In Robert Duncan’s new novel LOUDMOUTH, Thomas Ransom is a neglected kid who spends his teenage years in New York City passing time with a crew of heavy partiers and his trouble-seeking half-brother. He later becomes the frontman for a rock band and, like his creator, the young editor of an epic Detroit music mag before making his way back to the rowdy ’70s music world as the rock scene reached its zenith. Along the way: punks, misadventures, and love. Duncan spoke with 3RP about the echoes of his own life found in the novel, living a life of rock ‘n’ roll, and smudging the lines of fact and fiction.
Three Rooms Press: Your novel, LOUDMOUTH, explores Thomas Ransom’s coming of age during the turbulence and wildness of the late 60s and early 70s. His character reflects many of your experiences growing up during the same period. What advantages did you find in fictionalizing the story? And how much of it actually happened?
Robert Duncan: It was a time no less turbulent and insane than today, but, as a teenager, full of teenage passion and sensitivity, it hit hard and stayed long. On top of the war against racism and the war against the War in Vietnam, as well as the war against wasting your life in pointless toil for soulless capitalism, there was the war against your parents. Funny, I kept waiting for my kids to hate me the way I hated my parents. But they never did. And it wasn’t just because my wife and I were such good guys. I think we shared a culture with our kids. We did not share a culture with our parents. Of course, my parents — as echoed in LOUDMOUTH — turned that metaphorical war into a real-life knife fight. Point is, the “generation gap” was nowhere near as bland as it sounds. This is a big thread in my novel, the parent war, something I’ve spent a long time trying to comprehend.
Why a novel? First of all, I don’t believe there’s still a meaningful distinction between fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, the nonfiction novel, the autobiographical novel, the (ancient) new journalism or the hybrid they are now calling auto-fiction. Look at My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction epic of the Nordic quotidien (which I devoured, all 3,600 pages). If it wasn’t always accurate to the documentary facts, it felt utterly authentic, dead-on to an emotional experience. Beyond that, who cares? Not savvy younger readers, I suspect. To them — to me — stories are stories. They know fiction can be as true as non-fiction, and non- can be as invented as a novel. But it is also true, as your question implies, that, on my journey to publication, more than one editor, with an eye toward the marketing, asked: Why don’t you just make this a memoir?
Even with the permitted fudging of the memoir genre, this story, with full malice aforethought, fudges more. Writing it as a memoir would’ve meant looking over my shoulder all the time at the actual facts of the matter. As I was struggling to craft a complex happy/sad picture of an era and a family and a fucked-up young guy, I didn’t want to feel constrained by space, time or biography. Or memory. And I wanted the latitude to build on my own reality, but leave out the boring. Or augment it. Besides, making the story a novel offered a small fig leaf to those among the living who may be less than enthusiastic about some portrayals.
When I’m trying to find the quickest way to summarize the book to friends, I often say it’s a “veiled memoir.” But that’s lazy. Let’s just say a lot of it is fact, but all of it’s the truth.
3RP: Thomas Ransom develops an early love for rock music, which his parents abhor. In some ways, this was reflective of an entire generation. Do you see Ransom as a metaphor for a generation (i.e., Baby Boomers)? In what ways?
RD: He may be a metaphor. He may be a symbol. He may be the archetypal Baby Boomer, with all that now seems to imply (“OK Boomer”). But that’s not how I wrote him. I wrote about a boy who becomes a young man in a time of questing and upheaval, a time, as the novel says, of “tearing down,” an earlier era that took a hard look at governance, education, religion, economics, at the meaning of race, gender and age, and tried to rethink it all or, at the very least, cry out for better and fairer. And if along the way, like many of my generation, I went to all the parties and sampled all the substances (though probably less than Thomas), that, too, seemed like a part of the quest — hedonism that was, at the same time, an intrepid search for mind and life and God. But I also marched in the streets — on behalf of civil rights, against the war, against Johnson and Nixon and starvation in Biafra — and, later, campaigned doggedly for the peace candidates, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Meanwhile, my wife, Roni Hoffman, marched in the first big women’s liberation march in New York and the first gay rights march in San Francisco, alongside Harvey Milk. (I keep begging her to write her own memoir thingamajig.) But if Thomas Ransom is a metaphor for a generation that did stuff like that, I hope he’s also a lot more: more complicated, more confused and, finally, more unfathomable. Because, to me, he’s flesh and blood.
3RP: Thomas was groomed by his parents for “success”—attending a New York City private school where male teachers were referred to as “my sir”; later shipped to a prestigious boarding school outside the city limits; finally accepted to NYU, where he promptly starts a band and drops out. Would you consider Thomas a “rebellious” child or an artist? How did his education get him to the point of rebellion?
RD: Like Thomas, I arrived in New York City in fourth grade from a harsh, working-class Catholic school in rural Minnesota. I was a Twins fan, in a town going wild for Mantle and Maris and the ‘61 Yankees. I was terrified of God. And I was a hick, all gosh-golly and unironic. Landing in New York was like landing on Mars. But my early childhood experiences, as unpleasant as they could be, are surely what saved me. They lent me a distinct outsider’s perspective, along with a deeply held belief, even as a grownup atheist, in the primacy of Jesus-like love — “agape,” the catechism called it. And it was that belief and that point-of-view that spurred me to reject the status quo and made me what I still, to a degree, am: an artsy pinko shit-disturber. Different from what many of my former schoolmates became — which is, to be unloving, rich Republicans.
The fancy education I received in New York was, as I suggest in the novel, often worse than the funky education — with 36 kids in a class and a doctrinaire nun in a habit at the helm — I received in Minnesota. In the midwestern outback, where they beat Christ’s love into us every minute of the day, sometimes literally, with vengeful relish, you had no choice but to contemplate the deep stuff. It was all deep stuff — the meaning of life and the frighteningly slim possibility of redemption. In the elite schools of New York and Connecticut, among kids awash in money and connections, redemption was presumed. Like a legacy slot at Harvard.
At the same time, no one in those institutions was really supposed to pursue a life of art and imagination. At this sad, strange time — and I’m talking about the last 30 years, not just this dreadful Orange Era — when music and art have largely vanished from schools, it may sound ungrateful to say that, while those fancypants joints may have offered students the arts, you never got a sense they took it seriously. I mean, heaven forfend a child should want to become something other than an investment banker with a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By the time I got to NYU, I was way done with all that (and soon would be with NYU). I was obsessed with making the leap from buck-toothed Jesus-lover to “Jesus of Cool” (per Nick Lowe), to becoming a longhaired, leaping, loudmouth artist and singer in a fiery rock ‘n’ roll band.
Oh, wait, that’s Thomas.
Duncan attempts to feed Gene Simmons (KISS) beer, while Lester Bangs (Creem) laughs in background, 1976.
3RP: Thomas’s band, Romper Room, gets booked for a coveted week-long headliner gig at a club in Rhode Island. Thomas’s antics as lead singer are reminiscent more of punk bands than rock bands. What was it about Thomas’s life that made him more punk than hippie? What were some real-life bands that bridged the gap between punk and rock?
RD: It starts with biology, metabolism, I suppose, with him being tuned so high. In the novel, he talks about his “overenthusiasm.” Calls himself, after Warren Zevon, an “excitable boy.” That energy has got to go somewhere. I’m here to attest that it doesn’t do well sitting quietly in a classroom or a cubicle. That’s a large part of what attracted Thomas to rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. It was a way to express the kind of inchoate, uncontainable passion, the surging anger, that was soon to show up in the shrieking, growling, rushing, uncontained sounds of punk. Punk put rock into overdrive. That was precisely Thomas’s most efficient gear.
At the same time, the way punk embraced the audience, eschewed the stage, rejected the idea of the performer placing him or herself literally above the people or otherwise apart — some punk bands set up, not on the stage, but in the crowd — these were ideas that Thomas, bitterly anti-elitist after the indoctrinations of his childhood, was intensely grappling with. No surprise that struggle showed up in his performances.
“Look what you started,” his bandmate says, as punk emerges around them. Of course, it was just one more case of simultaneous discovery.
Real bands — as opposed to LOUDMOUTH’s merely true-to-life Romper Room — that bridged the gap between punk and rock? Well, my wonderful friends the Dictators did it (they’re in the book), releasing their first album, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy — which was funny and outrageous and punk-as-fuck — in 1975, a year before the Ramones or Sex Pistols.
I’d say the profoundly and delightfully overenthusiastic Little Richard, who was the wellspring of rock ‘n’ roll, was also the wellspring of punk — from the start, he demonstrated, in his unhinged performances and the wild abandon of his personal life (before he fled, in terror, back to Jesus), that there was another gear in this thing. It took a couple decades for kids to find it.
Of course, Detroit’s own Stooges and MC5, whose debut albums came out at the end of the ‘60s, didn’t just bridge the gap, but kept motoring down the road on the other side until they’d pretty much laid out all the possibilities (and limits) before anyone else had given it a thought. And if you want an amazing, visionary view of the bridge from rock to punk, you could do no better than the first Nuggets collection, the double-album anthology from rock critic, historian and, as Patti Smith’s longtime sidekick, musical innovator, Lenny Kaye. Released in 1972, this is the ur text of punk rock, with tunes from Count Five (“Psychotic Reaction”), the Standells (“Dirty Water”), the Seeds (“Pushin’ Too Hard”), the 13th Floor Elevators (“You’re Gonna Miss Me”), and even Todd Rundgren’s first band, the Nazz (“Open My Eyes”), among others. All killer, no filler, as the record guys used to say, and everything you need to know.
3RP: Your description of Thomas’s time in Greenwich Village is particularly vivid, with drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll. What do you think are the plusses and minuses of this kind of communal living? Do you think it is possible today (post-coronavirus)?
RD: That kind of thing almost never lasts — with or without historic pandemic. In fact, it’s probably the communal living — with all the players and their boyfriends, girlfriends, roadies and hangers-on thrown together on a van, bus or plane — that destroys most bands. It’s what killed Romper Room in LOUDMOUTH. And the perils are greatly amplified when the scene becomes saturated in drugs, as it was on Bank Street in the novel. While drugs may have once helped open the door to spiritual quests, I know they can also leave us lost and defenseless — especially as a young person drowning in hormones — against rampaging ids. Ours and others’.
But if I come off, in the novel, as skeptical of communes, whether at Creem or in the Village, it’s more that I am skeptical of groups that, as a cover for exploitation, pretend to be communes. Which is something that seems to happen on a regular basis on this ball-of-confusion, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate to R. Kelly (?). If I’m skeptical of communes, I’m not at all skeptical of community. That’s the kind of thing we have in our little town of Fairfax, CA, and that I’ve celebrated for the last three years in my blog, “Center of the Universe” (duncanwrites.com/center), about a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant, run by a pair Brazilian-Korean sisters. In the community that orbits Sorella Caffe, we seem to naturally collaborate to take care of our poor, hungry, lonely, broke, blind, sick and frail of every age, race, religion and national origin, simply because that’s who we are. In other words, around here, “they” are us.
3RP: When Thomas leaves NYC for Detroit to become part of the Creem magazine team, he really seems to find a lot to admire about the Motor City. What are your own thoughts about Detroit of that time? Have you been back lately?
RD: Like my fictional doppelganger, I fell in love with Detroit. I was immediately struck by how strange the place felt, not just unlike New York City, but unlike anyplace else. Sui generis. Not a lot of cities have a culture they can call their own (and, today, alas, a lot of those cultures are being plowed under, first by money, now by covid). In America, I would count New Orleans, New York and Detroit. In the Motor City, the love/hate relationship with the auto industry seemed, to me, to be at the core of it, which is why I dig into that in the novel — the dads who “went to The Line” out of necessity, desperation even, and the kids, their kids, who vehemently rejected it, who wanted instead to be Marvin Gaye or Iggy Pop.
It wasn’t just the striking physical ruin of the place — a handsome old brick row house surrounded by the weedy field that replaced its vibrant block. It was the mass psychology. There was a tension in the air. You could feel it in the way the young people drank and took drugs and drove their American muscle cars. And if I found my time there to be tons of fun, it was an intense fun. Always a note of danger. More than a note. And it was accompanied by a sense of fatalism that seemed to recognize the enormity and ubiquity of that danger.
I remember one night sitting in a car with a local friend outside a Detroit dive bar, getting ready to smoke a joint before moving on to the next dive bar, when an older white man in a car rolled up next to us, stopped, stared and brandished his rifle. When the codger slowly drove off, my friend wanted to go after. He told me the guy was part of an unofficial local militia, meant to keep blacks and kids under control. I urged him to head to the next dive instead. That whole thing — the creepy old dude and the maniac kid wanting to go after him — seemed so Detroit to me. And then there was the night the hilarious and bonkers kid who worked in a mental institution backed up to pin me under his wheels (like the Alice Cooper hit, included on the Loudmouth Spotify playlist). Of course, high on beer, quaaludes and native overenthusiasm, I was laying down on the side of the highway daring him to. But that’s beside the point.
I’ve been back three times since I left decades ago. I detoured there with my 13-year-old son when we drove cross-country in the ‘90s, before the city’s vaunted comeback. I had told him how fucked up the city was, physically, when I was there. Ten years later, it looked like not much had changed. He was amazed. I went back four years ago for a Creem panel — which turned out to be something of a reunion, a joyous one — at the Birmingham Historical Society. A year later, perhaps fittingly, I returned for a funeral.
3RP: Love plays an important role in Thomas’s life. What does love offer him that rock ’n’ roll does not?
RD: Strangely enough, rock ‘n’ roll is what delivers him to the arms of love. A rock ‘n’ roll connection is how he is finally accepted by Rebecca Holtzman. Anyway, I’m not sure I could or would compare the features and benefits of love and rock ‘n’ roll. They’re the proverbial apples and oranges and, at the same time, one and the same: orapples? Apporanges? I mean, love, frequently in its most carnal manifestations, is the whole basis of rock ‘n’ roll, its raison d’etre, the throbbing gristle beneath it all, from “Tutti Frutti” to whatever the hell is at the top of the charts this week.
3RP: You have been a rock critic and former managing editor at Creem. Do you still listen to bands of today with the same passion that you did in your youth? If not, what changed?
RD: Much like Thomas Ransom in the book, I am subject to severe bouts of overenthusiasm, especially for music. In the 21st century, I’ve gone nuts for Guided By Voices (“Gold Star for Robot Boy” is my number-one most played iTune), the Hold Steady, Drive By Truckers, New Pornographers, Kanye West (boo?), Mary Gauthier, Kaki King, Arcade Fire, Lil Wayne, OutKast, MGMT, the Postal Service, Eminem, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gnarls Barkley — OK, this list is starting to sound a little dated, even to me. So maybe I’m slipping. But, hey, I do love love love that new Billie Eilish theme for the Bond movie. Mostly, these days, I listen to jazz — but especially jazz musicians, like Thelonious Monk, who rock. Actually, mostly what I listen to these days is silence — or, rather, the sound of my own struggling rhythms and melodies — because I’m writing all the time.
3RP: What are your five favorite novels about rock n roll?
RD: Oddly enough, for a guy who — arguably (and I might be the first to argue) — may have written a rock novel, I am deeply wary of this sub-genre. There just aren’t a lot of good ones. They tend to flunk the authenticity test, if not the rock ‘n’ roll test (that is, they don’t). At the same time, I believe there are actually a few nonfiction books that make the grade, books that are so much the thing you can’t be bothered to care if they’re novels or memoirs, journalism or poetry. In LOUDMOUTH, I aspired to this fully realized state of rockingness, seeking to bring the energy, joy and abandon of the music to the page. A fool’s errand, perhaps. Nevertheless, I’d like to expand the scope of this question to include some of the rockin’ non-novels me and Thomas Ransom grew up on:
The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White. Is it a novel? Never mind. It’s as wild and fun and outrageous as the man himself. Best rock bio ever. And Richard Penniman’s whole life was a novel, with, amid all that abandon, full authorial intent.
Life by Keith Richards. My old drinking buddy. Damn, this was a good book, candid, caustic, passionate and irresistibly engaging. Who needs rock novels?
Chronicles, Volume 1, by Bob Dylan. Consciously straddling the line, Dylan never revealed if this was truly a memoir or something else, like a novel. And the “Volume 1” thing is a brilliantly deadpan tease. No less engaging than the Keith book. Different vibe. Rocks.
Dispatches by Michael Herr. As much as it’s about the Vietnam War, it’s about the river of rock ‘n’ roll that flowed beneath and through it, that permeated the soldiers and correspondents like jungle rot. It’s journalism. It’s memoir. And even the author admitted, it’s a little bit novel. If I were giving a seminar in writing as rock ‘n’ roll, this would be at the top of the syllabus.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Right? I know it gets dinged now for sexism and immaturity and even undisciplined writing. But On the Road was roadmap for a generation of questing rockers, including this one.
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs. Representing for the Creem team. The guy had amazing ears and knew how to translate what he heard into astonishing print. He was also funny as hell. A rock writer who rocked.
Sure, I enjoyed High Fidelity, but it’s not really rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe the brand new David Mitchell novel, Utopia Avenue, about a rock band, delivers the breakthrough. Maybe LOUDMOUTH does. Think I’m being too stingy and dogmatic? Here’s a nice, authoritative list from Jeff Jackson, an excellent writer who’s crafted his own bid for the rock ‘n’ roll novel crown in Destroy All Monsters (the name of a cheesy Japanese movie, as well as a noisy Detroit band, featuring Ron Asheton, ex-Stooges, and Michael Davis, ex-MC5).
3RP: In your novel, Thomas Ransom talks about a few encounters with famous folks during his work for Creem. In real life, who are some of the rock stars you spent time with?
Considering that a lot of alcohol was consumed, this list, long as it is, should be viewed as incomplete. Many of these were folks I interviewed. Some I smoked a joint with (Willie Nelson, Moby Grape). Most I drank with (see Mitch Ryder below). Some drove me around in their cars (Eric Bloom of Blue Öyster Cult; Todd Rundgren). Some I met only briefly. Others became, and remain, friends — like Craig Finn of the Hold Steady and Joel Gion of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, both of whom gave LOUDMOUTH wonderful blurbs, as well as Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult, who is working on a wonderful blurb for LOUDMOUTH (or so he says). Anyway, here, in no order, are some of the rock stars of my life:
Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Keith Richards, Keith’s daughter, model and DJ Alexandra Richards, Jimmy Page (watch a clip), Aerosmith/Steve Tyler, Joe Perry, Kiss, War, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Clash, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Television/Tom, Verlaine, Ramones, Run-DMC/Darryl McDaniels, Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Eagles/Bernie Leadon, Janis Joplin, Iggy Pop, MC5/Rob Tyner, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, Dandy Warhols/Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Penny Lane, the real one, subject of “Almost Famous” movie, Lynyrd Skynyrd/Ronnie Van Zant, ZZ Top, Ted Nugent (boo!), Todd Rundgren, Dionne Warwick, Grateful Dead/Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Wanda Jackson, The Hold Steady/Craig Finn, Drive By Truckers, Kingston Trio, Earl Scruggs, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, Diana Ross, Brian Jonestown Massacre/Joel “Tambourine Man” Gion, Earth Wind and Fire, Allman Brothers/Dickey Betts, Moby Grape, Journey (worst interview ever), Chicago (most hostile response to innocuous question ever), Southside Johnny, NRBQ, Dictators, Angry Samoans, Robert Moog, inventor of Moog synth, Tangerine, Dream/Edgar Froese, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs* (*but only the Pharaohs), Mink Deville/Willie Deville, New York Dolls/David Johansen, Meat Loaf, Velvet Underground/John Cale, Sammy Hagar, Gary Wilson, who was on Tip Records, the label I started, Jim Carroll, Dinosaur Jr/J. Mascis, Guided by Voices, Stanley Clarke, Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band/Gary Lucas, Chairlift, Andy Warhol, Gregory Peck, Lucille Ball, Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon (well, he sent me a postcard and we were drinking in the same bar once), Beatles (I mean, I saw them from the press box at Shea Stadium, ‘66)
“…if Thomas Ransom is a metaphor for a generation that did stuff like that, I hope he’s also a lot more: more complicated, more confused and, finally, more unfathomable. Because, to me, he’s flesh and blood.”
3RP: Describe some of the most outrageous experiences you had with rock stars.
RD: Much like my LOUDMOUTH protagonist, I could be pretty outrageous back in the day — with or without rock stars. The chapter 15 story, where Thomas inadvertently dumps a star’s white powder on a white shag rug is more or less what happened to me in Ronnie Wood’s hotel suite, while standing by for an interview. At three a.m., in the days before cellphones, I needed a landline to call my live-in (now wife, Roni Hoffman) and tell her not to wait up. Woody graciously led me to the bedroom and indicated the phone. I pulled the handset close, picked up the receiver — only to find the feather-haired guitarist had returned. Amid whispered apologies, he quickly gathered from the bedside table the remnants of what must have been an imposing mound of (I think) cocaine. I sputtered my own apologies.
As Thomas says in the book: “I never said I was cool.”
One of the first rock ‘n’ roll shows I ever saw was a Murray the K Revue at the RKO 58th Street theater in New York, an old-school “package show,” featuring 20-minute sets from nine or ten bands and three shows a day. I was 12 and had gone to the matinee to see Sam and Dave, Vanilla Fudge and, most of all, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. In fact, my macho little pals and I left before this unknown group from England, with its (judging by the poster) girly-looking singer, made their big US debut. Later, I would become a devoted fan of the Who, but at the time I was all about Mitch — and peer pressure.
Cut to: years later and my old friend from Creem, Airwreck (transmuted into Karwreck in the novel), is playing in Mitch’s band and tells the singer, who likes to go as full-tilt offstage as on, he should look up another high-energy night owl when he’s in New York. And Mitch does. My childhood musical hero — the maniac screamer of “Devil with a Blue Dress,” among other hits, and the “King of Blue-Eyed Soul” — calls me, and we head out for a night on the town. I’m sure we started at the Bells of Hell (which looms large in LOUDMOUTH). But some time after the city’s four a.m. closing time finds us utterly snockered, best friends forever, speaking the secret password into the peephole of a basement door in the old Italian part of the Village (an adventure alluded to in LOUDMOUTH). The place is called the Venus Social Club, and inside the sweaty, low-ceilinged, thoroughly illegal establishment, is all the overpriced booze we could guzzle and, to compound the peril, gambling. A couple of tables of “22” — which was Blackjack/21 with substantially worse odds (amazing what a single point can do) — and a Wheel of Fortune that would only ever earn a fortune for the unsmiling Mafioso running it. It was dirty, corrupt, 1970s New York to the magical max. Mitch was so stoked by the experience — from the Bells to the Venus to wherever the hell we went in between — that he seized me by the shoulders in the middle of that gangland dive and, to the express displeasure of the management, shouted into my face (and that man could shout) it was “the best night of my life!”
Of course, by six a.m., we’d both lost all our money — even as the bartender’s steely stare seemed to indicate he would not be extending credit — and were forced to pack it in. Not sure how Mitch got back to his hotel. But as I walked home through Washington Square, a group of aggressive drug dealers — whom I may have rejected a tad impolitely — assured me they were going to cut off my head. A year later, my bff Mitch was back in town and called, excitedly, to do it again. By that point I’d got my first big book contract (The Noise) and, with deadline looming, told him I just couldn’t. Sorry. Had to keep working. So, maybe this story is more sad, than outrageous, because that was the last time my childhood musical hero ever called.
TL;DR? Well then, I won’t tell you about drunkenly driving off — you might, if you’re judgmental, call it stealing — in the gold-trimmed Caddy belonging to Eddie Levert of the O’Jays. I won’t describe the Ramones’ apartment a block from CBGBs or Patti Smith brushing her teeth in San Francisco or the delightfully off-register Peter Laughner, Pere Ubu founder, giving me and Springsteen a tour of Cleveland in his junker (basis of the LOUDMOUTH intro and outro). And I won’t tell you the whole story of when Liza Minnelli threw my friend — who happened to be her husband (and possibly the inspiration for a LOUDMOUTH character) — a thirtieth birthday bash at her Upper East Side apartment.
But I will tell you part.
OK, I’m chatting with Harvey Keitel and Meat Loaf — who is on a diet — and Meat Loaf’s wife — who is chiding him for scarfing another canapé — when I hear a knock at the door and slide over to answer. I should pause to explain that, in my misspent literary youth, I accepted a contract to write a book about one of the most popular groups of the late seventies, after writing a dozen magazine articles about them. I considered those stories, and later the book, an elaborate joke. One week I’d write they were the worst band ever. The next, in a different publication, that they were the best. I analyzed their handwriting, solemnly predicted their future, complete with detailed timeline, and examined their dumbest songs in the minutest, pseudo-academic detail. It was good for a chuckle, but also paid the rent. The band — which liked to smear on clown makeup and spit blood — thought it was strange.
“That Duncan gets into the weird stuff,” said the bass player to a mutual friend.
Imagine his surprise, and mine, when I swing open the door at the palatial Manhattan pad of Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, and — there is the guy who writes the stories, and there is the guy who the stories are about, both unlikely guests, face to face. He points at me silently. I point back at him. Finally, Gene Simmons smiles and introduces me to his needs-no-intro date, in plunging neckline and fabulous hair, the one and only Diana Ross, before stepping inside to join the likes of Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Gregory Peck, Lucille Ball and Farrah Fawcett (America’s bestselling poster girl).
Now, it’s five in the morning, and the guy from Kiss is gone and the gal from the Supremes, as is Atticus Finch, Serpico, I-Love-Lucy and the homicidal taxi driver Travis Bickle. It’s down to a hardcore six: Roni Hoffman, Liza, Liza’s husband, Farrah Fawcett and Farrah’s coked-up boyfriend, Ryan O’Neal.
I should further explain that, as a boy at camp, I passed the final test to become a Red Cross Junior Life Saver by, just as Thomas does in LOUDMOUTH, hauling a “big greasy man out of the lake,” using a leverage technique known as the “fireman’s carry.” When I got older and started misbehaving in bars, I liked to deploy this skill on terra firma, abruptly hoisting large fellow patrons. Soon, I was lifting up folks, large and small, any way I could, and running them around the bar. Seemed like people were laughing — including the people on my back — but what did I know.
Back at Liza’s, I’m finally persuaded, after eight or nine hours, to leave. Problem is, I can’t find my cool jacket. I loudly look everywhere, in bedrooms, kitchen, bar, closets, calling out: “Who stole my jacket?” It would have been too small for the towering Peck, too big for the eensy Pacino — who when I first caught sight of him, still in his stage makeup, I thought was some partygoer’s child. But it might have fit Lucy just right…
I’m trending despondent, in a drunken, end-of-night way, and about to give up, when Farrah Fawcett steps out of the bathroom, holding aloft an ordinary black windbreaker. “Is this your jacket?” she says. It felt like being reunited with your lost dog. I raced to her, threw her onto my shoulder and — since she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds — skipped, jumped and danced across the white marble floor and through the sprawling apartment, as a dire-looking O’Neal, powder ringing his nostrils, commissioned himself as emergency commander and sternly admonished my friend not to intercede, lest it trigger more craziness. Whereupon I scooped up Liza — who couldn’t have weighed more than 100 — threw her onto my other shoulder and spun away for another circuit or two, hooting and hollering: “You found my jacket!” Just when it seemed like I’d never stop — always go too far is my guiding comic principle (cf., LOUDMOUTH’s Johnny “Too-Far” Shannon) — I did. Stopped, pulled on my jacket, grabbed the bride, and dispensed fond farewells all around. (Never, it should be noted, to be invited back again.)
3RP: Would you make a Spotify playlist of songs that are part of the LOUDMOUTH experience and share the link here.
“Music from the novel Loudmouth by Robert Duncan” is the playlist name. There are a 100 — well, almost a hundred (turns out Spotify doesn’t have everything) — greasy, bumping, smoking, gurgling, funny, sexy, mostly rock ‘n’ roll, tunes for your aural delectation and LOUDMOUTH-reading enhancement.