People are so in love with Richard, but he’s killed like 89 people!
—Terence Winter on Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow
What’s haunting me this Halloween season is the singing of Jack Bruce (1943-2014), who died October 25, and the acting of Jack Huston as Richard Harrow in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), which ended its five-season run on October 26.
My first thought on hearing of Bruce’s death wasn’t for his bass playing and songwriting with the power trio Cream but the uniqueness of his voice and the mood he creates as he moves from raw, bluesy passion to a subtle, tensely hushed, almost ethereal place in the same song, his singing both soft and searing above Eric Clapton’s virtuoso guitar and Ginger Baker’s rolling and tumbling drums.
Once I got beyond the high-profile obits stressing Bruce’s skills as a bassist, I found responses that came closer to my Halloween-based impression of his singing: “the uniquely haunting falsetto,” the “ghostly falsetto,” “Jack’s haunting high voice,” his “haunting operatic style,” his “voice that we all remember, soaring hauntingly,” the voice that adds “a haunting element” (my italics).
Having long ago traded my original copy of Disraeli Gears (1967) to the Princeton Record Exchange, I had to go to YouTube for immediate access to the album that put Cream on the American map. Their debut, Fresh Cream was clearly a product of the British blues scene. Beginning with “Strange Brew,” and its “kill what’s inside of you” refrain, Disraeli Gears took the blues into a strange new neighborhood. On YouTube there it was in all its gaudy glory: one of the psychedelic era’s most evocative album covers. At the time, even if you didn’t know the music, you had to own that record, that fabulous image, and you soon found that not only did the music live up to the imagery, it delivered a fiery equivalent of the complex aesthetic excitement of the cover montage, the newness of it, the design of the time, like the work of some genius of graffiti before Banksy was a gleam in England’s eye. So much of the musical chemistry depended on the way Jack Bruce put those quirky, edgy, blues-haunted songs across. Later singers like Jon Anderson of Yes and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin might approach or exceed his intensity, but few could equal his nuanced command of a voice that was as formidable an instrument as his bandmates’ guitar and drums. No surprise when you learn that Bruce was classically trained, studying cello and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, and so talented a singer that as a six-year-old he once sang for Paul Robeson.
Listen to songs like “Strange Brew,” “World of Pain,” “Dance the Night Away,” “We’re Going Wrong,” or “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and you hear Bruce exploring, discovering, and sustaining a fine emotional line that in his composition, “We’re Going Wrong,” actually seems to be entering some brave new world of rock between the art song and the blues.
Ghosts of the Boardwalk
“We’re Going Wrong” is one of several numbers from Disraeli Gears that could be played as a commentary on Boardwalk Empire’s fifth and final season. While the show’s most obvious claim to fame may be the visual brilliance of its depiction of the Prohibition era, every episode except the last one begins with a hard-rocking blues-inflected blast of sixties energy by a group that takes its name from a fallen rock star of the period Jack Bruce and Cream helped define. The music accompanying the opening credit sequence, which shows Atlantic City crime boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) lighting a cigarette as the froth of the incoming tide oozes over his elegantly photogenic shoes, is performed by the Brianjonestown Massacre; in fact, the title of the wordless track “Straight Up and Down,” prefigures Nucky’s fate.
You could say that Jack Huston’s scarred ex-army sharpshooter Richard Harrow sings a darkly poignant blues of his own in Boardwalk Empire, though his lament is effectively muted because of the mask molded to replicate the disfgured half of his face. In a skyatlantic interview, Huston describes how his speeches were typed in the script, the sentences “broken up with periods in very strange places” to show that the character “obviously didn’t speak in the right way.” That Huston calls the ellipses “full stops” lends a hint of musical notation to the mix (you can also hear it in the way Jack Bruce spaces the words of the title in “We’re Going Wrong”). Huston says he created the effect by putting cotton gauze in his mouth and speaking in low, halting, throaty tones, as if his voice-box had also been damaged. “It’s quite difficult and painful to speak with the mask,” he says, “but when I put that mask on I’m him.”
In almost every scene he shares with another person (not counting the ones he kills), Harrow has a special aura, an element of hushed, hesitant, emotionally charged poetry that haunts the moment. It’s there in his first scene with his eventual soulmate Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). The two combat-scarred soldiers (Darmody has shrapnel in his leg) exchange questions and answers about the books they’re reading as they wait in a Chicago hospital to be interviewed about their post-combat mental state. Richard’s book is one from the Tom Swift series, but what he says about it and the halting way he expresses the words goes deeper; it’s his theme, Richard’s blues: “It occurs to me … that the basis of fiction … is that people have some sort of … connection with each other … but they don’t.”
Originally slated for only a handful of episodes, Harrow went straight to the heart of the audience — as Terence Winter says, viewers fell in love with this gentle, civilized killing machine, until a few episodes became four seasons. There’s a fair chance that my wife and I are not the only ones who might have given up on Boardwalk Empire if Terence Winter hadn’t dealt the wild card of Richard Harrow. What ultimately sets Boardwalk Empire apart and makes it not only worth watching but as much a credit to HBO as The Sopranos is the sense that the whole show is an elaborate high-stakes gamble taken by a daringly imaginative team led by Sopranos veterans Winter and Tim Van Patten, along with Howard Korder and Martin Scorsese.
Omar and Richard
In spite of the fact that the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire looked to be its weakest (Harrow was gone, for one thing), series creator Winter and his crew pulled it together in the closing episodes. In addition to the seasons with Harrow, what continued to hold us was the casting-against-type tour de force of Steve Buscemi’s performance as Nucky Thompson; the appeal of Kelly Macdonald as his second wife; the fascination of the Dostoevskian extremes encompassed by Gretchen Mol’s anti-heroine Gillian Darmody and of Michael Shannon’s no less morally twisted epic portrayal of fallen FBI agent Nelson VanAlden. Then there was Michael K. Williams as the stoic African American crime boss Chalky White. It was Williams’s name in the cast list that made us curious about the series in the first place. Like many other viewers, we’d been captivated by his portrayal of Omar in HBO’s The Wire, where his murderous actions, like Harrow’s, were somehow tempered if not redeemed by the heart and humanity Williams gave to the performance. Omar’s blues was only a tougher version of Richard’s.
Still, Richard Harrow had more to lament. With Omar, menace was always present. With Richard, humanity and the yearning for love and family and connection always underscored the menace. There he sits in more than one scene clipping images of families from magazines and newspapers and pasting them in a scrapbook that he puts together as quietly and methodically as he arranges his weaponry, a veritable showcase of artillery, before his biggest kill, the massacre of a brothel full of gangsters in the last episode of the third season.
Surely Boardwalk Empire’s biggest gamble was choosing to center the series on Steve Buscemi, a character actor known and loved for playing losers in iconic films, like Shut-up-Donny to John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski; the thorny, nerdy Seymour in Ghost World; the hapless director in Living in Oblivion, the hapless hood in Fargo, and Charlie the hapless barber in Mystery Train. This is a funny-looking guy with a funny-sounding voice, his affect and accent just this side of Bugs Bunny, and he’s my favorite actor because he brings something special to every movie he’s in. Judging from some reviews and blogs, this piece of casting was perceived as so perverse, so flawed, that some people unfortunately either bowed out of the show or never gave it a chance. It’s the mother of all makeovers to turn the lovable loser into a crime boss up to his ears in money and women, mayhem and murder.
What a challenge for Buscemi. Five seasons with never a chance to revert to type (the closest he comes is when Nucky hits bottom in Season Five and gets silly drunk with and rolled by a couple of hookers). Not only does Buscemi nail the part of a lifetime, his triumph is ultimately equal to and symbolic of a triumphant series, in spite of moments early on when the final season seemed to be searching for itself, exposition in reverse. But the day was saved with the appearance of young Nucky (Marc Pickering) and young Gillian (Madeline Rose Yen), both played with eerie accuracy in speech and manner and movement in a ghostly evocation of the Original Sin that set everything in motion. As young and old appeared and disappeared, moving past into present and present into past, it brings up the word of the season for a show haunted by its past.
Meanwhile all it takes is a YouTube seance and you can conjure up Jack Huston and Boardwalk Empire and Jack Bruce and Cream.
Listen to Bruce singing “there’s a world of pain in the falling rain,” and “no time for pity,” and look at Richard wistfully gazing down at the images in his scrapbook. There’s a blues beyond singing, to be full of love for some abstract of humanity and know that your vocation is to kill people.