It’s amazing how beautiful looking down into a smog pit can be.
—Trent Reznor, 1994
One day fossil fuels will be obsolete, and when kids hear
old pop songs inspired by smog, they won’t get it, the way we can’t really imagine
the stench of Victorian London. Their lungs won’t ache at night after a hard
day’s play, and maybe they won’t get asthma. They’ll know what blue really looks
like. They also won’t know the quiet shock of glimpsing a classic summertime-smoggy
L.A. sunset in the rearview mirror, and how intensely, heartbreakingly gorgeous
it can be.
Lots of people all over the world have written songs about air pollution,
and some are pretty good. Kraftwerk’s “Radioaktivity” is creepy as hell; Black
Star’s “Respiration” is a poetic riff on New York City air: “Look in the skies
for god, what you see besides the smog/I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the
city breathin’.” Reggae artists absolutely love to sing about pollution — and,
naturally, anything smoke-related in general. (The group Blue Haze had chart
success with their 1973 cover of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”) Of course, plenty
of artists have also used “smog” in their name — most obviously (duh), Smog
(a.k.a. singer-songwriter Bill Callahan) and Golden Smog, the Midwestern supergroup
featuring members of Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks and Wilco.
But there’s something special about L.A. smog. Maybe it’s the way it changes
the already ethereal quality of the light here, or the way its gloom mixes with
a strange melancholy that hangs in the air at times. For me, it’s all that;
it’s also slightly glamorous — the mark of chaotic ambition, the smell of mobility.
And in a city of segregation and isolation, smog has, perversely, helped me
to feel connected to the rest of the populace. Then there’s the whole growing-up-in-the-’70s
L.A.-nostalgia thing, which seems to cross race, class and neighborhood lines.
For a certain generation, smog is a part of our culture and our most intense
childhood memories, for better and worse. In his perfect L.A. fantasy, “It Was
a Good Day,” the young Ice Cube made a point to mention air quality: “I don’t
know but today seems kinda odd/No barking from the dog, no smog.” By contrast,
in his reverie of an asthmatic childhood in Compton, “I Remember,” Coolio raps
affectionately: “I remember (I remember), oh/when we used to have Army fights
in the smog/but now they gang-bang (baby).” Snoop made smog seem supercool:
“I step through the fog/I creep through the smog/Cause I’m Snoop Doggy Dogg”;
so did the highly nostalgic Chili Peppers (in “Deep Kick”): “It started when
we were little kids, free spirits… /hysterical and tragic characters in a
smog-filled universe/We loved the dirty city and the journeys away from it…
/And lots of things seemed futile then, but love and music can save us/and did,
while the giant grey monster grew more poisoned and volatile around us.”).
Now that’s a way more expansive approach to the subject than, say, “The Smog”
by Detroit’s Insane Clown Posse (1994), in which smog represents pure evil:
“The clouds form a devil’s face/It must be a mirror image of the human race/Oh
shit, here it comes, the deadly smog.”
The Hydraulic Raisins, an incredibly obscure 1960s teen-garage-fuzz band from
West Covina, wrote the fabulous shoulda-been-a-hit “Smog Song” — which mirrors
Ice Cube’s blue-sky fantasy with humor and heavy cowbells: “For once in my life
I breathed breathable air/Wasn’t no smog that day!/I stood there with my eyes
open wide/Just what made it happen I couldn’t decide/A natural phenomenon but
that couldn’t be/More like a miracle I had to believe.” (Available on the reissue,
Wailin’ in West Covina 1963–1968, on Dionysus Records.) Likewise, Charles Mingus’
1954 recording of “Smog L.A.” (composed by Wally Cirillo) has a laissez-faire,
even cheerful take on the theme.
Smog is the welcome mat for a city whose beautiful myths are lies, but whose
ugly truth can beautiful. In the hands of a gifted songwriter, smog can be transformed
into something like mercy. Matthew Sweet’s “Smog Moon” (1995) is a triumphantly
wistful ode to aging, and (unless I’m way off base) a sympathetic elegy to Hollywood-style
ambition: “There’s a smog moon coming/I can always feel it/The cartoon trees
cannot conceal it/When it’s high up in the sky, it almost looks like it is white.”
The Miracles had their greatest (post–Smokey Robinson) success on 1974’s City
of Angels, a concept album devoted to Los Angeles. Besides “Ain’t Nobody Straight
In L.A.” and the hit “Love Machine,” the song “Smog” was, despite its lyrics,
a dreamy-celestial de facto tribute to the brownish haze shrouding the city
in those days (“I wish it would rain/And take the smog away/So that we can have
a bright and sunny day.”).
L.A.’s fucked-up air has made appearances in many more songs than I can detail
here, from “Thanks for the Memories” to the Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way” to Beck’s
“New Pollution.” (I assume that’s about L.A., anyway!) But perhaps the greatest
L.A. smog song of all time is “The Air That I Breathe,” composed by Albert Hammond
and Mike Hazlewood upon moving to L.A., and made into a hit by the Hollies in
1974. (Must have been quite a year for L.A. smog.)
Hammond (who also recorded “Air” on his album It Never Rains In Southern California)
was partly inspired by a lover — specifically, a plain but kind young woman
who took him in when he had no money and no green card. But smog played a part
As Hammond explained to an interviewer in 1992, “It was because we lived in
L.A., and for the first time in our lives, we were introduced [to] smog. Every
time we woke up, we’d look at the Hollywood Hills, and there was like a yellow
monster up there. And I think that was [Hazelwood’s] reason for coming up with
[the line] the air that I breathe. My reason was a love story; his was ecology
or whatever you want to call it. But it worked.”
Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you/All I need is
the air that I breathe and to love you.
Guess that yellow monster was good for something.