LOS ANGELES — A scorching August day in Los Angeles. I drive north on Rossmore. The fire in the hills looks like a nuclear blast. I turn the corner, find some shade, park, roll the windows down. A bum walks by, in a daze. I decide to go in early, crash in the lobby, wait for the interview. Before I get there, James Ellroy pulls up. Nice car. “Get in,” he says.
He tells me there’s a dame. He’s in love again. Crazy, obsessive love. “Immortal Beloved” love, he would say. He says that he plays the dame the Adagio of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata on the stereo and tells her, “This is how I feel about you.” And means it. “Why does anyone pretend that this (Adagio) is about anything other than transcendent emotion and the seeking of the divine?” he says.
We climb the stairs, wheezing in the heat. His apartment is hot. He turns on the air. The place is as clean and dark as a grave. Books, all his own, multiple copies of “L.A. Confidential,” “American Tabloid,” “Brown’s Requiem,” are lined up in the bookcases. Framed photographs of old Los Angeles hang on the wall. More prominent: portraits of Beethoven and Bruckner, his twin symphonic gods, and framed Deutsche Grammophon LPs, Argerich, Kubelik, Abbado, Barenboim.
It all started before his mother, Jean Hilliker, was murdered. “She had a blue record album,” he remembers. It was Brahms. She played it all the time, while she read big, historical novels. He hated it.
Then, in January 1960, came the moment. At John Burroughs Junior High in L.A., he had an art teacher named Alan Hines. “I’d always see him buyin’ booze at a market on First and Western.” One day in class Hines dropped a needle on a record.
“Da-da-da dunnn. Over! It was just over. Immediately.” Ellroy was hooked on the man, hopped up on Ludwig, a genius that he calls “the most unequivocal artist in history.”
A memoir, “The Hilliker Curse,” currently being serialized in Playboy, recounts his tragic boyhood, his mother’s murder, his pursuit of the unattainable woman, his fanatical peeping, the hookers, drugs, girlfriends, wives and classical music which have shaped his deeply moral persona. He used to cruise Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the hopes of picking up Philharmonic string players. He once paid a record store clerk $1,000 for a poster of the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, which he gazed at as he wrote his novel “White Jazz.” He has a portrait of Beethoven hanging over his bed.
Ellroy, 61, leans back on a leather couch. He looks beat. The top of his shirt is unbuttoned, he scratches his chest, his life an open book. You feel like you know him in five minutes. He spits sentences in staccato, just like his writing. His opinions are strong, unabashed.
He likes his music that way, too — strong, unabashed. The Romantics, starting with Beethoven and his “Eroica Symphony, are his guys.
“I dig late Mozart,” he says. “There’s a hair of dissonance, there’s more vavoom, the late symphonies. I got Bohm, the Berlin Philharmonic. I love the 21st Piano Concerto — “Elvira Madigan” — Sinfonia Concertante, the Clarinet Concerto. But that’s it. Haydn you can have, Handel you can have, Baroque I can’t listen to. It’s this guy (he points to Beethoven) and on up. With some bypasses. I love the Schubert Fourth Symphony, “The Tragic” symphony, the Unfinished and Ninth. I love the late piano sonatas, they’re going some weird spectral new place. He’s on his way out for one thing, and he knows it.”
There’s Chopin (the Ballades, especially), Berlioz, Liszt. Except for a few pieces, he still can’t stomach Brahms.
“You know what Nietzsche said about Brahms? ‘The melancholy of impotence.’ He was a drunk. He never had sex with women except for whores. And just that he was a (expletive). He was a penny pincher. He was just a pain in the ass.”
Mahler: “You know I think he just depressed himself to death.” Bruckner is his late Romantic deity. “Bruckner never whined, he was pious, and he never got laid.”
In the 20th century, he dotes on Prokofiev, Sibelius, Bartok, and especially Rachmaninoff, the guys who let it all hang out. You can tell a lot about a man by the music he likes. And doesn’t.
“I always thought rock ‘n’ roll was jejune, puerile, institutionalized rebelliousness, utterly childish compared to classical music and jazz. And I’m astonished that adults listen to this (crap).”
He doesn’t go to many concerts these days. When he lived in New York he went to piano recitals at Carnegie Hall, the greats, mostly. But he’s never heard Esa-Pekka Salonen, “or the new guy with all the hair” (Gustavo Dudamel).
He did happen to be at Krystian Zimerman’s infamous Disney Hall recital earlier this year. The Polish pianist made an angry speech, climaxing with a message to America. “Get your hands off my country,” he said. Ellroy was one of the first to walk out, swearing.
A new Ellroy novel, “Blood’s a Rover,” comes out this month. He has plans.
“I may buy a duplex or an upper half of a duplex later this year, depending on how the new book does. And what I’ve always wanted to do was have a music room, with comfortable couches and a good stereo system, differentiated stereo, and a lot of Beethoven.”
For now, his sound system is modest. A boom box in his office. A small, but choice, collection of CDs. Stuff he listens to, like a complete set of the Bruckner symphonies conducted by Eugen Jochum. Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto played by Martha Argerich. The Bartok string quartets.
He listens closely. He listens with headphones. Never while he writes. He knows the music, inside and out. I bring up Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. He sings the themes. He has opinions.
“Rarely have I heard anything phrased perfectly in Beethoven in solo piano. Gilels gets there, the closest, most often.” Such considerations are crucial to him.
“Nobody ever hits the chords, the beginning chords of the ‘Waldstein’ sonata hard enough for me. Nobody. Not Gilels. You could put Sviatoslav Richter over there, and say I’ll kill you if you don’t hit it as hard as you can, and he did it as hard as he can, and it still wouldn’t be right for me. It’s just a lifetime of listening to signature Beethoven where it isn’t played balls-to-the-wall enough for me.”
He exalts a favorite recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata by Van Cliburn.
“It’s the greatest Rachmaninoff architecture that I’ve ever heard. He had a very, very deep understanding of Rachmaninoff — of the sorrow, or the joy of it, how it seems to describe to me, and even unschooled listeners, the beginning, the swell of romance, and the cessation of passion in a romantic relationship. My brilliant ex-wife, Helen Knode, a novelist herself, said that Rachmaninoff’s great theme is ‘Love is colder than death.’”
We walk to dinner. An Italian joint. They know him there. He downs cup after cup of decaf. He recalls a dream. It’s recurring. He’s backstage at Carnegie Hall. A piano on stage. The audience waits. He knows he can’t play. But he knows if he sits down at the instrument he’ll nail it. “That’s megalomania,” he says.
Classical music runs deep in Ellroy. It’s not just a reference in the writing. Beethoven is his alter-ego. Tragedy marked both their lives, loneliness, despair, artistic bravery. He cannot read about him without weeping. “I identify with this guy.”
“The Hilliker Curse” is case in point.
“The epigraph is Beethoven: ‘I will take Fate by the throat.’ So it’s me talking about the bad card of my mother’s murder, and turning to it my advantage as an artist because I was steeped in both the unfathomable genius of that man, and the bottomless courage and resolve.”
Classical music, in sum, is the very reason Ellroy writes.
“Classical music brings back the awe of life to me and the essence of drama, and I grew up digging big, thunderous, important (music). And wanting to create it in my own way. Which could only be the word.”
He walks alone, in the dark, to his apartment.