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Pop Music | THE SoCAL SONGBOOK

`Los Angeles' Frank Black / 1993

July 16, 2006|Geoff Boucher

Take New York, remember Paris or sing of Chicago, but don't ever forget that Southern California is the leading landscape of pop-music dreamers. From the days when Bing Crosby crooned of the San Fernando Valley as a giddy heaven on Earth (how's that going?) to N.W.A's slightly less rosy "Straight Outta Compton" and beyond, the lyrics on the radio have long reminded us that Southern California -- for better or worse -- is best mapped in lyrics. In the SoCal Songbook, we look at a SoCal-related song, old or new, and check its cultural compass points.

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BLEARY-EYED and sipping matzo ball soup, Frank Black stared at his notebook and waited for the lyrics to come. It was 1992, and the Pixies singer was at a Burbank deli near Hollywood Way, way behind on lyrics for his first solo album.

Then he remembered a book he had read, "In Patagonia," the British writer Bruce Chatwin's 1977 travel memoir of the bleak landscapes of the South American region. "He went to these lonely places and mysterious valleys, and throughout the area, he came across villages that were called Los Angeles. That stuck with me."

Channeling that, Black came up with "Los Angeles," which remains the signature song of his solo career. It's about many different L.A.s -- one in Patagonia, another our metropolis and its halo of helicopters. There's also the one in old black-and-white films and another that "buzzes like a beehive" in the year 2525, a.k.a. "Blade Runner."

The song starts with a cryptic drawl:

I met a man

He was a good man

Sailing and shoring

Dancing the beta can-can

Making me foreign

Black chuckled. "That's either about cultural mutation or it's just gobbledygook."

The track has thunderous guitars, hints of flamenco and layers of synthesizer, along with that classic loud-quiet-loud Pixies structure that would so influence Nirvana. And what was Black's influence? He points to a live version of "Aqualung," the creepy old Jethro Tull story-song. Black's mom took him to see a Tull concert in Long Beach when he was 14.

"Of my solo career it's the best known song, and a little bit of credit for that epic vibe goes to Tull. It's kind of a cinematic song. In a way it's like 'Planet of the Apes,' that moment when he sees the Statue of Liberty and realizes he never really left Earth. I was looking for that kind of feel. And it's about getting out too. Even if you love the place, sometimes it's great to get the hell out of L.A."

-- Geoff Boucher

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