Saturday, March 14, 2009

Alvarado Street, an industry town artifact


I drove to our hotel in downtown Los Angeles very early this morning, after a late night working on music in Hollywood, in a house cattycorner to where Scarlett Johansson acted in many of the location scenes for Ghost World.

Industry towns, like Los Angeles or New York, have that advantage over the rest of the country. Their homely strip malls are more likely to have film credits than our strip malls, and their place names pack unearned name magic in the national psyche, because we have encountered them so many times in so many cultural products.

Like, I was startled, driving home to the hotel, when I passed through Alvarado Street. What is Alvardo Street to me, or me to Alvarado Street? Why would I care to cross it? My primal associations, personally, are with streets that have parocial names like Nameoki (in Granite City) or South Grand (in St. Louis). To know them, you would have to have been there; they are not going to find you in a song.

Not so for Alvarado Street. The great rock siongwriter Warren Zevon either knew a heroin merchant who worked it, or knew someone who knew a heroin merchant who worked it, or just traveled the street all the time, saw a chicken stand there one day, and liked the music in the names enough to work with them.

For whatever reason, he wrote and sang, I have heard countless hundreds of times, the lines,

Well, I pawned my Smith-Corona
And I went to meet my man
He hangs out down on Alvardo Street
By the Pioneer Chicken stand,
and as a result, Alvardo Street is a mythic place to me. On a previous trip to L.A., I even banged a left onto Alvarado and drove up and down it for a few miles, in futile search of a Pioneer Chicken sign.

And all because Los Angeles is an industry town, so its local materials - place names, images, atmosphere - have been recycled by countless songwriters, like Zevon, who called L.A. home.

As for me, I noticed the Alvarado Street sign early this morning because I was looking for the pupuseria where I ate a couple of days ago. I want to hit it again, before we leave this part of town (for a cheaper hotel, now that my wife's conference is concluded). And there was my little pupuseria, on the corner of Wilshire and Alvarado.

That is how the cultural primacy of the industry town gets perpetuated. Now I want to write a song or poem or scene in a novel that has someone eating pupusas on Alvarado Street. Mine is the fate of all the dreamers from the backwaters who pull into Los Angeles or New York and can't resist inhabiting their local myths.

At the same time, I don't think I will ever lose my own personal romance for the backwaters, for the name magic in "South Grand" or "Cicero's": the places we made for ourselves, in our own dreams, the ones we keep for ourselves because no one else wants them but us.

*

G.G. Allin covered "Carmelita," the Zevon song with Alvarado Street in it, though he messed around with the lyrics. Archive.org has a 1990 live performance by Zevon himself (that takes a minute to download).

Photo of Alvardo Street from somebody's Flickr site (my camera isn't working).

7 comments:

John said...

In every version I've heard, except Warren's, his Smith-Corona gets turned into a Smith & Wesson. G.G. takes it a step further by making the pearl-handled deck a pearl-handled gun. It must be depressing having your song covered by people who don't understand it. In both places Warren makes you think he's talking about a gun, as if he's singing about some desperado, but then he pulls the rug out--it's just a typewriter, just a deck of cards. It's of those brilliant little touches that made him so special. But then Linda Ronstadt and every other doofus who does the song thinks, Wouldn't it be more romantic if it was a gun? Warren's going to kick himself for not thinking of that!

Gustave said...

Wow, man, you're inhabiting my old hood, now. Alvarado, MacArthur Park, Westlake, Wilshire... all frothing with name magic for me. From say '83 to '88 (college yrs.) I walked every sq. yrd. (it seemed) of that barrio. The taquerias, the botanicas, the discount markets, John Wood's nameless junk shop: I suddenly really miss it. So many happy/krazy stories came out of those few blocks. For me, though, it was better made famous by Bukowski and, before that, Chandler (never really a Zevon fan. He had an annoying voice.)

Thanks, Chris.

Gustave said...

Wow, man, you're inhabiting my old hood, now. Alvarado, MacArthur Park, Westlake, Wilshire... all frothing with name magic for me. From say '83 to '88 (college yrs.) I walked every sq. yrd. (it seemed) of that barrio. The taquerias, the botanicas, the discount markets, John Wood's nameless junk shop: I suddenly really miss it. So many happy/krazy stories came out of those few blocks. For me, though, it was better made famous by Bukowski and, before that, Chandler (never really a Zevon fan. He had an annoying voice.)

Thanks, Chris.

Gustave said...

Wow, man, you're inhabiting my old hood, now. Alvarado, MacArthur Park, Westlake, Wilshire... all frothing with name magic for me. From say '83 to '88 (college yrs.) I walked every sq. yrd. (it seemed) of that barrio. The taquerias, the botanicas, the discount markets, John Wood's nameless junk shop: I suddenly really miss it. So many happy/krazy stories came out of those few blocks. For me, though, it was better made famous by Bukowski and, before that, Chandler (never really a Zevon fan. He had an annoying voice.)

Thanks, Chris.

Gustave said...

Wow, man, you're inhabiting my old hood, now. Alvarado, MacArthur Park, Westlake, Wilshire... all frothing with name magic for me. From say '83 to '88 (college yrs.) I walked every sq. yrd. (it seemed) of that barrio. The taquerias, the botanicas, the discount markets, John Wood's nameless junk shop: I suddenly really miss it. So many happy/krazy stories came out of those few blocks. For me, though, it was better made famous by Bukowski and, before that, Chandler (never really a Zevon fan. He had an annoying voice.)

Thanks, Chris.

Confluence City said...

1. I am jealous.

2. Paul Westerberg said the same thing about Zevon when I interviewed him at the Wash U Field House ca. 1987.

Confluence City said...

Well said, John!