Recent Work By Nicholas Pell

Many, many moons ago I used to write for a magazine you’ve never heard of. My editor had a curious theory: Rock and roll had hit the wall during the 77-era of punk. It’s not that he didn’t like music made since then. On the contrary, he was a huge Nirvana fan and was a mainstay on the American hardcore scene of the early 1980s. It’s that rock and roll could only get so fast and heavy before it ceased being rock and roll and started being something else.

I respectfully disagree. It’s true that many strains of rock music are too damn tight to allow for the little shimmy-and-wiggle action that puts the “roll” in “rock and roll.” Greg Ginn discovered this during Black Flag’s early days. He compensated by making everyone play at one-quarter speed during rehearsals, working their way up to the mid-tempo hardcore the band’s post-My War years. Motörhead, on the other hand, are a prime example of a band playing music both heavier and faster than punk with more than enough swing in its step to properly be called “rock and roll.”

I knew Amy was dead a little over a month ago. Once the concert footage from Belgrade hit the Internet, I knew, just like I knew that Kurt Cobain was dead after he OD’d in Italy. It was easy to laugh at her latest public embarrassment, but it was clear that her days were numbered and that she would not, in fact, finally get her shit together and live to a ripe old age. The smoky voice, the beehive and the endearingly self-destructive behavior all came to an end Saturday when Amy Winehouse went one toke over the line, sweet Jesus.

Much like Randy Newman, I love LA. Since moving to my adopted home, I have a new appreciation for the sound of Los Angeles. If a band is from the City of Angels, chances are good that I like them ten times more now than I did before I lived here. Still, like 12 million other people, I was deeply disappointed by the LA Times Magazine list of the best LA bands.

It’s rare that a list of the best anything results in anything more than eye rolling and fist shaking. As a rule, journalists don’t have a clue about music, music journalists doubly so. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t love The Monkees, but the ninth best band that LA ever birthed? Surely you jest, LA Times.

There’s also the small matter of deciding what a “Los Angeles band” is. Transplants are part of what make “El Ay” what it is, and bands flock to the city from far and wide. To that end, I have compiled a list of a dozen bands that take the Los Angeles experience and give it a sound and an image. Let the complaining begin.

I grant that I’ve only been here for eight months, but my experience does not match a single stereotype of LA. Unless we’re talking about gridlock on the Hollywood Freeway (see how assimilated I am becoming?) or sunshine 300 days out of the year, the public perceptions of non-Los Angelenos bear more resemblance to Tea Party talking points than any reality that I’ve experienced.

“Los Angelenos Are Vapid Assholes”

Since moving to Los Angeles, I think that I’ve read more books than any time since college. What’s more, I’m able to discuss books with other people who have read them, or at least people who have read other, similar books. Like many misconceptions of Los Angeles, this is probably true of a very narrow layer of aggressively substance-free folks working in Hollywood. It bears no resemblance to reality when you’re talking to some Mexican skinhead from East Los who has all kinds of opinions on the book he just read about Zen Buddhism or the omnipresent homeless guys outside of the public library.

And the people here are nice. I don’t mean nice in the way that a 65-degree day or a sweater from your favorite aunt at Christmas is nice. I mean welcoming, friendly, helpful, “homely” in the British sense. Whether it’s South Bay gang members packing another bowl and asking me questions about what the hardcore scene was like where I grew up or the server at a local vegan restaurant putting on her best — best — fake smile before bringing me another refill of coffee, Los Angelenos know something very useful: In a metro area of almost 18 million people a little bit of kindness, deference and ability to laugh at oneself is what keeps us from degenerating into Rwanda.

“Everyone is Tanned / Has Fake Tits / Capped Teeth / Botox”

I live in Hollywood and even I don’t get this. While I’m sure that if I went on a plastic surgery disaster hunt I’d come back with some impressive big game, I don’t see how a stereotype of Los Angeles was formed that was so damned white and middle class. For starters, over half the city doesn’t have to tan. The issue, however, goes far beyond the obvious social marker of race. Los Angeles is a bit like a third-world country in the sense that you have grotesque opulence and abject, shit-eating poverty existing within a stone’s throw of one another. The plastic surgery industry no doubt thrives in Los Angeles, but I often wonder at what income percentile the number of people who’ve had a little work done sinks like a stone.

“Nobody Walks in LA”

While granting that 98 percent of the people ambling around Hollywood Boulevard on any given day are a plague sent here from Germany, Kansas and Australia, it’s simply not true that Los Angelenos don’t walk anywhere. For one thing, if you live in a halfway decent neighborhood you can get most of your errands done simply by walking if need be. On a Friday night it’s far easier to shuffle from one bar to another by foot than it is to get in your car and risk a DUI, and as anyone will tell you this is a drinking town with a football problem.

Los Angeles has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the country. This figure must, however, be taken with a small grain of salt. Remember the truly astonishing (and hard to quantify) number of Angelenos who don’t so much have a car as they have a museum piece that they rub down six days a week before driving half a mile to the 7-11 to show off to other guys with similar museum pieces. Put simply, a 51 Buick low rider counts as a car about as much as the 100-year-old straight razor owned by my great-grandfather Claude Pell counts as something I can shave with.

While we’re on the subject — our public transit system is extensive, clean and relatively safe.

“Everyone Is / Wants to Be in Movies”

While I do own up to knowing a former VP of Miramax and a guy with two AVN Awards, this stereotype is largely a product of selective attention. If your friend who moved to Los Angeles moved here to be a screenwriter, chances are they have surrounded themselves with assholes who are “in the industry” and have become the type of asshole that says things like “the industry” with an air of mesmerized awe. Some of the most interesting people in Los Angeles, however, are not those in The Industry ™, but those existing at its margins. For everyone ten people here trying to be the next Brad Pitt or Michael Bay, there is someone trying to be the next Tura Satana or H.G. Lewis. Considering the gobs of buffoons wandering the streets of LA who expect to be discovered, this is a numbers game I’m more than willing to play.

My Los Angeles

I see the world of Los Angeles through a different prism than those living in New York, Detroit and Seattle, and perhaps even many living right here. To me, Los Angeles is a hard-working, mostly blue-collar city filled with people from every nook and cranny of the earth, living every lifestyle, alternative and otherwise, possible. Our people are honest, straightforward and love a good joke as much as they love a day spent grilling in the sun. They love playing pool, shooting guns at the range, watching boxing at the bar and taking a drive up Mulholland at sunset while making jokes about how clichéd that is. They love shopping at the swap meet, chihuahuas and pit bulls, hamburgers and old movies.

For the first time in my life I have a home. Thanks, Los Angeles, for being everything that people say you aren’t.

I have always maintained that Steely Dan’s music was, has been and remains among the most genuinely subversive ouevres in late-20th-Century pop.” – William Gibson, “Any ‘Mount of World”

Supermarket Subversion

So you’re standing around at the supermarket, getting your organic arugula and fair trade coffee when you hear music — unbelievably smooth music. The track, a light, jazzy soul number, features a piano and a trio of backup singers cooing every 45 seconds or so. As you approach the counter, the girl at the checkout catches you grooving. You abruptly stop and load your groceries, shifting your attention to the vocals. As the clerk rings up your responsible, locally grown produce you realize the tune you’ve been enjoying is about smoking heroin.

This is a true story. Names and locations have been changed to protect the criminally parochial.

Day One

I was standing in the gym, minding my own business. Minding your own business is often the worst thing you can do, especially when you’re 15, too smart for your own good and surrounded by the lowest form of human life: the high school administrator. An unnerving presence burned into my back, the type of feeling that there’s no logical explanation for. The feeling you can’t describe without resorting to tautology. Being watched feels like being watched. I spun around to see one of my high school’s vice principals making an ugly face, probably the only kind she knew how to make. Her wrinkled face contorted into the shape of an old Yankee woman seeing something she doesn’t understand.

“Easy, baby, you’re almost a fire hazard.”

With apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre, if Tura Satana didn’t exist someone would have to invent her. Standing 5’7”, you could easily be forgiven for imagining her towering at 6’10”. She passed away on February 4, 2010 in Reno, Nevada. The world continues without her, albeit in a severely impoverished state. Tura’s life sounds like something out of a nightmarish fairy tale designed to tell exotically beautiful young women that they can grow up to be legends.

First-wave hardcore fans may have trouble conceiving of hardcore (formerly “hardcore punk”) existing in 2011. What started out as a subculture of the maladjusted and praxis of social resistance has become a folk culture all its own. In the early 1960s, young people didn’t hesitate to don flannel, pick up an acoustic 12-string and bang out tunes Woody Guthrie made popular 30 years prior. In 2010 bad haircuts, fuzzed-out SG copies and Agnostic Front records may not mean what they did in 1982, but they still mean something. Despite recurring invasions from major labels, wannabe major labels and art-school kids looking to latch on to their next post-emo phase, hardcore remains a vibrant subculture for young and old.

Old folks and other cynics seeking proof that hardcore still turns out envelope-pushing, relevant rock and roll need look no further than the fruits of the last decade. From the crossover thrash revival to renewed influence in the mutant strain known as powerviolence and experimentation with prog and jazz, the hardcore of the aughties holds its own with any other decade.

30 Minutes

The room isn’t right. It’s not like Alice in Wonderland or anything. Just a barely perceptible difference of geometry letting me know something very strange is coming. I turn to my long-haired companion.

“The walls are… off.”

He looks at me, sweating and a little green. “I gotta puke.”

60 Minutes

Puking sounds emanate repeatedly from my toilet. I’m handling his vomiting and my solitude better than I would have thought. Vomiting happens. We’ve both ingested poison. I hear him cough and sputter in the next room. I smile, relishing the warm glow coming from inside my body and dance to The Beatles. I hate the fucking Beatles.

I shout out, “I love everything!”

75 Minutes

He’s still puking and my bladder is at critical mass.

“I need to piss. Can I have the toilet?”

He thoughtfully considers my proposition. “Nah, man. I need it.”  He hugs the porcelain, resting his head against the bowl. The sleeve of his flannel shirt hangs down.

“Do you care if I piss in the shower next to you?”

Without a thought he bleats, “No. Go for it.”

My piss streams next to his head while he retches bright blue foamy chunks into the toilet.

95 Minutes

He’s returned from the toilet and we’re both lying on my bed. I notice a discoloration in the paint that I have never seen before; pale yellow on off-white. I stare at it, trying to find meaning, sinking deeper into a glassy-eyed stare as I consider the larger universe I’ve entered.

My companion stares, glassy eyed into the infinite space of a drug haze. “I am tripping so hard right now.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I say, clutching a letter I wrote to myself explaining what the fuck is going on. “Are we going to be OK?”

He doesn’t hesitate to reassure me. “Yeah. We’re gonna be OK.”

“I thought so, but I figured I’d ask.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“Can I touch you?” The letter falls from my hand with the sweat of a clenched fist dampening the words.

“Sure, man.”

I put my arm around him and hold on for dear life.

130 Minutes

Two babies cling to one another, shaking ever so slightly in the middle of a blinding brilliant ball of white light.

200 Minutes

My roommate bounds merrily through the door and begins putting groceries away. I feel energized and run out to him.

“Joseph, I’m tripping my face off so you have to be nice to me.”

He’s slightly amused, but unfazed. “What did you take?”

“Mescaline. About 500 milligrams. It looks like a big grey aspirin. Did you know it’s made of salt?”

He keeps putting groceries away while I bounce around the room, looking at everything around me, walking for the sake of walking.

315 Minutes

The graveyard is silent and peaceful. This is the last place I thought I would want to come in this state, but I feel more at ease here than I have anywhere else. The trees swirl softly in the breeze. The stones provide a deliciously grey foreground in front of the blue-and-purple sky. I stand near under a tree, walking forward two feet, then back.

“This is really peaceful.”

“Yeah, man,” My companion agrees, his hair softly flipping in the breeze “I don’t know why people are afraid of graveyards.”

We stand there, staring off into the distance, the definition of comfortable silence. Everything is fine.

“It would really suck if there were fire ants here.”

Nothing is fine.

420 Minutes

“It’s kind of wearing off. Let’s smoke weed.”

We smoke in benumbed silence.

“How do you feel?”

“It’s sort of coming on again,” I smile warmly, glowing from the inside out. “I wish I could tell my dad about this.”

“I know, dude. It’s like you had your bar mitzvah or something.”

1200 Minutes

I get up, smoke a bowl and try and make some breakfast. I feel the mescaline kick back in and wonder: Will I ever be normal again?

I sure hope not.

I first discovered the Reverend Al Green’s rich, tenor voice where many others of my generation did: the Tiki lounge scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Half a lifetime later, the brassy intro to “Let’s Stay Together” brings me to the sparsely populated bar where Marcellus Wallace does business. In the interim years I have used Green’s 1972 classic album Let’s Stay Together to set the right mood at a party, unwind after a night at the bars and separate young women from their clothes. It’s never failed me in any of these endeavors.

Utility aside, Stay Together is a classic of 1970s soul. It seamlessly straddles two subgenres, uniting the ‘60s and the ‘70s. First, Memphis soul: The harder-edged sounds of the ‘60s synonymous with Stax Records.  Memphis was on the wane in 1972, increasingly eclipsed by the funk of soul stalwarts like James Brown and younger upstarts like Parliament. Second, Philly soul: The ascendant smooth sounds that would dominate the ‘70s before morphing into quiet storm and adult urban contemporary.

Throughout most of my childhood, I had vague memories of a strange film. A film featuring square-jawed protagonists, women of undying loyalty, villains beyond compare and burly, stocky men with golden wings. Over the years, I convinced myself that I imagined the whole thing. Nothing could possibly be that strange. Then one night I staggered back to a cheap motel in an “All America City” after a night of punk rock debauchery. My band mates sat in rapt attention around a tiny television. A brawny avian-man who did not fear death ordered his troops to dive. Apparently I hadn’t imagined Flash Gordon.