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For a long time, the favored way for Americans to take note of their nation’s true temperament was through music. The complexities of American society were passed down best in the oral tradition—from mouth to mouth to mouth to, finally, the likes of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. Bootleg collectors. Authenticity junkies. The seekers of sunken treasurers. The prizes they sought were the songs they caught in Louisiana farms, in Georgia prisons, in somebody’s basement. And those songs told what America was obsessed with—love, god, death.

In Greil Marcus’ essay “The Old, Weird America,” introducing Smith’s reissued Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of 84 tunes on six LPs (or now CDs), he writes: “This is Smithville. Here is a mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret: a declaration of what sort of wishes and fears lie behind any public act, a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America…”

The songs on that collection, which originally came out in 1952, were treated as religious artifacts from the Church of America (by Marcus). They were used as templates for music takeovers (Dylan). And they were co-opted for sanitized, horribly written movies (this year’s Songcatcher). Even now, these unwritten documents are still great source material—stuffing Amazon.com’s Top 10, giving Buster Poindexter a new career. Why? Because they’re authentic. They just happened. They weren’t scrubbed down by Hays Office censors. Even though these tunes were shaped and edited by musicians, they don’t feel touched by commercial pressures. They’re open secrets.

Music-as-raw-reportage has not disappeared (hiphop, Folkways reissues), but in the past few decades written documents have become the dominant way of opening up America, of exposing the poop in the sandbox. With the advent of the photocopier, the fax, and the Internet, the record chase has been superseded by the paper chase. The new body of the republic is made of pulp.

No doubt more people have seen Yasmine Bleeth’s coked-up and bloated mug shot than have heard the tale of Stagger Lee. Now we live on primary sources. We tune in for Big Tobacco memos on Dateline, PrimeTime Live, and 60 Minutes. The ’90s Bible, the Starr report, practically shut down the Internet, it got so many hits the day it was posted. We have become a nation addicted to the confidential report, the leaked memo, the tense deposition.

No one takes advantage of this craving more than the people behind Thesmokinggun.com, a Web site that opens up file cabinets both funny and foul for all to rifle through. They’re best known for their discovery of the restraining order against Rick Rockwell, the millionaire in Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? And now they’ve produced a coffee-table book called simply The Smoking Gun, offering what they describe in their subtitle as “a Dossier of Secret, Surprising, and Salacious Documents.”

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This best-of collection has all the artistry of a cheap ‘zine. The cover, which it appears the Smoking Gun folks blew most of their money on, resembles the designs of the almost-unreadable Raygun. It is bright and happy-looking. I guess when you find the civil suit exposing the allegation that Jack Nicholson stiffed two hookers, you have a right to be happy.

OK. Do they deliver the goods? The stuff you wouldn’t have guessed, the “surprising?” Sure. Did you know that Gracie Allen was a junkie? Did you know that Timothy Leary was an informant for the feds? Did I mention that Jack Nicholson stiffed two hookers?

Is it “salacious”? Depends. Does Robin Leach smearing dessert items on a half-dozen partially nude females at a Delmonico Steakhouse count? “Mr. Leach and the females engaged in applying these dessert food substances to certain body parts of the females and were observed by staff to then orally consume the food substance,” states a civil suit’s complaint.

The major criticism here is that very few of these documents are what you’d call “secret.” Although they make much of the Freedom of Information Act (and their own great efforts in employing it) in their two-page introduction, the editors spend far more time on celebrity follies than on things like Richard Nixon’s FBI job-interview report. Much of what’s in Smoking Gun you’ve already seen a few Hard Copys ago—or at least suspected. It’s got Tim Allen’s drunk-driving report. It’s got the arrest warrant for Matthew McConaughey after he was found naked and stoned and smacking on bongos. If you haven’t seen these two tell all on Leno, then maybe their rap sheets are worth reading.

There’s also the has-been factor. Many of the celebrities caught on paper would barely make it onto ET’s birthday roll call. Do you care that Dennis Rodman and Don Johnson are pervs? Do you care that Parker Stevenson would be nothing without ex-wife Kirstie Alley’s money?

“Kirstie and I generally traveled in private jets and/or luxury private buses, with every possible amenity,” Stevenson claimed in his divorce papers, hoping to get substantial support payments from his estranged. “The times we used the private buses, we preferred chartering the bus used by the Prime Minister of Canada on his campaign tours; it had every amenity.”

I could go on. And I will: Stevenson asserted that he and Alley used to go on private shopping sprees at FAO Schwartz (plopping down as much as $15,000 per trip), catered $10,000 Thanksgiving feasts, and “recarpeted, refurnished, and relandscaped the houses [they] leased, even on a short-term basis.”

Sometimes documents are too good to be true.

Finding documents can be as fun as an old-record hunt. Documents do have the power to shed light on the human experience. They lay bare in every banal detail the tragic event, the awful moment thwarted, the stupid human trick. They can bring down a president (Nixon) or humble a presidential candidate (W.). They can be as sleazy as the motel Polaroid, the cell-phone conversation overheard, the Linda Tripp microcassette.

Finding documents can also be a letdown. I once found myself trapped in an ex-private detective’s house for several hours as he showed me one piece of evidence after another of his ex-lover’s dubious behavior. I have experienced no greater discomfort than sitting next to this 60-plus-year-old man as we watched videotapes of his ex-mistress receiving oral sex from a new middle-aged beau. I left with a Hefty bag of documents for the story I was working on—but not about her.

Finding documents can get you that gotcha moment. For this police reporter, at least, there’s nothing like going up to the fourth floor of Superior Court and finding a restraining order against a dirty cop.

And finding documents can be sad. A few months after Kurt Cobain killed himself, I discovered his address and home phone number in my editor’s Rolodex. That address and that number were no longer good. My editor (or I) could never call up Cobain again.

The Smoking Gun folks made their name and money (and a fat contract from Court TV) by embarrassing the likes of Rockwell and Alley, but their book does more: It celebrates the unsung moments and overlooked details that documents are so good at capturing.

Like the activities of Patricia B. Hutton, a nurse who recounted her activities at Parkland Memorial Hospital when President John F. Kennedy was wheeled in, on Nov. 22, 1963. Hutton told the Secret Service the following: “A doctor asked me to place a pressure dressing on the head wound. This was of no use, however, because of the massive opening on the back of the head.”

But the most interesting detail is what comes next. What did Hutton do after taking the medical equipment off a dead president? “When the area was clear, another nurse and I went up to the dining room for coffee,” Hutton stated.

Monica Lewinsky’s résumé reveals that she won first place in the 1990 Southern California Shakespeare Festival. After Norman Mailer stabbed his wife in the “left lower chest and left lower back,” the police report states, the author expressed concern at the hospital. “[T]he defendant came up to [the detective] and said that he was worried about his wife because he stabbed her and he knew that he had gone in deep with the knife,” the assault record states.

The book shows the interests of the people behind the papers, as well as in them. The U.S. Office of Strategic Services—the original U.S. spy agency—took the trouble to report on Adolf Hitler’s entertainment preferences. Hitler rarely went to the theater but had a certain place in his heart for vaudeville and the circus. “He loves the circus,” the report says. “The thrill of underpaid performers risking their lives is a real pleasure to him. He is particularly pleased with tight rope acts and trapeze artists….He does not care much for wild animal acts, unless there is a woman in danger.”

Indeed, The Smoking Gun reveals law enforcement officials to have an undue fascination with entertainment: Gracie Allen’s alleged drug use, whether or not Sammy Davis was mobbed up, the betting practices of Liberace.

Some of the more pathetic particulars come from the entertainers themselves, mainly via their tour riders. In Alabama’s 1998 rider, the band warned in all-caps bold type that: “NO ANIMALS ARE ALLOWED IN THE BACKSTAGE AREA AT ANYTIME DURING THE DAY. (IF THERE IS AN ANIMAL BACKSTAGE, ALABAMA WILL NOT PERFORM).” The aging Beach Boys could also be supreme tightasses. In one rider, the band requested three “BIC type large lighters (preferably without child guards) NOT GREEN!” They also demanded 16 “CLEAN cloth HAND SIZE towels (8 dark color, 8 white).” No detail too small.

Of course, I’m cherry-picking the good stuff from the 200-plus-page book. Because it’s essentially a document dump, a lot of it is cheap—and dull. Its editors’ choice to include the foibles of unfamous folk involved in foul play and freakish accidents comes off as exploitative. I’m not sure readers’ interest in a teenage party gone horribly wrong after a stripper shows up goes beyond simply prurient. Do we really need to read the police report on the poor guy who cut his own dick off because he was tired of it “getting him in trouble”?

Maybe we do—but not for laughs. Stories such as his could be compelling drama in the right hands, fleshed out by the right filler. Old RE/Search series and ‘zines such as Ben Is Dead and Rollerderby excelled at going beyond the documents and getting the creepy interviews. Rollerderby could get away with a photo essay on women who shaved designs in their pubic hair because they had the stories and interviews to back up the salaciousness. In The Smoking Gun, all we get is jokey cutlines that follow the format of—and are about as funny as—Pop-Up Videos.

Then again, all The Smoking Gun purports to be is a set of facts and allegations. It’s a book of minutiae, little details that need the callbacks, the Pat O’Brien interviews and intense close-ups. Documents can take us only so far. Even those old folk tunes were subject to interpretation—that’s why they endured.

And the documents in The Smoking Gun, like the ballad of Stagger Lee, give us a feel for their time. They’re cheap thrills, but they’re prizes worth collecting. They tell what America is obsessed with—sex, money, death. It’s up to us to turn them into art. Maybe someday someone will write a moving song about the man who cut off his cock. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for King Missile’s “Detachable Penis.” CP