Mar 9, 2010

I Love L.A.

Thursday 4th & Friday 5th March - Day 25 & 26

"Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at the bum over there man he's down on his knees"

I really didn't think I would. But I do. I love L.A.

Most Brits I know who've been there didn't like it. I think they were expecting New York in the sun. Lots of Americans slag it off too. But I'm with Randy and Young Dre. I love L.A. Maybe the key is to stay away from downtown. That's what we did. But Hollywood and Santa Monica and Venice Beach and Compton. LOVED it all. We only intended to stay for one night... we stayed for three. L.A. is like America turned up to 11 and at the same time it's like nowhere else in the country. In fact L.A. is a country in its own right. Like the Bay area, it's full of little cities that sit cheek by jowl and have their own character and scene. One Postcarder called Oliver, who's from Germany but spent years studying in America and never wanted to leave, said what fascinated him about the country was the contradictions. L.A. lives up to that. For example, the traffic is insane but there are pedestrians and cyclists everywhere. They drive like assholes but say hello on the street. And here's my favorite example of how America contradicts expectations and manages to reinforce and demolish stereotypes - mainstream American beer is shite and yet America has the most passionate, vibrant and commercially successful beer makers in the world. Budweiser is piss poor beer. It tastes of nothing. And yet Budweiser is the number 2 selling beer brand in the world. What's number 1? Bud Light! Holy Mary mother of God is there no hope? But yes, there is actually. Alongside the Buds and the Coors in the cabinets in the gas stations there are always a handful of microbrew brands. We went to a fantastic bar called Stout that has about 30 different world brews on tap and a hot barmaid who knows a great deal about beer. She was happy to talk IBUs. When was the last time a British barmaid, or man for that matter, told you what the IBU of your beer was?

We went to Stout with Kev Lathrop, another Postcarder, who then took us to a great and incredibly cheap Thai restaurant on Sunset Strip that made me think of the kind of joints frequented by LAPD detectives in James Ellroy novels. The furnishing looked pretty old. From there we went to a strip joint called Jumbo's Clown Room. Kev says it was my idea, I say it was his though I didn't need persuading. It's where Courtney Love used to dance. And it's not really a strip joint, because the girls don't take their clothes off. Admittedly they aren't wearing very much, but still there's not even a nipple. I was hoping to see pasties which have fascinated me since I bought this Tom Waits album back in the 80s. I was hoping for the kind of place that Benjamin took Mrs Robinson's daughter to in The Graduate. Carol was just hoping she wouldn't be the only woman in there. Well, I was a little dissapointed because the pasties were only visable through sheer mesh fabric but Carol was happy there were plenty of women in there. Was it seedy? Well a little, but not sexually seedy. Was it erotic? Not really, though the dancers were fit, in both senses of the word. Was it enjoyable? Hugely. Some of the moves those dancers pulled on the pole were breathtaking. Pole dancing ought to replace synchronised swimming at the Olympics. And here's the thing, it was everything we expected and nothing like we expected. It was also like being in a scene from a movie which I guess is what brings a lot of the hopefuls to the town in the first place.

Santa Monica wasn't as posh as I expected. It has the air of a nice middle class home counties town like Chalfont St Peter, only it's sunny and has an amazing ocean front drive and a beautiful beach. And the people are much healthier. And then right next door is Venice beach which is a bit like some of the more touristy parts of Amsterdam, only it's sunny and has an amazing ocean front drive and a beautiful beach. And the people are much, much, much healthier.

Moving across large swathes of America at this kind of pace really highlights how different so many of these places are from one another. And L.A. mirrors that too. Each part of town, each little city in its own right, is very distinct. And one man's Los Angeles is... well it's not the same as another man's Los Angeles.

You can see and hear that in I Love L.A, by Young Dre. Is it a cover version of the Randy Newman tune? I really don't know. I presume Young Dre is aware of the Newman song I Love L.A. because they play it at the sports stadiums when the Dodgers, the Kings and the Lakers win. They even play it when the Galaxy win. I can't hear any similarity other than the title. But maybe that's the point. This is another L.A. the one immortalised, some would say glamourised, by west coast rappers like NWA and Snoop Dog. And thanks to those guys one of the places I definitely wanted to see in America was Compton. I'd never heard of Compton before NWA released the incendiary Straight Outta Compton. They made it sound like a war zone. But that came out in 1988. NWA are closer in time to Neil Young writing about Ohio than they are to today's music. I figured a lot would have changed in Compton in 22 years. Crack isn't the curse it once was and I'd read about major changes designed to revive Compton. One which was aimed at combatting gun violence was called the Gifts for Guns Program. It gave citizens the chance to turn in a gun to the cops in return for a $100 check for various goods. This begs the question, how cheap must a gun be in order to make $100 seem like a good deal? But I felt pretty sure that Compton was going to be OK.

I knew that according to the murder stats, Compton was no East St Louis. Still, reputation counts for a lot. When I shared with Postcard that I'd been to East St Louis some folks told me there were worse places. This is typical of Postcard, we'll have a pissing contest about anything. Say you've been somewhere scary and someone else will say "it's not as scary as...". After driving through the parts of East St Louis we drove through, I couldn't imagine a more dangerous place. But some Postcarders took it upon themselves to say places like Southwest DC, West Philly or Baltimore were worse. But again, the murder stats don't back this up. One Postcarder, Eric who lives in St Louis, did back me up by saying East St Louis was very intimidating and worse than any other American neighborhood he'd seen. He even said "East St Louis makes The Wire look like Melrose Place". And Postcard being Postcard someone fired back at Eric "Have you ever driven through Baltimore?" not expecting the reply "Born there, grew up there, been through there recently, lost in neighborhoods that freaked me out. East St Louis has parts that are bleak in a very, very different kind of way".

Now the point of all this is to say I felt I'd seen the worst kind of urban deprivation in America and I also felt that bluster and hype might inflate the sense of danger about some cities. My favorite video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas certainly did that. But the gangs of Los Santos (the mythical L.A. in the game) were clearly based on the NWA hay day. So I fully expected things to be a whole lot better. And I was right. Compton seemed fine. More than fine. Poor, but not insane like East St Louis. There were bustling strip malls and great Mexican food joints (we stopped and had fish tacos) and there was even a Par 3 Golf Course. Like so many other American stories as presented in song, Compton as presented in song by West Coast gangsta rappers is a myth. Only 40% of the 90,000 residents are African American so it's just not the hood that Ice Cube and Easy E made me imagine. It's true there ain't many white folks in the city and I'm sure there are major Hispanic street gangs, but it's a mixed place. And I think that changes the atmosphere. Of course, people still get robbed and shot in Compton but I bet they do in Hollywood too. If I'm honest, I'm sure I'd feel safer walking the streets of Hollywood at night than I would the streets of Compton. But I wonder how much of that is subconscious racism on my part. The only irons we saw on a beautifully sunny day in Compton belonged to the old boys at the Compton Par 3 Golf Course.

I told you L.A. was full of surprises.


  1. does anyone have a copy of Swingers on hand to see if that's the same par 3 course they were on in the movie?

    Great post, GG.

  2. I always wanted to see that movie