In case you missed it, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (the one on Sepulveda at Mulholland) is hosting, through October 8th, a comprehensive retrospective about Bill Graham, one of the most influential rock impresarios in history.
We tend to see music as guided by the hand of the composer and the talent of the performer, and while that it true, we have been remiss in our study of music history in consigning promotors, publishers, recording executives, and marketers into a giant dustbin marked “suits.”
What we miss in limiting our study to artists and composers is the elephant in the room: being good, being talented, is just not enough anymore, and it probably never was. The road that music has carved through our civilization is lined with the carcasses of talented people who never reached their potential, never made it at all, or who lived and died unappreciated. The difference between success and failure was, all too often, a suit: a patron, a promoter, a third-party capable of recognizing, curating, and cultivating talent.
If that is insufficient evidence for the importance of people like Bill Graham, simply consider the legion of talent-challenged stars you have encountered in your life, the ones that made you wonder how the Hell they made it onto a stage at all. Thank a promoter.
Graham’s personal legacy in the music world is not as easy to assess as someone like Ahmet Ertegün, David Geffen, or Jerry Moss, which is why this exhibition at the Skirball is so important: it is an opportunity for us to better understand, through Graham, whether a great impresario can make a real difference, or whether (as LiveNation might want us to believe) a promoter is just an interchangeable cog in the corporate music machine.
When you scan the landscape of California’s museums, the giants cast a wide, deep shadow. To the north, the de Young, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the stunning new California Academy of Sciences. To the south, the Getty, LACMA, the California Science Center, and the dozen museums that line El Prado in Balboa Park. For any state this list alone would constitute an embarrassment of riches.
Yet these titans all too often (and unfairly) overshadow the hundreds of more modest but equally enticing jewels in the crown, the small, private, and specialty museums supported by die-hard donors and volunteer docents that shed loving light on often-overlooked aspects of the arts, science, history, and culture and industry.
Starting this summer, it will become a significant focus of this blog to catalog those gems, but for now let us begin with a modest treasure: the World War II Aviation Museum in Camarillo.
The Commemorative Air Force (formerly known as the Confederate Air Force) is a national group of aviation veterans and enthusiasts who spend their time rebuilding, maintaining, flying and teaching about the men, women, and planes that helped win World War II from the air. The Southern California Wing of the CAF makes its home at Camarillo Airpot, a former Air Force base that formed a part of California’s early Cold War defenses. With a runway designed to handle jet fighters and hangars made to military specifications, the place is made-to order for a the impressive squadron of operational, beautifully maintained planes of historic significance.
One hangar is set up as The World War II Aviation Museum, with interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, docents, and, of course, planes. Next door is where the real work happens, where the CAF’s volunteers continue to fight the ravages of time and physics to keep the birds together and keep them flying. The collection is small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in sheer quality. Not only are these planes complete, they still fly 68 years after the end of the war. The squadron includes:
If it were just a bunch of pretty planes parked on a ramp, the museum would be worth the stop off of US 101 on your way into or out of the Los Angeles area. What really makes it worthwhile, however, are the docents, several of whom have masters’ degrees in related topics, who are able to adjust their presentation to the level of knowledge and enthusiasm of the audience. It is this small corps of aviator-scholars that make this place a worthy visit, whether you are just a casual observer (like my wife) or an unabashed plane-geek (like my son and I).
Those coming through town in mid-August will get an extra treat: the Wings over Camarillo Air Show. In addition to the 90-odd aircraft filling the ramp of the airport, many of the vintage aircraft offer rides. Be aware, the rides aren’t cheap: they’ll set you back the equivalent of a cross-country airfare. But you’re not paying for transportation – you are paying for an experience that cannot be duplicated anywhere else: the chance to feel what it was like to go to war in the air with the Greatest Generation.
The World War II Aviation Museum is not the National Air and Space Museum, and it doesn’t try to be, even in miniature. What it offers, though, is something the NASM cannot: a highly personalized, unhurried, hands-on experience with magnificent machines that made history, all in a setting that is both beautiful and realistic.
One final word; if you get hungry while you’re there, the place to recharge is The Waypoint Cafe just a few hundred feet east of the museum along the flight line. A well-kept secret among flyers and locals, Yelp gives it 4 stars out of 5, and we make it a point to stop in for eats whenever we get the chance. Make sure you get there early: it’s breakfast and lunch only, and lunch gets busy (although we like their breakfasts best.)
ArtPlace, an organization offering grants and other support to communities that combine art, artists, and venues to encourage creativity and expression, has named the most vibrant art neighborhoods in America. Of the twelve, three are in California, the most of any state.
The top ArtPlaces of the Golden West are Central Hollywood, The Mission District in San Francisco, and, surprising us a bit, downtown Oakland, encompassing Chinatown, Old Oakland, and Jack London Square. The neighborhoods were singled out for criteria including their walkability, for nurturing independent businesses, and for making art and artists a core part of the community.
Downtown Oakland was singled out by the organization as the “true underdog” in the competition, but noted that the transformation that has taken place in the city over the last decade would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. What brought it about was a grassroots effort – Oakland Art Murmur – very unlike the high-minded but doomed postwar urban renewal plans.
The recognition of Central Hollywood echoes one of our own regular themes: a new kind of arts and entertainment industry is growing on the weed patch of Old Hollywood. Moviegoing is an event again, thanks to Mann’s Chinese, the Arclight, and Disney’s stunning El Capitan. Music is coming back, as we noted last year:
But the beat goes on, and a walk down Sunset Boulevard on any given night offers ample evidence – from Amoeba to the Roxy – that American music is as healthy as it has ever been. The problem remains a hidebound industry more interested in defending its business model than in the product itself. The slow, disreputable whittling down of the artists and repertoire (A&R) function within the major labels is testament to as much. The industry is in decline as a result, but we can already see, here in California, the foundations of a new music industry that is rising in its place.
And all of this is taking place in a way that attracts tourists and neighborhood people alike.
When I read about what’s happening in the Mission District, I kick myself for not going there when I was in San Francisco in December. Absorbed in the myriad culinary delights in Chinatown, the Financial District, and North Beach, I never thought to wander south of Market. I won’t make that mistake again. San Francisco is suffused with art, but ArtPlaces notes that the edgier, more affordable art can be found in The Mission, along with antiques, music, and some incredible eats. I won’t be missing it next trip.
I spend so much of my time searching for the remnants of California’s history and the green shoots of its future that I’ve completely overlooked an entirely different Golden State: the California that could have been.
Thanks to everything from property developers to city planners to science fiction writers, there is no shortage of what we could call the alternate futures of the Golden West. Of all places in California, Los Angeles is probably best endowed in this area, thanks to the land speculators, railroad barons, and boosters who financed the envisioning of a future City of Angels.
Some of those visions are returning to the light of day, thanks to curators Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin and their exhibition Never Built: Los Angeles, which is scheduled to open at Los Angeles’s A+D Architecture and Design Museum this spring (and which I will miss because I’ll be in China for the duration of the exhibit.)
I can think of a lot of reasons going to an exhibition like this would be hard: nobody likes to look at inspired designs and wonder, in frustration, what forces of unenlightened self-interest put an end to these ideas?
What I hope Lubell and Goldin do instead is focus not on the missed opportunity or the laughable utopianism embodied in the unconstructed Los Angeles, but in how those visions provide grist for a new generation of planners, designers, architects, and developers. As Los Angeles lies perched on the cusp of a new, uncertain future, this is an ideal time for a new vision for the future of the Southland.
Nowhere in the world in the automobile more an integral part of a place’s culture and lifestyle than in California. Even as we find ourselves facing a world where the supply of unleaded is becoming ever more dear, Californians are leading the effort to make car culture more sustainable, guilt-free, and politically correct. Yet the car remains a celebrated icon of the California lifestyle, so, unsurprisingly, the Golden State is blessed with a number of automotive collections, two of them in Ventura County. Of those two, the arguable leader is the Murphy Auto Museum.
The Murphy is a labor of love of a handful of local car enthusiasts who tired of hiding their lovingly restored classics in garages and only wheeling them out for weekend events. The result is a gift for anyone with even the least appreciation for the automobile as historical artifact and art form.
The docents are knowledgeable and helpful, but are happy to simply let you wander the museum and appreciate the cars. The restorations have been loving and the attention to detail ensures that what you see are not “hot rods,” but vehicles that look like they are almost fresh off of the production line. Little surprise that Hollywood often comes into the museum looking for cars to use in period movies.
The museum is strictly a weekend affair, open Saturdays and Sundays only, so make it a part of a weekend itinerary when you are in the area.
MURPHY CLASSIC CAR FOUNDATION
2230 Statham Blvd.
Oxnard, California 93033