By Lara Shelton
First in an October series of “spooky” songs*
*actual “spooky” content may vary
It’s been said, sung, and written that Los Angeles is a driving town, but it’s difficult to express to those who’ve never lived there that Angelenos are also a driving people. We move in our sleep, and we dream street signs and strip malls. At the extreme edge of the country, the urge to go west has turned in on itself: there’s nowhere else to go. So everyone drives around in circles.
But it’s hard to hit a moving target. It’s hard to know who you are when you’re caught in traffic, and the guy next to you is honking, and the guy on the other side of you just cut you off.
My family and I had moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1984. It was the summer of the Night Stalker, a man who entered open windows during the oppressive heat of August nights to murder people in cold blood. The palpable fear of the city was unlike anything I had ever encountered. I was fourteen; this fear was my first true impression. Not the flatness, not the strip malls, not the freeways. Los Angeles was a nightmare, but also oddly compelling. Death to a certain species of teenage girl is romantic. Violent death even more so. But it also made a certain sense to never be still. To not sleep. To be ever watchful. To keep moving.
I spent a lot of time during my early twenties driving in circles. Driving in circles became a kind of release, like flight. Sometimes when I didn’t know what else to do I got in my car and drove—often to the beach in the middle of the night. I needed to know that there was something large—something beyond the Industry, something beyond the Night Stalker—waiting out there in the world.
And I listened to a lot of music while I drove. Happy Nightmare Baby was one of those albums I listened to. Opal was a embryonic version of what later evolved into Mazzy Star. I like Mazzy Star, but I heard Opal first, and I like them better.
Part of the reason was the singer, Kendra Smith.
She was not the greatest singer in the world, if you judge singing by technical ability. She needed to be judged by a different rubric: one which valued atmosphere over ability. One which valued the cerebral over the emotional.
She was in the tradition of the chanteuse, and even more specifically, she was in Nico’s version of the chanteuse: aloof, cold, asexual, and yet oddly compelling. Was the nightmare good or bad?
As a young woman living in Los Angeles, it’s hard to keep it cerebral. That’s not what young women do in Los Angeles. It’s hard to know who you are when you must choose between being either a sex pot or a neurotic. Smart women were rare. Smart women who let on they were smart were even rarer. Which is why Smith was such a beacon of hope for me. In fifteen years she had been in nine bands, leaving her mark on each one. Then, when she was tired of the whole scene, she just disappeared.
Where had she gone? Sometimes I imagined her driving, up the coast to a little ashram or down into Mexico to a seaside town. I imagined her driving a straight line. Escaping the circle.
It’s no coincidence that the video for this song features driving at night, or that the Smith sings about pulling the listener to the bottom of the sea. I want to drown in something big, if it’s Smith doing the drowning. I want to dissolve into the happy nightmare.