It’s the same old story. Move into a down-on-its-heels neighborhood for cheap rent, boho charm and like-minded camaraderie. Then — WHAM! — gentrification, and the whole vibe starts to change. Next thing you know, Aaron Spelling’s army moves into a house two doors up the street, and Silver Lake, the TV show, is upon you. Please move your car before we tow.
Now, I like TV as much as anyone else, maybe even more so, and I know that we live in a company town, which is all right with me, really. But I also like my neighborhood more than any other I’ve lived in here. So, when those big rigs and large movie crews move in, taking all the parking spots and, adding injury to hipster insult, not even asking me to be a part of the shoot (read: pay to use my house), well, that old NIMBY thing raises its potentially ugly head. Figuring that free food was a moral imperative, I skulked over to the set for a possible lunch — and to see how Silver Lake stood up to, well, Silver Lake.
The TV version is a sort of Sixth Sense–lite but with an edge, according to one wandering grip. The idea for the show, from what I could glean from others on the set, is something along these obtuse and convoluted lines: Main-character guy Dennis, played by Kerr Smith, starts seeing ghosts as a kid, and since no one believes him, he is forced to take medication to prevent these trite and hackneyed cinematic visions from ruining his life too much. He gets older, a family member dies, and our protagonist comes into some money, with which he buys not just a record store but “the No. 1 used-record store” in Silver Lake. Dennis gets a great product-filled haircut and a cool 1970s Citroën, which, this being Silver Lake, gets booted all the time (not cool). He goes off the medication, moves in with his twin sister, Julie (Hedy Burress), who also has great hair, and then he starts to see them ghouls again. Of course.
Way back in 1919, Freud talked of the unheimlich, or the feeling of the uncanny, where it’s like real life but very different. I don’t know if Mr. Spelling has ever read Freud’s seminal text, but it seems that he may have, because the set of Silver Lake was just like my street and the people I see in the neighborhood, only with fewer trucker hats, cleaner ironic T-shirts and better skin. Unheimlich.
I don’t know if all of that is a good thing, but it may be, I think. Getting in on the act would do wonders for both my sartorial and ontological selves, so I asked one of the location managers if I could play an extra on the show — be, you know, like myself, only a hyperrealized, better-dressed and -coiffured version of me. The location manager took one look at me — a look that said, “No dice” — and replied, “Sorry, this is a union shoot.”
On the bright side, the guy offered me a sandwich. Little did he know I was already on my third.
—Jon Alain Guzik
Electro Vox Returns
Strolling into the former Electro Vox Studios, now Joey’s Place, on Melrose Avenue, is like entering a peculiar, shimmering dimensional rift. There’s the usual half-assed bustle of any recording session — this one booked by the Beastie Boys’ de facto witch doctor of the keyboards, Money Mark — a couple of guys messing around with the gear, setting up dueling drum kits at opposite ends of the room. What’s really remarkable here is the atmosphere, the pervasive aura of old Hollywood so present in the air itself it seems one could extend a hand and touch it.
Bandleader–musician–studio owner Joey Altruda walks a visitor through, pointing out with quiet pride the revisions (knocking out a wall, for instance, to enlarge the all-important green-room space) and telling tales of the legends who populated the spot. Altruda has epitomized a brand of underground cool few other Los Angeles players could match, and his acquisition of Electro Vox is an equally ambitious and propitious venture. “This Steinway Grand here was originally from Television City. They used it from ’52 on, for everything from Playhouse 90 to a variety special with Bing and Louis Armstrong.” He reaches out to pet the piano. “They say when Bing was working across the street at Paramount, he’d come over all the time just to hang out.” Altruda eases through one of a series of black-framed portals. “I mean, talk about history, man . . .”
From his punk rock–era start as a teenage seeker steadily filling his skull with a trove of hipster ephemera, Altruda has escalated into an accomplished musical purist and internationally recognized ska, jazz and Latin-exotica tastemaker who always surrounds himself with fabled collaborators — most recently, legendary Cuban performer El Gran Fellove. His bizarre early-’80s art-punk combo Tupelo Chain Sex featured the late great R&B/rock & roll fiddler Don Sugarcane Harris. In his Jump With Joey era, he paired with legendary Jamaican producer Coxsone Dodd, and his ultrafrosty Cocktails With Joey used premier talent like Plas Johnson. In fact, Altruda says, after taking a few phone calls with a languid Hollywood urgency, “Plas was just here; you missed him.”
Altruda bought the studio, originally opened in 1936, from the legendary Gold Star cat Stan Ross. And the likes of Dimitri Tiomkin, Victor Young and Henry Mancini used the studio, as well as the hillbilly noisemakers Maddox Brothers & Rose and T Texas Tyler, the marijuana-puffing Man With a Million Friends. Even singing cowboy Tex Ritter recorded and broadcast a live radio show from here.
Later in its run, rock & roll acts flocked to Electro Vox; doo-woppers the Shields cut “You Cheated, You Lied” among many other street-level classics that now live in all of our heads, welcome or not. As jazz/session veteran Plas Johnson says, “It was a cheaper studio for rock & rollers and song publishers doing song demos. It was where the little guy without a lot of money could come and get it done right.”
Most of the original gear is now gone, but the musicians have returned, and Altruda can shape most any sound desired, from the opalescent reverb of old-school slapback to a sharp, severe modern presence. R&B shaman Big Jay McNeely has blown up a storm here with a local combo, Altruda’s done sessions with the Bonebrake Syncopators, and rockabilly bands flock to the site. It seems this is only the start of what could represent a full-circle union of Los Angeles’ history and future. For now, Altruda and Money Mark sit in the green room, a high-ceilinged spot ringed with framed thrift-store oil paintings, lurid 1950s lobby cards and a Radio Flyer wagon stocked as a bar. The conversation — about old-time clubs, reverent jazz fanography and the current state of popular music — is bittersweet.
“I know these things are supposed to be cyclical,” Money Mark says, “but this [cycle] seems to be taking a very long time.” Then he looks around and smiles. “This is my third time in here, and now I’m hooked,” he says. “It happens to everyone I bring here. Must be the ghosts.”
The 15 Minutes of Shame
Fifteen minutes has always been a terrible number — the Liar’s Number.
I took my young daughter and her friend to a bowling alley a few months ago. The place was jammed with birthday-party kids; bad music blared. (You can’t just go and bowl on a weekend anymore.) I went up to the counter and asked the punk how long it would be.
The punk had learned well the lessons of American public life. So he looked me straight in the eye and lied. “Fifteen minutes,” he said. My blood froze, but I maintained. I went and dropped 20 bucks on food and drinks, which of course was the purpose of the lie. When one of the kid parties clocked out, the punk and his shithead attendant cronies dawdled over the cleanup, gabbing and flirting. One time he glanced over at me and smirked, like, “Gotcha, sucker.” Then he set up for the next kid party.
Forty-five minutes from entry, our comestibles were trashed, we had exhausted the topic of what losers boys are, there was no hint of an open lane, and we got up and left. Driving away, I offered my daughter a Life Lesson.
“When they tell you 15 minutes,”
I pronounced, “they’re always lying. If they tell you 10 minutes or an hour, that might be right. But 15 minutes is the infallible indicator.”
I remembered the first time I tapped this axiom, decades ago in a pizza hole off Hollywood Boulevard. I asked for a pizza. There were four big orders before me. The woman behind the counter knew this; I did not. “Fifteen minutes,” she lied, calculating that if she told me the real duration, I’d
vanish. “You can wait here.” It took over an hour. Now, she must have assumed I was a tourist, and we all know that tourists exist solely to be deceived, tortured and poisoned. She didn’t realize that I was a local who would never come back.
Still, the whole thing has become reflexive. You simply lie. You never tell the truth unless no other option is available.
The lesson has been reinforced many times. The cable jerks told me 8 a.m. when they knew it would be 4 p.m. The writer told me she’d turn in Wednesday when she knew it would be the next Monday. The guy at the body shop told me three days when he knew it would be three weeks. The carpenter said he’d be here tomorrow when he knew he wasn’t coming at all. And hundreds of “15 minutes” infested the spaces between.
Then, shortly after Bush was forced to cop that there weren’t any WMDs, things got different.
I went to a medical center to have my blood drawn (literally, for a change). Stepping up to the window, I asked how long it would be. “Fifteen minutes,” said the receptionist. I sat down, took off my left shoe and began jabbing a toothpick under my toenail, just to pass the time. I had hardly begun to bleed when, after 15 minutes, I was brought in and drained professionally.
The same day, I hit a drugstore for a prescription. “Fifteen minutes,” said the pharmacist. Since it always takes at least half an hour, I walked outside, where I had spotted a blind beggar squatting. I grabbed his Styrofoam cup, which contained 87 cents, enough for a can of cheap beer. I purchased the beer at the adjacent liquor store and was standing in the parking lot drinking it, when I saw the pharmacist waving at me through the glass. My drugs were ready. It had been 15 minutes.
Another time, exiting a convenience mart, I found a shabby dude in my face. “How about two bucks?” he shrugged. “I’m that much short, and I’m not gonna tell you it’s for food. If you cut me the cash, I’ll jump right on a bus to MacArthur Park and score a nickel bag of heroin. In 15 minutes, I’ll be high.” I peeled off the bills, and he was gone.
It could be that these were coincidences. It could be that I’ve gotten lost, and I don’t know what time it is anymore. But I don’t think so. I think that people have just gotten tired of lies.
A Shrine to Adán
On Thursday, April 1, outside St. John of God Church in Norwalk, thousands attended memorial services for singer Adán Sánchez. Known as “El Compita” (Lil Buddy), Adán was just 19 when he died March 27 in a car accident in Sinaloa, Mexico, the same state in which his father, legendary singer-songwriter Chalino Sánchez, was killed 12 years ago. Adán’s wholesome lifestyle, energetic smile and, above all, humility, made him a beloved figure in the Los Angeles Mexican community. He will be missed, but his spirit and music will live on: ¡Arriba Adán y Chalino Sánchez!
To read our recent feature story on Sánchez, visit our archives.