Time Spent in Los Angeles
The Real World in a fake place
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I’ve been traveling since April 17th. I was in Berkeley last week, and this week I’m in Los Angeles. Next week I’ll be in Austin.
I love traveling. Parachuting into cities where my friends and favorite people have found lives for themselves is an amazing perk of being single, childfree, and financially stable, and I’m fortunate to know people all over the country who are thrilled when I roll into their town. It’s like being a permanent guest of honor wherever you go.
This was always the way of the New Yorker…I firmly believe that maintaining our sanity requires getting out of New York as often as possible. Boston, Philly, DC, Chicago, and Miami all felt like minor variations on the New York theme; lesser versions of a town that I knew innately. But Los Angeles was the first place I visited that I saw in sharp contrast to New York. The west coast was its own thing with its own color palette, its own soundtrack, its own weather patterns, and its own vibes.
It’s taken me nearly 20 years, but I think I finally get this place.
When I first visited LA in 2005 around my 18th birthday, I was a broke student who couldn’t rent a car, couldn’t afford nice meals, and couldn’t fathom a city that was as sprawling as New York was dense. I had only friends of friends here, a tough break in a town that—perhaps more than any other—relies on who you know to fully unlock the city’s charm.
Speaking of who you know, many of you know or know of my high school best friend Matt, a lifelong rockstar who has been performing in front of hundreds and thousands of people since he was a pre-teen. In HS on Long Island, he briefly dated Merrick’s first daughter Lindsay Lohan, he wrote songs with Good Charlotte, and was recruited to play guitar for 90’s rockers Eve6 when we were just graduating. I was off to NYU to conquer NY media, but it was pretty clear that Matt had his eyes set on the creative oasis that was Los Angeles.
This is not an easy town to break, though as a New Yorker it may be easier for us than for those who come from smaller, less intense towns and cities. There’s a “work or perish” culture in New York that carries over just about anywhere, though in LA the prevailing attitude seems to be “make something or don’t, whatever.” Matt leveraged that to his advantage, and was constantly developing opportunities to get his work seen and heard.
On one of our earliest trips out west in late 2007, Matt was playing with Eve6 when the Real World Hollywood cast dropped in on one of his shows, and one of the housemates struck up a liking for Matt. She gave him the phone number for the house phone and the following day Matt called and offered to produce a song for her (“the great thing about reality TV is that we can write you on it,” I remember telling him at the time). Brianna, the cast member, was thrilled (this was the season that everyone was trying to “make it” in Hollywood, and she was trying to make it as a singer), and we were promptly offered an invitation to the actual Real World house to share Matt’s song with the cast.
We signed NDAs and surrendered our licenses, and what proceeded was the strangest few weeks I had experienced in my 20 years of life to that point. The house was just as debauched with the cameras off as with the cameras on, and somewhere on a hard drive is footage of me in the Real World hot tub with a topless cast member and her equally topless friend. Cameras quickly became background noise, and we were given instructions to “pretend like they weren’t there,” an impossible task when you’re concerned about angles and image.
For all intents and purposes, we had hacked our way onto MTV and in a way it felt like we were the ones “making it.” Matt would get a song sync on MTV, I got to do my best impression of E from Entourage.
In another way, we were the same broke kids we were just a few years prior, sleeping on bean bag chairs and bunk beds, renting cars from the only rental agency willing to give 20 year olds the keys, and eating exclusively at cheap diners like Café 101, Swingers, and Barney’s Beanery. We splurged and went to Saddle Ranch with the cast one evening, I had tens of dollars in my bank account and remember fearfully wondering if my debit card would get declined in front of my fabulous new friends.
It felt bohemian and chic at a time when the Boho-chic look was all the rage, but we quickly learned that fame and fortune are not mutually inclusive concepts. Even back home in New York, I was living in a hallway behind a curtain in a lofted bed in a 700 square foot apartment with 2 other guys, taking classes at night and working at marketing and booking agencies during the day to make ends meet, even though every two weeks I’d be filming episodes of an MTVu show called The Freshmen (mostly for free). I believe I was making a healthy $35k a year, more than my more artistic friends, but barely enough to afford the biweekly JetBlue tickets to Bob Hope Airport.
These were my lean years, and there was comfort in knowing that I’d never be as destitute as I was in my early 20s (2008’s financial collapse and everything that’s happened since was still shrouded by time, alas). And even still, if this is what Hollywood could be like without money, what could it be like with a modicum of money and power?
It took a few years, but I eventually got to find out.
Matt moved out west permanently and started falling in with the right people, we’d get invited to premieres with Brad Pitt and both casually dated minor celebrities. My job at Gawker afforded me things like stays at the Sunset Tower, dinners at expensive sushi joints, and meetings in the CAA death star, and Matt had backstage access to some of the hippest clubs and parties happening in the lavish hills and grungy valleys that make up this city.
Still, the hustle was real. The higher you climb in this town, the further away the top of the hill seems to get. For every ounce of success we achieved, it seemed like there was a mountain of failures we had to contend with in getting there. There were surefire hits we saw bomb, such as my grand relaunch of the Hollywood gossip site Defamer, which will likely be best remembered for exposing Quentin Tarantino’s foot fetish and perhaps an entire chapter in AJ Daulerio’s theoretical future addiction memoir. Matt was being shuttled around different labels, where he saw an excellent album of his get shelved while he was simultaneously finding hollow success writing hooks for DJs who couldn’t be bothered to thank their ghostwriters.
It was an emotionally exhausting, egomaniacal group of people to navigate in a place where narcissism isn’t just rewarded, but widely celebrated. Unless of course you did too well too quickly, then you had a whole other set of vultures ready to knock you down just to bask in your Icarus moment.
And the addiction out here, oh, the addictions. A trip to Passages of Malibu is a bit of an extremely literal LA right of passage, though you need not check into rehab to see what gobs of money and fame can do to a person’s life. Pop by any AA, NA, SLAA, CoDA, or AlAnon meeting in this town and you will surely encounter a who’s who of wrecked creative aspiration, mostly child stars who never got a chance to grow up and children of stars who were forced to grow up way too quickly.
In NY I found sobriety to be stifling and dull, but in LA it feels like a necessary requirement for continued creative survival.
And I’ve realized: That’s what Los Angeles is all about. Continued survival against all odds and obstacles. Personal and private, public and pervasive.
The earth beneath your feet here can shift at any moment, the tap water is considered trashy and undrinkable, there are more unhoused folks than anywhere in the country, and yet the existence of Erewhon is a stark reminder that good strawberries cost $25 per pound in a place with too many rich people and not enough good strawberries.
Survival here means having your dreams come true only to have them swiftly dashed, riding a constant, ego-soaked roller coaster of acceptance and rejection of your creative value. Jim Morrison said, “no one here gets out alive,” and it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t referring to the city of lights he called home.
Demos, screenplays, auditions, shorts, podcasts, web series, and followers…this town is literally structured to motivate and capitalize prolific creation, and there’s so much more of it now that the traditional gatekeepers of the studios and labels have ceded decision making power to the social platforms. The ripened fruit of this creative labor exists everywhere you look, from the billboards on Sunset to the star-studded dining room at Catch. The rotten fruit that never got picked? He’s driving your Uber or she’s asking “do you want sparkling or still” at the restaurant.
It is a town in the service of America’s number one export: Culture. In a world where God is mostly dead, we’ve built an entire ecosystem that manufactures modern idols for us to worship. Like the old gods, these new stars seldom find the happy endings they’re looking for. Los Angeles has always been a city of freaks, fueled by boundless ego and ambition and tempered by endless setbacks and creative failures. Movies made and never seen, albums recorded and never heard. Pilots cancelled before they reach the air, novels optioned but never developed. It is brutal.
From my friend Nell’s balcony I can see the house where John Lennon shacked up in Laurel Canyon in the 1970’s. It sits precariously on the side of the mountain, nothing more than a small cottage built at the top of a steep staircase. He undoubtedly did heroin up there. David Bowie lost his mind to cocaine in these hills, and an entire generation of artists lost much more than that.
And they continue to…Drake Bell sucking on an ice cold fatty in his car is the latest in a long line of trainwrecks that we can’t help but gawk at.
For years I wanted to move here, and for years I stopped myself. It seemed both too good to be true and too untrue to be any good, and deep down I must have known myself well enough to know this place would devour my soul and leave nothing but my bruised, ferocious ego in its wake.
And yet in my early middle age, I’ve recalibrated what it means to make things, and what it means to be successful in making those things. I think I’m finally ready to spend larger and larger chunks of time here without letting this place get to me. The possible projects and my potential co-conspirators have matured considerably since those Real World days, and I’m excited to finally take a modest crack at a town that I always suspected could crack me if I ever let it.
James Del, coming to a freeway in Los Angeles soon. If anyone hears of a sublet (that isn't a beanbag chair), I'll buy you a $20 Hailey Beiber smoothie when I'm back in a few weeks.
Until next time!