Sky island

Got to our pals’ Lincoln Heights hilltop eastside estate about 2 pm yesterday. We were there for party prep. Apparently we have a reputation for that skill set. The neighbors have guard chihuahuas, a whole herd of them. They yammer and woof and charge the fence like scary little tribbles, and their racket sets off that perfect eastside chorus of chihuahuas and pit bulls that echoed up and down the endless stairs on the way up. A lot of stairs. The hills of old LA are full of them. There’s some that lead to the top of our own hill even. People used to walk in the old days. Every neighborhood had Laurels and Hardys and pianos back then. You trudge up these long stairways, the street far, far below, and suddenly you’re in a sky island full of your friends, like those forests that sit atop mountains in the middle of the desert, lush and green and full of birds and rare trees. You walk into your friends’ little sky island and settle in and the city is all around you yet seems so far away. You feel one with all the other sky islands you can see, the hills in Echo Park and Silver Lake and Mount Washington and even Dodger Stadium looming across the river atop its own hill. There is the teeming city below and the sky islands above it, each one full of rare species and entire herds of chihuahuas.

The first guests arrived about four. They came in all night a handful at a time, went out to the deck, drank and ate and partook. Everything was perfect, the chatter continuous. The last of us left at four. Though it was actually 3, as the clocks had all magically jumped forward an hour at 1 a.m. So the twelve hour party was actually an 11 hour party and we can all pretend we blacked out in there somewhere and lost sixty minutes. There was a covered deck in the back yard, brought piece by piece up those zillion stairs, like Gold Rush saloons that were carried by mule and man power up mountain trails and reassembled in their Edwardian glory at the top of some Sierra peak. The bar here was limitless, endless tequilas in crazy eastside bottles–Aztec skulls, lovely hearts, tall thin phallic shapes, everything. Other boozes too, and beer and wine up the wazoo, but I stuck with tequila, though on ice, please don’t tell anyone. And this crowd had all kinds of glaucoma and arthritis and back strains–guitars are heavy–and was thoroughly medicated. Someone put on the Grateful Dead (Europe ’72) and I knew every goddam song without every having owned it or any Dead LP. There was a price to paid for living in California in the 70’s-The Dead. Well, the Dead and the Beach Boys. Sometimes even now you’ll be at a party somewhere and be surrounded by obsessives of both, the people on one side talking about Jerry, the people on the other about Brian–we have no last names here in California–and you just want to scream but don’t because screaming would bum the Deadheads’ long strange trips as the Beach Boys fans bolted for the nearest sand box. Anyway, that Europe ’72 is peak Dead, as our former Russian ambassador said (he did, I saw it on Twitter, he was a Deadhead. Imagine a Deadhead dealing with Vladimir Putin who, shirtless, looks a bit like Ted Nugent), and its stony acid hippie groove atop the hilltop sounded good, with Los Angeles spilling out in all directions in front of us. The music had a mellower vibe all afternoon–Jack Black, getting his inner Nashville on, spun a few times, and Faces (Oh La La), and that mellow live Velvet Underground album (1969, which was also perfect hilltop listening) and back to the Dead. Rambling Rose. The grass ain’t greener/the wine ain’t sweeter/either side of the hill, sang Jerry. And maybe that’s true. But up here on top of the hill, listening to his mournful solo, everything actually was greener and sweeter. Everything was just fine.

Night fell slowly, squeezing every last bit out color out if the horizon, fading out in a mellow tangerine and the night sky, at first an inky Russian blue, became black, starlit, only a tinge chilly. The lights flickered on one by one till at last LA was tiny splashes of light, and the endless geometry of street lights, and signage in red, blue, green, golden arch yellow. Sonically things took on a harder edge with the pre-Minutemen Reactionaries (a great CD), and MIA sounded good, and Antibalas was a dream up there on the sky island, the city everywhere before us and crazy West African rhythms swirling polyrhythmically about our heads. We sat round a fire that took the hint of cold out of the breeze, and drank and partook and munched and yammered and laughed and told stories and gazed out across Los Angeles and fell madly in love with the place again as you do every time you see it by night from a hilltop. Occasionally sirens rent the scene, but there were no gunshots, no visible police action, no nothing but people long in bed as we still sat up there in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth hour of this endless party. This city has calmed down from a couple decades ago, when nighttime hilltop views brought a vista of flashing lights and police helicopters as far as you could see. Now it sleeps. At last, fearing dawn before we even got home, we said our goodbyes. No one was driving, we all called Lyft to take us home. We weaved down those endless steps amid that vast orchestra of chihuahuas and pitbulls making its crazy music at the sound of our voices, and the friend with us took my wife’s arm and escorted her down the steps in the dark. I watched from fifty feet back their silhouettes stepping with a shaky grace, till they hit flat ground again and parted with a thank you. The dogs all settled down, our car showed up and we sped away though the winding hillside streets in the dark.

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315

I was just at a party this weekend on the 4th of July out here in LA.  It was at our old friend Edwin’s place, up in Lincoln Heights, with a spectacular view of downtown LA and Dodger Stadium, Hollywood and the East Side, and on a clear day all the way crosstown to the Pacific.  On July 4th it’s an ideal spot to watch the city erupt in pyrotechnic frenzy.  Edwin and I go back quite aways; I’ve known him since the early punk days back in Santa Barbara, from ’78 through ’80.

The party began a little slow but grew incredibly crowded and then wound up absolutely surreal. What a maelstrom of fireworks. They were coming from everywhere.  It was wild. Even wilder was the fire started by an errant rocket in the empty lot on the steep slope in front of Edwin’s; the brush and trees went up like mad. Neighbors watered down their roofs as mothers hustled their broods to safety. And hipsters were fleeing in high-heeled panic. Car horns, yells, cackling laughter, sirens, flashing red lights, swooping helicopters. The first load of water they dropped missed the flames but soaked Tracy of the local weirdo band the Hindenburg Ground Crew.  He retreated, sopping wet.  There was a big Wurlitzer organ on Edwin’s lawn and someone was playing “Light My Fire”. And the Roman Candles and screaming Fizzbusters and bottle rockets and cherry bombs and M-80’s and M-40’s and machine gun strings of firecrackers never let up for a moment. In the middle of all the giddy madness I began joking aloud, and another older guy there made a wisecrack back, and suddenly we realized that we knew each other from a long time ago.  It was George, aka Al Poe, a long lost friend from the Santa Barbara daze a quarter century before…. We sat and drank beer and smoked weed and shouted about old times over the din of the helicopters. We laughed a lot and then went over the list of folks no longer around….Chuck aka Kid Basterd, Dan DeManne, Eric Pace.  George said 315 was dead.  I looked stunned.  He said it was in the Santa Barbara News-Press.  Someone had told him over the phone.  We both grew pensive just for a moment.

Back in those heady and heedless days, when punk was brand new and funny and scary and unbelievably radical, Santa Barbara had a small but frenzied scene that matched, for a fleeting moment, the madness and invention of any scene anywhere, whether London, New York, the Masque in Hollywood.  I plunged into it a little late, but there was already a legendary figure–315.  I knew his sisters, but Three was just this crazy quilt of stories and tall tales and jokes (such as the acid trip that wound up with his sister Nancy renamed Verandah and Bill rechristened as 315)  .  My then-girlfriend, now wife, Fyl knew him well, as did George, and, well, everyone.  I can’t remember where he had gone to.  A few months later the scene in Santa Barbara suddenly went limp everyone split for New York or Frisco or Hollywood (and eventually Silver Lake, where we wound up). 315 showed a few months later in LA.  This was 1980-81.  I can’t remember where he was staying, but he was with his vivacious and completely mad young girlfriend Mary Toole.  There’d be these parties at yet another Wells sister Mary’s house down in Culver City.  Everybody high, and everybody talking at once.  Crazy crazy music on the stereo.  And what a character he was, dominating parties already packed full of crazed personalities.  He was older than us, by several years, and that age difference seemed to give his particular form of craziness a sense of authenticity.  An electricity or magnetism that comes from sheer iconoclastic orneriness, I guess. I remember Billy Zoom would come by, with his peculiar sense of solemnity.  It was all punk and rockabilly and wild conversation and the rarified air of pure inspiration. 315 and I got the drunkest I have ever been in my life at those bashes.  Then a bit later he and Mary Toole up and split for Atlanta.  We called them a couple times; you could reach them at some noisy watering hole the name of which escapes me now.  I remember he was picking up a southern twang. Then we lost touch, and 315 passed into legend.  We became completely enmeshed in the evolving LA music underground.  And then jazz.  Where we remain.  But whenever the survivors of that old Santa Barbara scene would gather, 315’s name always came up.  And no one ever knew what he was up to anymore, except that it could not possibly have been ordinary.  No one had his phone number, or an email address. We just all hoped to see him again.  Then, finally, I run into George and he tells me 315 is dead.

It’s hard to grieve much with helicopters circling a hundred feet overhead.  All around was anarchy, glorious anarchy–panic on the one side, party on the other. The Eastside sky was lit with pyrotechnics from every stadium and seemingly every backyard as far as you could see.  Across the lane Fyl watched the advancing fire, fascinated. Edwin was by turns hosting and trying to get a bucket brigade organized.  I watched as a friend was pressed into symbolic service, pointing a waterless hose in the direction of the flames.  It’s the thought that counts, I guess.  An addled woman parked her car in the middle of the street and then disappeared.  A fire truck arrived and pleaded for a parking space.  Enormous mega-cherry bombs resounded from somewhere, echoing everywhere.  Roman candles burst overhead in red and green.  When someone turned and asked me if we should evacuate too and I said “What? And miss all this?” It was “Apocalypse Now” for aging punk rockers. Best 4th of July ever.

The Fire Department got there just in time.  No one was hurt, no structures damaged. That Edwin sure knows how to throw a party.

I’m sure 315 would have dug it.  Rest in Peace, man.  Rest in fucking peace.

(2007)

Perfect Bash

(2014)

I gotta dig  out that Bitch Magnet cassette. Not the midwest Bitch Magnet, but Santa Barbara’s, with George Davison and Cecil B DeMille III. I’ve been meaning to do that since I heard George died. Hope I still have it. I remember loving it back then, playing it for everybody. Blasting it in the car as I took Edwin on a beer run down to a Mexican grocery in Lincoln Heights prepping for yet another party. It was Edwin Letcher’s pad where years later I ran into George on that riotous 4th of July. We recognized each other as we passed a joint. I can’t remember if he was passing it to me or vice versa. Brick? George? we spluttered in clouds of smoke. It was very Santa Barbara actually, tho’ downtown L.A. loomed large in the distance, and just added to the beautifully surreal experience, the sudden brush fire just across the street, two stoned old pals, hipsters fleeing in every direction in blind panic. What a perfect day that was. What a perfect bash.

(from Facebook)

 

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