Long Gone Daddio
By Cathi Unsworth.
Max Décharné, as any hepcat or kitten in the know will dig, is one of London’s greatest cultural curators and musical innovators. In the early Nineties, as drummer for Gallon Drunk, he cut a sartorial swathe through the dull Indie hinterland, dressed sharp in black suits, white shirts, black tie, and of course, Black & White hairgrease. As frontman for The Flaming Stars he keeps the faith for everyone disgruntled by the insipid, channelling Jerry Lee, Gene Vincent, Roy Budd, Joy Division, Velvet Underground and The Clash with his gang of suited-and-booted ladykillers, whose live shows are legend and punk rage undimmed. Just witness the perfectly vicious attack on Tony Blair, ‘God Told Me To Do It’, from their most recent Born Under A Bad Neon Sign LP.
His books are all pop-cultural histories that pick up on the lost worlds other commentators routinely miss – the links between pulp fiction, true crime and the cinema in Hardboiled Hollywood, the hipster history of London’s most swinging street in King’s Road. But there’s one book he keeps coming back to, which in many ways is the root of everything he does. Straight From The Fridge, Dad is a dictionary of slang which draws in references from music, art, cinema, literature and the criminal underworld… and it just keeps on growing. 3:AM downed some jive juice and got the goods from the gate.
3:AM: Straight From The Fridge is now in its third, most luxurious edition yet, augmented by some amazing pulp paperback covers, film posters and records from your extensive library of cool. It has been so lovingly prepared that it feels like you have been given a private invitation into a lost world of cool, a Night at the Hepcat Museum with yourself as the curator. How long have you been collecting this stuff, and what was the first thing that triggered your juvie mind in this direction?
Max Décharné: I’ve been collecting things like this since the 1970s. I guess it started with the music – Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and people like that – which I got into in the early seventies. There’s an illustration in the book of my copy 7inch Sun 45 of Jerry Lee’s 1956 debut single, ‘End Of The Road’, which uses the hipster phrase “give it the gas”, meaning step on the throttle, cut loose etc. I bought that copy back around 1978 from a shop called Vintage Records, near Caledonian Road, which was one of the few places you could find such things. That kind of music tends to lead you to 1950s juvenile delinquent films like High School Confidential, pulp novels from the same era that covered those subjects, and all of this meshes well with crime and noir films such as Where The Sidewalks End, In A Lonely Place or Gun Crazy.
Also, if you like 50’s rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly, you tend to start working backwards to the 1920s, to Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and assorted hepcats of that persuasion. I found all these kind of people about a hundred times more interesting than the smoother mainstream products of the time – whether it’s the Beatles, or sentimental Hollywood slop like It’s A Wonderful Life. As The Cramps discovered, the hipster stuff sinks its teeth in you and won’t let go.
3:AM: The slang that you have gathered within these lavish covers spans back over 200 years – one of the greatest revelations to me is how many of these words came not from the American ghettos and prisons as I had imagined, but from deported English highwaymen! How did you begin to trace this lineage?
MD: The major stroke of luck I had was that sometime around 1980 I stumbled across a secondhand reprint of Captain Francis Grose’s 1785 Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue, which was his attempt during the reign of George III to round up all the sayings used by thieves, whores, cads and bounders – not to mention some of the gentry, who often qualified for all of those categories… It features words like ‘pad’, meaning where you sleep, coming from the idea of a cheap mattress on the ground. That wound up by the 20th century meaning just your home, and so the expression ‘come back to my pad’ as a pickup line is a direct derivation of the way pickpockets or highwaymen used to talk three hundred years ago. The word ‘fly’ is in there too, being used in exactly the same way that the rappers use it these days. And ‘pig’ was a slang term for a policeman back in Georgian London, even though we only had the Bow Street Runners, and there were only about 20 of them for a city of three quarters of a million people.
3:AM: I guess that only in America, at that time of mass immigration and so many different voices, languages and cultures coming together in such an unequal way, could the birth of so much brilliant music, culture and language have happened. But it is quite a salutary thought that such ingenuity is largely born of oppression…
MD: In 18th century England, we had over 200 offences on the statute books for which you could be hung. If you weren’t quite bad enough to be hung, then we transported you to the American colonies (up until 1776). So the criminals took their own criminal slang with them over to their new home, and it winds up still being used by Prohibition-era gangsters of the Capone era. Then Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler started using it in their books, and cinema goers heard it when they went to see films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface. Meanwhile, the mobsters were running speakeasies, and that’s where the jazz musicians would play, so everyone started sharing their own slang. The jazz people were into drugs, so all the slang terms like reefer, mootah, goofballs et cetera were being passed around, and eventually they showed up in pulp novels and exploitation films.
3:AM: Through your book, we see the many secret worlds of America in the first part of the last century – lost worlds of the carnies, the burlesque, the speakeasies, the hot rod track and of course the Big House. And in a way, by collecting the actual language of these places, illustrated by those amazing images, you bring the history more vividly alive than a straight history…
MD: Mostly, I’m trying to point people in the direction of a lot of great stuff. By quoting from Hammett – in the places where he uses phrases like “we were as full as a pair of goats”, meaning we were drunk – the hope is that people will go and read or re-read these books, or listen to some Cab Calloway records or Ronnie Dawson or whatever. For me, it’s a fascinating world, and I’m just trying to shine a spotlight on it. I think the language was hugely more inventive than anything that’s used these days, and the people seem to have been having a hell of a lot of fun with it.
3:AM: To break it down a little and look into these subcultures, is it far to say that Prohibition of the Jazz Age is where the popular culture manifestation of your dictionary begins? Denying the juiceheads of America their right to bend an arm, although a disgusting infringement of human liberties, was one of the best things that could have happened for slang, wasn’t it?
MD: Prohibition is the first big event, but I guess I’m really starting around 1900, with the first stirrings of jazz in the Storyville red light district in New Orleans. The word ‘funky’ was being used there by 1900, for instance. But yes, the number of slang terms that surfaced in the 1920s, when half the US was breaking the law just trying to get an honest drink, was quite remarkable. That’s also when you had the first explosion of detective pulp magazines. By the end of that decade, you’ve got Black Mask, Dime Detective and thirty or forty others, all developing the hardboiled detective story. This was the launch pad for nearly all the great crime novelists of the era, and out of that came the crime film and film noir, each of which used numerous slang terms like ‘roscoe’ for gun or ‘the hot squat’ for the electric chair.
3:AM: The Chicago of Al Capone seems to be one of the richest seams of slang – providing a dazzling amount of films, books and music and slang prefixed by the word ‘Chicago’… I get a sense that with its hepcat South Side sounds and righteous big daddio scribe Nelson Algren, the Windy City must be one of your favourite locales?
MD: Chicago is real, certainly. You can see why so much great writing and great music came from there, rather than Buffalo, say. Nelson Algren had lived the life and walked the walk, so he knew how to write dialogue in books like The Man With The Golden Arm that really reflected the way the working class people actually spoke.
3:AM: Gang culture plays a massive part in this story of course, and you have many examples of juvie tribes, from the Zoot Suiters to the Hot Rodders and the different biker gangs. Do you have any particular favourites?
MD: There’s a description of a fast car which says “it runs on a spoonful of gas and a nod from a traffic cop”, which I always liked. And then there’s James Ellroy’s zoot suit people in The Black Dahlia, who he calls “reet-pleat, stuff-cuff, Argentinian-ducktailed Mexican gangsters”. Can’t do much better than that…
3:AM: In British slang, a lot of the sayings filter through from the fairground and the Romani of the travelling people, creating sub-languages such as Polari. Did you find a similar effect in America, did the carny and the burlesque do much to spread and refine slang?
MD: There’s been whole books just devoted to carnival and vaudeville slang. Some of it’s entertaining, other bits are just a bit specific, so unless you’re in the trade, there’s no real reason to use them. But yes, for instance, the phrase “how’s the grouch bag holding?”, meaning how’s the state of your wallet, do you have any money, is a fairly typical example. My favourite would be the phrase “varicose alley” for the nightclub runways the strippers use.
3:AM: And what of regional differences – were there massive differences between rural and industrial America, for instance, or any instances of a word having potentially dangerous differing translations from region to region?
MD: You’re right, it’s more of a rural/urban divide, than a particularly regional one. Take Hank Stanford’s rockabilly recording ‘She’s A Hum Dum Dinger From Dingersville’ – that uses the commendably smutty phrase “she’s long, she’s tall, she’s a handsome queen, she’s got ways like a mowing machine”. Now that’s pure faming-community talk – you wouldn’t come up with that if you lived in Manhattan.
3:AM: What were the most surprising things that you found out while you were doing your research?
MD: The fact that anyone would want to buy a book full of references to Lon Viser (author of Sexomatic Pilot) or the 1940s band Dr Sausage & His Five Pork Chops. I can only salute the good taste of the public out there…
3:AM: Have you ever tried to invent a word and then get it into popular usage yourself? I know I have!
MD: That’d be telling.
3:AM: I am glad that, while this book does reflect the popular culture of America, the title itself does come from one of my favourite British juvie movies, Beat Girl – and was rendered in comically prim diction by Shirley-Anne Field, if memory serves?
MD: Adam Faith sings a rock song, down in the Chislehurst caves, to a bunch of eager teenagers. When he finishes, a bloke says “Great, dad, great, straight from the fridge!”, and then the guy’s girlfriend – our Shirley, as you say – chips in with “I’m way out”. Quite why they were overlooked in the Oscar ceremony that year I really can’t imagine.
3:AM: I would like to think that the fountain of slang is tapped at the source of Ye Olde London Town, after all the term slang itself was born of the East End: s-lang = secret language…
MD: Absolutely. London was the largest city in the world 250 years ago – massively bigger than most towns, and this language came from the huge, seething underclass and their somewhat-less-than-legal activities.
3:AM: What I think is most great about the book, is that it is a reflection of just how knowledgeable you are and the love that you have for popular culture in what we could loosely call The Golden Age of Suave – all of these books, films, musical styles and ways of speaking have informed your work as a songwriter, singer, writer… you really are a cultural curator Max, and I salute you! If only you were on The Culture Show…
MD: Thanks Cathi, that gives me a large charge, and realigns my wig muchly. Here’s to crime…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime fiction novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer, and Bad Penny Blues. She lives and works in London. Photo: Allison McGourty.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 3rd, 2009.