Post-Apocalyptic Picnics And Hollywood Steakhouses In Gabriel Kahane's LA

May 30, 2014
Originally published on May 31, 2014 6:35 pm

Though New York City-based Gabriel Kahane wasn't raised there, The Ambassador feels like a musical tour of Los Angeles. The album makes 10 stops in the city where the composer and singer-songwriter was born and only came to appreciate later in life, each with a specific address used as the song title.

There's the imaginary post-apocalyptic picnic at "Griffith Park (1800 E. Observatory Ave.)," where, Kahane says, "I have frequently gone up and looked out over that vista, feeling the pulse of the city at night." He also pays tribute to author Raymond Chandler with "Musso and Frank (6667 Hollywood Blvd.)" by setting the song in the steakhouse frequented by both Chandler and the protagonist in The Long Goodbye.

But an audio tour is better heard than read. Take a musical trip to LA with Kahane and NPR's Renee Montagne by clicking the audio link above.

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Gabriel Kahane is one of those rare musicians who travels easily between classical musical theater and pop. He once even turned personal ads on Craigslist into a series of songs for classical singers. His new album, "The Ambassador," could have been based on Google Maps. Each song corresponds to a specific address in Los Angeles, like 3400 Wilshire Blvd.


GABRIEL KAHANE: (Singing) Wilshire was a wilderness when they thought to build this place. But soon, the starlets were arriving like they were runners to a race.

INSKEEP: 3400 Wilshire is where the Ambassador Hotel once stood. The sight of early Academy Awards banquets and Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. Our own Angeleno, Renee Montagne, spoke with Gabriel Kahane about the album.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Even though Gabriel Kahane was born in LA, and his father, Jeffrey Kahane, is the director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Gabriel Kahane wasn't raised in Los Angeles. So these songs are a kind of musical tour.

KAHANE: For those of us who don't live in LA, we are frequently left with these, sort of, cliches and stereotypes about what the city is - that it's the den of the superficial. And I think that I had, sort of, adopted some of this, kind of, dogmatic antipathy toward LA until I started making trips west for work as a musician.

MONTAGNE: In this album, Gabriel Kahane makes 10 stops at places you can find on a map, like Griffith Park - 1800 Observatory Ave.

KAHANE: Where I have frequently gone up and looked out over that vista, feeling the pulse of the city at night.

MONTAGNE: When it glitters all the way to the horizon. In Kahane's imagination, he's come there for a post-apocalyptic picnic - rubbing in sunscreen after a nuclear disaster.


KAHANE: (Singing) I want to take you to Griffith Park. I hear the radiation's falling. We'll put a blanket on the overlook. Watch the half-life neon crawling. Though the leaves have all turned black, I'll put sunscreen on your back. And we'll hike to the observatory.

KAHANE: The song is more of a fantasy that deals with Hollywood's tendency toward destroying Los Angeles. I don't know if you know the Slovenian philosopher/film critic/comedian Slavoj Zizek. But he has this great essay where he talks about the fact that people in the Third World fantasize about coming to America for a better life - and so what do Americans fantasize about? They fantasize about destruction on such an order that they would be, sort of, ripped from their privilege. And he says that Hollywood, as our collective unconscious, sort of expresses that in all of these disaster films.

MONTAGNE: As it happens, one stop on Kahane's musical tour takes us to 6667 Hollywood Blvd., the Walk of Fame, where we enter a 95-year-old establishment whose dark, wood paneling and worn, leather boots take one back to Noir LA - the Musso and Frank Grill. I had my first manhattan there.


MONTAGNE: I hear they make the best in the city.


KAHANE: (Singing) I'm generally not a morning drinker, said the gold-toothed man to the barkeep, ordering his second gimlet. The writer works at the lush, laughs out of compulsion. And the old keep carves himself in, too.

MONTAGNE: You dedicate this song to Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe.

KAHANE: I fell so much in love with Raymond Chandler's writing. And in particular, in "The Long Goodbye," Philip Marlowe, the character, hangs out at the Musso and Frank steakhouse. And we also know that Raymond Chandler, the writer, hungout at Musso and Frank. And, you know, I get the sense from reading about Chandler that he was a pretty tortured guy. He married a woman nearly his mother's age just after his mother's death. He was fiercely homophobic, on the one hand. But in "The Long Goodbye," I think, more than in any of his other books, the, kind of, homoerotic tension, really rises. So I think that song, "Musso and Frank," is not just an homage to Chandler and Marlowe, but maybe, more specifically, to that perpetually blurry line between the artist and his hero.

KAHANE: The last stop on Gabriel Kahane's map is at Union Station, downtown. It's an Art Deco landmark, long the entry point for travelers pursuing their West Coast dreams. In this song, the train is headed out, leaving LA.


KAHANE: (Singing) Is there defeat in a train from LA, when manifest destiny brought us all this way?

MONTAGNE: Part of the lore of LA is how many are defeated -


MONTAGNE: ...By their dreams.

KAHANE: I have found, in exploring Union Station, that it is both monumentally beautiful - but that there is this inherent sadness to it. And I do think that it has to do with that narrative of manifest destiny. What does it mean to get on a train in LA? LA is supposed to be the terminus. And there is something, kind of, conveniently tragic, about people boarding a train in Los Angeles.


>>KAHANE. (Singing) When the alkali flats with their cracks pass by, think of the Color Wheel - think of the western sky. A distant city with a distant glow. The heart of the lost has let me go.

MONTAGNE: When you add up just we've talked about - and this is just a handful of the 10 songs in this landscape that is your Los Angeles - what does it mean to you?

KAHANE: To answer on the gut level - what my relationship to Los Angeles is, is that I love it in the way that we love family members. We sometimes don't like our family, but we always love them. This is a reverent love letter to a city that I find moving, vexing, beautiful, frustrating - all at once.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

KAHANE: It has been such a pleasure.


KAHANE: (Singing) In this black garden I once called the selfish city, I try to calculate the anguish, and the anger and the all the aspirations of the millions who have lived here...

INSKEEP: That's Renee talking with Gabriel Kahane. His new album is called, "The Ambassador," and you can hear the complete album at It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.