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Posts Tagged ‘Chet Baker’

It’s Always Sunny on the 110

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 @ 06:03 PM  posted by Mark

The whirring rush hour drone of rubber, metal, and asphalt on the 110 Freeway through Los Angeles sounds like a perverse free jazz experiment, complete with weird discordant tones, unexpected modalities, and crunching rhythmic noise that describes velocity better than a speedometer. It’s the quintessential sound of Los Angeles, a revving, manic, jackhammer crag so constant that it fades immediately into white noise and then, as you stop listening with your conscious mind, reverberates easily into the deepest fissures of your brain until it seems almost eternal, the harsh metallic gurgling of industrial creation, of a century’s handiwork, of the world we’ve made.

Photo by Scott Harrison, LA Times.

The 110 used to form the last leg of Route 66 before it found the Pacific Ocean, a bevelled undulating road that symbolized adventure and freedom as easily as it snaked along the hills of South Pasadena, Inglewood, and Los Angeles itself. Now, this historic stretch of asphalt is just a minor, often inconvenient, workaday commuter artery from one side of smog-heavy L.A. to the other, the adventure and freedom that it once promised now just a cloud of brown industrial particulates hanging in the sky overhead as you bank through suburban strip malls to the high-rises and hospitals downtown. But on a motorcycle you can still capture an inkling of the exhilaration that Route 66 once offered, a faint insinuation of the way things used to be, of the great escape to the Endless Summer rhapsodized in the surf songs of the Tornadoes and the Cool Jazz of Gerry Mulligan and the Beach Boys’ exuberant odes to fast cars and bottle blondes.

There’s no safety lane on the 110, no pullout, no emergency call boxes, just six narrow lanes of roiling traffic routinely exceeding the recommended speed limit by fifteen miles an hour: it’s not the most relaxing, carefree ride, especially not on my old upright warhorse, a Honda Nighthawk. More than once I’ve wished for more top-end power, a lower center of gravity, more weight, greater leverage, but this bike has gotten me from sea to shining sea a few times, and whether it’s a product of trust built on experience or just myopic sentimentality, I believe this bike is still the only machine that can really give me the kicks of Route 66. Because, after all, it’s not the ideal you want on this stretch of the 110, it’s not the perfectly tricked-out crotch rocket photo-op: what you want here is the sheer effrontery of careening metal, the daily encounter with a million statistical probabilities. It’s the whiff of freedom mingling with hot rubber and dust.

My girlfriend thinks I have a death wish: I could take Interstate 5, she says, which is relatively straight and wide. I could take surface streets, which are prudently, manageably slow. I could get a car, for God’s sake! But the primary allure of the 110 is not the continuum of risk but the confrontation of possibilities: it’s the groove, the dip of your shoulder as you counter-steer through the bend at Wilshire; it’s white-lining through stalled traffic above Dodger Stadium; it’s the moment when you accelerate through a cloud of burnt-oil exhaust around a broken-down ’75 El Camino below Fair Oaks Boulevard and the ugly sound of grinding and knocking and cursing from all around you is perfectly counterbalanced by the weightless feeling of your own centrifugal force, and the blood-orange California sun peers around a knoll to wish you good morning. It’s occupying the tension between notes in L.A. junkie icon Chet Baker’s ultra-reserved rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” while all around you commuters in square metal compartments spill coffee and shout into cell phones and try to arrange their coiffures into increasingly improbable shapes.

Before space travel became boring, when a website was where a spider lived, when few of us could even afford air travel, Route 66 meant freedom and adventure: as recently as forty years ago, the world still seemed big and you could still discover something along the side of the highway that you weren’t expecting, something that was outside of your vicarious media experience, something that wasn’t necessarily grisly and wouldn’t necessarily put your eyewitness account on the evening news. The thrill of the road was the thrill of change, of open vistas into a future you hadn’t yet imagined; and though the congested, urban, thoroughly known Highway 110 from Pasadena to the Pacific is just the ghost of the wide open 66, when you’re riding a motorcycle that ghost still breathes the life of urgency and fun into this road, it still haunts the hyper-real fantasies of digital Hollywood with the decidedly less glossy analog theatrics of daily motion in SoCal’s commuter jungle.

This stretch of road illuminates the mulish contradictions of Los Angeles itself: beyond the Spielberg dream factory endlessly recycling America’s mythology of beauty and wealth, behind the beaches where golden-bronze flesh stands in for haute couture, beneath the palm-lined sun-bathed pavement of Sunset Boulevard, there is the reality of a desiccated, earthquake-splintered desert where mudslides and brush fires are almost as frequent as movie premieres. Los Angeles is a city of harsh realities hidden beneath projected images of bright fantasies, and for every little old lady from Pasadena, there’s a dead man’s curve. Nowhere is this more evident than on the 110, where blind on-ramps and palo verde-shrouded corners and twisting corkscrew curves are the rule rather than the exception and the thrill of the ride grimaces at the specter of imminent catastrophe. This is a ride where the best and worst aspects of commuter culture collide every day and the road itself is only half of the exhilaration.

On two wheels, even in the ultimately insupportable asphalt ecology of Los Angeles, you can still find space in-between the Corporate Fantasia of Hollywood and the Urban Riot Reality of Watts, you can still carve out a piece of the pre-millennial past for your own momentary enjoyment: just take a high arc across lanes on the curve below the Santa Monica Freeway south and when you right your bike out of the bank, you’ll crest a hill and find yourself suddenly and all at once firing into the infinite horizon and golden promise of California’s Endless Summer. But don’t take your eyes off the road: there’s another bend just ahead.

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