Frank ZappaEXPAND
Frank Zappa
Heinrich Klaffs/Wikicommons

L.A. ’68 a-Go-Go

You think these are contentious and nerve-racking times? Well, they are. But America in 1968 had reached a truly dangerous flashpoint, one that fulfilled T.S. Eliot’s prediction decades earlier: a time of “blood in the streets.” With a slew of assassinations and cities in flames, the then-prevailing countercurrent of “peace and love” and massive and reckless drug-taking could be seen, in retrospect, as a desperate attempt just to calm people’s nerves.

Let us agree that it’s not the assassination of Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador on Wilshire that “defines” the Los Angeles of 1968; it’s the amazing music those Bacchanalian boys and girls from the suburbs, aka “the kids,” were listening to and dancing to in all their pre–heavy-drug-taking innocence.

To get a street-level glimpse of that scene, check out the 1967 documentary film Mondo Hollywood, with its grainy color footage of the kids doing their boingy-boingy dance moves at the Whisky A Go Go on the Strip. You’ll see many shots of coiffed teenagers (yes, they’re virtually all white) with their freckles, shiny bangs and puffy sleeves and bellbottoms, chomping on corned beef sandwiches at Canter's Deli on Fairfax. There’s a fleeting glimpse there of the young Rodney Bingenheimer, whom Bob Dylan had once christened his “little brother.”

In the what-a-small-world department, there are clips of celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, a future Manson Family murder victim, doing his job on a model’s head; and then there are clips of Santa Barbara–born actor and guitarist Bobby Beausoleil, a future Manson Family murderer! And inevitably, there’s Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention hovering over it all … mysteriously, funk-ily...

The Beatles’ Sgt/ Pepper album had, of course, just hit the universe like a musical bomb in late ’67, drenching the whole world in its syrupy colors, so now everybody was supposed to be groovy and dewy and flowery with their headbands and guitars and sitars and pot-smoking. But not to the sneering, cynical Zappa; he disliked all those things, except for guitars. Ironically it was anti-drug Frank Zappa who was the true “Mr. Natural” in that otherwise recklessly chemical-soaked era.

Zappa started out in music as a culture-hungry desert-rat teenager in faraway Cucamonga, and now he seemed to “answer” the flower-power movement in March ’68 with his zany, musically experimental Mothers record, We’re Only in it for the Money. The album cover must have struck a weird note with the now-exploding counterculture: It was a full-on mocking parody of Sgt. Pepper’s row upon row of semi-famous celebrity faces.

But where the Beatles chose high-minded artists for their room-filling cutout collage (Oscar Wilde, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Aubrey Beardsley, etc.), the Mothers were backed by scraggly, acne-scarred American faces: Lee Harvey Oswald, LBJ in sunglasses, criminal mugshots, and an armless scarecrow of Zappa himself, tumbling hair and all. A good friend of Zappa’s, character actor Timothy Carey, was already immortalized on the Sgt. Pepper cover.

Similar cover art or no, Sgt. Pepper and We’re Only in it for the Money, two pioneer “concept albums,” were musically like oil and water. Where one was the lush equivalent of an orgasm, the other was a spewing and sputtering of noise, musical kitsch and sarcasm. Zappa clogged his genuinely brilliant avant-garde instrumentals with dumb, snarky jokes. Some of them were aimed at his fellow longhairs: “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet./Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street./Go, to, San, Fra-an, ciss, co-oh!”

There’s good reason to believe that Zappa resented the ascendancy of the hippie scene over his own, circa-1965 L.A. gang of self-described “freaks,” a tiny counterculture, then headquartered at Canter’s, that pioneered the wearing of carnival-like, colorful clothes from thrift shops. (Proto-hippies at Canter's, folks! There should be a plaque there.)

So was this the best L.A. music had to offer? Hardly. A local genius from South Los Angeles named Arthur Lee and his band Love had released in November 1967 an album called Forever Changes. Despite plenty of local airplay (does anyone remember “boss” 93-KHJ on your AM dial?), it barely made the Top 200 on the national sales charts.

Today, this record is rated by Rolling Stone as one of the 200 greatest rock albums ever made, with its strikingly beautiful songs and the variety of musical styles, including very un-hippie-like flamenco guitars and Burt Bacharach–ish horn sections. This and the album’s dark-L.A.-underbelly lyrics:

Sitting on a hill-side, watching all the people die./I’ll feel much better on the other side…/I’ll thumb a ride…”

(The late-’67 Sunset Boulevard “curfew riots,” which had caused so many white teenagers to resent the aggressive tactics of the LAPD, were a fresh memory when Lee recorded the album’s song The Red Telephone: “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key….”)

Despite worldwide critical acclaim for Forever Changes, Arthur Lee was either too timid or too high to tour, and soon enough the ultra-ambitious Doors overtook Love as Elektra Records’ most successful L.A. music act.

* * *

Meanwhile, a new musical scene was brewing up in the rustic, woodsy serenity of Laurel Canyon, which was (and still is) another green world. Here, newly arrived musicians including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliot could knock on each other’s unlocked doors for acoustic “jams” in folksy serenity on their wooden porches. They were, in effect, crafting the new singer-songwriter sound that would overtake ’70s popular music.

An ex-con and San Fernando Valley transplant, Charles Manson, who seemed to be just another aspiring singer and guitarist in the Summer of ’68, would venture into Laurel Canyon often, with his followers in tow. At one party, Manson and a rival hippie minstrel were seen out-macho-ing each other in the kitchen while surrounded by a circle of hippie kids goading them on.

According to an eyewitness, Manson “won” the contest of wills by holding his palm over a lit stove until, to everyone’s horror and awe, a searing stigmata, dripping flames, burned a hole into his flesh. “The difference between you and me,” this witness recalled Manson saying afterward, “is that I’m not afraid to die.” Reportedly, after the creepy Manson group had crashed one too many of her good-time Canyon parties, Mama Cass Elliot told friends, “Never let those people into this house again!”

* * *

One could argue that the word heaviness was given a new musical definition by the intense “love” (= sex) song by Cream in ’68, the international mega-hit Sunshine of Your Love. Those 10 amped-up, hyper-distorted theme notes from Eric Clapton’s guitar were clearly the answer to everybody’s prayer for some kind of ultimate, hard-rock heaviness that must inevitably come.

The lyrics were throwaway stuff (“I’ll soon be with you, my love/Give you my dawn surprise…”) but fit the toughness of Clapton’s guitar and Ginger Baker’s insistently heavy tom-tom drumming like a glove … OK, like a rubber.

The 7-inch single of Sunshine sold a million copies in the United States throughout 1968. The band’s performance of this song at the L.A. Forum in October was, many claim, better than the original.

* * *

So what did the older generation of Angelenos, the parents’ side of the “generation gap,” think of all this? Well, you can go to YouTube and watch some episodes of Dragnet ’68 and find out. Here you’ll see dour old (or he seemed old) Jack Webb as stern LAPD sergeant Joe Friday, shaking his head over young troublemakers and those goddamn LSD pushers.

You’re pretty high and far-out, aren’t ya? What kinda kick are you on, son? He’s been dropping that acid we’ve been hearing about.”

Watch the L.A. street shots in Dragnet, too. Wilshire Boulevard looks so germ-free, so sterile and clean you could probably eat out of the gutter, no problem. Come to think of it, L.A. in 1968 looked a lot like Vancouver does now.

And how about very old Angelenos, the grandparents’ generation, the fillers-up of the L.A. Times obituary pages? How were they whiling away their time when the world was on fire? Well, they watched Lawrence Welk and His Champagne Music Makers on TV on Sunday nights. Polkas! Champagne music makers! Totally oblivious to the kids!

What’s interesting about the Lawrence Welk phenomenon is that the majority of his old-folks audience had probably never seriously listened to a polka in their lives; they’d grown up on sentimental pop songs, dance music and maybe a little swing. So Welk basically inflicted his ethnic, Milwaukee-German background on them and somehow, they liked it. Amazingly The Lawrence Welk Show survived the ’60s…and it was taped on Sunset Boulevard, ironically. Strange days indeed!

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