The tender years in Tucson, Arizona, stealing money from my big brother’s busboy tip jar and buying Circle K money orders with the coins to send to Zed Records in Long Beach for all the Dangerhouse sides, The Eyes, The Bags, the mighty Weirdos, Black Randy and the Metro Squad, The Alley Cats, The Deadbeats, etc. Bands I’d hardly heard but knew were godhead. I was an outcast kid, beat up sometimes, mocked, laughed at. Later, at 15, I’d be living mostly at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, a young bike racer recently named to the junior national team. Was in SoCal for a bike race. Somehow, I wound up in a car with Axxel G. Reese from The Gears and some punk-rock college dude from Tucson. My fake ID, ordered from the back pages of Creem, worked. Bike racing makes you look older.
It was Club 88 in West L.A. Dark, a lighted rosy glow, tiny stage, cigarettes, dirty Converse, fouled hair. Big people drinking in a half-full club. Clash on the PA. I couldn’t believe I was here, even seeing The Simpletones — I had their 45 “California” — on a bill with The Furys and The Accelerators. I think The Crowd canceled. Hard to recall. The Simpletones blew my kid mind and then the cops showed. Too late, I’d fallen in love with every woman there, hard. That did it. I was soon off the bike and in a band. Fuck high school, too.
Besides jazz and blues, America’s greatest cultural export time-stamped every inch of Hollywood and the haunted hills. Glad I wasn’t born there; it would’ve shattered it. Lots of my collection of short stories (Spent Saints) was fueled on Los Angeles. The Benedict Canyon ghosts of old film and music drunks like John Barrymore, pre-sober Alice Cooper, around the bend from Valentino’s lair. The Byrds (is there a more beautiful California song ever than “Draft Morning”?), Harry Nilsson, Love, The Textones, 20/20, Rodney on the Roq, the Manson chicks. The hothouse quiet at night, the orange blossoms and Laurel Canyon. That one picture of Johnny Thunders in platforms and on the steps of Hollywood High. The Runaways. Nathanael West defined the old Hollywood I adored too, MGM, and all the faded silent stars who purchased the myth like lotto and lost it all. Bukowski’s East Hollywood. The Dennis Wilson sunset on Pacific Ocean blue. Such beauty together blew my narrow little head. Still does.
I lived on and off in Los Angeles three or four times. Squatted in the old Pabst brewery downtown first; it was a dirty rehearsal hall then. My band, roadies, girlfriends, a wife. We were kids. Shitty metal bands making a shitty racket night and day. Los Angeles can be weirdly, deceptively self-hating, so full of false self-belief. I’m thinking it’s what we deserved then. Skin fouled with L.A. soot, rail-thin, living out of the liquor store up the street. I watched my old cycling teammate win the Olympic gold in cycling while I was drunk on a 40. Lived down on Whitley later, frequented the Playboy Liquor store — who can forget that shitty cigar smell and that Santa guy out front and the wall of shimmering 40s. Scoring drugs from sad dealers on Cahuenga. Old Hollywood specters everywhere, every step, every sightline.
Hazy recollections return: Shaking Muhammad Ali’s hand through a Colt 45 haze at our surreal gig at Santa Monica Civic. Finally meeting Killer Kane before he died. He stood dead center for my band Beat Angels at the Roxy. These little things loom large; these full-circle things are so very L.A. Worked booking Madame Wong's West, in its final breaths. Two stages, so many bands. I’d book 60 damn bands a week. Hundreds and hundreds of bad bands and precious few good ones. Jimmy Iovine funding our recordings, telling us we were going “to be huge,” and it was like a cartoon. Some of my early writing pieces from porn sets in mean North Hollywood houses, woman in forced anal pain. The insanity, and the sadness, these misguided attempts to approximate fame.
But the upsides astonish. This brief list shows a few of them, telling of seven bands I adored while I was either living in Los Angeles or going back and forth making albums. Ones I’d see live or do shows with. Each deserved much wider attention. The list is fraught with rock & roll because that’s what I was, inside and out, and it nearly killed me. Other unsung bands who distilled SoCal could be on such a list, too, from Redd Kross to Caterwaul, newer bands like Frankie & the Studs, Valley Queen. We could go on.
1. The Nymphs
Inger Lorre was up against an all-dude, teste-hangin’ “rock” milieu when the Nymphs' debut album on Geffen saw light back in early ’91. A hero not only for pissing on an A&R man’s desk but for doing her job as a rock & roller, pissing off the assholes who deserved it, frightening parents, stopping traffic, all that. Remember, this was when right-wing macho football fucks were still trying to look like chicks, playing the game, stomping Hollywood in their Florida-weaned, size-12 feet. Inger is/was classic Hollywood, Gloria Swanson updated, in the eyes, in the dramatic gestures and goth-hued mannerisms. It played so effortlessly in songs like “Imitating Angels.”
Its sound could only be Los Angeles, capturing the city milieu as the debut X album had more than a decade earlier. And that meant a record produced big and loud (of its time sonically) with the moneyed kaleidoscopic swirls, big drums, open-sky reverb by the mighty Bill Price (The Clash, Mott the Hoople, yo!) That’s Iggy on “Supersonic.” Of course, Inger wasn’t long for Hollywood’s major-label choad; the Audi-driving, white-dude dominated world. She’s too smart, jaundiced just enough, prone to flounder, and doesn’t know it. But she’d never take a flying leap off the Hollywood Sign. Inger was right, they were wrong. She had that intent, that same anger, despair and longing in her grooves like Alice Bag years before on those brilliant Bags sides, just a different song on a huge record label. Trailblazers never get their due, fuck ’em all. The Nymphs supposedly imploded on a Florida stage supporting Peter Murphy, just not long for this world.
2. Lions & Ghosts
All the girls at the Anti-Club and Parkview Scream understood. The Alice in Wonderland and Dickens qualities, all tousled with wry 1970s glitter winks. And the sweet sonic distillations of Los Angeles and its canyons. How it was relief from the Sunset Strip, where Mötley Crüe and Poison had ruined rock & roll with greedy, sexist fake-glam Republican bombast. When Lions & Ghosts landed a major-label deal (EMI), it was an act of visionary A&R not seen since Mercury Records (and farsighted exec Paul Nelson) signed both Ohio’s mighty Blue Ash and The New York Dolls in the early 1970s.
Topanga Canyon–raised Rick Parker and Lions & Ghosts made sense evolving from — and bottlenecking — a romantic side of the city’s rock & roll traditions, from The Byrds and Little Feat to The Mau Maus and 20/20. The quartet released two eager-for-adoration albums in the late ’80s filled with hypnotic charms and bittersweet anthems that stiffed to Blue Ash proportion (can’t even find Lions & Ghosts on Spotify now). Nary a disposable moment in 22 songs. Parker’s word-burrito lyricism bordered Marc Bolan elliptical at times yet defined a kind of American teen longing; he’d sometimes nail the perfect sing-along antidote to the cosmic boredom felt by boys and girls lost in the margins (“[R]ebellion is instinct for fools like us with no plans”). Listening now, it’s hard to not adore the heart-on-sleeve tenderness of “Capture,” “Five and Dime” and “Stay,” or the narcotized Pied Piper swirl of “Wiltern House,” how it conflates Laurel Canyon folk and T. Rex pop long before each became affected indie touchstones. “Flowers of Evil” nods amiably to both Baudelaire and Traffic’s “Every Mother’s Son,” and the unironic “Passion,” “Mary Goes Round” and “Wild Garden” were perfect-world radio anthems that commercial radio never once played. Not one time.
The band gave up guitar hero Michael Lockwood, too, who later collaborated with Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Lisa Marie Presley and others. More, the band’s pop-spectacular “Be Yourself,” which sounded like a soothing reaction to the metal years, a gentle pop epistle that never made it to either of the band’s two albums (though it was reimagined and mangled for a B-side). Couldn’t get the demo out of my head for two years. (Bizarre Lions & Ghosts tidbit: For a split second, I was nearly singer in this band. Parker invited me in before their EMI deal, didn’t have much belief in his frontman skills, whatever that means. Told him he was insane. His words, his voice, perfect. I would’ve ruined it.)
3. Martin Luther Lennon
My band Beat Angels did shows with Martin Luther Lennon around Hollywood and at pop fests. Its singer-songwriter, Tony Perkins, was the greatest songwriter in the 1990s and early aughts. No one gave a shit, of course. “No Junkies in West Hills,” “Nobody I Know,” “I’m a Little Time Bomb” (from their two late-’90s albums on near-heroic indie label Not Lame). Literate, pure power-pop crammed with revelatory moments; deceptively simple shout-out hooks, stinging jangle and stiff-wristed riffs upholding declarations of internal emptiness and witty social takedowns. The kind of metaphorical couplets that’d do novelists proud (listen to the absolutely merciful “Only Love” or “Go, She Said”). Later, when I’m working at a Detroit newspaper, Perkins sends me spare demos featuring his voice atop a piano, and I tumble from my chair. How the songs evolved, classic elements worthy of something like Nilsson Sings Newman, but all this inexorable fragility fueled by his sweet tenor. Deeper sadnesses not shrouded in irony. In other words, he’s the best songwriter you’ve never heard. Find him. Dude should’ve been scoring P.T. Anderson films and such.
For me Acetone, at their best, captured the precise sound of self-loathing, and the sound of being wide awake while the rest of the world sleeps. It gets later, darker. A secret for me alone. Where spare bass, guitar and drums create spectacular drama, where air is an instrument, restraint power. Most of their five albums work like the hum of opiates in the blood, a sound so hushed at times any vibration sounds forced. So yeah, the Velvets and (post–Pet Sounds) Beach Boys are distant touchstones, country too (find their killer Kristofferson cover), some surf tones.
But that stuff doesn’t matter much. They transcended indie, transcended category. How this wholly overlooked L.A. trio would inform later stars like War on Drugs is no joke. Signed to Neil Young’s label, Jason Pierce adored them, and they got on great tours. The 2001 death of bassist-songwriter Richie Lee ended it. He hanged himself in his garage next to the band’s rehearsal house. The sadness of the suicide changes the context of the songs, bestows upon them even greater depth. Just like Elliott Smith’s suicide, or Nick Drake’s or Pete Ham’s.
5. The Muffs
Kim Shattuck and company rose from the storming Pandoras, signed to Warner Bros. and should’ve been Green Day–huge in the 1990s and beyond. (Not sure America was ready for a girl who wrote and sang songs better, and with more emotional heft, than Billie Joe Armstrong.) The band’s Southern California vantage, both crass and sunshine-y fun, could be the corner of Western and Hollywood as well as the Santa Monica beach. Shattuck can sing the truth while mocking it, and goddamn is that a gift. (Her ferocious, larynx-rupturing yelps are for the ages.)
Pissed-off songs can end up deceptively happy-sounding, like early Jackie DeShannon and mid-period Kinks jacked to Ramones momenta. Major-to-minor turns everywhere, knee-buckle key changes, a galloping yet groove-heavy rhythm section. There are odes to perfidious shitheads, duplicitous lovers, red-eyed trolls, and plenty of exquisite pop (go listen to “End It All” and “Just a Game,” dear God). Ultimately the sound of tune-mad offspring of ’60s mod squads and ’70s punks locked inside a shuttered Woodland Hills shopping mall. The children of the revolution. Unsung treasures all.
More candy (sugar) than Candy Darling, songs of hetero hookups, busted hearts, suburban isolation and the first blush of booze populated their sets. They were more Generation X, Phil Seymour and The Boys than Judas Priest, Aerosmith and Silverhead. But power pop was always pretty subversive (except the year The Knack hit), and main Candy songwriter Jonathan Daniel got shit because his sing-along melodies were too feminine, “too pussy.” (Hard-rock dudes never liked the feminine — the melody — even when their embarrassing, outside-writer power ballads paid for their fucking houses.) This was mid- to late-’80s Hollywood and the hills were already haunted with dead film legends, but forgotten first-gen rock stars like Gene Clark and “Papa” John Phillips were still alive. Candy were the sound of kids discovering the very heart of rock & roll, playing it like they were there first.
That innocence and slight youthful arrogance, and Gilby Clarke’s Johnny Thunders squall, informed the music enough to keep it from getting wholly dismissed. But few got it. The band were music fans first, weaned on AM radio, the joy of bubble gum. Then came the sway of punk rock. In a way, the hushed magic of nighttime suburban Los Angeles adds validity to the weight of Candy’s songs. They were documenting it, not making fun, with an undercurrent of coming-of-age nihilism. They couldn’t have been from anywhere else. Candy’s lone album, Whatever Happened to Fun (Polygram), sold the band short, but earned them, over the years, cultish love. Indeed, the pop trash heap is piled high with coulda-shoulda-wouldas, but each of these guys went on to some form of success: a high school teacher, a music manager mogul, a guitar hero, a solo crooner.
They signed to Hollywood Records, had the Julian Raymond–helmed debut, filled with glacial hooks that showed off their big sisters’ cool record collections, littered with Queen and T. Rex, Silverhead and Klaatu. It’s all that, unabashedly. There’s also an X factor, some indefinable greatness, through the gloss and big-label shizzle.
I’m inside a truck-stop overpass somewhere above an Indiana interstate, 2005. Two in the morning, giant semi trucks rolling underneath, truck drivers with pudgy fingers stuffing faces at too-small bolted-down tables.
Whiffs of wilted rotisserie dogs, Coffee tasting like pennies. TSAR’s “Silver Shifter” suddenly pipes in between Stone Temple Pilots and John Mellencamp. The song, programmed on some canned playlist, heard on unseen speakers, is an inexplicable fluke in this context. Stops me dead in my tracks. Fills me with melancholic hope for Los Angeles, for the cars rushing underneath, for the lost horizons ahead and behind. A song of American nights, weirdly poignant, sad and happy. Music can wield nuanced emotional impact, even tunes like “Silver Shifter” with its big commercial designs. A really great song can work you over with someone else’s yearning. The X factor. My faves are always the brilliant ones who never get the fiscal rewards, because they’re too far ahead, too backdated, too smart. Fame bores. Forever teen wizards.
Brian Smith is the author of Spent Saints & Other Stories (Ridgeway Press) and Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections From La Frontera (Eyewear Publishing), out Nov. 1. He pens a column for Tucson Weekly, and previously wrote for Phoenix New Times, Detroit Metro Times and various magazines. Previously, he was frontman of The Pills, Gentlemen AfterDark and Beat Angels and has penned songs for many, including Alice Cooper. He now lives back in Tucson with his wife and young son.