Night lifted off of old Hollywood like an enormous stain slowly evaporating, and I saw spectral visions of dead silent-film stars and spent screenwriters and alcoholic casting agents fade into the humped-back hills. Century City appeared in the dirty distance, a glint of the Pacific Ocean just beyond it. I was laid out in my sixth-floor apartment, wanting to expire. I thought of something worse: Was my wife due home from rehab soon? Today?
I never thought it could get so bad. My wife would disappear, sometimes for three nights, before finally returning home, all contrite and beat up. I mean half-dead from shooting drugs in the ugliest corners of East Hollywood and downtown L.A. There’d be odd contusions on her body, puffy needlemarks on her soft skin. I’d flit and fret in sleepless anguish when she’d disappear. I’d be consumed with joy when she’d return. But that happiness was fleeting, pathological somehow, because it was really only relief; relief that this fragile scarecrow of a brilliant and beautiful woman who somehow hated herself as much as I hated myself wasn’t dead and that maybe, one day soon, she’d again be full of life and love and talking incessantly about the small wonders she’d uncover in the unlikeliest places. It was relief from myself too because she was the better half of us, a woman without whom I couldn’t survive.
I pulled myself up and sat on the table. My fingers trembled and stank of diesel fuel. The Alto Nido Apartments filled the kitchen window, a Spanish Colonial jewel whose neon once was a beacon, an old last stop for film-colony proletariat before Hollywood curved up into the hills, up into gated walls that housed debauched gin parties and naked flapper girls. I thought of old Joe Gillis, the failed scriptwriter who lived in the Alto and wound up dead floating facedown in a mansion swimming pool off Sunset Blvd. Was Joe even real? I couldn’t recall.
I’d scored crack a few hours earlier off a one-legged black dude with yellowy eyes. I was out of beer and the liquor stores had closed, which was my worst-ever fear, and I couldn’t withstand another coke crash without some boozy padding.
He stood in the dark, just off the street corner outside of the Alto’s entrance. I approached and said, “Meth or powder?”
The dude reeked of scorched sulfur and misery, and his creviced face glistened in streetlight of grease and sweat. His was dark and narrow, shapeless in a threadbare coat. It was cold out and I shivered. He wasn’t. His one unfilled pant leg flapped in the breeze. A couple more slips and I’ll be right here next to him.
He shook his head and looked away annoyed. Didn’t want me anywhere around him and I didn’t blame him. I might as well have been some desperate asshole agent from Sherman Oaks manning his shiny Audi into shit Hollywood in the wee hours looking to score “some blow, man.” God was I ever aware of my whiteness.
I waited until he nodded and followed him around a corner. He had an air of condescension no different from any of the countless agent, record company, film studio and under-assistant-promo-men that I’d met while living in L.A. He hobbled on that fucked-up crutch with its rotted underarm pad and handgrip and produced a baggy with a dozen or so jagged rocks the exact color of his eyes.
He raised a glass pipe, dropped in a taste, fired it up and placed his cracked lips around the open end and huffed. He managed well enough with shaky hands and I noticed a diamond stud in each of his ears. He pulled the pipe from his mouth, squeezed his eyes shut, tilted his head back and exhaled. Smooth.
He hoisted the pipe toward my face, loaded it and lighted. I sucked. Held it in. Crack. My cardiac muscles fired up like a jumpstarted Chevy; arteries kicked open, blood vessels ballooned. Coughed like a motherfucker and Hollywood went watery and sideways and a choir of punk rock angels slammed my ears. I was the son of Superman.
I pulled all I had from my front pocket; two crumpled tens, and handed them over. He dropped two rocks into my palm and I turned and headed toward my apartment. After a half block I glanced back. Saw a one-legged silhouette in a triangle of streetlight propped up on that warped crutch like some grim Hollywood dream merchant. I hurried home along Franklin Avenue.
I had no pipe because I didn’t smoke this shit. Not ever. So I crushed the little rocks and stuck bits into the head of a Marlboro from a pack my wife stashed in a kitchen drawer. She’d smoke them when we’d climb out through the window onto the fire escape at night to take in the strange beauty of Los Angeles.
The Marlboro crack eased the coke crash and an edgy, skittish sort of relief settled over me. I drifted through the fake French doors that opened to the sky and into the air above Highland Avenue and then up and over Mulholland Drive. Saw a dozen shades in the sky in a cold Los Angeles morning, saw dim stars refract off hillside swimming pools and perfect rows of palm trees stretching skyward as if to glimpse the ocean. Even the palm trees wanted a better life.
The relief was short lived. The full weight of my head dropped into my hands and sickening dread rose in direct proportion to the misery of the rising sun. Then the night came back.
* * * *
The Spent Saints gigged earlier at a packed Bar Deluxe, a shithole on Las Palmas just above Hollywood Blvd, which held, maybe, 300 people. A good crowd was there to see us, including a couple of VP’s from different major record labels. Then Lick Stubinski arrived with an entourage. I caught his entrance just before we went on. The crowd cleared a path for him as he moved through it. It was like he was floating.
Lick is a famous record producer, in the old-school sense. Like Phil Spector he got famous for making records that became famous. He made his name creating brilliant albums that made careers of deserving artists who had something real to say and the passion and ability to say it. It made his own star rise until he was as big as the stars he’d produced, if not bigger. But along the way Lick’s work became all about the money and not the art. Now he’s “The Starmaker,” and with his flowing robe, long pointy beard and affected introspective energy, he moves like he’s some maharaja.
A trusted pal who’d spent months recording with Lick said he’s still just a regular pothead with a predilection for blow and video games, whose massive anal porn collection fills an entire room in his house. There’s your transcendence. I’d heard Lick dug our band.
The record company folk were equally clownish. At least the ones I’d met, especially those older than 35 and still strolling around wearing Converse. It may be an oversimplification but all I saw were guys making bank off songwriters, as if they’d actually written the songs themselves. I saw who counted the money first. I knew music’s heyday was long gone.
Clusters of white scenesters with perfect skin blocked bar lanes and bathrooms. I slid onto a bench in the dressing room and lubed up on Foster’s Lager. Even after a thousand shows I needed to get half-crocked to perform. Half-crocked I had some confidence and half-crocked was the only way I could get in front of people. Booze turned onlookers into faceless smears on the periphery, blurred connections that made expressions unreadable. The breathless melody, energy, rhythm and sexual tension in the music become the universe and you’re its center. In your mind that’s huge responsibility and one slip into a self-conscious moment, like, say, realizing your zipper’s been down for an entire song, and it’s all over. It’s narcissistic as hell too because amped-up self-hatred produces the kind of attention whoring that can’t be duplicated in daily life, or, really, in any other profession. The biggest self-centered pieces of shit are always found in the arts, especially in the performance kind. But all of that wanes when everything is on, and in that extraordinary instance, fronting a great rock & roll band is better than anything.
As a band we were either great or god-awful. You’re not worth a drop of beer in the hell of your own failing ambition when you’re awful. Most often it’s like that, an idiot train of miscues and overly enthusiastic drinking and self-mockery, and you long for an enormous hook to appear from stage left to yank you from your misery, which means there’s never a reason to show your face in a venue afterward. When the band was great it was wingless flight. That’s the drug-like feeling you chase.
And none of us were great musicians, but we played off of each other, sometimes grasped for dear musical life off each other. And we internalized each other’s obsessions and turmoils, and so the music came out fully formed. That’s what made us a band. That’s what makes any band a band. It was about the sum of each of our five personal experiences dovetailing inside of our own created mutual experience. When it worked it was pure magic. Everything else, if ever there was an anything else – money, fame, and ill-advised careerist aspirations – was merely a distant by-product of those aggregated experiences.
Against a backdrop of power chords and three-minute shout-alongs, inspired by a decidedly non-Catholic collection of music, I strutted, leapt, shouted and shook the hips, a purely subconscious dictation of movement inspired equally by the wallop behind me and boyhood idols Jagger, Alice and Rotten, in service to a personal god who’s a trashy mix of some carnival barker on speed and Nike of Samothrace. My four bandmates participated fully in the rock-show pageantry, ducked and side-kicked out of my way, and a kohl-eyed sea of raven-headed bodies crammed to the front of the stage.
We finished in an ear-ringing, two-encore mess of aching wet limbs, rumpled fringes and split creepers. It was a rare show because it felt right, felt intemperate and wholly unrestrained. I exited the stage floating on endorphins and went straight for the beer because, of course, there’s nothing like feeling great to make you want to feel greater. As I neared the dressing room, strangers swarmed, faces beamed, and palms slapped my back; new fans who’d purchased CDs from our merch table wanted me to sign them. This center-of-the-universe thing wasn’t me; I wanted the attention but when it finally arrived I couldn’t do it.
Fortunately I was hammered and happy. For a fleeting moment I felt deserving, which I knew was facile. Flattery only sets you up for mad-dash despair and, ultimately, for me, more reason to anesthetize myself.
Two beautiful women glanced at me while talking to each other, as if I were subject of their conversation. Noticed them earlier because no one can ignore perfected Southern California bloodlines. They’re superhuman. The dusty blonde wore hip-huggers and boots and had arched brows and a sullied innocence like Marianne Faithful in 1967, and the other, with ombre hair and winged eyeliner, was wholly unapproachable. They filled my head and heart with longing. In my eyes they each offered rectitude, a salvation, and some kind of enlightenment. Then reality descended and I reminded myself that I was at best a scaled-down repro of a person who such women really want – I’m not confident or fearless or a famous earner or some androgynous smartass or half interesting, or any of that. I was too afraid to talk to either of them. And I had a wife in rehab.
Some eager band readied the stage to perform and the club emptied. My guys and a couple of tubby roadies, Mac and Cheese, loaded the gear into the van and headed off to our Eagle Rock rehearsal space to unload. I was about to hit Mac and Cheese up for a lift home, but decided to hoof it. I dug walking Hollywood midnights because it’s strangely peaceful if you’re off the boulevards. You don’t get hassled like you do in the daylight. I was more at home around the trannies and drunks and street urchins and ghosts and corner dealers than club kids and rock-show attendees, most of whom never drank well, owned alarm-beeping cars and lived buffered lives on untold money streams. I preferred the brown, beat up neighborhoods.
As I was about to leave, a nose-high thin guy wearing Buddy Holly specs approached and pulled me aside. No handshake, no introduction. He wore a high-collar pink shirt and slim-cut suit, with close-cropped, bleach-blonde hair. Moved with that West L.A. affect, an air of self-importance and push-tit confidence. Was there a bar somewhere in this city where people go and get drunk on self-belief, on impudence? If so, that’s where I wanted to be, nightly. I actually liked his suit.
“Lick Stubinski saw your show,” he said.
“Yeah, I saw him,” I said. “And you are?”
“Dante, Lick’s assistant.”
A famous person’s assistant is famous too, especially one called “Dante.” I always forgot that about L.A. But you’re always reminded when you meet so-and-so’s assistant – their faces show total indifference toward you while they walk around as if they have knowledge of something important that you don’t.
I said, “Yeah, I saw Lick. He kinda floats in and hovers, huh?”
Dante didn’t respond. His eyes shifted to Lila, who is Towner’s drop-dead lovely girlfriend. Towner is one of two Spent Saints’ guitarists. Lila and Towner were pretty much joined at the hip.
I motioned to Lila, said, “Dude. Her boyfriend’s right behind you.”
Dante looked at me blankly and pushed a show flyer into my hand with an address scrawled on back, a place in the hills. “Lick would like it if you and that skinny guitarist would come up to his house tonight. He can bring his girlfriend. Don’t invite anyone and don’t let anyone ever have that address.”
I shoved the flyer into my pocket, snapped open a fresh oilcan of beer and drained a good third in one swig. I burped, and said, “OK, dude. My name’s Jabas Grayling, by the way.”
Dante nodded once with eyebrows raised and turned and walked away.
Fifteen minutes later, me, Towner and Lila were in her Honda rolling toward Beverly Hills. I had the whole backseat and Lila had the wheel. Towner and me worked our beers.
It irritated us that Lila kept her radio tuned to KROQ, but the station played one of a few good songs from the 1980s, a timely concoction of sad drone and lilting power pop called “Heaven.” It pumped the rear woofers and Southern California rushed through open windows into my face and created an almost palpable melancholy that resonated deep into the core of my being. Its melody rose and the alcohol and endorphins worked their magic against the hazy night. I took in sweet orange and jasmine blossoms. I took in the muted streetlight halos that rose unevenly up the hills on winding roads into the black, into my imagined heaven of the dead, and Dennis Wilson and Ramon Navarro and old Buk and creepy Manson girls and Rock ’n’ Roll High School crammed all corners of my skull. The Honda rose up the Hollywood Freeway, heading northwest over Cahuenga Pass, and the hills behind us closed down the cheaply jeweled lights of old Hollywood.
We soon eased off the 101 on to Ventura Blvd and turned south up Beverly Glen. We crossed Mulholland, the back way into Benedict Canyon where Lick’s house was located.
* * * *
What I’d heard about Lick Stubinski is he never got angry, ever. Not at anyone. Not at his cook, not at a singer who couldn’t hack it the studio, and not at girlfriends, assistants, leeches, and so on. Stayed calm at all times. I had also heard that he was, as they say in L.A., “deep as shit.”
By 1 a.m. I was sitting beside Towner and Lila sucking pharmaceutical grade lines off a low-rising wrought-iron table of thick beveled glass, our asses planted on big tasseled floor pillows. The table could seat maybe a dozen people and had a sizable vase holding as many fresh purple orchids. The room opened to an outdoor poolside pavilion and garden and 180-degree views of L.A.
Lick’s sprawling crib was white washed and wood beamed and Asian rugged, as if plucked from Spain’s Mediterranean coast in some other century and placed atop a snaking road in Beverly Hills. The producer really was just a tourist here and everything built into the house had a story written long before he was born, even the elaborate butterfly mosaics patterned into vast imported floors, the frescos, and the built-in floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookshelves, which Lick had filled with vintage tomes dealing in metaphysics, and Hindi linguistics, and Buddhism.
The house allowed you to look down on a world of privilege splayed out at your feet, a house where only stars go higher. It had to rub off. We’ll never know Lick’s kind of wealth but I guessed it easily transcended any misery his own guilt could ever whip up.
Two dude assistants – Dante and some other stiff shirt – moved in and out of the room from an office located down a long arched hallway. They moved as if adhering to instructions from Lick that only they could hear. A handful of women, all prepossessing in a kind of hill-country porno way, drifted in the periphery and out on the terrace. Heard someone say they danced at Crazy Girls. I recognized one from porn, a Dumb Angel contract girl, the very one who quietly got busted because she handed parental duties of her two toddlers over to the female head of a porn production company — no need for complicated adoption papers or intrusive screenings to safeguard against shitty parenting. I guessed her children got in the way of how famous she was thought she was going to be. The state eventually found out about the cheap and dirty adoption and fostered the kids out.
Spotted a pair of bloated, ’80s hair-metal stars with unfortunate receding hairlines (ouch), no doubt hoping that if they loitered long enough, Lick would magically restore their careers to stadium status. A goofy white rapper bounced around the place, had an unsettling squirrely energy.
Towner recognized him. “That’s that rapper from Detroit.”
“Chainsaw?” I said. “Funny. Doesn’t look like he’s from Detroit.”
“Says he is.”
“Whatever,” I said. “You know Chainsaw’s whole shtick is pure marketing spin for street cred. You can tell he’s not a real Detroiter. His energy’s too suburban – he’s too loud and self-entitled, too soft and white.”
“True,” Towner said. “It’s no wonder he’s about to break huge in America.”
We watched Chainsaw. Watched him engage in conversation with a couple of girls and we heard bits and pieces of his nasally, practiced city slang, which sounded like a cockatoo swearing in different languages. Chainsaw had two stoic, burly bodyguards. Each dripped of menace. Those two looked Detroit.
I pointed to Chainsaw and leaned in to Towner and said, “It’s always the white guys ripping off black music who get the fame and fortune.”
I said, “R&B, soul, rock & roll, reggae, rap … It’s always been that way.”
“Pretty much,” Towner said. “Look at Arthur Alexander. Covered by fourteen of the best white guys in pop history – The Beatles, Stones, Elvis, Dylan and the Bee Gees, and he wound up driving a bus for a living.”
“That’s my point,” I said. “Makes what we do seem pretty damn insignificant, huh?”
Towner half-laughed, punctuated a shrug with a slug of beer.
* * * *
Lick made his entrance. He was barefoot wearing a gut-accenting crimson dhoti different from the one he wore at the venue. He carried a spliff, a velvet pouch and a bottle of something expensive. He placed the bottle on the table – aged cognac – and pulled from the purse a large baggie filled with coke and dumped it out on the dwindling pile in front of us. He prepared another heap on the table’s far side for the others. There wasn’t a soul in the house who missed that move. He then sat cross-legged on a pillow beside me, opened the cognac, poured into two glasses on the table, lighted and hit the massive blunt, turned to me, extended the weed, exhaled, winked and said, “Hey Spent Saint, help yourself.”
I said, “Dude, thanks. But got any beer?”
Lick motioned Dante over, ordered beer and dismissed him with a patronizing Sufi sleight-of-hand. I almost felt sorry for Dante as I watched him trot off to the kitchen.
“Whatever you want,” Lick said, “he’ll get for you.”
Dante returned with a bucket of iced Heinekens and an opener and placed them between Towner and me. Towner dug in happily and served us.
Lick pointed out two girls in the room, said, “Those chicks? Don’t talk to them.” The way he called them his “chicks” sounded like he’d made them into handy little caricatures — comely walkons to serve the ever-erudite and intellectualizing producer. Then he crouched over the table, vacuumed a rail into his right nostril, closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He bounced his forefinger off the glass, said with watery eyes and a throaty exhale, “This table belonged to John Gilbert. Dude got 20,000 fan letters a week – until the talkies came in. They said his voice was too funny-sounding for stardom.”
“Like mine,” I said.
Lick sat back, continued: “His career was over. Just like that.”
The beard gave Lick an Appalachian face and his lips looked like bubblegum stuck to the ass of a sheep dog, pink and puffy and strangely feminine. His perfectly white (save for one or two capped gold) teeth gnashed together between sentences, sometimes on sentences. Hoped my jaws didn’t look like that. You never can tell with coke this good. He thumbed over his shoulder, added, “Gilbert’s place was a couple blocks away from here.”
I went down for another line. No burn. Pure. Great shit. Sparklehorse sounded godlike on the stereo.
Blow is in my experience a drug carried strictly by douchebags who dole it out to you because they think you’re something worth a shit. You’re not. And they’re not. It’s a circle jerk.
“He drank himself to death before he was 40,” I said. “Gilbert. At one point he had it all.”
Lick nodded. “That’s right. Set for life. He probably had a harem and all the opium, cocaine, cash and top-shelf booze you could ever wish for. The decadence.”
“Not such a bad way to go,” I said.
I thought of old John Gilbert, matinee star. Dumped by the movie studio, dumped by Greta Garbo, dumped by millions of fans. Hammered, heartbroken, alone up in these hills. No wonder he fell over dead at 38.
Heavy arched doors with gate-latch handles had opened to the veranda and I swore I felt the ghosts of famous Hollywood drunks out there rustling in the brush and trees and hanging around homes that haven’t yet been torn down and replaced by cheese-whiz clapboard mansions cut into hillsides that teen stars pay $20 mil for. Legendary alchy Alice Cooper once had a place near here too, up where film star John Barrymore drank himself to death decades earlier. Somehow Cooper had survived, had come back, unlike Gilbert, at 38. Valentino lived up around the bend.
“Nobody knows who the fuck Gilbert was,” Lick added. “You’re the only person I’ve ever met who does.”
“This town was heroic once,” I said.
“Fuck, still is,’ Lick ventured. “It’s fucking amazing. You just need to know how to win.”
I hated people who talked of life and existence in terms of winning and losing, especially one who when sober espouses in interviews to be an interpreter, and fervent practitioner of Eastern Philosophies and living a “peaceful existence.”
Lick had one of those stereos that costs as much as a house. His listening choices, conversely, steeply contradicted his the sound and feel of his more recent production choices: Before Sparklehorse we heard some James Carr and Townes Van Zandt, all pumped through two enormous tube amplifiers and six-foot speakers so thin they resembled freestanding minimalist wall art.
“Listen,” Lick said, “we need talk about the Spent Saints songs.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Really?”
Towner and Lila had stepped out to the veranda to smoke cigarettes. They looked good together, like a real couple. Lila had been for a few years indulging Towner’s inner rock & roll, but she was really into getting a house and having a baby, and then maybe another, with Towner. I understood what she saw in him. He was sweetness personified, and beautiful, like, as Lila once pointed out to me, Donatello’s second statue of David; he was all hope and dreams not yet wasted on a festering alcohol addiction. Poor Lila couldn’t even imagine the pain heading her way.
“Look, man, just because a song is done does not mean it’s finished,” Lick said. “And what’s with all this feminine shit? You guys are a fucking rock & roll band.” His brow furrowed, and he said, “There will be no faggy fake poets in my studio.”
Lick could talk. I noticed right away that his verbiage trampled over the best songs that played. He showed zero responsiveness each time some stunner flowed from the speakers. I don’t trust people who don’t hear that stuff, who miss those moments that summon that place inside of you where sadness and wonder cut to the very heart of your existence; those rare songs that paralyze you in your tracks no matter where you are when you hear them.
Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” came on and that familiar, sourceless ache rose up inside. Lick yakked and I watched his jaws work and that knotted hemp necklace bounce along in time just under his Adam’s apple, and I knew in that moment that nothing could ever ever come from Lick’s mouth, or anyone’s mouth, that could better the chorus on “Out on the Weekend.”
But Lick kept yammering. “… We need to get the balls in there, man. …”
When I think of, say, “Out on the Weekend,” “balls” is the furthest thing from my mind. When the song ended I asked Lick straight up if he really wanted to “produce” us?
“Why else would you be sitting my house if I wasn’t planning on producing you?”
His eyes were too close together and then too close to mine. I examined the dark gray speckles that floated around his cocaine-expanded pupils. And his hair was fading Biblical, all middle-aged thin and graying above the temples and forehead. I knew that if this guy produced us we’d be on our way as a band.
I looked through the open doors and saw Lila and Towner outside on the veranda. Towner was pointing out stars for her.
“Get ready,” Lick said. “You guys are going to be huge.”
Lick got up and excused himself to piss as Curtis Mayfield’s “Wild and Free” came on. Something swelled inside of me again and I had this image of the Spent Saints on a trajectory of fame, the kind of fame that could cancel out hopelessness, the kind that sanctified childhood dreams of rock & roll stardom and could elevate the soul to some transcendent plane of reality. I felt untouchable. The world around me was in servitude to the song, and to my personal elation. Then came the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” an emotional chestnut to even the long-dead ghosts of these hills.
Lick returned, snorted a massive line and yakked right over “Moonlight Mile.” “I’m tellin’ you, man – You guys have it all, the sexuality, the songs, the hooks, the commitment.” His slight Jersey honk, which couldn’t be smoothed out even with obvious speech coaching, got worse the more coke he snorted. “Some melodies sound too sissy. We can easily correct that. And toughen you up, and …”
I cut in. “It’s all feel, man. That’s all that is. Gives me the goosebumps. It sounds corny but we need to find some grace in the center of things. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“You need balls,” he said.
Even coked out, attempting to explain songs to a producer hailed as genius for once creating brilliance but who lately has been producing what I considered to be some of the shittiest rock and rap on earth was like, as Billy Bragg famously said a long time ago, talking poetry to the taxman.
I realized that music for Lick is the antithesis of artisanal; it’s mechanical, an assembled means to an end, service music with a fat paycheck attached. Merely fist-jacking refrains for boys, and the young girls with them who haven’t yet found a place in the world. A new Lick-produced song is a moment squashed into a box and played back while the listener’s doing something else that requires real attention. Lick’s a producer but he no longer gets music.
I looked around at the books, and the house, and the people and realized it was all show — props in Lick’s lavish universe of pseudo-connoisseurship and spiritual transcendence, an extension of a world so easy and vacuous that he rose to king status simply by embracing and selling the falseness of it all through pre-packaged music. It’s spiritual Auto-Tune. Lick became a casualty of his own self-realization. He was brilliant and poor now he’s awful and rich. He began to fancy himself a shaman producer and so, therefore, after a run of unlistenable gazillion-sellers, that’s what he became. There was no need for any real context or deeper dimensions of experience. He named it and claimed it. Welcome to the modern world.
I realized too that if Lick produced Spent Saints we’d lose whatever integrity we had. I was once a major fan his productions, how he could distill a song to its essential essence while exposing the artist’s greatness. I wanted that Lick, the one from a decade prior.
Lila and Towner returned to their pillows and we all huffed up more lines. The coke felt great and our hearts raced and the horseshit really began to burp out. When talk switched from organic gardening to pop-up religions, Lila, whose manner and expression turned more serious, and almost vicious-eyed, the higher she got, as if every word she uttered carried real weight, said, “Look, we’re all a bunch of self-entitled assholes, right? Our histories are in dark arts and pandemic made-up religions, right? …”
I had to cringe but I hated to. Lila’s hands under the table were opening and closing quickly, involuntarily, and her knees were bouncing a mile a minute. No matter how high you get, or what kind of a coked-out asshole you are, it’s never easy to watch a bright and beautiful woman make a cocaine ass of herself.
“… Right, right, right,” Towner chimed in. “And a thousand years ago Charlie Manson would’ve had his own religion and empire with a huge harem, just another insane warlord king running Europe, challenging European slaves to rise to challenge the Muslims and to free their slaves. …”
My eyes darted uncontrollably, every facet of existence was a living breathing thing: Books, chairs, tapestries, rugs, candles, songs, faces, windows, art, Lila, Towner, Lick, strippers, Chainsaw, all of it.
And all of it conspired against me. Shit was closing in.
Lick interrupted, “Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s house was just around the corner where Manson’s gang slaughtered Tate and man-hair star Jay Sebring and others back in the summer of ’69. You think that was an accident? Manson had the gift to sway the chicks. You gotta give him that. He could’ve been a rock star in those days. People tried to help him get a record deal, and some rock stars, still, will never admit to helping him out. They saw how Manson had the rock & roll formula down: You get the chicks and the dudes show up for the action. One member of, I think, the Beach Boys – Brian Wilson – tried hard to help him, recorded one his songs, and the Manson clan sponged off him at his house … “
I butted in. “Nope, It was Dennis Wilson.”
“Right,” he said. “Whatever.”
“How could you of all people get that one wrong?” I said.
I shook my head, looked away, and the mind drifted. I pictured this house, and the rest of Beverly Hills, catching fire and sliding down the hill and melting into the Pacific Ocean.
I focused on a woman across the room. She sat on a red velvet throne-type chair in front of the picture window. Bone thin in fuck-me heels. Every 15 minutes or so she’d step over for a line, her thinning blond locks thickened with poorly hidden weaves falling over the top of her head onto the pile of coke. Stainless-steel coke snorter gripped by bony fingers, heliotrope veins snaking up the back of her hands. She closed her left nostril with her left forefinger and vacuumed a line into her right nostril, and then quickly switched nostrils and did the same. Then she flipped her head and hair back, squeezed her nostrils shut with two fingers and held that pose for too long. No one noticed her. I did. She had chemically enhanced lips and cheekbones, lifted eyes, wildly age-inappropriate hip-huggers and a wrist tattoo of barbed wire with dangling hearts. She wore a black sheer top under a too-new biker jacket, her silicon tits sat high and shelved. She paid too much attention to her body too late in life. A cocaine-defiant dusk of uncontrollable sadness fell over me.
Then I recognized her. Sure, it was what’s-her-name, TV star from the ’80s. I elbowed Towner, nodded at the woman. “Dude, is that what’s-her-name … ?”
Towner was fast with useless pop culture. He looked at me, her.
“Jesus, that is,” Towner said. “That’s Bebe Hailey, Playboy playmate, huge TV star in the late ’70s, ’80s. God. What happened to her?”
“Vanity ate her alive,” I said.
At some point Bebe Hailey became a mockery of herself, a bit player in the Hollywood narrative of obsolescence. Reclined on that antiquated sitter, framed by Beverly Hills in the window, she was lost, broken. I fought off images of our own future lives, the disconnections, sadnesses, and agonies. This is where it all leads.
Lick continued to go off the Beach Boys. His words made me tighten inside. Then all senses busted open. I said, “You’re a fuckin’ producer and you dismiss the Beach Boys? Don’t even know Dennis from Brian? That makes you an asshole on two counts: One, you’re a self-aggrandizing shill for the record companies, and this whole fucking town, and, two, you don’t know the band that defined California culture, from the beaches to the hills to the underbelly of the Manson era to your very own transcendental meditation …. Unfuckingbelivable …”
Towner and Lila dropped jaws. Towner leaned in to me, said, “Jabas, fuckin’ chill. You’re gonna blow it.”
I paused and glanced out at the city far below. “Blow what? Fuck this pompous dipshit.”
Lick erupted. “Because I hate the fuckin’ Beach Boys?”
I turned to Lick. “Pretty much,” I said. I was just being a coked-out asshole.
He began shouting. “Who the fuck are you? You should be grateful to be in my house, in my presence, drinking my alcohol. You are here for my amusement, not the other way around, asshole. Whatever flaws you see in me are only a projection of you; you’re showing yourself who you are. You need to accept that and put your ego away. …” Lick actually shouted that. Towner and I looked at each other at the same time.
Others turned to see the action. I zeroed in on the coke suet and sweat on Lick’s neck and forehead. It’s the same shiny grease you see on tubby faces of fast food employees.
“Fuck you, and fuck the Beach Boys,” Lick shouted.
Right then a select 4 a.m. crew arrived. Doll parts in designer labels on arms of millionaire fake punk rockers, another famous rapper and entourage. Lick left the table in disgust and stammered out onto the deck, down beyond the long swimming pool and looked out over layered valleys below, Brentwood and Santa Monica to the right, Beverly Hills down the middle. His two girls followed him out.
Towner pressed into me, insisted we split. He was right. I knew I’d just blown any chance the Spent Saints had with superstar-maker producer Lick.
Anyway, Lila had work in a few hours. I hurriedly scooped coke from the pile into the show flyer that had Lick’s address on it and folded it into my pocket. As long as I had some reserve I’d be OK. I grabbed the last Heineken and we got out of there. I could feel Dante closing in on us.
We got to the car. The engine kicked over. Wheels spun, and I pressed my hand over the pocket that contained the drugs to protect it.
We zoomed along Mulholland and I ignored the stars and the sweet night blossoms. Towner leaned over the seat, said, “Well, Jabas, that’s that.” We powered up the windows and I broke out the stolen blow. We laughed and talked and shouted our asses off as we rolled down out of the hills snorting up that shit. By the time we pulled in front of my building in Hollywood, the blow was about gone. We snorted the last of it idling in front of my building. No way Lila was getting any sleep before her work shift started. Here come crashes.
* * * *
The squall would stop and then it would start in again.
Screeeeee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-deeeeeee … Like trucks running over kittens. Screeeeee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-deeeeeee, Screeee … It was coming from next door. It pierced the old thick walls of the apartment.
It was my Asian neighbor kid, a guitarist full of amped-up, out-of-time energy. Dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee-dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee … It hit me that the kid was torturing a song I actually recognized from Lick’s beastly catalog of shitty hip hop-metal productions. I couldn’t escape.
But wait, a pickslide …
Knuckles wrapped the front door. Screeeeee dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee-dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee … I looked out at old Hollywood. The ugly sun burned through the two-toned L.A. scuzz. Life. People strode sidewalks with a purpose that I couldn’t begin to understand. Hellbent Harleys with cocked-up pipes spluttered down Wilcox Avenue toward the boulevard, and a car motor turned over repeatedly but wouldn’t start. I squinted the Alto Nido into view, smelled cat piss and diesel fuel. I couldn’t move.
The squall started again. Screeeeee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee-dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee, dweedle-dweedle-dee-de- dweedle-dweedle-dee-dee … Screeeeee … Then it stopped.
Heard bags drop on the hallway floor, some rustling. The doorknob turned, stopped. Locked. Words exchanged, low rumble of a man’s voice, a woman’s.
Heard the sound of keys and one entered the lock. Heard it pop open and could feel the air pressure change in the apartment as the door swung open. My wife was home from rehab, with her dad.
Brian Smith is an award-winning journalist; first as a staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times and then as an editor at Detroit’s Metro Times. He has written for many magazines and alt. weeklies and his fiction has appeared in a variety of places. Before writing fulltime, Smith wrote songs and fronted rock & roll bands and has the albums, songwriting credits and damaged liver to prove it. He lives in Detroit with his girlfriend and his debut collection of stories, The Black Dog, is due out next year.