Archive for the ‘Message from M.A.C.’ Category

Crusin’ With Andy Landers (And More)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

[Note from Nate:] Before we get to the update, I’d like to highlight a Nathan Heller sale over on the Kindle storefront with ten novels and two collections for $1.99 each. The sale ends on September 20, so don’t miss out!

True Detective
True Crime
The Million-Dollar Wound
Neon Mirage
Stolen Away
Carnal Hours
Blood and Thunder
Flying Blind
Majic Man
Angel in Black
Chicago Lightning: The Collected Nathan Heller Short Stories
Triple Play: A Nathan Heller Casebook

We now return to your regularly scheduled update.

(P.S. The wee baby Sam’s doing great, and Abby and I hope to have him home within the week!)

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Crusin' 2008
Crusin’ 2008 – (left to right), M.A.C., Andy Landers, Chuck Bunn, Steve Kundel, Jim Van Winkle

Last Saturday evening, Barb and I took in a performance by Andrew Landers at the new brew pub in Muscatine, the Contrary Brewery. Andy is a fantastic performer and songwriter, who for some years was involved running various hip music programs at churches (here in Iowa, later in Colorado), but recently has gone “all in” to make it in the music biz. He’s a returning hero who came back to an enthusiastic, capacity crowd on his old turf.

Andy used to do an introspective set, with lots of storytelling and self-reflection. Now he’s unleashing his full showmanship and versatility, including really rocking out and using his big, brash yet somehow unintimidating personality to pull the audience in. If you get a chance to see him, do so.

For around eight years, Andy was part of my band Crusin’, which regular followers of these updates know is a ‘60s revival group that has been around forever…or anyway, 1975. The period during which Andy was part of the band saw us playing five to eight times a year – not as regularly as we have been in recent years, though more than we’ve been playing lately.

My late friend and longtime musical collaborator, Paul Thomas, brought Andy into the band; Paul was part of Andy’s ambitious musical program at a local church. Since I am a lapsed Methodist and just a little less religious than Bill Maher, I was initially not enthusiastic about bringing in a “minister of music.” Shortly I found out that Andy was both a fantastic talent and an off-the-wall loon. That made him ideal for Crusin’.

In that era, I was playing keyboard bass. Andy came in and played rhythm guitar on an acoustic, and a lot of other things, sharing in the lead singing and great on harmony. He was, in many ways, similar to Bruce Peters, who Paul and I had played with in both the Daybreakers and Crusin’, and who was an outright musical genius and amazing showman. Like Bruce, Andy can play anything. When we would do our final number of the night, “Gimme Some Lovin’” (the Spencer Davis classic), during a middle section Andy would take over my keyboards for a solo, then go back and take over the drums for Steve Kundel. We did a number of Andy-written tunes in those years – always risky for an oldies band to do originals, but audiences had no problem with Andy’s stuff – and Andy did some recording with us. He’s on the tracks we did for my indie film, REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET (including singing a song I wrote, “Help Yourself”).

When the my first band, the Daybreakers, was inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, our original bass player, Chuck Bunn, came back. Chuck had been suffering from cancer but was doing well, and I could tell he really wanted to play again. I added him to Crusin’ and we began to play more regularly, usually twice a month, which we did till around two years ago. (Chuck’s last gig was our performance at the St. Louis Bouchercon – he passed away less than two weeks later.)

But when we began playing more regularly, Andy decided to step down. He had a band of his own, for one thing, and various responsibilities and ambitions. The image this week is the only band photo that includes both Andy and Chuck – and Andy played only a single gig with that line-up.

I’m so pleased that Andy is doing well. That this charismatic entertainer’s musical dreams and ambitions are being fulfilled. And when I see how much energy he is bringing to his shows, I have to be allowed the luxury of thinking that some of Crusin’ rubbed off on him.

* * *

Speaking of Crusin’, we had four dates lined up this year, but all of one had to cancelled for various reasons. This is our 40th anniversary year, yet it seems we may play only a single gig.

For those of you in the eastern Iowa area, that gig is imminent – this coming Sunday afternoon (Sept. 13) on the patio overlooking the Mississippi at Pearl City Plaza in Muscatine (217 West 2nd) starting at 6 pm. Looks to be a cool, lovely day, by current estimates. We will be presenting an hour and a half concert (with one break). Be there or…you know.

* * *

I note with sadness the passing of my writer buddy, Warren Murphy, co-creator of the Destroyer series, screenwriter (EIGER SANCTION), and author of numerous thrillers as well as the Trace mystery novels. He was a fun, funny, generous guy.

Barb and I were on a “mystery cruise” that Warren and Bob Randisi organized back in the late ‘80s (I think). My most vivid memory of that experience was the lanky, attractively disheveled Warren insisting that each of us write two chapters in a collaborative novel while the cruise was under way. When we complained that we didn’t want to spend precious fun time doing that, he cheerfully berated us, advising us to be grown-ups and pros about it. Then when asked if he was going to write his chapters while aboard, he said, “Oh, hell no – I already wrote them at home!”

That book was called CARIBBEAN BLUES, and features Nate Heller in three chapters, if I’m remembering right.
If you want to know how to honor a writer who has passed, read a book by that writer. It will bring the author back to life in your mind.

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For those keeping score, I completed the new Mike Hammer, DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU, last week, and shipped it via e-mail to Titan in England on Thursday. I’ve been dealing with some health issues this summer (don’t ask) but have bounced back (really, don’t ask) and I wanted to prove to myself I could still do it. And I did. It’s a wild one, even for a Hammer novel.

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Finally, this is a nice overview of mystery in comic books, with an especially nice, fairly lengthy look at Ms. Tree – which the commentator (a very wise fellow) rates my work with Terry Beatty as tops in the field.


The Happy Together Tour

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015
Happy Together Tour

Saturday evening, Barb and I went to see this year’s edition of the Happy Together Tour, mounted as always by Flo and Eddie of the Turtles. The acts on the bill were the Buckinghams, the Cowsills, the Grass Roots, the Association, Mark Lindsay, and of course the Turtles. My band the Daybreakers opened for the Buckinghams in the late ‘60s, and my ongoing band, Crusin’, opened for the Grass Roots and Turtles twice. So I was really curious and pumped to see the concert.

The Association were the big draw for Barb and me, because they were a shared favorite band going back to the earliest days of our going together. We’ve seen them over the years in concert probably six or seven times.

The show was a good one, the format including a top-notch band that travels with the tour and backs up two or three members of the original groups. This works out better in some cases than others. The Buckinghams had two original members but not the distinctive lead singer, Dennis Tufano. Of course, what I remember vividly when we played with the Buckinghams was how skillfully the keyboard player could mimic Tufano’s voice.

The venue, at Riverside Casino (in Riverside, Iowa, eventual birthplace of James T. Kirk), was at times not helpful. The casino/resort is most impressive, and Crusin’ has played their lounge four times, and that’s a wonderful venue. But concerts are held in an “event center” (i.e., ballroom) and not a theater, so you’re in chairs close together on one level (the size of most Baby Boomers makes that a real drawback). The acoustics were, shall we say, problematic. The Buckinghams, opening the concert, first, delivered vocals barely heard.

Later, the Grass Roots – minus late lead singer, Rob Grill – suffered similar vocal problems, specifically a lead singer difficult to hear who was not really the band’s lead singer.

The Association, represented by three members (two of them Jim Yester and Jules Alexander, both founding members and incredible talents), did well, in part thanks to the vocal skills of their back-up band. But even they suffered because most of their big hits were sung by Russ Giguere, who has apparently retired from touring.

Still, the show was very entertaining and fast-moving, with scant time between “bands” (really, just bringing out the two or three original members of each group, sharing the tour band), with everybody limited to five songs. And that meant the really big hits.

Very strong was Mark Lindsay, doing mostly Paul Revere stuff (“Kicks” was outstanding), still handsome, energetic, a real rock star prowling the stage. And of course the Turtles were wonderful, if at times too hip for the room. They are extremely loose and funny and off-the-wall, and yet still touch the required bases of their hits.

I got to know Flo and Eddie – Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan – a little bit when we opened for them in what must have been an early version of their Happy Together tour that included Crusin’ on the Moline, Illinois, bill. We shared a green room (a tent – it was an outdoor concert) with them, and both were friendly and down-to-earth. When they learned I was the writer of DICK TRACY – this was around 1986, I’m guessing – both were impressed. Mark called me a few times to discuss the possibility of us doing a mystery novel together, but it never went anywhere. I doubt he remembers me.

My group of poker-playing guys in high school loved the Turtles, loved their first album – they were a scruffier rock group pre-“Happy Together,” with “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Let Me Be.” But we always wondered, seeing the group lip sync on “Where the Action Is” and other such shows, what the hell Volman’s function was. He was just this curly-haired pudgy guy who played tambourine. What was that about?

Then, around 1967, I saw them in concert. Good lord, Volman was the best showman I ever saw on a rock stage, bounding around, doing crazy tricks with his tambourine, and singing perfect harmony with Kaylan in a voice that mirrored the lead singer. Like the Buckinghams, the Turtles made use of vocal similarity to great effect.

But Volman’s function appeared to be to disguise the stiffness of great singer Kaylan, who just stood there, as if frozen with stage fright. So back in ‘67, I went in wondering why they kept the apparently useless Volman around, and came out realizing he was one of the two essential members – as the continued partnership of Volman and Kaylan demonstrates.

And over the years Kaylan has turned into just as loose and wild an entertainer as Volman, the opposite of stiff. I appreciate the way they taunt and to a degree make fun of an audience, which was always the style of Crusin’, although not everyone appreciates that.

But the real surprise was the Cowsills.

I never really cared for them. I knew they sang and played well, but the whole family-as-a-rock-act-that-included-mom-and-a-seven-year-old-sister thing turned my rock and roller’s stomach, as I’m sure it did many other such stomachs. The group inspired the Partridge Family (“inspired” being a euphemism for “got screwed over by the creators and producers of”) and after four or five monster hits, dropped off the charts and eventually disbanded.

When I told Barb about this concert, the one downside was that the Cowsills were on the bill. We both made superior-human “yucchs” from the very start. Now here’s the punchline.

They killed.

Bob, Paul and Susan Cowsill were the outstanding act of the night. Even the poor acoustics didn’t touch them. Their vocals were loud and strong and as beautifully harmonic as Abba at its best, only punchy. They were funny and fluid and had a wonderful time. I went in a detractor and came out a Cowsills fan.

(My Turtles and Cowsills stories demonstrate just how much you can change your mind about a rock act when you’ve seen them in concert. It can also work in the reverse, lowering you opinion drastically.)

At the merch table (isn’t “merch” a shitty slang word?) I bought a DVD of the documentary on the Cowsills, which I’d heard was good. Additionally, it was signed by the band, and I am a sucker for signed stuff. I watched it last night and it’s excellent. Spoiler alert: their Dad was an evil asshole.

Seeing what a rough ride these kids from a seemingly idyllic background suffered over the decades made it even more impressive that the two Cowsills brothers and their sister delivered such an energetic, joyful performance. It indicated the healing powers of rock ‘n’ roll. It may be temporary healing, lasting only as long as a gig lasts, but we’ll take what we can get.

* * *

Today I hope to write the final chapter of the new Mike Hammer, DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU.

In the meantime, check out some interesting stuff on the Net pertaining to my favorite subject (me).

I am honored and thrilled that J. Kingston Pierce, among the best and most important reviewers in contemporary mystery fiction, has singled out Nate Heller as his favorite character. Check it out here.

Here’s a swell review of THE TITANIC MURDERS.

Col’s Criminal Library continues its march through the Nolan series with this terrific write-up on HARD CASH.

Here’s another of those “movies you didn’t know came from a comic book” pieces featuring ROAD TO PERDITION.

Finally, here’s top scribe Ron Fortier’s nice review of the Dover reprint of STRIP FOR MURDER.


Two Non-Political Observations On Donald Trump

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

I have been warned not to talk politics here. This warning has come from my son, my wife and many other people saner than me. And I think they’re right. People who read these updates generally know that my politics are left of center – slightly left, I think, but to a Tea Party conservative I probably look like a Commie.

So I won’t write about politics.

But I will write about Donald Trump.

I have friends, smart ones, who like Trump and are with him all the way, assuming that this phenomenon turns out not to be relatively fleeting. I understand the appeal of the outsider, and sometimes the man says things I agree with, at least vaguely. He really is the least conservative conservative I’ve ever seen. How he’s been embraced, it seems to me, has more to do with disgust for Washington, D.C., than any endorsement of his policies. He doesn’t seem to have any policies that I can see, beyond having issues with illegal immigrants.

So this isn’t political. These are just two observations about Mr. Trump.

First, I keep hearing commentators in the media say again and again that they’ve never seen anything like the Donald Trump phenomenon. Well, I have. So have they, or at least they’ve read about it, if they’d think past last Tuesday.

Trump and his cult of personality are straight out of the Huey Long playbook. Yes, we have seen this kind of phenomenon in politics before. So has Europe. They had one guy who made the trains run on time, and another who had an ethnic group he turned into national bad guys. I don’t equate the Donald with the implied names of that last sentence, but the phenomenon is similar. It’s of that stripe. And if he were actually elected and able to do the things he says he wants to do, and claims he can do, he’ll have to become dictator.

But the real reason I’m writing an update on this subject is this: for weeks, Trump has been reminding me of somebody. Reminding me very much of somebody, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then it came to me: Tony Clifton.

Tony Clifton

Tony Clifton, the jaw-jutting lounge act blowhard who struts and spews nonsense, thanks to his creator Andy Kaufman. Watch Donald strut cluelessly through the Alabama crowd (“How many of you have a Mercedes?”), and wonder if this isn’t yet another brilliant comic creation of someone who left us too soon, a 21st Century reality TV variation on the sublime Tony Clifton.

So my question is this: is that you, Andy? Is that you under there?

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Here’s a review of the BATMAN: SECONDS CHANCES collection – pretty positive.


Cry U.N.C.L.E.

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 2015

I was a junior and then senior in high school in 1964, when Beatlemania hit, and I was as caught up in it as anybody. The recent anniversary of their Shea Stadium concert got a lot of nostalgic talk going, particularly on oldies radio. (Not that someone as hip and culturally relevant as me listens to such a thing.) What hardly anybody discusses, though, is where the concurrent spy craze fit in.

Of course, James Bond – his anti-Beatles remark in the otherwise great GOLDFINGER a rare tin-ear moment from the filmmakers – was a big part of the British invasion. The success of the first few Bond films meant imitations were inevitable, and lots of spy stuff hit the screens, some of it more straight like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and THE IPCRESS FILE, but a lot of it crapola like the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” abominations.

A ton of the imitations came out of Europe, particularly Italy, and those mostly terrible movies – for which I have an inexplicable fondness – are now lumped together as the Euro-Spy genre. The two OSS 117 parodies of recent years were takes on Bond, yes, but also on the straight OSS 117 movies from the ‘60s based on a long-running novel series that actually pre-dated James Bond. Some of these are among the best Bond imitations – SHADOW OF EVIL, MISSION FOR A KILLER, PANIC IN BANGKOK. (These are either unavailable in the USA or available only gray-market and/or pan-and-scan form. Check out Amazon France for better copies, most of which have English subtitles.)

But in Iowa in 1964, only the really mainstream spy movies made it here (again, the Dean Martin junk, and the very good Harry Palmers with Michael Caine) and that was true for a lot of the country. Buffs for this stuff wouldn’t see the Euro-spy movies until they hit TV a decade or two later in butchered, horrendously dubbed format, or in the last few years as DVDs and Blu-rays, often with wide-screen images intact and English subtitles. I particularly like the Joe Walker/KOMMISAR X series from Italy, but there’s no excuse for it.

Meanwhile, back in ‘64, television stepped in to feed a spy craze that couldn’t breathe on one Bond film a year and occasional double-feature double-oh-seven re-releases. So a number of spy series hit the small screen, most prominently THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (co-created by Ian Fleming, a fairly little known fact) and I SPY. I’ve revisited both series in the last several years, and neither holds up very well. Of course, I SPY is now on the pop-cultural scrap heap, thanks to Bill Cosby’s little hobby.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was always spotty. A few years ago, working my way through the show in a spy’s briefcase, I knew I was in trouble when late in the first season – generally considered to be the best – an episode written by the great Robert Towne blew chunks. But at the time, the show was a very big deal. The first episode was expanded, shown in color (the pilot had been shot that way but the first season was otherwise in black-and-white, and the pilot aired that way), and some new violent, sexy scenes were inserted. Also a big scene with David McCullum, who was a non-entity in the pilot but had Spock-like popularity with viewers that got him the second lead, very quickly. This cunning patchwork was titled TO TRAP A SPY and was released theatrically to some success. There were seven more of these recycled MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. movies, mostly utilizing TV two-parters, although only the first two did well, and several went overseas with no stateside theatrical release. They are available as a set on DVD from Warner Archive.

Though Bond was obviously immune, the spy craze died quickly, particularly on TV. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., in its third season, went campy, following the lead of the new craze, the Adam West/Burt Ward BATMAN. Everybody hated this version of U.N.C.L.E., and the next half-season (they were cancelled midway) went back to more straight fare, too late. I SPY lasted three seasons. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, thanks to great music and a cool premise, out-lived every other espionage show of the era.

What most Baby Boomers remember about THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (and U.N.C.L.E. was not Uncle Sam, but an organization that seemed vaguely tied to the U.N. for worldwide law-enforcement) (no, I won’t spell out the acronym) are Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo (a name Fleming contributed) and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. The latter with his Beatle-esque haircut and understated Russian accent was a big pop-cultural deal. Vaughn, smooth and unruffled and impeccably attired, was arguably the best secret agent of the craze but for Bond himself.

So you’re waiting for me to slam the new movie, I suppose. Well, I’m not going to because it’s terrific. Director-co-writer Guy Ritchie has made a sly, darkly funny film that invokes not just the series but Bond and the entire spy craze era, with the look of the film drawing heavily upon the Harry Palmer trio. The twisty script is sexy and clever and occasionally scary. The music is witty and mixes zither exoticism out of FUNERAL IN BERLIN with Ennio Morricone cues, during which the direction takes an overtly Serio Leone take. The leads are fine, Armie Hammer redeeming his LONE RANGER travesty with a Kuryakin reworked into a volatile near psychotic, while Henry Clavill channels Robert Vaughn. It was this near impression – revealing the actor had really studied the series – that won me over early on. Clavill has Vaughn’s cadence and cool, as well as the dimple in his chin.

It’s an origin story, and U.N.C.L.E. itself is barely introduced at the end, though charmingly so, Hugh Grant nailing the spy agency’s boss, Alexander Waverly (the great Leo G. Carroll on the TV series). It sets up a series of films that probably won’t happen. Unfortunately.

Something this smart and witty may not work on the current generation, who won’t get the references and will wonder why every scene isn’t an action one, like the latest video game or the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. Now I liked the Tom Cruise film, found it great fun, but it’s just one Cruise action set piece after another linked by clumsy expository scenes and winning comedy relief from Simon Pegg. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. won’t be everybody’s cup of spy, but it’s my favorite film of the summer.

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Here’s a knock-out of a review of KING OF THE WEEDS from the Crime Review site.

And my 1981 Nolan novel, HUSH MONEY, made number two on the best reads of the month at Col’s Criminal Library.