In Los Angeles, it's the least wonderful time of the year, when the Santa Ana winds — or devil winds — roil the city. That's why your skin is dry and your nose might bleed. That's why it's going to be 86 degrees tomorrow. That's why you just feel kind of weird.
The sometimes wildly destructive Santa Ana winds have inspired truly great writers, most famously Raymond Chandler, whose 1938 short story Red Wind opens:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.”
And then there's Joan Didion, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem:
“The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.
“…[T]he violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
Of course, these accounts are highly hyperbolic. There's nothing to suggest that blasts of air can make people violent. But the writing is so good that it makes you wish it were true.
Unfortunately, Chandler's and Didion's portrayals have become wildly overused cliches, paving the way for all manner of terrible writing. For example:
9) Director Clive Barker's 2001 novel, Coldheart Canyon
“The Santa Anas, they call these winds. They blow off the Mojave, bringing malaise, and the threat of fire. Some say they are named after Saint Anne, the mother of Mary, others that they are named after one General Santa Ana, of the Mexican cavalry, a great creator of dusts; others still that the name is derived from santanta, which means Devil Wind.
“Whatever the truth of the matter, this much is certain: the Santa Anas are always baking hot, and often so heavily laden with perfume that it's as though they've picked up the scent of every blossom they've shaken on their way here. Every wild lilac and wild rose, every white sage and rank jimsonweed, every heliotrope and creosote bush: gathered them all up in their hot embrace and borne them into the hidden channel of Coldheart Canyon.”
The winds show up in John Fante's Ask the Dust, Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, Janet Fitch's White Oleander and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Barker, in Coldheart Canyon, doesn't quite have the temerity to go the full Chandler: His winds bring malaise, the threat of fire — and perfume. Doesn't actually sound that bad.
8) Robert B. Parker's The Devil Wins, by Reed Coleman
Then in L.A. there were the choking Santa Ana winds that would blow across the mountains, swoop down into the valleys and through the canyons from the Mojave. The Santa Anas brought destruction with them, too, sucking the moisture out of the vegetation, wildfires following in their path. Fires that would consume whole hillsides, one after the other. Sometimes the winds blew so strongly through the canyons that they howled. His ex-partner used to say it was Satan whistling while he worked.
So this is a novel, not by Robert B. Parker, the dean of American crime fiction (according to his own website), but by some other guy, Reed Coleman. But it's about a character that Parker created, Jesse Stone, so it gets the “Robert B. Parker's” billing.
I wonder if Robert B. Parker would have written the above paragraph, which essentially paraphrases Chandler — blowing across the mountains and swooping down the valley, then throws in the vague idea that these winds foreshadow the apocalypse.
7) L.A. Noire, The Collected Stories
The Santa Ana winds were blowing down from the mountains like dog breath. It made everything sticky, made you want to strip out of your clothes, find the ocean, and take a dip.
Countless other novels, too minor to dissect, mention the Santa Anas in Chandler-esque language. The last one that bears a mention is a book called L.A. Noire, not to be confused with the fine nonfiction book L.A. Noir about Mickey Cohen and William Parker. L.A. Noire is a collection of eight short stories that take place in the universe of L.A. Noire, a video game set in 1940s Los Angeles.
The above paragraph comes from a story called Naked Angel by novelist Joe Lansdale. And boy is it awful.
First of all, how can wind blow like dog's breath? Dog's breath doesn't exactly blow, it just kind of wheezes out.
But the worst part is that the key element of Santa Ana winds are that THEY ARE DRY. They don't make everything sticky. Quite the opposite. They make everything dry. They don't make you want to jump in the ocean, they make you want to jump into a vat of moisturizer.
6) Everclear's 2012 song “Santa Ana Wind”
The Santa Anas appear in dozens of songs, most notably Randy Newman's “I Love L.A.,” the Beach Boys' “Santa Ana Winds,” Tim Buckley's “Venice Beach” and songs by Bad Religion and, shudder, Steely Dan. Less notably, the winds are taken on by Everclear, that 1990s alt-rock band from Portland, Oregon, best known for their song “Santa Monica.” This one's not quite as catchy.
We come from a sun
We're lost out in the cold
We run from the light
It's the only way we know
I wanna find a better sun
I wanna find a better world
I wanna find a better heart
So I can find me a better girl
I wanna find a place to live inside
All the violence and the rage
Oh the Santa Ana wind
On a sunny day
5) The Bobs' song “Santa Ana Woman”
“The Santa Ana winds had come back, and the whole city of L.A. was acting like it had PMS.”
It may seem petty to pick on The Bobs, a novelty a cappella act most people have never heard of, but God is that lyric dumb.
4) John Needham's 1988 Los Angeles Times column
“Grit sandblasts the face, and the humidity drops as nature's vacuum cleaner sucks moisture from the air.
“They may call the wind Maria in some places (mostly in folk songs), but hereabouts they call it the Santa Ana. Many call it the 'Devil Wind,' and it can do strange things to folks.”
In his L.A. Times piece, Needham cops Chandler by starting off in present tense. Then there's his metaphor, “nature's vacuum cleaner,” which is just wrong, since vacuum cleaners generally suck dirt, not moisture. Plus, Santa Anas blow dirt. Then he makes a really bad “They Call the Wind Maria” crack. Maybe he wrote it during the winds?
3) Beverly Hills, 90210
Fans of the landmark television series Beverly Hills, 90210 know how important the Santa Ana winds are to the on-and-off relationship of spoiled teen vixen Kelly Taylor and handsome loner Dylan McKay.
“The city is so beautiful when the Santa Anas are blowing,” Kelly tells Dylan in Season 3, as the two share a romantic moment outside the Griffith Park Observatory.
In Season 4, Kelly tells him, “I don't know what it is about the Santa Anas but I haven't been myself all day. Maybe it's not the Santa Anas, maybe I'm just nervous about being with you.”
Dylan goes on to compare the Santa Anas to the sirocco winds in the Mediterranean, although he places them in the “Middle East.”
“While these winds are blowing,” he tells Kelly, “if you kill somebody, they won't even try to punish you.”
2) Jack Black in 2006's The Holiday
Even writer-director Nancy Meyers rips off Chandler, making Jack Black's character in The Holiday repeat his “anything can happen” warning.
“Legend has it, when Santa Anas blow, all bets are off, anything can happen.”
1) The TV series Southland
The NBC cop show Southland devoted an entire episode to the Santa Anas in Season 3 called “The Winds.” In the clip above, the show takes a bold stance in favor of spanking.
“Southland cops know when the Santa Ana winds blow, you learn just how close you are to the edge,” says the narrator.
“Anything's possible when the devil winds are blowing,” a character says later.
Let's have a 20-year moratorium on any language describing the Santa Anas that even remotely resembles Raymond Chandler. Stop writing about it coming down the mountains and through the whatever. Stop assigning it mystical powers to drive us into murderous rages. And for the love of God, stop saying anything can happen! Anything cannot happen!
The winds are super annoying. They make us feel like shit. Let's just leave it at that.