Hooray for Hollywood

There’s something mysteriously charming about encountering a group of seniors protesting on behalf of Jesus and a man standing at the bus stop sporting a skeleton mask, all on the same block. Casually sporting a skeleton mask, I should say, as though it was as common an accessory as a winter scarf.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Hollywood since moving to LA, but now that I work in the epicenter of TMZ bus tours and feral looking Marvel characters roaming Hollywood Boulevard, there’s way more nuance to this storied city than I ever realized. The kind of stuff that gets lost in a blur of neon as you zoom by in your Uber car or hurry out of a theater.

I’m always fascinated by the stars people choose to photograph on the Walk of Fame. Like, why is Sigourney Weaver meaningful to you? What is it about Chuck Norris that would compel a grown man to lay down on one of the dirtiest streets in LA (America, maybe) to pose alongside a concrete star? (I know, Chuck Norris could lay down on broken glass and not receive a scratch, or whatever). I can’t remember the first star I photographed when coming to LA as a tourist, but I kind of like the stars located within a block of my new office.

The late Hugh Hefner, activist, feminist, American icon and editor of the most famous literary men’s lifestyle magazine in the world is there. Ironically (for lack of a better word) the late great Tom Petty is also immortalized on the famous boulevard within the same block. I’m quite certain I’ve photographed (read, Instagrammed) both of those stars in the past and sadly again in the past few weeks following both of their passing’s.

The characters I’ve encountered this week while passing Petty’s star in particular have been, as you could imagine, colorful. The hippie guy meditating alongside the piles of candles, flowers and empty booze bottles who awoke from his trance to pet my dog. The Native American fellow who had a little speaker setup playing Wildflowers tonight as he laid feathers down on the makeshift shrine.

There’s still evidence of old Hollywood too, if you really look for it. Not necessarily traces representative of the glamorous Golden Age, but evidence of the past. Like the abandoned Hollywood Center Motel (said to be one of Los Angeles’ most haunted hotels) on Sunset. A few beats down you encounter a run-down home with a neon sign that reads “Family Foot Care” complete with a squawking caged bird and ominous man out front. A charming old shop that specializes in classic violins. The old LA Weekly offices. History.

From where I sit in my modern, open-concept office, I have an unobstructed view of the Hollywood sign. It’s hard not to find the romance in that. The folks hawking tours of celebrity homes and the like don’t harass me anymore when I walk down Hollywood Boulevard. I guess that means I’ve graduated to Angeleno status.

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CalJam Brings Concert-Goers Together Amid Awful Week in Music

Speeding towards the desert foothills of the San Bernardino Valley in one hundred degree heat for CalJam, a one-day rock music festival revival, conflicting thoughts raced through my head. What would typically feel like a rush of joyful anticipation leading up to a music festival became laced with anxiety.

After a historically sad week in music following the tragedy in Las Vegas and the sudden passing of Tom Petty, that sweet pre-concert build up was being overshadowed with dark thoughts. What “suspicious signs” should we be looking for? If the unthinkable happened, do we hit the deck or run for cover? What would be the plan if my husband and I became separated for some reason?

As a Canadian, these are things I would have never considered before moving to Los Angeles. As a reasonable person I realize tragic events can happen anywhere. So when we passed through the iconic rainbow entrance at Glen Helen Amphitheater on Saturday alongside thousands of other music revelers, it struck me — we’re all in this together. A single flowing mass of energy showing up to have a good time. That joyful anticipation quickly returned and security became secondary.

An event dubbed as the album release party for Foo Fighter’s ninth studio album Concrete and Gold, the lineup was just as iconic as the original California Jam’s that took place in the 70s. We arrived as two-man British band Royal Blood took the stage and rocked the crowd in the searing heat of the day, with some people vying for shade beneath the massive speaker stands.

Brits would continue to prove their rock prowess with Wolf Alice on the Sun Stage while Liam Gallagher held court at the CalJam17 Stage, treating the crowd to a few Oasis hits. He would later join the Foo Fighters on stage for a rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together” before leaping into the audience for what looked like a group hug that quickly turned into a lengthy crowd surf.

As the sun set and temps began to drop, Cage the Elephant turned up the heat with a ground shaking – literally — set that commenced with their version of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, one of many tributes to Petty throughout the day.

After taking in what was already an A-list lineup of rockers, Queens of the Stone Age lit up the natural amphitheater with an electric light show and wall of sound that could metaphorically melt your face off. Between songs, lead singer-guitarist Josh Homme spotted a sign in the crowd and politely asked the rowdy pit of fans to pass it up to the stage. The sign, which Homme hoisted above his head, read “Vegas Strong.” When he flipped it to the other side it listed all 59 names of the victims of the Las Vegas shooting a week earlier.

“We are nothing when we’re apart. We are everything when we’re together, forever. Let’s have the fucking time of our lives,” Homme said before launching into the next song.

The finale of the fest was of course the Foo Fighters, who played a two-hour set with several special guests, including Joe Perry of Aerosmith who headlined California Jam II in 1978, bringing the magical day full circle.

More than ever, we need live music. More than any other time in US history people need to come together to sing and dance and have a good time. As Homme sensitively pointed out, we are indeed everything when we’re together.

Originally published in The Province.

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The Venice Roller Dancers

There is no better example of what makes Los Angeles a special place like Sundays on the Venice Boardwalk. Every time I get caught up in the news cycle and think the world has gone mad, I bike over to the grassy knoll between the skate park and roller rink and people watch.

Sunday’s are the best for soaking it all in, especially in the hours leading up to sunset. While the roller dancers blast their disco and old school R&B from huge amps they’ve rolled in for the day, the muted sound of a bongo beat carries over from the drum circle several yards away. Sometimes the skaters are blasting punk, adding to the mix of musical genres.

Not unlike hearing everything from Bell Biv Devoe to Black Flag to a synchronized Afrobeat, the diversity at the roller rink feels like the truest representation of America. People from all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities – complete strangers in many cases – connecting, having a laugh and getting their boogie on. No judgement. No animosity or prejudice. Just pure joy.

I suspect most people don’t know this, but the roller dancers in Venice during the late 70s are in large part responsible for the culture that exists on the Boardwalk today. I certainly didn’t, until I saw Roller Dreams (trailer) during the LA Film Festival this year, a documentary on the Venice Beach roller dancers and the adversity they’ve faced from local government and police over the years while trying to keep the roller dancing community alive. Many of them are African American.

Here’s the thing, friends. Black culture is American culture. So much of what makes the US a cultural powerhouse can usually be tied back to the black community. I’m so grateful to these folks for fighting to keep this Venice tradition alive.

A few of the OGs still dance every Sunday, including Terrell Ferguson who was one of the roller dancers who performed in these popular iPod ads. Now and again, the man who started it all known as “Mad” shows up to linger on the sidelines and watch the new generation of dancers (look for a large fellow dressed head to toe in black with a ball cap that says ‘Mad’ on it). He’s a civil rights hero, in my opinion. One of these days I’ll conger up the courage to thank him.

While hate groups are ever-present in the US, California included, I can’t help but think the kind folks outweigh the ignorant by a large, loving margin. Every time I need a reminder of this, it’s comforting to know the roller rink is a quick bike ride away.

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Like a moth to a microphone

Speaking in front of an audience is not a space I enjoy navigating. I’ve had to endure public speaking for years in my professional life, and I can deliver. I’ve even been told that’s it’s one of my “core strengths” (that’s corporate speak for a top talent or attribute). I assure you, it is not. I have to know my material inside and out. Rehearse that shit and sell it. Inject a silly joke halfway through my slide deck as a trigger to myself that it’s almost over. I hate it.

Strangely, I love to tell a good story. I enjoy regaling close friends of something hilarious that happened, whether traveling in India or en route to my local coffee shop. I get off on publishing stories that strike a chord in someone so deeply that they spare a few precious minutes ripping into me in the comments section. Huddled behind my laptop, squinting one eye, tentatively refreshing my browser. I love it.

Storytelling events are popping up all over Los Angeles: Don’t Tell My Mother, Risk! and of course The Moth, which originated in New York and now hosts events across the country. I was craving a little escapism a few weeks ago, so I went to a Moth event solo to sit at the back of the room and watch as other storytellers bravely took to the mic to tell their tales, in front of a panel of judges, no less. Horrifying.

The topic was Culture Shock. Much to my delight, audience members who aren’t quite bold enough to unleash their stories verbally can jot down a few sentences related to the topic and drop it into a sack. The host then chooses a selection to read in between speakers. Right up my alley.

Not surprisingly, most of the stories were about experiences abroad, mishaps that occurred while traveling or living in some far off place. My two sentences were about the culture shock I experienced when I first moved to LA. And the host read my cheeky words, as I nervously sipped on my seven-dollar chardonnay. And the audience laughed. And it reminded me of the relief I feel when a joke lands during a presentation in my day job.

After moving to Los Angeles from Canada, I inadvertently strolled through Skid Row on my way to the Arts District. I’ve never been more relieved to see hipsters in my life.

In the last year I’ve turned down invites to speak at day-job-related conferences in San Francisco, Chicago and here in LA, but I did agree to sit on a panel discussion for one. It reminded me of Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road, where she writes in great length about talking circles, a traditional Native American practice used to bring communities together and give people the space to speak freely. The formation of the circle ensures that no one is in a place of prominence, like some poor sod sweating bullets in a packed boardroom. I like that.

I’m going to another Moth event next week, this time the topic is Deadlines. Maybe I’ll sign up and step to the mic. Probably I won’t. But I’m glad there’s a space for storytellers to come together and inspire one another. It feels kind of necessary these days.

UPDATE: I signed up and dropped my name in the sack with minutes to spare, after the group of folks around me — all there solo too, strangely — convinced me. It’s a supportive crowd! But alas, my name was never drawn.

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Great Art Lingers on Every Corner in LA

Los Angeles is a feast for the eyes for anyone with a flair for photography or halfway decent Instagram game. The dreamy cotton candy skies that occur in the final moments before sunset, otherwise known as #magichour, have provided an unspoken narrative for the dreamlike vibe that permeates this grand old city. An infinite blue sky punctuated with towering palms somehow never gets old.

LA’s semi arid landscape leaves me breathless every time I step outside, even while hurrying my poor little dog to poop early in the morning before work. It kind of stops you dead in your tracks, forcing you to take pause in a world that’s been visually redefined by devices.

While I take pride in showcasing the beautiful bits of my adopted city, it’s not really the purest representation of what Angelenos encounter on a daily basis. Yes, the weather is wonderful. It’s true; our city cleans up well when it wants to. Right now the jacaranda trees are about to bloom and it reminds me of all the times I visited LA in the spring and vowed that one day I’d stay for good. But there are still some seedy areas that make me nervous. There’s a massive tent city that lines the blocks alongside the Google campus here in Venice, a constant reminder of how gentrification has clashed with long time low-income residents. There are still unsightly power lines littering the skyline in the older parts of city and a few weekends ago I literally witnessed a man drop trou and take a deuce on the street in DTLA.

My point is, despite all the edited, cropped and sometimes manipulated images you see people post of Los Angeles, we still have grit and poverty and failing infrastructure and black eyes we prefer to mask with oversaturated Instagram filters. It’s far from perfect. But what makes the more unsavoury sights seem beautiful again – a defunct factory, abandoned section 8 housing or sidewalks being uprooted by old growth trees – is the ever-growing collection of street art that adds an element of sparkle that is sometimes lost on economic high and lows.

LA artists like Jules Muck, Wrdsmth, Isabelle Alford-Lago, Colette Miller and so many others have given locals and visitors something beyond your standard beach scene. Their public murals make every corner of LA County something worthwhile to explore, and photograph and marvel at.

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Gym People of LA

So here I am, living in Los Angeles for two years now, somehow successfully avoiding two things that seem to come with a 9-0-something zip code: body image issues and a shrink. I eat carbs – specifically carbs laced with gluten – I don’t have a trainer and I’ve never participated in a juice cleanse. I don’t subscribe to sober January (or sober any month for that matter) and I have yet to step foot inside a SoulCycle studio, despite owning multiple pairs of Kate Hudson’s Fabletics stretchy pants. I’ll admit it, clothing that takes me from hiking Runyon right onto brunch just makes sense. I can’t believe I just typed that.

The thing is, its impossible to live in LA and not want to partake in some kind of fitness slash vegan slash stretchy pant situation. It’s nice, like, almost every day so there’s no hiding that winter bod behind layers of warm clothing. Which compels a person to peel themselves from their laptop slash stack of books slash Grace and Frankie marathon on Netflix and get their ass to the gym.

Which brings me to a particularly unsavoury part of trying to stay fit in LA: gym people. Obviously, people sweat it out in the gym all over the world. It’s not like Los Angeles is the only city where it’s inhabitants have access to a mirror and inconveniently teensy swimwear. But having experienced gym culture outside of the US, I can say for certain gym people are of a different breed here. For example:

Territorial Guy – This is the guy who drapes his sweat-soaked towel on various machines in between weights and jump rope to let everyone know that he’s interval training, so to avoid fucking with his flow. I will always fuck with your flow, guy, because guess what? You don’t own this gym.

A-Type Girl – Women are efficient as fuck at the gym, this I like. Most of us are there to get the job done, in and out, because we got shit to do. This gal is other level, though. Whatever you do, do not disrupt her 8.5 treadmill pace or take too long on the elliptical or she may poison your power elixir when you’re not looking.

Zero Exercise Guy – You want to know how to achieve absolutely zero results at the gym? Observe this guy, lounging about on sought after weight benches, watching sports (why does my gym have so many big screen TVs?), playing games on his phone like someone who will literally never encounter a vagina in real life.

I Woke Up Like This Girl – This gal rocks up at 7am in full make-up, false eyelashes, and barely breaks a sweat but really benefits from the half-dozen sultry power squats she’s posting on Insta via Boomerang.

Imma Big Deal Guy – I have a hectic day job, I get it. But I’m never going to participate in a conference call while at the gym. This guy has no problem speaking loudly and obnoxiously into his headset while perched on the leg press with zero anxiety about uttering anything proprietary. He loves to talk total nonsense to fellow gym-goers about the “business” in which he manages. He’s highly caffeinated and probably simultaneously listening to a Tony Robbins audiobook.

Au Natural Girl – I get it, I’ve switched to all natural deodorant too and I’m all about breathable cottons, but dropping to a lotus position to get in a minute of meditation in the middle of a loud gym is going to draw some eyeballs. Also, leave the mala beads at home.

Exhibitionist Guy – I see you. You see me. But there is absolutely no need to acknowledge each other’s presence. I get it, you worked hard for that eight pack, bro. But if you’re after positive reinforcements by way of a sleazy stare, I’ll never give you the satisfaction.

Bottom line, I look at the gym as a Harry-Potter-meets-Dirty-Dancing dynamic. As soon as I place my ear buds into my ears, just like that, I disappear under an invisible spandex cloak. This is my dance space; this is your dance space.

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The Beat Goes On

Venice is in transition, a time where gentrification is altering the DNA of this historically diverse community. A neighbourhood built by immigrants from all walks of life. While a quick stroll down the boardwalk might suggest that diversity is still a cornerstone in our quirky part of town, more and more you see it’s storied past fading away. Except on Sundays, in the hours leading up to sunset, slightly north of the skate park on beautiful Venice Beach.

Around midday, flags from every country begin to appear, planted in an inviting V-like formation in the sand. The Venice Drum Circle is open to all, regardless of color or religious creed. Boy and girls, young and old. Whether you have mad rhythm or can’t maintain a beat, everyone is welcome. It’s a celebration of inclusiveness, community, joy and unabashedly getting a boogie on with complete strangers.

In a time where the US feels so divided, the drum circle is a welcome reminder of the warm, tolerant, loving people who make up this great nation. Despite what the media clings to, I refuse to believe the majority of Americans thrive on hate. I won’t accept that everything is red or blue, left or right. The United States is a country of immigrants. And while there are still barriers to burst, stigmas to eliminate and glass cielings to shatter, an event like the drum circle represents what the US is all about: a sum of all its beautifully eclectic parts.

Happening every Sunday, from noon(ish) until sunset on the beach where Brooks Ave meets Ocean Front Walk. Bring a bongo, maracas, your best dance moves or any other percussion instrument. See you there, friends.

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City of Stars

When people ask me why I moved to Los Angeles, usually the first assumption is that I came here to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. An aspiring actress, struggling writer, or indie filmmaker perhaps. Something sparkly and ambitious that translates to the silver screen.

While I didn’t move to LA to become a star it’s impossible to not be touched by the energy that exists here. The feeling of hope and hustle towards finding a place in Hollywood, should the stars align (pun absolutely intended).

I’m constantly meeting people who are quick to offer their stories of struggle or why they decided to come to LA. Some are somewhat hidden within the minutiae of everyday life, while others seem to shine right through.

Like the waitress at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice who serves me boozy cocktails, but in her spare time is a singer songwriter.

Like the would-be comedian who bags my groceries at Whole Foods while testing out his latest material on me.

Like the guy sitting next to me on a plane, clutching his armrest as we hover above LAX amidst crazy turbulence. I strike up a conversation to try and calm him down, and he introduces himself as “the actor you’ve never heard of that’s been in everything.”

Like my Lyft driver who is also the drummer in a chart-topping reggae band working towards releasing their next album.

Like Preston, the handsome bartender at the wine bar in The Landmark Theater, who works two jobs while pursuing an acting career.

Like my friend Meghan – a fellow Canadian gal – who came to LA to pursue acting and screenwriting and, 7 years later, is still plugging away. Still hopeful.

Like Melissa, my neighbour who’s a film producer and comes from a long line of entertainers and film industry trail blazers, but has migrated towards a life of philanthropy.

Like so many, I spend a lot of time outside of my day job grinding, trying to carve out a pathway to my dreams. For me that means editing and rearranging, trying to improve my screenwriting chops and refine the scripts I’ve written. And while I pound away on my laptop in my little apartment in Venice or a nearby café surrounded by other writers, I can’t help but fantasize about something I’ve written generating interest from a filmmaker.

Each year I head to the Toronto International Film Festival, for years as a fan and more recently as press. While covering red carpets, most journalists flock to the actors but I usually zero in on the directors and screenwriters. My press pass grants me unbridled access to speak with some of the most exciting filmmakers in the world, so if I’m being honest, that’s the real reason I’m there. Maybe if I dig deep enough, that’s part of the reason I moved to LA after all.

This year, I interviewed writer/director Damien Chazelle before the North American premiere of La La Land. After watching his film, I realized I don’t want to be the one feverishly capturing every comment and anecdote on my voice recorder any more, sitting alone at a bar filing my stories. Someday, I hope to be on the other side of the red velvet rope impassionedly talking about a film I’ve written. Now that I live in La La Land, among a city of stars, I sometimes feel like that’s possible.

La La Land is in theatres nationwide. If you live in LA, my dearest Angelenos, this film is for us. Whether you’re in the entertainment industry or not, it’s a reminder to never stop dreaming.

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Seeking Redemption at Salvation Mountain

I’m not a religious person. I did some time in Sunday school, learning about Jesus and Moses and the rest of his crew. But to me it all seemed like a fairy tale, folklore that had somehow survived for centuries, interpreted differently all over the world. A power or light or being or whatever for people to believe in that’s bigger than themselves. I appreciate the comfort in that, but the thought of Immaculate Conception haunted me as a child. If I had an impure thought, would I too end up like Mary? Knocked up by a sheepherder giving birth in a barn?

The California desert is a hotbed for Jesus enthusiasts. The words “Jesus Saves” appears almost subliminally, whether it’s a large sign in someone’s yard or spray painted across an old, abandoned pick-up truck. He is everywhere. And while I’m not exactly a believer, his presence is somehow palpable.

The rise of Instagram and hipsters in need of a “candid” photo pointing their peace sign to the sky amidst a desert backdrop has helped draw attention to some of the most sacred places in and around the Mojave. Maybe too much attention? One place in particular is Salvation Mountain.

About a 90-minute drive along route 111 (aptly) from Palm Springs, past expansive palm farms, the abandoned Salton Sea and more Jesus propaganda is a little town called Niland. Just when you thought the desert couldn’t be more desolate and detached, this is your turn off to “redemption.”

After a few more miles along a winding dirt road you’ll reach an abandoned army bunker that indicates you’ve reached the Slab City limits. A few turns further, a colourful mound of mud, cement and junk shellacked together over decades of devotion pops up into view and you know you’ve made it.

Salvation Mountain began as a simple monument in the 1980s to express the simplicity of the Sinner’s Prayer. Created by Leonard Knight, the impressive site you see today is an ongoing work of many contributors and visitors and its message is simple: God is love. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, I think we can all get behind this simple yet meaningful mantra.

We cruised onwards through Slab City, an off-the-grid community of squatters and snowbirds looking to stretch their retirement dollars, for a peek into the underbelly of California’s badlands. No electricity, no water, no sewers or services. The residents here really are on their own, and it appears as though that’s exactly the way they like it.

If you venture a little further down the rabbit hole, you’ll reach East Jesus, a collection of artwork and desert artefacts. But we were running low on fuel and decided to turn back. As much as this place intrigues me, I’m not sure I’d want to be stranded there. But I know I’ll go back.

Far beyond the desert road
Where everything ends up
So good the empty space, mental erase
Forgive, forgot
– My God is the Sun, QOTSA

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Finishing my second script

It always feels a bit corny to be living in Los Angeles while writing a film script. It’s so cliché it makes me blush every time I think about it. While my husband and I didn’t move to LA so I could pursue my dreams with stars in my eyes and sunshine in my soul, it does help to live somewhere where movie making is always top of mind.

This second crack at a feature length screenplay has been a lot tighter and fluid compared to my first script. I was more organized and well researched. I outlined the shit out of the thing, which of course morphed and evolved as any story does into something slightly different.

My first script was based in-part on personal experience and ended up this cathartic experience that helped me let go of things from the past and was a good exercise in script formatting. I’m not discounting it entirely, I’d like to revisit it one day and revise it from a romantic drama to the rom com it really is. As much as I wanted to avoid that genre, after hearing film producer Lindsay Doran speak earlier this year I was reminded that it’s okay to write something that makes people laugh and feel good. Some of the films I go back to over and over have happy themes and endings. God knows we could all use some pleasant escapism these days.

The 60s and 70s are eras I’ve always been fascinated by. I often say I was born in the wrong decade, because the music, fashion and attitudes of that time are much more raw and sexy and interesting to me than anything that’s happened since. So naturally, last summer, I made the lofty decision to write a biopic based on Freddie Mercury’s life. Not at all ambitious or ludicrous. Of course, the film has been in the works for years with Sacha Baron Cohen set to play Mercury, until he backed out of the project over rumoured disagreements with the remaining members of Queen. I think more than anything it’s a story I’m dying to see onscreen, and I’m just too impatient to wait for someone else to do it.

While researching my debunked attempt at a biopic, I read the memoirs of two notorious American groupies: Bebe Buell and Pamela Des Barres. Never mind writing a story about rock stars, the women who inspired some of the greatest rock albums of all time deserved my attention so much more. So that’s what I did.

It’s the story of two women who become entangled with the same musician. Not entirely based on Buell and Des Barres, but absolutely inspired by them. I tried to write something that focused on the strength of the women of that era and how so many of them played muse to artists with little to no credit. How many of them went on to enjoy their own success as musicians, mothers, writers and artists.

One of my protagonist’s is based in LA and the other in New York, which made it really easy to immerse myself in the some of the scenes because so many of the places I wrote about still exist! Working title East and West.

When I was in New York in the spring, I managed to finagle my way into Gramercy Park (scene #12) after a kind older fellow caught me awkwardly taking photos through the fence. I stood in the crumbling lobby of Hotel Chelsea (scene #70) to soak in the energy of what was once a creative epicenter and a man came up behind me (seemingly out of nowhere) and said, “You know, everyone used to live here.” Then he kind of disappeared. Maybe he was a ghost?

A few weeks ago, photographer Baron Wolman was to appear at a gallery party in Hollywood to exhibit The Woodstock Years, now famous photos he had taken of fans during the iconic music festival. The reception was to be hosted by Pamela De Barres, so obviously I had to be there and luckily I had a chance to meet the woman who in part inspired my script. And she was warm and friendly and just as lovely as I imagined her to be.

When Baron was signing the book I bought of his amazing photographs, he looked me the eye and said, “You missed it, you know. The party’s over.” I guess that’s why I wrote about it.

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Legendary groupie, author and journalist Pamela Des Barres

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C’est fini!

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