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“You may think you know what’s going on here Mr. Gittes. But you don’t.”
— Noah Cross, “Chinatown”
Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars
The topless bars
Never saw a woman so alone, so alone
So alone, so alone
— Jim Morrison, The Doors, “LA Woman”
It was a hell of a day to wax nostalgic about Los Angeles. A perfect spring day at the range; hundreds of rounds — rifle, pistol, shotgun — sent down range to excellent effect. A fine conversation on the hour’s drive across the Oregon High Desert to get back home.
Blame Quentin Tarantino. It started with Craig Rullman and I reflecting on the pitch-perfect masterpiece that is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
The film is a love letter to Old L.A., and I felt it — because if they say I never loved her, you know they are a liar.
I grew up in the L.A. area and Rullman worked there as a cop enough to know her for the harlot that she has always been — by turns glamorous and seductive or tawdry and cheap.
A thing that we know is something most folks don’t understand: Los Angeles is a frontier town — the ultimate boomtown — a weird and wild vampire of a city that sucked the Owens Valley dry and consumes souls like its got a wholesale contract with the Devil.
Tom Russell, L.A. cowboy singer and Nova Beat poet, recalls that back in the 1940s and ’50s, there was something like 165,000 horses in the L.A. Basin. The racetracks. The Western movies. Horse properties from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills to La Cañada-Flintridge.
Los Angeles has always promised a little glimpse of heaven, with a landscape running from chaparral ridges to sandy beaches and a temperate climate. The basin was once home to giant ranchos that, to paraphrase Ian Tyson, may have been paradise. Quien sabe?
Los Angeles has also always seethed with corruption, racial tension and violence.
John Mack Faragher’s outstanding book Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles does a fine job of depicting the sordid origins of the ultimate boomtown
Stuart Rosebrook reviewed Eternity Street in True West Magazine and described the City thus.:
From Chinatown to the original Mission Plaza, from the San Gabriel Mission to San Juan Capistrano, Faragher’s 19th-century Southern California is a wide-open frontier region of urban treachery, racial unrest, land barons and business entrepreneurs jostling for economic control of a city ruled on the edge of the law.
One of the multitude of sordid, violent and “soooooo LA” stories told in Eternity Street is the fate of one David Brown, who was lynched for knifing Pinkney Clifford in an LA stable in 1854.
Davy Brown was one of the historical figures Cormac McCarthy worked into Blood Meridian. He was one bloody bastard, Davy Brown. Just ask Ben Nichols.
Brown was an exemplar of the nastiest kind of frontier scum, and L.A. — like the rest of California — was awash in such types in the wake of the discovery of gold in 1849. Vigilantes chased the worst of them out of the San Francisco Bay Area and they slithered south to L.A., where many of them operated as bandits in the rugged hinterlands around the pueblo.
With always-simmering tensions between the old Californios and the new Anglo-American ascendancy, and a dangerous and well-armed element of paramilitary banditti owning the countryside, Los Angeles was a far wilder and more dangerous frontier town than Dodge City ever was. Men like Brown helped California run neck-and-neck with Texas as the most violent frontier in the American West.
It’s instructive that Old Davy killed a number of Mexicans without consequence, and didn’t meet his fate until he murdered a white man. He was tried and convicted in a remarkably legal and proper manner, and was sentenced to hang on the same day as a killer of Mexican descent named Felipe Alvitre. But the Supreme Court issued a stay, while allowing the execution of Alvitre to go forward.
This injustice could have sparked a racial confrontation between Californios and Anglos — but Mayor Stephen Clark Foster saved the day. He resigned his position and led a lynch mob that pulled Brown out of jail and strung him up from the crossbeam of a corral gate. Brown complained about being strung up by a “bunch of Greasers,” and asked that an American do the honors, but nobody stepped forward. Tough luck for Davy Brown.
Foster was immediately reelected to his mayoral post.
Weird apocalyptic cults have long haunted L.A., most famously the Manson clan whose fate Tarantino revised in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Surely the devil and his demons prowled those midnight alleys roamed by drunks from Davy Brown to Jim Morrison.
John Logan seems to think so. His Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premiers in April:
“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” opens in 1938 Los Angeles, a time and place deeply infused with social and political tension. When a grisly murder shocks the city, Detective Tiago Vega is embroiled in an epic story that reflects the rich history of Los Angeles: from the building of the city’s first freeways and its deep traditions of Mexican-American folklore, to the dangerous espionage actions of the Third Reich and the rise of radio evangelism. Before long, Tiago and his family are grappling with powerful forces that threaten to tear them apart.
You might want to know going into this show that there really are shape-shifting demons in L.A. We’ve all seen ’em…
I permanently got off of the L.A. Freeway without getting killed or caught back in 1993. I don’t want to go back and I don’t miss the place. And yet…
I can’t explain this strange tug of nostalgia — this thing that perpetually takes me circling back on my own tracks to drink down some of that lurid L.A. lore. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the inevitable longing evoked by the place where I was once young.
Or maybe the nerve-stretching menace of the Santa Ana Winds gets into your marrow and your blood and infects you with a recurring fever that you never really shake. I think I’m going with that. I bet that my fellow Angeleno refugee Tom Russell — and Joan Didion — will agree.
“Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse…the unpredictability of the Santa Ana’s affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
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For a dive into the wickedness of mid-20th Century L.A. it’s hard to beat the novels of James Ellroy, especially his LA Quartet. It’s frontier crime and justice, just with a legally codified, societally accepted veneer. Highly recommended.
Jim Cornelius says
Right there with you on Ellroy. LA Confidential is on my list of all-time great novels.
I know how you feel except for a different part of the country. For California I was a stranger in a strange land for 30 years. I was not a beach person, I could count on one hand the number of times I went to the beach for anything other to then to arrest a hobo. The “No life east of I5 ” mentality made me wretch.
For me it was the equally long gone era of the Borscht Belt in the Catskills of New York where the upscale hotels would attract entertainers like Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. Every Friday all the Lincoln Continentals and Cadillac Sevilles would drive northbound on Rte 17 from New York City in what us locals would refer to as the Hasidic 500. (Think of Dirty Dancing)
The part I wouldn’t figure out for many years were all the well-dressed Italian men in the local Italian restaurants. There were more of those restaurants then there are Starbucks. The New York mafioso would use the Catskills as their neutral meeting ground. Occasionally they would find a body buried in a shallow grave and the wise guys would send their kids to camps in the area during the summer. Kind of a New York-New Jersey fresh air farm for up-and-coming mini mafiosa. You could always find a connection to the families in every town because every town had their Italian section along with the Irish ward. of course in the 70s the Irish were busy collecting money and guns for the fight and Ireland.
In the 80s when New York City was busy gentrifying the Bronx and Brooklyn, all the riffraff were forced north to lay waste to all the pleasant towns and villages. Now those towns and villages are being re-gentrified by vegans in search of a place to forest bathe and now no one can afford to live there.
I can’t imagine what my kids will consider nostalgia when they are my age. Maybe Internet gaming with actual humans instead of AIs. Thanks for this. Got me thinking in the good direction.
Jim Cornelius says
Appreciate it Jim.
The Davy Brown story is fascinating. He seems to be a dark character.
When I think of L.A. I tend to think of Private Eye novels like Chandler. There is some thoughts that the trope of the Private Eye is descended from the trope of the lone Cowboy/Frontiersman. Being the then modern Urban equivalent.
Paul McNamee says
As an Easterner, I find L.A. firmly to be in my “interesting place to visit, would not want to live there” column. But, I’m not a city / urban sprawl person either, so my attitude might not have quite so much to do with being from the East.
Rick Schwertfeger says
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a great movie!
2. Russell’s Santa Ana Winds is a great song!
3. L.A. Woman is a great song!
L.A.: Actually only been there a few times, and never for more than a few days. Flew in there once on a commuter plane from Santa Barbara — and seeing the massive city from a low altitude was mesmerizing. My desire for cities diminishes almost daily as my home city for the last thirty years experiences cancerous growth and devolution simultaneously. But, pending the effects of the corona virus, the plan is to drive from San Diego to Ventura in August. Will try not to stop for a visit with the Angels.
Jim Cornelius says
You would dig Eternity Street though. Quarantine read.
Traven Torsvan says
What do you think is the reason California has been the home of “alternative” religion both benign and sinister the same way upstate New York has been the home of channelers and mediums and New England the home of New Thought?
Jim Cornelius says
Interesting question. I’ll have to ponder it a bit. Why do “hubs” get created in certain spots?
This is almost like explaining police-work to non-sworn my friend, you nailed it! Have to have been there and you can tell who has, by the responses given. This (below) is spot on.
March 12, 2020 at 7:56 am
I know how you feel except for a different part of the country. For California I was a stranger in a strange land for 30 years. I was not a beach person, I could count on one hand the number of times I went to the beach for anything other to then to arrest a hobo. The “No life east of I5 ” mentality made me wretch.”
From the late 70’s until I left for the central valley in the 80’s, I was a south coast skateboarding, surfing, mostly uncomfortable working class kid in a high-rent, increasingly disconnected culture. I even graced the pages of Thrasher Magazine’s local scene portion, skating old swimming pools and closed skate-parks. I was down for the culture as a kid and it was a blast, family issues and all. There were lots of great things and I am still grateful for growing up in Goleta back then. Looks nothing like that now. Makes me sad mostly to visit these days, which I did over the course of a week on my bike before I left for good.
In hindsight, I understand why I was always heading for the hills. I remember being 13 years old; hiking into the foothills for two days with three friends and stumbling into Regan’s ranch. We were roused from our tents by armed military personnel the following morning, searched and told to leave. Don’t know who it was to this day. Spent my adult years on my bike in the front country, or the Sequoias outside of Visalia trying to catch my collective breath.
Looking back and in taking to other locals, many of us never fit in and there was alway an unsettling undercurrent of something not totally describable, on the coast. I stopped trying to sort it years ago — but it’s a thing. There were moments as an adult, especially returning as a cop that were right out of the the Movie “Lords of Dogtown.” Not all of us made it out alive and a good number wound up with CDC numbers as parolee and probationers. I couldn’t work local narc ops because of it.
Everyone’s story is personal and the surreal is not exclusive to California. It is an unusual place to grow up however and the the 70–80’s were different. Not better or worse, but coupled with the California element and perhaps historical strongholds (bondages?) definitely unique. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a blast and solid work by both leading characters. It brought back some unexpected childhood memories actually.
Great piece Sir, fun to reflect!
Jim Cornelius says
Thanks TJ. Glad it resonated.
Breaker Morant says
As he is never far from my mind, the first thing that popped into my mind when I read this is how much of a LA Basin guy, Frederick Russell Burnham was. Just looked it up and his final, and lasting fortune was made on oil wells 12 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
lane batot says
This piece made my heart swell and sent me into a pondering mode on many levels. The mystery of LIFE, verily involved with this! I think ALL places on earth have a secret spiritual pull, and we more naturally pick up on it as youngsters than as cynical, pre-occupied adults. Since the earth is a globe, ANYWHERE can be “the center of the earth”, as the Native Americans so frequently state about their homelands.…. I have a peripheral connection to Los Angeles myself–I was born there. My father got a job there through the military after World War 2–a common reason many immigrated to that desert valley. My ma was from the South(North Georgia/New Echota Cherokee country!), and she quickly grew homesick for the South. That combined with the fact that neither of my parents wanted their kids raised in L. A.(for various reasons) had them pack up and move to Piedmont North Carolina when I was only two years old. I have very vague memories of the place(more on that in a bit)–more like ephemeral dreams than something I actually experienced. But rather haunting.….My older brother, who was six at the time, has much clearer , fonder memories of the place. However, I quickly re-adapted to the forests of the Southeast(and later yet the Appalachians),and this truly became MY “center-of-the-earth”. Despite traveling to some marvelous places on this planet over the years, I am always soon homesick for “my territory”.…Yet where I grew up no longer exists as I knew it. The forests and fields and farmland are ALL GONE–replaced by “progress”–housing development after housing development, condominiums, a golf course, a landfill, a sewage plant, several shopping centers. Yet I still feel the pull of the magical spirit of the place I absorbed as a youngster, and can remember in rich detail how it all used to be.…Lucklily, at least, I’ve found other forested “territories” not completely disrupted in my beloved South.…Some years ago, when I turned 52, I got to go back to L. A. on an all expense paid trip to the 200th anniversary of Edgar Rice Burrough’s writing his first Tarzan novel, as well as beginning his Mars series(only in L. A., right?)–half a century since I last saw it as a 2 year old! The high, dry desert hills around the city IMMEDIATELY evoked my dim memories of such–a really strange feeling! Everything else was foreign and exotic–I was truly a fish out of water! I had a chauffeur drive me from the airport to my convention sight–we got in a massive traffic jam on the way–something I’ve never experienced before–and my driver was apologizing profusely over and over, but I checked him–“NO, don’t apologize–this is neat as heck!” The tenseness with the driver melted somewhat after that, and he began to be entertained by my backwoods mentality, I think–looking with wonder and amazement at everything around me. And the traffic jam just let me observe my surroundings in all the more detail! Anyway, a fascinating one weekend trip, but I was MORE THAN READY to return to my own, real, “center-of-the-earth”, where the birds and other animals, the wind and the sun and the moon, and the earth HERE know me well.….
John M Roberts says
Damn. That picture of Davy Brown would be perfect except for one thing — the cartridge loops on his gunbelt. Brown flourished well before the cartridge era. Sigh.
I remember L.A./Pasadena from the ’50s. For kids, Pasadena in that era was an earthly paradise, at least if you were white and middle-class, as I was. And the ’50s were the best years ever to be a kid in America. Now, as a (very senior) adult, I still love L.A. for its history, its beauty and horror. There is no other city like it in the world. Incidentally, there is a strong likelihood that I attended the same showing of the Kirk Douglas-Tony Curtis film “The Vikings” (1958) at the Pantages Theater that James Ellroy and his father attended on the weekend Ellroy’s mother was murdered. He was his father’s alibi for that weekend. L.A. noir, indeed.