Palm trees, promethazine
O.K., this is a Blogspot thing, right, so I don't make a habit of writing about my personal life. If I'd wanted to do that shit I would have got a Livejournal. But today, I'm going to make an exception, because, though I'll still be writing about music, I want to write about Los Angeles and I want to write about the best day of my life.
The best day of my life was Thursday Sept. 16, 2004. That was the day I arrived in the United States of America, where I studied as an exchange student. I left Sydney around 10 a.m. and arrived in Los Angeles about 11 a.m. the same day. This, the hills surrounding the Los Angeles basin, was my first view of America:
It was the most amazing, awe-inspiring feeling ever. All my tiredness and jetlag - I can never sleep on planes - disappeared instantly. See, I unashamedly love America. It isn't my country - I am Australian and always will be - but I think America is a wonderful place with amazing people, and I hope one day to return there for good. When I saw those mountains, it was the culmination of years of dreaming and saving and planning.
It was even better diving through the thick brown haze visibly hanging over the city and seeing the endless suburban expanse unfold beneath me. And, like all good music geeks, I had planned for this moment - my intended soundtrack of choice for my arrival was to be Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication, glossy, sprawling rock. I thought it would be perfect for Los Angeles.
I think I listened to RHCP a bit, but it was Randy Newman's track that really captured my imagination during the time I spent in that city - and, let's make this clear; I was never in Los Angeles for any extended period of time. 24 hours after I arrived and 24 hours before I left. The intervening time was spent in Washington State. But nevertheless, L.A. was my introduction to America, and while I certainly don't know it intimately, I nevertheless remain convinced it's a great city.
Every American I've met seems to hate L.A. Whenever I meet Americans who have moved from Los Angeles, they usually say something like, "if you've ever been there, you'll understand why." And, sure, I can understand why, but still, I think L.A. is a fantastic city, and I think a lot of the reason it is a fantastic city is the same reason why so many people hate it.
Randy Newman, who has spent years in L.A., unlike my 48 hours, captured exactly how I feel about L.A. in "I Love L.A." It's so great, because he gets it. He gets exactly the same thing I get about it. And sure, "I Love L.A." is also a criticism of '80s greed and the shallow tackiness of the city, but even though it is a critcism, Newman is still being genuine with his exuberant shouts of "I LOVE L.A.!!"
See, for instance, this 2001 interview with him from the L.A. Weekly:
I remark how I always thought his hit "I Love L.A.," despite its subversiveness and frank criticism of us, was also joyous and deeply felt. "Yeah, it's so chamber of commerce -- Imperial Highway! -- it's just funny," [Newman] exclaims. "There's some kind of ignorance L.A. has that I'm proud of. The open car and the redhead and the Beach Boys, the night just cooling off after a hot day, you got your arm around somebody." He crosses his arms again and smiles in wordless satisfaction, smiles from the momentary depths of a rock-star dream on a bright and terrible day. "That sounds really good to me. I can't think of anything a hell of a lot better than that."
And he's right. I mean, I'm not stupid, I saw all of L.A.'s obvious flaws. I couldn't make it from my hotel to the gas station across the road without being panhandled by a guy with a broken foot, who, when I gave him a couple dollars was disturbingly, heartbreakingly grateful. Smog constantly obscured the horizon, I had to pay $50 for a cab every time I wanted to go anywhere because nothing could be walked to and the subway is mindbogglingly useless.
But even so, there was such a magical feeling about the whole city. And I don't mean Hollywood - what a waste of time that place is, I mean what's the fucking point? - but just everywhere throughout the city. The gigantic freeways, the way everyone seems to have an absurdly expensive car, although they obviously they don't, the great weather, the palm trees, the way it's so cosmopolitan, the huge beaches (the huge, dirty beaches, actually, but still), it's just amazing. It has all the hope and possibility and willingness to dream and believe that I love about the U.S. It seems to me that Los Angeles was the best ever introduction to America for me, because that city is like Extreme U.S. Most Americans want to pretend that L.A. is something different, but that's not true. L.A. is like hyper-America. It's got the extremely rich and the extremely poor, it's the most obvious manifestation of the nation's car obsession, it's got the immigration, but it's not melting pot immigration like in NYC, where everywhere you go you're surrounded by people from 50 different countries, instead it's immigration where the entire city is taking in new folks all the time. Uh... I'm not expressing the difference very well, there. But landing straight in L.A. prepared for all the extremes America had to offer, the good and the bad, and having all that thrown at me as soon as I touched down meant that America could not disappoint. If your first view of the States is San Francisco or New York (great as those cities are) or something, you might miss the extremes of America, the way it can be crass and mundane and sprawling. But L.A. doesn't hide that fact. It revels in it. If you love L.A., you will love America.
So, sure, it is a city loaded with problems, but still... who doesn't want to ride down the Pearl Highway jamming the Beach Boys with the top down, next to a big nasty redhead? I love L.A.
The thing that first attracted me to screwing "I Love L.A." was pretty stupid actually. Quite simply, I liked the idea of screwing a song that talked about the same things so many of the Houston tracks people like Mike Watts screw; girls, cars, driving with the top down - I say this about a lot of songs, I know, but damn, "I Love L.A." is thematically a dead-on match for Texas rap. Or Cali rap - "Rolling down/ the Pearl highway/ A big nasty redhead at my side/ Santa Ana winds blowing hot from the north/ We was born to ride . . . /put down the top . . ./baby don't let the music stop." Change the geography, and that's Paul Wall, right there.
But I think the similarity is stronger than when I've mentioned it in reference to other artists (and hey, if you're sick of me talking about connections between rap and rock, look, this blog is called Screw Rock 'n' Roll. I'm all about looking at the places rock can collide with hip hop). As far as Bright Eyes etc. goes, I'm discussing music with similar themes but the intentions are vastly different. With Randy Newman, the intentions are not so seperate from all the rappers who do the same thing. He sings about driving his car with a woman who is more for show than for company because -- isn't that really a whole lot of fun? He shouts out all the neighborhoods and streets of his city because he wants to rep it. So, yeah, there is another satirical level to the track, but, at one level, it's just Randy Newman wanting to get some brain in the turning lane.
Same thing! Is it Newman's fault that he's a middle-aged geeky-looking Jewish guy rather than a young, toned black guy? And this isn't much of a surprise. Randy Newman does like rap. Here's another quote from the interview above:
I ask Newman what he thinks of the whole rap genre, which may be the current incarnation of cool but has always suffered creatively from its own hollow posturings of thugs, gangsters and womanizers. That black artists are generally encouraged into such postures and self-referential stereotypes by the music industry exacerbates the problem. Newman agrees with that, but resists pessimism. "I assume some of these guys have some interesting stuff going on," he says a bit defensively. "Dr. Dre is making some very good tracks for Eminem. I mean, kids aren't looking to Neil Young anymore, or to me."
First, obviously, I've got to take issue with the writer saying rap has suffered creatively from its gangsta posturing. Fortunately, Newman's willing to believe that thug-rap can nevertheless "have some interesting stuff going on." There's also this, which is interesting:
What Newman actually likes most about pop music -- ABBA notwithstanding -- is its veneration of male cool, which officially started with Elvis and lives today in hip-hop. "That's certainly the hippest stuff going," he says of hip-hop, a bit admiringly. "It's all part of that. I remember coming out of Marlon Brando movies feeling like" -- he squares his shoulders, puts out his chest, grins ear to ear -- "You know what I mean? It's a big deal, that feeling. I don't know who's the Brando or the James Dean anymore, but that's the lure of the music. Feeling hip and tough.
Which makes me think my assertion of "I Love L.A." being like a rap song is pretty accurate.
And just another quote from that article:
Part of the reason I identify so strongly with Newman is that he apparently finds it difficult, or untrustworthy, to be himself in his art. For him it's personal; for me it's that plus something else. Black artists historically have been allowed public identities, never private ones, so that their music is read as a reflection of social or even emotional struggle. The reverse is true for white artists, particularly singer-songwriters: The world proceeds from them. But Newman has always found intimacy and soul-baring confining and against instinct, and so has embraced emotional obliqueness and a storyteller role -- the de facto black musical tradition -- by default. Despite the prevalence of the first person in his songs, he positions himself as the conscientious observer in somebody else's shoes. Newman does this with such sincerity and lack of judgment that his songs emerge as unique in the annals of American song: examinations of broad types -- bigots, boozers, imperialists -- narrowed into people, played by Randy Newman. Newman is none of these people, and all of them; he is the medium who channels them, gives them heart, or brains, or motive. None of this guarantees you'll like the characters any better, but Newman's job has always been to make things clearer, not more bearable.
And I don't know what to say about that, but it is interesting.
I've also put up the Mountain Goats' "You Or Your Memory," which again strongly reminds me of my first day in America. This, though, is more about the power of our minds to twist songs into something personal, even if that means ignoring big chunks of them.
When I got off the plane in L.A., I checked into a room on La Cienega, just like John Darnielle does in the song. I just skip over the fact that he checked into a "bargain priced room" while I was in a Holiday Inn (oh - other track in my head throughout the 24 hours I was in L.A.: "We be chillin' at the Holiday iiiinnn"). And in my room, I gazed out through the curtains, though not at the parking lot. This was my view:
At the time, it was the most beautiful thing in the world. And like Darnielle, I went down to the corner store and returned with supplies. Actually, I went twice. The first thing I did in the States after I checked into the hotel and put my bags and shit down was to go to a gas station and look at what was for sale. How much did a bottle of Coke cost, what newspapers could I get, what candy did Americans eat, all that sort of thing. It was a mundane sort of thing, but I was living in America, so I wanted to understand the mundane, everyday life, not the tourism side. Then I went to Santa Monica, so, yeah, I got my tourism fix, too.
And that night (not "just before nightfall,") when I did cross the street (though not "in my bare feet") I bought supplies and spread them out (though "not on the counter by the sink",) in my room when I came back. It wasn't Bartles and James or St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin, though. I know I bought Twinkies, because I had to find out what they were. And there was no "if I make it through tonight I will mend my ways," moment - this was, after all, a situation entirely different to Darnielle's. But there was the same feeling of here I am, alone (I had never lived away from home before), starting something new, and who knows what's ahead of me?
So, even though the song didn't exist when I checked into that Holiday Inn, and that it describes a night not very similar to mine, for me it is the perfect description of my first night in America.
And I've also put up the Art Brut track I did a couple days back, because it was planned to be part of this L.A. suite. What can I say about that one? Eddie Argos sings "I'm considering a move to L.A." and I think, "Me too, Eddie. If only it was that easy."