Song of the Day: Movies in Music (Day Five) “The Paranoid Great Movie Queen …”

The final song on John Cale’s 1973 album Paris 1919, Antarctica Starts Here pays homage to the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard and in particular the main character of Norma Desmond.  The inspired casting of the film placed Gloria Swanson in the somewhat autobiographical role of Norma Desmond (“The paranoid great movie queen”), a deluded, tragic and ambitious actress whose film career declined with the advent of the talkies (“Lines come out and struggle with, The empty voice that speaks”).  Cale’s hushed singing tone in the song reflects these lines.  We can look at Antarctica Starts Here as being sung from the perspective of Joe Gillis, played by William Holden in the film.  Gillis is an unsuccessful screenwriter who is lured into Desmond’s fantasy world where she dreams of a triumphant return to the stage.

Antarctica Starts Here makes full use of the scenes in the film in which Norma Desmond dresses up and acts out here her former glories to her captive audience, either by acting and reciting lines to Joe Gillis or by putting on her old films.  This is reflected in Antarctica Starts Here with the opening lines: “The Paranoid great movie queen, Sits idly fully armed, The powder and mascara there, A warning light for charm, We see her every movie night, The strong against the weak”.

In the second verse of the song, we are given a snapshot into Norma Desmond’s character, that of the vain faded movie star, weary of her enduring struggle to return to past glories:  “Her heart is so tired now, Of kindnesses gone by … The vanity, insanity her hungry heart forgave, The fading bride’s dull beauty grows just begging to be seen”.  The lines “Like broken glasses in a drain, Gone down but not well spent” are evocative of the end of a party – the end of the era in which the actress thrived.

The final verse of the song features the line, “Her schoolhouse mind has windows now”, perhaps reflecting the way in which the actress is a controlling influence on Joe Gillis, a teacher giving her pupil a history lesson, but one about herself.  The line “Where handsome creatures come to watch” is perhaps a reference to the scene in which Norma Desmond is playing bridge with her friends, “dim figures you may still remember from the silent days.  I used to think of them as her Wax Works” as the narrator says in the film.  The final lines, “The anaesthetic wearing off, Antarctica starts here” are probably the most curious lines in a song full of curious lines, but ones that make for a wonderful ending to both the song and the album.  They perhaps denote Joe’s realisation that he has been lured into Norma Desmond’s world and the oddness of it, the doping effect of the many gifts she lavishes upon him to keep him under her spell becoming apparent and his need to escape.

Antarctica Starts Here is, just like the other songs on Paris 1919, an odd song filled with lyrics that can be read in a number of ways, such is the genius and complexity of Cale’s song writing.  Just as with his other material, one can sit and ponder upon what a single line may mean for hours and the fact that Cale rarely discusses what his lyrics are about just serves to keep us guessing.  There are many twists and turns in Antarctica Starts Here, such as the way in which Cale manages to fit lyrics based on a film character around the themes on the album.  A main theme on the album is war, with references to places of battle littered throughout.  In Antarctica Starts Here, the line “The road that leads from Barbary to here” refers to the Barbary Wars.  The juxtaposition of lyrics about a faded Hollywood star from a film and lyrics alluding to a war in a completely different era make for an odd but brilliant and truly unique combination which ends a stunning album beautifully.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Seven). “The Day of the Death of a Matinee Idol”.

“I would rather quit while I was ahead.  There’s no need in overstaying your welcome”.

– River Phoenix.

It was the night of the 31st October, 1993 on a West Hollywood street outside The Viper Room.  Around 1am, the stage door of the club opened.  Actor River Phoenix, most famous for roles in films such as Explorers (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), was carried out of the club by his film actress girlfriend, Samantha Mathis and Phoenix’s younger brother, Joaquin (aka Leaf) Phoenix.  River Phoenix’s younger sister, Rain Phoenix followed.

Many present at The Viper Room that night had thought River Phoenix was drunk, but as the night air hit him, River Phoenix fell to the ground and began to have a violent seizure.  Some reports suggest that the seizures started inside the club, where Johnny Depp, co-owner of The Viper Room, was playing guitar on stage with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and Gibby Haynes of The Butthole Surfers on vocals, together with other assorted members of Depp’s short-lived band P.  River Phoenix, an accomplished guitarist, was due to join them on stage for a jam later that night.  The Viper Room’s doorman had previously ordered River Phoenix’s friends to take him outside earlier on during the night.  There are many stories surrounding what happened prior to the actor being taken out onto the pavement.  Some say he was shouting and vomiting inside the club and in one particular newspaper report, he was said to have screamed “I’m gonna die dude” as his entourage took him outside.

As River Phoenix began to have his first seizure, the doorman shouted, “Do something, call 911!” to which his brother looked back and yelled, “He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine”.  Following the first seizure, there was a pregnant pause and then a second seizure.  By this point, River Phoenix’s eyes were rolling back into his head, he was shaking violently and his arms were shaking around.  Leaf Phoenix rang for an ambulance but was already unable to determine whether his brother was breathing.

In total, River Phoenix had five seizures outside the club, arms flailing and head banging on the pavement.  Rain Phoenix laid on top of her brother in an attempt to suppress the movements.  Following the final seizure, River Phoenix went still.  His sister laid next to him on the pavement, lifted up his shirt, rubbed his stomach and said, “Can you hear me, can you hear me …?” She attempted to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation.

By the time the ambulance arrived, River Phoenix had no pulse, was not breathing and up close, his complexion was dark blue.  Basic life support was given but it was already too late.  River Phoenix was loaded into the ambulance.  As it was preparing to pull away, Flea, who had abruptly left the stage after news of the events unfolding outside had filtered through the club, ran outside and tried to climb in the back of the ambulance but was told to sit in the front.  River Phoenix was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  Further unsuccessful resuscitation attempts were made.  River Phoenix was pronounced dead at 1.51am PST on the morning of October 31st, 1993.  He was just 23 years old.

The following day, The Viper Room became a makeshift shrine to the actor, with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the pavement as well as graffiti messages on the walls of the club.  A sign was solemnly placed at the club’s window, reading:  “With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed.  Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones.  He will be missed”.  The club remained closed for a week.  Each year on the anniversary of River Phoenix’s death, Johnny Depp would close the club in respect until selling his share in 2004.

River Phoenix’s autopsy, signed November 15th, 1993, reads, under the second ‘Opinion’:  “Toxicology studies showed high concentrations of morphine and cocaine in the blood, as well as other substances in smaller concentrations”.  The cause of death was stated as “acute multiple drug intoxication”.

During his lifetime, River Phoenix’s image had been squeaky clean, something that he continuously moaned about in interviews.  This image of River Phoenix stems from his reputation as firstly a child star and then a ‘teen sensation’ and his public dedication to many social, political, humanitarian and dietary interests that were not always popular during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.  His death caused much media interest, with some circles calling him “The James Dean of our time”, making comparisons between the youth and sudden deaths of both actors.

Amongst the many tributes made to River Phoenix, he has inspired a large number of songs, many of which have been written by his musician friends.  Despite his reputation as a truly gifted actor, River Phoenix had actually wanted to be a full time musician.  He had his own band, Aleka’s Attic, and loved to spend time with bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, who all became close personal friends after he and Flea met when they were both cast in My Own Private Idaho.

It is no wonder then, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have recorded a number of tributes to River Phoenix, notably the song Transcending from 1995’s One Hot Minute album, which includes lyrics such as “Smartest fucker I’ve ever met” and “I called you a hippie, you said ‘Fuck off’”.

Whilst he was still alive, the Red Hot Chili Peppers dedicated a whole verse of one of their biggest hits, Give It Away, from the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), to the actor.  The verse reads:  “There’s a river, born to be a giver, Keep you warm, won’t let you shiver, His heart is never gonna whither”.

Another artist profoundly affected by the death of his close friend was Michael Stipe of REM, who was so devastated by the loss that he could not write songs for five months afterwards.  After his recovery, REM made the album Monster (1994) which the band dedicated to River Phoenix.  Monster featured the single Bang and Blame, which had backing vocals performed by Rain Phoenix.  Following the death of his friend, Stipe bought the rights to Aleka’s Attic’s recordings from Island Records, which River Phoenix had under contract.

Incidentally, whilst River Phoenix laid dying outside The Viper Room, Johnny Depp, Flea and co were playing a song entitled Michael Stipe.

Rufus Wainwright was another friend of the actor deeply affected by his death.  His debut album Rufus Wainwright (1998), written over a period of several years, included the song Matinee Idol.  Matinee Idol is about the rise and fall of an entertainment figure and was directly inspired by River Phoenix’s death.  Set to a 1920’s cabaret style musical backing, the lyrics of the song tell of River Phoenix laying dead on West Sunset Boulevard as the angels come down for the actor:

“Still so beautiful as the angels

As the angels came down from on high

So sweet and so soft

So charmingly daft

So young was the matinee idol

Lips of crimson slightly open

As the flash and all fame put to rest”.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Six). “It’s Your Favourite Foreign Movie”.

Hikers and Park Rangers in Griffith Park, the home of the famous Hollywood sign, have noticed some strange happenings over the years.  There have been many reported sightings of an attractive blonde, blue-eyed woman dressed in 1930’s garb.  The woman looks forlorn and lost.  Many have tried to approach her but when they do, she vanishes.  In the park, a pungent smell of gardenia perfume litters the air.  Could this be the ghost of Peg Entwistle?  ‘Who?’ I hear you ask.  Peg Entwistle isn’t known for her movies.  In fact, she only made one movie in her lifetime, Thirteen Women, which was released after her death.  Peg Entwistle is most known for finding the most novel way to use the Hollywood sign:  Her suicide.

Peg Entwistle was born Millicent Lilian Entwistle on the 5th February 1908 in Port Talbot, Glamorgan, Wales.  The exact details of the doomed actress’s early life are shady.  When she was young, her  family moved to West Kensington, London.  Her mother is said to have died when she was very young.  There are reports that she and her father were in Cincinnati, Ohio and New York City as early as 1913.  Her father Robert S. Entwistle was a theatre actor and is listed in the cast of several plays by The New York Times in 1913.  Entwistle’s father died in 1922, the victim of a hit and run accident on Park Avenue and 72nd Street in New York City.  Thereafter, Peg and her two younger half-brothers were taken in by their uncle who had moved with them to New York and was the manager of Broadway actor Walter Hampden.

By 1925, Entwistle had moved to Boston as a student of Henry Jewett’s Repertory (these days known as Huntington Theatre).  She was a member of the Henry Jewett Players, a group of theatre actors who were gaining national attention.  Walter Hampden gave Entwistle an uncredited walk on part in his Broadway production of Hamlet, with Ethel Barrymore as its main star.  In the play, she carried the King’s train and brought in the poison cup.  Other plays followed, with parts including that of Hedvig in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in the same year.  In the audience was a young Bette Davis who excitedly told her mother, “… I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle”.

Peg Entwistle’s star seemed to be in the ascendant as she continued to receive praise for her theatre work.  This led to her being recruited by the New York Theatre Guild in 1926 and receiving her first credited role in The Man from Toronto, playing the role of Martha.  Entwistle appeared in 9 more Broadway productions between 1926 and 1932.

In 1927, Entwistle married actor Robert Keith but was granted a divorce in 1929.  It was an unhappy marriage with Entwistle accusing Keith of cruelty.  She also claimed that Keith neglected to tell her that he had been married previously and was father to a six year old boy, Brian Keith, who would later become an actor.  During this time, Entwistle continued to give acclaimed performances in a number of plays.  In 1927, a production of The Uninvited Guest closed after just seven performances, with New York Times critic J. Brooks Atkinson writing, “ … Peg Entwistle gave a performance considerably better than the play warranted”.

By May 1932, America was in the grips of the Great Depression.  Entwistle was in Los Angeles, having got a small part in the Romney Brent play The Mad Hopes alongside Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart.  The play ran from the 23rd May to the 4th June at the Belasco Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.  Once again, Entwistle garnered much praise for her performance.  Her part in The Mad Hopes led to Entwistle’s first and only movie role, playing the small but credited part of Hazel Cousins in Thirteen Women for Radio Pictures (later RKO).  The film would be released a month after Entwistle’s death to neither critical or commercial success.

On the morning of 18th September 1932, an anonymous woman made a shocking discovery.  The anonymous woman called the Los Angeles police to report that whilst she was hiking, she had found a woman’s shoe, purse and jacket below the famous Hollywood sign.  The woman told the police that she had looked in the purse and found a suicide note.  She had then looked down the mountain and saw a body.  According to the police transcript of the call, the woman said she “wrapped a jacket, shoes and purse in a bundle and laid them on the steps of the Hollywood police station”.  The anonymous woman never identified herself.

Later that day, a detective and two radio car officers found the body of a well dressed, blonde haired, blue eyed woman in a ravine below the sign.  Entwistle’s body was not identified until her uncle, with whom she had been living in Beachwood Canyon, connected her two day absence with the description and the initials “P.E.” on the suicide note which was found in the purse and published by the newspapers.  Her uncle said that on Friday, September 16th, Entwistle had told him that she was going for a walk to the drugstore and to see some friends.  Instead, it appears that she made her way to the southern slope of Mount Lee to the foot of the Hollywood sign, climbed a workman’s ladder to the top of the “H” and jumped.  She was just 24 years old.  Her suicide note read:

“I am afraid, I am a coward.  I am sorry for everything.  If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain.  P.E.”

When people talk of Hollywood history, Peg Entwistle is for the most part forgotten about.  You won’t see her name in many cinema history books because she only ever made one film during her short lifetime.  Instead, if anything, Peg Entwistle has come to symbolise the dark side of Hollywood:  The aspiring movie actress who’s hopes and dreams were smashed by the Hollywood system.  So next time you visit Hollywood, look out for the ghost of poor Peg and breathe in the pungent smell of the gardenia perfume, reportedly the actress’s favourite perfume.

Somebody who the ghost of Peg Entwistle has obviously had an effect on is Donald Fagen, who along with co-songwriter Walter Becker, wrote the song Peg for his band Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja.  Released as a successful single from the album, Peg tells the tale of Peg Entwistle’s attempted big break through the eyes of the film’s director, George Archainbaud.

“I’ve seen your picture, Your name in lights above it, This is your big debut, It’s like a dream come true, And when you smile for the camera, I know they’ll love it” sings Fagen in the guise of Archainbaud telling Entwistle that this is her big break.  Despite the uplifting and vibrant nature of the song, there is underlying darkness when one thinks of the subject matter.

There is even a slight sleaziness about the way in which the director tells Entwistle, “I got your pin shot [meaning pin-up photograph], I kept it with your letter [the one the actress perhaps sent in the hope of breaking into the movies], Done up in blueprint blue, It sure looks good on you, So won’t you smile for the camera, I know I’ll love you better”.  Add to this, the fact that the name Steely Dan derives from the name of a strap-on dildo in William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch (1959) and reading into the lyrical content of the song becomes quite a disconcerting affair.

The line “Your favourite foreign movie” could be alluding to pornography, suggesting a sexual advance from the director.  This could in fact be a song about the casting couch as opposed to the filming of the movie.  The line “You’ve seen it all before” is suggestive of a struggling actress who is weary of attempting to break into the movies and knows all the tricks of the industry.  The song could therefore could be representing the dark side of Hollywood, the one that exists but it is rarely presented to those living outside it’s glittery bubble.  In Peg, Steely Dan could be suggesting that it was the reason for Peg Entwistle’s suicide.

The final verse could refer to disturbing memories of an act on the casting prompting Entwistle’s suicide:  “Peg, It will come back to you … Then the shutter falls, You see it all in 3-D, It’s your favourite foreign movie”.  These lines are poignant as Peg Entwistle would never actually get to see her only film appearance, instead the shutter fell on her short life as Peg fell from Hollywood’s “H” on that fateful day in 1932.

As a footnote, Peg Entwistle’s ghost lives on in music as Peg by Steely Dan was sampled for De La Soul’s song Eye Know from their classic 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Five). “Natalie Wood Is No Longer Afraid, Now She Is Gone Under The Waves”.

“I’ve been terrified of water and yet it seems I’m forced to go into it on every movie that I make”

– Natalie Wood.

Following yesterday’s post about the death of James Dean and Suede’s ethereal James Dean death song, Daddy’s Speeding, today’s post is about the death of Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause co-star Natalie Wood.

Firstly, before I talk about the death of Natalie Wood and introduce today’s Song of the Day, there has been a longstanding conspiracy theory that Rebel Without A Cause was cursed.  In 1968, Nick Adams, who played Chick in the film was found dead in the bedroom of his house.  The actor was fully clothed, there were no signs of forced entry and the telephone, less than two feet from his body, was in full working order.  The autopsy concluded that the cause was accidental suicide.  Paraldehyde, a drug used to battle alcoholism, was found in his organs, mixed with sedatives and various other drugs.  However, no prescription bottle was found at the scene and there were no needle marks on Adams’s body.

Sal Mineo, who played Plato in the film, was stabbed to death in his West Hollywood home in 1976.  In the late 1960’s, Mineo became one of the first major Hollywood actors to publicly come out as gay.  Mineo was killed by a pizza delivery man, Lionel Ray Williams.  It is suspected that Mineo was killed because of his sexual orientation.  However, Williams denied knowing who Mineo was.   In the light of various reports that James Dean was also either gay or bisexual, there have been many conspiracy theories that Dean’s death was not an accident.

In 1981, during the filming of Brainstorm, Natalie Wood drowned whilst on a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island, California, with her husband Rober Wagner, Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern.  There is a certain amount of mystery surrounding Natalie Wood’s drowning because nobody admitted to seeing how she entered the water.  Wood’s body was discovered by authorities on November 29, 1981, one mile away from the boat.  A small inflatable dinghy was found close by.  Wagner told the inquest that when he went to bed, Wood was not there.  The autopsy revealed that Wood had bruises on her body and arms and an abrasion on her left cheek.  Wagner has since said that he had had a fight with Wood before she had disappeared.  The autopsy also discovered that Wood’s alcohol level was 0.14% and there were traces of a motion-sickness pill and a painkiller in her bloodstream, which increase the effects of alcohol.  Her death was ruled to be an accident by drowning and hypothermia.  The coroner suggested that Wood had been drinking and may have slipped whilst trying to climb back into the dinghy.

The case into Natalie Wood’s death was reopened in November 2011 following revelations that the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, had lied to the police during the initial investigation and that Wood and Wagner had had a fight on the evening of Natalie Wood’s death.  He also alleged that Robert Wagner was responsible for her death and that Wagner had even said, “Leave her there, teach her a lesson” whilst she was in the water.  Following this investigation, Wood’s cause of death was changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors”.  A statement was also added to Wood’s death certificate saying that the circumstances of how Wood ended up in the water are “not clearly established”.  The coroner’s office has been instructed by detectives not to discuss or comment on the case.

Today’s Song of the Day is Natalie Wood by The Handsome Family, from their 2002 outtakes album, Smothered and Covered.  Natalie Wood is The Handsome Family’s dark and slightly unnerving but loving tribute song to the actress.  The song centres around Natalie Wood’s death and alludes heavily to reports over the years that she was in fact terrified of water (“Natalie Wood is no longer afraid, now she is gone under the waves”).  In 2011, Natalie Wood’s sister, Lana Wood told TMZ:

“None of it makes sense to me simply because Natalie HATED the water.  HATED IT.  Had a great fear of it, didn’t go into her own swimming pool at home, didn’t want to go.  Dark water goes all the way back to, you know, our darling sweet Mum, who used to tell Natalie that she would die by drowning.  And dark water.  That’s something that goes back to when I was a kid, I heard my mother say that and it gave Natalie a great fear of water”.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Four). “Whiplash Caught The Silver Son, Took The Film To Number One”.

“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he is dead, then maybe he was a great man”.

– James Dean

At a dusty and isolated crossroads in Central California on the outskirts of nowhere, James Dean’s crash course with destiny came to an end.  It was Friday, 30th September, 1955.  Dean was just 24 years old.  Dean made just three films in his lifetime, East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), which was still in the production stages at the time of Dean’s death.

In April 1954, in celebration of securing the lead role in Cal Trusk in East of Eden, James Dean purchased a 1955 Triumph Tiger T110 650cc motorcycle and later, a used red, 1953 MG TD sports car.  Earlier in 1955, Dean had traded his MG in for a brand new 1955 Porsche Super Speedster, purchased from Competition Motors in Hollywood.  He traded his Triumph sports car in for a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy three days after the end of filming on East of Eden.  Shortly before starting to film Rebel Without A Cause, Dean entered the Palm Springs Road Races with the Porsche Super Speedster on March 26 -27.  He finished first overall in Saturday’s novice class and second overall in the Sunday main event.  Later in the year, Dean raced the Speedster at Bakersfield on May 1 – 2, finishing first in class and third overall.  His final race with the Speedster was at Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, May 30, where he started in eighteenth position, worked his way up to fourth, before over-revving his engine and blowing a piston.  He did not complete the race.

During the filming of Giant, from June through to mid-September, Warner Bros. had placed a ban a ban on Dean competing in racing.  After finishing the filming of Giant, Dean traded his Porsche Super Speedster in for the brand new, more powerful and faster 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and entered the upcoming Salina Road Race, scheduled for October 1 – 2.  Dean proudly named his new car “Little Bastard”.  On introducing himself to British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood, he invited Guinness to view his new car.  Guinness has since said that he found the car ‘sinister’, telling Dean:  “If you get in that car, you will be found dead by this time next week”.  Guinness’s prediction was scarily and sadly accurate:  James Dean’s fatal car crash took place seven days after this encounter.

On the day of the crash, Dean and his Porsche factory-trained mechanic Rolf Wutherich travelled to Competition Motors in Hollywood to prepare the Porsche 550 Spyder for the weekend sports car races at Salinas, California.  The original intention was to tow the car to the race site but because the Porsche did not have enough break-in miles prior to the race, Wutherich recommended to Dean that he drove the Porsche to Salinas.  Wutherich accompanied Dean on the journey.  Whilst travelling to Salinas, they were stopped by a California Highway Patrolman at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just South of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph in a 55mph zone.  A few hours later, a black and white 1950 Ford Tudor Coupe was travelling at high speed east on Route 466.  Its driver was a student named Donald Turnupseed.  Turnupseed made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno.  As Turnupseed’s Ford crossed over the centre line, Dean, who was driving at a reported speed of 85 mph, apparently tried to steer the Spyder in a “side stepping” racing manoeuvre, but with insufficient time and space, the two cars crashed almost head on.  Dean’s Spyder flipped up into the air and landed back on its wheels in a gully, northwest of the junction.  The impact was of such force that Turnupseed’s Ford was sent broad-sliding 39 feet down Route 466 in the westbound lane.

California Highway Patrol Captain Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corporal Ronald Nelson, had been finishing a coffee break in Paso Robles when they were called to the called to the scene of the accident at the Route 466/41 Junction.  Before the officers arrived, James Dean had been pulled from the wreckage of the Porsche Spyder.  Dean had taken the brunt of the horrendous crash and suffered a broken neck as well as several internal and external injuries, including his foot being crushed between the clutch and brake pedal.  The unconscious and dying Dean was placed into an ambulance, whilst a barely conscious Wutherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder, was lying on the shoulder of the road next to the wrecked car.  Wutherich and Dean were taken in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital 28 miles from the crash site.  James Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6.20pm.

Ironically, shortly before that fateful day, whilst he was filming Giant, Dean had filmed a short Public Service Announcement with fellow actor Gig Young for the National Safety Council.  Dean, dressed as his Giant character Jett Rink, spoke of how driving fast on the highway could be more dangerous than racing on a track.  At the end of the Public Service Announcement, instead of saying the intended catchphrase, “The life you save may be your own”, Dean said, “The life you might save might be mine”.

There have been many songs written about or mentioning James Dean over the years, many of which either portray Dean as the ultimate all American hero or a Hollywood poster boy.  Take for example, Electrolite by REM, from the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), with the line “Hollywood is under me, I’m Martin Sheen, I’m Steve McQueen, I’m Jimmy Dean”.

Occasionally some centre on Dean’s crash, usually in a metaphoric sense.  One that springs to mind is Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, from Transformer (1972), which features the lines, “Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day, Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that bash”.

However, the most powerful retelling of James Dean’s death is Daddy’s Speeding by Suede from their second album Dog Man Star (1994).

Daddy’s Speeding was inspired by a dream that Brett Anderson had about James Dean’s death.  He told suede.co.uk:  “I was immersing myself in overtly clichéd Hollywood iconography at the time.  I guess it was an extension of the isolation / pornography themes where I saw people forming relationships with fantasy figures rather than real people; Our new communities were soap operas, our new friends were characters in American sit-coms”.

The first lines of the song tell of how “Whiplash caught the silver son, Took the film to number one”, of course referring to Giant, which was released posthumously, gear us up for a song which manages to evoke a feeling not dissimilar to one you would get from reading Crash by JG Ballard with images of “death machines” in a barren landscape of “green fields”.  There is something of a hero worshipping homoerotic quality to Daddy’s Speeding, with Anderson telling of how the leader (the “daddy”) of the gang of car obsessed teenagers “crashed the car and left us here” and how “Daddy turned a million eyes, Took the teenage dream to bed”.

Anderson’s drug of choice at the time was Acid, and its influences on the song are quite evident.  Daddy’s Speeding is a drug induced dream of a song, a tale of a doomed car race and a Hollywood star undone by destructive self-decadence in the dark underbelly of existence.

The song’s macabre but strangely beautiful depiction of James Dean’s death is aided by its stunning music.  Slow paced, starting with little more than a solitary guitar and Anderson’s mournful voice, building and building into a cacophony of white noise and feedback which is probably the greatest musical depiction of a car crash ever put on record.  The song ends with what sounds like the grim aftermath of the crash, fading away with the narrator, the ‘child’ of the “Daddy”, in his dreaming state, realising what has happened on that dusty and isolated crossroads.  This is a highly disturbing song of Ballard-like proportions, one which seems to be coming through the stereo speakers from another dimension or more accurately, from Brett Anderson’s drug fuelled dreams.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Two). “Andy, Did You Hear About This One?”

“I am not a comic, I have never told a joke … The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him … my promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can … They say, ‘Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he’s a really funny guy’.  But I’m not trying to be funny.  I just want to play with their heads”.

– Andy Kaufman, New York Times interview, 1975.

Have you ever wanted to see what Michael Stipe’s vision of heaven looks like?  Then look no further than Man on the Moon from REM’s multi-million selling 1992 album Automatic for the People.  On an album that features even darker themes than the band’s previous releases, songs such as Drive, Sweetness Follows and Monty Got A Raw Deal are immediately brought to mind, Man on the Moon seems quite jovial and uplifting.  Here, we find Stipe writing about Andy Kaufman, a comedic actor and Stipe’s hero.  Strip away the fact that this is a song about a comedian and the fact that Stipe even makes a few jokes in the song’s lyrics though and we are left with a dark puzzle.  For under the veneer of fun and hilarity, there was a much darker side to Andy Kaufman.  What Man on the Moon is really asking is: Did Kaufman, renowned for his elaborate pranks and ruses, really die?  It is a mystery that, as Stipe rightly sings in the song, is right up there with whether the first moon landing was a hoax.  First, let’s take a look at the life and bizarre career of Andy Kaufman.

“While all the other kids were out playing ball and stuff, I used to stay in my room and imagine that there was a camera in the wall. And I used to really believe that I was putting on a television show and that it was going out to somewhere in the world”.

– Andy Kaufman.

Born in New York on January 17th 1949, Andy Kaufman was a popular and eccentric American entertainer, actor and performance artist.  Whilst often referred to as a comedian, Kaufman detested this tag, preferring to be known as a ‘song and dance man’.  Today, he is widely known as a cult artist and is well respected in some circles for his highly original material, unique performance style and an unwavering commitment to the characters that he created.

“When you go through a tunnel- you’re on a train – you go through a tunnel, the tunnel is dark, but you’re still going forward. Just remember that. But if you’re not going to to get up on stage for one night because you’re discouraged or something, then the train is going to stop. Everytime you get up on stage, if it’s a long tunnel, it’s going to take a lot of times of going on stage before things get bright again. You keep going on stage, you go forward. Every night go on stage”.

– Andy Kaufman in recorded phone conversation with friend Elayne Boosler.

After graduating from the now defunct Grahm Junior College in 1971, Kaufman began performing stand up comedy at various small clubs across the East Coast of America.  He first caught public attention with a character simply known as Foreign Man, who claimed to be from Caspiar, a fictional island in the Caspian Sea.  As Foreign Man, Kaufman would appear on the stage of comedy clubs, play a gramophone recording of the theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoon.  He would stand perfectly still, lip-syncing only the line “Here I come to save the day” with over the top levels of enthusiasm.  He would then continue to perform a number of impersonations in a deliberately dead pan manner, still using the voice of Foreign Man.  These impersonations famously included Presidents Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon and the television character Archie Bunker.  The Mighty Mouse routine and his various impersonations were performed on Saturday Night Live in 1975.

“I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States … Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States.  T’ank you veddy much”.

– Andy Kaufman as Foreign Man, 1975.

After the unsuspecting audience had grown used to Foreign Man’s inability to perform his impressions, usually met with either silence or nervous laughter, he would then announce “And now I would like to imitate Elvis Presley”.  Kaufman’s Foreign Man would then proceed to turn around, take off his jacket to reveal an Elvis-style jump suit circa the Vegas years, slick his hair back and launch into a highly credible Elvis Presley impersonation.  As Elvis often did, Foreign Man would throw his jacket to the audience but then immediately ask for it back again.  After his Elvis impression was over, Foreign Man would return to his ‘normal voice’ to say “T’ank you veddy much” and bowed to the stunned audience.  Elvis Presley once even described the impersonation as his personal favourite impersonation of him.

Kaufman’s Foreign Man persona was later adapted for the character of Latka Gravas for the ABC situation comedy Taxi, which ran from 1978 until it’s cancellation in 1983.  Kaufman detested situation comedies but was encouraged to take the role by long time manager, George Shapiro, convincing him that playing the crazy break out character in a prime time show would gain him instant stardom, earning him enough money to put back into his own act.  Begrudgingly, Kaufman agreed to appear in 14 episodes per season but initially wanted four for Tony Clifton.  However, after Kaufman deliberately sabotaged Tony Clifton’s appearance on the show, this part of the contract was rebuked.

Tony Clifton was Kaufman’s audience-bating lounge singer alter-ego.  For some time, it was unclear that Clifton was actually just another Kaufman character.  News programmes even interviewed Tony Clifton believing him to be Kaufman’s opening act.  The mood would descend into ugliness every time Kaufman’s name was mentioned with Clifton saying that Kaufman was trying to ruin Clifton’s “good name” in order to make money and become famous off his back.  Much to Kaufman’s amusement, Clifton’s deliberate sabotage of his appearance on Taxi made several local newspapers.

Friend, fellow performer and writer Bob Zmuda also occasionally played Tony Clifton on stage and for television appearances.  In an interview in 2006, Zmuda told the Opie and Anthony Show that he performed the Tony Clifton character on Late Night With David Letterman and that Letterman did not find out until years afterwards.

In addition to the use of the Tony Clifton character, the character of Latka was said to have multiple personality disorder enabling Kaufman to randomly portray other characters at will.  These other characters included an impersonation of the show’s main character Alex Reiger and the serial womaniser Vic Ferrari.  It has been suggested that Kaufman actually did suffer from multiple personality disorder but this, apart from his ability and ease in dropping into his various character creations without notice, is unfounded.

“With Andy, it was a case of art imitating life.  Because before he’s get up on stage, or after he had finished performing, he kept in character.  He wouldn’t become himself, whoever himself was”.

– Phil Berger, The Last Laugh, 1985.

So loved was the character of Latka and so hated by Kaufman that Latka was his most widely known character, that when performing his own stand up act, Kaufman would fend off calls for him to perform the character by deliberately sabotaging his own act in numerous ways.  One such example, as seen in the partly-fictionalised biopic Man on the Moon (1999), was punishing the audience by reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in its entirety, usually accompanied with the voice of an upper class English gentleman.  Part way through the recital, he would ask if the audience if they would rather hear a record.  After the audience shouted that they would rather hear a record, Kaufman cued up a record of him continuing to read the novel.

In 1979, Kaufman appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall.  The show was full of Kaufman’s usual and by this time legendary pranks.  During the show he announced that his ‘Grandmother’ was watching the show from the side of the stage.  At the end of the show, his ‘Grandmother’ stood up and took off her mask to reveal that it was actually comedian Robin Williams in an elaborate disguise.

“Andy is the only comedian who could make you laugh, piss you off and make you laugh again”.

– Robin Williams, I’m From Hollywood, 1989.

In the same show, Kaufman also had an elderly woman named Eleanor Cody Gould appear to have a heart attack and die on stage.  After calling for a doctor, who appeared and pronounced the woman dead, Kaufman reappeared wearing an Indian headdress, danced over the old woman, bringing her back to life.  Following the show,Kaufman took the entire audience out for milk and cookies, using 24 buses, and invited anybody who was interested to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the next day, where the show continued.

Kaufman also began performing wrestling during his act, but as with all of Kaufman’s stunts, there was a twist, he wrestled women proclaiming himself to be the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World”.  For this part of his act, he would take on an aggressive and ridiculous persona much like the professional wrestlers whom he was imitating.  He would offer women in the audience a prize of $1,000 dollars for any of them who could pin him.  He employed stooges, including, at one time, musician Laurie Anderson.  Kaufman’s use of wrestling in his act was derived from his admiration of the theatricality and staged nature of the sport.

“There’s no drama like wrestling”.

– Andy Kaufman.

Kaufman took his new fixation with the world of wrestling one step further by attempting to turn himself into a professional wrestler.  He was challenged by professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, an opportunity which Kaufman enthusiastically accepted, fighting Lawler in Memphis.  During the match, Kaufman taunted the audience by showing them how to use soap and proclaiming Memphis to be “the nation’s redneck capital”.  He also used the now infamous line, “I’m from Hollywood!” to debase the horrified audience.  The phrase “I’m from Hollywood!” became the title of a posthumous documentary film about Kaufman in 1989.  As a result of wrestling a now infuriated Lawler, Kaufman suffered a broken neck and later had a much publicised spat with Lawler live on an episode of Late Night with David Letterman in 1982.

“Whenever I play a role, whether it’s good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I’m playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt.”

– Andy Kaufman.

After angering the audience by wrestling women live on Saturday Night Live, Kaufman made a pre-taped appearance on the show asking the audience whether he should appear on the show again, saying that if the vote was against him, he would never go back.  Saturday Night Live ran a phone vote and after the viewers voted for Andy not to appear again, he stopped appearing on the show.  However, a video of Andy thanking those who had voted to keep him was broadcast.  It has always been unclear whether this was just yet another Kaufman stunt.  During the end credits of the show, announcer Don Pardo was seen saying, “This is Don Pardo saying, ‘I voted for Andy Kaufman’”.

During his career, Kaufman used Transcendental Meditation, a skill which he learned at college in 1969, in order to keep him on an even keel and to build his confidence so that he could take his act on the comedy circuit.  He also trained as a teacher in the art in Majorca in 1971.

In 1983, at a Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island, family and friends expressed concerns about Kaufman’s persistant coughing.  Upon his return to Los Angeles a few days later, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of lung cancer.  The illness was made apparent to his audiences after many people remarked upon his incredibly gaunt appearance.  He told of how he hoped to find a cure with natural medicine, consisting of a diet of all manner of fruit and vegetables, amongst other means.  He received palliative radiotherapy but by this point, the cancer had spread to his brain. Kaufman died on May 16th 1984 of kidney failure caused by metastasised large cell lung carcinoma.

In the years since his death, there has been much speculation as to whether Kaufman faked his own death.  During his lifetime, Kaufman certainly made many allusions to the fact he would like to fake his own death, even at one point saying that if he were to do so, he would return twenty years later.  This would have been in May 2004.  “Tony Clifton” performed a full year after Kaufman’s death at The Comedy Store’s benefit concert in honour of Kaufman.  Bob Zmuda has said on several occasions that although Kaufman may have talked about faking his own death, he did not believe that he would be so cruel as to go through with it.  However, his girlfriend, Lynne Marguilles has stated that Kaufman was bisexual and that he may have died from AIDS some years later.  “Tony Clifton” would reappear again during the 1990’s, making several appearances in Los Angeles nightclubs, causing audiences to speculate that Kaufman was still alive and performing under heavy makeup.  Contrary to all rumours, Kaufman’s death certificate is on file at the Los Angeles County Department of Health.  The rumours surrounding Kaufman’s death are an enduring legacy to a performer who went the extra mile to entertain and shock his audience.  It would seem that he is as large as life in death as he was in life.

REM’s Man on the Moon is Michael Stipe’s homage to Andy Kaufman.  The song includes an array of references to the performer’s career, starting with lyrics about Kaufman’s foray into wrestling in the first verse: “Andy Kaufman and the wrestling match”.  The line “Mister Fred Blassie and the breakfast mess” is a reference to Kaufman’s film My Breakfast With Blassie” (1983), a mostly improvised parody of the film My Dinner With Andre (1981).  Later in the song, we find the lines, “Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling” and “Andy, are you locked in the punch?”, a line with double meaning as it implies both a ‘punch’ in a boxing sense and a ‘punch’ in relation to a punchline of a joke.  By introducing both Fred Blassie and Andy Kaufman, as well as Charles Darwin later in the song, as “Mister”, Stipe is alluding to the way in which Kaufman’s Foreign Man character would introduce his impressions.  You can almost imagine Foreign Man saying, “I would like to imitate Meester Fred Blassie …”

The bridge of the song makes reference to Kaufman’s Elvis impression with the line “Andy are you goofing on Elvis?” followed by Michael Stipe’s own Elvis impersonation on the following line, “Hey baby, are we losing touch?” or “Hey baby, are you having fun?” in the second bridge.

The song’s chorus of “If you believed they put a man on the moon …” alludes to the belief in some circles that the moon landing was a hoax, in the same way that some believe Andy Kaufman’s death to have been a hoax.  The second line of the chorus, “If you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool”, is a reference to the way in which Kaufman loved hoaxes and conspiracy theories, believing that life was much more interesting if you allowed yourself to believe in something.  With the references to Elvis Presley, the song also invokes the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Elvis.

The second verse details a number of things which were either disputed at the time or have been the subject of in scepticism in later years, just as Kaufman’s death has, including Moses performing miracles with his staff of wood (“Moses went walking with a staff of wood); the story of Isaac Newton being hit on the head by an apple and discovering gravity (“Newton got beaned by the apple good”); Cleopatra’s suicide by asp (“Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp”) and Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (“Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask”). The lyric “Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s” refers to both the many, and ongoing, reported sightings of Kaufman since his death and the way in which he met his girlfriend Lynn whilst she was working at a restaurant whilst he was shooting a film.

The abundance of references to games in the song such as “… The Game of Life”; “Monopoly, Twenty One, Checkers and Chess” and “Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk” allude to the presentation of Kaufman’s act and his playfulness with his audience, with most of his act being based around games.  Kaufman’s act was one a myriad of games within a bigger game, the act itself, continuously posing the question to the audience, is it real or is it a game?  Such was the game play in Kaufman’s act that even his illness and death were treated with suspicion, with even his closest confidantes wondering whether it was a hoax.  The “Mott the Hoople” mentioned in the opening line of the song is, contrary to popular belief, not a reference to the band but the literary character in Willard Manus’ book Mott the Hoople.  The eponymous character of the book, much like Kaufman, thought of life as a comedy and engaged in a number of japes.

“What I was doing with the lyric for Man on the Moon was pulling in various crackpot conspiracy theories of our time, like Elvis Presley was still alive somewhere. And, even more absurd and ourageous, that when they sent a man to walk on the moon that he actually went to a stage set up somewhere in Arizona and the moonwalk never really occurred. And these were the comparisons I was drawing to the people who were not able to believe that Kaufman was dead, that, to the end, he was pulling a prank. That that idea is just as outrageous as those other theories. That he, for me, as a fan of his, puts himself on that level by being such a prankster that people actually thought that.”

– Michael Stipe.

In addition to Man on the Moon, REM also wrote a second tribute to Andy Kaufman, The Great Beyond for the purposely part-fictional 1999 biopic Man on the Moon.  In the background of the song, Stipe can be heard singing, “Here’s a little agit for the never-believer” and “Here’s a little ghost for the offering”, both lines from Man on the Moon.  Stipe said of The Great Beyond in the companion notes to REM’s greatest hits album, Part Lies. Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage in 2011:

“My stab at an Ashes To Ashes, which I consider to be one of the greatest songs ever written.  Revisit a character that you’ve written a classic song about, and try to one-up yourself.  That is no easy task.  Bowie pulled it off for real.  I think live recordings of this song are more exciting than the studio version, but it’s a stunner.  All the imagery from the chorus is from real life, and references my version of Kaufman’s favourite joke by Laurel and Hardy”.

The joke that Stipe is alluding to is from Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box (1932), in which the comic duo and two of Kaufman’s heroes, push a piano up an huge staircase with disastrous results.

The music videos for both Man on the Moon and The Great Beyond feature ‘cameos’ from Andy Kaufman.  In the video for Man on the Moon, he can be seen on the television set in the truck stop, whilst in the video for The Great Beyond, images from the biopic Man on the Moon are featured together with the band throwing darts at a television set on which Kaufman appears.

“What’s real?  What’s not?  That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality”.

– Andy Kaufman

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day One). “That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!”

It was the evening of May 12th, 1956.  Montgomery Clift, the 35 year old Hollywood heartthrob and major influence on actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, was in the prime of his career and well into filming the American Civil War melodrama, Raintree County.  He was already a three time Academy Award nominee and had changed the face of Hollywood forever.  Before Clift, Hollywood’s leading men were testosterone driven macho men such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and John Wayne.  Clift had brought an emotional depth and sensitivity to his roles, the likes of which had never been seen before.  This coupled with natural good looks which captured the hearts of women worldwide had made Clift an overnight success.  Earlier on in the evening in question, Clift had attended a dinner party hosted by his Raintree County co-star and close friend Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, Michael Wilding.  Now, the star of such box office smashes as Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) was laid in a crumpled heap of metal after his car had veered off the road into a telephone pole.

Moments after the horrific accident, friend and fellow actor Kevin McCarthy, who had been driving in front of Clift on that fateful night, on realising that Clift was no longer following him, drove back to check on his friend to find the Hollywood star slumped in the twisted wreckage of his car.  “His face was torn away – a bloody pulp.  I thought he was dead”, McCarthy later said.  McCarthy ran back to Elizabeth Taylor’s home to fetch her, Wilding, Rock Hudson and Hudson’s wife, Phyllis Gates who all raced to the scene of the accident.

The events that followed have been subject to myth and mystery ever since.  One report suggests that Rock Hudson pulled Clift from the car and Taylor cradled him in her arms, Clift choking and motioning to his throat.  Two of Clift’s teeth had become loose and lodged themselves there during the accident.  Taylor opened his mouth, forced her hand down his throat and pulled out the teeth.  Whether this report is true or not, the longevity of this story is testament to the believed bond between Clift and Taylor, it being long rumoured by the Hollywood gossip machine that he and Taylor were an item.  Clift also suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus and several facial lacerations which would require plastic surgery.  According to the report of what happened in the aftermath of the accident, when the photographers arrived, Taylor knew each and every one of them personally.  This would seem to be true as not one photo of Clift’s broken face following the accident exists.

After a recovery period of just two months, he returned to the set of Raintree County to finish the film.  Clift correctly predicted that the film would do well, despite the movie studio’s fears over profits, stating that movie-goers would flock to see the film just to see the difference in his facial appearance, particularly the right side of his face.  Considering the horrific nature of Clift’s injuries, the work carried out on his face was miraculous for the time but the accident had left his face partially immobilised and his right profile considerably altered to the point where he was unrecognisable, a mess of angles which could not possibly have been restored to their former glory.  Clift was already a heavy drinker.  It has been suggested that this was because of a long held secret that he was gay, something which at that time, particularly as a Hollywood star, would have been scandalous.  Following the accident, he became reliant on alcohol and pills for pain relief.  He had previously heavily relied on alcohol and pills for relief from a bout of dysentery which had left him with chronic intestinal problems, setting the wheels in motion for the destructive behaviour which has since vastly overshadowed his reputation as one of the greatest screen icons of all time.  Following the car accident that had nearly ended his life, Cliff’s health and physical appearance deteriorated beyond all recognition, bringing with it a change in behaviour which was at best highly erratic, until his death at just 45 years old on June 22nd, 1966.

On their classic 1979 album London Calling, The Clash paid tribute to Montgomery Clift on the song The Right Profile.  During the recording of London Calling, producer Guy Stevens lent Joe Strummer a copy of a 1978 biography of Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, suggesting that Strummer might write a song about him.  It has been suggested by some that Strummer saw a link between the alcohol and drug problems endured by Clift and the alcohol and drug problems that their producer was suffering at the time.

The title of the song refers both to the change in Clift’s looks following the accident, his ‘right profile’ being the side of his face most disfigured in the accident, and also to the way in which in films following the accident, Clift’s face had to be shot in ‘the right profile’ to avoid showing his facial disfigurements.

The song’s lyrics centre on his unrecognisable appearance and decline in the years following the crash.  “Say, where did I see this guy?” asks Joe Strummer in the song’s opening verse, “In Red River?  Or A Place in the Sun?  Maybe The MisfitsFrom Here to Eternity?”  The song goes on to tell a sad story of a sighting of the once revered Hollywood actor on 42nd Street in New York, “He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn”, with people asking “Is he alright? … He sure look funny”, after catching a glimpse in his alcohol and painkiller induced disorientated and slurred state with his damaged ‘right profile’.  On realising that the person in question is Montgomery Clift, Strummer tells the person either showing concern over or ridiculing the actor’s appearance (depending on which way you look at it):  “That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!”  During the filming of the post-crash film The Misfits (1961), Marilyn Monroe described Montgomery Clift as “The only person I know who is in worse shape than I am”.

Incidentally, the “42nd Street” mentioned in The Right Profile is an area of New York, near Times Square, which was home to activities considered unsavory, including peep shows and the like.  A comedian, who’s name has long since been forgotten, once said of 42nd Street, “They call it 42nd Street because you’re not safe if you spend more than forty seconds on it”.

“I see a car smashed at night, Cut the applause and dim the light, Monty’s face is broken on a wheel, Is he alive?  Can he still feel?” sings Strummer before detailing the dual addictions which would eventually kill the former film legend:  “Nembutol numbs it all, But I prefer alcohol”.  The song paints a sorry picture of Montgomery Clift, a former star tortured by his misfortune, obsessing over his dramatically changed appearance and looking back on his glory days:  “He said, go out and get me my old movie stills, Go out and get me another roll of pills”.

In his films, Montgomery Clift had beautifully depicted characters that were desperate, drunk or deceived but his life was more tragic than any of his screen portrayals.  Nowadays, we see Montgomery Clift as the archetypal embodiment of human suffering:  The unfortunate Hollywood actor who had it all, changed everything and lost everything.  The Right Profile is The Clash’s summary of the slowest suicide in Hollywood history.

In addition to The Clash’s The Right Profile, REM also wrote a song about Montgomery Clift, Monty Got A Raw Deal, featured on their 1992 album Automatic For the People.  Monty Got A Raw Deal also centres around Clift’s crash and decline but is also thought to be about the way in which his homosexuality was repressed for the sake of his career.  This seems fitting as Michael Stipe came out as gay in 2001 after years of speculation.  Incidentally, the title of the song is also a reference to an American game show called Let’s Make A Deal hosted by Monty Hall from 1963 to 1976.  The song draws parallels between Let’s Make A Deal audience members making arbitrary decisions about picking random doors or containers which may have contained either valuable or worthless prizes depending on the participant’s luck and Montgomery Clift’s luck (his “Raw Deal”) in the last years of his life, addicted to alcohol and painkillers and in agony because of injuries sustained in his crash, as well as being haunted by his inability to live an openly gay life.

Further to this, Morrissey, a long time fan of classic Hollywood, is thought to make a more subtle reference to Montgomery Clift on his song Let Me Kiss You, from You Are The Quarry (2004).  The opening lyric, “There’s a place in the sun for anyone who has the will to chase one …” could be considered to be a nod to one of Clift’s most famous films, A Place in the Sun, using Clift’s disfigurement five years after A Place in the Sun, to tie in with the idea of physical repulsion in the chorus, “Close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire”.  If we were to see the aforementioned lines in Let Me Kiss You as a reference to Montgomery Clift, they could also be suggestive of a gay relationship.  Similarly to Stipe, there has also been much speculation surrounding Morrissey’s sexuality.  It has been reported that Morrissey has admitted to being gay on a few occasions, although this is sometimes later rebuked by the singer.  For example, in 2013, following the release of his autobiography which details a fondness for photographer Jake Owen Walters (although it never explicitly says they were lovers), he released a statement through his semi-official website True To You reading, “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course … not many”.

Montgomery Clift’s career consisted of eight years of outstanding cinematic work followed by a full decade of terminal decline but the songs that he has inspired are testament to his ongoing appeal.  This appeal may often lay in the fact that he represents the tragic hero; unfulfilled desires; the repression of one’s true self; battles with demons; undeniably brilliant ability struck down at it’s zenith by misfortune and unforeseen events; the worst case scenario of what happens when things go horribly wrong and the thought of what could have been:  All more than worthy subject matter for inspiring great music.