Words, Music Are Key to Brit's Hopes That Fame Finds Him Again

In the 25 years since he first arrived in Southern California, British expatriate Ian Whitcomb has developed a deep love and understanding of the country he now calls home.

America, however, has never managed to reciprocate.

Nestled among his nearly three decades as a musician, writer, dance-band leader, song producer and radio broadcaster are Whitcomb's 15 minutes of fame, which came in 1965 with his Top 10 single, "You Turn Me On (Turn On Song)." The record was banned on many U.S. radio stations by radio programmers who considered it obscene by virtue of some heavy panting and sighing, which Whitcomb managed despite the tongue planted in his cheek.

Whitcomb long ago plummeted from the pop-music spotlight, having settled into a comfortable life in Altadena while producing a multitude of commercially ignored books and recordings. But he continues to grapple with the wrath of censorship.

His sixth and most recent U.S. book, "Irving Berlin & Ragtime America," published last year, attracted wide critical acclaim, but only after he finally persuaded a publisher to take a chance on it.

"I had a problem getting that book published, because I dealt with a period in American history that has a certain (taboo) about it, where both whites and blacks performed in minstrel shows . . . and so-called 'coon shows,' " he said during an interview last week. "And there were a certain amount of people who said I shouldn't have talked about this."

Just last month, Whitcomb said, he ran into some trouble during a New York club date when he played a favorite number from 1927 called "Masculine Women and Feminine Men," a comic ditty about what the title suggests. "I'd played that song for years and never had a complaint," he said. "But on this night, apparently somebody really objected to that, accusing me of being homophobic and so forth. Does that mean I can't sing historical songs?"

But the wry, indignantly singular British artist plans to brave potentially torrential waters again on Tuesday night at the L.P. Repertory Theatre in Tustin, where he will perform some of his songs and read excerpts from his books, including his newest, "Resident Alien," due for U.K. release this month. The book, which he describes as the chronicles of a Brit living in and around L.A., is his most personal. He anticipates that it may also be his most controversial work. American publishers, thus far, have greeted it icily.

"It's a funny book in some ways, in that it deals with certain questions which got Andy Rooney into trouble," he said. "In the book, I'm involved with some things about blacks and gays, because they were a part of my life. And the stories could be misconstrued. When I read them Tuesday, it will be interesting to see what kind of reaction I get."

Whitcomb acknowledges that those who may be miffed by his observations may have good reason, he being a white, privileged Briton examining a foreign culture. But there is hardly a white Britisher more qualified to analyze black American culture--at least from a musical standpoint--than Whitcomb.

His weekly radio show (on Santa Monica College's public station KCRW-FM) is a wonderfully eclectic, informative and entertaining exploration of pop music's roots, dating from early-1900s Tin Pan Alley tunes. He also has produced five TV documentaries and written five books studying various stages of the development of American pop music. His best-selling work, "After the Ball: Pop Music from Rag to Rock," is widely used as a college textbook.

To the 48-year-old Whitcomb, Los Angeles is "the most exciting place in the world." But here, as throughout America, he said, there exists a frustrating resistance to expressing one's viewpoint that he claims he never experienced in England. Although he says he may object to some of Rooney's comments, and is outraged by much of comedian Andrew Dice Clay's act, he staunchly supports their right to say what they please. "I may not approve, but the Dice Man should exist," he said.

"People here are much more sensitive to pressure groups, and I understand that," Whitcomb said. "Ethnic groups and so forth have to be guarded, but to a certain extent that leads to a curbing of free expression . . . in a way that you don't see in Britain.

"And it's a shame," he said, "because I believe that all aspects of any culture, good and bad, should be described and interpreted."

But in the face of what he perceives as artistic roadblocks, Whitcomb says he will continue to record and analyze the world around him exactly as he sees it.

"I'll always be hustling, trying to get cabaret dates," he added, "and to be a star again."

Poet/musician Ian Whitcomb and humorist Mitch Teemley will read from their works and John Thomas will read English translations of poetry by Jorge Luis Borges on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the L.P. Repertory Theatre, 15732 Tustin Village Way, Tustin. Presented by Poets Reading Inc. Admission: $5 to $7. Information: (714) 441-1820.

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