Bumpin’ on Sunset and Other California Tales

(Editor’s note: I decided against going back to the summer of 1977 in this post. Instead, let’s do July 2008, when The Mrs. and I spent a memorable week in California. What follows are edited-but-still-damn-lengthy highlights from a series of posts I wrote about the trip after we got home.)

Standing at the car-rental counter in Los Angeles, a pair of visiting Midwesterners contemplate, just for a moment, whether to upgrade to a convertible. They don’t, but as soon as they see a freeway exit for Sunset Boulevard, the Midwestern boy wants to drive it. . . . A look in the tour guide indicates, however, that what he really wants to see is the Sunset Strip, a mile-and-a-half section of the boulevard in West Hollywood that ends at the border with Beverly Hills.

Clogged with traffic and dense with advertising, the Strip holds little magic at 2:00 on a Monday afternoon, but it’s nevertheless a drive into the heart of American pop-cultural history. . . . Here’s the Chateau Marmont, where Jim Morrison claimed to have used up the eighth of his nine lives trying to climb onto the roof, and where John Belushi’s life finally ran out. There’s the Roxy, where Belushi started his final evening, and where John Lennon hung out during his Lost Weekend. There’s the Whisky-a-Go-Go, where several famous bands were launched, including the Buffalo Springfield (whose “For What It’s Worth” is about a 1966 riot on the Strip), the Byrds, and Alice Cooper, and where the Doors were the house band for a while. And here’s the Hyatt West Hollywood, known in the 70s as the “Riot Hyatt,” where rock stars raised room-trashing to an art form, and where the members of Zeppelin are supposed to have ridden motorcycles in the halls. Then it’s across the line into Beverly Hills, a place with its own unique claims on history. . . .

The Midwesterners have one day to spend in Los Angeles, so they decide they have to see Hollywood Boulevard, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and, because the weather is reasonably clear, the fabled Hollywood sign up in the hills. Stars on the Walk of Fame are arranged in no particular order, although some are in particular spots. For example, Roger Moore, who played James Bond in the movies, has a star at 7007 Hollywood Boulevard. The Midwesterners are amused by some of the juxtapositions: the star for Sean “Puffy” Combs is next to the star for Harriet Nelson, TV star of the 50s, wife of Ozzie, mother of Ricky. If Harriet Nelson is largely forgotten today, she’s not the only one. Receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame confers only a particular kind of immortality and not the real thing. For every star a visitor knows, there will be two or three requiring a moment to place, and some that most people couldn’t place at all. . . .

The Midwesterners are quick to notice that some of the stars honor radio people in addition to stars of the movies, television, music, and theater. A lot of radio stars come from the pre-television era. . . . Some radio people of enduring stardom and/or more recent vintage have received stars, including Alan Freed, Casey Kasem, Edward R. Murrow, Gary Owens, Rick Dees, and Vin Scully. There’s a distinct bias in favor of longtime L.A. jocks, although some of them hosted nationally syndicated shows: Charlie Tuna, the Real Don Steele, Lohman & Barkley, Mark & Brian, and Robert W. Morgan. Ryan Seacrest has one too, but he’s far more famous as a TV host than for his gigs hosting American Top 40 and radio shows in L.A. . . .

(Editor’s note: No Kevin and Bean star yet? I’d kick in five bucks to help ‘em get one.)

The Walk of Fame is actually more than 3 1/2 miles long, running not only on Hollywood Boulevard, but also on Vine Street. The corner of Hollywood and Vine is another famous Los Angeles spot, the location of the Capitol Records building. It’s considered to be one of the most architecturally unique buildings in Los Angeles, and is certainly ripe for the museum/restoration treatment received by the headquarters of legendary labels Motown and Stax. Capitol is no longer headquartered there, although the label’s famous recording studios remain. On the day when the Midwesterners are there, the label’s name on its famous facade is not visible, replaced by a banner promoting the new Coldplay album.

To leave Los Angeles for Santa Barbara, the Midwesterners find their way onto what Californians, and visiting Midwesterners, call “the 101.” . . . Taking the 101 up the coast runs the travelers through Camarillo, which has a link to music history. Jazz legend Charlie Parker was a guest at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in 1947, drying out from heroin addiction, and wrote “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” there. (Steely Dan name-checked the title in “Parker’s Band,” a track from Pretzel Logic.) Some people speculate that “Hotel California” might be, on some allegorical level, about a stay at Camarillo. The Midwestern girl, however, suggests that the real Hotel California is a motel in Santa Barbara. It has “in” arrows painted at both entrances but no corresponding “out” arrows anywhere—you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.

Santa Barbara is named for Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen and all who work with explosives. Her Wikipedia entry says “she is venerated by everyone who faces sudden and violent death in work,” which is why a T-shirt seen locally calls her “mistress of impending doom.” Named appropriately, then, for a city on an earthquake fault, Santa Barbara is where Los Angelenos go for the weekend, so it’s loaded with motels and hotels, trendy shops, restaurants, and bars of all sorts, and has plenty of mountainside mansions. Its eastern neighbor, Montecito, is even more exclusive: Oprah Winfrey has a place there, as do Carol Burnett, Steve Martin, John Cleese, Rob Lowe, Steven Spielberg, Ellen deGeneres, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the Midwestern boy’s favorite novelist, T. C. Boyle.

The Midwesterners sight only one celebrity during their week in southern California, however—70s pinup girl (and former member of Josie and the Pussycats) Cheryl Ladd stops at a winery they are visiting, but only for a moment. Rural Santa Barbara County is wine country (the movie Sideways is set there), and the Midwesterners indulge whenever possible. But it’s possible only for a while, a too-brief while, one they’re unlikely to forget, and very likely to revisit.

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