By Peter Jon Lindberg
There are cities you love for the way they look, the way they move, the way they talk, the way they taste--and then there are cities you love for the way they sound, for the music coursing through them like so much crosstown traffic. I don't know if I would have the same feelings for Los Angeles had it not come packaged with its particular sound track, but I know it was music that first sold me on the place, and it's music that keeps me forever circling back.
Other cities may have equally impressive music scenes, but they lack the peculiar imprint of geography that's stamped on every bridge and chorus made in Los Angeles. Hell, with most bands you can hardly guess where they came from. I grew up in the thrall of Boston acts like the Cars and Mission of Burma, but none of their songs made me think, "Man, I want to go to Massachusetts!" Certainly none ever name-checked Faneuil Hall.
L.A. bands, however, were always calling out their turf. Their music wasn't simply of Los Angeles but about Los Angeles. From "Ventura Highway" to "MacArthur Park"; Tom Waits ("Crawling down Cahuenga on a broken pair of legs") to Ryan Adams ("La Cienega just smiled, 'See you around' "); "California Girls" (1965) to "California Gurls" (2010)--has any other city mapped itself out so completely in song?
I got hooked on Cali pop hard and early, like any kid coming of radio age in the 1970's, when the gooey-sweet harmonies of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac were stuck like syrup on the dial. They were the gateway for archetypal L.A. bands like the Byrds, Love, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and for singer-songwriters like Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, and Joni Mitchell. For these and so many other acts, "Los Angelesness" was essential to their image, projected on album sleeves and magazine covers -- whether it was the Beach Boys riding a woody at Paradise Cove or the Eagles with their cow skulls, denim, and fringe. More than movie stars, it was musicians who brokered the homegrown dream of California, selling us the promised land in 4/4 time.
To a wide-eyed boy from New England, it all seemed impossibly exotic, this wild frontier of deserts, salt spray, and warm-smelling colitas (whatever those were). From my vantage--where the only salt spray was crusted on snowbanks, left over from the plow--Los Angeles sounded like more than a nice place to vacation; it sounded like the solution.
I mention all this having just returned from L.A., where I spent most of my time riding around listening to music at peak volume. There is no better place to do so. I keep a playlist for such occasions--419 songs, from Joseph Arthur to Warren Zevon--that, as the backing track for a long drive through the city, speaks to the many moods and muses of Los Angeles.