California Saga

When we look back, does pain leave more of a mark, or does joy? It is easy to say pain, but in time that slips away.

In the autumn of 1990, my wife-to-be and I set off for California. It was a 24-hour direct flight and we ended up at LAX, tired and disorientated. It was getting dark. Picking up a little rental car in the lot, we made our way to our motel, carefully picked out in the Rough Guide, an aptly named series of books. The motel had a swimming pool, ringed with a wet ribbon of flies, which no-one dared use. The motel itself was roughly painted in a peeling blue, surrounded by decaying buildings and accessible through a wire gate. Its bed was barely hygienic. Planes from LAX flew inches overhead, stinking of aviation fuel. We slept soundly. 

The next day, we woke and discovered that during the night four people had been gunned down in a drive-by, just around the corner. We were in Inglewood, which was just a skip and a hop from what is now South Central LA. I had chosen the venue because I wanted to be near Hawthorne, so I could accomplish the principal object of our trip: to pay homage to Brian Wilson.

In the Eisenhower 50s and 60s, Hawthorne was a suburb where kids played in the streets, got up to mischief and were spanked by their Dads. We went looking to see if we could find the Wilson family house. We found it, but were too afraid to get out of the car.

The house was a bungalow, with a sort of shed hanging on the side. This was the music room where Brian Wilson and his younger siblings and a cousin, encouraged by Mom and terrorised by Dad, became the Beach Boys and created a string of timeless songs about the sun, the sea, the sand and young love, many with the word “surf” in their titles. Now, a battered truck stood in the drive, with chains and a big log blocking it in, and no-one was playing in the street. We took a couple of photographs through the car window, while people looked at us in puzzlement and suspicion. We quickly moved on. But I had done my duty, and got what I wanted, and Deborah indulged me. I had one snap, and I have lost it.

Our budget was tiny, and we had planned nothing. Every night we would end up in the kind of motels where people wake up dead in road movies. Americans we met were appalled at the risks we were taking, but we were British and foolish, not necessarily in that order.

Early on we decided we would make our own trip to sea and surf, where we could float and swim, blissfully buoyed up by the rolling deep. So we found another motel in Santa Monica. That’s where the weirdos, druggies, religious freaks and alkies end up because they can’t go any further, having collided with the Pacific Ocean. The motel was a a grey modern building on several floors with access decks, like a British council block, and we wondered a little about our neighbours and the sirens in the night. But we stuck it out, venturing into town to find somewhere to eat before returning to our newfound home from home, where our neighbours might have robbed us or killed us. They didn’t.

Do you want a step-by-step itinerary? I guess not. LA is flat and horrible, with only one hill, on Santa Monica Boulevard. We drove along it, hoping that we would hear the Randy Newman song about LA on the radio, but we didn’t. We didn’t love LA in any case, and we doubted he did. 

There is Beverly Hills, of course, and we drove around there, looking for the famous house which Brian painted purple and invited his fans to visit by giving them cryptic instructions in a song. Guided tours of Beverly Hill were available, with star maps, but we scorned those. 

North of LA is Xanadu, or rather Hearst Castle. The confusion was deliberate on the part of Orson Welles, who satirised the immense power and vulgarity of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, in the character of Charles Foster Kane. Did we go in? Probably, although I would not be surprised if we did not. Mostly we avoided expensive tourist traps. We had no money.

The Pacific Coast Highway is, by general consent, one of the great scenic roads of the world, and travelled it all from LA to San Francisco. There were some pretty places, gentle, herbivorous, with coffee shops and food markets. Some were less so. We stopped at places we’d heard of in songs, or had some vague familiarity with. Monterey? In a Beach Boys song. Morro Bay, where we ate seafood in a biker bar, where Clint Eastwood was Mayor, in a Beach Boys song. Big Sur, home to trees you could drive through, and the subject of another Beach Boys song.

We piled on the miles in the buzzing rental car, and on the way to San Francisco, worrying as usual about where we would spend the night, I was gradually crippled by a sharp pain in the side of my lower back, like a knitting needle being inserted into my kidneys. Naturally I sought medical help. That’s what we do in Britain. I found an empty, gleaming ER, where I was questioned, pushed, prodded and scanned before being put back on the street with the advice that I adjust the seat in my rental car. It worked. When we got home, a bill for more than $1,000 dropped through the letterbox.

On the edge of San Francisco, we checked into another, slightly smarter motel in an arty area, and went to a movie in a community theatre. We saw, I think, Postcards From The Edge with Carrie Fisher. People booed when the adverts came on. Then we walked back. It was the first place where people walked. It felt like we were safe, and we probably were.

Unlike LA, San Francisco offered things to see. We went down the famous wiggly hill, we went to Fisherman’s Wharf, we went to Chinatown, and we took a guided tour of the San Francisco Chronicle. I saw the newsroom, and the compositing room, and the giant presses, with their pervasive smell of ink. I went in a little room with the guide and asked searching questions. I loved newspapers. Little did I know that in a few decades they would be heading the way of the quill pen.

Later we looked for a bus to Haight-Asbury, the home of peace and love, and for the first time felt threatened. Or rather, Deb did. As we walked through an Asian food market, someone pushed her, or kicked her, and shouted an insult. I didn’t see it and didn’t hear about it until later. I told her she had imagined it, and maybe she had. 

We stopped at a bus stop, tourist map at the ready, and prepared for the trip to Haight, by now a drug ravaged wreck of its former hippy glory. Someone told us to go back 50 yards and use a different bus stop on the same route. We were in black territory. We needed to go to a white stop. This was the first time I had seen segregation, and it was in liberal San Francisco. 

Oakland, across the Golden Gate bridge, was a black city, but we stopped in a coffee bar and no-one was remotely hostile. Then like the Wise Men in the Bible, we decided to go back by a different way.

I – and it was always I – wanted to go to Modesto. There is nothing in Modesto, but it is where American Graffiti, that bittersweet tale of teenage love and loss, is set. I later heard it was the home town of its director, George Lucas. On the way, we stayed in the worst motel yet. It may have been $9. The memory of the shower cubicle haunts me still.

We still hadn’t seen Yosemite, and everybody has to see Yosemite, so we drove in, did a circuit in the car, looked up at the famous waterfall and some cute raccoons on the ground, then drove off. We could have been Americans in Britain. It pays not to point fingers. 

And then we were exhausted and went home.

And what’s the story here? Two people, in love and oblivious. They drive through danger and the sublime and it barely touches them. Their lives will never again reach such joy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But they pay homage to the Brian Wilson.