In 1975, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant stood on a balcony at the Continental Hyatt House above the Sunset Strip and screamed “I am a golden god!” Allegedly. From similar balconies at the same hotel, Keith Richards and Keith Moon both hucked TVs to the street below in fits of excess and Jim Morrison hung by his fingers. Also allegedly. Bonzo rode its halls on a motorcycle — flashing devil horns like a lunatic, for sure. Rock and roll. Holy fuck, dude, those were the fucking days, am I right, bro?
Indeed. Now, cased in glass, hoovered clean of errant blow, groupie tears and Lemmy's sweat, the rebranded hotel — now known as Hyatt's Andaz West Hollywood — stands as a monument to everything that's changed about West Hollywood's Sunset Strip, the golden end of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams where rock excess became L.A. mythology. That squeaky clean veneer is one of the reasons the Sunset Strip has come back and exactly why we're defending it.
At least for my generation, general knowledge of the Strip comes from the years of hair metal decadence — where the partying superseded the music and hairspray was worth its sticky weight in gold. Unfortunately, the grimy flotsam from that era is still stuck under the district's fingernails in places. Any real edge has been ground down to butter-knife dullness over a few decades. Real rock history has been put behind glass. Beavises and Buttheads still occasionally creep. There's still obnoxious club-owner and promoter behavior. So what's there to like?
For someone like Roxy owner and rock scion, Nic Adler, who grew up on the Strip (literally playing hide-and-seek while Guns N Roses sound-checked), the answer is pretty easy. “I know it's an overused word, but it's community,” he says. “We [the business owners] finally started to look at how we can work together. When times started to get rough, we got really competitive with each other and started really beating each other down. We didn't have a community.”
Business owners on the Strip saw two major blows. The first was the grunge era, which sent bands to east side clubs like Spaceland (now the Satellite) and smaller venues of Silver Lake and Echo Park. The second was 9/11 and that general downward trend in major label music that ended with the closing of Sunset Strip's Tower Records in 2006. “For me, Tower Records closing was monumental for the Strip, it could have the death of the Strip,” Adler explains. “Losing that was a wake-up call and we started to listen to our neighbors and our customers. Now, we're more than just a picture of Axl Rose standing out in front of the Whisky.”
Adler is absolutely right. Businesses started actually giving a shit in the past few years. They've begun to balance the history of grime with a legitimate community-forward attitude. That may sound like a marketing scheme, but it's a legitimately well-measured response to changing attitudes, and an excellent survival tactic.
For one, they added a night-time Sunset Strip farmers market for those of us who, by choice of profession, tend to sleep through most markets. (They get bonus points for having craft beer and wine.) Culturally, Book Soup, while now owned by Vroman's, still hosts literary celebrities and celebrities with literary ambition.
Most importantly: the music thrives again. “It took us about 15 years to get people coming back to the Strip looking at it as a music destination and not some heavy metal museum,” Adler says.
Despite its “presales” (newspeak for pay-to-play) with smaller acts, The Key Club has become one of the best hip hop venues in the city, a mecca for certain mid-career legends like Lil Kim and Scarface passing through town. (And also raging punkers like the Cro Mags on other nights.)
In 2012, Adler's Roxy added to its line-up of classic and emerging acts — like Iggy Azalea, the Pharcyde, and Garbage — destination-type events like a Vegan Beer Festival. The Whisky, which also still does the pre-sales, also continues to pull great aggressive and metallic bands, notably Off!, Havok, Gypsyhawk, and the edgier Everyone Dies in Utah. And for those missing the chaos, hip-hop collective Odd Future caused a small riot on the Strip about a year ago.
And Adler and his partners' Sunset Strip Music Festival is finally coming into its own. While they've had obligatory nods to their hair-obsessed years such as making Motley Crue headliners — they've also become one of the more eclectic festivals in town. The 2012 incarnation had the Doors' guitarist Robby Kreiger, X and Rza, which is like being able to have your crotchety old dad, your aging punk-rock cousin and your teenage self all enjoy the same event.
Adler concludes, “I think some people want things to stay the same and then at the same time they want to complain that it's not like it used to be. Those two things don't work. You have to keep changing, but not forgetting where you came from, and the Strip is doing a great job of that.”
So that veneer, the clean upstanding sheen is not exactly about glossing over the past, it's about ushering in an era of balance without falsifying the Strip's roots. The rooms and barstools are all still there; you can still pose in the places that rock stars puked, but you don't have to stand in the puke to do it. To boot, you can now show up to the Strip on most nights of the week, get dinner and actually see great live music. Feel free to stop by the Hustler store, while you're at it.
Now if they could just fix the goddamn parking situation.