INTERVIEW WITH REX WEINER

The Misadventures of Rex Weiner

It’s been a long, strange trip for Ford Fairlane.

Rex Weiner’s rock n’ roll detective emerged from the late 70s underground music scene and was originally serialized in the New York Rocker and LA Weekly. The cultural relevance and up tempo hardboiled writing inevitably caught the eye of Hollywood, setting Weiner and his creation on a decade-long quest for the silver screen. 

The result was “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” starring Andrew Dice Clay, released by 20th Century Fox in 1990. A commercial flop at the time, the movie has since become a cult classic. So it’s totally understandable if that’s all you know about Ford Fairlane, but there’s a lot more to this colorful character—and his creator—than you’ll find on Rotten Tomatoes.

I caught up with Weiner in the weeks leading up to the re-release of the first twelve Ford Fairlane stories, THE ORIGINAL FORD FAIRLANE.

Why is 2018 the right time for these stories to make a comeback?

I’m happy to say that crime fiction is bigger today than ever, a wider genre now that accepts all shapes and shades of heroes and villains, with a multitude of cultural backgrounds, ambiguous moralities, and unorthodox methods. So the idea of a private detective who works in the music business seems like an even better idea now than when I first created the stories. At the same time, a resurgence of interest in the music, art, and culture of the 1970s makes these stories—authentic artifacts presented for the first time together in a single volume, thanks to Rare Bird Books—pretty cool, if not cooler, than ever.  Also, this year is Mickey Spillane’s 100th birthday.

“Authentic artifacts” is an interesting and accurate way to describe these stories. What gives the 70s such cultural staying power?

The art, literature and music of those times seem awesome today, though it was all pretty much scraped together out of spit and no money, often under difficult circumstances, as described in my prologue to this book. The 1970s were the last decade of the post-war boom. The economy had enough slack in those days to allow talented slackers to have some fun and make art without worrying too much about the rent, even as cities like New York and Detroit were going broke. It was also the last era of face-to face human interaction, without technology getting in the way. The culture still had a raw edge, and creativity had the hot intensity of a tube amplifier as opposed to a cool, hand-held digital device. 

 

What was your original inspiration for a “rock n’ roll detective?” 

Comic books, pulp fiction, small town America, AM radio, Lester Bangs and Mickey Spillane were my main influences and inspirations. Although I was born in Brooklyn, I grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a small rural town in upstate New York, a strange, moody farm village full of dark secrets where it always felt like someone was about to snap and murder somebody. The Rexall drugstore on Main Street had a magazine rack full of comic books and a standing carousel of paperbacks. After reading through the latest Classics Illustrated, House of Mystery, Mad, and Superman, I’d spin through the paperbacks, looking for the most lurid titles and covers, then I’d hitch a ride home, listening to the latest Top Ten on some local hepcat’s AM car radio. Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and then the Rolling Stones and Marvin Gaye. 

Later on, living in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, writing for magazines and hanging out with rock critic Lester Bangs, it all came together for me. Lester knew the backstory of every rock song ever recorded and told those stories in an entertaining way. Although he was sad and drug-addled, Lester was grounded in great literature and loved the music, always finding crazy hope in the darkest, most twisted sounds. As a journalist, I admired Mickey Spillane’s terse, economical style. Not a word wasted. Spillane, plus Bangs, plus Chuck Berry and my own adventures in downtown NYC and in LA in the 1970s all added up to the character of a “rock n’ roll detective,” searching for clues to the mystery of America.

In your estimation, did Ford Fairlane—or you, or any of the influences you’ve listed—ever solve “the mystery of America?” Or is it the ultimate cold case?

My two Ford Fairlane stories both end with ambiguity and ambivalence—it’s about a guy who can’t get a certain song out of his head, but keeps on trying. Because that’s his job, like the characters in Spillane, Hammett, Chandler. It’s what they do, damn it. But I think the best lines describing the American mystery are at the end of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” where we contemplate “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” which parallel the last lines of Kerouac’s “On The Road” where “…nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.” Both novels are about unsolved mysteries, and I think those basic questions are what keep all writers going, or at least why I get up in the morning.

These stories offer an authentic depiction of the late 70s music scene—from CBGBs, the Mudd Club and Tier 3 in New York, to the Starwood, Zero Zero and Cuckoo’s Nest in Los Angeles. How do those clubs and bands look to you now from the distance of 40 years?

What I liked about punk rock and New Wave in the 1970s was how it gave a middle finger to the corporate takeover of the music business. It felt like rock n’ roll—born out of young white middle class rebellion combined with black American culture—was making a last stand at CBGBs and the downtown New York clubs on the east coast, and at the Starwood and south bay clubs, and the Mabuhay in San Francisco on the west coast. It was dangerous and threatening to many of the musicians themselves, unfortunately, as much as to the society they confronted. But economics had a lot to do with its success, as the interviews in my book with Andy Schwartz and Jay Levin testify (publishers of the alternative papers that first serialized the Ford Fairlane stories). The cheaper cost of living in that era allowed those clubs to exist and gave artists freedom to create the music and culture that now seem so radical. I believe the same indie spirit is still alive and well in cities and town across the country and around the world—especially Hip Hop on a grass roots level—but it’s more DIY than ever, and you have to look for it. If you’re in that mood. On my end, I’m listening to early Be Bop these days, mostly.

It’s interesting that you brought up Bebop because I detect a strong Beat Generation influence in these stories. Is it just my imagination?

It’s true! My early influences were the Beats, the poetry and literature of the 1950s, outlaws tackling the existential questions of the post-war era when everyone else was settling safely into conformity. Living on the edge, having fun, drinking wine, smoking pot, banging on bongos and getting laid—why wouldn’t you want to be a Beatnik? But there was another sensibility going on there, too—more ascetic, a spiritual quest, a soulful searching for some kind of truth beyond the bullshit. You’ll find that in the writings of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder, the music of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis—listen close and you’ll hear that sound in the best music of the 1970s. That’s kind of where Ford Fairlane comes from, although he’s not averse to having a good time. One of these days, anyway.

The movie adaptation of your stories took a long and winding path to production. What did you learn during that process?

I never dreamed I would ever write movies—I used to think the actors made it up as they went along—and the story of the New York writer seduced by Hollywood is a long-standing cliché. Not that I’m their literary equal, but Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among so many others, all preceded me in that long parade.  As one famous New York writer gone Hollywood wrote to another in the 1930s: “There are millions to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” But the truth, as I came to learn, is that screenwriting is one of the most difficult forms to master. You have to respect the filmmaking process, and the best screenwriters are really good writers first. It took ten years for Hollywood studios to make the Ford Fairlane stories into a movie, and in that time I had some success as a screenwriter for both the big and little screen. My episode of Miami Vice in the first year of the TV series—Glades—became a classic, but that was only because, as a founding editor of High Times magazine, I knew a little something about smuggling in the Everglades. I always kept my hand in journalism, going on staff as a reporter for Variety for several years. In my experience, it’s important to be a writer foremost, and let the movie and TV businesses catch up with you, if they’re interested. If not, screw ‘em. 

Your “be a writer first” advice has a school of hard knocks vibe that’s very much in line with Ford Fairlane’s personality. How much of you is in your character?

I keep writing, no matter what. My dad was a newspaperman. I started my writing career at newspapers. It helps to have a deadline and some kind of a paycheck at the other end, which is why I continue to do investigative reporting for an outfit called Capital & Main here, and movie star profiles for glossy magazines in France and Italy. Helps with the rent. But like Ford Fairlane, I’ll work for just about anybody who’ll pay reliably—as long as I get to do things my way—er, Ford’s way.

The Ford Fairlane film that got released in 1990 was a commercial flop in the U.S., but became a cult classic. Do you think it’s possible for readers to enjoy these original stories without casting Andrew Dice Clay as Ford Fairlane in their minds?

Many people think “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” was written specifically for “The Diceman.” His fans may be surprised to learn the original stories even exist, let alone that they were written while Andrew Clay Silverstein was still playing bar mitzvahs in the Catskills. They may be curious to read them, but disappointed that my stories don’t include Clay’s raw sense of humor, which is fine by me. Women, turned off by Dice’s off-color jokes, may not be interested at all, I’m sorry to say, since my stories have none of Clay’s notorious misogyny. Although that’s just a pose on his part—I’ve met him and Andrew’s a nice guy, completely different in real life from the character he plays. 

But at this point, most people haven’t heard of the movie, or—if they have—they haven’t ever seen it. So for them, a whole new generation, and especially crime fiction readers, I’m hoping the original stories will be a fresh experience. Maybe they’ll even demand a new Ford Fairlane movie or TV series, something that sticks closer to the original material. After all, it took Hollywood several tries to get Hammett’s Maltese Falcon right, with Bogart as the definitive Sam Spade. And how many actors have played James Bond, or any of Mickey Spillane’s heroes? 

You just opened yourself up to this question—if you were to make a Ford Fairlane movie now, who would you cast in the lead role?

Tricky question! I’d like to see the role played straight, as in classic private eye movies, so the director is important. At the older end of the casting range, I can see a cantankerous Jeff Bridges or even a bemused Johnny Depp, if he could drop the worn-out pirate shtick. Or maybe somebody like Ice Cube, just for a change. All three know the music, which is essential to the character, and are cool enough to carry off the name. At the younger end, it’s the hot young star who knows a Fender Strat from a Telecaster and can answer the question: Who sang the hit song “I Fought The Law” and how did he die? (Answer: Bobby Fuller, and it’s an unsolved mystery).

Where does Ford Fairlane go from here?

The idea of a private eye working in the music business who uses his encyclopedic knowledge of pop music history to solve the crime is a good concept. I admit that it’s not fully realized in the two original stories, limited as they were by the six weekly deadlines and short amount of space given to them. They’re still pretty good though, in my biased opinion. But I’m working on a new, contemporary version, with an older, grumpier Ford Fairlane who lives in the last un-gentrified building in the neighborhood, has two young assistants who are into Hip Hop, K-Pop and ranchera music. He follows the clues from crimes involving today’s music business back into the rock n’ roll past in order to solve the mystery. He listens to Be Bop, mostly, but takes a call from Debbie Harry now and then to catch up on old times, and has a soft spot in his heart for the Ramones. 

 

S.W. Lauden is the author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series including Bad Citizen Corporation, GRIZZLY SEASON and HANG TIME. He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in LA.