This is the second part of my memoir about living in Los Angeles as Melody Maker’s man in America.
An old picture of the Chateau Marmont
I spent my first month in Los Angeles in the same suite of rooms my predecessor Michael Watts had vacated at the Chateau Marmont, a gothic castle set back from Sunset Boulevard opposite Schwabs, the bright pink drugstore-cum-diner where starlets in tight skirts and low necklines hung out in the hope of attracting film producers. Built in 1929 and loosely designed along the lines of an ornate French chateau, it was originally a ritzy apartment house and, with its spire, balconies and many widows, had long enjoyed cultural landmark status. In 1931 it was converted into a hotel but it wasn’t like any hotel I’d stayed in before. There was no bar or dining room, no public areas to speak of, and the rooms were actually spacious apartments in the main building, or bungalows in the grounds, though there was a communal swimming pool and underground garage. I briefly befriended a man who imported vintage cars from the UK and parked them there, a line of old Rollers, and one day he took me for a ride in one. My apartment had a fully-equipped but rarely utilised kitchen and alongside the bedroom was a dressing room with floor to ceiling mirrors.
Unlike today, the Chateau Marmont in 1973 was too shabby to be described as luxurious. Nevertheless, many famous Hollywood names had occupied rooms there over the years and a whiff of scandal still lingered in its dusty corridors. When I retired for the night in the enormous bed I couldn’t help but wonder how many adulterous assignations between the rich and famous had occurred in the room, maybe even the bed, where I now slept.
Michael Watts had left me a list of contacts and so on my first morning in LA I called up as many as ten PRs at record labels, introduced myself and hoped for the best. Sure enough, within days LPs started arriving, although I had nothing on which to play them, along with concert tickets, invitations to parties and solicitations to interview musicians. The man from Atlantic Records even sent me a back-catalogue order form and asked me to tick off every album I wanted, and Motown’s PR invited me to dinner at his house where he showed me his exercise bikes and extensive collection of pornographic magazines.
Michael had befriended a freelance music writer called Peter Philbin who became my friend too, and he helped me open a bank account at Wells Fargo, chosen because I liked the name and their cheques featured western scenes. I deposited about $400 of IPC’s money and Peter took me on a tour of Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. He explained to me that driving was mandatory in LA as there was next to no public transport and no one walked anywhere, so I leased from Avis a red Ford Pinto, a sporty little two-door, and parked it alongside an open-topped Rolls Royce in the garage beneath the Chateau.
I didn’t need to take driving lessons or even to have a California driving licence, but I got one anyway as it was required for ID purposes. I was told that if I were stopped by police without ID I ran the risk of being arrested for vagrancy, but it was useful in bars should the need arise to prove I was over 21, the legal drinking age. When I took my California driving test, the examiner noted that I seemed far older than most of those being tested and asked me how long I’d been driving. “About nine years,” I replied, pointing out to him that my UK licence entitled me to carry on driving even if he failed me. He took the hint, told me to drive round the block and announced I had passed.
Unlike London, Los Angeles was baked by an ever-present sun that turned everyone but me golden brown. Pale and interesting was more my style, so I tended to avoid the Chateau’s swimming pool. On my first and only visit I encountered Lorraine, wife of Dave Mason, late of Traffic, a thin, statuesque model who was sunbathing in a bikini. She asked me whether I had anything to drink and five minutes later, still in her bikini, she was lounging seductively on the shag pile carpet in my suite sipping iced vodka and orange. Unsure of the etiquette in these situations, I was about to proposition her when she announced her intention to visit her infant son who was being cared for by a nanny upstairs in her room, so I banished such thoughts from my mind, at least for now. After a while Lorraine went off to check on her little boy then, to my surprise, she returned and, because Dave was detained elsewhere, asked me to escort her to a small gathering that same night in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Happy to go along with this, it was there that I met Lisa Robinson, the well-connected New York music writer, and John Cale, the largely unsung Welsh hero of the Velvet Underground, both of whom became useful contacts in the years to come. In the apartment he shared with Lorraine, I did an interview with her husband a couple of weeks later.
The Chateau suited me just fine as it was within a few minutes’ drive from everywhere I needed to go: the Whiskey A Go Go, the Roxy, the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the Troubadour, various record company offices, the Hyatt (Riot) House where all the rock stars stayed, and Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco where, in return for three copies of that week’s MM which Rodney left on the bar – probably the first to be delivered anywhere in LA – I could drink for free and meet jailbait. Rodney’s was a favourite haunt of Led Zeppelin whenever they passed through LA, a trashy dive on Sunset patronised by the less discriminating strain of rock star, mostly English, and a glittery crowd of skinny boys with bare chests and groupie girls in hot pants and halter tops who were too young to need bras. One night I took one of these girls back to the Chateau with intent to seduce but backed off when, to my surprise, she mentioned she was 15.
“You look much older,” I said as she put her t-shirt back on.
“I know,” she replied. “Some of those girls are only 12.”
I drove her straight back to Rodney’s English Disco.
In complete contrast to the clientele of Rodney’s, my first interview in LA was with The Carpenters, the soft-rock brother and sister duo who were selling records by the truckload. Driven to their home in Downey, a conservative suburb south of LA, by Doreen Louer, A&M’s PR chief, I was astonished that Richard and Karen, aged 27 and 24 respectively, still lived with their parents on an upper-middle-class estate where their large detached house had been turned into a showcase for their awards which were displayed on shelves and in glass cabinets. At the back of the house was their own recording studio where we sat down and talked while ma Carpenter delivered tea and biscuits.
Sweet as they were, Richard and Karen seemed strangely naïve about the rock world, set apart from it in many ways yet rubbing shoulders in the charts with the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Stones. I suppose that in a roundabout way they were the American equivalent of Abba, creators of expertly produced pop music that catered for a large but undemonstrative constituency discomfited by the vigorous sedition of long-haired musicians in tight jeans with wailing guitars. Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham was furious when Karen, as slim and graceful as Bonzo was corpulent and lumbering, was voted the world’s best drummer in Playboy’s musicians’ poll the following year.
After the interview Doreen introduced me to tacos and fajitas at a Mexican restaurant in downtown LA, and we remained friends for the duration of my American adventure.