Los Angeles has its shortcomings. Some are shared with almost all big cities (traffic, more traffic), while others are unique to this weird desert city (rattlesnakes on hiking trails, winters that are too sunny and warm). But despite its shortcomings, LA is also the place where the sublime can easily and surprisingly wrap itself in the clothing of the utterly banal.
A few weeks ago, I woke up on a Sunday morning, went for a hike (dodging a few sleepy rattlesnakes), did some tai chi in the sun (please keep in mind that since moving to LA, I’ve become a perfect little LA cliché; a sober middle-aged vegan who alternates between yoga and tai chi), and took a look at my phone.
I had the usual texts from sober friends — ‘Going to AA, want to come?’ — and non-sober friends — ‘I’m so hungover, please kill me’. There was also one from Leo DiCaprio. I’d recently sold a house to Leo’s parents, and had in the process become friends with Leo. (As an aside, before selling the house to Leo’s parents, there was a brief bidding war between his family and Morrissey. In Los Angeles, bidding wars on houses take place between bold-face vegans.)
The text I received from Leo said simply: ‘Having brunch with Jane Goodall, do you want to join us?’ This was, to use caps, A BIG MOMENT.
Growing up, I assumed I’d spend my life teaching philosophy to bored community college students while making music in my spare time. I never thought I’d have a record deal, or get the chance to meet, and even work with, some of my heroes. I toured with David Bowie, played ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ with Lou Reed, traded emails with Leonard Cohen, and once had Christmas with David Lynch. Yes, I’m name-dropping, but honestly, wouldn’t you?
This text was in its own category. Brunch with Jane Goodall. Jane, the most perfect woman: beautiful, erudite, vegan, and fluent in gorilla. She was in LA and I was going to have brunch with her. I responded to the text: ‘Sounds good, see you later.’ I’ve found that when communicating with heroes, it’s best to pretend that you’re friendly equals. This was always challenging with David Bowie, as he was, obviously, an alien god.
I showered, put on an old punk-rock T-shirt, and drove in my electric car to Leo’s house. It was winter, 72 degrees, cloudless, and I put on a Spotify playlist of classic rock songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. It almost felt like Spotify was algorithmically following me (I mean, it probably was). Joni Mitchell was shuffled through the speakers as I turned on to Laurel Canyon, and Harry Nilsson began to play as I turned on to the Sunset Strip. I pulled up to Leo’s house, parked next to a few other electric cars, and went inside, marveling at his collection of fossils and dinosaur heads.
We had brunch. Or, to make it more about myself, I had brunch. With Jane Goodall. I’m not usually star-struck. OK, I am. But this was different. Sitting next to Jane Goodall and talking about climate change and the need to stop the practice of using animals for food made me almost catatonic with star-struckedness. I like to think that I spoke in complete, possibly even coherent, sentences. But I might have just drooled and mumbled.
After brunch, we went for a little walk, and Jane took our hands as we looked at the plants for pollinators that Leo had recently planted. We took a picture. We talked more. I possibly drooled and mumbled more. And then I got back into my electric car, and it was done.
Spotify must have known something momentous had just happened, for as I turned out of Leo’s driveway, Cat Stevens’s ‘Morning Has Broken’ came through my speakers. This is the song that my mom had played at her funeral. Or so I was told. I was hungover and passed out, and so I missed my mom’s funeral (and people wonder why I eventually decided to get sober).
My mom was just as much a fan of Jane Goodall as I was. And am. Maybe she was there as Leo, Jane and I ate vegan croissants, and as we talked about how much bees love rosemary flowers. I’m not sure, but I like to think she was incorporeally smiling next to me as we drove away listening to Cat Stevens.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.