Driving Through Mythical America — Annotations by Rob Spence

Extracted from comments to his post in the facebook group
The Pete Atkin and Clive James Appreciation Society

The background: the song’s genesis was the fatal shooting by the National Guard of four students at Kent State University, Ohio, who were protesting against the USA’s bombing of Cambodia. The incident took place on May 4, 1970.

Eddie Prue: We noted in “Screen-Freak” a number of references to films adapted from Raymond Chandler novels. We start with a Chandler reference here. Eddie Prue is a gangster’s henchman in Chandler’s The High Window, filmed as The Brasher Doubloon.” He tries to bribe Marlowe to stay out of the case he’s been engaged on. This is his first entrance.

A Rooney-Garland show: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland starred as teenage leads in wholesome movies of the forties. Here’s a ridiculously young Mickey Rooney leading his friends, including Judy Garland, in an act of teenage rebellion. Let’s do the show right here! The mythical America of Clive’s vision is very much a twentieth century popular culture construct.

Fields was at the Pussycat Café: This is where W.C. Fields’s character drinks in the 1940 film The Bank Dick, retitled The Bank Detective in the UK. According to IMDb, “The bar Shemp Howard’s character runs was originally called "The Black Pussy Café," but the Production Code Administration said the name couldn’t be used. W.C. Fields protested because he’d got the name from his friend, British comedian Leon Errol, who owned a real bar in L.A. called the Black Pussy Café. Fields said that if the California Alcoholic Beverages Control Board didn’t object to that as the name of a real bar, the Production Code Administration shouldn’t mind it as the name of a fictional one. The Code authority was unmoved, so the signs on the bar in the film call it "Black Pussy Cat Café" — but both Fields and another actor refer to it as the "Black Pussy Café" in the dialogue.” Here’s a short clip in the bar.

Herman Kahn: Kahn was the founder of the Hudson Institute, a right wing think tank focusing on predicting future trends. As a military strategist, he analysed nuclear war scenarios, and, according to this article, was the inspiration for the character of Dr Strangelove in Kubrick’s film of that name. There is an annual award in his honour given by the Hudson Institute.

Jersey Joe: that’s Jersey Joe Walcott, world heavyweight champion in the early fifties, and the epitome of African-American upward mobility through sport. He’s connected to one of Clive’s touchstones, Humphrey Bogart, through his appearance in the 1956 film The Harder They Fall, based on Budd Schulberg’s novel. Here they are in an early scene, also featuring Rod Steiger. This was Bogart’s final film appearance.

Studebaker Golden Hawk / Nash Ambassador Saloon: The Studebaker was a luxury car, and the Ambassador maybe not so much. Both perhaps exude the style of the American automobile of the postwar era.

Bogart said “Even the dead can talk”: Back to Mr Bogart again, delivering this line in the 1951 film The Enforcer. Bogart stars as crusading DA Martin Ferguson, unable to penetrate “Murder Inc.”, the organized crime network because his witnesses are being murdered before they can testify. (“Murder Inc” was the title used in the UK.) This clip gives a flavour, and contains the line used by Clive James. The significance here might be to do with the way the American Dream has always relied on heroes of the past. Of course, in 1970, the deaths of the four students marked the end of a decade of shocking violence: the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, together with events such as the Watts riots and Altamont, not to mention Vietnam, cast a very dark shadow on American values.

And suddenly the coats were all raccoon: Racoon coats were a big fashion trend amongst college boys in the 20s, which seems out of sync with the other cultural references in the song, but apparently there was a revival in the fifties. This Life Magazine spread from 1957 gives an idea of the trend.

Babyface had made the hit: That’s Babyface Nelson, public enemy number 1 in the early thirties. The most obvious popular culture reference for our purposes is the 1957 film starring Mickey Rooney, a long way from the lovable teenager of Babes in Arms. The song stresses the inevitability of the students’ death, or some similar incident, in a culture that has been built on violence, but often romanticised, as here.

Rosebud: This, of course, refers to the final scene of Orson Welles’s masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Nobody can work out what his last utterance, “Rosebud” means. But we know. More dreams shattered.

Gatsby: Jay Gatsby, the Great Gatsby, of course, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the jazz age. Gatsby, the self-made man (though the sources of his wealth seem dubious) is the personification of the American Dream. It says something for Fitzgerald’s jaundiced view of the hedonistic high society in which Gatsby moves that the hero dies a lonely death, and is unmourned. Here is Robert Redford as Gatsby in the 1974 film.

The Kansas City Seven: Count Basie originally recorded with a smaller section of his big band in the 30s, in a group he called the Kansas City Seven, featuring the great Lester Young. But maybe Clive was referring to the revived version of the group, which Basie convened for his 1962 album, with the group now featuring Thad Jones. Here they are with “Secrets” from that album.

Barrymore and Lombard: John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, of course. Barrymore made the transition from theatre to film as a member of a noted theatrical family, but his life and career degenerated into a booze-driven anti-climax. Lombard was a genuine movie star, married first to William Powell of Thin Man fame and then to Clark Gable. She died in a plane crash aged 33 in 1942. Barrymore and Lombard made two films together, Twentieth Century where Barrymore is an impresario wooing the young starlet Lombard, and True Confession, a screwball comedy. Here is a scene from Twentieth Century.

Cheetah slowly taught John Wayne to move: Cheetah (or Cheeta, or Chita) was a chimpanzee in the Tarzan films of the 30s. And you can imagine John Wayne’s rolling gait as being similar. Astonishingly, this article claims that Cheetah lived to be 80, dying only in 2011.

Moose Molloy: Once again, we are in Raymond Chandler territory. In this, the first adaptation of a Chandler novel, it is not Bogart, but Dick Powell as Marlowe, and the film is Murder, My Sweet. This was based on Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. Moose Molloy is a violent ex-con who hires Marlowe to track down his girlfriend. The plot, as usual gets insanely complicated after that. What is clear, though, is the amoral, corrupt world of crime and punishment that Marlowe inhabits.

Henry Ford paid seven bucks a day: Ford had revolutionised factory work by doubling the minimum wage to $5 a day in his new factories in the twenties — though with strings attached that led to a very heavy turnover. By the crash of 1929, the wage was $6, and after the crash, Ford raised the wage to $7. Like many of the other references in the song, this is a reference to a component part of the 20th century American dream. Clive writes in Fame in the 20th Century: “Henry Ford put his name on the twentieth century like no-one else. He put America on wheels and the whole world followed. ...He was hailed as a genius with a vision of the new, infinitely mobile democratic society. The Ford Motor Company was the new America.” This news clip commemorates the centenary of Ford’s new-fangled assembly line.

Rockwell did the covers on the Post: Norman Rockwell, whose idealised visions of American life adorned the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 for “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.”

FDR set up the TVA: Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the thirties to help America out of the Depression produced huge engineering projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority, with the aim of regenerating the region. How much of a success this initiative was remains in question. One study suggests “in the name of promoting economic growth, T.V.A. invested in dams for cheap power, water transportation and flood control,..These projects not only failed to promote growth, but also created severe environmental problems that continue to plague the valley.” Elia Kazan’s 1960 film Wild River may well have sparked Clive’s interest in the project.

And the stars rode silver trains from coast to coast: Hollywood celebrity travel was, surprisingly, still conducted by train up to the mid-fifties. This article reminisces about the Super Chief train and its glamorous passengers.

Thousands of motels: Another symbol of the great American dream. All that mobility engendered by the revolution that Henry Ford started, required the provision of cheap roadside accommodation, as described here.

And waiting at the roadblock Orson Welles: There might not be a direct reference here, but one that suggests itself is the famous opening scene of Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil, where all the central characters converge at the Mexico / USA border checkpoint. Welles is Quinlan, the corrupt cop, and Charlton Heston is Vargas, his Mexican counterpart. Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich also star.

Pete Atkin Home PageRead also John Harris's annotation from December 1997, but be aware that most of the links he provided point to pages no longer maintained since that time.