To Live And Die In L.A.

cropped la pic

The southern California sun slowly leans down to kiss the horizon, its rays diffusing through insect-sized smog particles to create colors reminiscent of fire and blood as the incredibly unlikely group of musicians known as Wang Chung provide a pitch-perfect soundtrack. Welcome to William Friedkin’s Los Angeles. This the third and final film in Billy’s unholy Trinity—The French Connection and The Exorcist are the other two. William Petersen wears cowboy boots and jeans as tight as the spandex of a wannabe Sunset Boulevard rock star. He’s a cop so blindly outraged by the murder of his partner he doesn’t have the slightest clue what he’s doing and so he leads us down into the hellish depths of a supposedly “shallow” city. 

He’s chasing a man named Rick Masters and Willem Defoe’s reptilian intelligence and offhand wit immediately elevate his counterfeiter/artist to the pantheon of great movie villains. He tools around the ghetto in a jet black Ferrari 308 and gives his girlfriend a human plaything for her birthday. No small detail escapes him:

“You say you’re from Palm Springs, yet you don’t have a tan.”

Gotcha, pal, and another head is about to get blown off in an incredible twist that’s not-quite-the-ending.

What else? Dean Stockwell is a languid, cynical lawyer, Darlanne Fluegel one lithe thoroughbred of a pole dancer and John Turturro gets to play a character who is both mule AND rat. There’s a white-knuckle car chase that never seems to end. Friedkin lovingly applies every bit of style he can to this 2 hour film, but he would pretty much disappear soon after, his creativity spent. Michael Mann would pick up his torch and run with it.

FUN FACT: This movie spawned a porno spoof called To Live and Shave in L.A., the name of which was then appropriated by a noise-rock outfit from Florida who still release recordings to this day. So its impact has been pretty profound, I think.

Rolex President


This timepiece, especially the gold version, seems pretty emblematic of the whole Yuppie/Greed is Good aspect of the 80s. It seeemed like every leveraged buyout artist–the guys who had quickly come to be regarded as the new “Masters of the Universe” by the mainstream press–sported one.

Fakes of this watch abounded on the UGA campus and I remember people constantly poring over the faces of fellow classmates’ timepieces to see if the second hand ticked or swept. Ticking was fake, sweeping was real, the consensus went. Either/or, you can pretty much rest assured they were ALL fake. Honestly, did the people who used to swagger around with these things dangling on their wrists really believe that other people were going to believe that parents intelligent enough to earn that kind of money (and there were plenty of students from just that type of background) were going to send their kids off to college to live in an almost completely unsecured dormitory with a $22,000 gold watch their irresponsible, drunken offspring could leave sitting on top of their metal dresser while they walked down to the end of the hall to take a shower? I mean, really now.

I remember one joker on my dorm floor who used to go around insisting that the company’s name was pronounced Rawl-ex, like Rawlings, the famous maker of baseball equipment. I think someone finally punched him in the face and that was the last we had to hear about that. I do think it is a pretty good gauge of the 80s much-maligned “materialism” that a bunch of 18-22 years olds attending their state university, most with just enough pocket money to buy a 3 dollar pitcher of beer every night, talked about these watches incessantly.

Patrick Swayze


“She” was like the wind, and the wind is something you can’t hold onto, but plenty of women wanted to hold onto the man who sang that song, a certain Mr. Patrick Swayze.

I wasn’t one for either Ghost or Dirty Dancing but those movies were huge, taken straight to the top of the box office heap by a predominately female audience ravenous for everything Patrick. And this attraction to him has never abated. A 2013 poll taken by Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP magazine found that a whopping 73% of all newlywed women play the DVD of Dirty Dancing on their wedding night in order to physically prepare themselves for the consummation of their marriage vows. And Gwyneth herself once told Sally Jessy Raphael that her biggest regret in life was that Patrick wasn’t the one who “popped her cherry.” Now that’s a fellow with sex appeal!

But Patrick could also win over the guys in the audience, too–he was the rough and tumble older brother in The Outsiders and bad-ass commie fighter Jed in Red Dawn. And then, of course, we have Road House. There was a certain dwarf-like creature who emerged alongside Patrick in the 80s, a guy who danced around in his underwear, flew fighter jets, and helped drive that retarded dude to Los Angeles in a string of hit movies. Yes, they tried to tell us Thomas Cruise Mapother IV was the biggest star of them all, but I’d like to see Maverick last even 10 minutes in the Double Deuce. It would never happen. Dalton would break him down like a fistful of chowder crackers and not move a hair of that incredible coiffure out of place while doing it.

No, Swayze was the main man in the 80s and the best was yet to come. For we hadn’t even seen Bodhi yet.

Wacky Wall Walkers


Colored in shades that made them the perfect physical embodiment of Wyler’s fruit drink flavors, Wacky Wall Walkers stuck around about as long as a pitcher of ice cold Wyler’s on a hot summer day, but you have to admit that they were quite the concept. Kids love to throw things–whether it be snowballs at cars, eggs at houses (Justin Bieber keeps this tradition alive to this day) or an unwanted baby brother or sister out the window. Wacky Wall Walkers were kind of a benign form of therapy that allowed children the world over to get this potentially dangerous urge out of their system without harming any property or lives.

And really, who hasn’t dreamed of owning their very own miniature octopus? You didn’t even need a tank of water for it! Of course they only actually stuck to the wall about one-third of the time, although the success rate was higher if you flung it against a mirror, so if your parents were one of those “swinger” types with a bedroom tricked out in mirrors all over the walls and ceiling you could maybe get your money’s worth out of these. Because the sad fact was, when you finally did get it to stick to something the odds of it actually “walking” its way down, instead of cowering in a lump for three seconds and dropping straight to the carpet, were pretty low, too. Speaking of carpeting, I seem to remember these becoming covered in nasty, adhesively-debilitating fuzz almost the instant they were pulled out of their packaging.

So basically Wacky Wall Walkers were completely useless. Still, they were deemed cool enough to have their very own Christmas Special and you can’t say that about most toys!

Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears

gummi bare too

When Hans Riegel, the founder of Haribo Candies died at age 90 last fall, the world mourned. I took it especially hard. Haribo’s crowning creation–the Gummi Bear–is of course, the most delicious, pleasingly tactile candy on Earth. There’s a reason the Haribo jingle goes “kids and grown-ups love it so.” It is because their appeal is universal. Herr Riegel lived a long, fulfilling life, but he once ruefully admitted to his official biographer that his biggest regret was signing away the television rights to his beloved bears to the American company The Walt Disney Corporation.

To put it bluntly, this corporation took something sacred and defiled it. Gummi Bears were CRYING OUT to be rendered as unimaginably cute Pikachu-like blobs and yet the public was force-fed a bunch of tossed-off “furry” bears that looked like any other run-of-the-mill anthropomorphic animated ursi. In fact, for all we know, their matted coats might have been the remnants of shot and skinned Berenstain Bears. An outrage. It was if the project had been delivered unto the hands of morons and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if that great simpleton Michael Eisner had personally been in charge of developing this program. 

Disney had received a real treasure, a franchise that could have conceivably grown into something that would have given that filthy rodent and pantsless duck and all the other grotesque WDC characters a run for their money in media, toys, apparel and beyond. But Disney only owned the rights to this one cartoon. Haribo would  have profited from all the rest. So, despite what I said above, it’s entirely possible that Disney was actually being crafty as a fox by purposely making a bad cartoon that they knew nobody would care about. They simply didn’t want the competition. In any case, this cartoon was a failure on every level.

Sidenote: While traveling in Germany I once witnessed a spiky-haired German anarchist spray paint (in English) “Haribo for the people!! Trolli is shit!!!” across the front window of a confectionary in the Sankt Pauli quarter of Hamburg. (Trolli is a Johnny-come-lately candy company that produces inferior, disgusting Haribo knock-offs.) I wanted to marry her on the spot.


Jostens Class Rings

jostens rings

Now this was something. I can still remember the cold November day our class ring sales representative arrived, granted top secret clearance from our school administrators to walk around our building at his leisure, hauling around his cheap attaché case of mesmerizing trinkets. He looked exactly like you’d expect a school ring salesman to look–pale blue “dress slacks,” a crazy plaid sportcoat left over from the 70s, hangdog face, medicine ball-sized paunch, and battered brown shoes that had trudged down thousands of miles of shiny waxed high school hallways.

It was the personalization that made the rings irresistible. You could basically recreate your whole teenage identity with these things. Even if your rural Maine high school happened not to have a rodeo team, if you had always been fascinated by roping calves and riding bulls you could go ahead and get “Rodeo Team” stamped right on the side of your ring. Were you a third-string benchwarmer on the roundball squad? No problem–on your ring you could announce to the world that you were a “Basketball All-Star.” Hell, even the most brain-damaged, perennially-flunked burnout could order a ring that said National Honor Society on it, and Mr. Ring Salesman, even if he may have personally doubted that the bedraggled, pot-reeking punk in front of him was capable of achieving such a thing, wasn’t about to run up his family’s long distance bill to call NHS headquarters and have them confirm or deny it. To him, it was just another nice commission.

I remember badgering my parents into paying something like $143 for the top of the line “gold” version, a bauble probably cast from melted-down tin Burger Chef ashtrays Jostens had nabbed for a song at some franchise liquidation sale. I even insisted on extras like the special textured underside and my very own laser-engraved signature on the inside. Clearly, I believed in the finer things in life. But why spare any expense when I’d be wearing it for a lifetime!!

Jostens manufacturing plant wasn’t the most efficient, I think the turnaround on these things was something like half a year—you ordered it in November and it finally showed up in April or May. But there was no denying it was a special day when our sales rep returned, jacketless now in a nicotine-stained short sleeve dress shirt, to hand out our rings. Students sang and danced in the corridors with such joy it was like Alice Cooper had just arrived to burn the whole school down.

I think I wore it five times.

Buick Reatta

reatta dash

This coupe tried its best to look sporty, but it pretty much resembled a Fiat X1/9 that had been subsisting on Krispy Kremes and Big Gulps its whole life. The real selling point, or what Buick thought was a selling point, was the car’s “Electronic Control Center.” Touch screens in automobiles these days can be found on entry-level Kias, but in 1989, using an interactive monitor in place of more traditional climate and radio controls was a radical step forward.

The trouble was Buick’s elderly clientele– average age 64 years and 3 months at that time—were not radicals. The typical Buick driver may have seen “video games” in the waiting area of Pizza Hut when they were taking their grandchildren out for a treat, but to have some alien green TRS-80 style interface slapped up inside their dashboard was too much. This age group was already causing major havoc on the motorways–now Buick was asking them to take their eyes off the road for 10, 15, even 25 seconds at a time to muddle about with an interface that was incomprehensible to them. No records were kept, but you can bet that many fatal accidents were caused by this “innovative feature.”

The Reatta drivers who managed to survive overwhelmed their dealers with so much negative feedback that by the time the 1991 model was released the screen had been replaced with more traditional push buttons and analog dials. It was too little, too late and the car was nixed from the Buick lineup the very next year.

The King of Comedy


Rupert Pupkin lives with his mother. He’s probably about 40 and unemployed. He wants to be a famous (the key concept of this film) comedian but his schtick is about as knee-slapping as an open grave. No matter. He thinks—no, he KNOWS–he’s funny and that’s all that counts. Haven’t we been told our whole lives to do everything we can to make our dreams come true?

Rupert’s dreams are very precise and his drive to realize them akin to whatever the hell it is that powers battleships about the open sea. His pleasantly polite and utterly indefatigable persistence lead to one of the funniest lines ever uttered in the movies as his hero Jerry Langford’s manservant makes a panicked call to his absent boss after Rupert and his date show up unannounced at Jerry’s mansion “for the weekend” and start making themselves quite at home:

“Mr Rangford! They are touching things, they are ruining evwyting!!”

Mr. Langford appears posthaste, nine iron in hand, to personally see Pupkin off his property in a scene you could watch 100 times and never get tired of. But the joke is on him because this powerful man soon ends up completely powerless— wrapped head to toe in duct tape and entirely at the mercy of the impure fantasies of 6 foot tall gargoyle Sandra Bernhard. And so Rupert gets his wish and becomes famous.

It’s Scorsese at a supreme level he would only manage to hold onto for a few more films. DeNiro is a congenial monster; Bernhard downright frightening. Jerry Lewis puts in his best acting job ever and yes, I’ve seen The Caddy.

John “Cougar” Mellencamp


When I was growing up in the Midwest, I never seemed to like any of the bands that actually came from there. My favorites at the time hailed from places much further afield: California hotshots Van Halen, English country squires Pink Floyd, London wastrels The Clash, NYC LES pin-ups Blondie, Dublin deities U2, and on and on. What on earth did I need Joe Grushecky, Donnie Iris or Michael Stanley for? It all seemed hopelessly derivative of Bruce Springsteen to me and I didn’t really like The Boss, either. In any case, those previously mentioned fellows and their respective bands were all small potatoes compared to the biggest “Little Bruce” of them all. His name was John “Cougar” Mellencamp, and he pretty much took the gospel Bruce was preaching in New Jersey some 700 miles inland to Bumfuck, Indiana to start a whole new platinum-selling religion.

I wasn’t buying it and my aversion to John and his hymns to a life lived in the middle of nowhere lasted for years, until about 1985, in fact. It was around that time that, while thumbing through some “rock yearbook” at B. Dalton Bookseller one day, I came across a picture of the guy wedged into one of those wire mesh trash cans that used to be on every city street corner. He was grinning like a bandit, obviously having some fun with his image at his own expense—the critics had, from day one, disliked him even more than I did, so there he was, basically saying both he and his musical output were garbage. Hahaha. But what caught my eye about this picture wasn’t John’s cheeky self-deprecation, but the fact that he was shod in Tretorn sneakers! Classic canvas Nylites, white with the blue stripe! What kind of rock and roller, let alone a self-proclaimed “biker,” wore preppy shit like that?

I’ve followed his work ever since…

Rax Roast Beef

rax logo two

Rax valiantly fought to be a national player in the “sliced roast beef” market for a very long time, but they never really managed to break out of the Midwest region. It was always a tough product to sell–“sliced roast beef” sandwiches have always been pretty far down the fast food pecking order, perpetually trailing behind cheeseburgers, pizzas, fried chicken, tacos and even foldable cardboard boxes filled with shrimp fried rice. Some people, in fact, shudder at the thought of a “sliced roast beef” sandwich. It just doesn’t appeal to them. I once even heard, and I’m extremely sorry to have to repeat this, some impolitic sexists refer to female private parts as “sliced roast beef.” Is that really the kind of thing a person wants to eat? Er, well, maybe some people…

In any case, “sliced roast beef” was a tiny market to begin with and when you have a tiny share of a tiny market, you’d damn well better have some brilliant management. Rax, apparently, did not. In the realm of “sliced roast beef,” Arby’s was always the king, Roy Rogers the presumptive prince, and Rax was just some dumb stable hand shoveling around horse dung all day.

That rather unappetizing image aside, I personally enjoyed the meals I had at Rax the few times I ate there, always on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh, back when that thoroughfare led the nation in number of adult bookstores per city block. It was always a convenient place to fuel up before walking down the street to visit the peep show booths, but that’s hardly the clientele a restaurant needs to draw from if they plan on one day rubbing elbows with McDonald’s and Subway. So Rax, and their take on the “sliced roast beef” sandwich, disappeared.