RIP Fred/Freak Smith of Beefeater

fredplaysforloversSad news today. Fred Smith, guitarist of the charismatic DC Revolution Summer group Beefeater and multiple other bands, was found dead in a park in the San Fernando Valley. Thanks to Mark Andersen for sharing this via social media. I imagine other details will emerge soon as his many friends from over the decades come forward. The Los Angeles Daily News reported that he was homeless at the time of his death, but that may have been in error.

Smith had lived and played in bands in Los Angeles since the 1990s, from what I understand. He also showed up on the Tonight Show in 2010, doing his best to make this clip enjoyable against Jay Leno’s humor deficiency. Hopefully more details on Fred/Freak’s life will emerge in tributes soon. Here’s a video of Smith playing with Beefeater in 1985.

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California Excursion Part III: Revisiting Los Angeles

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OPENING SIDETRACK: THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL

As I plan to return to Los Angeles at least once a year for the foreseeable future, I’ve started to build a mental list of landmarks to see that I never had the chance while I was living out there. Believe it or not, I’d never been to the Hollywood Bowl until my visit a couple weeks ago. Also believe it or not, I had never seen The Specials either (I’ve been a ska fan for well over half my life now; Dick Hebdige would either be proud or pity me). Fortunately, the Hollywood Bowl’s Reggae Night on June 18th helped me check off both of those bucket list items. Here is a fuzzy photo that accurately reflects my thoughts on the matter:

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You can’t make out the details in that photo, but Lynval Golding, 65, was rocking out after loudly declaring that Black Lives Matter, a true testament to Rude Boys everywhere. My longtime friend Kat, my new friend James, and I saw them play a slew of classics, including “Gangsters,” “Monkey Man,” and the eternal crowd-pleaser “A Message to You Rudy” as the sun set over the Hollywood Hills. It was euphoric. Here are a couple of better pictures…

 

The Hollywood Bowl is a true marvel of landscape architecture and engineering; I wonder if it gets enough credit as such. We had to leave a couple of songs into Ziggy Marley’s headlining set in order to get me to LAX in time for my flight, but it was still a night I won’t forget anytime soon.

Now that I’ve gone off on my musical tangent, I’ll rewind to earlier in the week and get to the focus of this entry: the Ben Irving Postcard collection and depictions of wartime Los Angeles to now.


ACTUAL INTRO: REPHOTOGRAPHING LOS ANGELES

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On Tuesday night before heading down to Long Beach for the start of EmoGeo, I had the rare opportunity to talk about Irving on Modern Vaudeville, a weekly variety show held at the Lyric Hyperion Theater in Los Feliz. It was a rare opportunity because not only did it represent my professional and performing life intersecting, but I was also on a bill with a number of great comedians, including Scott Thompson (doing a new Buddy Cole monologue) and the always-delightful Sklar Brothers (don’t miss their Netflix special). Despite the broken A/C and my own lack of time to prepare and refine the 8-minute set, it was well-received and the crowd joined in to sing one of his songs, the first time it had probably been performed in over 70 years. Thanks to Christy Coffey and Ian Abramson for the opportunity.


THE HOTEL ALEXANDRIA / PERSHING SQUARE

One of the DTLA landmarks I featured in my presentation was the old Hotel Alexandria, located at 500 S. Spring Street. Though I was in the area for over a week, I did not get a chance to visit the site, which I’m pretty confident I’ve walked by dozens of times without knowing Irving had once stayed there. I Sweded an image via Google Street view, commenting on how a once-upper-grade hotel had turned an SRO by the time that Tom Waits or Charles Bukowski could have lived there in the 70’s. The message on the back of the postcard that he sent on August 15, 1940 read “Hotel Alexandria: Where you meet America’s most famous people.” It may have been a bit of a stretch then; now, you might luck out if one of them’s filming something in there, but probably not.

 

I hope to ground-truth this image the next time I’m in LA and take a proper photo that I didn’t need to hijack from Google’s server. That being said, another place I have clear memories of visiting is Pershing Square. My classmates at CSU Long Beach and I did a walk-through as part of Norman Carter’s encyclopedic tour of downtown LA in 2012, and then we revisited the block as the (Millennium) Biltmore Hotel was one of the venues for AAG 2013. Unsurprisingly, when Pershing Square became a watering hole for many of the city’s homeless, the Biltmore re-oriented their main entrance away from the park side. What’s funny about looking at an early-1940’s depiction of Pershing Square and the Biltmore Hotel versus seeing how it looks now (at least as it did in February) is how relatively little the Hotel façade has changed, but how drastically the park across the street has (post-)modernized. As much as I can’t blame the Google Street View car operator for driving in one of the middle lanes down Olive Street, I’m putting a re-photographing of this vantage point at the top of my priorities for the next time I’m in DTLA. Either way, I hope you find this interesting.

 

Here are some photos I found that I took in 2013, including one which is actually not far from this vantage point, on the park side of the street. It seriously looks like Fritz Lang and Salvador Dali got together and directed this park. Seeing these photos again after a few years makes me even more excited to go back to Pershing and see what changes (if any) the city has made, and if any tent cities have figured out how to appear.


THE HOLLYWOOD PLAZA HOTEL

When I did have opportunities to ground-truth sites depicted on the postcards, it often times didn’t work out due to the encapsulating site not existing anymore. This happened to me in two separate manner in Savannah last month (which I completely ran out of time to write about here, but I plan to soon). Earlier in the week, I found myself in Hollywood to see what kind of deals Amoeba had to offer,  and I wandered over to Vine Avenue to see what had become of the once-luxurious Hollywood Plaza Hotel. All I had was a postcard (mailed June 9, 1941) that depicted the lobby lounge, rather than anything on the exterior of the building:

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What I found at the site was a strange combination of nostalgia and blatant disregard: the large neon sign remained on the roof of the block (as designated an LA Historic-Cultural Monument), but it appeared that little of the actual building had been preserved or made accessible. The second level was actually beautifully adorned on the outside (and possibly on the inside, but I wouldn’t know), but the chocolate-centric cafe on the street level outside hung an imposing banner. A historic placard about the Hotel hung on the light post nearby. I walked inside the main office entrance, greeted by a security guard with (I gathered) pretty strict bosses. I wanted to make up a story about someone I had an appointment with, but I didn’t have time to spin anything. Also, my brain was fried from the Hollywood heat and traffic I had navigated to get there.

The conclusion here is that I have no idea if that Lounge still exists in any architectural form. The historical information I’ve found indicates that the hotel had gone derelict by the late 1960’s and was converted into a senior living facility. Also, in 1937 (a few years before Irving passed through there), Clara Bow opened up the troubled “It” Club off of the Hotel’s Lounge. It closed within a year, so I guess Irving never got to experience that piece of Hollywood Babylon. A real shame.

 


LANGER’S DELI AND WESTLAKE/MACARTHUR PARK

For every LA landmark within the touristic purview that I feature here, I like to feature one that has, for whatever reason(s), straddled or slipped off of it. On Saturday, after EmoGeo had wrapped up, I had the opportunity to take my Mom (who was in LA to visit family) to one of Jewish Los Angeles’ legendary eateries, Langer’s Deli. Somehow, I had never heard of Langer’s prior to this trip. I had been through MacArthur Park a couple of times, but had somehow never noticed this prominent deli at the corner of 7th and Alvarado Street. For similarly dubious reasons, my brother-in-law (who grew up in Los Angeles and lives there now with my recently-relocated sister and recently-born niece) had never mentioned the Deli to us, despite it being the best one in the city (high praise indeed).

It just so happened that one of the Postcards that my great-grandfather had mailed home from California featured Westlake Park, as it was known when he posted it in 1940.

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A bit of admittedly overdue background: During his life as a salesman, he visited California twice, once in 1940 and once in 1941. From what I could tell, Irving was pretty amazed at what he found out there. Obviously, pre-War Los Angeles and Long Beach were much different cities. Many of the nodal cities like Pasadena, Inglewood, and Carson which eventually bled together into modern Greater Los Angeles were still somewhat isolated yet well-connected by… you guessed it…

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via Museum of the City.

Ironically, as the neighborhood around Langer’s Deli languished after the GM-led dismemberment of the Pacific Electric system by the early 1960s, it was the emergence of the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro station that pumped new life into the block. Today, CiclaVia runs through there and gentrification bites at the area’s ankles. You can read more about it here at the restaurant’s official history.

What my Mom and I didn’t know as we drove down to MacArthur Park the other weekend was that we were about to stumble into a new moment in Langer’s history: its 70th anniversary celebration. The line of eager new customers and longtime regulars wound around a barrier by the entrance. Fortunately, much of the line was underneath an awning, with portable air conditioning units blasting sweet, sweet cool air on them, young women on Langer’s staff handing out “I ♥ Langer’s” pins and free bottles of water.

We headed across the street into MacArthur Park, passing by a large strip of Mexican street vendors and a series of encampments spread throughout the periphery. MacArthur Park, like Pershing Square, has clearly become a magnet for much of the region’s homeless population. However, the city has not taken as much of a scalpel to MacArthur Park, letting it serve its municipal function even if many people who planners find undesirable are populating it. The easily recognizable Elks Club Lodge building sat at the far corner of the park, which made it a cinch to locate the original vantage point depicted in the Irving postcard above. Below are a couple of results:

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That’s better. The highly recognizable old Elks Lodge (now the Parkview Hotel) made this one very straightforward.

After taking these pictures, we headed back to Langer’s to get in line. After about 30 minutes, several free bottles of water, and giving a completely useless sound-byte to a KNX reporter, we got seated at the counter inside. My mom quickly charmed the owner Norm Langer, who had passed by to say hello and thank you to customers for the special occasion. Because he was almost as old as the establishment (his father Albert opened it in 1947), we asked him what he remembered about Westlake/MacArthur Park from his youth. He was convinced that there had never actually been water on the East side of where Wilshire Boulevard bisected the park; it had always been a field and the actual lake had always been confined to the other side of Wilshire. This seemed odd, but not unbelievable considering the liberties that Curt Teich postcard artists took when trying to sell cities with controversial water histories. That’s my theory, anyway; it’s possible that Norm was thinking about his childhood in the post-War era and not in the 1930s when the postcard was first published. This may require more digging.

I’ll finish this mammoth series of CA reflections soon with a bonus entry on Long Beach. For now, I’ll finish this post with a quick dedication to my Mom – she was really nice to put up with me and buy me lunch. She did, however, fill my ears with her rendition of the hit song of her teenage years “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, eventually giving up and playing it on her phone as we left Downtown LA. I’m not sure exactly how the park inspired Jimmy Webb to write the song, but I’ll link to this megapost about it and hopefully not regret that later. The song has an interesting history and and interesting cult, for sure. I can’t help but imagine a young Neil Hannon hearing it and having a light bulb appear over his head. Enjoy the majesty:

 

RIP Wombleton Records

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via the LA Weekly

In planning my trip out to Los Angeles for EmoGeo (the Emotional Geographies Conference) next month, I stumbled upon some sad news. Wombleton Records, one of the three shops upon which I focused my chapter in The Production and Consumption of Music in the Digital Age (2015; B. Hracs, M. Seman, T. Virani, eds), closed its doors this past February. I somehow missed this news when it first came out in February; their normally fantastic newsletters stopped arriving and I guess I didn’t notice because I haven’t lived in California for a while now.

I’m mostly disappointed on behalf of anyone who stumbles upon my chapter in that book, gets excited to visit the store, looks it up, and realizes they’ll never get to. I hold no grudges over one of my case studies disappearing; it only emphasizes how transient these types of places are and how difficult it is to stay solvent in the modern urban economic landscape. It mainly sucks because it was such a cool little shop; the owners Ian and Jade emphasized design and atmosphere and curated their vinyl collection beautifully. I couldn’t even count the number of UK and European titles I found there that I would be highly unlikely to find anywhere else in the United States. I was already getting excited to flip through their 7″ section in the back trying to find any rogue single by the likes of Blur, Supergrass, or Manic Street Preachers.

At least LA (even the Highland Park area) isn’t particularly starving for good record shops these days. Wombleton was a clear labor of vinyl love, and the LA Weekly published a great retrospective on the storefront’s 7-year history the week it shut down. Best of luck to everybody who was involved!

Have a great weekend, everyone. More info about my California trip soon, as well as (while on the subject of Blur, ‘Grass, Manics, et al) a lengthy diatribe about the value of Britpop in Geography. Also, why Blur are categorically better than Oasis.

Chapter in New Book on Music in the Digital Age

9781138851658I’m excited to announce that I have a chapter in a brand new volume entitled The Production and Consumption of Music in the Digital Age. The editors, Brian J. Hracs, Michael Seman, and Tarek E. Virani, worked tirelessly in a process that ultimately took a couple of years. This actually began as a session that Hracs organized at AAG 2013 in Los Angeles. I presented some research I’d done about a few new (at the time) record stores in Highland Park, one of my favorite areas of Los Angeles. Brian and Michael (who I met shortly afterward at a dinner in, from what I remember, was an engine room/speak easy restaurant… you know, downtown LA) both thought my chapter would make a good contribution to their book, so here we are.

You can read up on the chapter list at the book’s catalog page on Routledge. A great cast of characters contributed, including my colleague Tom Bell, continuing his collaborations with Peggy Gripshover and Ola Johansson on a geographic analysis of music venues in Pittsburgh and Nashville. I can’t wait to look through a hard copy of this. If you or your professors/students are looking for a great addition for your course in Cultural Geography, Music Industry, Musicology, or anything involving the post-internet economy, make sure to check this out. And add it to your library! Don’t forget to do that, either. And follow the project on twitter. The list goes on.

While I was scrolling through older entries trying to find that one about AAG 2013, I passed by an entry about Heavy Metal Parking Lot. A quick word of congratulations to my friend Jeff Krulik on the 30th Anniversary Exhibit at the University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library. I was actually at that library for a couple of days the week before the exhibit opened, and it BURNED that I just narrowly missed it. But, if you’re in the DC area, you don’t have to! It’s runs through next spring.

Music Geography 101: It’s Casual (Los Angeles)

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.

It’s Casual – “The Red Line”

I deeply admire how It’s Casual represents and interprets Los Angeles. In both their songs and videos, L.A. is the polar opposite of the place where dreams come true. It is a smoggy, violent pastiche of contradictions where fantasy only exists in some unattainable alternate dimension inside of billboards and bus bench advertisements. After spending a couple of years in the area, I find it remarkable how quickly my imaginary of Los Angeles moved away from the artificial public memory filled with sun, surf, and vapid blondes. Personally, I (somehow) never tried surfing while I lived so close to the SoCal waves, and the only sun I remember was the uncompromising star that scorched the streets and made it nearly impossible to see anything if you were unlucky enough to be staring directly into it while sitting in traffic for three hours on the 405. Fortunately, for that fleeting moment when you are crawling down the hot asphalt plain, cursing out everything within your peripheral vision, wondering why human beings do this to themselves, you’ve got a spokesperson. His name is Eddie Solis.

You can tell me about your romanticized mental landscapes of Southern California until your words have melted away into white noise. For my money, there is nothing more quintessentially “L.A.” than a Chicano dude playing metal and screaming about how godawful the freeways are. This song, along with this album’s other iconoclastic video “The New Los Angeles,” are exactly that. It is not pleasant, but it rocks, and perhaps more importantly, it’s completely honest and sincere, two qualities that few people would immediately associate with Solis’ hometown.

Another thing that most outsiders and a disappointing amount of Angelenos would never assume: the public transit is outstanding. Los Angeles grew generations of people handcuffed to their cars, but unlike from over the Hollywood sign, that smoke is finally clearing. Metro knows exactly what they are up against, and their growing system of light rail, subways, express bus lines, and city buses (all intertwined with GPS that lets those with smart phones know when they’re going to arrive down to the second) are responding. So, if you find yourself in the city of Angels, do take advantage of those resources. It will make your life easier and you may even run into Eddie Solis on the Red Line. I did once… it was a strange night. I really miss that metropolis.

Music Geography 101: Kendrick Lamar (Compton, CA)

I recently assigned 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.

Kendrick Lamar – “Compton State of Mind”

A few short years before Kendrick Lamar made modern music history with Good Kid m.a.a.d City and To Pimp a Butterfly (two records that social scientists and journalists are going to still be pontificating on for decades), he was just another “good kid” trying to make something out of himself in a city notorious for holding people down. It’s hardly shocking that most people cannot imagine Compton without N.W.A. springing to mind, even though almost twenty-seven years have passed since they changed the world. Also, Ice Cube remains busy starring in family-friendly blockbusters and directing ESPN documentaries (to be fair, he did great work putting together the 30 for 30 on the cultural legacy of the Los Angeles Raiders).

My personal exposure to Compton was limited to Blue Line metro rides through there and about four friends who lived or had grown up there (three of whom were Latino; the black one was a librarian and Oi! punk fan who had been childhood friends with Easy-E. Go figure.) So what was it about Compton that still thrills so many outsiders? Like it’s anchor city to the north, it is full of violent contradictions and even in an era of heavy gentrification still presents itself without compromise. Kendrick Lamar has no pretensions about his hometown, and in his messy mix tape appearance, he raps his way through it. Fittingly, he would close out his 2012 masterpiece with another song called “Compton” featuring (who else?) Dr. Dre. But here, despite being destined for hip hop greatness, the “good kid” becomes the aural tour guide we never knew we needed.

The Casual Geographer Presents: “Intersection Songs”

For those of you who were not connected to me during my time at CSU-Long Beach, my friends Bret Hartt, Abel Santana, and I co-founded a podcast and weekly radio show called “The Casual Geographer.” We produced over thirty episodes, most of which were posted at our original blogspot site here (the audio links no longer work, but the descriptions and graphics are still there, and if I may say so, delightful). Each episode tackled a different subject and explained how geography enveloped said subject. It lasted most of the two years I spent in Long Beach, and we had a lot of fun.

This week, in a seminar on tourism geography, my colleagues and I discussed a wonderful article by Duncan Light on the commodification and consumption of place names. I found it interesting, as a musically-inclined geographer, how he used examples such as AC/DC (seriously, why is there no lightning bolt key?) Street in Melbourne as ways in which cities and regions place and focus what John Urry legendarily called “the tourist gaze.” In particular, Light (2014, 145*) wrote:

…It is the marker – the signage – that is important in affirming and validating the visit. As such the place-name signage (the most commonplace and banal of objects) becomes the principal focus of tourist interest and the setting for a range of activities and performances.

Unsurprisingly, my mind immediately leaped to the corner of Fountain and Fairfax, where I drove by upon moving to the Los Angeles area, motivated by The Afghan Whigs’ dramatic 1993 song of that title**.  My mind then immediately jumped to Episode 3 of The Casual Geographer, where we discussed whatever background information we could find on a handful of songs named after street intersections. These included “53rd and 3rd” (NYC) by the Ramones, “Fountain and Fairfax” (Los Angeles) by the Afghan Whigs, “Queen and John” (Toronto) by Good Riddance, “9th and Hennepin” (Minneapolis) by Tom Waits, and “13th and Euclid” (DC) by the Dismemberment Plan. Thanks to Russ Rankin for his gracious email reply telling us the story of “Queen and John” (which I read during the episode), as well as Travis Morrison for his brief explanation of what happened at a gas station near 13th and Euclid (as well as giving me the go-ahead to use “The Face of the Earth” as a theme song for the show).

I’ll gradually work on wrenching more of these recordings from my archives. For now, have a listen to this episode and I hope you enjoy it. This was an early episode, and the production quality improved from here, I promise.

LINER NOTES

* Light, D. (2014). Tourism and toponymy: commodifying and consuming place names. Tourism Geographies, 16(1), 141-156.

** If you’re at all familiar with the Afghan Whigs or the greater spate of work by Greg Dulli, using the word “dramatic” to describe any of their songs could seem pretty redundant, I realize.