And We’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun…
California, the department store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing.
—Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
There is no ‘there’ there—Gertrude Stein
California dreamin’ has turned into a nightmare. That’s the conclusion you reach after reading Forbes Magazine’s 2011 guide to “America’s Most Miserable Cities,”.
Taking into account a range of factors used to measure quality of life, from crime rates, to unemployment figures, to commute times, taxes and the numbers of homes which are in foreclosure, the magazine ranked every one of the country’s hundreds of metropolitan areas that has a population of over 249,000.
When they did the math, cities in California occupied an astonishing four of the bottom five (and eight of the bottom 20) places on their misery list.
“Good vibes are a distant memory. The state has a crippling checklist of problems including massive budget deficits, high unemployment, plunging home prices, rampant crime and sky-high taxes.
Roughly 12.5 per cent of residents are unemployed, property values have in places declined by two-thirds from their 2008 peaks, and 500,000 homes are in foreclosure.”
The reasons are too complex to go into here (although Mike Davis’ superb book on L.A. ‘the dystopia of advanced capitalism’, City of Quartz, contains a wealth of useful pointers).
Some us have been to California; some us have even lived there. But even if you’ve done neither, California–the idea of California, in its wealth and beauty, its lush and seemingly endless variety–was impossible to ignore.
We saw it in films, on TV, read about it in books, in magazines and, of course, we heard about it in music. As the great Randy Newman put it:
Rollin’ down Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north
And we was born to ride
Roll down the window, put down the top
Crank up the Beach Boys, baby
Don’t let the music stop
We’re gonna ride it ’til we just can’t ride it no more
From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody’s very happy
‘Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day
I love L.A. (We love it)
I love L.A. (We love it)
We love it
Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like em nowhere
Century Boulevard (We love it)
Victory Boulevard (We love it)
Santa Monica Boulevard (We love it)
Sixth Street (We love it, we love it, we love it)
We love L.A.–Randy Newman, I Love L.A.
…but the state is bankrupt (that’s what happens when you allow people to vote on every single tax: guess what? They vote not to pay), San Francisco sits on a fault in the earth’s crust that will one day pitch the whole city into the sea and southern California, essentially a vast desert, only exists because of the Colorado River Aqueduct. Half the state goes up in flames if you light a cigarette and the other half slides down the hilltops into the valley below whenever it rains. Times, as Señor Zimmerman once remarked, are a’changin’.
There was always, inevitably, a seedy, ugly, dark underbelly to all that ‘fun in the sun’ bullshit. Chronicled by writers like Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, T.C. Boyle and our friend, the poet Tom Clark; by film-makers too numerous to mention and by musicians like Merle Haggard (an ex-con from Bakersfield), Randy Newman, Tom Waits and The Dead Kennedys.
But all the ugliness and cruelty, the essential vapidity and meaninglessness, all that greed and all those empty smiles that served to hide overweening ambition and a callous disregard for fellow human beings–all of it seemed to be somehow sanitised by the sunshine and the laid back ‘good life’. No longer.
So finish that fish taco, wax your board, slip into that wet-suit (black only, please: day-glo colours are strictly for farmers), touch up those sun-streaks in your hair and let’s paddle out to the break and catch a verse wave: the subject is California.