Like most American kids growing up in the fifties and sixties, I watched Disney movies and fantasized about celebrities. Sex, violence, romance, adventure, machismo, the whole bit. As I got a little older, I hid my Playboy magazine under the mattress, and snuck “Facts of Life and Love” out of my parents’ bedroom. As I got a little older still, I learned to play the guitar and played in a few rock bands. My fantasies of stardom were pretty ordinary, and not yoked to old-fashioned ideas of hard work and discipline. Repressed and lonely, my fantasies were an escape from a harsh family environment. As I got a little older, I began smoking pot and writing songs on my 12-string guitar. My anger was ascendent, and I fantasized about bringing down the whole Amerikan System.
When I discovered art, I dropped out of college, and began painting in earnest. I was going to change the world through my paintings. When my interest in my own artistic output waned, I took up the idea that I would be a famous writer. Of course, I never shared my fantasies of fame with anyone, lest they think I was vain, or, worse, laughable. However, the idea of fame in some way fueled the fire of my passion for creative endeavor.
I had the chance to hang out with famous artists, and got a taste of the world of art world celebrities as an art school student in Boston in the late seventies. I thought about moving to New York City, the red hot center of the international art world, and study art history. Instead, I chose to move to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and study painting. I’ve spent most of my life wondering if I made the right decision. I could have been a contender. Or so I have fantasized.
I also grew up fantasizing about California. Not so much Hollywood, but certainly fueled by Hollywood images of fabulous beach parties, carefree living, and chicks in bikinis. The Good Life. Endless Summer. Endless fun.
In 1970, I tried to run away from home on Cape Cod when I was 17, headed for the epicenter of California hippie life, Haight-Ashbury. I got as far as Elmira, New York. I didn’t make it to California until I was fifty. The Haight was closed. But I did discover and fall in love with the northern California coast.
I may never have made it to Hollywood, were it not for the fact that I moved to the Central Coast, a day’s drive from the southernmost and the northernmost points of The Golden State.
Of course, I had seen some of the grittiness of Hollywood from TV and movies, but the idea of Hollywood as some sort of home of glamour, glitz, and the Good Life still remained in my consciousness. At the ripe old age of 59, I had no illusions about what Hollywood was, but I had to see it for myself. A place of such iconic symbolism just had to be visited.
I entered Hollywood by way of Beverly Hills, which looked pretty good from the main drag. I drove and drove, looking for the epicenter of the dream capital of America. Mostly what I saw was your typical urban wasteland of ugly signs, stores, people wandering around. My traveling companion was not much help. He had lived in Hollywood many years before, and didn’t really remember the streets. So, we wandered around. I kept asking him if there wasn’t some central point, some place where all the celebrities were. We decided to visit the Capitol Records building, an iconic building for a kid growing up on Capitol 45s, seeing the building in movies and on TV, a really cool building, round, like a stack of 45s. As I came to discover after my trip, it is representative of a a style of architecture known as “Googie.” I got out of the car and snapped photos of the building and its gorgeous mural of great jazz artists. We wandered down the dirty street to the Roosevelt Hotel, where a photographer was shooting a line of cute, young, leggy Asian women. We were surrounded by bars.
We stumbled upon the Graumann’s Chinese Theater, tripped over the gold stars embedded in the dirty sidewalks, jostled through the crowd of junkies, Spiderman and Elvis, past the over-lit store of cheap T-shirts, souvenirs. I parked between a Rolls Royce convertible and a Bentley, got some change for the meter at the hearing loss center known as Whiskey-A-Go-Go, stared blankly at the trash in the gutter. John pointed out the home for retired glam rockers, aka the Rainbow Room, and watched as passersby seemed to compete to see who could look more forbidding and hip.
Hollywood, or “Hollyweird,” as my friend calls it, is what you get when you completely lose your spiritual bearings. It is a bizarre hodgepodge of the worst of America: Ugliness, tackiness, materialism, drug addiction, faded dreams, bizarre characters, crime, a jostle of ugliness and beauty that has no coherence, no center, no reason for being.
I had a bit of a spiritual epiphany after my visit to Hollywood. I thought, if this is the end of the world, which it surely seemed to be, what was the opposite of Hollywood? And didn’t I want to strive to eliminate the Hollywood from my own tarnished soul?
Life, as they inevitably will say, is a journey, as unpredictable as New England weather. I had to write this essay in the open space of northern California, as far away from Hollyweird as I could reasonably get. Hollywood is, and will hopefully remain, a distant nightmare, not a terrifying one, but a sobering one. A few minutes at the uncrowded beach, with the fog lapping at my bare arms, should wash away the Hollywood grit that still clings to my soul.