Jay Gatsby-PLATINUM BRAIN (THE DEATH OF JEAN HARLOW) CD (ESP-disk' 2014)
special guest review by BRAD KOHLER
Like many of you, I too was surprised to have discovered Jay Gatsby's THE MOST WASTED BOY ALIVE album a few years ago when it was reissued on compact disc (editor's note-click here to be taken to the blogmeister's very own review of this once-obscure album). After having been inundated with the likes of David Werner, Jobriath as well as a number of fey rockers of a mid-seventies variety this Boweiclone seemed like the honest-to-goodness real thing, a bisexual leaning towards the men's room rich kid whose musical ambitions and talents extended well beyond daddy's trust fund. I for one pretty much played my copy of this underrated album incessantly, and even though I am not bi nor the son of some rich industrialist who'd do anything to get his creep kid out of his hair I felt more than a slight affinity for the campy decadence and fey posturings to be found on that early release from the then-budding Arista label.
Knowing of the existence of an earlier Gatsby album, strangely enough on the infamous ESP-disk' label, was cause for alarm or joy depending on what you thought of his major label flash. It seemed strange that ESP would handle such an artist as Gatsby in the first place; after all they were the label that had Wayne County record an entire album before rejecting it after hearing but one minute of the finished product. Face it, ESP had about as much interest in glam rock as Jay Gatsby himself would have in a monogamous heterosexual relationship. But stranger things have happenened, and stranger still is that PLATINUM BRAIN, Gatsby's very own ESP album that has heen held up by litigation from release for decades, is finally available once again via the reincarnated ESP label itself which is peculiar since I was led to believe that a Syph-riddled Gatsby himself had this item mothballed in a standard case of glam-riddled guilt.
Before I get into the meat and potatoes of my review, I must raise an objection to the "alternate" cover that was used. The original, showing a neatly airbrushed artistic rendition of a dead Harlow nude in bed with sheet draped across her nether-regions like a Venus whilst various Hollywood icons of the day (Gable, Vallee, the Marx Brothers...) pay their respects has been replaced by this rather poor and crudely-drawn drawing of Harlow (done by a blind third-grader I would guess) that was used to placate the people in East Glassport I believe. You would think that in this day and age the original racy version would have been used; after all you don't see the alternate cover of COUNTRY LIFE around anymore, do you? I guess this could be chalked up to cowardice on ESP's part because I'd rather look at a naked Jean Harlow than I would a naked Jennifer Aniston anyday.
As for PLATINUM BRAIN's "theme", well ostensibly this is supposed to be a concept album about the death of the famed Hollywood star, a subject custom made for the post-Fitzgerald/DAY OF THE LOCUST thirties nostalgia craze of the late-sixties that was still in bloom thanks to the support Old Hollywood still had in the gay community. Naturally this obsession with Hollywood's Coming of Age would had continued to have a hold on many a late-night-movie fan, especially when it was spiced up with perverted sex and a general sleaziness that always accompanied those seventies lookbacks at thirties Hollywood especially after the re-publication of HOLLYWOOD BABYLON. However, liberties are taken and this album contains much more about the disturbing life and death of the original underwear-less sex bomb. The impotence and ultimate suicide of husband Paul Bern is handled with exquisite taste in "Garden Hose", a poignant scene that was actually recreated by Lloyd Bochner in the Pia Zadora spectacle THE LONELY LADY and is superbly tackled by Gatsby, who actually handles the roles of all of the characters on this platter with bravado and typical wink-nudge questionable sexuality intent.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the circumstances surrounding the death of Miss Harlow, it seems that the bleach she was using on her hair had somebow poisoned her brain. As she lay writhing in agony she was denied medical help by her very mother who was a strict adherent to the Christian Science religion. Thus the irony of this album's title, one which I'm sure had frightened off a variety of Old Movie aficionados who perhaps still are under the impression that the Fatty Arbuckle affair was but a sad aside in an otherwise wholesome and hearty film industry.
Musically this doesn't have the same brash Outer Space Gay Guy feel of THE MOST WASTED BOY ALIVE and is quite sparse in instrumental backup thanks to ESP's rather limited if any budgets. No Norman Luboff Choir here plus the best mellotron players in the Union book were not on call for this session. Not even the Godz were called in for overtime duty and in fact who knows who played on this one for the liner notes don't mention a thing other than ESP booking time in one of New York's shoddiest studios sometime in the early days of '73 for a quickie three-day recording session.
But what results came from those three days, for PLATINUM BRAIN contains some of the better imitation Bowie pose and pout to have been heard during those pre-punk days coupled with some of the most hilarious mis-takes one could have imagined. "Overture from PLATINUM BRAIN" begins the album, with Gatsby taking on the role of Harlow (nice falsetto, Jay) with such brash Broadway aplomb that you would have thought it was the actual actress singing to us from beyond the grave. Kudos to Gatsby for his smart impressions of various moving picture stars of the day from Stan Laurel to Bing Crosby that put Frank Gorshin to shame.
The rest holds up fairly well, with moments of brilliance being followed by some of the most dated (as in a seventies, not thirties way) kitsch to have been heard on vinyl since Bette Midler began belting 'em out for the bathhouse brigades. "Saratoga", named after Harlow's final film with Clark Gable where signs of her imminent demise began showing (she was heavily perspiring during shooting, that is when she was able to make her way to the studio) sounds more like a MAD magazine soundsheet insert (MAD "TWISTS" GAY DECADENCE???) than a rock song though I should admit that some of the best thirties effects to be heard (Gatsby sang the entire number through a megaphone) are clearly evident. Gatsby's Gable imitation at the end where he remarks "Frankly my dear, I don't give a death" (???) was clearly in bad taste, as if good taste had anything to do not only with this album, but the entire deca-glam genre.
As the album builds towards its fatal climax, PLATINUM BRAIN becomes even more seventies smarm though not without its unintentional redeeming humor. The brass section roaring on in "Ambulance Chaser" do recall sirens blaring as they rush towards Harlow's final destination while the eerie chant of "Mary Baker Eddy" as sung by Gatsby in the role of Harlow's seemingly detached mother will either make you want to rush for the Morphine in your medicine cabinet, or laugh uncontrollably. And it all ends in a downright frightening climax as the orchestra plays uncontrollably not unlike "A Day in the Life" while Gatsby screams utter Arthur Janov primal before it all fades away while a harp solemnly plays as the spirit of Jean floats peacefully towards her final reward. It will bring a tear to your eye, perhaps because you are finally glad this album is done with, but a tear it will bring nonetheless.
Again, why ESP would have released this album in the first place is a strange mystery indeed, but released it was and if anyone was the better for it it was Jay Gatsby. After all, it did catch the attention of one Clive Davis who immediately signed Gatsby to a contract which produced what some might call yet another forgotten glitter classic. Of course some wouldn't and I guess there's the rub. And if anyone would be rubbing themselves to PLATINUM BRAIN it would be you non-repentant glam rock fans who'd buy anything that came out of that strange era between hippie and disco that one would call the mid-seventies.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Jay Gatsby-PLATINUM BRAIN (THE DEATH OF JEAN HARLOW) CD (ESP-disk' 2014)