I’ve always preferred Santa Monica Boulevard to her slutty twin sisters, Hollywood and Sunset.
Oh sure, Sunset is the glam home to a thousand broken hearts and two thousand skinned knees.
Hollywood Blvd? That wacky tacky tourist cesspool, as whorishly gaudy as one of the faded stars trampled underfoot? Please.
Ah, but it’s always been Santa Monica, before it makes the shameful turn toward the Westside, where Hollywood works.
Lined with film labs and stark studio space , CA Route 2 was the last stand for the hustlers and chickenhawks, the charming porn houses, not to mention our 24 hour temple grease and sin, Oki Dogs.
You add in The Formosa, The Starwood and Pleasure Chest, and what we had was a playground for punkers in from the suburbs.
“Better,” she said, “not good. But better.”
With that, Gloria closed the piano lid and started scribbling on the sheet music on the music stand.
She handed me the thin workbook she had notated, Shirmer’s Library of Classics: Twenty Four Italian Arias, Tenor.
“We’ll start here,” she said. She poked at the book with the tip of her red pen. “But always begin with the warm ups. The humming first, then the vowels, then scales, got it?”
She wasn’t smiling that first day, not that the uneasy parasitical relationship we began could ever be considered friendly.
I believe she saw in me the very corruption of her art. At least the metal heads and New Wave chicks that filled the rest of her appointment calendar for the week–hell, at least they tried to sing.
Me? I was shouting.
And although she got a lot of mileage from her other altern0 success stories, it was an uneasy trade with the punk rockers who haunted her hallways. I could imagine her shuddering at each pair of Doc Martens stomping up those stairs to her studio.
But I stuck with the weekly lessons, and a year became two.
Our usual routine settled into that of a weary married couple, each exhausted by the unchanging mediocrity of our time together, but neither owning the energy to end it.
I’d show up, we’d do the warm ups climbing along the major scale, and she would remind me of every crime I was committing against the throat. Then we’d hit Shirmer’s Library, and mangle the Italian language in song, a racial crime on par with Mickey Rooney donning Oriental buckteeth in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Then a cool off breathing exercise, pay up, and make the appointment for next week.
I would skip out into the cool night air of SM blvd elated, It was a relief like the un-noosing a necktie on the steps of a Catholic Church, with the promise of a masturbatory Sunday afternoon the only commitment left of the weekends denouement.
I began to wonder if I only continued these lessons because of the weekly climax of escape when they ended.
A couple times she sent me home as soon as I walked into her office, sniffing at the air and correctly detecting the two Bud long necks that just accompanied my carnitas plate at ElBurrito.
“Go Home. Alcohol and the voice, never,” Gloria said. “And what’s this I hear about you and a bottle of whiskey at Raji’s?”
She had weasly students all over town, each eager to get in her good graces by throwing another under the bus without a thought.
“Hey, whoa, heh. Part of the act.” I said. “What about Frank? The highballs in hand, what about him?”
“Sinatra. Don’t talk to me about Sinatra. He’s ruined. ” She narrowed her eyes. “Listen, Frank wanted out years ago, but the Mob won’t let him. The voice is gone. Now, you want to talk about a singer, go see Tony Bennett.”
But I did get a lot out of those lessons that stay with me today.
She taught me how to coax a voice back just in time to save a set, how to make a hideous cocktail of apple cider vinegar, honey and salt water that induced pitched screams and nightmares.
She had me taking so much Vitamin C on tours I shit Cheetos. I sucked on zinc lozenges that tasted like violent death, gargled an ocean of salt water.
And those vocal warmups.
I learned to disappear into alleys or darkened vans, thirty minutes prior to downbeat, and sing Verde’s Il Tovatore to the midnight sky.
Oh sure, no one bats an eye at a guitar player stretching the strings or a drummer tapping away at his pads backstage, but as soon as you hear a singer make a warm up peep the occupants of the green room roll eyes at each other and mouth the word: Diva.
Gloria taught me there were procedures and consequences of shouting over amplified instruments, and showed me how to survive, if I really must.
She talked now about visualizing the note, how the high note wasn’t up here (as she pointed a manicured nail to the ceiling) it’s down there, (waving to the floor). Pick it up, don’t reach for it!
But mostly, she talked about breathing, breathing.
About how it was more important than the air coming out, the way you took the air in, and how you held it.
“To sing, to sing is to breathe,” she would say almost every lesson.
In the daylight evenings of Summer, the tiny room above Santa Monica sultry with the thrum of an oscillating floor fan.
That goddamned jump rope back around my waist like a shameful cone around a dog’s head.
In the hopeless darkness of January late afternoons, we talked about the diaphragm yet again, her hands on my midsection pushing with the strength that surprised me every time.
Eventually, the lessons became more infrequent. I came up with more excuses not to make a next appointment, didn’t protest or reschedule when I was bumped. Finally, I went a month without seeing Gloria, then a month became a year.
We had already ended our latest weary chapter of Channel 3 and were each pursuing other avenues: Kimm and Mike Dimkich were playing in the feisty Bulldog, Jay back with Steve Jones and Larry Lerma in The Unforgiven. I was playing with my pal Mike Eldred in a short lived band called Stagger Lee, though my heart wasn’t really in it.
Maybe it was just too late, maybe I had grown too old too quickly on that dirty street, a burnout at the age of 27.
The last time I played on Santa Monica was one of those soul sucking Tuesday night showcases at the Troubadour.
You would pick up a stack of tickets color coded for your band that night.
Then they counted them out at the end of the night, your stack of tickets that you shamelessly foisted off on family and distant work friends returned in a disheartening diminished ratio.
It was a December afternoon that I volunteered to go into Hollywood to pick up the tickets. I rode back toward the 101 on my trusty Honda CB400F, a thick stack of pay to play tickets weighing my messenger bag like a dead colorless bird.
The Boulevard was dark compared to the artificial Christmas cheer of Hollywood, a shadow to the neon audacity of Sunset. But driving along that street once more brought back all the memories held in the breathing asphalt, all the tears of laughter and careless booze splashed upon that street.
Maybe it was the spirit of the season, maybe it was the two Jack&Cokes that I sipped while waiting for those shameful tickets to come down from the top office of the Troub, but I decided to stop in and see Gloria once again.
As i got to the top of those familiar steps, I could already hear her clear steady Soprano and the sensible work of her hands upon ivory. I almost turned to leave, not wanting to disturb a lesson, but decided to stop a moment and listen.
Her voice soared still, and the walls of the old stucco building were graced by the sound of a more fitting time. The old gal still had the pipes, and though I never really learned how to sing, I could damn well appreciate her mastery of the mystery.
When she bought the piece down to a gentle landing, I could hear the soft thud of that piano lid closing once more, and I turned to leave. But her office door suddenly opened and she came out alone with her coat already on, her keys in hand to lock the door behind her.
It was then I realized that she was without a student in there, and was just playing the piano and singing to herself.
“Oh, you,” she said. She looked me up and down, maybe searching for a clue of my name. “Did you have an appointment tonight? Because it’s not in the book.”
Caught off guard in her presence one last time, I just explained I was in the neighborhood, wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas, then I went in for an awkward hug.
I imagined that there was some affection in our final embrace, but when I think about it now she was probably just testing my core once again, those familiar hands on my body.
Searching for that Diaphragm, seeing if it was tensed against the air in my body.
Checking to see if I finally knew how to breathe.