El Lay: D/C goes to the Grammys

Part I: Friday night, Grammys minus two: Return to forever.

Last time we went to Michael’s in Santa Monica they had a dress code. That’s how long ago it was. Back then, circa 1980, Roni Hofman (my missus) was having an art show at a gallery in Hollywood, and we were out from New York for the opening. Which was pretty glam, except we were also pretty broke. So our pal Sandy Pearlman — he of Blue Öyster Cult, “more cowbell” fame (hi, Sandy) — offered to take us out to the hottest new restaurant in town.

We arrive at Michael’s, and it turns out they have this dress code. Now Sandy, an uberhip music producer, has never been much for jackets, let alone ties — unless they’re Swedish paratrooper jackets. And we’ve made the trip all the way out to Santa Monica from the rockin’ Sunset Marquis, and the maitre d’ is saying to Pearlman: Sir, you’ll need a jacket and tie.

Me, I’m OK because I’m already wearing a jacket and tie, which I liked to do as a change of pace after wearing my freelance rock critic uniform of pajamas all day. And Roni, it so happens, is wearing a gray flannel lady jacket and a scarf. But Sandy, in his Swedish paratrooper jacket and tieless paratrooper shirt, is in trouble. And this is not one of those old school restos that has a spare jacket and tie to loan you. But, always scheming, Hoffman has an idea. Since she doesn’t actually need a jacket, she hands hers over, along with her scarf, and Sandy disappears into the men’s room.

The missus and I are led to a perfect table in the perfect garden, and an eternity passes. We’re wondering if they’ve still got Pearlman embargoed at the front. And then here he comes. Six-foot-tall Sandy in 5-7 Roni’s lady jacket, her diaphonous scarf tucked into the top of his shirt like an ascot. The jacket’s cuffs are up at his elbows and the hem is almost at his waist and the three buttons on the front are about eight inches from their respective buttonholes. And I — maybe literally — fell off my fancy chair.

Two years prior: Sandy at Versailles with Roni (in witness-protection pixelation) wearing the jacket.

Sandy was a good sport about it. And it turns out we had the most killer dinner in the killer garden. And it was a night both luminous and hilarious that we never forgot. So when we decided to stay in Santa Monica for Grammys weekend (even though it’s a million miles from the Staples Center), I decided to surprise Roni with a return trip, 29 years later, to Michael’s.

And when we rolled up in the cab last night in the rain, she laughed.

Of course, we sat in the garden — now tented over. But it was beautiful still and so was the food, and we stayed a long time and got high on Pinot Noir and then went back to the bar at our hotel on the beach, where I, unsensibly, ordered a martini and Roni, sensibly, a Chardonnay, and when the bar closed, we took our drinks upstairs, which is where I will modestly draw the curtains on an evening we will no doubt remember for another 29 years, Grammys aside.

Part II: Saturday, Grammys minus one: Jay & the Americans.

We walked to Venice. Which turned out not to be as far as you think.

The rain had let up, and it seemed like the perfect chillout way to get off your ass. Something about that broad beach and the promenade beside it that runs from Santa Monica to Venice, and beyond, represents the essence of that “California Dreamin’” California the Mamas and Papas, Beach Boys and Jan and Dean promised a pre-pube New Yorker glued to his little AM radio. It’s most of the reason I ended up in California. It’s a fantasy, of course. Because along with the ineffable natural beauty you see as you stroll — including the buff Muscle Beachers and lithe California girls — you also see the homeless encampment that runs in parallel on the fringe of the promenade pretty much the whole way.

The waves and the palm trees and the warm California sun and the drug addicts and the winos and the psychotics.

But then, of course, the down-and-out appreciate paradise as much as you and I. More. Because for them, getting out of New York or Cleveland or Minneapolis and into California can be a matter of life and death.

No one writes Grammy-nominated songs about that.

But I digress.

The digression I thought I was going to share was about Chez Jay.

Established in 1959, as it proudly advertises, Chez Jay — not entirely unlike that homeless encampment — has somehow managed to resist the general gentrification of the beach and the specific mallification of Santa Monica. A small, ramshackle, one-story building across Ocean Ave from the big hotels, including ours, it seems to teeter between thinking of itself as nautical or aeronautical. There’s a porthole window on the door and, immediately when you enter, a captain’s wheel (but pay no attention to the giant leather hand that’s trying to give you the finger). And over the bar is a big stuffed tuna that was probably taxidermied around the time the joint opened, judging by the fact that it very nearly merges with the grease-blackened walls. But then, on those walls and on the bar’s official t-shirt are illustrations depicting some vaguely French, Jules Verne-era, red-and-white hot-air balloons. The balloon art is complemented by the red-and-white-striped awnings that shade the bar and booths — though not from the California sun, because not much light penetrates Chez Jay, I suspect, even in the day.

Anyway, we noticed Chez Jay when we first drove in to the Loew’s. And when the bar shut us down on Night One of Grammy’s long-weekend, the waitress recommended it as the prime late option. “It’s kinda divey,” she said, “but nice.” Which, to me, is a five-star review.

Well-deserved, it turns out. The drinks were cheap. The bartendress, a tad surly — though she did offer that “Jay was into ballooning” when I asked. The crowd, a chronological mishmash, and free of hipsters. And the guy next to us at the bar — diligently reading Best Life and Forbes magazines (but, evidently, dying not to) — started chatting not five minutes after we sat down. He’s a chef at one of the big hotels. Kind of a big deal chef, it seems, with (I think he said) six Armani suits in his closet. And that night his restaurant had hosted the 60th birthday dinner for Jay Z’s mom. In any case, we’ll be seeing him again because, after three more pints of Guiness, we’re decided to go into business together.

But then that’s the way it is at Chez Jay.

Part III: Sunday, Grammys day: Yo, Wayne, wait for me.

So Wayne passed me the giant spliff and inquired in that crazy, raspy drawl, diamond teeth glinting, what I really thought of his performance.

And then I woke up.

Actually, I woke up this morning after the Grammys’ show feeling real weird. With the long lines at the afterparty bars, it wasn’t like you could get sufficient booze to make yourself feel this way. But soon enough, I’m driving the white porcelain bus. Pretty sure it was the shrimp.

Still, a three-hour “bus” detour from the otherwise total enjoyment of my Grammys three-day-weekend seems like a small enough price to pay.

Well, now it does, five hours later.

In any case, the big day dawned, and we donned our costumes (the invitation insisted on “black tie,” which we, like everybody but the most abjectly corporate drone-types, interepreted quite liberally) (technically, my Kiss tie is black), and we hooked up with our friends and Grammys benefactors, Hamish and Susannah, and headed off two hours early for downtown LA.

We were warned that the last couple of miles can be painful. And it seemed to be shaping up that way, with every traffic cop around the Staples Center directing us to a new and contradictory turn, but then suddenly we were there, at the red carpet in less than an hour.

Let me clarify this red carpet thing. Yes, we walked on a rug that was crimson. But the way they got it set up, the carpet has two lanes. One is close to the cameras. The other one, parallel, about 20 feet away, is not. And when you’re just an average schmoe, they keep you moving — even if you’re wearing a bitchin’, colorfully-striped zoot-suit jacket and Kiss tie. No stalling to try to “accidentally” get in the background of the Jonas Brothers’ shot.

So, sorry to everyone who actually made the effort to set their Tivos. I let you down.

But still it was cool.

We heard the Jonas Bros arrive. Screams somewhere behind us on the real red carpet. And when we got inside the lobby, who should march by in their matching Men in Black suits and big fros, but the Mars Volta, subject of my very first blog post in this space. They looked badass.

Then when I’m standing in line to buy giant pretzels — along with all these totally decked-out mucky-mucks — here come the gospel greats, the Blind Boys of Alabama, in matching black-pinstriped white jackets, wending their way through the snack-area crowd, one hand on the next one’s shoulder in a Blind Boy train led by their road manager. It’s how they do it when they walk onstage. But somehow, in the context of the Staples Center snack bar, it seemed slightly surreal.

Many of the ladies of the Grammys were wearing their designer breasts. Some were rockin’ old-school bosom. And some were probably gorgeous — except you get kind of jaded, with that many in one place. Ho-hum.

Besides, you really only have eyes for your own lady of the Grammys.

Since you probably watched the TV show, I won’t bore you with a recap. It was simply amazing, though, to be in the same room with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, U2, Al Green, Kanye West, Jay Z and a million other historic stars. And I want to add that the Grammy for Best Costume on a Nine-Month-Pregnant Lady has to go to M.I.A., in that weird, cool, see-through, black-and-white maternity bee costume. I also have to say that it’s incredible that they pull this thing off every year, and with down-to-the-second precision, considering the set changes and camera shifts and performer temperaments. And it’s fascinating to see that while a presenter is talking on stage right, just out of camera range they’re simultaneously shuffling equipment and people at stage center and stage left and on the mini-stage in the audience and up above the main stage, not to mention backstage. The whole thing seems impossible.

The official afterparty, in the arena next door, was jam-packed. Robin Thicke played (not sure what up with that). But at the table next to ours, dad Allan Thicke sat with his (evidently) best buddy Barry Bonds, who was gracious enough to let me and a hundred other yahoos take a picture with him. Roni said that, thanks to this, Barry has risen dramatically in her personal estimation, and I’d have to agree.

Other than him — oh, and Tia Carrera — not many stars at this afterparty. No doubt they’re at the private bashes. (Except for Chris Brown, who was in jail, allegedly for bashing girlfriend Rhianna, we found out in the papers the next day.) So after we got a couple of drinks — and, perhaps fatefully, a few shrimp — Roni, Susannah, Hamish and I, like the too-cool kids we are, split for our own private party in Santa Monica.

At the aforementioned Chez Jay, of course.

Where one of the patrons gave us the finger and the bartender refused to make any kind of fancy cocktail (“You’ve come to the wrong bar”) and a glorious Grammys-weekend-topping time was had by all.