Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
California Saga: 2022-2023
A "box set"
What’s exciting about this newsletter experience, for me at least, is the number of new people who sign up every day. Having an audience is very gratifying. One challenge of a Substack, though, is that newer readers may miss what was published before. Archives aren’t terribly searchable. For those joining up last week or last month, there’s a lot of work you missed that you may, naturally, never get to.
To rectify that, I wanted to share a few old essays that, unintentionally, became joined under a single theme. In early 2022, I didn’t set out to write on California. There was no project in mind. I wanted to review two books by a writer who believed he had found the identity of the Zodiac Killer. And then, for the first time since I was seven, I flew to California, driving from San Francisco to San Diego in the springtime. I took in Monterey, Big Sur, the Central Valley, and Los Angeles. I understood, finally, why so many Americans fled West, and why the East, despite its cosmopolitanism, seemed so cramped, even static. I felt, standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, that I understood the enormity of this country. Unrelatedly—or subconsciously—I became transfixed, not long after the trip, with one of California’s great cultural exports, the Beach Boys. And I came back, one last time, to the wonder and dread of California when I reviewed Bret Easton Ellis’ new novel, The Shards.
Below are four essays I wrote last year and this year about my interactions, both physically and psychically, with the Golden State. If I’m forever, perhaps, a landlocked Easterner, I’ve learned to appreciate what lies three thousand miles away. Together, I’ve grouped these pieces into the “California Saga,” which both sounds quite nice and is a homage to a very fruitful part of the last excellent album the Beach Boys ever released. Enjoy.
Mass society did not invent the serial killer—a term that did not come into vogue until the 1980s—but mass society, with its radios and televisions and bodies converging in finite spaces, made him what what he is, what we understand him to be. Today, the most notorious and sadistic remain as famous as athletes and entertainers, gods of their own twisted underworlds. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Son of Sam. The Zodiac Killer, whom police never found. All bubbled up in the second half of the twentieth century, at a time when the dark currents that course through the culture today were first gaining ground and ruining lives. They killed until they were stopped or, in the case of Zodiac, they killed until they receded into history. The police-state, in a world before ubiquitous computer networks and forensic mastery, could only do so much.
To behold California with fresh eyes is to understand why so many fled West. Before the forest fires, the droughts, the $6.50 gallons of gas, and the starter homes going for $1 million, it was the better place to be. Northern California, at least. New York cannot rival the vistas of San Francisco, not the vertiginous hills nor the sweep of the bay. The Golden Gate Bridge, russet and majestic and haunting, transfixes more than any of the East River crossings.
And Big Sur, at least, is better than the literature. Words struggle against the vastness of the Pacific, the feeling of death that takes hold as you wind your automobile on Route 1, a single turn away from a plunge down the rocks. Pull off at some point, kill the engine, and take in the sublime edge of American land. It is like nowhere else in the world.
Coming to California is a bit like viewing the past and future simultaneously. In the enormous, glittering parking lots of Dodger Stadium, you see the startling excess of midcentury automobile culture, traffic jams piled on traffic jams. Meanwhile, the trolley cars Robert Moses destroyed in New York still putter happily in San Francisco, a remnant of the earlier twentieth century some cities didn’t leave behind. A car ride beyond the limits of either place, into the parched valleys and rolling farmlands and seesawing mountains, is a casual reminder that whatever came before you will be here long after you are gone, your flesh not even a passing fad. Without intending to, we drove the same desolate junction where James Dean was killed in 1955. I imagine it hasn’t changed very much.
Elsewhere, everything is changing.
California, in the early 1960s, was exploding with energy and promise. The population boomed as towns and cities were reinvented overnight. Los Angeles and San Francisco had seized baseball teams from New York City. For those with the money or just the racial privilege, these were rocket summers, with new automobiles careening down new freeways and sparkling suburbs gobbling up the horizon line. California was ready, at last, to claim the future from the East. The next presidents, literary heroes, and cultural mandarins would be minted here. The Beach Boys weren’t thinking this as they strode upon the scene, with their regional hits quickly gaining traction. But they sensed they were feeding an imagination. It was no coincidence that the Beach Boys, in 1961 or 1962, were hottest in the inland California cities, transfixing places like San Bernardino where the Pacific Ocean may as well have been halfway to Mars.
What was so special about a bunch of local kids singing about surfing and fast cars? There were other surf bands, other purveyors of the so-called California Sound. There was Jan and Dean. There was Dick Dale. There were other groups, crooning of youth, optimism, sunshine, and the perfect wave. They were, in their own ways, talented. What they lacked was Brian Wilson. Brian was an accelerator, a catalyst, a font of ideas that came from places unseen. Fascinated by Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound, Brian, entirely self-taught, was going to produce the Beach Boys. Murry was a tyrant, but it was Murry, with his aggression and hustle, who got his sons to Capitol Records in 1962 after other labels shot them down. It was Brian, once there, who insisted on cutting the tracks for their first album outside the famed basement studios of Capitol. Capitol had built recording studios for orchestras and ensembles, not rock groups, and Brian had other ideas. It is important to remember how much control record companies exerted over artists in the early 1960s. Many performers did not write their own music and were routinely cheated out of royalties; they were property of the companies, to be exploited as the executives saw fit. The idea of a musician as an auteur—a performer who could imagine songs, dominate a studio, engineer a hit—did not exist in any serious way. Brian, not yet 20, was going to change all of this.
If Joan Didion first understood, or at least popularized, the idea of California as a land of bountiful extremes, where the Summer of Love and the Reagan Revolution could each flourish, Ellis is something of an inheritor, lingering on the Golden State’s other legacy, the serial killer. Zodiac, the original Night Stalker, the Golden State killer—if you were of a certain age, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you feared the amoral psychopath in the night. No bedroom window could be locked tight enough. Unlike the terrorist, who dealt in death as political spectacle, the serial killer simply longed to kill and went out to satiate a need. In California, he thrived…
…The Shards can no longer shock or scandalize; novels lack that centrality to the culture and the internet can proffer any approximation of decadence you choose. The novel’s utility, then, is in what the 58-year-old Ellis can in fact achieve through a meditation that has been decades in the making. It is in the grandness and horror of human experience, the memories that can be stretched, enhanced, and contorted into a narrative. It is in the blending of fact and lie to make something greater, closer to what reality, in its darkest contours, might be. “Despite my familiarity with the events, the book frightened me, as love does, as dreams do,” Bret reflects at middle-age, on the book about 1981 and the Trawler and forbidden love that he had ostensibly written. If there can be this love, there must also be fear. A heartbeat comes fast either way.