March 30th, 2015
In the end, it took HBO more than a year to agree to shoot even a pilot.
This book tells the story of “The Wire”, which is one of my favourite TV series, ever. It starts with an essay about the nitty grit by David Simon himself, and then goes through every single episode of all five seasons, interspersing mini-essays, interviews and a billion tidbits.
At its worst, I just quickly sifted through the recaps of the episodes, but that’s not “worst”, it’s just good. So, at its best? I think Simon is always interesting to read, not only because The Wire is really a Greek drama as spliced with Shakespeare, but one of the best series ever, due to its tight writing, acting and setting. Even the audio recordings, as detailed in the book, match and often overtake those from books.
The first season of The Wire was a dry, deliberate argument against the American drug prohibition – a Thirty Years’ War that is among the most singular and comprehensive failures to be found in the nation’s domestic history. It is impossible to imagine pitching such a premise to a network television executive under any circumstances. How, he might wonder, do I help my sponsors sell luxury sedans and pre-washed jeans to all the best demographics while at the same time harping on the fact that the American war on drugs has mutated into a brutal suppression of the underclass? The second season of The Wire was even more of a lighthearted romp: a treatise about the death of work and the betrayal of the working class, as exemplified by the decline of a city’s port unions. And how exactly do we put Visa-wielding consumers in a buying mood when they are being reminded of how many of their countrymen – black, white and brown – have been shrugged aside by the march of unrestrained, bottom-line capitalism?
The show would instead be about untethered capitalism run amok, about how power and money actually root themselves in a postmodern American city, and, ultimately, about why we as an urban people are no longer able to solve our problems or heal our wounds.
Simon attacks both the so-called war against drugs and capitalism, naturally; it’s plain to see the money behind the drugs, and behind the rich, white guys in the foreground. It’s not Baltimore that’s a messy town, it’s the money and why they are:
It is a harsh critique, no doubt. But for the most part, we live in this city. By choice. And living here, we see what is happening in Baltimore for better and for worse, and we speak to such things as those with a vested interest in the city’s improvement and survival. Speaking as Baltimoreans, we quite naturally found it appropriate to reference our known world in these stories. But, in fairness, the stories are more universal than this; they resonate not just in West Baltimore, but in East St. Louis, North Philadelphia, and South Chicago. And judging from the continuing reaction to this drama overseas, it seems these stories register as well in cities the writers were in no way contemplating when we began the journey. Perhaps Baltimore isn’t any more screwed up than some other places. If it were the case, then these stories would only have meaning for people here. The Wire depicts a world in which capital has triumphed completely, labor has been marginalized and monied interests have purchased enough political infrastructure to prevent reform. It is a world in which the rules and values of the free market and maximized profit have been mistaken for a social framework, a world where institutions themselves are paramount and every day human beings matter less.
I imagine, acknowledging my general ignorance, that a story set in London is de facto a London story, applicable nowhere else in the UK in terms of environment. But a story set in Manchester might more easily resonate in Leeds or Liverpool or Newcastle or wherever. We play ourselves as unique, and, in truth, we value that which is genuine to Baltimore, but on another level we come across as Everycity.
Through the book, I learned that a lot of info was from reality. Bubbles, Ziggy, they actually lived.
Ziggy Sobotka was partly based on a South Baltimore legend named Pinky Bannon, who was known to wear a tuxedo to the docks and did indeed bring his pet duck, replete with a diamond-studded collar, to various Locust Point bars, where the bird bellied up with the rest. Pinky was also given to displaying his manhood with gusto: not only did Bannon dress up “Pretty Boy” in a green ribbon every St. Patrick’s Day, he once introduced it into the bell of Al Bates’s saxophone during a show. Bates never missed a beat.
Also, Simon was fortunate and happy to get writers like Lehane, Pelecanos and Price on his hands:
Anyone who has ever read Clockers – which is to the cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s as The Grapes of Wrath is to the Dust Bowl – understands the debt owed to that remarkable book by The Wire. Indeed, the split point-of-view that powers The Wire is a form mastered first in the modern novel, and Price, in his first Dempsey book, proved beyond all doubt how much nuance, truth, and story could exist between the world of the police and the world of their targets.
And what about feminism and The Wire?
The Wire, by contrast, offers a world so starkly masculine that the very title of this essay requires defensive clarification. What women? The dancers bumping and grinding in what my sister once dubbed “the obligatory HBO tittie bar shot”? The bodies on the dock in Season Two, a veritable pile of double-X chromosome MacGuffins? The first season of The Wire had only two female actors billed in the opening credits; Season Two, just three. Yet the full list of Wire women is, in fact, long and varied. And while the roster may appear yawningly familiar at first glance – the cop, the prosecutor, the wife, the ex-wife, the mother, the girlfriend, the stripper, the corpse – The Wire’s writers have provided some welcome subtlety within these archetypes. Take Shakima Greggs, the narcotics detective played by Sonja Sohn, the most prominent female in Wire-world. Smart, tough, and hardworking, Greggs seemed almost too admirable in the early going – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Super-Lesbian! One cynical critic even predicted that the writers would make Greggs the show’s heroine, allowing her to crack the case while her less competent partners were undone by their het-male peccadilloes. Instead, she ended up sidelined by a gunshot wound well before the Barksdale case reached its climactic anticlimax in Season One. The last glimpse we had of Greggs was on a walker, thumping her way down a hospital corridor, far from the action she craved. When the second season began, Greggs was deskbound against her will – and on the receiving end of some surprising advice. “If you were a man – and in some ways, you’re a better man than most of the men I know – a friend would take you for a beer and tell you the truth,” advised Herc, a colleague not usually known for his interpersonal insights. “You’re whipped.”
Through the first two seasons, only one woman, Joy Lusco Kecken, wrote for The Wire, and only three episodes were directed by women. There are strong women behind the scenes every day – most notably executive producer Nina Kostroff Noble, director of photography Uta Briesewitz, and producer Karen L. Thorson – but no women are involved in hammering out the stories, even as The Wire has continued to add first-rate novelists to its staff. So, like it or not, we must credit men with these human-scale portraits. Yes, many of the women in The Wire appear in secondary roles, but that is a simple truth about the world it portrays – and the point of view through which it is filtered. Instead of giving us Women with a capital W, it showcases flawed human beings who happen to be women. It may be frustrating, but it is never boring or unbelievable.
About the ever-loveable Bubbles:
As for Bubbles, Royo said: “I was intimidated when they asked me to play a street junkie; when you’ve never done drugs like that, you don’t want to be a cliché. “At first I was a little superior to the role, thinking a junkie was different from people addicted to other things, thinking they were bad people … When I’d see junkies begging on the subway in New York they got on my nerves. “But I went out of my way to meet some of them … to try and find a common thread I could hang on, but I found there isn’t one. The drug affects everyone in different ways; they’re human beings and most of them were just happy to talk to someone trying to depict them as human beings.” Over the course of The Wire’s five seasons, junkies in Baltimore – where heroin has been entrenched since as far back as the 1930s – came to see Bubbles as their very human hero. Enjoying a dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes at a restaurant co-owned by his wife Jane – Canele in the Atwater Village neighborhood – Royo said street addicts hanging around the on-location sets of The Wire often came to his trailer between shots. “They’d give me pointers, like how a junkie would never throw a half-smoked cigarette away. So I went to the director and said, ‘We gotta do that one again.’” After the day’s shooting was over, however, Andre would clean up, change his clothes and hop in a car. A Teamster would drive him back home, leaving Bubbles behind until the next day’s call. “The junkies would see that and it would hurt them,” said Royo. “One of them said, ‘I wish it was that easy.’”
The real Bubbles carried his role with pride. “I’m a watcher,” said Bubbles a month before his death from AIDS, gaunt face bobbing, one of his dark, stick legs stretched over a table in a rowhouse apartment on Harlem Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. “I can watch people and tell things about them. I can look at a face and remember it. I would go round a-rabbing, or in my truck, or I’d ride my bicycle even, and all the time, I’d be seeing what’s up.” When Bubbles sussed that something was up, it was up. His information led some 500 escapees back to prison. “Always dead-on,” said a homicide detective at the time. “If he told me right now to go kick in a door, I’d kick in that door.”
DS: Ed, who do you miss?
EB: I miss Bubbles. He was my informant and he was an amazing guy. When I left, I turned Bubbles over to guys who didn’t respect him. They didn’t like him because Bubbles made them work. Bubbles would call and say, “There’s an escapee out here,” and they’d go, “Hey, it’s lunchtime.” I’d have to go out to Bubbles and take money out of my pocket because they’d been cheating him.
And the music?
After waiting years for a soundtrack to The Wire, fans can hit the button on two separate discs of songs from the show. Released by Nonesuch Records, The Wire: … and all the pieces matter, intersperses dialogue from the show with 23 songs – from “What You Know About Baltimore” by Ogun featuring Phathead to “The Body of An American” by the Pogues. It also includes the first four versions of “Way Down in the Hole,” but not Earle’s, which appears on Washington Square Serenade. The companion disc is Beyond Hamsterdam: Baltimore Tracks From The Wire. The final track on … and all the pieces matter, is the oddly soothing, atmospheric instrumental that meanders toward silence as the final credits roll. Titled “The Fall,” it was composed by Wire music director, Blake Leyh, who has followed Simon to the New Orleans Treme project. Decidedly not on either soundtrack are these gems: “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” the 1972 hit by Looking Glass, played on a beat-up radio in the stevedores’ pier-side shack as Frank Sobotka worries about a can of contraband languishing on the docks. The Tokens singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (the “whimaway” song) as Jimmy McNulty and his two boys follow Stringer Bell through a city market. Nor sadly, is Gram Parsons’ “Streets of Baltimore,” which Bunk Moreland suffered through on a night of drinking with McNulty. Or the plaintive work of Lucinda Williams, which plays quietly as city prosecutor Rhonda Pearlman is stuck at home with paperwork. But there is “Sixteen Tons,” the Merle Travis song sent to No. 1 in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford and barrel-housed in Season Two by the Nighthawks of Washington, D.C. Said former ’hawks guitarist Pete Kanaras of the day the band was filmed live at the Clement Street Bar: “My favorite moments occurred during a break … George Pelecanos came over and said, ‘You must be the Greek!’ “And a crew member came over to take pictures of my shoes – cordovan red Fluevog Buicks. She said they were badass!”
While making The Wire pilot, David Simon and Bob Colesberry deliberated for weeks about which song – and, just as importantly, by whom – would best serve the show as its theme. “Songs can be on point, but only up to a point,” said Simon. “A lot of different things I listen to are like that, but all of Tom Waits is like that … never on point but they lend themselves cinematically. “He’s painting pictures in those songs and they’re never linear. At least they haven’t been for a long time.” With Tom as the early favorite, Simon began playing the Waits catalog for Colesberry in search of “the mood of a broken world.” “Way Down in the Hole,” off the 1987 album Frank’s Wild Years, emerged as an early contender. “We kept listening to it over and over again, and at some point somebody handed me a copy of a CD by the Blind Boys of Alabama doing a lot of gospel stuff with rock-and-roll origins,” said Simon. “At this point I was arguing for John Hammond’s version of ‘Get Behind the Mule.’” The lyrics to “Mule” – from the 2001 Wicked Grin album of Waits covers by Hammond – speak to getting up every morning, getting behind the mule, and going out to plow, a primitive take on the rat race. But the Blind Boys ultimately carried the day with “Way Down in the Hole,” Simon swayed by “the African-American voices” charting Waits’s sensibility. In seeking permission to use the song, Simon did not have the honor of speaking with one of his heroes. “He wanted to see some episodes first to know how it was going to be used,” said Simon. “We sent him a bunch of tapes and didn’t hear anything for weeks.” Finally, post-production chief Karen Thorson got in touch and Waits explained that he hadn’t gotten around to watching the show because he didn’t know how to operate the family VCR. He assured Thorson that “my wife will be home soon and she knows how to work it.” “The next day,” said Simon. “He approved it.”
As I stated, tidbits everywhere… Here’s one on Omar’s whistle:
On The Wire, Omar the stickup artist often announced his presence by whistling the “The Farmer in the Dell” nursery rhyme. What none but a few know, however, is that the ominous whistle belongs not to the man who made the shotgun-toting assassin one of the most feared villains in television history, but a 57-year-old Maryland woman named Susan Allenback. Michael K. Williams, for all of his many talents, cannot whistle. “My claim to fame,” said Allenback, a founder of Women in Film and Video of Maryland who had bit parts in the films Syriana and John Waters’s A Dirty Shame. “At one of the first looping sessions, someone asked if I could whistle. I said yes and they showed me footage of Omar walking through a deserted street at night, carrying a sawed-off shotgun … whistling to let people know they should clear the way because someone was going down.” Allenback whistled in sync with William’s feeble attempt and sound editor Jen Ralston lined it up flawlessly. Said Allenback: “I always loved the fact that my white middle-aged woman alter ego was a badass black homosexual criminal!”
The most focused peek into Omar’s soul was provided midway through Season Two by Omar himself. In the harsh light of a courtroom, Omar willingly testifies against a Barksdale-employed sociopath named Marquis “Bird” Hilton. For the court, Omar identifies Bird as the man who murdered a man named Gant, a state witness whose death launched the arc of Season One. Bird was, in fact, the shooter of Gant, but whether Omar was there to witness the murder is in question. Armed with enough accurate information about the slaying to make the accusation stick, Omar is on the stand not on behalf of Gant but to avenge the death of his lover. With customary arrogance, the Barksdale organization’s house lawyer Maurice Levy tries to chip away at the credibility and nerve of Omar, who has just given his job description to the court. “I robs drug dealers.” At last Levy thinks he’s making a dent, reiterating, “So you rob drug dealers.” “Yes, sir.” “You walk the streets of Baltimore with a gun, taking what you want, when you want it … willing to use violence when your demands aren’t met?” Omar nods yes, and Levy describes him as someone who would, if he was in the mood, “shoot a man down on a housing project parking lot and then lie to the police about it.” Omar takes offense: “I ain’t never put my gun on no citizen.” “You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade … stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city … a parasite …” “Just like you, man.” “Excuse me?” sputters Levy. “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase.” Neither shotgun nor briefcase could protect Omar near the end of the final season when, limping into a convenience store while on the hunt for Marlo, the legend’s final words are spoken through bullet-proof glass to an Asian cashier. “Gimme a pack of Newports … soft pack.” Silence and a pause. “Let me get one of them too …” BANG! Blood and brain splatter against the thick plastic. The Korean grocer screams and the knees of an assassin no more than 12 years old knock as young David shakes before the fallen Goliath. “I’m glad Omar went the way he did,” said Williams. “I’ve met kids in Baltimore who were straight-up assassins.”
When death comes for Omar, the story of one of the most feared killers in the history of Baltimore doesn’t make the paper because no reporter is familiar enough with life in the ghetto to know that the sun has set on a legend.
Also, Dennis Lehane on Omar’s death:
“One place where David [Simon] and I have always been particularly simpatico is in making people die over stupid shit. We both get really geeked up over that,” said Lehane, who also wrote the scene of Omar’s death at the hands of a 12-year-old while buying a pack of cigarettes. “There’s zero nobility in it,” he said. “That’s the street.”
McNulty is “the kind of guy you’d want at your bachelor party but you couldn’t trust at the wedding reception.”
Smart, cocky, and hopelessly self-destructive, Jimmy McNulty is probably the most realistic functional alcoholic ever to appear on television. There is no sanctimony or sentimentality in The Wire’s depiction of McNulty’s alcoholism, no “my name is Jimmy and I’m an alcoholic” moment.
McNulty’s drunkard’s pride and sense of superiority are the character’s defining traits, a guy who always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, David Simon has said.
All in all, as far as I know, this is the definitive word on The Wire, unless Simon, Burns or somebody else high-up in the echelons of power decide to publish something. But all in all, this is about as hard-boiled as you will get with the series. Go forth, buy this and prosper further in The Wire.