[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 sale — buy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]
I live in Brooklyn, NY, in a converted public school building three blocks west of the East River; right now, if I were to strap on an orange life-vest, lug a canoe a mile south to the Red Hook Container Terminal — where stevedores still shift massive crates of cargo in and out of the borough's last active port, collecting ships from Upper New York Bay and pushing them back into the big, dim Atlantic — sneak it offshore, and splash north for thirty-odd miles, I could disembark outside the little brown house where I grew up, where my parents still plant tomatoes and grill hamburgers and throw pebbles at the red-headed woodpeckers still tapping tunnels into ancient awnings. I have lived in New York — on and off the banks of the Hudson River — for most of my life. We eat sesame bagels and pepperoni pizza and rake Maple leaves and watch baseball and smear our fingertips with the New York Times. My universe is insular, small: East.
As such, my notions of California are fragmented, strange, fictionalized: The Big Lebowski, the Playboy Mansion, Raymond Chandler, My Dark Places, Jefferson Airplane, Metallica, Star Maps, The Price Is Right. I didn't think too much about the west coast — where the sun sets, where it's always three hours too late — until I found a small stack of books by Joan Didion, the most arresting writer of place I have ever read, the kind of author who can nail an entire region in twenty-five words. In Didion's clutches, Southern California's San Bernadino Valley was "a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed." Las Vegas was geographically implausible, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies' room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets." In her essay "Goodbye to All That," Didion explains her experience in my beloved New York as a kind of untruth, not entirely dissimilar to my own hazy impressions of the westernmost edge of the Unites States of America: "I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage."
Per Didion, I became uncomfortably obsessed with the mythology of California; I wanted to charge the coast, chugging west to the land of dreamy dreams, the land of milk and honey, listening to Tom Waits, cooing along with the Beach Boys, gnawing on avocados, wearing a fedora, dreaming about becoming a movie star. I read biographies of George Reeves; I read Big Sur. I watched Sullivan's Travels and The Player and terrible true-crime documentaries about The Black Dahlia. I didn't understand what was going on in California, but nothing inched me closer to comprehension than Didion's prose — I read and re-read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Where I Was From, The White Album. I closed my eyes and saw orange groves and breaking waves, decapitated corpses and studio lots, private investigators and vinyl diner stools and Jim Morrison's curvy brown locks.
I would eventually cram a bunch of sweaters and tank tops and notebooks into a duffel bag, trot onto an airplane, chew tiny pretzels, drink a can of Coke, soar west to Los Angeles and spend ten days driving up and down the Pacific coast, eating In-N-Out burgers, tiptoeing through Hearst Castle, counting stars on the Walk of Fame, listening to British folk records, sneaking grapes in Sonoma, buying glazed donuts at Randy's. California felt multitudinous but unreal; I knew that I craved the myth — the language, the sentences, the syllables — more than the place. It wasn't necessarily the first time that — for me — literature had eclipsed plain old life, but it was the moment when I realized that there was maybe nothing else — besides place — worth writing about. That the areas where we come from — or don't come from — are just as vital as who we love and what we require and who we think we are.
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Author of the 33 1/3 volume Nick Drake: Pink Moon, Amanda Petrusich is a staff writer for Pitchforkmedia.com and a senior contributing editor at Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in Spin, the Village Voice, and The Oxford American. Her next book, a travelogue about early Americana music titled It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music, is forthcoming from Faber and Faber in 2008.
Books mentioned in this post
Amanda Petrusich is the author of Nick Drake: Pink Moon (33 1/3 Series)