My feel-good at being in the empty row with extra leg-room evaporated like an inhaled mary-jane cigarillo. The doe-eyed dame with the bub was swaying excited-like towards the seat one over from mine.
“You got kids”? she asked. This without any invitation to talk from my eyes or body. These were slouched into a severe right angle away from bub and bag of bub treats that were now in the middle seat. That seat had previously been mine. Colonized in an earlier mental expedition working out how I was going to sleep on the goddamn thirteen hour flight from Melbourne to LA.
“No”, I grunted.
“Aww. But you’ve been around babies, you know what they are like?”
I shot the dame a glance. Snatched up my in-flight entertainment – “LA Confidential” by James Ellroy . I thought: “Hey toots, I’ve just had half my baby producing capacity sliced out, do you know what thats like?”. Just like joining the mile high club. As long as you keep the hospital uppers coming.
“Sure” I said “I know what babies are like.” Wise-cracking.
Bub got settled in the in-flight bassinet. The dame – what, 25, 26? – snapped open her cell. Started sweet-talking hubby in LA. V Australia intercom told everyone to quit the electronic device shenanigans. About to gun it down the runway. Toots took a while to sign off. Over and over again: “I love you honey” . Pausing. Grinning. Deep into her ear, some silky words were wriggling in from 8000 miles away.
I liked that.
I resigned myself to the inevitable. I know what babies are like.
I buried myself upright in my economy seat like a Jew in a grave. Bub screamed and gurgled every hour. Ripped me away from sleep each time she started to tenderly approach.
Fourteen hours later, LA customs. My digits: scanned. My face: scanned. I’m through. Free as a jailbird.
Waiting at the international terminal under China Air. Scanning crawling traffic for a red Toyota coupe with a cute DJ at the wheel. My eyes were fried sunny side up. My brain was running on emergency power.
This was the threadbare awakeness along which I coasted for three dream-like days. In America’s oldest city of dreams.
Santa Monica and Venice Beach
Dougee’s Santa Monica second storey, two bedroom corner apartment seemed, well, really Californian.
“It is!” he exclaimed. The lounge room windows looked out on date palms that waved into the fading light over California Avenue. Every door, cupboard and shelf was made of faded golden pine which radiated some kind of nostalgic optimism. The round plastic dining table was surrounded by brightly colored molded plastic ’60s chairs. The smell of nearby surf gently tinctured the air. “You can just imagine the Beach Boys living here, can’t you?” he asked proudly. The kitsch apartment block was built in the mid 60s, the hey-day of surf crooner power, and I could certainly feel a beach party coming on.
I’d known Dougee – aka DJ Dougee Dimensional – aka Douglas Stoddard – for years, maybe as long as a decade. But we had never met. I had admired Dougee’s band – The Gentle People – from afar. They were the classiest electronica/lounge act on the planet, one of the first and best bands to define the sound and look in the late 1990s/ early 2000s. Half the band is British, and Dougee had resided in London for many years.
A few years ago, Dougee had moved back to the USA, tired of the cramped and expensive London lifestyle. In NYC, he had met the love of his life, Brady, and they then moved back to Cali, into the Beach Boy’s apartment where I was now a grateful guest. Over the years, Dougee and I had written each other the occasional piece of fan email, and since I began my American Odyssey in May 2008, we had been periodically trying to work out how to meet in person. And so we had at last. My B(if)tek releases, I was to find out, turned out to be emotionally laden bleeps, CDs that had played in the background of Dougee and Brady’s courtship, music that, seven years later, now held a special place in their relationship. It was a good reminder of the power of music to seep into the cracks of unknown lives and produce magic.
The next morning, Dougee took me on a tour of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Although Dougee continues to jet around the globe, recording videos in Paris, DJing in Russia and even Kazakhstan, he still needed a day-job to survive in LA. He kept good coffee and vanilla soy creamer on the table by moonlighting as a real estate estate agent.
The highlight of the morning was peeking into a celebrity mansion. Actress Rebecca Broussard (one of Jack Nicholson’s ex girlfriends) owned a property on one of the Venice canals and Dougee was one of the agent’s showing potential renters through. For a cool $8000 or so a month, you could live by the super-exclusive artificial waterway and take your pick of several ocean cooled bedrooms and bathrooms with corridor-length walk-in wardrobes, over-sized wall hangings and Spanish iron-work.
I sat outside on the patio and watched two Hispanic workers quietly tend to plants and fix some outdoor plumbing while a TV actor and actress husband and wife team critically looked over the interior. Later in the day, I was to observe that the glorious, sprawling fantasy homes surrounding Venice beach were empty during the day, populated only by Hispanic gardeners and maintenance guys, who labored in the heat to keep up the luxurious facades of their employers’ unoccupied monuments to wealth.
After the showing, Dougee and I strolled along the canals, lapping up the visual eccentricity of the wealthy’s ideas of the good life. The houses ranged from authentic 50s beach shacks with pink flamingo fences, to ginger-bread pseudo Tudor confections, to Spanish mission hybrids, to full-blown multi-millionaire beach front multi-level designer yuppie playpens. All threaded through with narrow ribbons of water, mock Italian (Venetian) bridges and ducks.
Then Dougee had to go back to his office on swank Abbot Kinney boulevard to work a while, so I was left to explore Venice beach on my own for a few hours. After a ‘salad pizza’, surely the essence of LA food, I wandered down to famous Venice beach. The beach itself is impressive, extremely wide, white sand, reasonable surf, although apparently the water is quite polluted from local run-off.
More fascinating is the long stretch of market stalls that line the boardwalk. In amongst the predictable tourist trinket hawkers, were liberal helpings of stoned rastas and other skanky ‘artist’ types selling possibly the worst stoner paintings the world has ever produced.
But the best entertainment was provided by the marijuana medicine clinics. The boardwalk featured two buildings dedicated to ‘kush doctors’, who had employed spruikers to wander up and down the boardwalk waving plackards proclaiming “The kush doctor is IN! Seeing patients NOW!”. I stopped one of the long haired spruikers, who looked like a young college student earning some extra cash while getting a tan, and asked him how it all worked.
“Well, you go through that door right there and make an appointment to see the doctor, and he’ll see you pretty much right away.”
“But how do I get prescribed marijuana?”
“There are certain conditions for which marijuana can be beneficial. Like pain relief for cancer. But there are other conditions too.”
“Like, well, like chronic conditions like back pain. Or eating disorders. Or insomnia.”
“That sounds like most people I know” I said.
“Or attention deficit disorder.”
“You’re kidding me?”
Most people I know who smoked hooch regularly would not rate acuity of concentration and memory retention as some of the bonuses of regular THC ingestion.
I thanked the kid and zig-zagged my way to the end of the boardwalk, dodging steady streams of bronzed skateboarders and rollerbladers, ears filled with regular blasts of Goa trance from the incense hazed surf shops.
That night I caught up with Dave, an old film buddy of Tanya’s from her San Francisco days in the mid 1990s. We met for Mexican and margarita jugs at a Venice beach cantina. He brought two buddies, Harold and Noah, both involved in the music side of the film industry – Harold as a music supervisor, Noah as a composer. We chatted about the state of the industry, the laughable amounts of money MTV offered composers, the merits of a local Iron Maiden tribute band that was all girls. Then my brain turned to mush from jetlag and tequilla, and thats all I can remember, apart from Dave paying for my food and kindly offering to give me a tour of Hollywood on Saturday.
“I am so grateful to have been a kid growing up in California in the ’70s. You know, it was so cool to come down here and see all the hippies, such a happy vibe, so much potential and optimism. Anything goes, people doing the most way out things.”
We were driving through the lush hills of Topanga canyon, inland of Malibu, and once home to many communities of alternative lifestylers. Their presence could still be felt in the names of retailers “The Inn of the Seventh Ray”, and fellow drivers with long silver hair. Dougee’s car stereo kept up a constant stream of happy vibe music, a lot of it easy listening and kooky psychedelia from the ’60s. As we swept along under the perfect blue spring sky, I found my consciousness of the present dissolving with late ’60s/ early 70s California. Transported back in time to a past that seemed completely familiar, even though it wasn’t mine. A past transmitted and re-transmitted through millions of faded TV images, films, music. At one point we were cruising the Pacific Coast HIghway, entering Malibu just as Hall and Oates funky guitar swirls slid to the top of the random playlist: “This is where it all happened!” Dougee exclaimed. “West Coast rock baby!” Never had yacht rock seemed so right.
By the time we wound down Mulholland Drive and somehow ended up in Brentwood, I was living in an episode of the Brady Bunch – so many ’60s and ’70s suburban palaces, so many balmy, perfectly manicured streets. Only now Mike and Carol Brady would need to have inherited mega-bucks from their deceased former spouses to afford to buy a home in this now exclusive suburb. At one point we swung just north of Brentwood and entered the truly hallucinatory atmosphere of Crestwood Hills – steep foilage drenched hills packed tight with mid-century modernist homes, each one architecturally unique, each one gazing serenely out onto panoramic views of the San Fernando Valley. I was now in the pages of ’50s Home Beautiful – a vision that will be preserved forever, as the area has recently been declared an architecturally significant enclave and none of those Mondrian inspired pleasure pads will ever be torn down or modified until the end of time.
Later that evening, Brady, Dougee and I put on our night outfits and psyched ourselves up with some synchronised disco moves.
Then we made the hour long trip to Silver Lake so I could a radio interview with the internet based radio station Luxuria . Silver Lake, east of Hollywood, is one of LA’s hippest areas, a student and artist hang-out. Compared to Santa Monica, not many trees and not much fresh air, but plenty of Hispanic culture and cheap eats.
Luxuria broadcasts from a run down, low set building with several apartments, all occupied by artists, some of whom are involved with the radio. “A bit like an artists’ commune” Dougee explained.
As Brady, Dougee and I hung out in the lounge-room waiting to go on air, I wandered around taking snaps. We uncorked champagne and wiggled to the funky sounds of Julie and Renata’s SpinOFF show. Various people wandered in and out. A woman with pretty eyes and unassuming demeanor wearing tracky dax turned up with a lap-top. She obviously knew Dougee well (Dougee used to have his own weekly Luxuria show until he got tired of the long commute). She was introduced as Lisa. I took more happy snaps.
When I eventually got on air, Julie asked some great questions and the interview went off without a hitch. Lisa sat in and quietly grooved and nodded. Later, as Dougee, Brady, Julie and I were bundling ourselves back into vehicles, ready to go cruising for some late night clubbing, Dougee told me that Lisa was the legendary Lisa Coleman of Wendy and Lisa / Prince fame. All women involved in dance electronica owe a debt those ladies shaking their sexy booty with those wild ’80s keyboards! Lisa came out to say good-bye and kindly offered to “absorb” my website. But I was then too awestruck to say anything but a wide-eyed “thanks!”. Then we all went our separate ways into the humid LA night.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Dave stooped down and reverentially placed the mini bottle of JB whiskey on the headstone. “Whenever I come here, I make an offering” he explained. “John Huston is my favorite director.” Then he burrowed into his bag and produced two more JBs. These we cracked, then toasted one of Hollywood’s most influential filmmakers. “Thanks for the inspiration, John”. Dave skulled. I sipped, then clutched the remains as we took off for a stroll amongst the glamorous dead.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in the heart of Hollywood, was a good place to start a Hollywood tour as it contained arguably all that was left of what once made Hollywood great. The were the graves of Cecil B. DeMille, Woody Herman, Douglas Fairbanks, Zoltan Korda, Tyrone Power, and many more celebrities from Hollywood’s golden years. Plus countless character actors from the silent era right through to the 60s, whose faces are now far more likely to be recognized than their etched names. No shortage of memorable epitaphs here. The most famous: Mel Blanc, the voice of hundreds of Warner Brothers cartoons including Bugs Bunny, signed off with: “Thats all folks!”.
As we wandered, Dave told me a little about his work in Hollywood In recent years, his bread and butter had been as a ghost writer for many big budget Hollywood films, which meant writing for a target audience of adolescents and young adults. “They are the ones with the purchasing power, the demographic all the studios are trying to sell to. They are the ones that buy the merch.” That was one reason why Hollywood movies had been getting dumber and dumber in recent decades.
Another reason was the piece-work outsourcing of script development. Dozens of ghost writers can work on a single script. “You get given a single page, maybe two, and you’re paid to ‘improve’ it. Lets say its a comedy, you have to make the dialogue funnier. But you don’t see what comes before or after because the producers are paranoid about the storyline getting ‘stolen’ or leaked. So of course, what gets produced in the end doesn’t make any sense. So many of these films are not just dumb, they also don’t hold together logically at all, they are literally nonsense.”
Despite the mad scrabble for the teenage dollar, the local film industry was losing financially. Many production houses had shut. LA producers were now heading up the coast to Vancouver, Canada, to shoot, ridding themselves of the expense of employing local unionized labor. As we cruised down Sunset Boulevard, the sense of better years long gone was palpable. A kind of dusty sleepiness had settled over the sidewalks and nondescript shop fronts. Dave pointed out the last movie equipment hire vendor left in town. He also pointed out the Viper Room and the Whiskey-a-Go Go (where bands apparently now ‘pay to play’), both a blur as we shot past, but what I glimpsed looked like some of the older venues in Melbourne that had gone to seed.
When the district had rescued itself from near ghettoization a few years ago, its economic salvation came by way of nests of retail chains like Gap clothing which opened up on Hollywood Boulevard. By the time we parked there and scuffed down the famous pavement of stars, we had had a few more ‘John Hustons’, courtesy of the Hotel Figueroa in downtown LA. But despite being significantly buzzed, if there was was still magic in the air, I couldn’t feel it. Except perhaps in the handful of art deco neon signs still clinging to the outside of once iconic buildings such as The Egyptian Theatre (now the American Cinematheque) and The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (said to be haunted by a number of celebrities including Marilyn Monroe). The rest of Hollywood’s most famous strip was crammed with tourists who were more interested in buying T-shirts than learning about the artform that made the area world famous in the first place.
A sucker for punishment, I had booked myself on the red-eye back to Pittsburgh that night – leaving 11.00 pm, arriving 9.30am the next day. We had time to kill so Dave took me to a Hollywood Thai restaurant that boasted an extremely popular Thai Elvis impersonator. As we blew our sinuses out on Tom Yum soup, Thai Elvis slowly gyrated, crooned and stared at the packed mess hall of eaters through wraparound sunglasses. The King’s ‘band’ were backing tapes that somehow sounded Asian, although I’m sure they weren’t.
Dave said: “Elvis is a metaphor for America. Started out young, vibrant, absorbing so many cultural influences, rebellious, visionary; ended up as a gross, bloated, sold-out parody of himself.”
On the way to the airport, we passed row upon row of LA’s signature skyline: absurdly tall, spindly date palms, now in deep, shaggy silhouette against the setting sun. Dave told me about hanging out with Hunter S Thompson, going on crazy binging trajectories about town in the hope of scoring an interview – which was, in the last hour of his departure, finally granted. Meeting Allen Ginsburg, and telling him about the shockingly clear dream Dave had had decades ago that changed his life – where Jack Kerouac appeared and told him to leave his mid-West birthplace and “go to California”. There was something about how Jack appeared and some other things he said that convinced Ginsburg at least “It was really Jack. He really paid you a visit.”
Kerouac, Ginsberg, Thompson, all outraged, counter-culture visionaries, all dead. I had expected LA to be buzzing, glitzy, shallow perhaps, but not the way I had felt and seen it. Downtown LA and Hollywood at least felt like urban ghost towns, slowly being entombed by mall culture. In the surrounding districts, Hispanic communities were rapidly expanding, but their poverty was obvious. Dotted along the streets were new evangelical shop-fronts, ‘end of days’ fundamentalist preaching shops, sucking in the desperate and mono-lingual. The term ‘spiritual vultures’ came to mind.
I said “Do you think LA is now just another tourist town, trading on its past? Its glory days are over for good?”
Dave said. “Probably.”
Then we were whumping my bags back onto the LAX terminal tarmac again. A goodbye embrace, then I headed for the United counter, hoping I had time to check in my bags, request a seat in a baby-free row, and slug down another John Huston before I settled in for the last sleepless leg of my journey back ‘home’.