Once upon a time people turned out the lights to watch TV and walking down the street I could see shows flickering silver and black in the darkened living rooms. They might be westerns, they might be guys solving problems with a helicopter or scuba gear, but they were always Made In Hollywood USA. There was even a show that put itself squarely in the middle of this magic kingdom: 77 Sunset Strip. They were stories full of V-8 energy and brimming confidence that said: America is the best place on Earth. I wanted to go there. Fortunately, my mother did too. Standing on top of the Empire State Building in 1964 as she stared out across Manhattan she almost hummed, “I’ve wanted to stand here ever since I saw a photo of it being built.” That was 30 years before. Dreaming had turned to plotting and then to action and we moved to Canada and then in 1966 drove across the border into The Land Of Plenty.
It was a time when the whole world hummed with an endless sense of possibility – of gas turbine cars and Moon colonies and things continually getting better. Optimism and promise throbbed quietly in the background of everything, a constant morse code tapping out N-E-W. All of it new: teflon and velcro and non-stick pans, The Beatles’ endless inventiveness and the aural tornado of “The Witch” by The Sonics, films so fizzing you could make one in Spain with an American TV star and an Italian director stealing the plot from a Japanese film and invent a new genre, the geometric space-age fashions coming out of New York with paper dresses and white plastic boots, the mirrors Lichtenstein and Warhol held up to the hot, happy world we lived in. Warhol – he was so modern it hurt, deifying soup cans and reinventing the meaning of celebrity, industriously working in his Factory all painted silver. How space age could it get?!
American life starts in the university town of Eugene, Oregon, a place bubbling with contradictions: Friday night cruising! Art films! Prom queens! Collegiate hipsters! Within a week I encounter something previously seen only on TV and album covers: the American girl.
Golden skin, golden face, golden curves, golden fifteen. She’s kneeling behind me while I leaf through her high school Yearbook, leaning over my shoulder to helpfully point out the tribal codes of teenage life on the western edge of America. Very little of it registers though because I am intensely focussed on her breasts intentionally and repeatedly pressing against my back. Desire, embarrassment and fear choke me in straitjackets of inaction.
Essential things I learn about American girls: They radiate intimidating confidence. They look like the covers of the teen fashion magazines they read. They talk about suicide, debating whether taking pills or drinking bleach is better, all of them knowing someone who knows someone who slashed their wrists but wasn’t serious because they cut this way not that way.
Most important, I grasp that if I want to unhook their bra straps on the back seat of Bryce Butler’s ’54 Cadillac I need to get beyond the British Invasion of the Top 40, past Motown’s sound of young America, to the esoteric fields of guitarists John Fahey and Sandy Bull and folk singers Mimi Farina and Judy Collins. All the good-looking brainy girls have these albums stacked by their parents’ KLF stereos. Next to the Web Of Sound spun by The Seeds or The Animals’ fuzz-driven dead-end dramas these records are anaemic and interminable, with zero electricity. But if “liking” this music will get me to second base….A smart youth would try and work out what it is that speaks to these girls, but I’m not smart.
These artists are where owning LPs start and stop, other than The Beatles of course. It’s all 45s. Dylan is college stuff, ignored except for his novelty hit, “Rainy Day Women”. The closest sound to a folk artist is Janis Ian on the radio, which plays a continuous soundtrack of brilliant teen experience and aspiration. As Sonny And Cher so wisely sing, “Teenybopper is our new born king, uh huh.”
Then Aftermath appears. At a party shortly after, everyone stops making out in the darkened rec room and fills the dance space, the whole room singing, thrilling on the excitement of The Stones, the successive brilliant sneering explosions, building to the floor-filling, teen-singing, sheer 11 minute brand-newness of “Goin’ Home”, then stepping outside to the jet-age shape of Dad’s new E Type Jaguar glinting in the night. I tell you, the future is an amazing place.
American high school is like heaven with teachers. Everyone drives to school. Sports come with Colgate-smile cheerleaders in tight sweaters routine-dancing to “Night Train”. You can wear what you want. You can mix up drugs in the chemistry lab.
That’s what Kyle does: distils amphetamine hydrochloride after school when the teachers aren’t around. But Kyle is a closeted braniac and his drug choice has nothing in common with the few thespians in the Drama/Art gang increasingly curious to try marijuana, which they’ve learned, despite the warnings in the anti-drug films shown in PE class, doesn’t turn you into a heroin-seeking addict with just one puff.
It’s October and sketchy descriptions of some new people in San Francisco called Hippies are flowing north. Sitting on the hall steps one lunch hour, the hippest of the drama kids is talking about a mysterious drug called LSD that sends you “on a trip”. Cautiously, my girlfriend asks, “Is that what they call ‘psychedelic’?” It sounds exciting, very different from the space-age underground circling around Andy Warhol in New York.
Soon after, LSD advocate Timothy Leary comes to town on a tour promoting the drug as the modern way to talk with God. When I enter the basketball court where he’s appearing it is entirely dark except for one candle in front of Leary. He sits on the floor, sprinkling his sexy pitch with jokes and a light dusting of academic seriousness, his radio-announcer voice riffing in the near-blackness on an ad slogan for the decade: Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out.
Then Ken Kesey shows up, Leary’s psychedelic salesman alter-ego, but without Tim’s patrician looks or smooth charm, and he’s saying acid is for having parties with God. He’s followed by Andy Warhol, who doesn’t say anything at all. A few weeks later it’s discovered that Warhol sent an impersonator and the real Andy is forced to appear. He says even less.
We’ve locked the door and put a towel on the floor to block the crack, sitting in a circle as someone knowledgeable lights a thin joint of Mexican marijuana and teaches the right way to smoke it. The inhale-pass-hold ritual emphasises the entry to a very secret, very small group doing a go-to-jail activity. As it becomes a regular weekend and summer vacation enterprise, some of my friends graduate to the small purple pill. Everyone knows the best LSD is Purple Owsley. It’s Holy Grail legendary and possibly as insubstantial; instead the intrepid voyager seeks Purple Doubledomes and then later Purple Haze. Older, more responsible college people get concerned and nurse-like at parties when they find that some of the sixteen year olds are tripping but the high-schoolers treat it as just another Saturday night, with added electricity.
In January a Psychedelic Shop opens, filled with trip glasses and liquorice rolling papers and hallucinatory posters from the San Francisco dance halls and this Hippie thing is looking very new and very attractive. The media shrieks like the whole of young America is lolling around in a crashpad full of drugs and free love but when I look around my school of 1500 there are about 12 of us learning how to ‘maintain’ when high in front of our parents.
In San Francisco for Easter, I go to my first “proper” concert, Big Brother And The Holding Company at the Avalon Ballroom. The Avalon is up a wide staircase with red wallpaper leading to a large dance floor bathed in early evening sunlight. The people are mostly Hippies with really long hair, wearing beads and bells and anti-War badges and bright clothes that didn’t come from a department store.
Big Brother is just what a music-mad rock kid wants: driving, good looking, loud. Janis-Joplin-Media-Star hasn’t been invented yet and she’s just the singer, not the spotlight. I’m more interested in guitarist James Gurley, who looks rockstar cool with high, chiselled cheek bones and fantastic feedback. When I dream of being a rock star I look like him. They sing a song about the bands in San Francisco and mention the Avalon; places in songs are always in New York, Los Angeles or England and here’s a song not just about a city I’m in but the place where I am. Groovy!
When Janis announces ‘Ball And Chain’ there’s a cheer, which means it must be special. The next ten minutes are…I have nothing to compare it to. Songs like this aren’t on the radio. Even though it’s early, Janis grabs it and dives in, the guitars building into big balls of noise around her. It is just…wow!
Hollywood! The El Dorado of desire! Driving down Sunset it’s just as Jan and Dean sang in Dead Man’s Curve: “La Brea, Schwabs and Crescent Heights”. 77 Sunset Strip really exists!
By now the Vietnam War has grown from a small news story in ‘64 into an unstoppable mutant virus devouring daily life. There’s always some new guy in school back from the jungles, flinching at loud noises, a shadow with eyes full of tracers and incomings. Because he sits next to me in Art class I’m friendly with one of these zombies, a whispery stick of a boy-man called Dwayne. Give him a joint and the stories leak out, fragments of a life you never want to see; about the Ranger being reamed out by an officer for his long hair, beard, and lack of military uniform, and the guy just pulls out his gun, jams it under the officer’s chin and says, “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t hear you,” and after a silence the officer says, “OK soldier, carry on”; or watching a band play and when a drunken GI doesn’t hear the song he wants, stands up and shoots the girl singer, the bullet shoving her backwards over the drum kit where she dies in her boyfriend’s arms. He always ends his stories with a phrase from The Doors, patron saints of soldiers: “weird scenes inside the goldmine”.
Enough with the serious! All the good-looking brainy girls have Leonard Cohen on the stereo. Even trying not to listen I know every couplet, sitting through his interminable drone in the interests of getting their clothes off. A smart student would try and work out what it is that speaks to these girls, but I’m not smart.
The rock concert scene is really taking off and every chancer with a fistful of dollars is putting on concerts and festivals. In a basketball arena in Fresno I lean my elbows on the lip of the stage and stare an arm’s length from Clapton as Cream rip through a blinding display. A lacklustre Doors play under the stars at the local fairground, Morrison’s hands around the microphone hiding a joint he hits on between verses of “The End”. In Pasadena Led Zeppelin perform in the shed that stores floats for the Rose Parade, Page looking rockgod-cool in Converse, skinny jeans and a beat up leather jacket. Over in north L.A. Hendrix is so bad on the first night of a rock festival that he comes back on Sunday and plays for free.
Guaranteed, though, is The Grateful Dead will be bottom of the bill. Their set is one long medley of strange music that no one applauds. They are easily the most cutting-edge band around and I see them several times in half-empty clubs and halls. Outside of their fans no-one seems to like them and won’t get around to liking them for another ten years.
One appearance is opposite a Christian youth meeting, prompting their leader to write a flyer titled The Grateful Dead vs. The Grateful Alive. He’s part of the New Christianity that’s seeping across the nation. There’s a big market in books by Tibetan gurus and past-life vendors, but the biggest charlatan predicts a new Messiah will come out of the Middle East in the early ‘80s and bring peace on Earth. The Grateful Alive nourish themselves on this, make it their selling point to spread The Word, sucking up school kids in emotional Bible meetings held in homes and empty shops.
It’s an invisible contagion that keeps multiplying until something – a church? a cult? – called The Tony Alamo Christian Foundation starts advocating across L.A. through radio ads. Their hippie-flotsam zealots are everywhere. I’m at a free concert in Griffith Park, marvelling at the Nudie suits on the Flying Burrito Brothers when my view is blocked by twin laser-ray eyes blazing in a bombed out face full of Puritan harangue: “I can see in your eyes you suffer from the sin of pride.” There’s a rich irony here, this grubby urchin earnestly hustling for my soul while Gram Parsons is searching for salvation from a makeshift stage. The flotsam born-agains like to place themselves on the righteous side by saying that Jesus was a despised outcast and rebel too, but honestly, who are you going to follow: a lost, humourless kid who’s been singed by the light or a honey-voiced singer wearing drugs and pussy on his suit?
As Vietnam keeps escalating the sense of war at home intensifies with it. One year I’m listening to Joan Baez advocate peaceful dissent and sing some songs; the next a Black Panther minister is conveniently claiming all sides of the Bible to simultaneously preach peace and brandish the sword of vengeance. Since he’s surrounded by grim faced guards carrying rifles, I’m thinking he favours the latter. At an anti-War march adrenalised longhairs scream “Up against the wall motherfucker!” at the police, who suddenly charge into them with batons swinging. I’m on the edge so it’s easy to run away, but these same guys will buttonhole you at school, asking, ‘Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?’
So it’s a surprise when the latest way to Fuck The System is an illegal bootleg record of unreleased Dylan songs. It’s soon followed by an amazing document of The Stones live and then they’re everywhere. There’s something outlaw and romantic about bootleg records and if you can’t find them the FM rock stations are playing them anyway. They literally bear the rubber stamp of amateurs, but you know the trend is getting serious when a bootleg of The Band at the Hollywood Bowl is released on Rubber Dubber Records with a “proper” cover. It even has liner notes.
The Rubber Dubber is a guy called Scott and it’s his mission to produce high quality bootleg recordings. His hair is swept straight back to his shoulders, a trim beard and glasses obscuring his age, but in this new era we’re all under 30 anyway. We strike a business deal because we both have what the other wants: I know lots of music magazines to publicise his records and he has money. It’s new capitalism!
Scott lives in the hills above Echo Park, a cheap-rent district popular with hippies, hungry musicians and Mexicans. You don’t live there if you don’t have to, which is possibly what makes it attractive to a fugitive. When I arrive for our first meeting it is another beautiful LA sunset with the air glowing golden and the sky still blue. His house is non-descript, like all the others on the street. I step into a sparsely furnished living room with a wooden floor and windows along the front and side. Leaning against each window sill is a high-powered rifle, the dark wood stocks and black barrels stark against the white paint of the window frames and walls.
“We’re practising for when The Revolution comes and we have to off the pigs,” are Scott’s first words to me. I can’t tell if he’s serious; I’ve been experiencing this Come-The-Revolution malarkey for years and even with guns against the wall it still feels like some kids playing cops and robbers.
What he is serious about is how he makes money. “You better understand, we’re criminals. It’s what we do.”
Supposedly Scott is an ex-Seal, the Navy version of the Green Berets, and can short-circuit a city’s power supply with a ballpoint pen. It’s hard to equate from his average height and chubby frame whether this is true, but underlying his general cheeriness is a steely quality that belongs either to a commando or a criminal. Maybe both.
His partner Steve projects no such doubt; he looks like an outlaw through and through. Tall, hard, with long black hair and trimmed beard, for all his smiling affability I can easily imagine him hanging out with bad people. I have to ask him what’s hanging on a thin silver chain in the V of his open necked denim shirt: it’s a silver coke spoon. There’ll be a lot more of that in the next few years.
We tape concerts with a shotgun microphone and a high quality tape recorder concealed in a rucksack. Scott buys a whole row of tickets so that tape reels and equipment are hidden among 15 people. He loves to talk, explaining how to smuggle pot from Mexico, how to commit corporate fraud without detection, how to hack airline computers and book free tickets, how he’s been hanging out with the Stones to make sure they have the best drugs in town. I figure the last story is just dealer bullshit but then a photo is published in Rolling Stone that shows him up at the Stones hideaway talking at Mick Jagger. He must believe the over-quoted lyric of the day, “to live outside the law you must be honest.”
Rubber Dubber HQ is an anonymous warehouse downtown. It’s almost completely empty except for some old desks and 5,000 Led Zeppelin albums awaiting distribution. No-one ever arrives unannounced so some dark suits and short hair coming through the door is not good. It’s like a movie as badges flash and they confiscate the Zeppelin LPs. Seamlessly Scott becomes a half-vacant hippie employee, telling them his boss is out somewhere. He actually helps them load the LPs onto a truck. Ten minutes later the building is abandoned and Rubber Dubber Records is history.
Hippie is dead and now we’re ‘freaks’. We’re everywhere. Oddly, here on the experimenting edge of America, looking forward means looking back, dressing like an Old West pioneer in denim, turquoise jewellery and fringe suede jackets and “getting back to the land”. It’s hard to remember how far we are from the space-age edge of a few years ago.
The entertainment industries have mutated to embrace us. When Hippie exploded the record companies created the position of Company Freak so someone could explain how to dig the new scene. Now they’re all from the new scene and they’re taking over. The children of The Beatles and The Stones sit in wood-lined offices where it’s always night, their desks lit by pools of light from lamps draped with shawls. Creative Director Walter Wanger kits out his office to look like a kitchen, with a stove and everything, but people start treating him like their mother, so he changes it to look like a bar, and now they’re telling him all their problems. In certain positions a new type of woman is prominent. They don’t hide their confidence in front of men, pass around to each other the guys who are good in bed, and aren’t afraid to show their education. Liza was deported from South Africa for carrying dynamite for the ANC. Eve played chess in the nude with Marcel Duchamp as an art piece. Bobbi is Tinseltown royalty, the niece of Hollywood publicist-king Warren Cowan. One hot afternoon in her perma-night office she muses over what to do.
“I can’t decide whether to go to a movie or get laid.”
Without looking up her assistant decides. “Go to a drive-in. Then you can do both.”
There’s a feeling of new power in the air. The music penthouses are being gate-crashed by arriviste tycoons of teen; David Geffen and Elliot Roberts are starting a record label called Asylum. Geffen has courted the warm searchlight of publicity ever since he charmed Columbia Records into giving Laura Nyro and him shares in the company as part of her record contract. Now he’s not just part owner of a record company, he is the record company. Elliot Roberts is almost the anti-Geffen, a publicity shunning shadow behind his artists Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, their credibility and status, which far-outstrip their modest record sales, a credit to the prowess of their manager. In the dark offices the creative elite celebrate the new tycoons in town, hoping that it’s just the beginning and the Geffen-Roberts success will trickle down to fertilise their own greed.
Yes, it’s a new decade, a new order and a new band. The Eagles are made up of guys you’ve seen around town, toting their guitars and satchels of songs in pursuit of fame. Asylum is launching them at The Troubadour, a venerable club that is Ground Zero for the new decade’s music. From this room Elton John made his LA debut and Jackson Browne introduced his inner observations. The various Eagles have spent years here, elbows on the mahogany as they hustled drinks, hustled women, hustled men who could change their lives.
The club has a stage against one wall and booths along the back and side. What would be the dance floor is filled with tables running out from the stage, placed so that if you sit here you twist to one side to watch the music. I am sitting right next to the stage, at the feet of Randy Meisner, so close that I can see the nuances of lyrical emotion running across his face as he sings. But there aren’t any. Instead he is fixed in a permanent smile, a breezy countenance to match the mood of their cheery songs. Along the edge of the stage the other guys are grinning too, only Don Henley at the back looking stern as he sings and drums. All around is happiness, the invited audience cheering and whooping and applauding the nostalgic tapestries about James Dean and old Chevys and some girl in Winslow, Arizona. New York rock critic R. Meltzer is opposite me. He doesn’t disguise his boredom, slow hand clapping out of time with the crowd. Then, in the middle of a song, chin on hand, he picks up his beer bottle and starts banging it in slow repetition on the table. Meisner looks down, stares at him while he sings, then flicks his eyes back up to the adoring crowd and wipes the guys at his feet from his mind.
To be honest it doesn’t feel like the start of a new decade, instead we’re exhausted by the last ten years. To quote the band who will become the soundtrack of the American ‘60s, “what a long strange trip it’s been”. Personally, I’m suffocating under the denim and calming nostalgic music: “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain”? Get an umbrella. So I’m moving to London ostensibly to go to film school, but whenever I tot up the reasons to move top of the list is the fact that my favourite bands and musicians are British. I’m particularly interested in David Bowie. I read that he’s cut his hair and dyed it orange and has a new album about an alien rock star. That sounds modern.
[First published in The Word, July 2011