COAST OF DREAMS — A HISTORY OF CONTEMPORARY CALIFORNIA (1990-2003)
By Kevin Starr. 754 pages. Published by Allen Lane/ Penguin
Ian Whitcomb is a highly
respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his
CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
Full disclosure: I’m pally with Dr Kevin Starr. He invites me to swell dinners at plush businessmen’s clubs in downtown Los Angeles where, to the accompaniment of my ukulele, I lead movers and shakers in singalongs. When he was California’s State Librarian he made me State Minstrel which entailed my travelling around with wife and dog in a minivan, stopping off to perform, with Ukie, at rural libraries. This was a plum job, this would never have happened in England, my ancestral home.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles as a “resident alien” since the 1960s, arriving as a British Pop Invader and staying on for the work, the acceptance, the chance to grab the brass ring once more before I die. For the elusive Dream that some of us chase till we fall over the edge.
Dr Starr has published six California Dream histories since the early 1970s. I have them all and the further back they reach the more gemutlich I feel until I’m at peace in a painted world of red-shirted gold miners neath purple hills or else easygoing dons in sombreros swilling wine. Lured by a myth propagated by local real estate boosters, people flocked in from everywhere to make the painting come to life. But Eden had only room for so many and by the 1930s things weren’t as rosy as they were supposed to be. Hence, “Endangered Dreams”, and, for the 1940s, “Embattled Dreams”. Suddenly, just as the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, loomed out of the mist for examination, our author downed tools. I don’t blame him: just mouthing Altamont or Watts Riots, let alone Hell’s Angels and Disco could lead a man to the restroom. Such diarrhetics are best left to the disciples of Hunter Thompson et al.
Startlingly and bravely, Dr Starr has dared to take up his pickaxe and deal with California’s recent past, the 1990s and even up as far as yesterday -- a hellhound on our tail, dripping blood, shouting rap, roaming malls, all to the tune of a cellular phone. The result is a brick of a book as effulgent and razoring as the constant damned California sun — 631 text pages followed by a hundred pages detailing the sources. It’s a Pandora’s box of catastrophe made by Man and God, so that Utopia is always being usurped by Dystopia. The author is calmer than me -- the L.A homeowner reading daily of murder and corruption, fires and floods -- the author has a sunny disposish and doles out hope as he leads us through his “snapshots and sketches” culled largely from newspapers, history in a hurry. Thus there’s little time for verdicts, for bird’s-eye views.” I was actively on the lookout for signs that it was … going right”.
The American edition has a cover photo of placid surfers, specks at peace on a flat pacific ocean. But Penguin has chosen the P.C Old World apocalyptic view: a topless woman sunbathing on a metal lounger in a concrete backyard, oblivious to her backdrop sky washed with raging fires. You have been warned: you are in for a catalogue of woe, tempered by the author’s dampening towels at the end of each chapter. I was inclined to wipe my face, wail and return to Wimbledon Common. But then I looked out the window and saw peace under the palms, even if a bourgeois peace of joggers, dog-walkers and baseball caps, all cheerfully en route to Starbucks. Isn’t this what the world has been waiting for? And didn’t we enjoy it all first, before you guys?
We begin on the coast itself with a celebration of surfing in the shape of Veronica, a blonde Valkyrie, who evaded the drug culture by becoming a model, actually riding wild waves with skill. Says her agent,” And it just so happens she’s absolutely adorable and has an amazing figure”. Says a surf contest promoter,” I was like,’Wow’”. Note that there’s no exclamation mark after the “Wow”. That is very Californian. Amiable but with no expression. After salt water the author develops a bon appetit and turning sideways we learn that food and wine have become a “compelling metaphor for the good life on the coast of dreams”, especially for Silicon Valley baby boomer dot commers who like nothing better than a Pinot Noir with “the aroma of a dying black rose”, or a Chardonnay with the bouquet of “the breast of a young woman in winter wrapped in fur”. This wine and food, of course, is prepared and served by immigrants from south of the border, underpaid and Spanish-speaking. Even as they work countless bands of their brothers are sneaking across that border in search of the good life.
The immigrants will find a welcome in the outstretched arms of the ever-burgeoning Catholic Church while their children may find too much care in the arms of a rolling-eyed priest. If you can make the dream money you can enroll at the enriched University of Southern California where Rabbi Susan Laemmle (of the movie czar family), dean of “religious life”, will hand you a calendar of Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i, Mormon, and Native American days of observance. This is the California of Something for Everyone, of Diversity with a smile of self-help. But be careful with your choice of cult: Heaven’s Gate, in 1997 living in a ritzy San Diego suburb of trimmed lawns and tennis courts, took their congregation to the Next Level, a face-to-face with God via a waiting spaceship. The mass suicide trip was effected by consuming a poisoned pudding washed down with vodka. There they lay dead on their beds, clad in black trousers and Nike running shoes. Here is Dr Starr’s comment, a paradigm of the academic clear-headedness—his sensible viewpoint — that guides us gently us through this book of golden mess: “Did not the specific conjunction of forces that had formed the cult —the search for transcendence, the sense of science as religion and religion as science, the exaltations of being wired—constitute the vulnerable side, the noir dimension, of certain California obsessions?”
As the pages turn so the noir increases despite the sunlight (this is a book mainly about Los Angeles — foggy San Francisco and the North is noted but hardly grips). There’s plenty of shake ‘n’ bake: an earthquake squashes commuters flat as kippers as they sit in their cars under a Golden Gate bridge; in my hometown of Altadena a whole mountain is ablaze as around me eucalyptus trees explode in great balls of fire. On the crime scene the ethnics are the stars: even in jail the Mexican mafia are in control, ordering assassinations, running drug labs; African-American gang bangers kill complete strangers and their culture become chic with white teens who don baggy pants, stick baseball caps on backwards, and call each other “Bro”; public schools sport armed guards and metal detectors while truants stay home murdering: a 15-year-old boy working in his extended family’s methamphetamine lab, tells a four-year-old to get him cigarettes and when the packet doesn’t show up the teen kills the toddler with a blast from a sawed-off shotgun belonging to the boyfriend of the victim’s mother. And so on, ad nauseam.
Racial diversity is chronicled exhaustively: Koreans serving black neighborhoods with corner grocery stores and rudeness; Cambodians becoming doughnut biz kings; Hispanics and blacks murdering each other over choice of club music (rap or techno); teachers teaching in 80 languages. Meanwhile the rich retreat from the mayhem into gated communities in suburban McMansions on hills, heavily guarded. The old, equally gated, are deposited in places like Leisure World, near Laguna, where every minute, like a Butlin’s camp, is planned --- from aerobics, calligraphy and ceramics, to a weekly toga party. Only a bullet can stop these brimming-with- health codgers. In Hollywood the stars live even further up the mountain and are fully-armed.” I would feel very naked”, notes Charlton Heston,” without a 12-gauge shotgun under my bed and a .38-caliber revolver in the drawer of my night table”. My summing up of California: too many guns, too many people, too much speaking in foreign tongues.
Finally a hero emerges. The Arnold Schwarzenegger story exemplifies the California Dream come true. A near-penniless Austrian immigrant, he came to Gold’s Gym in Los Angeles to look at himself in a mirror for hours as he pumped iron. Through a triumph of the will he is now our Governor as well as part of the Kennedy clan. Maybe, in the mists of this magical region where brutes can be angels, Arnold will gravitate to the beach restaurant in which I can be found performing with Ukie in a corner on a Sunday night. I know he loves dining out with pretty people beside the seaside. Maybe, in all the sturm und drang of my State of choice, I will be touched by greatness so that I can afford to live in a castle high on a hill in a gated community.
Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can
find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com