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REBECCA BAIRD: The art of being easily impressed – how an LA woman got me head over heels for humble Dundee

Rebecca Baird soaks up Dundee's culture at the Night Fever exhibition at the V&A in 2021.
Rebecca Baird learned how to make Dundee into her own little LA, thanks to Eve Babitz.

Jim Morrison’s LA woman is dead and the world is worse for it.

My world is, anyway.

Eve Babitz died on December 17 2021 and I just found out, so now I’m going to make it your problem.

If you don’t who Eve Babitz is, I envy you – you’ve a delightful internet rabbit-hole ahead. But even if you haven’t heard her name, you might know her as…

Photography legend Annie Leibovitz’s girlfriend. Acclaimed journalist Joan Didion’s counterpart. The naked woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp in that photo. Lover of pre-fame Jim Morrison, and muse of The Doors’ lamented LA Woman, ‘so alone, so alone’.

All that art; all about Eve.

Eve worked ‘officially’ as a visual artist, album cover designer and writer – but really, her favourite subject was herself.

And with good reason.

She was, according to her self-made lore, all over ’60s and ’70s Tinseltown like a busty, giggly, whip-smart rash.

Her 1974 ‘confessional novel’ Eve’s Hollywood takes us from her days at Hollywood High (yes, seriously) to just getting high in Hollywood, and boasts such a star-studded cast of friends and lovers that, if it were really fiction, it would be ridiculous.

Think Manson to Morrison. She was anonymous, gorgeous, and at the centre of everything.

Eve Babitz in Hollywood in 1997. Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images.

Wearing the labels groupie, artist, addict and writer like cheap jewellery, she was a staple of the rock n roll and arts scenes in LA.

Her wit was often said to “burn white-hot”.

Then, in 1997, she dropped a cigar in her lap and set herself on fire. She didn’t go out much after that.

I could go on, but my point is, Eve Babitz had a remarkable life. A life, or at least a spirit, worth emulating.

And what’s more – she had it in the very place she was born in.

And that got me thinking.

City of Angels vs City of Discovery

Now, I know Dundee in 2021 is not LA in the 1970s. But Hollywood wasn’t Eve’s Hollywood until Eve wrote it that way.

And that realisation changed my relationship to Scotland and my own Scottishness more than any amount of Burns or Braveheart ever did.

I used to think that to lead an extraordinary life, you had to leave the place you were from.

That’s what all the good books and movies tell you.

Scotland is a tiny wee place.

And Dundee is an even tinier place, with a big old dose of Scottish cringe and do-yourself-down self-deprecation.

Perched on the edge of a river, it’s as if the current of the world is perpetually just passing through.

I’m not from Dundee, but I’ve lived here all my adulthood.

And it’s easy to feel, sometimes, like life is happening somewhere Out There.

Somewhere like LA in the 1970s.

The art of being easily impressed

But Eve Babitz didn’t have a remarkable life because she lived there.

She had a remarkable life because she loved it.

Unlike stardom-skelped cynics of her time, she didn’t resent her hometown’s fakery – she simply accepted it as part of the fun, writing: “In order for real life to continue, there must be a few compromises in the fantasies of us all.”

If you live in LA, time is a trick since there are no winters. There are just earthquakes, parties, and certain people. And songs.”

Eve Babitz

And where the relentlessness of California weather depressed others, Eve makes the smog-and-sun cocktail seem magical.

Even amid all her bohemian pretensions, when Eve wrote about the real glitter-and-champagne Hollywood bit of the City of Angels, there was something earnest about it.

One three-line essay, shorter than anything else she published, goes: “I once saw Cary Grant up close. He was beautiful. He looked exactly like Cary Grant.”

Cary Grant, who LA's Eve Babitz wrote about in her novel Eve's Hollywood.
Eve Babitz met movie star Cary Grant, above.

Don’t pretend you didn’t grin.

See? Eve’s the patron saint of when you want something to be good and then it is.

By writing about her life, she romanticised it into a great adventure.

And so in my quest to be more like Evie, I’ve stopped looking to La La Land and started looking out my window.

And granted, there’s no Cary. (I did meet Kyle Falconer, mind.)

But there’s buildings with character, old mills and painted shipping containers; and there’s some class characters within them.

‘City of stars, are you shining just for me?’ Who needs LA sunsets when you have this view from the Dundee Law? Picture: Kim Cessford/DCT Media.

There’s music in the accent and skaters in the underpass and a really cracking willow in the graveyard.

There’s dirty big seagulls in the bakery and drag queens on the steps.

There’s a boat that’s a museum and a museum that’s a boat and so many fountains with thousands in penny wishes on their floors.

I reckon by now, I could write just as much about Dundee as Eve did about LA.

See how romantic it is, to be easily impressed?

Rebecca is a journalist, writer and author of Urbane and this column is dedicated to the memory of writer Eve Babitz. The world was so much cooler when she was in it. RIP – rest in party shoes.

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