DISCUSSED: L.A.’s Soundtrack, The City’s Secret Alphabet, “Swallowed By the Cracks, Perverse Nobility, X, “Shadowless Heart,” Tonio K., The Doors, The Zip-A-Dee-Dada Spectacle of Morrison, Dory Previn, Tinseltown’s Inner Children, The Big Quake of 1971, The Most Deliriously Unspeakable Aspects of the Old Regime

A couple years back, writing in Los Angeles magazine, Steve Erickson presented an annotated list of what he considered to be the one hundred greatest records ever made in—and in some fundamental sense, by—L.A. “Every city has a soundtrack, but sometimes Los Angeles seems like a soundtrack that has a city.” Shrewd, imaginative, and meticulous, his Top 100 encompassed “MacArthur Park” (1968, Richard Harris, #86), “Fuck tha Police” (1988, N.W.A., #74 with a metaphorical bullet), “Earth Angel” (1954, the Penguins, #61), “Closer” (1994, Nine Inch Nails, #48), “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” (1966, the Electric Prunes, #38), “Laura” (1944, David Raskin, #30), “The Crystal Ship” (1967, The Doors, #20), “When You Wish Upon a Star” (1940, Jiminy Cricket [Cliff Edwards], #7), “Lonely Woman” (1959, Ornette Coleman, #3), and “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964, Sam Cooke, #1 with a real bullet, the one which martyred the singer at a South Central motel called the Hacienda). Erickson drew a map of nomadic romanticism and urbane sprawl, utopia and its dys-contents. This was a city of sensibility so open-ended it could accommodate everyone from the Beach Boys to Captain Beefheart, country refugees (lonesome fugitive Merle Haggard, blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers) to folk royalty (Joni Mitchell, yodeling in more exclusive canyons), the lowdown Seeds (“Unhinged lead singer Sky Saxon thought he was singing to his girlfriend…”) to Sinatra at his most delicately existential. He cast the City of Night as one bubbling hot tub/melting pot, at least if you were on the guest list instead of the menu and remembered to bring along your personal fondue fork.

The drawback with this ecumenical evenhandedness was it tended to undermine any sense of place beyond a confirmation of the old cliché about “nineteen suburbs”—and several ghettos—“in search of a metropolis.” If L.A.’s essence could be present in anything that had been recorded there, its voice and headphone-mindset detected in Willie Nelson’s version of “Moonlight in Vermont” or CSNY’s “Ohio” or Emmylou Harris cooing “Boulder to Birmingham,” then it truly was no more than a jumble of freeways populated by displaced commuters, each in a traffic-jammed auto-audio cocoon, forever imagining he or she was somewhere or someone else. (Los Angeles’s definition of déjà vu might be listening to There’s a Riot Goin’ On while taking a surface-street detour and noticing outside the tinted windshield that a riot really is goin’ on.) Erickson’s diligent assemblage, all good taste and timelessness, wasn’t a soundtrack to the city so much as the soundtrack to an imaginary filmed-on-location Best Picture candidate: a heavyweight exercise in nostalgic tragedy full of important actors living up to their reputations and bright new ones making theirs, some sort of Mystic L.A. River Confidential. Largely missing in action was the city’s “secret alphabet,” as the Doors called it in “Soul Kitchen,” and X dittoed on their zooming 1980 cover/answer record. There was little trace of that “succulent sound” David Baerwald enunciated so memorably on David + David’s 1986 “Welcome to the Boomtown”: money as hedonism, glamour as power, pleasure as growth industry, “satisfaction [oozing] from her pores.” And what of rocks not turned over? Where were those creepy-crawling armies of the defeated, the underemployed day workers of the locust licking their wounds and downing tequila shots in peekaboo dives from Hollywood to Tarzana?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Howard Hampton is writing Badlands: a Psychogeography of the Reagan Era for the Harvard University Press.

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