31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 26: “On the Strip” by Rachel Trezise

May 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth

Noise_Sonic_YouthHold tight and fear a little bit.

– “On the Strip,” Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth’s music has been called many things: abrasive, nihilistic, confrontational, aggressive, anti-melodic. People magazine referred to 1986’s classic album EVOL as “the sonic equivalent of a toxic waste dump.” These various characterizations emphasize the energy in the music, but downplay its originality and complexity, something that Emily Maguire hints at in the brief introduction to her story in the Peter Wild–edited anthology Noise. “When I was fourteen I was in love with chaos,” Maguire writes, “and that’s what I thought I heard in Sonic Youth’s music. Manic, panicked and seemingly deliberately senseless, it was like the inside of my brain amplified. … Repeated listening, however, revealed structure and intention beneath the sound and fury.” Or, as Catherine O’Flynn puts it, rather more succinctly: “I think it’s good music to listen to whilst locked in the boot of a car.”

Rachel Trezise’s story takes its title and inspiration from a song on the band’s 1992 album Dirty. That record was produced by Bruce Vig and mixed by Andy Wallace, a duo who, the year previously, had collaborated on an album called Nevermind by the then little-known group Nirvana. Sonic Youth’s influence is all over Nevermind; likewise, the bristling guitars and song structures that Vig and Wallace played with on Nirvana’s breakout release are apparent on Dirty. In particular, “On the Strip” resembles a Nirvana song in its modulation of quiet, almost plaintive readings of the verse lyrics (by vocalist Kim Gordon) and a startling, intrusive, in-your-face mid-song fuzzy guitar break.

Trezise refers  to the track’s “two faces,” which she finds “indicative of something dirty and unknown, hiding beneath the palpable.” It is difficult to capture the spark of inspiration in a few words, but Trezise’s explanation maps cogently with the tale that follows, about a young woman adrift on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, working as a prostitute and jacking the car of an unsuspecting john to score money to support her drug habit. Trezise adopts the central conceit of the song – a young runaway trying to survive in a harsh, degraded Hollywood that is nothing like the movies, but the story reverses the song’s polarities. The “raw and grubby guitar breakdown” becomes the tonal focus, and the plaintive aspects involve flashing back to a younger version of the main character, newly arrived on the Strip. Predominantly, however, Trezise’s story is violent, graphic, and angry, painting a picture of Hollywood that is as grimy and debauched as anything out of a James Ellroy novel.

Those who come to Los Angeles with visions of being movie stars based on the glamour and glitz of celebrity fashion magazines and television quickly come to understand the illusion that the city is based on. Trezise’s protagonist, Melissa, is the epitome of a tough, street-smart survivor, who steals leopard-print nylons from a Pasedena thrift shop and convinces clerks at the local liquor store to sell her Grey Goose vodka even though she is underage and has no ID. (Or, at least, she has a fake ID, but is just too lazy to fish it out.)

Not, we are led to understand, that she has always been so savvy. By Melissa’s own admission, when she first hit the Strip at age fourteen, she “was about as sharp as a fucken coconut, still blinded by the sunshine and the fucken palm trees” and clinging to romantic notions that a wealthy john might fall for her and sweep her off her feet into some better life. In other words, Trezise writes, “she was fucken whack.”

But she learns the ropes quickly, such that she is able to dupe a gullible john into handing over his cash before stabbing him in the leg and making off with his car. She assaults him while he is searching for a condom: “Protection. Ironic, actually.” Trezise plays with the notions of protection and its antithesis; the ill-fated john asks Melissa what the damage is – meaning “How much?” – which prompts her to muse, “Damage. He got that right.” Damage is pervasive in Trezise’s story – and for her protagonist, who ran away from home to escape a sexually abusive uncle only to find herself beaten almost to death by a violent john.

Trizise’s portrait of Tinseltown’s seedy underbelly is potent and ugly, a stinging corrective to the myth perpetrated by the motion picture machine:

That’s all Hollywood is about: death. Charlie Manson drawing cartoon pigs on the wall with the blood of a movie director’s wife; Marilyn Monroe lying naked and self-pitying, a bottle of sedatives the only sympathy she ever got; Fitzgerald’s heart packing in while he bought a packet of cigarettes in Schwab’s; Peg Entwhistle throwing herself from the top of the big H; an AIDS epidemic in Porno Valley. River fucken Phoenix. Phil fucken Spector. It ain’t about bright lights, this. It’s about bright lights burning out.

In her description, and her scenario that cuts straight to the bone, Trizise has managed to tap into the vein of anger and brute physicality that makes Sonic Youth’s music such a gut-wrenching listening experience. There’s bravado here, but also, underneath it, a baleful pain that gnaws.