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A Californian who heeded a distant drumbeat

Native State: A Memoir, Tony Cohan, Broadway Books: 320 pp., $24.95

September 07, 2003|Pico Iyer | Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of the novel "Abandon" and a forthcoming book of travels, "Sun After Dark."

In all the stories, California is the point of arrival, the place to which everyone aspires -- the end of the line, as more sardonic souls might put it, or, in Don Henley's agile pun, the "last resort." It is the place where dreams and dreamers culminate (which is another way of saying that it is the place where reality kicks in); in our inner topography, it's the destination of hope.

One of the disarming graces of Tony Cohan's limpid and beautifully elegiac memoir, clear and sad as an old song playing on a radio down the street, is that it takes that hoary myth and sees it from the other side, through the eyes of one raised inside those dreams. Cohan grew up in Hollywood in its glory days, Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer singing around the family piano downstairs, various Sinatras and Mitchums his schoolmates, and his father summoned from back East to produce and direct Jimmy Durante's weekly radio show; and so, in a sense, Sunset Boulevard and Dotty Lamour's house (in which he grew up), the Garden of Allah and Schwab's drugstore down the street, were what he longed to put behind him.

L.A. was the place where his father suddenly lost his job and his glamorous lifestyle, as radio was eclipsed by television and then by life; where a call one night said that his mother had crashed the family station wagon, under the influence, and was now in the Hollywood jail; where a grandfather, 82, turned up on the family doorstep without a dime. It was, in a sense, the place of country clubs and bourgeois rites that the young Cohan sought to escape. Every day one summer, he notes, in his characteristic tone of unsentimental lyricism, he hitched the 12 miles from Coldwater Canyon to Santa Monica Pier to look out across the ocean toward all the places he longed to get to (Tangier and Paris and Kyoto and now Mexico, as it turned out). California was where he dreamed of somewhere else.

Cohan is best known to most readers, perhaps, as the author of the recent bestselling memoir "On Mexican Time," about his flight from Los Angeles in the '80s to the more spacious and grounding rhythms of San Miguel de Allende. Yet what is most important to know when approaching "Native State" is that Cohan began his professional life as a drummer, one who backed Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, Janis Joplin (briefly) and many of the defining musicians of his day, right up to Ry Cooder and a sitar master from Bengal. And drumming is this book's electric heart, the instrument, in every sense, of his escape into travel and eros and hope. Drumming is the way he replaced Durante with the Gnaoua musicians of Morocco, the way he supplanted the tinkles of his high school classmates Jan and Dean with the sudden transports of Bud Powell's ecstatic flights, the way, in effect, he redeemed life with art.

But more than just leading him into a demimonde of hipsters, nomad girls and visionaries, drumming seems to lie behind the syncopation that gives "Native State" its compelling structure. Cutting back and forth between his returns to Los Angeles from Mexico to visit his dying father in the late '90s and the memories of his vagrant youth which these returns unlock, Cohan switches back and forth, seamlessly between the time when all the world was before him and he only had to take it and the time, now, when he returns, close to 60, and realizes that he too will soon be where his father is.

The epigraph for the book -- "The finest thing in life is its uncertainty" -- comes from the 12th century Japanese Buddhist priest Kenko, and it gives Cohan's story a haunting undertow of impermanence and illusion: Even the moments that were so enlivening and emancipating for Cohan, in Africa and Europe, will one day be gone.

For almost every reader, I suspect, the outlines of Cohan's early life will seem impossibly exotic, not least because, ever contained and un-illusioned, he shows little interest in exoticism himself. The romance in his life exists not in the boyhood minglings with Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles that were a part of his father's world but in the way he replaced them with his own full-bodied embrace of the mid-century's rebellions. The Beatles, Jim Morrison and Richard Serra all were a part of his past, and Cohan was only 22 when he stepped into Barbara Hutton's villa in Morocco and started chatting with Paul Bowles. "The rooms pulsed with local oud orchestras, hermaphroditic dancing boys, joujouka trance drummers from the Rif Mountains, a Ghanaian dance troupe en route to Paris to perform at the Olympia."

In the years that followed, riding the Euro-bohemian circuit, he ended up running drugs in North Africa and Paris, picking up jazz gigs (and exotic girls) while sleeping in the Copenhagen train station, even coming very close to becoming a gigolo in London. Later he lived in a silk merchant's daughter's villa in Kyoto, set off to meet the other drummer-writer Robert Graves in Spain and wrote lyrics for Chick Corea (as he does to this day).

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