Fear and Loathing Beneath a Tranquil Malibu Sunset (transcript)

Published September 1st, 2018

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Well it’s a sing song, ding dong, whirlygig King Kong, old time sling ting forward again, it’s the beginning and not the end. Fire in the sky, mud in your eye, walk on by, I’m just a jealous guy, gimme a plain pie, and I’ll take it to go if it’s all the same to you – hey! THIS IS NOT A TEST is what it is, I am Michael Phillips is who I is, a.k.a. mjp LTD, and if you’re friend or foe, now we all know, cause this is how it go, yo. Yes. This mess is the nation’s only podcast to begin with such a rough and tumble rumble jumble, really the only one in the universe, who are we trying to kid. So knuckle up and buckle up, step onto the shuttle up, make some elbow room for the sonic boom, ’cause it’s dropping soon like your favorite tune, five six, seven, eight…

Isn’t it funny that every dance rehearsal scene in every movie or television show or play or adolescent’s fever dream starts with that five, six, seven, eight count? Or even better, five, six, seven, and… I wonder who decided on that as the cliche standard. It’s not as if every dance routine or piece of music takes place in, on or around an eight count. All it is is a count for everyone to start doing something at the same time, like those four drumstick clicks you hear on every live rock and roll album ever recorded. The dance instructor could just as well say, “Dog, tree, elbow, GO!” But no, it’s always and invariably, five six, seven, and. Now you’re going to notice that every time you see it. Sorry.

Once upon a time I was minding my own business, standing at the window watching the freeway traffic exit at Inglewood boulevard near my lovely apartment in Lawndale, when my phone rang, as it would occasionally in those days. It was a friend of my ex-girlfriend, someone I had known for years, but who had never called me or seen me or spoke to me since the ex and I split up. But there she was, on the phone anyway, and she was inviting me to come to dinner out in Malibu. She was going to cook something, and I guess I was going to eat it, because I wasn’t crazy enough to pass up a free meal, and she was pretty and good company is good company, right? I couldn’t get a feel for whether this was just an it’s-nice-that-we’re-friends dinner, or maybe a hey-what-if-we-were-more-than-friends dinner, but like I said – free meal, so either option would work for me.

I didn’t know a lot of people who would invite me to an it’s-nice-that-we’re-friends dinner, that was a bit beyond the sophistication of most people I knew. No offense to the people I knew, it was beyond my sophistication too. I lived like an animal for the first 29 or 30 years of my life, or if not always an animal, always just outside the kind of rarified world where people have things like dinner parties. And I realize that it sounds insane to consider something like a dinner invitation to be sophisticated, but I left home when I was pretty young, and I didn’t spend a lot of time with anyone outside of my small social circle, which was mostly made up of musicians who either lived the same kind of bare-bones life that I did, or they lived in their parents’ basements.

It wasn’t until I had been in California for five or six years that I somehow fell in with a sophisticated crowd, and in retrospect it really wasn’t a terribly sophisticated crowd, but again, my frame of reference was, you know: milk crates are perfectly good furniture, and why would anyone pay more than ten dollars for a couch? That’s where I lived, so falling in with people who spent a thousand dollars on a couch, well, sometimes I felt like I had snuck into millionaire-land, and soon I would be discovered and sent packing, back to an oven of an apartment near the freeway with the coffee table that I made from eight dollars worth of wood and some milk paint that I mixed up in the kitchen.

So I fell in with these movie people and they always had enough money to do whatever they wanted to do and buy whatever they wanted to buy, and I’d look at them and what they did, what their jobs were, and I’d think, this is the greatest con perpetrated by anyone, anywhere, in the history of mankind, and I was kind of in awe of people who could charge some studio or film company $750 a week for bringing an iron and a spool of thread to a movie set, and that $750 was an extra “kit rental” fee that they got on top of their wage, which was another $400 or $500 a day. And that was just the wardrobe department, most people on the set made more money than that for doing even less work. To them it was all normal, which was the biggest con of all, I think. “Oh, it’s just my job,” they’d say, like, “doesn’t everyone make three thousand or four or five or fifty thousand dollars a week?”

The most I’d made in a week at that point, this was around 1990, was $262.21, and that was at the job I’d had six years earlier. I know that’s the exact figure because I just looked it up on one of those reports that Social Security sends to you every year. And that report shows your net earnings, so what I actually took home in a week was probably closer to $175. That report also says that in 40 years in the workforce I’ve earned $1,348,000, which sounds like a lot until you divide it by 40, then take out taxes. After that, the 1.348 million is about $435 a week. That average is skewed by four of five rogue years when I had zero income. But anyway, the point I’m trying to get to here, is that three or four thousand dollars a week was real money 25 years ago.

And how much money those people made isn’t really the point either, I’m just telling you so you have some frame of reference as far as where I’d spent my life and where I suddenly found myself living. And it was the movie business, which is kind of a gypsy thing, so even someone who was really in demand didn’t work 52 weeks a year. So they weren’t rich, these people, they were the working class of the movie business. But the reality is, the working class of the film industry are the rich to most people who work for regular companies or at the DMV or the grocery store. So maybe it’s not surprising that, to me, at that time, they seemed rich and sophisticated, even if hindsight and retrospect tell me they were no more sophisticated than the average janitor or dog catcher that you might pass on the street.

And my friend who invited me to dinner wasn’t some millionaire who was lording around, making proclamations and throwing dimes to bums, she was just another working class movie wardrobe person, so all of this talk about money has nothing to do with her, or anyone really, it’s just a tangent that I went off on when I could have said all of that and made the point more succinctly with a few dozen better chosen words. But I didn’t, and you’re hitched to this wagon now, so there’s no going back. You’re stuck here with someone who thought an invitation to dinner was unusual and novel, so you’re just going to have to deal with it. With me.

Okay, so, the phone rings…and she says, “I’m house sitting here in Malibu, it’s boring, maybe you can come out, I’ll make dinner,” and I stood there in my underwear – if I had bothered to put on underwear that day, the odds are about 50/50 – and I said, “Sure, that sounds lovely,” or something along those lines. She told me when and where to show up, and that was that. When I hung up I wondered if I had to bring anything. I hadn’t asked, but isn’t that what sophisticated people do? Bring some kind of bottle of something to dinner? I’d have to get some wine. I didn’t have anything around the apartment, because whatever alcohol made its way into the apartment, it didn’t last long. I didn’t have half a dozen half full bottles on the counter to offer you a drink from when you came over. All I had laying around were empties.

So I went to the store and bought a $12 chardonnay, because, girls like white wine, right? If I showed up with a bottle of Jack Daniels or Bombay Sapphire gin – well, this girl would have probably enjoyed that, but in general, I think people would find it gauche, wouldn’t they? People always bring wine, that’s what I’d always seen, so that’s what I did. I took the 405 to the 10, down to PCH and drove and drove and drove to Malibu. Malibu, if you’ve never been to Los Angles, is about a million miles away from everywhere. Every isolated, nice place in Los Angeles is a million miles from the rest of Los Angeles, and most of those places are accessible only by two lane roads that go on forever. Their isolation is what makes them desirable, I suppose, and also what makes you hate them after a while, if you live in one of them and have to go into town on any regular basis.

There was no miraculous Google maps voice to guide anyone in those days, so I had checked the Thomas Brothers map for the address and written down which streets to take once I got to Malibu. I was driving my car of choice back then, which was a vintage 1970s Honda Civic. I’ve had a few of them, and the particular one that I had for the drive out to Malibu was a white one I’d spray painted black, with half a dozen cans of Rust-Oleum flat black. I painted the car primer black as an aesthetic statement, but I think it also had the unexpected benefit of making it stealth, because I never got any tickets in that thing. I got tickets in every other car I’ve ever driven, lots of them, but not that one. I was gliding the stealth Civic down the windy Malibu streets until I got to Grayfox Street or Cliffside Drive, wherever the address was, and I found a place to park that I think was a parking spot – it could have been someone’s helicopter pad, I don’t know – but I parked and made my way to the back door of the house.

I knocked, my friend answered, and I said “Hi” and handed her the wine. I was all smooth moves and style in those days, let me tell you. She said, “Oh, you didn’t have to bring this,” and smiled and I thought, damn, how did this happen, how am I here with her, you know? But like I said, I was cool, so I just walked in and sized the place up. It was big, and full of art. Art everywhere you looked. And cool art, not crappy Malibu-type-person-who-doesn’t-really-know-what-cool-art-is kind of stuff. I was looking and looking and I said, “Damn, this place is great,” and she said, “Yeah, Cheech is a big art collector. I said, “Cheech, like Cheech Marin, Cheech and Chong?” you know, as if there was another Cheech living on the beach in Malibu, and she said, “Yeah, didn’t I tell you I was at Cheech’s house?”

Hmm, no, I think I would have remembered that. She opened the wine I’d brought, poured some into glasses and we walked around the place, looking at everything, looking out at the ocean 30 feet away, and she said, “Can I show you something?” Oh yes, I thought, please do show me something! She walked over to the dining room table and pulled a three ring binder out of her backpack. “This is a movie I’m doing, tell me if you think this wardrobe is any good,” and she flipped open the binder and there were about a hundred Polaroids of Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue in a bunch of different outfits and I turned the pages and looked: Nicholas Cage in a dirty, half-unbuttoned shirt, Elizabeth Shue in a leather skirt and a corset, Nicholas Cage in a dirty, half-unbuttoned shirt, Elizabeth Shue in a different leather skirt and a different corset, Nicholas Cage in a dirty, half-unbuttoned shirt, Elizabeth Shue in yet another leather skirt, but this time wearing a clean, half-unbuttoned men’s shirt.

“Yeah,” I said, this looks really good, and Elizabeth Shue did look really good in all those leather skirts and corsets, but I didn’t really know if it was good movie wardrobe or not. How would I know? But my friend seemed happy that I liked the pictures, and she said, “I have to finish this – whatever it was that was on the stove – you can go hang out on the deck, or go down to the beach.” I don’t know if she was trying to get rid of me or if I was supposed to say, “Oh, no, I’ll stay right here and keep you company,” so I just said, “Okay,” and walked out into the living room. After a minute or two I went out onto the deck, because when am I going to be on a deck in Malibu a few feet from the Pacific Ocean again? Probably never, right? So I went out onto the deck.

Which, I see in retrospect and with the wisdom of age, was a foolish, and probably alienating move. There I was with a beautiful woman, working on some wine, just the two of us in a millionaire’s house, and I was staring at the stupid fucking ocean, which, if I really wanted to see, I could have driven five minutes from my apartment to Redondo Beach to look at. But it was an impressive thing, that deck. The houses were pretty close together for how expensive I imagined they were, but you didn’t really notice the neighbors when you were sitting there, having a drink and looking out at the waves. I looked into the house and my friend was still in the kitchen, so I thought I’d take a quick walk down to the beach.

Every beachfront house out there in Malibu has stairs going down to the beach, and while, legally and ostensibly, the coastline belongs to every Californian, even the Malibu coastline, they are effectively private beaches down there near Point Dume, so again, when was I ever going to be able to walk along a private Malibu beach? Probably never, right? So I’d better go now. I walked down the narrow stairs, rounded a corner, and stepped off the stairs right onto the beach. I’d been on the beach in Los Angeles a thousand times, but this was different. I looked to my left, nobody. I looked to my right, nobody. It was completely deserted. Quite unlike the other thousand times I’d been on a Los Angeles beach.

Okay, honestly, I haven’t been on the beach a thousand times, that’s hyperbole, forgive me. I’m not a real big beach type gal. Sure, I’ve been to the beach. I lived within gobbing distance of the beach, twice, in Venice. But If I had to count how many times I’ve been down in that wet sand right there where the western edge of western civilization meets the endless Pacific, I’d have to say it’s maybe a few dozen times. Once my girlfriend went into the water there in Venice and said, “Come in! Come in, don’t be a baby!” But I didn’t go in, and a few days later she started to itch and her legs were all inflamed and we went to the doctor and she said, “You have a bacterial infection, I’m going to write you a prescription for some cream,” and my girlfriend had to put this cream on her legs three times a day and it smelled like an old hard boiled egg that had been in a dead orangutan’s ass for a month or two. That was 30 years ago, and I’m told the water in the Santa Monica Bay is much cleaner now, but I’ll still not dip in if it’s all the same to you, thanks.

But this Malibu beach – it was really something. I walked toward Point Dume, climbing over rock piles and looking up at the other houses right there along the beach. I had taken off my Doc Marten’s and hung them over my shoulder by the laces, so I was knee deep in the water at some points as I walked along. Eventually I turned around and started walking back. The sun was going down and I didn’t want to miss whatever was waiting for me back at Cheech’s house, so I wandered and meandered and soaked in the exclusivity and sea air and after a while I started looking up at the houses, thinking, it’s right about here, isn’t it? But the thing is, I didn’t know where it was. I hadn’t really taken a good look at the deck or the back of the house or even the staircase, you know, so I could recognize it when I came back. I wasn’t even clever enough to leave my shoes near the staircase, I was carrying them around like an idiot.

Well, this isn’t a problem, I thought, I know what those stairs looked like, they were very unique. Only they weren’t. All of the beach access stairs in Malibu were unique, so it was a crap shoot. I found a staircase that I was pretty sure was the right one, until I ran in to the locked gate halfway up the stairs, and I knew that Cheech’s stairs didn’t have a gate. At least I was pretty sure they didn’t. I found another familiar staircase and looked up – another gate. Finally I found stairs without a gate, but when I climbed them all there was at the top was a dark house, so that wasn’t the place.

I wandered up and down the beach, racking my brain for a scrap of a recollection of the house I was trying to find, but every time I thought I was seeing something familiar, it turned out to be either a locked gate or the wrong house. I had been looking for the house for about 45 minutes, and the sun was almost gone, and I started to think, what if I never find the place? What the fuck am I going to do? Back and forth I went on the beach near where I though Cheech’s house should be, but it was useless, because I couldn’t find his house. Eventually I went up an ungated staircase and snuck through someone’s yard until I got to a street. All the walking and being lost had made me sweaty, and I sat by the side of the road, sweating and lacing up my shoes.

It was completely dark and I had no idea which way to go, so I just picked a direction and started walking down the street, looking for my car. At least my car was visible from the street, so I figured it had to be nearby. How far off course could I possibly be? Pretty far, as it turned out. I walked for at least a quarter of a mile and hadn’t seen my car, so I turned around and started in the other direction. I wasn’t completely sure that I hadn’t walked right past my car though, since the streets were very dark, just like my flat black, stealth car. It took about 15 minutes to get back to where I’d started on the road – I made sure to look around and remember what it looked like – so I kept walking, because I was sure the place had to be on this street and it had to be nearby.

After about 10 minutes I came across a guy wheeling a trash can out to the street. I waved and said, “Hey, hi, sorry to bother you, but I was with my friend at Cheech Marin’s house, and I got lost on the beach. Do you happen to know where his place is?” The guy just looked at me and saw that I wasn’t wearing sophisticated clothes and said, “I’m calling the police, you’d better leave,” and he disappeared into the shrubbery. I know how stupid that sounds, asking some Malibu resident for directions to a famous person’s house, but I was desperate, I tell ya. It had been at least 90 minutes since I left the house and I was as lost as I could possibly be, right there in the middle of a tiny community.

Very few houses were visible from the street, so I walked and walked, looking mainly at garages and fences and hedges, and at that point, even if I did see Cheech’s house, I wouldn’t have recognized it, so I was just hunting for my car. The street I was on though, it couldn’t be right, because I’d walked a good distance in both directions and hadn’t found anything. I decided to keep going though, and within a minute or two I came across another road that branched off the road I was on, toward the beach. I took it, figuring, what the hell, I’m already lost. I can’t get more lost. Lost is one of those things you either are or aren’t. You can’t be kind of lost or a little bit pregnant.

Then after a few more minutes of walking, there it was: my glorious little Honda, parked just off the street. I had found my way back to civilization. There was a piece of paper on the windshield of my car, so I went over and pulled it off. It was pretty dark, but I could still make out the threat to have my car towed to the nearest junkyard if I didn’t move it. Imagine that, what kind of hospitality is that? Fucking Malibu. I stood by my car and spotted Cheech’s house and walked down to the back door, right where the kitchen was. The inside of the house was pretty dark, the only light in the place was a couple of small lamps and a lot of candles. I walked in and said, “Laura? Laura?” And then I saw the light out on the deck, so I went out there.

She was sitting in a chair, looking out toward the black ocean, smoking a cigarette. There was an empty wine glass on the table next to her, and next to the glass was the bottle I’d brought, empty, alongside another half-empty bottle. “I’m so sorry,” I said, mopping sweat off my face and neck, “you’re not going to believe it, but I got lost…” Without looking at me she said, “You’ve been gone for more than two hours. I thought you left.” “I’m so sorry, but it was crazy, I couldn’t find the house from the beach, and when I made my way up to a road it was the wrong road…” “Um hmm,” she said, continuing to stare out into the distance. “I’m so sorry,” I said, and she said, “Yeah, you already said that.”

We sat there silently for what felt like a very long time. I was still sweating because once I get hot I stay hot for like the next 24 hours, and my feet were sore, and the waves continued to noisily bang up against the shoreline and recede back, over and over, because the ocean didn’t care that you were lost or sweaty or that you really pissed someone off without even trying, or that you’re dropping dead from a heart attack or a gunshot wound. The ocean doesn’t care about any of that. Finally I said, “Well…,” and she said, “Yeah, well. Probably time for you to leave,” so I left. Oddly enough, she never called to invite me to dinner after that, not in Malibu or anywhere else. In fact, I never talked to her again.

Which – okay, I would have been pissed too. I would have probably thought much worse things than whatever she thought while she waited there for me with the food she cooked getting cold and the hands moving around the clock and the candles burning down. So I can’t blame her for never speaking to me again, but Cheech hasn’t called either, and that’s what really hurts. Cheech and Chong. If you’re as old as I am you remember those records, or just comedy records in general: Cheech and Chong, George Carlin, Bill Cosby – it’s funny to think of buying a comedy album and listening to it more than once, or sitting there listening to it by yourself. But I did those things. We all did, those of us of a certain vintage.

Okay, one last thing here about Cheech – the ex-girlfriend I mentioned earlier worked on a short-lived TV show he had. She was doing wardrobe for him, and one day, at the end of the day, he handed her the jacket he’d been wearing, and the wardrobe people will generally go through the pockets of jackets and pants to make sure the actor didn’t leave anything important behind. I worked with her for a couple of days helping out on one of the Wayne’s World movies and someone handed me Chris Farley’s jacket at the end of an outdoor shoot day and the pockets were full of sand, candy wrappers, chewed gum and cigarette butts. I didn’t figure he’d miss that stuff, so I made the semi-professional call to just throw it all out without alerting him to it.

But at the end of one of the days on the Cheech Show, she’s checking the pockets of the jacket Cheech wore and comes across a check made out to him for the nice round amount of one million dollars and zero cents. She finds Cheech and says, “I think you forgot this,” and he looks at it and says, “Oh, thanks, see you tomorrow.” You know, like she’d just handed him his sunglasses or car keys. That’s when you know you’re rich, brothers and sisters, when you can stick a million dollar check into your pocket and forget it’s there. Can you imagine what it would be like if someone handed one of us a million dollar check? We wouldn’t take our hands off it until we got it to the bank. And someone else would have to drive us to the bank, because we’d be holding that check with both hands and staring at it the entire time, just in case it slipped a millimeter or two.

I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe you handle million dollar checks all the time. I shouldn’t speak for you, I’m sorry. So I guess that’s it. Another one bites the dust, keep stomping, keep bomping, keep passing the open windows, keep it real, keep on truckin’, keep left at the fork in the road ahead, and keep coming back. THIS IS NOT A TEST only works if you work it.