Build Me an LA Woman

DISCUSSED: L.A.’s Soundtrack, The City’s Secret Alphabet, “Swallowed By the Cracks, Perverse Nobility, X, “Shadowless Heart,” Tonio K., The Doors, The Zip-A-Dee-Dada Spectacle of Morrison, Dory Previn, Tinseltown’s Inner Children, The Big Quake of 1971, The Most Deliriously Unspeakable Aspects of the Old Regime

Build Me an LA Woman

Howard Hampton
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A couple years back, writing in Los Angeles magazine, Steve Erickson presented an annotated list of what he considered to be the one hundred greatest records ever made in—and in some fundamental sense, by—L.A. “Every city has a soundtrack, but sometimes Los Angeles seems like a soundtrack that has a city.” Shrewd, imaginative, and meticulous, his Top 100 encompassed “MacArthur Park” (1968, Richard Harris, #86), “Fuck tha Police” (1988, N.W.A., #74 with a metaphorical bullet), “Earth Angel” (1954, the Penguins, #61), “Closer” (1994, Nine Inch Nails, #48), “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” (1966, the Electric Prunes, #38), “Laura” (1944, David Raskin, #30), “The Crystal Ship” (1967, The Doors, #20), “When You Wish Upon a Star” (1940, Jiminy Cricket [Cliff Edwards], #7), “Lonely Woman” (1959, Ornette Coleman, #3), and “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964, Sam Cooke, #1 with a real bullet, the one which martyred the singer at a South Central motel called the Hacienda). Erickson drew a map of nomadic romanticism and urbane sprawl, utopia and its dys-contents. This was a city of sensibility so open-ended it could accommodate everyone from the Beach Boys to Captain Beefheart, country refugees (lonesome fugitive Merle Haggard, blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers) to folk royalty (Joni Mitchell, yodeling in more exclusive canyons), the lowdown Seeds (“Unhinged lead singer Sky Saxon thought he was singing to his girlfriend…”) to Sinatra at his most delicately existential. He cast the City of Night as one bubbling hot tub/melting pot, at least if you were on the guest list instead of the menu and remembered to bring along your personal fondue fork.

The drawback with this ecumenical evenhandedness was it tended to undermine any sense of place beyond a confirmation of the old cliché about “nineteen suburbs”—and several ghettos—“in search of a metropolis.” If L.A.’s essence could be present in anything that had been recorded there, its voice and headphone-mindset detected in Willie Nelson’s version of “Moonlight in Vermont” or CSNY’s “Ohio” or Emmylou Harris cooing “Boulder to Birmingham,” then it truly was no more than a jumble of freeways populated by displaced commuters, each in a traffic-jammed auto-audio cocoon, forever imagining he or she was somewhere or someone else. (Los Angeles’s definition of déjà vu might be listening to There’s a Riot Goin’ On while taking a surface-street detour and noticing outside the tinted windshield that a riot really is goin’ on.) Erickson’s diligent assemblage, all good taste and timelessness, wasn’t a soundtrack to the city so much as the soundtrack to an imaginary filmed-on-location Best Picture candidate: a heavyweight exercise in nostalgic tragedy full of important actors living up to their reputations and bright new ones making theirs, some sort of Mystic L.A. River Confidential. Largely missing in action was the city’s “secret alphabet,” as the Doors called it in “Soul Kitchen,” and X dittoed on their zooming 1980 cover/answer record. There was little trace of that “succulent sound” David Baerwald enunciated so memorably on David + David’s 1986 “Welcome to the Boomtown”: money as hedonism, glamour as power, pleasure as growth industry, “satisfaction [oozing] from her pores.” And what of rocks not turned over? Where were those creepy-crawling armies of the defeated, the underemployed day workers of the locust licking their wounds and downing tequila shots in peekaboo dives from Hollywood to Tarzana?

“You see,” Baerwald explained in the next song on Boomtown the album, “we’d been swallowed by the cracks.” “You see”—there’s a whole lost city in the nonchalant way he slips those two words into the chorus. “Fallen so far down / Like the rest of those clowns beg- gin’ bus fare back.” We’re all bozos on that bus, guilty with an explanation: entropy having snuck up on each aspiring Raymond Chandler, Gene Kelly, or Natalie Wood like an incremental earthquake that took ten or fifteen years to make its damages felt. “Swallowed by the Cracks” had leaky atmosphere to burn, loss you could practically taste, a mood of suspension that could insinuate its way into your psyche like an 8-track tapeworm. This was the musical equivalent to the defraction of light in L.A., that jarring overlap of flat, ugly, just-the-facts dullness with burnished, dreamy, imposing unreality: where unlimited possibility seems tangible even when defined by its utter absence, which is usually the case. What the song captured was the smog of memory, the air trapped in efficiency apartments dating back to the silent era. It gave a voice to the hangers-on and the almost-somebodies stuck a few rungs below the Bad and the Beautiful: a sigh of perverse nobility. That too was part of the myth—the purr/hiss of punctured glamour, the enduring Sunset Boulevard sublet allure. Unrequited hope came built into every soul kitchenette, complete with moving finger for writing pink lipstick hieroglyphs on the moldy wallpaper—in Hollywood, broken dreams were a second language. “Telling lies and singing along with the jukebox, baby.” Drunks harmonizing with Eagles or Fleetwood Mac hits because those clean lines amounted to the Architectural Digest centerfolds of their wet, bewitchy-woman “Dreams,” though the bohemia-inclined would opt for the better housekeeping mantra shared by the Doors and X:“Learn to forget.”

Maybe Oingo Boingo and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” were and always will be in heavier local jukebox rotation, but who said anything here about cinema vérité? We’re looking for a midnight dose of the archetypal, the poetic distillation of well-aged corn mixed with the pulp of history, mystery, and desire. A landscape of the imagination as suggestive as Chinatown, a Mulholland Drive for the noir stereo—more than that, the spot where such mythological zones intersect with everyday life and exchange phone numbers or bodily fluids. X’s “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss” would qualify on its title alone, but there’s also that fabulous mobility (“Down we go, cradle and all”) and the exhilarating devastation of Exene Cervenka, singing as the wild child of Jim Morrison and Evelyn Mulwray. (Unless once upon a time an inebriated Morrison mistook Roman Polanski for Geppetto and demanded, “Build me an L.A. Woman.”) Exene merged punk chaos with hardboiled femme fatalism, lending the song even more nativist flavor than X’s great Jack-Webb-on-PCP postcard “Los Angeles.” At least if you read between the lines and recognized “The World’s a Mess” for a civic-minded plea on behalf of the city’s disabled, a heartfelt call to issue handicapped-parking permits for emotional cripples. Try picturing Munch’s Screamer embossed on an eye-catching blue tag— wouldn’t it be the hottest anti-status symbol in town?

For my field-trip money, though, nothing evokes the city of smoke and mirrors like Drama-rama’s 1993 “Shadowless Heart.” Ominous guitars conjuring distant firestorms, emergency sirens morphing into Odyssean ones, a bewildered populace trying to calculate the angles of a vortex: the Hollywood hills are alive and they have the eyes of Dr. Mabuse.Tracking in on a makeshift séance spread all across this company town, its proto–P. T. Anderson roll call includes “The ghost with your gallstones,” “the chocolate eclair-voyant,” “the squid in the phone booth,” “the happening actress,” and “the girl with the mustache who washes your blood stains.” Precarious humanity gets caught in a head-on collusion between doubt (“Don’t you know it’s stupid to suffer for art?”) and surrender (“Don’t you feel so good when you’re playing your part?”), with just a pinch of Nathanael West sneak-previewing the latest apocalypse (“The coming attractions can read like a balance sheet”) for luck. Everything but frogs is raining down, and they may be involved in the case too.What makes the allegorical parade come to life is the song’s reportorial cadences, its gift of understatement turning looming catastrophe into the daily weather forecast. This is the way the world doesn’t end: “The high school musicians performed an efficient set.” In a city where the most ordinary occurrences may conceal bottomless fissures, the reverse is equally true.

L.A.’s image of itself hinges on the answer to the survey question, “Don’t you feel the shadows in your heart?” (Follow-up poll: does the singer vary the title phrase as “You’ve got a shatterless heart”? And if so, is that the same thing as the Jewels’ thrillingly impervious “Hearts of Stone”? Or is it but another “Heart of Gold” with no name?) About a decade prior to Dramarama’s unheard query, Warren Zevon gasped in a brutally funny, Los Anglicized version of “Werewolves of London”: “I saw Jackson Browne walking slow down the avenue / You know, his heart IS PERFECT.” Browne being Mr. Sensitivity to Zevon’s Mr. Bad Example: the beatific face of ’70s Southern California folk-pop-rock, wearing a sad, knowing smile like a halo. Not even the agitated Thomas Mann/Kafka enthusiast who rechristened himself Tonio K. was completely immune to such vicarious idealism and virtue. “I wish I was as mellow as for instance Jackson Browne,” he confessed in 1978, and who in their heart of L.A. hearts didn’t crave the same equanimity, enlightenment, and Mona Lisa peace of mind? “But ‘Fountain of Sorrow,’ my ass, motherfucker,” K. continued in more of a late-for-the-Sky Saxon vein, “I hope you  wind up in the ground,” and who in their deepest hearts of napalm didn’t share that apoplectic sentiment as well?

Stoked on the fumes of cheapjack disillusion and Mad mag intellectualism, Tonio sought a perfect metaphor instead of a heart, and arrived at Life in the Foodchain. An I-shopped-with-a-zombie wallow in envy, spite, paranoia, and “H-A-T-R-E-D,” the album was an erratically brilliant, fly-by-night pastiche whose songs owed as much to The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Bowie and Dylan. But Life in the Foodchain easily outdistanced “Life in the Fast Lane” and the rest of that iconic Hotel California cuisine by bringing dog-eat-Darwinism home to the societal supermart. (Or was it supposed to be Marx behind those wraparound greasepaint shades?) “Watching the shadows for anything moving / And hoping they don’t come around,” K. cultivated the manic burnout of a junior Jerry Lewis in the seventy-third hour of a telethon for Nihilist Dystrophy. Help K.’s kids learn to give up, “because everybody’s hungry and there just isn’t quite enough.” (Next he would make an album called Amerika and find Jesus. Seriously.) This was the voice of game-show L.A., the land of celebrity roasts where everything “winds up on the customer’s plate” as a naked luncheon special. You see, our host informs us, it’s either swallow or be swallowed, deal or be dealt with. So the insult comic (I-kid-Jackson-but-really- it’s-all-in-good-fun-there’s-no- bigger-humanitarian-in-this- crazy-town), the producer, the grocery checker, the starlet, the waiter, the guard at the studio gate are all just doing their jobs, servicing the good life with a crooked smile, keeping the business running, the shelves stocked, the dream intact.

Whatever shape-shifting form it takes, any Los Angeles metaphor is bound to the suspicion verging on innate certainty that somewhere beyond or behind the surfaces, the real movie was being made, in which theatrical releases were just movies within the greater movie, and everybody was an extra or bit player in this invisible meta-production whether they knew it or not. Couple that with the intuition there was an entrance waiting somewhere in the city, so that all you needed to do was find the anointed place and time, and you got the Doors: “Break on through to the other side”; “Let’s swim to the moon, let’s climb through the tide / Penetrate the evening that the city sleeps to hide.” Starring Jim Morrison as the film student who would be lounge Lizard King, they acted out their own handheld calculated-improvised cinema absurdité piece of Los-Angeles-the-movie long before Oliver Stone’s The Boors. Art pretenses, white man’s blues, Beatnik mysticism, surf-jazz noodling, bourbon- flavored bubblegum protest anthems, topless archetypes gone wild, you name the drowning pool and the Doors jumped into its contradictions wearing nothing but a cement inner tube. Leaving no cliché untouched, no myth unmolested, the Doors forged a city of the imagination as lesser mortals might pass bad checks, wherein the full untapped potential inherent in mockery, fraud, and travesty (intentional and otherwise) could take on a life independent of its bearers.

Forget the studio albums and authorized concert recordings. Instead listen to the bootlegs, raw, shoddy, deglamorized feeds that sound like they were taped off a high school PA system on the cheapest reel-to-reel recorder available. Clawing through waves of reverb and distortion while fighting off audience chatter and rampant boredom, the band would routinely launch into a twenty-minute “Light My Fire,” a sixteen minute “L.A.Woman,” or a never-ending “When the Music’s Over” (“I hear the scream of the butterfly”—thank you, Percy Dovetonsils). Indiscriminately piling multiple types of noise (circular experimentalism, frat-party r&b, gnarly hard rock) onto music-box chachas and crystalline melodies alike, the Doors’ genius was for bridging underground and the middle-of- the-road devices. Manzarek (organ grinder), Krieger (guitar chameleon), and Densmore (janitor-in-a-drum-kit) came off as the most way-out garage band in history, with an embryonic conception of artiness wholly in tune with Morrison’s schlockmeister-of-ceremonies self-presentation. Morrison adapted Dean Martin’s tippling crooner act for incantory blues-pop-rock purposes, using Dino’s effortless timing, slurred tomfoolery, and inside-jokiness to plumb all the great philosophical depths the counterculture brought to a head: sex, death, war, peace, religion, reptiles, “Texas Radio & the Big Beat.” Hear the modestly scaled seven-minute “Soul Kitchen” from 1968 lay fingerpopping waste to the era’s cosmic-karmic piety, interpolating a bit of “The 23rd Psalm” followed by a heartfelt “Shake me baby all night long… / Pretty little girl with the red dress on / Do the pony…” (which may be from the Book of Samuel the Sham and the Pharoahs). Behold the “Back Door Man”-child: Mr. Mojo Rising in the newfound tradition of the Christ, Frankenstein’s monster, Bob’s Big Boy, and The Nutty Professor.

With “Touch Me” come-ons, “Love Her Madly” rhumbas, and “Try to set the night on fiierrrahh!” mock-histrionics all going so very far beyond good and awful, the contours of a universe where all taste has been transvalued are apparent.The disquieting, maddening, innovative thing about the Doors turns out to be that the war which seemed to be going on inside their music wasn’t a reflection of Vietnam or student unrest or Dionysian revival meetings, but a clash of internalized aesthetics. It was a pitched battle between the sensibilities of hip Whiskey A-Go-Go scene-makers and their cloying, insulated, show-business-is-my-lifeblood parents. The Doors attacked from both ends of the spectrum at once, pulling art-speech and abandon “down, down, down” into TV talk-variety shamelessness while pushing ignominy in the direction of transcendence.

Mingling the appalling with the astonishing until their defenses against each other collapsed, Morrison’s woozy prophecy was that opposites attracted and antinomies could make like the beast with two backs, laying the synergistic groundwork for guest/host relations in a new Hollywood. The Doors opened unto a future where Tom Waits, Jim Carrey, Sammy Davis Jr.’s clone, and Artaud’s ghost could all appear on the same vertically integrated talk-show panel and take their turns in the “Will It Float?” tank.


After the zip-a-dee-dada spectacle of Morrison, you might imagine nothing retains the power to embarrass. But there is still one unmentionable skeleton tucked away in L.A.’s closet, one figure who has yet to be aesthetically rehabilitated: Dory Previn, our lady of the quaintly quintessential “Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign,” as well as the very minor 1970 autobiographical-singalong number that went, “You were doin’ it alone / You were doin’ it alone / You were screaming in your car / In a twenty-mile zone.” Something about her verges on fiction or fantasy, as though she were a novelist’s conceit or a comedian’s caricature. I’m tempted to claim she was the heroine of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (no, that exemplary sufferer was called Maria Wyeth, though D. P. packed enough neurasthenic baggage to pass for her long-lost sister) or the inspiration for Bowie’s Hunky Dory (no, even as “Life on Mars?” could pass for an homage to her tinkling numbers about silverscreen phoniness). Previn’s career arc was straight out of a Jacqueline Susann fable: coming up through the industry ranks, she writes film songs with composer Andre Previn, whom she marries, and they proceed to win an Academy Award for the theme from Valley of the Dolls (naturally). She pops pills, has nervous breakdowns; he leaves her for a young and pregnant Mia Farrow (naturally). In recovery, Dory discovers personal expression is the best revenge by writing therapeutic songs like “Beware of Young Girls,” giving herself a singer-songwriter makeover that results in albums with such titles as On My Way to Where, Reflections in a Mud Puddle, and Mythical Kings and Iguanas. (These are the kind of records Lee Grant’s horny, well- heeled matron in Shampoo would have listened to in a sequel where she divorces her rich husband, goes into intensive therapy, and has her consciousness raised sideways.) Many phallic symbols, father fixations, and lapsed Catholic confessionals later, Previn triumphantly plays Carnegie Hall. Little Dory makes relatively good, something on the order of a middle-aged Irish female Leonard Cohen, lacking only his pinpoint delivery or feel for language, music, and irony. She compensated with unguarded neediness and soul-searching awkwardness, a schizoid Miss Liberty flashing her inhibitions, plying a gift for the obvious, the inane, and the passably sardonic: “I’m always loving someone / More than he loves me”; “I have flown / To starstained heights / On bent and battered wings”; “Give me your has-beens / Give me your twisted / Your loners, your losers / Give me your blacklisted.”

Previn’s songs spoke to the dissatisfaction of Tinseltown’s inner children, especially the good girls who’d been abused at the hands of those predatory iguana-boys and bad fathers: “With My Daddy in the Attic” (“That is where / My dark attraction lies”),“Scared to Be Alone” (you only miss folks when they’re dead), “The New Enzyme Detergent Demise of Ali McGraw” (mad housewife’s disease), “The Midget’s Lament” (midget liberation),“Starlet, Starlet on the Screen Who Will Follow Norma Jean?” (“Who do you have to fuck / To get into this picture?”),“Jesus Was a Androgyne” (a she-male Jesus!), Mary C. Brown jumping from the Hollywood sign. All instant clichés shot through with painful gentility, but not without flashes of humor (especially on her Carnegie live album) or borderline insight. (She also anticipated the ’70s disaster- movie craze in a series of phobic songs: “The Earthquake in Los Angeles,” “The Final Flight of the Hindenberg,” “The Air Crash in New Jersey.”) Dory may have been a mortifying force of repressednature (a vegetarian Medusa), but she had a dicey finger on the nervous, self-serving/loathing pulse of the place. Her songs can take you back to the moment when L.A.’s soundtrack of numbing, fastidious, Technicolorized blandness—that “Windmills of Your Mind”/“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”/“Little Green Apples” moat of complacency—was giving way, going under, the buffer zone reduced to a mud puddle. A proper lady of the chasms, Previn gesticulated politely in the direction of the Morrison Hotel: the den mother from “The End” incarnate, ordering crack-ups off the room-service menu. While falling short in terms of both craft and ecstatic tastelessness, she deserves some credit for documenting the sort of squirmy scenes and ghastly  platitudes most respectable Angelenos would like to forget they’d ever embraced. (Nowadays that bathos lingers, but it has been mainstreamed, channeled, Botoxed, detoxed, and Xanaxed almost beyond recognition.)

It may help some to have been in L.A. when the big quake of 1971 hit, and remember what at least one little corner of that world was like.When I was twelve years old, we were living on Vine Street in a very old, decrepit, and somewhat phantasmagorical apartment building called the Villa Elaine (it’s still standing, with a rainforest-grotto courtyard where the walls actually are vine-covered). My father was an ex-stuntman and bit player with vague notions of somehow getting back in the industry, while my mother had her hands full with caretaking duties. For dad rotated in and out of various psychiatric facilities owing to bouts of manic depression with the occasional paranoid delusion on the side. (That also makes me feel a touch of kinship with Previn, as though she were the gaga aunt I could have had: someone literal-minded enough to try to flush herself down a toilet would have complimented my father’s flights of Blue Velveteen grandeur nicely.) So my sense of the city derives from that submerged ambience, where life had been swallowed by the cracks in advance and the earthquake itself came not as a trauma but an adventure.The world swayed, plaster fell, the pool flooded the courtyard, and life went back to what passed for normal.What did it sound like? A whole lotta studio musicians shaking their gourds, rattling their chains: like closing your eyes inside the Cinerama Dome and letting the movie’s fear-mongering soundtrack wash over you.The rest of the time, the end-of-the-sixties didn’t feel quite so hyperbolic, at least from the back-row seat I had. More like a close-up yet strangely out-of-synch frame, like a print of Cassavetes’ Faces where someone had overdubbed the sadistically catchy tunes of Herb Alpert and the Ti- juana Brass to muffle the high-strung, honest-as naugahyde soliloquies. I think Dory must have sung a song to that effect back then: “The Lonely Bull and the Psychodramatic Actress,” perhaps.

I probably heard her sing it on Joey Bishop’s show or Merv’s, a frizzy blip on a twelve-inch black & white screen. Then we moved and L.A. receded into memory, to be occasionally revisited in person or via a record or maybe the dead-end-street mise-en-scène of a B- movie like Hickey and Boggs. It must have been ten years and a lifetime’s worth of other music till Dory Previn ever crossed my mind again. Catherine O’Hara was doing Lola Heatherton, the greatest of her SCTV characters, the second-tier alcoholic-pillhead singer-dancer-actress par excellence. Seems Lola was starring in her very own comeback special, only Lola was a long way from back, in fact she was a gibbering mass of personality shards, a basket case coming completely unglued. Tremors ran through her body (with some especially heavy action in the vicinity of her pouting, corpse-white lips) as she attempted to sing one straight from the heart (thumping her chest with a dagger-plunging motion for emphasis). “I wake up every night in bed / And panic thinking that I’m dead.” Stunned, I realized—hallucinated?—this had to be a Dory Previn tune.

Or more convolutedly, that it was a note-perfect facsimile of the kind of “serious” Previnesque glower-ballad intent on striking a brittle chord in any aging mid-level celebrity who had ever gotten by on pushover sex appeal. Like a Rat Pack ragdoll afraid her number’s up, Lola’s going down and out with loaded gums blazing: “No one cares / No one dares TO / You’re all just parrrr-aaaagh-sites.” As an impression of bad art, a loving recreation of the immeasurably terrible captured down tothe smallest nuance, this is genius—so savagely apt and still affectionate, compassionate, even devotional. The wordless milque-toast background singers, the swelling strings, it’s as though the later Previn had merged with the earlier one whose Valley of the Dolls theme was written for Judy Garland, though Garland was unable to get through a complete take of the song and fell apart as filming began. There are layers within composite layers to this gag, reels within the real: like a time capsule containing all the most deliriously unspeakable aspects of the old regime. Twenty years further on, that frame of reference is even more deeply buried than the remnants of the old Hollywood Ranch Market. (As the friend of an L.A. friend used to say, “You had to be there and nobody was.”) Gone, forgotten, but still waiting to be excavated. Waiting for the inevitable. A small
but insistent Dory revival, with Jewel and Fiona and Tori and Lucinda all performing on the tribute album. Then the televised concert, where Courtney Love makes a surprise appearance singing Lola’s song as a tribute to Dory or Judy or Jim or somebody: “You buy and sell my autograph / But in your eyes I hear a laugh.” Just another lost angel come home to roost. Sooner or later, they always do. ✯

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