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 second encounter.
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.