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Hollywood Requiem 

John Gilmore asks the musical question: Can a serial killer find happiness in L.A.?

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
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”People tell me, ‘Hollywood has no mercy,’“ author and L.A. native John Gilmore says on the telephone from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. ”I tell them, ‘No, Hollywood has absolutely no mercy, and it has no kindness, no happiness’ -- it‘s an indifferent thing. Hollywood is truly that old term, the ’bitch goddess,‘ and she doesn’t give a flying shit about you, about what you want, who you are, your dreams, your aspirations, your failures. You‘re just another sausage in a long row of sausages. And there’s a certain charm and power in that.“

This is the voice of authority speaking. John Gilmore -- one-time actor, screenwriter, low-budget director and all-round veteran of ‘50s and ’60s Hollywood, who once palled around with young unknowns that included Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and James Dean -- is honing in on the nature of the city that‘s served as both backdrop and ultimate subject of his half-dozen nonfiction books.

From an early (1971) study on the Manson family (The Garbage People) to a candid memoir of his friendship with Dean (Live Fast, Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean), and culminating in the monumental Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, Gilmore’s life‘s work has been the creation of an unrelentingly bleak, a corrosively truthful portrait of this, our city-state: HollywoodLos Angeles. Now the author’s West Coast publisher, Stuart Swezey of Amok Books, has released the first-ever Gilmore spoken-word CD, Laid Bare, and it‘s surely the first of a new species: the nonfiction, true-crime, Hollywood-memoir jazz album, featuring a smoky, noirish score written by L.A. composer and guitarist Skip Heller (a Weekly contributor.)

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In a strikingly deep, hollow-barrel voice, Gilmore narrates a series of autobiographical vignettes and cameo portraits, most of them culled from his 1997 Hollywood tell-all book, Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip (published by Amok, and called by one reviewer ”just about the direst warning ever published about the perils of aspiring to fame“). The CD’s cast of characters includes a lineup of famously giftedself-destructiveevilfatuous personalities, all of whose lives intersected with Gilmore‘s, either on the way up, down or into the abyss -- from the then-unknown Janis Joplin, to the wasted actress-turned-prostitute Barbara Payton, down to booze-addled Ed Wood and perpetually incarcerated nutball Charles Manson.

Opening with evocative readings from Severed, Gilmore and Heller create a dark, period mood with glimpses of the brief, aimless life of Elizabeth Short, the ”Dahlia“ whose radiant personality still lives in Gilmore’s words (”This beautiful girl that would light up when she saw you“) -- along with the author‘s haunting word-picture of the crime scene on the morning of January 15, 1947. Gilmore then fast-forwards to the mid-’60s, and a cafe meeting he had with what was left of ‘50s Warner Bros. star Payton (”She’d hit the skids. ‘I’m a drunk,‘ she said. ’Drinking wine all day and writing poetry‘“). Ed Wood fans will get giggles out of ”Nightmare on Yucca Street,“ in which Gilmore recounts a time in dreary, early-’60s Hollywood when both he and Wood penned cruddy porn paperbacks for the France imprint (”Your Guarantee of Exciting and Entertaining Reading“).

Asked for fresh thoughts on Wood, the circus clown of Laid Bare‘s parade of stars, Gilmore answers, with wonder in his voice, ”The guy actually put his name on everything! Here’s this book, The Castration of Harry or something, and I thought, ‘Jesus! To put your name on that must mean you think it’s good!‘ I thought, ’It‘s like there’s nothing behind him -- that‘s everything!’“

Discussing the genesis of the project, Gilmore says that following introductory phone conversations with Heller, ”I said, ‘Skip, why don’t you go through all my works and tell me the pieces that really inspire you, that you‘d like to do some music for?’ So that‘s how that came about. He’s a very, very brilliant composer. I really like where his head‘s at. I like the music. I like the whole thing.“

Gilmore says he was ”totally thrilled“ when he learned that R&B saxophonist Big Jay McNeely would be part of the jazz combo Heller assembled to back him up. ”When I was a young kid in L.A., about 1945, I used to go down to Dolphin’s of Hollywood, way down on Central Avenue in South L.A., and buy Big Jay McNeely records. So it was like a full circle.“ Though he acknowledges a few glitches in the mixing and thinks now that he ”tended to read too fast in spots,“ Gilmore says, ”overall, I‘m satisfied. It falls in line with the tacky, tasteless stuff I’ve done.“ He laughs. ”It‘s a B-movie CD.“

Any advice for young actors, I ask the Boswell of the Doomed?

”Yes. ’Go East, young man!‘“

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