Musso and Frank

Went to Musso and Frank yesterday and had a tasty meal. Sometimes you get delicious stuff in there, sometimes you wish you’d ordered something else, but that’s not the point. You go for the vibe, the history, that ancient coolness which is such a rare thing in this town. They plow under everything in Hollywood and build something new. Almost nothing is saved. And even if something is saved, will anyone notice? Or care? Los Angeles is where people come to start all over again, it’s a whole city full of people who’ve cut loose from their families, their exes, their pasts, themselves even, and pretend all of that never happened or they never knew those people back home or never had been a male cheerleader, a hit man, a mom. And we pretend the old neighborhood never existed, the old restaurant, the old film studio, the old anything…it just gets plowed under like the time I saw Tiny Naylor’s in Hollywood being leveled by a bulldozer. I stood there across La Brea helpless, all the times I’d been there passing before my eyes, and all the times I might have been there going up in a poof just like that, unfulfilled. The bulldozer reared back, lowered the blade again and pushed right through the dining room. Again and again. Tiny Naylor’s lay there, a disemboweled heap where once incredibly hot waitresses held trays piled high with hamburgers. The men would stare. Their dates pretended not to notice and seethed. The bulldozer plunged into the wreckage and scooped up a mess and let it drop into a big dumpster truck. Dust filled the air. I couldn’t watch anymore and wondered why L.A. ate its own past for lunch like that. Ate it and digested it and used the nutrients to raise new shopping centers, apartments, schools. There’s a school now where once a famous bowling alley once stood. The school was needed. There’s always another bowling alley. And too bad about Tiny Naylor’s , but there’s always Norms. Of course our Norms is now a hospital. Hospitals are needed. And there’s always Astro. Norms we used to go to when we were punk rockers and broke. We’d have spent all our money at the Brave Dog or the ON Klub and walk to Norms the next morning after scraping together a few 99 cents breakfast’s worth of spare change and the odd crumpled beer soaked dollar bill or two. Then we’d walk back to the house, smoke whatever dope was left and listen to loud records all afternoon, laughing and not worrying about a thing. Reagan was president and the world was going to end any minute.

Sometimes for dinner we’d scrape enough together for the Old Spaghetti Factory. We’d walk down there on a Friday night as Sunset Boulevard began filling up with Friday night cruisers. We’d order extra bread and fill our pockets. You could live on bread back then. Bread and beer and weed. On the way home we’d stop on the Sunset Boulevard overpass and watch the Hollywood Freeway come to life, white lights coming at us, red lights disappearing around the Scientology Celebrity Center on their way to the Valley. Dusk fell and the city turned to blackness and light and the craziness of the 1980’s.

That Old Spaghetti Factory is gone now. Just a shell where a restaurant used to be. They had to leave it like that, a shell. Whoever bought it was not supposed to tear it down. Historical designation. Like that helped any. It looks like a monument to post-war Berlin, like a B-17 dropped a big bomb square on the thing and everyone inside eating spaghetti is in heaven now.

Musso and Frank, though, hasn’t changed. Not one whit. Not even the waiters. Certainly not the wallpaper. Or the menus. Or menu. What Charlie Chaplin once ate you can eat now. What Bogie once drank you can drink now. What Orson Welles once complained about you can complain about now. That’s what Musso and Frank is. Continuity. Between it and the Pantry you know what was then is still now, only a little more expensive. Continuity is a rare thing in this town. Studios hire editors to maintain continuity in their movies, so one scene looks like the next, the curtains, clothes, who’s holding what beer and with what hand. It’s all fake, of course. One scene was shot weeks after the one before it. But you can’t tell. It’s a nice trick. LA’s like that. Stuff looks like it’s always been here.  It hasn’t. That hospital was once a Norms. That public storage warehouse was once a silent movie studio. That school was where Robert Kennedy was shot. But you can’t tell. Continuity. That’s a take. Let’s break for lunch.

After Musso and Frank (they have valet parking now…that’s different) we wandered over to Hollywood Forever cemetery in the rain. Parked the car by Johnny Ramone’s grave with the big bronze Johnny Ramone on top. Kids kept coming up, carloads or straggling little groups. They looked up at Johnny and held back tears. We looked the other way. The Fairbanks are down there, Douglas senior and junior. Their crypt lies at the far end of a long reflecting pool, and everything is marble and perfect. A perfect pair of swans glided across the water, and the rain came down and the swans never noticed.

(2013)

 

This story can also be found on Brickspicks.com, along side all the cultural stuff I’ve written about.

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All out of vanilla Haagen-Dazs

(2010)

Was out  late last nite. Saw some great bands in a little Mexican dive in Lincoln Heights. I love the East Side. Silver Lake used to be East Side. Maybe not the tops of the Swish Alps, but in the lowlands, along the boulevards, and almost everything south of Sunset. It was Latino and gay and leather and punk rock and bohemian with traces of hippies and hints of jazz even, left over from the Soap Plant daze. Alas, Silver Lake is so Westside now. I remember years ago watching a blonde–one of those ultra blondes–walking down a nearby street with tits like grapefruit. Perfect orbs. You could teach geometry with those things. I stared a minute and thought Good Lord, what has become of my neighborhood? It wasn’t much later at the Mayfair (now Gelson’s) that a gorgeous power blonde–she had to be an attorney, just had to be–stormed up to the manager on perfect legs and screamed You’re all out of vanilla Haagen-Dazs! She was livid. Gave him hell, the poor bastard. He apologized. She said something wealthy and angry. My wife, watching, burst out loud laughing.

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This story can also be found on Brickspicks.com, with all my cultural stuff.

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Gnawa time

(2013)

I woke up this morning and immediately turned on the a/c. I can’t recall the last time I had to do that. Its hot! 

So posted my friend Hope. I envied her. Air conditioning. We’re in Silver Lake, in one of those California Spanish houses that Walter Neff in Double Indemnity said everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. Which would be about 1930, on the money for this place. It’s one of those pads people slow down to look at as they pass. We did. Came down our street once by mistake and turned around in the driveway. I remember saying to my wife that I wished we lived in a place like this instead of the cute but shaky bungalow we had off Sunset. We had earthquakes then, and the slightest temblor would wrack the joint and it would shudder and creak and let us know in no uncertain terms that the earth was shaking. We got used to it. But when a crackhouse opened up next door in what is now an overpriced if charming brownstone it was time to move. We couldn’t believe that the place we’d seen by mistake that day a year before was available. There had been a gang killing on the street a few months back, some innocent kid cut down, wrong place, wrong time, and that made prospective renters nervous. The landlord thought we were the nicest and sweetest married couple he’d ever seen. Gosh. I didn’t tell him about playing drums in punk rock bands. Said we hated parties. Swore we were virgins. Didn’t mention the cats. We got the place.

But this place is old school. In fact so old school that it doesn’t have the kind of windows you can put an air conditioner in. Not one. That’s old school. When Silver Lake grew from hunting lodges to rich people those rich people sweltered in front of metal fans. Raymond Chandler typed and drank and sweated over there on Micheltorena Hill. Air conditioning back then was the stuff of modern office buildings. Mulholland had an air conditioned office atop his big dam-shaped building downtown. Is the building designed to look like the San Francisquito dam? I’ve always wondered that, though no way to compare the two now. And the Bradbury Building you’ve all seen a zillion times without knowing it (though not Double Indemnity, unfortunately) was no doubt air conditioned back then. I worked there once, for a week. Worse job I ever had. When the secretary tells you on the first day that the problem with her boss is that she needs a good fuck and no one will ever give her one, you know it’s time to leave. I lasted a week. But I loved the building. I think that’s why I stuck it out a whole week. You can’t believe how ornate the place is, like walking around inside a baroque sculpture. You couldn’t help touching everything. And it was very air conditioned, unlike our place. But the Bradbury Building is in the middle of paved over everything downtown, the streets and walls and cars and buses and sweaty pedestrians all radiating heat, while we live on top of a hill, with breezes, even a zephyr or two, nearly all of the time. Plus  we have an ingeniously designed fan system, lots of fans, strategically placed. They suck out hot air and blow in cool air and swirl it around and all the calendars flap and papers are blown off the table and I stay up late writing and thinking and listening to strange African music in all that moving, flowing, billowing air. It works. Not as good as air conditioning. There’s nothing like being buried beneath the covers in a cold bedroom on a hot night. But sleeping in a continuous stream of air works too.

We moved in here on one of those hottest days in forever. We have two flights of stairs, but as I was much younger then and macho to the core, I had planned on doing it all myself. My wife hired a friend to help me, fifty bucks and beer. We tossed in a pizza and laughs. We have so much more stuff now that when we finally move we’ll probably just burn it all and pretend we lived in the hills and lost everything in a summer inferno. Easier that way. This being California I’ve met several people who’ve lost everything to the flames. They seem well adjusted enough. Of course summer infernos imply a dry wind, which would actually be nice right about now. I’d turn off the fans and open the windows and let it flow though the house. Sheets of paper would lift like little magic carpets and float about the room. The vase full of flowers would blow over. My wife would yell and pick up the flowers. I’d turn up the music and the strange sounds of Mauritanian guitar would bother the neighbors out on the sundeck next door and they’d wish I go back to jazz again. Wait till the weather breaks, I’d tell them, wait till it’s cool again. Right now it’s gnawa time. And the music drones and circles and I can’t understand a word but it blends with the wind and I disappear entirely.

No wonder I live here

(2012)

I have a hot Brazilian babe angry at me because I owe her some writing. This stuff didn’t happen before I became world famous and then world unfamous. There’s a price for fame and a price for unfame. Is there a happy medium? Maybe the psychic in El Sereno is a happy medium. Passed her office today. It was on Huntington Drive with a big evil eye painted on the window. Malocho. Huntington Drive must have the biggest parkway in the world. Enough once for two Red Lines. Now there’s a bike path and old men playing bocchi ball. Progress. We turned right for the hell of it because the street looked so steep. It curved and curved and wound and wound and turned to dirt and a dead end with a view you wouldn’t believe. We decided to get lost in Montecito Heights. We did, aimlessly, driving all around just looking and peering over edges. Gorgeous up there, abandoned in places, Appalachian. Down a bit the moneyed people show up. At the bottom was a house with huge metallic grasshoppers in the front yard. Art. Cool. Highland Park. Silver Lake used to be Highland Park, crazy, arty, weird, gay and dangerous. Now our Silver Lake neighborhood is very nice, very quiet chockfull of gorgeous, moneyed hipster chicks. I’m nearly 56 years old and grandfatherly. Oh the irony. Bored by our pleasant surroundings, we explore, like today. We wandered home from Highland Park down historic boulevards and up crazy backroads. Our secret way. L.A. is full of mysteries, lost continents, other dimensions, freaks. No wonder I live here.

Silver Lake adjacent

I see a Filipino has made it onto the FBI’s ten most wanted list. I believe that is a first. You know you have made it when one of your own makes it onto the ten most wanted list. For years it was all Irish and Italians. We knew we’d made it. Anyway, this guy committed a particularly heinous murder right in the neighborhood, just a couple miles away, on Virgil Avenue. South of Sunset, as they say. It’s actually smack dab in the middle of Virgil Village, but they’re calling it East Hollywood in the news stories. To be honest that stretch of Virgil is a lot closer to Silver Lake and is road dieted and everything, two big empty bike lanes just like in my part of Silver Lake, but it’s only Silver Lake adjacent when you are trying to sell a house or open a Vegan restaurant there. If it’s homicide, it’s East Hollywood. No need to drag the good name of Silver Lake into it. Anyway, the guy split for the Philippines where the new president will probably want to hang him. He was driving a BMW. That’s right, he drives a BMW and makes the Ten Most Wanted List. If that ain’t Silver Lake adjacent then nothing is. Astig!

Life on Mars

(2014)

There was a guy who lived next door way back when, a piano player. Heard him playing all the time, he was pretty good. Piano is a lonely life, and certainly was back then in the hard rocking nineties. Guitar players got the girls. He switched to guitar. He’d obviously never played before, and so began the painful process of becoming a rock star. The first thing he did was buy a full length mirror. You could look out our kitchen window and see it through his living room window. You’d be washing the dishes or getting a glass of water and look up and there he’d be checking himself out as he did his little solos. Every day in front of that mirror getting the fingering right and the look down. His favorite song was Life on Mars. In fact his only song was Life on Mars. He noodled through it slowly, cautiously, painfully, artlessly, over and over and over. It’s a god-awful small affair, he’d play, to the girl with the mousy hair. Da da da da da da da da, da da da da da da da da… I’d find my self singing along, slowly, Take a look at the lawman/Beating up the wrong guy/Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know/ He’s in the best-selling show/ Is there life on—and he’d hang there, and I’d count off eight, or twelve, or even sixteen–Mars?  One, twice, ten times, twenty times, an entire afternoon’s worth of Is there life on………… Mars?

It was enough to drive you mad.

This went on for weeks. Is there life on……………..Mars? Eventually he put together a little trio…a  bassist and a drummer in his living room. They weren’t loud. But they played Life on Mars over and over. They would all three come to a stop, wait, then Mars? They probably played other songs, but all I can remember is Life on Mars. They really worked on that one, he wanted to get it just right. It was their meal ticket. It would make them famous. They’d be stars. Is there life on………………………………. Mars? The women would swoon. It would be the freakiest show.

Then came the Northridge earthquake. It roared in from the Valley at four in the morning. The cats on our bed disappeared, the cat on the floor jumped up on the bed. For endless seconds the quake rocked us about, and just as it seemed like it would last forever it ended. All was silence aside from the chorus of car alarms. We got up to check on the damage. We walked about waving our flashlights but nothing was knocked over, nothing had fallen. We huddled in the dark, waiting for aftershocks and listening to panicky voices on the radio.

Dawn broke slowly, silently, still. Every few minutes the place would shake. The city was eerily silent. The occasional siren. The smell of distant smoke. Nervous dogs. The mockingbirds started up again. We had no water. No power. No Life on………………………….. Mars? Just wait till the power comes back on, my wife said. I stood at the kitchen sink looking out the window and listening. It was so hushed. The radio said there was destruction everywhere but you couldn’t tell from here. It all seemed the same. Like nothing had fallen down at all. But just then something caught my eye. Or didn’t catch my eye. Something that had been there wasn’t there. The mirror. The mirror was gone. The rock star mirror must have fallen down and shattered into a million pieces.

I never heard another note on the guitar come out of that apartment. Perhaps the earthquake had snapped its neck. Perhaps the falling mirror had busted it into chunks. Perhaps it was an omen. Or maybe playing guitar is no fun without a full length mirror. Whatever. We heard no more guitar. And no more Life on Mars.

After a week or so I heard him back on electric piano. He wasn’t a bad pianist. He’d do pop tunes, some standards, improvise a bit. He’d have no problem picking up lounge gigs. I always assumed that was how he paid his rent. And now, with guitar and mirror most emphatically gone, he went back to worrying about the rent. One night I heard him tinkling through New York, New York. Then through Feelings. He must have landed a new gig. It’s tunes like that that fill tip jars. Might even get a piano player laid.

I wondered about the passionate artist inside him, though. The one who saw the beauty in that endless delay in Life on………………………….. Mars? I admit I couldn’t see the beauty, nor could anyone else I knew who heard it. In fact, most people burst out laughing. Someone said it was like waiting for Jack Benny to say “Well!”, which of course only made it worse. I’d be hearing the guy playing Life on Mars and I’m visualizing Jack Benny being insulted by a chicken. Is there life on…………………… Well!  Still, though, I imagined our neighbor there, in the dark, his rock star career in pieces on the floor. It had been a fun dream while it lasted–he’d even had a girl in there a couple times while he had that mirror–but now he was back to the happy hour grind. All the songs that normal people want to hear when they’re drunk. I heard him going through the Billy Joel songbook one night.

Then one time, he was practicing again, running though the MOR hits and drinkers’ favorites. I heard the little flourish that opens New York, New York–dink dink dink da-dink, dink dink dink da-dink, dink dink dink da-dink, dum–and then he took the melody slow, sonorous, sad–start spreadin’ the news/ I’m leavin’ today–and maintained that tempo through the next two verses. His little town blues melted away very slowly, his brand new start of it took its sweet measured time. But he was just building us up for the signature. If I can make it there/ I’ll make it…..anywhere. Then again. If I can make it there/ I’ll make it………. anywhere. Again, a little longer. I’ll make it…………… anywhere. Finally I’ll make it………………….. anywhere.
 
We split town for a week right after that, and when we came back his place was empty. He’d moved out. I hoped to New York. He would have landed a gig, run through the Billy Joel songbook, a little Feelings, maybe I Write the Songs. Play that song about New York, New York someone says. And he would, his way, because if he can make it there, he’ll make it anywhere. Is there life on Mars?

Bandini Mountain

(2014)

There is a vast concrete plain where Bandini Mountain once stood. An awesome pile of dung a hundred feet high, it was the only topographic feature in all of Vernon and has disappeared into history. No more skiing down Bandini Mountain. No more nothing. Just wind and a big empty fertilizer factory and the ghosts of long dead commercials. Did Huell Howser ever ski down Bandini Mountain? He would have. Golly.

I remember driving by in a Santa Ana wind and not rolling up the car windows in time. Bandini Mountain was blowing west right through my car, covering me in a fine coat of fertilizer. What was in that stuff? I tried to think of it as dust, not cow shit. I had dust in my eyes. I was tasting dust. Brushed dust from my hair. Sweet smelling dust everywhere, on everything. A block or two down was row after row of rendering plants. Now that was an aroma. It annihilated all the sweet smelling Bandini Mountain molecules in the air, replaced them with the rankest smelling molecules ever. What nearby Farmer John didn’t turn into bologna wound up there, in great vats. I pictured hides and bones bubbling and fizzing and expelling great clouds of deadly fumes. The odor clung to you. The air along Bandini Boulevard was full of rendered pig and fertilizer. The exhaust of a zillion trucks. Burrito wagons too numerous to count. Cows.

Once in the middle of Vernon I saw a bull escape. An enormous longhorned beast. It made a mad dash from the cattle carrier into a parking lot. White coated workers backed away. The bull charged one way then another. The workers scattered. Another white coat showed up with an enormous hunting rifle, aimed it. The bull faced him dead on, snorting, magnificent, ready to charge. The light turned green and I moved on. I passed the place on the way back a few minutes later. The man with the rifle was still there, and the lifeless bull was scooped up by a skip loader. It lifted it up into the air, the head hanging limply, the massive horns harmless. It disappeared behind the gates. The light turned green and I drove on. Bandini Mountain loomed ahead. I rolled up the windows.

I tried to find a picture of Bandini Mountain. I couldn’t. I tried to find a Bandini Mountain commercial. I couldn’t. I googled Bandini Mountain. There’s was almost nothing there. Several sites even referred to it as apocryphal. Said it never was. But it was. I breathed it.