Kirsten Dunst squealed with delight when Ian Whitcomb entered her trailer holding a tiny instrument case in his hand. ”I just love ukuleles!“ she said. Whitcomb strummed a few tunes for her, selected from the vast cache of Tin Pan Alley, music-hall and vaudeville songs stashed in his brain. When director Peter Bogdanovich heard about this, he decided Dunst should sing an old jazz standard to Whitcomb’s ukulele while the credits rolled at the end of his movie.
Bogdanovich had hired the ex–British Invasion pop star to write and record the songs for The Cat‘s Meow, which re-creates the apocryphal story of an unrestrainedly immoral party held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924. As the rumor goes, on that night Hearst caught Charlie Chaplin kissing Hearst‘s mistress, actress Marion Davies (played by Dunst). Enraged, Hearst shot at Chaplin but missed, killing silent-movie producer Thomas Ince instead.
The 60-year-old Whitcomb took Dunst into the studio, and they recorded ”After You’ve Gone,“ a jilted lover‘s lament written in 1918. Dunst’s breathy vocals, aching with sexual unrest, were accompanied by Whitcomb‘s sweet, unadorned ukulele and accordion. Whitcomb delivered the song to the director, heard nothing more about it and assumed his work was done.
Some months later, during a John Ford retrospective at the Directors Guild, Whitcomb bumped into Bogdanovich, who was chatting with someone Whitcomb later described in his online journal as ”a tarted up old lady wearing what looked like an off-the-peg wig.“ Bogdanovich introduced Whitcomb to the woman, Maureen O’Hara. The director then told Whitcomb he needed to talk to him about ”After You‘ve Gone.“
It turned out the director wasn’t pleased with it. Feedback from a test audience indicated overwhelming approval for Dunst‘s vocals, but viewers felt the backing stunk. Bogdanovich wanted to jazz it up, to make it ”blacker,“ ”dirtier.“ He also ordered Whitcomb to get rid of the ukulele.
Whitcomb felt a pang of anguish. How could he leave behind his dearly loved Martin soprano ukulele — Ukie! — the one he had purchased at a New Orleans pawnshop for $25 in June 1963, two years before he was to enjoy a flashbulb-pop of fame for panting and moaning his way through a novelty hit called ”You Turn Me On,“ which reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100? Ukie had been his constant companion for three decades, a ”servant, providing a balm to ease away the wounds we receive as we make our way down the road none of us choose to enter.“
But the director said no ukulele.
Balm-less, Whitcomb returned to the studio with a group of hired jazz musicians. Bogdanovich, in New York, oversaw the session by listening in on his cell phone, occasionally while riding in a taxi. (”A little more trumpet there . . . Turn left at 77th Street!“) Whitcomb’s arm got tired from holding the phone to the studio speaker. Ten hours later, Bogdanovich proclaimed the song was good. He even ordered Whitcomb to put the uke track in again.
Whitcomb wants to use the money he earned on the movie to install higher hedges around his fenced-in 1947 Craftsman house in Altadena. Filled with vintage musical instruments, knickknacks, posters, photographs and ephemera from the early 20th century, Whitcomb‘s house is a cultural bomb shelter where he tries to pretend the real world doesn’t exist.
Sometimes the real world leaks in. In one of his monthly ”Letters From Lotusland,“ which he publishes on his Web site (www.ianwhitcomb.com), Whitcomb writes, ”Are you bothered by the sight and sound of neighbors? Regularly I have to troop over to the neighbors opposite to ask them, in a diplomatic tone, to please turn down the bass of their music machine. They sit or sprawl around their expensive SUVs and black sedans as the thud of bass permeates our area for block after block. When I ask them to turn down the bass, they shoot me a look of amazement and disdain, as if I‘m a creature from another planet.“
A resident of Los Angeles since 1979, Whitcomb pegs himself in the liner notes to his Very Best of Ian Whitcomb CD as a ”paranoid and misanthropic“ individual. In person, he’s charming, chatty and curious. Pallid and slender, with a twinkle in his eye, the gray-haired Whitcomb says his early career burnout as a teen idol was a good thing, but it took a long time for it to pan out. After ”You Turn Me On,“ he discovered he was washed up as a rock & roller. ”I couldn‘t make another hit, couldn’t get any record contracts.“ Eventually, he mothballed his trademark deerstalker cap and herringbone suit and returned to the kind of music he listened to growing up in England: vintage sentimental ballads and parlor songs with whimsical titles such as ”Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?“ and ”I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.“
Needless to say, his new musical direction didn‘t help record sales any. In the ’70s and ‘80s, he branched out into writing, penning a half-dozen excellent books, including After the Ball: Pop Music From Rag to Rock, Rock Odyssey (his memoirs of life as a pop idol in the ’60s) and Resident Alien (a darkly funny book about his experiences as an expatriate living in Los Angeles, written for British readers). In 1989, when it started to look like he‘d found his calling as an author, his editor and friend Oliver Caldecott, head of Penguin’s fiction department, died. No other publisher seemed to be interested. Undaunted, Whitcomb continued to write, for himself and for magazines such as American Heritage. And he continued to play music, often for free at bars and senior-citizen centers in Southern California. He also hosted weekly radio shows at a number of stations, including KCRW and KROQ. When those jobs dried up, he established a music show on the Internet.
It seemed as though Whitcomb would be doomed to strum Ukie in obscurity, but word started to get around Hollywood that he was a sort of quirky national living treasure when it came to period music. After a bit of consulting work for Titanic, he made his own CD titled Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage, which won a Grammy in 1998. In 1999, he was cast as the ghost of a ukulele performer in Stanley‘s Gig, a low-budget movie starring Faye Dunaway. (Whitcomb also wrote the songs for the movie, which hasn’t been scheduled to open in theaters.)
Now Whitcomb is on a roll. ”All these follies I‘ve made,“ he says, ”are beginning to pay off.“ He recently returned from Toronto, where he supervised the music for Against the Current, a Showtime movie about the last year of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, starring Jeremy Irons and Neve Campbell, which will air later this year.
He doesn‘t seem to care much about the money that’s coming in. He spent the $25,000 he earned from a recent job to make a self-produced CD that he gives away to anyone who appears interested. He seems to be more excited about his desk at the Huntington Library in San Marino, where he researches and writes about turn-of-the-century music and culture for obscure publications and ukulele songbooks, than he is about his next movie assignment. And nothing will stop him from doing what he loves most: playing Ukie in front of an audience. He‘s a member of local ukulele chanteuse Janet Klein’s backup band, the Parlor Boys, and he has his own band, the Bungalow Boys, which plays in small venues and restaurants in the area. Next month, he and wife Regina (a singer and dancer) will embark on a musical tour of California state libraries to give lectures on the history of the state. As he talks about the tour with rising enthusiasm in his voice, it‘s clear he’s happier about the library gig than anything else going on. ”We‘ll be like minstrels,“ he says. ”It’s going to be wonderful!“
Ian Whitcomb appears at Cantalini‘s Salerno Beach Restaurant and at Kulak’s Woodshed, both on Sunday, February 3.