'You will hate Los Angeles.'
That's what English people said to me when they heard I was heading west, to the land of low-fat milk and sugar-free honey. You'll hate it, and be back in a week.
Some of them, I suspect, were showing off their worldliness. They'd been to Los Angeles many times, seen through its glitter, tired of its ways. Others inflected their prediction with a sort of menacing imperative. You WILL hate Los Angeles, if you know what's good for you.
You can see examples of this same imperative all over the British press. Leaf through a colour supplement on any given Sunday, and I guarantee you will find an interview with a young popsy, promoting her latest film, under the headline: ‘She's the toast of Hollywood, but she prefers Hackney!'
Whether the popsy prefers Hackney or not (and they only chose Hackney because of the H — if she were the toast of Los Angeles, she'd prefer Luton, if California, Cardiff — this is all laid out in the Sub-Editor's Handbook, Vol 13), that's what newspapers need to be true. They need, to an often-cringing degree, the approval of Los Angeles, only for the chance to spurn it.
I love you, I hate you: you might call it a mixed message, if the message weren't so unmixed. You're allowed to love Paris, up to a point, New York, more or less, Dublin and Glasgow, definitely, but loving Los Angeles is just plain wrong. Oxymoronic, in fact — if you promise to go easy on the oxy. Los Angeles, and especially the abbreviated LA, has become a byword for the shallow, the ephemeral, the vain — and it is the duty of any right-thinking Englishman, properly cask-aged in rainwater, body dysmorphia and sarcasm, to scorn it. And it's not just the British press who feel this way. The rest of the world, and much of America, treats Los Angeles with the same weird mixture of envy and snobbery — qualities that ought to contradict each other, but somehow never do.
Well, I warn you now, I'm heading in the other direction. I'm sticking up for the beautiful city of Los Angeles. That's right. Beautiful. Never mind the flimsy petrol station architecture — that's nothing but mascara — look at the bone structure underneath. Look at that mountain, look at those trees (thank you Randy Newman), look at the lush, almost-wanton fecundity of the place — although admittedly, the fecundity requires a lot of diverted water. If nature is mother here, then the Colorado River is the absent father. Without it, California reverts to the surface of Mars in about a week. But, thanks to those precious emissions, the desert blooms like nowhere else I've seen. In Los Angeles, watching grass grow is really quite entertaining.
Then there's the odd, particulate nature of the place. Los Angeles' reliance on the car means it simply doesn't cohere the way other cities do. There's no strolling down the street to get a newspaper, raising your hat to the cycling vicar, chatting to Mrs McGillicuddy in the butcher's about her hernia, nipping into the Bull and Lunatic for a half of shandy and a game of darts with the same, familiar crowd (yes, that's an absolutely typical day for me in London). While Parisians ping off each other in social Brownian motion, human contact in LA requires arrangements, forward planning, rendezvous.
If you don't force the pace, it won't force you; which suits some people very well and suits me, as a spectator, down to the ground. A city where the citizens live secret lives — where they aren't having their rougher edges rubbed smooth by constant high-street frottage — encourages an amazing breadth of eccentricity. For every hair-gelled slickster in a BMW trying to get on, fit in, match up, there is a dishevelled, flipflopped Lebowski, walking his monitor lizard at three in the morning. For every blonde, high-bottomed starlet sucking ginger root on her way to yoga, there's a crazed Madame Arcati wearing curtains and offering to read your dog's feet, at four in the morning.
I love this about Los Angeles. I love the hippyness — better still, the collision between hip and yup — all set against the noirish, Philip Marlowe memories of my movie-going youth. (Even now, I challenge you to drive west on Sunset Boulevard, peer in through those mysterious shaded driveways, dripping with jasmine and bougainvillea, and tell me that Norma Desmond doesn't — couldn't — live there.)
Besides its well-exploited movie heritage, the city has plenty of conventional attractions too: museums, galleries, a 100-mile beach, a 100-mile motorcycle ride, coyotes, deer, skunks, possums, rattlesnakes, gangs — blessings almost without number.
And then, as the drowned man said, there's the weather. Great, fat dollops of it. On the eighth day, God reached down and set southern California's thermostat to 'lovely', and he hasn't really touched it since.
Perhaps the weather is at the root of north-European disdain for Los Angeles. Apart from our ingrained Newtonian sense of conserved matter, which tells us that an abundance of one thing must mean a lack of another — or, put another way, a fertile landscape must mean a barren mindscape — we also have our genetic inheritance to contend with. The present-day British are, essentially, descended from those who decided to stick it out in the rain. Unlike the Pilgrim Fathers, the Scots, the Irish, the Italians, Poles, Mexicans etc, who decided they wanted better and climbed into boats to find it, my ancestors said, 'Well, you know, this isn't so bad. Yes, it's cold and wet. Yes, it's only light for a couple of hours a day in the winter. But tomorrow might be super. And besides, boats are horrible things.'
And we all know that when our peers take a different course — when they decide to leave the Church, or join the Church, get married (when we're single) or divorced (when we're married), throw up a promising career to become a poker player — we feel threatened, left behind, betrayed. So it is with the Old World and the New. But tomorrow can be super on both sides of the ocean, and boats are not horrible things, at least not necessarily. If you head south, on the 405, you will come to my own holy place, and the reason for my most recent visit there.
The RMS Queen Mary has been moored at Long Beach since 1967, when her long service came to an end. Built by John Brown & Co, Clydebank, Scotland in 1934, the Queen Mary crossed the Atlantic a thousand or so times before retiring to serve out her days as a hotel. I can still recall the feeling of chagrin when this final chapter was announced — as if the Californians would be bound to dress the old girl up in silly clothes and make her do tricks — but I'm pleased to report that no such thing has happened.
The Queen Mary has been beautifully looked after and is well worth a visit if you are at all interested in ships, hotels, or any object that has been made better than we could possibly make it now. Everywhere you turn, your eye will fall upon a hinge, a bannister, a carved step that will make you wonder whether we even belong to the same species as John Brown and his kind.
But there's a bigger reason for its holiness. It was on the Queen Mary, at a party hosted by Sir Paul McCartney (then a humble mister), that the great Professor Longhair recorded the album that changed my life. Professor Longhair Live on the Queen Mary didn't need no fancy title. It is what it is, and changes who it changes.
It's because of that record that I am now doing what I'm doing — rolling through the night on a bus with a group of musicians, peddling our wares (and some of Professor Longhair's too) from St Petersburg to Santiago. It's an existence I didn't even dare dream of when I was young. But Los Angeles, if it's anything, is a place of reinvention, the edge of a continent, both inner and outer, from which you can step off into a new life and a new way of looking at things. Or, if you prefer, you can decide that your old life was just fine. Either way, you end up better off.
Don't believe what you read in magazines — especially this one.
This article was originally published in September 2013