Archive for the ‘LA’ Tag

Nature Boy

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This is my favourite couplet from any song – and how come my philosophy on life is derived from George Benson.

I first came across the song ‘Nature Boy’ on the record ‘In Flight’ by jazz guitarist Benson. In time it emerged that it was a cover of Nat King Cole. In more time I became aware that it was written by someone called Eden Ahbez (who I’d never heard of). He turned out to be a proto-hippy and a very interesting character whose extraordinary story gave rise to this fascinating photo:

eden ahbez and nat king cole

The dapper Cole and the Jesus-like Ahbez came to coincide in the wake of Ahbez pushing a dirty, rolled-up manuscript onto Mort Ruby, Cole’s manager, backstage at the Lincoln Theater, LA. On it was a tune and these words:

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

Beautiful simplicity – as has that fantastic closing couplet.

This happened shortly after World War Two, in 1947. Ahbez at the time was of no fixed abode and unemployed. Cole liked the song and began playing it live to audiences. In 1948 he recorded it but before the recording could be released Ruby needed to track down its writer to secure the rights.

Ahbez was eventually discovered living just below the first L of the Hollywood sign with his family. They slept under the night sky. Ahbez ate vegetables, fruits and nuts. He had shoulder-length hair and a beard, wore sandals and white robes. He studied Eastern mysticism and claimed to live on $3 a week.

‘Nature Boy’ became a No. 1 hit in the US Billboard charts for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948. That same year RKO Radio Pictures paid Ahbez $10,000 for the rights to the song to use it as the theme tune for the movie ‘The Boy With Green Hair’.

Meanwhile he lived a proto-hippy life under the big L of Hollywood. Letters were significant for him. He actually called himself eden ahbez rather than Eden Ahbez as he reckoned only the words “God” and “Infinity” merited capitalisation.

eden ahbez songwriter

During the 30s he lived in Kansas City and worked as a pianist and dance band leader. In 1941 he moved to LA where he got a gig playing piano in Eutropheon, a health food shop and raw food cafe on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, owned by John and Vera Richter. The Richters lived by a philosophy based on ‘Lebensreform’ (Life Reform) and the notion of the ‘Naturmensch’ (Nature Man) which was derived from the ‘Wandervogel’ (Wandering Bird) back-to-nature movement in Germany.

ahbez became part of a California-based group known as the ‘Nature Boys’, prominent among whom was Gypsy Boots (Robert Bootzin). Bootzin is another fascinating character, a hippy decades ahead of the 60s counterculture, with shared elements of ahbez’s background.

Bootzin was born in San Francisco to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a broom salesman. His mother brought him and his four siblings up as vegetarian. She led the family on hikes in the Californian hills and fed the homeless with her black bread. In the wake of his older brother’s premature death from TB, Bootzin resolved to pursue a healthy, natural lifestyle. He grew his hair long. By 1933 he had dropped out of high school and left home to wander the wilds of California with a group of fellow vagabonds. In the 40s he lived off the land with a dozen other Nature Boys in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, CA. They slept in caves and trees, and bathed in waterfalls. Long hair and beards were the order of the day.

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Hence ahbez’s Jesus hair and beard, and diet of raw fruits and vegetables. It was at this juncture that he adopted the name ‘eden ahbez’ (ahbe to his friends). He was actually born George Alexander Aberle on 15th April 1908. On subsequent adoption (1917) he became George McGrew. Then George became eden.

ahbez was originally of the East Coast not West. He was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish father and a Scottish-English mother but spent his early years in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. He was then adopted at the age of 9 by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas.

How much of the life of eden ahbez is self-mythologising is difficult to gauge. He claimed to have crossed the U.S.A. on foot eight times by the time he was 35. He settled in L.A., married Anna Jacobsen, with whom he slept in a sleeping bag in Griffith Park. They had a son, Tatha. The family continued living out under the stars, with just a pushbike, sleeping bags and a juicer. ahbez was to be seen on Hollywood  street corners sharing gems of Eastern mysticism.

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eden anna tatha/zoma – January 1948

Having been handed the scruffy  ‘Nature Boy’ manuscript via Ruby, Cole recognised the underlying melody in the song as Yiddish. He decided to add it to his repertoire because he wanted a Jewish song for his act (presumably good for capturing that particular constituency). Cole recorded ‘Nature Boy’ on 22nd August 1947 with an arrangement by Frank DeVol and a piano part written by Cole played by Buddy Cole (Edwin LeMar Cole, no relation).

nat king cole eden ahbez

Despite Capitol releasing ‘Nature Boy’ as a B side, its quality overcame record company cluelessness to quickly hit the #1 spot. Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and others rushed out cover versions and it remains a much covered song, from David Bowie to John Coltrane, from Ella Fitzgerald to Bobby Darin.

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Frank and eden

ahbez’s relationship to the greenback seems to have been an awkward one. Once ‘Nature Boy’ became a hit, the publishers and composer (Herman Yablokoff) of the Yiddish song ‘Schwieg Mein Hertz’ (‘Shvayg Mayn Harts’/ ‘Be Still My Heart’) claimed that the melody of ‘Nature Boy’ came from their song and sued, subsequently settling out of court with ahbez for a whopping $25,000. ahbez said he had “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” Prior to this, when Ruby and Cole had eventually tracked him down under the L, it turned out that ahbez had given various people different shares of the publishing rights so he ended up with pretty much big fat zero. The happy ending though is that after Nat ‘King’ Cole died in 1965, his wife eventually gave all the rights back to its creator ahbez.

ahbe anna zoma

ahbe anna zoma 1961

In the  wake of ‘Nature Boy’ ahbez continued to write songs for  Cole, including ‘Land of Love’ (covered by Doris Day and The Ink Spots). In the mid 50s he supplied songs to Eartha Kitt, Frankie Laine and others. His composition ‘Lonely Island’ was recorded by Sam Cooke in 1957, his second and final tune to make the Top 40.

He collaborated with jazz singer-songwriter Herb Jeffries, in 1954 releasing the LP ‘The Singing Prophet’ including ahbez’s 4-part ‘Nature Boy Suite’.  In 1959 he started recording his own distinctive brand of instrumental music. He could be seen in beatnik coffeehouses around LA performing on bongos and flute as accompaniment to beat poetry.

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outside Health Hut, LA

In 1960 (thanks to the prompting of Bob Keane, boss of Del-Fi Records) he cut his only solo record, ‘Eden’s Island’ – “the first ever psychedelic pop classic” according to my pal Doug, and he knows his shit. It combines beat poetry with off-beat jungle exotica arrangements. ahbez promoted the LP by making personal appearances on a coast-to-coast walking tour. (He recorded another similar album, ‘Echoes from Nature Boy’, again containing his poems set to music, which was released posthumously.)

He pops up in various places during the actual Hippy era. Grace Slick, later of Jefferson Airplane, then of The Great Society, covered ‘Nature Boy’ in 1966. Early the next year ahbez was photographed in the studio with Brian Wilson during one of the ‘Smile’ sessions. Later in ’67 Britain’s very own psychedelic pioneer Donovan tracked down ahbez in Palm Springs and the two like-minds communed.

ahbez had his fair share of personal tragedy. His wife Anna died relatively young (47)  of leukemia (in 1963). His son, Zoma (originally named tatha om ahbez) drowned as a 22 year old (in 1971). He himself met an ironically unnatural death at the sharp metallic end of an automobile, succumbing to the injuries sustained in the accident in LA on 4th March 1995. He was 86. The fruit and veg had agreed with him.

On the subject of fruit, ahbez said he once told a cop who was hassling him for his shaggy appearance:  “I look crazy but I’m not. And the funny thing is that other people don’t look crazy but they are.”

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April 1948

 

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Highway 1 Revisited – California recommendations

Easy-riding in Venice CA

Easy-riding in Venice CA

LA

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Sunset Marquis hotel [Sunset & Alta Lomo]

Fun for its rock excess vibe/history and proximity to Sunset Strip, plus it’s something of an oasis despite being a stone’s throw from Sunset.

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Mel’s Diner [8585 Sunset + Hollywood & Vine]

Made this old school diner my office. Great for breakfast and lashings of ice tea on a scorching day. The table-top jukebox adds to the pleasure.

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Book Soup [8818 Sunset]

A proper independent book store which is a joy to browse. Also has a bit of vinyl tucked down the back.

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Gjusta [320 Sunset Ave, Venice, CA]

A bakery in an old boat factory – lots of exposed brick and Californian healthiness. Not cheap but fun to eat out back – in particular yoghurt & honey and beigels. Met a starlette here.

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Venice Canals

Where Venice gets its name from and where Jim and The Doors got photographed. A tranquil backwater well worth a wander.

San Luis Obispo

boo-boo record shop san luis obispo

Boo Boo Records [Monterey St]

An absolute top record store with lashings of vinyl, new and second-hand. Total delight.

Big Sur

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Deetjen’s – Upper Creek House

The quintessential cabin in the woods – off the grid, back to nature, cosy fire in the hearth (as opposed to the horror movie sort).

Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium_Kelp Forest

Monterey Aquarium

I’m not usually too in to such things but this is a real model for how to present nature and sea-life. Wondrous and beautiful.

Old Capitol Books [559 Tyler St]

Fine second-hand book store with a big selection and plenty of gems.

San Francisco

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Boogaloos [Valencia & 22nd]

Fun diner with staff who like comic books and stuff, in a striking Victorian building (old drugstore?).

baby blues bbq mission st mission san francisco

Baby Blues BBQ [3149 Mission St]

The real McCoy. Honest to goodness American food – great sauces and staff.

Biking the Bridge [Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito]

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge on a two-wheeled steed. Joyful and thrilling, especially when you’re being wind-blasted as you cross the bridge. Blazing Saddles was a good bike supplier and the name is irresistible of course – get 20% off by booking online, even on the day.

City Lights [Columbus & Broadway]

Perhaps a cliche of San Francisco …but who cares – a genuine book-lovers’ bookstore with, of course, an illustrious history. Live life to a different Beat.

City Lights 2015

City Lights 2015

City Lights 2004

City Lights 2004

Baby Blues BBQ

Baby Blues BBQ

The Last Hurrah (for Hollywood)

Charlie Chaplin Kid Auto Races at Venice 1914 little tramp

We left LA with two final movie things to delight us and cast a glittering light on the City of Angels. First, I found out that the apartment we were staying in – apart from being on the same street Jim (Morrison) used to live on – was adjacent to the location of the first movie in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as The Little Tramp. It is now a dog park but back in 1914 it was the site of the ‘Kid Auto Races at Venice’ where Mack Sennett produced a 6 minute short directed by Henry Lehrman. My second son has Charlie as a middle name in honour of Chaplin.

Last time we were in LA together (when he was 4) we were hosted by my Paramount friends at a house Chaplin had built for his mistress. This time (he is now 15) we enjoyed spotting various Chaplin traces around Venice (mostly murals) but it was only on our day of departure I found out in detail why they were there.

The other movie moment to adorn that day was when the same son spotted a face he recognised in the place we went en famille for breakfast, a bakery called Gjusta also in Venice, located in an old boat-building factory adjacent to Gold’s Gym of Arnie fame. It had been Arnold Schwarzenegger’s birthday the day before and by chance I spotted, when out running along the beach, that his image fills giant-size the wall behind Jim’s mural ‘Morning Shot’. So after a breakfast with a bit less raw meat than Arnie would be used to (Gjusta is pretty California nutty-crunchy), Enfant Terrible No. 2 spotted this hot girl he recognised from the big screen and I had the pleasure of seeing him pluck up the courage to speak to her, plan his approach and execute it cooly. She turned out to be Cody Horn from Magic Mike. Her father is chairman of Walt Disney Studios and was formerly president of Warner Bros. so I guess “How did you get into movies?” was not worth the asking. No, to be fair, she was very warm and charming and happy to be engaged in conversation, as well as plenty glamorous so she helped bring our LA stay to a perfect, fitting end.

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We drove out of Gjusta with the LA Road Songs CD aforementioned Paramount pals made for us on our Route 101 trip 11 years ago playing loud and headed North to do the reverse trip…

highway-101 ventura california USA

Ventura Highway in the sunshine
Where the days are longer
The nights are stronger than moonshine
You’re gonna go I know

‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair
And the days surround your daylight there
Seasons crying no despair
Alligator lizards in the air, in the air

LA Woman

{21/7/15}

Five Leaves Left : Nick Drake - back cover photo by Keith Morris

Five Leaves Left : Nick Drake – back cover photo by Keith Morris

Well, that was an interesting day. Got weirder and weirder. Started out from the rock-steeped Sunset Marquis hotel (shades of Joe Strummer and The Stones) past the Hockneyesque pool with my colleague Jody to explore the Sunset Strip. (Had already done half a day’s work in the overlap zone between PST and BST.) We checked out the Viper Room (I watched Running On Empty two nights ago and was reflecting on River Phoenix’s premature passing) and Whiskey-a-Go-Go (shades of Jim & The Doors). Pulled into an old-school bookstore and picked up some vinyl including Five Leaves Left, featuring a photo on the back by Keith Morris whose original hangs on our stairs at home.

[I’m writing this post at the junction of Mulholland Drive and Laurel Canyon (shades of Crosby and Young), driving out to a film shoot in Hidden Hills.]

Peeled off into Beverly Hills where we checked out residential LA with its fake-grass and fanciful flowers. Short pit-stop for an iced coffee where we people-watched – a male jogger with no top and tight lycra bottoms leaving nothing to the imagination, jogging being the operative word; a woman all in black with her friend all in white, Spy vs Spy, too old for their Porsche, faces distorted through Beverly Hills surgery. Then on to Melrose where we landed in the middle of a paparazzi ambush of Hollywood actress Hilary Duff, in a sheer shirt, carefully showing off her black lacy bra to the media collaborators (in this Princess Di style ‘accidental’ encounter going about her everyday business).

Hilary Duff photographed on Melrose Beverly Hills

So far so LA LA. Then we hook up with the director and PA of a short form series I’ve got shooting out here about the LA underworld. The PA can’t start her car without breathing into a breathalyzer device (very Lynchian) due to a past DUI. Every time she does a sharp manoeuvre, like rounding a tight bend, the thing goes off and she has to do a test on the fly. All a bit Blue Velvet.

[Now on Ventura Freeway, shades of America (the US band that made it big from Kentish Town). She’s sitting beside me now as I write, device across her lap.]

We head out for a meeting with our key interviewee, a porn star made good through the family-run porn business she’s set up  – both she and her hubby are leading stars. She’s pretty and delightful, lives in a gated community north of the city, loves reading and horses. She showed us around the house and facilities, all set up to be optimized for porn shooting – the pool, the living room, the out-buildings. Up in the office were the costumes – tiny skirts and huge heels. She shows us an 11-page script for a two and a half hour movie – the sex only takes up a line, the actors aren’t great with dialogue she explains. She opens the porn cupboard under the stairs – baby oil, condoms, hard drives, medication.

Back in the house we have a flowing chat which ranges from the impact of having a porn-star husband on their sex life (don’t ask if he’s done two scenes that day) to the two-weekly blood and urine tests (darn, there goes my hopes of a porn-star career, phobic about blood tests), from the reaction of her family to her vocation to her preference for working with only the four or five stars she actually fancies, from the rise of a Viagra generation of stars without the “strength” of the previous generation like her husband to her passage from nudie pics to porn films which she really felt a pull to do. She revealed that that cliché of young girl shows up in LA to became a starlet and drifts into porn is the wrong way round – girls with a bit of porn experience suddenly take up acting lessons and think why not take a crack at it. She described the experience of working with newbies who show up with a yeast infection, not fit for action, and little knowledge of their own bodies or sexual hygiene due to their roots in low socio-economic groups. All this over coffee at the dining table, not your everyday convo but a suitably weird adventure.

The crew and I repair to the bar of the Sunset Marquis to plan the shoot the next day. Two casting couch films. New girls. How LALA is that going to be …?

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LA LA Simple Pleasures

Some Simple Pleasures from LA…

A Bigger Splash (1967)

A Bigger Splash (1967)

Diner breakfasts. US bookstores. Vinyl LPs. Back in Black. People-watching in Beverly Hills. Weird shit. Juke boxes. God Only Knows. Ghosts of The Doors. Sunset Marquis hotel. Backless dresses. Smoking on the beach. Automobiles of the 50s and 60s. Short shorts. The colours of swimming pools.

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