Luminous City: Topanga Canyon Blues

So this would be one of the first songs the three of us wrote together. Josh had the bass riff. Paula had the accompanying second-line beat (though I tweaked it somewhat in the rendering). I told Pete, “Maybe a Chuck Berry riff? Oh, and solo here.” That was pretty much it.

Lyrically: it was winter and I was thinking a lot at the time about California. I had lived north of Los Angeles for about five months when I was very young, and now with the wind blowing upstairs and out of doors down George Street in New Haven, ice freshly chipped off the sidewalks and salt duly spread liberally by the landlord, I tried to recreate the gestalt of the San Fernando Valley and the adjacent canyons– a five year old’s eyes grafted into a 32-year-old’s body. Lizards in the low evergreen hedge in front of the house and the dull pink noise of Balboa Boulevard traffic. Learning to ride a bike up– and down– a steep hill. Pouring dirt into the in-ground kidney-shaped swimming pool to see how long it took for the filtration to remove it from the water. My first kisses with a fellow kindergartener on the playground. A smiling Buddha statue (with a clock in his belly) in the display window of Treasure Isle at Topanga Plaza.

Oh, how cruelly life had turned out since then, I thought; me here in the deep freeze and no one to keep me warm, working a shitty day job with no future– and this band, the only thing keeping me going, still without a guitarist, and good Lord, what a chore finding one. Our last one, when the band was still called Fulcrum, had bailed to Colorado and a better day job– understandably.

There are a couple of people in my past to whom I could be singing, people who left the band du jour just when it was on the verge of doing something really cool, like for example actually playing out, or finally getting an original set together. (Our last guy wasn’t among them: we had actually gigged with him a few times.) As much as it would have been better karma for me to wish the lately-departed well, at the time I couldn’t help being royally pissed off over the lack of faith and the doors that would have to close now that we would have to replace them.

Really I’m singing to myself, because I have also left bands just when they were on the verge…

Jay and Paul together constituted an off-kilter reference to a local bilionaire. I named the barista Stymie because it just seemed like a good idea at the time– I envisioned a guy who reminded me of a fully formed version of his namesake from the Our Gang comedies. The Plaza has long since been taken over by the many-tentacled Westfield, but don’t worry, our hero has yet another mall to conquer in Edmonton.

The second verse, for those not conversant with the biz, is a sidelong acknowledgment of the pay-to-play syndrome that has now filtered east– in order to play Toads Place, my ex-wife’s nephew’s band had to buy a roll of tickets and sell them to all their friends. The amount of tickets sold with their name on it would determine whether the band got a second shot at playing there. I’ll let you know how that goes. So much for bands getting paid when they’re starting out.. it’s a major outlay of cash for them now.

I knew that I was going to set the song in one of the canyons around town– historically the canyons, especially Laurel Canyon, had been a hotbed of activity for some of the bands I spent large amounts of time admiring and studying later (Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, Jackson Browne, Eagles– pretty much anyone Henry Diltz photographed, as it transpired). Some time after I started fleshing the lyrics out, I realized that I had a golden opportunity to sneak in the phrase Fernwood Tonight, and out of respect to Fred Willard, Martin Mull, and especially Norman Lear, I just couldn’t pass that up.


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