From the Archives: Scoring in Los Angeles (1979)

A futuristic guide to life in the fast lane.
Los Angeles
Courtesy High Times

By Victor Bockris

I like to get what I need in the place I’m visiting, because scoring adds another dimension to the trip. I presumed it would be easy in L.A., but the first thing “Clarissa” said when I arrived at the airport was, “I hope you brought some of that good New York coke.”

“No, as a matter of fact…” “Oh shit! It’s really expensive out here, and it’s usually been stepped on so much. Luckily I happen to have the best connection, but the cheapest is $125 a gram.” “Yeah. I’d like to get some grass too.”

“There’s a shortage. I haven’t seen any in weeks.” It took four days to find an ounce. During the search, I asked the dealers why. There are a lot of very rich people who use drugs, and the movie and record companies often write off “drug budgets” as part of their expenses. I heard things like: “They spent $200,000 for coke on such and such a movie,” and “So and so walked off the set of his latest because they wouldn’t include a coke budget.” Therefore the dealers who have good drugs have no reason to be interested in the buyer who wants one gram when they can be making big sales on a regular basis. If you were a drug dealer and you moved to Hollywood, you would gradually phase out your smaller customers, because you could be making more money dealing with fewer people in a safer situation.

“Michelle” told me: “Los Angeles is based upon prestige. Here prestige comes from money. Money is a language.” If California were a country on its own, it would be the eighth richest country in the world. Angelenos are naturally attracted to money. In the supermarket the cashier gives you a little card with your change. You scrape it with your fingernail and a number appears. If you hit the jackpot, you win $777.77. I never saw anybody win, but we stood around scraping those cards just as soon as we got them.

The third day I was there someone asked me to participate in a golden chain letter. “If you’ll invest $100 in cash right now, you are guaranteed to make $300,000 in six months.” She was a nice girl, and quite serious about it. I tried to point out the fallacy, but I couldn’t help liking her let’s-make-some-money attitude. After a week, I was saying “Let’s make a deal” regularly. In Los Angeles you are surrounded by so much luxury, whether you possess it or not becomes almost irrelevant. In Los Angeles, you are rich.

I stayed at the Tropicana Motor Hotel on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, ten minutes from Beverly Hills. The Hollywood-Beverly Hills area is where a majority of the most interesting Angelenos live and play. The Tropicana is located in the middle of it. It is run by a friendly young staff. The rooms are comfortable, cheap—my large suite cost $33 a night—and the other guests are not unpleasant to look at. Duke’s, its coffee shop, is a fabulous place to eat.

The “Trop” also has its legends, which lend a distilled elegance to its slightly faded facade. This is where Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey filmed Heat, with Joe Dallesandro and Sylvia Miles. Tom Waits lives in one of the cottages out back. Providing a scenario for traveling musicians, photographers, writers and hustlers, it is often referred to as the “Chelsea West.” In an unpretentious way, the Trop lives up to its promise. Its atmosphere will facilitate your necessary adjustment to the extremely pleasant rhythm of daily life in Los Angeles.

Which it is only natural to initially fight. By the fifth day I caught myself thinking: “Er… take it easy, Vic. Why not lie out by the pool for a few hours? I mean, this is California, man; you’re missing out on the experience cooped up in your room all day writing about why you hate people.” But I couldn’t see how to make the transition without losing the majority of my energy.

I needn’t have worried. The pace of L.A.’s perpetual spring climate makes life’s intricate days much simpler. After a while, gnawing concern about getting everything done evaporates, because everything, from going shopping and parking the car to getting your laundry done in an hour while talking on the telephone, is so easy.

There is little friction between people. Even the exchanges with shopkeepers, gas-station attendants and waiters are so charmingly handled that, just as one’s skin gradually changes from a pale sickly green to beige, one’s nerves straighten from a mangle of barbed wires to make a series of smooth connections. The soothing sunshine complements the pretty space. Undisturbed, the Los Angeles environment treats its organisms remarkably well. As Reyner Banham affirms in his superb book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies: “Los Angeles remains one of the ecological wonders of the habitable world.”

Ecology is that science which studies the relationship between an organism and its environment: in order to understand this city, which, ironically, attracts so much scorn, I became an organism in the Los Angeles environment and spent a month learning the city’s language.

To mention one amusing result that anyone can understand right away, sex is notoriously better in L.A. I started to pick up on this the evening of the fifth day. A friend invited me to the Mater Dei High School football championship finals in Santa Ana. “Don” has a Lotus Europa, and after turning on and tuning up at a Taco Hut, I found myself gazing up at the electrographic architecture of uninterrupted neon from where I lay in the passenger racing seat as the car rocketed down the freeway in the balmy night and thinking, “California is exactly what you imagine it will be.”

We walked into the arena during the intermission. Here were three or four thousand well-fed, well-dressed, relatively smart and uniformly beautiful “perfect Aryan” teenagers excitedly sitting in this glaringly lit, oval stadium with nothing to do. The score was zero-zero.

I looked down onto the brilliant green field and saw six blond girls. They were wearing yellow knee socks, brown skirts and yellow sweaters and were running through their routine, bursting with sex. The combination of the swift drive in the Lotus, excellent grass acquired from a student and my first sight of live cheerleaders, sweat glistening on their supple flesh in the giant spotlights, got me so hot that within seconds of entering this magic arena of teenagers I was jumping up and down, clapping and pointing out the cutest to Don, ignoring the fact that I was making a spectacle of myself before these pediatricians, executives and detectives of the future. A few hundred of them turned their attention on me, and as the teams ran back onto the field I was dragged down into the stands and found myself surrounded by grinning kids.

Two minutes into the second half Mater Dei scored a touchdown: it was as if my unexpected, unexplainable and unrepeatable presence had been a signal from some messenger in a Cocteau scenario. Pandemonium ensued. They started to push me onto the field to jump with the cheerleaders, who were also focusing their attention on me, pointing and cracking up as they performed their frenzied victory dance. The energy being directed toward my image was phenomenal. I was actually about to make my way onto the field and grab the microphone from the deejay, who was trying to maintain contact with an audience he was clearly losing, when a stab of intuition held me back. Seconds later I sensed the hysteria was about to drown us in a tidal wave of rejection for being too strange. I was dressed in some variation of a New York punk outfit. “Let’s get the fuck outa here!” Don suddenly yelled. I saw fear in his eyes. We ran out of that arena fast, sprinting away into the night like the spirits we had somehow become for those magic 15 minutes.

Driving home, drenched in sweat and exhausted, we talked about it, although there was little to say except “What the fuck was that about?” It did seem magic at the time. What it was about more than anything else was the eternal delight of electric energy. This visit to Mater Dei gave me an enormous boost. And by the end of my first week in L.A., I found that I had begun swimming every day, friends were beginning to swarm by and I was eager to see more and more people. I was drying off in the sun one morning when the poolside phone rang and it was “Valerie” inviting me to drive out to Cal Arts, where “I am a film instructor,” that afternoon. She said she would pick me up at one.

During this very beautiful drive she explained that in the ’50s Walt Disney went to Europe and everyone asked him to speak, so he got the idea people thought of him as an intellectual. He concluded that he should endow an institute devoted to film making, so he put up the money for the Cal Arts Film School. His idea was that there should be ramps from which the public could watch the students learning. He wanted to create an environment in which the students and teachers could live in harmony. Herbert Marcuse was going to be the first president, but then he and Angela Davis were discovered swimming nude in the pool at midnight. (That could be a rumor.) The problem is Walt died before the place was perfected. They call Cal Arts “Disney’s Last Dream.”

After Valerie had rattled off this info, simultaneously driving and rolling a slim joint, she directed my attention, which had been darting between her and the breathtaking desert landscapes on the outskirts of L.A., to the driving conditions. Except on the freeways, everyone drives gracefully and slowly. “Los Angeles is the only city in the world where the architecture was created to be viewed at 15 miles an hour,” says David Hockney in British Vogue. The danger is that you get hypnotized by the montage of forever-lush brightly colored visuals, think you’re in a movie, and space out. But you have to concentrate, because the L.A. traffic cops are mean. In the late ’60s a new breed of California police officer—often Vietnam veterans—spread throughout California. Now, the highest rates of alcoholism, divorce and suicide exist in the L.A. police force, with its inbred sense of minority paranoia. Driving drunk or stoned, I was warned by everyone, will get you treated extremely harshly.

Freeway driving is a satisfying, physical experience. It creates an uplifting feeling of vastness and relaxation. Angelenos have the most advanced car culture in the world. Drivers on the freeways have worked out a system of communication with each other. You get between two cars that are speeding; if either car slows down, it has spotted a police car. As long as you’re in the middle you’ll always be warned in time. This convoy driving is done consciously, with drivers voluntarily taking the point positions. Some people apparently develop these intense intercar relationships, overtaking each other with frosty glares, leapfrogging back and forth around each other and generally using the machine to harass. Whenever I drove, I reflected on how sharp my vision was, how alive and “in” the present I felt. Again, the environment has provided a superior situation for its organisms.

I felt like I was in the future, walking down the wide, empty, shining corridors at Cal Arts with “Juliette,” who was conducting the guided tour. There were very few people around. She told me that no one ever goes to classes and nothing happens. I spent a couple of hours in the empty building full of expensive unused equipment.

FILM MAKING IS TOO DIFFICULT FOR ME reads a sign someone painted on the wall in the basement. Further down the hall there is a GOOD FUCK door, on which a list of names is drawn. After a while I asked Juliette where the people were; I had seen someone waft around a corner, but he seemed to be doing little more than wafting. “They’re over by the pool,” she said.

Most of the students over by the pool were naked. Someone was playing a flute in an upstairs room, and the music wandered over the idyllic scene, from which there was nothing lacking except a bar. Juliette said, “We don’t need a bar because we all take drugs.” On cue, a security guard ran by saying he had just repelled a raid by a group of ten year olds.

“I guess they wanted to see the cocks and tits,” someone said. But, “No,” the guard replied, catching his breath, “they’re after the marijuana.” The students grow their own.

Los Angeles is a misunderstood, unique city that deserves a much better reputation than it has. As an inhabitant of Manhattan, I am often accosted around the States with extremely negative remarks about the place I live in, and I find them to be exclusively based upon ignorance. As a recent champion of Los Angeles, I have found an equally high and caustic level of response to that place, also based on boring, useless ignorance. There is no sense in comparing Los Angeles to any other city in the world, because the factors that combined to create it are extremely unusual. In fact, nothing remotely like it could ever occur again.

An almost perfect climate, which reigns over a large area of extremely fertile earth, provided the initial inhabitants (1781) with a solid basis of wealth in land and field produce. Around the turn of this century, vast quantities of oil were discovered, and oil quickly became an important primary industry. When the first movie was made in 1910, Los Angeles was well on its way to becoming a wealthy town with a population of 800,000 who had come from the Midwest, Mexico and Europe. It was the end of a geographical frontier but the beginning of a mental one.

By 1930, Hollywood had attracted its unconventional and truly unrepeatable population of genius, neurosis, skill, charlatanry, beauty, vice, talent and eccentricity. While other cities have had to invest centuries in accumulating their cultured and leisure classes, Los Angeles has witnessed the greatest concentration of imaginative produce in the history of man in less than a hundred years. No city has ever been produced by such a perfect mixture of space, wealth, talent and natural resources.

Los Angeles has continued to develop and so remains our most modern city in many vital ways. If there are American traditions, there is no better place to inspect them than in Los Angeles, where to speak in superlatives, believe what isn’t true, dress dramatically and tackle the impossible are habits. Unlike other cities, where people are squashed together in a labyrinth of cultural monuments that control their growth, Los Angeles has room to make changes that the conventional metropolis cannot contemplate. This sense of possibilities ahead is a vital part of the basic lifestyle of L.A., where people want to live in the present. One provocative current idea envisions L.A. as a model for our first space platforms.

After graduating from Mater Dei and Cal Arts, I called Professor Timothy Leary. He is an outspoken champion of Los Angeles, and I wanted to hear what he had to say about it. I also wanted to alert him to the fact that William Burroughs was flying out and would be staying at the Tropicana for a week.

Leary, 62, who currently lives in a West Hollywood studio apartment from which he issues books and stories out on lecture tours, was initially hard to reach because he is always rushing off somewhere. Our phone calls continually missed each other’s until, one night, walking into a petite, tasteful restaurant called Oscar’s Wine Bar, I bumped into him sitting with High Times writer Michael Hollingshead and three young women. Exclaiming, ‘Aha! We meet at last!” Leary leapt up. I grabbed his tennis racket. But, as if that were the gist of it, I found him initially difficult to interface with. His sense of himself as a public figure seemed defensive.

A few days later I met him under more relaxed circumstances in the apartment of a mutual friend over after-dinner drinks and was able to get a better picture: he’s energetic and enthusiastic about whatever he is discussing. Tim doesn’t really talk, he sings.

His theory about Los Angeles is that it is in the process of becoming the next center of intelligence. He says the power has moved out of Washington, is moving west, and the intelligence is moving from New York to Los Angeles. “Swarming,” he emphasised, “is the key concept.”

By the time William Burroughs and his secretary, James Grauerholz, moved into the Tropicana, I had all but become an Angeleno myself. Apart from living and working in Hollywood, I was in love with Venice (the boardwalk on Sunday), Malibu (where the sea is your backyard) and Griffith Park (a monument to the genius of D.W. Griffith). I was in love with the city, and a few of its inhabitants, and had completely adjusted to the environment’s rhythm while gaining, rather than losing, energy. There is no question at all that a large part of being happy in Los Angeles has to do with the connection between your body and the atmosphere: one is simply healthier in L.A. on a daily basis than one could possibly be in a similarly large metropolis. It is a complete myth that the inhabitants laze around the pool all day in a stupor of relaxation. I found all kinds of creative people and enormous amounts of energy in Los Angeles. They work very hard out there, because there’s so much money. Don’t forget, this is where some of the greatest works of art of the twentieth century were made.

I gave a party to welcome William to L.A. Leary was at the top of my guest list. I also invited Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Ken Tynan moved to L.A. quite recently and seems to have assumed a social responsibility for the British intellectual community out there. He’d given a party for Princess Margaret the previous week and mixed Hockney and Isherwood with the likes of Paul Newman, Ryan O’Neal and Swifty Lazar. Tynan came with his wonderful wife Kathleen. David Blue, whom I’d continually met at Dantana’s (a good late-night hangout), came, along with Paul Getty, Ron Kovic, Randall Kaiser, Hiram Keller, Paul Jabara, Ulli Lommel, Frank and Laura Cavestani, Paul Krassner, Jack (Jimmy Olson) Larson, Jim Bridges, John Rechy, Julian Burroughs (who thinks he’s William Burroughs’s son)…

I threw the party in New York-cheapo style, and I think that’s why it was successful; in L.A. they do tend to give fairly lavish entertainments, and this was refreshing; also, because the people all came from different fields there was no power imbalance and everybody could just enjoy talking to each other. All I’d been able to do was buy a gallon of vodka, six bottles of wine and mixers. I rolled up 20 joints. “God, I’m having such a wonderful time. L.A. is incredible!” I said. “I know,” said a guest. “Don’t tell anyone. We’re trying to keep it quiet.” The party spilled out of the suite onto the terrace and around the pool. Marcia’s accompanying pictures tell the story.

The following morning, William, James, Paul Getty and I drove in a convoy of three cars out to Isherwood’s house by the sea in Santa Monica, where he lives with artist Don Bachardy, who wanted to draw William’s portrait. Isherwood has lived in Los Angeles since he left England in 1939. He presents a good example of an older person whose career has been stimulated by the L.A. environment. His relationship with the city has been extremely productive. At 73, he is agile, alert, working on three books.

Noticing that time was slipping by and our appointment at the Getty Museum was drawing precariously close, I went into Bachardy’s studio to warn him we’d have to leave soon, but he was working so intently I couldn’t speak; so I gave William a note: “Christopher is psychic. We have to go in ten minutes.”

Ten minutes later, we dashed along the majestic Pacific Coast Highway to the majestic Getty Museum, which you may only visit by appointment because they have adequate underground parking space for just 100 cars. We were very lucky to be escorted through the collection by young Paul.

That evening, we decided to dine at Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe, an excellent Mexican restaurant on Melrose. We had called ahead for a reservation, but when we arrived, “No reservaçion, Señor.” Slipping past the maître d’ one by one, we commandeered an empty table for six. It is hard to move six hungry people. The waiters looked worried but hastily served us, and we gave little thought to whose table we had stolen.

After the meal we got stuck running into a bunch of guys in the congested corridor that leads to the exit. Shuffling along, I found myself face to face with Jerry Brown. He looked a little tired and spaced out, as if he were waiting for a bodyguard to tell him what to do, his jacket slung over his shoulder.

Metaphorically, I see Los Angeles as a series of opening doors. Inside each room people come and go dispensing information. You walk in and meet someone, and then someone else comes in and you are introduced. Days later, in a different configuration in another room, the same people appear escorting new people. Many impromptu meetings of this nature occurred, as if on cue. It was quite extraordinary how many people I met by chance in such a short time.

“Excuse me, Mr. Brown,” I said, touching his arm, “I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce you to William Burroughs.”

Brown stuck out a hand and said, “Not the William Burroughs, the novelist, author of Naked Lunch?”

“The very same,” replied Bill. Brown studied Burroughs intently. William seemed shy at first. Then he said, “Well, we came out here to fight Proposition 6 [the California antigay bill].” Brown replied, “You’ll win. The establishment is against it. Have you been in touch with Henry Miller recently?” “No, I haven’t seen him in years.”

Brown looked embarrassed. “I somehow always associate you with him,” he said. Then, pointing to the table we had just vacated, he said that he’d been waiting for them to get this table ready and graciously invited us to dine with him. We declined, hurried to our cars laughing and drove off to look at some dildos in the Pleasure Chest, a great sex shop down the block from the Tropicana.

Considering I was there for a month, had a fabulous time meeting people every day and can only remember one really bad night with dumb people, there must be some truth in Leary’s theory about intelligence swarming toward L.A. Most of the people I met there were super bright and active. I did go to one cult religious service “just for the experience,” but they were geeks. When somebody does freak out in L.A., they tend to go the whole way, but I don’t suppose religious cults can do you any harm if you have absolutely nothing to do with them. Anyway, the majority of negative things you could dig up on L.A. would tend to involve the residents. Los Angeles is a charming place to visit. In my opinion, you couldn’t put a foot wrong taking a vacation there. But charm is a power that is hard to pinpoint, I was thinking as I stood on the veranda outside my room the evening before I flew back to New York. I gazed past the palm trees and the humming birds hovering in the orange light of the setting sun, down at the pool and the now-empty chairs and tables set aside for sunbathers. I noticed for the first time how cream the stucco coloring of the two-story L-shaped motel building is. I was thinking about my gold Chevrolet Caprice parked in the back and how Los Angeles had changed my mind and body during the month I’d spent there, when a spectral form glided up, a vodka and tonic (no ice) in its right hand. My eyes traveled to the spectacles of William Burroughs as he looked out over the city and said, “I will tell you about it. The sky is thin as paper. The whole place could go up in ten minutes. That’s the charm of Los Angeles.”

Read the full issue here.

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