By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Los Angeles is a place where musicians’ dreams are pursued or exchanged or eliminated, where a ceaseless tide of starry-eyed youths chase an elusive fantasy of a life far bigger and better than the ones they left behind. Or so goes the cliché. In reality, the past few decades have seen a profoundly disparate array of musical minds, from Central Avenue to Soto Street to Zuma Beach to the Sunset Strip, both playing to and pulling down that sacred graven image. They’ve made music in L.A. an ever-expanding phenomenon whose dimensions — social, political, purely musical — are now mutating at a pace almost too rapid to keep track of. No one can accurately predict what kind of sounds 21st-century music fans will dig, but a look back at our city’s musical past can help trace the patterns that shaped our present-day scene, and perhaps suggest a future.
Take the musical ’60s: Los Angeles seemed a place defined by the clash between artists with the highest ideals and those who didn’t know the meaning of the word, and didn’t care. On the Sunset Strip, you’d have seen a gathering place for a strange hodgepodge of new and old values, as witnessed by the seemingly contradictory array of musical styles generated by the hopefuls and wheeler-dealers who migrated here. The early ’60s had survived an influx of earnest young guitar-strummers, variously moved by the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Dylan had let them down, though, sacrificing the American folk heritage with savage amplified guitars and kaleidoscopic poetry.
Others took a more positive note, and adjusted their aims accordingly. They’d recently withstood the English ç Invasion, whose baby-faced Beatles and Stones and Kinks had charmed the socks off Americans by singing clever rhymes in perhaps slightly more sophisticated harmonies than we’d been getting out of our homegrown artists. Some said it was nothing more than a whitewash of Negro rhythm & blues, but the little girls understood, and the little boys, too. In L.A., this phenomenon was seized upon and joyfully corrupted by a rash of punky garage bands, some of whom had high aspirations in the biz, some of whom knew that they had one good song and were in it for the beer. At the Whisky a Go Go, a slew of ferocious beat combos in shades, Cuban heels and florid shirts — the Seeds, the Music Machine, the Leaves, the Standells,
Love — whipped out a decidedly nasty sound. These bands had taken more cues than they realized from Eastside crews like Thee Midnighters and Cannibal and the Headhunters. Maybe they’d never believed too much in American dreams, except the one about how weall free to hit it big in show biz — or at least try.
Hollywood had seen generations of pop idols come and go: zoot-suited swing-jazzers, suave crooners, rockabilly ravers and clean-cut surfers. They’d plied their trade at the Mocambo and Ciro’s in the ’40s, at the Renaissance, the Crescendo and the Red Velvet in the ’50s, at Pandora’s Box in the ’60s. In this turbulent decade, music life grew both more politicized and sillier. In the Business, we still had men like Don Kirshner, a longtime music promotion man who sidelined in pop songwriting; his "Sugar Sugar," as performed by the Archies, managed to make pop idols out of cartoon characters, rather than cartoons out of pop idols. We still had hitmakers like Gary Lewis and the Playboys or the Grassroots making the rounds, conquering the charts, as late as 1967.
But at the Sea Witch on Sunset, or the Troubadour on Santa Monica, or the Ash Grove on Melrose, there gathered young people who liked a little unrest with their evening’s entertainment. An unshaven youth by the name of Barry McGuire drifted into town with a Dylan-drenched, gloomy ditty called "Eve of Destruction," wherein our inescapable annihilation was hectoringly foretold to a thrashing acoustic guitar and baleful disgust — and it became an enormous hit, proving that the time was right for . . . disgust. The folk revival was a lingering force — even Sonny and Cher got into the act; the Mamas and the Papas merged nylon-string strains and multipart harmonies into their pop; in a little shack somewhere out in the Canyon, Linda Ronstadt perfected a country croon in preparation for her big cover-song hits in the coming ’70s. The Byrds’ DNA was country and folk music, but they’d taken drugs and seen Coltrane’s ghost. At Gazzarri’s, Johnny Rivers laid down country-blues rock & roll, and was among the last of his clean-cut kind.
Because there was trouble comin’ every day: Vietnam loomed, Nixon scowled, Kent State burned. On the Strip, life went on as it had, blithely reflecting the turmoil of the outer world in pop ways heavy, hard and out of control. Even the Beach Boys were freaking out. We knew that Brian Wilson was sensitive, but no one could have foreseen something like Pet Sounds. More radically still, in the vast desert just east of L.A., there were aberrations like Frank Zappa, and his pal Captain Beefheart. The clean and sober disciplinarian Zappa scorned pop’s teen revolution, preferring an irony-soaked version of society’s buffoonery couched in perverted doowop harmonies, avant-garde jazz riffing, musique concrète and a classically rock image of "I’m everything you revile and fear." Beefheart, the more naturally surreal of the two, took Delta blues and tore it a new sound hole, fracturing the beats and chords while howling cubistic lyrical abstractions at the moon.