Venice Beach Boardwalk, California

Holiday From Real by Jack's Mannequin

If you left it up to me
Every day would be a holiday from real
In the fall of 2009, I fulfilled my lifelong ambition and drove across the United States to relocate in Los Angeles, California. I can't explain the love affair that built in my mind about the Golden State and its sunny, west coast shores. For as long as I can remember, even the mention of the name – California – has inspired the hair on the back of my neck to stand at attention. It is my promised land.

And if there is one sound that encapsulates life in California, it's the songwriting of Andrew McMahon, front man of the piano based alternative rock/pop band, Jack's Mannequin.

McMahon began tickling the proverbial ivories (by ear) at the ripe age of eight and performed solos before he could even read sheet music. He brought this love of the instrument to both Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin. Influenced by Ben Folds Five and the Beach Boys, McMahon's songwriting has been described as a sparkling summer tour. His writing for Jack's Mannequin differed from that of Something Corporate. Originally a solo project, he only wanted an outlet for his more personal songs that he felt wouldn't fit in with Corporate's style. He never anticipated releasing the songs, yet Jack's Mannequin's debut album, Everything in Transit – about coming home to LA after years of non-stop touring – dropped in August 2005. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Houses on the boardwalk in Venice Beach
Photo: Jon Bilous, Dreamstime

In an interview with For the Sound magazine, McMahon said his songs dealt with "exploring and being okay with myself, and not having to make excuses for who I am." The first track, "Holiday from Real," is a sarcastic look at the impoverished lifestyle of beach-bum hipsters. Lyrically, the song mentions alcohol and drug use, sleeping on floors, looking for jobs, and forcing enjoyment out of the self-misery; the whole time writing friends back home in other parts of the country lying about how great the experience is. The struggle of life in the City of Angels is something to which not only me but millions of other twenty- and thirty-somethings can relate.

How can one city inspire so many people to live in such abysmal conditions and actually enjoy it? If you've yet to visit or live there, I'm not sure the feeling can be conveyed in text. Sure, LA has its problems: smog, traffic, high taxes and a higher cost of living… but there's always been something else there, lurking just beneath the surface. Because of the amazing weather, the American film industry relocated to Southern California for convenient filming schedules, and since that time thousands of television programs and feature films have depicted the LA sights and sounds. Of all these, perhaps the most recognizable is a neighborhood called Venice Beach.

Occupying a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of oceanfront sidewalk where residents and tourists can experience vendors, artists, performers, fortune-tellers, marijuana salesmen, and all the freaks and geeks their little heart's desire, Venice of America, was founded in 1905 by tobacco purveyor and millionaire Abbot Kinney as a resort town. The city once boasted gondoliers along its canals, as well as covered colonnades, much like its Italian namesake, Venice, Italy. Kinney bestowed the moniker due to, among other things, the several miles of drainage canals he had to dig simply to remove the marshes. His contractors couldn't build on a swamp and this removal was an essential element to the development of Venice Beach.

Among other intriguing things about Venice is the rumor that rum runners used the canals under Windward Avenue to provide the local speakeasies with booze during Prohibition. As the story goes, boats laden with their illegal goods would offload under the pier, where it would be somehow mysteriously transported through the underground maze to the above-ground establishments that were keeping a large patronage drunk and happy.

Pre-Depression-era Venice saw the advent of motorcars, something a city replete with canals cannot sustain. But it was the future, and so the canals were filled in to accommodate them. Unfortunately, this began the decline of Kinney's vision. What was left of the unmaintained canals began to fill with raw sewage, which brought mosquitoes, which caused residents to flee and made living in the area decidedly unpleasant. By the early 1950s, the once-gorgeous resort town had a new nickname: Slum by the Sea.

With one-third of the area empty lots, rent hit rock-bottom, inviting biker gangs to take up residence, along with hippie communes and generally anyone wishing to live a bohemian lifestyle (read: homeless). Not only was the area considered undesirable, it was also soon a frightening place to be.

About 1958 the people who owned property in Venice began fighting back. Small-scale clean-up efforts combined with a undeterred need to protect investments, the people of Venice Beach clawed and climbed to get their town back to its glory days. It took many, many years. Finally, in 1993, it had happened. Through the slow process of gentrification, money poured into the neighborhood and the gangs faded away to more eastern sections of LA, like Inglewood, Compton, and South Central. A bohemian refuge with an ethnically diverse population and a median income three times higher than the national poverty line, Venice is able to display its glory once again. Visitors can walk, jog, cycle, rollerblade, or skateboard up and down the promenade, spend Fridays at the Farmers Market, fish off the pier, lift weights at Muscle Beach, play basketball, tennis, volleyball, and handball, as well as sample all the art and crafts they can handle.

The choice of the Venice Beach boardwalk for the cover art of Everything In Transit could have something to do with Andrew McMahon's memories of living in the L.A. area. But more likely it was chosen because it exudes the lifestyle depicted in "Holiday From Real" so very well. Even in today's glorious Venice Beach - as in every beach city all over America - there are beach-bum hipsters using drugs, sleeping on floors, somehow finding the enjoyment in their self-misery… and a steady flow of letters being written to their friends tempting them to come to the beach and take part in their own idyllic existence, somewhere away from real.

Justin Novelli
July 29, 2016


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