It didn’t matter to those desk jockeys if they sent me pinballing between London and L.A. six times in a single month. In the early years of the 21st century, it didn’t seem to matter to anyone that my job—interviewing musicians eight time zones west—had pitted me directly against the interests of the planet. Forget all that. Because, like Joni Mitchell, and like Led Zeppelin, I was going to California.
It is impossible to overstate the starring role Los Angeles plays in the imagination of the international music scene. Certainly, I don’t believe I would have written my book Bodies: Life and Death in Music (just out last year from Faber & Faber) without the many tales I’ve harvested from its streets. It’s a story in part about how the rock biz makes people ill. Dozens are the times I’ve traveled to L.A. for as little as an hour in the company of damaged music-makers. The drummer who died after taking too many prescription pills and other drugs in his hotel room. The platinum-rated punk singer who canceled a world tour following a drunken meltdown live on television. The songwriter who learned that his band had been awarded a Gold album when he was in county jail for possession of heroin and crack cocaine. The vocalist who called a bandmate from the hospital to say that he thought he was dying after swallowing a fistful of unidentified pills. The guitarist who drank himself to death after a bite from a venomous spider—yes, a venomous spider—damaged the motor neurons in his right arm. On the streets of Los Angeles, I have been told stories that seem to be turning my hair gray.
I would hesitate to say that I ever loved the place. On one typically sunny morning, loitering near the Hollywood Palladium, I took the time to try and work out why the city made me feel so damn melancholy. A rich and luxuriant melancholy, too, as warm and deep as it was unshakable. Jet-lagged to the nines, I’d been out running at first light on a round trip up Sunset to Beverly Hills. At the end of my exertions, I was seated near Amoeba Music with a wax-paper cup of Americano and two bottles of sparkling water purchased from a coffee franchise a block or so south of Hollywood Boulevard. Think. Why am I feeling this way? I don’t know. Why do I always feel this way when I’m here? Leave me alone. I’ve told you that I don’t know.
I’m not a natural Angeleno. Given the choice, I’d pick the Clippers over the Lakers any day, and I’d choose the Kings over both of them. My attraction to the underdog is a tough sell in a town made uneasy at the prospect of failure. I’m not saying that I subscribe to the popular and pernicious notion that the city’s residents are shallow and insincere—I don’t believe that at all—it’s just that I’m not sure they find me all that interesting. Angelenos can’t believe I’ve never driven a car. They can tell that I don’t have much money. It’s like Phil Lynott sang, in the Thin Lizzy song “Hollywood,” “Nobody give a damn when you’re down on your luck.”
Many of the city’s musicians seem to appreciate this point. Because for all its—quote unquote—glamor, the Big Orange, in song, is often portrayed as a place without forgiveness. “More a question than a curse: how could hell be any worse?” asked Bad Religion in the masterful “Los Angeles Is Burning.” In one of a limited number of songs whose lyrics are universally understood, a stay at the “Hotel California”—which refers to a state, I know, not a specific city, but I don’t imagine the Eagles were singing about Carmel-by-the-Sea, do you?—is an episode of The Twilight Zone set to music. “The days change at night, change in an instant,” warned X on their violent masterpiece “Los Angeles.” Even hits that are apparently celebratory might not be quite what they seem. In “I Love L.A.,” Randy Newman describes the view from his convertible as looking “like another perfect day.” Like, you say? Like how shopping-channel Diamonique looks like precious stones, perhaps?
Dear Angeleno reader, if I saw an article by some fanny-packed Golden Stater about how it’s always raining in London, or about how the English are deferential and polite, I, too, would be tutting and sighing at the ease and speed with which casual not-at-all-truisms travel across continents and oceans. So please don’t worry about it. You’d be getting on my nerves, too, if you were carrying on like I am.
But the truth of it is that, despite having been there at least two dozen times for profile features about American and British rock stars good and bad, I barely know Los Angeles. To this day, I have no idea what people mean when they tell me they live in Silver Lake. I could not point you in the direction of the San Fernando Valley if my life depended on it. And for at least a decade, I didn’t even know in which direction one would travel to find the Pacific Ocean. If I fancied seeing the seaside, there was as much chance of me walking to South Carolina as to the beaches of Santa Monica.
The truth of it is that I never really stood a chance. The people with whom I traveled to Los Angeles were faces from the London music scene who were only interested in one part of the city: West Hollywood. Turns out that, unlike me, none of these record-company press people, as teenagers, had ever owned a compilation album featuring a song by a punk group called Motorcycle Boy titled “I Hate the Sunset Strip.” On account of them not being able to get enough of the place, my encounters with this vastest of cities have been almost exclusively restricted to a thin strip of real estate stretching between Carneys train-carriage diner, to the east, and Book Soup, that temple of the written word, to the west.
Most of the time I’ve woken up at three in the morning—11:00 a.m., according to my body clock—tangled up in the fresh sheets of hotels situated within half a mile of each other up on Sunset Boulevard. Two or three nights at the Grafton, the Hyatt, the Best Western, the Mondrian, the Sunset Marquis, or the Standard. Even a lone stay at the W, a mere two or three miles east, was anomalous in its distance from the Pink Dot at the top of La Cienega.
As visitors, each of us was looking for ghosts. Never mind that I might have been watching a fresh young band at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard; my thoughts were of Elton John introducing himself to America on that very same stage in the summer of 1970. That happened right here! Imagine that! Wherever I looked, it seemed like history was staring back at me. On the very same thoroughfare stood the site of the Tropicana Motel, the rock-biz flophouse that counted Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits among its long-term residents. Doubtless they broke bread at Barney’s Beanery too, likely at midnight, squinting inquisitively at a menu that seems to have as many pages as the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. Picture being a member of their gang.
Other options are available. At least half of the people I know would like to have been a part of the Sunset Strip hair-metal scene in the 1980s. Imagine thinking that was a good idea.
Now, though, these are all remnants of the past. In these not exactly roaring twenties, record companies will no longer pay for an English journalist to travel a third of the way across the globe in the hope that he’ll endorse one of their acts. To tell you the truth, I’m actually rather pleased that readers no longer need me to tell them what I think they should listen to. I don’t think I was ever much good at calling those kinds of shots, anyway. I write better about people than I do about music. Plus, I’m now 51 years of age. I’m too old to be ricocheting around the United States, ending up, as often as not, in a city I have never, not once, referred to as “La La Land.”
The last time I was in town was the first time I’d ever visited Los Angeles on anything other than business. Instead, I came here on holiday with a fiancée who is now my wife. I took her on a guided tour of the rock quarter of Sunset Boulevard. To my surprise, I can’t overstate just how I much I enjoyed showing her around. At the foot of the Strip, the marquee at the Whisky a Go Go announced a week of concerts with a selection of hair-metal has-beens, bands such as Enuff Z’Nuff and L.A. Guns. They are best known for their walks, and falls, on the wild side.
I told her my all-time favorite story of rock ’n’ roll dysfunction. A member of one of these groups came from a moneyed family from whom he was able to steal a Stradivarius, which he pawned to raise funds for heroin. His father dragged him down to the shop at which the priceless violin had been hocked, and the two men got into a fistfight, which might have continued to this day were it not for the sound of the priceless instrument being crushed beneath the wheels of a reversing car.
“Shut up,” she says. “That didn’t happen.”
“No, it did. It really did. I’ve got stories about all of these bands. Do you want to hear another one?”
Strolling west, I took my fiancée to the Rainbow Bar and Grill. In the days when I was learning to talk, Alice Cooper was right here, on these very premises, bending the elbow with people who were well on their way to drinking themselves to death. The singer got blasted with Jim Morrison. Jimi Hendrix handed him his first joint when he was 18. He knocked back Southern Comfort with Janis Joplin. So delighted was the company that produced the spirit by Joplin’s very public endorsement of their product that they sent her a fur coat by way of thanks.
As the 1970s came calling, American rock ’n’ roll, in the wake of Easy Rider (1969), was hard at work divesting itself of its approachable boy-next-door image. If you’re looking for the point at which excess for its own sake was first eulogized, this is probably it. Space was set aside in the Rainbow’s loft for Alice Cooper and his friends to do their drinking in private, an enclave for the truly famous.
“It was called the Roost of the Vampires,” he once told me. “We were [known as] the Hollywood Vampires because you never saw us in the daytime. Every single night, that’s where we’d go. One of the things we’d do was wait to see what Keith Moon was going to wear that night. Keith would go to Western Costumes—one night he would be the Queen of England, and one night he would be Hitler, or a French maid, or Zorro. And it was just so much fun. That was an era when personalities were everything, so it had a signature to it. Everybody had a distinct sound and a distinct look. And we gathered there to get away from the industry. We never talked about music. John Lennon and Harry Nilsson would argue about politics, with each one taking the opposite position to the other. I’d be sat there in the middle of them like some kind of referee. It was great.”
It was great for Alice Cooper because he escaped with his life. He got lucky, in other words. Much more of that kind of thing? “It would have killed me,” he told me. “No doubt about it, it would have killed me.”
But again, this is a city of ghosts. Certainly, in 2019, there had been some changes at the Rainbow since the last time I was there. The sheltered patio at the side of the building is now called “Lemmy’s Lounge,” in honor of Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, who made the city his home for 25 years until his death in 2015. As an immigrant in Los Angeles, the Englishman spent his free afternoons sitting at the counter drinking his Jack and Coke, smoking his Marlboros, and racking up high scores on an electronic quiz machine. He lived just a block or two away in a rent-controlled apartment stuffed with military paraphernalia. Almost four years after his death, Motörhead received the news that they were headed to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. A fat lot of good that was to him.
Along with a smattering of albums on a wall-mounted jukebox, the singer’s memory is honored at the Rainbow by a life-size statue at the rear of the bar. Accepting my offer of a dollar bill, the juke cues up a version of “Overkill” from the live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith.
“Look out!” As the song ascends—a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs—from behind the bar, a staff member turns down the volume.
Small sections from this essay originally appeared in similar form in the book Bodies: Life and Death in Music by Ian Winwood. Published by Faber & Faber, US paperback, February 2023.