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Crowd surfing on Santa Monica Pier concert night

Chris Erskine joins Los Angeles' melting pot on the Santa Monica Pier on Thursday nights for free summer concerts.

August 02, 2013|Chris Erskine
  • Lights swirl during a concert by Rachid Taha in the Twilight Dance series on the Santa Monica Pier.
Lights swirl during a concert by Rachid Taha in the Twilight Dance series… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Santa Monica just seems to purr along, high on its own helium. Not urban, not suburban, but one of those mutations that seems to work, all centered on a vibrant main drag that isn't a drag at all. It's a 100-year-old pier.

Other than Dodger Stadium, I know of no place in town that gets such a mix of rich, poor, locals, tourists, sharks and surfer chicks. A melting pot with lifeguards and 4-foot waves.

This isn't the op-ed page, so I won't try to sell you on the unqualified glories of diversity, because I don't think it's completely glorious by any means; you lose a certain sense of community when you're not one thing.

Besides, most of the time, when we brag about our rich diversity what we're really saying is we can get killer Thai food one night and world-class Cantonese the next. Far as hanging out together, maybe another time.

But at Santa Monica Pier, we all really just hang out. In summer, Thursday nights are best, for that's where they stage these 7 p.m. concerts on the pier, drawing crowds in the thousands. Did I mention they're free?

Everybody's always talking about "branding," and I'm in love with the notion — my own, of course — that L.A. might be the world's greatest brand, right up there with Disney and Apple.

We don't necessarily think of places as brands, yet L.A. has all the qualities you'd want in a product: sass and eye appeal and a breathless sense of aspiration. So maybe, after all, we are one thing.

I never lusted for this place, and I'd caution anyone who does, because L.A. is a house of mirrors, playing on your vanities and your greed.

As if that weren't enough, they let the motorcycles rip right down the middle of traffic, threatening to take your elbow and outside mirror with them. And the riders all do it, this lane-splitting, every single one of them. Not once have I seen a motorcycle wait with the rest of us.

So there are things I'd like them to improve about Los Angeles, sure. The skyline is a travesty and the politicians worse. There are, like, three public schools that are any good, and you can't get to the Hollywood Freeway from the 134 except by driving across people's lawns. Insane.

But on a summer night late in the week, Thursdays to be exact, you have this splendid and edgy pier fest — roller coasters and rock bands and little old ladies flitting about like butterflies.

"I've been coming here 20, 30, 40 years," says Liz Vevington, 89.

"Well, which is it?" I ask.

"Since '65," she says. "I love to dance."

Paul Small and Sharon Silbert have been coming to the Thursday concerts for 10 years, as much for the people watching as the music. Even veterans like them admit that the music can be a little screamy now and then and the crowds a little raucous.

"They absolutely crushed us last week," Silbert says.

Yep, I see the potential for that. You should see this crowd, a smattering of older folks but mostly a younger clientele, many with an Amish grunge look about them, though it's hard to generalize.

I slurp down a shrimp aguachile, $10 at the Malo tent behind us, and contemplate an escape plan for me and the little guy, who's hunkered down in his chair, pondering just where it is his old man has dragged him. To the very edge of a civilized society, apparently.

So we retreat down to the sand, where a separate, more refined crowd gathers before a big screen that shows the concert. This is more like Ravinia (Chicago) or the Hollywood Bowl (Hollywood). A tad more civilized, but by no means tame. Still, this is summer. And nobody ever looked bad in the cedar rays of a setting California sun.

As the music begins, we settle into our beach chair, wrap a Dodger blanket around ourselves and listen. August will soon be here, one of those bookend months. Like December, it marks the close of things.

Speaking of December, might I note that on many nights, Santa Monica feels much like Fairbanks, Alaska, and a parka wouldn't be out of place, or even a dog blasting through the sand with a cask of brandy?

Fortunately, the little guy and I have extra blankets.

And each other. And on a late summer night, that is all we really need.

Santa Monica Pier Twilight Concerts info

Where: Santa Monica Pier
When: 7-10 p.m. Thursdays. Ends Sept. 12.
Admission: Free
Info: Lineup and parking information is at

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