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(June 19, 2008)

          Los Angeles Magazine has been running a poll for some time asking people to pick the single greatest thing about L.A..My choice: “To not live in L.A.,” was not available.
          Neither was “Three-day weekends in L.A., when about 30 to 40 percent of the beasts leave town and things get quiet like they were 30 years ago.”
          Ah, but I am too cynical for you!
          Okay, I might have picked, as a longshot, the UCLA Film Preservation Festival at the Bridges Theater on campus, where one could quietly sit with film appreciators and watch things you are not likely to see anywhere else, ever again.
          Except they’ve moved the festival from the bucolic, pine-scented north corner of UCLA to the glitzy new Billy Wilder Theater at the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood. With all the crazy white neon tubes running toward the screen that no one has yet sued over for inducing epileptic fits. But it’s only a matter of time.
          My other candidates: L.A. Opera (if they’d only junk that garish, grotesque Herb Ross “Boheme” they keep reviving every other year, and dump director Ian "Penetration" Judge), the L.A. Philharmonic, jasmine-perfumed summer nights, and did I mention L.A. Opera? That’s it for me. This place crucified its charm long ago on a cross of cars.
          L.A., or what it has become, has all the allure and attractiveness of the Boston Celtics’ uniforms after a game. Jock straps included. Density and development greased by practically nonexistent city and county governments have destroyed this place the way Kirstie Alley destroys a Boston cream pie at midnight. You can’t afford to live here anymore, and if you can, why would you want to?
          But lest this turn into too foaming a rant, I want to focus on just one little point about the L.A. Mag survey, specifically a comment by’s redoubtable Kevin Roderick:
          "Los Angeles magazine's many-month contest to let readers choose the single greatest thing about L.A. probably fizzled credibility-wise that first round when McCabe’s Guitar Shop beat the Hollywood Bowl."
          Fizzled credibility-wise? Eh? Why, that choice gives the poll nothing but credibility! The Hollywood Bowl over McCabe's? Such establishment L.A. attitude does to my brain what Bush did to Iraq.  Quick, get the drug-sniffing hounds! Xanax might have something to do with this.
          That L.A. Mag's pithy readers chose McCabe's over the preening jackass orgy that the Bowl has become is yet another indicator of the thrilling, but undervoiced, backlash against SLAT (Standard L.A. Think) to be found in enlightened quarters in the remains of this once accessible and fairly friendly city.
          No, you won’t find any serious anti-L.A. sentiments on the indispensable or Larry Mantle and Patt Morrison's fine programs on KPCC, or other old-guardians of L.A. mystique. These venerable journalists still treat this evil place as if it is just a big city with big city problems. And given the hideousness of most cities these days, they might be right! But me, I cling to more idealistic, if nostalgic, standards. Such as. . .pleasantry.
          I mean, proponents of SLAT still believe that the coagulated, necrotic freeways are merely a "tough drive," as the Trafficnewsmannequin cliche goes, and not actually worse than Voodoo Hell with Dick Cheney. And that $3 million avant-garde designer homes going up in what used to be working class neighborhoods are cool. And that L.A. actually has a mayor and a government looking out for the public interest. (Editorial comment here.) And that a one-day drizzle is a (gasp) "storm," and 110 degrees is "warm." And that the Dodgers are still worth seeing, despite the McCourts charging $150 for a Dodger Dog, and $500 to park (okay, I exaggerate a little, but home plate tickets are $400.) And that all the ethnic "mix" here is just a grand multi-cultural simmering L.A. stew, never mind that the ethnicities are all more separate, suspicious, and boiling-over paranoid of each other than ever before.
          But I am getting carried away. Mr. Roderick was merely extolling the virtues of the Hollywood Bowl over McCabe’s Guitar Shop.
          Well. . .
          Last time I attempted to go to the Bowl was perhaps ten years ago. And you're talking to a guy who was an L.A. Philharmonic Bowlhead throughout the 70's and occasionally during the 80's, when freelance writing checks permitted. On this particular venture, it took an hour and thirty minutes on surface streets on a Thursday night to reach the fabled outdoor amphitheatre, from the West Side. (Need you ask why I took surface streets?)
          Correct: 90 minutes of my life went pffffft because I wanted to hear a little Mozart at the Bowl. Man, I could have done a lot of things with those 90 minutes. Written letters pleading for peace on earth. Watched an episode of “Dr. Who.” Taken a nice nap. Gone to the animal shelter to feel sorry for the dogs. Built a Lego donut. Written this.
          Anyhow, once at the Bowl, I’m afraid that my fun-night-out state of mind was such that I gladly would have tossed grenades to clear traffic. Really. But seeing the sign proclaiming "Parking $10" (now $14 to a testicle-grinding $30!) actually made everything better, clearer, because it gave all the information required to realize that. . .this was not actually fun.
          At which point I turned the car around and drove home like a new Mustang in a Sunday morning diamond lane, screaming, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty I am free at last!" Threw in a few dozen rounds of swearing amid proclamations that I would never again attempt to have a fun night out at the Hollywood Bowl.
          And I have kept my word.
          Wait! There’s more:
          Back in the ancient, barely remembered '90's, I did manage to attend a few concerts at what was once so lyrically known as Daisy Dell. Long gone, I found, were the days when average attendance was perhaps a few thousand. The dump was Japanese bullet-train-crowded with determined, picnic-toting fun-seekers (we used to bring Col. Sanders.) Long gone, too, were the days when one might craftily "sneak into the empty boxes" at intermission. For that matter, long gone were the days when one could even afford a box seat, if they were available---and most weren't, long since having been purchased by corporations and celebrities. The Bowl, in short, had become a plaything of the obscenely rich.
          Once inside, though, you could tell that the joint was chocked full of real music lovers. The way they hummed and tapped their feet to Beethoven's Fifth was a dead giveaway. (For 20 seconds or so, until it got boring.) No, the average Bowler had come to the Bowl to. . .be at the Bowl. To be seen at the Bowl. To dine at the Bowl. To get blotto on Burgundy at the Bowl, then kick the wine bottle over and let it roll for about ten seconds during a pianissimo passage in the Schumann piano concerto. To laugh raucously and answer a cell phone at the Bowl. And you think talking during movies is a problem (outside south-central, where we are told it is a "cultural" phenomenon)? Bowl attendees yap about hedge funds and sports during Mahler.
          The music? It's nice, yeah, but really it's just the stuff you sit through/snore loudly through/hope you can stay drunk enough to endure before you have to drive home. They played good. How come there were no fireworks?
          My very favorite little modern-era Bowl moment, if you'll indulge me, was certainly the night I was reviewing a concert there, and had (happily) been given a box seat. This was perhaps before most of you were born, back in 1992. My then-wife and I had set our coats down on two of the four seats in the box, then gone off in search of bathrooms. When we returned, not ten minutes later, we found, to our absolute astonishment, a pair of young gay men in our box. Having a gay old time.
          Which is to say, they had folded up our chairs, dumped our coats on top of them (my wife’s coat had landed on the ground), and set up a gay little candelabra-lighted dining experience for their precious selves---taking up the entire box. There they sat, gaily toasting their wine glasses and inspecting their gay little Bowl gourmet delectables. And this was ten minutes---ten minutes---before concert time! Nope, nothing was going to gaily deter these lovely fellows from their little romantic supper! Especially not two gauche coats draped over chairs in order to "hold" them. Tacky.
          When I (somewhat politely) informed these refined souls that, “Those are our seats and coats you have pushed into a corner,” I swear they looked mildly bored and said---without making eye contact---we should come back when they were finished dining. If memory serves, I believe I then addressed them in words that were not very gay, but that only seemed to amuse them, and they went on sucking their coq du vin. I would have gladly cleared them out with grenades, too, at that point. Really.
          Well, what these fine young coq du vin-suckers didn't realize was that they were messing with a guy with a secret identity. Because I happened to be a working critic that night, I had clout, and soon the gay lads and their goddamn candelabra were escorted out of the box and, I hope, given nice seats in Reseda.
          But I have raged far too long here. It's been fun.
          McCabe's Guitar Shop is a beam of light in the gathering L.A. darkness. It is sweet old-fashionedness amid trashy glitz and unabashed flaunting of wealth. It is a night on the Old Mississippi, a bird chirp, a blooming bed of summer petunias. Tickets still have much in common with birds (cheep!), the venue is small and intimate, there are no bad seats, and the acts they've had through the years are top-tier (as a forthcoming tribute to McCabe's as part of the UCLA Live! Series attests.)
          McCabe’s has long been a Mecca for serious musicians, and while the L.A. Phil won't fit inside, the largeness of the musical experience has often been comparable to a night at the Music Center (or maybe the Bowl, if you are in Stephen Spielberg’s box.) McCabe's remains a find, a steal, and is a duly venerated institution. And there are no---repeat, no---candelabras to be found anywhere. It is as unpretentious as the Bowl isn’t. Plus, if you cruise the neighborhood, there is. . .free parking.
        Choosing McCabe's over the Bowl is not, apparently, an L.A. Observation that Mr. Roderick is comfortable with, but to each his own. Yet I must also note that in his SLAT comment about this, he has implied additional ludicrousness concerning the latest L.A. Mag survey question:
          ". . .and now it's down to two final choices: the weather or, um, Amoeba Music."
          Can there be any doubt? L.A. sunlight is like a Gitmo interrogator. It never leaves you alone. At Amoeba, you can find just about any kind of music ever recorded, buy it, take it home, and listen to it without paying $30 for parking or suffering through wine-sodden conversation about hedge funds.
          That's pure sunshine to me.

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