Let Me Whisper in Your Ear




Let Me Whisper in Your Ear by Charles Taylor

On the mysterious Lewis

July 6th, 2014 reset - +

 
He was quite tall, and rather lanky, and a bit boyish looking in his battered flannels. But his eyes were brown, and his little clipped mustache was decidedly Continental.

— James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce

I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I didn’t know what made people attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions.

— Ted Bundy

ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO in the midst of an interview, the novelist and screenwriter John Kaye started telling me about a young guy he’d seen while browsing in Book Soup one night. As Kaye described him, the kid could have been a hayseed straight off the bus, decked out in a Western shirt and jeans, lured to Los Angeles by who knows what private fantasy, one of the children of Joe Buck and Lana Turner. “Or,” Kaye said, “he could have been James Dean.” 

The uncertainty, the unsettling inability to know whether you’re on to a con man or whether you’re his mark, is the feeling that creeps into your head while listening to the 1983 album L’Amour. Recently out on the reissue label Light In The Attic, L’Amour is the work of one Lewis, a.k.a. Randall Wulff. Vinyl collectors came upon the album in 2007 on the last day of an Edmonton, Canada, flea market and began circulating copies through the collectors’ communities. L’Amour was recorded by Wulff in Los Angeles, and in addition to contributing the whispery and gruff and almost totally indecipherable lyrics, he plays acoustic guitar and piano. The rest of the instrumentation, the synthesizers that wash over every song, is credited to Philip Lees, whom the author of the album’s liner notes, Jack D. Fleischer, has not been able to trace. Fleischer did track down the album’s engineer, who doesn’t remember the sessions. He also tracked down Wulff’s father and uncle, who lost touch with Wulff some years ago, and Wulff’s brothers, who aren’t talking.

Wulff’s nephew Jeremy did talk. He remembers summer visits to Calgary, Canada, where his Uncle Randy was said to be scoring big deals in the stock market, which seemed likely to young Jeremy given his uncle’s lifestyle: white-leather furniture in his apartment, always in possession of a hot car and a hot girlfriend. Jeremy led Fleischer to Len Osanic, a Vancouver, Canada, sound engineer who says Wulff has, under yet another pseudonym, done three or four albums of “soft religious music” since L’Amour. During his time in the studio, Osanic recalls, Wulff regaled him with tales of growing up in Hawaii near the woman Wulff claims to be his aunt, Doris Duke. 

Another person willing to talk is the Los Angeles photographer Edward Colver, who made his name documenting the city’s punk scene in the 1970s and ‘80s, and who shot the photos for the cover of L’Amour. Colver remembers Wulff blowing into town in a white Mercedes convertible, with a blond girlfriend (who shows up, looking dazed and out of place, in some of the photos) and staying at The Beverly Hills Hotel. For shooting the session, Colver got a check for $250, which was written on an already-closed account from a Malibu, California, bank. 

You could describe the “Lewis” who looks out from the cover of L’Amour as conventionally handsome — lantern-jawed, the kind of immaculate blond locks that drove Warren Zevon to howl “and his hair was PERRFFFECCTTTT!!!!!!” on “Werewolves of London” — if it weren’t for the nose. Big and meaty, though hardly disfiguring, it sits in the middle of Wulff’s face with a suggestion of cruelty only magnified in the narrow, unreadable eyes. Wulff is shirtless in the photos, but the effect is less seductive than appraising. We seem to have caught him in the midst of trying on the role of blond, sun-kissed god, and determined to convince us it isn’t just a role.

lewis3
Randall Wulff, Edward Colver

Seducers don’t have to be sincere for their come-on to work. But they at least have to convince you that they’re going to show you a good time. And with these photos, that’s not so clear. Wulff’s whole mien is both familiar and vague, bland and threatening. If someone held up these photos and asked you who this guy might be, you might say a soap opera leading man, a porn star, a stock trader, a gigolo, or the next Ted Bundy.

Apart from the scraps Fleischer and his associates were able to dig up, the fantasies offered by Colver’s photographs are essentially all we have. “As of this writing,” Fleischer says toward the end of his essay, “Randall is essentially a ghost.” Which makes sense because the songs on L’Amour are the sound of someone who isn’t there.

Think of your favorite make out music. It might be Johnny Mathis or Sinatra, Marvin Gaye or Al Green, Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees or Dusty Springfield’s version of “The Look of Love,” the greatest pillow talk performance of all time. Whatever does it for you and yours, I guarantee, no matter how gossamer the sound, how slinky, there will be a touch of the earthly, the carnal. Silky vocals and string arrangements serve as a sublimation for the more primal urges in the music. Even the most ethereal of make out music, Roxy Music’s Avalon, is anchored by the tremolo in Bryan Ferry’s vocals, the muscular presence of Andy Mackay’s sax. 

By contrast, the music on L’Amour is ectoplasm. Wulff’s vocals are recessive, half-crooned in the manner of someone sunk into an armchair, nursing a cocktail and singing to himself; or delivered in a slightly gruff whisper, like a man trying to work up the nerve to do a Tom Waits impersonation. The album begs to be listened to on headphones, and doing so brings you in close. You can hear Wulff’s chair creaking, or the rasp of his fingers on the guitar strings. But only so close. After a while, the breaks between the songs become a kind of void, a silence that swallows up whatever track we’ve just listened to, as if the music were incapable of leaving any traces. Track by track, as you listen, L’Amour slips into the ether — which may be why you keep wanting to hear it again. The lyrics, when you can make them out, are no more than snatches, fragments that seem so rote they might have been lifted from dozens of other songs remembered, or not remembered: “I love you [inaudible]. . . don’t you-hoo?”; “it’s a cool night in Paris”; “we’ll catch a train somewhere tonight”; “I’d like to see you again”; “ . . . fall in love tonight”; “can’t take my eyes off of you.” Often, Wulff, who produced L'Amour, allows Lees’ synthesizers to drown him out. It’s hard to even speak of songs. This isn’t the laid-back approach that Boz Scaggs, in his International Lover Man period, brought to the role of seducer, with the slightly smeary tremolo vocals of “Lowdown.” This is the sound of a man whose deepest wish is to erase himself.

Given the kind of interior, self-involved sound I’ve been describing, the more sinister parallels I’ve suggested for “Lewis” — the con man, the gigolo, the pretty-boy killer — might not seem to fit. After all, anyone who assumes any of those roles has to be noticed in order to make others fall for him. For all its muzzy dreaminess, the way in which Wulff’s notion of aural seduction moves at the pace of an opium dream, L’Amour does make you take notice, and it does so in the most insidious way: by working its way into your head. L’Amour tries so hard to be cloaked that it becomes almost impossible to ignore. Who can believe that Wulff, hustling glamour-boy photos for the cover, producing and writing and releasing the thing himself, didn’t want to be noticed? You don’t release a self-produced album with a sticker adorning the original vinyl copies announcing that the final track, “Romance for Two,” was inspired by Christie Brinkley, if you’re the retiring type. 

¤

I keep playing L’Amour expecting it to give up its secrets and I keep sliding off that smooth, implacable surface; the more I listen, the more I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeply untrustworthy going on. The man in Colver’s photos, adopting a look so familiar from advertising and TV and movies, is both making an almost laughable attempt at looking seductive and daring you to trust him. His whole persona, and the music he makes, is a white convertible parked at the curb with the motor running and the passenger door open. Climb in and where do you end up? In an episode of Dynasty, or a Jim Thompson novel? 

As John Kaye wondered that night in Book Soup, are we looking here at the next star, or the latest desperate hustler? What keeps coming into my head as I listen to L’Amour and look at Colver’s photos and reread Fleischer’s liner notes is “Back to Blue Some More,” the final track from Valerie Carter’s 1977 debut LP Just A Stone’s Throw Away, one of the forgotten classics of 1970s pop. That album, studded with guest appearances by the stars with whom Carter had worked as a backup singer and songwriter, was as smooth a piece of Southern California pop as anything that was on the radio and yet it was a restless album, jumping from pop to folk, even to funk and gospel-based soul. But all the genre leaping came to halt, as did everything else, with “Back to Blue Some More.” 

Carter sang the song as a woman on the road or on the run, a woman who’s figuratively and literally out of gas. She’s parked her fancy blue coupe in the lot of a shiny neon-and-chrome diner, and parked herself at the counter. She has, she tells us, no intention of moving. “I’ll be listening to the jukebox,” she sings, “watching night turn to day,” and the showy, faux-jazz elisions in Carter’s phrasing give way to the weariness that keeps coming to the surface. Carter could be a figure out of Joan Didion, some chic, anomic wanderer glamorously confronting the Big Nowhere. Or she could be a drifter who’s walked into a David Lynch movie. “The waitress was no princess,” Carter sings, not in the hardboiled phrasing that line might invite but as if she were whispering a secret out of some weird tale, and she continues, “But I held out my hand/just to touch somebody strange,” and then comes the delayed noir kicker: “and she gave me back my change.”

Listening to the song 37 years later, it sounds as if Carter could still be there, still nursing a cup of coffee, still listening to the jukebox. L’Amour sounds like what someone in the position of the woman in Carter’s song might wish were on the jukebox. Its mumbling, wafting dreams of perfect love feel as if they are a hustler’s refuge, looking forward to the weariness of not being able to run anymore. Whoever, wherever Randy Wulff is, “Lewis” is spiritual kin to Carter’s woman at the counter. It could be he’s just a few stools down, waiting to strike up a conversation before skipping out on the check.

¤

Charles Taylor is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and teaches writing at New York University.

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