The Tail Of Bob Fosse: A Dancer’s Dark Path From Bali To Broadway

BobFosse1720Cropped

ACT I – OVERTURE

Bob Fosse knew, from a very early age, that he was different. While his friends were happy spending their days playing in the forest, carefully combing each other for fleas and flinging their own excrement around with wild abandon, Bob wanted more. Much more.

He knew he wasn’t cut out for a country life but just couldn’t put his dissatisfaction into words. That didn’t change as he grew up. No matter how hard he tried, the words just wouldn’t come.

“Give up,” his uncle Cheetah (who was so named not because of any striking resemblance to Tarzan’s sidekick but for his inability to play poker without cheating) snapped irritably at him one day. “You can’t talk. You’re a monkey. What do you think this is, Planet Of The Apes?”

Bob just looked forlorn and flicked his tail in that way monkeys do when they’re left without a snappy aside.

It was yet another example of the mysteries in his life, of which there were many. His reaction, or lack of, to his own kind, for example.

Girl monkeys just didn’t do it for him. Neither did boy monkeys, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Instead, what really knocked him sideways were the tourist girls who wandered the Monkey Forest. But only a certain type of tourist girl – tall, lean, willowy. Who moved with an effortless grace and fluidity. He found them incredibly sensual although he had no idea why.

He wanted to get to know them, talk to them, find out their names, their hopes and dreams and aspirations. Then he wanted to work them relentlessly, from morning to night, treat them harshly until their spirits broke, then rebuild them as efficient, highly-disciplined dancers until they looked at him with respect and a strange kind of dependent, twisted love.

Again, he had no idea why. It just seemed like a good idea.

Then, one day, he had an epiphany. While wandering the city, he stole through an open window into a hotel room. It took his breath away. It was sumptuous, not a word he’d been able to use with much frequency in the Monkey Forest. The curtains, throw pillows and other soft furnishings were of the finest brocade,, Magazines and coffee table books were all over the room, not just on the coffee table, an effect he found bold and ever so slightly rebellious.

Bob Fosse with his lawyer, Dr Gonzo
Bob Fosse with his lawyer, Dr Gonzo

On one wall was a large screen television. Below, a DVD player. He waved a remote around, pressing buttons until the room was flooded with sound.

The screen leapt to life. Song, dance, bentwood chairs dragged across highly-polished floors, hip rolls, finger snaps. Jazz hands, oh how he loved jazz hands. He tried out the moves, tentatively at first then with increasing confidence and found them strangely familiar. The music bumped and grinded, the songs were sexy and provocative. But, most of all, the cast were dressed exactly as he envisaged those tall, willowy tourist girls in his imagination. It was like this movie was plugged directly into his subconscious, beaming his imagination onto the hotel room wall.

The effect was staggering. He knew not just how to do the stuff on the screen. He could improve on it, make it better. Maybe a few more crescent jumps, for a start. But he could work on the details later.

Bob Fosse recognised there and then that he had to get out of Ubud. The stifling provincial atmosphere was holding him back, smothering his creativity.

If he had to see one more production of Oklahoma or Carousel, he’d screech. And bare his incisors. And don’t even mention Michael Bennett. Bob had ventured to the other side of the Monkey Forest to catch Bennett’s latest production and was, quite frankly, bored. Who wants to see a bunch a dancers standing around talking?

Dance was so much more. Dance was sex. You sweated and groaned, contorted your body into strange positions, opened yourself up in every sense of the word. It was a marathon effort and, when you reached the end, when the excitement and applause reached its peak, it exploded in your head and heart. And you slumped exhausted and thought about doing it all over again. But better.

In a moment of clarity, Bob Fosse knew his future lay far from the Monkey Forest and Ubud. The Big City beckoned. He had the name and it was time he did something with it. It was no coincidence, he thought, that the Monkey Forest Road was one-way and it led straight out of town (if you turned left at Starbucks).

At the local markets, he rummaged around until he found black pants and a shirt, which fit his lean frame perfectly. In the mirror, the combination looked OK but it needed more. Bob was already prematurely bald, though barely out of adolescence; a bowler hat would help but, even in cosmopolitan Ubud, it was too tall an order.

He had to settle for a ratty fez he unearthed in the bargain bin of a thrift store, which gives a pretty good idea of exactly how ratty it was. It was made of brocade like the furnishings in the hotel room, which he took as a good omen. A matching brocade vest completed the look.

Bob examined himself in a full length mirror. He tipped his fez rakishly forward on his forehead and lit a cigarette; Bob habitually chain-smoked which, for a simian covered in body hair, had its pitfalls. The brocade wouldn’t be so flammable.

It was just right. He rolled his hips and snapped his fingers. Applause thundered in his head. He was ready.

Bob Fosse recounts his tumultuous live to his Boswell
Bob Fosse recounts his tumultuous life to his Boswell

So Bob Fosse left Ubud, hitching a ride towards his fame and fortune. In his hometown, he was a very small monkey in a very big forest but, once he reached Kuta, well, he soon released that being different had its advantages.

Chicks dug him, they hung on his every word and, on Ladies Nights, when the 50,000 Rupiah arak cocktails flowed like the brackish brown sludge that passed for water in the garbage-choked rivers (which is to say, not very well), they loved him even more. He was a monkey, sure, but a naughty monkey and chicks went crazy for that sort of thing.

He woke the next morning in a small, hot hotel room, with an agonising headache akin to a slim-bladed knife relentlessly probing his eyeballs. His mouth felt like the bottom of an Asian palm civet’s cage. It couldn’t get any worse than this, could it?

Then he noticed he was almost squashed between two naked Finnish backpackers. Memories of the previous night, a procession of crowded noisy nightclubs, raucous laughter, flirting, smouldering gazes, and how he’d drunkenly acted out every last dance move from the “Cell Block Tango” while improvising his own improvements.

As drunk as he was, he recognised he didn’t have blood in his veins so much as glitter.

Bob Fosse grinned a thin, humourless grin and slapped the closest sinuous rump within reach. They didn’t have tails but he could get used to that.

“Wake up, sweet cheeks. There’s lots of work to do,” he growled and lit the first cigarette of the day. The amphetamines could wait till later.

One of the twins, he couldn’t remember which one, woke slowly and favoured him with a lazy smile. She scratched Bob behind the ear. He could get used to that as well.

TO BE CONTINUED

As told to David Latta. © words and photos David Latta 2014

 

Advertisements

Want To Write, Won’t Write, Can’t Write: What’s The Excuse?

How writers often see themselves
How writers often see themselves

 

You’re a writer if you can’t NOT write.

What makes a writer? To state the bleeding obvious, you need to get those words out. Out of your head and onto the page. You have to physically manifest your thoughts, dreams, hopes, desires, translate them into something tangible whether it’s pen on paper or keystrokes onto your computer screen.

The best of intentions won’t be enough to get you there. But the one thing I hear most of all, when people find out I’m a writer, is how many of them would love to do the same thing – create a book, poem, movie script.

Then comes the inevitable qualifier. Oh, they’d love to write, they say, but they’re too busy with work/family/life in general.

I firmly believe that everybody has a book inside them. And everybody has the ability to write. A writer is a storyteller and who hasn’t been to a dinner party or sat in a bar and regaled their friends with a story or two? And gently tweaked those stories in subsequent retellings to make them even better?

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson

 

And if you’re a regular reader, you know the basics of what makes a compelling story. There are only so many types of stories, and each new one is only a variation on something that’s been told countless times before. That’s the tradition of storytelling. A writer doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel each time they sit down, they merely try to make that wheel look a little different from all the others out there.

So why aren’t more people writers, especially if they’ve have at least one interesting experience to share, let alone an interesting life?

The great unknown, for one thing. A book can be a particularly daunting thing. One hundred thousand words, two hundred thousand words. That’s scary to a lot of people. It’s scary to most writers as well.

It’s no surprise that writers, even the successful kind, are extremely conflicted about the craft of writing. Some, like Roald Dahl, have  gone on record about how difficult they find it. They may even hate the act of writing. Others describe feelings of frustration or disappointment; which has as much to do with living up to their own high standards as it does to what they see as the drudgery of sitting down each day, alone in a room, to do the same thing over and over again.

That so many famous writers were alcoholics is telling. No surprise that Hunter S. Thompson is in this group. Raymond Chandler, responsible for some of the most sublimely clever prose within the strictures of the crime genre, was not only an alcoholic but a mean, nasty one at that along with being a racist, anti-Semitic misogynist to top it all off.

Typewriter1-1234699141PRLF

Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few who crowd my bookshelves, liberally lubricated their talents in the bottle but still managed to create some of the most enduring literary classics of all time.

They had what we now call addictive personalities. There were certainly other writers – such as Baudelaire, Coleridge, Ginsberg, Huxley and Sartre – who channelled their addictive personalities into drugs.

They were addicts because they could be; it was not as socially unacceptable as such behaviour is now. It helped them deal with any personal difficulties they had and maybe it also assisted them into “the zone”, into that area that allowed their imaginations to soar and the emotions to manifest.

As much as the alcoholics and drug addicts get all the attention, a lots of writers (most? some? who knows?) don’t need or at least don’t use such stimulus. They do it cold turkey.

My first five books were non-fiction, all but one commissioned by major publishers, the last two by Random House. They all in some way were aspects of Australian history – architecture, crime fiction, music, a company history.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013)
Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013)

 

The good thing about writing non-fiction is you know exactly where you’re going; you have a beginning, middle and end before you write Word One.

Fiction is a whole new ballgame and very scary for anyone trying it for the first time. My first novel came out of a dare at a drunken dinner party. The next morning, it still didn’t seem like such a bad idea so I began Chapter One. Which led to Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and so forth.

Not only was it my first attempt at fiction (I won’t include the period in the mid-1980s when I produced what I’ll refer to as “adult fiction”), I wrote it from the beginning to the end.

I started out with no real idea of what I wanted to do or where I was heading. Along the way, I came up with a couple of really good characters and a setting and that led to a major plot as well as a sub-plot, and I sped through it all until the last few chapters when I was hung up on the resolution. It took a couple of weeks to get over that hurdle.

In all, the 100,000 words took about nine months. It would have been quicker but I had a couple of heart attacks in the midst, which tends to throw one’s schedule off slightly.

Take-a-writer-away-from

As a first novel, it was some hard work but a lot of fun as well. And I’d done it. I’d proved to myself that writing a novel wasn’t that difficult and maybe, with some practise and a favourable marketplace, I could make a career out of it.

Time for the next one. I love Stephen King and horror novels in general (especially those disturbing Pan horror anthologies from the 1960s). I figured why not?

So now I’m working on a horror novel. I’ve moved to Bali to work exclusively on the novel. With no distractions except the tropical weather, clear blue skies, and a swimming pool to while away the midday hours, punctuating my morning and afternoon writing sessions (my version of a stiff highball or a arm full of illicit substances; it works for me).

Living in a foreign country and forgoing family, friends and your support network in order to focus on writing isn’t a prerequisite but it’s a start. Getting rid of distractions, and being quite ruthless about it, works for those of us who are………..oh, look, a cat.

Anyway, different strokes for different folks. What works for me might not be applicable for everybody. And it gets back, after much meandering and waffling, to the original question.

What does it take to be a writer? To be cruel, it boils down to one thing. With apologies to Nike, just do it.

© words David Latta 2014

The Story So Far: A Little About The Inner Voice And Its Role In The Craft Of Writing

BaliTonysVillas1986

I’m a writer. Have been professionally since 1979.

To be precise, I’m a writer, author, editor, and photographer, which is a neat progression but doesn’t tell the whole story. For one thing, the timelines are all confused. I’ve been taking photographs most of my life. My first published photograph appeared in a local newspaper in my hometown of Sydney, Australia, when I was in my early teens but I didn’t get paid for it. The thrill was recompense enough.

The same for my early writing. Not too long after that first photograph was published (I still have the clipping; it was of a hot rod I’d photographed at a local shopping centre and I’d developed and printed it myself. Curiously, I developed an interest in old cars later in life. Small world as we may find out sometime in the future.), I had a short-lived column in the same suburban newspaper. Once again, I didn’t get paid for it; the thrill continued.

I left school early, worked in a menswear store, as a window dresser in a department store (in a large local mall that didn’t have windows so I spent much on my time teetering on high ladders hanging Sale signs), then moved out of the cosy cultural confines of suburbia for the inner city and had a wonderful time as a drink waiter in a fashionable disco (this was the mid- to late-1970s, the Golden Age of Disco, although there will be those musical purists who will insist that Golden Age and Disco should never be used in the same sentence. I disagree but more on that at some later time as well, I’m sure).

In 1979, I threw in the humid, smoky, sensuous existence of the nightclub life for the solitary life of a writer. That’s when I scored my first pay-check from writing. It mightn’t have paid as well as the nightclub, and the tips were nowhere near as good, but it felt like a noble calling. And, for someone who didn’t have a lot of other skills, there was something comforting about distilling facts into something a little easier to understand (my first few years were spent writing encyclopaedia entries).

I’m not sure whether it’s the same with all writers (that’s one question I’ve never asked) but I’ve always had voices in my head. Or, to be precise, one voice. My own.

He’s a chatty little chap. Sometimes he takes the place of my conscience, such as when he warns me against that third martini (in which case, I take it under advisement, as they say in courtroom dramas). Otherwise, he’s my narrator, my Boswell.

It could be that he’s that “inner voice” that is so discussed. It’s the same voice I hear when I read but it goes far beyond that – it narrates my existence, like one of those voiceovers in bad movies. Wherever I am, but most favourably in an airport, hotel lobby, bar or nightclub, I get this running commentary about the people around me, who they are, their relationships to each other, their back-stories.

beautiful-brain-illustration-beautiful-desktop-backgrounds-creative-desktop-wallpapers-free-hd-creative-wallpapers-backgrounds

Luckily, my inner voice – if I’m going to continue referring to it as such – is a benign inner voice. It’s never suggested I climb the nearest water tower and change the course of history (a vast relief as I’m scared of heights). And I’ve never felt obliged to wear a tinfoil helmet to block out alien communications.

Having said that, I recognise there’s a long and distinguished tradition of mental illness in the arts. Derangement seems to make the creative process bubble along quite merrily. It’s been responsible for some true and lasting, even immortal, works of art, whether it’s music, painting or literature.

That’s not my style although there have been times when I drove in that general direction, However I always turned back before the road got too dark. Uncharted territory disturbs me, as it should. I’m the sort of guy who likes a map, GPS, printed directions and at least one experienced navigator on board.

Writers spend an extraordinary amount of time inside their own heads so it’s entirely possible my experiences aren’t extraordinary. Maybe all writers have these voices. My inner voice tells me what to write. For the sake of brevity, I’ll now refer to it as the Voice, just so you know what I’m talking about in the future (but please don’t confused it with the television show of the same name).

The Voice serves some remarkable purposes. Aside from the running commentary, which isn’t loud enough that it drowns out everything else (as it’s currently overwhelmed by Frampton Comes Alive which is playing in the background), it writes my articles and stories for me. A fabulous phrase, a new way of using a particular word, a particularly colourful description. All this and more.

When working on a magazine article, I’ll wait for all the research I’ve gathered to filter through my subconscious, like bourbon slowly working its way through charcoal, removing the impurities, until it emerges at the other end.

When it’s ready, and only then because it’s never wise to hasten the process (using the bourbon analogy, it’s not wise to drink it too early), the first sentence or sometimes the opening paragraph will pop into my head. Unexpected and unbidden.

The Voice will whisper the honeyed phrases. And the article will unfurl, satisfying in its fluidity. Rarely will I need to revise. A light copy edit, change a word here or there. Rearrange a sentence or paragraph. But, on the whole, it’s fully formed and ready to go.

Typewriter1-1234699141PRLF

I have very few skills and none, aside from writing, would make me any money. I’m no handyman. On the rare occasions I visit hardware stores I have the same air of intense curiosity that archaeologists show towards vanished civilisations. I stand before tools and, while marvelling at their design, wonder how they’re used. I’m not technical in any way; when I first started using a computer, a friend attached a sign to the wall with very detailed instructions on how to turn it on.

For quite some years, I made a good living from writing. Then I didn’t. Then I couldn’t write, going through an extended and debilitating writer’s block. A blank computer screen goaded me in the worst possible way.

For quite some time, I was that cliché beloved of movies and television – the writer who couldn’t write. The universe, that eternal joker, was playing the worst prank of all. Then I found my way back. It’s a long and complicated story. I’ve shortened it considerably so you’ll stay awake.

I’m sure I’ll cover a lot more about my life in greater detail as the mood takes me. But just to recap: it was fun. Then it wasn’t. Now it’s starting to be again. And I’ve come to Bali to do it.

I’m writing a novel. My first five books were commissioned and published by major Australian publishers. All were non-fiction, with some aspect of Australian history – architecture, literature, music.

With the novels, I’m taking the self-publishing e-book route. The one I’m working on now is a horror novel, in the vein of Stephen King. Hopefully, it’ll be as successful although the odds are against it. Not because it will be bad, more likely it will fail to make much of an impression in spite of being good. That’s just the way the publishing industry is these days, especially with the advent of digital publishing and e-books.

That’s just the way things are. But I need to give this a try. And I’ve come to Bali for that reason, along with a couple of others. For one thing, the climate. And a cost of living that is considerably lower than my hometown.

Do I still have your attention?

Hope there’s something in all this you find interesting. Hang in there. We could start having fun anytime soon. Depending on your definition of fun.

© words David Latta 2014