others focusing on external manipulation of Chapman’s thoughts and actions by a party hostile to Lennon--the “Manchurian Candidate” hypothesis. Speculation along any of these four lines has proven difficult, for each presents a unique set of problems, questions and weaknesses.

The official explanation for Chapman’s motivation does not exist. At first, the defense argued that psychosis drove Mark to fly to New York and put four holes in the former Beatle. DA Allen Sullivan, Judge Dennis Edwards, three prosecution psychiatrists and two court-appointed ones argued otherwise. Judge Edwards found that though highly imaginative, Chapman could readily tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Moreover, in order to make a case for insanity, defense psychiatrists had to fudge (or fabricate?) critical parts of Chapman’s personal history. Friends, family and the psychological professionals who had previously treated Chapman for depression flatly contradicted the defense’s depiction of him as a perpetually angry, abused, psychotic loner. Thus, while the court had to consider the possibility of psychosis, the ultimate official decision dismissed it when Judge Edwards accepted Chapman’s guilty plea. Sufficient eyewitness evidence (including Chapman’s statements to police) pointed to Mark as the culprit, thus mooting the need to determine motive. Consequently, the official finding didn’t address motive, in effect saying that Chapman shot Lennon for no discernable reason.

I think that most people intuitively understand that for every human action there is at least one reason--more likely a set of them. Perhaps that’s why in public discourse on the death of John Lennon a number of explanations have surfaced. Some of them, because of repetition, have taken on the air of authenticity, what I refer to here as ‘quasi-official’ reasons. Chief among these is insanity. Despite the court’s ruling, many people can see a certain pathology in someone traveling thousands of miles (twice) in order to kill a man he’s never met, and towards whom has no personal animosity. At the same time, the evidence of insanity was too weak for a court to accept, while other evidence argues strongly against it as a causal factor.

Some have suggested (including Mark himself) that Chapman murdered Lennon to become famous. Augmenting this perception is the reality that Chapman has attained true celebrity status, complete with numerous press articles, television specials, two theatrically released movies and an X-Spot series devoted to his life. Moreover, both defense and prosecution expert witnesses characterized Chapman as narcissistic. Yet, many (including Mark himself--which should underscore his unreliability as a source for his own motivation) have contended that Chapman didn’t shoot Lennon to become famous. Lt. Arthur O’Connor, the NYPD detective official assigned to the case, noted that if Chapman sought fame, he went about it in an odd way. Unlike Charles Manson and others who bask in the limelight of their notoriety, and milk it for all it's worth, Chapman gave very few interviews during his incarceration. And unlike Manson, Chapman had no history of seeking fame through other means. Moreover, by pleading guilty, Chapman forfeited the attention a trial would have brought. By taking the stand in his own defense, Chapman could have wallowed in extraordinary public attention. Still, he declined this, preferring instead to accept his fate more quietly. And while narcissism might explain why Chapman shot a famous person, it doesn’t explain why he fixated on one particular individual who lived many miles away, when he could have picked someone just as (if not more) famous, someone closer, or someone he would have had easier access to.

Chapman’s obsession with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and his putative self-identification as Lennon have led some to speculate (as did defense witness Dr. Daniel Schwartz) that Mark shot Lennon to either rid the world of someone he had long-considered a phony, or to commit ritualistic suicide without actually having to die. As characterized by those who knew him, Chapman’s obsession with Lennon really began in the fall of 1980 after reading the Fawcett biography. In other words, his interest wasn’t a lifelong thing, as some have maintained. Furthermore, no one has produced credible evidence (other than the defense experts) that Chapman couldn’t distinguish between himself and Lennon, and there’s much to indicate that Chapman saw Lennon as someone different from himself.

Our friend, Dr. Alistair, first mentioned a possible explanation for what happened that night, which our friend Charles Gramlich later expanded upon: specifically, undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. Chapman, in fact, exhibits some of the traits associated with this disorder, mainly his tendency to withdraw into intense obsessions that lasted for brief periods of time, and then faded quickly. Unlike the schizophrenia diagnoses, which had to distort Chapman’s background to make their case, Mark’s friends, relatives and associates all witnessed and confirmed his obsession over such subjects as The Catcher in the Rye, art, guns or college.

Reading further into this hypothesis, I later discovered two things pertaining to Asperger’s and criminality. First, Asperger’s sufferers who commit crime typically have an underlying mental illness. Chapman’s bouts with depression are well documented. Perhaps we could then see the killing of John Lennon as a ritualistic suicide, although not in the manner suggested by Dr. Schwartz. In this case, Mark would have known that his life, as he knew it, would effectively end after the deed.

Second, while Asperger’s does not explain criminal activity, it can provide insight into the nature of the transgression. When someone diagnosed with Asperger’s breaks the law, it is often in an obsessive, violent way (e.g., stalking, assault, rape, murder, etc.) against a specific individual upon whom the perpetrator fixates for some reason. The Salinger and Fawcett books, in tandem, could have focused Chapman’s attention on Lennon. Chapman stalked Lennon for over a month.

Of course, neither Alistair nor Charles have stated that Chapman suffered from Asperger’s, let alone diagnosed him with it. As competent, responsible professionals they wouldn’t, unless they personally examined him. Instead, they simply suggested that such could be a possibility, based on some aspects of Chapman’s behavior. At the same time, they’ve each pointed to specific traits that challenge the Asperger’s hypothesis, among them Chapman’s gregariousness. While those associated with Chapman before the shooting could talk about Mark’s obsessions, they also made note of his outgoingness. The fact that Fenton Bresler could find numerous old friends to interview strongly suggests that Chapman could make and maintain friendships for many years. His befriending of Jerri Moll, Jude Stein and Paul Goresh in the hours leading up to the murder demonstrate more of an outgoing nature than a overriding desire for solitude. Another commenter in this series, Exiles800, has also noted that the good shot grouping indicates excellent physical (especially eye-hand) coordination, which is something rather uncommon among Asperger’s patients (of course, that‘s assuming Chapman actually shot Lennon).

One has to keep in mind that a psychiatric diagnosis isn’t’ a one-size-fits-all kind of explanation. After all, people can have a condition in which they manifest some symptoms, but not others. A number of Asperger’s sufferers can initiate and maintain friendships and romantic relationships. Not all of them have poor coordination. Some, like ‘80s new-wave rocker Gary Numan, are even musicians. And in 1981, mental health providers knew considerably less about Asperger’s than they do now. That could explain why defense psychiatrists didn’t pursue this more ardently, perhaps as a secondary explanation. Maybe, at some future date, another psychiatric evaluation could shed some light on this.

Like a prosecutor presenting a case, those who suspect a conspiracy in the death of John Lennon would have to show motive, means, opportunity and connection. Obviously, many within US and UK Federal law enforcement disliked Lennon and Yoko Ono. This is evident through the extensive surveillance and harassment, and the attempt to evict the couple from the US. Also well documented are the efforts by those on the ideological right-wing to silence Lennon’s outspokenness on political issues, and to assist and cooperate with agencies of government hostile to them.

What also comes out of looking at the volume of declassified material on John Lennon is that US Intel seemed to have exaggerated Lennon’s importance, or his potential effect as a pied piper. When one looks at Intelligence complicity in the deaths of those who were lesser known, nationally or internationally, (e.g., Fred Hampton--disturbing image warning), then one has to say that a number of shadowy groups had sufficient motivation to kill Lennon.

By the time the Senate Hearings on MK-ULTRA concluded in 1977, the public would learn that controlling someone to the point where he or she could carry out assassinations was something that the CIA actively researched. According to a number of physicians, some of whom (Dr. George Estabrooks, Dr. Martin Orne) actually assisted Intel, that degree of control was certainly attainable. Dr. Estabrooks coyly claimed to have actually created a Manchurian Candidate. Dr. Orne filmed his own hypnosis experiments in which a normal young woman with no pronounced hostilities attempted to cause a complete stranger severe harm, possibly even death, by throwing what she believed to be pure sulfuric acid onto him. Dr. Herbert Spiegel showed NBC News that programming someone to hate a stranger (even a fictional one) enough to kill them was certainly possible. Note too that much of the above experiments and demonstrations took place before 1970. One could certainly imagine improved techniques by 1980. Thus, it seems reasonable that CIA would have the means to carry out a Manchurian Candidate scenario in 1980, especially if the person programmed were not the shooter, but a patsy.

Chapman had numerous opportunities to come into contact with the type of mental health professionals who could have indoctrinated (if not brainwashed) him. From his rather odd trip to Beirut, to his time at Ft. Chaffee, to his residence in Hawaii near a large naval installation which could have provided a number of intelligence-trained shrinks.

The point where the Manchurian Candidate scenario falls down and goes “boom” is in the area of connectivity, or agency. It’s one thing to say someone might have programmed Chapman. It’s a different thing to provide evidence for that statement. After all, what names can we associate with Chapman? Who would have given the final go-ahead? CIA? FBI? ONI? DIA? The Wackenhut Corporation, or some other private security and clandestine ops firm, on behalf of Republicans paving the way for the so-called “Reagan Revolution”?

We could conjecture that he met with someone who supervised his programming, but we cannot give a name. Journalist Janice Wolf’s investigation found that Mark had seen a shrink in the months before the murder, and that this shrink instructed him to act out his fantasies. Did the doctor have a connection to Intel? Hell if we know. She didn’t give a name; neither did Bresler. We can speculate that Chapman’s boyhood pal Dana Reeves might have acted as a handler, but in order to prove that we would have to demonstrate a strong connection that he acted under the orders of someone in intelligence. As a deputy sheriff, Reeves might have had some connection to the Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Units (LEIU), an intelligence network that allows local police departments to swap information back and forth along secure channels. The LEIU, as do local police departments, have a history and reputation of cooperating with the CIA.

Then again, Reeves might not have had reason to bother with police intelligence. We cannot know for certain. And since we really don’t know what actually happened to Chapman in Beirut, Arkansas or Hawaii, we can not really connect his putative programming to these places.

Given the past intelligence interest in John Lennon, the surveillance, the harassment, the death threats and so on, the known (and unknown) methods that could coerce an individual's behavior (what the late Dr. Margaret Singer referred to as “thought reform”), and Lt. O'Connor's observation of Chapman, I wouldn’t blame anyone for regarding Lennon’s murder as suspicious. In fact, I agree. I think it’s suspicious. But suspicion and proof are not interchangeable concepts.

A putative second gunman near the service elevator door would clarify the issue considerably, if one could prove his existence. The notion isn’t farfetched when looking at descriptions of the wounds themselves, the actions of the principals, the types of bullets used, and the weapon. And it seems more likely that someone would more readily rely on an amateur (nice guy at that) to act as a patsy, not an actual (or primary) shooter. The hypothesis is consistent with the description of the physical evidence, while the notion that Chapman shot Lennon is hard to reconcile with the angle of the shots, and the behavior of his hollow-point ammo, which according to the most accepted version of this story entered Lennon from the side opposite the shooter, and ricocheted and exited, contrary to its design. It would seem more consistent with the shattered glass door of the lobby (observed by Joseph Many and Officer Stephen Spiro) than the most accepted version.

Then there are other things. Not to accuse Jose Perdomo, but his actions certainly raise an eyebrow or two. Usually, if a shooter disarms himself and takes out a book to wait for police, you don’t tell him to go away. Usually. It’s a bit of a problem that other people handled the gun between Chapman’s laydown, and the retrieval by police. Chapman’s own hazy memory confounds things even further, but the characterization of his feeling after the shooting as relief (as if someone lifted a heavy weight off his shoulders), and his state, as witnessed by Lt. O’Connor, is consistent with the premise that someone manipulated Chapman into shooting at Lennon.

All these things are grounds for suspicion. None of it is proof to even a preponderance standard. After all, we don’t have Lennon’s body to examine. We thus can't determine exactly where the bullets came from, how many pieces they broke into, or if they could have hit bones that caused the wicked bounces that shattered the door. We don’t know if the shooting was really point-blank. The only way we know of these things as possibilities is because of the recollection of an attending doctor, Frank Veteran, the information filled out by pathologist Dr. Elliot Gross on the death certificate, and the witness statements. Dr. Gross’ observations are valid, but vague. Dr. Veteran could have exaggerated or misremembered Lennon’s injuries. Witnesses often confuse what they see when situations happen quickly, and from out of the blue.

Typically, my attitude in each of these series is that we can always find out more about controversies. This, then, is one of those rare occasions where we most likely won’t know much more than we already do. Because of the fact that the police grounded their investigation early, and because the DA’s office asked them to only look for evidence along certain lines, we will perhaps always have questions about that night in December 1980.

Yet, I can think of something that might one day expand our knowledge of the case, and answer some of the questions raised by myself and other writers: a detailed review of the autopsy, notes and all. That would narrow down the potential paths the bullets took, clarify which wounds were those of exit or entry, help establish gunshot residue (GSR) patterns. It might also answer questions no one has conceived of yet.

In New York state, detailed autopsy reports aren’t available to the public, but rather to the next-of-kin. This ensures that we can enjoy at least some modicum of privacy, even in death. This became quite a local scandal in New York a few years ago when someone leaked bits of Dr. Robert Atkins autopsy report and posted it on the Internet. The documentary evidence showed that the doctor, famed for inventing the low-starch diet, was substantially overweight (if memory serves, about 270 lbs.) and had recently suffered a heart attack--which, when you consider Atkins’ life and work, might seem embarrassing.

I have no personal relationship to John Lennon’s next-of-kin, namely Yoko Ono. But her son, Sean, does. It wouldn’t be beyond the pale if Ono showed him portions of the autopsy report, or at least discussed it with him once he had reached an appropriate age. Sean's vehemence demonstrates his confidence in the assertion that some aspect of US Intel assassinated his father. Talking to New Yorker writer David Sapsted, the younger Lennon said:
He was a counterculture revolutionary, and the government takes that kind of shit really seriously historically....

[My father] was dangerous to the government. If he had said, ‘Bomb the White House tomorrow,’ there would have been 10,000 people who would have done it. These pacifist revolutionaries are historically killed by the government....

Anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests, is insane. Or very naive. Or hasn't thought about it clearly. It was in the best interests of the United States to have my dad killed. Definitely.
Not so curiously, Sapsted took a subtly snide view of Sean’s “conspiracy theory,” pointing out that Lennon had dropped out of Columbia University, and stating “New York Police Department’s exhaustive investigation into John Lennon’s killing found no evidence that the disturbed Chapman did not act alone.” Of course Sapsted, like Lennon biographer Albert Goldman, characterized the initial investigation in a way flatly contradicted by the case’s lead detective.

Granted, Lennon Jr., like the FBI, might have seriously overestimated the power actually wielded by his father. But if he’s had access to information that few others have seen, the man just might know something we don’t.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

She Had a Good Head on Her Shoulders, Pt. 3

My life had hit the first of many nadirs in 1985. To start, I had problems socially fitting in at Anne Coulter University during my first year of graduate study. I also had trouble borrowing money for school, despite the fact that I owned a bank at the time. Worst of all, my fiancée dumped me.

I couldn’t take the pressure. Throughout that year, I drank. A lot.

Of course, one of the problems with imbibing on that scale is that you never know what you’re gonna take home to bed with you. And when you wake up in the morning, there’s a good chance that you won’t recognize the person staring back at you.

So I wasn’t particularly concerned when, at the crack of dawn, I woke up and saw two green eyes gazing lovingly into mine. Still groggy, I scanned my memory banks trying to come up with a name. After I wiped away a few grains of sleepy dust, her face, framed by soft tufts of auburn hair, started looking familiar. But before I could place her, she smiled and said, “Mornin’ there, Little Feller.”

“Sandee?!” I screamed, rolling out of bed so fast I took all the covers with me as I crashed to the floor. When I got back up, I got the fright of my life.

“What’s wrong, darlin’?” she asked, as if this sort of thing happened every day. “You’ve seen me before when I wasn’t wearin’ any clothes.”

“I’m not shocked by the fact that you’re not wearing any clothes,” I replied. “I’m shocked because you’re not wearing a wrist, an elbow, kneecaps or feet! WHERE THE HELL IS YOUR BODY?”

It’s bad enough having a ghost wake you up at five o’clock in the blessed AM. But getting roused by a ghost’s disembodied head can trigger cardiac arrest in some people. And it’s not like the windshield cut off Sandee’s neck evenly, but in little jagged pieces, leaving bits of arteries, veins, and part of her windpipe hanging out from underneath.

“You’re leaking blood all over my pillowcase!” I shouted.

“Relax, Little Feller. It’s just ghost blood. It’ll go away all by itself, soon as I leave.”

“Then leave.”

Sandee looked at me with a mixture of betrayal, anger and disappointment. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “I thought you’d be happy to see me. Besides, most guys like a little head in the mornin’.”

“Go away!”

She shook herself. “Can’t do that. Bo sent me to ask you a favor. Clubbo’s got this new gal, some slut named Laryssa. She used to make them dirty pictures. He wants you to produce her next record.”

“Does she have anything written?” I asked.

“Of course not. I told you. She’s just a slut. But Bo says she’d be perfect for a new version of ‘Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No.’”

“Hah!” I snorted. “He doesn’t need me for that. By now, that song should be able to produce itself. I can‘t think of a single Clubbo artist who hasn‘t covered it at least once.”

“I know,” said Sandee, nodding herself in agreement. “I done it three times now, twice during my life. Look, I know you promised never to work at Clubbo again. Can‘t say as I blame you with the way they treated you after I died. But the label really needs you. And I know it‘ll turn out just fine. You gotta realize that even dead, when it comes to the music business, Bo knows. He really knows.”

“So why doesn’t Bo’s ghost come up and ask me to do it?”

“Oh, he’s so scared of the livin‘,” she explained. “They give him the heebee-jeebees.”

I responded with a firm no. After pleading with me for two hours to come back to the label, she finally left. But she came back the next night, and the night after that, when I had a living, breathing (not to mention anatomically whole) woman with me. That didn’t go over so well. Sandee vowed to visit me every night until I said yes. Realizing the damage to my sex life were I to keep my promise, I finally acquiesced. The song wrecked my fledgling music career. But at least I could bring dates over.

Besides, Sandee lied to me about something. Ghost blood is one of the hardest substances to get out of linen. And you should have seen the owner of the Laundromat, whenever I took my bedding in. I’m lucky she didn’t call the cops on me.

After 1985, Sandee still visited me from time to time, although not since my move to Cincinnati. Currently she spends a lot of her free time at her new museum. Back during her childhood days, working at her grandparents’ diner, she met former stuntman Pete Pickford (no relation to Mary), best known for getting punched in the mouth by Tex Ritter during the 1937 filming of Sing, Cowboy, Sing. Despite the age difference (she was born in 1940, Pickford in 1915), he fell in love with her. After her death, he bought the gas station once owned by her grandparents, and turned it into a museum full of Sandee’s memorabilia. The museum prominently displays what’s left of the Ford Galaxy 500 that claimed her life (left).

When she’s not at the museum, Sandee’s bodiless ghost often roams up and down I-25, sometimes lingering at the bridge where she breathed her last. She’s been known to hitch a ride with unsuspecting passengers, especially when “Mornin’ Kind of Feelin’” makes an appearance on the car stereo. Sometimes, when she sees a driver dozing off at the wheel, she’ll pop on in to give them the quick wake-up jolt that they might need to stay alive. On rare occasion, she would visit me in New York. We’d usually go to Washington Square Park to look at the old Clubbo Studios building, recently converted to an upscale sex boutique.

Fortunately, New Yorkers have seen just about everything, so nothing really shocks them. A man talking to a woman’s bloody head on a park bench in broad daylight doesn’t faze them one bit. Let‘s face it, you see that kind of thing every day in Manhattan. So no one really bothered us.

I even saw her once in New Mexico, when driving to Roswell. At one point during the trip, she told me that Bo really liked my work on “Yes, Yes, No, No, No.” He said it was the best example of 1980s crap he can find anywhere. And it was important for the label to keep with the times. Since I never made a dime off my time at Clubbo, that meant a lot to me.

Nowadays, when not haunting her museum or the highways, Sandee spends the rest of her time online. She frequents her fansite, and visits friends on Facebook and Twitter.

She’s even come to The X-Spot a few times to offer anonymous comments. Over the years, we developed a code so I know when it’s her communicating with me, and not some spirit from the Ouija board. Next time you find an anonymous poster on this blog, see if you can spot her.

To learn more about Clubbo records, click here to visit their official webpage, or here to see their Wikipedia entry.

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She Had a Good Head on Her Shoulders, Pt. 2

Back in 1972, right before my tenth birthday, I wrote this song, sort of a funky r&b tune titled “Ain’t No Second Time.” I couldn’t get a legitimate A&R department to bite on it. But Clubbo snatched it up right away, saying they could really do something with it. Bogerman flew me out to New York in time to witness the session. Only after it started did I realize, to my horror, that they had turned it into a country and western song, sung by their rising star, Sandee Saunders (left). Bo wanted me to stay in New York and work with Sandee on more material, even though she wrote a lot of her own stuff. Since I could sleep over at my aunt’s apartment when not on lockout, I accepted his invitation.

Sandee, a long, lanky redhead from Hatch, New Mexico, had a rustic, good-ole-girl image. And her personal history was the stuff country legends were made of. Orphaned at an early age, she had spent almost her whole life working at her grandparents’ gas station/diner before signing with Clubbo in 1969 (the label’s chief recording engineer, Chuck O’Brien, discovered her on the bandstand of the Ore House, a popular Santa Fe nightclub). A single parent, who also supported her grandma and grandpa financially, mostly on her waitressing income, she jumped at the chance to sign a recording contract.

I got to know the real Sandee, working so closely with her during that ten-week period. She was kind, warm, sweet and very supportive, although politically incorrect. When I couldn’t think of country song ideas right away, she told me, “That’s alright, Little Feller [her nickname for me]. Happens to me all the time. It’ll come.”

She also had a really wild side, that I don’t think most of her fans ever knew about. Because of my writer‘s block, she hired me as her personal assistant. Part of my job consisted of lighting her cigarettes for her, and sampling her Jack Daniels--she had this fear that “The Commies” wanted to poison her. As she and Chuck O’Brien grew closer, she gave me a bonus to stand outside her door and look out for him whenever she had sex with some other guy she picked up out of the audience. On the rare occasions when she and Chuck were intimate, she’d have me film the session with her new Super 8 camera.

She said the movies came out really good. I have to take her word on that. Obviously, I couldn’t see them, for I was underaged at the time.

In return for my loyalty, she paid me fifty cents a day, fed me, and made sure I kept up with my homework. She also treated me well, encouraged my musical career, and promised never to use the n-word in my presence--unless she were roaring drunk; then all bets were off. Long story short, we became very close friends during that brief time. I couldn’t help but love Sandee.

One night, I began to assume the lookout post when Sandee opened the door, all excited. “Git in here, Little Feller!” She handed me a guitar, which I tuned in about ten seconds.

“Chucko just proposed to me,” she explained. “I’m gonna say yeah, but I wanna do it as a song. Now sit here and help me write it.”

Try as I might, I couldn’t really understand adult love. Sandee took it upon herself to explain it to me. After several futile efforts she blurted out, “Isn’t there anythin’ that just makes you feel good to be alive?”

Actually, there was something: namely, my Hot Wheels collection. Then it came to me. I told her it was a kinda morning feeling, if she knew what I meant. She did. It then took us about twenty minutes to hammer out the chords, melody and lyrics of “Mornin’ Kind of Feelin’” (Sandee preferred that word order). She recorded it the next day.

Figure 1. “Mornin’ Kind of Feelin’” excerpt

I went back to Cincinnati later that week. I still got calls from Sandee every now and then, but she and Chuck had other concerns, what with setting up a new home and all, and with “Mornin'” climbing Billboard‘s Pop and Country charts. She phoned me on July 27, 1972 to say that they’d just purchased a house out in Tarzana, CA. Moreover, she’d be embarking on a mini-tour of sorts, playing at myriad nightclubs across New Mexico. She also said that she wanted to see me at her new place once she got off the road so we could get to more “songwritin’.”

Sadly, that wasn't in the cards. Her grandmother, Maria Saunders, wrote almost a month later to tell me that Sandee passed away in an automobile accident on August 1. She enclosed an obituary (right). Apparently, Sandee had just finished one gig when, sleepily, she headed right away to the next. She passed out behind the wheel while driving along I-25, right at the spot where it crosses the Rio Grande, and the car slammed into a bridge rail. She died instantly when the broken windshield came down around her neck, decapitating her.

Maria buried what they could find of her body. Unfortunately, Sandee’s head fell out of the car and into the river; lost forever.

To make matters worse, I later had to sue Clubbo when someone forgot to give me a co-songwriting credit on “Mornin’ Kind of Feelin.’” After all, it would be the first and only hit record I ever had. Chuck later admitted in deposition that he kept my name off in order to give the song a really mystical meaning, as if Sandee had prophetically written it all by herself. When he pointed out the lyrics to me, I saw what he meant:
Now whoever would imagine
That I could lose my head for you this way?
It’s a mornin’ kind of feelin’
Like the dawning of a new and perfect day.
And later:
But these last days, oh how it’s changed
Each time I see your face I realize
It’s a mornin’ kind of feelin’
Like I woke up happy just to be alive.
In settlement, I got a gold record, and won the right to mention casually that I co-wrote the song--even though the credits to this day don’t list my name. I also won the right to pay royalties to Clubbo. It kinda wrecked my credit rating, but it felt good to receive at least some recognition for all that hard work.

Still, the court battle outraged me, as did the label's crass commercial exploitation of Sandee’s death. After paying my last royalty installment in 1980, I promised myself I’d never work with that label again. To my professional detriment, I broke that promise five years later, amid intense pressure.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

She Had a Good Head on Her Shoulders

On this date in 1960, Chet Clubb won an old record lathe from Morris “Bo” Bogerman in a poker game. Bogerman rarely bothered with the contraption, but he knew how to use it, whereas Clubb didn’t. On the spot they agreed to form two record labels. The first was Gent, which specialized in the then-lucrative stag record genre. With such titles as “Ifs, Ands & Butts,” “Spank You Very Much,” and “Hang Me Up Before You Go-Go” (famously re-recorded with sanitized lyrics by Wham in 1984), Gent mastered the sonic equivalent of blue movies.

Bo and Clubb formed the second label, Clubbo Records, merely as a front for Gent. Stag records straddled a gray legal area when it came to obscenity. In order to stay safe from vice squad raids, artists would enter the Clubbo Studios off of Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. If some undercover cop came sniffing around, looking for dirty records, Chet would show and play the officer nice clean 45’s by the likes of Pat Boone, Fabian, and Tuesday Weld, all bearing the Clubbo label. Of course, these artists recorded for rival companies. But in their spare time, Bo and Chet would slap their own label onto the records of their competitors. Since most cops didn’t know anything about rock and roll in 1960, they couldn’t tell one artist from another--just as nowadays many couldn’t tell the difference between Jay Z and Nas.

The operation worked well for awhile. But the raunchier mainstream rock got, the less the raincoat crowd wanted to hear the type of sleazy second-rate sounds that Clubb and Bo excelled at. So Gent closed its doors in 1963 when the bottom fell out of the stag market, so to speak. But Clubbo continues to this day. As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, I’d like to reminisce a bit about the label, and its now-famous motto, “Music to believe in.”

Because of its setup with Gent, Clubbo didn’t have a real flesh-and-bone artist until 1962. At the time, Chet didn’t really have any intentions of using the Clubbo label to record an actual artist. But geeky Clipper Cowbridge (left) won his recording contract fair and square playing poker against Bo Bogerman, who never really mastered the game. Ironically, Bo’s lost bet wound up saving the company from insolvency. Cowbridge struck gold right off the bat with “Soda Pop Shop.”

Figure 1. “Soda Pop Shop” excerpt

While Motown promoted itself as a family company, with Uncle Berry treating such stars as the Temptations and Supremes like little nieces and nephews, Bo believed that sex was a far more cohesive force that could really bond the label together. Consequently, he made it company policy to screw his artists early and often. The working conditions were terrible. The studios weren’t soundproofed (if you listen carefully to some of their discs from the late-1960s, you can actually hear student protesters from NYU demonstrating in the background). They continued to use that ancient record lathe until after Bogerman’s death in 1982 (Bo insisted it gave him luck; apparently in everything but poker). Even worse, it’s the only record label in which artists paid mechanical and publishing royalties to the company for every record sold (it should be the other way around). Consequently, hit records forced Cowbridge and other Clubbo artists into bankruptcy.

Furthermore, Bo liked to pit white artists against black artists and vice versa, a practice that really came to a head in 1979 after the chart success of “Black and White TV,” recorded by Maurice and Joanne Tarkington Green, an interracial husband and wife disco duo better known as Decoupage (right). The couple never really got over the stress, and ultimately turned to alcohol, drugs and cross-dressing for solace.

For me, the worst thing about Clubbo was that Chet and Bo squeezed every bit of juice they could out of their songwriters by re-recording the same tunes over and over, thus cutting down on the administrative costs involved with issuing billing statements for royalties. This was the case for the song “Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No” written and originally performed by Marilyn Kaye in 1965. The company gave it to folk rocker Aura Gold to record in 1973, and to fading porn star Laryssa Foxxx in 1985. Hard up for money, and looking for corporate sponsorship from outside the music industry, the label issued another version in 1993, but that’s just too painful to talk about here.

Figure 2. (l.-r.) Marilyn Kaye, Aura Gold and Laryssa Foxxx

Figure 3. Excerpts from the 1965, 1973, 1985 and 1993 versions of “Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No”

I chose “Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No” as an example, because of my personal involvement with the 1985 version. It was the first time I had ever produced a record on my own. I have to admit being a bit jumpy at first. There would be moments when I’d monumentally screw something up, and apologize profusely to Laryssa. But being in the porn trade so long, she had become a really good sport. She didn’t mind, so long as she had a mirror, razorblade, and enough blow to last the session. Instead of hiring musicians, I decided to step-time program the entire instrumental track, including the drums, using Mark of the Unicorn software, a first-generation Mac, an electronic kit brain, and about three miles of MIDI cables.

My version of “Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No” sold a total of eighteen copies--which was good, because, as a grad student living on a small TA stipend, I couldn’t really afford a hit. What really hurt, though, was the criticism. As Rolling Stone characterized my efforts:

The slide in quality accelerates when we reach Laryssa Foxxx‘s version of ‘Yeah, Yeah, No, No, No.’ What possessed Clubbo to shoehorn this sad, introspective song into a dance-club format? Or have it sung by the terminally annoying Foxxx, whose Clubbo deal followed a prolific porn career? Also odd: Laryssa’s porn persona was a clean-scrubbed, girl-next-door type, yet the cover of her sole Clubbo LP, Wild Love, features the artist wrapped in a hideous cavegirl getup and that tiredest of phallic symbols, a big snake. The percolating synth-pop arrangement feels phoned in, and Foxxx’s pesky vocal performance has less range than Yorgi’s one-stringed konservnaya banka.

That was the most positive review. And I had to admit, it was right. What’s worse, it was all my fault. I should’ve known better than to step-time the instrumental tracks. I should have known better than to equalize Laryssa’s vocals on the high side, making the tinny coke-edged tinge in her voice more prominent than it should have been. I should’ve known better than to let anyone nag me into the project in the first place. Most important, I should’ve known better than to break my promise never to work on a Clubbo project again.

That’s right. I had a prior association with the label. Wouldn’t you know, I’d come to regret it.

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Ganesh Map
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