Drifting and striding 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.

Monday, April 27, 2015


I was in San Francisco for a couple of days last week, and of course I did some walking while I was there.  I know the city somewhat but I often end up doing the same old things, so this time I (and the Loved One) set out walking to a couple of places I’d never been before, the Peace Pagoda in Japantown and the Villancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza near the downtown waterfront.  Neither is exactly obscure bit they’re not must-see destinations either.

The Peace Pagoda is in the Peace Plaza, part of the Japan Center complex, a cluster of Japanese shops and restaurants.  It was designed by the architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and was a gift presented to San Francisco in 1968 by Osaka, a “sister city” and the place where several members of Acid Mothers Temple come from.

The Peace Plaza is a big open paved space between two malls, and although apparently it’s often the scene of concerts and festivals, not much was going on when I was there: a couple of toddlers running around under close parental supervision and a couple of Asian girls taking selfies with the pagoda in the background.  Well, sure.  I rather liked the Peace Pagoda, for all that it’s part of an ancient tradition, but made of concrete and it also looks a bit World’s Fair, a bit retro-futuristic.  Who doesn’t like that?

And a small, curious thing I noticed around Japantown, there were a number of signs for bars and restaurants that had graphics of martini glasses outside.  And this was something I’d seen before in other parts of the city.  San Francisco seems to have more martini signs than any other city I’ve ever been in, and believe me I notice these things.  Perhaps there’s a small monograph to be written here.  But we didn’t stop for a martini, we went on to the Vaillancourt Fountain.

That empty, unused, paved expanse of the Peace Plaza looked to have a lot in common with the Justin Herman Plaza.  It’s also big and empty and people carefully walk around the edges, leaving the center vacant.  Maybe they’re keeping well away from the Villancourt Fountain, a magnificent, brutal, concrete folly, and a controversial one in certain circles.  One Lloyd Skinner, described as an “art connoisseur” said that the fountain was "Stonehenge, unhinged, with plumbing troubles," but he seemed to think that was a bad thing.

Judging its qualities is currently made harder by the fact that the fountain is now dry.  Huge quantities of water were supposed to crash through the concrete tubes 30,000 US gallons per minute, one reads, and this did, apparently, make a prodigious noise.  But the fountain is expensive to run and in a time of California drought maybe a giant water feature just doesn’t sit well with locals. 

As you see can probably see, the structure contains various ramps and platforms, creating places you could stand and watch the waters from above and even in their midst, but that’s no longer possible.  Even if there were any water, those ramps and platforms are all barricaded off now.

There’s quite  a lot of back story to the fountain.   Designer Armand Vaillancourt, a French Canadian, sprayed “Quebec Libre” on the concrete of the  fountain right before it was opened, and then in 1987 U2 played a concert there and Bono (can that man do nothing right?) sprayed "Rock N Roll Stops The Traffic" on it, which pissed off just about everybody except Vaillancourt who is clearly one of nature’s genuine subversives, and also a very sharp dressed man.  That's him below.

 Anyway there’s no sign of this aesthetic struggle now – and since there’s no water running, and no noise, very few people seem to pay the fountain any mind but this lack of water does mean you can walk right into it.  Kids seem to really like it, as a kind of adventure playground without too much risk of injury.  And I liked it too, and found myself drawn in.  

Of course as you walk under the mighty concrete arms you can’t help thinking that if water were to come shooting out through the cavities at unpredictable intervals, that would be truly adventurous, but the powers that be in SF aren’t quite that subversive.

Anyway, by this time I was feeling in need of the “silver bullet”.  As the signs prove, there are a great many paces to get a martini in this town but I only really considered one of them, John’s Grill, beloved by Dashiell Hammett and making an appearance in The Maltese Falcon.

And you know, I was a little reluctant to go there, a little scared of being disappointed.  John’s was the place where I drank my first ever American martini, and it holds a mythic spot in my life, but what if it didn’t live up to my own personal mythology?  Anyway I risked it.  I was a fool to have worried.  It was about 4.30 on a Saturday afternoon, the place was dark and cool, and by no means empty, but there was only one person sitting at the small bar.  I had my martini, the Loved One had a gimlet – and it was all pretty much perfect.  

Drinking in the afternoon can always be a risky thing, but this time it worked, we walked out of John’s with out spirits lifted and a spring in our step.  We also knew that we were almost certainly walking in the footsteps of Hammett, who was surely one of the sharpest dressed men ever to slouch in front of a typewriter or indeed walk the mean streets.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


“How true it is that if men strive to walk in the way of truth and uphold righteousness, fame will follow of itself.” 

The above is a line from Basho’s text, generally known as The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  It was on my mind over the weekend because I saw Gary Synder do a poetry reading at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where he referred to Basho’s work as The Narrow Trails to the Back Country, which sounds like a translation of a very different color.

Snyder was born in 1930 and after Lawrence Ferlinghetti he is, I think, the last of the Beats, and I confess that I regarded this reading as something of a “last chance to see.” I also didn’t know what shape he’d be in; to which the answer, I now know, is “Probably better shape than you and me.”  I think he’s probably the best poetry reader I’ve even seen and heard.  And I don’t think I’m just being sentimental towards the old guy.

Snyder makes an appearance in Iain Sinclair’s book American Smoke.  Sinclair goes to visit him in at his 100 acre estate in the Sierra foothills, north of Nevada City (Allen Ginsberg and Dick Baker were co-owners at one time, but he bought them out),  Sinclair describes Snyder as a poet, bioregionalist, teacher  … skier, climber, trail walker.

One of Snyder’s poems is titled “A Walk.”  It’s easily available in its entirety online, but it begins like this:

Sunday the only day we don't work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
                            Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I've eaten breakfast and I'll
                              Take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,

Sinclair suggests that the younger Snyder may have been a little less lovable than the current one appears to be.  From the 1950s onward he made trips to Japan to study Zen Buddhism.  Sinclair writes.
The novice monk insisted that his future wife clear her credit-card debt, which had climbed to $1000, before she travelled out to join him. On arrival, she discovered a list Snyder had compiled, numbering her faults and the ways she could improve. The big difference in Japan, Snyder explained, was the necessity of having the right manners.
          “His fourth wife, Carole Lynn Koda, was Japanese-American. But in Japan, she got everything wrong. ‘I walked too fast,’ she said. ‘I swung my arms too much. My stride was too long. I looked at people in the eye. That marked me out as American right away.’”

         My life being the glamorous rollercoaster it is, I got to meet Gary Snyder back stage (meet as in a chance for me to shake his hand and say, “I really enjoyed your reading”).  And I was, I admit, star struck. My mouth and my brain weren’t very well connected and I found myself rambling on about the Iain Sinclair piece.
“Oh yeah,” said Snyder, “that was a funny piece”
 I think he meant it in a good way.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I always feel ambivalent about visiting the sites of murders, death houses, scenes of long ago violent crimes.  Partly it’s because of my inherent squeamishness.  If there actually is some remaining malevolent aura there, I’d rather not be around it.  And just as important, I don’t want to revel in and be entertained by the deaths of others, nor to make light of pain, whether that of victims or survivors. 

Yet I know one can protest too much about these things. There’s no denying the frisson that comes with walking through, say, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, or for that matter past the Bloody Tower in London.  I think the frisson is imaginative rather than supernatural, but nonetheless real for that.  One way or another a kind of shamanism is involved, raising the spirits of the dead, but equally a kind of dubious tourism is involved too

I don’t feel a whole let less ambivalent, though in a different way, about visiting the homes where my “heroes” once lived, even if I seem to have done plenty of it.  In recent years I’ve found myself visiting JG Ballard’s house in Shepperton, HG Wells’s in Woking, Raymond Chandler’s many Los Angeles homes. 

Of course when I say “visiting” I simply mean that I walked down the street and stood around outside the building.  I don’t go in for knocking on doors to interview the current inhabitants, although I know some who do.  My friend Anthony Miller, aka the Dark Sage of Sawtelle, recounts disturbing the tenants of Thomas Pynchon’s old apartment in Manhattan Beach, and found the occupant, a surferish dude, amazingly hospitable.  He invited him and let him look around.  A Swiss film crew had been there not long before, the one that made Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of P.

The objection here is not that it’s intrusive, but rather that it’s no big deal.  These are homes much like any other.  Everybody lives somewhere, lives don’t vary nearly as much as some people like to think, and houses and appartments are not always totally fascinating.  And in my experience there’s seldom any kind of lingering aura, even if there may occasionally be a plaque.

Having said all that, and with all my reservations, when I recently connected a couple of dots of information than had been floating in my head for a while, and realized that the childhood home of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, was in the same street where the Manson murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianco took place, well, you couldn’t call yourself a psychogeographer if you didn’t take a walk down that street, could you?

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were really the first act that completely excited me in my difficult but dull youth.  They seemed subversive, poetic, avant-garde, extremely cool – all the things I wanted to be.  These days it seems to me that there were times when Beefheart put rather too much effort into buffing his image as the unschooled, sui generis genius born out of nothing, but I’ve had a few decades to think about that.  At the time the freaky image was part of the attraction, and no doubt in some sense necessary for the grand project. 

Of course we also tended to think he was some crazy guy straight out of the Mojave desert: we knew that he came from Lancaster where he was best friends, later less so, with Frank Zappa.  But before he was a desert rat he lived in Los Angeles, at 3467 Waverly Drive, in the northeast corner of Los Feliz, a thoroughly pleasant suburban enclave right below Griffith Park; a great place to bring up kids then and now, you might think.

We also know that while he was at that address he was schooled, at least to the extent of attending art classes at the Griffith Park Zoo, where he was taught by a Portuguese artist named Agostinho Rodrigues.  When he was 10 years old Little Don Vliet (he wasn’t even van Vliet at that time, much less the Captain) won first prize in a 1951 sculpture competition run by the parks and recreation department, and made it into the local paper with his model of a polar bear.  The contest was monthly, and I don’t know how big the class it was, so winning it may not have been the greatest honor, though his polar bear looks just fine.

There are a few pictures of the lad from this period but I’ve never seen any of the family’s house, so I don’t know if the current 3467 Waverly Drive looks anything like the way it did back in 1951.  As far as that goes, I don’t know whether Don’s parents had the whole house or just part of it.  I’d assume the latter.  In the current configuration 3467 is the right half of the house, 3469 is the left half, and I think there are more than two dwellings in there.  When you peer round the side it looks as though the building’s been extended to make a small apartment block, though I’d guess the changes have been made post-1951.  

Waverley Drive is a long street but the young Don surely walked its length, in which case he’d have gone right past the LaBianca house.  At that time it would have been owned by the previous LaBianca generation, Antonio, who founded Gateway Markets and the State Wholesale Grocery Company.  It wasn’t till 1968 that the son Leon, who by then was running the family business,  bought the house from his mother and moved in with Rosemary his second wife. 

Photographs of the couple suggest they weren’t much influenced by alternative culture, but Lord knows there were some divergent energies abroad in Los Angeles at the time.  Even in this quiet suburban enclave, the LaBiancas’ neighbor, one Harold True, had thrown an “LSD party”, and some of the Manson family attended.  The day after they’d committed the Tate murders up on Cielo Drive, Manson instructed his followers to kill again.  They might easily have selected a different house and different victims, and if things had played out just a little differently the LaBiancas wouldn’t even have been home.  They they’d been to pick up Rosemary’s daughter Suzanne from Lake Isabella and had thought of staying there overnight but decided to come back late Saturday night rather than the following morning.

Manson had found the Tate killings needlessly chaotic, and to show his followers how it was done, he went into the house and tied up the LaBiancas with the minimum of fuss, so that the killings could be done in a nice orderly fashion.  I’ve done my best not to become a Manson obsessive, but if you need a full account of the events, I reckon Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is still the best.

Photographs from the time show the La Bianca house to have been remarkably accessible and vulnerable – a long straight driveway, no gates, the house visible and inviting at the top of the hill, yet a fair way from the street.

Some things are noticeably different at the house these days; the street number’s been changed for one thing, though that’s hardly bought them much privacy.  There’s now a gate across the entrance to the property, and you can see that a large separate garage with a second curving driveway has been built between the house and the street, at the very least providing protection from prying eyes, though not inevitably from Google. 

It still looks like a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood.  Would I personally want to live in it, given its history?  I suppose not, but if there price was right; everything’s negotiable. 

Charles Manson famously said to an interviewer:

My eyes are cameras. My mind is tuned to more television channels than exist in your world. And it suffers no censorship. Through it, I have a world and the universe as my own. So...know that only a body is in prison. At my will, I walk your streets and am right out there among you.

Captain Beefheart once sang:

my baby walked just like she did
walking on hard-boiled eggs with a --
there's a --she can steal them 
oh, I ain't blue no more, I saidlord,

Words to live by.