In California is a new monthly series where we shine a light on things that are quintessentially Californian, or that could only have come out of California. Case in point: Tom Waits and John Baldessari, who once upon a time shared the same zip code. Ever been to National City? Neither have we.
Driving up the 5 freeway after a recent Baja jaunt, I passed a sign for National City, a town on the southern end of San Diego, which sparked a medley of Tom Waits lyrics in my head—
With her charcoal eyes and Monroe hips / she went and took that California trip
If I exorcise my devils / Well my angels may leave too
How do your pistol and your Bible and your sleeping pills go / Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?
And no one brings anything small into a bar around here / They all started out with bad directions
Tom Waits once lived in National City. I have never exited the freeway to check it out, partly because there’s a taco in San Clemente that’s usually my first post-border stop on the drive back to LA, and partly because I don’t want reality meddling with my imagined, projected idea of National City. What does that look like? It’s a fairly stock image of suburban So Cal, with Tom Waits lyrics floating above the houses, and colored dots covering the faces of the townspeople as they walk dogs down sidewalks and read newspapers on park benches.
I’ll explain the colored dots in a second, but let’s now focus on the high-rises of downtown San Diego, coming up on our left. A pilot friend once told me that San Diego International is a hairy airport for landing planes. Those high-rises are super close to the runway—you have to fly above them then quickly aim down. I sometimes remember that as I pass downtown SD. But always—or at least ever since I first heard Tom Waits’s The Heart of Saturday Night, circa 1992—I hear in my head the song “San Diego Serenade,” which contains the killer line Never saw my hometown / Until I stayed away too long.
In the early ‘90s I was an overeager aspiring writer trying to drink up as much good literature as I could while simultaneously trying to shed—or let’s call it explode—my white middle-class Catholic sensibilities. Waits was a great teacher. That unmistakable voice of his got into my head and moved stuff around. He helped to open up new channels, fire new synapses. A lot of it was about making unlikely connections. Stretching metaphor and simile. Subverting norms.
What’s great is that Waits can become a narrator for this golden stretch of highway, he can provide the music to the music video that is the stuff you see out your window. If you time it right, you can hear “San Diego Serenade” as you drive through downtown SD, and then a few songs later (or miles, depending on how you measure drive time), “Diamonds on my Windshield”—
Oceanside it ends the ride with San Clemente coming up
Those Sunday desperadoes slip by and cruise with a dry back
And the orange drive-in, the neon billing
And the theatre’s filling to the brim
With slave girls and a hot spurn bucket full of sin
Metropolitan area with interchange and connections
Fly-by-nights from Riverside
And out-of-state plates running a little late
But the sailors jockey for the fast lane
So 101 don’t miss it
I don’t really think of Tom Waits as being quintessentially Californian. The worlds he evokes through his music are more mood/feeling than geographical place. But he’s unmistakably Californian in the movie “Short Cuts” when he improvises a tune for Lily Tomlin’s character that goes Getting out of Downey / I’m going to get you out of Downey…
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Those colored dots that I see in my imagined National City, they belong to the artist John Baldessari. I first encountered Baldessari’s work right around the time I fell in love with Waits’s music. Only later did I realize they shared a National City connection—Baldessari grew up there.
Baldessari was a prolific painter from 1953 to 1966. And then in 1970 he burned all those paintings. Titled “The Cremation Project,” the ashes were baked into cookies and placed in an urn, complete with bronze commemorative plaque with the destroyed paintings’ birth and death dates, as well as the recipe for making the cookies.* That piece spoke to me. At the time that I first encountered it, a philosophical and psychedelics-gobbling friend of mine quoted from either Buddhist or Hindu scripture, I’m unsure which, in fact he may have just made it up, but I sure liked the way it sounded: “First you’ve got to kill your god. Then you’ve got to kill your parents. Then you’ve got to kill yourself.” That notion appealed to me. I was a recently expired pro surfer trying to understand what it meant to be an artist, and I loved the idea that we can reinvent ourselves, that we’re not bound to a single life story.
But the piece by Baldessari that more than spoke to me, that massaged my innards in a wonderful way, was “California Map Project.” Baldessari observed where the letters of the word “California” fell geographically on a state map. He then created sort of earthwork letters out of found objects near that geographic location, and photographed each letter, arranging the images to again spell “California.” As a surfer who spent a good chunk of his teens and twenties chasing swells up and down the California coast, the piece captured that spectrum of Nor Cal to So Cal. It was like a time-lapse drive along PCH from Humboldt down to La Jolla. It was highly conceptual, but also warm and visceral.
Other great works by Baldessari: “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art,” in which he had a bunch of art students write exactly that on a gallery wall. “Pure Beauty,” which consists of those two words, painted by a professional sign painter in black capital letters on an off-white canvas. “Everything Is Purged from This Painting But Art, No Ideas Have Entered This Work”—another text painting with just those words on canvas. Baldessari has won countless awards and prizes, among them the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Biennale in 2009. But the thing that Baldessari himself thinks he’ll be best remembered for in 100 years? “The guy that puts dots over people’s faces.” (From the mid-‘80s onward, brightly-colored price stickers became a prevailing motif in his work.)
Aside from the fact that he and Tom Waits once lived in National City, here’s the thing that I will remember most: In the ‘70s, Baldessari taught a course at CalArts called “Post-Studio Art,” which meant anything other than traditional painting and sculpture. Baldessari had a game he’d play with his students in which one of them would throw a dart at a map of Los Angeles. Wherever it landed they’d go on a field trip and spend the day exploring, taking photos, and shooting videos and Super-8 film. The idea, of course, was to break from routine, to look closer, to discover what’s right under our noses.
*according to Wikipedia