Blogging from deep down beneath the Greater L. A. hipsterpolitan region….

I’m a writer, but there are zillions of writers, perhaps you’ve noticed. This here is a bunch of my stuff. I hope you dig it.

I try to blog at least once daily so there’s a lot of stuff here. You can browse by category or look at some selected essaysstories (non-fiction), neuroscience pieces, jazz writing or smartassery. Some flash nonfiction even.

My LA Weekly stuff can be found here.

My email is My phone is 323-420-7410. I do a lot of short writing on my Brick Wahl page on Facebook, and really short writing on Twitter. I get all professional on LinkedIn, all pensive on Pinterest, and all whatever the hell it’s for on Google Plus. You can even look through my library at Goodreads. I’m all over the goddamn internet and all over this goddamn town.

Drawn and quartered

(July, 2013)

News item:

Soccer fanaticism in Brazil reached dangerously high levels when a mob attacked and murdered a referee following an argument with a player. Their argument turned into a fist fight and the referee fatally stabbed the player with a knife he had been carrying throughout the match. The spectators then rushed onto the field and proceeded to tie up, beat, and stone the referee to death, after which they quartered his body and put the severed head on a stake and stuck it in the middle of the field.

A suspect has been arrested. 

Medieval English kings didn’t mess around.  You messed with them, they made a mess out of you. High treason wasn’t something let off lightly. The drawing and quartering began with the guilty part trussed up, tied to a board and dragged by a horse through the streets to the place of execution. Sometimes a priest followed, chastising, or crowd would join in with stones and whips. Once at the gallows the traitor would be hanged till not quite dead, then revived. His genitalia would be lopped off and the entrails removed slowly through an incision in the gut, after which they were burned so he could watch. Then the victim was beheaded, and his heart cut out and also burned. The quartering was an anticlimactic chopping the headless corpse into four pieces, The pieces and the head were then parboiled, put on stakes and displayed in various places around then city as proof that treason does not pay. That would have been the birds favorite part. The people were most fond of the disemboweling, apparently, as that is when the victim would howl most vividly.

This didn’t happen often. High treason was a relative rarity, and even when it did, the guilty were often spared the supreme penalty. Simple beheadings were a sign of royal favor. The king liked you, even if you tried to kill him. You had to be some kind of real bastard to be drawn and quartered.

Even then, however, the full sentence could not always be carried out. As often as not, the crowd was cheated when the victim died before decapitation. I think Guy Fawkes managed to leap from the gallows and break his neck. Some one else managed to spit in the Royal Disemboweler’s face who then decapitated him in a fit of piqué. You can imagine the crowd’s disappointment.

Drawing and quartering was not purely part of the English legal tradition. In fact, I imagine a survey of legal systems all over the world would find examples, both judicial and extra-judicial. I know that as far back as twenty-three centuries ago the Chinese meted it out to especially deserving characters. Being practical, the Chinese would dispense with the preliminaries and go straight to the quartering. The limbs were each attached to a chariot or ox cart. I imagine the latter was slower. This is how my hero, Lao Ai, met his end. He was sundered into four parts in one messy moment, and then his grandparents, parents, uncles (and their spouses), siblings (and their spouses) , grandchildren and children were all executed by some means or another. Zu zhu, they called it, “family execution”.  We know of it as the nine familial exterminations, or execution to the ninth degree. Basically the idea being to annihilate the guilty party’s entire extended family. The fact that his blood aunts were excused is a fluke of Chinese patrilineal kinship. When a woman married she becomes a member of her husband’s family. Which came in handy when a no good nephew managed to get himself convicted of high treason.

Had the ancient Chinese been hip to mitochondrial DNA the aunts would never have been passed up. No matter how thorough your zu zhu, wiping out scores of people for the behavior of one rotten apple, some of his mother’s genes were carried on through those aunts.

Actually the simple dismemberment by quarters was refined by one legendary reformer in the third century B.C. He codified into law a five pointed judicial dismemberment that had a horse (or ox) for each limb, plus one for the head. It was so effective it was used on him when  he ran afoul of the bureaucracy and the emperor had him executed. His family was done away with as well, out to the ninth degree. If his mother had any sisters, though, some genes slipped by unnoticed. Who knows what they developed into later. Maybe another troublemaker. We can only hope.

In medieval England, however, there was no such extended familycide coded into law. It might have happened on occasion, but to ninth degree? Unlikely. I can’t see how it would have been managed. Unlike China, where the offspring tended to stay near the family village, in England primogeniture meant that the youngers sons had to go far afield to make their fortune. Some might try looting some foreign land, but most would marry daughters who could cough up a hefty dowry. A crazy quilt of family relationships resulted, the nobility all related to each other somehow. Try executing someone to the ninth degree and you could have half of Europe wanting revenge. Best to just draw and quarter the traitor and leave the extended family out of it.

But then our poor Brazilian referee wasn’t somebody, he was just another nobody. Just some kid with a knife refereeing a futbol game. He orders some guy off the field for some egregious foul, the guy says he ain’t going. An argument ensues, then a tussle, out comes the knife, down goes the player. The knife victim’s family and friends pour onto the field, grab the referee, and apparently tie him to a stake, stone him to death, machete and chop off his limbs, then his head, which they mount on the stake as a triumph, I imagine, and a warning to others with knives and perhaps referees in general. Barbaric but effective. On the other hand, they forfeited the game. Xangô can be cruel, but just.

Mulatou Astatke

(Unused first draft of a Brick’s Picks, 2009)

The vibe is great at the Luckman, the seats are full, the kids are hip and excited, the parking lot smells great, and if the novelty of a room full of hipsters studiously watching a succession of DJs without twitching wears off quickly (yet another black street art neutered by white college kids, apparently), the show will be great. (No idea what show I was plugging here.) Carlos Nino’s projects always mesh hip hop, groove and the spiritual side of jazz well, and violist Atwood-Ferguson has lots of out-of-the-box ideas. The loooooooong press releases is big on hagiography and a hip hop mom and short on, like, music, so we haven’t a clue who is playing or what it will be, but we bet it’ll be a lot of killer players and fascinating rhythms. At the very least the damn thing will have been rehearsed, which cannot be said about the appearance by legendary Ethiopian composer Mulatu Astatke last month with what should have been one helluva band. Well, the guitarist was hip, and the lead trumpeter nailed it. But as much as we love the rest of those guys up there, ya have to wonder if they had ever listened to Mulato’s music, or knew there was Ethiopian music, or could even locate Ethiopia on a map. Oh well. The kids, in their thirty dollar seats many had waited in line ninety minutes to get, were enthusiastic anyway. But this should have been much, much better. Maybe next time hire some true believers without quite the chops but who will sweat blood to get that peculiarly Addis Ababa groove down. Because man, this music deserved more respect than it got that night from these stellar players. Except for Azar Lawrence. He looked and sounded just as lost as his most of his bandmates that night. But you could see him listening…to that trumpeter who had it down, to the guitar player, to an especially gorgeous (if undermixed!!!!!) vibe solo of Mulatu…and he started moving, grooving, playing it as he learned it right there on the spot. By the end of the night Azar was carrying them all, exploding with energy, blowing these crazy scales like Trane meeting [meeting who?] when damn, man, it was all over. If only they’d had one more set. They were almost there.

And if an auditorium full of college kids studiously watching a series of DJs go through their paces made us wonder if there were several hundred people there who need to get out more often, the over all vibe was happening, the kids thankfully light on retro and plenty enthusiastic, and the parking lot certainly smelled sweet…it’s just a shame that the stellar players—some of LA’s finest jazzmen—making up the orchestra hadn’t, like, you know, rehearsed. That Ethiopian groove never did happen, nor anything else remotely Abyssinian. Aside from the lead trumpeter player (who nailed it), the guitarist and Azar Lawrence, who got the feel and soul of it quickly, it was pretty apparent the players didn’t know Mulatu’s music, didn’t know there was any Ethiopian music, and probably couldn’t even locate Ethiopia on a map. Either/Orchestra this was not, let alone the Wallias Band. Which is a shame considering what a special moment this was, that Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest living civilizations, and that the auditorium was packed full of kids who’d shelled out good money to see something a helluva lot better than what they got.  Still, they cheered anyway.  But next time, guys, try giving a damn.


Record Store Day


All The Girls in the World Beware!!

All The Girls in the World Beware!!

“Oh Lord, that All The Girls in the World Beware LP….  Here’s a true story: my friend’s older brother collected entire catalogs by bands, so even if they released a record that sucked, he had to have it, y’see? Well, back in 1974 he was so embarrassed about the brand new Grand Funk album that he made me and his little brother go into the store to buy it. He was afraid he’d be mocked….” — a friend’s post



We were taught how to use the abacus in Maine. Meanwhile, the neighbor next door was writing music with a computer at Bowdoin College. This was 1965. He took us to see the computer…it was the size of Long Island. The first school I went to in Maine was on an island off the coast. We lived three islands off the coast, so we bused over an entire island to get to school. Area’s rich now, apparently, full of Boston summer homes and movie star money, but back then it was all poor lobstermen and cod fishermen on the water, farmers inland, plus the Bath Ironworks where my Dad worked. The second school I went to was a one building brick structure kids’ grandparents had gone to the same school. Winters were harsh. I remember walking home from school through sandy fields during gales, ouch. I remember snow on Mother’s Day, and the best creepiest Halloweens ever. Loved it there–3rd grade was the only time I spent an elementary school year in one school. (I’d been to five in 2nd grade…well four, went to one twice..started in San Diego, wound up in Maine with a detour to Tacoma.) Oh yeah, I remember seeing Minnie Pearl and ox pulls at the county fair, and I hated cod liver oil. Once the snow cleared kids played viciously competitive marble games everywhere. Tough bunch, Mainers, civil war monuments in the cemeteries, huge things, and they were still fiercely proud of their Abolitionism…Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our town there. We almost settled in Maine, in which case I’d be one of the people Jeff Foxworthy jokes about and you all would never know me, or me my wife, which is too scary to think about, or weird to think about anyway. When you move constantly your life is like brownian motion, seemingly random, to a kid anyway, but always an adventure. I loved it.


Barry Farrell

Barry Farrell wrote this Monk piece. Making the cover of time. I saw this posted on a jazz page. The past came rushing back, strong, likedeja vu. You see, Barry Farrell was my creative writing instructor atUCSB. He was the one who told me I was going to be a writer. A prediction I tried to avoid for years, to no avail. Damn him. I remember someone asked him when he decided he wanted to be a writer. He said he never wanted to be a writer. He’d gotten out of the army and needed to make a living. Writing was just something he could do.It doesn’t seem to work that way now.

He turned me onto John McPhee, Barry Farrell did, which is like turning a young tenor player onto Stan Getz. He handed out a Xeroxed copy of the annotated manuscript for McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country”. I’ll never forget the opening line. Three little words. Pass the gorp. Perfection, though it took me a while to appreciate that. But it was perfection. I remember once listening to Sonny Rollins play Three Little Words and “pass the gorp” came into my head. I learned so much from that manuscript. There were huge passages crossed out, notes everywhere, add ins, corrections, pieces lifted from there and dropped here. All in John McPhee’s hand. My favorite writer of all time, that John McPhee. At some point later I tossed it out. I’ve regretted that since. I’ll never get anything like it again.
I probably have the writing I did in that class in my analog box–all handwritten or typed. Ancient times. The best was a profile of a student name Lori. A gorgeous thing, long black here, deep brown Mediterranean eyes. We met in her dorm room. She lolled across the bed. I asked the questions. I transcribed the piece later. Computer files last forever. I accidentally deleted it forever. Tossed the original. It’s gone now.
I took that class–there were maybe 8 students–back in the late seventies. 1978 maybe. One of those key experiences. We were tucked into a corner on some upper floor. Out the window you could follow the coast all the way to county line, where the surfers were. You could listen to Barry Farrell read some passage aloud and gaze across the Pacific till it passed over the horizon and onto China.
Wonderful guy, Barry Farrell, and I really wanted to talk to him again sometime, over whiskey, him with his incessant cigarettes, me with a cigar. But he had died in an auto accident in the 80’s. Had a heart attack and lost control of his car somewhere in L.A. I saw that on the internet. The internet can be cruel. I didn’t cry, but should have. A decade on it still bothers me. There are big holes where life used to be, memories vanish when the heart stops beating, and it seems such a shame to waste all that.


Mudslide at Oso, Washington. Dozens dead, scores missing.

Mudslide at Oso, Washington, March 29, 2014. 43 dead.

The site of a fresh mudslide from a distance always looks so cleanly cut, as if a shovel dug into the wet ground and simply lifted the hillside away and dropped it gently a couple hundred feet down. Grass and shrubs and even small trees are often left in place. Come by in a few weeks, after the rains have stopped and the sun is out and you can see wild flowers in all their colors where people and houses used to be. Sometimes the people and houses are still there, after the survivors had given up hope of ever digging them out again. The old hillside becomes their tomb, and the flowers just make it pretty.

Oso Washington...mud

Another view of the Oso slide….mud everywhere.

Once you recognize the shape you can see mudslides all over the place in southern California, recent ones and old ones. They’re not uncommon. In fact they’re usually so small as to even be newsworthy. Someone loses a backyard and the people below get their pool filled it. It doesn’t even have to rain for those, a broken water pipe will do it. Even a sprinkler left on during a vacation. But it’s rain that really gets the ground moving. Hillsides become soaked, the soil becomes mud, and mud being heavier than dry soil, eventually, at a certain point, that ground begins to slide downward, and continues to slide until a new center of gravity is found and the movement ceases. One of the amazing things about mud is how the water holds the dirt together into a mass while at the same time makes that mass easy to move. An entire hillside, thousands and thousands of tons of dirt, can suddenly move as if my command in one piece, holding its composition and even keeping its topsoil in place. With all our engineering prowess and computer modelling we can’t do that. We can’t make a hillside move in such an orderly fashion down a hillside in one piece, and in a matter of seconds. We can start avalanches and rock slides, sure, those are easy. We can blow a mountain to kingdom come to get at what’s inside. But we can’t just make a whole hillside shift downward a few hundred feet without disturbing the flowers. That’s a matter for rain and gravity and fluid mechanics.

Mudslide at Oso.  the grin

Mudslide at Oso. The grin.

Mass wasting is the technical term, gravity making shit fall down. Rocks falling down all the time in California. Our mountains and hills are very young and haven’t been worn down smooth yet by erosion, and besides that a lot of the material is made up of fragile sedimentary rock that breaks up and falls back down easily. Quake, rain, flash flood,. high winds, fire zone…everything comes down out in Southern California. If you ever drive along the base of the mountains in Pasadena, say, you come across these enormous catch basins designed to capture all the stuff that begins falling down in heavy rain…including boulders that weigh hundreds of tons. Those things used to roll for miles, trashing everything in their paths. I love this state, always exciting.

The effects, as in Oso, Washington, can be horrific. Sometimes merely destructive. In 1995 there was a very impressive mudslide above the village of La Conchita, between Ventura and Santa Barbara. For months afterward the 101 there was covered with a thin layer of mud, and if you looked up at the bluffs you could see a classic view of a hillside dropped down a couple hundred feet and resting atop what had been a street.

For a while afterward houses stood with their insides protruding through their front windows. Just imagine how much mud could make a house do that. Down the other end of the street the mud had buried houses completely. Then in 2005 the hillside came down again but much more quickly (here’s some terrifying video) and took out more streets and houses. Ten people died in their homes.  A whole family was entombed in one, save for the father, who had stepped out to go to the store. He spent days walking the streets calling out the names of his children. No one knew what to say. When I saw the news of that mudslide in Washington, saw the scar where the hillside had been, and the hillside now where the houses had been, I thought of that man again, looking for his children.

La Conchita mudslide, 1995

La Conchita mudslide, 1995

On the back slope of the ridge I live on here in LA you can see another old slide. There’s a big concrete wall holding it back off Riverside Drive. I remember sitting at a gas station years ago and wondering what the hell that big slab was there for and then saw the shape of an old mudslide. It was like a miniature version of that hillside in La Conchita, scooped out of the ridge and deposited fifty or sixty feet below. I asked a few other people if they saw anything there. They said no. I guess you have to know what to look for.

Once the scar is grown over again and green, it doesn’t look so menacing. You have to stare hard to realize what you’re seeing. Once you do see it, though, you can never miss it again. You can, in your mind’s eye, take the piece of the hillside that is now below it and pick it up and put it back where it was and see what a perfect fit it makes. But there it is, at the foot of the ridge. I can’t imagine that this slide buried anything. Some ground squirrels, maybe, a few tarantulas. Some California poppies. Some of the snow birds wintering on the street there (we call that stretch the Riverside Riviera) might have found their beat up vans engulfed in a foot or two of mud. But I don’t think there were any structures there. Somewhere down there on Riverside Drive was an old gay bar, but I don’t know where exactly. Some of the older guys from the neighborhood–all gone now–told me stories about the place. A total dive, they said, a wreck. Every winter they had to open the back door so the water coming off the hill could flow through the bar and out the front door and onto Riverside Drive. Some winters the place would be full of mud. It was a popular place, though. But that bar, whatever it was called, is long gone. From what I was told–and this is just hearsay–the place was condemned as a hazard because the ground behind it was unstable. So maybe it was where the hillside came down. But I have no idea what happened to it. Perhaps the patrons just got tired of muddy shoes.

Anyway, they’re talking about another El Nino rainy season next year, which we desperately need, so more of these ugly gaping smiles where hillsides used to be will appear throughout Southern California. Especially in burn areas. Next summer well after the rains (should they come) you should be able to see them. By the following spring, after a few rains again and the grasses turn the hillsides green, they’ll really stand out, big brown scars where green slopes should be, and below them, mustard and lupine and poppies waving in the breeze, yellow and purple and red. Pretty.

Mudslides have been one of the prime shapers of our topography here in southern California. Mudslides on the hillsides, debris flows down the mountains, earthquakes and floods . You don’t like the lay of the land now, just wait till the next big rain. Something’s bound to give.  Just don’t be there when it does.



(From National Geographic: Mudslides Explained: Behind the Washington State Disaster)