“Rifkin’s characters are ruined, desperate creatures, comic and soulful, perpetually in line for a ladle full of redemption.” —Hammer Museum

“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented . . . . Exquisite.” —Kirkus Reviews

Would satellite radio be the expressway to
L.A.'s secret heart, or the last exit?
Alan Rifkin, Los Angeles Times Magazine, December 17, 2006

JENNY WREN'S WOODED HAUNTS: It's January on the 710, maybe my first week with satellite radio, when I have an experience much more yesterday than today. A new song by Paul McCartney (Channel 75/Hear Music/"Jenny Wren") wins me over with its oddness. The swervy, just-so phrasing; the melody that offends your expectations, just slightly, the way certain special children do, so you never forget them; the rueful reeds that dip in and out of minor key. The playful shock of originality that once guaranteed a Beatles hit by shrugging off the whole definition of a "hit"--don't start me crying. All this in eerie, static-free, CD-quality closeness. The first surprise about satellite radio is the return of surprise.

With enough time, of course, I might eventually have found the same song on KLOS. (But not as easily as "Rock You Like a Hurricane.") And the billionaire Beatle may not be the darkest horse to champion on satellite radio. But he can still be symbolic of something. Because even if you don't know "Jenny Wren," you likely remember decoding "Yesterday" the first time you heard it, tracing its floating staircase, the winding Braille of its melody, too baroque a composition for a Beatles fan to dream in 1966, until suddenly it wasn't.

In the spell of such time travel, in fact, you could go further: You could sense, once again, the hidden L.A. that the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" period seemed to carry word of--that Motherland past the next range of hills, with stone walks and cabarets and canyon parties where lovers went off to sleep in the bath. There is a secret Thomas Guide tract--a missing page--to every unfamiliar song, just as there is a missing soundtrack to every secret place. And that's why, when listening to a strange new song on satellite radio--stuck in traffic, heading no place but work--I begin to feel that I could love the city again, or at least that I'm nearing the secret parts worth loving.

The reeds drowse, the melody resolves, and what I do next I might also have done in 1966: I look around at the other cars creeping along. I try to spot other shoulders swaying in time (at more than 170 channels, a quintessential long shot).

Failing that, I settle for basking. The only living boy in L.A.

HOW HAVING A NEW FAVORITE SONG CHANGES EVERYTHING: I start calling myself a "boy," to begin with.

It's worth remembering how rarely a Christmas gift winds up succeeding, even a gift you ask for, a gift you say you want. Because think of all the hope that's tied up in the idea of getting what you want, assuming you still dare to hope that a gift will make you happy; then the gift has to equal the size of hope. A gift as personal and intangible as music, my wife would usually leave me to buy for myself. But the satellite radio idea must have struck her as just practical enough: part gadget and part provision, balm for my long commute to the teaching job I took largely to please her.

With the gift barely unwrapped, I'd already entered the family- annihilating zone of children with new toys; Christmas had functionally ended. I weighed the nifty receiver in my hand and allowed myself a boy's excitement about having a thing you're entitled to spend time figuring out on your own, and I wondered: Would this work like the music system at Starbucks, where the baristas nudge a switch in the back room and hop lanes from Ray Charles to Hank Williams to Coldplay, each micro-groove a daydream in progress? Would it be like wearing some excellent blindfold and spinning a wayback dial, or did you type in unthinkable search terms (Basque-Yiddish-instrumental), like on the Internet, and get your wish?

Sadly, there were DJs. Maybe they weren't as intrusive as their commercial radio cousins, but the gods of XM must have flinched at the prospect of a no-host universe, so here they were again, weighing in with song information already displayed in the digital readout. Sometimes these voice-ins effected a bogus live rapport-- beamed in, for all I knew, from Moscow or the moon or last Sunday. In this respect, Starbucks had the better system.

Happily, there was no way to construct a playlist myself, surprise being of the essence, which is why even if you collect 1,000 iTunes they all finish uploading with the same empty thunk, virginity's flower no sooner plucked than wilted. One Sunday, the surprise was seeing the 91 Freeway reborn to Philip Glass (Channel 76/Fine Tuning/"Escape to India") while floating homeward from a baby shower out where the Thomas Guide pages turn green and tan. I had fled Diamond Bar with the celebration only half over, giddily free at 70 mph of the same family connectedness I simultaneously longed for--with relatives I barely knew through marriage but who were suddenly all I had--and the Glass symphony almost ended before it was clear I was being hypnotized: by his chugging loops of sound, by the seafaring light, by the spectral overpasses on which one life story followed another to the edge of the world, in celestial conveyance. For just that minute, if you stared hard enough, backwater L.A. was India, in its alienated teeming oneness, a mistake as fortune-kissed and doomed as Columbus'.

Another day I went down a rabbit hole of garage-rock sounds, following it along Highway 19 to Downey, where I wanted to live, because in summer sunlight the billiard bars and dingbat apartments brought back how little it once took to live the L.A. dream. I wound up at the historic McDonald's, whose edifice was vintage, but the expected photo of JFK eating a burger was now just four holes in the wall.

Even in Christmas-wish mode, I hadn't anticipated how thoroughly this new soundtrack would stir up the dust of half-remembered L.A. Indeed, with six channels dedicated to playing lost oldies by decade, the whole menu could seem designed for archeology. When the '50s channel revived Jackie Brenston's "My Real Gone Rocket"-- bright, dangerous, off the rails, a brand of rhythm and blues from much, much later at the dance party than anything my older sisters entrusted me to hear back then--I envisioned the thick white movie- lot facades of Dorsey High and Manual Arts bulging like seawalls against the coming sexual tsunami. Today's verities have nothing new to teach the bobby-soxer. When I heard any song at all from the 1970s--but especially the ones that breathed girlish carnal astonishments in French--Pico Boulevard stood revealed as an escape route for everyone hurrying home to change into Steve Martin suits, freed from the pretense of "employment." I know things never worked out between the two of us, between the '70s and Reality, but honestly I can't remember why. I might forgive having to listen to "Afternoon Delight" if I could try the whole denatured-Eden experiment again.

Sometimes it was the '60s channel, which revived not so much the roaring exhaust note of dropping out as the ironic Albert Brooks remake. A 50-plus man with five children to feed, I endured "Born to Be Wild" and "Ballad of Easy Rider" back to back while fuming in 4 o'clock traffic.

The most potent epiphanies--the ones that rescued my ideal of L.A. liberty from the lost years of the locusts--were the jam sessions, the near-vengeful onslaughts of uncompromised art; these came like flash floods, short-circuiting the dashboard, all but shooting through the air vents to demand art's due. One day, my 13- year-old son and I were lain so stupid, so sated, by Joshua Redman's saxophone confession "Jig-a-Jug" (a bebop tantrum of syllabic gasps and groans as furious as a wildcat in a net) that it took us five minutes idling and laughing in the Borders parking lot to recover. Later it occurred to me--because I know my flesh and blood, and how he acts blissful before a fever--that he might be sick. So I made his mom keep watch on him that night before we concluded (proud parents, sharing the credit) that the euphoria was music-induced.

AND YET: Yet some of these peak experiences could seem too lonely. Too unshared with the larger tribe. There I was, drawing on my private wellspring of refreshment, while others suffered in gridlock. Then I'd feel sorry for the city, but the city didn't know it. A part of me missed hearing what people were thinking about, what our times were inflamed about, the way I did when there were only a handful of channels to choose from. And sometimes, touching down, I would switch to AM talk radio, as if checking an old sore to see if I could still make it hurt.

When deepest in refreshment, I caught scary, cryogenic glimpses of myself as a holdover, an obsolete figure--a ruined widower with huge sunglasses and an orchid in his lapel, who's so medicated he fools himself that others wonder at the secret of his self- possession. This figure bore a faint resemblance to Charlton Heston, and soon, right there on my northbound commute, I was reliving his role in "Soylent Green," not set in this metropolis but close enough, a dystopic American future where old people turned themselves in to be euthanized--and cannibalized, it unfolded--each serenaded by the soundtrack of his choice. ("Light classical," I remember Edward G. Robinson stipulating. Today he'd say: "XM Channel 113.")

Just then, because artistic coincidence always plays games with me, the tuner landed on Jackson Browne's ballad "For Everyman," which at a certain hour on the 405's odyssey can sound like a dangerously escapist siren call itself:

But all my fine dreams

Well thought out schemes to gain the motherland

Have all eventually come down to waiting for Everyman . . .

Everybody's just waiting to hear from the one

Who can give them the answers

And lead them back to that place in the warmth of the sun

Where sweet childhood still dances

That very week--because artistic coincidence might very well be trying to kill me--I'd begun Philip Roth's new novel, "Everyman." And from the dust jacket I learned that its title came from a 15th century allegorical play whose theme is the summoning of the living to death. I glimpsed that celestial conveyance again--the freeway we all share but travel alone. I could not have felt closer, while farther. My marriage was in a bad season, the perfect Christmas gift notwithstanding, so I felt I had no home, or any office really, being always on the freeway between classrooms--another nominal provider whose mansion is his car. Hidden, subliminal, in the eastern hills for the song's duration was the Highland Park artists' colony where Browne grew up, another wooded Motherland, and I wanted to believe in its L.A. of new beginnings so much more than I wanted to be in the place where I found myself, and--well. All in all, I thought I'd better keep my eyes on the road.

WHICH IS TO SAY: It was as if L.A. still contained all its wooded undergrounds--but only to break your heart with them, only to have them dart away, at song's end, to a network of secret millennial bunkers. Especially mirage-like were Wolfman Jack's voice-overs (on Channel 6) crackling into range like occult transmissions. But it was almost as strange to hear Tom Petty (whose hidden lair I pictured somewhere in the Valley) doing his best Dylan impression as host of a rarities show, and Dylan (whose hidden lair I pictured somewhere in Malibu) doing his worst Dylan as host of the "Theme Time Radio Hour"--mumbling significantly, or snarling knowingly, or humming mysteriously, as though trying to name, in a very interesting taste test, the flavor of his microphone.

Maybe what I was really scanning for was an update on the ultimate L.A. question. Was satellite radio delivering me to the next Los Angeles, a hidden, even posthumous one, shooting off flares from caves, synapses still firing after the body has died? Or was this revelatory soundtrack becoming my sign-off to community--a last exit? Because if that were the case, then stop this Roady tuner before it kills. Hurl it across all 10 lanes of traffic. Though I couldn't be sure if it would actually break or only skitter into the hands of another unsuspecting dreamer, in a "Twilight Zone" ending.

But then, Los Angeles has ever built its definition of community upon isolation. As real as anything I can see through my windshield is the city of dreams, with all its wooded haunts. That is why I have always loved it. Wherever it actually is.

So I listen to satellite radio, but more sparingly than in the first weeks. I give my everyman pain to God, where it belongs. Which is to say, I've stopped inventing excuses to spend hours in my car.

But one Sunday, very early, in Belmont Heights, I flick the tuner and land on a ballad that I think is Browne's "Everyman," again--or not quite. In fact, it's a medley, but whether by Browne's design or the program's, I can't tell. The transition is that blurred. All I know is that the first movement, "Sing My Songs to Me," comes on like a postcard to this very neighborhood ("Sing me sunlight and shadows/orange groves and meadows"), then matures to a foretaste of eulogy ("Bring my dreams . . . But I'd like to know where they go when the morning comes"), only to be overtaken by "Everyman" after all.

I'm not trying to tell you that I've seen the plan

Turn and walk away if you think I am

But don't think too badly of one who's left holding sand--

He's just another dreamer, dreaming about Everyman

For the moment, nothing but beauty is in view: cloudless blue sky, palm leaves gilded by sunrise and shadow, the first minutes of Creation. There isn't a soul on the street either, it's that early-- we're in a Utopian ghost town by a deserted beach--but I know that my '70s dreamer friends are still out there, beyond the hills, on some missing Thomas Guide page, and I love them all.