Sense Memory: After the Heat

I’m wrapping up a feature writing class I’ve been teaching this semester. The subject: “Telling L.A.’s Story.” The following post is from the blog I’ve set up for my students. I promised them I would write with them — and so I kept my promise.

ANOTHER LIFE AGO, it seems, I had to leave L.A. — flee L.A. would be more precise. The big, sprawling city became claustrophobic — or at least that was how I saw it at the time. I was finishing my degree, interning for a magazine, selling books at a Century City bookstore now long vanished. It was the latter that was getting to me. Not the routine of the bookseller job, that was pleasant — shelving books and talking with other clerks about ideas. But the people who came through the doors with pressing needs? That was wearing. Because the store was adjacent to so many talent agencies, entertainment management glass-and-steel high-rises and a major motion picture studio, there were days that the very air seemed to be sucked out of the entire store — the entire open-air mall itself — with demands and temper tantrums and never a thank you. It was a “new breed” of Hollywood and it had big hair, big shoulders and super-size egos.

I’d had enough. I concluded, “L.A. was different. Had changed.” I packed up and headed north to San Francisco to try on life there. I enrolled in school and for the first time as an adult didn’t have a car. It wasn’t as dislocating as I thought, rather it was liberating. I wandered all over that beautiful jewel of a city, across its fabled seven hills. Most weekends, I’d just pick a direction and walk, just to see what I might find. I lived on the southwest end of San Francisco, in the Sunset where I often saw the sun for a mere three hours a day. At 3PM, the fog would float in and hunker down a top the city like a big down comforter. The air smelled damp, metallic and brackish.

I missed the sun. Not the intense heat of late summer, but the hint of real warmth and the gold tones and shadows that late-afternoon sunlight brought with it. But too there was something else missing.

My first visit back to L.A. was in the Spring. A mini-heatwave was upon us. I stood in a friend’s backyard for a party; her backyard, a loud, brilliant tangle of bougainvillea and sneaky morning glory. But what hit harder than the fuchsia, magenta and ruby petals curling up the trellis or my friends’ faces and their stories told in their familiar cadences was something on the air. Literally.

The breeze carried a subtle perfume, sweet but not too, floral but cut with sharp spice. Also, there was a hint of smoke. A bitterness. It hung in the air, only disturbed by a breeze. It took me a bit to realize that it wasn’t something someone had dabbed behind his or her ear or something cooking on the grill, or something burning, L.A.-style off in the not-too-far-off distance.

It was chaparral, ground-cover — sage, rosemary. It was a explosion of night-blooming jasmine overflowing a nearby flower-bed. With the cool night coming on the air was full of scent notes, a mix so unique to Los Angeles. Nothing brought the city back to me, my connection to it, as much as this. I was home: the fading light; the cooling breeze after the heat; and those aromas. L.A.’s scent rubbing against all of us. Claiming us. Lingering.

— L.G.
(photo credit: flickr creative commons).

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“we feel purified” ~ honoring poetry month

Man Carrying Sofa

Whatever happened to Cindy Morrison, that nice young lesbian?
I heard she moved to the city and got serious.
Traded in her work boots for high heels and a power suit.
Got a healthcare plan and an attorney girlfriend.

Myself, I don’t want to change.
It’s January and I’m still dating my checks November.
I don’t want to step through the doorway of the year.
I’m afraid of something falling off behind me.
I’m afraid my own past will start forgetting me.

Now the sunsets are like cranberry sauce
poured over the yellow hills, and yes,
that beauty is so strong it hurts –
it hurts because it isn’t personal.

But we look anyway, we sit upon our stoops
and stare, — fierce,
like we were tossing down a shot of vodka, straight,
and afterwards, we feel purified and sad and rather Russian.

When David was in town last week,
I made a big show to him of how unhappy I was
because I wanted him to go back and tell Susan
that I was suffering without her –

but then he left and I discovered
I really was miserable
– which made me feel better about myself –
because, after all, I don’t want to go through time untouched.

What a great journey this is,
this ordinary life of ants and sandwich wrappers,
of x-rated sunsets and drive-through funerals.

And this particular complex pain inside your chest;
this damaged longing
like a heavy piece of furniture inside you;
you carry it, it burdens you, it drags you down –
then you stop, and rest on top of it

Tony Hoagland
from What Narcissism Means To Me

(photo credit: Poundstone, flickr creative commons)

Dorothy Height, 98

CIVIL RIGHTS leader Dorothy Height passed away today, of natural causes in Washington D.C. She was 98. Height wasn’t as well-known a figure as her male peers of the time, but she worked steadfastedly in the movement toward racial equality. Here is my collegue Jocelyn Y. Stewart’s obit in today’s Los Angeles Times.

You have the power to benefit your community for the next 10 years. You have the right to be counted,” … “It is your civic duty. Don’t let anybody or anything stop you.”

Howard Zinn ~ 1922 – 2010

YESTERDAY WE crowded into the old Immanuel Presbyterian Church on the old, faded end of Wilshire Boulevard, (my favorite end of Wilshire Boulevard), for a memorial for “People’s Historian” Howard Zinn. The beautiful old cathedral quickly became a vivid mosaic of L.A. past, present future. The Red Hill folks climbed down from their wooden houses, their denim shirts made fancy with big amber necklaces or turquoise brooches; the community organizers from East and Southwest L.A. came with pamphlets and buttons; public radio reporters cradled their microphones; a young, young mother frantically juggling three children under five, stepped in-and-out of the sanctuary trying to hold on to bits-and-pieces as her daughters squirmed in the hard, narrow seats. People came to testify, to bear witness, to ramble, to re-articulate the goal. There were union songs and work songs, and spirituals, the cautionary tales of war. The crowd was moved to its feet, not once or twice, but often. Activist, Blase Bonpane made the very fine distinction that Zinn didn’t moralize he was a moralist: “The two are very different.” War in the background, Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation in the foreground, the work isn’t complete, what of the sagging spirit? “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world” That quote of Zinn’s echoed throughout the auditorium, throughout the evening into the dusk and maybe, catching a tail wind, perhaps around the world.

Record Store Day

IN HONOR of Record Store Day yesterday — which made so many of us insufferably nostalgic — I thought I’d repost my L.A. Times ode to the record stores of my formative years. NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday did a nice piece this morning, which sent me back in the spin.
All these years later, I still see, hear and smell them in my memory: And one update to the piece below. I do have an iPod now, however, the last music purchase I made was at my neighborhood Mom and Pop, I’m happy to say:

What I Learned At The Record Shop
GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

March 26, 2006|Lynell George
Lynell George is a senior writer at The Times’ West magazine.

LONG BEFORE AMOEBA MUSIC opened its landscape-altering Hollywood flagship, and nearly a decade before “High Fidelity” immortalized that singular breed of retail animal — the completist record store clerk — there was a holy strip of scuffed-up, indie new-and-used record shops lining Melrose Avenue. Vinyl Fetish, Bleeker Bob’s, 2nd Time Around and my two favorites: Rene’s All Ears and Aron’s Records.

When vinyl still reigned (in various versions — 78, 45 and 33 1/3 ; import or domestic; picture discs and colored vinyl; sexy little EPs), these shops and a few others scattered across Los Angeles played host to all manner of yearnings, discovery and invention in my life. They felt as essential as the ampersand in R&B.

On any given weekend a couple of decades ago, I could be found lurking among the bins in my painter’s overalls and my once-white, low-top Jack Purcell’s, flipping one-handed through “Jazz,” bending over this or that artist until my neck went numb, carrying a hefty stack of LPs, a load heavy enough to leave red creases on my arm. I wouldn’t set them down for fear that someone would swipe that long-out-of-print Cannonball Adderley LP that I’d spent not hours but years hunting for. I couldn’t take that risk.

I invested in these places — not just money, but time. And then, like the changer arm lifting and the stereo switching off, my habits changed. I somehow slipped out of my routine. I eased up on my record store fetish; I invested elsewhere.

And maybe that’s why I didn’t shed a tear or show up to mourn when Rhino Records and now Aron’s (both long relocated from former addresses) began shutting their doors for good in the last few months. I’d already said my goodbyes — to old locations, to overpowering memories, to bins that had long since been picked over. I’d seen the shift coming, the back-stock thinning, all manner of new media — DVDs and DATs — taking up shelf space. I couldn’t stomach the emptying bins, the death of an era.

It wasn’t me that changed, it was the business model: a general slump in record sales (down 7% last year, according to SoundScan), a great big uptick in digital downloading, a rush to shop online. Statistics underscore what our eyes already tell us: The Amoebas stay in business, but there are only about half as many independent record stores as there were 10 years ago countrywide.

Last year, downloaded tracks from online retailers soared to 332.7 million, compared with 134.2 million in 2004 — an increase of 148%. And when former customers weren’t downloading music, they were burning friends’ CDs. The landscape for bricks-and-mortar storeowners has been nothing less than a disaster zone.
digging

Yet I can’t imagine what my life, my worldview, would have been like without record stores — particularly the independents with their idiosyncratic rooms plastered with posters, speakers booming, smelling alternately of patchouli or herb and always crammed with persnickety customers arguing with even more persnickety clerks.

Through junior high school and high school, I saved my lunch money and once a week made my way to the various neighborhood record stores not only to update my collection but to augment my sense of the world — its tongues, its rhythms, its stories, its very vastness. Not to sound too much like some old-school crank, but I can’t imagine that watching a bar load on-screen equals the awe of opening a double-album set with both your hands.

When I first learned to drive, getting up the hill without rolling backward on La Cienega, just so I could get to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, became an important rite of passage. The clerks there steered me toward the essential Sonny Rollins; the “forget about all others, this is the best” Bill Evans. But I soon discovered that Rene’s and Aron’s were where the most unique treasures could be found.

Emblazoned with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, Rene’s All Ears stood at the corner of Melrose and Spaulding, near what I was told was Rene’s other passion: an auto/motorcycle repair shop. It was smallish, but size, I learned quickly, didn’t matter.

I bought a lot of imports there — blues and early roots music, R&B, regional voices — the Honey Drippers and blues shouters Chicago Carl Davis and Big Joe Turner. But it was also where I dipped into the Washington go-go scene (Chuck Brown and EU) and wandered into my first King Crimson, New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker and Automatic Man’s elastic blend of space rock and funk. For a buck a disc you could take a chance on anything. I bought my first Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Rene’s, from a man with a huge smile and a mohawk the color of cotton candy.

Aron’s, back then, carried me through eras and genres and styles — Brazilian samba and Cuban son and Portuguese fado. Before artists’ out-of-print catalogs were mercifully reissued on CD, Aron’s provided a way to fill in so many holes — used but pristine copies of Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” Stan Getz’s “Didn’t We,” Charles Mingus’ “Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife.” And for less than 10 bucks, I got my hands on a collector’s pressing of Billie Holiday’s “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” recorded at the old Fox Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles one June evening in 1949.

I shopped among the safety-pin-pierced, the men in fishnets, eccentrics in bathrobes and Buddy Holly glasses. That’s what I liked most about the indies, particularly the tight spaces at Rene’s. You were thrown together with people you might never have been shoulder-to-shoulder with in your other life. Motorhead fans up next to B-Boys, punkers in their oxblood Doc Martens, neo-mods in parkas all listening to a wash of ear-pricking sounds — Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Frank Zappa, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Big Daddy Kane, Nina Hagen, Charlie Christian, Machito — the hither-and-yon soundtrack dreamed up by whoever was on shift at the moment. It was like a dorm at a particularly tolerant college. But with a better stereo. And because of it, I took home things that would have never otherwise fallen into my hands.

I don’t have an iPod, though many have tried to nudge me in that direction. “It’s time,” they say. They talk up the ease of downloading. Of acquiring songs just when you think about it, in the middle of the night. Of the portability; the idea that your collection is both “virtual” and “infinite.” Most of all, they tell me, I’ll never look back.

But I do. And always hope to. My record collection is a life mosaic so vivid, so touching, I can’t chuck any of it — can’t even thin it out. I remember the clerks — imperious or exultant — who passed the sleeves across the counter to me. I remember the time and the place. An iPod, yes, would be convenient, but the decades spent exploring music in real stores with real people are my bricks and mortar. These records built me. They are me.

Off Road

MY REVIEW OF the new Brad Mehldau is now up on SonicBoomers.
A snip:

Pianist Brad Mehldau has never taken kindly to any sort of pigeonholing, to any simplistic or narrow definition of his intent. Consequently, his latest release, Highway Rider, serves as a document that should, once-and-for-all, dissuade anyone’s impulse to try to put him in a box. An aural carrousel of what only can be described as “sound images” from a journey — moods, textures, reflections, ponderings — flashing into focus and then receding, Highway Rider is a deeply expressive document depicting an ongoing journey with life and music.