“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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