I recently finished Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, a collection of essays and maps describing a plethora of topics related to the City of Angels – from the gridding of the city, ugly buildings, and old cattle trails, to the various locations across LA that inspired famous songs throughout the city’s history. The editor’s excerpt cited below reminded me how much of Los Angeles I’ve imagined through its rich history of music.
Maps of cities usually include streets, freeways, neighborhoods, parks, and other landmarks. But what if the city – like Los Angeles in the dreams of essayist Josh Kun – is made of songs? Listen, figuratively, to Southern California mapped as a conurbation of songs that mirror accents, attitudes, and cultural styles of the people of the region. Only a tiny fraction of the songs written about LA are here, more than enough to get you from Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach to Bing Crosby’s “San Fernando Valley” without getting lost.
As Sophie Arkette noted, music is capable of altering how we experience the city – the “phenomenological city, the corporeal, sensual, and psychological one we plan ourselves with the music we listen to and make”. Imagining a quick brainstorm of songs, one could guide themselves musically down the length of Sunset Blvd. down to Santa Monica Beach and Malibu, over to nearby Compton. The list of songs to locales stretches across our expansive metropolis.
My original journey to Los Angeles began with a road trip to Chicago from New York City. I was joined by one of my best friends for the leg to LA; she had put together a playlist entitled, “I Love LA”, one that kicked off our journey with Randy Newman’s appropriately spirited, “I Love LA”. I had honestly never heard the song before then (I couldn’t help but laugh the first time I exited a Dodgers game serenaded by the city’s unofficial theme song). We listened to the playlist during our road trip, all the while imagining the places I’d eventually encounter once I became a resident of LA. I had only visited the city once before, and without consciously realizing it, I had already assigned numerous thoughts and opinions about places to these various places I had never been to, but had heard about in songs. From NWA to Joni Mitchel, MacArthur Park to Mulholland Drive, I had already created a musical map.
Music about Los Angeles imparts a weight to certain places. I remember spotting the mural portrait of Motorhead’s Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister emblazoned across the wall of the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood – a bar, street, and neighborhood all referenced in countless songs throughout the city’s history.
I also remember skating at World on Wheels in Mid-City, a spot made famous by Snoop Dogg’s “The Way Life Used to Be”. The storied roller rink once served as the broadcast home for the legendary hip-hop station, KDAY. Rapper Nipsey Hussle referred to World on Wheels with fond reverence, describing it “like the Coliseum, the Forum, like Crenshaw High School, like the Hollywood Sign, you know what I mean?”.
During my first CicLAvia, I remember cruising down Wilshire Blvd. and witnessing a man with an impressively decked out ride blasting Ronnie Hudson and The Street People’s 1982 jam, “West Coast Poplock“. At that moment I knew I liked it here. A song can connect a person to a place, just as effectively as any building or the landscape itself. Music saturates and paints our emotional memories often without us ever realizing it, affecting how we experience a city and forever remember it.
Which songs would you say represent your experiences of the people and places of Los Angeles?
Out on the Weekend – Neil Young
Think I’ll pack it in
and buy a pick-up
Take it down to L.A.
Find a place to call my own
and try to fix up.
Start a brand new day.