Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hollywood Park: Abuse, Addiction, Stardom...Oh, and a Cult

In a scene midway through Hollywood Park, Mikel Jollett's incredible memoir, Mikel and his father are at the eponymous Hollywood Park horse racetrack. Mikel is 13 years old, has just been in a really bad accident, and has had some issues with acting out, drugs, and alcohol. His father, a former addict and drug dealer, who has gotten his life back together, quietly, in a moment of rare earnestness, tells Mikel, "Don't fuck it up. Don't do what I did. Do something better."

This sounds simple, and almost cliché, but it's so powerful given what's come before. It's one of my favorite moments in this memoir chock full of moments while reading I had to put the book down for a minute, just to make sure I absorbed. 

To put it bluntly: This book is so damn good — my favorite read of the year. It's as well-written, heart-wrenching, intelligent, and just downright entertaining as anything I've read in a long time. 

Mikel's childhood was, in a word, tough. Let's start with the cult: He and his older brother Tony are born into they Synanon cult, which began in the late 1950s as a sort of alternative drug rehabilitation organization. This is what drew Mikel's parents in the mid-1970s. But the mid-1970s were also when the organization morphed into something much more nefarious, as cults are wont to do. Mikel and his brother were separated from their parents and raised in an orphanage, until when Mikel was six years old, his mother decided to leave and broke them out. He didn't really know his mother at the time, or really even understand the concept of "parent."

From there, after witnessing a horrific incident of violence, his mother, brother, and him move to rainy, depressing Salem, Oregon, where they live in poverty. His mother's new partner Paul is a recovering alcoholic who has occasional relapses, disappearing for days at a time. They raise rabbits in their backyard as a source of food, and when young Mikel is forced to help slaughter them for their stew, it's just another in a long line of childhood traumas that inflict long-term psychologically damage. 

Meanwhile, Mikel's father is living in Los Angeles, and Mikel and Tony go visit him during the summers. There, they live it up — they idolize their father, a real man's man, who buys them dirt bikes, lets them eat whatever they want, and teaches them about life. Hollywood Park is not just the title of the memoir. For Mikel, it's also a symbol of his coming of age. It's where he learns his big life lessons from his dad, like the one in the scene above. And so that place becomes a symbol writ large of his father as well. 

As Mikel's eyes are more opened to the world, he begins to come to some realizations about his life with his mother and how she treats him and his brother. He doesn't, of course, understand subtle emotional abuse or mental illness as a child, but as he grows up, and later in life when he sees a therapist, his mother's constant guilt trips and neediness begin to make sense. As well, he's warned throughout his childhood that the disease of addiction runs in his family, and he should be vigilant. But he's not, and he's drinking and smoking and doing drugs as young as age 11, a path his older brother had blazed before him.  

But Mikel has a secret weapon. As he grows up, he becomes ever more introspective and self-aware -- and the book becomes more fascinating in how he addresses his past issues, his mother's emotional abuse, and his father's and brother's addictions. All these affect his adult life in numerous ways, from his relationships with women (which he knows are unhealthy) to his constant feelings of loneliness, self-loathing, and inadequacy — you know, the inspirations for a lot of really great songs. 

So then there is some stuff about rock and roll. I waited until now to mention this so as not to color your perception of this memoir if you didn't previously know who Mickel Jollett is. He's the frontman of the indie rock band the Airborne Toxic Event. In his pre-band 20s, he spent time as a rock journalist — even interviewing his idols David Bowie and Robert Smith. This helped set him on his own path to becoming a rock star (and yes, we finally learn about the real inspiration behind Sometime Around Midnight). 

But again, this book is not a "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" memoir. It's almost entirely about his childhood and teen years. This is going to sound strange, but the closest proxy I could think of to this book is Angela's Ashes — both are brilliantly sad memoirs with flashes of levity and an immense amount of underlying wisdom. I'd fully recommend this to anyone, even if you've never heard of, don't care about, or don't even like the Airborne Toxic Event. But keep the tissues nearby. 

(The Airborne Toxic Event released a companion album last week, also called Hollywood Park - their first in five years. It's also spectacular.)

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