|Illustration by Tony Mostrom|
IT'S FRIDAY NIGHT AND I'VE JUST ARRIVED AT the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax, that intense, satisfying shrine to the Past, that Mecca and cocoon for those of us in the, ahem, "time-traveling community" whose imaginations tend to dwell in the early decades of the 20th century, particularly the mysterious and sexy world of Hollywood in the 1920s -- a place where on any given night you can see a cute young woman with hair severely black-and-bobbed à la Louise Brooks in the crowd; where excited whispers ripple across the audience whenever some vaguely familiar L.A. street flashes onto the screen during a silent car chase of Model T's and A's filmed over 70 years ago; and a place where long-accepted realities of time and mortality abruptly confront their laughing masters: the springtime of youth, health, humor, and of course the vintage 1928 beauty of Bebe Daniels.
I've earlier been tipped off that L.A.'s reigning "ukulele chanteuse" and singer of "Obscure, Naughty and Lovely Songs" c. 1910-1935, Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys, have been booked to give a surprise performance here before tonight's scheduled film, Buster Keaton's Go West (1925). The theater is packed, the marquee outside says BUSTER AND JANET 8PM, and the feeling of excited anticipation among the well-dressed crowd is palpable.
Here comes Charlie Lustman, the young proprietor of the Silent, running down the aisle and bounding up onto the stage, arriving in a rolling, Keatonesque pratfall -- what is he, nuts? -- splat. Channeling the electricity in the room, he gives the crowd an energetic welcome, concluding boldly: "I'm sure you all agree that talkies are just a passing phaaase," and announcing over the laughter, "Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys!" As they come ambling onto the brightly lit, shallow stage in front of the gold-glittered curtain, the sight of Janet's eight-piece band, shining acoustic instruments in hand, carries with it a shock of recognition for those of us who stare all day at photos of 1920s gangsters: dark-blue and brown and pinstripe suits, wide satin ties and fedora hats.
A few nods, muttered agreement, then the moment of uncanny spark when the speakeasyLast Supper frieze comes to life, belting out the 1926 hot dance number "Bundle of Love," its jumping Django-like rhythm courtesy of Billy Steele's 12-string guitar and handsome Tom Marion's steely arpeggios on a delectably weathered 1930s acoustic guitar. Beautiful Janet, a triumphant look on her illuminated smiling face, is swiveling slightly on her hips, a dainty incarnation of the '20s ballroom singer with gardenias in her hair, slim and looking more It than Clara Bow.
The tapping of the brushes on the trap set is keeping up the rhythm, and Benny Brydern takes a Grappelli-inspired fiddle solo, borne on the catchy melody as Klein swings and swoons. After the applause, Klein -- the enthusiastic collector of vintage obscurities -- announces, "This song was banned from the radio in 1934," and the lyrics to "Hurry on Down" are both cute and hot: "C'mon honey give me a try/I'm like a Chesterfield I satisfy/So hurry on down to my house, honey/Ain't nobody home but me."
More applause when Klein announces, "Here's Brad Kay!" Dapper in a cream-brown suit with matching bow tie and beret, the barrel-chested Kay -- a multi-instrumentalist and composer who loves to recall his years as a Shakey's Pizza ragtime piano player ("10 different parlors") -- smiles a toothy one, puts muted cornet to lips and growls out the opening bars of "Nasty Man" (1934), a Parlor Boys staple with the kind of bawdy strip-joint sound that's hard-wired into our veins. When Janet sings, "Yooouuu, sweet an' nasty/I know what's on your mind/Yooouuu pull a fasty/You make me sizzle, an' then you chisel," it makes me wonder how many of us know what "chisel" meant. I jot down in my notebook: "Some of these songs are sentimental, some sexual/funny/drug-related, but they all come from a time when hipness (personified in black and white jazz musicians, hopheads, sailors & other recalcitrant bachelors) had no teenage connotations at all -- this silly desire to remain an adolescent." Janet rolls her wide eyes up to the ceiling.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM, THIS PERSISTENT and recurring fascination with the '20s? Well, there's the obvious sexiness of the decade -- a revolutionary time for the female when, following WWI, heavy sackcloths were thrown off in favor of tiny skirts, and basically, lust went public and uppity. It was also the original urbanized, mass-media-soaked Smart-Ass Decade, the first one we can recognize as the granddaddy of our own civilization: Louise Brooks laughing in the face of Babbitt. Both sides of that great "culture war" -- the brazen horniness of the City vs. the traditional, chaste courtship of the Farm -- were expressed in the songs of the time. And unlike the rock & roll era, it was a time rich in songs that were meant to be funny. Hence the thrill of discovery that Janet Klein, her fellow archaeologists and their audiences feel unearthing these long-buried nuggets of our heritage that, at first blush at least, seem so alien to us now.
Two days later, on a clear, breezy Sunday afternoon, I drive out to the Unurban Cafe, a small coffeehouse on Pico Boulevard in West L.A. Every Sunday from 2 to 5, Brad Kay holds court here, usually at the piano. (I ask him if the gig has a name. "Office Hours," he says. "The Pianist Is In.") In contrast to the glitter and razzmatazz of the Silent gig, at the Unurban it's relaxed in the extreme; give or take a wandering hobo, there are about six people here. "It's a bohemian place in dire need of bohemians," says Kay, but since he also says, "I don't like crowds; I'd be a big hit at the Loners Convention," he probably likes it that way.
He's seated at the offstage piano, pounding out red-hot, syncopated obscurities from the Buried Years and tossing off jokes and bits of learned information between pieces ("Irving Berlin had a cosmic sense of melody, probably the greatest since Schubert . . . here's my Sugar Underwood imitation"), and you realize you're sitting in the presence of the Parlor Boys Encyclopedia. (I don't think he'd want to be called a "repository.") In fact, Kay has spent most of his 40-plus years devouring the entire histories of ragtime, popular songs, jazz and blues; running a reissue label (Superbatone); and performing for you, dear listeners . . .
"Sympa-thiiize, with my condition," he drawls, slowly banging out the opening bars of "Cause I Feel Low Down," a 1928 Paramount 78:
I usedta have a very, very easy disposition 'bout women,
But now they jus' 'bout drive me crazy with suspicion,
An' I'm feelin' very -- low -- down . . .
On top o' that I'm feelin' right about regusted,
I thought sho' that gal o' mine could be trusted,
An' now I got my heart all jus' about busted,
An' I'm feelin' very -- low -- down . . .
And I'm saying to myself, This is probably the funkiest music happening in town at this moment, and nobody knows it. "Who recorded that, Brad?" I ask afterward. "Clarence Black Savoy Trio," he answers, launching into an uptempo, happy piece, "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!" (1926). Former New York cabaret singer Suzy Williams, Kay's partner in an ongoing Sophie Tucker vaudeville act, sings along in harmony from her chair, before Brad ends it all in a frenzied flourish. "Boy, that's some hot stuff, cchhot stuff, I love zem Amerrrican fox trrrots, zo funn . . ."
During a break, a grizzled old record dealer sits down at a table next to a fresh-faced, pixie-ish young woman. Without introducing himself, he begins pontificating on the subject of Bing Crosby. "Bing was a hot jazz singer with Paul Whiteman before he cut his first records as a crooner. Those made his career, you know." Satisfied, he stops there and sips his coffee. She answers, "You mean the Brunswick 6000 Series." I think to myself, with utter, final certainty, two things: True nostalgiacs are born, not made, and I shall never hear those words uttered by a female voice again.LA
Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys perform at the Silent Movie Theater on Friday, August 2, at 8 p.m.