“Oh, is this the men’s bathroom?” asks a urinating Bijou Phillips when she notices that two men are using the urinals. The actress and daughter of Papa John Phillips is about to go onstage to perform a number of Germs’ tunes with her co-stars of the Darby Crash biopic, What We Do Is Secret by Rodger Grossman. The thespian punk rockers are opening for the real Germs, or at least the three members who didn’t overdose in 1980.
In typically chaotic Germs fashion, no one knows until the day before where and when the show is going to take place. Even with no publicity, word spreads quickly, and the venue is packed. The concert is only five bucks. (If David Bowie shows up, he’ll get in free since his name is optimistically placed on the guest list.) Many lesser rock stars are in attendance including Steve and Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross, the omnipresent Eric Erlandson (better known as Eric From Hole, or EFH), Mike Watt, Howie Pyro and Karen Centerfold.
With actor Lukas Haas as drummer Don Bolles, Phillips in an absurdly teased blond wig as bassist Lorna Doom, a biracial-looking dude named Victor Rasuk as Pat Smear, and actor Shane West attempting to channel the ghost of Darby Crash, the only-in-Hollywood tribute band took the stage.
The movie Germs perform a number of tunes — “Sexboy,” “Forming” “Circle One,” “Lion’s Share” and “Lexicon Devil” — surprisingly well, or at least as well as the original early Germs did. West, who does resemble Crash, even sports a faux rat tail and had his teeth surgically altered to look more Darbyeseque. It’s all sort of like the real thing except that there are a lot more cell-phone cameras taking pictures than there were in the late ’70s.
Die-hard fans test West by yelling bits from Germs live albums; the well-studied actor answers accordingly. In a half-assed punk gesture, an audience member tosses a beer bottle at the pseudo Darby. The real Bolles jumps onstage, and in a three-quarters-assed punk gesture, spits beer toward the crowd, spraying Bijou.
Finally, the real Germs, minus Darby, play. But who is going to sing? According to Bolles, they had hoped it would be Darby’s
10-year-old niece, Angel Crash, whom he insists is the reincarnation of Crash, going so far as to call her the “Darby Lama.” Unfortunately, the Second Coming of Crash is at home, grounded. So, Darby look-alike West performs double duty and fronts the reunited Germs as well, singing “My Tunnel” and “Manimal.” After the group performs “We Must Bleed,” Smear starts the song again with the opening guitar riff. Each time the song ends, Smear starts it again. Considering Doom hasn’t picked up a bass since the Germs’ last show almost a quarter of a century ago, she plays amazingly well.
The movie band jumps back onstage, and the original Germs go back into the crowd, except for Bolles who fucks with the dials on their amps, sings into a drum microphone and throws a cymbal into the air repeatedly, hitting it with a beer bottle on its way down.
As for the movie that prompted this surreal event, it appears that it is in limbo. Anyone seeking work as an extra on the
film is greeted with the message: “You have reached the Germs Hot Line.
“Unfortunately, we are not going through with production at this time. We may be at a later date, but as of right now, we do not need any extras. Please do not leave a message on this machine.
A Patch of Green
On the last Sunday in February, I drove down to Alameda and 41st streets, to the community garden tended by low-income residents on 14 acres of land in the heart of an industrial zone. This was to be the last day of the garden’s life; the land had been rented from the city since 1992 by the Los Angeles Food Bank on behalf of local farmers for a dollar a year, while the city and other agencies tried from time to time to do something else with it.
From the get-go, the community garden was supposed to be temporary — two years was the original estimated life span. The Los Angeles City Harbor bought the land in 1994, but never used it, allowing the nopales cacti, the guava and the papaya trees to mature; the lean-to arbors to acquire a sense of permanence; the gardeners to feel ever more connected not only to their individual patches of earth and the food they produced (not to mention the grocery money they saved), but also to the garden as a community. A decade and some is a long time to till ground. And the garden, the third largest in all of Los Angeles, now represents a living dream to the green community and idealists everywhere. The day before my visit, Dennis Kucinich stopped by and declared that the garden was an example of what should be done in cities all over the United States. Kucinich is right, of course — dead right — but on that day his lovely values seemed to have as much chance of triumphing as his bid for the presidency. For the garden sits on prime industrial real estate, and if there is one thing that it does not do, it does not make anybody (or any municipality) rich. Thus, the acreage was eventually sold to developer Ralph Horowitz, who, despite organized protests, intends to replace the garden with warehouses and soccer fields and ordered the gardeners out. Although, of course, the story is more complicated than that.
I entered the garden through a side gate and wended my way down narrow, perpendicular paths between fenced-in, padlocked plots. With spring still a few weeks away, many of the gardens were fallow. Even so, thick green mounds of cilantro scented the air; cabbages glowed blue-gray in tidy rows; green papayas hung off small trees like swollen, pendulous breasts. I had expected to see people carrying off perennial plants and the last of their winter harvests; instead, only a handful of gardeners were in their plots, while over at the main entrance, a band was playing and various people were selling tacos, tamales, grilled corn. This was a celebration. The gardeners sued and won a temporary restraining order against Horowitz, the city of Los Angeles and others — until this week. The judge seemed to be motivated by a lack of due process: When the city decided to sell the land, the gardeners were never informed or offered a chance to buy it — conceivably, with the help of various civic organizations, they might have pulled off a sale, especially considering the price Horowitz was given in a closed-door deal, a price that seems unduly sweet for 14 acres of prime development property. Then again, the story is more complicated than that.
My writing pad and pen attracted a garden organizer, a well-spoken, fedora-wearing young man who gave his name as Tezozomoc. He led me through the acres to the plot his father once farmed, pointing out along the way traditional fruits and vegetables and medicinal plants that the mostly low-income, Latino gardeners have cultivated: chipalin, chayote squash, guajes (a tree bean), huantxontle (whose seedy flowers taste like cauliflower), the anise-like oja de santissima. Banana leaves clattered around us in the breeze. Tezo knew his facts by heart: 347 families eat from these gardens, which provide a form of family and community recreation in a district with the lowest amount of open space in the city. “There’s no drinking here, no vandalism, no graffiti; for over 12 years the gardeners haven’t taken a single penny from the city,” Tezo declared. “We pay our for own water, portable toilets and dumpsters.” Then, he told me the long, complicated, at times murky, story of the land.
Back in 1986, the city purchased the land from developer Ralph Horowitz (yes, the same Ralph Horowitz who just bought it), effecting that long-ago sale through eminent domain in order to build the massive LANCER trash incinerator and recycling plant. Environmental justice activists protested, and the incinerator idea was abandoned. With the help of the Los Angeles Food Bank, which sits across the street from the garden, local gardeners cleared the rubble of old buildings off the property and began working the land in 1992. Meanwhile, Horowitz protested the 1994 sale to the Port Authority, claiming he had right of first refusal in the event of any sale. He took his objection to court several times, only to be told he had no legal claim. Nevertheless (and this is where the murkiness comes in), at some point — at a time difficult to ascertain, since, said Tezo, “it was never disclosed to people like myself” — Horowitz repurchased the land from the city for only a few hundred thousand dollars more than he sold it for in 1986. In short order, the Food Bank was told that the farmers would have to vacate the premises to make way for warehouses and soccer fields. Throughout this transaction, the farmers, the people using the land, received no notice that anything was afoot.
Since the sale, the farmers have marched, attended City Council meetings, and now sued Horowitz. Their action has energized the community, as has the support of public figures like Kucinich, actor James Cromwell (the farmer in Babe), and chef Nancy Silverton, co-owner of Campanile and founder of the La Brea Bakery.
Al Renner of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council allows that Horowitz (who is responsible for both the Home Depot on Figueroa and the creation of the Los Angeles River Center at the site of the old Lawry’s California Center) isn’t “so bad, as developers go.” He’s been encouraging everyone to keep planting. And just this week his optimism has been rewarded. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe granted a preliminary injunction halting the transfer of the land to Horowitz. It’s not a permanent win for the gardeners, but, this time, as the gardener’s attorney Dan Stormer told the press, “it won’t be a backroom deal. It will be something the public gets to scrutinize and my clients get to participate [in].” Meanwhile, the farmers can stay on their land.
Back on that last Sunday in February, as Tezo and I stood in his sunny plot by a fuzzy tobacco plant, we watched a man reach through the fence of a neighboring plot and pull out several handfuls of greens. Tezo yelled at him in Spanish, “Don’t steal! Don’t steal!”
The man looked up at us, shrugged, and said, “Do you know where there’s any epazote?”
The Matrix in God’s Eye
“All the data gathered by our senses,” says the man with the silver ponytail, “tells us the universe is ‘out there.’” I slip into the pew as stealthily as possible in a place where little goes unobserved. “Yet when we sift that data,” he continues, “we find we’re looking at a phantom.” John Dobson, 88, maverick physicist and peripatetic teacher of street-corner telescopy, makes no effort to conceal the wicked glimmer in his eye. “Now, if you want to know God’s idea of a practical joke . . .”
The setting is the Vedanta Temple on upper Vine Street, and it’s the first of Dobson’s yearly talks on the “Apparitional Universe,” the verbal equivalent of a peyote trip. When he turns to etch on the blackboard his best rendering of a cloud of primordial hydrogen, I look around at the lumpy mix of dewy-eyed seekers and bleary-eyed netheads gathered tonight. Almost everyone has come unaccompanied. It’s quickly clear that this would not be the place to show off for your date. Dobson frequently tosses out cosmological koans, which are not designed to elicit A-student answers so much as Socratic questions.
“I was born rude,” he apologizes to the group, after excoriating one wise guy. “And I’ve kept on working at it.”
A certain amount of veneration is in order, not just because Dobson’s writings on relativity were once prescribed along with those of Einstein and Gamow, or even because the Vedanta Temple is the L.A. outpost of the Ramakrishna Order, but because there is real history here. Where Dobson stands, once stood Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. In these pews gathered a budding Tinseltown intelligentsia. “When you first entered the temple,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in 1939, “you didn’t at all feel you were caught in a religious spider’s web.” Not a detail of his depiction — down to the pictures on the wall — has changed. In fact, it’s as if the place, perched in paradoxical serenity over the Hollywood Freeway, is eternally fixed in that era when artists and intellectuals still thought of Hollywood as a New Athens, if not quite a New Jerusalem.
In those days, Hollywoodland came in SRO crowds to the golden dome of the temple to hear the likes of Huxley expound on Eastern mysticism in a place friendly to Western science. Robed swamis presided, but nary a mantra was chanted, and no one looked askance if you failed to leave your shoes at the door. It’s still that way. Only the smaller crowds evidence the passage
of years and the sad demise of Hollywood’s salon culture.
Once a year in winter, Dobson — who can probably make Einstein clearer to the average Joe than anyone alive — breaks from his peregrinations and migrates to the Hollywood temple (he’s lecturing there on Sundays and Mondays through March 22). Remarkably lithe for his 88 years (he once belonged to a dance troupe), Dobson has been fighting a rear-guard action against the prevailing orthodoxy of the Big Bang theory for the last half-century. Although he spent two decades in a Vedantist monastery, he didn’t arrive at his heretical cosmology by way of mantras alone. He maintained a long correspondence with Nobel laureate Richard Feynman and, after flying the monastic coop in 1966, became the paradigmatic scientist who makes the world his laboratory. He is paterfamilias of the Sidewalk Astronomers, a confraternity of citizen stargazers who build telescopes out of scrap. Sputtering across ’60s-’70s America in a school bus they called Starship Centaurus, Dobson and his Merry Prankster–like followers taught poor kids how to grind lenses from Coke bottles, leaving behind telescopes like Johnny Appleseed left trees. Somewhere along the line, Sky & Telescope dubbed him “the Thoreau of the skies.”
Telescope making is Dobson’s evangelism: He figures the bigger eyes we have to see the curdling clouds of hydrogen that compose most of the visible universe, the better to spot God’s trick of the light. “There’s hydrogen first,” he ends the lecture, “then helium and stardust. The rest is collateral. The one question that matters is: How did the hydrogen come to be?” By Dobson’s reckoning, the answer is both more and less than meets the eye.