Fullest of disclosures: Pleasant Gehman is, for the most part, the reason this writer and editor found her path to the LA Weekly. Among a mountain of other incredible L.A. music and culture credits, Gehman was the first writer of the Weekly’s infamous alternative scene column called LA Dee Da, which irreverently chronicled the music, art and club scene in L.A. from 1980-1993. (Read “The Low L.A. Dee Da Life“ for a primer on its history). Like so many others who remember the column fondly, it had a profound impact on us by shining a light on the decadence and dynamicism of the underground, which ultimately influenced culture in general, and not just in L.A. We wanted what it represented and ultimately, we got it.
Since those days, this alternative Hollywood icon has continued to document the creativity and crazy characters who make things happen in Los Angeles, but more so, she’s led the way to influence everyone herself with new offerings– from witchy burlesque shows (Belle, Book & Candle) to a riotous punk rock podcast (The Devil’s Music) to several books (including The Belly Dance Handbook, Showgirl Confidential: My Life Onstage, Backstage And On The Road, John Doe and Tom Desavia’s Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History Of LA Punk and More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of La Punk).
From frontwoman (The Screaming Sirens, The Ringling Sisters and Honk If Yer Horny) to talent booker (punk landmarks Cathay De Grande and Raji’s) to journalist to her reinvention as a professional belly dancer, burlesque performer and tarot reader, Princess Farhana, Gehman has never stopped creating, commenting or conjuring, and her latest book Rock & Roll Witch: A Memoir Of Sex Magick, Drugs And Rock’n’Roll (Punk Hostage Press) provides a spell-binding new look at her exciting, eccentric and often eerily enchanted life.
In advance of Pleasant Gehman’s signing events this week at the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica and The Green Man store in North Hollywood, we share an excerpt from the book, below.
MOVIES ‘TIL DAWN
Back in the days before cable, local television ran old motion pictures all night long; as the Movie Capital Of America, Los Angeles was a goldmine in this arena. There was always an arbitrary grab bag of movies. You never knew what would come on, but it was practically a guarantee that even if you watched just once a week, you’d get a wide and varied education in film history. My favorite was Movies ‘Til Dawn on KTLA Channel 5. Most nights, their selections were so disparate, it didn’t make any sense whatsoever. There was absolutely no curating; it was like an employee at the station took some pills, had a few shots, closed their eyes and randomly picked the movies by playing Film Cannister Roulette.
In the late 1970’s through the mid ‘80’s, they’d run everything from classics like Rebel Without A Cause or The Postman Always Rings Twice interspersed with suspense films like Play Misty For Me or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Some nights, there’d be 1960’s socio-dramas like To Sir With Love, starring Sidney Portier and rock icon Michael Des Barres as a hot Cockney hooligan. They’d play beachy B movies like How To Stuff A Wild Bikini and ridiculously bad 1950’s horror films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. It was the perfect late night entertainment for anyone-who, like my friends and me- had gotten home from a party or club wasted on beer, weed and prescription pills purchased from shady characters on Hollywood Boulevard.
The only paranormal experiences I’ve had with films both involved my life long bestie Kid Congo Powers. Before he became a famous guitarist with iconic bands like The Cramps, The Gun Club and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, he was my regular partner in crime. We’d take Greyhound buses across the country to hang out on New York’s Lower East Side, going to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. We were also roommates at two different LA punk houses; 909 Palm Drive, near The Whisky, and the infamous Disgraceland, in central Hollywood. Kid and I loved the same music, books and films, and our shared surreal sense of humor was always on the same page. One night at 909, we were frying on acid when teenage songwriter Kari Krome called The Runaways’ producer Kim Fowley and told him to come over. Horrified, Kid and I really didn’t want to see him… so we took the entire cutlery drawer out of the kitchen cabinet and absconded to our room, barricading the entrance with our beds. When Kim Fowley arrived, he banged on our door, loudly demanding to be let in, while Kid and I slid everything from butter knives to huge butcher’s meat cleavers through the cracks in the doorjamb, hollering at him to stay away.
After we got evicted from 909 in 1977, and a year before Kid and I moved into Disgraceland, he had a room-well, a closet pretending to be a room- at The Wilton Hilton. The rambling two-story Craftsman house was also a notorious Hollywood punk house. The kings of The Wilton Hilton were Tomato Du Plenty and Tommy Gear of the LA scene’s most revered but under-recorded band, The Screamers.
To Kid and me, Tomata and Gear were old– as in their late twenties- and we idolized them because of their startling looks: shit like real 1950’s leather jackets festooned with chains, antique straight jackets from a mental asylum and gravity-defying hair that stood straight up, courtesy of their hairdresser roomie Chloe Pappas. They also had an impressive rock’n’roll pedigree. They’d had a band in Seattle called The Tupperwares, along with Eldon Hoke (the given name of a pre-Mentors El Duce) and drummer Bill Reiflin, who later went on to play with Ministry, among others. Tomata and Gear’s most glamorous roommate was gorgeous redhead Fayette Hauser, a founding member of the licentious San Francisco based theatrical drag-cabaret The Cockettes. For a New York stint in the early ‘70’s, Fayette and Tomata had a theatrical comedy troupe that played at places like CBGB , with then-unknown locals bands The Ramones and Blondie opening for them.
The Wilton Hilton had its own wild history, too. According to Tomata, in the 1920’s it had been the Hollywood love nest of William Randolph Hearst and his lifelong silent movie star mistress Marion Davies. During the 1930’s, Paramount had used the house as a dormitory for their contract player starlets. Apparently, in the early the 1960’s, Pamela Des Barres’ wild all-girl, all groupie band The GTO’s lived there, followed by a Satanic cult moving in during the early 1970’s. This seemed to be confirmed by the perfect ritual circle burned into the floor in Gear’s room… not to mention that the downstairs neighbor’s dog was constantly digging up cat skulls from the back yard. When The Screamers moved in, the house was already creepy. The walls on the staircase leading up to their second story apartment were flat black, with a large safe built in at the foot of the steps, topped by a framed blow up of the cover of Paris Match from August 5, 1962 proclaiming “Marilyn East Morte!”.
Well into the wee hours one evening, Kid, Brad Dunning- who went on to become The Gun Club’s drummer- our pal Chuck Fulton and I were hanging out at The Wilton Hilton, smoking insane amounts of weed and watching Movies ‘Til Dawn. John Huston’s darkly sexual psychodrama Reflections In A Golden Eye starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando was flickering across the screen of a tv set that’d been salvaged from the trash. Liz was in the midst of sauntering up the stairs nude when she paused to humiliate Brando, asking in supercilious whisper,
“Son, have you ever been collared and dragged into the street…and been thrashed by a naked woman?”.
Just then, the commercial break interrupted. It was always ten minutes of deranged ads from local car dealer Cal Worthington.
“Heeeeere’s Cal Worthington…and his dog Spot!”. Once in a while, Spot was actually a dog, but he was often a tiger, hippopotamus, seal, or some other wild animal. Even though the ads were fun-especially when the late-night viewers were wrecked on hoochiewana – making Jiffy Pop seemed like a better idea, so Kid and Chuck beat it into the kitchen.
Minutes later, while Brad and I watched Cal Worthington flying through the air with his feet strapped to the wings of an antique biplane, smoke started drifting through the hallway. Realizing Kid and Chuck might be too stoned to manage the Herculean task of making instant popcorn, we headed to the kitchen. Things were under control, but the smoke in the hall was getting dense, so Brad and I made a safety check. The other rooms were fine; nothing out of the ordinary, but as soon as I opened the door to Gear’s room, oily black smoke billowed out. Oddly, there were no visible flames or heat in the room, so I walked in. Through thick haze,I checked the closet- nothing on fire. The Dormer windows facing the street were all open. I looked outside; it wasn’t coming from the street. Then it hit me: None of the smoke was blowing out the window! How could this much smoke come from a room where nothing was burning?
Creeped out from what I’d just witnessed, I returned to the hallway, where Brad swore he’d just seen two white cats screeching around the corner from Gear’s room before running down the stairs. Shaken, we went back to the room where Movies ‘Til Dawn was on; Kid and Chuck cheerfully offered us Jiffy Pop still hot from the stovetop.
Discussing this episode decades later, Brad and I went over every possible explanation for the smoke without coming up with anything logical. We knew The Screamers never owned cats; once again, Brad said they were ghosts, but that also looked “kind of opaque” so he thought they might’ve actually been real…until they faded out while trotting down the stairs. Finally, both of us connected the ghost cats to the circle burned into the floor of Gear’s room-and all the feline sculls the neighbor’s dog had dug up from the back yard.
Rock n’ Roll Witch by Pleasant Gehman book signing parties at Hotel Shangri-La, 1301 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica; Tuesday, June 7, 7-9 p.m.; and at The Green Man Store, 5712 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Sunday June 12. Both free. You can also purchase the book here. More info at pleasantgehman.com
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