Tonight the city is full of morgues
And all the toilets are overflowing
There’s shopping malls coming out of the walls
As we walk out among the manure
I pay no mind
Twenty-five years ago this summer, I and a group of my friends remained on campus in Western Pennsylvania. It was a pleasant time, the summer before our senior year, the last season of freedom before the world was forced upon us.
Beck’s first album, Mellow Gold, was popular that summer. I played it often in our sweltering little apartment. Besides “Loser,” the hit single, two songs really stuck out: “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997”
Rattlesnake on the ceiling
Gunpowder on my sleeve
I will live here forever
With the ocean and the bees
Lay it on to the dawn
Everything we’ve done is wrong
I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone
Lay it on to the dawn
My summer job was shelving in the library. It was not demanding. I had plenty of time to peruse the stacks.
“City of Quartz.” What a great title! What’s it about? It’s about Los Angeles and its fate.
My interest in Southern California had already been primed by a few things, such as Bruce Wagner’s miniseries Wild Palms (in which the themes of Southern California become the natural end of the entire country) and the essay collection Sex, Death, and God in L.A.—not to mention a longtime interest in the Manson Family (more on that next week). But Mike Davis’s neo-Marxist jeremiad reframed things. Davis had been lucky enough to sync with the ’92 riots, making him hailed as a prophet. His vision of Los Angeles, a rivalry between sunshine and noir on the brink of implosion, vibrated within my college-junior skull.
All the time I kept listening to Beck, kept listening to those two tracks on Mellow Gold. The most curious reveries filled my head.
In those songs, I heard a desiccated slow-apocalypse, the logical end of the City of Quartz. A crumbling motel next to empty dusty bungalows, the skeletons of realtors and talent agents left abandoned in empty swimming pools. Faceless cops patrolling the canyons. Luxury cars burning on the freeways. An infinite beach, because the tide kept going out and out and never came back, ’til you could walk to Catalina.
In those moments, I understood Los Angeles. The place that will someday be erased by the earthquake. The place where “the sun gives up and sinks into the black, black ocean.”
See what I did there?
I constructed a thought form. Out of various bits of information related to the objective existence of the territory and people termed “Los Angeles” and “Southern California” (used interchangeably), I formed a mental image and interacted with it, creating emotional responses that could lead to action. In this case, a variety of elements came together in my head to form a strongly “noir” picture of the city.
This fashioning didn’t really have any consequences. I was just a college student; I had no power to make them a reality. But it could have if I had gone on to have any power over, say, federal funding to Southern California.
Really, there was never any real threat that this thought form could lead to action, because I was skeptical enough about it even at the time. I did once warn someone against moving to L.A., but not seriously.
I touched on thought forms here. Thinking back to the summer of ’94, it occurred to me that my mental L.A. was a glass-case example. Note this thought form was developed from a poor & entirely theoretical information base—a few books, movies, and miscellaneous media. Most of our thought forms are developed on such poor bases, and, due to the Problem of Information, no one’s forms can encompass a significant amount of the relevant data.
Often our thought forms harden. We form them in youth and then invest ourselves in them. Information that reinforces our favored forms is welcomed; information that undermines them is passed over or rationalized away. We make the world we see and then we see the world we make.
But in the case of my view of L.A., I can report that I was not content to leave things on an last-chapter-of-Less Than Zero note. Steve Martin helped. His L.A. Story and the essay on Los Angeles in Pure Drivel paint the city as a place of ironic joys. There are countervailing voices, if you listen hard enough.
In the end, all our thought forms stand as beetles against the obelisk of reality. The actual thing called “Los Angeles” is the aggregate of every life carried out within its borders. Some end wonderfully, some horribly, all in infinite variety, each one slightly different. There’s no way to grasp it all. Lived experience will always ooze around our expectations.
Since 1994, I’ve actually been to Los Angeles. Just once, on a happy occasion, for a weekend. We drove the length of Santa Monica Boulevard, rode the ferris wheel at the pier, saw the moonlight on the Pacific surf while jets from LAX soared aloft like angels. It was beautiful. We can never comprehend the totality of real life. But every little bit helps.