Thursday, June 26, 2008

no marigolds in the promised land

About five years ago, I started work on a novel I hoped would bring my preoccupation with the collapse of the 1960s together with my other great obsession, Southern California social history. I wanted, naturally, to frame the former within the latter, and I envisioned my book as a meditation on California’s post WWII experience.

I’m not altogether sure what drove me in this direction other than that I’m a 60s junkie, by which I mean that I’m addicted to the 60s as an object of appreciation and intellectual contemplation. I guess there’s also the part of me that’s fascinated conceptually with instances of social disintegration. I listened incessantly to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars when I was a kid. …Some of my favorite books are The Magic Mountain, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Leopard. …As a graduate student, I became enormously interested in the decline of the Old South, and I later wrote my thesis on the collapse of the U.S. Coal Industry after WWI. …More recently, I was really blown away by Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, which is the follow up to his great Guns, Germs and Steel, and deals with the basic question of what makes societies fall apart.

For me, the collapse of the 60s, or the Great Collapse, refers to the destruction of the hopes, dreams, idealism and optimism of the era, and their replacement with disillusionment and nihilistic self-indulgence. Welcome to the 70s! The Great Collapse was not, of course, a singular moment in time, nor was it a linear progression of occurrences. For commentators like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, the 60s already seemed to be coming to an end by the Summer of Love. But then it’s interesting that, from a different point of view, 60s idealism culminated in Woodstock, even though Woodstock occurred well after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and was only separated by several months from Manson and Altamont.

It’s so difficult with this stuff to impose thematic coherence onto all the sequences of events, all the more so because the collapse of the 1960s arguably spilled over into the 1970s and even the 1980s. Would it be entirely far-fetched, for example, to say that Watergate marks the end of the 60s? Or maybe stagflation killed the 60s, or maybe it was the final defeat of the U.S. in Viet Nam. I’ve heard some argue that punk rock was the final dagger in the heart of the 60s, and others say that the 60s finally ended for good when Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election.

After five years, I’m only about a third of the way through my book. I work pretty slowly for sure, but I also have to earn a living, so the novel is not a full-time endeavor, much as I would like for it to be. The novel consists of a series of intersecting stories, but it’s primarily centered on two singer-songwriters in the 1970s Hollywood/L.A. scene, both of whom are negotiating the aftershocks of the Great Collapse after having grown up in Southern California and come of age during the 60s. The working title for the book is Canyon Fodder.

This brings me back to my defense of Steely Dan. Along with several other sources, they were a huge inspiration for me in coming up with the concept for my book. I defy anyone to name a body of work that more perfectly captures the aftermath of the Great Collapse, L.A. style, than the seven albums Steely Dan made between 1972 and 1980. And like many of the best interpretations of the Southland experience, Steely Dan’s observations, and their overall vibe, are those of non-native outsiders, giving them a certain critical distance, even as they find themselves getting swept up into the strange sprawling vortex that somehow makes L.A. simultaneously repulsive and alluring.

While the 70s sensitive singer-songwriters mourned the passing of 60s communality, even as they became rich and snorted coke from the ass cracks of underage groupies, punk viewed the hippie dream as a total lie and expressed a deep hatred for the indulgences of the wimpy sensitivos. The greatness of Steely Dan comes from their punky cynicism towards the vestiges of hippie idealism (‘only a fool would say that’), combined with their willingness to engage – albeit detachedly and in a spirit of supreme irony - in the excesses of life at the intersection of Sunset and Vine.

It’ll take me way too long to go through every Steely Dan album, and that’s not my purpose here anyway. This all started because somebody said something unflattering about The Dan, and I felt the need to clarify, at least for myself, why they’re important to me and to what I’m trying to do with my book. I’ve been struggling to make progress on the book lately, but thinking about Steely Dan in relation to the Great Collapse all over again is getting my creative synapses firing a bit more than they have been of late. Hopefully it won’t be long before I’m back at it.

no static at all

A good friend of mine wounded me the other night with something he said in passing. ...Well, 'wounded' is too strong a word, and I know he didn't mean anything by it. He probably doesn't even remember making the comment. At the time, I didn't feel a response was necessary. But later in the evening I tossed and turned in bed, feeling frustrated about not having had an opportunity to set things straight from my point of view...

Somehow or other, the conversation that evening had turned to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. When I mentioned that I would like to visit the place someday, my buddy said, 'that place lost all credibility when they inducted Steely Dan.'...

...Excuse me? Do you know the extent to which you have just ripped off my head and crapped down my throat with that remark? Do you realize I will now have to challenge you to a duel?

Actually, I think I understand why people from a particular time and place hate Steely Dan, especially the final several albums Becker and Fagen made before their first break up (The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho). If you were lucky enough to grow up in New York and move from adolescence to adulthood between the late 60s and the end of the 70s, and if the sounds shaping your consciousness most profoundly during that period came from Lou Reed, the Dictators, Television and the Voidoids (all of which applies, more or less, to the friend making the offending comment), then it's almost automatic that you'd view Steely Dan as the worst kind of overly polished, soulless M.O.R. fare. With each successive album The Dan put out, their fuzak oriented approach became slicker, the guitar solos became tastier, and the overall vibe grew more crassly commercial, at least on the surface of things. By the time Gaucho hit the record shops in 1980, you could practically hear a dentist's drill humming along insistently underneath the fretless bass lines.

But this is exactly where so many people get things wrong and fail to see Steely Dan paradox - namely, their emergence from - and the similarity of their response to - the same malaised zeitgeist that gave birth to punk.

There's more at stake here for me than the issue of musical preferences and taste. I'll take about it more in my next post...

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Hi, and welcome to my blog, ‘All the Things’. This blog won’t have a specific focus per se other than providing a way for me to talk about ideas and experiences through the filter of my passion for the ebb and flow of life here in Los Angeles. I suppose I have a vague – quite possibly delusional – notion that a few people here and there might be interested in what I’ve got to say. But the real reason I’m doing this, at least initially, is that my life has been in a state of upheaval for about six or seven months now. Change is always difficult for me, and in this instance the ongoing disruptions have left me with a debilitating case of writer’s block, manifesting itself in my becoming overtaken with paralyzing fatigue every time I sit down and attempt to make progress on the novel I’ve been working at for five years and counting. In my more insecure moments, I imagine that the blockage is God’s way of saying, ‘You’re 40, man. No way anybody’s gonna publish that thing. Why put yourself through all the trouble?’ ...Where’s the benevolent George Burns-ish God when you need Him?... But even if it’s true that, from a purely market oriented perspective, writing a first novel at this stage of my life is a shaky proposition at best, I need to write for a lot of different reasons – not just the gratification of getting a book published. So I got to thinking that a secondary and more casual outlet, other than a ‘serious’ novel, might not be such a bad idea – a low-pressure way for me to get some ideas out there and hopefully reignite my creative energy. …I don’t know whether this medium will agree with me or not. Blogging lends itself to a certain immediacy of expression that seems anathema to the way I like to do things. I tend to labor over what I write for long periods of time before I’m comfortable sharing it with others. I would make a horrible journalist. On the other hand, though, this blog thing might end up being exactly what I need to work out of my current impasse so I can get excited again about my book. Plus, it’ll just be nice to have another way to express all my brilliant ideas. …Enjoy!