Sham 69

I saw Sham 69 at the Whiskey (the Dead Kennedys opened) back in 1979. Right there on the Sunset Strip. Great set. I loved Sham 69. Loved that first album. OK, it was dumb. Way dumb. The Ramones looked like intellectuals compared to Sham 69. What about the people who are lonely?/You don’t really give a shit/People that you never meet. It wasn’t exactly poetry. It was oi. Oi! None of us Californians had ever even heard somebody say oi! before punk rock. Now snot nosed rich punks from Pacific Palisades would say oi! Oi? Yeah, oi! It was a very deep time. The hippies had Dylan. The Beats had Ginsberg. And punks had oi. Well not all punks. Just the less coherent ones. Swilling beers and yelling oi! They don’t say it now, though, they are lawyers. But this was 1979, and they were all here at the Whiskey for Sham 69. Though criminal as they tried desperately to look, none of them stole the microphone when Jimmy Pursey, the singer, stuck the microphone in the audience for the sing along. A bit of English football camaraderie, that. If the Kids are United we all chanted, they shall never be united. Deep stuff. Rhymed even. To this day when I hear that ferocious guitar riff I can’t help singing along, me, a very late middle aged jazz critic, singing if the kids are united, they can never be divided.

Sham 69 did White Riot in their encore, too, the Clash song. Jimmy Pursey stuck the microphone into the crowd again and the kids all sang I wanna riot, a riot of my own! They repeated it. Repeated it again. And started to repeat it one more time when the microphone cut out. Jimmy pulled the microphoneless cord back from the crowd and shrugged. They’ve stolen the microphone a stage hand yelled. The band roared on, Jimmy grabbed another mic and finished the tune. The audience was mad with testosterone, swirling, bouncing, pushing and shoving. It was a moment of punk rock heaven. Meanwhile the stage was flooded by stage hands and sound men and bouncers peering into the boiling mass, looking for the culprit. No one leaves till we get the microphone back someone announced over the PA.

Let me explain. I was in a punk rock band then, the drummer, and we had drums and guitars and amplifiers and even an avocado ranch to practice at. But we didn’t have a microphone. Our singer had to scream bloody murder to be heard above our proto hardcore din. Suddenly right there in front of me was this beautiful, state of the art, zillion dollar microphone. Being a drummer, I didn’t make the connection between it and us, but my guitar player–who shall remain nameless, as he has three beautiful daughters and a grandchild–did. Take the mic, he yelled into my ear. What? Take the mic! Steal the mic! We need a mic! So I stole it. It took a tug or two but it came off the cord. I stood there in the packed crowd, staring at it. Hide it! my guitar player yelled. Hide the mic! Stick it in your pants! So I did, hoping it would pass for a rather impressive hard on.

A small army of bouncers began moving through the crowd. Big dudes, muscular, mean. The sound man announced that someone had stolen the microphone and no one was going to leave till it was returned. They began patting people down on the floor. We better return the mic I said, stupidly. My guitar rolled his eyes. Then they’ll know that you stole it, he said. It dawned on me that it was actually me who had stolen it, and it was in my pants, feigning manhood. I must have looked panicky. Drop it on the floor, my guitar player said, and we’ll tell them we found it. So I retrieved it from my pants and dropped it on the floor. He picked it up and yelled Hey! We found it! We found it! He held the microphone aloft for all to see. Several bouncers rushed over. He found it, one said. He found it said another. My guitar player said and since we found it for you can we go backstage and meet the band? The bouncers rolled their eyes. C’mon, we found this expensive microphone for you! He whined like that for thirty seconds. OK, alright, let them backstage for a minute. And lucky felons that we were, we were led through the mass of sweating kids, past several other bouncers and either up or down some ancient stair to the backstage area.

It wasn’t what I expected. No lush chairs. No cocaine on mahogany tables. No greenless M&Ms. And the girls appeared perfectly nice and fully clad. Someone with an English accent said these guys found the microphone and want to meet the band. The girls rolled their eyes prettily. We were led into another room and there, exhausted, was Sham 69. Oh my god, real rock stars. It was like meeting the Rolling Stones in 1965, if the Rolling Stones were midgets. Because Sham 69 were dinky, like five foot tall. Well, five foot four maybe. We towered over them. I remember them peering up through exhausted eyes. Back home guys our size were always trouble, the toughest football hooligans. Here we were just kleptomaniac punk rockers. I shook Jimmy Pursey’s hand. You were great, I said, with genuine originality. Fanks, he said.

Their manager ushered us out again. C’mon now, the lads have another set to do. Back up (or down) the stairs we went, thanking the bouncers profusely. They thanked us for finding the microphone. You guys really helped us out, they said. Most people would have tried to steal it. I still feel a tinge rotten about that. Then they let us out a back door and into the December night, where the punks were chucking beers at passing cars.

Meanwhile a buddy of mine I didn’t know yet mouthed off to the bouncer at the door when they tried to search him for the microphone. I don’t have your fucking mic he said and got worked over good. Beat up by bouncers at the Whiskey for being such a punk. He told me this twenty years later and I laughed it was so funny but I bought him a beer for his pain. When he reads this I’ll have to buy him a whole six pack.

sham 69 buttons

(And I don’t want to use without permission, but there is a great live shot of Sham 69 at the Whiskey by the Jenny Lens here.)

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

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.



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

Life on Mars


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?

Dick Haymes


Dick Haymes came up today online. Some friends were discussing their favorite singers of the crooner age, Frank Sinatra and all that, but it was Dick Haymes that got the exchange going. How he replaced Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey’s band, and what a superb singer he was, and how those were different times. And they were. People don’t really sing like that anymore. The jazz singers are much more jazz, everyone else has a lot more blues and rock and soul in there, and it’s all much more syncopated than it was back then. Sometimes in those days a band could play so softly, and a crooner croon so mellow, that you could hear the dancers’ shoes slide on the floor. Then the band would belt it out on some hard swinging number. That we can appreciate now, the wailing swing…but it’s the pianissimo passages that are so alien now. Crooning doesn’t stir the kids today. Nor in my day. Blame it on Elvis. Blame it on Basie. Blame it in the thrill of driving a big powerful automobile really fast. Those were different times. The world was at war, hell bent on self-destruction, and people needed to be crooned to. Dick Haymes was one of those who crooned to them, one of the best.

But Dick Haymes always reminds me of a strange little jazz party in Beverly Hills. Right downtown, in fact, with Rodeo Drive a block away and city hall a few doors down. The apartment–yes, a jazz jam in a Beverly Hills apartment building–was packed with people and instruments, lots of food, too much liquor. Med Flory was there with his alto, and Barry Zweig showed up and played. There was a very dapper elderly gentleman there, a retired network executive right down to his grey suit and perfectly shined shoes, and I wound up sitting next to him. He requested the band play a Dick Haymes tune. Med laughed. Dick Haymes? Who? And he blew a frenzied chorus of Ornithology. The man requested Dick Haymes again. Med ignored him, and there were no singers, anyway, and even if there had been none of them could have sung a Dick Haymes song. So as the band argued over the next tune the old man stood up and sang “Laura”. Just a verse or two. His voice was surprisingly deep and full. But the words escaped him and he looked a little bewildered and sat back down. Then he turned to me and began telling me his Dick Haymes stories.  A few minutes later he told me the same stories. Then the same stories again. Alzheimer’s. But I listened each time like I’d never heard them before, because they were good stories–concerts he’d seen in the war days, or after the war, in posh Manhattan clubs, or the times he met him, though sometimes I wasn’t actually sure if he’d met him at all. This went on all night, between blasts of bebop, he’d come up and tell me about Dick Haymes, and each time with a genuine intensity, a youthful ardor that was stirred up after half a century. Dick Haymes is pretty well forgotten now except by swing buffs and music historians. But that day I got a glimpse into the connection he made with his young fans way back in the day. It was vivid, passionate and, like all teenaged fandom, maybe a tad ridiculous. It was unfiltered by mature, adult and slightly cynical wisdom. That’s the thing about Alzheimer’s, it loosens memories from the perspective of time, and that old man was right there at the Palladium again listening to Dick Haymes, seeing him, maybe he was even back there and not in a living room in Beverly Hills, and the orchestra played the arrangements flawlessly and the girls swooned. After a while his son came by to take him home. The old man gave me a firm handshake and looked me right in the eye, though I don’t know if he remembered me, and walked slowly out the door humming “Laura”.

Sweeping up the scraps

The tow guy hauled our shattered Buick away at 7:45 this morning and I was out in the street sweeping up the scraps and sparkly tail lamp bits that were revealed in the now empty spot. For some reason that seemed important. Apparently I am gentrifying. I was done by 8 am and soaking in sweat, which I took to be a bad omen for the day to come. I guess this heat spell isn’t over. It’s like Milwaukee in the summer, but without the beer and brats and polkas. I used to hear polkas in Silverlake, rancheras blaring from tinny radios at all hours, Mex 2 the Max, tri-colored accordions and huge hats. Whatever happened to Patricia Lopez anyway? I loved that show, back when you could buy elotes and tamales right on Sunset Boulevard for a dollar, right there in the heart of Silver Lake, and wash them down with cheap beer and when the earthquake struck at seven in the morning, toppling chimneys and dishes, the residents of the tenement across the street poured into the street with cries of ¡Terremoto! ¡Terremoto! They wouldn’t go back inside for days, sleeping on the sidewalk, memories of Mexico City falling down around them only a year or so before. But the building didn’t fall down, and they finally went back in, but are all gone again. The place is all prettied up now and pricey and full of screenwriters and actors and other desperate wannabes, as no doubt it had been once many decades before when Raymond Chandler lived a couple blocks away and noir was new. I wonder if the tenants know a whole era that came and went in their very pads only a generation before, and that the little park where they buy the expensive produce on Farmer’s Market day was once a tragic scene, the homesick waiter from the Mexican restaurant on the corner polishing off a bottle of tequila there on the park bench, and the liquor took him into a deep sleep and he slid off the bench and broke his neck without ever waking up. I think of him every time I pass that little park, and I never even knew who he was.

An Irish lullaby

(St. Patrick’s Day, 2012)

I was watching Going My Way on TCM for the first time in ages a couple nights ago. It’s about as Irish as it gets…Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. It so reminds me of my mom’s side, my grandfather, the whole bit. We were raised on that side. My pop was German, raised fiercely Lutheran and German speaking. Kein englisch in diesem Haus.  Immer deutsch. Even though that house was in Flint, Michigan. Catholics were verboten, too. The Thirty Years War was still being fought in those days in some places. Every German Lutheran Church was a battlefield, a besieged city.  As if the America all around it didn’t exist.

My Dad, though, met my Mom. It was at a party at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey; he had a new blue Buick. She had blue eyes, a hint of a brogue and was lovely and Irish Catholic to her very bones. The laugh, the temper, the father who drank a wee bit. Old Germans had listened to Hitler on the shortwave, while the old Irish boys hung out in bars and sang. Can’t you meet a nice Irish boy? her father grumbled. But he didn’t mean it. They never did. Didn’t even mind that Dad wasn’t Catholic. The kids were going to be going to Mass, don’t you worry Pop. They’d all be confirmed by a priest. He drank port to that and sang and a little bit of heaven fell out the sky that day. So my folks were married. In Ankara, Turkey. And then Istanbul. It’s complicated. NATO and all that. But they found a priest somewhere over there and the neighbors threw them a big wedding party. Dad had a zillion photos of it, racked up in slides. A local Roman Catholic priest pronounced them man and wife. Martin Luther spun in his grave. A black lamb was slaughtered, as if it were still ancient Greece. The blood was vivid red in the photo. Dad said some of the kids got the eyeballs. It’s a delicacy. All us kids went ewwww. Mom just winced. That poor thing, she said. The poor little lamb. The party went on for days, everyone in the village was there, plus some. Hundreds of people. Those were the days. They thought they’d never end.

Fifty some years later Dad was long dead (and died Catholic, and got a wake), and all of us were hanging out with Mom. We’d driven out to Arizona to see her. The nuns had said if we want to see her one last time we’d better get there as fast as possible. We left at four or five in the morning, driving across the Mojave as the sun was rising over it. Desert dawns are the most beautiful things you can ever see. Pastels and shadows. Birds. A zillion butterflies. Rocks in crazy piles and jagged mountains promising no water at all. Buzzards smell sweet death in the air.

The party began as soon as we got there. Five of the six siblings, a couple wives, an energetic swarm of grandsons. Plus dogs, birds, turtles, fish and a cat. The piano was played, some guitars, a saxophone, whatever made or tried to make music. We talked and talked and talked. The food was endless. We joked and talked and ate and Mom, riddled with bone cancer, talked and joke and even ate. Her imminent death was just a given, something to be discussed, even kidded about. It was normal. Sad but normal. The order of things. Not much you can do about it she told me. And laughed. Her kids were there, their kids were there, there could not be a better way to go. At one point the priest came by and all became solemn as he delivered Last Rites. We all stood around her bed. The ceremony was ancient and beautiful. Two thousand years of beauty. You could see the worry released in her face. Afterword he switched to his civvies and joined the party. Everyone talking, looking in on Mom, letting her sleep. Eventually it broke up. Mom was awake. I said so long, we’ll see you tomorrow, and kissed her on the forehead. She smiled.

She died the next morning. My brother Jon was in the room with her, playing Mozart on the piano. She slept uneasily. Mumbled about home. Home, home, home. Then she let out a little gasp, breathed hard for a minute, and was gone.

The wake began immediately, just a small wake, her kids, her brother, the wives and grandsons and nephews. It was sad, but it was nice. We had the bigger, boozy wake later, after the interment. This was just the family hanging out. The priest came by. The sisters. She just decided it was the time to go, one of the sisters told me. She worked in a hospice. We thought your mother would hang on for weeks, she said, a slow horrible bone cancer death. But she decided it was time, with all of you out here. She smiled at the thought. That’s the way it should be. I nodded.

So now it’s a couple years later and I’m watching Going My Way. At one point Bing, the young priest, is trying to get Barry Fitzgerald, the ornery old priest, to fall asleep for chrissakes. So he sings the old Irish lullaby “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral.” Some of my earliest memories are of my mother singing me off to sleep with it. The melody sways in the breeze, the words loll, and sometimes it sounds like the most beautiful tune you ever heard.

And it took me back to the morning Mom had died. She was still in the bed, looking peacefully asleep. We had each of us slipped in alone throughout the morning to bid her farewell. No one made a big deal about it, we’d sort of break off from the chatter and walk in for a few minutes. At some time that morning I entered and there she was sleeping, looking beautiful. Just like you want the dead to look, just how we want ourselves to look. I gazed at her a minute, and began singing “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” in a hushed voice, so as not to wake her. Just a couple choruses. Then I said Goodbye, Mom, kissed her forehead one last time and stepped out again to join the living.

Bandini Mountain


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.

Mr. Coffee


I cannot remember the last time I used a typewriter. 20 years ago? And a manual typewriter? 35 years ago? An adding machine…. I don’t remember. Decades and decades ago. I remember seeing slide rules in high school. They were beyond me. I learned to use the abacus in Maine in the 3rd grade……

Then there’s Polaroid cameras…that was wild. Going to Disneyland with a Polaroid camera. Everyone smile and there you are with Mickey. Magic.

We used to watch home movies at home a lot. Even better we looked at slides. Dad had boxes and boxes of slides. Dad would put up the movie screen, the light would go out and we’d all sit around the living room and watched slide after slide. The slide projector would whir and click and Niagara Falls. Whir, click Niagara Falls again. Whir, click and Dad pretending he’s falling into Niagara Falls. We loved it. I imagine there was popcorn and soda. We were a big family and that was cheap entertainment. There was a big chair I liked. I’d settle into it, curl up, and we’d eat popcorn and watch slides for hours. Wherever we were living at the time. Orange County, Tacoma, Maine, San Diego,Virginia, Maryland, or maybe a motel in Amarillo with the roads to icy to drive on—there’d be slides, whir, click, Niagara Falls.

I’ll have to start looking through our photo albums again. They’re very late 70’s, and all through the 80’s and most of the 90’s. Maybe a bit beyond. We threw a lot parties. There’ll be a TV and no VCR, there’ll be records spinning and no CD’s;  there’ll be piles of cassettes and a ghetto blaster. We’d be heating up party snacks in a little oven and not the microwave (talk about revolutionary…an old technology that suddenly became essential.) Maybe one of those ghastly coffee pots….though I liked the percolating sounds. Our last one died, thank god, so we got a Mr. Coffee in the 80’s. It died the same night as Joe DiMaggio. Joe was always on TV somewhere, sixty seconds of him and Mr. Coffee. He was to Mr. Coffee what Mrs. Olson was to Folgers. Then the late news said Joltin’ Joe was dead and next morning my Mr. Coffee wasn’t working. It was still and cold. I jiggled the on off button and waited. Nothing. I unplugged and replugged it. Nothing. I checked the outlet.  It was fine. Mr. Coffee was dead. It was my favorite coincidence ever.

The Irish, you know, anthropomorphize their machines. I’ve argued with tea kettles all my life, like my mom did, and my grandmother. I talk to my coffee maker. Talk to all kinds of inanimate things, like they could talk back. I thought everybody did this till my wife caught me bickering with the tea kettle. She looked at me like I was nuts. I had no idea she didn’t talk to tea kettles. She thought the whole notion was so stupid. I said, umm, it’s an old Irish thing. She said sure. I hate it when she says sure. There is something humiliating about being called irrational by a Sioux Indian. You guys with your dream catchers? And talking to a tea kettle is stupid? I didn’t say that of course. But when she walked out of the kitchen I gave the tea kettle a quick shake and it whistled in protest. Don’t listen to her I said.

Anyway, Mr. Coffee’s were gloriously noisy things, they grumbled and groaned, they had a personality. So when our Mr. Coffee died brokenhearted after hearing about Joe, well, it was very sad. I felt sad throwing it into the recycle bin. I’m sure I didn’t throw it at all, but dropped it carefully. I had to fight the urge to keep it. It still makes me sad to think about the poor thing.

My mother would understand.

Joltin’ Joe brewing joe.

No one remembers dead trees


I remember when we first moved here in 1980 I had a temp job in Beverly Hills and would commute there from East Hollywood down Santa Monica Blvd because I didn’t know any better. It was a pretty homely drive east of Vine St., dull, commercial, beat up, old hotels and ugly sixties apartments. But then there was this stretch where Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery, beautifully and respectfully maintained) came right to the street, where tall, lithe palm trees, maybe two dozen of them, had been planted decades before in the lush green parkway that ran along the Boulevard. It was the loveliest sight, the lone and level ugliness of 1970’s Hollywood dispelled by these two city blocks of graceful, towering palm trees. They were magical. They were perfect. They were once what this town was. I loved those trees. I wish I could find a photograph of them. I couldn’t. No one remembers dead trees.

Then just like that, they were gone. It was a five day orgy of destruction. Hacked down, the stumps yanked out–I watched that, like pulling teeth–and bulldozers brought in and the lawn and top soil stripped away till only a hideous gash remained. One long graceful stretch of old Hollywood, trees that had shielded Valentino’s mourners and thrown stark shadows across Harry Cohn, trees now ripped out and tossed away. In their place was erected the ugliest strip mall I have ever seen, a sin against everything good. It remains, thriving. The workers in the shops make money, they’re good people. It’s likely none of them have a clue about what stood there before, the shade, the lush grass, the fronds waving in the hot autumn winds, shaken loose, dropping to the ground with a satisfying crunch, as unique as an L.A. sound as any. Back east the maples, alders, chestnuts and scattered elms drop leaves silently which flutter harmlessly to the ground. Palm trees shed theirs with a purpose, and you jump out of the way, just not on Santa Monica Boulevard between Gower and Van Ness.

I remember driving home Friday afternoon of that week and stopping at the light. The trees were completely gone by that point. The sun bore down unbroken by their shadows. The birds were silent, gone. The parkway was an obscene strip of bare earth. Behind the wall, in the cemetery, the dead lay unaware. Out here, on the street, I thought goddamn this town is rough. It saves nothing. It eats its history for breakfast. Perhaps it was an omen. The eighties were upon us, in all their meanness, poverty, cruelty and death.

Box of wedding stuff


Found a box way up on the closet shelf.  Our wedding stuff. A third of a century old. Like a freaking time capsule. My my how thin I was in the pictures. And young. And dashing. And unwrinkled, my still thin wife helpfully points out. And tall, I add, being that I still am and will be forever. Infrastructure, ya know. Some things don’t change.

November 29th, 1980. I don’t remember much of that day. The weather was a perfect southern California late autumn day. A flawless blue sky.  People come out to California on days like this and never go back. And I remember my brother’s punk rock friends, one of whom, all leather and spikes, knelt like a knight of old and kissed the bride’s hand. I remember my Dad being so nervous he Cecil Taylor’d the Wedding March. And how everyone was so poor then, back in 1980, after the endless recession of the seventies. So we were married at my folks’ house and the ceremony was sweet and the feast home-made and wonderful and my other brother’s band played Beatles songs out on the patio.  Continue reading