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THE SoCAL SONGBOOK

`Los Angeles' X | 1980

March 11, 2007|Geoff Boucher

JOHN DECHAC was born in leafy Decatur, Ill., but was ready to move west when he read about Los Angeles in the besotted pavement poetry of Charles Bukowski. He arrived in late 1976, before celebrating his 23rd birthday here, and he cooked up a cipher's identity -- the young writer would call himself John Doe.

At a Venice poetry workshop he met another L.A. newcomer named Christine Cervenka (a.k.a. Exene), and the two would be the Bonnie and Clyde of the local punk scene in the art-music project that was called X. They made a searing mark, especially with a cynical tale called "Los Angeles."

Doe starts the song with a calm, partial phrase -- "She had to leave" -- followed by a mad spasm of chords by guitarist Billy Zoom and then Exene's cry of "Los Angeles." Their voices then pair to tell of a woman who came to L.A. with hope but grew to loathe blacks (although that's not the word used), Jews and Mexicans along with "every homosexual and the idle rich." It's a jolting rant and one Doe says was calculated.

"The whole racist thing it was about is what was happening in the scene back then. When people started getting sick and tired, that's when they would start lashing out, it didn't matter if they were conservative or liberal. I was also very aware of the shock of it all, which was very much a part of the scene.'"

The wailing hook made the song an anthem. "That's been a little strange. It started out as just a story about people changing and needing different things to complete that change." He cites Bukowski and Nathanael West as the chief influences on style, but the exasperated main character was found in real life.

"The girl in the song is based on Fay Hart, a close friend of Exene's, who was influential in that early scene. She went to England and married Steve Nieve [of the Attractions], and now she's a writer and a poet.... The line about the girl buying a clock on Hollywood Boulevard the day she left -- Fay actually did buy a clock just before she left."

The lyrics show a young woman at wits' end:

She gets confused

Flying over the dateline

Her hands turn red

'Cause the days change at night

Change in an instant

The days change at night

Change in an instant

Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek produced the song, and Doe said a bit of that band's songbook may have crept in. "The line about the days and nights was a comment on how quickly things can change. It's a pretty simple thing, obviously, but I realized right away that it was a good line. It captured something I think ... that line might sound a bit like 'Break on Through.' I like the Doors, I can't deny that."

Intended or not, anthems are a "sure bet" in concert, which Doe appreciates, although some fans scream for it the whole concert -- even after it's been played. "You want to ask, 'Hey man, where were you?' " Worse, some fans belt out the racist lines without the irony. "That's the price you pay, right? You kind of cringe and just hope for the best."

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-- Geoff Boucher

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