Friday, March 16, 2012

Isley Brothers -- "Love the One You're With" (1971)

There's a girl right next to you 
And she's just waiting for something to do . . .
And if you can't be with the one you love 
Love the one you're with

Stephen King once wrote that George Pelecanos is "perhaps the greatest living American crime writer."  

George Pelecanos
Pelecanos modestly notes on his website that "Mr. King used the qualifier perhaps."  Yes, King qualified his opinion -- I wouldn't have.

I also would have left out the other qualifier (crime) as well.  If there's a living American writer whose body of work is more impressive than the 18 novels Pelecanos has published in the past two decades, I haven't discovered him or her.

Those 18 novels are full of music.  Every time a character is driving in a car, Pelecanos tells us what song is playing on the radio or the eight-track.  Every time two characters are plotting their next moves in a neighborhood bar, we know what's on the jukebox.  And every time a man and a woman are alone in an apartment late at night, having a drink and engaging in the conversational foreplay that will eventually lead them to go to bed with each other, he tells us what record is playing on the stereo.

Pelecanos's novels include references to hundreds of rock, punk, blues, R&B and hiphop records.  If any one genre predominates, it is classic 1970s soul and funk music.  That is especially true of his newest book, What It Was, which is set in 1972 in Washington, DC -- which was once called "Chocolate City" by its predominantly African-American residents.

What It Was features at least a couple of dozen 1972-era soul and funk tracks.  Some of the artists who are mentioned (Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Isaac Hayes) are well-known.  Others -- like Ollie and the Nightingales -- are less familiar.

"Love the One You're With" was a top-20 hit for Stephen Stills in 1970.  I wasn't familiar with the Isley Brothers' 1971 cover of the Stills song, which not only was a top-20 pop hit but also reached #3 on the R&B chart.  It's one of several covers on their 1971 album, Givin' it Back.

Derek Strange -- a private investigator who is the protagonist of What It Was -- is sitting in his black '70 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and listening to the Isleys' version of "Love the One You're With" on the radio one fine morning when he sees his client, a sexy young woman named Maybelline Walker, come out of her apartment building.

"Damn," said Strange, an involuntary reaction, his mouth going dry at the sight of her, swinging her hips in a short strapless dress . . .

Later that day, Strange calls Maybelline and says he needs to see her so they can discuss the job she has hired him to do.  He goes to her apartment, where one thing leads to another.  Pretty soon, it looks like Derek Strange -- who is 26 and involved romantically with a pretty young nurse named Carmen -- is going to follow the Isleys' advice to "love the one you're with."

A black '70 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
What It Was is about a violent criminal named Red Jones, who is wreaking havoc on the mean streets of Washington, DC, in the summer of 1972.  Jones takes no particular pleasure in killing, and he's not looking to get rich.  Like Achilles, he is motivated by the desire for fame:

[M]ostly his focus was on work.  He aimed to leave behind a name that would be remembered.  That would be something.  Maybe the only thing.  The one way you could win.  'Cause everyone was bound for a bed of maggots in the end.

Jones and the two men who are hunting him -- a veteran DC homicide detective named Frank Vaughn and Derek Strange, an ex-cop who knows Vaughn from his days on the police force -- are all in long-term relationships with women, and Pelecanos spends considerable time discussing those relationships.

Red Jones and his lover, Coco Watkins -- she's a madam -- are fiercely loyal to one another.  As Red's crimes begin to pile up, the two really have to stick together to survive.  But theirs is not just a marriage (albeit a common-law one) of convenience: the two have a deep physical and emotional attachment to one another.    

Coco chauffeurs Red to a local bar one evening where he plans to assassinate an enemy in broad daylight -- a reckless act that will undoubtedly be witnessed by more than one bystander.  As she drops him off, Red lets her know that she is free to drive away and leave him without a getaway car, which would enable her to avoid becoming an accessory to the murder:

"I'm goin' in there," said Jones.  "You can leave me here if you want to.  I'll understand.  And I'll be all right."
"You think I'd leave you?"  Her eyes had grown heavy.  She brushed tears away with her thumbs, carefully, so as not to disturb her makeup.
Jones could see that he'd cut her.  He leaned across the seats and kissed her on the mouth.  "You're my bottom, girl."

Colt .45
When Jones walks out of the bar after emptying two Colt .45s into his victim, Coco is waiting for him.  She calmly drives Jones away from the scene of the crime.  Like Bonnie and Clyde, the two will stick together until the end.

Jones is faithful to Coco, but Frank Vaughn and his ally, Strange, are not faithful to their women.  Vaughn -- the only important character in the book who is white -- is quite a bit older than Jones and Strange, but still has an eye for the ladies:

She was in her fifties . . . . From the way her bottom half filled out her slacks, he could see that she was young where it counted.  Vaughn liked her manner and her looks.

Vaughn is married, but has been having an affair for some 15 years with a never-married law-firm secretary named Linda Allen.

[Frank's wife] was on his mind often while he worked.  Much as she annoyed him when he was home, and as little romance as they had between them, she never left his head for too long.  As for Linda Allen, he only thought of her when he felt a stirring in his trousers.  Funny how that was.   
I guess I love my wife, thought Vaughn.
Done reflecting, he got into his Dodge.

Vaughn doesn't spend much time reflecting on his relationships, and spends even less time feeling guilty.  But Derek Strange is bothered by his inability to stay true to Carmen, who is everything that he or any other young man could desire.

After wrangling an invitation to visit Maybelline Walker's apartment, Derek hesitates before he knocks on her door:

There were many ways a young man could ruin things with a good woman, and this was the most thoughtless.  But he was here, right now, and he had come here deliberately and with determination.  Later, if confronted, he would make excuses, but there weren't any valid ones, not for real.  He wanted what he wanted.  He had been thinking on it since the woman had walked into his office, swinging her hips.

It turns out that Derek is following in the footsteps of his father:

Derek recalled the day he had sat at the Three-Star Diner when his father Darius was still alive and working the grill.  Seeing a moment pass between his father and the diner's longtime waitress, Ella.  Recognizing the familiar look between them that suggested intimacy and maybe even love. . . .

His father, like all mortals, was a sinner, fallible.  In matters of the flesh he was downright weak.
The Isley Brothers
I am my father, thought Derek, as he knocked on Maybelline Walker's door.  No better than any other man.  Just a man.

After the two engage in a perfunctory discussion of the work he is doing for her, Maybelline gets them a couple of beers and puts Luther Ingram's "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" on her stereo.  (When George Pelecanos mentions a particular song title at a particular moment, he usually has a reason.)  Finally, after Maybelline has made it clear that she's ready to get it on, Strange makes his move:

He didn't even like Maybelline Walker.  But he moved to the sofa and sat beside her. 

They kiss, he cups her breast, and then he puts his hand between her legs.  Maybelline is ready and willing to receive him.  But he suddenly loses his desire for some reason.  What that reason is, ain't exactly clear (to paraphrase another Stephen Stills song), but it may be a mixture of his guilt and Maybelline's sexual aggressiveness, which he seems to find offputting:

The image of Carmen had flashed in his mind, but it wasn't just his conscience that had thrown cold water on his intent.  After all, he'd been unfaithful to Carmen before; because of his nature, he would probably cheat again.  But not today. 
Strange slowly got to his feet. . . .
"What the f*ck is wrong with you," said Maybelline.
"You talk too much," said Strange.

Carmen is nobody's fool.  Later that night, she reads Derek the riot act.

"Look at me, Derek."  Carmen had folded her arms across her chest, and her jaw was set.  "You got the smell of a woman on you.  Don't you know by now that you can't get that off you?" . . . 
Strange said nothing.
"Why'd you do it?" said Carmen.  "Am I not giving you something you need."
Strange spread his hands.  "Look, I didn't . . . I'm sayin', it didn't go to where you think it did."
"You mean you didn't f*ck her.  And I'm supposed to, what, give you credit for that?"

With that, she shuts the door in his face.

The next day, Vaughn notices that Strange is distracted, and quickly guesses what the problem is:

"Women troubles," said Vaughn.  "Am I right?  What'd you do, dip your pen in the wrong inkwell?"
"I made a mistake," said Strange. . . . "I should know better.  I'm a grown man."

Vaughn says exactly what you would expect him to say, given the way he lives his life.  

"Exactly: you're a man.  It's damn near impossible for a man to be faithful.  It's not natural.  Humans are the only species who even try.  When animals mate, the males move on."
"Men aren't animals," said Strange.

The next lines catch the reader by surprise.

Vaughn's mind flashed back nearly thirty years, to when he'd carried a flamethrower on Okinawa  His nightmares could not even approach the horrific reality of what he'd seen and done. . . .
"Yes, we are," he said.

Marine using flamethrower on Okinawa
Strange is still feeling guilty for cheating on Carmen a few days later when he visits his mother.

"Everything all right, son?" said Alethea.
"I'm fine."
"Don't lie to me.  You never could.  Not too well, anyway."
"I been wrong, Mama.  I've done some real bad things.  Broke every important commandment and some that ain't been wrote yet."
"Only the Lord is without sin. . . . Pretend you just got born, this minute."
"You mean make a new start."
"Today, Derek.  Do something right."
"Yes, ma'am," said Strange.
His mother always did know what to say.

Pelecanos stages this scene in the living room of the house that Derek Strange grew up in.  He and his mother are sitting "near his father's old recliner and his console stereo."

Did Derek's late father, Darius -- who cheated on Derek's mother with the waitress at the diner where he worked -- ever have a similar conversation with Alethea?  Did he confess his infidelity to her in that very same room?  And did she forgive him, telling him to "make a new start" and "do something right"?

I'm guessing that Darius was more like Derek than he was like Frank Vaughn -- that he felt guilty for his infidelity, and that he did confess his sins to Alethea.  And I'm guessing that she said the same things to him that she said to Derek.  But did Darius change his ways?  Or was his attraction to the waitress too strong to resist?  

The day that Vaughn and Strange track Red Jones down, Vaughn explains why he is going into the killer's hideout all by himself rather than calling in for backup:

Vaughn stared at the house.  "You know what a man is, in the end?  You know what defines him?"
"I'm guessing you're about to tell me."
"His dick and his work.  It's no more complicated than that. . . . When a guy's equipment doesn't function anymore, it's all over.  When he has no job, he has no purpose.  There's no reason to get up in the morning.  He's done."

Strange doesn't understand Vaughn's point at first.

"Far as I know, you're still there in the manhood department, Vaughn.  And you do your job."
"[My bosses] think I fell down on this Jones thing.  They think I've lost a step."
"And, what, you're gonna prove 'em wrong?"

Yes, Vaughn is going to prove them wrong -- more importantly, he's going to prove something to himself.  The answer he gives Strange shows that Vaughn and Red Jones aren't so different after all.

"The clock ticks.  You get toward the finish like, you realize that what's important is the name you leave behind. . . . Red Jones gets it.  You don't, because you're still young.  But you will."

Derek Strange may have learned what it means to be a man in the summer of 1972, but it took him a long time to learn what it means to be a good man.  What It Was ends with an epilogue set in 2012 -- four decades after Red Jones committed his crimes and Frank Vaughn and Derek Strange teamed up to pursue him.  In that epilogue, a friend asks Derek if he and Carmen ever patched things up:

Strange nodded.  "We got back together.  And then I did the same thing I did to her before.  I was just like that, Nick.  Fact is, I was in my fifties before I got right with one woman."

Derek Strange is featured in four other novels by George Pelecanos:  Right As Rain (2001), Hell to Pay (2002), Soul Circus (2003), and Hard Revolution (2004).  I thought that What It Was might be the last Pelecanos book that focused on him, but according to the author's Facebook page, Strange will be back.

The next 2 or 3 lines will also feature a song from What It Was.

Here's the Isley Brothers' cover version of "Love the One You're With":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song:

And here's a link you can use to buy What It Was:


  1. What a great post!! Well written and kept me from even stopping to sip my coffee as I read. When are you going to write YOUR book?

  2. Mickie, you're very kind. But reading books is much easier than writing them. :-)