In my last post, I mentioned that I wanted to write a little bit about the actor and singer Marcus “Marky” Kelly, who had minor-but I think significant-career in show business from the late 1950s through the 1960s. The highlight of it all was, of course, his teen idolhood in the early 1960s. I had assumed Kelly was gone for good, and quite possibly dead, until I discovered a movie called Filtered Water (director unknown, writer unknown, producer unknown, actors unknown) in my mailbox a few months ago. The movie featured an old actor who I think might be Kelly.
But let me make it clear: I am not 100% sure that the old actor in Filtered Water is Kelly. There are, however, clues. There is a physiognomic similarity-Kelly had bright blue eyes, and a signature half-smile. The actor in the film has bright blue eyes, and a familiar half-smile. There is the timeline-Kelly was born in 1940, and the actor appears to be in his 70s. (And I know this because my folks are in their 70s, and if I look at an old picture of my Dad and a new one, old pictures of Kelly and a screenshot of the actor look to have an uncannily similar progression. The same wrinkles, the same advancing tenderness to the eyes, the same added colors in the complexion. If its him, he’s aged like my dad has aged.) And there is the voice. The actor’s voice sounds like what Kelly’s voice would sound like if it fell apart and was rebuilt. Like a voice does when we age.
The information in this post comes from two primary sources. The first is The Psychedelic Sunshine State, a really nice book about 1960s California I found in a used bookstore called Snowbound Books in Marquette, Michigan on a visit there in 1989 or so. It—the book—is maybe somewhere in my folks’ place in a box somewhere. I have never been able to find another copy, and much to my shame, I cannot remember the author’s name. If you see one, please pick it up for me. Use media mail to ship it. I’ll pay you back. The other source is Kelly’s autobiography, Callin’ Marky: A Letter to Myself. That book appeared in the mid-’90s, after a long absence by Kelly and preceding another long (and possibly still-going-on) absence. I think you can still find that book here and there. Try ABE Books, maybe.
A young Marcus Kelly-at that point he was billed under the familiar (and quite infantilizing) variation Marky-appeared on the short-lived television program Pop’s Den from 1957 to 1961. His turn as the incorrigible teenaged son always trying to get over on his wise, doting, and beneficent but firm father-the show’s titular Pop-made him a star. His looks and voice made him a teen idol. In 1960 and 1961, the producers of the program started to allow Kelly to cross-promote his burgeoning singing career by giving him 2 or 3 minutes a show to lip sync his newest single.
Today those scenes are viewed for their unintentional comedy. Look for them on Youtube. Kelly leans against his father’s chair and accompanies himself on guitar, but the track playing features drums, bass, a string section-and if you look closely, you can see Kelly’s fingers hovering an inch away from the strings.
The songs were mostly schmaltzy, Brill building throwaways, but a few are quite good. The Adrianne Coleman ballad “Standing in the Snow,” is my favorite, but the skiffle-tinged “Time Was,” is also worth a listen. (I’ll return to the fascinating career of Adrianne Coleman in a post at some point in the future.)
Whether or not the controversy surrounding Kelly’s 1961 single, “I’m Just a Little Lonelier Than You,” was in fact the death of Pop’s Den is debatable. Pop’s Den had maybe three storylines-Marky breaks something valuable and tries to keep it a secret, Pop and a friend have a tennis/golf/college team rivalry, Peggy Jean wants to go to the dance-and by 1961, the interest in the show was waning. But the song, with its seemingly suicide-friendly message, certainly did cause an outcry. Marky Kelly records were burned in public squares while angry DJs and ministers yelled about child endangerment. Editorial boards for every major-and most minor-newspapers felt the need to condemn Kelly. He was official admonished by the U.S. House of Representatives. Even Elvis weighed in, saying he hadn’t heard the song-though he most certainly had-but he understood it had a “pretty low message.”
Me, I sort of like the song. It’s opening lines, “Tonight I’ll give the Moon a little show/Tonight I’ll cry and no one else will know,” are haunting in Kelly’s quavering alto. The vocals were recorded through a spring reverb, and though the tone can be a little tinny, it still sounds warm and ludicrously creepy. When Kelly starts in on the lines, “I’m just a little lonelier than you/Tonight I know exactly what I’ll do,” it gives me an actual, no-exaggeration, chill at the base of my neck.
And, sure: whatever it is Kelly intends to do under the moon because he’s heard his girl is “…going out with Dean and Chip and Ron…” feels like something drastic and final, but he never out and out says he intends to end his life. And he never endorses life ending as a solution to heartbreak. But that’s how people interpreted the dissonant bang of the final note. (I’ve often wondered if the final chord in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” is a reference to the Kelly song. Both are E-major, but in the Kelly song it stops abruptly, whereas in the Beatles’ song, they let it ring for almost a minute. It’s as if they are completing it for Kelly, offering a tribute to an influence. More on that later.)
SURF MOVIES 1962 – 1966
I hope this doesn’t seem like a cop-out, but I honestly have very little to say about Kelly from 1962 to 1966 when he managed to escape the Lonelier Controversy with supporting actor roles in beach party and surf movies. I’d suggest you find a copy of Dave Reynolds’ masterful Kings of Summer, Queens of Summer to learn more about his on and off screen high jinks. He has an entire chapter, and the index mentions his name in reference to the following headings in other parts of the book: Marijuana; Walley, Deborah; and Gonorrhea.
THE SUNSHINE SKYRISE
In 1966 and 1967, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds and The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And every musician went psychedelic, if they weren’t already there.
Though there are no public statements to verify this, it has long been assumed that The Beatles were fans of Marky Kelly’s pop songs. There was an orchestral sophistication to it at its best. There was an attempt at a dark ambience to it. There was an ambition to it that one can hear a little in Rubber Soul, a little more in Revolver, and a lot in Sgt. Pepper’s.
The story goes that on a late-November trip to the U.K. in 1966, Kelly was invited to meet The Beatles and their producer George Martin, was allowed to sit in and hear some of the Sgt. Pepper’s recording sessions, and that before he had returned to Los Angeles, The Beatles-George Harrison in particular-convinced Kelly to get serious about music again. That’s the origin of the mostly lost Marcus Kelly (this is when Kelly decided to try going by a more age-appropriate name) album The Sunshine Skyrise.
Los Angeles HTML Giant readers no doubt recognize the “Sunshine Skyrise” as the Crofton Building on 5th and Olive, given its nickname by locals who were routinely blinded by its mirrored glass façade’s tendency to unmercifully catch and reflect the morning sun. Kelly lived in that building’s shadow for a time and for some reason-probably its mean streak-he dearly loved it.
From 1967 to early 1968, Kelly recorded hundreds of hours of music, trying to pull together a 40-minute album. Much of it is unlistenable. Somewhere I have a shoebox full of ZIP disks with a lot of the recordings, but unfortunately, I never transferred them before the ZIP technology became obsolete. So they sit in a closet, in a box, in another box, in a shoebox. They’re probably worth something. I never see the recordings in any format on eBay, and I never see the Blogspot pirates giving them away. I have a Google Alert set up. I recent erased all the Google Alerts that told me when someone had something to say about me or one of my books, but I kept “Sunshine Skyrise.”
It’s been a long time since I heard any of the music. But here are some things I remember: large ringing bells, endless rushes of reverb, the Theremin, guitars that seem to belch, three distinct children’s choirs, something like a marble rolling down a sheet of aluminum, dueling pianos, a saxophone that sounds like it was recorded under water, 3/4 time, the buzzing of lights or possibly wasps, and Kelly’s maturing alto.
There’s even a cover. A painting by Kelly himself: two golden towers. Flakes of gold flaking off the towers of gold.
He had a hold of something. Why did he let go?
THE MANSON FAMILY
There were numerous Manson Family members who went identified only by nicknames, who joined and left the family before the 1969 crime wave. One of them was just called “Smiley.”
Was it Marcus Kelly? Was the nickname a reference to Kelly’s signature half-smile? It is whispered that Kelly may have taken up for a brief time with Angela Lansbury’s daughter Deirdre—or at least developed an infatuation with her—and rumored that Kelly met the Manson Family through her connection to them. In early 1968, Kelly was a frequent guest at Dennis Wilson’s log cabin mansion, where the Manson Family had taken up residence.
Is it a surprise that Kelly, as the Manson Family got a little more zealous and a little more dangerous, went underground? Or that he might have done so because Deirdre was only 15 years old?
Because in late 1968, he was gone. And he wouldn’t return until he published the autobiography in 1996. Even then, he did no press. He didn’t tour with the book. It was barely reviewed. And it was an unremarkable book, stubbornly anti-tell-all. Stubbornly anti-gossip. It’s a wonder someone published it, and clear why it went through a single printing, was remaindered quickly, and mostly just returned to wood pulp.
And then it’s 2013 and I haven’t thought about Kelly in ten or eleven years, and someone drops a disk in my mailbox. On that disk is a movie with an actor who looks just like Kelly, but the movie makes no attempt to identify him or anyone else associated with it. Just a title: Filtered Water. That’s all I have.
And it’s the God damnedest thing that in this age of easy access to information on the familiar and the obscure, I can’t find much of anything about Kelly in the vast data-fertile fields of the internet.
So there’s what I know. If you know more, please share it with me.