Steph Kretowicz's Somewhere I've Never Been is like a really nice dream—one where the feel of it all is so ripe and acute that it will likely stick with you forever, one where the details will start to feel like memories after you've woken up. A collection of essays tying music to place and place to music, Somewhere I've Never Been travels through the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East.
Somewhere I've Never Been is out now via Pool and TLTRPress.
The road trip through the US ends with me throwing up outside an LA health food café. It's the morning after the evening that started with a palm reading and ended with a '70s-themed club night in Hollywood where the room went crazy for "Eye of the Tiger." The menu screen of Locali ("Conscious Convenience") is fading in and out across vegan selections while Addie browses the Kombucha range and I hold up my dictaphone. It's recording the sound of stock wellness coming from hidden speakers: an all-natural unnatural vigour in a hollow, simulated high hat. I guess the shallow, tabla-sounding spring is supposed to make the mantra more authentic, but its consistent cricket-y click is only beating at my brain, shrunk by booze and dehydration. Something that sounds like a distant horn weaves feebly through the non-stop metronome of imitation realness. The music is a lot like what I'd heard before, in the Dubai malls—or any other shopping centre—but with less of the razzle-dazzle of glass and escalators at their most alienating, and more of what I imagine a well-appointed rainforest resort for the Adventure Tourist would sound like.
There's nothing immediately strange, singular or idiosyncratic about the music I hear in LA. It's the time and location, its setting and position at a point of arbitrary linearity, that's weird. The requisite stroll down Hollywood Boulevard and its endless sidewalk of archetypal star shapes, repeated and reproduced, is lined with costume stores, an abandoned theatre, and rows of windows filled with wigs. Everything is familiar and everything is fucked up. The sweeping HD hook of Chris Brown's "Loyal" swerves around with the oily black RV it's flowing from; a shiny coil of seedy rhythms mincing around a robotic Auto-Tune vocal that broadcasts, "I can make a broke bitch rich/ but I don't fuck with broke bitches." It's almost like some kind of lyrical palindrome, settling on me as uneasily as the dusty gold of the Los Angeles dusk. An eerie ashen aura descends around the darkening silhouette of the Hollywood Seventh-Day Adventist Church, pink in hue and glowing, as an aged and undernourished young woman howls, "Steve Urkel. Who remembers that fuckin' show? That show was fuckin' funny!"
What's different about my impressions of the music playing here is that it's the sound of songs that I know, playing in the place that they came from, and it all sounds wrong. There's the drunken big band refrain of Doris Day's lethargic "Sentimental Journey" from 1965 that crawls through a laptop, dropping an octave and flopping out of Addie's stand-alone speakers while we cook dinner at her place in Los Feliz. Or The Madden Brothers' laughably optimistic "We Are Free," its ticklish groove skipping along a "done, done, done, done, done, done, done, we are done," while I survey the postcards of Hollywood Happyland Souvenirs—Marilyn Monroe, Hannah Montana, Kate Hudson and the Hilton sisters, one above.
It's Addie's Kombucha that does it. I'd never tried the fermented Chinese drink made from a "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast" but she tells me it's good for your digestion. One sip and the nausea rises up my throat and heaves out of my mouth in a cloudy-clear stream of warm fluid across three parts of the front car park. I'm performing my hangover in the tarmac trough between the storefront and a concrete parking barrier while Addie laughs ("oh my god") and a woman looks on from her car.
I can count on one hand the number of times my own heavy drinking has ended in vomiting, so this is a surprise. Cycling 16 miles in the heat the day before could have something to do with it. I'd ridden Addie's bike to Echo Park, then to Bunker Hill and the Financial Centre on a tip-off from Robin who lives upstairs from Smart Objects gallery. I hadn't called ahead but she was around to let me in to the Parker Ito show with its irritating title. Part 1: Parker Cheeto's Infinite Haunted Hobo Playlist (A Dream to Some, a Nightmare to Others) goes from the toilet and defunct elevator in the main exhibition space, to the laundry and private bedrooms upstairs and across onto the rooftop. Robin and I had been talking about the double absurdity of Ito having the means for three assistants to help reproduce Leo Tanguma's original Denver International Airport commission of a demonic Nazi figure killing babies, and his doing this while encounters with mutilated army vets and general destitution is a daily occurrence in a city built on fantasy.
I tell Robin I'm in LA to take footage of capitalism-become-popular-culture at its most refined and she shows me her own static shots of the empty paved arcades and misshapen glass reflections of Bunker Hill on her laptop. Built from the bottom-up in the space of 59 years and still going, it's the city's Downtown financial district. The blinding parabolic surface of Walt Disney Concert Hall and the quartz-like structure of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (COLA) are here, with the latter situated on West Temple Street. The area had been the city's poorest, home for a time to DIY subdivisions of once opulent mansions repatriated by the people left behind when its wealth was bled dry by shifting infrastructures, only for them to be bulldozed for banks and new office blocks.
The lobby of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel looks more like a 3D rendering of a project proposal than a thing that actually exists. The circular bar is wrapped around a concave central column that sprouts out from the floor and seems indistinguishable from the crescent-shaped couches and round tables; flesh and blood people replace the stiff and faceless avatars of the CGI model the scene seems to replicate. As I loiter awkwardly among the bends and curves of its ergonomic architecture, a ubiquitous ribbon of synthesised sound drops an octave before seamlessly flowing into a more randomized sound of effervescence, only to repeat and reproduce itself with maddening precision. Bathed in the beige, brown and off-white hue of a grubby '70s utopia, the omnipresent running water of the hotel's aqua-blue indoor grotto buttresses 151 the "BE WELL" message of: "Westin. For a Better You." A crystal melody cascades in nine twinkling keys scattered across a lurching bass tone that buoys an eventual switch in tempo, iterating the demand of a welcome sign that reads, "Refresh."
"Are you alright?" offers one of the guys from the counter at Locali, popping his head out from behind the glass door to look concerned, but mostly grossed out by my public display of indigestion, while I quietly complain that the BLT I didn't pay for is just tomato, lettuce and fakeon. There's vomit in my hair.
Addie and I never actually make it on that hike to the Hollywood sign on my last day, opting instead to rehydrate with orange, spew-flavoured electrolytes from the pharmacy before sleeping away the afternoon until I have to leave for the airport. I'd tried to get near the top of Mount Lee, one night when Addie was out at auditions and I felt I needed some time alone. The suburban sidewalks of Los Feliz get creepy after dusk and I note fear flicker across a woman's thinly drawn eyebrows when I stop her, looking for Griffith Park. She pulls away and points me in the direction of Vermont Avenue. But the higher I go, the fewer people there are to ask for directions, and then there are none. The sidewalk disappears and the cooling air starts to smell like perfume. All I can hear is my own rapid heartbeat and the distant sputter of black LAPD helicopters, their spotlights diffusing into the inorganic glow of a cityscape that out-twinkles the few stars that are still visible. It's a sight that's so familiar on TV but foreign in the flesh. Not that I can get more than the odd glimpse of the blanket outer shell of LA's energy grid between the high, white, beige, blandly coloured walls of the homes that surround me. The shrill yap of a dog breaks out from inside the echo of an anonymous hallway as it carves through the ever-present swell of crickets chirping.
By the time I make it back to Hollywood Boulevard in the evening, my thighs are mottled with congealed blood and deep-purple bruising inflicted by bike brakes so sensitive that I've been thrown over the handlebars more than once. I'm shamed into accepting a reading at a discounted price when "Sarah" the Psychic catches me filming her storefront. I'm perpetually mystified by the pervasive fascination with superstition in a United States presumably—but by now I know fallaciously—governed by the contradictions of European liberalism in its constitution. I realise my battered, greasy appearance makes for an apparently easy read when Sarah conjures my past life as that of a "male warrior" who would fight (and kill) for what I know is right. We're both sat cross-legged on the plush aqua-coloured carpet of her Psychic Reading storefront. Her matching Michael Kors flats and handbag are tucked under her knees with her iPhone. She tells me I need a $5,000 aura cleanse and "if you don't mind me asking, your lover: male or female?" Her sexual determinism stings, but I give her my answer.
I'd promised Addie and her housemate Jacob I'd cook to thank them for letting me stay and so naturally I'm picking through replacement water filters, Sudafed mucus relief and children's HAPPY BIRTHDAY! plates in Vons Supermarket's discount roll cage. Pierre Bouvier is moaning that nobody cares and nothing lasts forever over the muted guitar of Simple Plan's "Perfect" coming from speakers in the ceiling. The lifeless drum thumps just out of time. It's as inhibited as the French-Canadian pop rocker's emotional growth in his angst-ridden ode to his bad dad as he storms out yelling, "nothing's gonna make this RIGHT AGAIN!"
Jewel's existential crisis comes in the form of a rhetorical question, "am I standing still, under the darkened sky?" as I skim the "beauty" aisle for leg wax in a shower of pearly ambience from "Standing Still's" instrumentals. "There's a dead end to my left, there's a burning bush, to my right . . . ."
It occurs to me that only a platinum-selling singer-songwriter could make a song about obsession and severe depression— with some disturbing Christian undertones—sound romantic. At the cash register, Miley Cyrus promises an insight into her fun world on the cover of US Magazine, perching above a special edition of Royal photos featuring Will and Kate. The trendy dog leashes are unusually close by, as if they've replaced the Slim Jim Meat Sticks and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups as the ideal impulse buy item. Jewel is burbling "feel like I-I'm gonna drown in this strange town" in her manifest Texan English and a young woman is loudly repeating "Jimmy!" into her Bluetooth headset while piling vegetables into a shopping basket. I'm trying to figure out the difference between the organic tomatoes and the regular ones. They both look and cost the same. The purple onions are bigger than my whole hand. I take one, even though I know it'll taste like shit.
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