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Leaving Los Angeles: David Bowie’s lost year and the dark side of the city of stars


Sometimes they call Los Angeles ‘The City of Angels’, sometimes they call it ‘The City of Dreams’, it varies depending on which it is making seem most ridiculously ironic at any given time. There are some that claim it isn’t even a city at all, as Dorothy Parker said, just 72 suburbs in search of one. Yes, for every glitzy La La Land and cool pop culture tale that leaves you California dreaming, there is a fractured rebuke from some hearty disenfranchised folk who has ventured to the gem in the desert and didn’t find it to be that exactly. 

As Jack Kerouac drove around the United States on his searching seven-year amble, he would stop in Los Angeles on many occasions. As the golden era of Hollywood cinema was slowly handing over to the boom of rock ‘n’ roll, Kerouac found himself in some lowly motel and mused: “I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon. I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities; New York gets godawful cold in the winter. But there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in the streets. LA is a jungle.”

If indeed, it is a jungle, then it’s most certainly one in the poetic societal sense, as opposed to the tropical definition of a geographic textbook. And this heaving lawless hive is one that has driven many stars further from the arid expanse, deeper into the desert—there might be an allegory in that, but on this occasion, I mean it literally. The very existence of Palm Springs, located 100 miles inland from Los Angeles, is a testimony to the yearning that many people feel in the City of Angels. 

Palm Springs shot up as stars shot out. Feeling dreary in the world of feisty LA, Palm Springs was developed, in part, as a result of stars wanting a getaway to escape to that was close enough to Hollywood should their contract heads recall them for their next movie or reshoot. Thus, film stars, like Charles Farrell and Ralph Bellamy began setting up their desert retreat away from the unceasing bustle of broken dreams with the formation of the Palm Springs iconic Racquet Club in 1934. Al Wertheimer soon followed in ’36 and opened the Chi Chi nightclub as the stars favourite escape took form.

This notion of turning away from LA is one that has continued forevermore. The perfect paradigm of its simultaneous gaudy draw and repellent underbelly is David Bowie’s reaction to the city. Decadence, madness and the production of dreams ruled the roust for David Bowie in the mid-1970s in a way that is only comparable to some crazed king of old. Thus, it would seem that Los Angeles was the perfect place for him, however, things would turn out rather different.

Behind an artistic purple patch was a cocaine addiction measurable by the tonne, a bizarre diet of bell-peppers and milk befitting of a cable TV documentary, and an unwavering obsession with the Third Reich. On top of this caustic confluence of cocaine side-effects, was what Bowie believed to be a harrowing attack by demonic hell beasts, most notably in the form of his friend, musical collaborator and apparent phantasm, Deep Purples’ Glenn Hughes. All of this madness unravelled in the City of Angels.

Here, he simultaneous fell into the clutches of gaudy LA’s debauched side and revelled in the way that images could be crafted there in an instant. He would relish the notion of, “I’m an instant star, just add water,” and the sense of the American pop culture dream while also seeing through the whole thing as a plastic facsimile. This odd mix proved maddening to Bowie in both senses.

Away from the provocative remarks he was making at the time, there was an undeniably wacky symptom of substance abuse that requires a far less judicious approach of analysis. “He felt the pool in his LA home was haunted. He felt the devil was in the pool,” Hughes explains. “The wind was howling, [and the pool started to] bubble like a Jacuzzi […] I swear to you I have a pool, and I have never seen it bubble before. That pool was fucking bubbling.”

The effects of the drugs, the occult literature he was reading at the time, and the maligned miasma that embalmed his LA neighbour stemming from the horrific scene of the Charles Manson murders only a few doors down, all combined and whipped Bowie into a world plagued by malevolent spectres from both the sphere of hell and the music industry. 

(Credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy)

As Bowie said himself, “My other fascination was with the Nazis and their search for the Holy Grail. […] I paid with the worst manic depression of my life. […] My psyche went through the roof, it just fractured into pieces. I was hallucinating twenty-four hours a day. […] I felt like I’d fallen into the bowels of the earth.” Needless to say, Bowie, did not take well to Los Angeles. As David Buckley writes, Bowie had shunned the plastic world around him and regressed into a state of paranoia, “living a cocooned existence, disconnected from the real world.”

But what is the real world in LA? By rights, there shouldn’t even be a city there at all. It was built on the elusive lustre of unsustainable Gold and that fleeting dream seems to have forever persisted in various malignant forms. This was a notion that proved frankly dangerous as far as Bowie was concerned. In 1977, he riled, “It’s the most vile piss-pot in the world […] It’s a movie that is so corrupt with a script that is so devious and insidious. It’s the scariest movie ever written. You feel a total victim there, and you know someone’s got the strings on you.”

Three years later his thoughts had hardly mellowed. This time ‘The Starman’ opined: “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles is I think just heading for disaster. It really is. Even Brian Eno, who’s so adaptable and quite as versatile as I am now living in strange and foreign environments, he couldn’t last there more than six weeks. He had to get out. But he was very clever. He got out much earlier than I did.”

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And yet despite what Bowie and a thousand other stars or broken Hollywood hopefuls have had to say about the place, the grand lustre, vibrancy and draw still remains. Director David Lynch is a man who has found his LA postcode to be an appealing one and when listing off why, he pronounced, “the intense light. Also, the different feelings in the air. But like every place, it’s always changing. And it takes a lot longer to appreciate L.A. than a lot of cities because it’s so spread out and every area has its own mood.”

He continued, “What I really like about it is, from time to time, if you drive around – especially at night – you can get a little gust of wind of the great days of the silver screen. All there in, like, living memory”. Perhaps it is telling, therefore, that recent cinematic love letters to the city in the form of films like Licorice PizzaOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mank, all hark back to an LA of the past, reviling in the sanguine notion of dreamy nostalgia—a notion that can still prove intoxicating if you catch that right gust of wind. And perhaps, in the end, that explains the divisive split of those who have lived in the city. But one thing is for certain, love it or loath it, most people leave Los Angeles. 

As Michael Connelly once wrote: “Los Angeles was the kind of place where everybody was from somewhere else and nobody really dropped anchor. It was a transient place. People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare. Twelve million people and all of them ready to make a break for it if necessary. Figuratively, literally, metaphorically — any way you want to look at it — everybody in L.A. keeps a bag packed. Just in case.”

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