He’s street-wise tough, carries a .44—or is it a .38 Special?—knows the back alleys of Manhattan and the right LA streets to avoid the freeway, drinks vodka martinis straight up, while crooked guys try to kill him and the purple-haired women who love him are the kind of trouble he can’t pass up. Belinda Carlisle of the Go Go’s flirts with him backstage, and at every nightclub in town the doorman knows his name…
But I’ve rarely uttered that name since creating him nearly forty years ago. Ford Fairlane, the notorious “rock n roll detective” best known for the ribald portrayal by comedian Andrew Dice Clay in the eponymous movie, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, has been a missing person in my life.
The Original Adventures of Ford Fairline: The Long Lost Rock n’ Roll Detective Stories
With the newly released The (Original) Adventures of Ford Fairlane: The Long Lost Rock n’ Roll Detective Stories, I’m finding myself at bookstore signings and engaged in interviews talking about a character at once familiar and, yet… he’s kind of a stranger.
First written (on a typewriter!) and serialized in 1979-1980 in the New York Rocker and the LA Weekly, each six-part “adventure” featured a private investigator who specialized in cases involving the music industry. The idea of publishing the original stories together for the first time in one volume intrigued Rare Bird Books founder/publisher Tyson Cornell (who knows his rock music history).
Current interest in the pop culture of the 1970s adds some spin to stories that now exist as artifacts of a time and place. Like a fly in amber, the stories capture the punk/new wave music scene of that era, based on my real-life experience as a journalist in New York and Los Angeles. Also, the expanding audience for crime fiction allows a book about a “rock n’ roll detective” to (hopefully!) find a niche.
In fact, I’ll be on a panel at the upcoming Bouchercon, joining other authors with music-involved novels to talk about “Writers Who Rock: The Intersection of Music and Crime Fiction.”
So I’m getting to know my character again, after all these years, along with a new generation of readers. One of them, S.W. Lauden, a crime fiction author himself, wrote in an essay titled What We Got Wrong About Ford Fairlane, “The truth is, that movie had little or nothing to do with Weiner’s original creation.”
There’s the fact that he doesn’t use a cell phone or Google stuff; those things weren’t invented yet. His encyclopedic knowledge of rock n’ roll—Ford’s superpower—is all stashed in his head, which is pretty cool in retrospect.
His buddy (and mine) Lester Bangs was still writing rock criticism, and the Dead Boys were a live band when Ford bumped into them at the Mudd Club; all are no more, so there’s a touch of melancholy now. My original Ford Fairlane is a New Yorker who feels out of place in LA. But you get the feeling that, like his creator, he’ll inevitably be drawn back to the West Coast one day.
Written quickly on deadline, with minimal (if any) copyediting, the original stories contained errors and contradictions that I was finally able to correct in the new edition (it’s a .38 Ruger Special). For all of his initial sketchiness, my hero’s heart beats clearly in the stories: he cares about the music, the authentic soul of rock n’ roll, which is what drives my PI’s search for the truth. In our re-encounter I find myself rooting for him. On some noir-ish literary level, that’s a good thing.
Ford Fairlane takes his place among iconic noir characters
I believe it’s important for artists to stand by their creations, especially if they take on a life of their own. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald brought to life their protagonists—Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade, Macdonald’s Lew Archer.
Through the many stories and books these authors wrote, which eventually played out on the cinema screen, their hard-boiled heroes became immortalized as noir icons. The authors and their fictional heroes made each other’s careers, in a kind of working partnership. As Spade explains in The Maltese Falcon, he owes it to his murdered partner, Miles Archer, to stick by him and see justice done; otherwise, “it’s bad for business.”
The birth and rebirth of a legend
In the same way, it seems to me, justice would not be served if Ford Fairlane was allowed to fade away. He did a lot for me. As his creator, you could also say I did a lot for him. Ford Fairlane is a kind of Hollywood legend, if only in the checkered careers of The Diceman, along with the rest of the crazy-quilt cast of the movie, which included Gilbert Gottfried, Priscilla Presley, Wayne Newton, Tone Loc, Morris Day, Robert Englund, among others.
It’s all there on IMDB, for as long as there’s an Internet, along with cult audiences around the world who catch the movie each time it’s on late night cable, streaming online, or whatever gizmo the future brings.
For me, the difference is that Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald, while becoming masters of the genre, created their characters at a mature point in their careers. Marlowe and Spade each possessed hard-earned wisdom and a world-weary outlook on life. I created my protagonist when I was still in my twenties.
Like me, Ford Fairlane was a young guy, making his way through a world inhabited by equally young people, all of them—including Ford—pursuing an unknown future, earning their fortunes, making mistakes, falling in and out of love, acquiring the scars of experience that would later define them.
So my own experience lay ahead of me. When Columbia Studios optioned my stories in 1981, I left New York City and moved west. By the time 20th Century Fox released The Adventures of Ford Fairlane as the studio’s big summer movie of 1990, I’d settled down in LA with enough Hollywood film and TV writing credits (including the Miami Vice series) to call myself a screenwriter as well as author and journalist.
Also, husband, father, family man and homeowner with a mortgage. Life happens, even to the noir-est of us.
Though the clubs and characters in the original stories are gone, and the city landscapes of New York and LA transformed over the past decades, some things are forever. When I read aloud to today’s audiences from my old stories, Ford’s voice comes through loud and clear: “It was Saturday night and everybody in LA had a place to go. Even if it was no place.”
That was me talking, back in the day. LA is still that kind of place. But now Ford Fairlane, older and wiser, is going new places. We owe each other that.