Musical Review: Eleni Mandell at the Bootleg

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The Bootleg Theater is one of those places that exists in between the drive between the safety of your house and of your destination.  I ordinarily do not make it a point to stop in an area where every other car on the road is that of a cop, but tonight music calls.

I park my car under a street lamp and hope that no one breaks in while I’m away.  There aren’t many people on the street save for a few out-of-place looking white kids waiting to get inside.  Across the street is an open door, revealing a blindingly white interior, illuminated by the garish lighting of florescent bulbs.  The backs of bodies can be seen scattered in the rows of blue chairs and a late night church service hangs in the air between us and them.  Adjacent is the Brooklyn Bagel shop with its “Open” sign still out, though the lights are off and it is obviously closed.

Brett arrives and we go inside.  By definition I guess this would be a dive club: there’s no flash, no frills, and the PA system consists of two standing speakers like the kind they use at graduation ceremonies.  The building was originally a bra factory back in the 30s.  It is small and gets crowded easily.  The ceilings are high and arched with wooden beams and silver ducts.  Wood panels seamlessly coat the interior, breaking only for a sign reading “Cocktails” with its blinking, mismatched lights and a bar underneath, crowded with people looking to distance themselves from themselves.

When Eleni goes on we are close, but then again everyone is close.  It’s nearly impossible to have a bad view in a place the size of two big living rooms.  The band has no drummer, just a standup bass, Eleni on guitar and vocals, and another electric guitar.  Her voice is like honey, deep and seductive.  The bass chugs along theraputically and the electric guitar makes my toes tingle.  The music is delicate: the kind that dances on your eyelashes and politely raises the hair on your arms.

I watch the strands of the bass vibrate and I see where it is worn in the spot that he repeatedly glides over with his hand.  I count the buttons on Eleni’s dress and note the white pattern over the green.  I can hear the clacking of the pick on the electric guitar.  It’s like watching a band perform in the basement of some house in Wisconsin, and this is what makes dive clubs what they are.

Maybe the intimacy of the actual venue forces an obligation to honesty: three songs in Eleni looks out at the crowd and says something along the lines of, “I often wonder if I should keep playing music…everyday, actually…And then there are nights like these that make me think that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”  It is a vulnerable moment, similar to the time I heard one half of Pedro the Lion tell the audience that his old partner couldn’t be in the band anymore because he needed to raise a family and couldn’t do it on the amount of money they made.  And later on this evening the singer of another act tells us that she’s pregnant and threw up that morning.  Nothing like some good old unfiltered candor.

Eleni’s lyrics are writerly and she sings things like “it wasn’t the time, it was a color” which makes me misty eyed and jealous.  Her songs are charged with an underhanded disappointment but she then sings about “lov(ing) to be hopeful.”  The music makes me want to go back to high school and make papier mache hearts for secret boyfiends.

It’s a shame that the band doesn’t translate as well when taken out of the context of a live show.  Their CDs are slow and pensive and I am far too impatient.  But when placed in a room with them you are fully enveloped in their world, their mood, their contemplative existence.  The lyrics are deeply associative and relatable.

I leave in the middle of the next artist’s set because I have established my loyalty the previous act.  I say goodbye to Brett and exit onto a now very empty street.  I hustle to my car, which has not been broken into as I worried, and head west.  Until next time.

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Evidence I’m Aging: Disneyland

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I’m not old, but I do sense its inevitability.  I am also aware of my increasing participation in “I remember when…” type conversations that indicate nothing but the swift passage of time, a hurried vehicle that I can never get off of.  Upon a recent trip to Disneyland I admitted to myself some observations that have been nagging at me since I was twelve.

1.  The Entrance

The Disneyland parking lot used to be accessed only after a wide road of perhaps eight or so lanes banked left and then dipped down ever so slightly.  As a child, I used to fancy it something of a preamble to a rollercoaster.  It was something so minor and slight that I doubt anyone over the age of ten would have noticed it.  But to me, the sensation was quite like flying.  The parking lot fee was paid to one of many attendants sitting under their pseudo car ports, with a “Disneyland” sign above in its magical kingdom typeface.  Excitement would build as we scoured the lot, parking under a Mickey or Minnie or Pluto sign.  I interpreted these signs as ways to express what character you preferred, not just an easy way to remember how you parked.  Parking under a lame duck character might set my day off on the wrong foot.  From the parking lot we would walk quickly to the ticket gates, coming in with a tide of other families and watching as the highest points of the park jutted into the sky at more impossibly viewed angles.  This was the process.  This was how we arrived.

Today, what once was that glorious asphalt field of anticipation is now a sorry excuse for a sister park, California Adventureland or something like that.  We are now required to park in what is quite possibly the biggest parking structure I have ever seen, provoking latent anxiety about earthquakes.

2.  Main Street

Once into the park, passing the train station and marigolds planted in the shape of Mickey’s smiling face, I went straight for the window displays.  Now when I was a kid, these featured intricate diorama’s of Ariel swimming in her magical underwater kingdom, Aladdin flying over sand dunes, Peter Pan kidnapping little children, etc.  It was like the best 3-D pop up book I had ever seen.

Today, where there were once engaging scenes of wondrous whimsy there are now displays of coffee cups and D-Land dishware you can buy in the store behind it.  I can’t imagine this inspiring children in the same fashion, although my shot-in-the-dark guess is that this is one of the many ways to groom young kids to be healthy consumers in adulthood.  Sigh.

3.  The Castle

I once viewed this castle as a template for which I would mirror my own real estate choices as I grew older.  Screw a white picket fence; I wanted a moat.  In fact, my favorite neighborhood house was one that featured stained glass windows and ample faux turrets.   It was the closest thing to medieval grandeur I could find in the San Fernando Valley, albeit there was no real stone masonry and the stucco was painted a kindergarten-room baby blue.

When viewed through a more worldly/ experienced/ spoiled lens, the Castle now looks modest, shrimpy even.  I can’t even be sure it’s actually three stories tall or just a one story building made to seem gigantic through clever architectural trickery.  If it were for sale in Burbank, it would easily be within my price range.  In theory, I could buy Sleeping Beauty’s house.

4.  Dietary Concerns

Once blessed with the bottomless pit metabolism of an active child, I’d chow down powdered sugar dusted funnel cake at every opportunity.  Cheeseburger overcooked to oblivion?  No problem.  Vegetables?  Waste of time.  Having grown older and more aware of the hazards of cellulite, high blood pressure and heart disease I have lamely subjected myself to the hazards of a healthy person.  This means that all carnival-like faire is now out of the question.  I won’t indulge in the offerings at Disneyland ice cream parlor.  I refuse to eat the fried fish in Adventureland.  I ignore the tantalizing head-sized lollipops on my way out.  Again, sigh.

5.  On Safety

I have mixed feelings about plowing through Space Mountain in pitch black darkness.  Although I can’t see the structure I’m whizzing through and past, I get the sense that it is always dangerously close to my large head.  My paranoid fears were confirmed last week when someone told me that a few years ago someone was decapitated after they stood up (idiot) while riding.  Subsequently, Disneyland had to redesign the rollercoaster to be a bit roomier.  This could be myth, but it still allows for some validation on my behalf.

These admissions mean that I am dangerously close to becoming my mother.

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In Happiness and Youthful Taste

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I sometimes wish that my parents had been more obsessed with music, thereby passing on some of their good taste to me during my crucial developmental years.  Mom wasn’t into the Rolling Stones because they were “loud” and my dad , after having grown up on Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, moved on to James Taylor and Garth Brooks in early 90s, much to my disappointment: James Taylor bored me to tears even at  five years old and I just couldn’t boot stompin’ boogie with Mr. Brooks.  Alas, I was left to fend for myself.

Early musical conquests – in the form of a cassette, of course – included a double-sided MC Hammer joint featuring “2 Legit 2 Quit” and “Can’t Touch This.”  Needless to say I was more than pleased when I came across a sweater at the JC Penney Outlet Store in which both titles were knitted with neon yarn over and over again until they collided in the center at a giant holograph of MC Hammer himself, busting a move on the front of my sweatshirt.  I was similarly enthralled by one of the bands formed from some Mickey Mouse Club stars, whose collective name now slips my memory but I do recall their single “Free 2 B Me.”  The 90s was all about abbreviation, ergo the death of the written word.  This is perhaps why many of my peers still do not correctly identify the difference between “two” and “too.”  Sucks 2 B U, my friends in illiteracy.

My first CD was by Ace of Base and was purchased with my dad at the local Target.  I came directly home, put “I Saw the Sign” on my gigantic black, 6 CD changer, AM/FM tuner, two tape deck radio and danced my heart away on the carpet of my shared bedroom.  Madonna’s “The Immaculate Collection” came next.  The black and white photographs of her in a bathroom, legs akimbo, both confused me and made me want to join a contortionist circus.  While I would never be as flexible as Madonna, I was certain of my prowess as an adept singer.  I pranced around, swinging from my bunk bed as far as the room’s square footage would allow, mimicking the tone of her voice to the point of precise impersonation…at least I thought so.

Mom took me to see my first concert at the Universal Amphitheater.  Kenny Loggins was ever the long-haired, mellow dreamboat I had imagined.  Out seats were on the first floor, closer to the back and just under the balcony section above.  The result was a dense reverb that did not necessarily make for stellar acoustics.  That, and a woman nearby was apparently far more turned on by Kenny and screamed with drunken gusto.  Mom was annoyed and I can’t remember if she told her to shut up or just complained about it.  The experience was a wild success.

Mine was a youth full, unbridled 1990s pop.  Amy Grant (before she found religion), Paula Abdul (all albums, no exceptions), Mariah Carey (when she could still sing and maintained at least the pretense of sanity).  Although, I did miss a few key pop movements that were marketed specifically towards girls like me; namely, boy bands and Britney Spears.  NSYNC just seemed a little too, well, gay for my taste and I could never bring myself to actually purchase a Britney album.  More easily done was to dole out faux judgment on those who did.  However, I had no qualms on screaming “I’m Not a Girl” out of the window of my friend’s two door, parent purchased BMW provided we were more than a mile away from school.  One must keep up appearances, cynical or otherwise.

My brother, being a boy, was more easily sucked into the grunge movement, which I interpreted as an excuse to not shower or be happy.  I attribute my previous lack of enthusiasm for Nirvana to my then undeveloped intellectual maturity.  That and the cover for In Utero really just grossed me out.

When grunge evolved into something more palatable for my delicate sensibilities, Green Day came out.  Around the same time, parental advisory stickers had become de rigueur and my mom took an active interest in what I was listening to.  I enjoyed the uncensored Dookie for a week before my mom made me return it for the kiddie version.  Much good did it do me; I still learned how to say f*&#, sh^%, and g%d da#% in due time.

As I grew older, I more quickly devoted myself to a CD collection mirroring that of a 45-year-old divorcee.  Sheryl Crow, Shawn Collins, Tori Amos – the emotive, broken hearted works.  Jiving with my more “raucous” and “rebellious” side, I had Third Eye Blind and Everclear.  I found that “Semi Charmed Kind of Life” really summed up my middle school experience, mainly associating with the line “…to get me through this…”.  For whatever reason I remember specifically listening to the song pour out of the speakers of my karaoke machine cum radio while taking a shower and wondering if I would ever be popular.  These were also the days in which I was learning to manage razor burn on my legs (i.e. avoiding goosebumps).  Those are two memories I associate with that particular shower.  Third Eye Blind and goosebumps.  Dododo do do do dooo…

Although my dad purportedly grew up on some of the best rock ever known, I didn’t hear about it through him.  I initially learned about Jimi Hendrix on a PC encyclopedia application, long before Google and long before wireless internet.  On Dad Weekends, I would sit in front of one of many Sony Vaio’s he would have to purchase, listening to white noise dial-up as I logged onto my AOL account.  After that there wasn’t much to do besides sign into strange chat rooms and read the poetry of suicidal teens.  When boredom set in, I would turn to the computer Encyclopedia, which was at that point a breakthrough in multi-media: I could read Jimi’s bio and watch one 20 second clip of him performing “Mary.”

My high school days were strongly influenced my high school boyfriend, who introduced me to Tupac and Biggie – who I didn’t like at the time because it sounded like his words struggled to get past the fat in his neck and into the microphone.  Might it be known that a Parental Advisory treaty was made when my mom gave me the foul-mouthed version of Tupac as a Christmas present my freshman year.  DMX, OutKast, Dr. Dre and Eminem followed.

The first time I heard Eminem was leaving the parking lot of the Cheesecake Factory.  It was raining and my boyfriend had somehow scored a label-less demo from someone who knew someone who had a connection.  Once again, this was before the days of rampant internet bootlegging and pirating: a demo like this a rarity and truly sacred.  The first beats in “My Name Is” were something I had never experienced before.  It was so new, fresh, utterly and delightfully obnoxious.  I became a devotee.

When I arrived at college I was shocked by the breadth of knowledge my New Jersey roommate possessed about classic rock and other alternatives.  Her taste was far more developed and refined then my own: she had embraced Radiohead at a young age and loved Pearl Jam, she liked songs like “Night Swimming” and knew about Modest Mouse before I had even heard of them.  She spoke of being introduced to music by her parents, causing me to become disheartened because I essentially had eighteen years of learning to do.

To to be fair, my parents did provide me with a few, but visceral, memories in music.  Alana Miles “Black Velvet” reminds me of the parkay flooring behind our bar and the stacks of Atari games that existed there instead of bottles of booze.  Carol King “Tapestry” will always be associated with my mom.  Seal takes me back to a road trip with my dad and brother out to June Lake, eating Certs Mints until my stomach hurt and going for burgers at The Tiger Bar.  The Smashing Pumpkins song “1979” will always remind me of carpooling in Mom’s old brown leather Mercedes to the middle school, mostly because that’s what she says every time she hears the song.  The Cars “Greatest Hits” bring to mind dinners at my dad’s first trailer: he would make al fredo noodles and, later, my brother and I would share a blow up mattress in the living room even though there was a bedroom for us in the back; we just liked to listen to the waves crash off of the PCH.

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The Realist’s Guide to Los Angeles: Runyon Canyon

When people move to Los Angeles, they often express joy at the close proximity to so many varied topological options.  You can ski, surf, hike, swim in infinity pools in the Hollywood hills, etc.  They list off these attributes with smiles on their faces and stars in their eyes.  These are the people who are new enough to the city to not have been beaten down by distance and traffic, hazards of an overblown car culture.  Yeah, I’d go surfing if it didn’t take me 45 minutes to travel the 7 miles to Santa Monica.  Yeah, I’d ski all the time if the first decent mountain wasn’t 6 hours away.  I’m not negative, I’m just burnt out.  I grew up here and if I could push my car off a cliff into a beautiful privately owned beach and roll it into a polluted, public owned ocean…trust me, I would.  What I do take advantage of is the hiking as it is conveniently located to my house, it’s cheap, and it’s good for my heart.  At least once a week I make the treacherous, dog shit ridden journey up to the top of my little LA world.

There is much to be aware of before you commit to hiking Runyon.  The following is some advice I have to the newbies.

1.  Heads Up, Seven Up

Never look up for more than a second or so.  Doing otherwise will most certainly result in stepping into the aforementioned dog poo.  I usually make a point to only observe my surroundings and relax at two particular vistas.  I’d like to fully commit to exercise induced euphoria, but I’m too busy concentrating on keeping my shoes clean.  I suggest you do the same.  Save the sightseeing for later.

2.  “Hello” and other Niceties

LA is a big place.  And like other giant, overpopulated cities, people become increasingly protectionist to minimize the likelihood of befriending sociopaths.  Saying “hello” to oncoming hikers is like asking a stranger over for tea time.  How dare you?!  You want me to eat macaroons with you and I don’t even know your name?!  Jesus, man.  Telling someone to “have a good day” is like stripping them of their personal bubble, their private time.  Blood pressure raises and anxiety rides high.  Once you tell one person you like their dog, they think they’re perhaps expected to do the same…to “pass it forward” like that terrible movie with Kevin Spacey.  Can you imagine what that does to someone’s day?  Better to leave well enough alone.

3.  Weird Dog Varietals

This rule is similar to #2.  Engaging in any type of conversation is strictly foreboden, especially if the conversation is about the variety of someone’s strange looking or unique looking mutt.  In particular, if you ever get the chance to hike Runyon around dusk, you will inevitably come across a man walking a dog who looks like a canine burn victim.  It has no hair with the exception of a few sparse strands on his back and its skin is a deep freckled mahogany.  Its tongue pokes out from the left side of its closed mouth.  By far and away, this is the ugliest dog I have ever seen.

One day, a friend’s mother was visiting from out of town and was not briefed on Runyon etiquette.  She brazenly asked what type of dog it was.  Of course the owner was irritated when responding, having been asked this question – I’m assuming – daily.  But to be fair, he’s the one who volunteered to purchase an ugly dog.  I generally believe that asking an owner what type of dog they have after squealing, “Oh my God!  How cute!!!!” is acceptable.  However, I do have a friend that is in possession of one such adorable pooch and apparently it is equally as bothersome.  Better err on the side of caution and avoid uncomfortable interaction altogether.

4.  One…Two…Three!

There are a few places I recommend holding your breath to avoid full on inhalation of toxic feces.  Depending on the wind, I say holding your breath for at least a ten foot radius from any trash can.  This is where the shit that isn’t still on the ground is deposited.  On a blustery day, you’re really just screwed.

5.  We’ll Have a Gay Old Time

To really make the most of your trip, I recommend bringing your gayest best friend.  These are the people who seem to always be having the most intense conversations, invariably littered with “Oh my GAWD”s and “No fucking way”s.  I wish my life was this dramatic.  My only concern is that these twosomes swallow more flies with their mouths perpetually agape.

6.  (Skin) Safety First

Always, always wear sunblock.  The sun’s glaring rays can be pretty intense way up their in the smoggy blue yonder.  And how on earth will you be able to lie about your age if you’ve got premature wrinkles?

I have learned a great many things from my Runyon Canyon excursions, mainly that you have to work hard for any reward in life.  All of the shit you have to put up with – in this case, literally – hopefully ends in a grand payoff.  As I stand looking at the skyline of Los Angeles – the Lego-like rectangles of downtown, the planes skimming the space above and below the cloud line, the marine layer ebbing and flowing from the west, the glittering reflection of the sun off of Hollywood buildings – I think to myself, maybe this city isn’t that bad.  Maybe the people who choose to live here are on to something.  And then I look back down, and continue my hike.

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