Beer, Cigarettes and Has-Beens
The driver at the Burbank International Airport opens the rear door to his cab and I hop in. He slides into the front seat, puts it into gear and pulls out. Moving toward the airport exit, I tell him the name of my hotel. We turn north and roll toward Hollywood on a remarkably clear night.
The cabby appears to be in his mid-40s with dark, curly hair and a sallow complexion. Aside from a pair of distressingly long earlobes, he's just like any number of L.A. hacks you see doing airport runs. He adjusts the rearview and we make eye contact.
It's 6:15 p.m. and the cabby says he is in no frame of mind to fight traffic over the hill into the city. Yet he keeps driving. Maybe he just likes to complain. John Denver is on the radio singing about eagles and hawks.
The cabby makes eye contact with me in the rearview again and says, "In this country, you must work so hard. I haven't had vacation since I started driving cab. I have been here seven years."
Prior to living in Los Angeles the cabby, his wife and daughter lived in Leningrad. His Russian accent is thick.
"In this country, you have many, many rules, many, many laws. I came here to have good life. It is not so."
The cabby suddenly jabs on the gas and the car lurches accordingly. We zoom around a polished black Mercedes. The cabby honks the car horn repeatedly and, though the windows are rolled up, shouts something indecipherable and vicious-sounding at the German car as we pass. Then we cut in front of it. It seems the other driver was leaving an intolerable gap between himself and the car ahead. For the next few miles we are in front of the Mercedes rather than behind.
I wonder who would want to make a living driving a cab in L.A. Maybe this guy should move back to Russia.
In 25 minutes, we're in Hollywood, on Sunset between La Brea and Fairfax, at the Saharan Hotel. This is where I'm supposed to meet my band, Beat Angels, who drove out earlier in the day. I pay the cranky cabby and climb out.
Across from the Saharan is a Ralph's supermarket, known to any musician who has ever done time here as "Rock 'n' Roll Ralph's." I know Rock 'n' Roll Ralph's well. I once spent five years trying to chisel away an existence in Hollywood, and I've counted out many nickels in line at this particular grocer.
Just east of the Saharan is the legendary Seventh Veil nude bar. And next to that is the Beat Angels' former Hollywood home away from home, the Sunset Palms motel.
During our last trip to Hollywood, the balding Asian woman who owns the Sunset Palms finally kicked us out for good. In her own spitty, diced way she explained that all the late-night booze fests, cops, arrests, fistfights and broken 40-ounce bottles of Mickey's Malt Liquor left in shower stalls weren't worth the five years of loyal patronage we had given her.
The Saharan is a good place, really, clean, and with a swimming pool. A step up for us. No shifty-eyed types hawking Nubian whores and nickel bag crack like those who take up temporary residence behind the Sunset Palms.
It's disingenuous to say the Beat Angels get along. Usually our relationship is more like a complex mix of marriages gone sour, replete with the kind of insecurities and backstabbing that mark the most tumultuous of partnerships. We go for weeks without speaking to one another. But during a gig, especially a high-profile one-off like tonight's, something happens that makes us realize why we got together in the first place.
Learning that rock 'n' roll stardom is a fate reserved only for a lucky few is a pitiless and brutal lesson to accept. To our credit, though, I think that's exactly what we've done -- though no one ever says anything to each other about it. Quietly, though, we've all gotten jobs.
Guitarists Keith Jackson and Michael Brooks manage a bar and work at a record store, respectively; bassist Scotty Moore delivers pizzas; and drummer Jeff Bourne works in a hospital doing something involving bedpans or God knows what. Taver, the baby sitter -- and unofficial sixth member -- is the only grown-up in the cadre. He's always had a job, a car, money and responsibilities.
Nowadays when I see a group of teens making a racket with guitars, I go over and testify how horrible buying into the rock-star myth can be, offering myself as an example of how it can ruin a man.
As a band, the Beat Angels have made records and done tours, our songs have been used on TV shows and covered by famous and not-so-famous people, we've been fawned on in both the American and European press and blah, blah, blah.
Blathering on about this is not to goad back-slaps, hardly; but rather, to make a point. The point is unless you sell a shitload of records -- millions, in fact -- you're doomed. Even then the lifestyle change can be fleeting unless you're Alice Cooper or one of the fat guys in Limp Bizkit, or Tommy "Black Like Me" Lee.
The only conceivable way to continue to pursue such an unrealistic existence is to shut off all doubts, all qualms and compromises. Otherwise, you realize everything is a meaningless pile of shit and you want to kill yourself. That, or you spend the rest of your days floundering, staring at the past with no viable options for the future because you've spent your life developing a skill or a craft that offers little or no monetary payoff. A career in pop sets you up like a bowling pin.
Thinking about this brings to mind the guy from the band Kix, last seen aboard a scaffold in Burbank painting ad images onto a sun-baked billboard on VH1's Where Are They Now?. Kix recorded six records for Atlantic, toured the world countless times and had a string of hit singles. His hair was still feathered, and bracelets still dangled from his wrist, but his arms kept time with the rhythm of a blue-collar man.
The debut album from current hard-rock harbingers Buckcherry -- a band whose singer shows fiscal foresight by casting himself prominently in glossy magazine ads -- has barely gone gold. In keeping with the here-today-gone-today pop theorem, one inspired by legions of ADD-shriveled consumer minds, I'll wager Buckcherry's members will in two years' time be working for their old man's construction company, or living off a stripper's tips.
Sometimes you can luck out and still manage scads of life-sustaining dough and not sell any records. If done correctly, a record company and music publisher can be had for huge, totally absurd advances. I have had plenty of friends do this.
One who's mastered the art of nil record sales with no suffering time is Rick Parker. During the '80s, Parker -- his mom, Lara Parker, played Angelique, the babe on '60s drama Dark Shadows -- fronted a band called Lions and Ghosts. Lions and Ghosts made two worthy, T. Rexish-sounding records on EMI that eventually sold less than most local bands with a decent following. EMI booted Lions and Ghosts from its roster and the group dissolved shortly thereafter, like so many other countless bands.
Later, Parker got a solo deal with Geffen and a publishing deal with New Envoy Music. Geffen paid for everything, the recording, touring, promotion, video, etc. Parker pocketed nearly $200,000 in advances from the publishing deal. His record, of course, flopped. A few years ago, Parker soaked another label for a tidy sum when Sparkler, his new combo, signed to Revolution. Upon the record's release, it promptly went south and the label sank. Rick Parker, again, made out. But he's one of those rare breeds in rock 'n' roll, a lucky bastard.
Anywhere Jim Morrison has puked is a good place. And if any bar can be romantic enough to uphold rock myths, particularly that of an overvalued Morrison, it's an even better place.
I remember snagging a Ramones bootleg recorded at the Whisky when I was 14. In old Rock Scene magazines, I studied pictures of the New York Dolls when they first played here. And everybody I adore, from the Germs to Joan Jett to the Plimsouls, played here when I was a kid.
The capacity of the Whisky is around 400. The interior is black and open like a small warehouse. A balcony is off to one side above the stage.
The Whisky is packed when we go on. Eager faces and teens are crammed to the front of the stage. Pop geeks stand against the back wall, arms folded, colored stage lights turning their glasses to speculums. We blast through our allotted 20 minutes in a littering of sour bass notes, off-key singing, skewered tempos and busted guitar strings. Mike stands break in half, full beers topple over and drunken torsos leap about.
It is a rock show.
When we finish, the kids -- most of whom were there to see Mr. T Experience -- are on our side. That's all you can ask for.
After us comes the criminally underappreciated pop of Martin Luther Lennon. The band is led by Tony Perkins, a brainy-looking pop songsmith with round shoulders, a shaved head and thick glasses who's been kicking around this town for 15 years. The group's new record, Escape to Paradox Island (Not Lame), is the best pop album of the year. Pushed by Perkins' voice, a springy mix of Nick Gilder and Mick Jones, the melancholy-soaked songs shimmer and punch and bounce around your skull for days.
The following band called Starjet looks like it's posing for the cover of Spin, so we decide to bolt for a new club next door.
The Cat Club sits adjacent to the Whisky. It features slick black booths, leopard-print seats and leopard fixtures. No cover to get in and no one is checking IDs, which is good. Not everyone in our entourage is of drinking age. The bar is at the back of the first level, and there's also a kitchen. Seven-dollar beers offset the unpretentious air of the club. If you don't tip well, your second drink will take forever to arrive. We stumble in and guzzle round after round for nearly the rest of the night.
Comedian Andy Dick is hanging around, as are starlets and an accumulation of rock-star dinosaurs. Frank Infante from Blondie, L.A. Guns' Tracii Guns (who tells me that earlier in the day he joined Poison in place of C.C. Deville . . . joy), those types.
Tonight, Michael Des Barres is fronting a cover band that plays here weekly. The bar's owner, former Stray Cat Slim Jim Phantom, beats the kit in the band. Des Barres' first group, Silverhead, made two brilliant records in the early '70s. Later he fronted Power Station. His face should be familiar to most as he's had acting roles in everything from To Sir With Love to Miami Vice.
The members of the five-piece wear darkish suits and run through a set of mostly R&B and rock 'n' roll standards; "Route 66," "Bang a Gong," "Starfucker," etc. The band is closer to a revved-up version of Murph and the Magic Tones than some star-crossed cover band. And more tragic somehow.
Before the band goes on, Des Barres hits on my girlfriend, exercising gratuitous amounts of smarminess in the process. My girlfriend, who met up with us earlier in the evening after renting a car and driving out from Phoenix, was totally aghast. She thinks he's just some drunken, gym-assisted geezer with scalp-revealing gray hair and a suspicious tan. She has no idea who he is, or cares. She reads books, listens to jazz and studies art. Every time I've played a Silverhead record in the past, she would get up and leave the room.
Afterward, I went up to Des Barres and drunkenly gush, "Dude, you're Michael Des Barres. You helped define rock 'n' roll as we know it. Dude, you're a rock 'n' roll star."
He winks, of course. His girlfriend is Rosanna Arquette. She is sitting behind him, exalted-looking in Frankie B hip-huggers, blond mane and lovely face. She blinks drunken lids and appears generally unmoved. Does he just want to reinforce his relevance in her world? What's she doing with him?
We leave the Cat Club, collect our gear and pile into the band's rented Plymouth Grand Caravan. We wind up at Robert Mitchum's old fave drunken din, Bordener's in Hollywood. Adult video star Tony Tedeschi is drinking with two porno blondes, cartoonish parodies of female sexuality. Tedeschi says he has been doing two and three scenes per day during the last week and a half. That's a hell of a demand on a man when your worth is solely based on how well your penis performs. Two and three times a day. He looks tired.
Back at the hotel around 2:30 a.m., Brooks, who is commandeering the van, negotiates a narrow turn in the hotel parking garage. A concrete pole gets in the way. The lower side of the rented van's sliding door side is mashed in.
The van was rented with no insurance, of course, in Moore's name. I can't remember finding my room and going to bed.
When I wake up the next day, the rest of the band is en route back to Phoenix, all except Taver.
The night's Poptopia show is at Spaceland in Silverlake. When my girlfriend, Taver and I enter, one of the event's promoters, Jennifer Tefft, hands us 50 bucks. The money was unexpected pay for the previous night's set at the Whisky. The money comes in handy. In less than a half-hour it will be sitting in the bartender's till.
Onstage is a worthy pop band called Sissybar, fronted by a neo-hippieish girl with a Nico-sounding voice. She is full of natural sexuality, down-dressed in baggy jeans and a tee shirt. She awes the boys and girls in the crowd. The band includes a guy playing, among other things, a banjo. Their songs are good, too; singsongy, New Wave-ish -- Rickie Lee Jones meets the Byrds.
The band of the night, and possibly the year, is Magnified from San Francisco. They come on and demonstrate strength in their ability to sound relevant regardless of the fact they are a two-guitar, bass and drums combo playing standard rock 'n' roll. Magnified transcends the get-in-a-van alterno nonsense with a compassion for songcraft and sing-alongs. They are loud and big without having to resort to macho pretenses. The girls liked 'em, too. Always a good sign.
We wind up at Coconut Teazser on Sunset at 1:30 a.m., just in time to see Poptopia faves Tuuli. And in my inebriation, they were godhead. Three snotty, flirtatious Barbie-doll punk chicks and one dude, all from Toronto, playing self-penned three-chord chestnuts, plus the Vibrators' "Baby, Baby" and a de-tuned send-up of the Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls." The latter makes perfect sense; a cock-free Strip farce.
Not much later, I start feeling like my beer had been laced with mescaline. I don't remember leaving the Teazser.
When you come to wearing all your previous night's clothes including shoes and coat, it was either a night worthy of cherished, lifelong memories, or one that spurs you to pick up the phone and start calling in apologies to those with whom you remember having any sort of hazy contact.
Last night was the latter. My girlfriend isn't talking to me. After a long stretch of vicious silence, she tells me that I had abandoned Taver and her at the Teazser. I offer a feeble defense that I was too drunk and can't remember.
It was time to go, as it always is after two days in Hollywood.
We pull out from the Saharan, turning east on Sunset, heading for the 101. On KROQ, Aimee Mann is playing live, offering acoustic versions of songs from her surprisingly successful Magnolia soundtrack. A veritable poster woman for the abuses and injustice of the music industry, Mann explains the financial realities of the business. How artists can't make any money unless they're Britney Spears. Yet Mann somehow doesn't sound jaded. And she makes perfect sense.
We get to the 101 and ease into the long lines of slow-moving cars. We move toward I-10, that horrible highway back to Phoenix. And at this time of day, it is straight into the sun.
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.