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Walk on the Dead Side: A Hollywood Kid Waxes Smug on Dreamland photo

“I am the prodigal son of Sunset Boulevard, limping home with blistered feet and black eyes.”

—Erin Satterthwaite, Bones


It doesn’t matter where you grew up. You always want out. Even if you grew up in L.A.

I don’t know how typical hometowns work, but L.A. has a cruel gravity, like a martyred mother who makes you feel guilty for leaving. But it’s more like if your mother were Jackie Collins, the prolific Hollywood partygoer, and you just can’t get enough of the dirt and dish she has on everyone. No matter how far away you get, you’re always compelled to return home.

Only cults and teenage runaways and dead celebrities buried safely in Forest Lawn behind the Hollywood Sign call this place home. Everyone else manages to leave just in time—before it’s too late.

As poet/humorist Don Marquis wrote in his poem, “An Ode to Hollywood,” after his brief and bitter stint as a screenwriter:

Strange Cults are thine, strange Cunts,
Dry Nymph and arid Venus;
Or should a cundum bust
'Tis but a puff of dust
Powders the satyr’s penis.

Diffuse, wide desert reaches
Where no Mind ever wrought!
Peer from thy cloudless skies
Demons with lidless eyes,
Scorching the buds of Thought!

Yes, there is that dark, metaphysical twinge behind everything that shines. The superstitious land where nothing is sacred. Even as I type, there are talks of Marilyn Monroe’s Mediterranean-style home in Brentwood being demolished. Hollywood may seem materialistic, but only to the untrained Angeleno eye. Hollywood doesn’t treasure materiality, not really. Historic sites go up in smoke like dreams because that’s what’s truly valued. Dreams—and the overly lauded dreamers who dream them.

When I used to retrace the Helter Skelter steps of the Manson Family alone in my ’76 Chevy Nova for kicks, it was as obvious to me as it must have been to them. The muted redolence of ease and wealth, so quiet—as if guiltily—behind their ivy walls and cypress trees up in those hills. Silent killers of all things creative and wild on the world-famous Sunset Strip. Rendering the Hollywood Sign dark and legislating noise ordinances after 10 p.m. It used to be West Hollywood was the jungle Guns N’ Roses sang about. Hair metal bands documented life in the Sunset wild like coked-up, heroin-fueled anthropologists. “We were lucky any of us made it out of that time alive,” actress Denise Crosby once told me. She and I lived just blocks from each other, but decades apart.

I had come back home to L.A. from grad school at the Jack Kerouac School. It was 2012, the year of the Mayan Apocalypse. I rented a room in an old one-story Spanish-style house on Kilkea Avenue, just off Melrose, and apparently, as I was told, a few doors down from the place Tarantino was living in when he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Or was it Pulp Fiction? Who knows. No one below Sunset knows what they’re talking about. And everyone above Sunset is full of shit. They’ve just got more square footage to stew around in. But who am I to be critical? I’d be lying if I said I was totally jaded to being a Hollywood kid.

I had just celebrated my entry into the 27 Club, and I quickly realized West Hollywood had become a near-sleepy town, where most nights, the corridor between Chateau Marmont and the Comedy Store was deserted, with old Hollywood haunts being razed for yet another big, glassy, luxury high-rise hotel. The party was long over.

But something was happening just four miles east, under the shadow of the Griffith Observatory, in the seedy streets of Thai Town, just next door to the bikini bar landmark, Jumbo’s Clown Room.

Harvard & Stone in East Hollywood was one of the first bars to kick off the L.A. speakeasy revival. It used to be a gay Thai bar. “Cocktails in Thai Town” still hung above Harvard & Stone’s newer, faux-rustic sign. A lot went on in the dark of that WWII factory-themed bar, where the go-go dancers dressed as Rosie the Riveter and would dance on the bar top every hour on the hour. And how I soaked in the spectacle. Infused myself in the glitter. 2012 was indeed the Apocalypse and I was smackdab in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And now, folks, if you’ll just care to step this way, you’re about to witness what I thought my then-coke-addled mind would surely forget:

Linsday Lohan smoking freely on the leather couch in the corner when she was supposed to be on house arrest at Chateau Marmont, and she came nightly, in fact, and always hugged us all at the end of the night, when she would leave to fuck our manager, a bar operator with male model looks who knew every single fucking person in Hollywood—and knew them well; Danny Masterson (then a partner of the bar) leading his band of That 70s Show merry pranksters upstairs to the private balcony (Laura Prepon was a real one, she would smile and wave to me always from the other end of the bar, and I never saw her again after fame dug its claws into her once more with Orange Is the New Black); Lauren Conrad giving me a doubletake before ordering several tequila sodas; Rumer Willis crooning covers of Amy Winehouse and looking at me deeply with her Demi Moore eyes; Melanie Griffith in a white dress dancing sweetly to 50s pop songs with Dakota Johnson; Donald Glover sauntering back in, hungover, because he left his credit card the night before; Shaun White dressing way too well (three-piece suit) for the motorcycle jacket desert crowd, and the sounds of The Black Angels, that pervaded Hollywood back then; Elijah Wood DJing the whole night and me not even noticing until the 2 a.m. lights came up; Joaquin Phoenix toasting to me after making him a Vieux Carré, and his sister, Rain, playing onstage and carrying on that old Phoenix tradition; Keifer Sutherland drunkenly (very drunkenly) asking me, with genuine concern, if I were in love, “Yes,” I answered, “I always have been,” and he let out a sigh of utter relief, “Oh, thank God”; Zac Efron urging me to let him into the upstairs liquor room once he saw I had the keys; Robert Pattinson looking painfully handsome with a girl always on his arm; Elizabeth Moss being annoyed with me because I told her I recognized her but I just couldn’t remember from what, “Mad Men?” she asked, “No,” I said, “Get Him to the Greek?” she asked again, more annoyed, “That’s the one,” I said; Mischa Barton being kind enough to share a cigarette with me on the smoking patio; Madeline Zima, a ballerina for Halloween, posing in a picture with me, a zombie . . .

And on and on. Oh-so-Hollywood vignettes presented to me and my fellow bartenders in between us snorting blow in the bathroom stalls and taking way too many shots of Fernet Branca. It was the Apocalypse, but it was also just barely past that tipping point where smartphones became ubiquitous. It wouldn’t be long before famous faces abandoned Sunset haunts for good. Everyone and anyone is paparazzi. Neuroticism thrives and self-abandonment dies in the gaze of the all-seeing eye.

But? I mean? And? So? Now what? Tall tales not told on the silver screen are swept away and forgotten in Hollywood like its own historic buildings.

And here I am, another Hollywood lost boy pouring out his stark Hollywood exploits, and who might finally grow up if only he would leave. But where do you go? Where do you turn when you’re backed up against the Western edge? “We are a coast people,” Jack Spicer once wrote. “There is nothing but ocean out beyond us.” I dream of dying in Maui. It’s hard leaving a town where nothing dies—just remodeled and renamed and remade.

I glimpsed a chance in 2012 to eke it out in New York when the then-unknown writer Lisa Taddeo wanted me to be her assistant. She was researching for a book, which was a very different version of what would become Three Women. She needed female subjects of the teenage variety. And she wanted to leverage my reality as Hollywood kid.

“Brent, okay. So I’m doing a few different things for the book, which needs to have geographic scope,” she emailed, “so I want to do some of the stuff in LA — eventually I'll move it out to Texas, Wisconsin, Connecticut, et al. But i thought, why not go to LA for winter?? So these are all gonna be chapters, and Esquire is likely going to serialize some of it. One of the first will be The Sex Life of the Teenage Girl. Or maybe, The Sex Life of the New Youth. I'm ideally looking for a group of good-looking teens who are willing to talk their sex lives . . . hopefully their lives are sort of intertwined, like the movie Kids but not NY-filthy. Rather: LA sunny, sexy. And what do they do at night? Where and how do they party? I’d want to observe and hang out with them. I’d want to know attitudes towards oral sex, anal sex, the sexual competition amongst the girls and the guys . . . etc.

“Ideally it’s an interwoven group, a loose affiliation or network of, who maybe all work at the Hollister in Costa Mesa or the A&F at the Grove, where they guys stand bare-chested at the entrance. Know what i mean? Ideally, there’s the Rag Doll, the Blow Job Queen, the Virgin? You know? They’d have to sort of epitomize sexuality in America, for the teen set.”  

I had set up some meetings with friends and friends of friends still in high school, but in very Angeleno fashion, they all flaked on her. That’s about the only thing to leverage from my reality as Hollywood kid. As it turns out, L.A. didn’t make it into the book. If it had gone better, I could’ve been Taddeo’s West Coast assistant and writing protégé. I maybe should have pushed for it, moved to New York, did whatever I had to do to make it work. But that cruel gravity held me like a circling drain, and in true Angeleno fashion, I didn’t resist. “Nothing’s happening in New York . . .” DJ Spooky coolly told me. And I listened.

A decade later, but it doesn’t feel like it. Time stands still under these washed-out stars. Hollyweird . . . Tinsel Town . . . Never Never Land . . . the places and faces change but the ghosts remain.

My best friend moved from L.A. to Paris, living that Paris poet life. I can’t survive this city without him. So what does it mean that I am? Am I dead? Would I be able to tell? In L.A. where lies the fountain of youth, death is unimaginable. But it’s everywhere, under every sickle-leaf Persian rug, if only you’d bother to look.

And now, folks, if you’ll just care to step this way, you’re about join me for a walk on the dead side—

Oh, look, Dracula’s last home, where Bela Lugosi died in East Hollywood, broke and forgotten, in 1956, at 5620 Harold Way; and there, up above, the “H” on the Hollywood Sign, where young struggling actress Peg Entwistle leapt to her own demise in 1932, and still remains the only person to have done so; and to your right, you’ll see the former Landmark Hotel where Janis Joplin famously O.D.’d; and down below Sunset there, Sal Mineo from Rebel Without a Cause was stabbed to death in 1976 on Holloway Drive, still holding a script of a play he had been rehearsing called P.S. Your Cat Is Dead; and up above, where Lenny Bruce died in his home at 8825 Hollywood in 1966 after injecting morphine; and that spot right there is where the body of Diane Linkletter, daughter of TV star Art Linklater, landed after she plunged six stories to her death, due to an apparent LSD freakout; and the joint formerly known as Sherry’s Restaurant where gangster Mickey Cohen was shot in a gunfight in 1948; and as we ascend Benedict Canyon, I’ll point out the water spigot at a house on Rimmele Drive, where the Manson Family hosed the blood off of themselves shortly after the murders . . .  

And over the hill and into the Valley we go.

And there, where I lost my virginity at 18 on the rooftop of an apartment complex in Sherman Oaks. The girl was 22 and a stripper working at The Body Shop on Sunset, across the street from Chateau Marmont, where so many glamourous things happen, and so many glamorous people sit and eat their dinners, and sometimes glamorously O.D. in their private bungalows, and where my older brother got all my friends and me a room to party for my 18th birthday, despite the hotel’s “no party” policy, and so my brother really had to grease the concierge. (But then my brother drank too much and started puking blood. It later turned out to be bile mixed with red wine, but we didn’t know that then. He hadn’t eaten all day and spent it drinking instead. And someone called an ambulance. And all my high school friends grabbed the booze in a panic and bailed. And so I spent the better part of my 18th birthday sitting in the waiting room at Cedars-Sinai hospital, and thinking of how I fell in love-at-first-sight with a stripper, who I knew I would see again, and listening to my brother drunkenly shout from his hospital bed, “I was born in the hospital. I will die in this hospital.”)

And now, we reach our last stop—the ruins of Tarzan’s Tarzana. A huge, abandoned swimming pool sits on top of a hill on Tarzana Drive and Reseda Boulevard, overgrown with weeds. The remnants of the estate of Tarzan’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs. His pool was built in 1913 by Harrison Gray Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times, and it was the first pool ever built in the San Fernando Valley.

And where better to end an End Times Hollywood sojourn. Next to ancient Valley pools, where the dreams of Valley kids incubate under Wayfarer shades, where the unwritten words of young aspiring writers float overhead like chemtrails waiting to be plucked out of the sky.

Even though all of it is dust, none of it seems too long ago. Not really. In L.A. where lies the fountain of youth, death is unimaginable. But it’s everywhere. L.A. is on blackhole time. Everything everywhere now. And no one grows up.


image: Rony Alwin