Going to California.
"Spend my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine
Made up my mind, make a new start
Goin' to California with an achin' in my heart
Someone told me there's a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair" - Going to California, Led Zeppelin (youtube).
This land is great and large, from Washington and Oregon down to California the coast is long and rugged, volcanic and tectonic in origin, most is left to itself. In the north it might rain all the time, the south is all surfing - sees all the sun, San Francisco half way down California is frosty and foggy all summer, nicer though in winter. This is where I am headed to, live a dream and drive to California, go to San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. I have a week before Christina lands there.
So this is Portland, the 25th of October 2010, 5 in the morning, still it pours, it has been pouring for 48 hours non-stop, the forecast is 10 days of rain, I need to move on, rain or shine. I sneak out of town before sunrise, follow the coast, a road paper cup coffee near St. Helens from 7/11, Astoria later is clearer, for moment the Astoria Megler Bridge over the Columbia River mouth can be seen in its full length, from Oregon where I stand to Washington. The cape out there is a useless undertaking given the weather, now I am headed south following the coast. Cannon Beach should be nice, in summer, today such a very windy affair. Before Manzanita I watch the dark rain clouds move in to pound the coast again in all ferociousness.
Night in Manzanita and I settle in the San Dune pub, fall in love with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale while Dana speaks to me and tells me about her quest to find the hidden code of life and death and live the energy that is so strong in Manzanita, yes all the shamans and medicine men of the world come here to "work", she also wants to run for president! While I get drunk the rains outside turn into thunderstorms.
Morning sees no change; this is the 101 Highway south. The beaches and the dunes are not for me, it is either the rain or the sand that hit horizontally. Cape Meares has a lighthouse, deep below is a colony of murres (dive birds that weather the storms on the cliffs), clouds are hanging deep and dark; I can hardly make them out. Later in the day it clears a bit, even later Ocean Side sees some sun, a father and son take a stroll on the beach. Night in Pacific City; Pelican Brew Pub serves a good fish and chips and strong 8% Indian Pelican Ale, I try many of the other award winning brews too, forget about the rains outside, for a while. Another day and still no change, I continue. On Simpson Reef thousands of sea lions howl out onto the ocean. Night I find myself in Bandon, park in front of Masonic Temple, decide to give the brews a miss.
And then I drive into California and have Led Zeppelin on my mind. In Crescent City it pours, it is one of the wettest cities in California, what can I do? I get some info and drive off for my first experience of the famous Coastal Redwoods to the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. These trees are the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth, true giants, the oldest and highest may measure 7-8m in diameter, grow more than 100m high, are 1200-1800 years old, over 2000 years is possible (wiki), truly impressive, they reach heaven or the clouds, reach up to the Gods. Looking up makes dizzy and today gets me lots of rain drops on my face and the lens. As impressed as I am there is hardly a walk I want to do given the rains, decide to stay dry for the night. I drive on and spend night in Eureka, stick to light IPA in the Lost Coast Brewery.
I get a second chance to admire true giants in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, walk around in Rockefeller Forest that contains the largest tract of old-growth redwoods. Miraculously some areas survived the logging industries voracity which lasted well into the 1960s. Near-by I drive up and down what is called Avenue of the Giants, a scenic highway, the giants rise left and right of the road, the van next to them looks like a matchbox car.
I leave the 101 Highway, switch to coastal number 1, when I hit the coast late in the afternoon all is still foggy but there is light shimmering through. I drive on till late at night. Morning is the 30th of October. San Francisco must be near.
Approaching by coastal routes from the north all goes quickly, I spend my last 40 dollars on gas, eventually Highway One merges onto Freeway One, then it is through a tunnel and there she is, the mother of all bridges and a lifetime wait to see Golden Gate Bridge comes to end. She greets me with a drizzle and quickly waves a curtain of fog in front.
When I drive onto Golden Gate Bridge I have my premonitions, I would not be able to pay the toll, my cash I had spent on fuel; only dreamers could think they (the government) would be so advanced and take credit cards in a country where average Joe pays his 3.20 dollar morning latte with plastic. N.B. 20110129: I still have not received a ticket; how can I when I don’t have a real address in the States.
I get through town and meet Sara, photographer who I had met in Egypt 10 months earlier. She takes me round Berkley also the trash art sights of Albany Bulb a landfill. At night we have some IPAs in a local pub where stupidly dressed people in carnival costumes hang around quiet bored, this is Halloween, this is as much as Halloween hysteria hits me and this is good, I am tired.
Christina about to come and the forecast have switched to 10 days of sunshine. Sun blinds when I make my way back over congested Bay Bridge, have some dollars for the toll in my pocket. Back to San Francisco I find the southern lookout onto Golden Gate Bridge. This is called Lands End, there is a labyrinth laid out of pebbles, sun sets throwing long shadows, it feels good. Christina comes, flies in from Rome, this is the 1st of November; together we drive south and the sun travels with us.
California coast, sunshine and waves.
We spent night near Pigeon Point lighthouse (hostel), sun rises, a mellow, a sweet morning, over night huge waves started to pound the cliffs. The head of a sea lion pops up in the white spume. We drive south, Santa Cruz is hot but dead, the beach is a pretty rundown amusement park good for the history museum, Monterey is home to Cannery Row Breweries; the adjacent pub has more than 70 brews on tab, impressive. At dawn the coastal pounding has increased; the spray diffuses the sight as big 30-40ft tsunami like swells crush onto the rocks. Where are the sea lions?
Elephant Seals of San Simeon.
We would not find Sea Lions but Sea Elephants. A stretch of coast is home to some 15000, they come year by year to breed. The ones around when we pass, early November are mostly young males, who would part for the ocean before, the females’ and later the adult huge alpha males’ arrival. Friends of the Elephant Seal.
We carry on to San Luis Obispo, spend two nights, then to Santa Barbara, where we watch a great many bands in some clubs on State Street. The New Noise Music Conference and Festival is on.
Santa Monica, this is LA.
And then we enter Los Angeles, park up in Santa Monica and go down to Venice Beach to see the clowns, cons, tourists and medical marijuana doctors. A Chinese style burrito for 5 in some fast food corner stall is subsequently washed down with a Sierra Nevada Lager in the beach pub to the sounds of some in your teeth classic rock from Susie Q to Come Together to Sympathy for the Devil. 'Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name'. Warm sun sets while thousands of birds circle the beach area in front, the straight rock hammers in the back. Let’s have another Sierra Nevada Lager then. 'Tell me baby, what's my name. Ooo, who'.
After dark we crash the venues of the AFM, American Film Market, in the business for independent motion picture production and distribution - a "truly collaborative process", but there is really nothing for us, no free drinks, nothing. So we head for Santa Monica Pier, then Boulevard and the pedestrian zone on 3rd street for the good the bad and the ugly street music, later we head for a sky bar, later we crash in the van in Santa Monica, this is LA.
Morning a shower in Santa Monica Pools, then we drive Sunset Boulevard, past the Rock venues on Sunset Strip, then Hollywood Boulevard, eventually in Pig and Whistle we relax, I write down the story as I do on so many occations, the story you're reading right now, - but they’d put the time forward, no happy hour yet, the beer is way overpriced. Later hungry to Burger King, Burger King is so good in Europe, they are rebranding themselves in the US as BK, BK-food is so shit in the US, seems you don't get the Burger just the B; I just want to puke! Later we crash in the van in Hollywood, this is LA.
Another day, another drive, back and forward the 20km between Hollywood and Santa Monica. Back in Hollywood, a spicy red Thai curry on Sunset and Gover, then we climb to the most stupid sign with the 9 letters HOLLYWOOD. After we drive south on Vermont, take the 3rd east, Downtown LA looks spooky after dark just before the lights come on. We take the 6th further east, Historic Downtown, eventually a sign says Los Angeles, the glitter has now almost definitely fallen off, but the sign naming the Boulevard indicates we have reached the center after crossing 30km to 40km from Santa Monica, half the city or not even that. Here hundreds of homeless squad on the sidewalks, an uneasy feeling overcomes, it is late and we don’t know where we’re headed to, East LA is said to be not the best part of town, we take the 100 Freeway back to Hollywood.
So we head back to Downtown LA the next morning and it looks great during the day, unlike the spooky nightly impressions the city now reveals its epoch flair, it seems like time in the 1930 suddenly stood still, some blocks, hotels, department stores, theaters, restaurants, have not changed, many though have closed decades ago, some are up and running. We park 9th street somewhere, LA has more ground level parkings than skyscrapers, it’s been like that for decades, it is apparently more profitable to run a ground level car park than develop and rent office space. So we wander around, Historic Core, Theater, Fashion, Gaslight and Jewelry Districts, some morbidity is attached to all of them, the defunct bill boards indicate out of business for decades, one can only guess and feel the past grandeur buried now under the thick layers of dust.
We walk to Chinatown but avoid crossing east beyond Los Angeles Boulevard, the area is home to the homeless. We don’t know whether we’d be welcome there. We come past city hall which is not impressive. Further on there is some church remembering the first Mexican/Spanish settlers arriving 1754, nothing significant happened after this event for another 100 years till thousands of gold seekers rushed for California (so they'd like to see history), Californian Native Indian's plight had started though with the arrival of the missionaries.
We have lunch in Chinatown; lunch menu includes soup and oranges as desert. Didn’t the Chinese come to America as rail works? I ponder that I like LA, LA is what America is, every ethnicity has its own township, quarter, ghetto! Armenians, Italians, Poles, Iranians, Irish, Jews, Latinos. There is a Thai-town, Tokyo-town, Korea-town and Chinatown. They all came as immigrants, are still coming, they all came in waves, seeking a better life, or refuge after exodus; none of the immigrants ever had it easy. But they say that all but Blacks came voluntarily, I remember Ghana Elmina castle, the Gate of No Return. Native Americans of course where here before, massacred and robbed of their lands by Whites, - and few talk about it.
I chew on the oranges to wash down the spices still itching in my throat; Chinese food in Chinatown is always tasty and cheap and too much. In drowsiness we climb up a small slope to Disney Hall (design: architect Frank Gehry) admire its impressive architectural extravaganza, a 21st c. super concert hall, new home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Through gorges of steel and glass skyscrapers, Wells Fargo, ATT and others we finally find a Starbucks espresso; small paper cup in hand we drag back to Jewelry and Historic Core. In a shop run by an Israeli who speaks English with a Farsi accent I buy a cheap phone after the old one has really given up its spirit. The Iranian/Israeli is not so keen to speak on how and when it happened that he ended up (back) here. Immigrants keep a bit of a veil around their origins; keep to themselves their true associations, in LA you are cautious who you talk to.
After another 40kms or so and a night of sleep somewhere we pass the miles and miles of containers of Los Angeles Port, in Long Beach we watch the pelicans hunt fish, and I ponder about the sheer size of the craziest city in the world, what makes them all come here to try their luck, if you want to try your luck somewhere you come to LA, nowhere else is la folie more normal.
LA by Christina
LA, known for its new age movements and guru inspired eateries. A city with a web of freeways where cars like insects whiz around for miles to then get stuck in traffic. Here a person lives half of his life stuck in traffic. And still 'Nobody walks in LA' (as the Missing Persons' song Walking in LA from the 80s goes, youtube) except on treadmills. The city where the cult of beauty is pivotal, the finest examples are worshiped in the temple of Hollywood. The faith is strong and the credo goes as follows: fantasy is true, fake is natural, money is power, poverty is mental, - and big boobs open all doors. But what saves LA is its beach culture from Huntington Beach to Venice Beach, the natural beauty of the shoreline, palm trees and open minded, far-out people. And wasn't it Los Angeles that really created San Francisco? The dialogue between the two is constant, and reinforcing. All the political minded people seek their refuge in the north. What one is the other isn't. San Francisco can take itself seriously because of Los Angeles' frivolity. It follows to ask, where would the US be without Los Angeles? Stuck in some Bollywood wasteland, I am sure.
We drive on along the coast late afternoon, hit Encinitas and there’s a pub; amazing for beer tasting. Near-by is a Zen garden for peace and contemplation and cure a hangover in the shade. The surf cracks are out, always on the lookout for the wave, sun is hot, skies and ocean blue and clear. Sun sets in a great orange ball of fire; every day is a golden day. This is California, what is the essence of California? He who doesn’t know must go and see for himself.
In Solana Beach, the Belly-Up Tavern we see Jimmy Vaughan and his Tilt-a-Whirl-Band featuring Lou Anne Barton (voc.) and Greg Piccolo (sax.), one of the great white Blues guitarists, he wrote blues history, generated his very special style. Then we get to sleepy Ocean Beach, there is a great burger place, Hodad's, always full. After another night we descend onto San Diego. Downtown at lunch time is hot, we retreat for Indian buffet food in a restaurant; food is rich and spicy and delicious. I love it, one Taj Mahal and one Yeti beer go with it; and you know that few bubbles leave more room for your curry!
Evening we drive to the other side of the bay to Shelter Island, see San Diego and its harbor in low light over water, then after dark enjoy Viva Santana Band in Humphrey’s Backstage live, almost as good as the real thing. Another day we drive south along Coronada Beach, Mexico now is very near, Tijuana almost a stone throw away, we feel tempted to just cross the border and drift away south, give a tilt to our lives, try something else, but we are wimps, really have something else scheduled.
Monette Marino-Keita, Larry Mitchell in Belly-Up.
Monette Marino Keita is married to Mamady Keita, Guinean Djembefola and I had the pleasure to admire both in Conakry, Guinea, 2007, their Djembe d’Or performance was the most electrifying. I don’t know what expectations I had before coming to see her and her band live in Belly-Up, rather it’s now that we are here and she plays, let’s go and see her. Monette certainly knows a lot about drumming and percussion.
But let’s hear what Christina has to say.
LA by Christina
It is not every day we can hear a woman drummer, who stands as leader of her own band. Monette Marino Keita, this brown eyed beauty with long brown hair has talent and ambition and knows what sells. The variety of her repertoire is remarkable from salsa inspired songs, to jazz, to African beats; she calls it "World Music, her music." As much as I enjoy the performances I cannot help but be bothered by all the female dancers dancing in a circle. Why do all these women know the steps? Why do they all dance the same? Suddenly, the "World Music" atmosphere has been downgraded to an Afro aerobic class. I decide to not join the fan club, sit down instead to take a closer look. Soon Suzanne Forbes-Vierling Tribal Energy Dance teacher comes out with her pupils to perform. She is impressive to watch and I can understand why so many want to learn. But the dance along with the music turns this into an "ethnic" night without real content. They are trying hard to sell "African." My eyes are on Monette who has that beautiful smile, but so static. The sound is captivating, with steel-drums, drums, additional Malian djembe, the piano player goes completely wild as he strums out all the salsa chords, Larry Mitchell, guitarist is an expert and his talent steals the limelight. Monette slams her djembe and conga; she truly is strong and displays real talent and passion for what she does. Musicians deserve praise even though they perform so many cover songs with hardly any vocals. This group I think might be a lot stronger if not just confined to the identity of Monette. Three Monetts who really rip the soul out of the night is what I want; this is a softy show. Then Monette explains herself, her drumming and the meaning of life; it is then that I experience some inner cringe: "we are all One, we all like to eat, we all like to enjoy life and be happy." The final song, I leave the Belly-Up with mixed feelings; drumming and musicians inspired, however I would have wanted more percussion bang with less African style aerobics and fewer platitudes.
Larry Mitchell is a Grammy Award-winning producer. I am very much taken by his guitar playing style. (larrymitchell.com)