May 3 – July 27, 2012 at the Vincent Price Art Museum
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University. Currently a fellow at the Society of the Humanities at Cornell University, she is Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor of Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog and serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She has published in Social Text and American Quarterly and is presently completing her manuscript: The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening in America.
Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to L.A.
When I began to make this mix-tape that somehow would re-present L.A. in a mere 80 minutes, my enabling fantasy was that I could make a playlist that would be my musical calling card, a sonic Rosetta Stone for “home” that would unravel the complex knot of feelings about L.A. that I carry around with me, something I could share with my son, whom I am somewhat reluctantly raising as a New Yorker. You know, a musical study guide so the sounds that raised and shaped me could tell him all the things I just can’t put into words about Los Angeles, namely how much music and place are wrapped together in my memory’s DNA. Therefore, this mix deliberately dates and locates me, enabling, in the words of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock”, the intimate knowledge of “listening to the map.” And—there was more than a little magical thinking involved here—I thought that perhaps if I arranged these songs just so, then the barren Sleepy Hollow landscape of wintry upstate New York would transform itself into the desiccated foothills, dried river beds, and dense strip malls of Southern California. I’d turn a bend and, with a little help from the Go-Go’s and Union 13, 79 would suddenly become “the” 60.
And thus the title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to J.Lo’s debut album On the 6 (1999), named after the subway line that she took to commute between Manhattan and the Bronx, where she grew up. Off the 60 references the freeway whose red brake lights stretch between Los Angeles and Riverside, my hometown, and the mix is just the right length for a one-way trip, provided there’s no traffic (I told you there was some magical thinking involved here!). The 60 is one of the most heavily trafficked commuter pathways in the country; I know people in the Riv who will make this 60-mile drive 5 days a week, 51 weeks a year, for decades (I have also met people in Los Angeles who had never made this trip east, and who used to look askance at my 951 cell number, in the same way that my current 323 area code causes looks of consternation to New Yorkers). For many people coming of age in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles exerts a tidal pull, and we make many trips there before hitting the commuter treadmill—in family cars, in our imaginations, in movies, in books, on school busses and tour busses, in broken-down band vans, in hoopties borrowed from our friend’s uncle that may not make the return trip—and some of us make that 60-mile move West and never really come back, like me. I ended up living on St. Andrews instead of only singing about it.
But you never know, The Riv has a deep hold on people. I closed Off the 60 with a band from Riverside, old friends of mine Chicano punk rockers the Voodoo Glow Skulls, because one second you are going to law school in Queens or Dap-Toning with Sharon Jones and the next you are back, public defending in San Bernardino or married with big fam filling a house by Mt. Rubidoux, respectively. True stories. But I am already taking a detour Off the 60, in the hopes that the music on this mix invites you to do that. Unlike J.Lo’s subway, you can’t stay on the 60 and really get to know Riverside, Los Angeles, or all the many places in between that are intertwined socially, historically, culturally and economically with both cities: Glen Avon. Corona. Chino. Diamond Bar. Rowland Heights. La Puente. Hacienda Heights. El Monte. Montebello. East L.A. Boyle Heights.
A sonic exit ramp of sorts, Off the 60 is a mix-tape in digital format, crafted in the old style: a painstaking arrangement of songs really familiar and much beloved to me, listened to obsessively throughout the process to create fresh transitions that are laden with significance—and of course, car tested L.A.-style until smooth like butter. For Off the 60, I deliberately picked songs without the aid of Wikipedia or any of the copious L.A song lists, sitting down with just a blank page, my memory, and a sharp pencil (as I hope you can tell by many of the songs, I’m kinda old school) to come up with a set of songs that aren’t necessarily about L.A., but of it. This is a small, symbolic sample of the music that once scored my life in the Southland from the 1970s-the 2000s through the perspective of my current “home away from home” in New York. Now, in what my colleague and dear friend Karen Tongson (another Riversidean, now turned proud Silver Lake home owner) has poignantly dubbed “remote intimacy,” these sounds still make me feel L.A. even though I often feel like I live “a million miles away.” And I hope you feel it too.
The songs on Off the 60 are arranged to speak to each other, sometimes sonically, sometimes thematically, sometimes historically (and occasionally I pull off the trifecta! Listen carefully!). I designed the mix to flow along with the narrative rhythms of a timeless (yet intentionally dated) Saturday in L.A., from waking up with the sound of Friday night still in your ears to basking in the warm afternoon—which can feel so good you almost get knocked off your game—until the purplish-orange twilight descends, with its regret and uncertainty, on into the pulsing promises of the night. Sonically blending vulnerability with hardness—and revealing both where you least expect them—I hope the songs on this mix share an overall L.A. vibe that is more than merely the sum total of the musical parts, a feeling that’s ephemeral and hard to put your finger on, but—paradoxically—one whose resonance lasts.
And because I am a sound/music scholar in addition to a product of the 714 909 951, you’ll get plenty of L.A. music history through this this mix. All the bands featured are based in L.A. or Riverside, except for two artists whom I have awarded honorary Angeleno status: Smokey Robinson and Debbie Deb. Never mind the fact Motown had already moved to L.A. by the time Robinson’s “Crusin’” was released in 1982 and he used to host one of my favorite radio shows on 92.3 in the 2000s, but these two songs have bumped out of so many cars, clubs, backyard parties and Art Leboe sets that both Smoke and Deb own some symbolic real estate in Southern California, at least in my heart. In putting the work of so many different L.A. artists together, I challenged myself to create a coherent musical feel without placing songs from similar genres, scenes, or time periods right next to each other. I worked hard to create a sense of the diversity of the Los Angeles area without being either gratuitously culture clash-y or post-multiculti Velveeta, but using sound to make palpable both the dissonant tensions and the productive energies of everyday encounters in the city in a way that “represents” without claiming to be representative. Think of Off the 60 as a flash-sample of what you might hear while whiling away a scorching Friday night in traffic, when everybody’s got their windows open, cooling off the outside with their tunes. As a result, you’ll hear classic L.A. musical sounds in conversation—mariachi horns, surf guitar, nasally Val-Speak, fat funky synth, staccato punk growls, metal licks, down tempo samples, polyrhythmic percussion, and that power pop tone that my Vox amp calls “Cali Clean”— calling and responding across genres and decades: re-mixing, recontextualized, distorting, hyperembodying those terribly glamorous L.A. sounds, across this town, our town. Por vida.