MY STINT AS MELODY MAKER’S MAN IN AMERICA, PART 6 – Los Angeles, August-December 1973

Apart from Las Vegas, the only other trip I made while I lived in LA that required a plane flight was to San Francisco where I and several other music writers gathered for lunch in the Dipti Nivas Vegetarian Restaurant and Natural Food Store at 216 Church Street in the Mission district, an unassuming area of the city where road works were ploughing up the streets to make way for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transport system. The restaurant was owned and run by Devadip Santana, formerly Carlos until his guru Sri Chinmoy counselled a change of name, and serving at the tables was his wife Urmila, formerly Debbie, who flitted about with a cloth among the cheese, tomato and avocado dips.
         I was sipping my carrot juice and reluctantly observing the no smoking rule when Devadip arrived, all smiles and healthy of countenance, spiritually beaming, delighted that his divine enterprise was doing good business today. A master of sustain on the electric guitar, he now wore his hair very short, his clipped moustache the only clue to his former identity as leader of the band named after himself that wowed Woodstock with Latin rhythms fused with American rock. His clothes, too, were conservative: a navy-blue blazer, unfaded denim pants, a tee-shirt with an Indian design and a badge with the face of his guru. He was remarkably thin and greeted everyone with clasped hands, bowing slightly in the mild manner of an elderly clergyman greeting his flock.
Carlos/Devadip talked to me with a Latin-American accent and was primarily interested in discussing how his meeting with, and acceptance by, Guru Sri had changed his life. “My main purpose in music,” he told me, “is to inspire people to learn about the Supreme. I am not interested in whom they pray to, how they do it or why they go to see, as long as they realise they all have a supreme, a father of the Universe, to recognise. Intellect and wisdom are two different things and what I am trying to do is inspire people to get up in the morning and have a direction to live for. They can do it through Jesus, Buddha or Krishna or whatever. It doesn't matter as long as they do it.”
Duly inspired by Devadip’s sermon I spent a pleasant hour as a first-time tourist in San Francisco, gazing out across the bay to Alcatraz Island and wandering around Ghirardelli Square. The air was crisper than LA, and the day was bright and clear. In Fisherman’s Wharf I was entranced by the human juke box – a sentry box a bit like a garishly painted upright coffin, inside of which was a man who played requests on a trumpet – which was doing good business, and I opted for ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, a popular choice. I knocked on the front, placed a dollar in the hand that emerged from a hole, made my selection and backed off as a trumpet appeared through another hole higher up. The crowd that gathered burst into spontaneous applause when it was over, by which time I’d wandered off to admire a VW Beetle painted in psychedelic colours whose bodywork was covered in sea shells. But I also had an appointment to keep.
Back in London a few months earlier two Melody Maker-reading, Grateful Dead-loving, hippie girls from San Francisco had turned up at the office with the express intention of befriending the writers whose stories they’d read and whose bylines they’d memorised. This didn’t happen often, and when it did it was usually schoolgirls who were after pictures of Marc Bolan or Donny Osmond.
 These American ladies, however, were certainly not schoolgirls. They wore suede dresses, lots of jade jewellery and moccasins, and they garlanded their waist-length black hair with beads and dried flowers. Both had seductive Latin complexions and smelt of patchouli oil, and they seemed very exotic indeed to us pale-skinned Englishmen. Those of us who were unattached sensed an opportunity in the waiting. We took the girls for a drink in the Red Lion behind the Fleet Street offices, where they turned a few heads, and then on to the Speakeasy where they had difficulty keeping up with the pace of our British drinking habits. As I recall, they spent the next few nights of their stay at photographer Barrie Wentzell’s flat opposite the Nellie Dean in Soho, where Roy Hollingworth occupied the spare room. I was more than slightly envious.
The two girls left maybe a week later but they kept in touch with us and one of them, whose name was Marcella*, discovered through reading her MMs that I was now living in LA. She contacted the London office, inquired my whereabouts and sent me a postcard with her phone number. I responded and we met up that afternoon in San Francisco, and over coffee in Ghirardelli Square I invited her to spend a few days with me in LA. She readily agreed and the following weekend flew down to stay in Phil’s flat. Apart from a liking for sex, and plenty of it, however, we had absolutely nothing in common which isn’t surprising really, so after three days she packed her bags and went back to San Francisco. I never saw her again. It didn’t help that I never much liked the Grateful Dead.
No sooner had Marcella fled than I was introduced to Christine*, a girl from Kent who had somehow infiltrated the Rainbow Bar & Grill, which was where we met. She explained to me that she had travelled by Greyhound bus across America with her English boyfriend but that he had abandoned her in Los Angeles and hitchhiked down to Mexico. Without much money and at a loss what to do, she had found a job in Santa Monica as an au pair looking after two young children of a prosperous family. I sensed she was displeased with the errant boyfriend and I asked her out, thus embarking on a relationship that lasted about six weeks.

On our first date I took Christine to Calabasas, a 40 km drive from Santa Monica, where the Sundance Saloon, a western style bar, hosted music nights. It was a fun thing to do, imagining ourselves transplanted to the wild west of John Wayne movies, but our night out took a turn for the unexpected when we decided to play pool. While we were at the table another costumer placed a quarter on the edge, thus signifying his wish to play the winner. I won and faced him. As it happened I’d played a bit of snooker back in the UK so pool, with its smaller table and bigger pockets, was easy-peasy for me. I won again, and again, and again, eventually retiring undefeated. Meanwhile, Christine was sat at the bar accepting drinks from several admirers and when we left it was clear to me she’d overdone it. Too drunk to talk or walk properly, she was in no state to return to the house where she was employed. She threw up on the drive back to LA and when we got back to my apartment I helped her up the stairs, laid her down on my bed, took off her shoes and coat, threw a rug over her and went off to sleep on the couch.
Christine woke up quite early the following morning with a roaring hangover and while she showered I cleaned off her clothes as best I could. Then I drove her to where she lived. These courtly attentions on my part endeared me to her and sealed her loyalty, at least for the time being, and that night she returned to Phil’s apartment and cooked me a roast chicken dinner, after which she expressed a wish to be reacquainted with the bed, this time with me alongside her.
Because she was English, easy to talk to and as pretty as a picture, Christine was the first girl I’d met in LA to whom I was minded to remain faithful, but no sooner had the affair began than the situation was complicated by the totally unexpected arrival in Los Angeles of a girl from London with whom I’d stepped out earlier that year, name of Sarah*. She worked in the press office of a record company, Atlantic I think, and used to buy me expensive meals in Mayfair on her company credit card, and she assumed I’d welcome her into my arms in LA, which might have been the case were it not for Christine. I didn’t have the heart to show Sarah the door but after one night I persuaded her that staying with me on anything other than a (very) temporary basis was unfeasible, no easy task, and she left LA forthwith, disillusioned by my capriciousness.
It didn’t take me long to realise that the role of Melody Maker’s man in America simply wasn’t conducive to steady relationships. Casual was the name of the game in this job, and I was probably fortunate that many American girls felt the same way, especially those in some way connected to the music industry.

* Although they share the same first initial, I have changed the names of these three girls to protect their modesty, but all other details are correct as far as I can recollect.


MY STINT AS MELODY MAKER’S MAN IN AMERICA, PART 5 – Los Angeles, August-December 1973

I was back at the Hollywood Bowl on September 21 to review Procol Harum, who performed with an orchestra, and I took along Bruce Johnson of The Beach Boys whom I had befriended through his girlfriend Connie DeNave, an A1 Hollywood scenester who was Elton’s PR. After the show Bruce and I met up with Connie at an after-show party at the nearby Universal City hotel where Bruce spotted a grand piano in the lobby. He sat down to play and sang ‘Disney Girls’, his fragile song of lost innocence that appeared on the Beach Boys’ Surfs Up LP.
         Somehow the news that a Beach Boy was playing the hotel’s piano spread through the lobby and a crowd began to form, among them a large group of Engelbert Humperdinck fans who were en route to see their hero in Las Vegas.
“Do you know Engelbert?” one of them asked when Bruce had finished.
“Of course,” he replied. “He’s gay you know.”
The fans looked shocked to the core.
“Is Engelbert really gay?” I asked when we were out of earshot.
“Of course not. I just wanted to see the expressions on their faces.”
Bruce had promised to introduce me to Brian Wilson and a week or two later he and Connie picked me up in his silver Porsche and took me for a Sunday brunch of avocado omelettes at an open-air restaurant in the Hollywood Hills. Afterwards we stopped outside Brian’s house at 10452 Bellagio Road, Bel Air. On the bell push on the gate was a sign that read ‘Speak Normally’, but when Bruce rang it but no one answered so I didn’t get to meet Brian after all.
Bruce did introduce me to Dean Torrence though, one half of surf duo Jan & Dean, one time rivals of The Beach Boys. As blond as the California sun, Dean had long since given up music and was now a graphic designer specialising in LP sleeves but I turned this encounter into an MM story that related the tragic tale of how in 1963 he and the other half, Jan Berry, recorded ‘Dead Man’s Curve’, a celebration of pop devil-may-care about an unofficial auto race in Hollywood. The song ends in a mighty pile-up and it sold 790,000 copies – but in all the ironies of rock’n’roll there are few to match Jan’s story. Two years later he drove his Stingray into the back of truck in Beverly Hills, killing three of his passengers. Jan crawled out alive, but only just. That was the end of Jan & Dean.

By this time my stay at the Chateau Marmont was drawing to an end. I had a month to find somewhere cheaper to live so it was fortuitous that among the many music business folk I encountered was PR and rock’n’roll archivist Michael Ochs, the brother of singer and activist Phil. When I told Michael that I needed a new home in LA he suggested Phil’s place on a street that was just across Santa Monica Boulevard at the bottom of Doheney; a convenient walk from the Troubadour and Dan Tana’s, the Italian restaurant next door where music biz types hung out. It was in Dan Tana’s that I was introduced one night to Andy Williams who was so short that when he stood up to shake hands I thought he was still sitting down. Michael explained to me that Phil was in Africa, seeking out revolutionaries with whom to write and sing, and was unlikely to return for at least three months. His apartment, at 8812 Rangeley Avenue, a quiet, tree-lined, one-way street, was on the top right of a building divided into four flats and it suited me to a tee.
         I moved in a few days later and found myself living in Phil’s world, soaking up his character through his possessions. He had an extensive record collection that was falling out of a dozen cardboard boxes beneath the dining table, and I played them while I sat in his chair and ate from his plates. It was a wide-ranging collection and all jumbled up: Elvis might be alongside Mozart, The Beatles alongside Miles Davis and Dylan next to Sinatra.
         I was familiar with Phil’s best known song, ‘There But For Fortune’, from the Joan Baez version, but the rest of his work was a mystery to me until I played his own records. I found the album that featured Phil on the cover wearing the gold lamé suit modelled on the one worn in 1957 by Elvis and chuckled at the title, Gunfight At Carnegie Hall. I didn’t realise until then that Phil, essentially a protest singer, had performed a set of early rock’n’roll covers at New York’s Carnegie Hall and been barracked for his trouble.
         Pictures of Phil were everywhere and I decided he had a kindly face. Evidently untroubled by any sartorial leanings, he looked a bit shabby, even on his LP sleeves, so the gold outfit must have come as a shock to his fans, like Robert Plant in a business suit, or Mick Jagger with a crew cut. Through reading his many books and listening to his records I came to understand that he was a deeply-committed left-wing activist, probably more so than any of his contemporaries who emerged from Greenwich Village alongside Bob Dylan ten years earlier. Although he had a sense of humour, he was a serious radical, a brave position to take in the USA. In an earlier era he’d have been proscribed like those in the movie industry who felt the wrath of right-wing demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy. The closest contemporary musician to whom I can compare Phil now is Billy Bragg.
         One of Phil’s books that caught my eye, and which I’ll always remember, was The Sexual History of The World War by Magnus Hirschfeld, with mouth-watering chapters on ‘Eroticism of Nurses’, ‘War Eunuchs’, ‘Sensuality in the Trenches’, ‘Army Brothels’, ‘Behind The Lines Lust’ and ‘Debauchery Back Home’. In reality it was a rather dry academic study. (It can still be bought on Amazon.)
In the closet was the Elvis-style gold lamé suit Phil had worn at Carnegie Hall and one morning I tried it on but it was far too big for me. Talking of Elvis, among the many books on his shelves was Elvis by Jerry Hopkins, the first and at that time the only serious biography of Presley. Reading the book for the first time in that flat inspired me to contact RCA, Elvis’ record label, optimistically requesting an interview. I was asked to apply in writing to Col Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, c/o RCA Records, and though I was assured by RCA’s press flunky that the letter was forwarded, Parker didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. I guess it was filed away among 1,000 other similar requests.
         The nearest I got to Elvis was relaxing in his dressing room at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas where I was taken to see and interview Glen Campbell, a friendly star in the country idiom whose skill as a guitarist was less well known than the heart-breaking vignettes by Jimmy Webb that he turned into massive hits. I actually saw two shows in Vegas, Tony Orlando & Dawn at the Riviera, where I stayed, and Campbell at the Hilton.
         Dawn’s set lasted just 25 minutes and cost a reported $50,000 to stage. “Dancing girls, old time music and heavy reliance on ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ made up an act which was slick in the best showbiz fashion,” I reported. “It was typical nightclub stuff, entertaining in a jolly sort of way but not the kind of act I’d pay to watch. The steaks in the showroom, incidentally, cost $18.50 a time,” I added.
         Across the street at the Hilton Glen Campbell was a different kettle of fish. “He’s an all-round entertainer in the strict sense of the word,” I reported, “not only singing but playing guitar (expertly), impersonating Elvis (not so expertly) and playing the bagpipes (competently but not spectacularly). The highlight for me was the ‘Duelling Banjos’ sequence, closely followed by the Lone Ranger theme, played at breakneck tempo, accompanied by a film of the masked cowboy himself, astride Silver, galloping across the Nevada plains.”
         Glen used the same dressing room as Elvis and what I remember most about it was a custom-built TV with two screens back to back, so that those sitting on one side of the dressing room could watch a different show than those on the other side. Not everyone shared Elvis’ taste in TV shows, I concluded.
         If Los Angeles was a giant step for a Yorkshire-born son of the Dales, then Las Vegas was another world together, a Mecca to the fast buck where the hotels are in reality massive residential casinos, skyscraping monuments to unfettered greed where the activity hums around the green baize tables rather than around the lobby, dining rooms or bars.
Reporting from Vegas in the guise of a travel writer I informed MM’s readers that casinos take up almost the entire area of the ground floor, making it impossible for the visitor not to miss them on their way to various parts of the hotel. To walk from the lift to the lobby, from the lobby to the bar, from the bar to the dining room, or from the dining room to the show room always involves a trip past the lines of tables where hopeful punters risk their greenbacks on the spin of the wheel, the drop of the cards, or the shake of the dice. There are no clocks in any of these rooms and neither are there any windows, the absence of daylight designed to discourage gamblers from heeding the passage of time. Night and day thus merge into one long, never-ending spell.”
I’m glad I went but I never went back.