This is an essay about Los Angeles, Noir, black metal, and
jazz. The only jazz record I listen to with regularity is Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I
will not say that all jazz sounds the same to me, defensive shorthand for
acknowledging a lack of appropriate training to understand a genre of music. That
being said, I do lack the appropriate knowledge and training to suppress my
incredibly powerful associations between jazz, elevators, and low-reception
highways in economically depressed regions. On the other hand, when people
tell me they don't like "classical," I want to self-immolate. Fiery
death brings me to another obtuse genre, Black Metal, which incidentally,
was my doorway to Charles Mingus.
I worked with a guy at Celebrity Rehab who was from
Columbus, Ohio and had tattoos of skulls and frogs. He kept pushing Black
Metal on me. Black Metal arose from Scandinavia in the 90's, a movement
locally appreciated for church burning, murder, and satanic worship. Bands
such as Mayhem and Gorgoroth sacrificed goats at their stage shows. The
Ohioan insisted its grimness, its unwillingness to compromise were good
qualities. I bought De Mysteriis Dom Sathanis by Mayhem
from Amoeba Records on Sunset. I couldn't get more than a minute
into it. It was too much. The drummers use double bass drums. The
singers imitate goblins. Not orcs, or trolls, which I would be fine
with. I love trolls. I don't like goblins. They are, by nature,
devious. That was my first encounter with metal.
Which brings me to vodka. You should try Sobieski and apple
juice. This is a Polish thing that I learned in Poland from
the bar-tending son of an Occupation singer for American troops.
Besides how to make this drink, he also told me to visit the metal club and
emphasized the importance of avoiding the gay bar situated next door.
Perhaps he had made this "mistake" with disastrous results for his
personal identity. Speculation.
"Do not go up the stairs with the rainbow lights. On the right.
Go down the stairs to the left, underground. That is the metal bar."
I went to the metal bar. There were two kinds of Zywiec on draft,
dark and light. There were flaming gates painted on the far wall of the
underground crypt. Metal was playing. It was great. That was my
One night at college, drinking Sobieski and apple juice, I was
transported back to Krakow-in-winter, the closest I've been to my Swedish
Viking heritage. I was put in a pagan mindset. I heard the war
horns of the icy, barbarian host in my heart. I asked my friends if they
wanted to hear Mayhem. They were ready for anything. We lit candles and a
fire in the fireplace and listened to Freezing Moon. Very romantic,
cozy. Got really drunk. A funny thing happened. I began to
notice the subtle melodic variations. It adopted a
"classical" complexity. The goblin sang:
It's night again, night you're beautiful
I'll please my hunger, on living humans
Night of hunger, follow its call
Follow the freezing moon, yeah
This sounded almost happy to me at the time, probably because my
emotional register had been recalibrated by the Sobieksi and Berserker
impulses. That was my third encounter with metal. Since then I have
taught myself a little about the metal genre. I know what I like, which is
doom, sludge, and classic metal. I occasionally dip my little toe into the
brackish death metal pond.
But what does this have to do with Charles Mingus?
One day, I was reading an NPR blog on metal. It linked to an
interview with Aesop Dekker, the drummer for Ludicra (Ludicra has a female
singer, which is rare for Black Metal), and a list of his five favorite jazz
albums. Number one on that list is Charles Mingus' Black Saint and the
Sinner Lady. Dekker described the sound as "A Lovecraftian noir
soundtrack." This was a perfect storm of associations for me. I
first listened to the album while driving. It's an intense downward
trajectory full of sex, humor, and chaos. It's like a supernatural
fixative for Los Angeles.
I grew up in Los Angeles. This city is obtuse, like jazz,
classical, and black metal. It's difficult to get a conceptual hold.
People who just moved here will probably disagree with that statement because
they live in Silver Lake or Los Feliz or Downtown, all of which have their
own twenty-year-old ecosystems that are, fundamentally, trying very hard not to
be boring. It is impossible to consider certain aspects of life when it remains
perpetually dynamic. One boring day, my dad's friend took us to Philippe's
the Home of the Original French Dip Sandwich. When you grow up on
the West side you seldom go Downtown. There used to be nothing
there, just artifacts like Philippe's. It's a different atmosphere
now. Back then I recognized the spirit of Philippe's, the city it
represented. I remembered it from black and white movies, Chinatown, and
Roger Rabbit. Noir. You can make an argument against that, you can say
it’s French or something, but Noir is an ideal pair of glasses to wear in Los
Angeles, a desert paradise of corruption on a permanent slow burn. And The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
is the soundtrack to that city. A city where Protestant drunks in the Los
Angeles Country Club harass Filipino waitresses, desperate women race their
nine-elevens around Mulholland, the city where James Ellroy lives. I wouldn't
have that magic rotting oasis without black metal, Noir, or Mr.
Mingus. It's a nice place to visit when the sunshine gets too bright.