(“Geek Beat”does not refer to computer or gaming enthusiasts, tech specialists, experts or “nerds”. The term as used in this context was the creation of the late journalist Bill Cardoso–familiar to many as coiner of the term “Gonzo” as applied to Hunter S. Thompson’s particular brand of journalism. Cardoso came up with “the Geek Beat” after I described the assignment Playboy had thrown me–a decade of California violence–while we were having drinks one long happy afternoon in February 1978 at Sullivan’s in San Francisco . “Ah, well. You’re on the geek beat, Reynolds, “said Bill. “That’s what it is.” Geek as in “freak”, as in the old carny term and its variants. )
DEAD MAN SINGS ANTHEM WHILE HIS DEATH IS BEING MOURNED
(Headline from Los Angeles newspaper, 1913)
Arthur Tysilio Johnson, an English writer, chicken farmer and gardener living in Wales, landed in California in 1912. After kitting himself out with camping gear, Johnson proceeded to tour the state by buckboard, thrusting north from Los Angeles. He nearly died after being swallowed by quicksand near Gaviota, west of Santa Barbara.
In 1913 Johnson’s An Englishman’s Impressions of the Golden State appeared in print.
“Johnson detected something elusively evil, as if freedom, becoming license, were about to writhed back and gorge upon itself. Beneath the sense that all was possible, that anything went lurked a baffled yearning for limits which in its frustration threatened to turn any minute into a repressive counter-force that denied the dream of liberation through which Californians mythically defined themselves…Put into the same context, the unrestraint—the acting out through costume and architecture, the theosophy, the neo-paganism, the free love—the blue laws of towns like Pasadena tended to confer a quality of schizophrenia, indeed, Manicheanism, upon this civilization of the South.” –Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream
“It’s an experimental state for lots of things….the range of that experimentation goes from authentic nuts to government provocateurs. There are experiments not only for good, but evil.”–Paul Krassner
“They say this place is Evil
But that’s not why I stay
I found something that’ll never be nothing
And I found it in L.A.” –Warren Zevon, Meet Me In L.A.
I am remembering this story from a long time away. Ash Wednesday 1978 in LA.
I was in over my head, in so many ways, as would be seen. A brazen fuckwit with some modicum of talent burning down the barn and letting the animals run free. But now, after these decades since: no regrets.
Call it, resolution. Call it, confession. Call your mother. Call a cop. It don’t matter now. Put it in backstory. The way it was then. Crazy was easy. I survived. It’s good enough for now.
I was driving in a night hemorrhaging rain on the San Diego freeway on assignment from the Playboy magazine, capsulated in rubber and steel on that Lenten highway, beginning a search for the beasts of paradise, those leashed and unleashed. Murder had increased nearly 70%. Occurring every 20 minutes. In that day California had killers and rapists of unique renown. Killing and raping in startling numbers, in highly distinctive manners and for equally distinctive motivations. They were particular to the time. Door-to-door maniacs and rabid creatures. Little girls and men with knives. Hungry things. The birds of paradise are sometimes shrikes.
An evil wind was coming through the canyons, a bad sorcery of low clouds and wicked rain conjuring down sides of hills into rheumy sludge. “Swift earth”, they call it, that sliding earth that washes cars and houses, corpses and small animals through the swirling muck toward the sea. Here in the All Golden, a collection of dreams built on misplaced trust and vanity, languidly careening in a manicured pastel simulacrum of grace toward the inevitable sea. But it was not a graceful place and its people were no more graceful than steel balls in a pinball machine—a garish display of clanging bells, buzzers and flashing lights urged on by the simple push of a button and a twist and bump from the pelvis.
With hundreds of red tail lamps retreating before me in this spring night I slid comfortably into the automatic groove onto the Santa Monica freeway. Remembering those lost mescaline nights driving to the Lighthouse for Freddy Hubbard in a 1954 Chrysler with a vomiting cat in the backseat. Almost meditative now, feeling somehow reassured in the pull and flow of steel and concrete. This was no big thing. An old groove coming back like just yesterday and not some two years since away from the LA habit of being. The heavy rain had stilled leaving a sensuous glisten on the hood and chrome of the rental car, all cocaine induced sparkles of promised delights, success. A fulfilling of some bogus dream just on the brink of orgasm dancing off the display from fast-moving husks of steel. I took the long curve up the mile long hill to the east and the Sunset Boulevard exit, feeling a stoned rush coming up on me off the drop, heading to the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was riding into another world. A pilgrimage, I now recall I thought or imagined, somewhere ahead.
At the hotel they gave me a cottage once occupied by Marilyn Monroe, so the clerk asserted—which bothered and excited me considerably. Once delivered into the suite at the hands of a deferential bellman, I was stunned. Everything in period Sixties—low ceiling, stuffed couch and chairs, fresh flowers, a bowl of fruit and a bottle of wine with two glasses on the coffee table—all bathed in buttercream from fat lamps at the end tables.
Why the fuck was I here? In this place?
Who the fuck was I?
I opened the wine and filled a glass and sat on the soft couch and drank, facing the window that gave onto the surrounding gardens, a congestion of low-key lighted bougainevillea, banana plants, hibiscus and low hedges blurred by the undrawn sheer curtains and the rain. I gazed at this strange manicured fairyland and reflected on my preposterous circumstances and drank the wine until the bottle was empty, then sank back on the couch and into a fitful sleep’s dreaming full of veiled threats.
There is a diner. In the desert. In Nevada. On the counter of the diner is his portable tape recorder. He pushes the Play button. “Well, no….I couldn’t forget her…she came in here wearing this long long blue…bright blue coat with the hood pulled up and it just framed her face…and all that blonde hair…why, no….I couldn’t forget her.”
She stands by the open door of the van parked on the shoulder of the state road. It is just before dawn. She is smoking a Kool and shivers from the desert chill. Her hand begins sinuously doodling on the dust laden panel of the van. She pauses to brush her blonde hair from her face and begins to concentrate on her drawing. She renders a flower, a rabbit, a heart, a shard of lightning, a knife. There is gunshot. She stops drawing and faces toward the sound, blinking into a rising eastern wind. In her eye a drop of blood splays and shatters across the yellowing white like a cracked bell jar on a winter mantle.
She turns and speaks: “You ever notice when you’re up in a plane at night and you look down through the window over a city and are high enough just to see the lights? And how they look like sad stars impacted down there? Stuck. Smaller places are worse. Little towns? Captured stars. Got stuck in some flypaper like lightning bugs. I went with a friend of mine once to catch lightning bugs and I had a jar but she had got some flypaper and would run fast at them sticking out this sheet of flypaper and brush them right out of the air and run and get some more and she would have lots of these lightning bugs stuck on there blinking pulsing this greenish phosphorescence and lay it down in the grass and look at it and…what? Looking down out of a night plane is the same I think. Those lightning bugs. And you know what? Lightning bugs do that light because they want to fuck. They want to make love. They’re looking for some body. Somebody. Like stars stuck in cities from the sky at night you know? Stars stuck. Wine.”
Memories of The Geek Beat, Copyright 1978,1980, 2012, All Rights Reserved Joseph Michael Reynolds