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Literary Los Angeles

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There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West…

Although Robert Plant had hedgerows, May Queens, and stairways in mind when he sang that lyric, the history of Led Zeppelin does in fact contain a healthy dose of Los Angeles. So it’s fitting that Bret Easton Ellis chose that line as the epigraph for 1985’s Less than Zero.

I spent much of last week in Los Angeles, taking up residence at the Hyatt West Hollywood. This hotel, more infamously known in rock and roll circles as “Riot House,” was the scene of countless rock star excesses. In fact, my room was on the eleventh floor, the very same level that was occupied by the plundering pirates in Led Zeppelin, my hallway being the very same one that Zep crew chief Richard Cole tore apart with his motorcycle.

I chose that notorious hotel because, although I was in L.A. for business, the unrepetant headbanger in me gleefully planned my own sort of Hair Metal Pilgrimage. As a small town kid in the South, I devoured each issue of Circus and Hit Parader for tales of bands like Motley Crue and Guns ‘n Roses, imagining clubs like The Rainbow and The Roxy as monuments to the excitement my life so sorely lacked. So my metal-tourist sight-seeing activities were satisfied with this trip.

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But how do we describe the literature of Los Angeles? I pondered this in the days leading up to my trip. Is the City of Angels represented by the gilded Hollywood of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon? Or, by the noir streets of Raymond Chandler? The ganglands of Sanyika Shakur or the manicured lawns of Bret Easton Ellis?

In the end, I couldn’t decide upon the quintessential work of Los Angeles literature. (Suggestions anyone?) So I went with something gritty and something easy. First, I read Will Beall’s L.A. Rex, a debut crime novel by an active duty policeman in the LAPD’s 77th Division. Beall’s engrossing tale of gangs, drug money, police corruption, and violence is an intriguing read perfect for absorbing in-flight hours into LAX.

To help balance out Beall’s edge, I also read Lonn Friend’s memoir Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N’ Roses to Nirvana, a Backstage Journey through Rock’s Most Debauched Decade. Friend is the former editor of RIP magazine and was the heavy metal journalist of his day. He gained unprecedented access to bands like Metallica, Aerosmith and many others and recounts those experiences in this entertaining memoir. Although an enjoyable read, I did find myself wanting more in some ways. For example, Friend mentions several dark years, plagued by self-doubt, unemployment, and isolation, but this time isn’t examined in detail. Spending a little more time on his own troubles, and less on the glitzy exploits of rock stars, would have made Life on Planet Rock a more substantial read. But I did get a kick out of sitting by the pool and happening upon a story Friend recounted of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons’ decadent party on the very location I sat.

As I do whenever I’m in a new town, I sought out the local bookstores. I found Book Soup, the Hollywood literary landmark. The store had a great selection, with bookcases lining the walls up to the ceiling and quite a few signed books. And I discovered, tucked away behind the commercial buildings on Sunset, down a narrow corridor, was the amazing Mystery Pier Books. Small, warm, and inviting, this rare book dealer had some Faulkner first editions that caught my attention. I will definitely visit Mystery Pier Books again on my next trip to L.A.

Which, won’t be that far in the future. After the holidays, I’ll be spending more time in L.A. and will be able to actually explore beyond just the Sunset Strip. Maybe I’ll actually be able to take a picture in the daytime, instead of just night photos…

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