[10 June 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There have been many a song and album written about Los Angeles. One of the obvious ones is “L.A. Woman” by the Doors, but there’s also Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”, Frank Black’s “Los Angeles” and X’s entire first debut album, also entitled Los Angeles. You could also point to not so obvious examples like the Flying Burrito Bros. “Sin City”, which is not about Las Vegas, but about the capital of sun and sleaze.
With so many artists positioned in the L.A. scene and so many of them willing to write about the city—Barney Hoskyns’ book up for review here, Waiting For the Sun, lists up to four pages of songs written about L.A. at the back of the book—it’s probably no surprise that a book tracking the trajectory of the L.A. scene was inevitable.
Hoskyns’ book is actually a reprinting of a tome that originally, and strangely, was first published in Great Britain in hardcover in 1996, and then in paperback in 2003 in the same place. It is only finally making its stateside debut now, nearly 15 years after the fact, and, disappointingly, it is not an update of the original. That means that this book only covers the L.A. music scene up to about the early ‘90s or so—the book ends strangely on a chapter about white hip hop maestro Beck, who arguably hasn’t had a relevant album since Odelay. If anyone is looking for illumination on exciting up-and-coming L.A. acts like No Age and Abe Vigoda, they will need to look elsewhere for their fix.
Still, Waiting For The Sun, which takes its name from a song by the Doors, is a reasonably comprehensive history of the L.A. music scene, covering a time period from the 1930s (the city’s black jazz and R & B scene), coming full circle to the early 1990s (the city’s burgeoning gangsta rap scene). Points inbetween that are covered include the surf rock era (Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys), the folk-rock era (the original Byrds), the country rock era (latter period Byrds, the Flying Burrito Bros.), the psychedelic era (Love, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa), and onward to the singer-songwriter boom of the Laurel Canyon scene of the ‘70s (Warren Zevon, Neil Young, et al.) Also touched upon are the city’s glam rock scene of the early ‘70s, the Paisley Underground scene of the early ‘80s, and the metal and alternative rock scenes that sprung up in the ‘80s as well.
One thing that the book does well is trace how one scene would beget another, and how artists—such as Brian Wilson—had to adapt to survive the transitions. Hoskyns also shows that artists who stuck to their guns, like the immortal Phil Spector (who patented his wall of sound technique in Los Angeles), seemed to just fade away and disappear—in Spector’s case, into a haze of madness that saw him pulling guns in the studio in the ‘70s, without much in the way of hit singles to his name.
Hoskyns paints his L.A. as a place that was almost a white Aryan wonderland: a place of fun in the sun, a place of fast cars, a place of endless sand and surf, a place of “two girls for every boy.” But he also is out to uncover the grime of the scene: the drugs that imploded some artists’ careers, the simmering race relations that got out of hand in the Watts riots of 1966 and again in the Rodney King riots of 1992.
It’s hard to say what Hoskyns thinks of the city. On one hand, he paints it as a vital city in the development of many pop music genres from the ‘50s onward, but he also has a finger on the pulse of the impending “Armageddon” that was threatening to undo L.A. by the ‘90s, with its riots, looming natural disasters and celebrity murder trails. It’s certainly a love-hate relationship that the author has with the city, and it provides for some tension between the book covers. (Though Hoskyns now lives in London, he was stationed in L.A. as a writer for New Musical Express in the early ‘80s.)
However, if one were to nit-pick, Waiting For The Sun is probably too jam packed with information. It would have been almost better to divide the book up into a series of books covering each decade of the music scene, because there is such an exhausting, endless stream of artists and backing groups, talent scouts, hit singles (and flop singles), and clubs that it makes for a rather unfocused, unsettling read. What’s particularly annoying is that Hoskyns interjects his own opinions about the quality of songs that were coming out of L.A., which is hard to judge without having heard of some of the underground hits that Hoskyns uncovers.
Although there are a few interviews that are original to the book—such as Hoskyns’ tragic interview with the now-deceased Love frontman Arthur Lee in 1993, who was crumbling under the weight of psychosis at the time—much of the material here is just rehashed from other sources. Music fans wanting to know, for instance, the impact of Charles Manson’s murders on the L.A. music scene might be better off picking up a copy of Helter Skelter, which goes into far greater detail than the five or so pages Hoskyns offers up.
The book offers up sins of omission, as well. Hoskyns has barely anything to say about the ultimate album of So-Cal hedonism, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, possibly because half the band was made up of ex-pat Britons. Hoskyns also considers latter albums by Steely Dan as playing a role in the Southern California mystique, although the Dan had retreated to New York by this time and was using session musicians from the jazz scene there.
Still, Waiting For The Sun is an occasionally engaging read, and certainly is a fairly comprehensive one at that. Who its target audience is might be a bit of a question mark, as baby boomers will probably only connect with the first half of the book dealing with the ‘60s and ‘70s, while Gen Xers and Yers might find the latter half of the book dealing with what Hoskyns calls “Noo Wave” and punk a little bit rushed. Still, the book proves that there’s a lot more to Los Angeles than just surf and sand, and that there might just be plenty more songs about the city in the years to come.