We’ve reached the point in our review program where Parker and Dortmunder are pretty much the whole show. Between 2001 and 2008 (the year he died), Westlake published thirteen novels (one of which was written in the Mid-90’s). Five of them deal with Parker; another five feature Dortmunder and his motley crew. There was also an anthology of Dortmunder short stories and a Dortmunder novella published in anthology form.
None of this sufficed to overcome Parker’s insuperable edge over all his fictional siblings. He would remain the character Westlake wrote about most, if only because he was so dominant during the period when Westlake was most prolific. But in these final years, Parker and Dortmunder enjoyed an almost perfect parity of attention from their creator, and it would be fair to say he cared about them equally–but differently.
And I’ll be talking more about that shortly, but the reason I’m bringing it up here is that I’m going to be re-reading a lot of Parker and Dortmunder books in the coming months. And that means I’m going to be hearing their themes in my head a lot. The themes I made up for them. The music in my head. I can’t possibly be the only one who experiences this phenomenon. Can I?
This I know–if you read one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you are going to hear the 007 theme in your head. If you read one of those Fire & Ice novels, you’re going to hear the Game of Thrones theme that didn’t exist when most of those books were written. When Carrie Fisher died, everybody was going around with John Williams and the London Symphony orchestra in their skulls. When you see a picture of Batman, which theme you hear will depend somewhat on the year you were born (I go back and forth between Neal Hefti and Danny Elfman, with a smattering of Shirley Walker).
But there is no identifiable theme for Parker, or Dortmunder. Yes, they’ve both been featured in multiple film adaptations. Those movies had musical scores. But if there was a theme devoted to either character in any of those films, I’m not aware of it. And being so thematically sensitive, if there had been such a theme, and I never noticed it, it wasn’t much of a theme. The whole point of a character theme is to create an association between that character and the theme. I hear a certain theme by the great Japanese composer Akira Ifukube, and I see a gigantic reptilian biped stomping on Tokyo.
So there is no theme for Parker or Dortmunder. And yet I needed a theme for each of these characters I was obsessively reading about, and later writing about. So I made them up.
I have no excuse for my utter incomprehension of musical notation. I had music appreciation classes as a child. It is, in effect, a language–and all attempts to teach me a language other than English have failed miserably. I was apparently born to be a monoglot, only able to learn language at a pre-conscious level. Or else I’m just lazy. Or too easily distracted.
But I’ve loved music all my life, and have developed tastes that are nothing if not eclectic. I started off with classical, then moved to ragtime, then jazz, blues, and Irish Trad. I didn’t learn to appreciate the rock and roll going on around me as a kid until well after that genre had peaked. I was also a devotee of ‘world music’ which is not so much a genre as a convenient way of saying “Jesus, there’s a ton of great music out there I never heard of before!” I tried to get into rap as it was starting to take hold, and it was a bridge too far. In its less commercialized forms I wish it well, and I wish they’d stop blasting it outside my window at 3:00am in the morning, but kids will be kids.
The quote “There’s only two kinds of music–good and bad” has been attributed in various forms to scores of musicians, and I like all of them. But I myself am not now nor ever shall be a musician. Let alone a composer. And yet somehow I have composed two musical themes. In my head. Weirdness.
That’s not the right word, really. To compose something implies you sat down and worked it out, but since I can’t write or play music (I can just barely play the tin whistle, and you seriously do not want to hear me practicing), all the work had to be done in my head, and I can’t even say precisely when or how I started hearing this music, or how long it took for each theme to take on its mature form. Parker’s theme came first. Dortmunder’s not long afterwards. Well, that tracks.
It is possible, indeed likely, that I’ve unconsciously plagiarized elements of both. I thought I got my Dortmunder theme from the film score for Don Siegel’s Babyface Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney; a grand medley of hard-edged 50’s big band gangster movie jazz (you know the type), but when I watched the film again, there was nothing in the score that remotely resembled my theme, so maybe I got it somewhere else, or maybe it’s actually mine. Copyright isn’t really an issue when you can’t even write the music down, is it?
I actually do have some small recollection of how the Parker theme started. A few years ago, summer of 2012, maybe. I had a medical appointment in Fort Lee (podiatrist). Afterwards I had lunch nearby (Indian buffet). I was in no particular hurry to get home. I decided to walk back over the George Washington Bridge. (Incidentally, did you know there’s a Parker Street in Fort Lee, just a few steps away from the bridge? Well, you do now. I guess every town has a Parker Street. Put that down as one more unprovable theory as to where Westlake got the name from.)
It’s noisy on the bridge. The view of the Hudson, the Palisades, and the cityscape is thrilling, and a bit terrifying, depending on the severity of your spatial phobias. You also have to dodge bicycles on the so-called pedestrian walkway a lot more than would have been the case in 1962. (Sometimes I like to imagine Parker clotheslining some clown in tight shorts, who thinks he’s Lance Armstrong in the final leg of the Tour de France.)
The bridge towers–what’s the word I’m looking for to describe what they do?–oh yeah–TOWER. It’s a lot different than walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, or probably any other bridge. You feel naked and alone and in the middle of everything and at the edge of nowhere at the same time. You feel the past, present and future converging and collapsing upon each other. A good time to have some music playing in your head, though I suppose most people bring something pre-recorded. I was never really an iPod guy, somehow.
So I must have had some of the elements for the theme assembled prior to this, but this is the first time I remember them all coming together, as I made this roughly twenty minute walk across the busiest bridge on the planet, and felt the summer sun irradiating me, and wondered if I should have applied some 60SPF in advance.
So the inspiration was clearly that 1950’s big band crime movie type of score I was just talking about. Probably some elements from Van Alexander’s score for Babyface Nelson, but that kind of music was very popular in the 50’s and early 60’s, and you could find it in lots of movies. Very hard-hitting and merciless, and all about the horn section.
Probably some Count Basie influence as well, of course. And I was really into Benny Carter at the time. But that day I was kind of imagining it being played by the David Murray Big Band, sometime in the late 80’s/early 90’s. That tuneful dissonance they did so well, where they played as a tightly disciplined unit, but also as a motley assortment of incessantly idiosyncratic individualists, with that New Orleans second line quality; never quite marching in step and never once missing a beat.
It starts in low, like an idling car engine, maybe some misguided motorist offering you a lift. Then the horns come in hard, howling defiance at the world, telling it go to hell….
(horns come in lower now)
PARkerrr–(sound like an engine turning over)
PARkerrr (the engine again)
(Now the bridge–fittingly enough–starts off like the calm before the storm).
(repeat several times, stronger, harsher, and a bit more dissonant each time, as the storm builds, and the rhythm section holds it all together somehow, then back to the main theme one last time, as the band crescendos like Gabriel on Judgment Day)
PAR-kerrrrr! PAR-kerrrrr! PAR-KERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!
And that’s my Parker theme, as of the moment I stepped off the bridge into Washington Heights. Since it’s jazz, or aspires to be, endless variations are possible. But that’s the core of it. It usually comes to me strongest at the end of a novel, and scenes of the aftermath, various things that might have happened sometime after the final chapter, flash before my eyes. Like at the end of The Seventh, I imagine the fates of the various surviving characters, and then a lonely gravestone marked ‘Ellie Canaday’, with an opened bottle of beer left in front of it, while a big man whose face we can’t see is walking away in the distance, his hands swinging at his sides, because I’m a romantic, sue me.
It’s a big band theme, brassy and uninhibited, but Dortmunder calls for a small intimate ensemble of underappreciated artists, all specialists, all quietly offhandedly brilliant.
Just to be perverse, I’m going to hire the Hampton Hawes quartet for this gig–a Los Angeles based band. Dortmunder would not approve–until he heard them play. Anyway, he’s not originally from New York either. Eldridge Freeman was born in Illinois too–Chicago. That’s almost a city. Dortmunder’s no bigot. A good string is a good string, wherever they hail from.
Piano: Hampton Hawes
Bass: Red Mitchell
Guitar: Jim Hall
Drums: Eldridge ‘Bruz’ Freeman
Special guest performers would be Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, alternating with Milt Jackson on vibes. Somehow Dortmunder and trumpets don’t go together, but if there was a trumpet present, there’d be a Harmon mute plugged into it. I mean, if you can’t pull a job with five guys, it probably shouldn’t be pulled at all. But it would depend on the book.
Where Parker’s theme is overpowering, Dortmunder’s is underwhelming–quiet, covert, sly, downright sneaky, and maybe a bit scared, but never to the point of backing down. A bit halting and hesitant at points, gaining confidence as it goes along. You need a good brushman on the trap set for this one, and Bruz was one of the best.
Man, you can just hear it, can’t you? Okay, fine, only I can hear it. My notational system has certain inherent limitations. I should have paid more attention in music appreciation class.
I tend to hear this one when Dortmunder is going someplace he’s not supposed to go, with every intention of coming back out again, but no precise idea as to how he’s going to do that. And sometimes when he goes into that weird fugue state where he’s putting a bunch of ideas together to make a plan. And always at the end, when he’s both won and lost, and somehow the difference between the two seems academic, but May’s got a tuna casserole in the oven, and things could always be worse.
In any given rendition, a different instrument might carry the tune, while the drums keep time. Lots of changes you could blow to this one, but it’s a much simpler theme than Parker’s. Dortmunder’s a much simpler guy. It’s a theme of resigned fatalism combined with dogged determination. He can never win the game, but he can’t ever quit either. Not until the very last note has been played. Any jazzman could relate.
And I think that’s all there is to say about the music in my head. Unless one of you is a practicing psychiatrist. If so, contact me privately. Next up is Bad News, and that might require a pow-wow drum. Anyway, casino gigs pay well.