Jon Christensen writes: There is a darkness at the heart of Gabriel Kahane's lilting, lyrical, loving art songs to Los Angeles. His new concept album "The Ambassador"--an ode to LA through 10 songs about 10 buildings, including the Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968-- joins the venerable tradition that Mike Davis dubbed "the literary destruction of Los Angeles," which Davis himself relished.
Who doesn't enjoy seeing LA spectacularly destroyed, at least in art, if not in real life? One song on the album--"Slumlord Crocodile, 115. E. 3rd St."--is even dedicated to Davis. "Wake the sky! / Burn up the chaparral, / Light it on fire!" it begins, conjuring an arsonist narrator who watches "the metropolis crumble" and the "coastline turned to ashes," before retreating to a fortress in the hills, rigged to go up in flames if anyone should trespass.
"The Ambassador" deserves a spot on a bookshelf dedicated to LA. Kahane's lyrics cast a wry, knowing eye on LA architecture, movies, literature, history, and culture. If you're interested in artistic representations of our fair city, you'll want to listen carefully with the lyrics at hand. There are songs dedicated to Joan Crawford, Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe, W.G. Sebald, and Rutger Hauer, who played the replicant Roy Batty in "Blade Runner"--a song entitled "Bradbury, 304 Broadway," naturally.
Kahane's LA is not all dystopia, but images of destruction, imagined and real, run through the album. "Empire Liquor Mart, 9127 S. Figueroa St." is dedicated to Latasha Harlins--the 15-year-old African American girl shot to death by a Korean shopkeeper thirteen days after the Rodney King beating--and it is sung from the perspective of Harlins as she floats from the shop floor up above the city on fire.
Self-consciously in "Villains, 4616 Dundee Dr.," Kahane asks "Why does Hollywood / Insist on destroying the city by numbers, / By natural disasters?" He then goes on to count the ways: earthquake, fire, rainstorm, nuclear bombs, Martians from the future, a dithering police force, mutants, frustrated actors!
Kahane indulges in some imaginative destruction of his own. "Griffith Park, 2800 E. Observatory Ave." unreels a vision of a post-apocalyptic LA with "Game show hosts and actors / Holy ghosts and pastors / Corn fed boys in leather, and an / Alcoholic aunt" emerging from underground shelters seven years after a nuclear blast. With the radiation count falling, the narrator offers to put sunscreen on his lover's back, so they can hike up to the observatory, put out a blanket, and watch the city's "half-life neon crawling."
The literary destruction of Los Angeles--to which we might add cinematic and now musical destruction--shows no sign of having a half-life of its own. Edan Lepucki's much anticipated California: A Novel, due out next month, is a spectacular portrait of a dystopian LA in the near future.
Why are we so captivated by the destruction of LA? Mike Davis argues that it is all about race and class--literary depictions of the city's demise reflect the anxieties of the owners of the means of cultural production. It's not clear that such a simple answer will hold in this self-conscious, supposedly post-ironic, but still evidently ironic era, so aptly captured in Gabriel Kahane's blend of classical, jazz, and pop sounds, and off-kilter lyrics.
One thing seems clear, though. The future of our city may be up for grabs, as LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne suggests in his liner notes to "The Ambassador." But the destruction of Los Angeles will always be with us.