Music News

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.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith