California Polyphony: Ethnic Voices, Musical Crossroads
(University of Illinois Press)
Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love
L.A. Noir: The Stuggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City
(Three Rivers Press)
It’s easy to forget that popular music has the capacity to subvert. Thankfully, I’ve been reminded of the fact lately by a trio of insightful books, which, by chance (or unconscious design) all point to two particular flash points: Central Avenue and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. The two locations played host to creative subcultures during different decades: Central Avenue mainly in the ’30s through the early ’50s, Sunset Strip in the mid-’60s. Both scenes were marked by striking musical and cultural cross-pollination. Both were, in effect, shut down by forces of repression precisely because of the threat posed by that cross-pollination.
Central Avenue, the commercial heart of L.A.’s African-American community, began hosting jazz as early as 1921 (Kid Ory’s band from New Orleans), and by the Swing era was regularly featuring such artists as Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Armstrong. Its most famous night spots, such as the Dunbar, the Plantation, and the Club Alabam, regularly drew celebrity visitors from Hollywood—one of the seeds of the district’s troubles. After the war it featured any number of home-grown bop artists: Hampton Hawes, Howard McGhee, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray—right alongside a burgeoning R&B/proto-R&R scene (Joe Liggins, Johnny Otis, Roy Milton). Throw into the mix any number of blues artists (T-Bone Walker), post-boppers (Mingus, Buddy Collette, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy), and unclassifiables (Lester Young, Slim Gaillard, Nat King Cole), and you have a truly wild cauldron of sounds that couldn’t help influencing one another.
At the peak of its postwar vogue, Central Avenue was victimized by a plague of L.A.P.D. harassment, of a kind way beyond the garden variety. In retrospect it’s clear that then–police chief Parker was practicing his own brand of “social control”: racheting up arrest and intimidation out of resentment that black businesses were not only achieving success at the expense of white-run establishments, but were enabling the social (and sexual) mixing of races. (Parker had once referred to the Southland as America’s “white spot,” and he clearly had ideas about enforcing social/racial boundaries through police action.) By the mid-’50s the scene was effectively dead, killed in part by changing social patterns but more than anything else by the Protectors and Servers.
The Sunset Strip, being outside city limits, had long been known for its nightlife, but at some point in the mid-’60s it fell to a nation of kids. The Byrds played a residency at Ciro’s, Dylan blessed them, the club was renamed “It’s Boss,” and for a brief year or two the street became headquarters for a nascent counterculture. It was here that folk met surf met blues met “international sounds” (not yet “world music”) met jazz, with a tinge of early psychedelia: Love, Buffalo Springfield, Kaleidoscope, Captain Beefheart, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Seeds, the Standells, the Sons of Adam, Frank Zappa, the Electric Prunes, the Turtles (plus visiting dignitaries like the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and the Mamas & the Papas). It wasn’t just breathtakingly diverse, it was energetic as hell, and fun—it had to be: its audience age averaged way under 20, and they were there to dance. The Byrds, kings of the scene, even inspired their own interpretive dance troupe, which became integral to the band’s live appeal.
It was a Byzantine matrix of forces that engineered the Strip’s demise—one can point to business owners’ resentment of the loitering hordes, elites’ vision of a corporate megalith to rival downtown, city planners’ desire for a trans–Laurel Canyon freeway (egad!)—but again, the L.A.P.D. was in the thick of things, knowingly or not enforcing the dictates of the wealthy and powerful. Police imposition of a curfew led to a full-scale riot on a lovely night in November of 1966, centered on the legendary Pandora’s Box (the very place where Brian Wilson met his future wife). Before the Strip’s denizens knew what had hit them, the scene was gone; San Francisco stole the fire of psychedelia, and all that remained was Steven Stills’s commemorative “For What It’s Worth.” (He had witnessed the events in a hotel room up north.)
I stumbled upon California Polyphony in Prospect Heights’s own Unnameable Books—where else? Always on the lookout for scholarly-yet-free-ranging analyses of So Cal culture, I couldn’t help snapping it up. The slender tome does not disappoint. Mina Yang (an assistant professor of music history and literature at USC) offers a unique take on the state’s vaunted multiculturalism from a minority perspective. The common thread that she discovers is the white culture’s objectification of the exotic other—whether in the form of superficial adaptations of Asian musical forms by experimental composers like Henry Cowell, Henry Partch, and Lou Harrison, the presentation of the femme fatale in film noir, or the police assault on Central Avenue referenced above. Yang avoids both the excessive dryness and Foucault-speak endemic to such university press studies. She’s especially strong in analyzing Chief Parker’s self-deluding use of crime statistics to buttress his own racial preconceptions. Kudos.
Forever Changes is the first serious attempt I’ve seen at a biography of Arthur Lee. We Love-lovers of course gobbled up Andrew Hultkrans’s 33 1/3 book on Forever Changes, Barney Hoskyns’s rather meager Lee bio, and drummer Michael Stuart’s trashy memoir the minute they appeared. But here we have a window into the day-to-day life of the man and the band from a writer who did some real homework. Einarson (a Canadian music writer with a Gene Clark bio to his credit) not only conducted extensive interviews, but gained the cooperation of Lee’s widow, Diane, who shared with him Arthur’s unfinished memoir. It’s an effective juxtaposition. Arthur’s sometimes poignant, sometimes grandiose, sometimes just-plain-goofy comments are set against the more sober recollections of such as guitarist Johnny Echols, Bryan MacLean, and Michael Stuart. (Then, of course, there are the dyspeptic grumblings of teenage band member Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer.) Einarson is generally content to step back and let the players take center stage, so we get a Rashomon-like tale of the Forever Changes era, with a host of self-serving versions of events vying for prominence. (I’ll say here that Elektra president Jac Holzman does not exactly radiate veracity.) The canard that the band was somehow a passive observer of the album’s orchestrations is effectively demolished: “We went into the studio knowing we would use strings and horns…It was intended as part of a cohesive whole” (Echols); “I had Arthur sing all the string and brass lines to David [Angel, the arranger], who would make notes, and then go off and translate Arthur’s vision into arrangements” (engineer Bruce Botnick). And, sadly, the story of the donut-shop heist is exposed as a Snoopy tall tale. Most of all, we get a vivid, photographic sense of how the Strip (and the adjacent Canyon) was the center of the universe for a brief, incandescent moment, as Love went about demolishing musical and racial boundaries and opening Doors for the more ambitious—and cautious—bands that came in their wake.
Not a book on music by any stretch of the imagination, L.A. Noir instead paints a picture of the behind-the-scene forces that so often ended up controlling music’s destiny. Structured as a double-biography—of police chief Parker and gangster Mickey Cohen—the book cross-cuts between two lives marked for inevitable conflict. In so doing, it illuminates how three cultures—the L.A.P.D., organized crime, and city politics—were once so interwoven that to separate them would have been unthinkable. On one level, L.A. Noir reads like an impossible-to-put-down thriller, yet not without academic beef: Buntin draws thoughtful conclusions about raw facts, just as a real historian ought to. On a deeper level, it evokes the fears and prejudices that ruled a particular complement of (white) men in a particular time and place, driving them to try and suppress what they imagined to be forces of “chaos.” That their efforts were driven by the terror of inner demons now seems obvious. But it doesn’t make their legacy any less real—and it’s a legacy none of us can fully escape.
Honorable mention goes to Domenic Priore’s wonderful Riot on Sunset Strip, which makes a convincing case for the centrality of Los Angeles in pre–Monterey Pop psychedelia, and Harvey Kubernik’s lavish Canyon of Dreams, an Xmas present I’m looking forward to reading!