Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shooter Jennings & Hierophant - Black Ribbons

The new album Black Ribbons by Shooter Jennings, and his new band Hierophant, is nothing short of jaw-dropping. It's a good old-fashioned "Concept" album, complete with between track narration by Stephen King, here playing the part of radio D.J. "Will O' The Wisp", on the last hour of free speech airwaves before they're taken over by the government.

Truth be told, I was impressed before I even played one track on the album. The packaging (beautifully executed by Sonny Kay) is super cool, original and heavy ... just like the disc inside. The American flag with its stripes turned into black ribbons - Whoa. Black crows and black ribbons tied around trees let you know that you're about to dig into something of weight. Then the bright orange disc itself printed with "Killing for peace is like fucking for chastity", instead of any title or name. So honestly, Shooter had me from hello on this one, but let's dig deeper together, because it deserves it.

From the opening track, "Wake Up!" and its throw-down of Atari-like electronica beats just moments into it, you know this isn't what some of Shooter's more country-style fans might have been expecting. Tough. I actually got into a little Facebook fisticuff with some of those fans that want Shooter to shut up and play his Dad's songs (if you don't know, Shooter is the son of Outlaw Country legends Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter). Basically, "What happened, Shooter?! Put the O back in Country!" - Them. "Artists are expressing their own visions, not yours. Go Shooter!" - Me. Having said that, it doesn't even matter what musical taste you have, as this album has it all ... Hard rock, ballad, country, electronica, punk rock ... It's a clear reflection of the multitude of influences someone growing up in the 80's that loves all kinds of music would have, and want to explore.

A gang of us from Venice went downtown the other night to the Grammy Museum to hear Shooter and his producer, Dave Cobb, discuss the making of Black Ribbons in the intimate and casual setting of the Grammy Sound Stage. In the program for the event, Shooter is quoted as saying, "I knew I didn't have just a record on my hands, I had a mission." That is absolutely clear, especially when you hear the dialogue from Mr. King/Will O' The Wisp (that was written back and forth between King and Shooter, who have still never met!). It's heavy, honest, quasi-anarchist stuff - all of which I whole-heartedly endorse. Government, Corporations, War Mongers, Media, Posers, Consumer Culture ... Shooter is on to you. And calls you all out, as you should be. ("They'll try to turn me against you, so that divided we'll turn to them" - Wake Up! "They create a problem so they can provide a solution ... there are guns instead of roses" - The Breaking Point. And that's just for starters.)

Shooter explained during the Grammy talk that he was going through a lot of personal reflection in the time leading up to this album. Having had his first child, Alabama, born to him and his lady ("High Priestess"), Drea De Matteo, and feeling like the world was falling apart as he drove their RV across the country, listening to radio DJ Art Bell trip him out, and the one Blue Oyster Cult c.d. they had along with them ("He definitely didn't fear the reaper" - Dave Cobb). As bad as things were getting in society at large, Shooter himself was feeling lucky for his own blessings, and the album was spawned out of that - and a need to get out all of these musings boiling over inside of himself.

Scott Goldman (VP of MusicCares and the Grammy Foundation) did a pretty good job of keeping Shooter ("I feel like Cosmo Kramer on The Actor's Studio") and Dave on course, but the beers soon delivered, and their obvious respect and sense of comfort with each other kept the evening fun and informal, while lending insight into to the process behind the making of such an ambitious project. Both Shooter and Dave are extra tech-savvy, so the conversation often went more down the path of the how's and why's of achieving different sounds with Analog, Pro-Tools, etc ... (to the point where Dave stopped himself in the middle of it all by saying, "Dork! Dork!") vs. getting into the meaty lyrics (I'd love to have seen a lyric sheet included in the disc package, as they pack a strong wallop) and between-song truth telling. There really may need to be a Grammy Museum talk sequel on this one ...

Shooter had the song, "Black Ribbons" to begin with (I first heard it on The Justice Tour that Shooter's friend, Tom Morello, asked him to join. He played it before a group from Iraq Veterans Against The War, and from that moment I thought it should be their theme song. With its chorus about "Man down, tie a ribbon 'round my soul ..." - the album version even ends with the sound of marching soldier boots - it couldn't be more apt for them). He began to define the vision to Dave Cobb, who Shooter said "Will get excited about any song idea I have, even if it's about a singing monkey". To which Dave responded, "All of his records are just Shooter being honest. An idea might be crazy, but it's crazy honest." And they were off.

Though it was a deeply personal journey for Shooter, this album was also a blast to make, it sounds like. They'd drink and play and experiment and have fun, but all the while they were creating something epic and BIG. Big like you can't help but think of Pink Floyd (especially David Gilmour) while listening. The main cheerleaders and support system for Shooter during the recording process were Drea (who came up with a slew of the album's ideas) and his friend, Danny Coakley. Shooter said one night they thought they'd re-invented music and created the new "Stairway To Heaven" - only to have Danny come in and just squirm and shake his head while listening. As Shooter put it, "It sounded like Yes (the band), but Danny let us know it sounded like No." Crack up.

My favorite track on the album - it's huge and beautiful and classic - is "All Of This Could Have Been Yours". Shooter played it on the Grammy Museum's grand piano, and it gave me goosebumps - again. He explained how Black Ribbons is a piano record, and he'd write lyrics on his Blackberry, propped up on the piano. He'd have to stop and roll the little ball to keep going, and then he'd pass it on to Dave, who "can spot what's good about an idea and get where I'm coming from, which is invaluable."

Shooter was also inspired by a book from the 70's called The Hero Within by Carol S. Pearson. In it, she talks about the six archetypes we all live by: Innocent, Martyr, Warrior, Magician, Orphan and Wanderer, and how they change as different phases of our lives take center stage. Each Black Ribbons disc contains one of the six archetype cards (I got Warrior), and each song - musically and lyrically - does too. As I mentioned before, each song is different from the next. "Fuck You, I'm Famous" is a punk-ish party jam; "God Bless Alabama" is a little bit country, a little bit rock-and-roll; "Summer of Rage" has synth, horns, xylophone, choir, you name it; "Lights In The Sky" even has Autotunes on it (which I cannot stand, personally. It's a trend, and a lame one at that. It jolts me out of whatever I'm hearing, and to me is like Shooter taking the stage wearing orange Croc's - but that is the only quibble I have with the entire production)! I would suggest you listen to the album straight through, in its entirety - maybe on your own RV road trip - to feel its whole impact, and to recognize the enormity of its parts.

I deeply respect and admire anyone who stretches themselves out of the box they were born into, and Shooter has certainly done that with this grand in every way album. Upon multiple listenings, each time I am reminded of the famous Che Guevara quote, "A true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." I don't think it's hyperbole to say that Black Ribbons is a revolutionary album - full of deep and important musings about the state of our world today, from someone who some may have thought an unlikely source. Revolutionary in thought, but also in his uprising against expectations placed on him. All of that aside - though it really can't be placed aside - the dominant feeling I'm left with after each listen is a true sense of love. Shooter's love for music, his family and friends, his country, and that feeling of, as Stephen King puts it, "Put all ten middle fingers in the air and dance, my Brothers and Sisters!"

Love and appreciation that we'd better express often, and while we can. Our world and our time is fragile, and it's an enthusiastic high-five I offer to Shooter Jennings and Hierophant (and Dave Cobb, Drea, Danny, and Stephen King, etal) for not putting their mouths where the money is, but where their hearts are, with this profound, genre-bending, statement of an album.

"The love of mankind may still come out on top. Our children's children might still live in a better, more beautiful world. Do I believe that? Yeah, with a glass of Jack in one hand, I manage." - Will O' The Wisp

Black Ribbons is available to blow - and expand - your minds. Right now.

*Photos by Paul Gronner

Monday, March 29, 2010

Surfing Cowboys

The front of Surfing Cowboys is painted with a sign that says "Purveyors of Beach Culture & California Lifestyle" and that pretty much sums it up. Owners Wayne & Donna Gunther have created a bright, happy space filled with all of the items that make the feeling of California living obtainable, wherever you happen to dwell. Old and new come together to create a sense of place that is both a tribute and a groove.

Wayne and Donna met in Chicago, then traveled and worked as photographers until they decided to settle in the space that now houses Surfing Cowboys. They lived in a corner of the back, and as they traversed the world, they collected things for the California house they would one day have. People would come to the store for photo shoots or peek into the windows, wondering what was going on inside, and everyone always commented on how much they loved the things they were seeing. So much so that the Gunthers decided to open a store, to share the things they had, to pass them on to cool homes, and also to have fun. They came up with "Surfing Cowboys" to capture the spirit that both words embody, and that vibe permeates every corner of the shop.

People are always asking the Gunthers where they get their things, and they always say "There is no 'stuff' place" ... they're just always on the road, seeking out gems for the shop, bringing in only things that speak to their hearts, and that they feel will serve as inspiration for those good California vibrations. In fact, they said that people often write "Inspiration" on their receipts to their accountants for purchases made from Surfing Cowboys. That tells you something.

Having been open on Abbot Kinney for over a decade, they know their customers, and are extremely grateful to the Venice community for in turn inspiring them. As all of us have mixed emotions about the change and progress of Venice, and the mix of new and old, so too do Wayne and Donna. They feel strongly that it's up to us to be Preservationists, to protect the spirit of the place, and make sure it keeps its soul. In celebration of that spirit and soul, Surfing Cowboys has mounted a wonderful show from the Collection of Oakland-based John Favors of Hippie Folk Funk Art: Anonymous Social and Political Expression of the 60's and 70's, on now until April 12th.

90% of the items displayed in this show are anonymous works, which I like a lot about it. The artists were doing their work not for the bottom line, but because they HAD to. Those times created in artists a NEED to protest, a need to express, and that is evident in how ALIVE it all feels. As Donna said, "These are the collectibles, the folk art, of the future." Wayne added, "People always comment on how bright the store is. Our collective psyche has been lethargic, we've all been muted ... There is a reason that the art is bright ... We need it." The art reflects, "Social justice, politics, music ... and a lot of drugs." For all of the above reasons, it's a perfectly appropriate show for Venice.

Highlights of the show for the Gunthers (and for me) are the big American flag made up of black stripes and skulls in place of stars that Mark Twain (being an anti-Capitalist/Imperialist) suggested as the alternative U.S. flag. Another great piece is the Mickey Mouse head that contains a factory of filth and dollar signs inside its skull. All of it: colorfully painted protest helmets, bejeweled guitars, old skateboards, paintings rife with social commentary, collages, and perhaps my favorite, a wooden Uncle Sam store display that they call "Haight Ashbury Wants You", depict a special place and time, that both realize the value of, and celebrate the spirit of, an entirely bonkers era ... while recognizing the similarities to today's crazy as ever world.

Mr. Favors explained his collection and the impetus behind gathering things that were anonymously done, by saying that "Folk art stands on the strength of its visual vs. the pedigree of the name. Their style was their signature ... they were doing it for the mere ART of it, and so it sings."

This show indeed sings. It sings of the colorful, radical 60's and 70's, but it also sings of the colorful, radical Venice of today, spirit and energy intact, despite the changes along the way. It was interesting to me that the day after the opening of this Surfing Cowboys show ("Take as many pictures as you want."), I went to the opening of the Peter Max show ("No photography!") on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. While both shows celebrated the colors of the past, it was clear that the bottom line of the Max show was "Selling" (as I was directly told by one of the Gallery workers), while to the anonymous artists of the show on Abbot Kinney, the point was merely Art for Art's sake. Interesting, because art and commerce have been such talking points as to the continued preservation of the Spirit of Venice.

Cheers to the Gunthers for their continued work towards that preservation of spirit, and for being a unique and lively "Cool Stuff Shop." The inventory is always changing, but is constantly a hub of creativity. Stop in to discover, learn, and most of all, to be inspired.

Surfing Cowboys
1624 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, 90291

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Studio Surya Yoga ... VENICE Yoga

Venice is different than Santa Monica ... real different. Yet lots of Venice people I know still haul over to Santa Monica for their Yoga classes for some reason. I'm here to tell you, no need. Studio Surya Yoga is smack dab in the middle of Venice (right off the Windward Circle next to Bike Attack), and is as serene and lovely as could be - a pure reflection of its owner, Yonnus Becker.

Yonnus is a California girl, born and bred. She grew up in Laguna Beach, the daughter of some fun sounding hippie parents (setting up their first Sawdust Festival booth naked but for hats), that made up her interesting name, and gave her the freedom to do what she loved.

That meant traveling, majoring in Classical History at UCLA, getting every kind of license available (Contractor's, Teacher's, you name it ...), and generally being a bit of a wild child. She moved to New York (because she felt like it) and it was there she really both got into Yoga. Walking home from an NY class one day, she decided that would be her next big endeavor - opening her own studio. In Venice, California.

Venice appealed to her because there really wasn't (and still really isn't, besides Studio Surya) a great yoga place in Venice. She felt that it was the only place that made sense to her (as so many of us feel), and as she said, "I want people to be interesting", and they certainly are in Venice. She sold everything and went for it, because life is short and you need to do what makes you feel good. The current location was the first place she looked at, and after re-doing the entire space herself (laying the hardwood floor (!), painting, hanging things, all of it), Studio Surya opened in February of 2009.

And there Yonnus, along with a team of hand-picked teachers - "smushy love balls" all - have been teaching Hatha Yoga classes seven days a week ever since. I've only been to Yonnus's Vinyasa Flow class so far, but can't wait to experience the evening Candlelight Flow class ... or any more of them, for that matter. Yonnus is a great teacher, super kind-voiced and positive, reminding you to (well, for me, to breathe) have gratitude, and realize that "The gift is to slow down and appreciate yourself." - always good advice. She gives you options for the easier or harder you want your positions to feel, and gently helps you to be better than you thought you could be at it all.

Yonnus is so warm to be around, and it made total sense when she expressed that she wants to be YOUR Yoga Studio for VENICE ... for, as she put it, "Non-Showbiz Yoga." You know exactly what she means too ... the packed classes with the fragile looking trophy wives and dudes that like to pick up on them. The Scene-y yoga. Blech. This is nothing like that. Studio Surya is again, a gentle Yoga. Yonnus doesn't subscribe to a lot of the usual Yogi dogmas - she's not vegetarian, she likes music other than sitar, she doesn't make students brush her hair during class (Weird, Mr. Bikram), etc ... - feeling that to each, his or her own. The best part is just that you know she actually cares. She'll come around and soothingly reposition you. The class ends with her placing a lavender eye pillow over your eyes, relaxing you with a little massage on your feet, and a delicious aromatherapy spray shows up somewhere in there ... but that all could've been a dream, so chill was I then, after the trembling legged earlier part of the class. Oh, and very importantly these days, she keeps it extra affordable.

Yonnus said that when she set out to create her own studio, she wanted it to be with no ego or pretense, and serve as an environment where students can feel cared about. "People in Venice WANT to be connected, the polished and unpolished all together ... we can raise each others' vibrations." Now doesn't that philosophy sound perfect for here?

Yoga aficionado that lives in Venice? Well, you're stoked.

Studio Surya Yoga
1501 Main Street #106
Venice, 90291

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Old Man & The Sea

March feels crazy. From the political fighting, to the loss of two friends in one week (Peace to Dr. John Michel and Nichole Stavros Jenny), and I really could go on ... it's all been a bit aggro lately. Which is why an interaction I have most weekday mornings is so special.

There is a little group of Russian expatriate Senior Citizens that come to sit and look at the Ocean each morning in the shade of the Police Station/Poetry Wall (I love that irony, by the way). All the little old ladies are fully made and dressed up, and they visit - and sometimes sing - in Russian, so happy and appreciative just to be out there looking at the stunning morning.

One old gentleman (like 90's old) always sits apart from the others, and parks his chair with wheels (not a wheelchair) right next to where we park our bikes each morning. After exchanging smiles and waves for a while, I finally asked his name. "Leon", (pronounced like Lyon in a thick Russian accent) he said as he grasped my hands tightly. So since then, I go over to him every time and we hold hands for a minute and eke out a small-talk exchange about how absolutely beautiful the day is, usually. It always lifts my spirits because he's so dang happy to see you, and also funny, as it seems like he sits apart from the others so they don't cramp his style or something.

I hadn't seen Leon in about a week, and after losing Dr. John before ever really hearing his whole story, I started to get nervous that maybe he wasn't well. Yesterday, amid all the chaos of the swirling world - and my own kaleidoscopic thoughts - I looked up to see Leon sitting in his usual spot when we returned from our morning constitutional. We both lit up to see each other, and I rushed over to greet him/hand hold. As we were pecking out a conversation, a lovely old woman strolled up, almost shouting, "Tank you! Tank you! He ees my husband, he tell me about you! He love you!"

Now I felt both a bit busted, and completely heart-warmed. Evidenced by the love shining out of the eyes of both of these gems - for each other, but also for Jenny and I - a mere fleeting moment of greeting and connection per day is a big, big deal. And you know what? I feel the same way. The clear appreciation between two people that don't know each others' stories or pasts, and can't even speak each others' languages, but care and take the time to let each other know that ... well, these days, that IS a big deal. I've long said that my favorite genres of people are babies and old people ... and that's mostly for their honesty.

"We veel talk sometime, I veel translate!", said Mrs. Leon (I still couldn't make out her name after three times), so stay tuned for the epic Russian saga sure to come from that.

No one knows what tomorrow may bring, so amid the March Madness, I encourage you to let your people know that they are loved. From your Mom, to the Old Man and The Sea.

"Everything about him was old except his eyes, and they were the same color as the sea, and were cheerful and undefeated."

Cheerful and undefeated ... that's us. Me and Leon.

*Photos by Jenny Ev's.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sponto Gallery a Historical Landmark!

We spent so much time within the colorful walls of Sponto Gallery, and when we lost him last year, the fear was that those special days and memories were over. But today the L.A. City Council designated the space as a City Landmark! From the Beat Generation days when it was the Venice West Cafe, to our madcap tenure as honored guests of Sponto's ... all of it will be celebrated for years to come. I don't know yet what form it will take, but this is an excellent beginning!

Here's the link.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Death of a Venice Icon - Dr. John

I had been looking for Dr. John for the last couple of months down at his usual spot down at the beach near Windward, and hadn't seen him at all. I wanted to do a story about him for Blogtown, as he's another of those Venice characters that you know has good things to say just by looking at him. His flowing white hair and beard on top of his super tall frame and colorful outfits let you see him coming a mile away, pulling his cart of signs, pamphlets, petitions ... and protest, always.

I got an email yesterday breaking the sad news that he passed away on Saturday, after being ill for some time. I never knew his whole story, just snippets here and there. I never knew if he was actually homeless, but I positively knew that he fought tirelessly on their behalf. He had terrible vision, but the moment he recognized you, his face lit up, and he always had something kind and interesting to say. When we had Jam Nights at Abbot's Habit, he was always the first one to get up and start the dancing, and that is how I will remember him.

It breaks my heart to see another crucial part of the fabric of Venice torn out, but more than that, it pains me that the World as a whole has lost one of its most truly righteous and selfless citizens. I won't ever get to share his real story with you now, which tells us once again to appreciate and honor those we care about while we have them. So here's a little reminder of one of the great Freedom Fighters we just lost:

Rest in Peace, Dr. John Michel ... there will never be another like you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wild! Weird!! Wonderful!!! - The Venice Beach Freak Show!

The Venice Beach Freak Show came to my attention a couple/few years ago when wandering down The Boardwalk. I immediately went in and befriended the couple who ran it, Todd & Danielle Ray, and did a little article about them opening up at the time ... mainly because I was thrilled that someone was doing something old-time-y feeling, and reveling in the fact that since people call the Venice Boardwalk a Freak Show anyway, there should really be a real one.

Since then, it's only grown bigger and more successful, with an expansion into a bigger space in their building (a reproduction of the former Bath House of old time-y Venice's Pacific Park) on The Boardwalk. It's packed with people on the weekends, with Todd growing hoarse on Mondays after doing his Side Show barking all weekend long outside. They're so packed that there's never time to chat on the weekends, so we sat down yesterday with each other so they could tell me their whole story, while they fed and looked after the various animals that live at the Freak Show. It was one of my favorite conversations in a long time, and I remain thrilled ... first, that such cool people exist in the world, and second, that they share their coolness with an openness and generosity that is increasingly rare in our g0-go-me-me times.

Todd grew up in South Carolina, and Danielle grew up in Brooklyn - and both have the perfect accents to go with each locale. Todd was into magic ever since he was 6 years old, doing tricks to amaze even the adults. An elderly woman whose late husband had been in the Circus knew of Todd's interest in magic and circuses, so gave him a big trailer of her husband's artifacts from his Carny days, beginning what would become a lifelong collection - much of which can be seen today at The Freak Show. When he was 12, he went to a Carnival Side Show in his native South, and saw Otis Jordan, The Human Cigarette Factory (to whom the Venice Freak Show is dedicated, by the way). Mr. Jordan had ossified limbs, so his arms and legs were all curled up, and he really only had the use of his shoulders and face. With only his mouth, chin, and shoulders, the guy would take out a single rolling paper from a pack with his tongue (try that!), lay out a perfect line of tobacco, somehow roll it with his lips and tongue into a PERFECT cigarette ... and THEN get a match out of a matchbox, strike it, and with the match and cigarette both in his mouth (without lighting the whole box of matches aflame), light it, and happily puff away. Todd was simply amazed ... especially when Otis Jordan told him, "You can do anything you can dream of." Well, that stuck with Todd - clearly - and you can sense his and Danielle's joy and wonder just listening to their fascinating stories and super positive outlook on life in general.

As a teen, Todd also got real into music, and soon after starting medical school to be a Doctor, Todd changed his mind and decided he wanted to be a Hip Hop DJ! He moved to New York to follow that dream, and it was there that he met Danielle when he lived next door to the place where her Mom got her hair done. She came over to wait for her Mom and chill, and they've been together ever since that day, and what a wonderful couple they are! They soon married, and after some a bunch of struggles and a few lucky breaks, Todd finally found work producing those Hip Hop beats he was so into. He produced the likes of Nas, Cypress Hill ("Ain't Going Out Like That"), Santana's Supernatural album, etc ... and has three Producing Grammys to show for it.

Rap interests merged into Rock, and Todd began coming to L.A. a lot to work with the likes of Ozomatli and Snot. Driving along the PCH from Malibu to Santa Barbara began to seem a lot more appealing when there was three feet of snow on the ground back in New York - where two kids had come along to Todd and Danielle, a daughter, Asia, and a son, Phoenix - both of whom work with the Family Business today. They made the move. Todd was doing great with music, and the living he made was more than solid, when he started to dislike the direction Corporate labels were going in, and he began to feel like he was working in a factory that made generic music for the masses, with no use of his creativity. He and Danielle came to Venice one weekend, and sat on a bench across from where the Freak Show now resides. There was a space available to rent, and Todd realized that this was his chance to make his childhood dream become a reality. So he did.

They already had a huge collection of crazy stuff, so it was just a matter of creating the space, which the family did together, a complete labor of love. From Day One, Todd will tell you that the place was ALIVE, and full on. As he puts it, "I'd rather show kids a two-headed turtle all day and see the look of wonder on their faces than win a Grammy." Todd stands out front of the space all day on the weekends, urging people to come in and be amazed. And HE is constantly amazed standing out there ... at how robotic people (from everywhere and every ilk) have become ... like they're in Venice, they know they're supposed to be having fun, but they've let the world get at them too much and they just pace along, feeling pressure to be the same. So Todd will say through his microphone, "Look up! See that blue sky, that's the beginning of Outer Space! You can go get your $5 coffee at Starbuck's or you can come inside and $5 will buy you a lifetime memory of Venice Beach!" He's not kidding ... the things you will see inside - and out, like when Todd gets passersby to come up and staple a dollar onto the Man Who Feels No Pain with a staple gun (even a sadistic little suburban blonde girl did it - into the guy's armpit!) - you won't soon forget.

From his collection of Circus memorabilia and Pitch Cards (kind of like baseball cards, Freak Show performers used to sell their photo cards with their stories on the back, to give you more a sense of the HUMANITY involved behind it all) - of which his collection is the largest in the world - Todd began to accept live animals into the mix. Once he saw his first real LIVE two-headed turtle (after amassing a bunch of taxidermied specimens - e.g., The Cyclops Chihuahua!), he was hooked by the again, MAGIC, of it all. That "Life is a magical thing, a two-headed thing is magic. It has two souls and one heart, and is a magical animal. Myrtle/Squirtle the Turtle is actually a symbol of the mystery of life!" He would approach farmers, vets, breeders, pet hospitals, Youtube, whomever he thought would come across these rare animals - who would often be killed due to their "deformities" - and get them to give them to the Rays to care for. Which they do, beautifully. Their dog, Rocky, has five legs and had been in a cage pretty much its whole life, so was real mean. They took him on "The Dog Whisperer", and Danielle now counts him as another of her babies.

From the animals, Todd naturally has expanded to human beings that have their own special talents ... like Mr. No Pain (Digger), Brett the Sword Swallower (who the Rays took in as a kindred spirit, a guy who wanted to swallow swords since he was 8, and found Todd on a Magician's website - they took him in and now he's living his dream at the Freak Show each weekend), The Tree Man, The Bed of Nails Guy that lets tourists stand on him atop a bed of nails, Little Miss Firefly ("27 inches small!"), among a bunch of others in the rotating cast, and even their daughter, Asia, is now in on the act, doing contortion acts ("The Rubber Girl!"), acting as a current in an Electric Chair, and more recently, Fire Swallowing. Phoenix is a co-owner, and helps work the door, and is also becoming quite a proficient juggler. The Rays sometimes put on a more intense evening show (The Super Freak Side Show & Revue!) that features old school burlesque and a guy that impales himself with needles so gnarly that people faint.

But the Venice Beach Freak Show is a family affair, not only for the Rays, but for everyone that walks by. "If there's anything that we represent here, it's that 'normal' is an illusion", says Todd. "We want to be a symbol of the future, born from the past." Which is why they want to keep alive that moment in time that you can see in old black and white books on Venice, when it was an Amusement Park atmosphere and Abbot Kinney created a sense of place from his own dreams. Now days, Todd feels they are conjuring up that same feeling. They get messages from all over the world with various questions; one woman waited to save up her vacation just to come to Venice to the Freak Show; another flew from Virginia to see Rocky after watching him on "The Dog Whisperer"; an old man on what Todd says may have been his LAST day, as he was in a wheelchair, half out of it, with extra-labored breathing, but when Todd showed him the two-headed turtle, his eyes flew open wide and Todd saw the 5 year old boy he'd once been. And as Danielle cracked me up with, "Do you know how many Flat Stanley's have come through here?!"

"There's nothing curious anymore. We're here to create a sense of wonder again, and we're very serious about it", Todd proclaimed, and added, "We're celebrating the beauty and the majesty of creation." From the beauty of the beach that the Freak Show looks out on, to the willingness to applaud our differences, inside and out ... Venice is the perfect place for them to be.

They think so too. I can just keep quoting Todd, because he puts things into such wondrous perspective, like when he said, "People come here (Venice) wanting it to be something magical. This is where the Freak Show needed to be. We're all alive, but it's up to us to realize it ... Are you your body or your soul? ... This is LIVING Art!" Again, what Venice was conceived to be all about. Todd knows that the term "Freak Show" causes discomfort to some, and he tries to ease them past that word, and flip the thinking from "Abuse of the needy" feelings, to "A re-teaching of the so-called 'normal'." When you witness the way the Rays' eyes light up when telling of rescuing an animal or helping a person make a living out of what some might deem a handicap, and their excitement of future possibilities (perhaps a Magic School for Kids, where they can perform on the Freak Show stage!), you know that their own hearts and souls are in the most kind, positive and generous place.

The Rays have built a Museum of Oddities that I hope will long be a part of the Venice Community. Artists and Performers on The Boardwalk all know the Rays well, even sending their kids down to Danielle to watch and show them any new arrivals to the Freak Show. Danielle said she loves that she can stroll down to get pupusas at Lidia's and have everyone wave and shout out like on "Cheers", calling her "Freak Show Mama". The artistry and camaraderie of the Boardwalk performers and vendors make them feel at home, which the Rays in turn do for any and all comers ... anyone who is willing to step inside and suspend the outside world for a moment, to realize that life itself is Wild! Weird! ... and absolutely WONDERFUL!

The Venice Beach Freak Show
909 Ocean Front Walk
(open every weekend)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Congratulations Oscar & Spirit Awardees!

OK, I know this is kinda lazy, but I'm just re-running my article from last November when I talked about Precious (YAY Mo-Nique has an Oscar!) and Anvil (YAY Anvil won Best Documentary at the Independant Spirit Awards!). I'm having a bit of a gloat over my predictions, but also really think you should see these marvels if you haven't yet. I would write something about Kathryn Bigelow winning the first Oscar for Best Director by a Woman, but that seems so ridiculous (Waaaay overdue ... are there really still gender considerations in these matters? Absurd.) that it needs no further attention, in my book (blog).

Heartfelt Congratulations to everyone involved ... it's not easy to get your stories told, but you did, and you excelled! CHEERS!

*Oh, and James Cameron ... Avatar ruled. But you know that.

(From November 12, 2009)

I love this time of year. Yes, for the subtle California seasonal changes - the golden afternoon light, the need for a sweater at night, the smell of fireplaces burning around town ... but the real way you know the seasons have shifted in Los Angeles is by the GOOD movies finally coming out. I don't really like it that they save all the good ones until now so that they can be fresh in Award Season voters' minds - spread it out a LITTLE! - but it's just the way it is, so now is the time to be ensconced in a dark theater ... if you can't be at the beach that day, that is.

Yesterday was an especially trying day for some reason, and I don't think anything is in retrograde? Technical difficulties all week;

{Dear Verizon High Speed Internet Customer Service: You can suck it. And by It, I mean the yawning abyss left empty by the vanishing of my business. Losers. Bye. CJG}

... delays of all kinds; rejection letters; a three day headache; and general disillusionment. I'd finally had it with trying for the day, and went to the movies to escape it all. We were going to see the new Coen Brothers' film - because one must - but only front row seats remained. Precious: Based On The Novel "Push" By Sapphire was starting at the same time, and it was also high on my list. WHOA.
If I thought I had even ONE problem before seeing this astounding film ... it all dissipated about three minutes into entering the life of Clarice "Precious" Jones. The things that she endures are so horrifying ... we were shaking with held-back sobs at one awful point ... but she keeps going. The spirit inside of this 16 year old girl is so strong, I was instantly ashamed at myself for thinking I'd had an inkling of a bad day. The performances by absolutely everyone are so honest and touching - and EVIL, in the case of Mo'Nique (who I'm telling you, will win an Oscar) - that you are firmly in their world for every frame.
Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey each play small, but important roles, and excel. (Mariah Carey! Acting well!) But the lead performances, for sure Mo'Nique, but also Gabourey Sidibe as Precious, will just tear your heart out. I left the theater, first shaking my head and wiping my face of tears, but then skipping and clicking my heels that the cards I've been dealt have not ever come near the absolute trauma of this titan of a girl. Who keeps going forward no matter what happens. The movie ends with the dedication, "For Precious Girls Everywhere ..." - and that's about the roughest part of the movie - realizing that these scenarios DO exist. We could all do well to remember that ... all the time. That even though stuff happens that shakes your head up and ruins your day, it could always be so, so, so much worse.

Don't shy away from this movie because you think it will be too sad, either. It's actually laugh out loud funny in a few parts ... but inspiring all the way through. Go.

On another movie note ... I like when you go to Netflix and there's the little section that says "Local Favorites For Venice, CA". I always find it kind of reassuring to see the ones that people whom I live around watch - decent movies. What an interesting way to check out demographics. I'd be interested to know what other areas have in that section ...

That's how I first heard about the one I watched the other night, Anvil. What a great documentary! It's great for how METAL it is (Anvil is a metal band from the 80's that never blew up, but the guys are still going for it up in Canada, hoping they'll still break through and be huge.), but also for, again, how really inspiring it is. (It would be a swell double feature with American Movie - similar dreams, equally touching). Though it seems unlikely that these rockers, now in their 50's, will ever be massive (you do find yourself wanting to order their cd's just to help), they love what they do, their families support their dreams, and they never give up hope. And isn't that what it's all about?

View, reflect, and count your blessings.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Travis Lett - Gjelina's Food Artist

"Travis Lett is a good person. He's an artist too, and his artistry is food." So said my friend, photographer Kwaku Alston when I was doing a story on him (2/16/10)and talking about his favorite Venice spots, of which Travis's restaurant, Gjelina, is most certainly one. I've seen Travis around for years, and couldn't be happier that such a really good guy's business endeavor has taken off so well {Full disclosure: it's one of my favorite Venice spots too, so this is gonna be totally biased, OK? Cool.}. So well that he's a super busy guy and it was only yesterday that we finally had a chance to sit down for a minute and share a few Venice/life stories.

Travis is from New Jersey, grew up there and then headed off to UC-Boulder to study fine art ... painting, sculpting, all of it. He always liked to cook, and his Grandparents were farmers in Ohio, so he grew up with a healthy appreciation for the origins and benefits of naturally grown produce, and the sources of food is still what interests him the most about the field. When interns or someone asks Travis when he decided to be a Chef, his answer is, "I still haven't." Meaning he never chose it as a career, but paid for his art schooling by bumping around as a prep cook, and got really good at it, until a friend in L.A. needed someone to help him open his sushi restaurant (Tengu), and off Travis went, for what he thought would be a few months.

That few months stretched out longer, and after crashing in Hollywood or his car for a while, that got old and he looked for a place in Venice, as he said, "It was obviously the place to be, where I gotta be ...". (I exactly know the feeling he speaks of. Clearly.) He found a place down by Speedway & Horizon, and has been in Venice ever since. 930 in the Westwood W Hotel hired Travis as Chef and he began his "rough draft" concept for what Gjelina would become in the future, by buying everything he could from Farmer's Markets, organic and local, and creating menus based on seasonal availability. This was a bit more radical at the time, especially for a Corporate-owned hotel restaurant, so after a while, it was time again for Travis to move on. (Yay).

While doing some restaurant consulting gigs, and trying to sort out what was next for him, Travis would walk from his place to Abbot's Habit to get coffee and work, and passed by this building on the corner every day, with an open half-door, with Pit Bulls inside. He's say hello to the dogs and soon got to talking with the owner, Fran Camaj, who just so happened to want to open a restaurant in the space there that he already owned. From the very beginning, they agreed on the local, organic, seasonal approach to a menu, as well as the idea that it needed to reflect the Venice Community. A third partner, Robert Schwan - another long-time Venice resident and restaurant manager (72 Market Street, Wabi Sabi) - shared their vision, and they took a chance on hiring a young Chef in Travis that valued his creative freedom and ideals (Oh, the designers and architect too - all Venice folk). They have backed him up every step of the way, and the mad success of Gjelina has been their reward for their (not much of a) risk.

Gjelina is named for Fran's Albanian mother, hence the Albanian "Gj" spelling. It is always busy, and people are always enjoying it. The back patio is my favorite place to sit, enjoying truly delectable dishes (and maybe some lovely wine?) in the sunshine of the 'hood. When discussing the fruition of his vision, Travis told me that "what's dear about it to me is that we're getting food from the right sources." They purchase their ingredients from local artisan producers, from olive oil makers, to cheese, to the gorgeous produce at the Farmer's Market right up the street. Because of their dedication to this, Travis said, "There is a shifting balance in the way people think about their food, you can feel it happening." And it's because of people like him that this is so.

Travis said he thought that if you communicate with, and understand your customers, offering them a fun, stylish place, with delicious food, created with integrity and in a value-driven sense, Venice would react resoundingly well - and they have. He straight up says that this restaurant was opened with the belief that it was meant to be HERE, for the people of the area, and would be irrelevant out of its context (like when people want him to open one up in Vegas). He wanted it to represent US, and be a place for the Community to gather (and these days the A-list celebrities really seem to want in on that Community too ... what are you gonna do?). The partners' idea was that they wanted to have a place "that seems like it was already here." I think they've nailed that ... that bustling corner of Abbot Kinney now seems like it was always so.

I told Travis that I have a problem, and that is that I love certain things on his menu SO much, that I have to get them every time, lest I be haunted by them for days later (looking at you, Gruyere/Caramelized Onion/Fromage Blanc/Arugula Pizza & Butterscotch Pot de Creme with Salted Caramel and Creme Fraiche - of which I have said I might want it to be my last taste on Earth. For real.). He laughed and said where some people might take off the 4 least-selling items on a menu, he'd rather take off the 4 BEST sellers, so that people try something new, as he wants his guests to "Experience this place WITH me." I promise, in that case, to open my taste buds up next time, at least a little. Which is also why the delish BLT you might love and want every time may not always be on the menu. The tomatoes out of season will not be served by Travis at Gjelina, but when they're back and thriving, you'll appreciate that ol' sandwich all the more. (and those tomatoes will soon be grown right on Gjelina's own rooftop garden!) The same bit of a rebel (in a city - Greater L.A. - of ass-kissers, let's face it) yell comes out with Travis in the little comment on the front of the menu that says, "changes and modifications politely declined". I completely respect this, as I feel like it's his vision, no ma'am, you cannot have your dressing on the side, hold the everything, annoying little requests. But Travis explains it more like it's not his elite Chef that knows everything better than you stance, it's that "I'm kind of a Socialist when it comes to my Restaurant ... I want to please everyone the same." So the dishes are all prepared the same way, he encourages his staff to not spend extra energy on one person over another, and if customers are cool, they may get the extra attention to their experience, vs. the ones who like to hear themselves bitch about everything (my read on them, not his).

We chatted in the sunny, huge-window-ed upstairs of Gjelina, that is now a cool apartment-type place to kick it, but may soon host private dinner affairs. What a great space to talk about Venice and one's place in it - overlooking all the AKB businesses and foot traffic, people honking, waving, and dinging bike bells below us.

And speaking of bike bells ... I was telling Travis about my stolen/returned Delores the Bike story to explain my desire to build Community and tell our stories to each other, and it turns out he has a good one of his own. His Beach Cruiser was taken from his yard, an all too often told bummer of a tale. He wrote it off, and hoofed it around instead for about six months. Then one day he was leaving his house and there was his bike, back in the yard, having been fully improved, complete with freshly pumped up tires, and even some replaced parts. He said there may have been some Burning Man Playa dust on it, but he couldn't be sure if it was the thief's, or his own leftover memories. How about that?! Another one that makes you go, "Only in Venice". That would also go for Travis's feelings about Gjelina, and where he wants to be.


(Extra points if you can bike or walk there. Which we can.)

1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, 90291

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Peace Truck

I love this Peace truck, with little bongo drummers painted on the side (and "Jail Bush" - totally agree - painted on the back for good measure). Ultra Venice. Now ... do you think it's also Bio-diesel? That would be even better.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Scratch & Sniff

This yellow rose smells exactly like "Rose" smells in a scratch and sniff book. You can catch a whiff on Cabrillo. Ahhhh.

*image courtesy of Jen E's Blackberry's camera.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

It started out as one of those days when you don't know which end is up, and none of them feels right. You stick your chin up because freaking out does you no good. The ocean air does you lots of good. Thank goodness (!) you have your friends. Walking along, Jenny tells me that Sponto used to say that you see the signs you need to, and she just saw one that she thought was meant for me, but that I flew past too fast to see ... "Sling Ink" on a license plate. I dig that. Then I saw one that I'm sure was meant for all of us, especially in these sketch times: