Vintage Pulp Mar 2 2020
FLYING LESSONS
1960 jazz novel soars to great heights.


Told over a span of years wrapped around World War II, Lou Cameron's novel Angel's Flight appeared in 1960 and was set in the mid-century jazz scene. Cameron writes in a beat style, imbues his prose with a powerful sense of place, fills it with factual anecdotes, colorful characters, and wild slang, ultimately weaving a sprawling tale of rags to riches, hope and struggle, and one man's determination to maintain his integrity in a cutthroat world.

We realized we were reading something really good during a scene a quarter of the way through in which the main character, Ben, is chatting with his nemesis Johnny in the parking lot of a movie studio. Johnny is trying to get Ben to understand something elemental about how to achieve success. Ben isn't getting it. Johnny says, “Watch this. You'll learn something.” He grabs Ben's panama hat from his head and sails it away.

Ben: “Hey, that cost me eight bucks!”

The wind takes the hat, and it skips and rolls away. But a nearby man chases it down, and, huffing and puffing, eagerly returns it to Ben. After the man leaves, Johnny explains that the good samaritan was no random guy, but was the production chief, one of the top guys at the studio. Yet despite his position, he chased the hat. “He'd have done that for any grip on the goddamn lot,” Johnny says.

Ben: “So he's democratic.”

“You still don't dig me? Christ, you're thick!”

Johnny goes on to explain that the studio exec chased the hat because it was a reflex, just like Pavlov's dog. And if you understand people's reflexes you can control them. “They don't think," he says. "They react. Show them a picture of a blind girl with a puppy and they get lumps in their throats. Wave a flag and they stand. Show them a picture of Hitler and they hiss. Are you getting the picture? Do you dig what I'm saying?”

But no, Ben doesn't get it. He is thick. And his reply almost put us on the floor laughing:

“All I dig, you bastard, is that you used my hat! Next time gives a fat lip!”

It's a funny, insightful, cleverly conceived scene, and from that point forward we settled in for what we knew would be an amazing ride. Another funny exchange involves Ben's roommate and occasional sex partner Dorothy, who works as a nude art model and often can't be bothered to wear clothes around the apartment. Note: in the dialogue below, “Read from a map,” is slang for reading sheet music.

I asked Dorothy if she knew a cat who could read from a map. She thought prettily for a moment and said, “There's my husband, Tom. He used to play cello.”

"Don't you know anybody but your husband? He's liable to take a dim view of life as he finds it on the Sunset Strip.”

“Oh, Tom won't mind. He's very progressive.”

“He'd have to be. Is there anybody you haven't slept with who reads music? For that matter, is there anybody you haven't slept with?”

That's funny stuff. Ben had no idea until that moment Dorothy was even married. But he really needs someone who can read music, so his desperation causes him—save for a touch of exasperation—to ignore Dorothy's surprising revelation and all its strange implications, which makes the scene all the funnier.

But Angel's Flight isn't a comedy. It's a gritty tale about a jazz musician trying to make it in L.A., and mixed into the narrative is crime, betrayal, and drugs, along with harsh racial and homophobic language. But it also features many ethnic and gay characters in actual three-dimensional speaking roles, rather than as exotic ornaments. The white characters aren't spared racial insults either. In the end, each reader needs to decide whether to endure rough content, or say no to a significant piece of vintage literature.

Those who forge ahead will read a memorable story. They'll learn about the origins of jazz and the mechanisms of the music industry, from forming bands, to gigging, to pressing records, to earning radio play. They'll also discover that the title Angel's Flight is metaphorical on multiple levels. The villain is Johnny Angel, bi-sexual hustler extraordinaire. The song that secures his fame is called “Angel's Flight.” And of course the title predicts his meteoric rise in the music industry.

But most importantly, the book's title also references the vintage Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles. Ben has never been on it. He wonders what's at the top. He rides it one night and finds that at the end of the line there's nothing. Just a dark street. And lonely ambition. This is a highly recommended book. The Gold Medal edition, which you see above, has Mitchell Hooks cover art.

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Intl. Notebook Dec 20 2019
RAILWAY TO HEAVEN
Los Angeles and the invention of Flight.


The above photos show the historic funicular railway Angels Flight, which opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1901 in the Bunker Hill area, with tracks running from Hill Street up a steep incline to Olive Street. There are only a few vintage funicular railways left in the U.S. Angels Flight—along with the impressive Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline, both located in Pittsburgh—is among the most famous.
 
But it didn't operate without interruption. It closed in 1969 when Bunker Hill was redeveloped—in reality a destruction of an entire historic working class neighborhood—and reopened a block south in 1996. The railway's historical significance is architectural, but also cinematic. It appears in quite a few vintage films, most notably in Hollow TriumphNight Has a Thousand EyesAct of ViolenceCriss CrossM, and Kiss Me Deadly.

The area near Angels Flight is set for a new redevelopment, as adjacent Angels Knoll, one of the last pieces of greenery in downtown Los Angeles, is to be bulldozed for another of the supposedly-mixed-use-but-really-millionaires-only skyscraper complexes that are popping up all over world as a way for one percenters to park their money.
 
Angels Flight will survive this new construction, at least for now, though it will be dwarfed by a forty story glass highrise mere feet to its south. Well, L.A. has rarely let the environment or historical significance stand in the way of making money, and when you look at it that way, the fact that Angels Flight survives at all to this day may be proof of a higher power.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
October 02
1919—Wilson Suffers Stroke
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. He is confined to bed for weeks, but eventually resumes his duties, though his participation is little more than perfunctory. Wilson remains disabled throughout the remainder of his term in office, and the rest of his life.
1968—Massacre in Mexico
Ten days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, a peaceful student demonstration ends in the Tlatelolco Massacre. 200 to 300 students are gunned down, and to this day there is no consensus about how or why the shooting began.
October 01
1910—Los Angeles Times Bombed
A massive dynamite bomb destroys the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles, California, killing 21 people. Police arrest James B. McNamara and his brother John J. McNamara. Though the brothers are represented by the era's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, they eventually plead guilty. James is convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His brother John is convicted of a separate bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works and also sent to prison.
1975—Ali Defeats Frazier in Manila
In the Philippines, an epic heavyweight boxing match known as the Thrilla in Manila takes place between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It is the third, final and most brutal match between the two, and Ali wins by TKO in the fourteenth round.
September 30
1955—James Dean Dies in Auto Accident
American actor James Dean, who appeared in the films Giant, East of Eden, and the iconic Rebel without a Cause, dies in an auto accident at age 24 when his Porsche 550 Spyder is hit head-on by a larger Ford coupe. The driver of the Ford had been trying to make a left turn across the rural highway U.S. Route 466 and never saw Dean's small sports car approaching.
1962—Chavez Founds UFW
Mexican-American farm worker César Chávez founds the United Farm Workers in California. His strikes, marches and boycotts eventually result in improved working conditions for manual farm laborers and today his birthday is celebrated as a holiday in eight U.S. states.
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