Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ed Wood's ANGORA FEVER: "Unfriendly Persuasion" (1971)

A vision in orange and white.

NOTE: This article continues my coverage of Angora Fever: The Collected Short Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (BearManor Bare, 2019).

The story: "Unfriendly Persuasion," originally published in The Boy Friends, vol. 3, no. 2, May/June 1971. No author credited.

Synopsis: Martin is an extremely attractive young hustler who routinely dresses in drag as "Marion" and picks up male customers at cocktail lounges and bars. It's not that he prefers women's clothing, just that dressing as a pretty girl is the easiest way to attract men. Besides, with his soft features, Martin makes a very convincing woman. Since he has no breasts, he keeps his bra on when he's with a customer. And since he has no vagina, he tells clients its his "time of the month" and satisfies them with his mouth instead. They never catch on. One night, he picks up a customer named Tommy and takes him back to his apartment. But Tommy has a secret of his own!

Wood trademarks: Cross-dressing (cf. Killer in Drag, Death of a Transvestite); phrase "strange as it may seem" (cf. Glen or Glenda); color pink (cf. "2 X Double"); angora sweater (a cardigan this time); sweaters in general; the word "groin" (cf. Death of a Transvestite); cocktail lounge (cf. The Cocktail Hostesses); prostitution (cf. "Private Girl"); gender switcheroo (cf. "Super Who?").

Excerpt: "She wished she had a hole instead of a pole… after all, she was a whore and she knew it… a male whore in female dress, but a whore nevertheless… women whores could do so much more with their clients."

Louis Armstrong's last stand.
Reflections: In early August of 1970, just a few months before this story was published, jazz great Louis Armstrong recorded what was to be his obscure final studio album, Louis 'Country & Western' Armstrong, at a grungy facility in New York with a group of Nashville session men. By any standards, it's a bizarre LP. Armstrong, who turned 69 during these very sessions, was clearly in fading health and would be dead within the year. The great Satchmo plays not one note on his trumpet but instead croaks his way through a dozen country (and country rock) classics, his famous voice even more hoarse and crackly than usual.

To say the least, the critical reputation of Louis 'Country & Western' Armstrong is poor. In fact, I first learned of the album's existence due to the inclusion of one of its tracks, "Almost Persuaded," on Golden Throats, Vol. 3: Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive, a 1995 Rhino compilation album of misguided C&W records by tone-deaf celebrities. There, it sat alongside such justly forgotten tracks as "I Walk the Line" by Leonard Nimoy and "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Buddy Ebsen. Like Ed Wood's own movies and books, Satchmo's final album has been categorized as a campy "so bad it's good" curiosity.

And yet, there's something about Louis 'Country & Western' Armstrong I find undeniably compelling. As with much of Ed Wood's work, there's a vulnerable, unguarded quality to this LP that makes it stand out among other, slicker records. When I first heard Satchmo's take on "Almost Persuaded" in 1995, my first reaction was incredulous laughter -- the very same initial reaction I'd had to Ed Wood's movies in the '90s. But now I hear the years of experience and heartache in Armstrong's voice. The narrator of the song is remembering his experiences "last night all alone in a barroom," and Louis' woozy performance does suggest a man who is deeply hungover and regretful.

I guess I'm writing about all this because I immediately thought of "Almost Persuaded" while reading "Unfriendly Persuasion." The titles are similar, for one thing, and both use the phrase "ruby red lips." In the song, a temptress possesses "ruby red lips, coal black hair, and eyes that would tempt any man." In Ed's story, Martin/Marion asserts, "All the guy was interested in were her ruby red lips, and what they could do for him." And, then, both the song and the story are about picking people up in bars. As stories like this attest, Ed Wood spent much of his life in barrooms and lounges -- places that manage to be lonely even when crowded with people -- so I like to think he would have been the ideal audience for a song like "Almost Persuaded." The song even has one of Eddie's signature twist endings!

Next: "Like a Hole in the Head" (1971)