In Tim Baker’s debut thriller, Fever City, a frantic search for a kidnapped child collides with a plot to assassinate JFK. Here Tim talks about an unlikely inspiration for the novel…
The Bouncer, the Patsy, and JFK
Guest Post by Tim Baker
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, my father managed Chequers nightclub in Sydney, which at the time was considered one of the top nightspots in the world, attracting performers such as Sammy Davis Jr, Liza Minelli, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Darin and Trini Lopez. It was a mandatory pit stop for any visiting celebrity, and among the many stars who dropped by for a drink were Sinatra, Bob Hope, The Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees.
But for me it was just a place where my dad worked, and I’d often go there after school, when it was hectic and unglamorous, with dozens of staff preparing for the night: polishing the dance floor, setting tables, unloading liquor in the bar or vegetables in the kitchen. The best part was watching the live orchestra setting up for the evening, tightening cymbals to stands and uncasing gleaming saxophones before the musicians sat down to an early dinner at a table at the back of the stage.
“At night, my father’s workplace was transformed as if by magic. Walking into the club, you’d be greeted with a gauzy haze of cigarette smoke so thick you could almost touch it. It was like a lens through which everything was both blurred and magnified.”
At night, my father’s workplace was transformed as if by magic. Walking into the club, you’d be greeted with a gauzy haze of cigarette smoke so thick you could almost touch it. It was like a lens through which everything was both blurred and magnified. The show was announced with a blinding burst of radiance and whoever stepped into the spotlight was ready to dazzle, to sing; to incite laughter and dreams.
Some of the acts, like Shirley Bassey, Phil Silvers and The Hollies, would take the time to talk and joke with my brothers and I. But the best talker, the best joker of them all wasn’t even a star, but one of the bouncers called Buddy.
He was an American, like many of the clientele – US servicemen on R&R from Vietnam. Buddy had been in the navy, and seen action in the Pacific during WWII. After the war he tried his luck as a Hollywood stuntman, before becoming a professional wrestler. His hands were enormous, his face broad and flattened round the nose and tugged out of shape around the earlobes. He always had a story to share, along with a tab of Stimorol chewing gum that sent my eyes watering with its rich charge of menthol.
Out of all of his stories, the one that captured my imagination the most was about Buddy being in Dallas the day of the assassination of President Kennedy. He said he could remember it like it was yesterday: the flags, the crowds, the bright sunshine – and then the shots. One odd detail made a lasting impression on him. Buddy recalled an organ grinder in Dealey Plaza and found that suspicious – it must have been part of the plot. What plot? I’d wonder. For reasons I can’t explain, the suspicions about the organ grinder remained in my head while the details of Buddy’s other stories – his time in the navy, working in Hollywood, and as a wrestler – were lost to my memory.
“Out of all of his stories, the one that captured my imagination the most was about Buddy being in Dallas the day of the assassination of President Kennedy. He said he could remember it like it was yesterday: the flags, the crowds, the bright sunshine – and then the shots.”
When Chequers closed, Buddy went back home. He’d send us a Christmas card every year from Los Angeles. Eventually I left Sydney myself, but I always made sure to send Buddy a postcard from my new home: Rome, then Madrid, then finally Paris. And every Christmas, I’d get a card from Buddy in return. As the years progressed, he added the name of my wife, and then our son. Buddy was as reliable as clockwork, mailing a card each year, with a few words of good wishes, and a line or two on how he was doing. That was all, but it was enough.
Then we left Paris to live in the South of France just before my son was about to start junior high. It was a busy fall and winter with lots of changes for all of us. I didn’t even think of Buddy until I found out I’d won a prize for a screenplay I’d written and was invited to accept it in LA. I felt terrible and sent him a postcard with our new address, and telling him I would try to look him up when I was there.
Of course I’d been to the US many times, but never to LA. I’d avoided it on purpose, imagining one great, soulless traffic jam. To my astonishment, I fell in love with the city and its proximity to so much stunning nature. In many ways it reminded me of my hometown, Sydney. After a week of meetings, I still hadn’t gotten around to seeing Buddy. I couldn’t find his name in the telephone book, but I did look up his address on Google maps, and realized that his street was on one of the side streets on the way from my hotel on North Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills to Fox Studios, where I had a meeting. I decided to walk there.
After years of living in Europe, the walk took me back to my childhood. The lawn sidewalks. The eucalyptus and flowering Jacarandas. The cars parked in driveways. Nostalgia seeped through me long before I stopped outside Buddy’s place. There was a woman in her fifties gardening. I asked her if Buddy were home. From her reaction, I may as well have asked if Elvis lived there. Of course Buddy was only a nickname, so I gave his real name. She asked me if I was the man who had sent the postcard from France. When I said yes, she went inside. A minute later she came out with a man in his 60s. He wasn’t Buddy but he wanted to know who I was and what I wanted. I showed them one of Buddy’s Christmas cards and explained my story.
“I was stunned by what I found in those three boxes. Untouched matchbooks and programs from Chequers. Newspaper clippings about Sammy Davis Jr’s tour. There were even 45-rpm singles from my father’s record label, Chart Records, that had been such a success at the beginning, but which he had been forced to sell when times got tough. What struck me the most was that the boxes weren’t full of memories of Buddy at all; they were full of memories of my late father. It was unexpected and it was almost overwhelming.”
They told me they had heard that a man had lived for many years in the garage of their house before they’d bought it a year ago. They didn’t know anything about him, but he had left a lot of stuff behind. Would I care to take a look?
I was stunned by what I found in those three boxes. Untouched matchbooks and programs from Chequers. Newspaper clippings about Sammy Davis Jr’s tour. There were even 45-rpm singles from my father’s record label, Chart Records, that had been such a success at the beginning, but which he had been forced to sell when times got tough. What struck me the most was that the boxes weren’t full of memories of Buddy at all; they were full of memories of my late father. It was unexpected and it was almost overwhelming.
The couple explained that they had no way of contacting Buddy. They didn’t even know if he were alive. But they didn’t have the heart to throw out the things he’d left behind. Like this photo, the man said, passing me a frame. Of course I recognized the building Buddy was standing in front of instantly. The Texas School Book Depository. But that’s not what shocked me. It was Buddy. He was playing an organ grinder.
I never showed up for that meeting at Fox. Instead I went back to the hotel and started writing what would become Fever City . . .
FEVER CITY by Tim Baker, Europa Editions, out now
Tim’s twitter handle is @TimBakerWrites
You can find copies of Fever City on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.