[11 June 2014]
As the cynosure of the counterculture, Eve Babitz knew everybody worth knowing; slept with everybody worth sleeping with and better still, made herself felt in every encounter.
Eve Babitz was one of the original party girl voices of Los Angeles who lived a typical life of hedonism endemic of both the city and the times. Except Babitz did it with brains and flair ─ even when she almost did it to death.
She is most famous for being photographed naked playing chess with Dada doyen Marcel Duchamp, as a Sunset Strip groupie, and for designing albums covers for epochal ‘60s bands like Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. She’s the daughter of self-trained artist Mae, who had a passion for quickly sketching as many of the old buildings that she could, to preserve in pictures, a rapidly changing L.A. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a Bach scholar and also worked as first violin for Twentieth Century Fox.
Indeed, the arts would appear to be in her genes, even her great-aunt on her father’s side was silent-film star Vera Gordon and her godfather was composer Igor Stravinsky. By the time Babitz was a young adult, when most people were just starting to discover their inner bohemian, that whole trip to her would have already seemed so passé, given her very liberal artistic upbringing.
With so many immanent connections to Hollywood screen and sound (Gordon died just days before Babitz’s fifth birthday) as part of her socio-biology, it’s no wonder that Babitz found the lumpy mattress that is L.A., where so many others writhe in discomfort, quite comfortable for herself.
From the ‘70s on, Babitz wrote a handful of books documenting the anagnorisis of L.A., as if the city itself was a character in Greek tragedy. Hollywood is almost like the Olympus of the modern era; full of gods who have their own unique crucibles in mind for the people down below; toying with them; tormenting them like pagan gods do. As gambits are highly sought after in Hollywood, every now and again, to appease the Gods, a few aspirants must be sacrificed for the utilitarian good of every other hopeful.
She was referred to as the Edie Sedgwick of Los Angeles. Edie was also originally a California native but floated East, hitting all the best psychiatric wards on her way to landing in the biggest one of them all: The Factory. Aside from their shared place in the demimonde, Eve’s cogent incision and self-possession was the antithesis of a very befuddled Edie in the throes of a grim decline. Edie’s abusive old money upbringing of blue-blooded Protestant stuffiness was poles apart from the Babitz’s, who wouldn’t know anything of inculcating obscurantism and shame in their children.
My introduction to Babitz’s writing was by way of her Esquire article from 1991 (“Roll Over Elvis: The Second Coming of Jim Morrison”) ─ sent to me by my perspicacious friend and L.A. transplant, Duke ─ about her one-time former lover Jim Morrison that coincided with the release of the Oliver Stone biopic.
Babitz owned ‘70s L.A. with her words, and coloured it by her ‘60s party girl experiences as a shapely social muse to rock stars and artists. She had mind of her own and an utter disregard for their fame. She was no idolater. Even the dithyrambic gyrations of Morrison didn’t turn her into a maenad. Her appraisal of Morrison is straight from the shoulder, she was one or two levels of cool higher than him, but then again, Babitz had a head start that even a precocious reader of Nietzsche and Rimbaud would always struggle to contend with even if he’d managed to try and read every book in the library like the autodidact did in Sartre’s Nausea.
“He never really stopped being a fat kid. He used to suggest, ‘Let’s go to Ships and eat blueberry pancakes with blueberry syrup.’ ‘It’s so fattening,’ I would point out. I mean really. Jim was embarrassing because he wasn’t cool, but I still loved him. It was his mouth, of course, which was so edible. Just so long as he kept his James Dean smolder, it worked. But it takes a lot of downers to achieve that on a full time basis.”
The rest of the counterculture caught on to Morrison’s lack of cool a few years later but Babitz’s loving judgment was at the vanguard. The Lizard King was basically an alcoholic and the smart set just didn’t do that, only the austere post-WWII consumer obsessed bourgeoisie.
After deftly apprehending the breezy locus of Hollywood with a neat turn of phrase, she launches into a trenchant denouncement of the film, calling Stone’s military background into question, writing “why anyone in the 60’s would join the Army, would go to Vietnam and become part of the war and murder and atrocity, when the action for Real Men was on Sunset Strip, the Lower East Side, and in San Francisco. Why did he join them, and why is he now in love with our Jim?”
Her feelings for Stone aside, I fell in love with her writing style from that article alone, and was only too devastated to learn that most of her books were all out-of-print. Used copies were floating around at exorbitant prices and after a long wait I just happened to find a mint-condition copy of her second book, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. at a local charity shop for seven bucks.
I’m sure the good people who donate their time to the Brotherhood of St. Lawrence used book store have never heard of Babitz and for the sake of my hip pocket, I’m glad they hadn’t. It’s a leaner win for the homeless than it should have been, because in all seriousness I would’ve paid much more, but I’ll have plenty of time to expiate my diddling of extra blankets and canned goods at food drives for many years to come. I bet Babitz never expected to be helping the lumpenproletariat all the way down here in the Southern Hemisphere.
The book is prefaced by a requiem for the possibility of love and the dedicatee is a man who seemingly doesn’t like to read; whose attention she can’t get, especially in writing. That is unless that writing is about him. She says “The seduction of a non-reader is how I plan to tie- up L.A.”
Slow Days, Fast Company is infectious and highly readable, I mean who else but Babitz could make a weekend on a vineyard in Bakersfield seem interesting ─ a place where the topography is “so flat that mirages of water on the road appeared closer than anywhere else.” I now know more about grape varieties than I ever thought I would. Thompsons; Exotics; Cardinals and the inferiority of wine grapes. How it takes three years for vines to produce grapes that are only fit for a winery and in the fourth year is when they can be commercially sold.
There’s even tension between the Chavistas and those who defected to the Teamsters Union. The lionised figures of public interest aren’t the star attraction of this book. It’s the way she spins the most unremarkable of bagatelles with florid élan that gets you hooked.
She flirts with the idea of a maiden heroin high at the possibility of one of her books entering the bestsellers list and turning her into a celebrity. That I can understand, I mean being famous sounds like a lot of work, it’s better to feed off the fame of others and let them die from it. My stomach would be so coiled with anxiety at this prospect that I think I’d self- immolate in some grand Biblical display of protest. If only Noah had offered up celebrity burnt offerings to God, but they aren’t as clean as animals or birds, plus plastic doesn’t burn ─
it melts. It’s a city where “ninety-nine percent presumably live half-lives of expectation” and when that expectation isn’t reciprocated then Hollywood is referred to as “this town”.
Babitz ‘s ultimate gift is her mot-justes in transmuting the alien world of the L.A. environs into print for us outsiders to understand. Its specious vistas of orange sunsets and jacarandas enveloping fatuous cavities of living breathing subatomic organisms that call L.A. home, until they realise that the city doesn’t want them anymore.
It seldom rains but when it does, Port’s was the place to be for Babitz and crowds of others. The sunny climate never forces the introspection that L.A. denizens pathologically avoid, but once in a while it rains, and it’s cathartic and it must be done at Port’s, and preferably on downers. I must admit that downers and rain are a perfect combination, where your muscles can wilt with the gushing clouds and allow for a solid recrudescence the next day, but legend has it that today’s downers have got nothing on Quaaludes.
Babitz knows what fame smells like, an olfactory cannonade of “burnt cloth and rancid gardenias”, and what happens to real relationships and friends the moment somebody got their “everything” but found only fame, instead. There is a grace period when newly famous people can grab a few regular people as friends before they are only permitted to hang out with other celebrities.
In Slow Days, Fast Company Babitz, “Eve”, here, circumnavigated fame while riding alongside it ─ keeping a close watch on it with a haute insouciance ─ except never on the Interstate. Eve hates driving on the freeway as much as her new antsy friend Nikki does ─ who can’t drive on the Interstate if there are other cars on the road ─ which is why it was such an onerous task travelling to Palm Springs with Nikki and all those damn cars that just don’t quit. Nikki is a migraine plagued socialite, shrinking violet and wife of a hip San Francisco attorney who suffers infirmities both in body, mind and respect to the hangovers of others.
The pair are like underage girls trying to get a ride from an older friend. Eve ropes in her trusty homosexual photographer friend and lover du jour Shawn (strangely, her most stable relationship in the book) to drive them; who in absentia earns Nikki’s trust and fascination because of his colour-blindness. But a photo shoot runs late and Nikki’s enthusiasm is waning as Eve tries to not to let “Nikki’s attention wander off on its own where it might get a headache.” After reading this, you may also start getting stricter on friends who arrive a half hour late and apologise for that they kept you waiting for 15minutes. What happened to the other 15minutes? It seems that is merely a grace period and not counted in real time.
Babitz has that strange paradoxical relationship to L.A. much like my friend Duke, who has been pushing a boulder up that hill daily for over 20 years. They’re living outside of it but within it ─ like an outer-city experience. But for a few seconds each day, a guy like Duke can feel some ephemeral satisfaction right before that boulder rolls all the way back down. It seems that few seconds of satisfaction is what keeps him going.
Now I’m going to have to search for her other books, lest I suffer withdrawals from the absence of her voice in my head. Babitz makes you want to be close to her. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be so lucky the next time I find one of her other out-of-print rarities. I’m sure that the next seller I encounter will be little more shrewd and that not one penny of my money will go towards helping the indigent.
Otherwise, I’ll see if Duke can lend me his copy of the even rarer Eve’s Hollywood ─ which was a gift from a munificent friend ─ but he’s all the way on
the other side of the world on Babitz ‘s alien planet somewhere between here and eternity, so perhaps I’ll force him to read it to me over the phone. Where growing up means moving to San Francisco, it seems de León might have missed the real fountain of youth, seeing as Florida is where people go to embrace their senescence with early bird dinners and water aerobics.
Everything is just in L.A. Some are “just friends” and other are “just lovers” but “just friends” never criticise your weight or your shoes. Nothing will ever pin Babitz down and I like a woman who can slip through my fingers because if I ever caught her, she would be boring. Perhaps some of Eve’s je ne sais quoi is drawn from the uncrystallised mythos of her Hollywood surrounds, while the rest of her is subsumed by the pen of a capable yet reluctant sui generis writer whose unconcern is exactly where her charm lies. Even her mordant observations have an amiability to them.
Yet within this vacuum of malefic uniformness, Babitz extracts an interesting group of unique characters, which owes as much to nuance as it does to typology. As Pascal said, “The more intelligent one is, the more men of originality one finds. Ordinary people find no difference between men.” Every quirk and mannerism is embossed in her rich tableau and she seems to know which corners of a largely homogenous milieu to scour in order to find the most interesting people. As the cynosure of the counterculture, Babitz knew everybody worth knowing; slept with everybody worth sleeping with and better still, made herself felt in every encounter.
If dreaming is illusion of illusion then waking life in L.A. seems to be three times removed from the highest reality we can achieve through our senses. A city where relationships, reputations and careers are as tenuous as the San Andreas Fault, L.A. is flux theory personified. I guess it makes sense why nobody there wants to be weighted down with contemplation, intelligence or body fat. If the ground were to splinter all those deep thinkers with average bodies would be the first to fall into the fissure and all those vacuous angels in their second-first-flush-of-life with their designer nimbuses will ascend into timelessness.
Right in between stands Babitz ─ resilient as always ─ holding onto her mother’s series of sketches in one hand and her own books in the other, showing us what L.A. once was, as all that “Hollywoodness” drains into the chasms waiting to spring up again the next time it rains.