On a sunbaked afternoon in Malibu, rock & roll tailor Glen Palmer rummages through a congested closet, pulling out some of the various elegant vests, sport coats and three-piece suits he has designed over the years. His home is cramped, his existence spartan; for the past decade the British expat has lived in a sequestered guesthouse on Tom Petty's beachfront estate, around the corner from the singer-songwriter's front door and next to his home studio.
Palmer lays piece after piece on his bed, including a black leather vest worn by Petty on tour and a rockabilly-style jacket — accented by velvet cuffs and elongated lapels — that once draped the shoulders of Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats. A guitar player's strap, Palmer explains, tends to scrunch up a suit. “I noticed at times how the front part of Tom's jacket would drape forward and throw off the look,” he says, gesturing to another jacket. “I designed this one with a shorter length to mend the problem.”
Each garment is in pristine condition, pressed and vibrant, fitting for someone whose work belongs in a museum. Palmer's creations include the Renaissance-tinged garments Fleetwood Mac members wear on the cover of Rumours, the wild yellow jumpsuits sported by funk group the Brothers Johnson for their album Right on Time and the Western wear Bob Dylan and George Harrison donned with the Traveling Wilburys.
Palmer once worked in retail; in the 1980s he ran the now-defunct Sunset Boulevard boutique Granny Takes a Trip, an offshoot of the London original, which is considered to be the first purveyor of psychedelic couture. Palmer's store became a bustling hot spot for acts like Ringo Starr and T. Rex, not to mention layfolk seeking glam-rock apparel and drug paraphernalia.
Approaching 60, Palmer gives off an aura that's something between aging rock star and grizzled tradesman. His cracked grin reveals a golden tooth with an embossed star. He retains a dapper elegance, and his small, thin frame belies a booming, unapologetic personality. You ask him a question about clothing and it inevitably unfurls into a musical memory, as if the two were linked like chromosomal ladders.
Though largely unknown except among the artists he services, Palmer has nonetheless become part of rock history, casting Middle American dreamers and poets as outlaws and bad boys, and imagining a new type of heroism characterized by a brash, captivating energy. He sometimes behaves like a rock star, certainly; if he doesn't like a band's music, he won't design their clothes.
“It's not about some fairy telling you this is hip this week,” he says. “I would never want to outfit contestants on American Idol. I'd be ashamed.”
“There's really nothing he can't do,” offers Petty, for whom Palmer fashioned his trademark rodeo-style cut more than 30 years ago. “He's taken note of every artist from the '50s to now. If you said to him, 'I want a pair of pants like Elvis is wearing in Loving You, he'll go, 'Oh, I know those pants' and whip them up. … He puts his heart into those clothes the same way I would write a song.”
Palmer has been busy since the year started, but that's not always the case these days. A canceled Heartbreakers tour last year — which he'd signed on to outfit — left him scrambling for work. The entire new generation of indie rockers, meanwhile, lacks a coherent sartorial vision, seemingly content to wear onstage the clothes they slept in. What's a fashioner of scarlet velvets to do?
Hailing from the English industrial steel town of Sheffield, Palmer was raised by a couture dressmaker mother and a jazz-enthusiast father. Mum taught him to sew, and they would re-create Western outfits from John Wayne's The Alamo. The night before a 1967 Jimi Hendrix concert in Sheffield, a 15-year-old Palmer ventured to London to purchase an outfit: velvet jacket and pants, blue ruffled shirt and boots, completed by an Afro perm, in homage to Hendrix.
Attempting to enter the show venue through the front, he was told to use the rear instead. “They thought I was in the band!” Palmer says with a laugh. “This impressed the crap out of me — the fact that I could do this just by the way I was looking.”
Palmer moved to L.A. in 1975; it's not entirely clear why, though he mentions a dope habit and the birth of his first child (with Joe Cocker's former girlfriend). At Granny's, he sought to re-create the glam-rock apparel by hand instead of importing it, and later bought the store. But before long its style had become passé.
Still, Granny's exposed him to a wide range of musical celebrities, who would become his clients: John Mellencamp, Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. At the Whisky A Go Go in 1976, Palmer met Petty, after he'd opened for Blondie. Petty's brand of Americana rock needed a costume to bring his anthems to life, and Palmer's vision of the rough-and-tumblin' type fit the bill: Western pockets, round lapels, multiple buttons, details like visible stitching around the border of a suit.
“People say that they can tell something looks very much like me,” Petty says. “Glen is probably one of the most truly rock & roll people I have ever met.” He laughs and adds: “We've been through a lot, he's been through tough times, but we're still cookin'.”
Palmer is similarly vague when it comes to his drug-related incarceration, which ran from 1998 to 2001. Petty then extended an invitation to Palmer to live in his Malibu home and recuperate with his family. The two grew comfortable together, and a temporary situation became a permanent fix.
Palmer now works out of his living space; he's busy designing outfits for John Gilbert Getty of the Getty Trust, the Foo Fighters and Joe Walsh. He spends some of his time on the Malibu bar scene with his cronies, guitarist C.C. Adcock and guitarmaker James Trussart, and carousing with the occasional stripper is a favorite pastime. He clearly still gets his kicks in. But one gets the sense he pines for the bad old days.
“Rock & roll has almost become a dirty word,” he says, absentmindedly taking a drag from his cigarette. “It's like some dental assistant putting on some jeans, saying, 'Ooh, these are so rock & roll.' It meant something at one point; now it doesn't mean anything.”
It's hard not to empathize with him, as you don't have to be an old-timer to bemoan a scene that has gone from Hendrix guitar anthems to canned karaoke performed by perky American Idol candidates.
Indeed, Palmer is not some dangling vestige but rather a vestigial tail. The same day we stop hearing Hendrix's “Voo Doo Chile” coming out of speakers, one fears, is the day Palmer fades away.