FROM AN AMOEBA, TO AN AMOEBA
Remembering the drive down Sunset Boulevard to the Last Real Record Store on Earth¹
This the escape plan. 99% successful, only thwarted by the occasional mudslide, which could obstruct both lanes of the Pacific Coast Highway below Malibu, CA. The 1973 Albert Hammond lyric,² though endearing, is largely a myth. In fact it does rain in Southern California, often treacherously so. During February thunderstorms, at once idyllic and ominous, it is safer atop the hill, but when the insects of boredom, or stress, or existential dread grow anxious, when the infestation begins to feverishly crawl beneath the skin, a journey east is worth the risk to keep from bugging out.
Three quarters of a tank gets to Hollywood and back. A mere drizzle discourages the less adventurous weekend drivers. Every way in L.A. is the long way, so scenic routes make the rides pass faster. An album for the trip is needed. Most popular is Petty. The Greatest Hits collection is the greatest of all hits collections, the best driving music.³ Something to belt out when the 405 runs into Sunset in Brentwood and the red lights last forever.
A left out of Seaver Drive into the thoroughfare, and it is underway. “27 miles of scenic beauty,” a wood carved sign reads. Summiting the first crest of the highway reveals a marvelous landscape to the south. A bay stretches from Point Dume to Palos Verdes, and it touches every coastal landmark. The ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier beckons from some 40 or so miles away, and on those halcyon days, when the smog decides to take a breather, Catalina Island emerges from beneath its deep blue blanket. At the coffee shop in the Colony Plaza, G. is holding court, telling tales from his years spent in Bob Dylan’s traveling circus. “Drafting your next opus?” he asks, and a Jewish blessing follows. Always very much appreciated and cherished.
Now come the Anunnaki rooms no terrestrial creature can afford to enter, although Duke’s has decent Fish Taco Tuesday. Moonshadows, the oceanside lounge which vomits drunk Illuminati on a nightly basis lays just before the Getty Villa in the Pacific Palisades. For such a popular and reliably consistent community institution, Moonshadows seems to always be hiring new staff, but passing the interviews with the bar manager, floor manager, kitchen manager, general manager, restroom manager, manager’s manager, and whomever else wished to question the new recruits proves more difficult than passing a background check by the Central Intelligence Agency. Gladstone’s For Fish is always a welcome sight, not for what is offered on the menu inside, but for where the parking lot empties on the outside. Across the street to the east is the Sunset Boulevard delta, where that long road which begins far east at Figueroa in DTLA finally deposits its vehicles swimming like salmon upstream to the beach. Another left at the traffic light, and the second leg of the journey into the heart of Hollywood begins.
The serpentine asphalt keeps drivers engaged as the surf and sand become as tacky wallpaper. Here begins a tour through some of L.A.’s most hifalutin neighborhoods. In the event someone has deigned to clip the shrubbery low enough, the architecture is something to behold. These stretches of homes through Brentwood, Bel-Air, and Beverly Hills, even in all their confectionary grandeur, are impressive, great for a chuckle. With price tags like these, obsession with form demolishes any consideration of function. Tom intones “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” as Brentwood gives way to Bel-Air.
The red brick spires of U.C.L.A. rise up from the bowels of Bel-Air and Westwood. It looks straight out of a movie, because it literally is.
A bizarre sensation occurs when a place ubiquitous in popular entertainment is suddenly made manifest, appearing in physical form within arm’s reach. It is a “through the looking glass” kind of feeling. Does it inhabit the viewer’s reality, or has the viewer descended into a parallel fantasy? The white rabbit bids onward.
A dive to the right, down a sloping intersection, and Beverly Hills opens up, classic triangular brown street signs greeting visitors with their saffron lettering. There are two Sunset Blvd. attractions that appear at roughly the same time. First, on the right, Rodeo (roh-DAY-oh) Drive, the flame to many L.A. moths, a maelstrom for luxury sharks and the fashionable minnows on which they prey. At the end of the drive is the Regent Beverly Wilshire, where Vivian cohabited with Edward in Pretty Woman. It is obvious that the palm trees lining Rodeo are transplants, their roots buried deep under slabs of gold plated concrete. They must have been planted during the development of the area, over 100 years ago, when parcels of Beverly Hills property could be purchased for $1100 each.³
On the left, the pièce de résistance, the Beverly Hills Hotel, an austere, haughty temple of ecstatic and nefarious deeds. Sell one of the lobby coffee tables and feed Skid Row for at least a week. The grounds are laid out in palatial formation, the famous Polo Lounge out to the pool and through to the bungalows, with hidden paths and gardens in between. While cloistered in Bungalow 5, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would order their breakfast room service with two bottles of vodka, and repeat the order at lunchtime. Marilyn’s favorite was №1, although №7 has been affectionately nicknamed “Norma Jean.”⁴ The ghosts that guard the place have rarely seen fit to extend their invitation. The aura that fortifies Paul R. Williams’s architecture absorbs the lucky few and repels others, slingshotting most passersby toward the Hollywood hoi polloi that reside only ten minutes east.
Hamburger Hamlet is right ahead. Just a little heavier lead on the gas pedal and the Sunset Strip arrives in chrome, in neon, in fallen dominos of sidewalk. “Nobody walks in L.A.,” Missing Persons sang in their New Wave bop,⁵ but like Albert Hammond before them, promulgating a half-truth. Many walk the Strip to channel its spirit. Hearing the buzzing needles from Mark Mahoney’s Shamrock Tattoo plunge ink into flesh, smelling the cigarette musk and freshly polished banisters from within the Rainbow and the Roxy, touching the painted names haunting the walls of the Comedy Store (Ciro’s nightclub from ‘40 through ‘65, a hangout for Mickey Cohen and Sinatra), tasting the shakes and pancakes at Mel’s Drive-In, feeling the spray from the Sunset Car Wash blowing through the open car window.
The Chateau Marmont casts a shadow over the boulevard’s eastern corridor, a gaudy, fantastic sepulcher of Tinseltown kitsch. Who needs a bungalow at the Beverly Hills when there are dungeons at the Chateau? A secluded rook fortified at the top of a long driveway which vines up into the hills, “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont,” advised Harry Cohn. The sanctum’s code of discretion has been enforced since the Great Depression, and has managed to keep even the most ubiquitous modern technology out. Apparently the studios’ “purity seal” of 1934 still shrouds this place.⁶ In a city famous for the stories it tells, the Chateau has too many comedies and tragedies to enumerate here. To witness James Dean jumping through a window to make his audition for Rebel Without A Cause would have been a thrill, but most can only say they’ve heard the rumors on their drives inland. There have recently been efforts to transmogrify the Chateau into a private, members-only club, but it seems those plans have been slightly abandoned. At the time of this writing, there is still a way for the plebs to beg, borrow, and steal their way inside.⁷
Past Toi Rockin’ Thai Food, Mesa/Boogie, the Rock Walk of Fame. Did Elton John really dip his own hands into the molds on display, or is it more smoke against a hall of mirrors? Past the Hollywood Center Motel, where the showbiz aspirant Matt Reynolds, pawned as honey to trap district attorney Lowe for tabloid fodder, becomes collateral murder by a corrupt police chief’s turf war in Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. Past 6671 Sunset, the Crossroads of the World, called by some the world’s first “shopping mall.” Robert V. Derrah’s architecture appears as a beached ship in the middle of the desert which tugs behind it a number of spaces representative of Spanish, French, Italian, and New England revival styles.⁸ Perhaps the fraught Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young each worked in separate countries when they rented office space there, as the love of the 60s turned to the confusion of the 70s.
At last, a right onto Cahuenga off Sunset, where the red hot marquis blinks “CDs-LPs-DVDs-VIDEO-A-M-O-E-B-A.” Locate a space to park this bucket-o-bolts. The parking garage on Ivar, one block east, will grant an hour or so free with validation. This structure is connected to another landmark, the Cineramadome at the ArcLight theatre, showing the widest of widescreen projection at 86 feet partially wrapped around the audience at 180 degrees. The war machines bringing hellfire to Vietnam in Apocalypse Now flank their target from a dramatically distant horizon under the dome. Most of the time, however, parking could be found underneath the chalk white record store itself, in a musty basement garage resembling a studio apartment for the Phantom of the Opera.
A staircase ascends from the catacombs up onto the main floor. The giant blue arrow painted on the cinder blocks at the far side of the lot points the way: “Enter Here.” The walls of the staircase are plastered with simple graffiti, concert posters from bygone eras up to the present day, band and brand stickers, maybe Iggy and the Stooges, maybe A Tribe Called Quest, the Greek theatre, the Palladium, Fender, Rhino. It is a living document, a repository that will never look the same as it does at this very moment.
One or two left turns up the stairs lead to the center of the main floor inside. At the top of the stairs, a bookshelf is stocked with postcards featuring musical iconography, flyers advertising local showcases, alerts for whose-album is dropping when, in-store events, an egalitarian space occupied by materials from emerging artists as well as national headliners, side by side.
The first stop on the tour is the Sell/Trade desk, a right out of the staircase hallway and towards the front door leading to the sidewalk out on Sunset. Friendly denizens are always trading demos and paraphernalia out there, smoking, describing their latest sonic obsessions, musicking. What a revelation discovering that Amoeba would offer compensation in dollars or a trade receipt for whatever audiovisual bric-a-brac its patrons were willing to part with. To invest in the experience, never come empty handed. Most probably leave with more than they traded for, there is more value in trade than cold hard cash, and it is great fun digging through the racks and bins for the sound of the return trip home. The best way to enjoy, to participate, to commune.
The amount of nerdy delectables held at the Amoeba vault cannot be overstated. On top of a Scrooge McDuck pile of CDs, cassettes, DVDs, and vinyl, vinyl, vinyl, it was also rare posters, action figures, books, even 8 tracks, laser discs, betamax! There are many other places representing the same ethos,⁹ but what makes Amoeba especially impressive is, first, the magnitude of the collection, a supermassive black hole drawing in audio-cine-bibliophiles from across the known universe. Second, even more special than the size and depth of the collection, are the people collecting it. Because of its location in the entertainment capital of the planet, one could very well be in the vicinity of, say, Robert Plant, and actually leaving with an album that he held in his own private collection, before bringing it to Amoeba to trade up. Even more wicked…he might go home with one of yours. Truly “standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams.”¹⁰
The film collection is up in the loft. Walk from the front door on Sunset, passed the staircase leading down to the parking lot, passed the collection of Todd McFarlane toys and novelty gifts, to the gigantic music collection in the middle of the first floor, then turn right. There was an employee’s desk where job applications could be filed. “I’m going to put yours right on top.” Heard that one before. Past this desk, a rickety staircase to the movie loft. Vincent Vega points the way with his pistol on a poster glued to the wall. Like everywhere else in Amoeba, an embarrassment of riches up here. Any television program, any movie foreign or domestic, concert films, Jane Fonda, Jazzercise, if it was committed to tape or disc, it can be found here. As streamers assert their dominance over home entertainment, places like Amoeba will become more and more invaluable to those searching for bootlegs, rarities, first editions, and out-of-prints. There’s eBay and similar online marketplaces, but it’s more fun to excavate underneath the Criterion Collection bin. A rare gem is often unearthed. Go diving for Welles and come up with Wilder and Varda too.
Follow the steps diving back down to the audio level. At the bottom, move toward the cashiers, then turn right at the New Releases racks. On the left hand side of the aisle are the new Pop/Rock/Hip-Hop albums, never previously owned, newborns still wrapped in swaddling clothes. To the right, a battle-tested, world-traveled used collection, an even more plentiful and diverse heap of buried treasure. It would take an endless afternoon to dig through it all. A limited edition of Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, Peter Gabriel’s score for The Last Temptation of Christ, and Tom Waits’ Mule Variations were all found for a pittance here. Pay close attention to the staff picks on the top of every rack, drawer, and bin. The collection is in alphabetical order, and every letter is broken down even further by second and third letter: Th — Ti — To… The Used section is the best bet for imports and bargain boxed sets. For the Clash completist, look no further. If it isn’t on display, at least one staff member definitely owns it and would probably barter for it on the spot.
This is just the pop/rock/hip-hop buffet. For jazz, soul, r&b, Nashville, music for film and television, music of the European Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, contemporary classical music, the avant-garde, the experimental, for music representing brilliance the world over, move from the east to the west wing of the store, the Library of Alexandria for fanatics. Assorted recordings of Robert Ashley will be found here, in back corner of the nave. On the opposite end, “Kind of Blue.” Opera was up against the farthest wall, stretching the entire length of the floor. In the middle aisle, LPs of Lenny Bruce, the Rat Pack, Godspell, Danny Elfman’s Batman score.
An afternoon here is a Socratic education. The deeper one dug into Amoeba, the more one realizes how little one has truly heard. It was foolish to delude oneself into the believing that a monument could not fall, that although the afternoon had passed, another was certain to arrive at the same time, in the same place, in the near future. “This ain’t no Coconuts! And this ain’t no soulless sanitized corporate Third Reich f ***ing WalMart!” Tom Kitt and Amanda Green wrote in High Fidelity, their musical based on a movie based on a novel set in an independent record store inhabited by the hip.¹ Amoeba is an evolving organism, conceived and nourished not by a dictatorial ego, but by a collective of patrons spanning generations and genres, contributing their knowledge, their tchotchkes, their passions, from the opening of its Hollywood location in 2001, to its hiatus and relocation in 2020.¹¹ In Hans Fjellestad’s guerilla documentary Sunset Strip, Mickey Rourke reflects: “The places go every 20 or 25 years, but the streets are still here.”¹² Despite its recent tribulations,¹³ Amoeba is still here too, albeit in a reified, vaporous form. All that is needed now is a place which Los Angeles can sanctify, letting it be born anew. This will require patience on the part of the community, and waiting, as Tom presciently sang, is the hardest part.
Back toward the front doors, then a right at the action figure display and down the stairwell lined with pop propaganda. Somehow, between entering and exiting, a few of these events have already happened. The fumes from the parking garage grow stronger. Feel around for the grooves in the car keys deep beneath denim. Toss the bag on the passenger seat. “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You” it reads. “You’re Welcome, You’re Welcome, You’re Welcome.”* Pull out a new find. When filled with torturous anticipation, try not to damage the case. Track 1. Ignition.
Pull out of the parking space, with tires screaming and yelling in juvenile protest. They cannot bear to be dragged away, up the ramp into the sunlight on Cahuenga. Don’t be too lost in the music to forget to look both ways. A legal turn this time, a right, out of the parking garage and up to the light on Sunset Boulevard. The Tallis Scholars sing Palestrina’s “Lamentations for Holy Saturday,” three solemn lessons to reflect on what was and contemplate what may come.¹⁴ With wheels to the west, palm trees pointing towards the ocean, there is nothing left to do but meditate on the landscape stretching out to the SoCal shoreline. The waiting has begun.
⁴ Taylor Golub, “The Storied Beverly Hills Hotel: A Los Angeles Hideaway, Famous for Playing Host to Hollywood Royalty,” [website]; available from https://storiedhotels.com/dorchester-collection/the-beverly-hills-hotel-and-bungalows-a-los-angeles-hideaway-famous-for-playing-host-to-hollywood-royalty/; Internet.
⁶ Adrian Glick Kudler, “A totally incomplete history of trouble at the Chateau Marmont,” Curbed LA 30 July 2019 [magazine on-line]; available from https://la.curbed.com/2013/6/26/10227258/chateau-marmont-hotel-history-deaths; Internet.
⁷ Dan Adler, “The Chateau Marmont Won’t Go Private, It Will Just Have An Inner Sanctum,” Vanity Fair 13 August 2020 [magazine on-line]; available from https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2020/08/chateau-marmont-andre-balazs-private-club; Internet.
⁹ Dorany Pineda, “Want to support an L.A bookstore? Here are 24 to order from,” Los Angeles Times 1 June 2020 [newspaper on-line]; available from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2020-06-01/want-to-support-an-l-a-bookstore-here-are-22-to-order-from; Internet.
¹⁰ Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, “Going To California,” Led Zeppelin IV, Atlantic B000002J09.
¹² Tommy Alastra, prod., Hans Fjellstad, dir., Sunset Strip (13th Sign Pictures, 2012).
*It is possible that my memory has failed me here. Amoeba did have their own custom, thick yellow plastic bags adorned with their logo. I seem to recall other styles being given out, but cannot be sure. It has been some years.
** Thank you to the excellent photographers whose work was included above. It helped the storytelling a great deal. Every effort was made to ensure no copyright was infringed. Please contact www.KylePeterMusic.com/reach if an error needs to be rectified. **