Friday, October 13, 2017


Wolf Larsen was not yet 30-years-old when he made the long walk down Woodhull Street in Brooklyn on his way to the Bethesda Mission. With his busted up features and cauliflowered ears - unfortunate reminders of his career as a prizefighter - made worse by the bloating effects of liquor, Larsen didn't look like a young man. Most thought he was well into his 40s. Maybe a few people recognized him. Maybe they'd seen him  brawling  with cops, or singing in the street in a loud, drunken voice. Maybe he just looked like another local mug who had come to the mission for help. The kind people there took him in and let him rest on a cot.

He would be dead inside of 18 months, worn down by a decade of heavy drinking and reckless living. But as he did in many of his fights, he managed a rally. There was almost always a moment in Larsen's fights, usually when he was hopelessly behind, when he'd start throwing haymakers, gambling on his heavy right hand,  just to keep the bout interesting. Those desperate moments were exciting, but ultimately, he'd just tire himself out and barely make it to the final gong. That is, if he didn't get knocked cold. The way he rallied at the mission was by making himself useful as a cook, handyman, and night watchman, fixing things and sweeping up and being respectful. But as usually happened when Larsen tried one of his late round bursts, it wasn't enough. Yet, the people at the mission spoke well of him when he died; they said he was a good guy who had been helpful in his final months. 

It was as if Wolf Larsen knew his days were numbered and he wanted to change the way people saw him. 

He was born Magnes Andreas Larsen Ros on May 14, 1901 in Ostre Moland, Norway. According to legend, or the imaginings of a slick press agent, he was the grandson of the sea captain Wolf Larsen, a character fictionalized by Jack London for his novel  The Sea Wolf. Like most of the men in his family, he became a seaman at a young age. For amusement he would often box his fellow seafarers. At age 18 he found himself face to face with none other than Battling Siki, the great Senegalese fighter who would soon be the light heavyweight champion. 

The Siki story was told in many ways, sometimes set on a ship, or at a circus - the most fantastic was that Siki was scheduled to fight but his opponent didn't show, and Larsen came out of the crowd to fill in - but it always ended with Larsen and Siki in an impromptu 10-rounder, with Larsen getting the best of it.

When Siki went on to win the title from Georges Carpentier of France, it was Larsen himself who told the tale to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, explaining that he and Siki had been sparring partners at the Amsterdam Club gymnasium in Holland. 

"He was striving to pick up the fine points of the game," Larsen said, "and was anxious to have me box with him. He knew little about boxing, but possessed some hitting ability. I was very much his master at that time, and still think I am, granting that he has improved much since then."

But even this version of the story is suspect. From what we know of Larsen  - a New York writer once described his style being as "wide open as a Havana cafe" -  we can't imagine him at 18 being remotely familiar with the "fine points of the game." Also, by 1919, Siki had been a professional for years, and had earned medals for bravery during the war.  It's doubtful he would be schooled by Larsen, a novice. 

Regardless, after the alleged encounter with Siki, Larsen left Holland for Australia, did a bit of boxing down there, and then shipped off for the states. Once in New York, some buddies coaxed him into entering an amateur tournament. Larsen was a thrill seeker, and brawling for an audience seemed more exciting than being an anonymous figure on a schooner. At the time, Jack Dempsey was the biggest thing in the country, and boxing was enjoying unprecedented coverage. It's no wonder Larsen wanted in.

By dominating the local amateurs in New York, and winning the AAU title at 175 pounds, Larsen became a hero to the Norwegian Turn Society, a collection of immigrants that had started their own athletic organization. Though boxing wasn't as popular among Norwegians as gymnastics and wrestling, Larsen won his countrymen over with his free-swinging style. Besides, he was a winner. Everybody likes a winner.

Larsen entered the professional ranks on the winds of blowhard manager Tom O'Rourke, whom we can probably thank for the of hype that accompanied Larsen during the early months of his career. This included everything from Harry Greb wanting to fight him, to Dempsey wanting to hire him as a sparring partner. This was probably all nonsense, but it was good stuff. It could almost distract you from the fact that Larsen lost his first two professional bouts.

The downhill skid was on.

With only five fights on his resume, Larsen found himself matched against Gene Tunney.  O'Rourke should've been strung up by his ears for putting a rookie in with a sharpshooter like Tunney, who at the time was undefeated in 42 bouts. Still, Larsen was probably all for it. On October 25, 1921, at New York's Pioneer Sporting Club, Tunney stopped Larsen in seven rounds. The New York Tribune called it "a slaughter, pure and simple," and reported that Larsen  "absorbed enough punishment to put the average boxer in the hospital for several months." Other reports describe Larsen as "clearly outclassed," and "cut to ribbons." Tunney would recall Larsen a few years later as a "powerful and rushing slugger," but "an easy one, a 'wolf' in name only."

Larsen's next handful of opponents were unknowns - soldiers returning from the war, a local fireman who had taken up boxing to cash in on the Dempsey craze, young Irish and Jewish men trying to make a buck with their fists - perhaps fed to him to rebuild his confidence; he knocked most of them kicking. Charles Mathison of The New York Herald pegged Larsen as "a stocky, phlegmatic chap, guiltless of boxing skill but with a battering ram punch in his right mitt." There was more talk, obviously planted by O'Rourke, that Larsen was being groomed to meet Dempsey. In reality, Larsen had all he could handle from such characters as Tarzan Larkin, the "Minnesota Cave Man," who decked Larsen six times before finding himself on the wrong end of Larsen's right hand. 

More often than not, Larsen simply got his head beat in, like when he faced "Sailor" Maxted in what the Eagle called "a one sided contest." One report had Larsen hitting the canvas a dozen times during the first two rounds, though he managed, in one of his familiar but futile comebacks, to put the much larger Maxted down once in the third. Larsen simply ran out of energy by the sixth, which prompted his manager to throw in the towel, saving Larsen from what one reporter termed, "utter annihilation."

Larsen would often do well enough in his losing battles that he'd keep his status as an entertaining opponent, a lovable loser. His October 1922 loss to California's Billy Shade earned raves from The New York World, particularly in the late rounds when,"to the astonishment of the spectators," Larsen "suddenly braced and stuck his stout jaw out inviting Shade to hit (him) at will." 

By 1923, New Yorkers had seen enough of Larsen. Under the guidance of new manager Jim Buckley, Larsen began a two year stint in the Boston area with a few stops in Maine and Canada. He lost most of those fights, too. He was often matched against bigger men, on a schedule that saw him fighting (and losing) sometimes three times per month. In one of his Boston bouts, Larsen grew angry when he thought the referee had tried to trip him; he let his frustration out by knocking the ref down with a single crack on the chin. Not waiting to hear that he'd been disqualified, Larsen fled the ring and went home. 

Still, Larsen kept fighting. Boston newspapers called him the "Swinging Swede," and he even scored a third round knockout win on the undercard of an event at Braves' Field, "hitting all together too hard and  often" for Dan Lucas, a soldier from nearby Camp Devens. But after a TKO loss to Hambone Kelly at Mechanics Hall in Boston, Larsen collapsed and had to be taken to a local hospital. It turned out he was fighting too soon after an appendix operation and shouldn't have been in the ring, anyway. 

Larsen never got near Dempsey, but he did fight and lose to some pretty good men, including Kid Norfolk, Ad Stone, and Lou Bogash. A valiant losing effort against heavyweight prospect Jim Maloney earned him praise from The Portsmouth Herald's Norman Brown. Larsen, Brown wrote, "gave Maloney one of his toughest battles," and nearly "knocked him cuckoo."  

Boston dried up, and then it was back to New York where the losses continued. Al Roberts, a plodding, unimaginative heavyweight from Staten Island who had lost to the likes of Tunney, Greb, Jack Sharkey, Billy Miske, and others, scored two decisions over Larsen, which meant Larsen was now a punching bag for other punching bags. By the summer of 1926, after a 'no contest' in Brooklyn with a character named Johnny Urban, Larsen  disappeared from the scene. According to one columnist, an altercation with the police had left him with such injuries that he had to stop boxing for a while.

Why didn't Larsen live up to the promise he'd shown as an amateur? True, he didn't exactly look after himself, he preferred drinking to training, and his management treated him like a piece of meat. But the real reason may go back to the Tunney fight. When Larsen saw how a seasoned professional, as the Tribune put it, "battered him all over the ring," he may have realized that he was simply an awkward second rater. So, in the words of one journalist, he decided to  "live a life of enjoyment." By the time Larsen heard the news that his old sparring partner Siki had died in the gutter, he was well aware that being a top fighter didn't guarantee a good life.

When he couldn't get fights, Larsen worked as a seaman on the Great Lakes, or bounced around Red Hook. Though he tried to present himself as a sort of roguish playboy, he was just a local lunatic, a rock-bottom alcoholic known for crazy street brawls that sound like the stuff of silent movies. He once knocked a man through a wooden wall at the Columbia Street subway station.

"He won plenty of decisions," Buckley said. "But more of them were against cops than prizefighters."

Larsen became a kind of walking urban legend. Among the slew of farfetched tales he inspired was one that involved his attempt to steal a pony from a neighborhood fish peddler. As legend has it, Larsen simply picked the animal up and started walking in the direction of the nearest pawnshop. When the police asked him where he was going with the pony, Larsen said, "Pony? I thought it was a calf."

But not all the stories were fun. On one of his aimless strolls along the waterfront, Larsen saw a couple of men breaking into a speakeasy. Thinking this might be a nice way to score some liquor, he tried to assist the robbers. They responded by cutting Larsen's face and leaving him for dead. He survived, though. In January 1929 he was stabbed again in a restaurant brawl in Red Hook. 

Larsen's final ring appearance took place in April 1929 against journeyman Joe Lill at the New Broadway AC in Philadelphia. John Webster of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Larsen, "gamely stood up under a hail of leather until the referee halted the bout in the third." Fittingly, Larsen went out with an "L." His record was approximately 28-40-2, but anyone who says they know Larsen's exact record is a liar.

By 1930, Larsen was homeless, sleeping in a stable, and  seen regularly in New York breadlines and Salvation Army kitchens. 

"Broadway is a funny place," Larsen said. "Everybody'll give you  a drink, and nobody'll  give you anything to eat."

Ironically, a successful film version of Jack London's The Sea Wolf began playing in New York around that same time. There was a "Wolf Larsen" on the big screen, played by  Milton Sills. There would also be, in the ensuing years, a number of "Wolf Larsens" in football, baseball, and wrestling. But the Wolf Larsen of boxing was now on the streets of New York, drinking as if he had a personal vendetta against the Volstead Act.

At the Bethesda Mission, Larsen behaved himself. He never mentioned having a home or a family; it was as if he'd been born simply to drink and fight. For several months, he was a model citizen. Then, during the first week of July, 1931, he wandered out into the evening and returned drunker than he'd been in a long time. He died a few days later at King's County Hospital of pneumonia.

But, if one may use this soggy old cliche, he was a fighter to the end, literally, as a mission volunteer named John Olsen recounted. Upon hearing Larsen had died, Olsen told the press, "I saw a fellow he hit the night before he went to the hospital, and the fellow was still bent over, a cripple."

 Why write about Wolf Larsen? Well, fighters like him provide the grease and fuel on which the boxing machine runs. Sometimes they're named Wolf Larsen. Sometimes they're named Augustus Burton, or Garing Lane. Without them, how would the young, well-connected contenders fatten their records? Dismiss Larsen as cannon fodder if you like, and maybe you wouldn't want to be around him when he was drunk, but he deserves a tip of the cap. Besides, he spent the last months of his life cooking for other lost souls at the Bethesda Mission, and that deserves a tip of the cap, too.

Sunday, October 8, 2017


 High School Caesar - now streaming on The Film Detective's classic movie app as part of our "Juvie Jungle" collection - came at the tail end of Hollywood's fascination with juvenile delinquents. The JD trend was strong from 1955-1960; one could hardly enter a theater or drive-in without seeing a bunch of young hoods slouching around on the screen like cut rate James Deans. Though very few of the titles could be regarded as classic cinema, they certainly had a recognizable style and charm. But before we go into High School Caesar, a bit of retro movie history might be in order.
Within weeks of the release of Rebel Without A Cause (1955), schlockmeister "Jungle Sam" Katzman charged into the teen market with an energetic little flick called Teenage Crime Wave. Katzman always had an uncanny sense for picking trends, and other low budget movie producers usually followed his lead. Thus, with an encouraging nod from Katzman, a floodgate was opened for teen gangs, teen werewolves, teen cavemen, teen psychopaths, and teenage gun girls.                            

Many of the JD films were released by American International Pictures, the veritable chop shop of moviedom founded by lawyer Samuel Z. Arkoff and theater manager James H. Nicholson, but Allied Artists and Howco International were in the game, too. The titles were often better than the actual films. A few samples: Juvenile Jungle (1958); The Cool and the Crazy (1958); Reform School Girl (1957); Teenage Wolf-Pack (1957); The Cry-Baby Killer (1958); Teenage Thunder (1957); and the wonderfully named Lost, Lonely, and Vicious (1958). Who could resist?

The formula was simple. There would be plenty of dancing, a few fist fights, a drag race or two, and  some ersatz rock 'n roll. No big stars were needed, because the trend was the star.

Still, the most obvious influence on the JD genre was the old Warner Bros. crime movie, as our tough delinquents usually came to a bad end and learned, as their gangster predecessors had learned, that crime doesn't pay. High School Caesar (1960) was an obvious callback to the Edward G. Robinson 1931 crime classic, Little Caesar. You can almost imagine the filmmaker's thought process: Let's remake Little Caesar but cast it with teenagers!

John Ashley stars as Matt Stevens, a rich brat who takes over his high school by employing some goons to intimidate his classmates. Matt doesn't throw many punches; he likes to be the brain behind the muscle. As the adverts shouted, he had "more rackets than Al Capone," everything from shaking kids down for protection money, to supplying test answers for a fee. 

All goes well for Matt as he bullies his way to becoming class president. But when the other kids realize he ran a rival off the road and didn't take the blame for the boy's death, his little kingdom begins to crumble.

Ashley is fascinating as Matt. His hair is greased back and immaculate, a brilliantined cross between James Dean and Dracula. His speaking voice is just short of an Elvis Presley drawl, but he has the cocksure self-awareness of a Ford salesman. He wears clothes and jewelry like a fashion plate, and can dance at the local hangout like he's auditioning for American Bandstand. He's the whole package, the teen embodiment of Eisenhower-era swank served up for the drive-in crowd.

The unique twist is that Matt comes from a wealthy family. He's not some street hood; he has a maid and a butler, and a hot new car. He's a sensitive soul, too. When he fears his parents have forgotten him while they vacation in Europe, he falls on his bed and weeps. Even the coin he's constantly flipping, like a gangster, was a special coin that belonged to his dad, another symbol of the poor little rich boy who is alienated from his parents.

Compared to a lot of JD film villains, Matt gets off easy; instead of being shot by cops or dying in a highway crash, he's simply abandoned by his once loyal followers. Of course, when he's face to face with one of the good kids, he can't do much to defend himself. He takes a few punches to the mouth, and ends up crying alone in an empty parking lot. For a while, though, Matt seemed cunning enough to get away with murder.

Ashley (1934 -1997) went on to have a steady career in beach party movies and on television, and even served as an executive producer on such cult titles as The Big Doll House (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973). As he matured he grew less interested in acting and began working behind the scenes, most notably as a producer of The A-Team, where his voice was often heard as the show's narrator.

In real life, Ashley was an Oklahoma boy who found his way into the movie business while vacationing in California. A buddy from Oklahoma State University brought him onto the set of a John Wayne movie, and it was Wayne who steered Ashley to a job in television. From his earliest days as an actor, Ashley leaned towards schlock. He once said, "This is a terrible thing to admit but maybe the key to my success with exploitation films is that I always LIKED those movies, and I never had any real reason to turn them down. I just enjoyed doing them." 

His acting ledger wasn't entirely lowbrow; he gave a commendable performance in Martin Ritt's highly acclaimed Hud (1963), holding his own in a cast that included Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, and Patricia Neal.

High School Caesar was the second of three features by O. Dale Ireland, an independent filmmaker who also gave us Date Bait (1958) and Drag Strip Riot (1960). Ireland filmed it in his old home town of Chillicothe, Missouri during the spring of '59. It was quite an event when it premiered at Chillicothe's Bent Bolt Theater that September, setting a one day attendance record for that venue. The cast included a mixture of beginners and semi-professionals - many were local Chillicothe kids - but the real standout aside from Ashley is Daria Massey as Lita, Matt's long suffering female accomplice.

With her dark hair and eyes, plus a figure that seemed designed by rocket engineers, Massey could steal any scene she was in. Though the credits say "introducing Daria Massey", she'd been working as an actress and model for a decade, including a featured role in Sabu and the Magic Ring (1957) and was nearly at the end of her career by the time of High School Caesar. She'd pack it in after playing a sexy island babe on an episode of McHale's Navy in 1963.

High School Caesar also benefits from a rockin' soundtrack. The title song is performed by Reggie Perkins in a hiccuping rockabilly style, while Reggie Olson and Johnny Faire offer up tunes that are surprisingly cool, considering these were simply songs dreamed up for a quickie soundtrack.

By the way, the High School Caesar music score by Nicholas Carras, a boppin' hybrid of rock and jazz, can be heard on a fabulous 2-CD set called Juvenile Jive, put out by the Monstrous Music CD label in 2010. Carras' score for Date Bait is also included, as is Gerald Fried's jazzy score for High School Big Shot. Carras was a sort of low budget movie maestro, scoring dozens of drive-in gems, including Frankenstein's Daughter (1958) and The Astro Zombies (1968). Carras was given a producer's credit for High School Caesar, and had a much longer career than most of the cast; he worked up until 1991 when, at age 76, he scored Mission: Killfast for cult director Ted V. Mikels.

As for the J.D. movie genre, the trend was doomed to die of overexposure. Jerry Lewis was quick to parody the style in The Delicate Delinquent (1957), and by 1961, when delinquents were singing and dancing in West Side Story, it was evident to all that teen punks had lost their edge. But it sure was fun while it lasted.


Get a glimpse of the JD jungle by watching High School Caesar on Our classic movie app is available on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, and Apple TV. We're also showing such teen gems as Girl Gang, Anatomy of a Psycho, and Teenage Strangler.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


New bio explores the strange life of '70s soul stirrer, grits and all.
by Don Stradley

Al Green's career defies the usual pop star trajectory familiar to baby boomers. There was no defining moment, no appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, no star turn at Woodstock,  nothing where fans can say they remember where they were when they first saw him. Granted, there may be some out there who recall the first time he appeared on Soul Train, and apparently every  child born in 1972 was conceived while "Lets Stay Together" was playing on the car radio, or on the Sansui 8-track, but Green's life story seems so unlikely, so damned peculiar, that a long biography of him never quite gains traction, and not just because he dumped his career as a soul singer to become a preacher and record gospel tunes.

Jimmy McDonough's Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green is bursting with details, as well as an insightful  reappraisal of Green's recorded output, but Green is a troublesome subject. Reader beware: Green is neither likeable, nor especially interesting. At the most, he's slightly eccentric, but no more so than the average overpaid celebrity. He talks about himself in third person, is dumb about money, is mean to people, and has had a string of bad marriages. We could say the same about almost anyone in the NBA or the NFL. 

Al Green (as he calls himself, as in "Al Green has got to please Al Green,") was slightly weird from the start, a strangely effeminate boy who was once kicked off his high school football team for being too rough. The Green family landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan by way of an Arkansas backwater; they were unsophisticated and prone to believe in voodoo spells, but the brood was musical, specializing in religious hymns and gospel harmonies. Like a young Michael Jackson did in his own family, little Al Green absorbed what his older brothers were doing and was soon blowing them away with his silky, soaring vocal style.

The family gospel group performed in such such faraway locations as New York and Canada. Al was electric, belting out gospel songs and stealing the spotlight every night, though he remained, in his own words, "the kid under a tree by himself." Al's father, Robert Green, was capable of extreme cruelty - he once shot Al's pet goat and served it for dinner as a joke  - and Al's brothers never knew what to make of their "different" younger sibling. He was the meal ticket, though, and he knew that he was the most gifted member of his mediocre family. He also started to dig the sound of secular singers, namely Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Elvis Presley.

He left home at 16 and slept in the guest rooms of various musicians, older cats who knew Al had some talent but needed protection. He was soon fronting a group called The Fabulous Creations, honing his stagecraft in one city after another. He heard Otis Redding sing at Chicago's Regal Theater and it was a revelation. "It was like God or something," Green said, "slipping out of heaven."  There were also prostitutes, transvestite nightclubs, and rumors that Al tried his hand at pimping, a trade his brother Walter had mastered. Al recorded a modestly successful single, "Back Up Train," but when it failed to turn him into a star, he grew desperate. Broke, with little to show for his first few years on the road, he jump-started his career by teaming with music producer Willie Mitchell, the production guru behind a little known Memphis outfit called HI Records. Together, they recorded the string of mesmerizing soul hits that made Green a phenomenon of the 1970s. You might say Mitchell made Green, or vice versa. Neither would ever be as good without the other.

McDonough, author of first rate biographies of Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, and Russ Meyer, has plenty of mysteries to unravel with Green. Here was a man given to violent mood swings, yet capable of singing in a high, romantic falsetto designed to make women crazy. Here was a man who carried weapons, and physically attacked people, yet was thought by many in his circle to be not just gay, but downright feminine. He was capable of great generosity, but those who worked for him recall Green as a stingy jerk, the sort who stifled most confrontations by saying, "Don't you know who I am? I'm Al Green!" 

And, of course, there was the tragic death of Mary Woodson, a mentally fragile woman who had left her husband to be with Green, only to commit suicide in Green's home. One night she purportedly threw a pan of scalding hot grits at the singer's bare back, and then shot herself in the head with his .38. At least that's what we're supposed to believe. McDonough raises enough questions about the incident that one doesn't know what to think. It was shortly thereafter that Green began preaching at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, though he'll always remind you that he'd found God a year earlier, at Disneyland. 

In the ensuing years he became a ghostly presence in the world of pop and R & B. His music has been sampled endlessly by hip hop artists, he has appeared on award shows to sing alongside Justin Timberlake and others, and a recent Green album was produced by Questlove. Green has won numerous Grammy awards for his gospel work, and even appeared on Broadway, disastrously, opposite Patti LaBelle in a show called Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. In 1995 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he stumbled through a duet with Aretha Franklin.

McDonough tells us all of this, plus stuff about drugs and guns and domestic violence, but he's too much of a music buff to go full-blown Albert Goldman. He treats Green as a kind of distressed genius, fawning over his talents with something close to blind adoration, describing Green's falsetto at the end of "Aint No Fun For Me" as feeling "like a little balloon escaping into the night sky." Then, seeking gravitas where there isn't any, compares another Green recording to "an ancient screed chiseled on tablets excavated deep within some pyramid."

Somehow, the reverence starts to sound like plain old ass kissing.

McDonough, as if trying to dilute his hero worship, occasionally declares that not all of Green's music appeals to him. Love is Reality, he writes, "gets my vote for the worst Al Green album of all time," adding, "I drove around in my car blasting this thing trying to like it." McDonough is a middle-aged man, but within him beats the heart of a truculent fanboy. A little of this is amusing, but sometimes his puckish asides are like finding a hair in your soup. When he writes that an album sounds "like 1979 on a bad day," you know he can do better.

He's more successful when writing about obscure songs and session players. I like how he describes Bulldog Grimes, a drummer who could "lay down a beat that sounds like King Kong doing a two-step in a metal grass skirt." McDonough's affection for Green's band members is palpable, as is the sense that the world of soul music was a world where men, not women, were the sex symbols. Women listened to Green, and other singers like him, and turned utterly irrational. They'd break into Green's home or church, storm the stage to give him their panties, anything to get close to "the black Elvis." One woman, completely undone by her favorite soul man's sweet vocals, dropped to her knees and begged Green to let her sniff his crotch.

If the book has a shortcoming, it's Green. Despite McDonough's depiction of the singer as a haunted loner, Green is too murky to be compelling. Plus, McDonough bales out of the Mary Woodson chapter too quickly. The book could've used 10 more pages of the Woodson scandal, and maybe 10 fewer pages about the history of Hi Records.

My aunts were all music lovers back in the day, and though their tastes ran towards the Bee Gees and Chicago, each of them had a copy of Al Green's Greatest Hits. I once asked my uncle what the deal was with this Al Green character, who to me looked like a skinny James Brown. My uncle, who never said three words when two would do, simply grunted: "He's for the broads." That was good enough for me. Yet, I've never forgotten the way my aunts talked about Al Green, the way they'd break into exaggerated giggles at the mention of his name. Al Green meant parties and good times and things I probably couldn't fathom in those days. 

I fathom those things a little better now, thanks partly to McDonough. He gets in his own way sometimes, but this exhaustive biography works pretty well.

Monday, September 18, 2017


He was not a crook!
The story of Tricky Dick is still the most intriguing political saga of our time
By Don Stradley

Richard Nixon shouldn't appeal to me - rotten things happened under his watch, the war in Vietnam dragged out for at least four years while he fiddled and diddled, and by most accounts he was a neurotic, petty politician with enough chips on his shoulder to fill a Las Vegas casino - but he does. It's partly because of the image he had in old newspaper cartoons; the five o'clock shadow, the slope of his posture, the sneaky reputation, and the legend that he spent his final days in the White House on his knees praying with Henry Kissinger. He'd started out as a commie basher and spy smasher, but he ended up as Washington's prince of darkness, as if  so many years playing on the country's paranoia had turned him more paranoid than anybody. In John A. Farrell's Richard Nixon, The Life, we get a thoughtful, realistic rendering of a complex character. It's a weighty book, 558 pages of reading, but it's a fine, full-blooded account of a man who, like Vincent Van Gogh or Edgar Alan Poe, wore the anguish of his calling. Nixon wore it on his face and in his bones.

Late in the book, we're given a quote by Kissinger: "It was hard to avoid the impression that Nixon, who thrived on crises, also craved disasters." A recurring theme in this insightful biography is that Nixon courted controversy, and gambled on himself to overcome his own self laid booby traps. As one insider put it, Nixon was like any gambler, and "the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air." The observations, plucked from decades of Nixon-based literature, add up to Nixon being diabolically smart, surprisingly progressive in many ways,  but always digging holes for himself,  partly because he firmly believed he was too intelligent, too tough, to fail. He swung hard, for the fences every time. "A man who has never lost himself in a cause bigger than himself has missed out on one of life's mountaintop experiences," Nixon said. "Only in losing himself does he find himself."

What exactly did he find? And did he like what he saw? "It's a piece of cake until you get to the top," he once said of a political career. Then, in words that may as well be describing a man with a gambling addiction, Nixon added, "you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance." He was the wiliest of political animals, a diabolical thinker who was always two or three moves ahead of everyone, yet what should have been a great presidency was derailed by a quick series of stupid mistakes and bad choices.

The key scenes and characters play out like parts of a crazy, kitschy, American opera: there's Pat Nixon, the long suffering wife; Alger Hiss; Joe McCarthy; Checkers the dog; Eisenhower, the mentor and ball buster; John Kennedy, a friend, then a foe; the '68 comeback; thousands of burned and butchered bodies strewn across the jungles of Vietnam; Nixon in China; Nixon in Russia; the hiring of Hunt and Liddy, the "sycophants and klutzes" brought into the White House to run Nixon's black ops; and the disastrous coverup of the Watergate break in, a stunt no worse than what we've seen since from other presidents, but because Nixon had broken so many backs on the way up, he was too unlikable to get away with it. Nixon wanted to be a giant, and he very nearly was one. And he did it during one of the most turbulent eras in our history, navigating some incredibly bumpy terrain, while secretly despising the political life, the smiling and the handshakes and the phony dinners and soirees, and people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, panned succinctly by Farrell as "a Kennedy coat holder." 

Farrell doesn't gloss over Nixon's cold-blooded style, for if  Nixon was a brilliant politician who could survey any  scene and understand what was needed to get votes, he was also a ruthless mauler of any perceived enemy. There's a jaw dropping opening scene where a 33-year-old Nixon, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, is asked by a Whittier California group to run for Congress. He immediately suggests that spies be sent to his opponent's camp. With his first political breaths, he'd revealed himself to be a willingly dirty player, and set the course for one of the most controversial political legacies in history, one that Farrell has set down with fairness, compassion, and style. 

Still, it's Nixon who has the best lines, like when he tells  H.R. Haldeman, "If I'm assassinated, I want you to have them play 'Dante's Inferno,' and have Lawrence Welk produce it." 

That's my Nixon; hellfire and waltzes. 

Monday, September 4, 2017


Haters Back Off!, soon entering its second season on Netflix, is many things - a slapstick commentary on YouTube performers, a satire of modern youth's infatuation with celebrity, a send up of show business in general, a cocktail for the social media generation where Facebook is the drug of choice,  and YouTube  its Woodstock - but the message at its center wasn't  apparent until the final episode of its first season. I'd enjoyed it all well enough - I love  Miranda Sings (Colleen Ballinger), an untalented kid who believes she's a star. I love how she sings in a voice that sounds like Steve Urkel doing Billie Holiday, and schemes with her Uncle Jim (the incomparable Steve Little) to ride her unpopular YouTube videos to glory - but was caught off guard by the show's surprisingly serious finale. One of Miranda's videos, you see, finally goes viral, but her family, worn down by her selfishness, has vanished. She's left alone to ponder her new internet popularity. It was sad. I can't recall a bleaker ending to a comedy series.

Early on, though, the funny stuff came fast and hard. There were moments that rivaled the best of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Napoleon Dynamite. Among the bits that stood out: Uncle Jim's monologue about bread in episode six; Miranda, with top hat and cane,  performing "All That Jazz" in a sex club; Miranda's fear that she was being stalked by an internet fiend ("I need a panic room and a body double!"); and the recurring scenes where Miranda meets Patrick, the young ice cream salesman next door, for her daily popsicle. She stands with him in the front yard of her shabby suburban home, slurping at her gigantic frozen treat, staring out over the horizon, dreaming her YouTube dreams. The boy's unrequited love, and Miranda's self-absorption, manages to be both funny and poignant - elevated in no small manner by Amotz Plessner's beautiful score, and Michael Balfry's cinematography - much more so than any of the recent rubbish pedaled by Hollywood or basic cable. In fact, one could take the front yard image of Miranda and Patrick and sell it as a seedy American Gothic for the digital age. 

It's also a traditional romantic tale, with a subplot that goes back to the Bronte sisters.   Ignoring the  boy who loves her - she likes him but he's not famous enough  - Miranda prefers a toothy blond goof who sings at her local church. She even attempts to join the choir to be near this angelic stud, only to be bounced out after her first rehearsal. Miranda's vulnerability is at least part of what makes the series work.  "What's so funny about someone loving me?" she says in a stirring climactic scene. Still, it's odd that the show ended on such a down note, as if Theodore Dreiser had sneaked into the writer's room and jiggered the plot to bring this ruthlessly driven character crashing to earth. Oddly, had Netflix not asked for a second series of episodes, our last image of Miranda would've been quite melancholy. (But wait...was that the ice cream guy's bell we heard just as it ended?) 

Ballinger, an attractive 30-year-old blessed with a comic's rubbery face  - her oversized mouth recalls 1930s comic Joe E. Brown - has spent many years honing the Miranda character on YouTube. Over the course of 1,000 or so videos, she has endowed Miranda with a strange accent ("Stawp it! Are you keeding?") an inflated ego, and bitterness about everything, from her annoying mother to the haters on YouTube. She'll also take baths in jelly, belch and fart loudly, complain about her Christmas presents, and give comically bad singing and dancing tutorials. Most compelling for me is that she always frowns just before she signs off, as if her life is actually miserable, her only respite coming from a brief interlude with her friends in YouTube land. (In one video, a friend sneaks into her house and sees Miranda alone in her room playing with a Jack in the box. Miranda's weirdness is toned down for Haters Back Off!, where she's less of a disturbed woman-child and more of a traditional television character.)

Miranda is not without antecedents. In some of her grimaces, one can see Lily Tomlin's old characters from Laugh-In, while Miranda's herky jerky movements remind me of Gilda Radner. Even the Miranda accent has an echo of 80's comic Judy Tenuda. The performer who really comes to mind, though, is vintage Carol Burnett. Not only is there a slight facial  resemblance, but like Burnett, Ballinger can sing, act, and do the slapstick. She is that rarity in comedy, a three tool player: she can look funny, sound funny, and move funny.

Where Miranda is entirely unique is in Ballinger's use of  YouTube, paring her comedy down into small, easily digestible tidbits. She plays with the medium the way Ernie Kovaks  played with television in its early days. One of my favorites is Miranda's attempt at a new dance craze called "Juju on that Beat!" At a mere 90 seconds, it is the perfect rendition of a clumsy girl who thinks she can dance just because she saw someone do the moves on television. There's also one where Miranda simply eats a bowl of Cap 'n Crunch. I could go on for hours about that one, but I won't. Then there was her reading of Donald Trump tweets in the Miranda voice, pointing out that our current president is not much different than temperamental, delusional Miranda.

With several videos posted each week, a book, and concert tours that have taken her around the world, plus the Netflix show, Ballinger must be the hardest working person on YouTube. The effort has resulted in the Miranda channel grabbing more than 8-million subscribers. To give you some perspective,  SNL's YouTube channel has only half that number. Granted, there are many YouTube channels with higher numbers, but Ballinger/Miranda does it without major network backing, without a hit single. Unlike other YouTube performers who are content to act goofy, she created a fully realized fictional character, and a labyrinthine backstory of creepy uncles and gay boyfriends and enough personal tics - she loves meat and crunchy things, loves Jesus, believes in Santa Claus, but hates animals, porn, and balloons - to fill a Sears catalog. She's a small phenomenon in our midst, as the endless BMW and AllState ads on her channel attest. (Though how many of her followers, generally kids, are in the market for a new BMW?)

The majority of her admirers are girls in the 12-16 age range.  They attend her concerts wearing lipstick to match Miranda's, so to Ballinger it must look like she's playing to hundreds of little clown mouths. Her "Mirfandas" love her in a way they can't love a regular industry star. For one thing, Miranda mingles with her followers, engaging in marathon hugging and autograph sessions. She'll even ask for their phone numbers so she can prank call them. Part of the allure, I'm guessing, is that Ballinger has her own YouTube channel separate from Miranda's - two, in fact, one called PsychoSoprano, and another called Colleen Vlogs - plus her own busy social media accounts. The little girls love knowing that gawky Miranda grew up to be a beautiful young woman with a Netflix deal. If Miranda taps into the slouching brat living in all girls, Colleen Ballinger is their hope for the future.

Ballinger, when she's not being Miranda, is a standard YouTuber. She strums her ukulele, talks about her cat, shares some personal anecdotes, and like Miranda, belches like a walrus. Ballinger is a generous sort, often taking part in "collabs" with her family. (It seems the entire Ballinger clan, for better or worse, have jumped on the YouTube bandwagon.) As is the case in the  YouTube universe, Ballinger/Miranda will also collab with other YouTubers, mostly shrill young men. These collabs are can be breathtakingly funny, or just plain stupid. Sometimes I wish she'd do fewer videos and make them count, rather than hit us so often. Then again, part of the fun of YouTube is that it's a free for all, largely improvised. The bits of gold that turn up, like Miranda trying to do a yoga challenge, or using a magic 8-ball to see if her boyfriends really love her, make it worthwhile to sift through the less inspired junk.

For the uninitiated, YouTube performers are a distinct lot. They're largely from the generation that grew up on boy bands, Spongebob, the Olsen twins, and The Bachelor. Hence, their own output is predictably silly and lightweight. They're essentially children's entertainers, a few notches below the dross you'd find on the Disney channel. There's a dash of the old "Let's see how many goldfish I can swallow" mentality of the 1920s, and a lot of what used to be called "camp humor." Much of it is awful. Yet, the YouTubers know their audience, and they are relentless self-promoters. Since kids are always looking for something to call their own, they embrace these YouTubers. Here's hoping the tykes will eventually outgrow them and find harder stuff, they way kids once outgrew the Archies in favor of Led Zeppelin.

In some of Ballinger's current videos, the creator of Miranda has looked and sounded weary. Overseeing the second season of Haters Back Off! has been a chore. Shooting in Vancouver keeps her away from her family. She doesn't know what her little "Mirfanadas" want now. In August she had something like a nervous  breakdown after a scary cab ride. Though Ballinger tries to remain chipper, the impression she gives is of a frazzled, overworked woman being pulled in too many directions. It seems that any kind of fame, including the flimsy, fleeting kind found on YouTube, comes with a certain amount of weight. 

The whole idea of YouTube "stardom" didn't exist 20 years ago, and Ballinger's genius as Miranda is in satirizing those wannabes who think YouTube is the new version of Schwab's on Sunset Boulevard. Still, there's a fear that unless you constantly feed the beast, it'll turn on you. Even a rare talent like Ballinger is yoked to the demands of her niche, where even the best become like caged chickens clucking for pellets, or parrots who have been taught to say, "Like and subscribe."

As I watched Ballinger's latest, I started thinking about all of those tiny red mouths in the audience of Miranda's concerts, imagining them as poisonous suckers, latching onto this poor young woman, taking as much they give. I felt bad. Then I clicked around Ballinger's channel and found a heartbreaking clip from last year where she talks about her divorce. I wasn't sure what to make of her candidness. She suffers from the same generational tic that has driven hundreds (thousands?) of people to expose their personal lives on YouTube, all in hopes of making money. 

After being introduced to Miranda on Haters Back Off!, I took a crash course in her and her YouTube peers. The effect was insidious. Within weeks my head was polluted with jingles and catch phrases and weird voices. It's a bit like having "Pop Goes the Weasel" stuck in your mind, nonstop. It's peculiar, and I'm not sure who is more bizarre - the people inside the YouTube fishbowl, or the ones on the outside looking in. How many performers and viewers are allowing their engagement with YouTubers to take the place of real relationships? I watch YouTube on a giant Roku TV, so Ballinger's enormous, root-beer colored eyes bear down on me with a kind of unintended intimacy. As the tears rolled down her face in the divorce video, I was tempted to hand her a tissue.

Frantically, I turned to Miranda's channel to see what she was up to. There she was, in her red-lipped splendor, demonstrating cat toys and fidget spinners. All was right in the world. For now.


Haters back Off! returns to Netflix Oct 20. In the meantime, you can watch the first season.

Miranda begins touring soon, hitting Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom for starters.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


But any tale worth retelling is worth retelling twice
by Don Stradley

My fondest boxing memory involves an old issue of The Ring magazine that fell into my hands when I was a wee tyke. It was a special issue focusing on the heavyweight championship, and it's centerpiece was a lengthy story describing each time the title changed hands, in order, starting with James J. Corbett beating John L. Sullivan in 1892. The lineage fascinated me. Reading about it not only transported me to various locations, from Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, Australia, to Yankee Stadium in New York, but as each champion fell and a new one took his place, it felt like the vanquishing of kings. I liked the expression "title reign" because it gave the champions a sense of being regal. I was also intrigued by the cheerless expressions of men like Jim Braddock and Ezzard Charles and Floyd Patterson, haunted visages that didn't seem to exist in football or baseball. The players of team sports looked to me like army grunts, faceless pawns out to do a job. The heavyweight champion was different. As Paul Beston writes in The Boxing Kings: When American Heavyweights Ruled The Ring, "Some may not have deserved to be champion;  others could not seem to fill the role once they stepped into it." Like a famous surname or sudden wealth, the title could be a burden.

Beston's book, which is a nice read even if we know these stories all too well, reminds us again that the heavyweight championship once meant so much more than it does now. Joe Louis could defend the title against a no-hoper and it would be front page news. The timely historical factors - a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't come up with something as intense as Johnson-Jeffries in 1910, or Louis-Schmeling II, or the first Ali-Frazier bout - played a big part in the mythology of the title, as did the way  certain fighters appeared born to represent their eras. Perhaps of more importance is the often forgotten fact that many boxing managers were also theatrical agents. From its earliest days, boxing was a wing of the entertainment business, and the heavyweight champ was something like a circus attraction, inflated, of course, with the notion of being the toughest guy in the world. This claim was bogus, to be sure - the champion was usually the guy with the best connections, and if by some chance he could actually fight, he'd hang on to the title for a few years.

Yet, the heavyweight championship became, in Beston's words, an "American franchise."   When Dempsey lost the title to Gene Tunney in 1926, he said, "I lost to a good man, an American - a man who speaks the English language." Sullivan said more or less the same when he lost to Corbett.  Gradually, though, the heavyweight champion became a lot less fascinating to the general public. Beston points to Ali as the tilting point, and he's probably right. "Before Ali," he writes, "the title had made modest men into bigger men. But after him the title seemed somehow smaller." Why Americans no longer dominate the heavyweight class is a question that can never be answered to my satisfaction - Beston offers the usual bromides about the swelling of the middle class, the popularity of other sports, etc. - but it's probably due to the fact that America doesn't really dominate anything anymore. Face it, by the time Bruce Seldon was wearing a title belt, we were screwed.

Beston provides nicely detailed portraits of the major champions, and elegant snapshots of those who were the less than legendary. He's especially handy with the quick one liner that puts a champion in perspective, such as when he calls Rocky Marciano, "an embodiment of American striving," or describes Larry Holmes as "boxing's version of a venture capitalist." Naturally, the largest sections of the story belong to Louis and Ali, but for my money the best part of any book such as this one is the period from Sullivan to Dempsey. To me, boxing history goes wonky when New York begins to monopolize the action. I prefer my title fights to take place in rugged, undeveloped territories, with Bat Masterson collecting weapons at ringside. But that's just me. The Boxing Kings is a fine book, partly because Beston portrays the fighters not as unblemished heroes, but as flawed, fallible men. It might've been nice if he'd found more humor in the stories, but he opted for a serious tone. His background includes the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and the American Conservative, so we can't expect him to be a bag full of laughs.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Warning: Too much nostalgia can lead to dizziness and nausea
by Don Stradley

I grew up in a rather strange household by American  standards. Things like Little League baseball, Schwinn bikes, and television game shows were considered the obsessions of people who had nothing better to do, people with empty heads and empty lives. Me, I was taught how to cast bullets for a .45 automatic, and how to tuck a rifle deep into my shoulder so it wouldn't knock me down when I pulled the trigger. By age 10 I'd visited the Farmers' Museum in upstate New York, and could name every heavyweight boxing champion going backwards to Paddy Ryan, the "Troy Giant." I'd occasionally see kids in their locally sponsored baseball uniforms, and I'd think, "Those poor simpletons. They've been brainwashed." I was pretty sure I wasn't missing anything, though I was slightly envious that the neighborhood coaches would bring the teams to Dog & Suds, a highway stand that served nothing but root beer and hotdogs. Delicious! Fortunately, Steve Rushin's new book, Sting-Ray Afternoons: A Memoir, is here to fill me in on what I missed. Perhaps I wasn't part of the standard U.S.A. family unit, but from what he describes, I didn't miss much.  

We know from the introduction what sort of book this will be. Rushin is going to start from the minute he was born, and he's going to tell us about every damned household item and brand name that came into the Rushin home in Bloomington, Minnesota. Not only does he fetishize such objects as BIC pens, but he will stop mid chapter and give us a mini-bio of Marcel Bich, the founder of the BIC company. This is mildly amusing at first, and Rushin's a good enough writer to keep the story puffing along, but a little of this would go a long way. One hundred pages in, after an ode to Pink Pearl erasers, I was exhausted and ready to cry uncle. I didn't give a damn what brand of soap this family used, or what they had for dinner on Tuesdays, or where Rushin and his shithead siblings shopped for their school clothes. Rushin, who has written for Sports Illustrated, fills a few pages with Minnesota hockey lore,  and I remember some of the players he mentions, like Jude Drouin, whose massive sideburns were like "two shag carpet samples that ripple in the breeze," but then it's back to the minutia. He writes as if he expects us to applaud every stinkin' cereal and toy he mentions. (Hey everybody! Remember Count Chocula? Yay!)

 The inspiration here is probably Jean Shepard, who wrote about his own childhood in a way that was funny and ridiculous. Shepard wrote short pieces - you have probably seen A Christmas Story, which was based on Shepard's writing -  because he knew nostalgia is flimsy stuff and  works best in a short blast. Shepard's characters were also larger than life, almost cartoonish, which made them entertaining. Rushin's characters are smaller than life. The closest he comes to a character we'd like to know more about is a mysterious grammar school janitor who showed up to a Christmas gathering to sing "Silent Night" and brought the house down. Everyone else in the book is a stick figure. Perhaps Rushin was too worn out from writing such purple prose as "TV is a security blanket, not altogether different from the Sears Orlon blanket on my bed - warm, fuzzy, narcotizing, vividly colored, and crackling with static electricity." 

Oh, fuck off.

 The problem with nostalgia is that it's cheap. No matter how much you loved that first pair of Adidas, they were still just a pair of shoes. Rushin also wants to rhapsodize about the fall of Bloomington as a major city, but in his hands the city of his childhood is reduced to stats and dates. (Do sports writers see the world only through statistics?) We're clobbered with such long stretches of brand name dropping - he even inserts an entire page from the old Sears Wish Book, which in truth is only slightly more monotonous than the rest of this toy store flashback - that  we hardly notice the shift when he tries to get serious. He potshots us in the last chapter with the death of his mother, a kindly woman, but after 300 pages of Topps baseball cards and wedgies, it feels like a late effort to give his book some heft. Of course, any one of the chapters in Sting-Ray Afternoons would make a nice piece in the Sunday supplement. Maybe the best way to read it is one chapter per month, spread out over several years. Otherwise, Rushin and his family of squares is hard to take in one gulp. I kept hoping Scut Farkus would run in from a Jean Shepard story and kick one of Rushin's brothers in the balls, anything to break up these reveries about The Brady Bunch and Marie Osmond and those damned BIC pens.