Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

MAN RAY- RHYMES WITH RUSCHA (KIND OF)


Right before we finally signed the deal to buy the house we now live in, my wife and I did a walk through which the vendor, and he pointed at various things, saying, “I’m taking that, but I’m leaving that” etc. Generally, of course, he was leaving the things we didn’t want, taking the things we did.

And at some point we came to the wall above the couch, on which was a signed poster of Man Ray’s “Observatory Time: The Lovers,” signed by the artist.


“I don’t suppose you’re leaving that behind,” I joked.

And the guy was taken aback, and said, “Oh my, so you’ve heard of Man Ray?” Apparently he didn’t meet many people who had.

I asked how he came to have the signed poster and he explained that Man Ray had been a friend of his mother. And when he was a kid she’d regularly taken him to Man Ray’s studio in Hollywood, and each time, before they set off, he was given a stern talking to and told he absolutely mustn’t touch anything when he got there. He’d always behaved himself, he said, but it hadn’t been easy. Man Ray’s studio had been like a toy store, absolutely full of small found and created objects that any kid would want to grab and play with.

Needless to say he took his poster with him.


I knew that Man Ray and Juliet Browner, eventually his wife, lived in Hollywood from 1940 to 1951 and I’d always read that their place was at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which seemed a slightly surprising location for a major artist to hole up, but what did I know? Once in a while I’d wondered what the exact address was, but I hadn’t really bothered to find out. But last week I looked it up online and of course found the address in about 20 seconds flat. The Man Rays had lived in the Villa Elaine, an apartment building at 1245 Vine Street: they were in apartment 10, I decided I’d have to walk down there one of these days.


During the first month I lived in LA, I was taken to meet Ed Ruscha at his studio, a former beer warehouse, in Venice. I’d written an article about his “palindrome paintings” for Modern Painters magazine, and Ruscha had been persuaded by the editor – Karen Wright - to judge a readers’ palindrome contest. This didn’t take long.

As with Man Ray’s old place, there were a lot of things in Ruscha’s studio that caught the eye and that I wanted to pick up and investigate, but there weren’t many paintings on display. I guess he can sell them as soon as they’re finished. The few that were there looked like this:


And of course even as a new boy in Hollywood, perhaps especially as a new boy in Hollywood, I felt the resonance of those words Sunset and Vine. My conversation with Ruscha was brief but he did say that for a long time he’d had a studio on Western Avenue, in sight of the Hollywood sign. He’d get up in the morning, look out in that direction, and sometimes he’d see the sign, but because of air pollution, there were many morning when he couldn’t see it at all.


I didn’t ask the address of where he lived, but now, a few years later, a minimal amount of research again revealed the exact location: 1024 3/4 North Western Avenue. Sources say Ruscha “maintained this address” for 20 years, from 1965, which I assume means that in the beginning he lived and worked there, but once he’d made some money he moved somewhere better and kept that place as a studio.

I decided I’d walk to Man Ray’s old place, and then walk from there to Ed Ruscha’s old place. They were no distance away from each other, scarcely more than a mile.

Man Ray enjoyed his time in Los Angeles. “I explored the town. It was like some place in the south of France with its palm-bordered streets and low stucco dwellings … More cars of course … And I seemed to be the only one on foot, sauntering along leisurely, avoiding the more populated districts. One might retire here, I thought.”


The Villa Elaine is indeed on Vine Street, but it’s some way below Hollywood Boulevard. It’s below Sunset Boulevard too, for that matter. And if you were giving somebody instructions on how to get there you’d say it was at Vine and Fountain, but I can see that’s an address that lacks pizzazz.

The Villa Elaine is a big, solid, red brick apartment building, with a handful of stores and cafes at ground level, and a central, arched entrance gate, that leads into a central courtyard, with the apartments up above. Man Ray wrote, “I was taken to the end of the court and shown a beautiful apartment on the ground floor, a high-ceilinged studio, den, dining-room, kitchen and loggia with bedroom and bath, completely furnished. I couldn’t have imagined anything more perfect.”


When I was there, a big sign offered apartments to rent, and I did think of pretending I was looking for accommodation, but that seemed a bit creepy, and I thought they’d see right through me. Instead I went through the gate into the gorgeous courtyard, a tall, thin space, with palm trees soaring up to the roof level, and in places there was so much greenery you could barely see the building. Why wouldn’t Man Ray have been happy here? Why wouldn’t anyone? I walked among the plants, looking around and taking pictures. There were lots of handymen and gardeners who ignored me completely and there were some young hipsterish types, the residents I suppose, who looked at me with suspicion. I reckoned I had a pretty good explanation for my presence, though I wasn’t sure how many of them would have heard of Man Ray. But in fact these hipsters were far too cool to ask who I was and what I was doing.


These days the Villa Elaine is situated opposite the Office Depot, a place I’ve been known to buy my ink cartridges, but back in the day it was opposite the legendary Hollywood Ranch Market, a place that seems all the more legendary now that it no longer exists. It appears on the album cover of Zappa’s Freak Out! as a “Freak out! Hot spot.” Bukowski wrote a poem about it. James Elroy describes it as a “homo heaven,” though it also seems to have been a big hit with the kids, since it had small fairground rides inside. Even so, it was a genuine supermarket, frequented by oddballs, who after Man Ray’s time turned into hippies, druggies, groupies and whores; but Lucille Ball was also spotted there once or twice.

I liked the idea of Man Ray strolling up and down Vine Street, but in fact he hadn’t lived long in Hollywood before being a pedestrian got to him. “I began to develop an inferiority complex. I went out shopping,” he writes and he came back with “a beautiful, streamlined, metallic-blue car.” Here it is: a Graham “Hollywood Supercharger.”


If you’re walking from Man Ray’s place on Vine, to Ed Ruscha’s place on Western, the chances are that you’ll go along Santa Monica Boulevard, so that’s what I did. There’s a strange and wonderful strip mall on Santa Monica that may once have been a row of ordinary stores, but now all the businesses there are related to the automobile: Economy Auto Care, Fred’s Machine Shop, King Bear Autocenter, Manuel’s Tires. I’m especially fond of the muffler man at Hollywood Mufflers.


The strip itself is inevitably a bit grubby and workaday but behind it you can see what looks like a grove of palm tress, and among them is a grand gold and black dome. The trees and dome belong to Hollywood Forever, a cemetery, “the final resting place to more of Hollywood’s founders and stars than anywhere else on earth,” as they proudly claim.


I go there once in a while and walk around, it’s exotic and a little bit kitsch, some of the monuments seem a bit “excessive”, like the one above featuring the Atlas rocket to symbolize the achievements of a graphic artist named Carl Morgan Bigsby. And there’s this one (below) of Joey Ramone.


And certainly this is the only cemetery where I’ve ever seen free-roaming peacocks, but it’s still very peaceful and pleasant, and there are generally a few other people walking around contemplatively, taking in the sights, and one or two people sitting on benches reading. Hollywood Forever is what passes for a public space in LA.

And it isn’t just a resting place for celebs. It’s very much still in business and there are plenty of ordinary people buried there, and increasingly the style seems to be to have a portrait image etched into your marble headstone, something based on a photograph. This always strikes me as odd. It takes maybe a sixtieth of a second to create a photograph. You looked like that for a tiny sliver of time and now you’re memorialized looking like that for all eternity.


You’d think a photographer, of all people, wouldn’t want something like that on his headstone. Imagine my surprise then to discover that the grave of Man Ray and Juliet in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris bears a photograph of the couple, although it’s on her headstone rather than his, and I don’t know if either of them was personally responsible: it may have been relatives or fans. On the other hand, that line “unconcerned but not indifferent” on Man Ray’s headstone is an absolute winner. Anyone in Hollywood would be proud of that.

I went to Hollywood Forever as a tourist long before I lived in LA, and my impression at the time was that the streets around it were a bit scary. Now I don’t find them scary at all. I realize they’re simply Latino, and I’ve learned that in Los Angeles, things Latino are generally not all that scary. Certainly as you walk from Hollywood Forever toward Western Avenue and Ed Ruscha’s former studio there are sections that feel like a part of old Mexico.

There’s an interview with Ruscha that appeared, improbably enough, in People Magazine in 1983, that describes his place as “seedy pseudo-Mission-style building on Western Avenue, in the middle of an adult movie strip.” Lord knows there are very few adult movie theaters left in LA, but Stan’s Adult Super Store survives half a block away on the other side of the street. Otherwise the adult movie strip has been replaced by a bicycle repair shop and a law office (I think) that offers “professional consultations.”


I’m not sure I could recognize pseudo-Mission-style architecture, and I’ve also reached the point in my life when I’m no longer quite sure what “seedy” means, and I definitely don’t know if it’s a criticism. I think there are many people in the world, many people in LA, who’d think Ruscha’s old place was a decent enough place to live, a series of one and two-story structures, with open staircases and arches, and a small leafy courtyard at its center. It wasn’t nearly as lush as the one at Villa Elaine, but then few are. And here the gates were locked to keep out people like me, and people worse than me too, and the doors and windows that opened to the street had iron bars on them. Hipsters may very possibly live there but I didn’t see any of them.


If you stand right outside the gate there’s no way you can see the Hollywood sign: there are too many people and things in the way. But if you go up to the southeast corner of Santa Monica and Western and look northwest you’re in with a chance. I did my Man Ray-Ruscha walk was one of those June-gloom days that we get in LA, grey, overcast, sunless, but even so the sign was just about visible, above the traffic, the people, the buildings and the haze.

I don’t know how much of a walker Ed Ruscha was or is. That People magazine article said he owned a house out in the desert in Yucca Valley and I can’t believe you can live in the desert without going out and doing some serious walking once in a while. And if some further proof of Ruscha’s walking credentials were required, here’s another of Ruscha’s painting, from 1985, the year he finally left Western Avenue, titled “Man Walking Away From It All.”

Thursday, June 3, 2010

IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD


In general I like to have a destination when I walk, even if it’s only the local book store or supermarket. But since I lead a sedentary life, working at home, once in a while I step outside my front door and simply walk around the neighborhood for half an hour or forty five minutes, for the sake of a break, and in the belief that walking is in itself an inherently good thing.

As I was growing up, whenever my dad or granddad or one of my uncles went out for no apparent reason, my mother or one of the other female relatives would always ask where they were going and why. More often than not, the reply was, “There and back to see how far it is.” This meant, essentially, “Mind your own business.” But it’s a phrase I often find myself using, and in my own case it means that I’m going out walking for the sake of walking.

To some limited extent this is what the psychogeographers mean when they speak of “locomotion without a goal.” I don’t have a route planned, and I don’t have a destination in mind, beyond the fact that sooner rather than later I want to end up back where I started.


I like to say I live on the “lower slopes” of the Hollywood Hills, hilly for sure but not those vertiginous crests and canyons you get up in the heights, and it’s undeniably pleasant, but I’m sure some of my higher altitude neighbors would think I lived in a slum. The houses tend to be quirky because they’ve been shoe-horned into quirky bits of land, and there are all the usual Hollywood Hills features, palm trees, banks of bougainvillea, the occasional and always empty swimming pool, the not quite convincing security signs that say “armed response,” though you wouldn’t want to put them to the test.


Having lived in the same house for seven years or so now, I’ve walked and continue to walk all the streets in the immediate vicinity, but I don’t walk them all “equally.” There are certain streets I walk all the time, certain streets I go along only once in a while. And there are certain streets I walk hardly at all, for perfectly good reasons, because they’re so steep, or because there’s a blind corner and no sidewalk and I don’t want to get run down by some twerp in a Range Rover who’s on his cell phone, wheeling and dealing while he drives. Or because the houses have vicious dogs in their yrads, and OK, the dogs are behind fences or railings but some of these beasts look like they could chew through chain mail. Who needs it? On the other hand, I don’t want to feel I have to avoid certain places in my own neighborhood, so I walk along these dodgy streets once in a while, climbing one in three gradients, risking vehicular death, with Hound of Baskerville-style howls echoing after me.


One of the pleasures of walking the same route regularly is that you observe how things change. You see trees and plants growing, coming into flower, fading, maybe dying. You notice that somebody’s got a new car, a new fence, a new spouse, a new baby. You see that a house is being refurbished, and then you see it go up for sale. And then somebody moves in, then a year later it all happens again.


Of course there are some spots that I always hit, view points, scenic overlooks. One of them looks west over the Hollywood Freeway, toward the ocean, though from that particular place there are mountains blocking the sightline. And sometimes the air itself is a blockage.


Another one looks east, through somebody’s euphorbia and cactus garden to give a hazy view of downtown. From there you also see Western Avenue, running due south, dead straight, as far as the eye can see, further than you’d ever want to walk.

And when I walk with other people, I always take them past the Samuels-Navarro house, designed by Lloyd Wright in 1928, and later owned by Diane Keaton and Christina Ricci, among others. I regard people’s reaction to the house as a kind of a Rorschach test. If they say, “What a great house,” I know they’re part of my tribe. If they say, “What’s that weird ugly monstrosity?” then I know they’re not.


This being the Hollywood Hills I only see a very few fellow, solitary walkers. It’s rare enough that we always nod a kind of greeting but I’ve never had a conversation with any of these people, whereas I chat all the time with people who are out walking their dogs. I learn the names, the ages, the personalities, the frailties, of the dogs, but never anything at all about the owners.

I don’t usually carry my camera with me, because it seems to get in the way, both of walking and observing, but as you see, once in a while I do take it, and sometimes I’m very glad of it, when I see that impossible to repeat moment: a blimp, a deer, an inflatable dinosaur, the smoke from a fire in Griffith Park.


Heraclitus says, and I believe him, that you can’t jump in the same river twice. By that token, I suppose you can’t walk in the same street twice. So I also wonder if you can ever go home twice. Or once. By the time you get home from a walk, home is no longer precisely what it was when you left. While you were out walking, the butterfly of chaos theory flapped its wings; the universe, and your home, will have changed forever. Of course this is no reason not to go walking: since all is flux, the butterfly would have flapped its wings in any case. And for that matter, the very act of going for a walk will (in however slight a way) have changed you too. That’s a very good reason to go walking.