“Good evening, class,” begins one of the more unusual and intimate Los Angeles–themed albums in many a year. “I’m Mr. Smolin.”
Great teachers are often great performers. And by most accounts — including a 2006 Los Angeles Times cover story that had him representing “a breed of idiosyncratic, intellectual and classroom-loving teachers who seem to have slipped from visibility during their profession’s government-mandated preoccupation with quantifying student achievement via frequent testing” — Barry Smolin is a very fine teacher indeed.
By day, Smolin is your typically atypical Cool English Teacher. He shares his literary and cultural enthusiasms with students in the Alexander Hamilton High School humanities magnet program, where he has taught since 1992. His pedagogic passion, however, burns unabated long after the school bell’s afternoon toll. So far it’s resulted in a trio of solo albums released under his eminently respectable nom de classroom, Mr. Smolin. And every Sunday evening from 8 to 10 p.m., Mr. Smolin combines brand-spankin’ new local music with timeless improv-rock meltdowns as the host of KPFK’s “The Music Never Stops,” which manages to connect indie-fringe L.A. pop to the Grateful Dead and its descendants.
In late June, Smolin and a group of musician and artist pals hijacked Echo Curio for an evening capped by the first and possibly only performance of a song cycle devoted to the 48-year-old’s hometown. Recorded live and on the cheap, Bring Back the Real Don Steele is an ambivalent valentine to Los Angeles in all its slippery seismic serenity. Yet it’s a Southern California album that doesn’t sound like a typical regional album. This is less the rockin’ Los Angeles of the Doors, X and Red Hot Chili Peppers than the city of understated intimacies and fractured realities heard between the grooves of Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner, Randy Newman’s non–“I Love L.A.” L.A. material, and in the Negro Problem albums helmed by Smolin’s longtime mono-monikered friend and sometime producer, Stew.
After Mr. Smolin calls his class to order on The Real Don Steele, a quiet storm of a groove zips us back to a “very particular time, a particular place.” That would be midsummer 1970, when a 9-year-old Smolin was glued to his radio, immersed in the “mad ecstatic spiel” of the Real Don Steele and legendary KHJ cohorts like Charlie Tuna, Shadoe Stevens and Humble Harve.
“My first heroes were voices,” says Smolin, whose own speaking voice is a casually confident DJ tenor, which might easily command a classroom of rambunctious 15-year-olds. Smolin admits he’s a whole lot less comfortable with his singing voice. During the recording of his 2007 album, The Crumbling Empire of White People, Smolin says Stew threatened to quit the project unless he stopped complaining about his pipes. “As your producer, I’m going to give you an assignment,” Stew said. “Go home and listen to Neil Young and Lou Reed tonight. Next to them you sound like Frank-fucking-Sinatra.”
Though only there in spirit on Don Steele, Stew’s own live album, The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs, provided its technical template. The truly unbelievable thing about Don Steele, however, is that it was performed without benefit of rehearsing anything more than vocals (arranged by Harvey Canter) and rhythm section. Probyn Gregory, lap steel guitarist Paul Lacques and saxophonist Vince Meghrouni all conceived their parts on the fly with off-the-cuff alacrity. “It was difficult to concentrate on what I was doing because I was so blown away by what they were playing,” Smolin says. Especially in the delicious grooves of “Boss Radio” and “Mojave,” the strong melodies, heady lyrics and seat-of-the-pants performances suggest Steely Dan on a Grateful Dead binge.
“Boss Radio” introduces a geography immediately recognizable to anyone who’s spent any significant time on and off the freeways. The Real Don Steele, Smolin says, “is my attempt to find not just an identifiably SoCal sound that wasn’t derivative of the Beach Boys, Eagles or Negro Problem, but also to come up with lyrics that represent the city, or at least the Jewish white-boy epicenter of it, with equal degrees reverence and cheek, light and shadow, love for its nuance and mystery but disdain for its various lamenesses.”
Smolin has an expression for such lapses. He calls them “El Coyote moments” in honor of the quintessential Cal-Mex eatery, and he defines them, in one of Don Steele’s anecdotal intros, as the recognition that “something sucks and you like it anyway,” like Los Angeles itself.
Or perhaps herself, since the city assumes a distinctly feminine persona here. In “Veronica Lake,” written after a class field trip downtown, Smolin describes a look-alike crone (“gone from ingenue to stone-cold freak”) babbling cryptically to herself while picking through the trash outside Union Station. He assembles an aromatic bouquet of lyrical dexterity reminiscent of Elvis Costello and Van Dyke Parks in “Lily of the Valley,” about an earthy girl creature who’s “enchanting with lantana/’Mid the oleander landscape completely free.” And the city itself hides her secret heart from the pining singer in the fortress, aerie, cave and “booby-trapped electric lead-and-stone” estate of “The Guns of Navarone.”
Los Angeles is far too sprawling a mother to ever totally accept one’s embrace, but Smolin tries. He started out as Doc Smolin’s kid, the son of a podiatrist whose office was located in the Hollywood Farmers Market, his “surrogate backyard.” Obsessed by the Felix Figueroa song “Pico and Sepulveda,” spun repeatedly on Dr. Demento’s show (another heroic vox), Smolin talked his father into driving him to the intersection. “I was 10 or 11, and it was like going to a foreign country compared to the very Jewish Beverly-Fairfax area,” he recalls. “As we drove around I got very nauseated. My dad asked me what was wrong and I said, ‘It’s like we’re in nowheresville.’ ” Today he works in the same Mar Vista neighborhood, which is immortalized on Don Steele in the Jimmy Buffett–ed rhythms of “Welcome to Nowheresville.” This Mar Vista is a tawdry “landscape void of mood or motion” that could be worse: “At least we’re not living in Palms.”
Don Steele’s only real cliché, filtering Los Angeles through Hollywood, is probably unavoidable. How far a distance from the biz can you claim, after all, when your first album’s heavenly ode to herbal freedom — “The Earth Keeps Turning On,” from 2003’s At Apogee — is used in the closing credits of a Weeds episode? But he finds new facets to explore. The Wizard of Oz meets Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew in “Scarecrow Jesus.” And in “Observatory,” written in the early ’80s just after he moved to New York for a while, Smolin imagined himself as Sal Mineo scoping out the plain and wondering, “Who dares desert this infernal home/Abandons abundance/A basin traced in foam.”
L.A.’s a nice place to live, Smolin says, right before wrapping up his show with a song celebrating the essential unknowability of his town. And yet he doesn’t think he’d want to visit here. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to, and neither do his equally fortunate students. Class dismissed.
MR. SMOLIN, Bring Back the Real Don Steele (self-released).