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Hash Fave’s: Some Westlake Stuff

2 Sep

“Hash’s Faves” generally are musical but this one is literary.

The late Donald E. Westlake is my all-time favorite author. If I can write at all it’s by following his example.


Donald Westlake

Although I don’t recall seeing any specifics in any biographies of him, I’m guessing that he has some sort of musical background, as there are many small but telling tidbits, descriptions of musicians, musician characters, etc., in much of his writing. I also guess that he has some sort of connection to Illinois (I do know that he ghost-wrote a lot of soft-porn potboilers for a publisher in Evanston in the early 60’s) as there are frequent mentions of cities in Illinois. And I’m guessing he has a theatrical background, as many of his main characters are actors.

Within the last weeks I’ve read his penultimate book, Memory, and one of his earliest, The Cutie. It’s been interesting. Just to give some context, Westlake’s earliest works were kind of all over the place – science fiction, hard-boiled detective and crime stuff, and humor. He was prolific, utilizing more than a dozen pseudonyms, and at one point churning out a book every couple of days. One of his most famous inventions was a character named Parker, a nihilistic criminal mastermind – pitiless, brutal, vicious and brilliant.   Westlake wrote a series of Parker novels under the name Richard Stark, and over the years they have become cult classics, and have been the inspiration for some movies and graphic novels. But at some point Westlake discovered an undercurrent of wild humor emerging in his writing, almost beyond his control, a voice that didn’t fit Parker’s character at all, so he started a new series of books featuring another criminal mastermind named John Archibald Dortmunder. Dortmunder was far from brutal, and the books are very funny.

Westlake wrote in this humorous vein for many years, and a lot of his funny books were made into movies, with varying degrees of success, but his last couple of books got pretty dark. Memory is about an actor who loses his memory, and is a melancholy exploration of what the “self” is. At one point the protagonist, Paul Cole, visits his first acting teacher in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in his knowledge of his self. The teacher’s reaction to seeing Cole, in his present confused state, is extremely dark, but I thought this monologue was germane not only to those in the theatrical profession but to any artist:

“Every once in a while,” he called, walking around and around, “through that door over there comes an actor. Every once in a while, every once in a great great while. Not one of these pale idiots who wants to be an actor, can you think of anything more foolish? It’s like wanting to fly, isn’t it, you can or you can’t and that’s an end to it, wanting has nothing to do with it. You can even want not to fly, but if you’ve got the wings you’ll fly, one way or another, and wanting has nothing to do with that.”

He stopped again. He was now very near the door, standing facing it with his hands on his hips in a belligerent way. He talked now at the door, but loudly enough for Cole to hear him, with a slight echo in the words. “These young fools come in here with their feeble desires and chip away at my life! Like woodpeckers. What sort of a useless stupid appendix of the emotions is desire, what has desire ever done for anybody but turn him into an embarrassing fool? How can you want to be an actor? You are or you aren’t, and ninety-nine percent of them coming through the door are not. But then there’s the one who is.”

Kirk’s voice had lowered on the last sentence, so that Cole could barely hear him, and now he turned back and came walking straight toward the platform, looking directly at Cole now as he spoke: “That’s what I live for, Paul, that’s the reason for my existence. I sit here and wait and wait and wait, and every once in a while an actor comes through that door back there, a boy or a girl who’s been an actor from the minute he was born, whether he knew it or not. They come to me, and I give them the rudiments, I give them the terms for what they already know how to do, and I give them freely from my own poor store of contacts in the theatrical world, and I watch them discover themselves, discover their own powers and the gulf that yawns between them and the poor fools sitting around them in class…

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with the bleakness of this assessment, but I do agree with the essence of it, that some people just aren’t cut out to be whatever– musicians, painters, poets, actors, photographers, sculptors or writers. One may desire to be, and I would certainly encourage anyone who has such a desire to pursue it, if only for one’s own fulfillment. But very few people can become Charlie Parkers or Marlon Brandos or Picassos. With hard work and dedication, though, one can become proficient enough as a craftsman to produce work that he (or she) can be proud of, and can work in their chosen field. That, I guess, is what I am. I ain’t Jaco Pastorious or Herb Lubalin or Westlake; I wish I was, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got. That doesn’t mean I’m satisfied, by any means, but neither am I ashamed.

As a sidenote, I’ve always been fascinated with the way that Westlake inserts sly little cross-references from previous works into his books, so I was absolutely thrilled to see that he used an address on Grove Street in Greenwich Village in Memory (I read that one first), and an address on Grove Street also pops up in “The Cutie.” Fifty years separated the writing of those books.

The book that introduced me to Westlake, by the way, and that got me hooked is called Dancing Aztecs; it’s not one of his Dortmunder books but it is very funny, and it is a caper book. Lise Dirks turned me on to the book and I will forever be indebted to her.



Steve Hashimoto

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at


Steve Hashimoto



Re: Colin Harper’s “Dazzling Stranger”

20 Mar

Bert Jansch

My old pal David Ashcraft gave me another great book by Colin Harper, the author of the John McLaughlin biography Bathed In Lightning. This one is pretty far afield from the McLaughlin bio but it turns out to be surprisingly of a piece; it’s a bio of the seminal English folk musician Bert Jansch, titled Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival.

Jansch is one of my favorite musicians, the leader of the band Pentangle, and although I never considered him much of a blues player, he certainly was in the thick of the English folk revival of the 60’s.

How does this relate at all to McLaughlin, you might ask? Well, Harper is an almost obsessive researcher, and the simple answer is that Jansch and McLaughlin both kind of started as young, rank amateurs on the London scene of the early 60’s. Their paths surely crossed, as both were also session players in London in the early 60’s; Jansch not so much as McLaughlin, but he did record with Donovan as well as some other English artists. But what I’m finding fascinating about the book (I’m only into the 2nd chapter) is Harper’s tracing of the lineage of the folk scene, which has connections across the pond to the United States, and, of course, is responsible for a lot of pollination of the English pop scene.

The English fascination with blues, evidently, really started with Big Bill Broonzy, who played several gigs in the British Isles. The English blues scene is generally said to have been started by Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner; although I’ve known about them for years, this book provides a real timeline and framework for their lives. Davies, who is generally acknowledged as the first English blues harmonica player, was born in 1932, and died, tragically young, in 1964, before he was able to see the enormous influence on rock music that he had. Korner, born in 1928, was a guitarist who did live to see his musical “children” grow up to conquer the pop music scene; his band Blues Incorporated nurtured young performers kind of like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers did in the jazz field: musicians like Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry, Graham Bond, Danny Thompson, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Geoff Bradford, Rod Stewart, John Mayall, Jimmy Page, Lol Coxhill, Dick Morrissey, John Surman and Mike Zwerin all passed through.

The English music scene was smaller, of course, than the American scene; it was, after all, mostly centered around London. Before the blues revival, but related to it because Broonzy was presented in concert as an American singer of folk songs, what was called the English Folk Revival really had its roots in the post-World War I years. Soho in London became a kind of Bohemian center, drawing people like Dylan Thomas. Post World War II musicologists like Ewan MacColl, A.L. Lloyd, Martin Carthy and The Watersons, among many others, started a movement, sometimes as a reaction against the incursions of American music and sometimes not, to discover and preserve the traditional musics of the Isles. (Similar movements were a’bornin’ in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.) There was a healthy diplomatic connection between America and the U.K., though; American folklorist Alan Lomax spent time in London along with Pete Seeger’s half-sister Peggy, who married Ewan MacColl.

Another thing that I found interesting was the influence of Communism in England’s folk51AjwFpNOTL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_ scene; I think England is much more politicized than we are, and many of that first generation of English folk musicians were unabashedly Communist. In America, of course, The Weavers had their careers destroyed by the McCarthy pogroms, and seminal New York folk musician Dave Van Ronk, in his excellent autobiography The Mayor of MacDougal Street recalls how leftist politics were part of the DNA of the Greenwich Village folk movement.

Broonzy, Leadbelly, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were folk music heroes in England, and American jazz was also very popular, but many of the aspiring English musicians couldn’t quite grasp the harmonic complexity of jazz or the African polyrhythmic subtleties of the blues, so when they learned songs from the afore-mentioned artists they tended to simplify them, both harmonically and rhythmically, and that’s how skiffle music was born (or that’s one theory, at least). Skiffle was enormously popular, and here’s where the matrix starts: Just about every English rock musician of note in the 60’s started out either in a skiffle band (McLaughlin, the various Beatles) or in a blues band (the Rolling Stones, Clapton,

The genealogies at this point in time all start to cross: Rod Stewart worked with Long John Baldry, who had performed early in his career at concerts that MacColl presented; Davies and Korner were matriculating students in and out of their bands; the influential guitarist Davy Graham was starting to incorporate elements of Indian music into his playing; bandleaders like Graham Bond and Georgie Fame were employing rhythm sections like Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker; John McLaughlin was playing sessions, skiffle and jazz gigs; Ronnie Scott was employing players of all stripes at his famous jazz club; Jimmie Page and John Paul Jones were doing session work; American singer/songwriter Paul Simon was lurking around in London.

One can point at specific songs as results of all of this intermingling. Simon appropriated Martin Carthy’s arrangement of the traditional song “Scarborough Fair” and Davy Graham’s signature solo guitar piece “Angie” and had much more success with them than either of the Brits could ever dream of (and sparking much long-held resentment, although I do think that Graham at least was compensated). The Animals nicked Van Ronk’s arrangement of “House Of The Rising Sun,” which he had evidently in turn borrowed from the American folk-blues singer Eric Von Schmidt. When Jimmie Page started his mega-group Led Zeppelin, one of the songs on their debut album, “Black Mountain Side,” was a blatant copy of Jansch’s “Blackwater Side,” which in turn was a hybrid of original writer Annie Briggs’ version and a version by future Pentangle mate John Renbourn. (To his karmic credit, Jansch always seemed relatively unfazed by Page’s theft, saying “When you sell your music, you sell your soul. I prefer to share mine.”)

A second wave of English folkies would electrify the music, bands like Fairport Convention, Lindisfarne and Steeleye Span, partially as a reaction against the English blues players and in recognition of the accomplishments in America of The Band. Many of the English musicians respected The Band’s attempt to get back to the roots of Americana, and felt that the traditions of the English Isles had plenty to offer. Another thing that I’m finding interesting is that many of the earliest figures in the English scene were very much children of the period BETWEEN World Wars I and II, which puts a very different spin on the way that they processed the world around them. I think this accounts for the high incidence of Communism.

On the other hand, the earliest figures of the pop scene were very much children of World War II, an experience that we in America can scarcely imagine; if they grew up in London they grew up in a city that was under attack by the Luftwaffe, and following the war they experienced years of forced austerity, as opposed to America, whose economy was stronger than it had ever been. Jansch talks about having to attempt to build his own first guitar, since there was no way he could ever afford to buy one. Some of the earliest skiffle bands consisted of more-or-less homemade instruments. Many of the folk pioneers tell of gigs that literally paid nothing; at least when Bob Dylan played what were called the Basket joints in Greenwich Village he might go home with 4 or 5 bucks in tips, and in one of his early taking blues songs he recalls that his first paid gig in New York was as a harmonica player for a dollar a day. This period of English austerity might partially explain the rock star excesses of the 70’s.

The book is, as I say, obsessively researched, and it might not be your cuppa;, but since I already know and love a lot of this music and many of these musicians I’m really enjoying it. If you’re a Zeppelin or Richard Thompson or Cream or Traffic fan, there’s a lot of deep information here that might interest you. Thanks, Dave!

Steve Hashimoto

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at


Gary’s Top Comic Books (of 2012)

6 Jul


The following post is by Gary Brown and is reprinted from his zine, Oblio.

Each year I take some time to look back on the previous 12 months and pontificate on what I think were the best dozen comic books of that period.
As in the past, I remind my readers that these are MY opinions. End of sentence. Of course, as a reader and collector of comic books for more than 50 years, I believe I’m qualified to put my own judgmental stamp on what is good and what is not so good. This year, I estimate I read between 800-1,00 comic books.
I also need to point out that I don’t read every comic book that comes out, meaning there is no doubt that there are titles that I miss or totally ignore here that should be mentioned. So, use that to balance just how you accept…

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Remembering Gage Park (a review)

6 Jul


Remembering Gage Park by William P. Shunas; self-published through Xlibris; copyright 2010. Available at Barnes & Noble (,, and at 

Paperback $15.00-20.00. Kindle edition $7.69

             A fictional memoir, Remembering Gage Park  begins: “I was eight years old when I met   Connor. That was they day he nearly put out my eye. You would’ve thought I’d have learned something that day, but not me.” That hook imbedded, Shunas pauses to describe Chicago’s then-unpaved alleys, Gage Park’s turf protocols for eight-year-olds, and the workings of the Chicago Democratic Machine, before returning to his narrator’s fateful meeting with Connor. Intriguing stuff, and for the rest of the book Shunas continues to intersperse tense scenes with sharply-etched description of Gage Park: the streets, homes, gardens, stores, vacant lots, the people and their culture, the politics and economics. He tells all this through Mike Staron, a semi-tough Gage Park kid…

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Review From Windy City Reviews

6 Jul



Review: Jimmy Stu Lives

DateFriday, June 29, 2012 at 08:54PM

Jimmy Stu Lives! by Kent McDaniel

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

Super Science Fiction with a Side of Grits

Reverend James Stuart Sloan, or Jimmy Stu as he prefers, is the founder of Nashville, Tennessee’s Church of the Living Lord, a three-thousand member congregation complete with a church on an acre-sized lawn and a televised service. As an inspirational preacher, Jimmy Stu looks to be at the top of his game. Except that he isn’t. During the latter part of his life, Jimmy Stu has begun to lose his connection with the Almighty, a deep slide into despair accelerated by the death of his beloved wife, Debbi. He is haunted by the idea that Debbi has not gone on to eternal life, but instead has disappeared into oblivion. Aware that his television ratings are starting to slip, prodded by a devout…

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Review From Alexiad

6 Jul


By Kent McDaniel
(Penumbra Publishing; 2011;
ISBN 978-1935563839; $9.99;
Kindle: $2.99)

Reviewed by Tom Feller

In Robert Heinlein’s 1940 novella, “If This Goes On —“, a fundamentalist Christian leader is elected President in 2012 and proceeds to suspend the Constitution and turn the United States into a theocracy. In Kent McDaniel’s novel, future events have not gone that far, but the separation of church and state is no longer observed, and you might say that the United States is a semi-theocracy.

McDaniel’s story begins in the present. The main character is The Reverend James Stuart “Jimmy Stu” Sloan, founder of the mega-church Church of the Living Lord (COTLL), a three thousand person congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. A widower, Jimmy Stu has lost his faith and decides to have his body cryogenically frozen when he dies.

He is revived in 2140, when the world in some ways is…

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