Saturday, April 19, 2014

RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT BOOKS... Classics and Westerns and other stuff.

First, The CLASSICS. 

I think to think I've read my share of classics, but I know I've really barely scratched the surface.  It sounds almost silly to say it, but the "classics" are called that for a reason... they have stood the test of time and can still move you like no other books. 

Now I have to admit... there were classics I just couldn't get into at all; but I know dang well the problem was ME, not the book.  For instance, James Fenimore Cooper.  Although he is of major importance-- he inarguably invented the "western," for goodness' sake-- I just can't get into those books.  My own mother told me one of her favorite books in childhood was his revolutionary war tale THE SPY, so I feel bad for not liking him. But in fact the only Cooper book I ever  finished was LAST OF THE MOHICANS, and to be honest that was in a Reader's Digest condensed version. [D'oh!] It's been a few years now,  so maybe I'll try him again.  

Also Thomas Wolfe.  Now this one I feel less bad about, since the critics still have trouble even calling him classic anymore, but I always think back to my beloved Jack Kerouac's great love of him.  Years ago, in the '80s, I read a great interview with Kerouac in-- I think-- Esquire Magazine, where Jack [drinking and drunk, of course] asked the interviewer [and I may be paraphrasing a bit]:

"OK, let me test you.  Who is the greatest of all American writers?"

The interviewer answers: "I think I would say... Melville."

Jack leans back and says, "Hmm. Melville... let's think about that,"  then suddenly yells:


Such a cool story, and its coolness has been behind every attempt I have made to read LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL or YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN.  So far, however, the only piece by Wolfe I have finished is his longish Civil War short story "Chickamauga,"  which I found to be very fine, indeed.

Another guy I will maybe tackle again someday.

By the way, Melville I have read.  I read MOBY DICK in its entirety one summer [1993, I believe] when I was working in  a chicken plant in NW Arkansas.  I loved it!  Or at least most of it.  If you've never read it I can tell you what they say is true; it starts out riveting for the first, say 150 pages or so, then comes a dense wordy, moody, and yes, legendarily boring section of at least 200 pages.  All  the whaling details are famously and intensely monotonous-- [there is an entire long chapter on the whale's whiteness including a lengthy discussion of albinoism in nature, I kid you not]--  but the payoffs are truly worth it.   An amazing American classic about, I think, self-delusion, pride, and obsession. 

I guess my favorite classics are the ones that are ultimately just amazingly good stories.  What fella, to this day-- from ages 9 to 90-- picking them for the first time,  would not be riveted by TREASURE ISLAND or WHITE FANG or TOM SAWYER or WAR OF THE WORLDS... all just gripping stories no one else could have told but their authors.  Some classics, like HUCKLEBERRY FINN or AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS are still laugh out loud funny in places, truly an amazing accomplishment.

And then there are the "genre classics,"  the best popular books in western or mystery or just "best seller" categories.   To be honest, these are the kind of "classics" that take up most of my "educational" reading time anymore. 

I am currently reading a very interesting non-fiction book about writing and reading by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon called MAPS AND LEGENDS that, very interestingly, defends "popular fiction" as the real classic literature of any culture.  I may be simplifying his argument, but not by much.  Chabon is a great writer, by the way. I picked up his AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY for 50 cents at a thrift store last and ate up its 500 or so pages in a couple days... it was that good [although I could have done without the "gay" stuff... hey, sue me... I am a conservative fella by nature and will be 50 this year, so take me with the proverbial grain of Na CL. ]

Anyway, his arguments about fiction were very interesting to me, and made me feel less bad about all the reading time I spend in good ol' popular fiction. According to Chabon, nearly all writing is really "fan fiction" on a certain level-- since writers constantly imitate their influences-- so being snobby about good stories well told is pointless.

Having said that, I love the "classics" even when it comes to my beloved westerns.  Don't get me wrong, I can read a good "pulpy" western by anyone from Walker Tompkins to Fran Striker-- and then I can read Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Andy Adams on top of 'em-- but often I tend to stay with guys I really know can deliver. 

In my humble opinion, the very greatest, I mean best-of-the-best, Western writers I have yet encountered could be counted on one hand.  Now... every Louis L'amour or Zane Grey that captured the public's fancy earned his spurs as far as I am concerned, and I love them all dearly, believe me...  but on a personal level this "top of the tops" list is bound to be much shorter.

Understand...  there are literally scores of others I have enjoyed, but these, to me, are the masters.

Feel free to differ, of course, but my list would include O. Henry [possibly my favorite author PERIOD, so in many odd ways my favorite "western" writer, even though it's all short fiction], Ernest Haycox, Will Henry, and Dorothy M. Johnson.

O. Henry's westerns are simply amazing, and they are scattered throughout his collected works, not just in his volume HEARTS OF THE WEST.  The early critic who called him the "deMaupassant of the sagebrush" was right on target.

In the case of both Haycox and Will Henry, it's a bit of a hit-and miss. Both of these guys have early works that are not in the same league as their later amazing novels and stories, so you just have to explore til you find the great-- and I mean GREAT-- stuff.

Johnson, on the other hand, is dang near perfect.  Get this... when I was about 12 years old, my Baptist pastor inexplicably gave me a copy of her book INDIAN COUNTRY in an old Ballantine paperback edition, and I was hooked from then on. I have never read a single bad thing-- and hardly even a single "less-than-great" thing-- written by her.   Among other greatnesses she remains the single most libertarian [with a small "L"] fiction wirter I have yet encountered.  It would be very revealing-- and perhaps a bit embarassing--  to know just how much she may have influenced my later life and thought.  What more can a fiction writer accomplish?

Are there good western writers today?  Yup, actually... a bunch of 'em!  I am amazed at the good western fiction that goes un-noticed today all the time, and a bunch of it is written by men whose blogs I follow happily. 

However, if I had to choose a great-- perhaps even  "classic"--  writer of westerns still living, it would be one of my admitted favorites, Bill Pronzini.   Although he is most famous-- and justly so-- as a mystery writer, I love his westerns WAY more.   They are always amazingly well-researched stories that use the west as a backdrop to make character studies and tales  that are really universal.  Pronzini will tell unusual stories about aspects of the west you never thought of-- like newspapermen, bartenders, stable hands, salesmen and moonshiners-- and make gripping psychological stories that never actually rely on violence, although it can occur in his fiction.  Check him out.  Pronzini is a master.  [I am starting to think pretty highly of Johnny D. Boggs, too.]

And time would fail me to discuss all the sci-fi and mystery and adventure stuff that goes under-valued in our culture... so I should really stop for now.

In short,  its like they say... So many books, so little time.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

SONGS THAT TELL A STORY # 9: "Riverboat!" by FARON YOUNG, 1959

Albie's Note: In 1959, the "americana story song" was at its peak of popularity, with million sellers from Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Horton inspiring scores of imitations.   This one was a pretty big hit when compared to how forgotten it is today: #4 Country, #83 Pop.

From the pen of song-writing legend Bill Anderson, here is the saga of "RIVERBOAT":

Well, I spent the better part of my life
On a Mississippi riverboat
I used to be known from coast to coast
As the slickest gambler afloat.
I've dealt the cards from Minnesota
To the harbor in New Orleans
I made a lotta big money on the riverboat
I loved a lotta pretty riverboat queens.
Riverboat, riverboat
I love your whistle's wail
I wish I was back on the riverboart
'Stead of in the Memphis jail.

--- Instrumental ---

Oh, a big man got on the riverboat
Our last time in St. Paul
He had a lotta money but his luck went bad
And the riverboat won it all.
He said I dealt from the bottom of the deck
And he pulled a shiny knife
But before that gambler lunged at me
My .44 took his life.
Riverboat, riverboat
I love your whistle's wail
I wish I was back on the riverboart
'Stead of in the Memphis jail.

--- Instrumental ---

Well, they came on the boat and they took me to jail
When we got to Tennessee
A gamblin' man has very few friends
Guess nobody cared for me.
So I might be here for a many long years
But if I ever get out
I'm gonna head straight for that levee
And get me a riverboat headin' south.
Riverboat, riverboat
I love your whistle's wail
I wish I was back on the riverboart
'Stead of in the Memphis jail.
'Stead of in the Memphis jail...


Saturday, March 29, 2014


Albie's Note:  When I was a kid in the early '70s, there were basically 3 humor mags aimed at our pre-adolescent, rebellious funny-bones:  MAD, [of course] CRACKED, and CRAZY.   The last one was Marvel Comics' late-in-the-day shot at this market, and it always seemed to be our third and last choice for "late-night-flashlight" comedic reading.   Still, it had it's moments, and this satire on the classic drama THE WALTONS-- a huge, and I mean HUGE TV hit at the time--  is about as laugh-out-loud funny as anything I've ever read.   I actually love THE WALTONS, but this devastating parody really cracked me up!
"First, John-Boob, can you help me short-sheet the north 40?"


Sunday, March 23, 2014

RANGER AL'S WESTERN COMIX THEATRE #7: THE REBEL Johnny Yuma in "Black Eagle," 1960 [Fixed]

Albie's Note: I truly wish I had gotten to watch this show growing up.  The people who remember it always seem to do so fondly. The episodes I have managed to see on Youtube are pretty dang cool, and so are the 4 Dell Comics magazines published during the show's original run [1959-1961.]

With a hero often described as an "ex-confederate existential wanderer," THE REBEL starred Nick Adams [July 10, 1931 – February 7, 1968-- a sad drug casualty at only 36] as Johnny Yuma, a journal-keeping, sawed-off shotgun-toting, Civil War vet who, according to the classic Johnny Cash theme  song, "was panther-quick and leather tough/ 'cuz he figured that he'd been pushed enough!"  

[Somehow I can't see this premise being produced today.  Something very... er... "non-PC" about the whole thing, don't you think? Only makes me like it more , o'course!]

In this story, Johnny gets caught between a step-father's hatred and some vengeance seeking gun-thugs.  From Four Color #1138, 1961, here is "Black Eagle":

And how could we not hear that classic theme song to go along with the cool comic? 


Saturday, March 22, 2014

SATURDAY COMEDY SHOWCASE #4: Connie Stevens on SHA NA NA, 1979

Albie's Note:  OK true confession time. I really didn't fit into any "cool" groups back in high school, although I was never mistreated or bullied. [I was always a big guy, for one thing, and a natural comedian... I learned early that  those 2 things let you slip through a LOT of cracks socially!]

I just simply couldnt find my "place" among any of the established "cliques"-- like Pink Floyd-listening hippies-in-training, Disco fans or D-and-D players.  I loved comedy, and I loved music, but even then my taste was mainly for pre-seventies popular music, especially old country and early rock music.   The old records at home had spoiled me.  I guess today I would be called a "roots music" fan, but we had no such classification then. 

To give you an idea of how oddball I was, my favorite show in 1979-- hands down--  was one I would never have admitted watching to any of my fellow 9th graders:  SHA NA NA.  Shown each Sunday afternoon in southern AZ, basically it was a variety show with a bunch of greasy song-and-dance idiots doing a tribute to an overblown "1950s" that on many levels never existed in the first place.   It was goofy, corny, full of decades-old jokes and musical numbers... and I never missed it.

It wasn't even that I thought the show was GREAT... although I did find it entertaining.  And the guests were sometimes great:  I remember seeing Bo Diddley, Gary US Bonds, John Sebastian, Chcuk Berry, Dion DiMucci, The Ronnettes, Brenda Lee, and Del Shannon, just to name a few.   Still, though, the main appeal I think was that it all at least hinted at something.... something... at least different from the world I lived in!   There was this feeling... a greasy, goofy, well... cool-ness if you will... one that wasn't tragically cool... one that sort of managed to-- all at once-- lampoon and celebrate America and all its crassness.  In short, a more care-free, non-pretentious... well...  a more '80s kind of stance.

Now,  remember, this was the  1970s... a decade that for some reason took itself SOOO seriously... even in it's entertainment!  I mean... have you ever sat and watched the so-called  "defining" '70s movies?  Like LOVE STORY or FIVE EASY PIECES or ANNIE HALL??   Classics I suppose, but what do they really have in common? People just talking and whining and brooding like there's no tomorrow...

No wonder we all went nuts for STAR WARS!

Well... I hadn't seen SHA NA NA in years when I discovered all these clips on Youtube.  To most folks they would be goofy cultural artifacts at best. And they will be probably never be on DVD [one message board I found says the licensing headaches would be insurmountable, as the shows were about 60% performed music] and probably the only people who search these clips out are guys like me... pushing 50 and remembering the escape these simple shows once offered for stolen minutes of our disaffected adolescences. 

Still... watching this typical clip did one great thing for me... Doggoned if it didn't make me laugh!

"What would Connie be doin' in this neighborhood?"
"Maybe her brother's a wino!"

Grease for 


"Speak Gently; Sorrow may be Hereabouts."

A train was hurrying along one of the main lines of the Western States of America. In one of the cars sat a young woman nursing a little babe, whose restlessness greatly annoyed some of the passengers.

Amongst these was a portly-looking farmer, whose appearance betokened comfort and plenty. Looking up from his paper, evidently irritated by the child's continued cry, he said, “Can't you keep that child quiet?” His eye met the gaze of the young woman, and he then noticed that her dress told of recent death. She looked toward him, and through her tears said: “I cannot help it. The child is not mine. I am doing my best.” “Where is its mother?” the farmer inquired, relenting somewhat in his tone. “In her coffin, sir; in the luggage car at the back of the train,” said the young woman, in her deep grief.

The big tears fell unbidden from the farmer's eyes. Rising up from his seat before all the passengers, he took the babe in his arms, kissed it, and, walking to and fro, did his rough best to soothe the motherless child, and make some reparation for his cold hard words. How many words and looks of unkindness would be changed into actions of sympathy and help did we but know more of others' sorrow!

From  Terse Talk on Timely Topics,
By Henry Varley; London: James Nisbet & Co., 1884, pp. 22-23.




Albie's Note:  I love old DELL Comics and most everything about them, including those "Info-Pages" we skimmed past when we read comics the first time as kids.   Recently, while perusing the great COMICBOOKPLUS website, I came across some Info-pages from old issues of THE UNTOUCHABLES and MICHAEL SHAYNE, PRIVATE DETECTIVE, that were a little heavier than the usual "make-your-own-log cabin" kinda stuff! 

These were uh... the "hard-boiled" Info-Pages.  Informative they were, however...

Yikes!!  Remember... crime does NOT pay!