Going to California
In January, 1987, I finally completed my cross-country journey, and made it to Southern California. Warm weather, beautiful beaches, a literary scene! And great music! What took me so long?
Before we even get to the abundance of concerts, I was pleasantly surprised (okay, pleasantly shocked) to hear Iggy Pop on the radio. And Talking Heads, the Cure, Bowie, even Public Image Limited. In fact, I found an entire station dedicated to my favorite music. Being in south Orange County, this was 91X, from San Diego (Baja California, actually). But KROQ broadcast the same music up in L.A. when I could bring it in. This was something I never expected.
And there were concerts, lots of concerts. Although at first this was just frustrating. Between the expenses of moving, finding a new job (I was back to washing dishes, entry level at the Dana Point Chart House), and the higher cost of living, I couldn't afford to go to any of them. I remember a Pretenders show, with Iggy opening, which particularly pained me to miss.
Still, it wasn't long before I couldn't help myself. The first concert I went to was Adrian Belew and the Bears (his original band before Zappa discovered him) at a nearby place called the Coach House. I was a big Belew fan, because of his work with Bowie, Talking Heads and King Crimson, as well as his solo work. Although he was always better as a sideman, and the concert confirmed that.
But the Coach House itself was the discovery of the night. It became my go-to venue for the next five years or so. A small venue, it held maybe a couple of thousand, but it still attracted big name artists. It was also close, nestled between Dana Point and San Clemente (my two hometowns while I lived in south Orange County). I could get there in fifteen minutes. It did have its problems: indifferent sound, and (worst of all) all the front rows were taken up by long tables. In order to get a front row seat, you had to order a mediocre and overpriced meal. Nonetheless, its virtues outweighed its drawbacks, and I saw many shows there.
These included Cowboy Junkies, the Smithereens, Black Crowes, NRBQ, Pat Benatar (singing just blues) and the Wailers. Plus numerous local bands. Some bands fit the venue better than others. The size and atmosphere perfectly fit the acoustic subtlety of the Cowboy Junkies. The Smithereens, on the other hand, played like they were in a much larger space. They played loud, they played big, they played an programmed set which allowed no audience interaction. They overwhelmed the room.
Black Crowes could have easily played a larger arena at that point in their career. Instead they took advantage of the setting; they relaxed and cut loose, with lots of jamming, friends sitting in, and just having a good time.
I saw some great, very interesting concerts there. There was a show I nicknamed “Todd Rundgren and His Toys”. It was a solo show, just Rundgren, a guitar, a keyboard, and shitload of computers. Which did allow him to play a wide variety of material from his eclectic career. “Roger Powell couldn't be here tonight, but his data is, “ he announced before launching into a Utopia tune. He played everything from “I Saw the Light in Your Eyes” to some very experimental work. He also made good use a video camera and screen, focusing on his hands, or the audience, or displaying a cartoon band behind him. “When the band's playing really well,” he said, “I like to let them jam.”
It turned out there was a major computer convention just up the road in Anaheim, and he was in town for that. He decided to add the gig to the trip, and maybe pay some expenses. (My computer scientist brother was also at that convention, coincidentally).
I also saw Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists, which was almost the exact opposite of the Rundgren show. Whereas Rundgren used computers and electronics to reproduce old songs, Fripp and his group performed, on acoustic guitars, music that had originally been created electronically. That is, he used fourteen guitarists to recreate the soundscapes of Frippertronics, which he had originally done with one guitarist (himself) and tape loops. Each guitarist would lay down and repeat a riff, and the next guitarist would layer another line on top of that, building elaborate compositions. It made for a fascinating, even revelatory evening. It was also the only show I've seen with a Q&A in the middle. They closed with an acoustic take on Lark's Tongues in Aspic.
Another band which featured multiple guitarists, for a very different effect, was King Sunny Ade and his African Beats. Ade was one of the leading musicians in Africa, playing highlife and Juju music. He had a truly big band with four guitars, four singers, three drummer/percussionists. They passed the lead (both guitar and rhythm) around the circle so smoothly I couldn't follow where is was. Instead I just got lost in the swirl. It made for a very impressive night of musical teamwork.
King Sunny Ade was also a concert I had hoped to be able to see, ever since my Idaho poet friend Scott first introduced me to him several years before. It was one of specific handful of concerts I hoped to be able to see in SoCal. And I succeeded on some of the key ones.
Neil Young came first. Ever since Rust Never Sleeps, and especially the companion Live Rust album, I desperately wanted to hear him play electric guitar. (At one point he was scheduled to play Boise, but canceled. Besides, that was the Trans tour, so who knows what we would have gotten.) My first summer in SoCal he came to the Pacific Amphitheater, a mid-sized outdoor venue in Costa Mesa. Even though I was still broke, I had to be there.
I was not disappointed. The show did start with a short acoustic set, not my favorite Neil Young, but he included “Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing,” which rescued that portion for me. Then into the electric set. Oh, those leads. Bluesy leads, rocking leads, twisted leads. “Down By the River.” “Like a Hurricane.” I left very satisfied.
The other must see show was Richard Thompson. If you're not familiar with Richard Thompson, stop reading this and look him up immediately. He is only one of the greatest songwriters and guitarists in all modern music. Songwriting on par with Leonard Cohen and guitar work like Clapton, all in one man. Seriously, go find some and listen. Again, I have Scott Preston to thank for introducing me.
He played a show in Encinitas, a small beach town maybe 30 miles south of San Clemente, where I was living. I wasn't sure what I was getting, I only knew I had to be there. It turned out to be a solo acoustic show. Although I was hoping for some electric guitar (yeah, that old bias again), his talent on the acoustic were so great I forgot all about that notion. My journal provides a great description of the show: “He did a lot of what I can only call multi-tracking -- simultaneously playing rhythm and lead, or lead and counterpoint, or dual leads. Also, a lot of playing with harmonics.” Just to be clear, this was long before samplers; he could actually play two guitar parts at once.
There was one more show during this period which fit into the “must-see” category, although ti was more my roommate's must see than mine. Warren Zevon at the Wiltern. We succeeded in getting tickets, and then he couldn't get off work. I ended up going by myself. As this was one of my first trips up into L.A. on myself, it was a nerve-wracking experience. For the first two years I lived in SoCal I was deathly afraid of the freeways. Just anticipating a couple miles to the mall was enough to keep up at night. And this turned out to be four hours of “normal Friday night traffic” (according to the radio).
But it was well worth it. Zevon put on one of the most intense shows I have ever seen, right up there with my first Iggy show. And like Iggy, he seemed on the verge of losing it completely through much of the show. Especially on “It Ain't That Pretty At All,” when he sang, “I think I'll hurl myself against the wall/ because I'd rather feel bad than feel nothing at all,” and looked like he might hurl himself off the stage. But he was also capable of being tender on “Reconsider Me” and humorous on “Werewolves of London.”
Even though I wasn't a huge Zevon fan, I knew he rarely played live, and that this was an historic occasion.
One more concert where I wasn't a huge fan, but knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity was Bruce Springsteen. I always liked him, but never loved him. My favorite albums of his are Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, which might tell you something. But I knew his live shows were legendary. Besides, it wasn't just Springsteen, it was the 1988 Human Rights Now concert at the LA Coliseum, with Sting, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman, as well as Bruce.
Of course it was a great concert. The first highlight of the concert was Tracy Chapman holding the 90,000 in attendance spell bound with just her voice and an acoustic guitar. After that, the various duets made the night. Pretty much everyone on the bill sang with everyone else on the bill. So we got Sting and Springsteen dueting on “Every Breath You Take” and “The River,” Sting and Gabriel on “Games Without Frontiers” and “They Dance Alone,” and Tracy Chapman taking Kate Bush's part on “Don't Give Up,” as well as several others.
As for Springsteen, I found him disappointing. Maybe it was that he only played an hour and half, rather than his usual three hours. Maybe it was that his shows had been built up so huge in my mind. Maybe it was that, with the shortened set time, he focused on his hits rather than some of his more interesting cuts. In any event, I could now say I had seen him, and felt no need to do it again.
I still had one more adventure to get through that night. I drove an old Ford Gran Torino, which I bought off a friend in Idaho for $50, on the promise that it would get me to California. A year and a have later, it still ran, but barely. In fact, at his point the alternator had gone out. For those of you, like me, who are relatively ignorant about cars, the alternator recharges the battery while you drive. You really only need that battery for two things -- starting the car, and the lights. If you jump the car to start it, it will run fine. As long as you don't need the lights.
So there we were, in a not so good part of downtown L.A., with a car we couldn't run until dawn. It took a couple of jumps just to get it to a public street (we had parked in someone's front lawn for the concert). Then we sat in a coffee shop until it was lights out.
That was the end of must-see concerts for me, at least for a while. Instead I entered a period of repetition, where almost every show had some artist on the bill I had seen before. Most of the time it was the headliners: Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Who, Grateful Dead, Iggy Pop, David Bowie. (Even the Human Rights Now concert fit the bill with Joan Baez, Peter Gabriel and Sting as repeaters.) Other times it was an opening act: PiL opening for New Order, NRBQ(!) for R.E.M. Then there were times I saw a band for the first time, with a repeat artist, and then saw them again with someone new. Sugarcubes were on the New Order bill, then opened for U2 a couple of years later. Im saw Guns 'n' Roses open for the Stones, and then as a headliner the next year. And sometimes I fudged things just to maintain my record: Eric Clapton jammed with the Stones on “Little Red Rooster,” so when I saw him a couple years later, I still counted it.
Partly this was because I lived in SoCal, where all these bands played and weren't too hard to see. But it also indicated that the center of my musical world was lagging in the past. Most of the bands I really wanted to see were the same bands I saw in the 70s. Sure there were New Order, R.E.M., U2, G 'n' R, but they were often “might-as-well' rather than “must-see” shows.
The honest truth was, I was getting old.