As Gabriel Kahane prepares to bring his sonic treatise The Ambassador home to Los Angeles, he shared some thoughts on the city that inspired an album, a theatrical stage show, and a state of mind.
If you turn onto Vernon Avenue just east of Lincoln Road, you’ll find neat rows of modest bungalows which once announced themselves cheerfully with paint jobs in vivid reds and greens and blues, but which after decades of neglect and exposure to sun have been left mottled and fading. And so it is that these houses have been passed over in the otherwise inexorable spread of gentrification in the Venice area. I am complicit, if only as a window shopper, in this fancification that has largely replaced the seedy character of Free Love-era Venice Beach with a wealth typified by bespoke shops doling out luxury coffee, four-figure caparisons, and faux-Dutch bikes, to a newly transplanted demographic that can handily afford them.
This observation is intended without any kind of territorial griping; my claims on the neighborhood are thin at best. I was born, in 1981, in one of those bungalows, either at 648 Vernon Ave. or maybe 652, but we moved East in 1983. Of those first two years, I have only a pair of (interrelated) memories: first, that the walls may have been a pale yellow; and second, that I had a fever at some point and in its subtropical grip I looked out through the white slats of my crib with burning eyes and beheld those yellow walls, and that’s what I remember.
Though on its surface The Ambassador is a piece about Los Angeles through the lens of film, fiction, and architecture, I think it’s actually a piece about memory, and how memory dances infinitely with physical space. From what I can surmise, Los Angeles started to have a sense of its own history, of collective memory, in the early aughts, around the time of the preservation battle over the Ambassador Hotel, a three-way affair that pitted the LA Unified School District and the Kennedy Family against the L.A. Conservancy. Though the campaign to preserve the hotel failed, and in its place an architecturally vacuous complex of schools (admittedly serving a community much in need) built— about which Christopher Hawthorne has written incisively and eloquently—the process of trying to save the hotel nevertheless reified in many Angelenos a sense of pride in history.
But long before Diane Keaton spoke at the wake for the Ambassador Hotel, there was a trove of cultural artifacts that served, consciously or not, as a historical record of the city. I’m thinking now of the novels of Joan Didion and Nathanael West and James M. Cain, the films of Howard Hawks and Michael Mann and William Friedkin, the criticism of Esther McCoy and Reyner Banham and Mike Davis, and the houses—oh the houses— of Rudolph Schindler and John Lautner and Lloyd Wright. It’s this archive that was my way into making The Ambassador, which as a body of work is more a reflection of what interested me instinctively than an attempt to be comprehensive vis a vis Los Angeles. For how can one map an unmappable city? To paraphrase Christopher Hawthorne, L.A. is not great at sitting still for portraits.
There is one portrait of Los Angeles that became familiar to me as I worked on The Ambassador, much of which was written in a postage-stamp of a studio apartment perched at the southern end of Griffith Park, an apartment whose original function was as the servant’s quarters of the connected house that Rudolph Schindler remodeled in the early 1920’s. There’s a door on the eastern side of the studio that opens onto a small wooden roof deck, canted nails jutting up and out threateningly. (During one visit, I ended up sitting in the pharmacy at the creepy Walgreen’s at Sunset and Western, waiting to get a tetanus shot before driving home rattled in that singular way one does under the combined influence of foreign chemicals and native adrenaline, one of the nails having had its way with the heel of my left foot.) Stepping outside, if I turn to face south on this little parallelogram of decklet high above the city, it’s all hypnotic views of the L.A. basin. Nights: coyotes skirling just beyond the window, their cries sharp and dry and anechoic, an uneasy counterpoint to the silent play of hundreds of thousands of lights throbbing in the basin below. Mornings: steam rising off of coffee to meet the fog; the ritual of assessing air quality by visibility— can you see Palos Verdes?
Thom Andersen, in his film Los Angeles Plays Itself, says early on that L.A., as a city, is not photogenic, that its edges are blurry, smudged, imprecise. (Another way of articulating Hawthorne’s quip about Los Angeles not taking to portraiture.) That may well be the case, but through human eyes—or at least through my eyes— to behold the city at dawn before the fog has burned off, and to read it as a quick pastel sketch of a metropolis on the brink of bustling activity, commands great emotional precision, even if the image isn’t in focus. And that emotional precision was the thing I wanted to capture in The Ambassador. For as I began to visit Los Angeles more often in my late twenties and early thirties, there was an accretion to the emotional weight of the city. Driving through East Hollywood, Inglewood, Westchester, Marina Del Rey. Walking Vermont Ave. in Koreatown, chatting up the proprietor of a piano shop that seems as uncomfortable in its skin as its owner; she’s still rattled twenty-some-odd years later. The pilgrimage to the San Gabriel Valley for soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung and the reluctant camaraderie that accompanies the lines that stand between you and xiao long bao. Or this: standing under a gunmetal grey sky and gaping at the modest majesty of the Watts Towers and the improbable fact of one man’s vision and persistence.
I wanted to know why the city made me feel so much.
Bringing The Ambassador back to Los Angeles is terrifying. I want to do right by the city that I abandoned so soon after it bore me. I want those who might be prone to reflexive defense of their city to know that if there’s tough love in the piece, it is the object and not the modifier that’s key. But ultimately, I cannot and should not offer preemptive defenses— all I have is to invite you to join me at the Freud Playhouse on February 27 and 28, and to have a look for yourself.