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.
June 1, 2019 § 3 Comments
Though Laurel Canyon has been home to musicians for more than a century, its musical reputation peaked in the mid-to late-1960’s, when the Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Carol King, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, John Mayal, Neil Young and The Doors all lived there. The Canyon gave these musicians the perfect atmosphere for collaboration and creative ferment: close proximity to one another, a casual drop-in policy and sanctuary from urban distractions. The resulting songs have become classics.
Andrew Slater’s new documentary “Echo in the Canyon” is a chronicle of that heady time that features, among others, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Brian Wilson and Michelle Phillips. But the heart of the project is Jakob Dylan, who skillfully conducts the interviews, plays versions of the songs with his excellent band and, according to the Q&A after the screening, secured the licensing of songs that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive, if not unavailable. Born in 1969, Dylan is not only the bridge between older and younger musicians but rock-and-royal royalty and a true heir to the California sound. Perceptive and humble throughout, he also provides the biggest laugh of the film. When David Crosby recounts, “Dylan was there,” Jakob says, “You have to be more specific.” Crosby smiles. “Bob was there,” he says, instead of the obvious “Your dad.”
Even for those familiar with the musicians and their work, “Echo in the Canyon” offers some surprises. I learned that the Byrds were the center of everything, influencing, and being influenced by, Eric Clapton and the Beatles, among many others. According to Ringo Starr, the Byrds were the Beatles’ favorite band, and Roger McGuinn confirms that the Beatles were the Byrds’. Seeing Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton and Steven Stills laying down tracks for new versions of their songs was another highlight. And Michelle Phillips’ delight at the new version of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” was heartwarming, much as I would have preferred her to sing it.
But “Echo in the Canyon” has notable problems. The structure is haphazard, and interviews are juxtaposed with long shots of Jakob Dylan driving around Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, cut with mysterious footage of a young man walking the same streets in the late-1960’s. Though the source of the archival footage isn’t revealed until later in the documentary, it’s “Model Shop,”a 1969 film by Jacques Demy starring Gary Lockwood and Anouk Aimee. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes the film:
…George follows [Lola’s] car throughout the city—and Demy daringly films that pursuit, and a wide range of George’s other jaunts by auto through Los Angeles, in the cinematic interest of showing not George but L.A. The movie is a virtual documentary about the city, a visual love poem to Demy’s new world.
While nostalgic, “Model Shop” has nothing to do with the music of its era, and its inclusion is merely atmospheric padding. Another drawback is some of Dylan’s choices of singers. Fiona Apple, Regina Specktor and Cat Power lack the style–and in the case of Power, the range–to sing these songs well. Beck is ill at ease singing harmonies, though he rallies on the solos. Apart from Jakob Dylan, a superb cover artist, only Jade Castrinos, who delivers the soaring high notes of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” succeeds in capturing the California Sound.
Then there are the film’s omissions. Jim Morrison, the most notorious Laurel Canyon denizen, goes entirely unmentioned, along with the rest of The Doors. While it’s true that The Doors’ music didn’t influence that of their musical neighbors, their absence is striking. A far more egregious omission is Joni Mitchell, who not only lived in Laurel Canyon during its heyday but is the only one of its musicians whose stature is still growing. (Among the myriad artists who’ve cited her influence on their music are Elvis Costello and Prince.) Yet Mitchell isn’t mentioned even by her ex-partner Graham Nash, a less important musician who contributes one of “Echo”‘s least interesting interviews. The fact that Nash’s most famous song, “Our House,” memorializes his and Mitchell’s domestic life in Laurel Canyon only makes matters worse.
After the screening and the Q & A, Jakob Dylan and his band, including Jade Castrinos, put on an excellent performance of songs from the film. (The soundtrack of the same name was released concurrently.) But the real surprise was the appearance of Steven Stills and Roger McGuinn, who performed with gusto. As Stills launched into a smoking rendition of “Questions,” my jaw hit the floor; I never would have expected to see him live, let alone for free. Unfortunately, my fellow Angelenos were less impressed: a sizeable number left before and during the concert, apparently too jaded to appreciate such a rare gift.
March 27, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week’s rains transformed the narrow channel that confines the LA River into something that actually looked like a river, albeit an ugly one hemmed in by high concrete walls. Staring at it from the windows of my gym, a fellow member said, “I keep expecting to see a body going by.” We’d already seen tree branches and plastic bottles in the fast-moving water, so anything seemed plausible.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and throughout my years here I’ve been hearing about plans to restore the LA River into a more natural body of water. To date, one can only access the river in small sections: at the Sepulveda Basin and the Glendale Narrows near Dodger Stadium, and in Frogtown. Burbank is another area slated for restoration, but so far it hasn’t happened.
The main problem with the LA River is that it’s not really a river. It’s an arroyo, running dry in the summer and dramatically coming to life in the rainy season. (Los Angeles is unique among the world’s major cities in lacking a navigable river or deep water harbor; only Brasilia, with its artificial lake, compares, but it’s a master-planned city founded in 1960.) Before the LA River was channelled it regularly flooded, causing fatalities and property losses. After the devastating flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers concreted it almost completely, putting an end to flooding but creating a massive eyesore.
Given our desert climate, Los Angeles will never have an unchanneled river. But even channeled rivers can be beautified and improved. I grew up in western Tokyo, on a hill above Meguro River, which in those days was less a river than a dank urban waterway filled with garbage. Whenever our car crossed its bridge, an ominous thunk made me imagine the horror of falling in. Then, around the time my family left Japan in the 70’s, the river was cleaned up by the city. Cherry trees were planted along the banks and walking paths were built on both sides. As the trees grew, new apartment houses sprang up on both sides of the river. The neighborhood became chic.
I had all but forgotten about the Meguro River’s existence, so I never saw its transformation. Then in March of 2013, I arrived in Tokyo and was told by a friend to hurry and see the cherry trees there. An unexpected hot spell had forced an early bloom that year, and the trees alongside the river were already past their prime. It was also raining that day, but no matter: the experience was magical. Festive lanterns lined the riverbanks, and the fencing was low enough to allow picture-taking. The pathways were carpeted in petals, and as I walked blossoms fell with the rain. Though the Meguro River was still channeled, the sweeping branches of the cherry trees detracted from the concrete, giving it a more natural appearance. Why can’t the LA River be like this?, I wondered. I still do.
April 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
During the 1990’s, I was a board member of the Junior Arts Center (now Barnsdall Arts), an organization formed to provide art education to Los Angeles children after art classes were all but dropped from the LAUSD curriculum in the 70’s. At the JAC, all classes were taught by working artists and, because we raised money to pay them, fees were kept low. The children produced very good work that we tried to reward, holding an annual exhibition in Barnsdall Park and giving prizes. To raise awareness of children’s art, we partnered with one of the billboard companies on a project called “Imagine a Great City.” Children entered drawings on the theme of Los Angeles, and the winners were displayed on billboards during February, a slow month in the industry. The program ran for a few years in the early 90’s. Despite the ubiquity of the downtown skyline, LAPD helicopters and palm trees in many of the submissions, it was a success.
“Imagine a Great City” came back to me when I was given a copy of Gabriel Kahane’s new Los Angeles-themed album, “The Ambassador.” Kahane is a classically trained composer and virtuoso musician, but his music contains rock, soul, blues and Broadway references. His lyrics are equally beautiful and complex, as poetic as any by Joni Mitchell.
Each song on “The Ambassador” concerns a Los Angeles building, either commercial or residential or, in the case of the “Mildred Pierce”-themed “Veda,” imaginary, and through these addresses Kahane tells the story of modern Los Angeles. Kahane’s subject matter includes modernist architecture (“Villains”), “Blade Runner” (“Bradbury”), the novels of Raymond Chandler (“Musso and Frank”), and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (“Ambassador Hotel). In the album’s most ambitious composition, “Empire Liquor Mart,” Kahane tells the life story of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, whose 1991 murder at the hands of Korean store owner Soon Da Ju was a catalyst for the 1992 riots. He begins with the shooting, from Harlins’ point of view:
The lady in the fishing vest
Has dropped the gun
Who wears a fishing vest
When they’re working at a liquor store?
I float up to the corner
Just above the ice cream And the frozen food.
I perch beside the surveillance
He then traces the Harlins family’s move west from St. Louis, revealing the devastating loss of Latasha’s mother and uncle in separate shootings, before returning to Harlins’ murder.
Nobody reads from the Book of Job
At the church where me and my grandma go.
Nobody sees the trouble I know
But I know that trouble’s gonna find me.
So when I say that my un-
timely death was
What I mean is
That these tragedies
Are a kind of family tradition.
The album concludes with another masterpiece, “Union Station,” which considers manifest destiny, apocalypse and the tragedy of leaving LA:
When the pilasters slplit to admit the sea,
The hands of the clock will be covered in verdigris
I’ll swim to the train and I’ll find my seat
And hazard a smile at anyone who looks at me.
When the Alkali flats with their cracks pass by,
Think of the color wheel, think of the Western sky:
Distant city with a distant glow,
The hall of the lost has let me go.
This is songwriting of the highest order, incisive and deeply felt. The fact Kahane doesn’t even live here (although born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Northern California and lives in New York) says something too: that the tired La-la Land cliches have finally fallen away. Gabriel Kahane is appearing tonight at the Fonda, opening for the Punch Brothers, and I’m looking forward to his performance.
June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
I spent the last week in New York, on a much-needed break from Los Angeles in general and Beachwood Canyon in particular. Or so I thought. On Day 1, riding the subway downtown, I found myself sitting next to a young woman having a cell phone conversation about her teaching job in Culver City. Later that same day, I sat in a Chinatown restaurant listening to three twenty-somethings discussing Burning Man and Coachella. It was as if Los Angeles had followed me to New York. But my biggest LA moment was deliberate: having learned of a new Ed Ruscha commission on the High Line, I hoofed it over to West Chelsea for a look. Entering the park at W. 23rd Street, I initially walked by the work because of its size: I didn’t realize it took up the entire side of a building. A word painting on a hot pink background, it reads, “Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today”–an LA sentiment if ever there was one. It was appreciated by a crowd of passersby as well as a steady audience on the bleacher-like seating across from it.
Although today Ed Ruscha is an international star whose work can be seen in museums and collections worldwide, when I first became a fan of his work, in the early 90s, he was still considered a “California artist” by the New York art world, relegated by geography to a secondary tier. (Disclosure: I met him briefly during that time, along with Billy Al Bengston, though only I would remember.) The fact that his most famous paintings, including “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” and “Norm’s, La Cienega, On Fire,” depict Los Angeles didn’t ingratiate him with New York critics. Nor did the fact that he never lived in New York, having come directly to Los Angeles from his native Nebraska to attend what is now CalArts. (Born in 1937, Ruscha is probably unique among his Pop Art contemporaries in bypassing the NYC rite of passage.) His word paintings, “Another One of them Bikini and Chainsaw Movies” and “Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped,” don’t exactly bring to mind Manhattan. Neither does his famous photography collection, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.”
But instead of attempting a shift in subject matter, as another artist might have, Ruscha continued along his chosen path, creating images of the Hollywood Sign, palm trees and LACMA. (His iconic “The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire” is owned–in a delicious bit of irony–by the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C.) As an artist Ruscha has always been his own man, resolute in his methods and subject matter. But along the way something interesting happened: the New York art world embraced him, and on his terms. His work was prominently displayed in the 2012 Met show “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” a blockbuster that probably influenced the High Line commission. Now a blue chip artist with a worldwide following, Ruscha hardly needs my promotion. But the High Line painting will be up until May, 2015 and is well worth a visit.
February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
The year before last, I wrote a couple of pieces about New York and Los Angeles and their shifting fortunes as artistic capitals:
Today I read an essay by Moby that beautifully describes the mutability and wildness of Los Angeles as well as its artistic ferment. About his reasons for moving here from New York, he writes:
There’s a sense that New Yorkers never fail, but if they do, they’re exorcised from memory, kind of like Trotsky in early pictures of the Soviet Communist Politburo. In New York you can be easily overwhelmed by how much success everyone else seems to be having, whereas in L.A., everybody publicly fails at some point—even the most successful people. A writer’s screenplay may be turned into a major movie, but there’s a good chance her next five screenplays won’t even get picked up. An actor may star in acclaimed films for two years, then go a decade without work. A musician who has sold well might put out a complete failure of a record—then bounce back with the next one. Experimentation and a grudging familiarity with occasional failure are part of L.A.’s ethos.
Maybe I’m romanticizing failure, but when it’s shared, it can be emancipating and even create solidarity.
The full essay can be seen here:
September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Despite having attained the age of 232, Los Angeles is still perceived as a “young” city, insufficiently historical and urban. Yet it is considerably older than Chicago (1883), America’s third-largest metropolis, a city that hasn’t been called young since Carl Sandburg’s time.
The subtext of “young” Los Angeles is that its Native American and Spanish (i.e., Mexican) periods somehow don’t count. To those who believe this, the City of Los Angeles began in 1847. But by that measure, the French origins of St. Louis (1764) would be discounted, as would the Dutch origins of New York (1625).
It’s time to realize that not all cities in the United States are modeled after European ones, or want to be. Los Angeles, the largest non-European city in the United States, reflects the New World in its architecture and Asia and Latin America in its vibrant, polyglot culture. Perhaps the 21st century will give it the respect it deserves.