Great God Pan #12

(Originally written for Dynamite Hemorrhage fanzine #9, which is still available for purchase here). 

In the 1990s a California-based music fanzine called Great God Pan started an issue-by-issue transition from being ostensibly about independent rock music to being entirely “The Journal of Californiana”. It was a fanzine that looked like and was put together like a fanzine – and which took advertisements from the indie labels of the day – and yet was pretty much wholly about California and Pacific West lore, tall tales, explorations, and California- themed artwork by the time they wrapped it up in 2000. Editors Mark Sundeen and Eric Bluhm were car campers, western history nerds and lovers of the offbeat, deranged and strange. It occurred to me often while reading it that music was truly becoming a bill-paying afterthought for them with each passing issue, and I was very much okay with that at the time.

I caught the magazine about halfway through their transition, in the mid-1990s, and likely bought and devoured them all because I was both a Californian just starting to take edifying personal road trips across every freeway in the state, and because I was an underground rocknroll fiend who’d scarf up every decent fanzine on the rack. Yet it was only in 2020 that I decided to again crack open my stack of Great God Pans to see how they held up a couple of decades later. You may recall that you yourself had many evenings spent at home during the year of our lord 2020.

Many wonders revealed themselves again, and some for the very first time. In two issues of the magazine, Great God Pan #12 and #13, there lived three pieces each by a writer named Michael Fessier Jr. These pieces had originally been published in the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday magazine, West, during 1970 and 1971, as part of a 10-part exploration of the soul of an exceptionally impenetrable city called “L.A.: In Search of the City”. I got busy reading them, somewhat chagrined that unless my memory had totally failed me, I was doing so for the first time. I couldn’t believe how outstanding this guy’s prose was, nor how in-depth his travels to the far corners of this big, wide, unending city had taken him.

As he explained in the introduction to the as-then only partially underway series on February 22nd, 1970, “The author was not too sure of what he would do or who he would talk to, except that he would try very hard to avoid actors, hippies, noisy advocates of the Silent Majority and Timothy Leary. Certainly somebody else was out there.” He then explained to Great God Pan 28 years later that his actual target in doing the series was the Times itself: “the Times and my accumulated sense that outside movies, the Times, novels, and all the rest of it – there was this other L.A., totally unnoticed.”

This has also struck me about Los Angeles time and again. One turn off of a freeway, and you’re drifting through Pico Rivera, or Sylmar, or Altadena, or Montebello, or Lawndale. All of it Los Angeles, just as much as Wilshire Blvd. or Hollywood & Vine or Fairfax & Melrose. I’ve found myself in places like this for one reason or another, their own self- contained worlds off the 710 or 405 or 110, and just been like, “Wow….people live here.”. My pal Jerry used to take me around Los Angeles and Orange counties in the 1990s, and I was the gawking tourist who wanted to know about any & all regional differences between Buena Park and Santa Ana, between El Segundo and Hawthorne, between Orange and Anaheim.

Fessier’s writing about pockets of the city were absolutely revelatory to me, and I read and then re-read all six of the ten pieces that Great God Pan had been able to reprint. He doggedly interviewed hyper-local “characters” in each region he visited like a gumshoe detective, not to unravel a case but instead to make one: that this place, this Cudahy or Rustic Canyon or a skid row downtown street, this place is a place that matters to the people who live and work there.

The San Dimas piece in particular should have won a Pulitzer, such is the pathos and humor of the story. It’s the story of a 28-year-old man named Fred Blitstein who’s carpetbagged into the Inland Empire town to make a name for himself in civic improvement, with an eye toward transforming the decaying Bonita Avenue into an open- air “Early California” living museum. No one can quite figure out what “Early California” actually means, and can only point to older pictures of Bonita Avenue looking just as it does today by way of example. This disappoints Blitstein greatly, who desperately wants to do something exciting and memorable for San Dimas:

Blitstein was out showing me around in his trim, tangerine-colored Opel GT. “Southern California,” he was explaining, “is the land of the two-time loser. A pretty plastic facade. You push through it and there is nothing there.”

He had come to study in Southern California thinking it would be the nearest thing to his beloved Florida. The place of his imagination was the movie-poster one, all beach and sun and pretty girls. He was badly disappointed, and now believes that Southern California out-tinsels Florida five to one. He went to a conference of urban affairs people at the Hilton where the question of “What is Southern California?” was asked. Nobody had any answers. “Southern California is an abstraction,” said Blitstein. “You can’t tell what it is, even where it is.”

“Southern California is God’s test of man,” he said, whipping his car around corners so quickly I was feeling a little carsick.

Depending on how you look upon this time in Southern California, it’s either a far more innocent era than our own, or a part of post-Manson reckoning that was already ripping the city apart. The Manhattan Beach piece, about swingin’ mustachioed bachelors trying to party and get down with stewardesses, seems to split the difference. To me, 1970 seems, you know, like a long time ago, half a century even – and yet elements of Fessier Jr.’s Los Angeles are still instantly recognizable to this day.

The ten pieces in West were – by title and titular region:
●  “Growing Up in Cudahy” (Cudahy)
●  “In With The In  Crowd” (Manhattan Beach)
●  “Coming To The Canyon” (Rustic Canyon)
●  “The Pied Piper of San Dimas” (San Dimas)
●  “Portraits and People” (The Huntington Library in Pasadena)
●  “The Living End” (Downtown LA)
●  “The Gates of Rolling Hills” (Rolling Hills)
●  Title unknown – San Fernando Valley 1
●  Title unknown – San Fernando Valley 2
●  Title unknown – San Fernando Valley 3

“Title unknown” because I haven’t read them, nor found even references to them online, and not for lack of trying. Suitably impressed by what I did read (to say the least), I tracked down Great God Pan co- editor Mark Sundeen, whom I also learned subsequently went on to quite a writing and book-publishing career of his own. I let him know that my research uncovered that Fessier had passed away in Santa Barbara in 2014, at the age of 75, and I even had floated the idea of actually publishing these pieces in a book of my own, money permitting. Here’s what he told me:

Yeah, Fessier, wow. What a guy. I don’t think I knew he died. He was such a great writer, one of those Californians like John Fante or Leonard Gardner who had so much talent, such a unique West Coast way of seeing the world, but just didn’t figure out how to break through to a wide audience. I blame the fact that the publishing world sits on the East Coast but there were surely other factors. The way I remember meeting him is that he wrote a glowing review of Great God Pan in the LA Weekly, and we got in touch with him and he mentioned this piece he’d written decades earlier about Manhattan Beach, where we lived, and so of course we wanted to read it, and were blown away by it, and asked it we could reprint the series. I think we meant to keep publishing more, but we soon “retired.”

I personally would pitch in a few bucks to publish a book of his essays about LA from the early 70s. I think he really captured it better than say, Didion, because he really dove into the uncool places far from Hollywood. When I met him I was in grad school at USC and just discovering the New Journalists of the 70s like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Didion and I thought/think he was as good as them.

I think he sent us old xeroxes of either his typed drafts or the West pages, and I typed them into the computer manually!

Michael Fessier, Jr.

What’s exceptionally frustrating in this always-connected, everything documented era we live in is just how tough it can be to dig up printed materials from the past – and even to find people, say, Fessier Jr.’s two sons – who haven’t really left much of an internet presence, except for the fact that they appear to be alive and about my age. I didn’t know what I was going to ask them when I did find them, to be fair, but it was probably permission to compile all ten of these pieces into a book on my not-quite- launched vanity private press. Maybe I’d call it “L.A.: In Search of the City”! I suppose that costs money, and anyway, I can’t track these guys down, and that’s probably just as well. It’s the Los Angeles Times that likely owns the rights to the ten pieces, and I’m not ready to slug it out with Otis Chandler just yet.

Until that time comes, I merely wanted to illuminate the fact that this amazing trove of urban spelunking and writing exists, as Great God Pan also did, even if I’m not actually reprinting it so you can compare notes with me and all your Dynamite Hemorrhage– reading chums. I’d do what I can to grab copies of Great God Pan #12 and #13 if you’re at all interested in checking this stuff out, and hey, if you figure out how to work the microfiche machine, maybe we can take this Fessier Jr. project a step further together. 

(Postscript: not only did I make contact in 2022 with one of Fessier Jr.’s sons, who basically told me godspeed and thank you, more or less, I was bestowed with a treasure trove of Fessier Jr. scans from SL, who did know how to work the machines at his local library. I got to read the three San Fernando Valley pieces, but also a ton more of Fessier Jr.’s work in New West, the LA Weekly and other journalistic venues. Fantastic stuff, and makes me even hungrier to finance and publish that book.)

One thought on “Great God Pan #12

  1. Welp, you finally stumped me. Never heard of this ‘zine but I guess I’ll have to go looking for copies.

    And sign me up for at least two copies of that book of Fessier’s writing. I bet the rights are free or have reverted to his sons. A lot of newsprint publications don’t retain long term rights, usually because some writers eventually want to compile them into a book, so….

    And if I may suggest, “LA: In Search of a City.” I’ve never lived there, only visited a bunch of times but LA always struck me as not being a city at all, instead a widely spread out loose collection of neighborhoods and townships that unlike other major U.S. cities, have very little in common but are nonetheless labeled and viewed as if it’s a uniform place.


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