Ride of the CicLAvians

In a moment of kitschy pathos we encountered the defiled star of Lillian Gish on Vine Street Sunday afternoon, at the CicLAvia in honor of the LA Philharmonic centennial.

Fitting perhaps for an actress known for her doll-like, waifish fragility. Her oeuvre was one of purity in danger, seduction and abandonment, flight from lecherous hands, and being set adrift on ice floes.

In her most famous screen appearance she threw herself off a cliff rather than submit to an amorous white actor in black face.

I was in a Ride of the Valkyries frame of mind as we pedaled downtown.  An afternoon of bike as king cranked dormant gears in my head, the ones which say why not?

Why can’t we always bike? Forget arriving to work in a timely manner. Think of the journey! Forget the supply chain, and the power grid. Practicalities are for sissies. This is how it should be! Yes yes!  New rules!  Clear the roadways! We all pedaling now.  Everyone must pedal! We should ride by torchlight!  Make way. A new age now begins!  Here in LA, where so many utopias were discarded and dystopias foretold.

Why must the essentials for a deliciously stylish life require a four level parking garage? Rethink it!

Every mile or so someone would hold up a foam finger and pull a piece of yellow tape across the road, and just like that, hundreds of people would submissively cooperate.  We were digital people in a digital age again, agreeable and rules oriented. My fever dream was bite-sized. My Lillian is sadly never in need of rescue.

With no blood and soil urgency at hand, I filed it away in a drawer in my head called Ironic Historical Feedback Loops. I kept the Wagner, but eliminated the KKK in my chain of association. See how easy that was? The mind is good at lying about what the heart knows to be true.

The City’s Shameful Secret

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It was here, not long ago, during a break in my nocturnal journeys around the city, I overheard two women discussing theater, and bumbled inadvertently into a sketch from Louie.

Me: “Are you an actor?”

“Why are you asking?”

“You were talking theater, and I–”

“That’s not something I can readily answer.”

“Okay.”

“When you say ‘actor’, what do you mean?”

“Are you of a theatrical inclination? Do you go on auditions?”

“Why do you want to know about auditions?”

“I just wrote a–”

“Auditions are a private matter.”

“I was speaking figuratively. But I accept your reticence on the matter.”

“Really, it’s not something you should be asking people.  It doesn’t belong to you.  Hate that conversation. People make assumptions.”

“Hate that conversation, too.”

“Then why are you starting it?”

Friend: “Yes, maybe she’s acted. Maybe. But you shouldn’t assume that.  It’s demeaning.”

“Acting? Or discussing it?”

“What the f*** do you do, anyway?”

Bloggers give it away for free, that’s what we do. We easy.

Musicians also give it away for free, but they often get laid in the process. Artists pay to hang their work in a group show, and people come to swallow the hors d’oeuvres and discount chardonnay and flirt with other patrons of the arts and make plans to meet up later and ignore the obscurantism on the walls.  Theater is a pro bono exercise in social obligation.  Stand-up comedians have to persuade a requisite number of their friends to pay a cover charge and a two-drink minimum or the club owner won’t let them assume the stage for a 5 minute slot on open mic night. YouTube is a global flea market of platonic self-conception and exhibitionism which generates a billion dollars a year in ad revenue for …Google.  Unless you’re in Jenna Marbles territory, you don’t see a dime.  Most of her money comes from products she promotes through her site.

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At CicLAVia I watched Jamey Mossengren, a “world champion” juggling unicyclist spend the last ten minutes of his performance aggressively panhandling from the audience. He had worked twenty years perfecting his craft and could we not thank him by dropping some singles in his bag? Some of us did. Most didn’t.  His naked insistence he be paid for his work was noble, and at the same time, degrading.  I’ve felt better leaving a dollar on the tip rail at a strip club.

So why is there, in the city Greta Garbo built, something particularly shameful about being an actress?   The woman in the bar was the third in recent weeks who responded angrily to inadvertent conversational tripwires on the apparently forbidden topic of thespianism.

Perhaps because Hollywood is thought of as a giant machine for taking money away from pretty people who want to be famous.  To admit to longing is to confess to being a sucker.  To admit spending milk money on lottery tickets. To admit to carrying a crack pipe of ambition in your purse.  To feeding off the half-eaten desserts of wealthy people at your catering job.

What would Barbara say?
What would Barbara do?

It is all those things, of course, and probably always has been.  But there wasn’t Vanderpump Rules in Barbara Stanwyck’s day.  A successful actress didn’t ‘play herself’ for $700 a week in a cross-branding exercise promoting a rich woman’s portfolio of restaurants and claw for screen time by….acting out.

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Brava.

Times Square, West

They come from Alabama
They come from Alabama
They come from China
They come from China
L. Ron Hubbards's people are waiting for them
The Scientologists are ready for them

Walking down Hollywood Blvd, I found it odd L. Ron Hubbard’s prolific output as a fantasy writer was prominently displayed in the window of a Church of Scientology building. One would think the keepers of an invented religion would not be so eager to advertise the showbiz origins of its “creator”. There’s a bit of Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz going on here,  mere blocks from the Scientology Welcome Center, where they hook the suckers with the Free Personality Test.  Somehow it’s not hurting them. There’s a lot of bright lights and noise and misdirection on Hollywood Blvd.  Four blocks can be a long way.

The Nearly New Pop Star to the Left Of Me

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Suppose you have a day job working at a premium grocery store.  You have a co-worker, young, who is in a band.  He doesn’t brag about it. You learn of it through other employees. Occasionally he snaps his fingers, bops his head and sings along with the piped in music on the store channel, not as a performer, but the way a fan would. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know of his ambitions unless you asked.  You don’t think much of it one way or another. Every third person in LA under 30 is in a band. Or in a play.  Or humping scripts around town. It’s the natural order of things.

Live in LA long enough, you meet a lot of people outside the glass walls of the industry, peering in. Hollywood can be a great big machine designed to take money away from people who want to be famous.

You have an actor friend who hasn’t booked a gig in eight years, but bought a house in Bronson Canyon with his earnings from teaching “acting for film” at a local for-profit arts school which charges Ivy League prices.  You have, or had, another friend who squandered a substantial inheritance on an autobiographical film which he wrote, directed and cast himself in the lead -despite the fact he had never acted before- a film which never saw the inside of a DVD player, let alone a theater, and for good reason.  You have, or had,  a writer friend who wrote an A-list film with Brad Pitt, which plays perpetually on cable, and hasn’t sold anything in over a decade, and now drinks.

These are the happy stories.  Most people don’t get that far.

In the Big Sort of talent, ambition and human frailty, the trend line leads to day work at Starbucks, and anonymity, and half-truths to friends and family back home. Months of rehearsals can lead to pay-to-play gigs with 15 people in the audience, ten of whom are friends you put on the list. A year of fruitless auditions can offer up a “break” in the form of a one-act play in a black box theater on Santa Monica with porous walls where the sound of passing buses drowns out the dialogue at crucial moments. Which is just as well cause the dialogue is nearly unspeakable, and the ten friends in the audience are weary of social obligation theater.   You tell your parents you can’t come home for Christmas because you have ‘a big gig booked for the holidays’. What you don’t tell them is it will be in a convalescent home in Chatsworth, for which you had to pay your accompanist $200, drawn from a credit card advance.  Better to labor through a rendition of ‘Evergreen’ to the cacophony of spoons banging against wheelchairs than to sit in an empty apartment facing another year gone and nothing to show for it.

You knew this woman who played the gig at the convalescent home. She lived downstairs in a courtyard apartment building in Los Feliz and was a classically trained vocalist.  Her life went into a spiral afterward. She stopped working so as to dedicate herself full time to her craft.  Total commitment did not yield further gigs. She began ducking the landlord. She became a recluse, coming out of her apartment only to borrow money from neighbors to get the electricity turned back on, and to expel mewling kittens her un-neutered feline managed to create every few months, like clockwork.  We spoke of her the way the neighbors probably spoke of Mrs. Havisham in the early years of her decline, before the cobwebs overran the house.

Then one day she announced with great excitement she was having a dinner party. Chris Douridas, of KCRW, was coming over, and we were all invited.

You weren’t sure what she was expecting would happen, but she managed to put together a lovely candlelit event, catered, much to the consternation of those she owed money.  Chris Douridas defied our cynical impulses and showed up, and was a gracious guest.  We all sipped good wine, and noshed on lovely comestibles, and after a respectful amount of industry-related conversation, he excused himself and departed, leaving her right where she started.  In the days that followed, she retreated into her dark apartment and her cigarettes and was seldom seen again until she was finally evicted.

You have no idea what happened to her. Maybe she went back to Texas.  You hope she didn’t end up downtown.

This is the long tail of memory you bring with you when you go to a co-worker’s gig.

So there you are at Club Bardot, all of you from the store. There’s Derek, a nice boy from Sacramento, up on stage. From the balcony you try to reconcile the quiet, bespectacled clerk from earlier in the day, anonymously dispensing charcuterie to rich housewives, and the pop star in front you now. The hair flipping, hip swiveling, belting pop star, and the adoring females lining the stage.  You think of Bruce Wayne and his Batman cape.  For pop music is a form of conjuring, a transformation of ordinary longing into art.  Read the lyrics of your favorite songs and you will be left non-plussed. Hear them sung in proper harmony, and they stay with you for days.  Music almost always sounds better live, and the interaction between performer and audience is part of the alchemical magic.

You remember something Derek mentioned before. They started out as a wedding band, specializing in Sinatra tunes, and they’ve been playing together for five years.  The Sinatra angle piqued your curiosity. It’s why you went to the gig. Now you realize you’re watching four people who have their shit together.    They can play their instruments and play them well. They understand song construction, and the importance of a hook.  The songs are catchy.  They’ve known each other since t-ball and they came down from Sacramento together.

Afterward you meet them all on the smokers balcony, amid the press of well-wishers. They’re nice boys, unpretentious and wholesome. You feel ten years younger just hanging out with them.

Who should re-appear at this very moment, like Banquo’s ghost, but none other than Chris Douridas.  He offers the bandmates friendly advice:  “Hold on to your land as long as you can.”

Driving back to the Valley, you remember a different bit of advice, attributed to Vince Lombardi:  “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence”.

You can hear their single here:

http://www.babetheband.com

Nightwalking in Hollywood

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Descending the Cahuenga Pass at twilight, bright fruited bursts of neon glow from the rooftops and brickworks of old Hollywood in a most appealing way.  I don’t normally consider the Valley bland and colorless, but the view from the 101 in the evening is of another city altogether, once neglected now restored to a former glamour.

He will fall in love with you. Guaranteed.
He will fall in love with you. Guaranteed.
Just arrived, from the Catfish capital of the World.  
Just arrived, from the Catfish Capital of the World. An $1800 studio awaits.

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The Emerson College campus on Sunset is the next incarnation of the City: vertical, modernist, Dubai influenced and eye-popping.  Built for the oldest purposes of Hollywood: taking money away from people who want to be famous.