Tag Archives: Los Angeles

A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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Straight Outta Compton (Director’s Cut)

Straight Outta Compton posterAnyone who’s read through many of the articles and reviews here will probably have noticed that despite my fairly broad embracing of musical styles, hip hop is something that I have, over the years, struggled to appreciate (though I have to credit both Asylum Seekas and DJ Oneofakind for their help with what I do like), so, coming to Straight Outta Compton, a film chatting the history of ‘gangster rap’ originators N.W.A., I did wonder how well I would connect with it.

It wasn’t long into F. Gary Gray’s director’s cut edition of the film though that, whatever the style of music being created in the story, two things connected me with it deeply.

First is that this is a story about youthful rebellion, much like rock ‘n’ roll and punk in decades prior, though arguably these youths had a lot more to rebel against.

Secondly is that this yet another of that most cliché of cliché’s for Hollywood, The American Dream – so much so that there were a couple of points that had me comparing Straight Outta Compton to La La Land which also uses this as a framework for its musical action.

Starting off by introducing to our protagonists, the young men who would soon become N.W.A., and particularly Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, the original Cube’s son), Gray drops us right into the heart of the action.

Eazy-E (Mitchell) and Jerry Heller (Giamatti)

Eazy-E (Mitchell) and Jerry Heller (Giamatti)

We meet ‘E’ in the midst of a drug deal as it goes wrong and the LAPD intervene with something resembling a tank – if that doesn’t set up just how extreme the situation of inner city Los Angeles was in the early 1980s then nothing will.

Dre’s situation is somewhat more sedate though still troubled as he is kicked of his mother’s house, dreaming of making music while missing out on steady work, and Cube’s introduction comes with a gang hold up on a school bus.

From there the plot is fairly well trodden, the group hit an artistic and commercial high before becoming embroiled with the kind of music industry stuff that seems to catch up with all successful musicians eventually.

As it goes on the troubles get more extreme and it all comes to a bittersweet conclusion, but with a sense of hope. I’m sure if you care that much you’ll already know the story but as I didn’t I won’t spoil it anymore than that.

N.W.A. have a run in with the police

The scene supposedly inspiring for ‘Fuck tha Police’

What really makes this all work and be so captivating for its near three hours is that, while it’s clear some elements are fictionalised, the whole thing has a ring of truth to it whether in a literal or artistic sense and the performances are all excellent and entirely convincing.

Part of this may be down to that fact that I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors (besides Paul Giamatti who seems born to play sleazy managerial types) so as the cast all physically resemble the people they are playing to a degree they are able to inhabit them without baggage.

That goes for the smaller roles too as we meet the likes of Snoop Dogg and, briefly, 2-Pac as the film goes on really helping to place this in the wider context of the musical scene of hip hop at the time.

Jackson Jr as Ice Cube

Jackson Jr as Ice Cube

The other thing that really works in the film’s favour is how it uses the music it is talking about.

From scenes in studios (ranging from bedrooms to high-end industry facilities) to a recreation of a national tour, the music is used as part of the narrative, not just a byproduct of it, giving the film the feeling of being something of a musical, albeit in an unconventional sense.

This is highlighted by a concert in Detroit where a riot is instigated as the local constabulary try to shut down the show as N.W.A. unleash the vicious, and massively appropriate, Fuck tha Police.

As the film winds down things get more emotional and again the performances come to the fore with a more grown up feel.

Hawkins as Dr. Dre

Hawkins as Dr. Dre

It all climaxes not only with the sense that we’ve watched the story of a musical group, but we’ve experienced along with them the journey of five young men from adolescence to adulthood through some hugely tumultuous times and experiences.

Added to that is the notion (quite rightly) that this all had a genuine effect not just on these five men but on culture, politics and life not just in Compton, but the USA and around the world making Straight Outta Compton at once personal and political while having a lot to say about the troubled ongoing, real world, narrative of The American Dream.

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La La Land

La La Land posterGoing into a film that has just been nominated for a record equalling 14 academy awards sets up a certain expectation. But, along with a huge amount of positive hype there have been some opposers to La La Land, including stories of whole groups walking out of screenings.

Well, even as the strains to the spectacular opening number died away I was pretty sure what side I would fall on. The film sets its stall here as we enter Los Angeles into that most LA of things, a vast freeway traffic jam with a cacophony of car horns, engines and myriad radio stations before it coalesces into a spectacular song and dance number, including a jazz band in the back of a truck.

This serves the purpose of showing us that, while this looks like the real world, we are in the same kind of fantasy land that gave us the likes of Singin’ In The Rain and other classic ‘golden era’ Hollywood musicals, and so it goes from there.

The story at first looks like some thing fairly well trodden and hackneyed as we meet Emma Stone’s aspiring actress/current barista Mia and Ryan Gosling’s down at heel jazz pianist Sebastian, with a nice Pulp Fiction-esque bit of cinematic trickery.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

The pair of course meet and, through a few cracking song and dance numbers, become romantically involved and it looks like we are heading for the happily ever after.

Where the film really wins in this regard though is that at any moment that it seems it’s all going to go ‘a bit too hollywood’ and saccharine it subverts expectations just enough but without derailing its overall upbeat feel.

Of course without the music a musical would be somewhat lost and what La La Land does is ingenious. It bases its musical ventures largely around Sebastian’s love of jazz leading to numbers that are great for spontaneous fantasy dancing, alongside more diegetic moments that help the balance of fantasy and reality.

La La Land

Mia and her housemates head out on the town

Despite this the singing and dancing, while well handled, isn’t the film’s highlight. Though both Stone and Gosling acquit themselves fairly well, particularly during emir courtship dance in the Hollywood Hills, it’s fair to say neither are Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds level – though it knows this enough to acknowledge its historical references.

Throughout it feels that the most accomplished dancer in La La Land is the camera as it glides and swoops through lengthy shots and takes both during the musical numbers and otherwise, finding a good balance between over showy camera work and giving the actors a chance to, well, act (often a rarity in mainstream films).

With a story about the downtrodden seeking success and fame in the entertainment industry La La Land is a movie custom-made for Hollywood to love and its classic representation of the American dream, with a slight twist, is refreshing in a world where that dream feels increasingly like it’s been hijacked for nefarious purposes.

John Legend and Ryan Gosling

John Legend and Ryan Gosling

It also manages to attain a feeling of joy I don’t remember seeing in a cinema in this way in a long time and does so in a way that feels like it has some real heart, as well as a point to make about artistic compromise and integrity, all while being startlingly uncynical without a bad bone in its body, making for a wonderful two hours of much-needed escapism.

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All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

All Things Must Pass posterOn a visit to London as a teenager I remember heading into a record store on Piccadilly Circus with distinctive red and yellow signs, Tower Records. In my naivety I assumed this was a one-off store as it didn’t feel like part of a major chain like the HMV and Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street did.

Of course I now know better and, in his Kickstarter funded documentary All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks recounts the story of Tower Records from its inception in Sacramento in 1960 to its demise in 2006 and beyond.

The man behind Tower was Russ Solomon and here he is the linchpin of the story, as it seems he was of the company, appearing in a series of interviews tracing the company’s history and coming across as a kind of spiritual guru of the record retail business.

Other members of staff who joined the company in this early years as it grew from Sacramento to San Francisco and the Los Angeles are also interviewed building up this image of Solomon. In a lot of cases this kind of reverence for, essentially, a businessman would feel somewhat contrived but here I was left with the sense that actually Solomon was all he comes across as, including some dubious financial decisions during the companies rapid expansion in the 1980s and 90s.

Russ Solomon, circa 1970s

Russ Solomon, circa 1970s

The story that Solomon began is portrayed here as a kind if last hurrah for the American Dream and again this comes across with a refreshing lack of cynicism, giving the feeling that Tower really was the a local music store on an international scale.

A collection of archive photos and videos of the store’s various early locations, particularly its original location in Sacramento and the San Francisco ‘superstore’ at Columbus and Bay (now somewhat depressingly a Wallgreen’s chain pharmacy), really help build this image of ‘classic America’.

These shots of the old stores are a fascinating view back into the heyday of the record store with vinyl stacked floor to ceiling and flying off the shelves.

The original Tower Records

The original Tower Records

In its telling the film is relatively run of the mill with a collection of talking heads telling the story with the help of some well-chosen archive footage and some celebrity extras (here including former staff member Dave Grohl, they let him keep his hair style, and the self-proclaimed man who spent more than anyone else at Tower Records, Elton John, who seems genuinely emotional about his memories of buying seemingly every album ever).

What elevates it though is the sense of genuine feeling that comes through, particularly when the companies first 30 years are being discussed by the staff, who tell stories of all night parties and just how the gap between customers and staff was all but non-existent as the stores acted as meeting places and community centres for music lovers in their respective towns and cities.

As the film continues into the 90s Tower Records appears to act as a microcosm of the problems facing the record industry with cultural changes around music listening habits being poorly handled, though it’s refreshing to see many of the original Tower team embracing new ways of listening while the issues these caused and poor handling is levelled at the ‘industry’ not Tower or its guru who, well into his 70s here, seems just as positive and enthusiastic as when the store first opened.

Tower Records on Sunset Strip

Tower Records on Sunset Strip

This sense of positivity and enthusiasm pervades the film until the credits role, despite the collapse and closure of Tower Records in 2006, making what could be a nostalgic but ultimately melancholy story become something uplifting and celebratory of what may be a largely lost era but one that still means a lot to many.

And it’s always good to remember the slogan adopted from their expansion in Japan… No Music, No Life.

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Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski

Ham On Rye - Charles Bukowski coverHaving explored some of the writings of the Beat Generation, particularly works by Kerouac and Ginsberg and some from Cassady and Burroughs, one name stood out amongst the related writers as something potentially a bit different but sharing some of the same head space, Charles Bukowski. So, last time I was at City Lights Bookstore I picked up the book of his that stood out most from the many on the shelf, Ham On Rye.

Instantly its clear that, while yes there is a similarity to the Beats in terms of its setting in a very real world America of the 20th century, this book was published later (1982 quite impressively) but is set far earlier and in a very focussed location of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, away from the New York and San Francisco of the 40s, 50s and early 60s the Beats more commonly dealt with.

Superficially the books is, apparently, a semi-autobiographical account of the youth of Bukowski’s regular avatar, Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski, dealing with his formative years through school and his first steps into the adult world and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Throughout this Chinaski comes across as a thoroughly awful character but one who is undeniably compelling. His words (it’s all first person) giving a sense of real brutality he experiences at the hands of seemingly everyone he encounters from parents, teachers, contemporaries and more and the brutal nature of his response to all this.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

Bukowski’s style of writing really exacerbates this being at once simplistic, at times as if written by the young Chinaski, but extremely impactful for it. There is no sense of wasted words or floridity as it is delivered as directly and bluntly as Chinaski’s actions.

Within this Bukowski paints a picture of a side of America that maybe hasn’t translated across the Atlantic as well as some others. From my experience the Great Depression of the early 1930s is always depicted as very much an East Coast, South and Mid West phenomena with news reel of the hungry and jobless in New York and Chicago or the drought conditions of the more rural areas seen in the likes of Bonnie And Clyde.

Here though we see the young, great western city of Los Angeles in that period with basic but expressive views of the city from Chinaski’s childhood home in what would become South Central (more recently somewhat of a ‘ghetto’ for the city’s black community, but then home of poor immigrants from the east) to the inner city area, now Downtown, rife with unemployment, dive bars, desperation and, it seems, characters even shadier than Chinaski.

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

In this the book finds its purpose, as it does what many writers who featured within the 20th Century ‘counterculture’ did in exploring the end of the so-called American Dream. Hunter S. Thompson posited its destruction or desecration in the late 1960s and early 70s with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, for Ginsberg parts of it were lost in the 1940s and 50s as seen in Howl, while for Bukowski it seemed the dream died with the Great Depression.

There are of course arguments for all of these and more but Bukowski’s Chinaski seems to be a kind of living embodiment of this, no longer denying the end of the pioneer spirit that had typified the USA’s first century and a half and settling into a pattern of division and desperation that can still be seen today (coming to the fore even more so as I write in the build up to the 2016 election).

On top of all this the book is compelling to read flying along with a pace that captures childhood and growing up excellently, but rather than focussing on the idealised view usually seen in mass media, comes with a darker hue that may be extreme but is, if anything, potentially far more honest for it.

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The First Third by Neal Cassady

The First Third by Neal CassadyNeal Cassady; off page progenitor of Beat, Dean Moriarty or Cody Pomeray to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise et al, inspirer (and more) of Ginsberg and Howl, godfather of psychedelic counterculture and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test… or so legend would have it, but could all that possibly be the truth?

In The First Third, Cassady himself sets out his story in his words, or at least some of it, and proves, as you might expect, that it is both truth and a kind of fiction.

Published by City Lights, the original home of the Beat Generation, the book combines a partial autobiography with collected other autobiographical moments, poems and letters that go some way to show the man behind the myth, while backing it up at the same time.

Cassady’s story is one that could only have existed in its time, trapped between the expansionist, pioneering American Dream of the 1800s and the post war malaise that became the Great Depression. The main chunk of The First Third explores Cassady’s youth, following a fascinating if at times fractured exploration of his heritage as the offspring of two families who emigrated to the US as part of that mid-1800s boom.

Neal Cassady

Neal Cassady

His story, while one with a hint of typically romanticised nostalgia for childhood, is about as dysfunctional as they come; skipping between homes, ‘homes’, lodging houses and parents, mostly around Denver, Colorado, along with trips that would prefigure the story that would make he and his alter-ego Moriarty so famous.

Cassady’s style of writing comes in the form of a kind of precursor to the ‘spontaneous prose’ he inspired from Kerouac and, while clearly falling into the Beat aesthetic, has a naivety to it that suits the tales of his childhood adventures and make this section of the book fly by.

The second half of The First Third is more of a mixed bag dipping in and out of tales from Cassady’s teenage and adult life that, as they go on, become increasingly concerned with a seeming obsession with sex and bragging about his sexual conquests. Here his naïve style becomes at odds to the content and often feels repetitive ably demonstrating that an addict talking about his addictions (it seems not only sex but drugs, alcohol and anything else that comes along) are certainly far from the most interesting of subjects.

Ginsberg and Cassady

Ginsberg and Cassady

This continues in the books final section containing a series of letters to Jack Kerouac and then Ken Kesey that bring us up to 1965, three years before Cassady’s death, which at least give the whole a kind of vaguely rounded complete autobiography feel.

In amongst this mixed bag of the books second half is its highlight, a short prose-poem Leaving L.A. by Train at Night, High… Subject wise, it’s all in the title, but Cassady paints a vivid picture from a late 1940s perspective, now lost to the sprawling metropolis the city has become, but with hints and suggestions that even now bring it back to life.

In all, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sums it up in his 1981 Editor’s Note when he describes The First Third as being written in ‘homespun, primitive prose’, but this seems to capture the spirit of the writer and his truly unique story from potential drop out bum to cult icon and hero of a new kind of American Dream that has also since been lost to history and nostalgia leaving in its wake some great literary art.

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Los Angeles – November 2015 – Part 4

Venice Beach

Venice Beach

My final full day in LA started out in the small coastal city of Venice, north of LAX and south of Santa Monica. While more famous for its long, sandy beach, the area takes it’s name from the canals that run between the houses and streets at its southern end near the enormous Marina Del Ray.

Today though I stuck to the beachfront areas. At the southern most point, where a breakwater creates an entrance to the marina, the beachfront buildings are a string of houses that look like slightly rundown versions of those I’d previously seen at Manhattan Beach, while to the north the beach side path was lined with small shops selling everything from souvenir t-shirts, to food, to medicinal cannabis (assuming you ‘passed’ the required test – similar outlets were dotted around the city and all looked, at best, sketchy).

The beach itself is wide and made of deep, soft sand that made walking along it nearly impossible away from the shoreline, so I stuck to the footpath which had the odd feel of a combination of Camden High Street and a sunnier version of the seafront walk at Vazon (though clouds were looming on this particular day).

Venice mural

Venice mural

One thing that stands out around Venice are the large murals on the walls of some of the buildings. With great attention to detail they all have their own style and character but add something unique to the area.

Also somewhat iconic (thanks largely to Baywatch) are the lifeguard stations dotted along the beach, the palm trees and the ‘muscle beach’ out door gym (largely deserted in the mid-morning).

While all of this sounds fairly tropical the whole place has something of a tired feel and, while famous as hangout for ‘the beautiful people’ it seems this is no longer the case and I think you’d be more likely to bump into homeless people than a Pamela Anderson lookalike.

The busiest area on the beachfront on this morning surrounded a kind of recreation centre which showed the city’s more glamourously bohemian past with its wall dedicated to poets and writers who based themselves in the area in the 1960s and 70s, including The Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison. Next to this was a small but busy skate park and ‘V’ shaped sculpture giving this area the feel of being the beach’s ‘town centre’.

Venice beach prom

Venice beach prom

Heading north the tired and quiet feel began to change as Venice became Santa Monica and the beach front buildings, set further back were clearly far more high end.

Much like beach resorts in the UK those that line the Coast of LA have piers with various attractions on and, of the ones I’ve seen, Santa Monica was by far the busiest.

Much of this was similar to the restaurants and gift shops found on Pier 39 in San Francisco with a fun fair added in as well. For me the best part of the pier was simply the views from the end looking north towards Malibu and Santa Monica Mountains and south along Venice and down towards the other beach resorts of Manhattan and Hermosa.

Also interesting was a gift shop dedicated to Route 66, while typically ‘all American’ in style it demonstrates something of the vastness of the country of which this is the westernmost region. On top of that it continued to feed the wanderlust I have for the US…

The view north from Santa Monica pier

The view north from Santa Monica pier

Away from the seafront, Santa Monica’s city centre features a clearly recently redeveloped shopping area, the Third Street Promenade, with stores ranging from more day-to-day ‘high street’ brands to higher end designer fare. A particular highlight for me was the Barnes and Noble bookstore, which was enormous and featured a wide selection of surprisingly different stuff for a big chain store.

With the wind starting to blow up and the clouds that had been lurking on the horizon all day finally heading nearer, I met up with my cousin and we headed home via a supermarket. As we left the forecast weather really began to hit and it was impressive to see the tropical palm trees and usually calmly hanging road signs being battered by the wind.

The TV news later added a somewhat hysterical (and entertaining) edge to this as the ‘storm’, which ended up really constituting a few heavy showers and some strong wind that passed fairly quickly, was treated by the reporters like some kind of natural disaster (and surely LA knows natural disasters), despite being little more than what we get fairly regularly at home – though I’d imagine heavy rain on a busy eight lane freeway could cause more problems than a two lane road in Guernsey.

The Getty Museum

The Getty Museum

With only a few hours in the morning before having to be at the airport for my flight back to the UK we headed out to the Getty Museum in the hills over looking the city.

Despite being a tourist attraction the whole place has a somewhat secretive feel to it. Located off the freeway on a steep sided hill, after parking the car we got onto a minibus which drove the narrow path up the rear of the impressive museum.

The Getty houses a range of art from pre-rennaisance painting and sculpture through to contemporary photography in a collection of impressively designed buildings and gardens perched between Santa Monica and Hollywood.

This early in the day the place felt like we almost had it to ourselves as we explored the gardens (somewhat half finished at this time of year due to seasonal changes and drought) before heading into the museum. While the older items in the first gallery are impressive for their age and style what really stood out to me was the photographic exhibitions, including several feature ones by post-war Japanese photographers looking at the recent history of the people and the country.

View from the Getty Museum

View from the Getty Museum

As we headed down the hill on the monorail (this final touch completed the feeling of Roger Moore-era Bond villain HQ that the Getty has) I had the feeling we had only scratched the surface of what’s on show here and if I’m back in LA I’ll do my best visit with more time.

From the Getty we headed to the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX rounding off my travels with a mostly smooth flight back across the US, Canada and the Atlantic, including an impressive view of the lights of Las Vegas standing out in the idle of the dark desert.

You can read my previous travel blogs about this trip at the links below:

San Francisco (including Ghost at the Warfield)

Coast Starlight

Los Angeles (including Tiger Army’s Octoberflame)

And you can see my photos on Facebook

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Los Angeles – October/November 2015 – Part 3

Downtown LA from Griffith Park

Downtown LA from Griffith Park

After a packed couple of days my weekend in Los Angeles was set to be a comparatively relaxed one, though still with some interesting things to do.

After a more relaxed Saturday morning we headed toward Chinatown for lunch. Located adjacent to Downtown what I saw of LA’s Chinatown looked far smaller and less ingrained than its counterpart in San Francisco, with a couple of shopping centres, markets and restaurants (and I assume some housing too).

For lunch we headed into a bustling, and in many ways baffling, dim sum restaurant. Upon arrival we were whisked to a table by one of the seemingly hundreds of waiting staff and almost before we’d sat down we were set upon by a few with a selection of dishes. Rather than ordering specific items waiters constantly circulated through the tables offering whatever it was they had, while a little disconcerting at first this did mean we had the chance to try a huge range of food I’d not really had before. From dumplings and meat dishes to fish and deserts it seemed, if you wanted it, the food was never-ending.

Particularly enjoyable were some eggy, doughy dumplings contained some kind of unspecified meaty stuff, along a with steamed prawn variety, but in general it was all very nice once I got into the swing of things and I got the impression was actually fairly legitimately Chinese judging by the clientele.

Amoeba Music on Sunset

Amoeba Music on Sunset

After a look around some of the nearby shops, mostly featuring the same kind of stuff as those on Grant Avenue in San Francisco, we headed over to the Hollywood section of Sunset Boulevard.

Here we parked up behind the spectacular looking Cinerama Dome Arclight Cinema (if I’m back here again I must make a point to try to see a movie there), and headed to the third Amoeba Records store of my trip.

Even when compared to the San Francisco branch this is a huge store with countless CD, vinyl and tapes spanning all genres I could think of along with books, souvenirs, novelties and, upstairs, a huge range of DVD and Blu-ray. Much like the other branches there was a lot could have come away with but limited myself to a few selections including an album by one of the bands we’d seen the previous night, James Intveld.

It might sound odd to talk so much and in such positive ways about a shop, but in a place that feels like a mecca of commercialism Amoeba Records does something impressive in having a genuinely great atmosphere reminiscent of smaller local record shops just expanded to a huge scale with enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff and a great, varied selection of offer. If retailers want people back in their shops and not shopping online there are far worse models to follow than this.

1953 Telecaster

1953 Telecaster

From Amoeba we headed along Sunset to Guitar Centre. This huge store is much like the record shop but selling instruments. As the name suggests the majority of the store is taken up with a huge range of guitars but it also sells drums, keyboards and studio recording equipment.

The range of instruments is frankly bewildering though most are actually fairly standard fare until you head down through the acoustic rooms and into an area at the very back of the building housing a range of rare and collectible instruments and amps.

Amongst these were some frankly amazing vintage Gretsch guitars from the 1950s, Fender amps from the same era and, most notably, an original 1953 Fender Telecaster with a price tag well exceeding $30,000!

Compared to the UK, the USA does a lot more to celebrate Halloween and throughout my trip there had been plenty of signs it was coming up, but, on the day itself the City of West Hollywood goes all out and stages a huge street party, second only in scale to their annual Pride event. We arrived in West Hollywood early so as to be able to find a place to park and headed past the rainbow crosswalks to the mile long stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that had been closed for the event.

With stages set up at either end and a few others in between we wandered down the wide street, some of the first to arrive, and it was clear everyone in the area was getting in on the celebrations from packed bars and restaurants to those starting to arrive in a range of costumes.

WeHo Halloween Festival

WeHo Halloween Festival

There were already some dancing in the streets early on but as the sun began to set things really began to fill up and the costumes became more elaborate. These ranged from more conventional horror movie related fare (including a particularly elaborate Ringu one that allowed the wearer, as Sadako, to appear as if she were crawling from a TV) to many other things.

Some were a bit on the risqué side too, including a pair of skimpily clad Mario Brothers and a young man wearing little more than a pair of black angel wings, while others were simply impressive for various reasons including a Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner lookalike, Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous (it could have been Joanna Lumley!) and a full size dinosaur skeleton puppet outfit.

WeHo Halloween Festival

Dinosaur puppet costume

After having a look around for a few hours and getting some food we headed home for the day and I think were all slightly disappointed the next morning when we found out the surprise special guest at the end of the night had been Boy George!

We didn’t let that effect things too much as, after another relaxing start to the day we headed down to Manhattan Beach for a bit of a walk on the pier.

The beaches that stretch from Malibu in the north to Palos Verdes in the south are hugely impressive and strongly remind me of bigger, sunnier, versions of Vazon in Guernsey, but with towns and cities backing right up to their promenades and oil tankers moored offshore filling themselves up from the offshore oil rigs dotted just beyond the horizon.

In a change from the weather so far mist and clouds were beginning to gather around the Santa Monica Mountains in the north but at Manhattan it was still hot and sunny so the ice cream and cookie sandwich from the Manhattan Beach Creamery really hit the spot.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach

From there we headed north, once more, towards Hollywood though this time, rather than the city our destination was the hills behind and the Griffith Park Observatory.

Parking just down the hill from the summit led to some great views over the trails and paths that wind their way up the hills as well as the iconic Hollywood sign on the opposite peak. As well as that the sight of the early 20th century, art deco styled observatory, perched on its hillside plateau were spectacular.

The Griffith Park Observatory is now much more a museum and tourist attraction than working observatory, unsurprising considering the amount of light pollution rising from the plain below, and features a great planetarium at its centre.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory

The show today focused on how water is crucial to the development of life and it took us from Los Angeles to the distant moons of the outer planets of the solar system exploring where there might be water, and where extraterrestrial life might exist, with stunning visuals projected onto the huge domed roof.

The rest of the complex is a museum focusing on astronomy with examples of space debris that has crashed into the Earth, a whole gallery dedicated to the differences between the planets and a section about the history of telescopes from Galileo to Hubble to the current vast arrays being built.

Tesla Coil

Tesla Coil

A highlight of all of this is a working Tesla Coil that we saw demonstrated with arcs of lightning flying from its domed top to the edges of the Faraday cage surrounding it and causing a neon sign to illuminate without the need of any power cables – genuinely a spectacular sight.

While inside the observatory was impressive the views it affords across a majority of the vast metropolis of Los Angeles are something else.

With the sun beginning to set and fog rolling in from the sea these views were even further enhanced as the city began to twinkle like a star field below us (even if its light knocked out any chance of seeing the actual stars above). Anyway its impossible to really describe the views of the city from here but you can see some in my photo gallery over on Facebook.

The Rainbow

The Rainbow

Famed as a hangout for LA’s rock star royalty our next stop was the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip. While there were many likely rockers dotted about the bar, being an early Sunday evening meant the place was relatively quiet so we didn’t see its most famed regular, Motorhead’s Lemmy, but none the less were treated to a great meal.

While my steak was one of the best I’ve had (and very reasonably priced) and the pizzas looked amazing, the place really sold itself with its decor and atmosphere which were something like a less corporate, more legitimate feeling Hard Rock Café.

With its location near famous venues like the Troubadour, The Viper Room and The Whisky-A-Go-Go (basically listen to some Motley Crue and you’ll get a surprisingly good idea of the Strip) its obvious why this area is a mecca for rock ‘n’ roll bands from around the world and why the Rainbow is at its centre and it rounded off our day in fine fashion.

Read about the final part of my trip here

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Los Angeles – October 2015 – Part 2

Melrose Avenue

Melrose Avenue

Much like my first day in ‘The City of Angels’ (something I have never seen, heard or said actually in the city) my second was set to be a hyper touristy one thanks to my two-day bus tour pass. Having left the tour in Hollywood the previous day I thought I’d start the morning on the section of Melrose Avenue I passed through previously and have a look at some of the shops.

Getting there at about 10 I had a chance to explore a little as most of the shops didn’t open until nearer 11 so I walked the length of this section of the street passed The Groundlings Theatre that I visited on my last trip to LA and their new, soon to open school. Most of the street is taken up by clothes shops of different varieties from minor designer style boutiques (none of which I’d ever heard of) along with a few other shops including a comic book store, Japanese novelty & memorabilia store and a toys & games shop.

My first port of call was Mega City One comic book store, on my last visit it went by the name Melrose Music And Comics, but despite the name change the friendly atmosphere, gaming area and great selection was the same. As ever there were many things I could have come away with but settled on a couple of Batman collections and the next in the Transmetropolitan series I am gradually working through.

Further along the street a few of the clothes shops piqued my interest, one in particular, going by the name of Posers, with a great selection of largely British punk, mod and rocker style clothing that was about as far from the Hot Topics and such that sell the mass-produced equivalent of this as you can get. With such a great selection it was all I could do not to leave with a new pair of creepers or ‘Harrington’ jacket.

Dave Lombardo art

Dave Lombardo art

While the clothes in the front of Forgotten Saints looked both overpriced and like they were trying a bit too hard to show their punk credentials, the gallery area hidden at the back of the store held a few things of much more interest.

While only small the walls were lined with artwork created by two of Los Angeles metals most well-known drummers, former Guns ‘n’ Roses member Steven Adler and on-again-off-again Slayer percussion monster Dave Lombardo. Both sets of art were based around their day jobs but showed an interesting new side to the performers and it would have been nice to be able to see more in a slightly more easy to view situation.

From Melrose I repeated part of the bus tour loop up to the junction of Hollywood and Vine where I hopped off to walk along the more easterly end of Hollywood Boulevard. While less notable in terms of tourist attractions this section did feature some notable buildings from the Capitol Records buildings to yet another Scientology centre (there are three or four, including their main ‘celebrity HQ’ within a few blocks) to the huge but seemingly abandoned Pacific Radio building topped with a pair of huge radio transmission masts.

Capitol Records Building

Capitol Records Building

The third loop of the bus tour headed from Hollywood to Downtown Los Angeles. The first chunk of this was a long section with no stops along Sunset Boulevard, passed Amoeba Records, Crossroads of the World (former) Mall and the Cinerama Dome cinema. This was followed by trips through the city’s Armenian neighbourhoods (the area System of a Down originated from) and the Korean community, again showing the diversity of the city.

As we neared downtown we passed through MacArthur Park and I would have quite liked the chance to disembark here and have a look around as, with its lake and fountains, it looked like a nice area. The bus continued though on its route into the man-made canyons between the high rises and skyscrapers at the heart of the city.

I stayed on the bus until we pulled up alongside the elaborate and unique Walt Disney Concert Hall and I headed next door to the newly opened Broad art gallery. Recently built to house the art collection of philanthropist Eli Broad it is itself a striking edifice and free to get in as well. With only three floors I wondered quite how much there would be to see but I was far from disappointed.

Entering the gallery you are directed up a long, tunnel-like, escalator to the top floor where you emerge into a wide, open, white gallery that stretches out all around through various smaller rooms all of which you can see hints of from this central space. Arbitrarily heading right I was confronted by a room of works by Andy Warhol and continuing in a clockwise direction there were hundreds more pieces by artists whose names I recognised and (mostly) ones I didn’t, but all the work was incredibly striking and impressive.

Warhol's Elvis and Marilyn

Warhol’s Elvis and Marilyn

While it was, at points, too busy to easily take in detail, as a collection The Broad was hugely impressive and well worth a visit.

Also fascinating was, on the way out, as I descended the central staircase, I could see into the buildings middle floor where the remainder of the museum’s vast collection is housed in storage.

Back outside I realised that the downtown loop of the bus tour was far from convenient in comparison to the others and I had missed the next bus and there wasn’t one for another hour, so I headed down the hill from The Broad and into the heart of the city.

Walking between the skyscrapers always has an odd feeling and I was surprised by quite how steep some of the hills were in this area, which only amplified the height of some of the buildings. At the bottom of the hill though I headed around a corner and stumbled upon the LA public library, it’s oddly Egyptian styled exterior and gardens entirely out-of-place in this location but all the more striking for it and echoing something of the mall in Hollywood and the old Grauman’s theatre which, I assume, dated from a similar era.

LA Public Library

LA Public Library

From there I headed further into Downtown and got a flavour of what the city must have been like before the evident gentrification began. Heading to Pershing Square and a couple of blocks over to South Broadway the buildings were very dated and, while the architecture could have been striking it all had something of a tired air and I got the impression I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be in the area after dark – though I may have got entirely the wrong idea…

At this stage I met up with my cousins again and we began the drive down to Santa Ana (another of LA counties 40+ cities) where we had tickets to the first night of Tiger Army’s Octoberflame Halloween show. The venue was nicely compact with a unique layout that I wasn’t at first convinced by but was glad of once Tiger Army took to the stage and the pit kicked off. Before the show I didn’t know who the support acts were as I had brought the tickets on pre-sale back in June as I knew it would sell out quickly, so I was more than pleasantly surprised by both The Limit Club (a psychobilly band from Phoenix) and James Intveld (a country performer who produced Nick 13’s solo record).

Tiger Army

Tiger Army

You can read my full review of the Octoberflame gig here but suffice to say it has entered my top 10, and possibly top 5, shows I’ve attended while The Limit Club have since turned out to be a thoroughly nice bunch going by our interactions on social media.

Once again the drive ‘home’ went by with surprising swift and it wasn’t long before I fell asleep exhausted in the early hours of Halloween.

Read about my next two days in LA here

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Los Angeles – October 2015 – Part 1

Palisades Park at Santa Monica

Palisades Park at Santa Monica

Following my day on the Coast Starlight travelling down from San Francisco, my first day in Los Angeles couldn’t have started in much more typical fashion as my cousin dropped me off at Santa Monica Pier under palm trees, blues skies and a blazing hot sun.

For my first two days in the city I had planned for a couple of days of hyper-touristy activity with a ticket for one of the many open top bus tours that crisscross the northern section of the city in the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills and head into Downtown. ‘Hopping’ onto the bus at its first stop in Santa Monica it wound its way through the wide palm-tree-lined streets and boulevards of the beach side city making it abundantly clear that this is one of the more up market areas of Los Angeles County.

From Santa Monica the tour headed into Westwood Village. The compact area of high-rise buildings next to a freeway was hardly what I’d picture when someone said village but, the explanation that it was built to serve the nearby university campus, gave it a little more context and we caught glimpses of the open park areas that lead up to the campus behind the buildings. While not quite as picturesque as its Berkeley counterpart the idea was obviously similar and did looked entirely different to any image of LA one might have.

Glamourous Beverly Hills

‘Glamorous’ Beverly Hills

‘Glamorous’ Beverley Hills was up next and the tour guide, a recording in a strangely false, over the top, British accent, made a point of highlighting the ‘Beverley Hills’ signs that welcome people to the area. Ironically the one we passed sat in the forecourt of a petrol station somewhat destroying the supposed mystique.

Despite that the surrounding area was clearly exceptionally well off with big houses set back from the widest streets I saw in the city, most with richly green central reservations that we were told were often used by ‘famous residents’ for jogging, though we didn’t see any of course.

It was here the two most frustrating elements of an otherwise enjoyable tour first cropped up. First were the constant references to the fact we might spot someone famous, despite the deserted streets and the fact that anyone with a reasonable level of fame would likely make sure to never buy property on a tour bus route. Secondly, and slightly more disturbingly, were the stories of celebrity murders and deaths – these cropped up throughout the tour but started here with the OJ Simpson case as we passed the street on which his former property lay.

While these kind of stories possibly combine to offer a fair reflection of the tourist appeal of Los Angeles, the glee with which the darker ones were recounted was somewhat disturbing – though I did notice we were spared the less celebrity events such as the Black Dahlia, possibly only because we didn’t pass close enough to the scene though.

La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits

After a change of bus, onto the tour’s Hollywood loop, on a back street behind Beverley Hills City Hall – again not showing the city’s best side – we headed through the shopping heart of Beverley Hills where it borders onto West Hollywood (more of that later) and towards LACMA and the Le Brea Tar Pits, where I ‘hopped off’.

Having been to LACMA last time I was here I headed around it into the park that contains the tar pits and I was surprised at quite how literal the name is. Entering the park the first thing I encountered was a small lake that was black with tar just under the surface and, in one corner, protruding from the water, along with the very noticeable smell. To illustrate just what the whole idea of the tar pits is, in the lake is a model of a trapped mammoth along with another on the bank as if trying to rescue it – while a little hokey looking these statues illustrate things well and set up what’s to come in the rest of the museum.

La Brea Tar PitsInside the first thing you see is a cross-section block of tar full of the bones of several animals giving an idea of quite what has been unearthed here. This is followed by a wall-sized photo of the same site in the early 1900s with oil wells and barren earth in place of the green park and Beverly Hills, showing just how this area has changed in the last century.

A family friendly 3D film then introduces us to the changing landscapes from prehistory to now that led to the formation of the tar pits and how quite so many animals came to be found in one place from mammoths, to sabre tooth cats to dire wolves to, hinted at but less explicitly demonstrated, ancient humans. While simple in tone it set the scene well and had some nice touches and surprisingly good production values.

The rest of the museum was fairly simple with skeletons, animatronic dioramas and recreated statues of the various creatures that roamed the planes of this area as man was first staking his claim on the planet

Wall of dire wolf skulls

Wall of dire wolf skulls

Amongst this was a chance to see some of the sites archaeologists at work cleaning and analyzing some of the objects unearthed, while the most striking display was a wall of dire wolf skulls showing just how many skeletons had been pulled from the pits over the years, with more still being unearthed.

Back out in the park a few more tar pits are visible with one open to view ongoing excavations, showing just how near the surface some of these things are being found and making clear quite how much oil must still sit beneath the city.

From the tar pits it was only a few blocks to the Los Angeles Farmers Market, so I thought I’d walk over that way for lunch. As is typical with LA, despite the short walk between the two relatively well-known attractions (yes the Farmers Market is marketed as an attraction), I saw only two other pedestrians on the street between the two.

The market itself was a covered area with many small shops and stalls inside, mostly cafes and eateries with shared seating in between. The range of food available was astounding and speaks volumes about the city’s varied nature in terms of ethnic communities and all of it had at least some hint of being a genuine version of the cuisine rather than a strictly Americanised take.

Fairfax High School

Fairfax High School

After a snack I rejoined the bus tour for a drive along Melrose Avenue passed the High School apparently attended by Slash and members of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and a supposedly world-famous hot dog restaurant – in keeping with the tours use of hyperbole, I’d never heard of it.

More interestingly as we turned off Melrose it was clear we were now firmly in Hollywood as several studios were visible a block or so off the main streets we were navigating with one having housed RKO pictures at one stage of its history and now being used for several internationally popular TV shows.

From there we joined Hollywood Boulevard and its strange mix of ostentatious architecture, history and some of the most crass tourist baiting I’ve ever seen.

Leaving the bus at the junction of Hollywood and Highlands I made my way along the north side of the boulevard where the sidewalk is lined with stars baring the names of (at least) hundreds of stars of stage, screen, radio, music and theatre. While some of the names, particularly those on this stretch, are household names around the world, others are a real mix of known names and some who I have no idea who they were and if it weren’t for the symbol on their star I wouldn’t even know what they did.

Graumans Chinese Theatre

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

These stars stretch up and down this and several adjoining streets with more being added all the time, though its hard to really discern quite why as they don’t really seem to be awarded for any particular reason other than to mark donations to the city – hence the hodgepodge nature of those featured I guess.

Graunman’s Chinese Theatre on the other hand features some more instantly recognisable names alongside their handprints in its courtyard, though I was again left wondering quite why they are there and what they mean.

While exploring the area I did my best to avoid the Scientology propaganda being handed out near one of several buildings associated with the alleged ‘church’ and in doing so stumbled across the other, lesser known, Grauman’s theatre location – the Egyptian. More modest in size and location than the Chinese counterpart it was in many ways more interesting to see as its typical Egyptian-style design added another layer to the confusing mish-mash that is Hollywood.

Hollywood and Highlands Mall

Hollywood and Highlands Mall

There was more Egyptian themed design in the Hollywood and Highlands mall where I spent a few minutes before meeting up with my cousin again and heading towards Pasadena for dinner and a movie.

The drive took us through Silverlake and a few other more residential areas and again showing just how different each of the cities that make up greater Los Angeles manage to be despite the fact they flow into one another without a break.

In Pasadena the venue for the movie was the Laemmle Playhouse 7 a real, old cinema, originally dating back to the early days of Hollywood, though obviously renovated since, but it still maintained something of the flavour of an older cinema and, as a small independent venue, had a great atmosphere to it that is sadly lacking from many cinemas today.

The film we came to see was All Things Must Pass, a history of Tower Records that was a genuinely fascinating story about the chain of record stores that started in Northern California and, by the mid-90s, was a worldwide brand. The movie is directed by Colin Hanks (son of Tom) and is currently on something of a roadshow type tour of independent cinemas and festivals, following a Kickstarter funding project and I would certainly recommend it if you have the chance to see it.

After the movie the drive back across the city was again surprisingly quick considering the distance covered rounding up my first of several very busy days in LA.

Read about my second day in LA here

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