The Unexpected and Welcome Rebirth of Eve Babitz

November 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

Eve Babitz

Before I came across her books in the Hollywood public library, I had never heard of Eve Babitz, who famously chronicled Los Angeles during its late-1960’s to mid-1970’s heyday. This was 1989 or 1990; I was new in town and eager to read about my new hometown. I checked out “LA Woman” and Slow Days, Fast Company, and was instantly drawn to her stories about musicians, actors, old Hollywood, hotels and the city itself, which she captured in all its jasmine-scented, smoggy glory. I read Sex and Rage, a roman á clef whose protagonist Jacaranda Levin, like Babitz herself, was born into a bohemian family in Hollywood in the early 40’s. Like her inventor, Jacaranda reached adulthood at a propitious time, and entered the burgeoning L.A. music scene by designing album covers and photographing musicians.

Babitz was was funny, sexy and clever, with a knack for being everywhere at the right moment. She had a gift for friendship that gave her a large circle of allies, both male and female, and what she lacked as a novelist she more than compensated for in effervescence and nerve. In short, she was irresistible. How had I not heard of her before?

During the nineties, I began to notice Eve Babitz’s name in articles about Los Angeles. These pieces compared her, usually unfavorably, to Joan Didion, the other famous chronicler of Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s, but although Babitz and Didion took on some of the same subjects and were friends, they had more differences than similarities. Didion was the consummate outsider, always observing her subjects at a safe, ironic distance. An anxious introvert from Sacramento, Didion never seemed at home anywhere and cannily used her outsider status to maximum advantage, peering through windows at the party within. Didion also differed from Babitz by writing about Los Angeles not for Angelenos or Californians generally, but for the New York literary world she aspired to enter. Didion’s Los Angeles was not home but a strange, exotic place, full of weirdos and existential danger. Long before the effects of climate change became apparent, she famously proclaimed, “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.” This statement was not for Californians but for Easterners who couldn’t imagine living in the state, and who probably hadn’t visited. Those of us who make our homes in Los Angeles owe Didion our thanks for repelling them.

In contrast Eve Babitz was a born insider, an “It” girl who observed everything—from the musician-packed bar at the Troubadour to the lobby of the Chateau Marmont to the set of “The Godfather, Part 2”–from its white-hot center. Her very first foray into public life was an exercise in high art: playing chess in the nude with a clothed Marcel Duchamp in a series of famous photographs by Julian Wasser. Only eighteen, Babitz became a Rubenesque sensation. Soon she knew every artist and musician in Los Angeles: not only her parents’ musician friends like Igor Stravinsky, who was also her godfather, but major visual artists like Ed Kienholtz, Billy Al Bangston and Ed Ruscha. While hanging around the Troubadour bar, she befriended Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. Her lovers during that period included Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Paul Ruscha, Fred Roos and Walter Hopps. Though all these people became famous, Eve Babitz had the advantage of knowing them before they were.

Nothing illustrates the Babitz-Didion difference like their respective first encounters with Jim Morrison. Didion, dying of boredom in the recording studio where the Doors were painfully birthing “L.A. Woman,” writes:

It is a long while later. Morrison arrives. He has on his black vinyl pants, and he sits down on a leather couch in front of the four big blank speakers, and closes his eyes. The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival is this: No one acknowledges it by so much as a flicker of an eye….He lights a match. He studies the flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowers it to the fly of his black vinyl pants. Manzarek watches him. The girl who is rubbing Manzarek’s shoulders does not look at anyone. There is a sense that no one is going to leave this room, ever. It will be some weeks before The Doors finish recording this album. I do not see it through.

Whereas Babitz remembers Morrison this way:

I met Jim early in ’66, when he’d just lost the weight and wore a suit made of grey suede, lashed together at the seams with lanyards and no shirt. It was the best outfit he ever had, and he was so cute that no woman was safe. He was 22, a few months younger than I. He had the freshness and humility of someone who’d been fat all his life, and was now suddenly a morning glory. I met Jim and propositioned him in three minutes, even before he so much as opened his mouth to sing….”Take me home,” I demurely offered when we were introduced.

From the 1970’s until the early 90’s, Eve Babitz wrote feature articles for glossy magazines such as Esquire, Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler. The last thing I remember reading of hers was an account of the L.A. Riots, which she missed entirely because she was holed up with a lover at the Bel Air Hotel. At that point Babitz, who was in her late 40s, seemed the girl who stayed too long at the fair, too fun-loving and oblivious for her own good.

After 1992’s Black Swans she published no other books, though it wasn’t until 2014 that I learned why. A freak 1997 accident set fire to her skirt and left her with third-degree burns on the lower half of her body that nearly killed her, along with her career. Babitz’s account of the disaster and its aftermath makes up the title essay of her new book, I Used To Be Charming. The only new piece in the collection, which otherwise consists of magazine articles, some of which have aged better than others, it’s worth the price of the book:

Here I was…over 50 years old, still so stupid that I was risking my life for a smoke….had I managed to avoid all the damage I’d done in my life up until that point, breaking hearts, being unreliable, only to hit that brick wall because of a match?

The accident turned Babitz into a recluse, but it wasn’t her final act. Rediscovered by Vanity Fair editor Lili Anolik and new admirers like Lena Dunham, she has recently emerged, phoenix-like, to promote the new book. Outliving many of the friends and lovers she wrote about is accomplishment enough, but Babitz–unlike Dorothy Parker, the writer she most resembles–didn’t succumb to a bitter, alcoholic old age, nor did she flee Los Angeles. Now 76, battered but unbroken, Eve Babitz is finally getting the respect she deserves.

“Rocketman”: Elton John’s Story Transcends the Biopic Genre

June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments

Elton John’s U.S. Debut Concert at the Troubadour, August 25, 1970
Taron Egerton as Elton John at the Troubadour, in “Rocketman”

When I arrived at ArcLight Hollywood for a member preview of “Rocketman” last Wednesday, my expectations were high. In the trailers the uncanny physical resemblance between Taron Egerton and the young Elton John impressed me, as did the faithful renderings of John’s wardrobe, both street and stage. Most amazing of all, Egerton’s singing voice approximated the younger Elton John’s without lapsing into mimicry.

With me was my older sister, whose purchase of John’s eponymous album in 1970 was my gateway to his music. Significantly, we’d both seen Elton in concert early in his career: she in Tokyo in October, 1971, during his first Japanese tour; and both of us two years later, when he played U.D. Arena in Dayton, Ohio. It was my first big concert, a sold out show in a basketball stadium. In contrast to my sister’s Tokyo experience, which she remembers as “him and a piano in a concert hall,” this one featured Elton’s famous costumes, flashing eyeglasses and my first contact high. It was spectacular, though, like Bernie Taupin in the film, I would have preferred to see Elton alone with his piano.

All of this was going through my mind as my sister and I waited, in our Arclight-issued star-shaped sunglasses, for “Rocketman” to begin. I expected something along the lines of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but it soon became clear that “Rocketman” would be a very different experience: more musical than biopic, and a very ambitious musical at that. The first big number, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, features Matthew Illesley (one of two excellent actors who play Elton as a child) in a carnival setting with a large group of singing dancers. In a Broadway show, this would have been the climax; in “Rocketman” it’s merely the opening salvo. Along the way to other big musical pieces, the movie compellingly recounts John’s piano lessons, family strife, struggles to break into the music business, and his fateful pairing with the lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, superb). Fame and fortune follow, but long before they arrive “Rocketman” had me in its grip.

Various critics have pointed out the many liberties John takes with events and the timeline. “Saturday Night’s Alright” was years in the future for young Reggie, but suspending disbelief is easy during a big song-and-dance number. Far more jarring is Elton’s playing “Crocodile Rock,” a song he didn’t write until 1972, at the 1970 Troubadour concert that made him an overnight star. Why not “Take Me To The Pilot,” a barnburner he actually did play that night? Because, apparently, “Take Me To The Pilot” fit the sequence with John on his private jet. Another quibble: Taupin’s giving John the lyrics for “Border Song” as an initial offering, when it happened a couple of years later. But details like this can’t detract from the emotional truth of the story: a brilliant musician’s journey through the crucible of world-wide fame.

Much as there is to love about “Rocketman,” the thing that moved me (and my sister) most is the brotherly, highly creative relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Thrown together at random by their music publisher, the two men develop an instant, unbreakable bond that endures through life’s highs and lows; it has now spanned 50 years. Though there are other love stories in “Rocketman,” the one between John and Taupin is the most touching and enduring. A week later, as I contemplate seeing “Rocketman” again, I’m still thinking about it.

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