Ian Whitcomb, Altadena’s ukelele/accordion stylist, Tin Pan Alley expert and songwriter extraordinaire, has kept a daily journal of his adventures in Los Angeles since 1972. A born raconteur, with a well-educated Englishman’s command of the mother tongue and a biting wit, Whitcomb sees all, tells all, and makes it incredibly, wryly funny. The Huntington Library has the originals in its Rare Manuscripts collection; now mere mortals can get a taste of his charming take on life, both in the general lunacy of L.A. (Christopher Isherwood to Van Dyke Parks!) and out in the ‘burbs (Altadena!) in Letters from Lotusland: An Englishman in Exile. It’s a collection of his monthly writings from 1996 on, which flow back and forth through time. “I suppose the self-absorption is similar to Proust,” Whitcomb says. “But I find him unreadable.”
You can order your own very readable copy of Letters from Lotusland online from Wild Shore Press. Or fox-trot on down to Vroman’s, where he recently held a signing/singing. Once you get hold of the book, set aside some time with a cup or tea or a very dry martini — you won’t want to leave Whitcomb’s charming, cynical company until you absolutely have to.
He is the consummate outsider: a British ex-pat who began his musical career as a rocker but soon turned to music-hall standards of the turn of the last century. As a teenager he had a hit (“You Turn Me On”) that’s still a novelty item in iTunes, but soon he was writing lyrics like these for 1967’s sly warbler, “Down on the Farm”: “Morning breeze don’t make me shudder/Get my milk straight from the udder…”
This was back when Whitcomb looked like a cross between Peter Noone and Mick Jagger, all flouncy hair and newsboy caps. He’s evolved into a distinguished-looking gent with a wry outlook on life, too enthusiastic and smart to be world-weary, but one who is not afraid to cast his gimlet eye on everything he sees. He currently writes music, much of it for movies (“I’m like a carpenter, I write what is needed”), and lectures about music hall, minstrel, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville. He performs around town on the uke and accordion (Sundays in Playa del Rey at Cantalini’s) and is soon to be seen with Janet Klein at the Coffee Gallery Backstage on Valentine’s Day. He lives with his wife, Regina, in a little cottage around the corner from the Coffee Gallery, which he calls “my local.”
Here’s a bit of our conversation, which, like the title of one his songs, kept “Amblin’ Along”:
What was your model for your book? And who’s your role model?
I had no model for Letters From Lotusland. It’s a bound collection of my monthly reports for my website. I’ve kept it up since 1996. My closest influence might be Noel Coward, who I admire up to a point. Beyond that he’s too, too camp.
Explain your fascination with old-time music.
“Old-time music” is simply music. People who play classical music or attend concerts of such aren’t labeled fans of old-time, with the bad connotations that that has. I like songs, and good sturdy songs on all subjects simply aren’t around today — the pernicious influence of rock. At my performances, people often join in, feeling the catharsis of music and the generality of well-crafted songs designed for singing. I don’t know what I’d do without music.
I bought the first house I saw when I had to move from West Hollywood in a hurry in 1979. It happened to be in Altadena. I don’t regret it — except for the terrorist neighbors who forced us to exile in Monrovia for a while. But I like Altadena on the whole. It’s a lawless place of eccentrics, layabouts, blowhards and gangs. There aren’t enough Jews. But I can’t be bothered to move. My wife would rather live in a safer and more civilized place, probably on the westside. We haven’t got the loot for that. One of my first memories of this area is making a record at the corner of Colorado and Fair Oaks, back when Old Town was a dicey place to be. The song was “The Boogie Woogie Jungle Snake,” with Dr. John sitting in, in a studio that had recorded Big Jay McNeely.
How has the internet changed your life and the music business?
I like the computer for writing — I write faster and better, though with one finger. And the internet is terrific for getting the word out. I’m to be found on YouTube and other outlets up there. Don’t know how it all works — a friend helped invent the computer but even he says it’s got out of control — but it’s a great outlet for people like me who are bursting with enthusiasm and want to trumpet it about. No bloody gatekeepers. But getting the public to tear themselves away from cute cats and vids of Leno and Conan is hard. I wish I could find a way to Pied Piper traffic to my site and YouTube.
Ian, Hometown Pasadena is happy to oblige!