“I just got to Hollywood. Does something like this happen every time someone famous dies?”
The kid wouldn’t say where he was from — he was too streetwise for that — but he would say that he’d been walking on Hollywood Boulevard all day. That’s when he’d run across the huge flower arrangement, burning candles and crowd of shaggy devotees surrounding Johnny Cash’s star on the Walk of Fame. The news vans with their towering broadcast poles had attracted him, but the bottle of whiskey being passed around had made him stay. It was Friday afternoon and news of the musician’s death had brought out a scrappy group of mourners.
“I dunno who paid for the flowers,” said one kid, “but I brought the photograph.” It was that famous picture of Cash holding his guitar and giving the finger straight at the camera. Someone had scrawled “Goodbye Johnny, we’ll miss you” across it like an autographed picture at a Hollywood restaurant. Surrounding the photo were half-empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Ten High, an unopened can of Pabst, and lots of fresh cigarettes. A wild, ragged youth asked me for a smoke, and when I gave it to him he strode off, bouncing in time to “Cocaine Blues,” which was blasting out of a black pickup truck parked next to Cash’s star. Back at his circle of friends, he joined in as they sang, “Come on you’ve gotta listen to me, lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be!” Then they all laughed and high-fived. A Japanese tourist hung back taking a picture from a safe distance, but he didn’t escape unnoticed.
“C’mon over here and get a good picture,” the owner of the truck yelled. “Get a picture of all these flowers and shit!” The foreigner dutifully advanced, snapped the picture, then hurried away. A German couple wavered, unsure whether or not to walk through the roiling crew.
“What is this?” the man asked me, but the answer was yelled by the ragged kid. “It’s Johnny Cash. The greatest motherfucking musician EVER!” The man and woman nodded and turned around rather than look closer. I asked the ragged kid if he had a favorite Cash song.
“I like it when he sings about jail and all that real shit — fuck all these pussy musicians. You know that guy lived the life. Hell, he even killed some guy once.”
I told him that “I Walk the Line” was my fave, and he said, “Hell, yeah,” and took a slug from his whiskey bottle. Some people walking by scarcely noticed the scene; others stopped to take a moment for their private dialogue with The Man in Black. The kid I’d first talked to came back over.
“This shit is great. All these guys loved Johnny, and they’re damn well gonna let him know. Ain’t that something?”
I agreed with him on the righteousness of it all. “Y’know,” I said, “when Ronald Reagan dies, I bet there won’t be a party like this at his star.”
“Hell, no,” the kid said. “I’ll drop my pants and take a shit on it.” Then he went back to the truck nodding his head to “Ring of Fire.”
Big Box Ideas
The architect Steven Holl was lecturing at the Southern California Institute of Architecture last Thursday. Coincidentally, it was September 11, and Holl — along with Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwathmey — is one of the collaborators on what was too easily dismissed as the ticktacktoe towers scheme for rebuilding ground zero. But Holl wasn’t in Los Angeles to talk about his World Trade Center plan or the resonances of 9/11 in the practice of designing buildings. He was here to continue his work on the redesign of the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park and, on this evening, he said, to review “my own phobias at this moment in my work.”
In fact, he was about to plunge into a talk touching on some of the deepest ideas about architecture — while implicitly taking on L.A.’s hometown Goliath, Frank Gehry. Holl, a man with bushy, graying eyebrows and a lexicon devoid of absolutes and glib pronouncements, offered his own work and thoughts as a sotto voce riposte to Gehry’s now infamous remark, in January, about the twin-towers site proposals. Gehry told The New York Times, “I can understand why the kids did it, but why would people my age do it? Norman Foster or Richard Meier or any of those people? When you’re only paid $40,000, you’re treated as if that is your worth.” The comment prompted Meier and Eisenman, Holl’s WTC partners and Gehry’s East Coast rivals, to write the world-famous architect a salty note. “Dear Frank,” the letter began, “You are a prick.”
Holl’s attack was more oblique. His subject: compression. Or “condensation of a multiplicity of things” as an approach to architecture. “Poetry and music are the analogues,” he began, groping for words that might refine what obviously is still an inchoate principle. “What are the irreducible properties of architecture?” Then he read a portion of a manifesto he composed, sounding like a poet: “. . . An ideal exists in the specific/The idea as organizing threat.”
Compression, Holl went on to explain, is “an elusive quality.” What comes to Holl’s mind is the aurora borealis, or northern lights, which also appear, nearly simultaneously (as aurora australis), at the other end of the globe. The auroras, he said, occur when the magnetic poles of the Earth attract ionized particles — the fourth state of matter. “It takes three-quarters of a second for energy to reach from the North Pole to the South Pole.” Both ends get lit up. That is compression.
The object isn’t necessarily to find three-dimensional expression for the abstract concept, but to draw inspiration from the idea. For MIT’s Simmons Hall, for example, Holl was given the task of creating blocklong, 10-story-high residential housing that would still feel “open.” How to reduce openness to an essence? Holl took a seemingly conventional box and perforated it along the outside as well as from the roof. The result is an interior almost like Swiss cheese, drilled from the top down and crisscrossed with atriums, and an exterior grid composed of concrete and deep-set, outward-opening windows. What you see — concrete and glass — in a way is all that there is. And then, as a 20-by-50-foot image of the project was projected onto a wall, the gentle swipe at Gehry: “I’m suspicious when structure isn’t part of the architecture; it is covered up somehow. It’s not an old modernist-movement idea. It might be about economy.”
Another slide and another quiet remark. Turbulence House, on a remote mesa in New Mexico, is a $100,000 house Holl made of 32 prefabricated pieces — using Frank Gehry’s steel fabricators. Here again, “structure and skin are united.” He repeats: “Skin is structure; structure is skin.”
Nearing the end of his talk, Holl brought up a slide showing one of several projects he started drawing after the World Trade Center collapsed. A series of towers, roughly following skyscraper morphology, are linked together by huge aerial arms that climb and fall at oblique angles, creating immense portals. Projected onto the ground is the shadow of the twin towers when they fell. A continuous, open plaza, he explained, “reunites all sides of the neighborhood.” The whole building is given over to public space. In some ways, the plan looks like crisp, refurbished corners of buildings yanked back into vertical position by a powerful, unseen magnet. The megastructure portal — an image that becomes the leitmotif of the Meier-Eisenman-Gwathmey-Holl proposal — expresses a feeling of mourning, of presence and loss.
“By the way,” Holl interrupted his own description, “I worked on three projects for one year for the World Trade Center. I never received one cent, which I think is the greatest part of architecture.” And so, without uttering an unkind remark or naming a single name, Holl managed to argue nimbly for the importance of his own work and call into question the slavish reverence for Frank Gehry’s. It may be a sign of criticism to come.
It’s London, Dude
Reeling from a summer heat wave in which temperatures rose to an uncivil 100 degrees, Londoners were entertained to hear the results of an American report claiming they have taken a Californian lifestyle to their collective bosom. The report was sponsored by the Wine Institute of California, which tells you all you need to know about its depth and impartiality: The supporting evidence was the usual banal inventory of more surf, sun, smoothies and Cherie Blair’s invitation to New Age guru Carole Caplin.
There’s no doubt that England grows more American with every passing year — what corner of the world doesn’t? A decade ago, when I was home for a visit and asked for water in a Brighton restaurant, the waiter asked sympathetically, “Why? Yer gotta take a pill?” and then brought me warm tap water in a teacup. These days ice water with lemon wedges appears on every café table; waiters hover as obsequiously as they do here; Starbucks, Gaps and gyms abound; “blokes” have succumbed to “guys”; pub lunches boast pizza and fajitas; and, most shocking of all, the English are getting into herbal teas.
But in fact it was the mayor of Paris, not London, who, instead of attending to the heat-stricken elderly who expired by the thousands under his nose this summer, imported tons of sand to create a faux beach in the capital, along which Parisians solemnly draped themselves in swimsuits, as if out for a day at Malibu beach. No such flummery for the English — they were too busy watching reality television. (My personal favorite: How Clean Is Your House? in which two dominatrix types harangue cowed housewives — one admitted under pressure that she hadn’t cleaned in 14 years.) In London, notwithstanding a desperate mass run on fans (air conditioning is not favored in this humid city, though I did come across an air-conditioning company called Stiff Nipples in the yellow pages), citizens soldiered on as usual, sweltering stoically in jacket and tie on the Underground, where I noticed that few English women, unlike their Californian counterparts, wear lipstick. The London Eye, a slow Ferris wheel by the Thames affording fabulous views of the city, was packed with locals (tourism is still slow) despite the fact that each room-size capsule on the wheel is made of heat-seeking glass or fiberglass. When I arrived with my 5-year-old daughter, the Eye had broken down, and the stranded passengers hung suspended in their pods, waiting without complaint to be liberated. The river cruises served hot tea, and at the Princess Diana Adventure Playground on the ground of Kensington Palace, a handmade sign primly warned children to keep their underpants on in the fountain despite the soaring temperatures. Six years after Diana’s death, flowers are still being wedged into the palace railings, and a fresh inquiry into the crash that killed her and boyfriend Dodie Fayed was announced by Fayed’s father, Harrods mogul Mohammed Al-Fayed, who still believes the pair was killed by royal-family members who couldn’t stomach the thought of her marrying an Arab.
Actually, the most striking and welcome way in which England has changed since I left is the unselfconscious grace with which the English, or at any rate the urban English, wear their multiracialism. At my London primary school in the 1950s, I, a new immigrant from Israel, was the most exotic specimen the school had. Now, wherever you go in the city, including the traditionally all-black Notting Hill Carnival, you can see interracial families (far more than one sees in polyglot Los Angeles), and no one in this famously racist and xenophobic country seems to bat an eyelid. You could be forgiven for thinking that WASPs have pretty much had it as an elite — until you leave the city. In the determinedly Olde Worlde Norfolk village of Burnham Market on the southeast coast, my Chinese daughter turned every coifed head among the twin-set-and-pearls dowagers shopping on the main street. Even the ice cream van by the beach offered venison butties.
That evening our friends sprang for a pricey dinner at the Hoste Arms, an upmarket Fawlty Towers complete with stags’ heads and madly floral upholstery, catering to old and nouveau riche whites from London, most of whom felt duty bound to bring their greyhounds and terriers with them into the dining room. This was as much English class as I could stand: The following night, I sprang for fish and chips on the pier, and thence back to the sedate sidewalks of my parents’ North London suburb, where every day a weather-beaten middle-aged man — an affluent and respected local physician, my mother tells me, until he lost his mind — trawls dustbins in his underpants, muttering as he goes. In my Santa Monica neighborhood, there’s a skinny man in a thong who does just the same. Maybe England has gone Californian after all.
How can you tell when a landmark is really a landmark in Los Angeles? If you can still remember it after it’s gone, then it must have had some historical significance. Of course, the Palace, the Hollywood nightclub that showcased everyone from Iggy Pop to Rudy Vallee, isn’t physically gone. But it has been renamed and revamped.
Now owned by Hollywood Entertainment Partners’ Steve Adelman and John Lyons, with bookings handled by ubiquitous corporate monolith Clear Channel, the Hollywood Palace is now the Avalon Hollywood. (Soon every nightclub in America will be called either Avalon or the House of Blues.)
Just how revamped is the old joint? I walked south down Vine Street Monday night for the club’s opening to find out. Cranes were still leaning against the building when I arrived, and the smell of paint was thick in the foggy night air. The façade and the exterior looked the same as always, except newly splashed with olive-gray paint and white trim. That’s good, I thought, stepping inside. At least the current owners have some respect for history.
There were always a lot of ghosts rummaging around in the shadows of the Palace, which debuted in 1927 as the Hollywood Playhouse and was variously dubbed the WPA Federal Theater, El Capitan Theater, the Jerry Lewis Theater and the Hollywood Palace over the decades. This is the shack where the Rolling Stones made their notorious first local appearance, getting insulted for having long hair by Dean Martin on his Hollywood Palace variety TV show in June 1964. And Judy Garland, the Bangles, Nirvana, Snoop Dogg, the Fall, Green on Red, Prince and the Beatles are among the thousands who’ve marched across its wide stage. Yet for every musician who was honored to play the Palace, there were a dozen more who wanted to put a wrecking ball to it. Designed for plays and unamplified music, its high ceilings made for terrible acoustics, especially for electronic and rock groups. Tickets were generally overpriced, the bookers rarely scheduled L.A.’s underground bands (engendering even more resentment in the indie scene), and in recent years the decaying place seemed more like a white elephant than a grand old dame.
Wandering upstairs through the balcony, I looked for evidence of the Avalon’s new Spider Club, a club-within-a-club that’s expected to host parties, DJs and plays under the guidance of creative director Donovan Leitch. Renovations were still under way, with part of the upstairs roped off for construction. But it was slowly dawning on me that, with the exception of the interior walls’ fresh orange-pinkish paint and the relocation of some couches closer to the dance floor, the new Avalon Hollywood looked pretty much like the old Palace. To be fair, it’s difficult to accurately assess the Avalon — some changes are still planned — but aside from the bare stone steps on some of the not-yet-carpeted stairs, everything else, including the layout of the upstairs semi-open-air patio, the lobby and the stage, was pretty much as it always was.
Even as I was relieved that the renovations hadn’t significantly damaged the theater, I started noticing some of the site’s old problems. The sound was just as muddy as ever — the echoey bass tones boomed too much, the other instruments were lumped together in an indistinguishable murk, and the vocals had no clarity as moody Brit rockers the Leaves and Stereophonics dutifully trudged through droney midtempo sets.
So, ultimately, was the Avalon Hollywood really any different than the Palace? There was only one way to find out definitively. I marched into the one area I hadn’t yet investigated — the upstairs men’s room — and quickly got my answer. Yup, those restroom attendants, with their bulging tip bowls on the sink, were still there, warmly courteous and more than a little disturbing to those of us who don’t need help washing our hands, and would rather not have to pay for the honor. I gave the nice man a dollar, and realized you can go home again, if only because home never left.