Groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon in one’s car through L.A. in 2017, nothing seems quite as redolent of ghosts as that stretch of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood that used to be known to everyone as “the Strip.” That would be Sunset Boulevard between Doheny and Crescent Heights, the designated nerve center and showcase of the music industry, a major cultural powerhouse of the 1960s and long, long after. (Nowadays the Strip seems to have shrunk down to just between Doheny and Horn, a couple of blocks that includes that very corner, where Tower Records recently tried reviving its own ghost.)
The Whisky is still there, but it’s not really the Whisky it used to be. Not much that’s tangible survives from the music and hippie days of 1966 to 1972, the years when Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison and Neil Young could conceivably walk the crowded boulevard like mortals, past teenage runaways asking for “spare change” or hawking copies of the L.A. Free Press on the sidewalks.
I was 9 years old and living in West Hollywood in 1967, and I remember the family car rides when we would drive slowly up and down the Sunset Strip (“Where the action is!”) and take it all in: this sudden swamp of thousands of hippies and teenagers on the Strip that used to be so quiet. To my little-kid mind, seeing them in the flesh for the first time, it looked like a parade, or a carnival of vaguely dangerous people: drug-taking, loud, mad, sandal-wearing protesters that we would hear about on TV.
I can still see in my mind one memory from the back seat of the car, this image: a hippie with long, straight blond hair, walking west on the south side of the street, bouncing, in an outfit that was all shimmering glittery gold from shirt to bell-bottoms; those pants wiggled like a jellyfish as he walked. Did I notice the names of any of the music clubs on the Sunset Strip that everyone writes books about now with such hip 'n' groovy authority? Hell no; I was 9. All I knew was that we lived up on the hill just above this big crazy parade, and that I would buy my Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines down there at Turner’s Liquors.
At a certain point that year, we moved to Robertson Boulevard south of Melrose. We loved it there. Without knowing what “bohemianism” was, we felt the coolness of this area. Robertson was quiet and the shops on the street were kind of interesting. We lived in an apartment, up above a chichi furniture showroom. And it was just a few blocks from Beverly Park, the amusement park that eventually would be torn down to make way for the so-called Beverly Center years later.
The best thing about living on Robertson, though, was how close we were to West Hollywood Park, which in ‘67 became our home away from home, pretty much. At the park, my brother and I would hang around with two brothers who were friends of ours from West Hollywood Elementary School: Benji and Nati (for Natividad, I now realize) Alvarado. There were nine kids in their family, and the tiniest one would be there in the park, too, like some little official mascot.
Benji and my brother Dean and I were walking along one afternoon at the south end of the park when a scrawny kid with dusky dark skin and straight hair ran up to us and said “You guys! Another band is rehearsing in the auditorium! Right now! The Love Souls!”
Well, he got their name wrong, but all of us kids started running and went down the stairs to the auditorium and walked inside and, man, it turned out to be a great treat for “us kids.” It was a memory that a lot of music people probably would envy me for now: The band rehearsing that day turned out to be Arthur Lee and Love, the now-revered L.A. band behind the 1967 album Forever Changes, recently declared by Rolling Stone to be the 40th greatest album of all time.
We walked in, all of us, and it felt like we were hit suddenly by a wall of loud, scraping noise, and we could feel the floors rumbling. Those guys looked like a real rock group up on the stage (not that we’d ever seen one), and it was LOUD. We walked up and stood right underneath the stage, and for the next hour or two we silently took it all in, looking up at these tall, grown-up dudes with their pinstriped shirts and their colorful neckerchiefs tied loosely around their necks (no peace-sign medallions yet, as those didn’t really come around until the next year). But their clothes were really colorful: I was standing close to their crinkling leather boots with the shiny gold buckles; those looked like what people meant by the word “groovy.” And bell-bottom Levis: brown, white, green. And these shiny white electric guitars with those curly electric guitar cords hanging everywhere, connecting to the amps. Boy, it was bitchin.’
I wouldn't hear the band again until I was about 10 years out of high school, and when I finally heard Love’s 1966 album, Da Capo, there suddenly was that buzzy, pleasant shock of recognition: Wait a minute, the park! 1967!
In that same summer we were treated by our parents to our first records: the brand-new Beatles record, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Frank Zappa’s We're Only in It for the Money. We gobbled ’em both up and continued all summer, in between watching The Monkees.
I once knew a man (he’s dead now) who lived alone for decades in East Hollywood, in a cheap apartment on Harvard Boulevard just south of Hollywood Boulevard, and his legal name (I saw his driver’s license once) was Calypso Joe. And that wasn’t even his stage name; that was General Hershey Bar. The General was a local Hollywood character who, eventually, became a sort of funny footnote in American history. After an itinerant showbiz life working as a Calypso dancer onstage during the 1940s and ’50s on more than one continent, he got his name legally changed: from William Matons to Calypso Joe. In the late ’60s, when the Vietnam war heated up, he decided to become General Hershey Bar, a living cartoon protest character.
People who attended be-ins, love-ins and anti-Vietnam War protests in L.A. from say, 1966 through the early ’70s will remember the odd sight of General Hershey Bar: a middle-aged–to-old man with thick, scraggly black hair that stuck out from underneath a fake military general’s cap. He had a craggy, lined, rectangular face (he looked a bit like John Cage). The General would be decked out in his fake uniform that looked heavy hanging on his frame, covered as it was with ridiculous-looking phony military medals and political pinback buttons. His cap was spiked with plastic toy rockets and little jet fighter planes sticking out at all angles, so he looked like a kind of comical human porcupine.
In the midst of surging crowds of peaceful, pot-smoking, dancing, body-painting young folks, he’d often be the only one that was “over 30” (he looked like a fair-skinned Cubano), and he would be standing there in the midst of it all, shouting pun-ish slogans against the war and handing out goofy fake newspapers bearing corny headlines like “LET TEEN-AGERS “A GO GO” —GENERAL HERSHEY BAR.”
Calypso Joe never failed to make the scene, at every Griffith Park, Elysian Park, West Hollywood Park, Sunset Strip, Hollywood Boulevard or Bowl event that popped up in youth-revolting Los Angeles. God knows he was poor, long ago divorced and retired in this period of life, and he probably had to take a bus whenever he made the scene in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. Did he make an impact? Well, he added color and a touch of carnival festiveness to the usually serious anti-war protests, so that was a good thing, although L.A.’s anti-war protests rarely got violent anyway (much as some historians might like to believe otherwise, as Berkeley was still where it was at for all that).
When you take it in the all-in-all, there was probably something a little soft-core about the L.A. hippie scene, versus the more hard-core scene up north. If there was going to be a love-in at Griffith Park or Elysian Park, you would not see girls going topless very often or spot couples actually fucking on the grass, as you would at, say, People’s Park in Berkeley. L.A. took it easier. Which was probably not a bad thing, I think.
An older L.A. woman, whom I will call Sally, once told me that she and her girlfriends became friends with a skinny little guitar player named Charles Manson at these tribal gatherings in Griffith Park (she also saw him in faraway Sierra Madre, where there was a thriving “canyon youth” hippie scene in an area in the foothills known as the Canyon). “We always called him Uncle Charlie! After that old-man character on the old TV show My Three Sons.” When I looked sincerely amazed at this news, she said, “He was really funny!” Only a year later he would be palling around with The Beach Boys and Neil Young so … why not?
Some great 1966 and ’67 home movies have been turning up lately on YouTube that attest to the good-natured, positive flavor of L.A.’s hippie-park events. Take a look: There are a lot of girls there (literally “with flowers in their hair”), wearing headbands and long, very straight hair (ironed?) looking quite blissed-out (and with no tattoos), and lots of nerdish-looking youths of the horn-rimmed-glasses-and-short-hair variety, looking at the extravagant long-haired celebrants with poker-faced curiosity. Men without shirts coil snakes around their necks (I guess hoping to get attention and maybe to “score” with chicks who dig snakes), and straight-looking young white women in conservative clothes suddenly getting up and dancing and gyrating in Dionysian ecstasy, no doubt conjuring up their ancient Greek ancestors who might’ve done likewise, Bacchanal-style. It was an explosion of something that was pent up in many thousands of young people: possibly their straitlaced, ’50s-flavored upbringings in the postwar, nothin-goin’-on suburbs.
You can see uniformed LAPD in these films taking it all in benignly, sometimes just strolling through the scene and talking to people. Evidently after the Watts riots, these so-called “flower children” were a relief, not something to dread.
The soundtrack to all this (if I may generalize as someone who was too young to really know) was probably sung largely by The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas and, of course, The Beatles. Arthur Lee was restless of mind and wasn’t lulled by the seeming quiet of the love-ins. He may have been giving his answer to the prevailing musical question of that year: “Are you going to San Francisco?” when he sang these words on Forever Changes:
“They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key.
I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me?”