JOIN US tomorrow afternoon at 826LA Echo Park for Roar Shack. On the bill: Chip Jacobs, Dana Johnson Geza X, Steve Hodel, David Kukoff and yours truly. The event: “I Remember That: L.A. in the 70s.” We’ll be reading pieces looking back at when L.A. was a bit more open, wild and it took only 30 minutes to get just about anywhere…. See you there.
Shelter People & Wrecking Crew. Safe Journey.
I HAVE been so buried in duty that I’m late in posting this piece that was up over at Artbound last month, but it’s an evergreen.
There is a particular L.A. that resides in native Angelenos’ minds. They are personal Los Angeles-es — of different moods, eras, compositions. John Reynold’s work taps into that thread of memory. He retains it so we don’t have to work as hard.
I profiled Reynolds, a musician and painter, whose era of speciality, as he’d say himself,
is “the period of time between the two big wars — First and Second.”
This piece was reported over a long period of time, mostly because I wanted to be in both of Reynolds’ worlds — the music and the art — and really understand how they both occupied his imagaination. That meant I drove to Disneyland and California Adventure where he has a regular gig as part of several of the “atmosphere” bands. As well he plays clubs and bars, theaters and back rooms across the city and country for huge swing dance followings.
But the art is something that he’s been working on quietly over the years and it evokes, visually, the music that he finds himself most happy sailing around in. It’s also a powerful trigger of memory for those of us who have watched Los Angeles move away from us.
From the piece:
Reynolds knows it can be treacherous business dealing in nostalgia. There are all manner of trick wires, trap doors and uncomfortable — “Whose nostalgia?” — truths to confront. But as a musician and painter who firmly situates himself in the landscape of history and memory, conveying a sense of home, especially in a constantly remade Los Angeles, is its own tight-wire act. The things that both located and grounded you are sometimes gone before you can make full sense of them: “You look up one day and there’s just an empty lot and a tractor.”
For Reynolds, a fifth-generation Southern Californian, history has a heavy presence. It’s palpable at every turn. It’s often a past that most people can no longer discern: It’s been bulldozed, retrofitted, rethought or stuccoed-over. That’s why his creative output, for as long as he can remember, has been dedicated to bringing those stories to the surface and rekindling unfinished conversations about place: “I guess you can say I’m haunted — in a positive and negative way,” he reflects. “I’m sorry that so much of it — that feeling is gone — but I am glad that I can remember it.” And there’s legacy to protect.
Months ago, I visited his home studio in Glendale and got a sense of his history (he’s the grandson old-Hollywood actress ZaSu Pitts) and over the last four decades has worked in music ensembles that specialize in playing early-20th Century popular music. The mosaic of images below are from that afternoon visit (before our walk around the “ghost” houses of Pasadena).
“Sometimes at home, after someone dies, people will ask the closest relatives, ‘How is Joe?’ It’s kind of an accident, one they will correct if they notice what they’ve said. But it’s also an actual question, acknowledging that a man does not die all at once, even when a corpse takes the place of the man. The question means, ‘How is Joe in you? How is Joe’s death going with you?’ And even, ‘Have you heard from Joe, and what does he say?’ Acknowledging the permeable borders between the living and the dead, the transmigration of souls. Dreams.”
— “Brooklyn Journals” from The Public Gardens by Linda Norton
SOME POIGNANT New Years Day news. Like many, I woke to hear of the passing of Natalie Cole.
For me it was a layered loss. I’d done some work for Carole Cole for a box set of her father’s work that came out about a decade ago. I’d felt lucky that I had been trusted write liner notes that would look at not just her father’s musical arc but the family’s history in Los Angeles. Like so many I grew up with stacks of Nat Cole records leaning against the hi-fi. On top of that, simply put, the Coles were L.A. royalty.
It fell to Carole in later years to keep watch over the estate and the music rights and through it was in consult with Natalie. Together they protected that story, the legacy. Every anecdote, every date, every memory was checked and double-checked. Legacy was as important to them as was his burnished voice.
Looking at the photo above, it’s impossible to wrap my brain around the fact that they are all gone. What’s hit me more than anything is that the season started officially — as always for me – on Christmas Eve when I first heard Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song.” And the season ended upon hearing the news of Natalie’s New Years Eve passing.
Some sad magic symmetry.
I hadn’t planned to write anything formal about Katrina and the flood, but it was on my mind — taking up more than backspace. Last week all that circular thinking started surfacing as full sentences. And finally, in a block of focused days I had a piece. It ran yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, you can find it here.
One of the things about my post-Katrina New Orleans and the absence of my blood-ties is that it’s left me thinking about the people who used to live around the folks I once visited as part of that summer ritual. I think about this as I wander New Orleans trying to locate sites that no longer exist on any map. I remember generations of families who had remained on one block passing on not just an address but a hibiscus and iris garden, a porch with a ceiling painted blue like a spring sky. Even an attic ghost. On this side of the family line, I am the last person to hold those memories, to know what it was before: The stories and the voices — the intricately built sentences — I will carry in my head I know, but these are the features will always define New Orleans for me.
Just last week, I was speaking to my friend Mark Broyard, an artist who lives here in L.A. and has deep New Orleans roots. As I note in the piece, after Katrina, he went back to help but also to bear witness. Photograph and collect debris that he would ultimately make into art. I remember the first time I saw the piece above, I didn’t have words. It hit someplace so deep, I cried.
(Broyard has other work in a group show, “Hard Edged” now up at the California African American Museum.)
With all of the trumpeting of “recovery” and “resilience,” my hope is that we will all remember — remember that there is so much more to do, to finish, to fix. To make whole. I’m realizing more and more that I’d like to find a place in that.
And as a guide, to keep in mind, that that new spot you’ve landed in — your new domain — that was once someone else’s garden, porch, ghost; it was once someone else’s dream.
Katrina Series Image courtesy Mark Broyard