FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE USA, JUNE 22-24
We flew into LA, meaning we spent more than 20 hours in the sky, which is long enough to watch the entire first season of Twin Peaks plus a couple of movies and attempt a few unsuccessful slumbers on a plastic grey tray table and be awoken a few times by artificial lights and blinding white clouds. The surreality of being trapped on a floating, speeding airborne cigar for so long quickly fades with landing at LAX – despite my never having visited before, America doesn’t seem uncanny, not yet at least. Immediately I wonder why. It seems unlikely that a place which occupies such a well-established psychic position wouldn’t seem strange upon eventual contact, upon inevitably discovering that what your conception of the place was mostly a fabrication of your ownnaive encephalon.
But no, it feels wholly natural and easy to step out into Los Angeles. I guess maybe it’s simply an unspoken second home for the Western psyche, the filter and origin of innumerable pop culture artefacts and general notions about life. It’s already wormed its way into my brain and my cells in all sorts of surreptitious and not-so-surreptitious ways. I went to school called “Hollywood,” which has a certain retrospect symbolism. Like most Australians, I was raised and sculpted by LA; raised by TV writers, cinemas and distributors. Here I am meeting my maker.
The air is grey, but the sky is blue, and the date palms are countless. We twist onto the highway which is long and poorly maintained but not busy, and find our way to Sepulveda Boulevard a few miles west of downtown LA. Our accommodation, adorned with a soft pink-apricot hue, squats near a bridge. When I walk past the bridge in half an hour, I’ll discover a lumber yard, a seedy-looking donut joint called Donut Star, and a party supplies store. When I turn right I’ll chance upon a 24-hour diner called Norms, operating around the clock since the ’60s, and I’ll consume my own body weight in eggs and hot cakes and hash browns (and black coffee that gets refilled ever time I take a sip), and will undoubtedly remember it forever. It’s fun and bizarre observing the insignificant details that are bound to stay with you forever because they’re your first points of reference. Of all my explorations in North America, the sad-looking Donut place on the corner of Pico Boulevard has now secured a spot in the list of things that will always spring to mind when contemplating the United States.
I’d intended to get out to a show at the Hollywood Bowl that night, and write about it; what a momentous exploit that might have been. But no such luck. After sleeping maybe four hours in the last three days, my body boycotted any further activity and shut itself down on a hotel bed. I woke up at 6am, feeling remarkably well rested, and said hello to America with fresh eyes and ears.
So I take a bus out to Santa Monica, the attractive beachside neighbourhood which has made plenty of cameo appearances in pop and soft-rock songs. Strolling down the beach, admiring the wide pink-yellow shore, the sun-kissed rollerbladers, and the albatross overhead, I myself feel like I’m in a soft rock song. But my first encounter with music in the USA is actually a man who’s playing violin on the sand, surrounded by a jumble of possessions. He quivers enthusiastically as he plays. The violin droops below shoulder height, as if Dali had painted it, in order for it to melt into the sand. He plays it unlike I’ve ever heard someone play the violin, rapidly crunching his bow back and forth on one string (I think perhaps it only has one string attached anyhow), moving his other hand up and down to creating an undulating pitch and a stuttered rhythm. The tone is strange and rough and pitched notes have been almost entirely usurped by varying noise textures. He’s almost certainly never learned to play violin in the traditional manner, but he’s an amazing experimentalist. I give him a dollar bill (which, granted, in retrospect, seems a little stingy) and carry on. Venice Beach is punctuated by a motley array of performers. A seated, serene-looking woman croons beautifully near a t-shirt stand. A duo make a weak attempt at acoustic college radio rock-pop. Another man alternately noodles and bellows in bluesy, Caribbean mode.
An afternoon and evening of exploration pass – the next morning (today), I take a tour of the architecture of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, drinking in a bevy of exciting angles, dimensions, colours, materials, history. I discover that neither district is half as pretentious or plastic-seeming as pop culture would have you believe, which is curious, since one of the most influential crucibles of pop culture is down the road. The evening (tonight) delivers my second dose of ragtag live performances. I meet up with my friends A, C, L and J who are bouncing rubber balls on elastic cords (they call them “sports-balls”) outside the LA Country Museum of Art and we roll on to Little Osaka to eat japanese curries and drink sake. Over the road, we enter an establishment called Karaoke Bleu where L (who grew up in Beverly Hills) once held her 16th birthday party. The room is magnificent: very small and bedecked with bar stools and a wild density of disco lights. We drink Long Island Iced Tea and the words illuminate rhythmically across the screens.
There’s a broad, friendly-faced man in darkly-hued hip hop attire whose voice is sweet, practiced and powerful. His rendition of“Summertime” brings us to our knees. His friend, a more serious-seeming gentlemen with a sports tee and a carefully cropped faux-hawk focuses on earnest power-ballads which are less fun though he can’t be faulted on his delivery. The adjacent table attempts Guns and Roses and Kanye West and a range of other admirably ambitious choices, though they keep getting lost or embarrassed early on and tapping out. L gets our table started, with R Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt.” I opt for a medley of “I Will Survive” and “Funky Town.” A delivers incredible renditions of “In the Air Tonight” and “Club Tropicana” wearing a golfers visor, L and me do a duet of “Jackson,” L and C commit to stellar renditions of “Leader of the Pack” and “Waterfalls.” Collectively we all rework Kelis’ “Milkshake,” replacing the titular lyric with “Sports Ball,” and bouncing our rubber equipment around the carpeted corner stage.
I return to the hotel, from where I now write you. I may not have witnessed any concerts per se, but I’m far from disappointed with my live music intake so far after three days in California. People reinvent string instruments on beaches, and visit karaoke bars to genuinely show off their pipes. Next week, mind you, I promise not to review the myriad performances within a karaoke bar. Unless you want me to. So far it’s orienting myself in this fresh world that feels bafflingly like home – though not exactly familiar as such – despite my being wholly, wet-behind-the-ears style new to it. Weather’s fine, sofa bed is lumpy, wish you were here. Until next time, buddies.