Ghoul Talk – The Late David Turpin & Jaime Nanci- Unsolved Mystery
The Late David Turpin has just released his new single ‘Unsolved Mystery’, featuring queer jazz artiste Jaime Nanci. Here David and Jaime discuss the shared fascination with true crime and unexplained phenomena that led to their collaboration.
David Turpin (DT) Jaime, the first time we met to talk about making some songs together, we spoke about our shared interest in historical mysteries, particularly unsolved disappearances and murders. I guess my interest in the subject was cemented by watching Unsolved Mysteries on television as a child. That ended up giving our song its title, though I don’t think we ever discussed the programme itself. Where did your interest come from?
Jaime Nanci (JN) My dad had a bookshelf full of books about The Bermuda Triangle, Yetis and The Shroud of Turin. There were loads of magazines he had collected, ‘Mysteries of The Unexplained’. And then he got his hands on a big hardback version of those magazines from some mail order thing in the back of the Sunday papers, and I just ate them up. I think they spoke to me because I felt like a bit of an unexplained mystery myself around that time. I would have been around 9 or 10 and things were starting to get a little queer….
DT. That was part of it for me too. I guess, growing up ‘different’, you’re there and not there at the same time. So stories of the disappeared, particularly, spoke to me because, in a way, it was an inversion of my own situation. Those people were physically absent but psychically very present, whereas I was there in body, but I was withholding myself in another way.
JN. Bizarrely, as I became more aware of my otherness, I had some pretty outlandish notions about what was going on. I thought at one stage that everyone else knew I was ‘different’ and they were waiting to see what I would do, like it was some sort of social experiment – which definitely would have been nourished by shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I also often stood gazing at the night sky imploring the Aliens to abduct me… It was all related to being queer and being bullied for me.
DT. I’m interested that you mentioned UFOs because, for me, one of the great films about growing up gay is Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, where the fantasy of alien abduction is used to deflect from a much more traumatic reality. I guess mysteries activate us creatively, because they demand that we invent our own stories – and that, for many people, can be a healing or a protective act. At the same time, I’m always wary of the idea that we can understand our lives through ‘stories’, because it’s so often claimed that stories help us ‘understand’ life, whereas in fact they flatten and editorialise it. The great thing about unsolved mysteries is that they allow us to use our imaginations, but at the same time they force us to confront how our understanding of life – and even of ourselves – is always shadowy at best.
JN. And for many of our vintage, the gay life we expected to live was one lived in the shadows, only coming out at night…
DT. Well, one of the uncomfortable realities is that as gay people – certainly up until very recently, in this part of the world – our chances of becoming an unsolved mystery were higher. Murder or disappearance can happen to anybody, of course, but it feels like being on the outside of conventional, heterosexual society pushes you closer to the cliff-edge.
A clear example, in this country, is the murder of Charles Self. I still find it very hard to believe that the fact that his murder remains unsolved isn’t, in large part, down to the fact that he was a gay man murdered in Ireland in 1982. He belonged to the ‘erased’, in some senses, even before he was killed.
JN. The victims of these crimes or vanishings are almost folklore or legend now, but I think we’re trying to see them as real flesh and blood people. For instance, I’m obsessed with the unsolved murder of Honor Bright, but when I first heard her name, I just started fantasising about her story, and her name. It was all based in my imagination, until I began reading more and more into the story and could start to build a clear image of an actual real person.
I think artists do that a lot. If you listen to Joni Mitchell’s song about the Magdalene Laundries, you can see she doesn’t really know much about what she is writing about. It’s just an instant emotional response to one newspaper headline or article…
DT. I guess an artist has different imperatives to a journalist – and sometimes that can be valuable.
For instance, in one of your own songs, ‘Upstairs Lounge’, you sing very movingly about the arson attack on the Up Stairs Lounge in New York in 1973. Though there were no convictions, I think it’s pretty widely accepted that the fire was started by Roger Dale Nunez – and that, therefore, it isn’t an ‘unsolved mystery’, per se. But by dealing with it in a song, you’re addressing a greater mystery that underpins all crimes, solved and otherwise, which is the ‘Why’? How is this our world? I think, in its own way, art helps us – if not answer that question, then at least look it in the eye.
JN. That’s a song that was written from the same place as Joni. An emotional response without having looked at all the finer details. I remember when I read about Nunez, and his being a disgruntled patron, being completely like ‘oh balls’. So ghoulish!
Don’t you think in some ways, immersing ourselves in the horrors that men do, we are subconsciously reassuring ourselves that we aren’t that bad’?
DT. I’m not sure – maybe I don’t want to think too hard about that. Certainly, there’s an immense fascination to looking at the action of evil in the world. Maybe when crimes are unsolved, they’re attractive to us because they keep evil in the abstract; whereas when a crime is solved, we have to see how human it really is.
JN. There’s also always an air of romanticism around many of those mysteries, be it the Boy in the box, The Black Dahlia, even Jack the Ripper. We seem to love the romance but also love to dig under the skin to expose the bloody entrails….
DT. Ah, the entrails. I know what you mean, though I’m a bit ashamed to admit it. For instance, a couple of years ago I read two books in quick succession about the Black Dahlia. One was John Gilmore’s Severed, and the other was Piu Eatwell’s Black Dahlia, Red Rose. And even though Eatwell’s book felt like a much more likely account of what had happened, Gilmore’s was the one that lodged in my imagination. It was troubling to me, because I had to face up to the fact that I didn’t want to lose the exoticism of the story.
Do you feel that, when a mystery gets solved, on one level it’s a sad thing? That you lose something when that happens?
JN. When things are explained, it robs us of the fantasy. Even yesterday I read an article that claimed to explain finally the disappearance of the crew of the Mary Celeste… I was relieved when it didn’t!
DT. Can you imagine if somebody solved the Mary Celeste? It would be devastating!
But then, not all mysteries are crimes – sometimes they’re just reminders that this is a big, strange world, and we know not of its ways. So I have to ask, lastly, if you have an all-time favourite unsolved mystery?
JN. There are so many to choose from. I know we’ve both spoken at length about The Boy in The Box, so that’s a close second to my current obsession, the Dyatlov Pass mystery. But I’ll have another tomorrow I’m certain.
DT. I hadn’t heard of the Dyatlov Pass mystery before. Thank-you! A reason to live.