FLASHBACK

Lana Del Rey’s Trailer Park Days: My Time with Lizzy Grant

I recorded a video with Lana Del Rey when she was just Lizzy Grant. Watching it reminds me that dreams come true, provided they're flexible enough to include crushing humiliation.

09.19.15 11:44 AM ET

Lana Del Rey released a new record yesterday. Honeymoon is, of course, dreamy and dramatic, soaked in Americana and nostalgia, spiked with glamorous violence and loopy nonsensicality. It is the perfect paean for a particular time in particular people’s lives—girls and boys who need a soundtrack for well-outfitted daydreams and cloudy morning-afters.

Every time she releases something new, I rewatch an old video of us tooling around a trailer park in New Jersey on a frigid morning several years ago. Lana went by Lizzy back then, and Lizzy is giggly, wearing a cute little silk jacket and entirely unbothered by the weather. I’m interviewing her, bundled in a long wool coat and an ugly hat I’ve owned since the seventh grade.

We pass a trailer roped off by police tape.                                                                                       

“Did a crime happen here recently?” I asked. My voice is pitched quiet and low, which is how I speak when I’m nervous. I’d never conducted an interview before.

Molly is filming us and she is terrible at it. The video swoops and shakes as she walks and laughs. Molly was a friend of a friend, a cool girl who lived in a gorgeously ramshackle apartment way out in Williamsburg and always had great clothes and dapper boyfriends. I’d tagged along to a Thanksgiving dinner at her place once, where she stuffed the turkey with black truffles and I made awkward small talk with a man who had a Britney Spears sleeve tattoo. 

Onscreen, I say, “We are in New Jersey.”

“We are, thank God,” Lizzy laughs.

We walk through the frame, years younger and stupider and fresher, wearing clothes we no longer own, going back to apartments and jobs that no longer exist. Normal people walk along the edges of the video, and I remember them pointedly ignoring us.

Molly kept yelling “Cut!” like this was a real thing we were doing.

It was a horrifying time for me.

I’d just quit music. From children’s choirs to teenage musicals to singer-songwriter stuff in my early twenties, my identity was built on my dream of “making it” as a famous musician. Sometimes, in my current job, I get cover letters that start with “this has been my dream my whole life.” I was that kind of asshole.

The problem was, I wasn’t any good.

The world had not made a secret of this. I wasn’t progressing like my talented friends, who were starting to get traction with producers and audiences—but it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize it, the knowledge growing unnoticed in the back of my brain like an alien mass.

The night I first knew I had to give it up was suitably dramatic.

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I was friends with a music industry guy named Bob. He’d been the keyboard player of a band that toured with Aerosmith—or someone like Aerosmith—in the ‘70s and then I’m pretty sure he’d played with Stevie Nicks during the solo cocaine years in L.A. He had signature glasses and five ex-wives. He surrounded himself with girl singer-songwriters—I was one, and so were a whole host of girls who never got famous either, but Lizzy was one as well along with Stefani Germanotta, though she’d started calling herself Lady Gaga by that point. I think. I didn’t write anything down because I had no idea it’d be worth remembering.

Bob hosted shows at a Manhattan venue started by a famous actor to meet chicks. It worked—the actor married one of the bartenders—and the place has since been shut down and remade it something more family-friendly.

To be fair, it was never that edgy or sexy or weird. Sometimes on Tumblr, I see kids talking about the early days of Gaga as if it was the bad old days of New York, as if we were crawling through the Lower East Side with needles sticking out our elbows, turning tricks for guitar strings.

Please. Everyone wore Uggs.

Anyway, I was sitting at this venue, drinking house vodka straight because that’s what I drank in those days because I was cheap with control issues and I didn’t like anything pleasant cluttering up my alcohol. I watching Stefani writhe around the stage. She was going to be famous. Even I knew that and I have the worst music industry instincts of anyone I’ve ever met. When Stefani said she was going to write more dance music, I tut-tutted because we were going into a recession and people don’t like dance music in recessions. I’d seen a few Behind the Musics on grunge.

In an alternative universe, “Just Dance” didn’t happen because some idiot listened to me.

But in this universe, Stefani was clearly going to be huge. A&R reps were crowded along the edges of the room, leaning forward and sweating in their button-downs and artfully distressed jeans, ready to sign checks.

I was sitting next to Lorraine who was a songwriter.

“So I was talking to my agent the other day,” Lorraine started as if we’d been having a conversation all along.

“Yeah.” Sip.

As the myth went, Lorraine had been signed to a contemporary Christian label in the early ‘90s, all poised to be the next big crossover star, when they discovered she was living in sin with a Jewish man and dropped her. They’d kept her around as a songwriter and she’d written a big hit for DC Talk or Jars of Clay or someone, but she wanted to be a star in her own right.

“He said fifty is the new twenty.” She’d dusted her eyelids with glitter and the glitter was working its way down her face, settling into her wrinkles. “I mean, it makes sense. We’re living longer. We’re hitting our stride later.”

Another sip of vodka. A big one.

“I’m going to start a band,” Lorraine said.

That’s when I knew it was time. All of those A&R men crowded around the room had already passed on me. And if I wasn’t going to be Stefani, my only other option was Lorraine, halfway through my life and still waiting on validation that was less and less likely to come.

I quit. The music industry wept.

The music industry did not weep.

No one noticed actually, and I just slunk off into the ether without telling anyone. I was embarrassed. I was the first one in that group to quit, the first one to wave a white flag, and I should have persevered because that’s what you did when you had a dream. That’s what you did when you really wanted something. You toiled at it year after year, like Lorraine, hopelessly devoted, even if you had nothing to sustain you but the dream itself.

I was pinwheeling, arms flailing and pulling at anything shiny for a new creative North Star, when I was included on a group email from Molly asking if anyone had any interview ideas.

Molly’s dream was writing. She was making it happen as the editor of a website for a magazine that had been so, so cool in the ‘90s and was trying to reinvent itself as the new Gawker. I read her email and thought, if only I could go back in time and redo my whole life and maybe make writing my dream. I still answered her, feeling like a fraud, to see if maybe she’d be interested in an interview with my friend Lizzy who had a record coming out.

Molly asked if we could also film a video. Video was going to be the next big thing. Lizzy had lived in a trailer park while working on her record, so maybe we could film there? White trash was also going to be the next big thing.

She did not question my credentials or laugh in my face. I did those things, quietly, to myself, because it felt like apt punishment, to leave something I had loved and wanted for something I wasn’t even sure I liked.

I asked Lizzy if she’d be up for a video. 

“Of course,” she said. Because she had always been, fundamentally, a nice person.

“How about 9 a.m. on Sunday?” she suggested, because she was also fundamentally a strange person. Going to the frozen hellscape that is New Jersey at 9 a.m. on a winter Sunday sounded reasonable to her.

Out of all of Bob’s girls, Lizzy was my favorite. We went to the same college—different campuses but still, the same school. We both liked Coney Island and old New York. She had a particular way of articulating her consonants that made her words feel very purposeful, which I liked.

And she was talented. I had everyone’s demos but Lizzy’s was the only one I actually played. I certainly didn’t listen to my own—I was trying to sound like Leonard Cohen but my songs came out like reheated Jewel. If you ever come across those tracks, you should skip them as well.

The trailer park was next to a highway, behind a Dunkin Donuts knockoff. Lizzy was waiting in the parking lot when we got there. I stopped in to get a coffee cup to clutch in the video because I was freezing and nervous and my hands were shaking a little. Before we started filming, she took the hand not holding coffee and squeezed my fingers, hard.

I ask terrible questions in the video. Jessica Hopper from Spin once described them as “tepid,” which is far kinder than she could have been. The night before, I was too nervous to sleep so I walked over to Penn Station at 3 a.m. and stood in Hudson News reading all of their magazines, like I could soak up how to interview by osmosis, until the clerk woke up and yelled at me.

In the video, Lizzy is wearing cartoonishly glamorous fake eyelashes.

“Tell me about these eyelashes,” I ask onscreen.

“I can only say, I wouldn’t be without them,” Lizzy giggles. My own eyelashes were frozen to my cheeks. I put on my sunglasses, which look ridiculous in the video. Everything looks ridiculous in the video.

Afterward, we all took the train together and filled the space between New Jersey and New York with the conversational detritus of women in their twenties. Molly liked my boots, I liked her haircut, we both liked Lizzy’s silk bomber jacket. We should all hang out, get coffee and maybe do a book club. We all needed to read more.

And then we went out into the world— me a failure and the two of them striding nobly toward the stars. Go boldly in the direction of your dreams! If you can dream it, you can achieve it!

Of course, it all broke.

Molly’s dream ended when she got sick of New York, quit her job, moved up and out and up into a life of purpose. She went to law school, learned Spanish, and became an immigration lawyer in Arizona.

Lizzy’s first record bombed—before the success, the acclaim, and the namesake Mulberry bag, she was a failure. When she started crafting the magnificently well-plotted Lana Del Rey, I wrinkled my nose and said, I don’t get it, because again, I have terrible, terrible music industry instincts. Lana happened to stick, but Lana launched out of a crater.

And I’m a writer and editor. It has never been the wistful, glittering carrot of a Dream in the way music was. Writing is a much more fluid goal, growing and shifting to fit wherever I am in life, how much money I need, who wants to hire me, whatever bullshit I happen to find interesting at any given moment. It is an adult plan. I was too stupid to realize it at the time but the necessary shredding of my childhood goal was not a wrenching betrayal of self; it was a healthy and normal part of growing up.

I click play again and we amble through the frame. Everything about that period in my life is sepia tone by default—the venues I played are gone, the musicians I ran with are scattered, but I’m really only nostalgic for us, these sweet idiots committing our fumbling to posterity. There we are on video, trying so hard, hurling forward into certain failure and about to be all the better for it.