On the Subject of Los Angeles

WHAT DOES Los Angeles sound like?

The question came up the other night during a conversation I was moderating at the Central Library downtown as part of the ALOUD series with the poets Wanda Coleman and Lewis MacAdams. Both read from work that vividly animated L.A. on the page — both its external shapes and contours as well as its more complicated interiors. Both poets also, quite coincidentally, referenced the music of the city — Coleman spun vivid anecdotes about the mini-communities of musicians and singers she’d found herself within when she was leaning toward another form of expression — violin and voice. MacAdams, who shared a quick, sharp oral snapshot of the flow of the L.A. River — his awe-at-first-sight moment — his curiosity turned avocation — also referenced music — the kind that jumped out of honky-tonks outside of L.A.’s glass-and-concrete forests. Both of them talked about jazz, of course, the days when Los Angeles offered a sampling of sounds secreted away in soft-lit, smoky rooms. But it wasn’t so much a memory lane sort of stroll through the necklace of old clubs that no longer stand, it really was a way to think about what sort of a soundtrack a city might have.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Los Angeles — in general. Not just as the place I inhabit, but as something more abstract. It’s much like the way you might say a word over and over and with each saying it slips away from its meaning.

That’s what the city has been feeling like lately to me.

Partially, it’s been about work — and the feature-writing class I teach about Los Angeles as subject. In order to try to tell the story better, I’m interested in looking at the devices that worked to obscure Los Angeles’ “story.” The other piece that I’m wrestling with is that the city has changed so much that I’ve begun to realize that the L.A. in my head doesn’t often match the L.A. that unscrolls before me — that concrete tangle of it.

Los Angeles has been sold as a cure for everything — from poor health to a bad start. This land of reinvention is still the launching-pad for so many new narratives. The notion of erasure — both of physical buildings, cleared patches of land land as well as shearing away the “unneeded” edges of one’s past — underscores Los Angeles’ sense of impermanence, a place you go to shrug out of the old.

But those narratives leave out the people who happen to be born here: this is what we inherited and it is what we navigate, I suppose, the detritus of so many people’s frustration, dissatisfaction and broken dreams. It changes the way we move through it, how we find ourselves in sync with it.

“Every city has a rhythm,” said Coleman. She ran through big ones and small ones, the press of them, the leisure saunter — Chicago, San Antonio, New York and so on …

L.A.’s rhythm came to her in a cluster of musicians names, songs — Stix Hooper, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Eddie Harris (who deeply reminds me of meandering drives around L.A. with my folks on late-Sunday afternoons) Grover Washington Jr.’s Winelight. In my mind, as she spoke, a slide show of the L.A. I *do* remember, began to take shape once more. There was a bit of hopeful, coexistence in what I heard in that music. Back when we had space and thus “flow” to express ourselves…our true selves…

Here comes some memory lane music, right here…

Thanks Wanda and Lewis for a lovely walk through the corners of the city we should celebrate

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