After the heavy rains, an early spring balm fell over the canyon. The air was alien. I could see their shadows moving in the low light of the grand old house. I walked without purpose up the stone stairs in the vain hope of avoiding human interaction. In retrospect, I should have been more welcoming, though I was a different person in 1995, or at least I’d like to think so. One with less patience, and prone to snap judgments. And besides, my brief respite had been interrupted. What’s next? The question always loomed.
Daniel had at least made the effort, inviting me out one evening along with his posse of rock n roll revelers. In typical fashion, I declined. I had only lived in the house on Laurel Canyon for a month when the members of Love and Rockets moved in. Meanwhile, I had recently completed a stint in Matt Johnson’s the The, was recording and playing club gigs with Marty Willson-Piper of The Church, and had just started a new band with David Newton of The Mighty Lemon Drops. Suddenly I was at the center of the universe when it came to 80s alternative rock. Strange circumstances indeed.
I was charged with little more than ensuring the squatters didn’t return. After the renovation, the house was to become the headquarters for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. My room on the second of three floors consisted only of an unreliable air mattress, a portable stereo and a digital clock. Hollywood glamour at its finest. But it was rent-free, and it bought me valuable time. On most nights, Kevin arrived in a very nice car to join his brother David and Daniel for jam sessions lasting into the wee hours of the morning. But tonight was different than most. There was a new arrival.
Inside the foyer, Daniel’s motorcycle was parked for the evening. After rehearsals he would usually padlock a chain to the door in order to thwart any would-be thieves. Following a cursory hello to David, I hastened to my room, but was stopped short by the figure descending the spiral staircase. David made the introduction. “Keith, this is Genesis.” She certainly made a first impression. Long grey dreadlocks framed a weary face that featured heavy, dark-encircled eyes. She wore a floor-length tie-dyed dress, and approached smiling, placing her hand weakly in mine. OK, perhaps not a she. At least, not yet. Androgynous, yes.
I had heard of Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle, but was otherwise unfamiliar with those seminal industrial bands. He was very polite, and there was a sad kindness behind his eyes. But there was also something rather intense about his countenance. This house already challenged my preconceived notions about the paranormal. Genesis P-Orridge’s presence could only stir the sleeping ghosts that lay dormant within its walls. That night, as I drifted to sleep, slowly deflating to the floor, I asked myself what in the world was I doing here? How did I end up living in an outtake of the film Withnail & I? It was time to take action. There were decisions to make.
Days passed, and turned into a week or more. Genesis was still there. I helplessly watched my bank account descend into dangerous territory. Soon I would need to find work, hardly the spoils I expected Tinseltown to deliver. Meanwhile, the songs emanating from the formal dining room downstairs were starting to take shape. David and Genesis were simultaneously working on something far more experimental. I was stalled, sleepless, incapable of a simple course of action.
Never fear. Tomorrow the universe will make decisions of its own.
Seven-sometime AM. A relentless unthinking buzz roused me from sleep. Had I set the alarm? I had no particular place to be. It was to be another day of waiting for nothing to happen. No. This was louder, more urgent. It beckoned from elsewhere in the house. An acrid stench filled the air. I sat bolt upright. Burning electronics, wood and drywall. I raced from my room to the top of the stairs. I could already hear the combustion.
I descended the stairs to find the dining room engulfed in flames. There, in the foyer, I encountered a frantic woman I had never seen before. She screamed, “The door is chained! How do we get out?” I calmly advised her to unlatch the window from the living room and get out quickly. “Go! And find Patrick!” Patrick was the other caretaker who lived in the detached studio under the outside stairs. I would wake the rest of the house. The fire was too far gone. Whether the motorcycle was there I don’t recall, but to contemplate the simple physics of gasoline and fire at this late date still gives me the chills.
I ran to the second floor again. The smoke became blacker and thicker. I stopped short to consider the paucity of my current state. For a brief moment I thought I might succumb then and there, but was quickly shocked back to the matter at hand. Who should I wake first? David and Genesis were at the opposite end of the second floor, and furthest from the fire. I devised a plan in short order.
On the third floor I found Daniel’s room and pounded on the door, shouting of imminent danger. Silence. I tried the handle. It was locked. Is he in there? I imagined the fire growing in size and creeping up the staircase, searching for someone, anyone to claim. I opened the window and crawled onto the clay tile roof. It was a long way down at the front of the house. I found a window. The curtains were drawn. Again, I rapped loudly on the pane. I tried to open it. It too was locked. I considered breaking it, but with what; my bare hands? He’s either a heavy sleeper, or he’s not in there. I remember saying aloud, “I’m sorry. I have to wake the others.”
Up and over the roof I went, trying not to look down. At the back of the house there was a better way down. The back yard was terraced, and I could jump with ease from one floor to the other until I was safely on the ground. I ran the length of the back of the house and circled to the front. “David! Wake up! The house is on fire,” I shouted. All the while, I thought of Daniel sleeping peacefully and unaware of his impending doom.
After several tense moments, David materialized at the balcony to his room, the lord of the manor, dapperly dressed and seemingly nonchalant about the situation. This really should have been his house. He belonged there. In that moment he was equal measure Howard Hughes, Jay Gatsby and Count Dracula. Somewhere behind him was Genesis in a panic. It was an easy way out, or so I imagined.
Meanwhile, I could hear the sirens approaching. Fortunately for everyone, there was a fire station at the top of Laurel Canyon where Mulholland crossed. I don’t recall if it was me or Patrick who unlocked the chain link gate just as the fire engines arrived. I imagine they would have driven straight through at any rate. The fire was quickly and expertly extinguished. Ultimately, there was only interior damage and the foundation remained intact.
I found a corner of the front yard to collect myself. I was covered in soot, dressed in what were likely my only good clothes left. I waited for news of Daniel, fearing the worst. Genesis had been severely injured. I couldn’t quite work it out. There were doors leading to the back yard. The fire hadn’t reached that end of the house. In fact, it had stopped at the top of the staircase at the second floor. Somehow he had fallen. He must have lost his footing. I can only speculate that he didn’t know the location of the fire and had tried to scale down the front of the house from his room.
Then, magically, he appeared, dressed in leather pants and jacket, his hair slicked back, sporting giant-framed sunglasses as if he were about to take the stage. It was impressive, and I recall being relieved and happy to see him. “You all right?” Daniel asked as he walked toward the gathering throng near the front of the yard at Laurel Canyon. It was quite the contrast given that I had last encountered him in the kitchen wearing cut-off jean shorts, a white tank top and the most massive white man’s afro I had seen in a good while.
I felt strangely happy and destitute at once, freed by the flames, and grateful in a way that I was now forced to start over. I actually looked forward to finding an apartment, getting a job and maneuvering toward a normal existence. The house had successfully expelled us all. The spell had been broken. We would all have to move on. And so ended my first strange episode in the City of Angels.
David kindly returned some of my belongings that he found in the aftermath. He included a nice letter as I recall. Still, I spent several years avoiding the subject unless pressed. Love and Rockets were forever linked to the fire, and I didn’t relish the idea of revisiting that moment in any shape or form. So when I was invited by a friend to see the band headline the now-shuttered Hollywood Grand, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance. I don’t know if it was resentment or blame that I felt, but ultimately it was of my own invention. I agreed to go. It was actually the first time I had ever seen them. And they killed it, opening with a searing version of “Ball of Confusion.”
There was something dark and hypnotic about my first days in Los Angeles. And it clung to me until that moment when the band played on. Truth is, I can hardly recall the feeling anymore from the safe haven of my Highland Park home. But I felt compelled to put “pen to paper” after all this time and relay my own version of the events. Currently, I lead a relatively quiet existence by comparison. But sometimes when the sun sets, I look west beyond the hills and imagine the shadows falling over the house on Laurel Canyon. It still stands, like a bulwark against time, striking the temporary inhabitants with unease. They will come and go. As for the house? It will likely always be there.
Re-published in Blurt Magazine: http://blurtonline.com/feature/opening-ceremony/