"We regard punk rock as a very English kind of thing, because it seems to us that in Los Angeles you can't possibly have the kind of problems that we have ... Los Angeles doesn't seem the right place for punks to exist, you know?"
- Unidentified host, UK radio interview with Black Flag, 1981
"The general attitude is one of mild and mellow hedonism (although there are outbreaks of mass murder). The economy is still comparatively healthy, though the price of this continuing prosperity and the affluent Californian lifestyle is that the air in this paradise is poisoned."
- Mick Farren, New Musical Express, 11 April 1981
"We're out here having fun / In the warm California sun"
-'California Sun', The Rivieras
California has long been the stuff of dreams - of the American Dream, in particular - even before Hollywood established itself as the world's grandest, slickest and most efficient manufacturer of such things.
Its very name - derived in the early 16th century from that of a mythic island in Spanish author Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo's contemporary retelling of Amadis of Gaul, an earlier Portuguese chivalric romance spoke of a paradise awash with grand treasures and Amazonian beauties, a vision seductive enough to send legendary Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes ('Cortez The Killer', as Neil Young would have him) in search of these very streets paved with gold, the final expedition of his long and storied career. While the pearls and gems and earthbound goddesses proved to be merely mythic, the land they ultimately discovered proved enough of a treasure that Spain later flooded the region with missionaries, with the aim of keeping it out of English hands and converting the nearby natives to Catholicism.
Several centuries later, California was surrendered to the nascent United States of America in 1848 as spoils of the Mexican-American War, only a decade or so after the similarly youthful republic of Mexico had declared its independence from Spain and expelled the Catholic clergy. Almost immediately, this land - the wildest, perhaps, and most western frontier - began to occupy a hallowed, magical space within the American imagination, where the country's contractual promise of freedom and opportunity could be redeemed on the grandest scale.
"Go west, young man, and grow up with the country," wrote newspaper editor Horace Greeley in 1865, in the pages of his New York Tribune, making an impassioned case for Manifest Destiny, for the United States' dominion over every corner of its vast, still-unsettled land. In truth, however, immigration into California had already spiked some years earlier, with the arrival of around 300,000 new residents from elsewhere in America and elsewhere around the globe in 1849.
These budding Californians weren't arriving in their droves to manifest their country's destiny, however, but operating on rather baser impulses, drawn by the discovery of gold in the grounds of Coloma, a small town in the south east of the state. This resulting influx counted among the more successful of its number hardy self-starters willing to abandon their homes, willing to brave the perilous journey to this remote area in a time before railroads, to withstand its wild, untamed and unforgiving landscape, and its woolly, lawless towns, in pursuit of realising their dream of a better life.
The Gold Rush, inevitably, ultimately subsided, and a fair number of 'Forty-Niners' ebbed away in tide with the abundance of the precious metal; the legend of California as some magical land with streets paved, literally or metaphorically, with gold never quite faded, however, no matter how illusory it often proved.
With the birth of the motion-picture industry in the sleepy, friendly district of Hollywood, California affirmed its place in the American psyche, in the popular culture, as a paradise brimming with promise.
Film-makers and moguls were drawn, not least, by the state's warm and temperate climate. "Every day, hot and sunny," comedian Bill Hicks would laugh, mirthlessly, in the Nineties, in a routine arguing in favour of the more varied pleasures offered by New York, California's chief competitor for the title of America's cultural capital. But this predictable pleasantness proved a great boon for movie-makers, who placed a premium on daylight suitable for filming. The Golden Hour, as any cinematographer will tell you, is that fleeting window in the day where the pre-dusk sunlight bathes everything it touches with a glow that elates the camera lens; the Golden Hour always seemed to last longer in California.
The glamour, imagined or advertised, of the movie-makers, the ravishing starlets, the dashing male leads, the eccentric directors and fanciful producers, and their lavishly debauched and luxuriously appointed lifestyles, rubbed off on their new environs. Pictured within the pages of fan magazines revelling in all the trappings their newfound wealth could afford - the first flourishing of our modern day celebrity culture - their outrageous fortune spoke again of the limitless opportunities that lay in the west, for those with just enough hunger for it, and enough blind faith in their ability, or their luck. Hollywood's pull was such that countless hopefuls flocked to Los Angeles, oversubscribing every audition, until LA's diners and bars would never again want for casual waiting staff.
All this hunger could breed desperation of course, and something of the untamed frontier town still lingered about Los Angeles. The grimy underbelly of this modern-day Shangri-La was turned over by Philip Marlowe, a fictional private detective with an office on Hollywood Boulevard, in the novels of Raymond Chandler: pulpy works like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, wrapped in cheap and luridly unforgettable covers, and later made into hard-edged noir movie thrillers. Chandler's work drew heavily on that desperation, on hunger driven past reason to murder and betrayal, and Hollywood's gutters offered abundant inspiration for Marlowe's adventures.
Even this black lining to Hollywood's gilded cloud, this morally muddied underworld of violence and betrayal, seemed somehow seductive and alluring, cast in expertly composed shadow and light on the cinema screen. And those out in the heartlands, sat in the flip-up chairs of the cinema or parked in the dusty lots of the drive-ins, who'd perhaps never visited California yet (but dreamed of doing so, even more so once Walt Disney built his Disneyland theme park in Anaheim), who perhaps even feasted on the rakings of the scandal sheets or considered the moviemakers godless Communists, as the McCarthy-era House Committee on Un-American Activities had wanted them to, often still believed in California as a land of promise and opportunity, where the trappings of the good life, the American Dream, were as easily accessible as getting to watch Annette Funicello in a teeny bikini in the latest Beach Party movie.
Hollywood was up in the Hills, where stilt-borne mansions and bungalows overlooked the neon-lit bars, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels of the Sunset Strip. The beaches, though, which filled would-be Californians with dreams of a vacation resort that thrived all year round, offering a paradise by the ocean to those who could move close enough to it, were out in the suburbs, connected to Los Angeles by long, winding freeways. A number of these beach towns clustered around the South Bay of California, communities like Manhattan Beach, Hawthorne, Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach, where the American Dream thrived for a middle-class living through postwar America's Age Of Plenty.
Living by the ocean seemed to mellow the mind-set and ideology of the South Bay, compared with similarly suburban districts elsewhere in America, and the unique leisure opportunities afforded by the sunshine, the sand and, most of all, the waves helped define the beach lifestyle this corner of California came to embody, as the Sixties dawned. In locations like San Diego's Ocean Beach and Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz, and later in the South Bay, surfing became not just some obscure coastal sport, but a culture, a lifestyle, to some a religion - one to which the American teenager, invented as a marketing demographic the previous decade, proved highly susceptible.
The ocean-neighbouring teens treated the sport with a dizzying devotion, waking before dawn to catch the early waves, spending hours in the ocean, or hanging out with their friends beside it. These proud beach rats developed their own slang, their own aesthetic, and their own music: rockers like Dick Dale, the Surfaris and the Ventures, whose fierce, rumbling and often-instrumental twang seemed to conjure the breath-stealing rush of a killer wave from rabidly abused guitar strings; and harmony-heavy pop groups like Jan & Dean and Hawthorne's own Beach Boys, whose peppy, preppy pop and swooning balladry seemed to fuse all the ennui and elation of a sun-kissed adolescence into sonic confections that, for chief Beach Boy Brian Wilson at least, also doubled as an earnest "teenage symphony to God".
This culture easily doubled as propaganda for the Californian lifestyle, aimed directly at the teenagers of the rest of America, and its reach extended far. Joe Carducci, later to prove a vital cog in the machinery that propelled Black Flag across America through the Eighties, remembers growing up in "a peripheral little town, outside Chicago", obsessed with the Californian culture that slowly bled east, icons like Rat Fink, the grotesque rodent character designed by hot-rodder and 'Kustom Kulture' pioneer Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth. "I wore what they called 'surfer shirts'," he recalls. "And I wanted to get a Maltese Cross [a symbol that resembles the Iron Cross], not because I had any interest in the German Luftwaffe, but because surfers wore them. I was interested in all of the cheeseball culture that was coming out of Los Angeles."
Those who found themselves drawn to the Californian suburbs and relocating to the South Bay were, says Carducci, "often blue collar. A friend of mine describes it as full of Okies, from the dustbowl days of the Depression. And it is, and it's full of Midwesterners as well. In the mid-Seventies, Chicago lost a million of its population, along with cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. These cities lost a lot of people, and many of them went to California. The ones who moved were the ones who were adventurers, dissatisfied with the Midwest, or wherever they were from. California has this self-selected population of slightly frustrated people."
"I was a surfer, I had a skate-board / I was so heavy, man, I lived on the Strand"
- 'Wasted', Black Flag
These seaside South Bay satellite towns, though connected to Los Angeles by a network of concrete motorways and flyovers, could feel incredibly parochial and remote to the adolescents who grew up there, especially as the Pacific Electric Railway, a rare semblance of a public mass transport system within resolutely autophile California, had met its demise in the years that followed the war. Known as the Red Car system, connecting suburbs and outlying towns like Pasadena, Alhambra, San Pedro and Hermosa, Huntington and Manhattan Beaches, it was the victim of the rapid expansion of America's freeways, and also an alleged conspiracy on the part of a number of tyre and automobile manufacturers and petroleum companies.
"SoCal, when you fly over it, looks like one big town, but it's actually like 150 tiny towns, even though there's no space between 'em," says Mike Watt, a native of South Bay harbour town San Pedro, whose group the Minutemen would become friends, labelmates and contemporaries of Black Flag. "We all only know our own little neighbourhoods. We didn't know Hermosa, either - fuck, even Almeida, the next town, or Wilmington, are foreign! We're really Balkanised, even though we have cars and shit. On the freeway they have walls, so you can't even see where you're driving through."
The South Bay was sufficiently distant that the cultural repercussions of the late Sixties, the social unrest and the psychedelic enlightenment, were cushioned enough by the miles of freeway to seep gently into the suburbs. In Hermosa Beach, nestled between Manhattan Beach to the north and Redondo Beach to the south, the chilled beach lifestyle was unruffled by the arson and violence that scorched Watts in August 1965, or the pitched battles between cops and hippies on the Sunset Strip in 1966. The self-proclaimed Beach Volleyball Capital Of The World was, however, no cultural desert.
"Hermosa Beach had its own form of bohemia," says Joe Carducci. "Though it often gets overlooked, and people don't realise the history, important jazz happened here." Where that jazz happened was at the Lighthouse Café, a nightclub located at 30 Pier Avenue, a block up from Hermosa's beachfront boardwalk the Strand, which had opened in the late Forties with local quintet (a sextet on weekends) Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars playing as house band.
Bandleader Rumsey, a suave and towering double-bassist who had played with the likes of Max Roach, Shelly Manne and Stan Kenton, and hailed from Brawley, on the south-western tip of California, had smooth-talked Lighthouse owner John Levine into hosting jazz nights at the ailing venue, hiring a group of the loudest players that he knew and letting them blare while Levine propped the club's door open, hoping to attract passers by. The gamble paid off, and soon the Lighthouse was attracting jazz aficionados from all over California, packing out the dark and welcoming room with its walls decorated in impressionistic basrelief paintings, which, according to a 1954 profile by Los Angeles Mirror entertainment editor Dick Williams, boasted such titles as "'How Can I Understand You If You Don't Say What I Already Know Blues?', 'Some Days I Feel Aggressive' and 'Who's Got The Melody?'. The average age [of the audience] is in the mid-20s," added Williams, noting an "uncommonly high percentage of classy, good-looking girls".
In the decades that followed, the Lighthouse Café would play host to a truly impressive roster of jazz musicians, legends such as Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk, Art Pepper and Yusef Lateef gracing its stage. Today, it remains a nightclub venue, and it still books jazz performances, but the Lighthouse now makes most of its money from karaoke nights with a $3 cocktail promotion, Guns'n'Roses covers band Chinese Democracy, and "Rockin' Munchies" like Mini Corn-Doggies, Blue Cheese Bacon Potato Skins and Killer Nachos. Elsewhere on the menu, however, you'll find an entrée named in honour of one of the West Coast jazz scene's most beloved and influential figures: a flame-broiled burger served with lettuce, tomato, onion and tortilla chips for $8.25, the Ozzie Burger is a tribute to Ozzie Cadena, who booked jazz performances at the Lighthouse until he passed away in spring 2008, at the age of 83.
Born in Oklahoma City in 1924, Ozzie grew up in Newark, New Jersey, a resourceful kid who shined shoes in the street for money, working just up the block from a busking blues singer whose performances first awoke within the young Cadena the love for music that would define the path of his life. Aged 12, he began taking the train to Harlem on Saturday nights to hear jazz musicians play; at midnight, regulars at the clubs he frequented, who knew the boy as 'Newark', would escort Ozzie to the station, to catch the last train back to Jersey.
Following a stint with the marines during World War II, Cadena landed work as presenter of his own jazz radio programme, before joining Savoy Records in 1951, a Newark-based jazz label that would earn a deserved reputation for recording crucial early bebop releases. Savoy's owner, Herman Lubinsky, was already an industry stalwart, operating New Jersey's first-ever radio station the same year Cadena had been born, and later running a successful record store on the location where the label's offices would stand. Lubinsky had also won himself a deserved reputation for bilking his artists out of the royalties they were owed, but the musicians all loved Cadena, the label's producer and A&R man; his passion for music was evident in his judicious and imaginative approach to recording sessions. "His studio philosophy was simple yet effective," wrote Kirk Silsbee, in a profile on Cadena for Los Angeles' City Beat in 2006. "[Cadena would] pair up players from different schools and generations to stimulate a chemical reaction that will result in something new from each."