Los Angeles 21st April 2008
To Los Angeles
I am seated in a row with a young mother and baby on the aisle and a green Marine returning from leave beside me. They get talking and I earwig while pretending to read. He tells her Marines are the best of the best and never wear uniform when they travel on civilian transport. He shows her a picture of his sweetheart. “She’s been kind of shy with me,” he tells her, “But she’s opened up recently.” I wonder if he understands the subtext or the inference she might make of this. He is both charmingly naive and frighteningly simple. She asks him if he’s been to, “You know, Iraq?” He has not yet seen active duty. “But I’m going to Afghanistan in July.”
“Will you be nervous?” she asks. “No,” he says, ” I’m excited.”
Her baby starts to cry and we hit a little turbulence and the teenage soldier seems perturbed. “Must be windy”, he murmurs to me. With his big frame, massive hands and buzz-cut, I look out of the window and silently wish him luck.
We descend into Denver, the Rockies arrayed along the outskirts beneath us like some mythical battalion of horses. The downtown towers stand in a mist of dirty air, puny compared to the mountains. As we re-ascend after the stop-over I see whisks of dust spin up from dry fields before we cross into the snowy plateau of the hills. A vast expanse of high forest follows before the land falls away into more verdant gullies and valleys. This is the great Continental Divide and I am now very much in the West. There is nobody down there, no freeways or towns; so much land in the hands of the few.
We fly out of the high desert and into the LA basin. Sprawl isn’t right. Los Angeles floods, a reverse flood – against gravity – from the sea and up into the hills. It spreads like a panic from the snaking ropes of highways. Dry river beds meander through its insistent grid and, as we lower, the pools appear; turquoise flecks in this great morass of grime. The San Gabriel mountains lord it over the pit with their heads above a film of cloud and down, down we go into the concrete circus. Then the cars appear. Pulled along their conveyor belts by a mysterious force, quicker through the arteries and sluggish in the veins. Lower still the lawns throw up a false primary green then we’re dumped with a thud onto the tarmac runway. Let the insanity commence.
We pull-up at the Comfort Inn on the crossroads of Hades: Sunset and La Brea. A high full moon stares baldly down on the depravity. There’s an unpredictable edge round here as if somebody put something in the water I am yet to be infected by. Lots of strung-out weirdos and twenty-year-old tourists. Young itinerants, fucked on cheap drugs in training to be full-time tramp-poets. From my window I peer out into a vacant lot the same size and shape as the hotel I’m standing in. In the corner of the long grass is a nest of blankets exactly where my room would be; a dark matter Discomfort Out. A human resettles in the dusk, I close my shutters and power up the huge flat-screen. Bill Maher is throwing Obama tit-bits around a table featuring the impressive Cornel West and intriguing Aayan Hirsi Ali. Liberal America is wholly in love with Barack right now. There is a palpable sense that he is the real deal and can deliver them from Bush like no other. I remember being holed up here in 1997 and hearing the hysterical joy in my friends’ voices as the Labour landslide washed all the old guard away back in Britain. I was sad to be absent from the party. What happened?
On Sunday morning I take a long walk around West Hollywood, crazies at every crosswalk mumbling or snarling in my direction. There are a few thrift stores on Santa Monica in aid of gay charities but the pickings are negligible. Young things cram every cool cafe for brunch and Bloody Marys. Middle-aged professionals arch their eyebrows at my tatty attire. BMWs everywhere. You could die of shame in Hollywood if you gave a damn. A woman with long orange hair tied in a pony-tail plays sweet tenor sax for the stall-holders in a street-market I stumble into. She has a little Casio keyboard at her feet spitting out a rhythm with a bass line which she changes with her big toe. Her playing is remarkably fine and I notice she has no upturned hat or open case to collect money. She’s playing real good for free.
On La Cienega I pass a small used car lot. A white Roller sits with enticements across its windshield. 89! Low Milage! I conjecture that once oil hits $500 a barrel these things will become good for nothing but ripping the roof off and filling with plants.
After the show I catch up hurriedly with some old colleagues. Music people, LA residents toiling in the thick of it. Outside in the alley I bump into Jimmy Coup, a kind of legend in Dels circles, who played guitar for a while with the hilarious Andrew WK. He’s a sweetheart and a singular spirit and we swap numbers. I will be back here soon and I look forward to having some beers with him and hearing his tales of adventure. The moon is still staring down upon all the moneyed and all the lost from the roof of the cool night and you can feel Monday coming, nagging about work and time and sleep.