Bad Girls

I missed my true calling, and the error all boils down to missing one lousy Y chromosome and being born 50 years too late. Unfortunately, no doubt due to an angelic oversight in the Shipping and Receiving Department upstairs, my eternal soul got dispatched into the wrong earthly vessel. I shouldn't be writing about Pearl Jam's latest slew of authorized bootlegs. I was supposed to be a Bad Girl.

And not just any Bad Girl, either. God didn't intend for me to be a Total Request Live cocktease like Christina Aguilera or a vindictive soap opera goddess ࠬa Susan Lucci's Erica Kane on All My Children. I was supposed to be Lily Stevens in Road House. Only Ida Lupino got the part instead. Bitch.

Many critics consider this 1948 film noir classic—not to be confused with the 1989 Patrick Swayze bomb of the same name—the high point of Lupino's acting career. The diminutive dynamo plays a Chicago chanteuse who accepts a six-week engagement as the entertainment at a bowling alley-cum-nightclub in an unspecified small town. From the moment she first appears on screen, playing solitaire in her stockings and cracking wise with manager Pete Morgan (played by Cornel Wilde), Lily Stevens is clearly one hardboiled gal.

Lily drinks straight Scotch, and, for the duration of the film, is never without a cigarette in her hand. (As one might imagine, this regimen creates some problems for our heroine during the climactic chase sequence.) Even when she's tickling the ivories, Stevens simply leaves her cancer sticks smoldering on the lid of the piano; passage of time in the flick is marked by the accumulation of burns.

You'd think being the Lucky Strike poster girl would be at cross-purposes with Lily's chosen profession, but her husky delivery pays off. "She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard!" admits Susie (Celeste Holm), Lily's good-girl foil, after hearing her sing-speak her way through a reading of "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)." Despite a voice that makes Lotte Lenya sound like Toni Tennille, Lily becomes the toast of the town.

As it transpires, Lily isn't as uncaring as she seems. To paraphrase the Shangri-Las' "Give Him a Great Big Kiss," she's good bad, but she's not evil. Even when she slaps Pete in the face less than 10 minutes into the movie, we know it's because she's soft on him. She's branded a Bad Girl simply because she knows what she wants from life and doesn't go to church on Sunday, but underneath her skimpy cocktail dresses beats a heart that's true.

Now, like Lily, I have been known to incite pandemonium in nightclubs with my dulcet tones, and I'm not above squeezing into a sequined off-the-shoulder number if that's what the gig requires. But for now, my destiny as a Bad Girl must remain unfulfilled. Sure, I love black coffee and swoon over guys whose breath reeks of Marlboros and cheap beer, but the hardened veneer shielding my soft side is all too transparent. I live in a world of fresh-squeezed juices, blue corn mud facials, and vanilla-scented incense. I'll never be a "tough cookie"—I'm more of a Chewy Chips Ahoy.

But that doesn't stop me from occasionally whiling away the odd hour or two sipping whiskey on the sofa, listening to Marianne Faithful or PJ Harvey, and pretending. And lately, there's a new voice coming out of my speakers to help me get in touch with my inner Bad Girl: Eleni Mandell.

Thrill (on the LA label Space Baby), the forthcoming follow-up to Mandell's 1999 debut Wishbone, is poised and cool—but never cold—and bristles with quiet intensity. A contemporary of Tom Waits' crony Chuck E. Weiss, the Los Angeles songwriter creates vivid character sketches of sketchy characters, telling compelling stories without divulging too much information. And although she's capable of singing full-throttle, Mandell, like Julie London or Peggy Lee, appreciates that hushed delivery makes listeners lean in closer.

The arrangements throughout Thrill are imbued with a similar smoldering intensity. Listening to the walking upright bass and surf guitar licks of "Pauline," I envision big black cars barreling down endless stretches of desolate night highway. With marimba licks courtesy of X/Knitters alum DJ Bonebrake, "He Thinks He's in Love" recalls Silvertone-era Chris Isaak, while "Closer to Him" sounds like the love theme from the best movie David Lynch hasn't made yet.

So I was born a Nice Guy instead of a Bad Girl. I'm not bitter (well, not about that). As long as the spirit of Lily Stevens lives on in women like Eleni Mandell, I'll just keep taking notes and pray God sets things right my next time around.

 
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