Tag: Los Angeles

Day 877: One Last Gut-Cram Before I Go

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Sometimes sinking one’s brain-fins into the waters of a good hypothetical topic and paddling about with one’s friends can be a healthy exercise. “What ten albums would you want on a deserted island?” “Which three children’s books would you travel back in time to read to a young Calvin Coolidge?” “If you could repaint the Great Wall of China in any shade of turquoise…” But my favorite of all hypothetical dalliances is the notion of the final meal.

The problem here is that we don’t generally know when our final meal will take place. It has crossed my mind upon consuming the occasional flaccid offering of meat-like McFiller-Material that I might be condemning my taste buds to an anticlimactic splatter of blandness, should a tragedy befall me suddenly. In order to become lucidly aware that your next meal will truly be your last, you’ll have had to have made some pretty nefarious life choices. For those of us who will probably never be on death row, each time we order off the menu we’re rolling the dice that we’ll get another chance.

The last meal is the one romanticized element of capital punishment. In truth, the condemned prisoner is usually not allowed to order with the full breadth of his or her imagination. If they could, I’m sure the final meal would often consist of a key to their cell baked into a Twinkie, along with a fully-armed rocket launcher, maybe garnished with a side-salad. In the US, even alcohol is usually on the forbidden list.

Of course, the real reason prisoners are entitled to a glorious final meal has nothing to do with mercy or consideration for the doomed. It’s all about ghosts.

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The last meal for the condemned is rooted in ancient superstition. Serving someone a free meal implies making a form of peace with the host, a truce if you will. The prisoner’s acceptance of the complimentary grub implies that he or she has forgiven the judge, the executioner and the witnesses. It was the state’s (or the crown’s) way of saying, “Here, enjoy this feast. Please don’t come back and haunt us. We’re cool, right?” The better the food and drink, the less likely the prisoner will return to spook those involved with his death. Read more…

Day 872: Here Come Ol’ Levy, He Come Groovin’ Up Slowly

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A survey of music lovers who possess even so much as a passing interest in the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly reveal “Come Together” to be one of the most universally beloved bullets in their melodic clip. From its swampy bass, its percussive “Shoot me” refrain to its absurdist and almost comically weird lyrics, the song righteously opens the gates to the magnificent Abbey Road album, tantalizing and gratifying most every pair of ears it meets.

It’s almost shocking to imagine the pretzel of nefarious backlash it provoked. “Come Together” may have begun its life as John Lennon’s attempt to pen a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s quest to unseat Ronald Reagan as governor of California, but it wound up inadvertently connecting Lennon with one of the most insidious corners of the music industry.

If only it were as simple as Lennon scribbling a new idea then slapping it onto vinyl with his buddies through the immaculate channel of producer George Martin. For the origin story of the madness that would follow, we need to travel back to 1956, back to when songs about cars were a veritable genre unto themselves. To a little single by rock ‘n roll’s illustrious grandpa, Chuck Berry.

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In 1956, Chuck released a song called “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon’s song boasts a similar vocal melody and a set of lyrics (“Here come old flattop, he come goovin’ up slowly” to “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”). The similarity ends there – Berry’s song is about driving quickly whereas Lennon’s is about something called ‘toe-jam football’ and some guy with feet below his knees. But it was enough to snag the ear of music publisher Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Berry’s song and promptly launched an infringement lawsuit against Lennon. Read more…

Day 861: The Lawn Chair Pilot Takes Off

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For those with unlimited imagination and an unfiltered sense of audacity, our gravitational tether to the ground ceases to be a limitation. Those who are terrified of heights may hug their earth-bound security with nary a blink toward the clouds, but for those of us who would happily dance a loopy jitterbug upon the glass floor at the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago, or leap into a rickety balloon basket and drift with the wind, we’ll savor the taste of danger.

Controlled danger, of course. There’s a thick and distinct line between taking part in a Better-Business-Bureau-approved hot-air flight of fancy off the ground and truly pioneering a bold and inventive voyage into the air. There is a coveted room in history for the fearless exploits of people like Ferdinand von Zeppelin or Kevin Helicopter, who tossed away the shackles of gravity and poured their souls into something exquisite.

That room in history is packed with other names too. The Wright Brothers have the sweet spot near the bathroom (but not so close that they can smell the urinal pucks), and the Montgolfier Brothers (who built the first manned hot air balloon) have a seat by the window. And you’d better believe there’s a cushy, velvet-lined deck chair reserved for Larry Walters.

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You’d never know it from his piercing gaze, but Larry didn’t have great eyesight. He’d always dreamed of being a pilot, but the Air Force wouldn’t sign off due to his poor vision. That was it, his dream was snuffed into an ashy heap of fuzzy eye charts and unfortunate genetics. A more rational and unimaginative person might have surrendered at that point, relegated themselves to being an airline passenger or a recreational skydiver. But not Larry. Read more…

Day 806: Ending It All, But With Panache

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When that icy murk of depression sinks into the soul and plants its jagged spiky heels into one’s chest-flesh, thoughts of ending it all tend to squirt to the surface. It’s a dark reality that such notions dance a step or two through most brains at some point or another. Thankfully, for most of us that nastiest of acts makes merely a flitting appearance in our morbid fantasies. For some, it becomes a reality.

Suicide is always a tragedy, or at the very least the final chapter in a years-long tragedy for some weather-beaten soul. But suicide with style is the stuff of gaping gawkery. Not everyone tilts their weight off the Golden Gate or gulps down the business end of a firearm. Some folks have opted to roll the dice on a happier afterlife in strange and prose-worthy ways. Whatever had propelled them to such depths may be lost in history, but clearly they wanted to take their final bow in a way we’d remember.

So as a tribute to their creativity I’ve compiled some of the more macabre and inventive suicides from recent to ancient history. I recommend reading this one with a bottle of something oomphy at your side, and raising a toast to each. Don’t worry, unless you fill your glass too full you’ll still be able to walk afterward.

HaouiMontaug

Haoui Montaug was a fixture in that hippest of New York scenes throughout the 80’s. He was a doorman at Studio 54, Hurrah, the Palladium and Danceteria. He was the barometer of Manhattan coolness, and he parlayed that into a touring cabaret revue that featured a young, pre-superstardom Madonna and a trio of local white Jewish rappers that would become the Beastie Boys. Montaug was the key to the party, so it was only fitting that a party would be his final earthly scene. Read more…

Day 771: On Tonight’s Show… History.

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Once the collective click of a few million TV sets shutting off had resonated throughout North America in the shadowy hours of February 9, 1964, the pentimento of American culture as it existed before that day was almost invisible. This is the news blurb that kids – and I include here many in my generation, those who played their opening number on this earthly stage some years after the 60’s had taken their bow – will gloss over and ignore. Precisely one half of a century has elapsed since the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Trying to rationalize the significance of this broadcast to my children is a fruitless endeavor. Even in my limited history, the only television “events” that embedded a rusty touchstone in our shared timeline were series finales (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld), sporting events or news stories. The first two would get us talking, but eventually they’d meander under the covers of the past. And while the scope of our world might have shifted after we all watched O.J. race through the arteries of Los Angeles in a Ford Bronco or after we saw the towers fall a few years later, television was merely the window through which we’d all observed a salient chapter in history. When the Beatles splashed down into 74 million pairs of eyeballs for the first time, it was culture announcing through its own mouthpiece that everything was about to change.

There had never been an equivalent in the world of popular music. And given the splintered state of our popular tastes and the three-block buffet of media options at our disposal, such a singular jarring of our culture is not likely to ever occur again.

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First of all, there is no parallel to Ed Sullivan today. Sullivan’s show was a weekly stage for performers to hurl their skills at a national audience in hopes the exposure will crank their success meter up to the next notch. You’d see plate-spinners and dog trainers, classically-trained actors and world-renowned singers. The late-night talk show circuit is the closest to an equivalent today, but Ed’s show was about showing off his guests, not interviewing them to hear pre-rehearsed stories about the time George Clooney pranked them in the studio commissary. Sunday nights were our culture’s window into the wider world. Read more…

Day 753: Rampart’s Black & Blue Glare

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In 1973, long before the rise of crack cocaine and the ensuing (and ongoing) gangsta-chic branch of popular culture, the Los Angeles Police Department threw together a group they called TRASH: Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums. The nickname suggested a smidgen of inherent bias, so the unit was renamed CRASH, with the ‘C’ standing for ‘Community’. The group would have a mountainous workload over the following decades.

In addition to the work, the CRASH squad would also be faced with a lot of temptation by the gangs they had sworn to take down. And in the unit’s 29-year tenure over the city’s most gore-flecked streets, they would tie the Los Angeles Police Department’s reputation to a large rock and kick it off a cliff.

This is the scandal that revealed the wicked allure of a blood-red do-rag, as well as the way that the Thin Blue Line of so-called righteousness can be lured to blur when frail hearts plunk their tinny drum behind a police shield. The CRASH team’s reach extended to the limits of L.A. and throughout its miniature sub-cities, but it was the Rampart Division that patrolled the area just west and northwest of Downtown that caused the system’s collapse. This was where, for a moment in time anyway, the gangs won.

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The story begins with Kevin Gaines, pictured on the left. He had raised some eyebrows in the summer of 1996 when he’d placed a call from the home of Sharitha Knight (estranged wife of Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight) and proceeded to engage in a scuffle with police. This suspicious behavior might have resulted in his removal from the force, but Deputy Chief Bernard Parks dropped the investigation. Watch for him – Parks’ name is going to come up again later. Read more…

Day 743: Make Way For Madman Muntz!

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While the world heaps its historical praise upon the Thomas Edisons, the Henry Fords, and the Giordi Lobzhanidzes (he invented the modern garlic press), we forget that for each titan of invention who helped to shape our twisted, wicked world, there are many who remain practically anonymous. I’m not talking about the utterly unsung individuals whose names are forever scrubbed from their legacy and lost to the ages. No, these are names that get heralded on some small scale in their time, but are likely to vanish into the fog of obscurity only one generation later.

I’d wager a flask of Ovaltine and my old Donald Fagen 8-track that no one from my generation is going to pipe up and claim that they remember Earl William “Madman” Muntz.

Blank and unimpressed as your face may presently be upon reading this, the topic of today’s probing kilograph, I would argue that, strange as it may seem, Muntz’s life’s work did have some sort of effect on the world around you. Perhaps it’s a tiny ripple, but isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t we all be tickled to know that the fabric of time continues to quiver from our impact some 24 years after we’ve scooted into oblivion?

MadmanMuntz

Earl Muntz spent most of his life one or two steps ahead of his time. He spent his youth disassembling electronics and learning how they work. He might have followed this passion down an academic freeway, but the Great Depression booted him to the curb and forced him to quit school to work in his parents’ hardware store in Elgin, Illinois. A few short years later, a 20-year-old Muntz was ready to open his first business: a car dealership. He relocated to California once observing that used cars sold there for much more than they’d fetch in Elgin. Then Muntz single-handedly changed the industry. Read more…

Day 735: Real Winners Come From Harlem

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When I was eight years old, my dad took me to watch the Harlem Globetrotters play. I don’t remember much of the game (I suspect they won), but I’ll never forget the lesson they taught me about comedy: nothing is too sacred to become fodder for a laugh. Athletes pour their sweat and souls into mastering their craft, they face each game with grit, determination and a professional intensity, yet here are a lanky bunch of goof-offs, mopping the floor with the hapless Washington Generals and having a great time.

One can find a sort of nihilism in this, I suppose. A victory for class-clowndom, or an existential detachment from the rites of traditional consequentialism. To my eight-year-old eyes, it was none of this – it was pure fun.

The Globetrotters exist within a strange bubble of competitive sport: their primary focus is to provide entertainment, but they must also perform with the precision of a perpetually competitive unit. There is no famous equivalent in any other major sport, suggesting that basketball alone lends itself to physical antics and slapstickish showboatery. Or maybe no one feels they can pull it off with the deft sense of showmanship that the Globetrotters exude.

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It may surprise you to know that the headquarters for the Harlem Globetrotters is located in Phoenix, Arizona. This is not a case of an owner retiring to a warmer climate; the team has actually never been based out of Harlem. They were launched in 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois, and spent most of their early years centered around the greater Chicago area. So why slap the word ‘Harlem’ in the team’s name?

Simple. It’s exotic. Read more…

Day 709 – Crowding ‘Round The Stage Door

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That’s me on the left. Beside me is singer/songwriter/reality show judge Ben Folds, one of my favorite talents in all three of his fields. On the right, that’s a groupie. Not one of Ben’s – she’s actually one of those women who gets all swoon-tastic over writers indulging in ridiculous online projects. Fame most definitely has its perks.

This was the only time I waited after a show to meet the performer. I have never possessed the dedication or desire to be a true groupie, and it’s not because many of my favorite artists are deceased (though they are). Being a groupie takes time, it takes perseverance, and it takes a healthy splatter of crazy across the bubbly surface of one’s brain. It’s not a commitment that necessarily commands respect or admiration, but it’s certainly something to marvel at. Like someone who collects a basement full of old beer cans.

Among the field of groupies, as with everything else, there are some stand-outs. Heading up a fan club is nothing, building a shrine in the corner of your bedroom is amateur hour. If you want them to scootch clear a little spot for you on a shelf in the Groupie Hall o’ Crazy, you’ve got a high standard to meet.

PamelaDesBarres

Pamela Des Barres has literally made a living as a groupie. With four books, a steady online writing gig, her own ‘Groupie Couture’ clothing line, and sufficient exposure to lead to a music and acting career of her own, Pamela is the queen of the superfans. She hung out with the Byrds when she was only in high school and later babysat Frank Zappa’s kids. As a teenager she moved to the Sunset Strip so she could be closer to the heart of the Los Angeles music scene – Pamela wasn’t just a fan, she was an insider. Read more…

Day 687: The *INDISPUTABLE* Big Box O’ Juke – 80’s Edition

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I have, in the past, been accused of acute music snobbery, mostly by people whose names I never bothered to commit to memory. Yes, as an employee of Music World for the summer of 1993 I would regularly look down on customers who purchased music that I deemed to be weak and unworthy of sharing the New Release rack with the 20th anniversary re-issue of Dark Side of the Moon. But I’d only do so in my head and to co-workers after those customers had left the premises. Usually.

And while I hold my own artistic opinion as a more accurate barometer of objective quality than that of the Billboard chart-driven display of ludicrous public embracement, I would be the last to declare my tastes to be definitively correct. I am a child of the 1980’s, an era when music didn’t have to be musicologically intricate – or even necessarily good – to be a terrific record. I’m okay with this – if someone whose sense of auditory aesthetics tells me that Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days” is a crap single, I will quietly acknowledge a perfectly valid crevice of opinion, even if I feel they are wrong.

But there are some songs that seem to be objectively inarguable – purely and unavoidably great pieces of music. These are tracks that even the neo-hipsters of that decade will tap their feet to, the ones that truly warrant the moniker of ‘classic’. I’ve written about 80’s music before, but with these songs I can’t imagine any dissent. Or, you could comment below and prove me wrong.

But you won’t.

BruceSpringsteen

In 1984 there was no under-bed hidey-hole so remote it could not be penetrated by some portion of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA album. It still holds the record (along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller) for having spawned seven top-10 hit singles; that’s seven massive hits off a twelve-track LP. And while perhaps you could uncover some twisted soul who’ll stick up their noses at “Dancing In The Dark” or “Glory Days”, I simply cannot fathom not cranking up the volume to “Cover Me.” Read more…