As a writer with genius.com, I had the pleasure and privilege of contributing to 2018’s “Motown Singles Project,” a clean-up initiative that tasked users with transcribing hundreds of previously missing Motown lyrics. I’m proud to say that we completed the project in December of 2018, and I was honored when the project’s founder @dyazz asked me to co-write portions of the Genius article that detailed our journey, which you can read here.
There was one song in particular that stuck out to me. Out of all the pop singles, long-lost gospel tunes, and soul ballads that I encountered, “L.A. (My Town)” by the Four Tops kept playing in my head for days, weeks, even months after I first discovered it and transcribed the lyric page that now sits fully-formatted on the Motown tracklist—like a hidden gem among hidden gems.
Everybody knows the Four Tops’ music: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,” and many more. But for some reason, nobody seemed to know about their mystifying ode to the City of Los Angeles. Trust me, I asked around: family members, friends, other Genius contributors; no one had heard of it.
The song’s composition is lush with orchestral arrangements and ambient noises. Sounds of LA traffic swirl in full stereo, backdropping the string and horn sections that were a staple of Motown in the ’60s and ’70s. Guitarist Marv Tarplin’s ability to invoke the City of Angels’ timeless atmosphere with finger-picking and soft chords is quite remarkable. Much of the credit is due to songwriter Sherlie Matthews, but lead singer Levi Stubbs embodies an equally-impressive spirit of adoration, unrivaled by most city-themed songs. The other Four Tops appropriately lend their angelic voices to the mix, completing that perfect Motown-sound recipe.
At about the 1:30 minute-mark, the Four Tops pay homage to various LA landmarks:
I knew Olvera Street from field trips in middle school. I knew Chinatown from weekend adventures with friends, wreaking havoc on their marketplaces, buying BB guns and illegal fireworks—but “Angels Flight” was completely foreign to me. Deciphering the lyric proved damn near impossible without context. It sounded like they were saying “angels fly, let’s take a ride” which just didn’t seem right. After googling different variations of the potential lyric, I stumbled upon “Angels Flight”—the world’s shortest railway, built in 1901. Suddenly, everything made sense.
Angels Flight, sometimes spelled “Angel’s Flight,” is a 300 ft. funicular railway (from the Latin funiculus, which means ‘a thin rope or cord’). It consists of two alternating cars on a 33-degree incline and carries travelers up and down Bunker Hill, from Olive Street to Hill Street. It has a long and complex history: from its original location off of 3rd Street at the onset of the 20th century, to its eventual removal in May 1969—one year before the release of “L.A. (My Town)”—to its reconstruction 27 years later in February 1996, one half-block south of the inaugural site.
Now, 50 years after the dismantling of the railway and nearly 120 years after its initial completion, Angels Flight is still an integral part of LA’s topography.
I just so happened to be downtown last month, with no plans whatsoever other than to use my new camera and help my girlfriend carpool to the area for an appointment near the Museum of Contemporary Art—which, little did I know, happens to be ensconced at the center of Bunker Hill—between the Wells Fargo Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. At first, I wanted to enter a high-rise to take a few pictures of the landscape from above, but after three unsuccessful attempts at entering surrounding buildings, I found myself wandering out the backside of the plaza with my tail between my legs.
Several families and groups of tourists were eating around a man-made pond, so I took some photos of the waterfront, thinking to myself, “I’m never going to use these, this is a waste of time.” Just as I was about to give up and make my way back to the concert hall for what I considered to be guaranteed action, I turned and laid eyes on a strange orange tower. My heart jumped as I realized what it was and where I was—the very location I had learned about several months prior: Angels Flight.
My heart skipped a beat as I fumbled with my camera bag; suddenly, there was purpose in my step as I made my way over to the upper station. It may sound cliche, but the moment was truly surreal, as taking a ride down Bunker Hill in the wintery sunshine-smile of LA was not on my agenda.
I purchased a two-way ticket and waited for the small cable car to rise up the track. A man in a suit was at the front of the carriage, and I thought, “hmm, that’s cool, they have a conductor…” But the car came to a halt, the gate opened slowly, and he stepped off with his suitcase and made his way out into the plaza. He was the only passenger.
I stood there waiting awkwardly for a moment before the woman at the ticket booth came over the intercom: “You can get on now.” I said, “Oh…” and timidly stepped forward into what felt like a time machine. I looked around in awe, wondering if my ancestors had ever ridden this bizarre vehicle. I took a seat at the front end of the cabin—or was it the back? Regardless, I set my camera into ‘video mode’ and focused the lens accordingly, just in time for the ride to begin. You can watch my journey below:
I can’t lie. The ride was short, sweet, and anti-climactic. As you can see, it lasted about 90 seconds, but stepping off onto Hill Street and jaywalking over to ‘La Cita’ for a quick drink felt like walking a fraction of a mile in the shoes of my Mexican grandfather who traveled here by train in the 1940s with $20 and a flask. ‘La Cita’ is one of the oldest Mexican bars in LA, built in 1897; four years older than the train car I had just hopped off. I don’t drink alcohol anymore, despite my Irish-Mexican heritage, so I settled for an O’Doul’s before stopping off at the taco spot next door.
I soaked in the full stereo of LA traffic that day, captured a few more shots of the city’s diverse culture and architecture, then returned to the railway’s southern gate to make my way back up Bunker Hill. It felt like going back to the future. I popped in my headphones, pulled up “L.A. (My Town),” and let the angelic voices of the Four Tops take me away.
You can read all about the history of Angels Flight at angelsflight.org