Bakersfield, California has Buck Owens, Luckenbach, Texas has Willie and the boys, Los Angeles has I See Hawks In LA. This latter band continues its original take on a sound that originates in the canyons, parched yards and beaches of Los Angeles. Reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield, the Flying Burrito Brothers and New Riders of the Purple Sage, their California sensibilities, incredible guitar playing, pleasing harmonies and sublime pedal steel come together once again on their new album Live and Never Learn. Although it’s hard to believe they have been putting out music for seventeen years, this fact is also a useful marker of time. If one thinks about the album title a bit out of the context of the song—which is about a love gone wrong—it’s quite obvious that the world certainly has not learned its lessons over the past seventeen years.
I See Hawks in LA is one of the most musically accomplished groups in the genre now known as Americana. The intricate guitar interplay between Rob Waller and Paul Lacques continues to shine. Indeed, the playing is once again seamless and sublime. Likewise, the vocals define harmony as it can be at its most exquisite moments. Guest appearances on various tunes by Peter Davies on Telecaster, Danny McCough on B3 organ, longtime collaborators Dave Markowitz, on fiddle and accordionist Richie Lawrence sweeten this collection like a shot of top-shelf bourbon sweetens a good night at a bar. Then there’s the master picking of pedal steel player Dave Zirbel. At times his pedal steel playing is pure country, other times it reminds this listener of Jerry Garcia’s manipulation of country music’s most interesting instrument on his first solo record. In other words, the sound is surreal, ethereal, and damn near psychedelic in and of itself.
The songs on Live and Never Learn are a classic mix of I See Hawks in LA humor, social commentary and human emotions. In terms of musical genres, they run from serious rockers to pure country, with a bit of psychedelia thrown in there too. “Pour Me” is a song about lost love and liquor that feature Zirbel’s pedal steel playing. “Pour Me” evokes the sense of tragedy one finds in almost every song about failed love, whether it’s the latest hit on the Top Forty or something more serious, but it also understands the reality that life goes on. No one is dying in this tune, just falling on the floor from too much libation. A Song for the Trees is a Byrds-like melody addressing a constant topic of I See Hawks in LA –the environment and its destruction in the name of progress. Spinning, written by new member and drummer Victoria Jacobs (no relation) is wistful psychedelic folk that turns the mind around and around in the most pleasant manner.
There’s a song titles “White Cross” on this disc. For those who don’t know what the song is referring to, white crosses are little amphetamine pills that used to be popular with truck drivers, cross country travelers and all-night diner workers. They were bootleg, cheap and effective enough to get the job done. Lowell George refers to them in the Little Feat tune “Willin’” when he sings about weed, whites and wine—the other popular name for the drug was whites. Anyhow, one line in the aforementioned song “White Cross” goes like this: “The first one goes down bitter/then you begin to like the taste.” Like many of the songs on this work, that line describes how life is in this postmodern, postindustrial land epitomized perhaps best by the often desperate and lonely contradiction that is the City of the Angels.
I was never much of a fan of Los Angeles. I would spend an occasional day or two there during my time on the road. Once I ended up with a woman who picked me up in Hollywood as I walked down a street dangling my thumb in a half-hearted effort at hitchhiking. She took me to a house in Laurel Canyon and we partied for a few days. Another time I was near Compton at a jangle of freeways standing in the one zone where I wouldn’t get busted for hitchhiking. A guy driving an empty tour bus stopped and too me all the way to Santa Barbara. There were a few electric nights on the beach in Venice, too. For the most part, though, I always hoped to get a ride all the way through the sprawl that is the city of Los Angeles. Usually I succeeded.
Americo Monk is a native Angeleno. His journey through the city during the week of the 1965 Watts riots is the tale told in AG Lombardo’s stellar fiction Graffiti Palace. The novel is a modern re-telling of Homer’s long journey back from the Trojan Wars. Like Homer, Americo Monk’s home is being abused by supposed friends and hangers on. Also, like Homer, Americo Monk’s betrothed is the subject of unwanted desires by the very same men drinking Homer’s liquor and partying in his house. The house is a building composed of shipping containers located in an apparently unused portion of Los Angeles Harbor. Americo Monk is a historian of words, a chronicler of signs and an adventurer. The words he notes in his book are those of city gang members and the signs are those of graffiti artists—taggers—emblazoned on surfaces throughout the metropolis.
His journey across a city on fire, torn apart because of racial and class oppression, is a tale of magic and fear; love and hate. Harassed by police who know his work and want access to his knowledge, he is also of interest to gang members and soldiers of Elijah Muhammad. His fidelity is tempted by beautiful maidens working with and for those whose designs on Jones are considerably less than altruistic. The author paints an illuminating portrait of the city that is mostly unseen by the wealthy or the middle class. It is a portrait that combines the sewer and the sublime, rendering a picture where life means everything and nothing, often in the same moment, the same street and within the same human being. Americo Monk’s journey and its telling by AG Lombardo expose the soul of an often soulless city, its castoff and oppressed living lives to their fullest, even when they are shorter than they should be.
Los Angeles is a vast city. It revels in corruption and crime; oppression and inequality poison its streets. Yet, it remains a sunlit magnet that beckons those the world over to its oil-flecked shores. Full of loneliness and love like any modern metropolis, it is up to its artists, poets and storytellers to expose its glories and its shame. I See Hawks in LA’s latest and Lombardo’s debut novel do so with wit, wonder, and a bit of wisdom.