Spam Queens and empty briefcases

WAITING FOR THE SUN: The Story of the Los Angeles Music Scene by Barney Hoskyns, Viking pounds

Ben Thompson
Saturday 27 July 1996 23:02

The "scene" of the subtitle should really be "scenes", as the great achievement of this fascinating book is to tell a single story without compromising the diversity of myriad interlocking musical histories. From post-war cool jazz to gangsta rap, via surf, psychedelia, country rock and hardcore punk, Barney Hoskyns somehow manages to give all the sounds of his featured city a fair crack of the whip. In establishing Los Angeles and its environs not as the place where music goes to die, but as the home of the Beach Boys and Captain Beefheart and Charlie Mingus and Ice Cube, he might even make people want to go there.

What makes Los Angeles such a great subject for this type of creative overview is that, as with an Escher drawing, the closer you get to the heart of the picture, the further you seem to move away from it. From the Jewish movie moguls who created Hollywood's Gentile fantasy world, to the gay Yorkshireman who defined the exquisite vacancy of poolside hedonism by painting A Bigger Splash, an amazingly high proportion of LA's psychic landmarks turn out to be the work of outsiders. As Hoskyns shrewdly points out, with reference to such archetypal outcasts-turned- mythmakers as Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, this was no coincidence: the further you were from the Californian ideal, the harder you had to work to reflect it.

Like many a well-bred English visitor, Hoskyns's reactions to the ritual excesses of LA are sometimes sentimental - he writes nostalgically of "the good times the GTOs [Frank Zappa's glorified groupie troupe] had in those heady days" - and occasionally scornful. The enduring allure of the Sunset Strip hard rock/heavy metal fantasy prompts him to an outburst worthy of Evelyn Waugh: "Those poodle haircut/ Harley Davidson skull and crossbones tattoo cliches refuse to die - year in year out one sees the same imbeciles unloading their Marshall stacks into crappy pay-to-play dives like the Coconut Teaszer ..." Mostly though, he achieves a satisfying balance between even-handedness and passion.

The danger with a book of this scope is that it might end up as a huge and unappetising refried tortilla of second-hand anecdotes. But Hoskyns has a knack for making things he hasn't seen - ancient jazzman Big Jay McNeely's arrest for "exciting Mexicans" after racing around on roller skates in costumes borrowed from Ben Hur - as vivid as those he has. One of Waiting For The Sun's most personal encounters is Hoskyns's meeting with raddled psychedelic renegade Arthur Lee: "Sitting opposite a man I regard as some kind of genius, knowing I've already lost him but still hoping I might get the odd morsel of sense from his notoriously frazzled mind."

Having first experienced LA in the middle of what he forthrightly describes as "a debilitating struggle with drug (ab)use", Hoskyns has a ready line into "the seductive sickness of the place" - and any man who has published a rock novel must have some truck with the self-destructive impulse. But ready as he is to consider with an unflinching eye the endless overdoses, addictions and suspicious deaths that punctuate the City Of Angels' musical history, he manages not to wallow in his story's more Babylonian aspects.

In place of the vengeful narco-sexual sensationalism which lesser writers might have opted for, there is thoughtful consideration of the ill-concealed racial fault lines that underpin the whole LA story. From the white supremacist theorising that was part and parcel of the city's foundation - one early president of the University of Southern California hoped that LA would become "the Aryan capital of the world" - through Nat King Cole's neighbours burning crosses on the lawn of his mock-Tudor home in 1948, to the post- Rodney King conflagration of 1992, Hoskyns sets cultural developments in their broader socio-political contexts skilfully and without resort to jargon.

He has a fine eye for a telling quote, supplementing innumerable interviews of his own with judicious reference to authorities as diverse as Charles Manson (on himself: "the mad dog devil killer fiend leper is a reflection of your society") and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, who memorably described his hometown as "a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup". Waiting For The Sun gets intoxicatingly close not just to musicians but to the cultures which surround them: the shifting (and shifty) ranks of club owners, record company fixers, and hustlers-without- portfolio - magnetically unappetising characters like the archetypal LA scenester Kim Fowley, of whom a smiling rival observes: "I once made him open his briefcase and there was nothing in it."

If there is one slightly jarring note it is an occasional unevenness of style. Hoskyns sometimes seems torn between critical hauteur (I'm not sure if we need to know that Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust is "celebrated, if decidedly overrated") and insider joviality (it is a brave man who calls David Crosby "The Cros"), but this is a small fault in a very big book. And any volume which incorporates the revelation that Belinda Carlisle once played with a band called "Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens" could be forgiven far worse crimes.

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