November 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
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.
July 23, 2019 § 1 Comment
There’s a lot to love about “Remember My Name,” the fascinating new documentary directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe. David Crosby is a great raconteur, and the fact that he’s having a late career renaissance–four new albums in as many years–makes this a far more dynamic film than the recent “Echo in the Canyon.” (Interestingly, Crosby enlivens that one too.) His eloquence and candor are evident throughout, and Eaton, an excellent interviewer, helps to organize the stories and put them in historical context.
We learn about Crosby’s family life–his father, Floyd, was an Oscar-winning cinematographer who shot some of the most important aerial footage of World War II, while his mother, Aliph, loved music–and his introduction to guitar via his older brother, Ethan. Success came early via the Byrds, but when Crosby was fired from that band he went on to even greater heights with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the first supergroup. After Neil Young joined the trio in 1969, CSNY’s debut performance at Woodstock was a high point of the festival.
Crosby recounts the heady days of his career as entertainingly and insightfully as we’d expect. And when things turn bad, beginning in the 1970’s–with his worsening drug addiction, the tragic death of his adored girlfriend Christine Hinton and the breakup of CSNY–he’s just as frank. But about one of his defining traits–a talent for alienating those closest to him, including the bandmates who stood by him in his darkest hours–he’s less open. Though Crosby says it can’t be a coincidence that none of his musical colleagues will speak to him, he’s vague on the reasons, aside from those that broke up the Byrds (speeches from the stage about the Kennedy assasination conspiracy theories, for starters). It’s striking that a man who’s wise enough to write an advice column has a blind spot about his character, apart from his acknowledgment that he’s “an asshole”.
Then there’s Crosby’s penchant for petty, permanent grudge-holding. Passing by Ciro’s, he recounts meeting Jim Morrison there and developing an instant hatred for him. Why? Because Morrison took off his sunglasses, saying, “You can’t hide from me.” Beyond the fact that this incident took place in a dark club more a half century ago, it should be noted that that Morrison has been dead for 48 years and never made it past the age of 27. But Crosby isn’t done with him yet. At his next stop, the Canyon Country Store, he eyes a photo of The Doors and says “I didn’t like those guys”, adding, “Morrison–what a dork.” In a final, mind-boggling slam, Crosby says, “I don’t think they ever lived [in Laurel Canyon]”–though he could have thrown a stone and hit Jim Morrison’s house from where he stood.
Things get better with a lengthy, photo-filled segment on Joni Mitchell, his girlfriend circa 1968-1969, in which she finally gets the attention “Echo in the Canyon” denied her. Still, there are some digs. Though Crosby praises Mitchell to the skies–“she’s the best songwriter and musician of all of us”–he also grouses about her ingratitude for his contacts in the music business, as if she really needed him to open doors for her. When he recalls how Mitchell broke up with him via a new song (probably “For the Roses,” though he doesn’t say) that she performed–twice–at a dinner party, we understand her reasons.
In light of his obnoxious, self-destructive tendencies, David Crosby is a lucky man, and he knows it. After serving four years in Federal prison for an assortment of drug-related charges, including running from the law, he married his longtime girlfriend Jan, had a son, and got a new liver (paid for by Phil Collins, though he doesn’t mention that generous gift). Despite professed financial problems, Crosby now lives with his family, dogs and horses on a ranch in the lovely Santa Ynez Valley. In light of his tumultuous, drug-fueled life, surviving to tell the tale for posterity would be feat enough. Instead, at 77, an age when most of his fellow musicians are retired or dead, Crosby is touring and recording new songs, unstoppable in his musicianship.
July 18, 2019 § Leave a comment
Since seeing the newly restored version of “The Doors,” I’ve been on a deep dive into the band’s music, interviews, reviews and concert footage. I was a child during The Doors’ heyday and clearly remember first hearing “Light My Fire” on the radio: it was thrilling, a song like no other. I was particularly impressed by the second verse: “The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire/Try now we can only lose/And our love become a funeral pyre.” Though I didn’t know then that these lines were Jim Morrison’s contribution to Robby Krieger’s first-ever song, I recognized that rhyming mire and pyre with fire was genius.
Later I would learn why The Doors’ music sounded so different from other bands’. The bass lines played by Ray Manzarek’s keyboard instead of a bass guitar were one reason. Robby Krieger’s bottleneck, pick-less guitar playing and flamenco background were others. John Densmore’s jazz influences set him apart from other rock drummers. Finally, the Latin, jazz and blues roots of all three musicians came through in The Doors’ sound.
Then there’s Jim Morrison, frontman for the ages. If no other band has successfully imitated The Doors, it’s safe to say that most rock singers have tried to imitate Morrison, whose wild, immersive performances set a high bar. In Tom DiCillo’s 2009 documentary “When You’re Strange” (Netflix), there’s stunning sequence at the 22 minute mark: footage (set to “Love Me Two Times”) in which Morrison leaps, writhes and flails his way through a series of increasingly chaotic concerts. Timeless in his leather pants, boots and Dionysian curls, Morrison fearlessly connects with his audiences, fighting his way through police lines to hold them in his thrall. Ray Manzarek often compared him to a shaman, and there is a touch of the divine in his Native American-inspired movements and trance-like writhing. Though he considered himself a writer first and foremost, Jim Morrison understood stagecraft as few other singers have. His all-out performances, enabled by copious drinking and drugging, no doubt contributed to his death at 27.
Then there’s his voice, a doomy baritone that was much-criticized in the band’s heyday but which seemed, even to the childhood me, perfect for songs that were often in minor key. Both Morrison and the rest of The Doors worried that he wasn’t a good enough singer, and his purported lack of musical talent led his father, Rear Admiral George S. Morrison, to write a disparaging letter that caused a permanent rift between them. Yet from 1970s onward, his vocal influence is everywhere in rock. Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis, Ian McCulloch, Dave Gahan and Trent Rezner are just a few of the singers who owe Jim Morrison an enormous debt. And don’t get me started about his leather pants.
June 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
Long before “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” there was “The Doors.” Twenty-eight years have passed since Oliver Stone’s ambitious biopic was released in theaters, a span of time that caught me by surprise. Because I’ve seen it several times since on DVD, and because Jim Morrison remains a pop culture legend (more on that in a future post), it’s hard for me to think of “The Doors” as an old movie, but apparently it is.
Fortunately, last Thursday’s screening of “The Doors: The Final Cut,” at the Aero gave me the chance to see it again on a big screen in a re-edited and remastered edition. While the structure is essentially the same–Stone eliminated one superflous scene toward the end–higher picture and sound quality have transformed the film.
When I first saw “The Doors,” I found it uneven and at times chaotic; for years, what I remembered most were the beautifully shot, trippy scenes in the Mojave Desert. This time, the film seemed far more cohesive. Particularly effective is the development of “Light My Fire”, which we follow from Robby Krieger’s initial verse to early renditions to the recording session, followed by ever-bigger live performances. I was impressed by the concert scenes, which quickly progress from electrifying club dates to electrifying stadium shows. From Val Kilmer’s searing portrayal of Jim Morrison to the fully-immersed extras in the audience, the concerts are uncontrived and exciting to watch. Part of this has to do with the improved sound and 4K resolution: technology has caught up with, and enhanced, Stone’s grand vision.
In the Q & A after the screening, Stone mentioned that the naked dancers in the concerts took off their clothes on their own accord. “We didn’t tell them to,” he said, adding that the extras also brought their own performance-enhancing drugs. He pointed out that Val Kilmer, whose voice sounds uncannily like Morrison’s, did about 80% of the singing, an amazing feat.
I was hoping to hear Kilmer’s take on his bravura performance, but as he wasn’t feeling well that night it was left to Stone to praise him. I came away from “The Doors: The Final Cut” with greater admiration for Kilmer’s acting and Stone’s direction, as well as a new appreciation for the film. I’m sure that audiences–including those that never saw the original cut–will love it too.
April 9, 2017 § 1 Comment
Those who’ve seen my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” will remember my interview with the musician Alan Brackett, a longtime Hollywoodland resident who also contributed the song that accompanies the end credits. Brackett has just published an illuminating memoir, Almost Famous: Journey to the Summer of Love, about his early life in Santa Barbara, where he was a child performer, and his subsequent musical career in Los Angeles during the 1960’s.
“I believe I helped kill [folk music] with…over-exposure,” he writes refreshingly. Brackett isn’t kidding: before founding the seminal psychedelic band the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, he was a successful folk musician, most notably in the Hillside Singers, a quartet that toured the country during the height of the folk craze in the early 1960’s, when he was still a teenager.
The other reason for folk’s demise, of course, was the British Invasion, whose seismic influence Brackett grasped as he enlisted in the Marines in 1964, ahead of being drafted. After six months of service he returned to a changed world, musically and socially: the 60’s had begun in earnest. His new band (first called The Young Swingers, then The Ashes) played rock, and after a few more incarnations and personnel changes became the Peanut Butter Conspiracy in 1966. The band signed with Columbia, cut an album and quickly became famous. Brackett, who played bass, was its main songwriter.
PBC had a woman as its lead singer, Barbara “Sandi” Robison, which probably contributed to its rivalry with the Jefferson Airplane, which was led first by Signe Anderson and then Grace Slick. (Beyond that fact, the Airplane’s drummer, Spencer Dryden, had been a member of The Ashes.) In an affecting aside, Brackett talks about manager Bill Graham’s reaction to the PBC’s getting better reviews than the Jefferson Airplane did: he kept the band off any bill that included the Airplane, effectively cutting off the PBC’s chances to play festivals and large venues across the country.
While “Almost Famous” will appeal most to those who remember the Peanut Butter Conspiracy and its heyday, anyone can appreciate the whirlwind atmosphere of the late 1960s music scene. Within a few months of its founding, the PBC not only had a major label recording contract but was billed with every famous band and musician of the day. The Doors, the Association, Iron Butterfly and the Byrds are a few of the bands Brackett knows well, and Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa enliven his anecdotes. His memories are all the more affecting because many of these musicians are gone, along with the Los Angeles they inhabited so brightly.
“Almost Famous” has some drawbacks: it’s heavy on childhood reminiscences and light on Brackett’s later life, including a stint in music publishing and a longer career as a Hollywood prop master. It also could have benefitted from a cleanup of the spelling, punctuation and grammar. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable account of an important time in American culture, and well worth reading.