Sure I love The Living End for its sharp dialogue and pacy storytelling, it’s a novel that kicks and bites, a dark cynical view of the world. In other words a classic noir pulp. But here’s three things that elevate this novel and make it a fascinating read. Firstly, the novel is a vivid technicolour portrait of 1950s New York and the music scene. From the cupboard-sized office of a small-time music producer to a sleazy strip joint to a swanky executive apartment it all has an authentic feel. Secondly, the depth of character; there’s a genuine arc in Eddie’s story, we see how a fresh faced kid with a dream becomes a cynical narcissist and self promoter. Thirdly, better than any contemporary literary fiction Kane explores the underbelly of the music industry, skewering the relationship between the mafia and the art. Now we know Tin Pan Alley was a mafia racket but this is a novel published in 1957 that nails it as it’s happening.
The Living End is a reference to the American dream. This is the music business and that suggests: glamour, sex and plenty of moolah! The catch is that only a few make it to The Living End. Most people are triers or grafters who earn a meagre crust – their hopes are crushed daily. Meet Eddie Marlon, fresh, young, a clerk with a dead end job who wants to be songwriter. He weaves his way through the buskers, pluggers and contact men of Tin Pan Alley as he heads into the Brill building. The Mecca for music people. Eddie takes his song to Joe Devine, Devine Music Inc., he has this idea it’ll be a hit record, it just needs a little help. Devine’s office is small, not much more than a cupboard, even the phone is a payphone. Devine soon wises up Eddie to the business. It takes money to make a demo and a hit could cost $25,000, nobody takes a flier and there are plenty of palms that need greasing. Eddie though Joe would just buy his song, get a singer, make a record:
“Hell the way thing are right now, I couldn’t pick up the hot on a platter of flapjacks let alone a demo on a song written by somebody nobody ever heard of.”
Eddie is disillusioned, maybe Joe sees something in him, maybe he feels sorry for the lad. He offers Eddie a chance to get into the business. Marty Allen, DJ, WTLO, is looking for an assistant for his early morning show, 6am, someone to set up the jingles, the advertising and the songs. Allen likes the kid and takes a chance on him and to be fair Eddie learns quickly. The one rule is no kickbacks from the A&R guys, Allen plays it straight. Eddie lines up the schedules each day, mostly he does as Allen says but he takes the occasional kickback for airplay. Then he meets Jo Leary, blonde, beautiful and worldly. Jo has a song and Mike Shannon is plugging it for her, he takes Eddie to the Shamrock Club, a mafia joint, to hear her sing. Jo used to be with three Fingers Droppi, saw him shot for creaming off Vegas funds from the syndicate. The singing gig and a record are a pay off for her silence. Shannon tells Eddie about Jo:
“she’s just the grateful type . . . You’d be surprised what a grateful girl she can be.”
When they meet she lays it out, subtle like:
“You could use your influence . . . It would mean so much to me.”
Eddie gets Jo airplay but Allen finally pulls the plug: no plays, no girlfriend, Jo won’t take Eddie’s calls. She’s moving up in the world. Shannon introduced Eddie to Arnie Cohen who lays out the way the business works; the jukebox sales, the sheet music, the competing recordings of the same songs. Then Cohen makes Eddie an offer, $100 a week for two daily plays of a record they want plugged. Allen catches on but he doesn’t fire the kid. For a couple of years Eddie plays it straight(-ish). Then Allen calls him one night the President of Republic Broadcasting needs a big favour. Eddie agrees but he wants his slice of the pie and this is his main chance. He demands a show, an afternoon slot, caught between a rock and hard place John K. Dickenson, Pres., agrees. Eddie has tapped into something though, a youth market, it’s popular. He controls the plays, takes the money from everyone, even interferes in the advertising, everyone is happy. Only Eddie isn’t just ambitious, he’s greedy, he always wants more. Meantime the mafia warn him he can have his racket as long as he doesn’t mess with their returns, this is a billion dollar industry. Just how far will Eddie go? How many people will be step on the way up? Eddie makes the mob nervous and the treasury are sniffing around the industry. It’s not going to end well.
Kane has got under the skin of the music business of the time, the racket, the corruption. It’s about what it takes to make it to The Living End. Part morality tale, part exposé, this is the story of a man gone bad. Thrilling, intelligent, plotted with real craft, the writing is solid, the psychological insight sharp. There’s a measure of poetic justice dished out at the end.
This is the kind of novel that gives pulp a good name.
Frank Kane (1912-1968) was big, his Johnny Liddell series, thirty books in all, sold millions of copies across the world. This novel is one of seven standalones, there were two more under the name Frank Boyd. There’s a short bio and comprehensive bibliography at the back of the book.
Paul Burke 4/4
The Living End by Frank Kane
Stark House Press 9781944520847 pbk Oct 2019