I’d always heard that the Salton Sea was a fetid, toxic wasteland crawling with desperate mutants, but it’s actually gorgeous. You’re in the desert and suddenly there’s cobalt blue water stretching off to the horizon. Pure white sands of pulverized bone.
This dying sea lives in the Sonoran Desert; along with the high desert Mojave, these two deserts sit on the periphery of the Los Angeles sprawl. Farther east, deep in the Mojave, are the desert towns of Zzyzx (founded by Mystic/Quack Curtis Howe Springer), Amboy, and Needles, brief residence of Charles Schulz and thus home to Snoopy’s brother Spike. And when he wasn’t buying Cheetos late at night on Wilshire Boulevard, Leonard Cohen was known to haunt the great Mojave spaces east of LA, from a monastery on Mount Baldy to a recording studio in Needles.
Cohen has always lingered on the fringes of my own life. I liked his music since I encountered it as a teen. I guess there may be something to the fact of Cohen being a bit of a daddy’s boy, and me feeling the same way, and that he was around the same age as my dad. The Cohen that emerged in the 1980s sounded dead but alarmingly vital. His formerly reedy voice became a deep groan, like some ancient croaking curses from a desert crypt. The Barry White depths his voice plumbed exuded a mordant sexiness, it allowed for a despair that was generous and warm.
Besides being complete places in their own right, the deserts exist in relation to LA, as a zone at the fringe of a great city’s consciousness, where the planned and the “rational” runs out. It is a mystic mental backyard, a gnawing void just out of sight. In my years of living in LA’s Mediterranean basin, the air is always wavering between ocean and the desert, between the sumptuous and the spare.
The unique mystic qualities of the high desert Mojave are utilized, exploited and commodified. Angelenos go out there alone to clear their heads, to trip on mushrooms, they go in pairs on their honeymoons, their babymoons, they rent cabins to see if their marriages can be saved. The low Sonoran, an even more punishing locale, has the destination locations of Palm Springs and Coachella. Further down, you go lower, hotter, and lower, until you reach the Salton Sink, where the sad waters of the Sea collect and relentlessly brine.
While in Needles Cohen fueled several of his recording sessions on a homemade cocktail he called a “Red Needle,” which if I may be reductively gauche, is just a tequila-cran, a Mexican Cape Codder. You can watch him prepare a pitcher of it on this weird Danish interview show, where he is for some reason presented the ingredients by a lithe blonde in vinyl hot pants:
Like many things, the drink tastes better when someone else makes it for you. When I make it for myself, I sometimes add a splash of unsweetened cranberry juice to tart things up, but this is not canon. Despite its fearsome desert bandito reputation, tequila has a delicate quality and preserving that in a cocktail means making it stiff. In order to have enough you must have too much.
The Red Needle is a purposeful, utilitarian sort of drink, with a bit of flash. It was clearly made for working, it was made to get a bunch of people drunk in extreme desert heat and keep them drunk through a task. It is supposed to have some “exotic fruits” like kiwis in it as well. Why not throw in some prickly pear? Mix and drink until things slide in all directions.
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Trevor Alixopulos, drinks, red needle, desert, mojave, sonoran, colorado, california, los angeles, leonard cohen, cocktails