Monday, December 27, 2021

No ordinary drink

Everyone's favorite Didion passages are pinging around these days. As many have observed, she was a master at presenting a widescreen epoch, a vibrant culture personally- or politically-driven, mundane or violent, through its tiniest, most subtle details. I'm rereading the multi-faceted title essay of The White Album, marveling again at how Didion, focussing her lens at just the right moments, evokes, among other communities, the late-1960s music scene via the West Coast without resorting to pedantic statement or its cousin, purple prose. Her dry account of her hang in the studio with the Doors during the Waiting For The Sun sessions is justly celebrated—and having just read Gary Newell's epic profile of Clear Light in the latest Ugly Things I can now envision guest bass player Doug Lubahn muttering "groovy"—yet I might love the passage on the next page even more. 

Didion begins the segment with a simple narrative: "Someone once brought Janis Joplin to a party at [Didion's] house on Franklin Avenue: she had just done a concert and she wanted brandy-and-Benedictine in a water tumbler." Tickled by the idiosyncratic request, Didion pauses, offers an observation, and then, following the winding trails her details lead her up and down, a tour de force conjuring of a geographic and cultural era, pulled off, remarkably, with subtlety. "Music people never wanted ordinary drinks," she realizes. "They wanted sake, or champagne cocktails, or tequila neat. Spending time with music people was confusing, and required a more fluid and ultimately a more passive approach than I ever acquired." 

In the first place time was never of the essence: we would have dinner at nine unless we had it at eleven-thirty, or we could order in later. We would go down to U.S.C. to see the Living Theater if the limo came at the very moment when no one had just made a drink or a cigarette or an arrangement to meet Ultra Violet at the Montecito. In any case David Hockney was coming by. In any case Ultra Violet was not at the Montecito. In any case we would go down to U.S.C. and see the Living Theater tonight or we would see the Living Theater another night, in New York, or Prague. First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more: there would never be one or two more, because music people did not travel in groups of “one” or “two.” John and Michelle Phillips, on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend, Anne Marshall. This incident, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour, to the Luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.

Brilliant stuff, as evocative as any Billboard ad, Top 40 song, or deep LP cut from the summer of '68. I bet Tarantino's a fan.

Photo of Didion, "Joan Didion Stingray, 1968 Los Angeles," by Julian Wasser

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