Once a nephew of mine wanted to see Hollywood. 1980, I think. Maybe ‘81. We had gone three blocks from home when a beautiful cobalt blue low rider completely tricked out—pipe organ speakers and everything—came rolling down Western from Hollywood Blvd, ran the light, jumped the curb and slammed into a lamp post. The body of the driver was slumped over the little chain steering wheel and you could clearly see the knife in his back. We all stared in disbelief. Well, you wanted to see Hollywood, I said. Cool, he said.
We’ve been four decades now in what are essentially the eastern suburbs of Hollywood. First couple places were in East Hollywood, which is sort of Hollywood’s Brooklyn (I’d say Queens but that’s West Hollywood). In fact East Hollywood was its own incorporated village separated from Hollywood by farmland until it was incorporated into the city of Los Angeles I believe in the early 1910’s. Not that the city fathers had a choice if they wanted water. They lost their independence but they got their water, enough that by the 1920’s in a building boom that would give today’s anti-growth people a seizure the once sleepy village of East Hollywood metastasized into instantaneous suburban sprawl, home to all the low level studio hands and movie proles. There are photos from the top of Barnsdall Hill twenty years apart that are mind blowing: the first an agricultural idyll, something out of Ancient Greece, all groves and fields of grain and vineyards stitching to the horizon; the second, twenty years later, crowded wall to wall with cheap construction and looking basically like it looks today, except for the Home Depot. Hence all the now charming but then just quick and cheap to build bungalows (many still with the original Murphy beds that wake entire neighborhoods with violent skronks and squeaks when fucked in). In the century that followed East Hollywood never has upscaled. Downscaled quite a bit for a spell. We saw that. Sleazebags haggling over a ten dollar blow jobs in the 7-11 parking lot. Ten dollars with no rubber the john said. A minute later he realized he’d been had. They were still arguing as we drove off and a police cruiser pulled in.
So we moved a mile east into one of the tonier and older Hollywood suburbs, Silverlake, though off Sunset amid the bohos and gays and working class, hundreds of feet below the rich folks up the hill. It was a wonderful spot, we loved it. We had loud parties every weekend, and otherwise listened to obnoxious music and screwed to all hours and the neighbors must have hated us. I’d hate us. But crime oozed east from Hollywood in the early 90’s—a crackhouse three doors down, heroin three doors up—so we fled another mile east to the very edge of the Hollywood suburbs on a ridge overlooking—gasp!—the Valley, tho’ Atwater residents refuse to acknowledge that fact, freed as they are from the SFV’s rigid street grid. But up here in our Silverlake aerie we know better—it gets hot as fuck down there on the wrong side of the 5. Plus they can smell the River.
I appear to have digressed from whatever stream of consciousness I’d been in. Whatever, this eddy might be just the place to mention that that heroin house just sold for a million bucks. The rents in the crackhouse are now twice what we’re paying in our hilltop pad. Progress. Anyway, back into the current:
It’s funny to remember that when I was in second grade I began school in San Diego, then Anaheim, then Tacoma, then Anaheim again, then finished on an island off the coast of Maine. That was what, five thousand miles in one year? In 39 years we have moved all of maybe two miles. Same goddamn phone number even. Same stores and streets and stories. Some of the same friends. Virtually my entire adult life and all of my married life in less than two square miles here on Hollywood’s eastside. Hollywood. All our streets run east-west through Hollywood. Our bus lines. Our consciousness. Downtown LA is still alien and exotic and exciting to me, and I worked there for years, in who knows how many of those skyscrapers. Yet Hollywood Blvd, in our downtown, while infinitely stranger than downtown LA somehow feels normal. It’s fucked up that something that bizarre could feel normal, I know, but I’ve been seeing it for four decades. It gets into your DNA, as the hackneyed and scientifically nonsensical meme goes. But it does. I got the shit kicked out of me by cops in the Hollywood jail even. I’ve earned this feeling of being at home in this crazy place. I’ve never even considered myself an Angeleno, not really. I live in Hollyweird.
I’ve lived in Hollywood/Silverlake for almost forty years. Movie industry everywhere. Yet once again a famous actor dies I have never heard of. I look at his IMDB filmography. I recognize the title of dozens of the movies he’s been in, some of which even deserve that dreadful appellation iconic. I have seen exactly one of those movies. One. Apollo 13, on cable, many years ago. If anyone wanted proof of multiple universes in the same space at the same time, I am apparently in one, Hollywood is in the other, and neither of us is aware of the other, though my universe would be much, much smaller. Way smaller. We’re talking Whoville. This would also explain how I once spent a good fifteen minutes standing next to Tony Curtis, looking right at him, and having no idea who he was. He was in the vast Hollywood universe. I was drifting by in my tiny little one. We were probably both staring at the same chick, our dimensions crossing on hers. I was twenty something. He was a dirty old man. We didn’t have those in my universe, not yet anyway.
The universes do come together occasionally, though, in those weird times where people insist I am somebody and demand an autograph. There must be somebody just like me in Hollywood. Big and tall and hulking. He’s been in all these movies or was it TV shows, it’s on the tips of their tongues. Then the people leave me alone and the universes part again.
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.
More memories from Spike. He’s now living the life of a retired insurance executive down in the tropics. We could sit over beers with Spike down at his perfect émigré abode in Mérida, ruins of ancient civilizations all around, and discuss old times. Un otra Pacifico por favor. A bowl of chops and guacamole, the sauce is very hot. The fan would spin slowly overhead and flies would buzz and we’d sip the ice cold beer and remember old times, laughing. Until then, though, he’s in Mérida and we’re still in LA and we chatter away over Facebook. He posts photos–I can’t believe all these photos–from thirty some years ago and brings back memories. We reminisce, combing the memories, teasing a narrative out of them. It’s a ball. Good times. Bad times, too, but they turn into good times with time. Younger days, crazy times. He digs up an account of a notorious party, only twenty seven words, and a whole universe comes rushing back, the feel of it, the sounds, sights, smells (cheap pot and poppers, mostly), the raw creativity of it all, in everything we did….
We missed the fight–and the gig–because the little security guard out front wouldn’t let us in. This was Melrose and Western on the fringes of Hollywood in the bad ol’ daze where big scary drag queens hung out and mugged people and the security guard took one look at my big combat booted punk rock hulkingness and my wife’s fearless insults and death stares (not to mention all the beer we were carrying) and he hid behind the gate and wouldn’t let us in. No come in! No come in! There was a lot of commotion inside, feedback, laughter, shouting. Some sort of punk rock catharsis and there we were, out on the sidewalk. We’re invited we said. No come in! No come in! Go get Spike, he’ll let us in! But Spike wasn’t in condition to let anybody in. Spike was bleeding. Not that we knew that at the time. We just thought it was a helluva party. Feedback, shouting, laughter and curses meant good times back then. Go get Spike! No come in, he said. We gave up. I’m sure we were very nice about it. The next day we heard the eyewitness account from Chuck and Ellen. Ellen laughed her famous laugh. Some crazy chick had sucker punched Spike. Blood everywhere. Never did find out why. Did there have to be a reason? When we read Craig Lee’s blurb in the LA Weekly–it’s probably in our scrapbook–we probably said more nice things about the security guard. People said World Zero was good. Said you guys missed a good one. Don’t blame us, we said, we were outside with the beer. Well, you’ll see them next time. Big things were portended. Post-punk. New Romantic? No, post-punk. I was relieved. I loved post-punk, not much into New-Ro (or was it Nu-Ro?). Besides I couldn’t imagine Spike doing anything that wasn’t intense. I remember him in Publik Enema in ’78 or ’79. He blew my mind. I’d never seen a singer like that. Or a band like that. That band helped change everything I thought about rock’n’roll at the time. Like how you could completely reinvent it, and scare people, and blow their minds. At the time there seemed nothing more important. I doubt Spike even realizes the impact he had on me. So I couldn’t wait to see World Zero. Alas, somehow I never did see them. In fact, I had gotten it in my head that they had never played another gig. That there was some spectacular blow up at the party, Spike getting punched out, the band imploding. One of those bands that played one gig and broke up and we still talk about them thirty years later. Actually, World Zero were around a year and recorded a demo and everything. Seems I had gotten World Zero confused with a band with another band with Spike, one that I was in. Think we were called Worm Farmer, though I have no idea where that name came from. We practiced intensely for a gig up in Santa Barbara we weren’t even on. The Goleta Valley Community Center. Every punk on the central coast was there, misbehaving. Someone snuck us on the stage. Spike never showed up. Well, he had, but he and I had stood on the steps earlier screaming at each other–who knows why–and he stormed off into the night. We played anyway. It went well, no one got punched out or anything, no blood, but we never played another one.
We still talk about that gig thirty years later, too. I was in bands in my thirties and even forties that played lots of gigs but didn’t have the same impact on me. I suppose life is much more intense in your twenties. Things are more vivid, they mean more. Everything is new. Thirty years on, we’ve seen it all before. Even if we haven’t it seems like we have. Even writing something like this, I swear I’d written it before. Maybe I did, once, in my head. Or maybe in a scrap of a letter I never sent. Probably not, though. The brain is just so used to hearing the same damn stories over and over it just assumes I’m repeating myself. It probably just reflects the ennui all about us. Just look around you. These are jaded days. Textured. Emotionally distant. Art is all concept, writing is sucked dry by irony, music is trapped in genres. Back then, though, those were different times. The poets, they acted weird as fuck, and the ladies, they made them cry.
We go to the Rock’n’roll Ralphs for the thrill.
We have our own Ralphs here in Silver Lake, but it’s all normal now. Silver Lake is all normal now, Silver Lake used to be Silverlake and edgy and new and leathery gay but that’s long gone, gone with the punks and the freaks and the vatos. It’s all rich people and hipsters with kids and beautiful single women. Ours is a nice Ralphs. There’s a couple Ralphs across the river in Glendale…there’s an Armenian Ralphs and an upscale Ralphs and between them an eerie underground Ralphs that always make me think of Beneath then Planet of the Apes. You enter the parking lot above ground and way in the corner there’s a winding driveway that leads you into the Stygian darkness below. Inside, though, it’s just a regular Ralphs.
But Rock’n’roll Ralphs is special. We always park on the roof and take the elevator down. That’s fun. Our Ralphs doesn’t have an elevator. And our Ralphs doesn’t have all these people either, these Hollywood types, who can’t even roll a shopping cart down a grocery aisle without looking like they’re trying to hustle something. There’s a lot of rock’n’roll types, hardened roadie looking guys with too much thinning hair and baskets full of beer and TV dinners. There’s Hollywood lifers, people who have obviously lived in Hollyweird their whole lives and have that sort of otherworldly jadedness that comes from too many nights and not enough days. There’s wackos that talk to themselves or each other and you think they might smell funny but they don’t really. There’s gorgeous starlets buying healthy little things and a bottle of white wine. There’s children with dad for the weekend picking things mom never lets them have. And there are celebrities who slip in underdressed and un-made up and try to pass as just another extra. Which works with me, as I can’t tell a celebrity from a ham sandwich.
This was Oscar nite, too, and just a couple blocks down the street from Rock’n’roll Ralphs the street was full of ham sandwiches. They come in big limousines and wave at the crowds and a zillion cameras flash. The women shimmer and the men don’t shave. I don’t know who almost any of them are, but the crowd does, and they ooh and ahh and scream and yell and hold on tightly to their autograph books. They take pictures from afar with their cell phones and post them on their Facebook pages. They cram together on the sidewalk, stomping all over stars of people who probably once walked that red carpet. Billy Barty’s there, and Valerie Bertinelli and Bing Crosby and Dane Clark whose face you’d recognize even if you can’t place the name. The Doors are there, and the Carpenters, and Zsa Zsa and Jean Harlow and Godzilla. This scene was made for Godzilla. This scene was made for Nathaniel West. He set the final act of the Day of the Locust right here, in front of Grauman’s, where the mob got ugly and out of hand and deadly. Not now. The fans are well behaved. No one gets drunk. No one gets tased. The stars wave, and the people wave back.
I did see a genuine Day of the Locust out there once. In this very place. We had just turned left off Orange onto Hollywood Blvd and into a phalanx of slow moving squad cars, lights flashing and utterly silent. They followed the saddest little Toyota you ever saw, running on fumes and four flat tires. The car rolled to a stop right there in front of the Chinese theater. It was the middle of summer and there were a zillion tourists and they couldn’t believe their luck. The line of cops couldn’t hold them back and they poured into the street like ants. The lady got out of the car exhausted and broken and laid down on the pavement as ordered. The cops rushed in and cuffed her before the crowd could get to her. They stuffed her into the back of a patrol car and took off. The remaining cops tried vainly to clear the street. Last thing I saw was Granny posing in front of the dead car. We headed east down Hollywood Boulevard, away from the crowds of tourists, till only locals walked the sidewalks and winos begged for change.
But that was then. The now was inside this Rock’n’roll Ralphs. I wheeled the cart up and down the aisles people-watching as my wife shopped. There were none of the glamorous starlets…they were all at Somebody’s watching the Oscars and dreaming and sniping. In fact there weren’t many movie looking people at all…this was the rock’n’roll side of Rock’n’roll Ralphs. These people didn’t go to Grammy parties, they worked them. They might look like hell here, rumpled and unshaven, but give then twenty minutes and they’re the sharpest bar tender you ever saw, smiling and cracking wise, shaking, not stirring, raking in big tips. I know this because there on the frozen food aisle two scruffy dudes were perusing the pizzas while their even scruffier buddy stared at his iPhone. Hey check this out, he said, they want me to tend bar at Seth McFarlane’s Oscar party. His friends hmmphed a cool, you like pepperoni or cheese? I knew right then that Seth McFarlane’s Oscar party was a big deal. No one would hmmmph a cool at something insignificant, not at Rock’n’roll Ralphs. Their mumbled cools said volumes. It meant movie stars, big tips, maybe even getting laid. Or an audition. Or both. It didn’t mean a score necessarily, but it did mean the possibility of a score, which is what the Hollywood hustle is all about. The score, the gig, a step up. It meant his buddies would be at home eating pizza and watching the Oscars while he was getting hit on by you’ll never believe who. It was a Hollywood moment, an Oscar moment, right there in the frozen food aisle at the Rock’n’roll Ralphs. This doesn’t happen at the Silver Lake Ralphs. It doesn’t happen at the underground Ralphs. It certainly doesn’t happen at a Von’s.
Not that I had a clue who Seth McFarlane was. No idea. A ham sandwich maybe. Somebody who scored. Someone who wasn’t tooling around a Ralphs on Oscar night like it was Disneyland. Today I find out he was the man. He hosted the damn thing. Some people liked him. Some hated him. Whatever. I imagine it was a hell of a party, crawling with ham sandwiches. And George Clooney. And Meryl Streep. No ham sandwich she.
Went to Musso and Frank’s 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 ex’s, 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’s. 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. The world was going to end any minute.
Sometimes for dinner we’d scrape enough together for 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.
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 Franks, though, hasn’t changed. Not one whit. Not even the waiters. Certainly not the wallpaper. Or the menus. Or menu. What Charlie Chaplain 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’s 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, whose 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 Franks (they have valet parking now…that’s different) we wandered over to Hollywood Forever cemetery. 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.