Jimmy Vargas, a writer, musician and leader of a combo called the Black Dahlias, is doing keenly interesting work in noir music videos, recordings, and live performances. We were particularly struck by the way he layers classic film noir elements with elements of horror and Jack Kerouac-style lyrics. He also runs a blog dedicated to the 1940s Siren or Femme Fatal.
A recording artist with with Dionysus records in Los Angeles, he took time away from his busy performing and writing schedule to talk with Noir Nation editor, Eddie Vega, about his music and filmography and his new book, Striptease in Noir.
NOIR NATION: What inspired you to write these books?
JIMMY VARGAS: The book series My Shadow Bride is an melancholic salute to my racketeering past life of the 40’s Los Angeles. It isn’t a purge, nor a tabloid confession, but more an epitaph, trying to lay the ghost of who I am to rest. The books too function as black hymns to the two women who defined Los Angeles noir, to me. One Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, and her avatar, an exotic dancer / sorceress Liliana Scarlatta who I met in the Broadway Dancehall in San Francisco in 1992. So these novels work on many levels. Both as benediction, acts of contrition, funereal rite, and resurrection.
NOIR NATION: In addition to being a novelist, you are also a singer and filmmaker. Which do you enjoy most?
JIMMY VARGAS: I love celluloid. I don’t have blood. My veins hemorrhage film.
I also compose my own soundtracks (seven albums with my combo the Black Dahlias, issued so far), and live performance to me is a psychic jazz release. All of these above inform, and give legitimacy to the written word in my novels. In fact I perform spoken word interludes drawn from the Shadow Bride series, as part of Black Dahlia live performances. It’s all interweaved.
NOIR NATION: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
JIMMY VARGAS: I research / Exorcise. As a black priest of sorts. I travel to unusual locations, where the phantoms of the past are still caught in some suicidal vortex. Old theatres, brothels are a minefield of black energies that inform all my creative work. And of course cinema. I’m a fanaticist of the golden age of Hollywood. From the silents to the early 60s, as well as European arthouse. I have been called upon in the not so recent past to lecture at Cinematheque on burlesque and noir
NOIR NATION: What is noir to you?
NOIR NATION: Any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?
JIMMY VARGAS: As one gets more experienced, one develops a broader spectrum of creativity. As stated previously I compose songs, perform live, and that allows my writing to breathe, to exercise itself… It keeps me informed. Sometimes you got to let the work incubate by itself however. Let it birth itself. Other times you’ve got to be worthy of it. We really are doctors, our pens as forceps. We don’t necessarily ‘write’ books, nor any creative medium, the characters, or in my case my dead muses allow me to voice their mysteries.
NOIR NATION: What inspired you to write in the crime noir genre?
JIMMY VARGAS: Death and darkness, have defined me from a very early age. Brought up in pre-Vatican II Catholicism, with its mystical primalities, created a metaphysical cradle, which is the bedrock in all my work. My writing is a zippo flame, to make sense of the existentialism that is noir. The books are diabolical prayers to ward against my next impending death, and to give myself a metaphysical headstone to a past life of Los Angeles, Fifth and Main, that I never had.
NOIR NATION: How can readers discover more about you and you work?
NOIR NATION: You begin your new SIN series with an epigraph from The Epic of Gilgamesh. Why?
JIMMY VARGAS: My writing has always used a mystical or Gnostic bed-rock as its seed, my latest tome S.I.N. continues in that vein. Recapping lightly the back plot to the greater story of Gilgamesh, it features as its core character Enkidu, the wandering spirit of man, who is beseeched by a seductress temple dancer to abandon his mystical search, and pursue the easy life of riches and indulgence. The tale of ‘Gilgamesh’, possesses the early roots of noir.
In my book S.I.N., I extend the noir paradigm beyond the usual pulp cliché, and reassert its’ hermetic roots of Tragedy / Goddess worship found in the Abyssinian myths, updating and recoutouring it to the seamy neighborhood of Los Angeles Burleycue 1947. The woman protagonist Maya, is also an exotic dancer who represents psyche, and her striptease, is an act of Gnosticism, where she rips through her ammorata’s consciousness, daring him to follow her.
NOIR NATION: What is your book about?
JIMMY VARGAS: Striptease in Noir is a “Faction Book” based on real historical characters in Los Angeles of the 1940’s in the burlesque business, and the criminal and occult underside that divined it. The plot features JAY, a gimcrack crooner who doubles as an is an M.C.’s at a Burlesque House in downtown Los Angeles called the MAYAN, who is hooked under the veil of headlining stripteuse Maya Lilitha. She is the main constellation around which both Jay, an Armenian Prophet / Healer called Avak Argopian, and racketeer Benjamin “Bugsy” Seigel, are drawn and demonised. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and the illegal obtaining of them by Turkish racketeers, is the sub-axis on which murder, crucifixion and damnation spin.
NOIR NATION: Your writing is very dark. Have you ever gotten any reader complaints?
JIMMY VARGAS: Yes, many times, because of my writing’s perverse ferocity. The Vintage market particularly, who believe that they have a proprietal jurisdiction over anything that is written about the 1940s, and want it pentecostically correct. To me, Noir is not merely a tale of urban malaise with a hacksaw dick solving a couple of murders, and a femme fatale thrown in to provide an obligatory leg show, who finds her comeuppance in the PG-13 square up reel.
Mine traverses the cliché. I see Noir essentially as a diabolical treatise. In fact I see the whole universe as corrupted. Western capitalism is a fraud. And people are compromised, on both a sexual and spiritual level. I write about that. There is this greater belief that I’m a nihilist. I’m a noirist. Not a satanist. Mind you Anton Lavey would most probably have approved of this work.
NOIR NATION: “What is the hardest thing about writing this new book?”
JIMMY VARGAS: Going back to 1947. Holing up in my old pad, Room 504, the Hotel Rosslyn, seancing with my astral self, and writing for weeks on end. Then when I had completed the ritual and got the story, there was the rather problematic issue of exorcising the devils who came forth hidden in its verbs.
NOIR NATION: Should crime noir have a moral point?
JIMMY VARGAS: Yes. I could never write from an existential perspective like a Camus and his novel L’etranger where the protagonist kills for indifference or whim, I dig the irony of noir as in books like Nightmare Alley or Angel Heart. That there is a spiritual degradation, and there is no redemption. That is the moral point. You can’t grovel in the vice-spots of Fifth and Main, then seek band-aid redemption at the 6 am mass at St. Vibiana’s. Evil has a memory. Evil holds your debt.
NOIR NATION: What drew you to crime noir?
JIMMY VARGAS: Well there is that sordid past life of mine in post war California that flickered through into my cradle consciousness. I have always had that connection to the nineteen forties. A “colorful childhood” to say the least. In 35 mille Psycho vistavisions.
Los Angeles. 1940’s. Black Masses. Rituals. Black Dahlia. Jack Dragna. Vice. Fifth and Main. Burleycue. Heroin. There was an Exorcism at seven that didn’t take. The tickle of Lucifer’s wings still occasionally flap at my back. I’m drawn to seedy places. That’s where I feel most at home. In those joints, the dead, the defiled talk to me. They lease me their tunes.”
NOIR NATION: What do you have planned for your next writing project?
JIMMY VARGAS: I’m at present completing the sequel to Sin, called Stripteasia Blues. Its’ subject matter traverses Nazism, the U.S. military’s occult plan behind the atomic and hydrogen bomb projects, and the new pentecostalism that gripped post war Los Angeles, as well as the expected bent scenarios of more naughty burleycue. It’s surreal, and it’s ten stations past redemption. I’m returning noir to its original diabolical cradle.
NOIR NATION: Can you make a living from Noir?
JIMMY VARGAS: You’re talking to a dead man, Eddie. Let’s just leave this dialogue with one irrefutable fact: Noir continues to make a great living out of me.