Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Harlan Ellison Gets A Haircut

by Stephen J. Gertz

Hollywood haircut noir.

Harlan Ellison did a book signing in Hollywood last weekend. He got a haircut first.

I don't know how many haircuts Ellison gets each year but the media was alerted for this one. He's seventy-nine years old but not on death's door; this wasn't Harlan Ellison's Last Haircut. But it was a Harlan Ellison haircut, nonetheless. Stop the presses.

Considering that he got it at Sweeney Todd's Barber Shop on Hollywood Boulevard we're fortunate that it wasn't something more. Trader Joe's is not offering 100% All-Harlan Meat Pies this week.

Sweeney Todd's offers party services and will, upon request, screen vintage stag films for guests, a classic movie projector running the sin through its sprockets. This occurs at night, after hours. No stag films during Ellison's haircut: it was daytime and the clips were strictly of the scissors kind. Harlan merely needed a little taken off the top and around the ears with neckline cleaned up. But he wound up getting styled.

Prelude to a pompadour.
Photo credit: Miriam Linna.

I arrived late, Sweeney Todd's was packed inside, a crowd of Ellisoniacs piled outside, and the two bodyguards the publisher hired for the occasion (appropriately dressed  as '50s juvenile delinquents  because Ellison is the king of JD-lit. amongst other literary crowns he wears) blocked my entrance. Through the window I saw Harlan sitting in the barber's chair. He'd been regaling those inside with 100% pure Ellison, which is to say he was outrageous, funny, profane, provocative, acerbic, funnier still, insightful, and totally entertaining. I didn't hear any of it but it's a given that when Harlan Ellison opens his mouth to an audience pearls of all grades and colors fall out of it.

Haircut over, he made it to the front door, looked directly at me through its window, got walleyed, enthusiastically pointed, then spread his arms and mouthed "Oh, my God!" Somewhat puzzled by his effusive display I pantomimed my own greeting in return. A moment later he walked out the door with his wife, Susan, and bodyguards in tow. "Great to see you!" he said as if I was his long-lost best friend. I was touched. "Great to see you, too," I said, as if he was my long-lost best friend I never knew I had and lost.  Surrounded by the adoring he introduced me to Susan: "Tell her who you are!" I did while he was distracted by the press, which pressed close, the potential for sterling sound bites too overwhelming to let pass.

He was wearing a black t-shirt under an open button-down. The t-shirt read, "What if the Hokey-Pokey was really what it's all about?," existentialist despair with mordant pop-culture wit ala Ellison. So, we put our right foot in, we put our right foot out and pokey'ed down the street to La Luz de Jesus, the book, art, and pop-culture gallery where Harlan was giving a talk with Q&A followed by a signing for Pulling A Train and Getting in the Wind. These twin collections of Ellison JD short stories were recently published by Kicks Books and reprint those in Ellison's Sex Gang by Paul Merchant (Nightstand Books, NB 1503, 1959) with others from the late '50s - early '60s. Kicks is the wild paperback imprint out of Brooklyn and home to "Hip Pocket Books," the reflection of the all-consuming pulp-culture sensibility of their publisher, Miriam Linna. She's the reigning Queen of Cool whose irrepressibly enthusiastic, tongue-in-torrid-cheek happy-go-hard-boiled fanzine ad copy reads like a rush down a dark alley on a moonlit night in Pulpville in service to moving the merch with an irresistible pitch.

"All hail the first hip pocket volume of Ellison short stories culled
from the rarest of his titles, SEX GANG, which was issued under
the name of Paul Merchant in 1959. The wild set of psychosexual
gangland tales is finally available again, fifty years later, spanning
two volumes which collect all of the stories in the 1959 book plus
an unhealthy dose of lost fiction from the persistent pen of the
grand master of all things tainted, terrible, torrid and terrific."

The gallery was packed; there was no room to wriggle. A sardine would have been thankful to be in a can. Harlan moved through the crowd toward the front; I faded into the audience.

After an amusing introduction by comedian Patton Oswalt (whose recent Star Wars-themed filibuster on Parks and Recreation has gone YouTube viral due to its inspired high-insanity quotient) Harlan took the podium and for the next half-hour he took it for a ride.

Harlan mugs for Patton Oswalt's camera.

Don't get Harlan Ellison started on the stalkers, creeps, and miscreants that have plagued him over the years. Death threats have come his way like confetti at a convention. He doesn't shoot from the hip so much as bazooka from the shoulder and this bugs some people, particularly those with loose hinges. Ellison doesn't take kindly to loons in his yard at night with shotguns. It offends his street-sense of courtesy and he has no compunctions about dealing directly with such hazards. On one occasion he disarmed the intruder and nailed him to a tree. This may seem extreme but in Ellison's telling the episode was a dark Looney Tune™ and the only thing missing was an anvil falling on the bum's head; he got off easy with the nails, and Harlan, naturally, nailed the story's laugh lines.

I wouldn't interrupt Harlan Ellison in mid-sentence if I were you. He takes no prisoners. You'll be impaled but the audience will scream with delight. You may, however, float an inch off the ground with a beatific smile afterward, as did one guilty party I saw. To be cursed by Harlan Ellison is to be blessed; you have been anointed with his words. It's like getting ranked-out by Don Rickles: it's a badge of honor and only the humorless complain.

"Hot on the heels of PULLING A TRAIN comes its savage sister
GETTING IN THE WIND, whipping up more gritty street life odes
circa 1959! Perfect the pair with both volumes - together, they
pack the fervor of a genre too wild, too true, too traumatizing
for tepid tempers - this is the neckmeat for a new breed of reader,
a glittering illiterati channeling raw emotion and constant
visceral stimulation. Without this pair, friend, you are lost."

Harlan Ellison has been called contentious, abrasive, and argumentative. He knows he can be that way sometimes. Considering the many putzes he's had to contend with over the years you'd be contentious, abrasive, and argumentative, too. Robert Bloch once said that while other writers take infinite pains, "Harlan gives them."

He has a healthy ego. Some think it's too healthy. But a novelist without an ego solidly in the pink ain't much of a writer. So, when a young guy asked him what he thought of Philip K. Dick during the Q&A I froze. Uh, oh, I thought, this is a Harlan Ellison book event; Harlan Ellison is performing (because Harlan Ellison appearances are performance art); Harlan Ellison is one of the greatest science-fiction writers the world has ever produced; hell, it's Harlan-Time! and this chowderhead is asking about another author, one in the same genre? I thought the question steel to Ellison's flint and expected sparks to fly.

Harlan grew quiet. It was a two-part question, he carefully replied. What do I think of Philip K. Dick as a writer and what do I think of Philip K. Dick as a man?

Ellison adores 80% of Philip K. Dick's work, it's beyond compare. The other 20% he doesn't care for, Dick's theologically-themed novels. Ellison isn't into spirituality, he prefers gritty, he says. As for Philip K. Dick, the man, Harlan began then stopped himself, afraid that he might say something that would get him into trouble. He earlier expressed a strong aversion to computers, the Internet, social media and hand-held digital devices that can take a snippet and turn it into a tempest in ten minutes. After measured consideration he simply said that when Dick was in the mood he could be the most charming person in the world. When he wasn't in the mood, well..., and he let it go at that.

There was one area in which Ellison admitted satisfaction in besting Philip K. Dick. Dick was only married five times. Susan is Harlan's sixth wife, their marriage in its twenty-eighth year. "I finally got it right!" he said. This after he admitted to being a swordsman in youth, advancing with his sabre five, six times a day, starlets too enchanted to parry his lunges nor want to. You'd think that level of activity would affect his writing schedule but this is a man who used to make in-store appearances as writer-in-residence as window display, sitting at a desk with typewriter and banging out work in progress to draw passersby, mutli-tasking as silent, preoccupied barker.

As long as he was talking about sci-fi colleagues he expressed his grief over Richard Matheson's recent death. Matheson was a giant in Ellison's book and the world lost a master.

At this point the line for signing snaked out the door of La Luz de Jesus, the natives were getting restless, and it was time for Harlan to move into the adjoining space, sit at a desk and begin that part of the party, and this was, indeed, a party.

in the Kicks paperback line, a 'sidekick' perfume has been formulated,
street-tested, bottled and packaged. SEX GANG is the heady scent
that tells the world OFF! Exclusive, limited, and totally dangerous. With
miniature switchblade comb. Arrives bottled in authentic Italian half ounce
Baralan bottle, boxed in signature Kicks Books Co. gift box."

I had to leave before the signing began. I wedged through the crush, went up to him to say goodbye, and our farewell was as warm as our hello. I still didn't understand why but I enjoyed it. He seemed to enjoy it, too. We both enjoyed it and I saw no point in spoiling the enjoyment by questioning him in public, putting him in an awkward position, and blowing the good vibes. I noticed a few people checking me out, like who's this guy who seems to be such a good buddy of the Great Man?

I'd met Harlan Ellison exactly once, a while ago for a total of maybe thirty, forty minutes or so. What did I do right to earn a generous spot in his memory? Maybe he had me confused with someone else. When he earlier told me to tell Susan about myself it could have been a dodge to discover who I was but at that moment he was besieged and may have simply delegated the introduction for convenience.

Isaac Asimov once noted that "Harlan uses his gifts for colorful and variegated invective on those who irritate him - intrusive fans, obdurate editors, callous publishers, offensive strangers."

Harlan Ellison doesn't suffer fools gladly. In fact he doesn't suffer at all; he makes them suffer. I have the sense that he's annoyed by 99.9999% of the population. While he respects his fans and, up to a point, appreciates their attention, he has no use for flatterers. Perhaps, then, Harlan didn't think me a fool, was not annoyed, nor considered me a fawning supplicant, intrusive, irritating, or offensive  -  though I've been all those things with others, at times. I've been awestruck by a celebrity only once in my life and that was when I had lunch with Yoko Ono a few years back during a book fair in New York and interviewed her for Booktryst. I  felt like a blubbering idiot throughout the experience. Don't tell him but I'm in awe of Harlan Ellison. I just keep it under wraps and behave like a normal person, no matter how alien I actually am.

Kicks Books fragrances, SIN TIME is created from the world's
finest floral distillates. A scent can evoke the memory of a
stained satin bedsheet or the moonlit hair of a gang deb
teetering down the wet, cobblestone streets of Red Hook.
Extracted from lavender, this ancient scent is symbolic of
magic and mistrust, aiding one in seeing ghosts of gangland past.
A pair of exquisite miniature glass dice are inside each
Baralan bottle."

I wanted to reach out to him later to reinforce the friendship that was welcome news to me. Susan was kind to give me his secret contact info, which I'd lost, a mail drop located in [redacted] within L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. He doesn't do email and few get his phone number. It may have been more interesting but I feel lucky he didn't ask me to place a gladiolus under a garbage can at the corner of [redacted] and [redacted], wait two hours, return, and pick up a coded sandwich bag in the trash can containing his home address written in cuneiform Sumerian.

Cheech Beldone, delinquent, with toothpick.
Photo credit: Patton Oswalt.

I am pleased to report that Harlan and his haircut - "The Cheech Beldone," created by Sween Lahman of Sweeney Todd's and so-dubbed in homage to Harlan's street name when he joined a youth gang in 1954 to research the phenomenon - survived the afternoon, or at least as much as I experienced of it. At seventy-nine years, Harlan Ellison still has a full, lush head of hair. Long may it wave. I want this guy around forever. Make that a permanent wave.

All images other than header courtesy of Miriam Linna, with our thanks.

A case of Kicks perfumes was boosted from the Kicks Books trunk. Anyone with knowledge its whereabouts is encouraged to contact the publisher before Cheech Beldone hunts down the dirty dog and dissects it.

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