Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Jody Beth Rosen offers up a unique playlist that tells the beautiful albeit sordid story of Los Angeles through 50 songs.
In 2003, California Institute of the Arts professor Thom Andersen completed Los Angeles Plays Itself, his video essay about L.A.’s portrayal on film, from Chinatown to Killer of Sheep to Night of the Comet. His thesis was that movies set and/or filmed in Los Angeles — even the obscure titles and entries of dubious merit — can tell us something about the way we view the city. I had Andersen’s documentary in mind when I made Burn Hollywood Burn, my 50-track playlist of songs about Los Angeles.
Since the Aquarium Drunkard blog did the yeoman’s work with its two-volume L.A. Burnout mix of 1960s and 1970s singer-songwriter druggie malaise, I had a big task ahead of me to choose artists that those playlists didn’t cover (and they covered a lot: Gene Clark, John Phillips, Warren Zevon, Terry Melcher, and Art Garfunkel, for starters). I wanted Burn Hollywood Burn to reflect several neighborhoods around the city, or municipalities within the county, although in the interest of time, I didn’t quite get to tackle much of East Los Angeles or any of the Gateway Cities. San Pedro’s The Minutemen do not make an appearance, but rest assured their praises are already well-sung on myriad other platforms.
The title of the mix is meant to be ironic; I’ve lived in Hollywood, the eastern part that comprises Little Armenia and Thai Town and borders Los Feliz, and while I have mixed feelings about the district as a place, I wish no harm to it. It’s more about recognizing the weird divide between Hollywood as an industry and Hollywood as a sprawling, multifaceted collection of homes and businesses, from rent-controlled apartments and homeless encampments to glitzy hotels and the Hollywood and Highland retail monstrosity.
There is no way to generalize about Hollywood (the place) on the whole, although its reputation as sleazy and dirty is not entirely unwarranted. The artwork I chose was a photo of a graffiti-covered street sign (“Wilton Pl/Sunset Blvd” and an arrow pointing right) planted in a weed-strewn median, in front of a fenced-off apartment building. I didn’t take the picture, but this is my memory of life in Hollywood. It probably will burn, because it’s a fire hazard.
What follows here is just a taste of Burn Hollywood Burn — and it is named after the Public Enemy track, which is on the mix, but in this essay, the focus is on lesser-heard titles, things like Gaznevada’s “Ticket to Los Angeles” and Steaming Coils’ “Paul and Linda in Northridge”.
L.A. for Generalists
The folk-pop duo Chad and Jeremy (billed here as Chad Stuart and Jeremy Clyde) attempted a psychedelic crossover with 1967’s Of Cabbages and Kings, and when that didn’t work, they tried it again in 1968 with The Ark. According to a Guardian article revisiting The Ark, the album was so expensive to make that Columbia fired its producer, Gary Usher, who had previous success working with The Byrds and The Beach Boys. “Sidewalk Requiem, Los Angeles, June 5th and 6th”, rather than the acid rock or avant-garde experimentation a record company might be justified in fearing, is the sort of baroquely twee, mildly depressive sunshine pop that festoons many a Wes Anderson soundtrack. The lyrics don’t reference Los Angeles specifically — it’s a meditation on death — but the “cold, grey morning” where “mist fills the air” reminds us that L.A. songs can go beyond scorn or mockery or even defensive pride to distinguish the town as a real environmental space where both weather patterns and human emotion fluctuate.
Gaznevada, named after the 1935 Raymond Chandler short story “Nevada Gas”, formed in Bologna in 1977 during the city’s Movement of ’77 political uprising. By the 1980s, the punk-inflected band had evolved into a more Italo-disco style, and 1984’s pop-noir “Ticket to Los Angeles” has all the technological accoutrements of the era: drum programming, the Yamaha DX7, and the Synclavier II. Reminiscent in tone of Wang Chung’s 1985 To Live and Die in L.A. soundtrack work, “Ticket to Los Angeles” feels as heavy as the ominous, smoggy sunset on that movie’s poster looks. However, as outsiders, Gaznevada only know “Los Angeles” as a monolithic entity. The lyrics, as far as I can tell, don’t drill down and inhabit any part of the city — we have to do that through the music. We might be at a rooming house in the old Bunker Hill, before the city evicted the residents and graded the land for economic development purposes. We could be in the South Bay, bickering about politics at a port-worker’s bar in San Pedro. The ambiguity of “Ticket to Los Angeles” makes it mysterious.
Scottish rock musician Christopher Rainbow (who also recorded under “Chris Rainbow”) was a singer for The Alan Parsons Project from 1979 through the late 1980s and had minor solo hits with “Give Me What I Cry For” and “Solid State Brain”. “Tarzana Reseda” comes from the 1975 album Home of the Brave, opening the LP and preceding the curiously named track “Funky Parrot”. Named after two adjacent neighborhoods in the western San Fernando Valley, “Tarzana Reseda” is the same strain of lilting, jazzy soft-rock that produced Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” and America’s “Ventura Highway” three years prior to Home of the Brave‘s release.
Tarzana and Reseda are interesting bedfellows. Apart from bustling Ventura Boulevard, Tarzana is as suburban as they come. It’s the more Jewish cousin to the affluent Encino immediately to the east, and its name is a product of the movie industry (Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs owned the namesake ranch, Tarzana, that would eventually turn into the residential neighborhood). Topanga State Park is to the south, so when the song’s heroine wants to go “back to Topanga,” it’s not a very far commute.
Reseda is less middle-class and more diverse: it’s 43 percent white to Tarzana’s 70.7 percent, and about 40 percent of the residents are renters. The Karate Kid is set there; so are parts of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriter’s Blues” warns us that we “are all going to Reseda someday, to die.” It’s a coincidence that the place name sounds like “seedy,” and there are in fact much seedier parts of the San Fernando Valley as one heads northeast, but there’s a reason the neighborhood shows up in a fair amount of pop culture — the postwar dingbat apartments and low-rent Vietnamese nail salons are somehow quite cinematic.
The career high of Seattle’s The Frantics was a stint as the backing band on Bobby Darin’s 1958 hit “Dream Lover”, although in 2004, Collector’s Choice saw enough potential audience to issue a collection of The Frantics’ own singles. “Ventura Blvd” seems like an unlikely topic for a Seattle band, given that Seattle and the southernmost commercial strip in the San Fernando Valley are over a thousand miles apart, but a press release uploaded to the Pacific Northwest Bands website noted that the young band had toured up and down the West Coast. A more likely explanation is that the surf-rock instrumental was a titular tribute to Tacoma, Washington’s The Ventures, but 1950s car culture and the atomic-style signage prominent in the era makes a paean to a famous Los Angeles boulevard plausible as well.
Even if you’ve heard of Brad Laner from his projects Savage Republic and Medicine, you still might not know about his adolescent art-rock band, Steaming Coils, an early iteration of which contained members of long-running avant-garde collective The Los Angeles Free Music Society. The dubby, caustic “Paul and Linda in Northridge” is from 1985’s Secret Messages from the Schrodinger House LP, released two years after the band’s formation. The song interpolates teen plaints such as “Let’s go out tonight and eat burritos at the Mexican food restaurant,” a San Fernando Valley stoner pastime fer shure, with lyrics from “Live and Let Die”. There’s definitely a cognitive dissonance between Northridge’s reputation as a sedate north-Valley suburb (go Brent’s Deli!) and Steaming Coils’ music, perhaps better suited to an illegal Lincoln Heights warehouse space.
Incidentally, the north Valley and the south Valley feel very different. Once you get down around Studio City and Sherman Oaks, it’s almost bohemian — there’s good coffee, good shawarma, Freakbeat Records. The north Valley — and I think this was even true before the devastation of the 1994 Northridge quake — is strangely unfinished. It seems tentative, like it’s not sure it wants to keep building itself. It’s like L.A. is so exhausted by its own self-actualization from the bottom up that it finally runs out of steam near the top.
“There’s a Broken Heart for Every Rock and Roll Star on Laurel Canyon Boulevard” doesn’t specify which side of Laurel Canyon Blvd. the band Christopher Milk means — the Laurel Canyon side or the part of the boulevard that stretches up all the way through the Valley. Generally, the rock stars are up on the hill, though; when you’re driving (or taking the 218 bus) up Laurel between West Hollywood and Studio City, you experience the magic of the vertiginously twisting road, the houses that look like rural hideaways, the cute country store that’s probably outrageously overpriced.
“Broken Heart” is problematic for an L.A. mix because the lyrics don’t mention Laurel Canyon or even its home city at all. References to Muskogee, Topeka, Boston, and Hoboken abound — this is an unabashed Dylan pastiche by bandleader and eventual rock critic John Mendelssohn, an erstwhile UCLA student who had played with Sparks’ Mael brothers in the band Halfnelson.
Titles count, though, especially for instrumentals (they can’t speak for themselves), and Christopher Milk’s L.A. roots add to the narrative.
In the first L.A. Burnout compilation, we hear, via “Hollywood Hopeful”, about Loudon Wainwright III’s upbringing in posh Benedict Canyon. My first thought upon hearing it: if that’s where he’s living at 10 years old, I’m playing a pretty tiny violin for his travails in Hollywood. I’m less interested in “Benedict Canyon” as a place — long story short, it’s northwest of Beverly Hills and is the neighborhood where Sharon Tate was murdered — than I am in the AOR song bearing the title.
AOR is Frédéric Slama, a Frenchman who released two albums in the 1980s and reinvented himself in the 2000s as a “one-man band” with the aid of several Los Angeles studio veterans. The track “Benedict Canyon” is from 2012’s The Colors of L.A., and rather than being the yacht-rock appropriation you might expect with helping hands like Steve Lukather, it’s steeped in 1987 chart pop and big-production rock tropes that give it shades of Starship, Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting For a Star to Fall”, and Belinda Carlisle.
If it sounds like tons and tons of money, remember that these are the session musicians behind the musicians with the superstar budgets — akin to the concierges at the Beverly Hills Hotel, who spend their days among the best of everything and go home at night to their cramped Palms bungalows (well, maybe not Steve Lukather). Stupefyingly wealthy Benedict Canyon geography aside, there’s a sense of yearning for home here — “take me back to the place I belong” — that is the province of artists who never really made it. You hear it in Albert Hammond’s iconic “It Never Rains in Southern California” (which isn’t on this mix), although Hammond sounds infinitely more miserable, hungry, and tired than someone who believes he belongs in Benedict Canyon.
The title of film scorer Bill Conti’s “Beverly Glen Cop” is an obvious play on Beverly Hills Cop, the Eddie Murphy vehicle scored by Harold Faltermeyer and responsible for the breakout instrumental hit “Axel F”. “Beverly Glen Cop”, itself an instrumental, is quite musically indebted to “Axel F” as well as the guiding spirit of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”, The irony of “Beverly Glen Cop” is in how little the musical style reflects the well-heeled area of Beverly Glen, a neighborhood with little-to-no demographic for art-damaged, synth-driven Euro-electro. Doubly ironic is how much “art-damaged, synth-driven Euro-electro” could describe any number of television themes from the 1980s, from The Equalizer to Airwolf, so those would have been piping into Beverly Glen homes anyway. Those residents might have even watched Grand Slam, the 1990 CBS sports documentary from which “Beverly Glen Cop” came.
Like Chad and Jeremy’s “Sidewalk Requiem”, Albert Hammond’s “Fountain Avenue” is a meditation on death, although the latter has more place-specific detail, with its “Schaefer ambulance screaming against the evening sky” and “pedestrians teeming from apartment blocks.” Hammond’s song, a minor-key musical hat tip to Simon & Garfunkel bubbling over with saxophone and strings, illustrates somewhat that Fountain Avenue is not the most conventionally desirable part of Hollywood.
Running east-west and the first major block below Sunset, Fountain is best known to outsiders as Bette Davis’s punchline to an interviewer’s question about getting into Hollywood (“Take Fountain,” she rejoindered). It’s how to avoid traffic, since it’s considerably more residential than Sunset, but its low-slung bungalows are scraggly and its trash cans are overflowing.
Fountain is where you see discarded mattresses on the sidewalk — L.A. has a free bulky item pickup service, but the immigrant-intensive population of Latinos and Armenians might not know that, might not have the internet access to look up the number, or, according to a theory I’ve heard, they might be afraid that calling might lead them to be deported by ICE. Anyway, the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation is more responsive to requests by moneyed homeowners in stable neighborhoods, where there’s greater political power. The renter class just has to wait.
If you’re searching for a dwelling in Hollywood and you have enough financial mobility, the unofficial rule is that you look north of Hollywood Boulevard, maybe on Franklin Avenue, which is where the narrator of Ian Matthews’s “Franklin Avenue” lived. That one isn’t as tied to place — it’s about a musician friend — but its relative increase in tempo from “Fountain Avenue” suggests a greater level of personal comfort and privilege. “Franklin Avenue” has a certain West Coast troubadour chillness the wiry, anxious Hammond tune is lacking.
“Franklin Avenue” and “Fountain Avenue” are Hollywood daytime songs. Cluster’s instrumental “Hollywood”, from 1974’s Zuckerzeit, is a tentative night drive through the side streets, past drug deals and forlorn sidewalk hot dog vendors hours after a slow night at the Bowl. Like Gaznevada’s “Ticket to Los Angeles”, it’s a European’s idea of L.A. noir, a thrilling, dissolute, nocturnal urban wilderness in a frontier town. The reality is less thrilling — Hollywood at night is a high concentration of con artists, alcoholics, and confused sightseers who were looking for Santa Monica and ended up on a lonely stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard surrounded by brutalist storage facilities and discount shoe warehouses.
Part of the songwriting team that brought the world The Turtles’ “Happy Together”, Garry Bonner also wrote and recorded the little-heard “The Saddest Bank Holdup Culver City Ever Had”, an outlaw anthem for L.A. has-beens and never-weres (“dying there and no one cared”) that serves as a precursor to Steely Dan’s king-of-the-losers mantra “Deacon Blues”. Culver City in the 1970s was an old-school studio town on the verge of revitalization — today it signifies art galleries and dining, not bank robbery, but its studio affiliation still gives it a company-man reputation that makes the song’s title as funny and bittersweet as ever.
The Executive’s “Gardena Dreamer”, released as the B-side to “Tracy Took a Trip” on CBS in 1968, shows the same British obsession with Southern California that architect Reyner Banham employed in his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. While Banham delighted in freeways and futurism, The Executive is gleeful about the “morning sunlight” and “the shore” and “saffron shadows,” conflating the working-class and homely Gardena with its rich, lush South Bay cousin, Palos Verdes, later in the song. That Gardena is not actually on “the shore” is beside the point for The Executive, who are, judging by the aggressively cheerful, almost forced horns and harmonies, thrilled just to be in Los Angeles.
“South Central L.A. Kulture”, from trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith’s 2010 album Spiritual Dimensions, comes from Smith visiting his sister’s house in South L.A., “settin’ on the porch there, listening to discs, smoking marijuana and being kind of rowdy in the environment, and the sound of the helicopters, because in that area helicopters are constantly circling over, and sirens are constantly going on.” Smith told the site MetalJazz that he “made the piece as a reflection of not those things, but a reflection of how people could think and look for other kinds of achievements.”
Despite what the media tells us, there is no singular culture south of the 10 freeway — South L.A. is a physically, racially, and economically diverse swath of space. Artist and author Rosten Woo notes in his interview with Evan Kindley for the Los Angeles Review of Books that visiting the Compton-adjacent neighborhood of Willowbrook revealed large-lot houses, handsomely appointed gardens, and horse trails. And although the University of Southern California has had plenty to do with West Adams’ beautification, tourists might be surprised by stately Exposition Park or the area’s surviving Victorian mansions.
Regarding Smith’s reflection on “South Central L.A. Kulture”, some people get a better chance at those achievements than others, it’s true. The fight to survive amid gang violence and institutional indifference is a tough one. But leisure time is also important to one’s well-being. The picture Smith paints of just hanging out, smoking marijuana, and listening to music could apply to any place in the United States, and if there are more police helicopters flying over South L.A. than Peoria, Illinois, well, we hear them in the affluent neighborhoods of L.A., too. They’re a constant of life here.
Burn Hollywood Burn Tracklist:
01. Black Flag — “Hollywood Diary”
02 .Public Enemy — “Burn Hollywood Burn”
03. Big Joe Turner — “Hollywood Bed (Cherry Red)”
04. 10cc — “Somewhere in Hollywood”
05. Barbara Morgenstern — “Unser Mann Aus Hollywood”
06. Long Fin Killie — “Hollywood Gem”
07. Cluster — “Hollywood”
08. Buck Owens — “Hollywood Waltz”
09. Cal Tjader — “Cahuenga”
10. Albert Hammond — “Fountain Avenue”
11. Ian Matthews — “Franklin Avenue”
12. Beastie Boys — “Atwater Basketball Association File No. 172-C”
13. Randy Newman — “Dawn in Eagle Rock”
14. Los Creepers — “Lincoln Heights”
15. The Guilty Hearts — “Glassell Park”
16. The Angelos — “(Down in) East L.A.”
17. Chris and Cosey — “Put Yourself in Los Angeles”
18. Gaznevada — “Ticket to Los Angeles”
19. Michael Gira — “Rose of Los Angeles”
20. Chad Stuart & Jeremy Clyde — “Sidewalk Requiem, Los Angeles, June 5th and 6th”
21. Ikebe Shakedown — “Tujunga”
22. Los Abandoned — “Van Nuys (Es Very Naice)”
23. Styles of Beyond — “Winnetka Exit”
24. Christopher Rainbow — “Tarzana Reseda”
25. Bing Crosby — “San Fernando Valley”
26. Steaming Coils — “Paul and Linda in Northridge”
27. Brady Harris — “North Hollywood Skyline”
28. Frantics — “Ventura Blvd”
29. Flying Lotus — “Glendale Galleria”
30. Ray Noble — “From Oakland to Burbank”
31. Hallebeek/Kotikoski — “Music for Runyon Canyon”
32. Tangerine Dream — “Coldwater Canyon”
33. Christopher Milk — “There’s a Broken Heart for Every Rock and Roll Star on Laurel Canyon Boulevard”
34. AOR — “Benedict Canyon”
35. Bill Conti — “Beverly Glen Cop”
36. Symbol Six — “Beverlywood”
37. Felix Figueroa & His Orchestra — “Pico and Sepulveda”
38. DJ Quik — “Born and Raised in Compton”
39. The Negro Problem — “The Rain in Leimert Park Last Tuesday”
40. Wadada Leo Smith — “South Central L.A. Kulture”
41. Garry Bonner — “The Saddest Bank Holdup Culver City Ever Had”
42. Jonathan Richman — “Rooming House on Venice Beach”
43. The Executive — “Gardena Dreamer”
44. A Tribe Called Quest — “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”
45. Dangers — “The El Segundo Blue Butterfly Habitat Preserve”
46. Gang Starr — “JFK 2 LAX”
47. George Strait — “Marina Del Rey”
48. Hanoi Rocks — “Malibu Beach Nightmare”
49. George Duke — “Malibu”
50. Harpers Bizarre — “Malibu U”
Jody Beth Rosen is a writer born and raised in California. She currently writes for Slant, REDEFINE, Devise, and The Quietus. She also tweets.