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Down And Out In New Grub Street
From October 1987 to August 1989, Donald was a contributor to Premiere Magazine's "MovieMusic" column. These pieces (with a few tasty revisions) will be featured in this section. The following appeared in the October '87 issue.

Mancini's Anomie Deluxe

I must have been about 8 years old when my father, like so many other second generation American dads, decided to get his family the hell out of the city and make a run at upward mobility in the suburbs. After a couple of years and a few false starts, we finally settled into a ranch-style home nestled among hundreds of its near-identical brothers in Kendall Park, N.J., a typical housing development circa 1957. The development was not very fully developed. I was not amused.

Sawdust still hung in the air. To walk out of the sliding glass doors onto the slab of concrete that was the patio and gaze across an ocean of mud at one’s doppelganger neighbors was, well, awesome. For my parents, the open space, the kitchen of the future and the streamlined look of the place with that cream Olds Dynamic 88 purring in the driveway must have had a lot going for it. But for me, already a subterranean in gestation with a real nasty case of otherness, it was the perfect setting for a nice, hot mushroom cloud and concomitant firestorms. My parents had sentenced me to a long stretch in Squaresville and I was looking for an out.

The days were filled with whatever a fifth grader’s days are filled with. In the evening, after wolfing down a few servings of fish sticks, we’d lounge around the "family room." My dad would sit at the card table doing take-home work with his yellow accounting pad; my mother would be somehow eliminating microscopic particles of dirt from the kitchen counters; by baby sister would be flinging wads of Play-Doh at the wall; and, of course, the TV would be on. Monday nights at 9, we watched Peter Gunn.

Beatsters! My brothers in the subculture of the Early Resigned! Remember it now. You lie if you say you don’t. First, we’re enticed by a suspenseful, highly stylized teaser. And then we thrill to that driving boogie ostinato on bass, doubled in the lowest octaves of the piano and tripled by raunchily picked electric guitar, the same bar repeated throughout, never changing; the drummer is on auto-cook. Brass, voiced close and tight, plays the angular, blues-based theme. On the screen we see the title animation; a pseudo abstract expressionist canvas with cryptic, splattery forms pulsing in the foreground. Even then we may have suspected it was jive, but who cared? The titles, action-painted on top of all this, told us the show was created by Blake Edwards and that the music was by Henry Mancini.

During the ‘50s there had been a number of films and TV shows that exploited the combination of film noir and jazz-based music, but the 1958 Gunn series was the iciest to date. Edwards’s update of the Hammett-Chandler detective story, with its tense visual style, demanded a suitably chilled-out soundtrack, and Mancini, who scored Orson Welles’s’ Touch of Evil that same year, seemed to understand what this show was about: style, and nothing much else in particular. "The Miami Vice of its time," a friend of mine remarked. Craig Stevens as Gunn would cruise around a narcotized and vulgarly luxurious L.A. like Cary Grant on Miltown, doing his job of detection and occasionally alighting at Mother’s, a nightclub where his main squeeze, Edie, worked as a jazz singer. (The slow make-out scenes between Gunn and Edie, played by Lola Albright, seemed not to belong in the family room, and it was no cinch trying to conceal my early erotic dithers from my parents.) Every so often he’d check in with his pal, Lieutenant Jacoby, the good cop. But Gunn may as well been drifting through a landscape of boomerangs and parallelograms, so little did the plots matter. What counted was the sense that these people had been around the block a few times, had found a way to live amid the stultifying chaos of the modern world, keeping their emotions under control except for occasional spasms of sex and violence.

Of course these weren’t authentic hipsters, Mailer’s White Negroes or even Kerouac’s Beats. This was definitely the TV version. But so strong was the pull toward an alternate way of life in the repressive climate of the late ‘50s that, at least to a hyperesthetic 10-year-old, the show’s whole gestalt made a lot of sense. It spoke to my condition. I could identify with Gunn’s outsider stance and admire his improvised life-style without venturing outside the perimeter of comfort and convenience my parents had provided. To the contrary, Edward’s camera eye seemed to take a carnal interest in the luxe and leisure objects of the period, focusing on Swedish furniture, potted palms, light wood paneling and sleek shark-finned convertibles. It was, in fact, all the same stuff my parents adored but darkened with a tablespoon of alienation and danger. Sort of like watching Mickey Mantle lope to first base with a copy of La Nausee sticking out of his back pocket.

Mancini didn’t have to look far to find the appropriate sound to enhance Edward’s vision of anomie deluxe. At the time West Coast jazz (essentially, white bob) was being offered to college kids as part of the same hip package that included the Beats, opentoed sandals, psychoanalysis and wheat germ. The white bopper, playing a subdued, parlor jazz, was and easier sell than his black counterpart, who was probably well into a much more funkified and defiant phase of jazz anyway. Sure, the image spoke, a lot of the crew-cut cool schoolers may be, like the black boppers, wigged out, self-destructive hopheads (something you, the repressed middle class, are fascinated by), but they’re also predominantly white and get to spend a lot of time at Newport and Hermosa Beach.

Nevertheless, there were a lot of very talented players on the West Coast and Mancini was canny enough to bring the, into the studio to record the Gunn scores. The idiom he used was largely out of Gil Evans and other progressive arrangers plus the odd shot rhythm and blues, and it utilized the unconventional, spare instrumentation associated with the cool school: French horns, vibraphone, electric guitar and–Mancini’s specialty–a very active flute section, including alto and bass flutes. Instruments were often individually miked to bring out detail. There was a lot of empty space. It was real cool.

Mancini’s albums of music from the Peter Gunn series and the spin-off show Mr. Lucky sold in the zillions, and I was one of the proud consumers. The tunes had titles like Dreamsville and A Profound Gass. I became more interested in jazz and the extramusical artifacts of the jazz life. I listened to late-night jazz jocks broadcasting from Manhattan. I got a subscription to down beat, which had lots of live-action photos of the top players. I read some Kerouac novels.

Out of these fragments of hip and hype I constructed in my mind a kind of Disneyland of cool. I could imagine musicians cruising up and down Central Avenue in cartoon Studebakers and finally assembling in a large sound studio of some sort. They would be sitting in a semicircle around a couple of huge microphones on boom stands, some in two-tone shirts with roll collars, others in Hawaiian gear and bob glasses. Horns would be slipped out of canvas gig bags. Maybe there’d be a couple of potted palms in the corner. Hank Mancini would walk in, not the tanned, carefully coifed entertainer of later years, but the introspective professional as pictured on his late ‘50s album covers. They’d all be smoking Pall Malls or some other powerful nonfilter cigarettes. Hank would hand out the parts. They’d run down the chart and a thick membrane of sound would pour forth. It would sound great. As a Broadway hipster I knew in later years would describe any object or experience that was smooth and perfectly satisfying, it was totally spreem. Behind the glass, the engineers laboring at the recording console would be digging it. Maybe a few smokin’ chicks in black tights would fall by. And so on.

The next time I saw Henry Mancini’s name was in the credit roll of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was directed by our man Blake Edwards. I was 13 and ready for love. When Audrey Hepburn as the venal waif Holly Golightly got out of that cab on Fifth Avenue in a black dress and pearls in the early morning. I wanted to sip her through a straw.

Whenever I mention this picture to someone around my age, a strange, tragic smile crosses his or her lips, as if in remembrance of an old lover. Even those who dismiss the film as a piece of typical Hollywood fluff that took the sting out of Capote’s original story, blah, blah are betrayed by a wetness in the eyes, a heaving chest and an occasional shudder of bliss-pain. Obviously some part of the nervous system is willing to acknowledge the film’s erotic impact.

Edwards’s special interest in marginality and very expensive objects made him a good choice for this urban romance, but it’s his huckleberry friend, Hank, who really came though. We may long ago have had enough of Moon River, but as played on a harmonica behind that opening scene, the tune can still tear your heart out. The harmonica, an instrument associated with children, stands in for Holly’s rural origins (innocence) and contrasts with the rich orchestration and what you’re seeing on the screen (Tiffany’s, Givenchy shades, sophistication). It’s a great effect, much imitated afterward in other films. Later on Hepburn sits on a fire escape and sings Moon River while accompanying herself on the guitar. She is wearing pedal pushers and a sweatshirt. In Capote’s novella she sings, more appropriately, a mournful country ballad, but why quibble with perfection?

As in Peter Gunn, the city is presented as a grid of luxe through which the outsider characters, Holly and Paul, drift. Mancini underscored the scenes in which they goof around town with a mixed chorus singing in a skee-doo-doot scat style, similar to that of the Modernaires or perhaps the Mel-Tones. This was almost a little too spreem for me. By 1961 I was starting to wise up about jazz, and I felt that Mancini had come down on the wrong side of what was soon to become known as elevator music. Nevertheless it enhanced the concept of a carefree, womblike Manhattan in which the Bohemians ruled with a magical, childlike omnipotence, and I liked it like that. In high school I would have given anything to preserve that sanctified state, to rescue Holly from herself (stop her from growing up, being corrupted), to goof around an enchanted Manhattan with some wild thing forever, scat singers always on call to back us up.

During the early ‘60s I listened to progressively more authentic jazz: classic Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles, Mingus and Sonny Rollins were among my favorites. Eventually my quest for relevance and directness plus a not unsound instinct as to where the most desirable girls were gathering took me through a brief period when even this heartfelt music seemed slick and sexually coy, and I turned to blues and soul music and Bob Dylan. I started reading about pop art and Timothy Leary’s experiments at Harvard. I went to a lot of British movies. The language of hip was changing.

In his own way Blake Edwards was sensitive to this shift in consciousness. Supersuave Peter Gunn had evolved into Inspector Clouseau, who tries to stay cool but finds the world just too opposed to the notion. The luxurious environment is still there, but the alienation is played for laughs. The expensive objects (custom pool cues, cigarette lighters, etc.) literally attack Clouseau. When Edwards began to sabotage his own hero, it should have been a tip-off to what was coming. Egos were cracking, Self-image and sexual identity got hazy around the edges. When Clouseau runs across a cool jazz combo in A Shot In The Dark, it’s in a nudist colony, and they’re playing in their birthday suits. The old hipster identity has been literally stripped naked. As for the music in the early Panther films, it has become an extravagant parody of coolness –funny because it’s too spooky, too cool to be believed.

By the time I left suburbia to go off to college in ’65, Mancini seemed a quaint enthusiasm. If I thought about him at all, he would have seemed, at best. A popularizer of jazz, a dependable Hollywood professional. I’m sure some guys in my dorm would have seen him as an insidious agent of the "culture industry" devouring America’s native art form and music from the Third World, scrubbing the stuff up and packaging it for mass consumption. Although I didn’t think in those terms, by the late ‘60s he had metamorphosed, certainly in my mind, into an incredible square. His popular standards from films, his recordings and Pops concert appearances had made him into a Grammy-laden institution of middle American entertainment. The concept of hip had exploded into the culture in a new manifestation, and Mancini (and mainstream jazz in general) was definitely not part of it, despite all those boogaloo beats that started creeping into his scores. For a while Mancini and the younger contender Burt Bacharach (who arguably was to soul music what Mancini was to jazz) seemed to be engaged in a series of Bossa Nova Wars. (Bacharach may have won at least one round with the Manciniesque The Look Of Love, sung by Dusty Springfield in the film Casino Royale). Occasionally I’d see a photo of Mancini in those days, looking amiably affluent in a Harati! bush jacket with epaulets, fashionably long sideburns, a Rodeo Drive smile and a very expensive watch: a pleasant, cheerful-looking California person. Somewhere in there he had a TV show, The Mancini Generation. Well, I don’t know.

In the last decade, though, New Wavers and punk bands from a generation even more tube-irradiated than mine have made the Peter Gunn theme a kind of No Wave national anthem. Bands like The Lounge Lizards play "fake jazz" on purpose. And Blake Edwards? As any astute young film person knows, he and Mancini have maintained their creative relationship –it should be 30 years in 1988 by my calculations. Someone ought to send a telegram or something.

Lately I’ll be sitting at the piano and find myself picking out one of those tunes from Peter Gunn, not the title song but one of the sweet, boppy numbers, or Days of Wine and Roses (great changes), or even Moon River. And I’ll start thinking about a late summer sun setting over 1,500 identical rooftops and my family and bob glasses and Holly Golightly, about being lonesome out there in America and how that swank music connected up with so many things. Maybe I ought to get my bongos out of the attic. And in case I’ve given you the impression that Mancini isn’t a totally happening cat, I offer you a maxim from his excellent textbook on arranging and orchestration, Sounds and Scores, concerning the professional’s obligation to avoid falling behind the times, musically speaking:


Not yours, my man. It’s strictly, like, solid.


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