Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
The Volcano Tour
It's a beautiful sunny morning in Hollywood, and I've just opened my curtains here at the Roosevelt Hotel on a Hockney-like scene of pool and palms. It's about sixty degrees.
LA always reminds me a bit of Athens. It's a chaotic sprawl of strip malls and brashly pretentious restaurants. You can't help but respect it as a source of so much creativity, even if the TV shows, movies and music products advertised on the gigantic billboards are totally toxic. There's also a real sense that this is becoming an art town: there are lots of billboards for the Museum of Contemporary Art, big white posters encouraging passersby to think of the traffic lights and car washes as conceptual art on loan from the MOCA collection. (A Chiatt Day campaign recently ripped off by britart.com, by the way.)
I spend the rest of Thursday wandering around Hollywood Boulevard. Look at Capitol Records, walk along Sunset. It is of course pretty much insane to walk in this city, and the only people you see on the sidewalks are crazy mumbling homeless black people, often pushing shopping trolleys.
The exotic flora and fauna -- parrots and hawks in the palm trees. The tree-shapes combine with the insane little detached bungalows which seem to have their scale and idiom all wrong to make a landscape which hits the European eye as bizarre. The rich areas have sidewalk cafe tables and manicured trees, media companies and designer clothes stores. The poor areas have hand-painted signs in Spanish, garish plastic burger centres, wizened old black men in wheelchairs, precariously wheeling around faultlines in the pavements.
These different areas share something, a scale which is oriented totally to the car, the sun, and a certain... core vulgarity. Europe is far, far away. There are some similarities with the sprawl of Tokyo, but not its essential tidiness or sophistication. At least Tokyo, behind the big avenues, has a teeming village life on tiny streets. Here you're in a close relative of Mexico City which happens to fall within the American Empire. Or is it Seoul? Or... look, a ludicrous Rolls Royce! Is it a plastic, Gothic, garish, misremembered England? It's Seoul - Oxford - Mexico, it's drive-through guacamole wraps. It's aquamarine pastel ice cream art deco office buildings crumbling in the sun, it's Aztec Hollywood rococo with a giant stucco dinosaur wading through the facade. And a huge donut in the next lot.
No power cuts so far, but the California power companies are bankrupt and have used up all their reserves. It's worse up north, so perhaps we'll see some in San Fransisco.
A day off. We take our white coupe hire car, with its spooky sci-fi geo-satellite positioning (it speaks directions with a breathy woman's voice) to the big blue and green glass cubes of the Pacific Design Center on Melrose and see the Takashi Murakami Superflat exhibition. There we meet journalist Alex Patterson.
I'm so excited and pleased to see this show I more or less run around it like a kid in a fun fair. There's a Groovisions installation in the lobby of big-eyed, orange-boiler-suited dummies, full-sized, about fifty of them ranged like a batallion of helpful innocent automata. Then upstairs a wall of beautiful wallpaper like a manga version of an antique screen. Photos of Tokyo creators like Keigo Oyamada, who strums a guitar with 'folk you' stickered on it. The usual manga stuff from Henmaro Machino and co. (Machino is wonderful, he makes me lust after a nasty caterpillar by giving it a Betty Boop face!) A full-sized, half-crashed crumpled fighter plane (Pearl Harbour period) made of 35mm photos of its fuselage, painstakingly assembled on the wall. Matt later incorporates into his excellent mentalism act a joke about another exhibit: a video of a lonely hentai masturbating for eight minutes shouting 'Oka San! Mother!'
We go to Palm Pictures, who are courting Stars, and are allowed to raid the cupboards. I grab some Incredible String Band CDs (I love the early work of these hippy baba folksters from Edinburgh) and about $400-worth of anime and music DVDs.
I still can't get used to valet parking! Handing the car over to these obsequious Mexicans and just walking into the hotel in your shirt sleeves!
I'm the guest on an internet radio show in Santa Monica. It's a two hour marathon with a webcam and a chatroom to divide our attention from the talking. I inject a note of surreal subversion by asking, on the chatroom, whether people think it's a design mistake that the human body uses the genitals for both sex and liquid waste ejection. If we could engineer it, would people like to have a separate organ used only for sex? And if that happened, would culture stop considering sex 'dirty'?
DJ Kaci Christian takes me to a trendy Santa Monica sushi bar afterwards. Everybody there looks like a big-haired Barbie doll, or an extra from a Britney video. I'm sure they all arrived in pink beach buggies.
We're supposed to leave for Sacramento, but decide to get up early Sunday and make the drive then instead. So today is a big blank canvas, a work of LA sunshine noir. The rest of the bands (Stars, Push Kings) drink and lie by the pool and talk about their careers -- it's totally sunny, 76 degrees! -- so I head off on my own. After internetting at Cyberjava I look at the new LA subway station at Hollywood and Highland; big, expensive, clean -- and of course no people and no trains, because everyone here uses cars. I decide to go with the flow, and take our hire car instead of the tube.
I head for Silverlake, the boho district of Hollywood. It's still mostly hispanic, but you also see hipsters and bands. (They're the skinny dudes in tight clothes with Creation Records circa 1988-style haircuts.) Look at several art galleries. The art is all deeply disappointing, twee little paintings with stuff about relationships painted over hearts or semi-Mexican motifs. There are bookstores with drearily 'alternative' books and a big all-purpose alterno-shop called Whacko with paintings and youth culture trash for sale. The Hollywood style is recognisable: it's a combination of rawk glamour, you know, Thanatos in a cheap wig, leopardskin prints and gonzo humour, a kind of purple and pink taco-tacky Mexicana, 60s retro jet set imagery. The books look terrible, with purple covers and ugly type. The little zines full of tawdry poetry are rancid and without a single stitch of elegance.
What enchants me, though, is not Silverlake's youth culture, but its setting. It's a suburb spread over a series of little hills, like a scaled-down version of Beverly Hills, but without the latter's pretentious wealth and plastic grandeur. In Silverlake on a sunny day you climb the suburban backstreets and are seduced by the calm, the charming little wooden houses which cling to the hillsides, each in a different style, almost Japanese with their elevated plank walkways. They're surrounded by freakish trees and heavily-perfumed flowers. The plants here smell so good! I climb to the top of one hill, getting strong flashbacks to Psychico, the suburb where I lived in Athens, which really had the same feeling. At the top there's a rustic tar road leading into the dry eucalyptus depths of Echo Park.
The view is exotic and delightful: the dips and hollows of bungaloid calm close by, the imposing mountains in the distance, the Hollywood sign, the towers of downtown on the horizon. Nothing except unfamiliar bird cries to be heard, and the barking of dogs. This is truly the only 'suburb' I've ever thought it might be nice to live in. I could imagine building a Japanese-style wooden house on a hilltop and subscribing to a large number of magazines. I'd drive an old Volkswagen and make Zappa-esque records in the basement studio. Beck would live next door.
Drive downtown and visit Asahiya and Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookstores in the Little Tokyo district. The selection of magazines is poor compared to their New York counterparts, hardly any creative titles are to be seen. But I discover this time that Little Tokyo is much bigger than I'd realised. There are blocks and blocks of these tidy Japanese shopping malls, and you really do feel like you're in Tokyo somewhere.
Right next door is the MOCA Geffen Contemporary, a vast warehouse of the best contemporary art. I catch the penultimate day of a big Paul McCarthy show, spectacular and degenerate. This, rather than the sad little Silverlake galleries, is where the best of LA art is. It follows the big money of the music industry (Merci, Monsieur Geffen!).
Finish the evening back in Hollywood at a screening in the impressive Egyptian Theater of 'Battles Without Honor And Humanity' by Kinji Fukasaka, part of a festival dedicated to his yakuza movies. The director is there to talk about this bloody film about a stupid underling who kills his mafia boss. It just reminds me how little I like action movies of the gangster genre. I suppose all the physical action adds up to a mental liveliness. Fukasaka edits frenetically and switches between black and white and colour. But I find the tough guy heroes total dinosaurs, without a single bit of redeeming psychological interest. The women (all junky whores) are nice to look at, but appear too rarely on the screen. I imagine a generation of future Tarantinos in the audience behind me taking notes for low budget action movies, and resolve to avoid them at all costs.
We drive to Sacramento, pausing only to sup pea soup at the famous Anderson Pea Soup restaurant, an eccentric windmill in a sort of Disneylike service area off the otherwise featureless, tumbleweed-blown Highway 5. In Sacramento we're staying with James from Darla Records, who has relocated to avoid extravagant San Fransisco rents.
The chief delight here is to comb through Darla's massive stock room for interesting CDs at trade prices. I also discuss the details of my American Patchwork label, coming later this year.
The show Sunday evening is in a cafe. The sound is terrible, with onstage monitors cutting out every few seconds. I take the opportunity to enjoy myself and fool around. One of the Stars Forever patrons, Brent Busboom, is in the audience and sprechgesangs his eponymous song.
A two hour drive to San Fransisco. I'm deposited outside the headquarters of TechTV, a vast complex they share with Sega and Macromedia. It's a warren of glass-walled corridors through which you discern hundreds of screens in the characteristic info-drone configuration of 'cubes' or semi-enclosed cubicles.
While I'm waiting for the TV crew from TechTV to show up, I read a good review in the Bay Guardian of my new album. 'Lyrical super-genius Momus...' it begins. The review in the SF Weekly is not so convinced. The writer admires my 'literate and passionate' web site essays but decries a lack of 'resonance'.
I'm taken by TechTV in the lunchtime sunshine to South Park, the epicenter of SOMA, the multimedia gulch of San Fransisco. The idea is that I'm interviewing a web designer. We find one without much difficulty (he's called Richard, has a kind of zippy grunge look, and works for nearby Lycos) and talk to him in a kid's playpark about whether web designers might be considered artists or folk heroes. (The verdict: not yet.)
I'm free after a couple of hours of being filmed and interviewed, and make for the galleries. SF MOMA is rather dull, though they have some nice Klees and the by-now-compulsory Takashi Murakami (a big lobby frieze of happy, spooky mushrooms). I'm probably most impressed by the graphic design work (circa 1968 - 71) of a poster artist called Samuel Smidt.
Later, walking on Market Street, I jump on impulse onto a cable car, a tiny trolley or tram which takes a gaggle of tourists over the steep hills of the city down to the dock on the other side. This is bliss. I ride on the fender, hanging off the side, as the bells clang and we pass through peaceful streets of puffy trees and white terrace houses of the classic San Fransisco style. On the downslopes the car is powered by gravity alone, and only a huge mechanical brake prevents us from hurtling out of control.
Evening is falling but the air is fresh and the sky clear. As we approach the bay, with Alcatraz like a great rock boat in the water, the brine smells fresh. There's a long esplanade of touristy shops and streamlined burger bars. At the end I catch a taxi to the venue. It's time to soundcheck.
The show goes well, it's more relaxed than usual. Torquil of Stars stops a song half way through because the backing vocalist is out of tune. 'We don't suck!' he shouts at the audience.
I seem to have caught a cold. It's pouring with el nino-ish rain. Another show tonight at the same venue. I lunch with new acquaintances Emi and Ryan (she's a Japanese American architect, he's a musician) at the Zuni Cafe, an excellent restaurant on Market Street. Not looking forward much to tomorrow's drive to Portland, Oregon. Twelve hours on the road!
Actually that drive is rather wonderful. Matt and I drive through a landscape remarkably like Florian Perret's Folktronia video. Mountains, pines, snow. At nightfall we dine at an odd resort dedicated to houseboats, a place called Tail O' The Whale'. We stay the night in a miner's goldrush town. Over breakfast I'm asked by a couple of old timers if my fur hat is wolf. These friendly check-shirted fellows seem to think I'm a trapper down from the mountains. Later we stop in a very Twin Peaksy little town with a classic cowboy movie high street, full of organic food stores and overpriced junk stores. This is Oregon Trail country, the Shasta Mountains, and pretty touristy.
The first Portland show, at Reed College, where last year with Kahimi we had a really good show, and swung afterwards from the rafters on a rocking horse, is bad this year. Stars, who've opted to take the scenic coastal route up from California, are hours late. I have a cold coming on and sing badly. The sound is quiet, with only one side of the stereo coming out.
The best thing that happens that evening is meeting Jason, a really geeky kid (imagine Jean-Paul Sartre as a skateboarder) who turns out to work for Wieden and Kennedy, the ad agency I've read about in Fast Company magazine and plan to visit, because their fabulous new building incorporates PICA, Portland's coolest art space. Jason invites Matt and I to reprise our acts in W+K's atrium space the following day at lunchtime.
The W+K atrium is an ancient Greek-style public forum in the middle of the most spectacular office building I think I've ever seen, with walkways high above, basketball courts, a wooden roof deck with amazing views over the tranquil, pretty city of Portland... I meet a woman called Heidi who's compiling a book about penises as a W+K side project. She wants to use my lyrics for 'The Penis Song'. My set is also caught from on high by one of the partners, who summons me up to her office and says (I suppose meaning my lyrics) 'I like your copy'! I'm flattered.
Portland also has the most amazing bookstore in the world, Powell's. It stretches through a whole block, with new and secondhand books stocked side by side. The Americana section is a delight. In the folk section I buy a book by Pete Seeger, a folkster very aware of the 'revival' (ie pomo) nature of the 60 folk movement, its plasticity. As usual, I'm educating myself about the very things I've picked to ridicule.
The second Portland show is much better, although it takes place in a godforsaken cold bunker on the wrong side of the river. I dance inside my pink camo tent and camp it up in my kilt with flings and polkas. People clap along. It's odd, I'm getting more and more sulky off stage, keeping an icy distance from the other musicians. I get cranky as tours progress, need personal space and cultural stimulation to avoid falling into idiotic tour routines (drive, check, play, and again the next day. Fail to wash socks). This evening it comes in the form of a radio I find in an empty corner of the building, with a long John Waters interview coming out of it. What a smart and funny man! I must see one of his movies. So far I've managed to avoid them completely.
The drive to Seattle is spectacular and sunny. I'm really impressed by the mountains and volcanoes that stud the route to Seattle: Mount Hood, Mount Helen and Mount Rainier.
At Seattle I opt out of a communal sushi dinner and chill in the wonderful Camlin Hotel, a sort of Chinoiserie castle, where I have a huge room to myself. I arrive late to Belltown, where I have a show at the Crocodile Cafe. After a couple of whiskeys I deliver a top-notch show. It seems that the more cranky I am during the day, the better the show that night. It becomes a release, a serious bid to get re-integrated into humanity after hours of semi-autism. After everybody else has given up on me, the crowd still loves me and I can respect myself again.
See Layna's photos of the Seattle show here.
There's another live photo here.
Jarrod's snaps (no longer 5MB each!) are here!