from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Marco Sonzogni

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr


Bye Bye Blackbird


……………………………………I know noble accents
……………………………………And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
……………………………………But I know, too,
……………………………………That the blackbird is involved
……………………………………In what I know.

……………………………………—Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways to
……………………………………Look at a Blackbird’ (VIII)


……………………………………I’ve seen the waterdipper
……………………………………rise from the lightning rod:
……………………………………I knew him from his pride in flight,
……………………………………by his flutelike trill.

……………………………………—Eugenio Montale, ‘From a Tower’


…………………………………..Pack up all my care and woe
…………………………………..Here I go, singing low
…………………………………..Bye bye blackbird

…………………………………..—Mort Dixon, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’


SINCE HIS DEATH on August 30, 2013, tributes, memories, readings, poems and translations in memory of Seamus Heaney have been continual and rightfully so. Yet, one wonders what the man himself would have made of such attention. His “mixed feelings” about the celebrations for his 70th birthday—the sense of “elevation” and “obligation” weighed upon him—suggest he would shun this appreciation, distancing himself from the attention, reminding himself and others that the Antaeus in him could be outsmarted any time by Hercules.

Now, among the sincere praise and grateful remembrance, off-key notes have also been heard—the echo of a karaoke rather than a keening.

So here I remember Heaney as a gifted literary translator from Irish. The original text is a “weird little scrap of Irish syllabic verse” (Ian Sanson) probably from the IXth century. Consisting of just three syllables for each of the eight short lines—Heaney referred to its “staying power”—it epitomizes the challenges of writing and translating poetry:

……………………………………Int én bec
……………………………………ro léc feit
……………………………………do rind guip

……………………………………fo-ceird faíd
…………………………………..ós Loch Laíg,
…………………………………..lon do chraíb

There are many modern interpretations of this poem by Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and more recently Ciaran Carson (who chose ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ as the emblem for the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University of Belfast). This is Heaney’s version, with my literal—but longer (five syllables per line)—translation into Italian:

……………………The small bird…………..Un uccellino
……………………chirp-chirruped:……….trilla e ritrilla:              
……………………yellow neb,……………….dal giallo becco
……………………………a note-spurt.……………..fiottano note.

…………………..Blackbird over…………..Eccolo il merlo
…………………..Lagan water.…………….
sul lago Lagan
…………………..Clumps of yellow……….Spruzzi di giallo

……………………………whin-burst!………………..della ginestra!

The blackbird features regularly in Heaney’s poetry. In Field Work (1979: 52), for example, the title-poem opens with a landscape snapshot where we find both “the small bird” and the “whin”:

…………….Where the sally tree went pale in every breeze,
…………….where the perfect eye of the nesting blackbird watched,
…………….where one fern was always green

…………….I was standing watching you
…………….take the pad from the gatehouse at the crossing
…………….and reach to lift a white wash off the whins.

The blackbird appears several times in Sweeney Astray (1983: 37, 43, 82), where the maddened king-turned-bird describes “green watercress in thatch on wells / where the drinking blackbird goes” and admits to preferring “the elusive / rhapsody of blackbirds / to the garrulous blather / of men and women”; and “the blackbird singing on the hill / and the stag loud against the storm / to the clinking tongue of this bell”.

Also, the ghost of Terry Keenan—the young missionary priest whom Heaney had met in his youth and whom he reencounters on his purgatorial stations in Station Island (1984: 69)—is likened to the shining black livery of the blackbird:

……………….I saw a young priest, glossy as a blackbird,
……………….as if he had stepped from his anointing
……………….a moment ago.

Heaney was clearly very familiar with the blackbird and its behaviour, taking notice of both its “composure” (‘Drifting Off’, Station Island, 1984: 104) and its “dart and dab” (‘Alphabets’, The Haw Lantern, 1987: 2).

It is thus no surprise that the blackbird is the protagonist of two of Heaney’s key-poems: ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (The Spirit Level, 1996: 20-21) and ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ (District and Circle, 2006: 75-76). Heaney describes the extraordinary, miraculous story behind ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in his Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry (1995: 20-21):

“Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry which is true to all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
………..St Kevin’s story is, as I say, a story out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas.” 

The ordinary, autobiographical genesis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’—set in his home at Glanmore Cottage, where he “found a blackbird nest in the hedge at our gable”—is described in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll collected in Stepping Stones (2008: 198, 408):

“The last poem in the book, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, contains a memory of my young brother Christopher. The first time I came home from St Columb’s College, when he was just about two or three, he actually frolicked and rolled around the yard for pleasure. That stayed with me forever and came up more than fifty years later in the poem.”

When translating Heaney’s translation of ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ I was mindful of all these associations and especially of Heaney’s definition of himself as “something of an earth man”, “somebody with his poetic feet very much on local ground”. So when the multisyllabic nature of standard Italian made it plain obvious that it would be impossible to match the three syllables per line of the Irish original and of Heaney’s translation, I went back to my home ground—to its landscape and its language.

The water of the Lagan—river-water as well as lake-water (Belfast Lough or Lagan: Loch Laoigh in Irish; Bilfawst Loch in Ulster-Scots)—thus became the water of the Cavone, the stream that winds its way across Cergnago, the small village in North-western Italy where I grew up. The curt clusters of syllables of both the Irish and the English texts matched the staccato of my dialect (cergnaghese). And the sight and sound of the blackbird, black feathers and yellow beak, gold-yellow like the flowers of the whin (or gorse or furze or broom) are familiar presences in Cergnago—and in the Italian literary turf too.

This little exercise in literary translation exemplifies what translation is expected to do: to shift words and meanings from one place to another.

So here is my version in dialect, in grateful and loving memory of the Bellaghy Bard:

…………………………………fa l’uślìn:
…………………………………spüda nòt.
…………………………………………..’l bèch giald.

…………………………………’n mèral
…………………………………sül Cavón.
…………………………………Sprüss d’or dla




Marco Sonzogni (born in 1971) lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He holds degrees from the University of Pavia (Almo Collegio Borromeo), University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland. He is a widely published and award-winning editor, poet and literary translator, now Senior Lecturer in Italian with the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, where is also the Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation. His literary translation projects include Swiss-Italian poets (Oliver Scharpf, Alberto Nessi, Pietro De Marchi, Fabiano Alborghetti, Giorgio Orelli), New Zealand poets, and the collected poems of Seamus Heaney (Meridiano). 

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – John Dennison

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Rebecca Cox @ Flickr


I’VE SPENT THE BETTER PART of the last six years devoted to Seamus Heaney’s work and thought. I say devoted, but, as for many, Seamus was first an object of study, a lofty mouth who moved and shook us with his persuasive eloquence, who stood on the mountain of his own saying. Perhaps because of that loftiness and because I was striving to master his prose writings in some measure, the name Seamus Heaney made me fluctuate, sometimes wildly, between praise and het-up, over-emphatic critique; it was the occasion for a measure of self-knowledge of my prevarication and academic disingenuity.

            But in our brief meetings, mostly to talk over small matters about his history and past reading, the object of my study became a subject proper, a person to whom I found myself answerable, even as, taking him at his word, I weighed and criticised his prose writings. More than once I came away moved by his largesse, and resolved to ensure the act of criticism was more fundamentally an acknowledgement and honouring of the poet’s integrity.

            June this year found me in Dublin to look at manuscripts, and Seamus very graciously invited me down to Strand Road. I can’t gloss my afternoon there a great deal more than I have already tried to in ‘Grace note’, except to say that I found myself subject to my subject, and in that, was appeased. Most profoundly, Seamus addressed me as a poet, an address that I now can’t shake off. I left all teared up, and wandered home rather aimlessly in the high summer light, pausing for a breather with Kavanagh by the Grand Canal.

            I meant to write in thanks, and delayed too long. The postcard I meant to send, a reproduction of one of impressionist James Nairn’s paintings of Wellington Harbour, for me came to frame Seamus’s absence after his death. Surprised by grief on the 30th of August, I found myself a day or so after out at the line, getting in the washing under a dusk of high-blown, underlit cloud. The blackbird spoke up. Delighted, and remembering Seamus’s love of the bird, I waited for its regular benediction to come again. It didn’t, and that absence keeps on going through.





Grace note

17 June 2013

……………………………………The walls stepping back apace;
……………………………………the late, high, western sun
……………………………………declining any impulse to grace

……………………………………ourselves, be otherwise than
……………………………………our falling shadows, our homing faces
……………………………………reveal we are. And then:

……………………………………a drink? A whiskey? The capacious
……………………………………front room, quiet talk, the telly
……………………………………cutting to Obama in Belfast,

……………………………………while the critic in me
……………………………………is weaned. Dublin Bay
……………………………………takes up the slack—the

……………………………………incarnation sets us free for play
……………………………………(sure, no truer word spoken);
……………………………………I’m suitably censered, you might say.

……………………………………Poet, bless me three times, even!



James Nairn, Wellington Harbour, 1894

………………………..Dear S, meant to send this some time back.
………………………..Thought you’d recognise the scene well enough:
……………………… the foreground, a woman walks with a stick,
………………………..set in her own shadow as in her love,
………………………..the face a heavy dab of grief, a desire
……………………… be elsewhere. Lately the waters rise,
………………………..and in brightness the sheds and the wharf lower
……………………… the man, darkling, is held. What remains
……………………… that a gulf exists; and the true poem,
………………………..our boat beyond all making, floats adjacent,
………………………..its shocking mast crossing the horizon
……………………… that we might see, in this moment,
……………………… truly the water gives us back the light.
………………………..Hope all well; not sure if you’ll get this alright.


Touch and go

i.m. Seamus Heaney

……………………The day remembers itself to a sky-blown dusk,
……………………light still coming off the small cloths which ride
……………………the sagging line. Inside, the family play hide and seek,

……………………all our early numbers mounting so confident
……………………to the coming ready or not, while everybody scatters,
……………………loses themselves so easily. And with this: blackbird,

……………………his brief wise-o exile song, a smatter
……………………of grace notes struck out at the gable-end.
……………………So: we’re held, heart-pegged, hung in the matter

……………………of things counted out, and hid, and found—
……………………appeasing knowledge of song, and of our folly.
……………………Wait here over-long for what doesn’t come again,

……………………translates away, across, and up the gully.




John Dennison is a poet and literary critic, and a chaplain at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he lives with his wife and young family. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of St Andrews, research which forms the basis for a forthcoming monograph on Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics. Recent poetry by John Dennison has appeared in PN Review, New Walk, Poetry Proper and Broadsheet (NZ). His poems also featured in New Poetries V (Carcanet, 2011).

from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Iggy McGovern

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Sean @ Flickr


I WAS MIDWAY in a letter to Seamus Heaney when I learned that he had died. I was writing to invite him to the launch of a new book, a sonnet sequence based on the life of the 19th century mathematician and poet, William Rowan Hamilton. I was aware that it was one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters that pled for Seamus’s presence, an endorsement of this or that event. I had some hopes of a ‘yes’ for he had come to a related event of mine the previous year. This was a seminar called “Science Meets Poetry”, part of the European Science Open Forum, the centrepiece of Dublin City of Science 2012. Seamus had contributed to the seminar discussion and had read his poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (see Marco’s piece, a few pages ahead). I had talked about the Two Williams, Hamilton and Wordsworth, and when I had finished, I was cheered by Seamus’s “Bravo!” from the front row.

My first contact with Seamus was in 1997, when I was, in his phrase, “newly cubbed in language”. I wanted to obtain a Visiting Fellowship in Physics and Poetry at Magdalen College, Oxford. Mutual friends had advised that my chances would greatly increase if Seamus, an Honorary Fellow of the college, would provide a reference. Although we had not met, Seamus obliged; he also added some generous comments on the poems I had enclosed with that first letter to him; the last will have to be sent in a different way.

Seamus had been billed to give the opening address of the “On Home Ground” poetry festival, part of the Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013 celebrations. After his untimely death the organisers converted this event into a tribute, in which a dozen or so Irish poets read their favourite Heaney poem. I chose to read ‘The Haw Lantern’, the title poem of his seventh collection published in 1987. This beautiful sonnet begins memorably –

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people

– but the small light then morphs into the classical image of the lantern of Diogenes, who is seeking one just man. It is a poem about being tested and Seamus was himself tested and not found wanting. I was pleased to find that this is the Heaney poem on the official website of the Nobel Prize ( It seems so appropriate given Seamus’s complete lack of hubris, his dignified bearing of the heavy load of fame.

The organisers had also asked for a second choice, to avoid possible duplication. I had nominated ‘Fosterage’, the penultimate poem in the sequence ‘Singing School’ from the collection North (1975). This poem is the bridge between four hard-hitting pieces (‘The Ministry of Fear’, ‘A Constable Calls’, ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’ and ‘Summer, 1969’) about his (and my) sectarian home place and the more contemplative poem ‘Exposure’, his magnificent hymn to his refuge south of the border. ‘Fosterage’ recounts a meeting with his mentor (and former employer) the teacher and writer, Michael McLaverty. Seamus is offered the timeless advice “Don’t have the veins bulging in your Biro” before being sent out “with words / Imposing on my tongue like obols”. It is also the source of the phrase “newly cubbed in language”.

Which brings me back to the beginning. An act of kindness and the start of an unequal friendship. Where we might have found the balance, a chance to centre the bubble in the spirit level, was in the swapping of jokes. And I was all set to sweeten the latest request with such, one that I was sure he would have loved. So I put that in the poem, as well.




To Seamus Heaney in Heaven

When word came I was midway
in a letter to yourself…
“What’s he after now?” you ask.
I had begun like Kavanagh’s swan,
“head low with many apologies”,
As Hamilton once wrote to Wordsworth
Occiditque legendo!
And keeping to the last
The joke I knew you would enjoy,
The one about the Greek tailor:
Euripides? Eumenides?
But you were already beyant, like Gunnar
Sharing poems with The Greats
Miłosz, Brodsky, Lowell, Auden, Yeats.





Iggy McGovern was born in Coleraine and lives in Dublin, where he was Professor of Physics at Trinity College until retiring recently. He has published three collections of poetry, The King of Suburbia (Dedalus Press 2005), Safe House (Dedalus Press 2010) and the new sonnet sequence A Mystic Dream of 4, based on the life of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (Quaternia Press, autumn 2013). Awards include the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry and the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award for Poetry. Iggy edited the anthology 2012: Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines

from Issue #4: Memoir and Poetry by Mira Peck

Photo (CC) Tobias Akerboom @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Tobias Akerboom @ Flickr


The Vaulting Horse

ON A BLISTERINGLY HOT DECEMBER DAY, I stand in a line of high school students, my first gym class in a new school and a new country. The vast polished hardwood floor and exercise equipment along tall walls remind me of the gym I left three months ago in Poland. In the centre, atop green rubber mats, waits a vaulting horse, a leather-padded bench on four wooden legs that reaches up to the waists of the two teachers stationed at each end.

The familiarity comforts me. I have made many jumps over just such a contraption, and I’m eager to resume my athletic life. I hear the instructions in the foreign tongue, and then watch each girl, in turn, trot to the bench, place her hands on its surface, and bounce to the top onto her knees. The teachers then grip her forearms and help her slide down.

It’s my turn. I inhale, sprint, jump high, clear the top and nail the landing on the other side. I’m happy I haven’t lost the skill during my idle months in transition. I stretch my arms in the dismount, straighten legs and back, and run to the end of the line, ready for my next turn.

Then silence. My classmates’ puzzled faces signal that something is wrong.  I gaze towards the teachers and see them both standing still, staring at me.  One of them says something in the noodle-chewing English that will take me months to comprehend.  An earlier Polish arrival translates:  “What you did is very dangerous for girls.  Next time watch the others and do as they do.”

But I’ve done this many times! I am bewildered. What’s gender got to do with it? Maybe they think it’s a fluke that I jumped over. If I do it again, surely they’ll realize I know this routine and change their minds.

At my next turn, I begin the sprint when a loud voice calls, “Stop!”

Too late. I’m already clearing the bench and landing. The teacher extends her arm to block me from returning to the line. I look up at her as she barks unintelligible commands and summons the interpreter.

“You’ll be suspended from school if you don’t follow the rules.”

My throat constricts. Being a functional mute has made me feel helpless many times, and this is one of them.

I want to bolt, fly back to Poland where I belong, where I can run and jump and become my country’s president. But I’m stuck. I’m only sixteen and ten thousand miles away.

How can I forget the exhilaration of the fast run, the high jump, the thrill of accomplishment on the other side? I don’t know how, but I must.

Some weeks later, mentally disengaged, I move forward in a line of girls, listlessly, without momentum. At my turn, I trot up to the vaulting horse and find it large, looming, so tall that I can barely muster the courage to hoist myself all the way up onto its precarious surface. Once I kneel on top, I grip the hands of the two teachers who ease me back down.

But there was a time when I was able to jump over this colossus. Wasn’t there?

Tears press under my eyelids. I squash them down, all the way down to my aching belly, where they will hibernate with my spirit.

Grandpa Ben

He lived in the days before movies

Horse-drawn carts clopped on cobbled streets
Bands of musicians braved heat and snow
trudging to play in distant towns

He wore a long black beard
black hat and long coat
and a Torah tucked under his arm
as befitted a wizard of his day

The town carousel that he built
whirled with swans and ponies
in white red green and blue

Young boys squeezed into its core
to propel the spokes with bike power
sending the carousel on its merry twirl
children’s squeals blending in happy dance

The boys were paid not in cash but in the joy
of riding bikes Ben offered for rent

The carousel soon burned like the town
the horsesthe childrenthe swans

Ben died to the sound of mazurka
kicked to his knees
dragged by his beard

He lies buried somewhere unknown
like the children and the carousel boys

Only we who would have loved him miss
honouring his name, marking the place
where he helped young men
speed on new machines.



She is
Eight years old, 1944
Skipping down a Polish city street
Polka-dot dress, white patent shoes
Red bow clasping ponytail.

I am
Eight years old, 1954
She is on a movie screen
Skipping away from me

Dark shadow, German uniform,
Black-gloved hand with a gun
Steel grey, shiny death
Points at her flying tress

I grip the armrest
Scream a silent NO
The gun blasts staccato
She is me, I am her

The film blurs red and grey.
I walk out shaken
Crying inside for Ditta
Who could be me

Father tags my brown ponytail
Lovingly pulls me close
“Ditta,” he calls me softly
With a sad, vacant smile

He loves me, but she died!
Is he thinking I look like his mother?
Is he saying I ease his pain?
That I live for the children who died?

I force a smile, carry the burden
Alone, like a brave girl should.
I am eight, twenty eight, forty eight.
In unexpected moments I am still

And she is me.



Mira Peck is an author of poetry and prose that blend her interests in science, art, family and justice. Her inspiration comes from a wide range of experiences, including the fields of chemical engineering, business, music and law; living in Poland, Australia and the USA; and hitch-hiking across Asia and Europe. During her twenty years of creative writing she has edited and published a quarterly newsletter, arranged literary workshops and public readings, and coordinated local critiquing chapters. Her multigenre collection, Sour Cherry Tree, was published in 2012 and received recognition from the San Francisco Book Festival. Her first novel, My Men, was published in 2013. She received the annual Goldfinch Prize for poetry in 2011 and for prose in 2010. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children and travels widely.

Elmore Leonard Week: ‘Talking with Elmore Leonard’ by Anthony May

Anthony May in front of the Wayne Country Jail, Detroit, 1991. Photo by Gregg Sutter.

Anthony May in front of the Wayne County Jail, Detroit, 1991. Photo by Gregg Sutter.

To kick off Elmore Leonard Week, here’s our man Anthony May on interviewing Elmore Leonard in Detroit in 1991. Thanks to Gregg Sutter, Elmore’s researcher, for digging up the photo. This article was originally published in Contrappasso Magazine, issue #2.


Back in 1991, I had the good fortune to sit down with Elmore Leonard in his Michigan home during the hot summer and lead up to the fourth of July celebrations that would be the first since Operation Desert Storm, quite a big thing around Detroit. I was there to talk to him about his books but he is an intelligent man and sees the connections in things so the conversation moved around. He had just finished the manuscript of Rum Punch and maybe he felt like a chat. In the end we spent quite a few hours together over three days trying to make some connections across the stories, books and films that comprise his long career. He was very generous with his time and opinions and I remain extremely grateful for the access and the insight. A couple of years later, when he was in Sydney, we sat down again and continued the conversation. The interviews that follow record those conversations and, hopefully, give another way into the books that have delighted so many.

The book that was about to come out that summer was Maximum Bob, the story that introduced characters like Judge Bob Gibbs’ wife, who channels a black slave girl who had died one hundred and thirty years before. In the books leading up to this, he had begun to foreground characters who were free and loose in their own way and in ways that were not just due to their involvement in crime. And this was coming to mark a kind of maturity in his writing that began with the shift from the western to the contemporary crime novel and the necessity to deal with what he calls “contemporary scenery”, and, from there, the requirement to take on board contemporary character. He was doing it at a novel a year, a pace he took up in the seventies and kept working at through the nineties.


It had been a long road from his early days as an advertising copywriter in the 1950s when he was writing stories for Argosy, Dime Western and the other short story and western magazines in his spare time. Movies were based on his early stories ‘Three-Ten To Yuma’ (3:10 To Yuma, 1953, D: Delmer Daves) and ‘The Captives’ (The Tall T, 1957, D: Budd Boetticher). He eventually hit the slicks, like Saturday Evening Post, but he had entered the game too late and the time of that style of publishing was coming to an end. He published western novels along with the stories but without the movies to take up the property there was diminishing joy in this field. Fittingly, it was a western film, Hombre (1966, D: Martin Ritt) from Leonard’s 1961 novel, the only novel of his to feature a first person narrator, that allowed him to make a change. The film, starring Paul Newman, Richard Boone and Diane Cilento, was a success, because of Newman, of course, but also because, like a number of big screen westerns of the time, it was a revisionist history of the west. This was something that had been consistent in Leonard’s westerns—not so much rewriting the history of the period as readdressing the idea of character in the west. There were never good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, good baddies and bad goodies, nor the usual array of stock western characters. There were interesting characters, funny characters, mean characters and ones that slid back and forth. It was his main concern back then and it continues to this day.

The change to the contemporary novel didn’t happen overnight. He published some novels through the sixties and early seventies but it was the movies again that really brought him back into the game. The original screenplay for Joe Kidd (1972, D: John Sturges) was Clint Eastwood’s first film after Dirty Harry (1971, D: Don Siegel). That led to Eastwood requesting another screenplay from Leonard, which turned out to be Mr. Majestyk (1974, D: Richard Fleischer). Eastwood passed on the project (he preferred the idea of an artichoke farmer to a melon grower) but with Charles Bronson in the lead, it was another moneymaker. By the mid-seventies, the novel projects were coming into line once more—52 Pickup (1974), Swag (1976), The Hunted and Unknown Man #89 (1977)—and he was into that one-novel-a-year output cycle. But with rewards this time around. All these novels were being optioned as movies. Alfred Hitchcock picked up Unknown Man #89 and the rights remained with him until he died. Sam Peckinpah had City Primeval (1980) but it never happened. Nonetheless, he had gone from an advertising copywriter who wrote western stories part-time to a novelist who sold every book that he wrote into hardback and into the movies. This was success. Perhaps just as important as the success, this was fun. It’s difficult to read an Elmore Leonard novel and not realize that we’re all having fun, reader and writer alike.


All readers come to the progression of Elmore Leonard’s books at a different point. Thanks to the loan of a paperback from a friend, I’d begun with Glitz (1985) and, like a lot of readers, I began filling in the time between new releases by reading the back catalogue. Publishers know this happens and that’s why there are so many different Elmore Leonard paperback editions of the same book. As he has shifted publication houses over his career, there has been a tendency for publishers to buy the back catalogue and rerelease the older novels knowing that they will still sell. And there is value in picking up the back catalogue that doesn’t just accrue to the publisher and Mr. Leonard.

There is, in the progression of novels since the mid-seventies, a development of style that is particular to Elmore Leonard and intriguing for the reader. When he gets to the contemporary novel, he begins to experiment with ways of telling stories that suit his character-based concerns. As he says in the interviews, he had work to do in moving his storytelling into the present. When you write about the Arizona of one hundred years before, there are not a lot of people around to point out your mistakes, although he was pretty rigorous about using his reference books to keep those stories in line. But when you live and write in nineteen seventies Detroit, Detroit is just outside your door. And so is your reader. So if Temple Street doesn’t cross Woodward Avenue at the right place, people know. And they let you know. And if the young hipsters are using last year’s hipster talk, people know. And they let you know. And so the world of the book has a much more demanding relationship with the world of the reader than it ever had in the western. But it didn’t take him long before he was having fun with it.

The movies of the early seventies had signalled a shift for him. Joe Kidd was about an ex-bounty hunter who was dragged into a brawl between a wealthy landowner and a Mexican revolutionary leader. Mr. Majestyk was about a melon farmer who stood up alongside his Mexican field workers against the mob. Vince Majestyk was a Vietnam veteran but that wasn’t the big thing. He signalled a move for Leonard, to finding his lead characters in everyday roles, characters who might just get caught up in something criminal or generally bad. In 52 Pickup, Harry Mitchell runs a manufacturing plant; in Swag, Ernest Stickley, jr., is a down-on-his-luck cement truck driver before he gets eased into armed robbery; in Unknown Man #89, Jack Ryan is just looking for any old job when he gets taken on as a process server. Ordinary guys get caught up in the grey areas of ethical life and that is the type of thing that Leonard loves.

So piece by piece, the lead characters come into view, along with the modern world in which they live. The nice thing for Leonard is that his focus on the ordinary and the extraordinary cuts both ways. His ordinary folk become revealed as just as wild as the sociopaths and the sociopaths reveal their own concerns with the everyday. This became the Elmore Leonard playground in which we all had fun. At the same time he was shaking off those genre constraints that had shackled his westerns. Moving to the contemporary crime novel, it was inevitable that a certain amount of genre limitation was going to carry over. But the eighties put an end to all of that. In 1980, he published his first book with Arbor House, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. His publisher was Don Fine, who had made it clear that the first job of selling Elmore Leonard novels was to sell Elmore Leonard. The title of the book was a play on Leonard’s past as a western storywriter as much as it messed with the idea of the gunfight in the modern day. And the book is full of this type of play. In one scene, Raymond Cruz, the police detective at the centre of the story, manoeuvres a fellow officer into the home of Mr. Sweety, a local club owner, drug dealer and armed robber, to see a photograph of Jesus. The colleague thinks it might be Leon Russell but doesn’t give it much credence as Jesus. No-one but Raymond is surprised that it is a photograph of Jesus. No-one, especially Leonard, actually points out the incongruity of having a photograph of Jesus, as I just did. This is the modern world, Leonard-style—no-one is at that level and no-one tries to explain.


Modern world Detroit, when I was there in the early nineties, was trying to get on its feet. There weren’t many signs of renewal at that stage. There had been the Renaissance Centre that had been built at the end of the seventies and completed in the eighties but was starting to look a little shabby. That’s the site of the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez bedroom scene in Out Of Sight (1998, D: Steven Soderbergh, screenplay Scott Frank, novel Elmore Leonard) although General Motors had renovated and rebadged the complex by then. There was the people mover, an elevated light rail project, that had opened just a few years before and was designed to get souls around the downtown safely and efficiently. Gregg Sutter, Leonard’s researcher, told me that it was commonly known as the people mugger but I was never clear whether that referred to the pricing or the unachieved ambition of passenger safety. It also had ‘The Fist’, officially known as the ‘Monument to Joe Louis’, I believe, but let’s call a fist a fist. Over seven metres of arm and fist, the arm and fist of Joe ‘Brown Bomber’ Louis, suspended in a pyramid like a battering ram at Hart Plaza. The sculptor, Robert Graham, got it right. Just like Joe Louis, not pretty but very powerful.

So a few things were happening in this tired, divided city, but downtown entertainment tended to be a couple of extremely well-lit streets in Greektown. The jewel in the crown of the renovations was the recently restored Fox Theatre on Woodward Avenue. As a movie buff, I was in awe of the Fox because it was one of the great movie picture palaces of the 1920s. It was the largest on the Fox chain. As a music buff, I was in awe of the Fox because by the 1960s, after the run down of the picture palaces, it became home to the great Motown and other music revues. Most everyone I listened to, growing up, had played here. Gregg Sutter took me to a benefit screening that was to support the renovations that had taken place. I was going to see a brand new 70mm print of Spartacus (1960, D: Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons) but I was totally unprepared for the building. I knew it was big and seated around 5,000 but I didn’t know the lobby was six floors high. I didn’t know that a picture palace was a palace.

So the city, in its immediate pre-Eminem days, was working at change but there were few signs of that change taking hold. At least that’s how it felt when I stopped at a traffic light outside Hudson’s Department Store on Woodward, not yet out of downtown, about ten in the morning, listening to some country music on the radio, and looked to the side to see two police spreading two young black men over their car. The good feeling from the Fox melted into the clichés of an American cop show and I went on to sit down for another session with the man who had himself become one of Detroit’s renewal figures.

There’s a difference between being a writer who lives in Detroit and a Detroit writer. Detroit has well and truly claimed Mr. Leonard as its own, but, then again, so has South Beach, Florida. But this was where he really made his name. Unlike the westerns, where he started too late, Detroit was growing into a new skin just as he was trying to get it all down on paper. The renewal hadn’t started and he was prospecting in some very rough ground for a while there. One of the things that helped move it along was the chance to ride with the Detroit police in 1978. The Detroit News Magazine asked him to do a feature article on the police and he found such an abundance of material that Squad Seven of the Detroit Police Department Homicide Section became his posse for two and a half months. This was the accelerator that brought Detroit into perspective. Seeing Detroit from this angle was to allow him to get under the skin of this city and, very important to Leonard, keep his facts straight.

Riding with Squad Seven did more than give him access to the Detroit demi-monde. It gave him time to study the contemporary scenery that had become so important to him. If the cops made their coffee in a Norelco coffeemaker, he wanted to be sure that he had the right brand of coffeemaker, and if the interview room for the murder squad had gray paint on the walls and not light blue, he wanted to know. It was not about being obsessive. There was something about getting that contemporary scenery right that led to getting those contemporary characters right. He never really articulated it to me in detail but it was there in the books—pay attention to the characters, where they live and what they do. The clues to who they are are all around them but you might not pick it on the first pass. Squad Seven sharpened his eye.

The result of the serious attention he gave to Detroit was returned when he became a figure that the city claimed as its own. He started to crop up on the magazine lists of ‘Most Famous Detroit’ celebrities that all cities run about their homegrown. But, like the local press anywhere, they are always slightly insecure and so it all began after Newsweek (22 April, 1985) ran his picture on the cover when Glitz made the bestseller list. Don Fine was right—sell the man and then you can sell the books. The Newsweek article was very complimentary and passed on the ‘overnight success after twenty years’ rhetoric that had been running for a couple of years. But seeing your face on every newsstand in every place you go, if only for a week, has to play with your head. Leonard had the last laugh when, in the movie of Get Shorty (1995, D: Barry Sonnenfeld, starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito), DeVito’s character is splashed all over the newsstands dressed as Napoleon as publicity for his latest film (another famous shorty). Leonard likes to use what he has and the sensations that come with major fame had to find a way into his work somehow.


Eventually you begin to wonder what doesn’t get into the work, or at least what the filter might be. It certainly isn’t about going out into the world, finding the biggest nut jobs to write about and getting the names of the cars right. There’s something going on in a Leonard novel that brings all this material together—contemporary character, contemporary scenery, contemporary nut job—and, when the story has had its play, we feel that we know more about something. Even if we don’t know what it is. Maybe he doesn’t know either. He is insistent about not having themes (“I don’t have themes”) but pretty tight-lipped about what he does have. He’s a very amiable man but much more attuned to listening to you than revealing things about himself.

It isn’t difficult to get down to one level. He doesn’t work with themes—he works with character. He writes stories that are based on the vagaries of character and the places where those little hiccups of personality take his characters when they get into situations that are not clearly defined in their everyday lives. It’s those grey areas that he likes so much (“Some things that my people do are illegal but not necessarily immoral”). To get at those characters, however, you have to know something about the world that they live in. To get a handle on the first, you have to know about the second. Back in the day, as they say, Leonard would have known a bit about the second. In the fifties, he was an advertising executive in a major city, keen on jazz (“In my car, I have the radio set on a jazz station”) and the jazz clubs that flourished in Detroit, lots of nightlife, lots of drinking, lots of everything. This was the social scene that eventually gave us Motown. All those musicians that they make documentaries about today would have been recruited from the clubs that Leonard would have frequented. It was probably quite a life for a while.

He certainly wasn’t living that life when I met him. He had been a non-drinker for quite some time but, when we met, had recently given up smoking. It took me a while to realise, as we talked across his writing desk with an enormous ceramic ashtray between us, that as much as I was encouraging him to fill my tape with stories, he was encouraging me to fill the ashtray. He had a very nice large house with lovely grounds and a very comfortable room in which to write. Access to the life came from research these days. In part, that’s what riding with Squad Seven had done for him, tuned him into how to research the modern day life. And that’s what Gregg Sutter helped him with.

It would be wrong to overstate the usefulness of having a researcher like Gregg Sutter, and he would be the last person to do that, but it is clear that it helps. Sutter came into the picture around the time of the writing of Split Images (1981). He had met Leonard and written about him earlier for Detroit Monthly magazine. Leonard invited him to do some research on material that went into Split Images. They clearly get along and Sutter’s involvement has grown with each book. Today he runs Leonard’s official website amongst other things. Sutter is an extremely enthusiastic and energetic man. Like Leonard, he is very generous but unlike my time with Leonard which was spent, for the most part, sitting on leather furniture talking back and forth, my time with Sutter was spent in his car riding around Detroit looking at the real locations of where the books were set from Police Headquarters at 1300 Beaubien to Lily’s Bar in Hamtramck. Hamtramck is just north of Poletown and stuck between the intersection of the Chrysler Freeway and the Edsel Ford Freeway. (It’s impossible not to love these Detroit names.) Sutter’s a man who’s always on the move. He even managed to film the punk band playing at Lily’s (the singer was a friend of his) whilst showing me around the place.

Detroit (cc) Ann Millspaugh @ Flickr

Detroit (cc) Ann Millspaugh @ Flickr

The research that Sutter provides is important but, as the interview shows, the sifting process that Leonard puts the material through is more important. He has boxes and boxes of material and, as we looked through them together, it became clear that what he found was triggering more than just memories. Everything is a potential springboard for an idea and that is probably a lot of what separates the researcher from the writer. It begs the question of why Leonard stays with crime but he was very clear on that: “It in itself is exciting so that you can do it low key, be calm and quiet about it.” Being calm and quiet is a lot of what Leonard does. The characters may well be outrageous and the situations that they find themselves in are generally extreme but their reactions normally come from the range of options that most of us experience. A good example is Elvin Crowe, brother to Roland and uncle to Dale, all Leonard familiars from different books. In Maximum Bob, Elvin tracks someone for shooting Roland. When he finds him sitting in a lavatory stall, he shoots him. And the police pick him up. When Elvin finds out that he has shot the wrong man he wants his charge diminished because, well, it was an accident, wasn’t it? No, we don’t go around shooting strangers, but we do feel miffed when we get taken to task for an accident. Leonard gets this and he does it low key.

Low key is very important because you never read a lot of Elmore Leonard in his books. In his now famous rules for writers, he always advocates avoiding those things that let you know that there is someone actually writing the book, like adverbs. It comes back to training. He hears the dialogue as it goes on the page and that is an inordinate strength for any novelist. That’s one of the things that he got from Richard Bissell, the only American novelist since Mark Twain to hold a pilot’s license for the Upper Mississippi. But there’s more to his novels than just dialogue. He has to deal with narrative and, in dealing with narrative, he developed an approach that marks him out amongst modern day writers. By the time of the mid-eighties, he had developed a narrative style that was his own and one that allowed him to experiment with, and sometimes improvise on, character.

By the time that Elmore Leonard had become a bestselling author, you just didn’t read him in his books. He wasn’t there. He’d put those comparisons with the old private eye novels well and truly behind him but they are good for helping us realize what is so special about him. In the old Raymond Chandler novels, the private dick is always in the action, taking you from clue to clue and from scene to scene. It had its benefits. It maintained an intensity and it gave the reader a strong character to lead him or her through the vagaries of the urban underworld. But it was very limiting. You couldn’t get away from that character. Leonard broke that grip without having to move to the overview of a narrator that could calmly direct you from scene to scene. Leonard began to experiment with narrating scenes from the point of view of individual characters but without making it explicit who was doing the narrating. The effect was dynamic. It allowed readers to fathom their own way through the story, intuiting who was colouring the scene as they went along.

There was nothing new about this. Flaubert had been doing it in France over a hundred years before, but Leonard was doing it here and now and with the nut jobs of Detroit and Miami. He doesn’t always use it just to colour scenes and hide his own presence. There is a section in Out Of Sight (1996) where Jack Foley is being driven around the empty Detroit car plants by his buddy, Buddy. Buddy is telling Jack about the time when he worked there. Jack is thinking about the sexy female cop that he had been locked in a car boot with down in Florida. The reveries intercut and, technically as well as aesthetically, it is one of the most marvellous sequences in contemporary popular fiction. On top of that, Steven Soderbergh did a great job of filming the sequence in the movie with George Clooney and Ving Rhames.


When we got around to talking about writers that he admired, Leonard was quick to point out the other Miami master, Charles Willeford. But the interesting thing about Willeford was that he never really did make it and that was important for Leonard. As he says, “My contention is that once you’ve established yourself then you can do anything you want.” There have been some things that he has gone back on. I asked him about writing short fiction again and he said that he couldn’t do that anymore. But he did go back to that. By the mid-nineties, a few short pieces were coming out here and there but, to be fair, that was more along the lines of using fragments and bits and pieces of things that might well have come from other novels that he was writing or scenes with characters from past novels that he had to cut.

He stayed away from writing for the movies and that was a good thing. There’s a lot to be said for a volume of work and one of the nicer things about rereading Elmore Leonard is that development of craft, the way he works so hard to get out of the space between the reader and the story. You can forget, if you are not careful, that it is his imagination that you’re playing around in.

I can only repeat my gratitude for his generosity at the time. Detroit is an interesting city but it is made much more interesting with Elmore Leonard as a guide. I took in the fourth of July celebrations before I left town and as I prepared to drive to Toronto the next day I read the paper with a cup of coffee. There had been a number of incidents amongst the general exuberance of the celebrations. Amongst the arrested was a pair of twins, Cassandra and Cassondra, two teenage girls who were going around causing a bit of mayhem. When they were arrested, they admitted that they only did this sort of thing because they liked to hang with the cops. Maybe I was wrong all along. Maybe in a town like that you just have to look out of the window and write down what you see. Or maybe not.

I would like to acknowledge Noel King for his work on a preliminary edit of these interviews.


from issue #2: ‘The Taste, 2000’ by Paul Pax Andrews


The best heroin was in Cabramatta, a suburb forty minutes south-west of Sydney. The early-morning trains were full of junkies, mostly sick and hanging out, checking each station and counting the seconds until our collective nightmares would end for a moment, any relief. For just one minute. A rolling sick car of very strange community, huddled, ticket-less. Each of us with our last twenty-five or fifty… Eager to spend it on the only thing that matters. None of us were making eye contact but each is keenly aware of the other. The heroin-dealers were often Vietnamese or Chinese, trying to make a living in their newfound freedoms, yet mostly didn’t use H themselves. That is why the deals were consistent. Sometimes we could get a half a gram for a hundred bucks that would hold us for a day, or twelve hours at least. We’d knock on a garage door and a hand would come out from underneath, take the hundred and subsequently push out a tiny foil wrapped cube of white heroin.

The Liverpool train, 8am.

Blokes with whipper-snippers and stereos or power tools to hock and sell; they carried laptops and phones, turntables and cameras. Chicks with bags of shoplifting, batteries, razors, hair products, cigarette lighters, film, clothes, toys, perfume, anything that we might trade for a few dollars, to finally end up with enough money to stop being sick for a few hours. We have done it all for one minute’s peace, twenty-five or fifty bucks. A junkie starts shoplifting early in the morning, while the punters sleep. Only once or twice a month did we have enough for a half weight or a gram. Then it will be on again, the whole madness of the day from my first moment to my last thought—Heroin twenty-four seven, a dollar at a time, hustling around the Eastern Suburbs Line, the Cross, Central, Cabramatta, Town Hall and Martin Place. We met our dealers everywhere and anywhere anytime, day and night.

More train ticket dodging and cops at Cabramatta Station, everywhere junkies, dealers and chemists. A number of dealers would be there waiting when we stepped out of the railway station. Shop windows are showing grotesque hanging red ducks or fish tanks full of giant crabs. Trays of pork buns. Exotic food restaurants all around us but we don’t stop to look and we’re not hungry, although we hadn’t eaten in days. Asian street dealers everywhere (they would sell a twenty or a fifty but usually tiny amounts). “No. Motherfucker!” We could barely walk, yet at this point and with fifty in our pocket we would go a hundred more miles in our heroin trance, by now we were locked into each step. Get on—get on—get on—get on, get a shot. Through the back streets of Cabramatta, away from the station toward blocks of sixties flats, brown flats, “keep going man.” Nearly there. No cops? (in contrast to the amount of heroin in Cabramatta, there were very few police indeed). Syringes in the garden beds, I could smell heroin now. Heart racing but my legs are failing. If Chan was on we could get a fifty that would hold us for a couple of hours, and we’re nearly there. “You OK baby? Almost there!” Meanwhile I’m hoping, “Please man’. Chan. Be home!”

“Hello?” Number 4 on the intercom (two buttons are missing). “Hello Chan?” The dodgy speaker crackles. “We have friends in town.” (The password.) What is that smell? “Yes?” “Thank god he’s there! Thank God.” “Chan? A fifty thanks.” Yes! I hold my breath ‘till we reach the fourth floor. The smell of the apartment block is sour and damp and the door opened only for a moment. A hand, an eye, some aluminium foil. “Thanks!” We went down one flight and she had the spoon out. Oh my God, heroin, beautiful smack. “Water?” Between my teeth I rip off the cap of the plastic, distilled water bottle. We would have it mixed up and in the fits, ready in one minute or less. On the stairs, right there.

Next began the drama of getting a vein. After three years we were running out of solid veins and sometimes I would miss. Fuck! All hell would break loose and we would need another shot. I am ripping at my belt to remove it. Pumping now, excited, my heart is racing with anticipation but “What is that fucking smell?”

A Cabramatta stairwell; my old belt wrapped tight around my arm, one end held in the mouth to leave two hands free, slapping my forearm. I find a likely spot and try to raise blood, nothing. Again I jab the sharp under my skin and pierce the vein. “Fuck that hurts, motherfuck.” Try the other arm, she’s got hers and sighs, “Mmnnooohh” “You OK, babe?” This time…Yes! “Ohhh!“ I watch the swirl of red shoot into the fit. My belt slips from my mouth as the vein accepts the tiny shot.

“Oh… nice… oh, oh, oh, oh! Fuuuck yeh! Oh man. Ahh… So fuckin good. OHH—Ooh, FUUCK…”

Relief, peace. Breathe. The instant rush. Oh beautiful rush. Fuck Yeh! ………”Oh baby, so good! How are you?” Her eyes are closed and she is slumped in her own reprieve, the first release from horror cramps and pains. Relief in all our muscles, from the incessant craving. Beautiful saviour! Heroin peace.

A sense of total disbelief now arises and takes over my thoughts. Where the fuck am I? At last it’s me… Me! Man, at last I can feel me. Paul, beautiful me. How beautiful are you man? “You insane motherfucker. What are you gonna do?” Fuck. You gotta get clean, man. “What the Fuck?” My freed mind now races through the questions and answers. Wishing I could keep my relief for more than just a few fleeting hours, now that I feel so good. Not an insane junkie, just me. Broken me, and I’m OK, at peace now you know, I’m OK. I’m not sick any more, I’m just lost and don’t belong here.

We’d shoot up anywhere, just as soon as we scored; in toilets, on trains, in doorways and parks, gardens, anywhere. We just needed relief, now. Right now! There is no time to be polite, not now. Not here in Cabramatta, not on these stairs… not in this filthy stairwell, littered with swabs and picks and spoons, fits, and water bottles and silver foil, shit every-where… and the smell of filth, stale filth, tobacco mixed with damp carpet filth. We had our hit, right there in amongst it all. This can’t be! What the fuck am I doin’ here in this shit-hole and how did I get here? Why?

“Who the fuck are you?”

Yes… It is what it is, man! Why? Forgive me.

“Please forgive me.”

“There must be a way out, I want out! Anything, I will do anything!”

This is a rude awakening that I face, each time I have a shot. Each time I send the demon away, each time I find peace again. Each shot is my last shot, always, my heartbeat is each shot, nothing between; only numbness or pain, nothing between shots, only… horror. Absolute disbelief and the panic of constant running. A sense of endless racing. Wholeheartedly onward, unstoppable, heroin-fuelled. Relentless. Going nowhere. Nothing between heartbeats, nothing. Nothing that matters.

Only heroin and relief. Occasional relief.

Yet oh, such relief. My whole body would go into dreamy ecstasy as soon as the rush was over; the rush is some ride… The only thing is, once started, I can’t get off. A ride I never wanted to get onto. Ever. Never. Not now and not ever. Why? To waste my life and throw it away, on that first taste. How had I become the person I least wanted to be? Totally broken, insane for sure, sleeping in gardens and doorways, eating with homeless drunks, people just like me, desperate now. Lost. My heart is bankrupt. Empty-hearted, yet I’m doin’ my best. Maybe I wouldn’t be good enough? Self doubt and self-loathing pervades.

Does it matter? Maybe I would be good enough. How? If I couldn’t find the real Paul, I’d never know, not now. Not ever.

“How can I see out of this darkness?”

My first move; change my playground, a geographical. Jason’s death hit me hard. (My twenty-five-year-old nephew had overdosed in a car at Cabramatta.) I was completely depressed and it seemed this was my fate too, an overdose or worse, the continuum of this nightmare until I am in jail. I did not want to live, not now. I didn’t want to die either but how can I escape this quicksand existence? She is so sick too, yet I can’t think of saving her, only myself. How the fuck can I get away from all this? I must leave Sydney, but how?

Each second Thursday we received the dole and on December 27th we each bought two Greyhound tickets, one to Perth and another to Coffs Harbour. After scoring our shot and saying a brief goodbye, I boarded my escape and watched her beautiful face for the last time… I finally got to Western Australia after four days of laying in the aisle, Sydney to Perth. My very last shot was in Adelaide but I was barely able to hold my own weight when I arrived. The bus driver had threatened to throw me off in Eucla on the Nullarbor. Vomiting and cramps, pain, diarrhoea and totally insane. Very ill—so sick. Sad.


I had been away thirty years. My beautiful mother and my twin sister; I had been away so long, yet Sue and Bill had taken me in on Christmas Eve 2000. Beautiful Sue. What a gift. What a talent. (She is a visual artist, a wonderful talent with a great sense of composition, colour and line.) My brother Terry and his wife Ann, my sisters Carol, Jean were supportive through the first months. They just seemed glad to have a brother again. I finally got clean; in Fremantle after twenty days of nightmare, no sleep and mental torture. Eventually I made it to my first NA meeting and attended two hundred ‘Narcotics Anonymous’ meetings during the next six months! My first meeting was on the 31st of January 2001 in South Fremantle. Sometimes attending three meetings a day, I made getting clean my career, for twelve months. Total abstinence, with not even a beer and everyday a meeting or two, sharing my experiences. (One day at a time.) Richard Hamersley and other members of NA in Perth helped me stay clean. I wanted Nat and Gabi back in my life so much, so many tears in those first weeks. I needed to address my spirit, find it again.

Acceptance. Purpose. Find my song. Fremantle is good to me and accepts me as an old friend.

My new birthday was December 28th, 2000. I have a lot of work to do. How can I apologise for ten thousand lies? Yet already my friends are so generous, so gracious. How can I apologise to myself? My life is so good now. I am truly sorry for betraying friendships and family. Make a list of all the things in my life that I am grateful for. “I am fucking glad I have stopped using!” number one! Only about six percent of long-term heroin users survive and that makes me one lucky bastard, that’s for sure.

By Easter 2001, I wanted to play again and started listening to Coltrane once more… It is four or five years since I last played seriously, but I’m listening again—Miles and Bird. I heard the saxophone and the desires came rushing back. Art Pepper’s joy. Cannonball’s style. Bird’s genius. A friend took me to see the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González full of music, full of life at eighty years old and wonderful. I wanted to play again, but how? Then Chris, a friend of a friend of a friend said casually, “I’ve got an alto under the bed.” Amazing to think I could have another go. (Big thanks again Chris!) I wanted to sing. I was penniless but this five hundred dollar horn felt like a new Selmer after not playing for so long. I hit the beach, every morning playing to the waves to get my sound back. South Beach; to the mole and back. Took three months before I got a sound that was reminiscent of the old days, but then the swing feel thing didn’t quite seem right, somehow. I just couldn’t feel it! I needed new ground but in the meantime kept working on my sound, loving practising again. In awe of this piece of plumbing and the millions of possibilities, once I breathed into it.

I felt alive and excited when Natty turned me on to St Germain and some other Electronica. I discovered the dance floor and Kruder & Dorfmaster, LTJ Bukem, David Holmes and Plump DJs. Discovering the Club scene, dance. Ambar and Geisha, Metropolis for Drum ‘n’ Bass was really something and I started to dig the Two-step thing. Dub-step. Artful Dodger, the Streets, David Holmes, Roni Size and World House. Nu-jazz with ‘Flanger’ and on to fresh new ground, from Detroit and Germany. Darren Moore turned me on to it when he returned from London and was hip to the drum and bass too. I started playing over the mix with DJ Tasty Beats and DJ Gear, Wax n Sax, around Perth. If I can get up in the mix, this is the tightest rhythm section I could hope for. Consistent audiences too, giving one hundred percent. A rare commodity at a jazz-gig! (In Australia anyway, jazz audiences are so polite and reserved and often seemingly unaffected.) In a dance-club we are there for the music, young and old together, excited, in a place where we can just listen together and bliss out. Total respect. I heard Jamiroquai live; we were seven thousand happy listeners. Dance is one of the truest cultures I have seen in Australia. A sense of coming together, in total abandon, for music. Where had I been my whole life? (Not on the dance-floor, yet.) This is functional music at its best. Tribal in origin, combined with a rare touch of modern community, acceptance and love. World leaders should maybe get together on the dance floor. (At least once)

“Go for it Johnny! Wake up. Find some bliss somewhere. (For all our sakes.) George? Get up and have a boogie.” Ecstasy is only a point of reference, but a valuable reminder of our ability to bliss out.

I started blowing over the mix and realized I was listening to a bran-new direction for my jazz. I had spent my whole life playing long lines, now I need to find the loop. Three notes or four, in a catchy phrase or a lick that I can work rhythmically for five minutes, not allowing myself too much freedom once I locked in. When it worked, I could take the raging room up another five percent with my sound and a little heart. It was sensational working the room… I could play in amongst the people, on the floor… Three notes. I was so excited. By 2001, I wanted a trio, so to hear the Perth locals, especially the younger players, I looked in at the West-Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Monday lunchtime. WAAPA.

When I first heard Dane Alderson and Andrew Fisenden, both were seventeen and inspired me with a sea of rhythms. I wanted to play again for sure! I was hearing this wonderful energy, so I offered them a gig. We never had a rehearsal, ever, but each night the band became tighter and more exciting. Adding two other great youngsters, Ooki Effendi and Simon Phillips we recorded an album ‘Thanksgiving’ (paxrecords is born). I wrote two tunes for the band: ‘Kick’ and the title track which was inspired by Pharoah Sanders and is meant to progress from bliss to horror through ugly beauty, then back again. The band laid down a great feel and we created from there. I just gave them three chords. ‘Kick’ is about freedom and joy, just two contrasting keys. I was playing the five hundred dollar alto and a soprano that Clive had lent me. I was struggling, but it sure felt good. Nearly had a heart attack—they played so phat. (I revisited the wha-wha pedal on some tunes too.) Thank God for Stephen Manassah, who has mixed the album and allowed us to hear fifty or so minutes of that gig and some sensational playing. They gave me their all, those young men. A few months later, James Morrison discovered them (Dane and Andrew) and they joined his band. (Around the world in eighty days.) I owe them, big time. They helped me save me, and they had been listening to the drum and bass too, which turned me on, big-time.

In August Sue introduced me to Richard Hill, a wonderful person who has been a major figure in my life ever since. Ric was born with spinal muscular-atrophy, can move just two fingers and is in a wheelchair. I started caring for him (and his two grandmothers) thirty hours a week. He had never had a support worker before, so we learned together. (A day gig.) I realized acceptance, just for a start. Many gifts have followed.


Each day a gift. I get to practice ‘leaving my ego at home’ (not easy for me). We celebrate eleven years as a team now, happy years and together we can do anything. I spend thirty hours a week practising my compassion and observing my attitude and intention (as often as possible). Now we both tell our stories to all kinds of groups. He is “The luckiest guy alive” too. Just ask him.


from Without A Song © 2012 Paul Pax Andrews

Ebook available @ Smashwords

This excerpt appears in Contrappasso Magazine #2, December 2012
Photography (CC) by Jason Flores @ Flickr

from issue #2: ‘Dizzy, 1979’ by Paul Pax Andrews


I was studying jazz full-time and invited to play tenor at the Monterey Jazz Festival with the Northside Big Band from Manly. We were invited to Dizzy’s rehearsal; eleven AM, second day at the Festival… Saturday. Entering the room, I was so excited, buzzing, but where is everyone? The place should be packed, what happened to the other guys? Just twelve of us, including the band. Stan Getz sporting his Ray-Bans, standing next to me with arms folded waiting, listening and watching. Then, in one fantastic moment, Dizzy transformed his stark rehearsal space into a glowing cathedral, now with each of us transfixed. Every move, each sound and every whisper; we wanted to hear it. Each prayer. I was standing breathless on the moon in jazz heaven, feeling Dizzy Gillespie’s bliss on earth with Roy Haynes’ white smile and panama hat, it was unbelievable I could reach over and touch him. The sounds of a different drummer as his legendary brushes coaxed a robust solid platform for the rhythm section, swinging so hard. Rufus Reid was sensational with his fat tone and big smile. An Afro-groove goin’ on, he is rocking back and forth and leaning forward away out over the bass, dancing. Dizzy is jiving and joking with Roy, “No! Like this, man! I’m only showing you one more time!” Taking the drumstick and demonstrating on the cymbals (he was hilarious); Roy is laughing his gorgeous grin. Two old buddies happy to be together again, chuckling, giggling. Big Black on conga handed all of us a passport to Africa with John Lewis, modern-jazz piano history. Oh man, this was a beautiful rhythm section. ‘Summertime’ then ‘Manteca’ as if it was the first time they had played them. Dizzy is high on the horn, as high as. Yet what blew me away was his tone, somehow shy or delicate like Miles, but I hadn’t expected that from Dizzy with his big open song. The sweetest cup-mute, so gentle, I will never forget.

“It is the vulnerability in my sound that makes it irresistible,” Miles explained about his mutes.

“Let’s go Diz!” called his crazy skinny manager (wearing a bad loud orange-check jacket) hassling after every song. “You need to rest and eat Diz!” or… “Three hours till the gig, man. Dizzy!” Meanwhile, the legend wasn’t paying no mind but enjoying each moment, ignoring him totally whilst playing a game he had obviously played many times. In his greatness, he could still play life with a childlike freshness. Laughing aloud. Big smiles.

He started into ‘Con Alma’ and the mood returns to serious beauty; such energy, and lyrical beyond my imagination. Roy has picked up the sticks and is driving a freeway. I am so high. We all are. What a song!

Another ten minutes of joy and then, “Dizz!” again. He started to put his horn away and each of us is raving, so excited and alive. The room was in ecstasy now, tripping, high on our own tower, given to us by our all-time hero. Pumping, throbbing. I am speechless, holding my breath, not wanting these moments to end, disbelieving my incredible once in a lifetime luck. This has to be a dream. Then…

Suddenly the room became silent once more, as the familiar intro to Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ lures us. She is blind and John Lewis had led her to the piano, golden retriever at her feet. South American, raven haired, so calm. She is Brazilian, maybe. Then our focus shifted to Him, all of us hoping, waiting to see if Dizzy would play some more. He didn’t disappoint us (but his minder has brow in hand). Trumpet muted, and soft with the assuredness that only a lifetime of playing can deliver. Sensational. She smiles sweetly throughout and delivers Him the most wonderful partner play. As the two sing away, tears well-up inside me and I am overwhelmed, choked in my emotions, just forgetting to breathe sometimes. Heaven for ten minutes more. Heaven on Earth. Where else can it be but in this moment, each new moment. My life changed, right there. Again, I felt a sense of great responsibility to my new life as a musician and wanted to thank Him. Once more Dizzy returned to his trumpet case and started to pack up.

I followed Him to the other end of the room and said something, shaking his welcoming hand. His voice was low and guttural, yet sweet “Ah, Sydney huh, I love Australia, they grow some nice weed there and everyone’s so friendly. Have you had a smoke?” He grinned. “Not in California, so far,” I replied, but not thinking what I am saying. “What? You haven’t had a smoke. We had better fix that.” He unpacked a film container and a little pipe, placed it in my mouth, then offered me a light whilst raving about Monterey. How happy he is to see Roy Haynes again; then he started rolling me a little joint, which he placed in my top pocket after his turn on the pipe. I will never forget his beautiful face. “You’re gonna have a great ol’ time.” I am so high and can’t recall much else (except his hovering manager who had arrived once more to remind Dizzy of his schedule, and who we commandeered to take a photo) but what blew me out, was that he had time for a kid from the other side of the globe. A beautiful caring man. I was soaring for a month after meeting Dizzy! Music has given me so many wonderful gifts; hearing and meeting those incredible sculptures of sounds.

The next day, after our set with the Northside (partying in the green room) when a reporter approached me. Microphone in hand he asked, “You are one of the young musicians from Sydney, Australia. Tell me: it must be a thrill to be here. What was the highlight of the 1979 Monterey Jazz Festival for you?” (Right question, wrong guy!) “Getting high with Dizzy,” I replied, truthfully. “CUT! Cut.” He shouted, waving his arms at his assistant and scorning. We all broke up laughing; I was just a kid but I should have known better. By the time we got home, the story had grown into me making that faux pas on National Television. Monterey was amazing and after an hour with Dizzy I went to Woody Herman’s big band rehearsal where Stan Getz is like practising in the corner right behind Sonny Stitt and Clark Terry who are arm in arm and raving away together, chuckling, all smiles. Gerry Mulligan is reading his charts and Woody, eighty years old, alto in hand is chatting about the set list to Slide Hampton. John Lewis sits at the piano again, noodling and flipping pages. What a band, Sonny’s amazing sound is leading the section singin’ ‘Early Autumn’, with Dizzy blowing over the top. I took two rolls of film on my Praktica and somehow they have survived. (You-tube / paxrecords) My daughter found the negatives and I scanned them. It was wonderful to see some of them again, after thirty years. Dizzy was so happy on that weekend but I suspect he was mostly like that. Beyond that tremendous sound, I will never forget his humanity and grace.


from Without A Song © 2012 Paul Pax Andrews

Ebook available @ Smashwords

This excerpt appears in Contrappasso Magazine #2, December 2012
Photography © 2012 Paul Pax Andrews. Reprinted by permission.

from issue #2: ‘New York City, 1978’ by Paul Pax Andrews


In New York, the sax-quartet stayed in a fifteen dollar a night dive on Broadway (the Times Square Hotel-Motel) and Forty-First Street. Because of the recently changed U.S. mental health laws, most patients not considered dangerous had been sent back into society, duly medicated and left to their own devices. The top three floors of our Hotel were home to a hundred of these lunatics who constantly rode up and down the elevators or paced the lobby and corridors. Zombies, doped and weird yet mostly they were pleasant and chatty. Whispering. Muttering. Some were very polite and greeted us each time we returned. In the lounge, there would be several people just sitting for a moment then getting up, walking around the room then sitting again, chain-smoking. Beautiful leather Club Sofas and Chesterfields adorned the Art deco, mirrored lobby. The manager suggested that we lock anything valuable in his safe. His face became quizzical when we gave him the baritone saxophone. One afternoon a well-dressed woman took a piss in the elevator right there in front of us. Squatting, while she complained about the old, slow contraption (it was such a dawdling old relic with the cage doors). At first I thought these were just normal New Yorkers.

Australia was a billion miles away and I loved this city with its ‘larger than life’ attitude. Everyone had a hustle. Twenty-four seven, the car horns honking with blinking lights everywhere. I could go for a walk at dawn or midnight yet the same amount of people were on the street, it didn’t seem to matter. Maybe I look obvious, but this hustler taps me on the shoulder, “Hey buddy, tell me, sorry for asking but is that a Praktica thirty five mill, single lens reflex?” He is trying to get his hands on my camera, “I used to have one of those. Do you mind if I take a look? Wow! A great camera huh?” He is relentless. What do you say to someone like that? Some schmuck must have bought that line, occasionally. (His daily hustle). Another street-dealer tried to sell me some hash and I said I didn’t have any bread. “Money! I ain’t seen money for so long, it thinks I’m dead!” he announced, charging off along the footpath.

In Times Square our tenor player Rod, originally from Florida, is freaked out at being in New York, sure we would get mugged and bashed or something terrible would happen to us. He stayed in the hotel-room the whole time, smoking his head off, scared that we might not return safely. I explored as much as I could and had no bother. Well, except Bev the Chinese doctor, she bothered me! So beautiful and she knew all the best places to go. Jazz, love and Autumn in New York… How lucky am I? The sweetest moon-faced girl smile. Black ponytail and the wonderful music. ‘Second Avenue South’ to hear Nat Adderley, then on to the ‘Village’ and ‘Little Italy’, Chinatown, I was having a ball. Mostly people just wanted to talk and listen to my accent and tell me all they knew about Australia (nothing). “Oh Yeh, Australia, sure, near Switzerland? Mountains and shit! Central Europe right?” So confident, yet with no idea.

We were eating outside on the footpath, lox and bagel, when a skinny dude raced from a doorway and picked up a garbage bin to defend himself against a crazy screaming Chinese cook who was wielding a meat cleaver. Right there in front of us, just ten feet away! New York was its own Jackie Chan movie, it was full on. Later that same afternoon and I’m in Washington Square taping the buskers, dealers and freaks on my walkman, when a crazy Mexican guy walks over and asks me to record the band for him on his cassette-tape (my walkman). “Don’t tape over ‘Side B’ man, that’s my guru you know, my main man, not the main man, but my maaaiiiin man! You know what I’m saying?” as he hands me a toke on a fat joint, right there in front of everyone; old women with curlers (also smoking joints), Latinos and Puerto Ricans, Afros everywhere. The ‘Square’ is just alive with artists, musicians and freaks. The odd copper on a horse, shiny white helmet and smiling and talking to the girls. The quintet was awesome. A tenor player sounds like Joe Henderson on ‘Recorda-Me’, a piano on a trolley, conga player swinging, hard. Beautiful drummer with Elvin’s energy, it was serious. Serious street-jazz. Twenty percussionists are having a jam over on the other side of the fountain, creating a plethora of sounds, throbbing. Alive.

It felt good to be amongst it. I relaxed as the people become less scary in their exuberance and open joy. Energy was everywhere. New York seemed alive with music.

After each song, one of the cohorts would come and hustle the audience for money with a hat, while the dealers each had their own rave goin’ on, “What d’y’all want? Boy? Girl? Acid? Guaranteed to get you high my man! What you want? (He looked at me from one eye over the shades, as he passed by) Reefer?” I’d sheepishly buy one joint for a dollar, walking away I could hear “Tight Ass Honky White Mother!” A number of the street corners around Times Square and the Village had a dealer or two. All this happened right next to the cops who were too busy minding their own goddamn business to interfere. Mostly, five dollars or ten would buy me a small bag of deadly red dust; ‘Acapulco Red’ something or other. Upon inspection, the Tally Ho contained only a sprinkling of pot…but fuck it got me high! One time I asked an associate what I was smoking and he replied, “Toledo window-box!”

Just being in New York was like living twice as fast, while constant sounds and endless thunderous, hustling droning energy kept me awake. Saturday night; it’s three a.m. and I am on a heavily graffitied subway train travelling back to the hotel, from way out in Queens… Bev lived out there somewhere, near Corona. “Y’all must be from out of town. Nobody rides this subway out here at night,” one of the only other travellers warned me. I had no fear so I just enjoyed myself. Out every night and had a ball. One time I got off ‘Uptown’ and climbed the stairs to the street, took one look around, then straight back down again to the train. I remember a few black dudes, wearing big hats. Too big, hats.

Next day on Broadway, I saw Sweeney Todd, with Angela Lansbury. That was something else. Now I was scared. Scared to death; during the opening scene, when the siren sounds a foggy blackout. I discovered Stephen Sondheim while in New York and he’s been another great love of mine ever since, one of my favourite songwriters; ‘Joanna’, ‘Pretty Women’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Harm You’, ‘By the Sea’. Such great songs.

(In 1986, I played alto and bass clarinet in the pit orchestra for the Sydney Theatre Company’s productions of ‘Company’, ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, ‘Into the Woods’. Kevin Hunt and I still want to do a jazz-Sondheim album, one day.)

Each Monday night at the Village Vanguard, I heard the Thad Jones, Mel Lewis Orchestra, I was transfixed each time. What a band! I had heard Basie, Ellington, Buddy Rich’s big band and Woody Herman’s but this was so different, fresh, modern with unbelievable virtuosity. Such masterful arrangements; I was in big band heaven hearing the great Dick Oatts on alto, Ralph Lalama on tenor, Thad on cornet is so sweet with Mel Lewis on drums, playing ‘Consummation’ and those other great songs from their repertoire. Jim McNeely played piano. Jerry Dodgion on lead soprano (that’s what gave the sax-section its individual sound), musos everywhere, barely room for an audience with all of us crowded in together. Fifteen dollars cover charge, for each set. A one drink minimum. Jam-packed. New York heaven. (I had only dreamed.)

Tuesday night; Charlie Rouse sextet at ‘Sweet Basil’s’, with George Mraz on bass, Roswell Rudd on trombone (he has always been a favourite of mine). Once again, it was a twenty-dollar minimum for each set. Sensational to be hearing Monk’s tenor, live. Each time I came away with a new sense of unimaginable inspiration coupled with, ‘how can I ever be good enough to be an improviser?’ Feeling insecure yet possessed. Obsessed. Joyous. Nervous.

Each part of my being was committed to taking this energy back home. Three weeks in New York had changed my life, seriously. It was a great, no, the greatest honour to be an improvising musician and to take risks and to practice, right there with an audience, night after night. Giving freely, fresh ideas, expressing oneself to whoever might be listening; an ongoing, never ending search for something we only find when we find it. If we find it. In the moment. A great responsibility, from a wonderful history. I was impassioned, in love with the music but a new struggle had begun again. How could I possibly belong to any part of this wonderment? What could be my role?

from Without A Song © 2012 Paul Pax Andrews

Ebook available @ Smashwords

This excerpt appears in Contrappasso Magazine #2, December 2012
Photography (CC) by Derzsi Elekes Andor @ Wikimedia Commons

from issue #1: ‘Meeting James Crumley’ by Noel King

Noel King’s final 2005 interview with the late crime writer James Crumley will appear here tomorrow, but first King remembers the man.



In late May 1996 I drove up out of Wyoming, through the top left hand corner of Yellowstone National Park, past the icy beauty of the Grand Tetons, into Montana, the place they call “the last good place.” After a drizzly day driving interstate 90 I arrived early one evening in Missoula, hometown of James Crumley, self-described “bastard child of Raymond Chandler,” and a writer whose most recent novel, The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) broke a ten year silence, sold forty thousand in hardback and won the Dashiell Hammett Award for Best Literary Crime Novel from the International Association of Crime Writers.

Missoula is so full of writers that French television makes documentaries about it. No-one knows why writers come to Montana in general and Missoula in particular, least of all the writers. Crumley suggested they could be attracted to the primeval mud deposited beneath the town. Aside from Crumley, Bill Kittredge and native American writer James Welch lived there, James Lee Burke had recently settled there, staying part of each year Richard Ford had lived there until a few years earlier, David Lynch was raised there, and the wonderful poet Richard Hugo lived there until his death in 1982.

A little north of Missoula are stunning wilderness areas: Glacier National Park beckons and Flathead Lake will keep you looking admiringly for quite a while. Native American sites are nearby, Flathead Indian Reservation and Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and a half-day drive in any direction on the smaller roads will take you through mountains, past meadows, clear rivers and streams, through the small towns and a landscape of beautiful emptiness captured with elegiac affection in Hugo’s poems and Crumley’s novels.

Although I had been drawn to Missoula by Crumley’s writing, on a kind of literary skip-trace, I wasn’t expecting to meet him. I figured he’d be in Hollywood doing screenplays; his novels had been gift enough and the epigraph for one of them, The Last Good Kiss (1978) guided me to Hugo’s poetry (“You might come here Sunday on a whim/Say your life broke down/The last good kiss you had was years ago”) so I owed him that as well.

Later that first evening, sitting in The Depot, a bar-restaurant at the bottom end of the town, near the old railway, I was finishing a nice meal and drinking nice wine, musing that the statuesque clean-scrubbed beauty of the barmaids and waitresses was another reason to call Montana the “last good place,” when a happy, noisy group of six or seven people settled at the table next to mine, one of those high off the ground tables with stool-chairs. They’d come from the restaurant proper and were continuing to smoke, drink and chat. One member of their party had his back to me, a large, powerful torso gentrified into a blue-striped Brooks Brothers shirt. Even though one never means to eavesdrop, conversation carries in those contexts, and I kept hearing the phrase “dancing bear” moving in and out of the conversation. After a while I called over the tall beauty who’d been looking after my food and drink needs and told her I’d heard that phrase, that it was the title of a book by a guy called James Crumley who lived in Missoula, was he one of the people at the table? “Sure, that’s him there,” pointing at the Brooks Brothers shirt.

Immediate problem. How big a dag do you want to make of yourself? Answer, who cares? You’re a long way from home. So I waited until the table had thinned to just the blocky, bearded Crumley and another bearded offsider. The waitress paved the way for me to their table and next thing I’m drinking and chatting with the man whose writing caused me to be in a bar in Missoula in the first place. After talking for half an hour we arranged to meet late afternoon the next day to go to a bar and then do an interview at his place in Whitaker Drive in the hills above Missoula before I headed off to other parts of Montana.

Crumley’s account of his decade’s literary silence was simple: “Shit, man, it just wasn’t happening.” What was happening was a collection of short fictional pieces, novel fragments and journalism (The Muddy Fork) and a series of unproduced screenplays of some of his own novels (The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear) and other adaptations (Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, Judge Dredd). Writing unproduced screenplays can be a lucrative business but it can also be dispiriting: the work is not out there in public circulation.

Even before he went silent for that ten year period, Crumley had not been a prolific writer. His reputation as the finest American crime writer since Chandler was based on three books written across an eight year period: The Wrong Case (1975), The Last Good Kiss (1978) and Dancing Bear (1983). Rock and roll magazines and sophisto rags like The Village Voice had always liked Crumley’s writing but his cult reputation was given a literary imprimatur when Harper’s magazine announced, “What Raymond Chandler did for the Los Angeles of the thirties, James Crumley does for the roadside West of today.” The entry on Crumley in The Encyclopaedia of Crime and Mystery Writers gives a lively sense of his fictional world. “What makes his books live in the reader’s mind and blood is the accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddley disorder and despair. What one remembers about them is the graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, the coke-snorting and alcohol guzzling, the endless drives through mountain snowscapes and long pit stops at seedy back woods bars, the sympathetic outcasts—psycho Viet vets, Indians, gentle hippies, rumdrums, and love-seekers. He can move us to accept the dregs of the race as our brothers and sisters, to feel the rape of the earth; in short he can write scenes that seem never to have been written before.” The same entry sees the prevailing mood of the books as “wacked out post-Vietnam empathy with all sorts of dopers, dropouts, losers and loonies.”

The Vietnam reference is important. Crumley said that his fiction is as close to the writing of Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers) as it is to any models of detective fiction, and his first novel, One to Count Cadence (1969) was one of the earliest of the “Vietnam” fictions (its reference was the Korean war) that would become such a significant sub-genre in post-1960s American novel and film. References to Vietnam continue across Crumley’s later novels and he told The Armchair Detective that Vietnam was the lie that ruined America. “Most all of my adult male friends were Vietnam vets. About everybody who went to that war came back changed. I don’t think anything has happened in this country since the war that’s not somehow related to it.”

Cadence sold well for a first novel, received good reviews and was bought by Hollywood, temporarily and unexpectedly moving Crumley into a very un-first-novelist tax bracket. There was a six year wait between first and second novel, time for two marriages and divorces and time for a genre shift to detective fiction. The next book came after Crumley’s first stint in Missoula and after meeting Richard Hugo. “Dick was integral to my crime-writing life because he turned me on to Chandler. He couldn’t believe I’d never read any.” They were chatting one day and Hugo expressed his admiration for Chandler’s writing, prompting Crumley to read some on a trip to Mexico. What attracted him to Chandler’s writing was “mostly the fact that it was really wonderful, fun writing; the general sense of fun, the sentences were fun, and that appealed to me. As far as crime writers go, I guess I was inspired by Nicolas Freeling and Raymond Chandler; they’re the two disparate ends of my scale.”

Crumley began writing his first detective novel, The Wrong Case, against the genre only to find himself captivated by it. It remained his favourite novel and his fondness for the book was a fondness for its central character, the hugely engaging figure of Milton Chester Milodragovitch III, a 39 year old veteran of Korea, former police officer in the small Montana town of Meriwether, now working as a private eye. Milo, as he is known, comes from a wealthy Meriwether family but owing to his mother’s perverse will he can’t get at his inheritance money until he turns 52. Given how much drinking and drugging Milo engages in, it’s line-ball whether he’ll make it to inheritance day. Milo’s weary gloom is further explained by the fact that he is the son of two suicides. His father was a womanising dipsomaniac who died in a shooting “accident” while his mother hanged herself in a “fancy alcoholic retreat in Arizona.” Coming from that gene pool, nearing middle-age, being lied to and deceived by most of the people with whom he comes into contact, it’s no wonder that Milo muses much on the fragility of humankind, meeting the world with a beneficent sadness occasionally alleviated by falling in love with the wrong woman. A reader soon understands why Milo would find “even the simplest life was too complex.”

By the time of Dancing Bear Milo is older and a bit sadder, 47, working night shifts for Haliburton Security and keeping the world at bay by doing lots of cocaine and drinking lots of peppermint schnapps. In 1985 Newsweek ran a feature story on the then-and-still-booming world of crime and mystery writing, singling the character of Milo out for particular praise: “He seems to have wandered into the thriller world from a Jack Kerouac pipe dream.” Accolades also came from distinguished peers such as Elmore Leonard. When he reviewed Dancing Bear Leonard had been clean and sober for about six years, and he marvelled at Milo’s capacity for self-destruction. “Milo hits enough lines of cocaine before the last page to tear his nose off. Drinks enough alcohol to explode a healthy liver. But there’s enough energy in Crumley’s writing to keep the reader rooting for Milton Chester Milodragovitch III all the way. There is the hope his reward will be, at the least, detoxification. So he can come back again, soon.”

Dancing Bear earned a different sort of praise by being issued as one of the first package of Vintage Contemporaries (organised by Gary Fisketjon) which saw Crumley placed alongside Raymond Carver (Cathedral) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City). Vintage followed up by bringing out a uniform edition of all Crumley’s novels.

Dancing Bear opens with a comic sequence in which a hung-over postman wakes a hung-over Milo and tries to get him to sign for a letter. It is early winter and the postie is wearing ill-fitting shorts and a short-sleeved shirt because his wife has hurled out all of his clothes after an argument. An absurd wrestling match starts and ends when Milo’s neighbour (and occasional bonk) turns a hose on the combatants. Cold, wet, they go inside to share a restorative drink. The letter is from a rich elderly woman who was once the lover of Milo’s father. In it she asks Milo to indulge an old friend by finding out all he can about a couple she has watched meet in the woods near her mansion. Of course, in detective fiction such requests are never what they seem and before long Milo is caught up in a complicated narrative involving drug smuggling and toxic waste despoliation of the north-west countryside, as he travels across the wintry landscapes of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington. Milo, Montana and winter form a funny triad. Milo is always dreaming of leaving Meriwether and Montana, a dream that crowds in on him every winter. He dreams of going south, maybe to Mexico, searching for “sunshine and simplicity.” But at the end of Dancing Bear, he only gets as far as California before turning back home, back “into the heart of one of the worst Montana winters in years.”

Crumley had no desire to leave Montana, having spent thirty years in Missoula since coming there to teach in the mid-1960s after getting an MA from the distinguished Iowa Writers Workshop. Over the years he made occasional sorties to LA for film work and El Paso for short-term teaching stints but most of the time was spent in Missoula, writing. Five times married, with five children and five grandchildren and alimony payments that no doubt helped to concentrate the mind wonderfully, Crumley said that he thought he was meant to live in Montana, that he needed empty spaces in his life.

His wife, Martha Elizabeth, is beautiful and a poet whom he said saved him from some Milo-like tendencies towards self-destruction. Martha was off visiting her mother in Richmond, Virginia as we chatted in his lounge-room in the house in Whitaker Drive in the hills south of Missoula, over a couple of six-packs of Labatt’s Blue. At least four cats prowled around the room, fretting for the absent Martha as the TV ran constantly on a sports channel and as background music was provided by the latest tapes of Los Lobos and Steve Earle. The tapes had been given to Crumley by John Williams who had been through town to do a piece on James Lee Burke. Williams has a vivid chapter on Crumley in Into the Badlands (1991), his book on American crime writers, in which he chases him through a series of bars in and around Missoula, winding up wasted and doing a lot of damage to a rental car. As Steve Earle sang, Crumley spoke of the attraction Missoula held for him.

Crumley was 5’ 10” and you could still see the footballer and oil-field worker in the strong body. You could also see the consequences of a lifetime’s attachment to alcohol, for Crumley is what the French call, politely, a “grand buveur.” He’d already told me that Missoula used to be a great bar town (“you used to be able to walk into a bar on Railroad Street and go out back doors, all the way down to the river without getting onto a sidestreet”) and he was straightforward about the relation between drinking and writing: “I’ve always been a hard drinker. My friends are all writers and writers seem to drink hard. The only writers I know who don’t drink destructively come out of a background where it was OK to be an intellectual.”

Crumley didn’t come from such a background and one could sense an uneasiness, still felt at age 57, at being a working-class Texan kid who somehow sneaked into the world of letters. Born in 1939 in Three Rivers, Texas, of Scotch-Irish descent, his father was an oilfield supervisor and Crumley also rough-necked for many years. At the end of the 1950s, after a short stint in the navy on a destroyer in the Atlantic, he shifted to do three years in the army, much of it in the Philippines. Several years of mixing study, football and rough-necking saw him receive a BA in History from Texas A & I. He’d planned to do a PhD in Soviet Studies at the University of Washington but was accepted into the famous Iowa Writers Workshop in 1964 (it was the time that Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren taught there), supporting himself by tending bar and working as a janitor, getting his MA in 1966.

Crumley’s other series character, C. W. Sughrue (pronounced “‘sugh’ as in ‘sugar,’ and ‘rue’ as in ‘rue the goddamned day’”), extracted from a long-unfinished Texas novel, comes from a social locale quite different from Milo’s and shares some of the author’s bio-data. Sughrue appeared in 1978 in The Last Good Kiss, the book that started all the buzz about Crumley being the best thing since Chandler, and he reappeared fifteen years later in The Mexican Tree Duck. Sughrue is Texan, working-class, ex-Vietnam and this was my alibi for asking Crumley if he thought of himself as a displaced Texan. “Well, I was always displaced. I was born in Texas but we went to New Mexico during WW2. We didn’t move back to Texas until I was in the second grade. The part of Texas where I lived is the last place where there’s a great clash between the white minority and the Mexican American majority, where people are still race conscious in a really silly way. It’s an unhappy kind of place, it’s hot and humid, and the wind blows nine months out of the year. It was never a place that I was ever going back to once I left, although circumstances have forced me back a couple of times. I don’t think of myself as a Texan, I’ve discovered that I’m not actually a Southerner, I just thought I was a Southerner.”

Although Crumley’s reputation in the crime genre is somewhere between the cult and the revered senior practitioner, his writing puzzled critics by sitting between genre writing and more literary writing and by mixing laughter and violence in a way the Coen brothers would admire. “I think I confuse people. I’m not writing detective novels and I’m not writing literary novels, and nobody knows what to do with them. That’s a problem I don’t I have at all in foreign markets. In Germany and Italy I’m in a crime series, in England I’m in Picador, a perfectly legitimate literary press. Now the Italians are bringing my books out in hardback after I had been out in cheap paperbacks; the Greeks have just discovered me. The French have always been very good to me, they put me up in nice places, feed me well, put me on TV with Randy Newman.”

The books that had been important to him over the years make for a very literary list. “Dick Yates’s Revolutionary Road was a big book for me. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was a really big book in my life, then Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Under the Volcano, and the Russians. Camus, but the philosophy, not so much the novels. In the month I started One to Count Cadence for the last time, I read Anna Karenina, War and PeaceThe Rebel, and The Brothers Karamazov. I finished the book and I remember jumping up and down in the snow in the middle of the night in my shorts in Iowa City, shouting out ‘Hooray for Karamazov, you motherfuckers!’”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the genre in which he earned his fame, but unsurprisingly given that list of his reading interests, Crumley’s prose occasionally recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald and often is very close to the sentiments conveyed in the poetry of his friend, Richard Hugo. Each explores the elegiac moment and constructs classic scenes of regret. When Nick Carraway breaks up with Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby by saying he’s too old to lie to himself and call it honour, it comes close to all of Milo’s hapless encounters with women. Whereas Nick says, “Angry and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away,” Milo says, at the end of The Wrong Case, “As I stood there the blunt shadows of the western ridge advanced darkly to the verge of the creek. I sat down, heard the sound of the car driving away, I drank my beer, and forgave her.”

Crumley’s writing of regret also targets the loss of possibilities of another kind, concerning landscape. Part of the inspiration for Dancing Bear came from Michael Brown’s Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (1981) and an eco-politics underlies all Crumley’s evocations of the rivers, lakes, mountains and meadows of the Pacific Northwest. In Dancing Bear Milo says, “On a bright sunny day I could have seen Mount Rainier looming like a misshapen moon on the horizon, and even through the fog and rain I thought I could feel its rocky weight.”

When asked what bits of his writing he liked best, Crumley said he liked the part in The Last Good Kiss “when Sughrue recalls the time his father ties him to the back of the motorbike and takes him up to see the snow at Estes peak—I kind of like that.” Who wouldn’t? It’s one of Crumley’s finest evocations of landscape and memory: “On the way home, tied once more to his back with baking twine, I slept, my cold skin like fire, and dreamed of blizzards and frozen lakes, a landscape sheathed in ice, but I was warm somehow, wrapped in the furs of bears and beaver and lynx, dreaming of ice as the motorbike split the night.”

That late 60s, early 70s period of American history involving the transition from Johnson to Nixon, the consequences of the Vietnam War and Watergate, marked Crumley the person as it does the characters in his fiction. We stumbled onto the topic of Nixon when he told me he was working on a new book. It was a Milo book in which Milo has gone to live in Austin but I mistook it for the long-promised Texas novel, then apologised for raising that topic, saying he must get sick of people asking him whether he’s finished that book. “Well, I’m the one that didn’t finish the son-of-a-bitch. I haven’t forgotten about it and I’ve got a frame for it. It begins on the day of Nixon’s resignation.” Crumley chuckled as he recalled how he encountered that historic event. “I was living on Vashon Island at the time, riding bikes with a friend of mine who teaches up there. We walked into a store to have a beer and there was no-one in the front of the store. It was an old hippie kind of place and I hollered out, and they said ‘come in the back here, fuckin’ Nixon’s resigning on TV.’ So we sat there, smoked dope and drank beer while the son-of-a-bitch went to the grave.” I asked whether this opinion had mellowed over the years, taking account of the mini-redemption Nixon achieved in retirement, his part in the recognition of China and so on. Smoke was exhaled and a longish pause allowed some more of a Steve Earle tape to float around the room and one of the four cats to stroll past before an unforgiving reply came forth. “Nixon was the whore-dog of American politics. He had no honour, no decency. I didn’t find anything even vaguely amusing about Nixon. An old friend of mine, Mike Koepf, and I stayed on the phone all through the televised burial of Nixon. We both had FBI files, and I was the Vietnam Veteran’s Against the War faculty adviser at Colorado State, and I was a SDS affiliate.”

In 1985 Crumley had said that he hoped one day to prove that his two series characters, Sughrue and Milo, were distinct fictional entities by “writing a novel using both voices. They like each other; they know each other.” At the end of The Mexican Tree Duck Sughrue describes the day that his “old partner” comes into his bar, Slumgullions, spruced up and ready to go claim his inheritance. Only trouble is he’s a year early. Bordersnakes (1996) is the book Crumley alluded to more than a decade earlier. The book begins with the two old buddies each having something to prove and to find. A lawyer has absconded with Milo’s inheritance money and Sughrue has narrowly escaped being killed in a bar-room brawl that was actually a paid hit. The book is narrated turn-about by both Milo and Sughrue as they go travelling far from Montana.

Since he had waited twenty years to let loose his two series characters in the one book, I asked him what Milo and Sughrue afforded him as a writer. “The older character, Milo, gives me a character with a real sense of moral ethics and an approach to the world which involves kindness rather than violence, although he’s willing to be violent when it’s necessary, I guess. And the Sughrue character is just reckless and crazy and he’s not afraid of anything. That’s one of the things that starts this new book off. Sughrue is afraid now. Something has happened and he’s learned fear. So he and Milo go off on a double-edged jaunt, looking for Milo’s money and looking for Sughrue’s revenge and everything comes up fairly well for everybody, except for the bad guys; it’s almost all set in west Texas and California. Milo and Sughrue go all over the country, their friendship is put to the test and is not found wanting.” He smiled as he added, “I don‘t think there’s any scenes in Montana at all. Everybody writes about Montana now.”

I was heading out of Missoula the next morning to drive around other parts of Montana, so I asked Crumley what parts of the country he had written about so memorably he liked to visit.
“Chico Hot Springs is a place I’ve always liked. We spend a week there in the summer with the kids and another week during the year when we can get away. We try to float the Smith River every year. It’s a four day float over into the Missouri River, White Shell Fish Plains. I still like to drive up to Glacier, go through the park, and I still like Yellowstone. Even with the tourists there, it’s always impressive.” Suddenly the voice brightened into the tone used earlier when giving nostalgic information on what a great bar town Missoula used to be. “There’s tons of little towns in Montana you can stop at, stop and have a beer. You buy the first one, they buy the next one.” I quoted from the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss, next thing, you’re “drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” He smiled and lifted his Labatt, “That’s for sure.”


In late September 2005, during the Montana Festival for the Book which was held in Missoula, I was able to see Jim Crumley again, for what would be the last time. I was waiting outside The Depot when he was driven up by a friend (Jim was recovering from some health problems) and it was terrific to see that smiling bulk again, have a guy-hug and head on into the bar for drink, food and conversation. That continued over the next couple of days and evenings, and it was good to meet some of Jim and Martha’s close friends, and also good to meet Martha (see under ‘beautiful’ above) and buy a couple of her poetry books from a Missoula independent bookseller. Jim, Martha and some of those friends were gathered around an outside table when the interview printed below took place.


This introduction must end with a sad coda. In September 2008 I was again driving around the Pacific Northwest heading down from Oregon to California, loving how reindeer and elk would dart across roads and highways (and walk all over Ashland during its theatre season) when I turned on my car radio to hear Jim Crumley talking. It was a younger-voiced Jim Crumley than I had encountered in 1996 and 2005, and the interview ended with Jim telling a story about a crime story he had written when he was about eight years old, called “The Brown Case.” As he recalled it contained a sentence that referred to ‘the Brown case’ and the reply came, “The Brown case? What Brown case?” and he felt that offered a neat summary of his crime-writing life to that point. By then the penny had dropped, that I was hearing an archival interview, and the female announcer’s voice duly said that listeners had been hearing an interview with Jim Crumley. That terrible present-past tense usage confirmed the dreadful thought as fact. Jim Crumley was dead at age 68, too young: that blocky strong body, the talent for writing and for conversation, all that ‘other’ reading he did, mainly history but also poetry and also blurbing friends’ books  (and strangers’ if he liked the book). Of course it would hit Martha hardest and his family and close friends but it is testimony to the kind of person Jim Crumley was that hearing this sad information prompted me, an Australian who had met him for about one week across two visits a decade apart (plus a few telephone conversations), to pull over to the edge of the highway and shed some tears.

[And here’s the Interview: Always Lookin’ For A Book, Lookin’ For A Title]

 © 2012 Noel King

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
A different version of this piece appeared as
‘Bar and Grill: A profile of James Crumley’ in HQ Magazine July / August 1997

* * * * *


NOEL KING teaches film studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. His other interviews with writers include Martin Cruz Smith, William McIlvanney, Scott Phillips, Craig Holden, Barry Gifford and his interviews with publishers include Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, London (now part of Profile Books), Francois von Hurter of Bitter Lemon Press, London, and Dennis McMillan, Tucson, Arizona.

from issue #1: ‘Darkness Come Down’ by Floyd Salas


HIS NAME WAS PANCHO and he messed with me the first day I was put up in C Tank in the county jail. A white-skinned Mexican dude in his thirties probably who had a bunch of knife scars on his pale, pink body. I checked them out when he took off his shirt for some reason, maybe to take a shower though I don’t recall him ever getting into the shower when I was in C Tank with him that couple of months or so.

In fact I was the only guy of about twenty guys and more who took a shower every day, every morning in fact. I was eighteen and didn’t even shave and weighed about one-fifteen with my clothes on. Five-five with a wiry body, small-shouldered bone structure but with a big chest and thick shoulder muscles, not shaped like a body builder but full-formed, a fly-weight novice amateur fighter, had a handful of fights when I was seventeen. Dark brown wavy hair, not curly, wavy, with big curls that waved back from my temples, medium complexion, big hazel green eyes, a speck of yellow in the iris softening the green. A prisoner said, “Good body,” when I had to take a shower in B, the incoming tank on the first floor of the jail, the thirteenth floor of the county courthouse, down below the C and D tank, which were on the fourteenth floor. That was when I first got to the jail to face a superior court trial for two counts of strong-arm robbery and an aggravated assault against an off-duty cop who saw me and three other guys in a street fight in East Oakland, Ninety-Eighth Ave, and chased us down ‘til we skidded to a stop and jumped out and fought him, too. And he lost the fight and covered up with his arms and bent legs, but chased us when we first drove off from the fight and ran to a cop phone on a boulevard street corner and put out a calling-all-cars alarm and pretty quick we were in jail, thinking we just had a street fight with two guys.

But they were calling it armed robbery because we took a bottle of whiskey from the guys we were in the street fight with in the first place—when the off-duty cop first saw us—and, big crime, a paper sack with men’s socks in it.

But the real reason they were over-charging us was because we beat up the cop even if he was off-duty in street clothes and we didn’t know he was a cop.

In any case, here I was, in jail with a huge bail of fifteen thousand dollars on me and a lawyer that wanted a thousand dollars to take the case and this was in 1949 when it only cost thirty-five cents to go to the show and I earned a dollar fifteen an hour as a kitchen helper at Duchess Party Foods. I was put in this jail tank on the fourteenth floor of the Alameda court house with a bunch of adult felons and didn’t know what I was doing or going to do since a trial date hadn’t even been set yet. When it was finally set, it would be four months away.

So, I was a kid in a barred tank, a big day room with a stationary iron table and two iron benches on each side of it secured to the concrete floor in the middle of a jail tank full of felons, ex-convicts and soon-to-be convicts when they got sentenced and here’s this guy Pancho in front of me talking nasty like I was nothing, insulting me, telling me to get off the mop-wet floor or something and I didn’t even know what he was talking about but I knew he was spewing bullying hate with his spittle when he talked at me—not to me, at me.

He wasn’t big. Average size man, about five-eight or so, probably in his thirties, medium build, one-fifty say, and brown hair that fell straight across his forehead sometimes and was combed to the sides from a part in the middle, old-fashioned style in a way, foreign, like he was from Mexico.

C Tank was the best tank to be in the four tanks of the county jail—I’d find that out the hard way when I got transferred out of it. C Tank faced south and got the sun most of the day. It had a view of the South Bay over the roof tops if I’d climb up the bars a few feet and peek past the barred hallway that separated the tank from the outside walls of the county courthouse.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on that first day and suddenly here’s this guy in front of me talking nasty and belligerent with his thick lips spewing out spit, saying, “Get off the floor!” or something like that and I said something back and he must have pushed me because I threw a punch at him and he reached out and blocked the punch and we struggled for a moment when this older guy named Jim Fox jumped in and got between us, stopping the fight.

Maybe he was trying to protect me because I was smaller, but I could think, I was smart and I could fight, too, and I feared no one. I could drop any guy I hit with one punch, no matter how big, and had never lost a street fight in my life and I’d had about twenty or so of them by this time.

I’d gone to nine public schools before I finally graduated because I acted like a big guy which could rile some dudes. If there was a bully in the crowd, itching to vent his anger at being alive and having to fight for survival every day, he’d decide to take his pecking order instinct out on me, the smallest guy around. I was smart, too, and had skipped a grade so looked even smaller for my age around the older kids, and acted like I belonged to any crowd.

But after a fight or two, I didn’t have to fight a lot because I always won. I had athletic talent, graceful movement and was always a leader and could hit hard for my size and could drop anybody I hit, no matter how tall, and every school I went to I got a reputation as a tough kid who didn’t mess with anybody but would fight if he had to. There were boxers in my family on both my mom and pop’s sides. It was in the blood.

Usually I was the sharpest in the crowd and knew more about the adult world because my older brothers had both taken me with them on their adventures, both intellectual and physical, and treated me like an adult while still watching over me. I kept my mouth shut and got along with the older people I met through either of them, my big brothers, and learned about the big world.

I had dropped that cop after those three big guys I was with, my friends Dexter McGee, Corky Bible and Bill Waters, couldn’t put him down. I did it by reaching up between them and dropping him with a single left hook to the chin. They then each booted him once as he covered up like a ball. I saw the only unprotected part of his body and kicked him right between the cheeks of his ass and he yelped and we then jumped into Bill’s car and sped off.

But the cop jumped in his gray Ford coupe and chased us and, as we sped down San Leandro Boulevard through a mile-long section of East Oakland that had the Frisco Bay and light industry buildings on one side and houses and fields on the other, I saw him brake, jump out of the car and run to a police phone near a gas station.

“That guy might be a cop,” I said.

But Bill said not to worry about it—he’d report his car as stolen. We’d just had a fight—no big deal—Dexter said, so we decided to go get a big bottle of Coke to mix with the whiskey at an all-night drugstore market on Nineteenth and Broadway and party.

That’s when the cops hit. Bill parked his car on the corner of Nineteenth with his back-end on Broadway, the main drag in Oakland, and Corky jumped out and went inside the store to buy the Coke. The store had two doorways, one facing Broadway and the other Nineteenth. My father’s restaurant, the El Patio, was right across the street from the Nineteenth Street side door, but it was closed this late at night, after midnight. I was sitting on the passenger side of the front seat when the next thing I know I see a man through the glass window standing right outside my closed door, bent over, wearing a rumpled dark suit and hat. And he’s got a black pistol aimed at my face. He’s not a big guy but he’s not kidding. I know he’s a cop and do what he says, “Get out.” Bill and Dexter get out of the car, too, and then I’m standing on the sidewalk with Dexter and Bill and cops standing all around us—guns pointed at us.

There’s some reporters and a photographer, too. One of them, some guy I can’t see too clearly standing between two cops in the streetlight on the corner, starts bad-mouthing us, talking tough, and when he says something real wise-guy like, Dexter says something back and they trade smart remarks for a few wise-cracks. Bill and I keep our mouths shut.

I think I’m in trouble for getting in a street fight, no major thing, even if I’m going to jail. I don’t want to be there, but I’m not freaking out either. I’m glad my father’s restaurant’s closed though.

Then I’m in jail and the long nightmare starts.


HE THUMPS HIS BLACKJACK down on my thigh. A thick-bodied cop, thinning black hair spreading back on top his head from his wide face—pushing up against me on the bench where I’m waiting to get booked. I still think I’m in there for a street fight, no big deal, but they’ve taken my pants off for evidence from a spot of blood on them and now I remember Dexter in the back seat of the car leaning over next to me, dripping blood on me from his bloody nose. I’m in red boxer shorts and bare-legged and feel the heavy hardness of that blackjack on my skin clear to the bone. He got me good.

Then he does it again, in the same spot. I wince, whether I want to show that it hurts or not.

I wait for another shot and tighten my leg, but just then a gray-haired guy in civilian clothes, dark slacks and sport shirt, probably an inspector, walks in from the next room and looks at me when he walks by with what seems to be an amused smile or smirk and the balding cop leans back away from me and against the wall, playing it safe so he won’t get in trouble for brutalizing a prisoner, I guess. The booking room is the bottom floor of the city hall, which is twelve stories high, with a drive-in right next to it in the building where they drop the poor suckers off who are going upstairs to the top floor of the building, the jail, and that includes me.

I used to carry a hair brush to keep my scalp and hair healthy. Baldness ran in the family on my father’s side, but not on my Mom’s side and I was a scholar and had worked in the library as a page for a buck an hour on my first job after high-school and studied hair among other subjects like dreams and Freud and novelists like Richard Wright and so carried a brush because brushing your hair every day was healthy, I’d read. I did it so I’d never get bald when I got older.

But when the cops had me strip naked, one cop picked up my brush and with a bright look in his eye told me to turn around. I said no and wouldn’t turn or obey him because I knew he was going to poke me in the ass with it.


THAT WAS THE BEGINNING of jail time. First they put me in a separate, single row of cells that faced an enclosed yard in the middle of the main jail floor which was the twelfth floor of the city hall. The elevator stopped there.

I sang out in the middle of the day, pretty pop songs a young man just entering manhood with thoughts of mating would sing, like Louie Armstrong’s

I found my thrill
on Blueberry Hill
where I found you.
The moon stood still
and lingered until
my dreams came true.

Once, I was taken into a room with two detectives. The big fat detective in a dirty, rumpled suit, gray with age, asked me what happened, and I told him about the guys shouting at us and us getting out to fight them and picking up the bottle of whiskey and the bag with the socks and driving off and getting chased by this guy and then driving off, never mentioning that I dropped that cop with a left hook to the chin, underneath his guard and in-between the bodies of Dexter and Bill and Corky while they were throwing punches from all sides at him and couldn’t bring him down.

Then the cop says, “You sign this and we’ll charge you with petty theft and let it go at that.”

I signed and felt pretty good. Both cops that grilled me were in their forties, at least, and sloppy in their dress, and the one fat cop, who grilled me and got me to sign right off—a dumb kid who didn’t even know that I could ask for a lawyer, me just thinking it was a small charge, petty theft thing, like the cop said, no big deal—talked real civil, without education, but high-school English level, street level language, fat cop sitting opposite of me in the cubby-hole of a tiny room, and wrote down my story and got me to sign it at the end of the long yellow sheet.

I was in the cell when I was called out into the hall in the middle of the second day or so to face the two cops and all three of us, me and Dexter and Bill, were handed felony warrants for two strong-arm robberies and one aggravated assault. Their hypocrisy and deceitful behavior in over-charging us in every way, left me standing there in front of the two cops, knowing there was nothing that I could do about it. Nothing. Strong-arm robbery? Assault? He chased us. At least they didn’t charge us with attacking a cop, but that was small consolation.

Then I was taken out of the line of cells that faced the small yard down below and put up on the top tier of that cell block, the back cells, the felony cells, five levels up, facing the gray blank wall of the opposite side of the cell block at the top of the city hall. This tier had the only windows in the cell block that opened out and let the cold air in. The guys on the bottom level sweated with heat and were always crying out for us to open the windows while the guys on the top tier like me wanted the windows closed because they let in cold air that the heat from the main floor down below didn’t reach.

A couple of things happened in the twelve days of darkness I spent there that stuck with me. I found a way to keep my cell door unlocked by sticking a magazine in the doorway when the trusty in the stairwell pulled the lever that closed off the cells in the row, blocking it from closing. At night, they’d close those cell doors but in the day time they were often open and the prisoners could move up and down the tier of their cell block and go into other prisoners’ cells. You could move around at least and even sneak down to the bottom tier level sometimes. It was there where some big black dude did some tough talking and I said, “You want to spar?” and charged at him and drove him back in his cell to the back wall, throwing just body shots to keep it from being a fight, but showing what could happen if he wanted to really tussle. He backed away.

Then there was Jesse James. That was his real name. A nice black guy, average size, one-fifty maybe, who was in on auto theft and had a cell next to mine. One night the wind’s whistling in the windows in that row of top tiers and I hunker down in my blanket and try to stay warm, but start sniffling from the cold every once in a while, in the dark. The lights are out, it’s sleep time, when I sniffle again and hear from the next cell, Jesse James’ voice: “You okay, Floyd?” as if he thought I was crying. It would come to that.

“Yeah, I’m okay, Jesse. Just a little cold. Thanks,” I answered.


BUT THE DARKNESS CAME DOWN. Twelve days in that dark hole and finally there’s a preliminary trial, but long before that, days before that, there’s the life in the felony cells, the floors of iron with the caged walkways. At night, a woman would sing from the women’s dorm, which must have been on the other side of the wall of the felony cells. Her voice would come down into the tank from the darkness of the night outside those windows. A sweet pretty voice that suited her name, Pearl.

My preliminary trial was coming up and the future was unknown and filled with threat and my fear. I was in Hell on Earth and had to survive it, and so did she and so did all of us. And yet she sang and there was something about the rich tones of her voice, like chocolate or blackberry wine, that was sweetness itself. It touched my spirit and that of those around me.

© 2012 Floyd Salas

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

* * * * *


Floyd Salas is the critically-acclaimed author of four novels, a memoir and two volumes of poetry.  His publications include Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967), winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship; What Now My Love (1970); Lay My Body on the Line (1978), written and published on National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowships; the memoir Buffalo Nickel (1992), which earned him a California Arts Council Literary Fellowship; State of Emergency (1996), awarded the 1997 PEN Oakland Literary Censorship Award, and his poetry books, Color of My Living Heart (1996) and Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats (2006).  

He was a staff writer for the NBC drama, Kingpin, released in February, 2003 and a 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley.  He has recently completed a novel about 1940s Oakland entitled Seventh Street Jump. He is also working on Maverick:  Prayers of Heresy, a volume of new and selected poems from the last fifty years.

He is editor of Stories and Poems from Close to Home (1986) and other anthologies of San Francisco Bay Area writing, and the author of numerous essays and reviews about writing and the creative life.  Tattoo the Wicked Cross and Buffalo Nickel are featured in Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature (HarperCollins 1994).   His other awards and honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Fiction Scholarship, an NEA creative writing fellowship, and two outstanding teaching awards from the University of California, Berkeley.  His fiction, non-fiction and poetry manuscripts as well as letters and biographical information are archived in the Floyd Salas collection in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.  His novel, Tattoo the Wicked Cross, earned a place on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Western 100 List of Best 20th Century Fiction.  He has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, Sonoma State University, and Foothill College, as well as at numerous writing conferences and at San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville and other correctional institutions.  He is a founder and president of the multicultural writing group PEN Oakland, and a former boxing coach for University of California, Berkeley.