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.


Mak said...

I certainly have enjoyed this blog of your adventures from back in the day as well as your other MM work as well!

drshade said...

This is great stuff, Chris. Looking forward to the next instalment...