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Original Essays | September 17, 2014 4 comments
My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »
What's a Nice Yank Like You doing Writing About Us Lot? or, How I Came to Write Ready, Steady, Go!by Shawn Levy
So I suppose the obvious question is "Why Swinging London?"
There are two answers, both true, but one truer.
The merely true answer is that it just makes sense coming after my previous books. The first, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis (1996), followed one man from the cradle to the present and painted a picture of bygone Catskills and nightclub entertainment and the height and decline of the Hollywood studio system. The next, Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Show Biz Party (1998), dealt with the final flameout of old school show biz Vegas, mobsters, Kennedys, dirty deals, and the carrying on and growing old (not always graceful) of a handful of entertainment superstars.
In both of those books, there came a point where I wrote a passage to the effect "And then the '60s happened and they didn't matter any more." What that meant, of course, was that the Beatles showed up on American soil and ushered in a whole new kind of show biz, a multi-media blitz which was initiated by kids and not corporations and which was wrapped up in massive changes in fashion, hair and make-up, slang, sexual mores, intoxication and, of course, pop music, popular film, fine and popular art everything, really.
And when I thought about how much of that all came over with the Beatles when I realized just how wide, deep and thorough the British Invasion of which they were the acme was I realized that there was an entire culture in England, and in London specifically, that had given the Beatles not a birthplace but a platform. I thought about theater, fine art, radio, journalism, crime, scandal, fashion, gossip, sensation, film, comedy and, of course, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll: The Brits were foremost in all of them at the time and, indeed, all of modern popular culture the mass media world in which we all still live was born in a few postal districts of London in a few years at the dawn of the '60s.
What a cool book that would make, he thought with a dumb complacency, with no clue about how it might come about.
And that brings us to the really true answer.
In August, 1998, when Rat Pack Confidential, had been out for a few months, I sat down for lunch in New York with my editor, Bill Thomas, and a marketing person from Doubleday in order to scheme up a new project.
My single burning ambition at that luncheon was to get Doubleday to agree to a project that would send me to Italy on repeated trips: a biography of Federico Fellini, maybe, or a book about the making of La Dolce Vita and the Italian economic miracle it embodied skinny ties, Eurotrash, Vespas, Marcello Mastroianni, and so on.
Bill was kind: "I can see it, but I don't think we can do it. What came next?"
My mind flipped forward through a few leaves of the calendar and I blurted out, "Swinging London." The first Austin Powers film had been a surprise hit the previous summer. The video was making an even bigger splash; people hadn't yet grown tired of saying "Yeah, baby!" to one another. Anyone could imagine such a book being well-received. Bill said "That's great!" More importantly, the marketing gal thought it was a good idea, too.
The only problem was that at the moment I said it I only knew as much about the subject as any relatively worldly person my age: I would have to absorb tons of material social, political, historical, economic, musical, cinematic, stylistic, artistic to get to the whys and wheretofores, let alone the sort of gossipy, juicy material that would bring the book alive. It would take me months and at least one trip to England to get the lay of the land and gather resources simply to put together a proposal for the project.
Fortunately (and I swear this is true), when I returned home to Portland from New York I found that Powell's had two of the only three books ever attempted on the British '60s a bigger subject than Swinging London, as I was to discover, but essential background nonetheless. I gobbled 'em up.
And even more fortunately, when I went to England that fall, Rat Pack Confidential just happened to be going into publication there and the editor who acquired it happened, though even younger than me, the cheeky lad, to be a rabid devotee of the '60s. He played hooky from work one day and showed me around the city not as it is but as it used to be: "That Starbucks was the only paperback bookstore in London and Allen Ginsberg read there....This strip joint was a trendy nightclub where Paul McCartney met Linda Eastman....This empty storefront was the art gallery where John Lennon met Yoko Ono" that sort of thing. I spent several whole days in the British Library, where I read and Xeroxed a load of material in old books, newspapers and magazines. I stuffed a duffle bag with books and papers, and I returned home to digest it all and imagine how it could add up to a book. Four months later, I had enough of a grasp on what I wanted to write to draw up a proposal and come to a contract with publishers in New York and London.
In many respects, it was an impossible task to take on: you could (and I eventually did) fill bookcases and file cabinets with everything ever written about London in the '60s the pop stars, the fashion, the gangsters, the scandals, the movies, the politics, the drugs, the art, the theater. I had to learn everything: the government, the money, what the Profumo scandal was, how did Carnaby Street start, were there as many opportunities for gays and Jews and other disenfranchised types as it seemed, and, most importantly, how did it end and why? This was a million-word project, surely, and my previous two books combined had been about one-third that long.
And unlike writing about Jerry Lewis or the Rat Pack, it had no obvious people at the center: Swinging London was filled with celebrity faces, but they didn't all travel together in an integrated unit. The thing that defined them, in fact, was place in time: London in the '60s would have to be the main character.
In this respect, the book would work sort of like an inversion of Rat Pack Confidential. In that book, as I always used to tell people, Las Vegas was the sixth and in some ways most important member of the Rat Pack. They could never have gotten away with the things they did without Las Vegas. In this book, however, the city itself would be the main character the book would be about where and how and when exactly the city as an entity ignited, soared and crashed and the people whose lives were most emblematic of the period would be woven throughout the book like plaits of hair in a braid.
I imagined that this series of biographies would, cheekily, be of eminent but not necessarily preeminent Swinging Londoners: 8 or 10 people who made the scene happen from behind the curtain, as it were. A few were set in my mind from the first day: fashion photographer and portraitist David Bailey, avant garde art dealer Robert Fraser, Beatle manager Brian Epstein, actor Terence Stamp, fashion designer Mary Quant, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. Others I thought about on and off and added to and discarded from the list during the several years when I researched the book and allowed the material to stew in my head: comedian Peter Cook, the criminal Kray twins, the singers Marianne Faithfull and Donovan, the actor Michael Caine, the model Twiggy, the playwright Joe Orton. In the end, all of those very first people I thought of made the final cut, as it happened, and all of the others fell out, although they would all appear to greater or lesser degree in the finished book.
One fellow whom I resisted at the outset did wind up elbowing his way in. The more I investigated the scene, the more I came to realize how the story of London in the '60s was in a great many respects the story of the Rolling Stones, a London band who moved from roots music to psychedelia to black-hearted rock and roll and accumulated around them the sorts of scenesters, slummers, riff raff and poseurs who would be the core of the book; Mick Jagger, as a result would become a major figure in my telling of the tale.
As I learned in putting things together, Swinging London, though a '60s phenomenon, began somewhat earlier, in embryonic little scenes in Soho and Chelsea. To be thorough, the book would have to start some time toward the end of the '50s, during the British bohemian phase that was much more stylistically sharp and smart than the shaggy American beatnik or folks scenes; it would then build to a frenzy in the years 1962-66; then come down sharply as the advent of psychedelic drugs and the international hippie movement drained London of its exuberant vibe and cost it its monopoly on global cool. Only a few paragraphs would be devoted to anything that happened after Christmas 1969.
And, dear god, whatever else I might do or fail to do, I would absolutely not write it in a Swinging London voice. Rat Pack Confidential had been written in a Walter Winchell-James Ellroy wiseacre voice that was specified in my contract as "steeped in Vegas lingo." But only an idiot would write a book about England in the '60s in a voice like that of, say, Austin Powers. For one thing, I had accidentally acquired a large British readership, the English having embraced Rat Pack Confidential to a degree I found flattering but utterly inexplicable. For another, it was just a stupid idea however you sliced it: me trying to sound like a yobbo, spiv or toff. When it finally came time to write, I spent six months waking up, making coffee, sitting in front of a computer and reminding myself by silent mantra 'do not try to sound like Austin Powers.' The finished book uses plenty of period terms and British slang (honestly, who could resist words like yobbo, spiv and toff?), but the "smashings," "yeah, babys" and "oh, be-haves" were absolutely out of bounds.
(Imagine, then, my horror when the very first review of the book, by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, was written entirely....in the voice of Austin Powers a shock the impact of which I could rant about at enormous length if someone else was paying for the beers....)
Between the spring of 1999, when I returned to England to continue my poking around and start conducting interviews, to the spring and summer of 2001, when I was on sabbatical from The Oregonian to write the book, all of my vacations, reading time and musical listening were devoted to London. I spoke with dozens of people who were in and on the scene, including several of my principal characters (for it is as characters that I think of them, even though they are all real). I turned up all sorts of oddities: facts, coincidences, and lots of strange publications, music and films. I had a fair share of lightning inspirations, some of which actually stood up to scrutiny over time. I wore out a copy of my pocket-sized London A-to-Z street guide and pasted a detailed map of the city onto a piece of foamcore which became a centerpiece of my office. My eight trips to London were filled with the most bizarre form of sightseeing: I didn't visit Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Big Ben or any museum unless it was showing a '60s-related exhibit; rather, I sought out former boutiques and pubs and the addresses of old London scenesters; I scoured used book and record shops and spent aeons in libraries and archives; and I walked up and down the streets of Soho and Chelsea to try to picture the past impasted upon the present.
By the time I had finished the first draft September 10 of last year, auspiciously enough I was actually telling people who had lived through the period things they didn't know about it. When I recently shared one of my key theories of Swinging London with Michael Caine that the British '60s were about joining in while the American '60s were about dropping out he told me he'd never heard it summarized so well; I admit to blushing with pride (thank goodness we were talking on the phone!).
An editing process, a copyediting process and a photo editing process later and, voila, the finished book: six to ten biographies, depending on how you count; a picture of a half-dozen fields of endeavor as they came to bubbling fruition at a thrilling moment in history; a vision of a world capital unlike any in memory; the movement of a monumental decade as it shapeshifted and took on various unpredictable hues and textures; an appreciation of dozens of indelible works of art (the likes of Revolver and Blow-Up and the miniskirt and Sympathy for the Devil and some brilliant photographs and certain haircuts and a long-gone style of nightclubbing); and lots and lots of ripping good anecdotes about young movers and shakers drunk on drink, fame, sex, drugs, hope, hype and their self-made images of their glory.
Maybe that leads me, finally, to what is probably the best answer to the question "Why Swinging London?"
Which would be, "Because it's so much damned fun!"
Shawn Levy is film critic of The Oregonian and a columnist for Movieline and Pulse! magazines. He has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, Sight and Sound, Premiere, American Film, Film Comment, Interview, Loaded, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications.