Californian Kim Cooper is many things to many people: writer, editor, Scram magazine tyro, historian, catalyst and the conjunction of so many hep underground cultural currents, I can’t name half of them without wanting to cannonball into the La Brea Tar Pits. Were I able to list them them all, I’d jump into The Wedge at Newport Beach in a fit of unrestrained glee— probably not a smart move, even for us hardcore Rockaway kids. Holding back a bit to body surf another day, I’ll shake out my shaggy Dennis Wilson-like mane and breathe deeply of smog and eucalyptus before whooping “Yeehaw, I made it, Sister! Now where the hamburger joints at?”
As the proprietor, with partner Richard Schave, of the Los Angeles-based Esotouric (“bus adventures into the secret heart of L.A.”), Kim Cooper can tell me about the county’s best grilled meats and more. Music, literature, true crime, vernacular architecture and a vast array of geniuses, freaks, cranks and visionaries— it’s all within Esotouric’s purview, but with a little sex in it too. Lately as I’ve been thinking about the Brooklyn to California trip which so many made before me: Barbra Stanwyck, Daniel Fuchs, Shelly Manne, Tim Carey, Allen Baron and David Geffen to name just a few.
It’s easy to take Geffen for granted as an ubiquitous celebrity businessman but the story of New Utrecht High School graduate remains as fascinating as it is controversial. Although ex-Byrd Gene Clark’s 1974 Asylum-label masterpiece No Other is my most beloved Geffen-related album, the run of early Tom Waits records— Closing Time (1973) through Heart Attack and Vine (1980)— is likely the greatest Geffen-associated body of work. I know some will argue for Joni Mitchell, which is defensible, but come on, look at both sides now, isn’t she still really a Canadian? Like his great forebears as an American original, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), Tom Waits is a born and raised California boy.
Kim Cooper knows this, of course, which is why Esotouric might be Crawling Down Cahuenga (in Tom Waits’ L.A.) even as I type. Joining Kim on these excursions is David Smay, author of Swordfishtrombones, one of the best of the 33 1/3 “classic album” meditations, and the probably the only author in that series whose introduction pays homage to Flann O’Brien’s giddily brilliant At Swim Two Birds (1939). By the power of the Pookah McPhellimey and sustenance from Cassell’s Hambugers in Koreatown, I spoke with Kim of these things and Buffalo Springfield too (Dewey Martin RIP); alas, the batteries in my tape recorder died less than halfway through “Broken Arrow.”
Brian Berger: How did ya’ll the idea for a Tom Waits tour? Forced exposure to “Jersey Girl” as a youth hindered my enjoyment of early Tom but once I purged Springsteen from my life— a very easy task, “Atlantic City” aside— I knew who the real Boss Tenor was.
Kim Cooper: Well, it’s rare that my beloved collaborator Smay comes down to LA, so the tour proposal was pure bait. I also felt unusually connected to his Waits-in-LA book, having provided feedback through the pitching and writing process, and sharing my happy experience as a 33 1/3 series author. Too, Waits figures into a road-not-taken moment in my adolescence, when I was selected to be part of a barely-managed internship program at Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in Hollywood, across the street from my junior high school. In retrospect it seems obvious that this program was hatched in a drug haze, and mainly consisted of the school’s gifted kids running around getting in the way of the technicians working on One From the Heart and Hammett. The experience was an eye-opener in the worst way, and remains the only time I’ve ever felt like I was being held back due to my gender. I walked onto the lot wanting to become a writer-director, and when I quit after Nicholas Cage’s mean dad August made me cry, vowed never to be part of a large creative machine again— a zinester was born. But a couple great things happened there: Nastassja Kinski said I had pretty eyes and taught me how to walk a tightrope, and my elaborate lie that Tom Waits, then composing the soundtrack for One From the Heart, was the fave-rave of most of the interns was rewarded with a private piano concert/lecture in a tiny bungalow. So we go back to the scene of the crime and talk about all that.
Brian: There’s still a fair amount of anti-California prejudice in New York, which I’ve always thought was fucking absurd. Whatever awfulness you can ascribe to Hollywood, it certainly applies to the mass media apparatus of New York, specifically Manhattan, so… come on. As a California-native, are you aware of this and do you have any stories of dealing with haughty East Coasters?
Kim: The east coasters who bellyache about LA are such dull people, it’s easy to tune ‘em out. And we do actually have good bagels. Pizza, not so much.
Brian: Another interesting schism—at least from the outside—is that between Northern and Southern California; I can think of things about both places to love. The Bay Area takes the poetry crown— Kenneth Patchen, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer— but musically, there’s no comparison, with L.A. consistently crucial since at least the 1940s Central Avenue R&B and jazz scenes. Do you take sides in this civil war and where does a place like Big Sur fit in? I am, of course, a huge Henry Miller fan and recently read Richard Brautigan’s A Confederate General In Big Sur and enjoyed it immensely.
Kim: Ah yes, the war that only the Northern side seems to know about. My pal Chas Glynn explained it for me as well as anyone ever has: he grew up in the east bay being trained in the hygienic practice “if it’s yellow, it’s mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down.” His parents told him this was because Los Angeles had stolen all the state’s water. It’s hard to recover from ongoing humiliation like that. (I reckon I ought, though, in the interest of harmony, stop sing-songing that bit of doggerel about how the miners came in ’49, the whores in ’51, and when they got together, they made the native son every time I meet a native San Franciscan.) Big Sur might as well be the moon as far as LA is concerned.
Brian: Who doesn’t love— at least like— Raymond Chandler a lot? Tell me about this tour and other literary L.A. things? People think of Charles Bukowski, of course, and also the L.A. literature defining early works of John Fante. Do Ross Macdonald fans ever show up and ask questions too?
Kim: Of course Chandler’s wonderful, and it’s been a privilege to dig into some of the side veins of his life story, like his relationship with the Warren Lloyd family who were his patrons, how deeply resonant the block of Olive between 6th and 7th (site of his oil company job) would become in his fiction, and the sad decay of the original Writer’s Room at Musso & Frank, which can currently only be viewed while standing on a creaky box in a piss-soaked alley. Thanks to a bit of wild luck, we believe we’ve discovered the living model for Philip Marlowe, and will be going public with our theory on the On Bunker Hill blog soon.
The Bukowski tour resulted in our forming deep friendships with postal workers, and helping to get Buk’s East Hollywood bungalow named an Historic-Cultural landmark. The confrontations on the City Hall sidewalk with the (now ex-) landlords who were insisting that Bukowski was a Nazi sympathizer after their lawyer found the absurd Ben Pleasants accusations on the web must rank among Great Moments in L.A. Preservation Activism. We had less luck with the derelict apartment where John Fante wrote Ask the Dust, which was already a hobo camp by the time we visited, and where some poor soul had recently died. But the landlords caved to pressure from the City Attorney and have gutted the place, which is better than tearing it down. The Fante children, Vickie and Jim, have been wonderful tour guests, sharing tales of life in Malibu with John and Joyce.
The Ross MacDonald fans have been quiet so far, but the Michael Connelly-ites have made their presence known.
Brian: Oooh, that reminds me, what about My Favorite Television Show Ever, The Rockford Files?
Kim: Funny you should mention Rockford, since we just learned that one of our favorite, most unassuming bus drivers used to plan his out-of-state bank robberies in that very seaside trailer park, and that’s where the Feds showed up one day to bust his whole gang. They hadn’t got the guns out of the shed yet, so nobody died. Twenty-some years later, he’s out and smiling as we tell stories that probably aren’t half as crazy as his memories.
Brian: It’s pretty wild you got James Ellroy for a tour. Except for White Jazz (1992), which I felt didn’t quite live up to the title given the real crazy lives of Art Pepper, Joe Maini, Lorraine Geller, Lenny Bruce, etc., I’m a huge fan of his novels, even the pretty straight Brown’s Requiem (1981). James has his persona but I’ve always felt there was a deep love there for the streets and topography of Los Angeles and it struke me as odd he was living in Connecticut and then Kansas City
Kim: Yeah, getting James on the bus was a white knuckle experience we won’t soon forget (nor will the lucky hundred souls who scored seats on his two Christmas 2007 tours). I’m a big fan of his early, less-staccato novels, including the chilling and atypical serial-killer-inside-me Silent Terror (aka Killer on the Road, 1986), and like to recommend them to people who’ve only inhaled the L.A. Quartet or later books. I kind of figured James had to get out of L.A. to get into L.A., in his head. The contemporary city is so constantly changing, with historic buildings getting razed and old haunts shuttered, and the racial mix has shifted so greatly that vast swaths of the white Los Angeles he writes about are no longer places where a white writer can pass unnoticed researching character and setting, like James Cain and John Fante did in Skid Row. I expect that while James was in those eastern ‘burbs and scouring historic archives, he was more in LA than he’s ever been.
Brian: My favorite Chandler adaption is Altman’s Long Goodbye (1973), while my fave mostly L.A. films are John Boorman’s Point Blank (1968) and Raymond Pettibon’s Sir Drone (1989), tho’ I like the Andre de Toth directed Crime Wave (1954) a lot too. I gotta say, however, I took Chinatown (1974) out of the Brooklyn Public Library and was wholly unimpressed—I remember liking it more fifteen years but maybe that’s because I’d seen a lot less. Am I underrating Chinatown and what’s your own cinematic L.A. pantheon look like?
Kim: Since we started doing these bus tours, I watch not so much for artistic excellence as for the quality of the location shooting, but a list of films which show Bunker Hill in its decaying glory does not a to-rent list make. Still, I do always seem to respond to films that capture the emotional effect of our distinct architecture on the characters. My favorite L.A. film that works on both levels is the relentless Double Indemnity, with its saucy in joke when Lola Dietrichson waits for her boyfriend Nino in front of the Hays Office that gave the production so much grief. Also In A Lonely Place, Mulholland Drive, Sunset Boulevard, the first Postman Always Rings Twice, Day of the Locust, Swing Shift, Spider Baby. And I’m with you on The Long Goodbye. Chinatown? Haven’t seen it in years, and feel no compelling urge to see it. Too gimmicky.
Brian: I don’t want to romanticize the tragedy of it (maybe just Raymond Pettibon level) but Charles Manson and the Family—speaking of Polanski—are such a compelling story, especially for Byrds AND Westerns fanatics like myself. Does Esotouric do any Family-related trips or is that too far afield a bus to roam?
Kim: I soaked in this stuff as a youth, but made a conscious decision that our crime tours focus on forgotten crimes and not infamous ones. When tour passengers think they already know the story, they’re hearing their own narrative in their heads and looking for conflicts with yours, which is a distraction for everyone—particularly since many true crime books are so poorly researched, and we could easily spend the whole Black Dahlia tour refuting bad data. Also, the geography dictates that we cannot take passengers deep into Mansonland in a coach class bus, so we leave that work to the ghouls at Dearly Departed, who use vans.
On the Blood & Dumplings tour, however, we do talk about Steven Parent, the first and least celebrated of the Cielo Drive victims, when stopped at his high school athletic field. It also happens to be where the body of James Ellroy’s mother Geneva was dumped. And on the rock and roll tour Where The Action Was, which Gene Sculatti hosts with me, we share the tale of how the denizens of the Tropicana Motel warned Ed Sanders not to bring any Family members to his room while he was researching “The Family,” then freaked out when a couple of Eagles came over to ask him to come to a show.
Brian: By the time this is published, I’ll be in Athens, Georgia doing top secret history research and drinking lots of coffee with my grits and breakfast sausage. You came here to work on your 33 1/3 Neutral Milk Hotel book, didn’t you?
Kim: I’d never been to Athens or even Georgia when I went out with my native guide Craig Ceravolo — check out his exquisite popistry– to do the interviews for the book. The whole stay was like a pleasant dream, with everyone I met being so welcoming and interesting, the place so uncommonly pretty, and the sweet tea just right. Coming home with the raw material for a book I would be happy with was just icing on the tart.
Brian: What’s next for Esotouric?
Kim: We’re holding off on new tour development, since we have a large enough repertoire that we’re only offering each tour a few times a year. We’re writing a guidebook to the power spots of Los Angeles that will be published under our own imprint, and looking to do more lectures and special events in historic places. We’ll also be expanding our curated Downtown Art Walk shuttles and will be taking over the management of the monthly Art Walk itself come June.
Brian Berger has only two friends in the world. One is a cat. The other is a murderer.