Momus Amerikong 4: The Casting Couch
Chapter Four: Trouble Out West
Our longsuffering hero, Momus, whose right eye frosted over on his birthday in Atlanta, finds his lust for life somewhat blunted by pain and partial blindness. In Chicago, modelling for famous penis-collecting artist Cynthia Plaster Caster, he is unable to sustain a respectable erection.
It isn't Cynthia's fault. She's charm itself. It isn't even the presence of John of the excellent Aluminum Group, hovering as Cynthia's assistant until Momus asks shyly if he wouldn't mind waiting in the other room...
And no reflection on Janet Chen, the 'plater', with whom Momus ends up writhing on Cynthia's brightly-lit, newspaper-covered kitchen floor naked, his stand in damp plaster, his tongue in her cleft, desperately trying to imagine he's engaged in a spontaneous sexual act rather than a synthetic performance in front of strangers. (Pretty much like a sexy synthpop concert tour, I guess).
'What a pity,' exclaims Cynthia when it becomes clear that the erection has wilted on the third casting, 'the head looked so fat, but we're not going to get an accurate representation of the shaft.'
Momus showers for a third time in Cynthia's bathroom then is given a tour of the penis musuem. The woman who cast Hendrix speaks of her collection with the precision and pride of a botanist or butterfly collector. (Jimi's cast, by the way, is in a bank vault).
She shows Momus the firm manliness of John of the Mekons, 'a nice guy with a big cock, which is a pretty rare combination'. This only makes things worse.
Momus leaves Chicago, tail between his legs, leaving the shame behind on a five hour flight with Gilles to Los Angeles.
The orange lights of this monstrous metropolis, as you overfly it by night, are a never-ending electric carpet, like a million candles fizzling at a satanic rite. Momus thinks of Blackout, the filmscript Serge Gainsbourg wrote in the 80s about a catastrophic electricity failure in LA. Looking at these unending acres of light bordered by water, there's no way of knowing if the areas spread out below are immensely rich or hellishly poor, Beverly Hills or Compton. Everything is equal from the plane.
The scifi lounge at LAX is familiar to our heroes from the cloth backdrop to Beck's shows. Their LA gig, sponsored by Lounge magazine, was meant to be happening in this most Loungecore of buildings, but was switched at the last moment.
Momus and Gilles (Matt will join them in a few days, after returning the tour Jeep to his parents) drive their rental car to the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, which will be home for the next few days. There's a party for the aftermath of some soul music awards ceremony going on in the lobby, and a lot of bejewelled and flashily dressed soul brothers and sisters, the shoulder-padded, diamante black entertainment bourgeoisie, are lurching through the lobby, drunk and giggling.
Day dawns over Grauman's Chinese Theater. The lobby today is full of cool young Japanese kids. They turn out to be the Roosevelt's principal residents. What do Hollywood and Momus have in common? They're both curated by the Japanese.
Having recovered their car after some confusion with the Mexican valet parking system, Momus and Gilles drive to Beverly Hills in the rain.
They park (leaving the car unlocked... after all, what crime can possibly occur amongst all these 'Armed Response' signs?) and gaze down at the lush craters and gulches on either side of them, filled with amazingly huge, amazingly fake mansions. Look, there, a Louis XIV style french chateau, and right next door a vast hacienda ranch house!
And look at this modest gatehouse, sentinel to a private estate, its Disnified English vernacular style making it look for all the world like a friendly, shaggy and loyal english sheep dog made entirely of plastic! (Surrounded by fountains and concealed security cameras.)
Mr David Bowie, who left LA after being convinced his swimming pool was possessed by the devil, said in the documentary 'Cracked Actor' 'Fancy building a bleeding wax museum in the middle of the desert. You'd think it would melt! Ha, ha... ha, ha, ha!'
That's what you feel here. The whole place is a melting wax museum, a melting collection of relics from Hollywood's golden age. The Chinese theater, the restaurant where Chaplin used to eat, the Yamashiro atop the hill behind Hollywood Boulevard, originally built as a folly by a rich producer but now a Japanese restaurant.
The fascinating, slightly sinister unreality of this place bears out everything Bowie (not to mention Umberto Eco, Mike Davies and Baudrillard) have said about it. Not the least surreal is Little Toyko, a grid of streets over which tiny, mosquito-like helicopters flit, where the Japanese working in the video stores are so many generations down the line that they no longer even speak Japanese, and have to communicate in English with the Japanese office workers who come in to buy sexy tapes during their lunchbreak. (This unprecedented degree of assimilation didn't stop the Americans interning these people in camps during world war two).
Contrary to expectations, there is an old-fashioned downtown in LA, a seedy place of paste jewellery stores and dilapidated cinemas showing 'Death Of A Chinese Bookie'. Gilles and Momus traverse its streets on the way to MoCA, LA's Museum of Contemporary Art, where there's an excellent show documenting the uncollectable traces of performance and action art.
It's a city of contrasts, all right. The spectacularly beautiful backdrop of snow-topped mountains (a dramatic mise en scene which the exiled Brecht compared to Vienna) overhangs a ragged army of the carless and the homeless. (Even they are on wheels and on the move).
The contrasts extend to the weather, which goes from brilliant sunshine to torrents of El Nino rain (the TV news speaks of nothing else, with correspondents on standby at the beach ready to report every drop of rain and puff of wind as if it were Scene 1 -- exterior, night -- of a disaster movie).
Distinct districts begin to emerge from the tangle of freeways: Century City, huge and capitalist, like Rome's fascist suburb EUR. The friendly campus of UCLA, where Gilles and Momus eat unlimited student food. The succulent and fragrant hilltop suburbs, in which beautiful gardens are tended by armies of Mexicans and where the simultaneous hardness and softness of the residents is hinted at by the close proximity of two types of signs: next to stern placards which threaten intruders with immediate military-style retribution, you see, immaculately laser-printed: 'Lost: Ginger cat, answers to the name of Fluffy.' (Maybe those armed response guys took Fluffy out).
Thrifting here is not the cheap pleasure it was back in Maryland. Here the thrift stores (at least those on trendy, homosexual La Breia) have curators. At American Rag a ski jumper with the right brand name and those inflamed, inflated joint pads costs a cool $75. So this is where all the really good 70s stuff from those east coast thrifts ended up!
Maybe it's prices like that (and Marilyn Manson) which explain why most LA youths still seem to want to dress as goths.
You can make a funny parallel between the US and Scotland, which both have rival metropolises on their east and west coasts. Edinburgh is New York: arty and rather cold in tone, LA is Glasgow, warm, populist and cliquey. As I drive to Santa Monica to be interviewed for CD ROM magazine Launch, or through the Burbank Media District, which is totally dominated by Warner's and Disney (they even have their own airport), I'm keenly aware of the spectral presence of my west coast Scottish relatives, my uncle John, a choral conductor who lived here for several years in the 80s, and his son, my cousin Justin, the singer in Del Amitri, a band whose soul belongs to A&M Records.
True to the metaphor, I'm more of a (lower east side) New York person myself. Uptight, arty as hell, intellectual, quick of metabolism, love the inner city, total media junky, prefer to walk than ride in cars, hate sunshine, hate movies unless they're made on Pixelvision by a lesbian...
I perform a tense, schizoid version of 'My Pervert Doppelganger' for Launch editor Dave DiMartino and assembled video crew, sure that it will never make it onto the ROM. Because, although Dave is the editor and has described Momus as 'England's greatest living artist,' such weird cabaret uptightness simply does not compute in LA. My guilt and irony are as out of place here as those hapless European refugees Brecht and Weill.
At the instore on Santa Monica Boulevard, Gilles plays Space Invaders while Franklin Bruno performs a poignant version of his song 'The Death Of Vaudeville'. At the show itself, despite my poorly eye (I've had to cancel a trip to the Viper Room with David J of Love and Rockets) I camp it up in front of various guests including British artist Georgina Starr, singing a lounged-up post-Hugh Grant cover of Bowie's 'Cracked Actor'.
As a final image of the unreality of this place, we witness one night on Hollywood Boulevard a movie being shot. The street is shabby and dark, but suddenly where the crew are shooting it's all smoke and blue light, that shade of blue that fills all noirish Hollywood productions and removes them from recognisable life. (French, Iranian and Korean films aren't that colour).
At our last breakfast at the Roosevelt, I overhear a bizarre conversation about how the next big entertainment phenomenon is rescue dogs. Later, I hear myself telling Gilles that the Americans love handsome, sensitive frenchmen and that, if he lets me manage him, I can make him a big movie star. I'm only half joking. Even a few hours in this place and you fall prey to its characteristic form of insanity, which is hope.
Humming Bryan Ferry's 'Can't Let Go' we head north, leaving this fascinating, horrible, wonderful -- nay, mongoloid! bungaloid! celluloid! -- sprawl of a city behind us.
It's thrilling to approach this reassuringly human-scaled and European city through Sillicon Valley, where I easily snap into the hippyish positivity, the frenetic and futuristic business mindset of Wired magazine (Bits Not Atoms! The New Economy! Zippies! The Long Boom!) and press my nose against the car window to see Netscape and the offices of innumerable over-capitalised start-ups working on machine translation, intelligent spiders and java.
Later, I will be interviewed in the Mission district (where I feel right at home amongst effeminate men, groovy retro furniture stores and cafes furnished with books about S&M, jazz and the beats) by Wired's own Colin Berry, who will describe me in his article as 'every part a rock star - plaid pants, tangerine overcoat, owlish glasses, that certain je ne sais quoi that accompanies celebrity' (to-whit to-whoo, Hollywood must have taught me something after all)!
I take some enormous multivitamin tablets so that my body can start catching up with my ego.
In two short days here I will be kept awake by the insane howling of the homeless on the street outside our hotel all night, will be offered heroin in broad daylight, and will be told in the offices of Mondo 2000 magazine that the planet is in the control of a Caretaker Race.
I will pass a huge crowd of goths waiting for a personal appearance by Marilyn Manson, will play a sell-out show then attend a party on Haight straight out of an Antonioni movie, and will be pitied in a Japanese restaurant (where my eye-pain is giving me a hangdog look) by a kind media couple who will invite me back to their home for dinner and introduce me to their little boy, Noah. 'A good name for El Nino,' I joke.
So now we drop the mask
Of Toquevillesque gravitas
And simply say 'We love you
Thanks for having us!'
See you again soon on the Gilles / Momus / Kahimi Karie tour!