originally written for NoDepression.com
Los Angeles is a rather strange place. You knew this already, of course. Whether you’ve lived there before or have only just visited on a pilgrimage to discover Hollywood, or even if you’ve only heard tell of it through blogs and television shows and the movies. It’s a weird town. Nothing is as it appears.
I’ve worked in the music industry long enough to have forgotten how it feels to not know the glamour as anything other than facade. But where magic still gets conjured on stages, flying over heads of strangers on banjo wings, there’s no mistaking the cracked earth running its fingers through the heart of Los Angeles.
On Hollywood Boulevard, inches from the pink and gold stars bearing the names of the entertainment industry’s most storied glamour-hounds, some bum has invariably pissed or puked up his breakfast. If you can’t plainly see it, you can smell it. If you can’t smell it, squint your eyes and there’s the stain, somewhere between the crack in the stone and the discarded condom. Of course the poetic irony of it is that all this glamour and hogwash only serves to underscore the incredible humanity of it all: We are a social species which instinctively organizes around our idols and gods, as arbitrarily as we’ve chosen them, or as they have chosen themselves for us. We like shiny things, we like to forget ourselves. Sometimes this works to our advantage, sure.
On the day when my partner and I visited Hollywood Boulevard, one of those blasted singing competition shows – the one with Simon Cowell and Britney Spears – was going to be filming, or something, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’ve seen a crowd this size gathering early in the day before – once when the Dalai Lama visited Portland and, before that, when Days of Thunder was filming in my hometown of DeLand, FL. Deep down inside, I wanted to sit down next to someone in the crowd and find out what in the world really matters to them. To hold that up next to whatever it is which motivated them to take the day off work or school (it was a weekday) to be here, to stake their spot for this television show.
Of course, it was 9/11, so I instinctively wanted to know what makes the world tick already. (Some other time, perhaps, I could tell you the story of how I ran for my life on 9/11. It’s always an interesting day for me, as it is for many.) Of course, it could have been the desire to escape the reality of remembering 9/11 which pulled these throngs onto the filthy sidewalk to wait the day away, in hopes of seeing so much as the back of Randy Jackson’s head. Just to say they had been there.
We all want to bear witness to something worth mentioning, I suppose.
Speaking of bearing witness, back up a little bit more, and you’d find me at the Hotel Cafe the night before, watching Kentuckian cellist Ben Sollee pay to a comfortable-sized crowd. Sandwiched between Steve Forbert and something called Super Soul Monday, Sollee crammed as much authenticity as one could possibly drag – kicking and screaming, I’d imagine – into a Hollywood bar. He only had 45 minutes to pull off that magic trick, but I wasn’t concerned. Sollee is a proficient authentician. He delivered songs from his new album Half Made Man – a remarkably touching, arrestingly honest disc which drops on the 25th – as well as a couple from last year’s Inclusions.
I stood there hyper-aware, of course, of my typical 9/10 state of mind. (I’ve long since let go the illusion that 9/10 was the last day when everything made sense. Nothing has ever made sense.) The energy I recognize in myself each September 10 is always markedly different from that of the day which follows. Sep. 10 is a somber, thoughtful day of observance. Sep. 11 makes sense as being focused more inward. The search for peace and beauty wherever I am becomes vital. Hollywood Boulevard made this a chore. Ben Sollee made it simple.
There’s this funny word people use for the kind of earnestly kind and determined quality by which people like Ben Sollee seem to be so driven: “naive”. Or sometimes they’ll use the word “optimistic” which, when used to describe anyone other than onesself, tends to carry with it a sort of negative judgment. Yes, we’ve all been on Earth a different amount of time, but once you’ve left your parents’ house and struck out on your own, the naivete dissipates in almost no time. For many of us, it leaves even before that date. Further, anyone who would call a traveling artist “optimistic” like its a bad thing has no idea the reality of living on the road away from everything familiar and comforting and supportive and secure, making a pittance in order to share the unshareable emotions with rooms full of strangers. To choose a life of touring (by bicycle, no less) and come out the other end with a sense of optimism, is a feat. Plain and simple.
That Sollee has found a way to put this optimism into music which is neither cliched or silly – or, dare I say, even naive – is impressive alone. He can sing about mountaintop removal or the Bible Belt or changing the world with authority, despite his 20-something years, because this is the life he lives. He’s not imagining a story of pain or serenity or empowerment or confusion. His lyrics acknowledge all those things without pretense and zero in on the truth as he knows it. As a result, the songs are wholly convincing. Never preachy or presumptuous. Never glinted by an attractive facade. This is a guy with a cello, for chrissakes – a skinny white boy from Kentucky with black-rimmed glasses and a wife and son, and a heart on his sleeve.
It makes sense that we had to walk around the back of the building to get in, to duck into an alley to find a door where you can only pay cash. It makes sense that it’s safe to say a good portion of the crowd were Sollee’s friends and family – a crowd full of real honest-to-goodness human connections. Imagine.
Back home here in Asheville, Sollee will play to another crowded house at the Orange Peel later this month – a crowd of hundreds of strangers hanging on his every word (if his previous shows at that same venue are any indication). But in Los Angeles, in that small room, it was okay to see him deliver such an impressive set to so few people. Whatever interest LA has in authenticity – which hadn’t already flown to Nashville for the AMAs – was probably present. Sollee’s seasoned bow pulling hard against an emotional song he’s never played live before, a certain kind of humanity shone through – something unmistakable and clear. Meanwhile, not far from there, another honest side of humanity was sloppily stumbling home, past Judy Garland’s star.