California Excursion Part IV: Extra Words on Long Beach

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I wrote this about three weeks ago and somehow forgot to publish it. It began as an extra chunk to Part III of my LA writings, but I separated it into its own entry because, like I write below, Long Beach deserves to be so much more than just a footnote to LA. Enjoy! More updates this week on my Fall and Spring teaching schedule. – Ty

It’s difficult for me to write about Los Angeles without abbreviating it as LA/LB, because for most of this decade, Long Beach has felt like my Western home rather than the juggernaut dwarfing it from up the 405 and 710. Despite one legendary Long Beach poet’s references to “so much drama in the LBC,” the city’s actually a subdued counterpart to Los Angeles. If Long Beach were located anywhere outside of LA’s orbit, it would be considered a major city and maybe even have its own NBA team (seeing as how Anaheim has an MLB team and an NHL team with about 200,000 fewer people). All that being said, anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in Long Beach is reticent to consider it as part of Los Angeles. “Greater Los Angeles,” perhaps, mostly because the red blotch in so many atlases I grew up reading enveloped both cities and the Metro Blue Line does connect the two efficiently (or, as efficiently as possible… you try to get from Downtown Long Beach to Downtown Los Angeles in under an hour for the grand total of $1.50).

So, whenever I told anyone where I was the other week, I said “LA/LB,” because I was spending quality time in both cities and taking advantage of what they respectively had to offer. Los Angeles has taco trucks and delicious street dog stands on every corner, Amoeba Records, the Hollywood Bowl, not to mention Western epicenters of North American comedy, film and theater. Long Beach has a better bus system, fewer taco trucks (that are still delicious), Fingerprints Records and Cafe, the biggest port in North America, and the single most beautiful urban place to see a sunset (I lived off of 4th Street for a year and it never got an iota less wonderful).

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Long Beach has gone a long way over the past two generations to establish its identity. Before World War II, it was viewed by outsiders (and many insiders) as a weekend getaway for Los Angeles’ swelling petite bourgeoisie. At least until the city erected a massive breakwater (which may very well come down soon depending on the results of an Army Corps of Engineers study), it resembled other blown-out mid-Century party harbors like Ocean City, Coney Island, and (shudder) Atlantic City. Of course, this depiction of the city belied the growing indigenous population (not to mention the actual indigenous population of Gabrielino Indians). The Long Beach items from the Ben Irving postcard collection, particularly this one above, shows off how the city prided itself back during Wartime. Irving sent this one home to my grandmother in Brooklyn on August 16, 1940. You can just see the Pike off in the back left of this image, Long Beach’s response to the Santa Monica pier, which had been devised around the turn of the century as a way to disguise sewage dumping but quickly turned into a fishing and amusement pier (more detailed history here).

The Pike was, for generations, an amusement park that stuck out into Long Beach’s own chunk of the Pacific, nestled next to the port and to the sea of oil refineries. Today, The Pike is perhaps better known to young Long Beach as a restaurant and bar near 4th and Cherry where DJs spin tunes by Social Distortion (for whom the owner Chris Reece, in the hat, used to play drums), burlesque troupes perform, and Hot Rod lovers converge. The area where the Pike pier sat has become a weird simulacrum that’s still tourist-friendly but filled with a convention center, a P. F. Changs, and a walkway decorated with lights that make it feel like the ghost of the roller coaster from last century. When I lived there, I barely ever went down there, other than to occasionally catch special events at the movie theater.

Anyway, between the EmoGeo conference and quick trips back and forth to LA, I didn’t have the chance to re-frame any of the Ben Irving Long Beach postcards. That was no excuse to omit some personal/professional reflection on the city, though, because I miss it an awful lot these days.

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Bret, me, Abel. An impromptu reunion of The Casual Geographer at The Pike Bar in Long Beach in June. We took about 15 of these, most of them blurry.

 

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Sidetrack: Pavement and California Anti-Geography

As a thirty-something white person who wears glasses and has been to grad school, I love the band Pavement. I’m taking a quick break from my California Excursion updates (I have a massive entry coming soon for Part III) to bring back up one of my favorite Geography 101 assignments. I had the opportunity last night to see Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) play a great set of songs with his current band that mixed Pavement classics on which he sang lead like “Date with Ikea,” “Two States,” and “Kennel District” with songs off his two solo albums. It had been a little while since I’d properly geeked out over Pavement, and last night’s show gave me a perfect excuse to, so thanks to Jason Boardman and the Pilot Light crew for that.

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As I alluded to in my entry two years ago, Pavement were hard to pin down geographically. The two founding members of the band, Kannberg and Stephen Malkmus, grew up together in Stockton, a Central Valley city that has become infamous over the past few decades for blight and poor urban planning around its social issues.  The other three members who rounded out the classic lineup of the band came from scattered points on the East Coast, which ultimately spelled the end of the band in 1999 when distance between them all made it unsustainable to keep going.

I just found this relatively new lyric video somebody made for their song “Unfair,” an album track on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador, 1994) which runs through points on the California map similar to how Damon Albarn sang Blur’s way around England on “This is a Low.” I’ll embed it here for your enjoyment.

As I was telling my friend last night, one thing I really have grown to appreciate about Pavement over the years is just how overwhelmingly ordinary the five of them are. None of them really look like you’d expect them to be in a band, much less one of the most genre-defining of their era. To this day, I still get skeptical when I see a band who look like a band; take that for what it’s worth. Either way, my friend asked me which album to start out with, so I had to be honest and just rank their five studio albums for him rather than single one out in particular…

  1. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
  2. Brighten the Corners (1997)
  3. Slanted & Enchanted (1992)
  4. Wowee Zowee (1995)
  5. Terror Twilight (1999)

Outside of Terror Twilight (which is still very good, don’t get me wrong) being last, I feel like a lot of indie rock fans would disagree with me on that order, which is encouraged here. Also, some of the band’s non-album tracks like “Frontwards” and “Debris Slide!” (which may be directly inspired by CA… hard to know) are essential as well. And though it isn’t one of my favorites, Pavement also contributed a single “Painted Soldiers” to the Kids in the Hall movie ‘Brain Candy,’ which leads me to end this entry and tease my upcoming one on the California trip: Scott Thompson will make an appearance.

Musical Geography 101: Pavement (Stockton, CA)

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

The best band of the 90s (I wrote an essay about this for an old website, which I’m happy to share if you disagree… and I’d expect that you would) did originate in Stockton, California (by many metrics, one of the worst cities in the Western United States), but have had very little to say about it in their songs. Here, Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics jump around through countless overlooked and/or overrated sites in the Golden State, not stopping anywhere long enough to wax nostalgic about any of them. He ends the song screaming a memorable line about “Bakersfield trash.” Malkmus has always been one of rock’s most cryptic lyricists, but from what I imagine, this song either indicts the misallocation of the state’s resources, or it ridicules how most outsiders don’t even consider the state outside of the big three cities real. But I consistently failed poetry-interpretation in high school, because there is no right answer, I suppose.

While I’ve still got you reading this and in case you’re more interested in musical opinions then cultural geography, ‘Crooked Rain Crooked Rain’ is one of the greatest American rock records since the Minutemen’s ‘Double Nickels on the Dime.’ I’m just full of opinions today.

If you have access to Morgan Spurlock’s “Inside Man” series, do watch his episode where he moves to spend time on a citizen’s patrol in Stockton. It’s downright depressing, but it does draw some fascinating arrows between civic processes and hollowing and blighting of a mid-size city. Here’s a hint: do not blow money on a civic center if you’re only going to use it four times a year.

Drove Up from Pedro

It’s June 16th, known to some as Bloomsday, the day in which James Joyce’s epic Ulysses takes place. Because the Minutemen used that date to name an instrumental track on their masterpiece double-album Double Nickels on the Dime in 1984 (listen to the whole thing here), the date has earned an additional meaning to many of their fans, including yours truly.

(via Watt’s hoot page)

If I could write a book about why the Minutemen encapsulated everything that was essential about punk rock and great and rock n’ roll, I would. Maybe I still will some day. A spate of literature does exist about the band, including a 33 1/3 Book about Double Nickels by my friend Mike Fournier as well as a particularly landmark section of Michael Azerrad’s volume Our Band Could Be Your Life (aptly enough, named after a line in the Minutemen song “History Lesson (Part II)”).

The trio were at once irreverent and smarter than any of their contemporaries, at once shambolic musicians yet still a tighter unit than any of their counterparts that played by the rules. The Minutemen made it very clear that no song, no story, no band could be as important as the one that you create, and while D. Boon died almost three decades ago, Mike Watt still tours relentlessly and lives his message every day. Their politics were no joke and neither were their working-class backgrounds (the term “double-nickels on the dime” came from trucker lingo).

(via laexeclimo.com)

The trio’s working-class legend are what brings me to their sonic geography. There are few places on Earth, if any, where the Minutemen could have come from other than San Pedro, CA. For anyone who hasn’t been there, it is a beautiful slice of land suspended over the Pacific Ocean, a hinterland of Los Angeles without feeling at all like the city proper. Like the city to it’s north, it elicits passionate reactions one way or the other: a heavenly village draped over a hill, or a boring burnt-out former-Navy town. My perspective on Pedro (pronounced Pee-Droh) is overwhelmingly the latter. When I lived in Long Beach, I would regularly escape across the Bay to relax and do some writing, and I told anyone visiting the West Coast that it was my favorite place in California and impressed upon them how important it was to visit at some point. The Korean Friendship Bell, the Sunken City, William’s Book Store (R.I.P.), and so many more wonderful landmarks tie the beautiful town together. That the greatest band to ever record and tour came from Pedro is not a big surprise, considering how unique and staunchly working-class the city was, and in many ways, remains.

Here’s to the three corndogs who blazed a trail out of Pedro and spread the good word of jamming econo.

“There should be a rock band on every block, because it can happen.”

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Me with Mike Watt, Washington, DC, 2011 (Photo by June Paek)

 

Long Beach’s Great Wall of Mulch

I know I don’t post on environmental science and physical geography nearly often enough (or…ever), so here is something fun for you all who may have stumbled upon my site.

from Mayor Foster’s site.

The city of my MA (and home for two wonderful years), Long Beach just completed the world’s first “Great Wall of Mulch.” At first, when I clicked on the link below, I was a bit confused. It seemed like Long Beach embarked on a massive publicity stunt. But, after reading on, I realized that it makes so much more sense than an eyesore concrete barrier, and is also sustainable, relatively inexpensive (only $150K) in addition to being just plain creative. It’ll be interesting to see where else around the world these alternative-material barrier walls start showing up.

For now, take a look at some other photos of Mayor Bob Foster’s dedication ceremony and pass this along to anyone wondering which CA cities are actually dedicated to sustainability.

Youth Brigade – “Sink with Kalifornija”

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So, I wrote this chapter for a forthcoming book about the hostile spatial dynamics that face women involved with the punk scene. I used the case study of a Youth Brigade show I saw in Fullerton last year, so I’m sure the BYO kids will love it if the book makes it into any of their hands. Some people may take it as an indictment of the band, but that isn’t the reality at all.

In fact, Youth Brigade have been (as I allude to in the chapter) one of the pillars of the Southern CA punk scene for over three decades. Additionally, the opening track of their first full-length (the official version, at least) is one of punk rock’s greatest “geographic” anthems. Hope it wakes you all up this drowsy mid-afternoon. Enjoy!