I was bombing.
Atom bombing: sweaty hands, shakes pending. My back-up combo sounded off-sync--I knew it was me, jumping ahead of the beat. BIG ROOM FEAR grabbed my nuts; headlines screamed:
"Contino Tanks Lackluster Crowd at Crescendo!"
"Contino Lays Pre-Easter Egg at Sunset Strip Opening!"
"Bumble Boogie" to "Ciribiribin"--a straight-for-the-jugular accordion segue. I put my whole body into a bellows shake; my brain misfired a message to my fingers. My fingers obeyed--I slammed out the "Tico-Tico" finale. Contagious misfires: my combo came in with a bridge theme from "Rhapsody in Blue."
I just stood there.
House lights snapped on. I saw Leigh and Chrissy Staples, Nancy Ankrum, Kay Van Obst. My wife, my friends--plus a shitload of first nighters oozing shock.
"Rhapsody in Blue" fizzled out behind me. BIG ROOM FEAR clutched my balls and SQUEEZED.
I tried patter. "Ladies and gentlemen, that was 'Dissonance Jump,' a new experimental twelve-tone piece."
My friends yukked. A geek in a Legionnaire cunt cap yelled, "Draft Dodger!"
Instant silence--big room loud. I froze on Joe Patriot: boozeflushed, Legion cap, Legion armband. My justification riff stood ready: I went to Korea, got honorably discharged, got pardoned by Harry S Truman.
No, try this: "Fuck you. Fuck your mother. Fuck your dog."
The Legionnaire froze. I froze. Leigh froze behind a smile that kissed off two grand a week, two weeks minimum.
The whole room froze.
Cocktail debris pelted me: olives, ice, whisky sour fruit. My accordion dripped maraschino cherries--I slid it off and set it down behind some footlights.
My brain misfired a message to my fists: kick Joe Patriot's ass.
I vaulted the stage and charged him. He tossed his drink in my face; pure grain spirits stung my eyes and blinded me. I blinked, sputtered, and swung haymakers. Three missed; one connected-- the impact made me wah-wah quiver. My vision cleared--I thought I'd see Mr. America dripping teeth.
I was wrong.
Joe Legion--gone. In his place, cut cheekbone-deep by my rock-encrusted guinea wedding ring: Cisco Andrade, the world's #1 lightweight contender.
Sheriff's bulls swarmed in and fanned out. Backstopping them: Deputy Dot Rothstein, 200+ pounds of bull dyke with the hots for my friend Chris Staples.
Andrade said, "You dumb son-of-a-bitch."
I just stood there.
My eyes dripped gin; my left hand throbbed. The Crescendo main room went phantasmagoric:
There's Leigh: juking the cops with "Dick Contino, Red Scare Victim" rebop. There's the Legionnaire, glomming my sax man's autograph. Dot Rothstein's sniffing the air--my drummer just ducked backstage with a reefer. Chrissy's giving Big Dot a wide berth--they worked a lezbo entrapment gig once--Dot's had a torch sizzling ever since.
Shouts. Fingers pointed my way. Mickey Cohen with his bulldog Mickey Cohen, Jr--snout deep in a bowl of cocktail nuts. Mickey, Sr., nightclub Jesus--slipping the boss deputy a cash wad.
Andrade squeezed my ratched-up hand--I popped tears. "You play your accordion at my little boy's birthday party. He likes clowns, so you dress up like Chucko the Clown. You do that and we're even."
I nodded. Andrade let my hand go and dabbed at his cut. Mickey Cohen cruised by and spieled payback. "My niece is having a birthday party. You think you could play it? You think you could dress up like Davy Crockett with one of those coonskin caps?"
I nodded. The fuzz filed out--a deputy flipped me the bird and muttered, "Draft Dodger."
Mickey Cohen, Jr., sniffed my crotch. I tried to pet him--the cocksucker snapped at me.
Leigh and Chris met me at Googie's. Nancy Ankrum and Kay Van Obst joined us--we packed a big booth full.
Leigh pulled out her scratch pad. "Steve Katz was furious. He made the bookkeeper pro-rate your pay down to one half of one show for one night."
My hand throbbed--l grabbed the ice out of Chrissy's water glass. "Fifty scoots?"
"Forty and change. They counted it down to the penny."
Demons hovered: Leigh's obstetrician, the Yeakel Olds repo man. I said, "They don't repossess babies."
"No, but they do repossess three month delinquent Starfire 88's. Dick, did you have to get the Continental Kit, 'Kustom King' interior, and that hideous accordion hood ornament?"
Chrissy: "It was an Italian rivalry thing. Buddy Greco's got a car like that, so Dick had to have one."
Kay: "My husband has an 88. He said the 'Kustom King' interior is so soft that he almost fell asleep once on the San Bernardino Freeway."
Nancy: "Chester Boudreau, one of my favorite sex killers of all time, preferred Oldsmobiles. He said Oldsmobiles had a bulk that children found comforting, so it was easy to lure kids into them."
Right on cue: my three-girl chorus. Chrissy sang with Buddy Greco and sold Dexedrine; Nancy played trombone in Spade Cooley's all-woman band and pen-palled with half the pervs in San Quentin. Kay: National President of the Dick Contino Fan Club. We go back to my Army Beef: Kay's husband Pete bossed the Fed team that popped me for desertion.
Our food arrived. Nancy talked up the "West Hollywood Whipcord"--some fiend who'd strangled two lovebird duos parked off the Strip--just blocks away. Chris boo-hooed my Crescendo fracas and bemoaned the end of Buddy's Mocombo stand two weeks hence.
Nancy interrupted her: Whipcord mania had her by the shorts. She was laying odds already: the Whipcord would reign as 1958's #1 psycho-killer.
Leigh let me read her eyes:
Your friends co-sign your bullshit, but I won't.
Your display of manly pique cost us four grand.
You fight the COWARD taint with your fists, you must make it worse.
Radioactive eyes--I evaded them via small talk. "Chrissy, did you catch Dot Rothstein checking you out?"
Chris choked down a hunk of Reuben Sandwich. "Yes, and it's been five years since the Barbara Graham gig."
"Barbara Graham" tweaked Nan the Ghoul. I elaborated:
"Chrissy was doing nine months in the Woman's Jail downtown when Barbara Graham was there."
Nancy, breathless: "And?"
"And she just happened to be in the cell next to her's."
Chris jumped in. "Quit talking about me like I'm not here."
"And I was doing nine months for passing forged Dilaudid prescriptions. Dot was the matron on my tier, and she was smitten by me, which I consider a testimonial to her good taste. Barbara Graham and those partners of hers, Santo and Perkins, had just been arrested for the Mabel Monohan killing. Barbara kept protesting that she was innocent, and the D.A.'s Office was afraid that a jury might believe her. Dot heard a rumor that Barbara went lez whenever she did jail time, and she got this brainstorm to have me cozy up to Barbara in exchange for a sentence reduction. I agreed, but stipulated no sapphic contact. The D.A.'s Office cut a deal with me, but I couldn't get Barbara to admit anything vis-a-goddamn-vis the night of March 9, 1953. We exchanged mildly flirtatious napkin notes, which Dot sold to Hush-Hush Magazine, and they published with my name deleted. I got my sentence reduction and Barbara got the gas chamber, and Dot Rothstein's got herself convinced that I'm a lezzie. She still sends me Christmas cards. Have you ever gotten a lipstick smeared Christmas card from a two hundred pound diesel dyke?"
The whole booth howled. Kay squealed with her mouth full--some club soda spritzed out and hit Leigh. A flashbulb popped--I spotted Danny Getchell and a Hush-Hush camera jockey.
Getchell spritzed headlines: "'Accordion Ace Activates Lethal Left Hook at Crescendo Fistfest.' 'Draft Dodger Taunt Torches Torrid Temper Tantrum.' 'Quo Vadis, Dick Contino?--Comeback Crumbles in Niteclub Crack-Up.'"
Nancy walked back to the pay phones. I said, "Danny, this is publicity I don't need."
"Dick, I disagree. Look at what that marijuana contretemps did for Bob Mitchum. I think this portrays you as a good-looking, hotheaded gavonne who's probably--excuse me, ladies--got a schvanze that's a yard long."
I laughed. Danny said, "If I'm lyin', I'm flyin'. Seriously, Dick, and again, excuse me, ladies, but this makes you look like you've got a yard of hard pipe and you're not afraid to show it."
I laughed. Leigh sent up a silent prayer: save my husband from this scandal rag provocateur.
Nancy shot me a whisper. "I just talked to Ella Mae Cooley. Spade's been beating her up again . . . and . . . Dick . . . you're the only one who can calm him down."
I drove out to Spade Cooley's ranch. Rain slashed my windshield; I tuned in Hunter Hancock's All-Request Show. The gang at Googie's got a call through: Dick Contino's "Yours" hit the airwaves.
The rain got worse; the chrome accordion on my hood cut down visibility. I accelerated and synced bio-thoughts to music.
Late '47, Fresno: I glommed a spot on Horace Heidt's radio program. Amateur night stuff--studio audience/applause meter--I figured I'd play "Lady of Spain," lose to some local babe Heidt was banging and go on to college.
Bobby-soxers swarmed me backstage.
I turned eighteen the next month. I kept winning--every Sunday night--weeks running. I beat singers, comics, a Negro trombonist and a blind vibraphone virtuoso. I shook, twisted, stomped, gyrated, flailed, thrashed, genuflected, wiggled, strutted and banged my squeeze box like a dervish orbiting on Benzedrine, maryjane and glue. I pelvis-popped and pounded pianissimos; I cascaded cadenzas and humped harmonic hurricanes until the hogs hollered for Hell--straight through to Horace Heidt's grand finals. I became a national celebrity, toured the country as Heidt's headliner, and went solo BIG.
I played BIG ROOMS. I cut records. I broke hearts. Screen tests, fan clubs, magazine spreads. Critics marvelled at how I hipsterized the accordion--I said all I did was make schmaltz look sexy. They said where'd you learn to move like that?--I lied and said I didn't know.
The truth was:
I've always been afraid.
I've always conjured terror out of thin air.
Music and movement are incantations that help keep it formless.
1949, 1950--flying high on fame and callow good fortune. Early '51: FORM arrives via draft notice.
FORM: day sweats, night sweats, suffocation fears. Fear of mutilation, blindness, cancer, vivisection by rival accordionists. 24-hour heebie jeebies; nightclub audiences packing shrouds. Music inside my head: jackhammers, sirens, Mixmasters stripping gears.
I went to the Mayo Clinic; three headshrinkers stamped me unfit for Army service. My draft board wanted a fourth opinion and sent me to their on-call shrink. He contradicted the Mayo guys--my I-A classification stood firm.
I was drafted and sent to Ford Ord. FORM: the Reception Station barracks compressed in on me. My heart raced and sent livewire jolts down my arms. My feet went numb; my legs fluttered and dripped sweat. I bolted, and caught a bus to Frisco.
AWOL, Federal fugitive--my desertion made front page news.
I trained down to L.A. and holed up at my parents' house. Reporters knocked--my dad sent them away. TV crews kept a vigil outside. I talked to a lawyer, worked up a load of show biz panache and turned myself in.
My lawyer tried to cut a deal--the U.S. Attorney wasn't buying. I took a daily flailing from the Hearst rags: "Accordion Prima Donna Suffers Stage Fright at Fort Ord Opening," "Coward," "Traitor, "Yellow Belly," "Chicken-Hearted Heartthrob." "Coward," "Coward," "Coward."
My BIG ROOM bookings were cancelled.
I was bound over for trial in San Francisco.
Bird chirps made me flinch. Rooms closed in coffin-tight the second I entered them.
I went to trial. My lawyer proffered Mayo depositions; I detailed my fear on the witness stand. The press kept resentment fires stoked: I had it all, but wouldn't serve my country. My response went ignored: so take away my fucking accordion.
The judge found me guilty and sentenced me: six months in the Federal pen at McNeil Island, Washington.
I did the time. I put on a sadistic face to deter butt-fuckers. Accordion slinging gave me big muscles--I hulked and popped my biceps. Mickey Cohen, in for income tax evasion, befriended me. My daily routine: yard trusty work, squeeze-box impromptus. Ingratiating showman/psycho con--a schizophrenic performance that got me through my sentence unmolested.
Released--January, '52. Slinking/creeping/crawling anxiety: what happens next?
Winter '52--one big publicity watch. Big "Contino Out of Jail" coverage--most of it portrayed me as a coward case-hardened by prison.
Residual fear: would I now be drafted?
Winter '52--no gigs, BIG ROOM or otherwise. My draft notice arrived--this time I played the game.
Basic training, communications school, Korea. Fear back-burner-boogied; I served in a Seoul-based outfit and rose from private to staff sergeant. Acceptance/taunts/shoving matches. Resentment oozing off guys who envied what they thought I'd come home to.
I came home to tapped-out momentum and DRAFT DODGER in red-bait neon. I received an unsolicited presidential pardon--my COWARD taint rendered it toilet paper. I became a vanishing act: BIG ROOM stints replaced by lounge gigs; national TV shots down-graded into local stuff. Fear and I played peek-a-boo--it always seemed to grab my balls and twist just when it felt like something inside me could banish all the bullshit forever.
I hit Victorville. L.A. radio had faded out--I'd been listening to shitkicker ditties. Apt: I pulled up to the Cooley ranchhouse soundtracked by Spade's own, "Shame, Shame on You."
The porch reeked: marijuana and sourmash fumes. TV glow lit up windows bluish-gray.
The door stood ajar. I pressed the buzzer--hillbilly chimes went off. Dark inside--the TV screen made shadows bounce. George Putnam spritzed late local news: ". . . the fiend the Los Angeles County Sheriff's have dubbed the 'West Hollywood Whipcord' claimed his third and fourth victims last night. The bodies of Thomas 'Spike' Knode, 47, an out-of-work movie stuntman, and his fiancee Carol Matusow, 19, a stenographer, were discovered locked in the trunk of Knode's car, parked on Hilldale Drive a scant block north of the Sunset Strip. Both were strangled with a sash cord and bludgeoned post-mortem with a bumperjack found in the back seat. The couple had just come from the Mocombo nightclub, where they had watched entertainer Buddy Greco perform. Authorities report that they have no clues as to the slayer's identity, and--"
A ratchet noise--metal on metal. That unmistakable drawl: "From the size of your shadow, I'd say it's Dick Contino."
Ratch/ratch--trigger noise--Spade loved to get zorched and play with guns.
"I should tell Nancy 'bout that 'Whipcord' sumbitch. She just might find herself a new pen pal."
"She already knows about him."
"Well . . . I'm not surprised. And this old dog, well . . . he knows how to put things together. My Ella Mae got a call from Nancy, and two hours later Mr. Accordion himself shows up. Heard you tanked at the Crescendo, boy. Ain't that always the way it is when proving yourself runs contrary to your own best interests?"
A lamp snapped on. Dig it: Spade Cooley in a cowboy hat and sequin-studded chaps--packing two holstered six-guns.
Excerpted from Hollywood Nocturnes by James Ellroy. Copyright © 2007 by James Ellroy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.