It felt fine being a retired record pirate. We hit the market when it was hot, launched some music that got on people’s radar and avoided contact with the law. Being underage had its benefits. My albums were on display in any shop I patronized yet few knew I was the guy responsible for their existence. Other bootleggers chased press attention and notoriety. Being LA and all, it was second nature. But I was happy as an unknown instigator. I liked the idea of being the smart guy, on background.
So I hung around my partner’s shop at night, watching folks pick through the merchandise. And on one such night an exotic looking fellow walked in, a rock star-type wearing blinding satin and standing tall in high platform boots decorated with tiny painted stars. I don’t think I’d seen a guy wearing high heels before (‘manly’ or otherwise) except Joe Cocker in Woodstock.
The starry guy found our new Bootleg Section, front and center of the store. He looked around to see who was watching, then immersed himself in the albums displayed, studying each record that he held. I stood by the counter until he finally turned, approached and started asking questions.
He was an English fellow, a London boy (“his flashy clothes were his pride and joy” – David Bowie 1969). He knew of these illicit products, had heard about them back home. He was intrigued that they could be freely peddled in the marketplace here, with so few ramifications and so little punishment. This would never happen in England! Finally, lowering his voice, he wondered aloud if it were possible to learn how to do such a thing, to make your own records. You see, he had these tapes..
Remember Paul McCartney in Help? “I can say no more” a moustached Paul would whisper conspiratorially, as the spies leaned on him for information. The English guy’s name was Alan, and at first he wouldn’t tell me what he possessed, though he made sure to play up their mystery and desirability. Alan wasn’t sure we should even be talking (“I can say no more”). But eventually we laid our cards on the counter: I was an experienced record bootlegger, and “English” Alan had possession of first-rate recordings of the rock stars, unreleased music he’d plied from studios in the UK. He had unfinished albums, demos by The Who and live performances by Led Zeppelin, Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, on and on, a most extensive and intriguing batch of recordings. English Alan had tapes of the sort that legends and fortunes might be made.
Alan was staying with a photographer friend named Bob up on Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. He invited me to the house the following night, where I’d become the first American to hear a Bob Dylan concert recording that I soon would give the title: “The Royal Albert Hall”.
I hated them all. Well… ok not the early ones. Not the girls who burned bras and incense and and dragged blankets to the love in, total strangers at Griffith Park who threw beads around your neck and told you that they loved you. I liked them. It’s later hippies that I came to disdain. Radicals and potheads and all their rules of conduct. I remember a Charles Manson lookalike ripping into a group of us kids sitting at the beach, calling us sellouts because we came from the suburbs and had girlfriends. Not hip enough for the revolution, I guessed.
I wasn’t hip enough for the pot either. Too much laughter. Does anybody remember laughter? I’d rather not. Unfortunately my tokin’, stick-it-to-the-man friends were the ones with a car, and if my (sellout) girlfriend and I wanted a ride to the Jethro Tull concert it was their way or no highway.
So lacking other options, when concert night arrived we sucked it up and piled into my friend Ben’s big blue Pontiac; three teenage couples heading onto the 405 and a Friday night out. We’d barely reached freeway speeds when Ben pulled out the baggie and the joints. Hurrying us to roll up our windows, he carefully fired up a fat one. Like a labor of love. I sat shotgun and kept a nervous eye out the passenger window as the car filled with smoke. I wanted to be anywhere else.
Back and forth they passed the weed, bypassing my girlfriend and me. The chatter got giggly and the driver distracted, foot backing off the accelerator as his mellow took hold. Slowing down, down. Our travel speed had dipped below 35mph when flashing lights behind us went off. “Police! Shit! Eat it!” Everyone grabbed a joint and started chewing. The siren rang in our ears. There was too much to eat! What were we gonna do?
Suddenly everything got tossed to me. “Throw it out the window Mike!” somebody yelled. “Hurry!” So I did.
And who do you think was the only person to be hauled away?
By age seventeen I had put out four pirate albums, each a bigger seller than the last. I had also stopped going it alone. Success with my first Dylan album, the now notorious Basement Tapes, had brought me a new partner. Ed K was owner of The Auditory Odyssey and one of my very best customers. Intrigued every time I carted records in from the trunk of my car, Ed had offered to let me use his store as a base of operations and pay me cash if I dreamed up more projects.
My Basement Tapes album had got ripped off fast by the Great White Wonder guys, and Ed and I decided to return the favor by duplicating their newest booted effort, one that had just come in the shop’s door, a rush release of the very recent Rolling Stones LA Forum concert. Titled “LiveR Than You’ll Ever Be”, it was recorded with a handheld microphone and gotten on the market within a month. It sounded bad and looked ugly, another rubber stamped cover, but it sure sold.
Before they could get to a second printing I had it copied and pressed up by a couple thousand. Ed enlisted two hippie friends to be our sales reps so now we had distribution, i.e. Cheech and Chong moving inventory in a VW van, chugging it up the Cali Coast from San Diego to Berkeley.
Though money was surely changing hands, I never saw much myself. I didn’t worry though, I had other things to savor. I was working, taking orders and moving units. I had an operation. What seventeen year old wouldn’t be happy with that?
Cue hippie radio once again, and cue The Beatles. A tape of their forthcoming (and soon cancelled) album, Get Back, had leaked to KPPC and in a bit of the tried and true, the station again sneaked several unreleased songs into the post-midnight airwaves: “Let It Be”, “I’ve Got A Feeling”, etc. This, just as the avalanche of music piracy got intensified press coverage, uncovering all the legal loopholes.
It seemed there wasn’t yet a copyright law in place that protected ownership of unreleased songs. In other words, if I wanted to be the first to put “Dig A Pony” into the marketplace there was nothing to stop me. So I did as before. I called the radio station, pestered people, traded away a handful of records and viola, a future Beatles album was in my hands.
If you’re going to make records, they might as well be by The Beatles, The Stones or Dylan. Because they’ll sell. We discovered a new pressing plant in Inglewood called Lewis Records. Isolated (and ignorant) enough to let us do our work, Lewis was small and out of town, catered to spoken word and religious music and was off the legal radar. Other bootleggers found Lewis too, including the Great White Wonder guys. Together our presence gave Lewis a vibe of being at the center of something exciting, a ground zero in this “other” recording industry.
Helen was the desk lady at Lewis Records, and usually by lunch she’d had a few. She seemed happy to have us around, her new clients, the nice looking young men who milled about the plant, chatting her up, running in and out of her office at all hours. We felt like we owned the place. We were pirates, arrr!
We moved fast with The Beatles. Piles of records pressed, two weeks of sales, up and down the coast, hit and run. By the time Get Back was inevitably duplicated we had already declared our retirement and closed up shop. We were done.
I emptied out my savings account and pulled my cherished Wollensak reel-to-reel off the shelf, detachable speakers and all. I needed $400 to press five hundred copies of my Bob Dylan album and I didn’t have enough cash. My friend Clay (with the car) picked me up, and off we went to a pawn shop where my tape recorder got me the needed funds.
I took the Dylan tape up to Dave’s little studio on Laurel Canyon, told him it was my friend’s band and asked him to make me a master. But Dave said his studio’s machinery was suitable only for making cheap reference discs. If I wanted a proper album he’d need to take the tape to his day job at Capitol Records and cut it there. Heh, my bootleg was gonna be mastered at Capitol.
I asked Dave’s advice on where to get records pressed and he told me to go to Monarch Records, a gigantic pressing plant in L.A. He said their work was second to none. Nothing but the best for me!
The finished records were a beautiful sight. White labels, white covers, just like Great White Wonder (if you can’t beat ‘em..). We dropped the boxes into my friend’s trunk and drove straight to Aron Records where they purchased 250 copies without hearing a note. I was riding the wave. Within a week all my copies were sold and I’d got back my tape recorder.
It never occurred to me that Monarch Records came so highly recommended because it was the largest pressing plant in Los Angeles, with ties to every record label, and that caution was possibly in order. All I knew was I had product in the stores, money in my pocket and all was good. That is until I got home from school a few nights later and was intercepted by my mom. She’d been waiting for me and she looked very, very afraid. “Lawyers from Columbia Records have been calling the house all day.” she said in a voice spiked with worry. “What have you done? They’re saying you’ve stolen recordings and broken federal law!” Huh? What?
The phone rang. You couldn’t ignore the phone. I picked it up and it was Monarch Records. Specifically, it was the president of Monarch Records. Oh… “Are you Michael Olsen?” Of course I was, my mom had already spilled it. He asked me what was on my record, the one he was holding in his hands.
“Uh?” I hesitated. “It’s music.. and singing?”
Not good enough. He wanted to know if this was the voice of Bob Dylan. “Could be.” I allowed. Was that a good enough answer? Can I hang up now? No. In a threatening voice he told me to round up all five hundred copies of my album and bring them back to the plant by week’s end or he’d call the FBI.
The next day after school I made my rounds to the record shops, to find they’d all sold out. Only Aron’s had copies remaining, a hundred or so, and I paid dearly to buy them back.
Late Friday afternoon my uncle drove me into the city with my box of records. He told me not to worry about the law because I was only sixteen. But he hadn’t talked to the guy, hadn’t heard his voice. I thought my life was ruined. “Can’t they send me to juvenile hall?” I felt even worse when we got to Monarch. The receptionist hardly looked up from her typewriter, gesturing towards the hallway where we were supposed to sit and wait. I could hear the murmuring of men talking and then a door opened. “Come in.” someone said.
It was a dark office, big desk and a big chair. Whoever’d been participating in the conversation was gone. My uncle and I sat down across the desk from one large, cigar smoking man. He asked me questions. He wanted to know: Who were my partners? Who made all these bootleg albums? Were we a team? A band of hippie criminals? But it was just me and my tape. I tried to tell him but between nerves and anger I mostly sputtered and stalled.
My uncle did the talking. He told them I was just a little kid, I didn’t understand what I was doing, what were they going to do, lock me up? And anyway, didn’t they pay attention to what comes into their plant? They were the manufacturers after all, their reputation could be fried by this. Don’t they have a fucking clue? Nice one. It sank in at that moment that they just wanted their records back. Nothing bad was going to happen to me.
I’d like to say this is where I learned my lesson, got up and left quietly. Instead I got a dose of teenage courage and went off on the guy. Damn them for giving me trouble. Music was for the people! I told him he was the evil establishment, making money off the work of the artists. I said music was too important to be merchandised by fat guys smoking cigars (I actually said that, and he really was a fat guy with a cigar). I said music was gonna change their crass, ugly world. I gave him the what for, and then I asked if I could have my records back. He said no. Damn.
I knew one thing. I’d never use Monarch Records again.
My idea of putting out a Bob Dylan album by myself got ridiculed by everyone I talked to. You’re no record company, the naysayers said, it’s illegal. Buzzkillers, the lot of them. No vision. I got talked out of my grand scheme.
Then I was beat to the punch. The first underground album appeared. “Great White Wonder” was a double album of unreleased Dylan songs packaged in a blank white cover with blank white labels and a title that was rubber-stamped across the front. An enigmatic looking thing, GWW popped out of nowhere, filling the racks of newly cool – was there any other kind - record shops and emporiums. Displayed front and center, it blew off the shelves.
I don’t know what you were doing in 1969 but I was checking out the head shops along Hollywood Blvd. Quality time spent in these places gave me an education, showed what other hip people were thinking and feeling, where heads were at. Blunt-huffing store clerks slid me culture clues like secrets. They told me what was happening. And at that moment GWW was the happening thing. It was an event, a perfectly radical retail item, in stores now. It felt revolutionary.
Appearing perfectly timed, six months after John Wesley Harding, GWW was rumored to have been engineered by the big guy himself. “Dylan is sticking it to the man!” the shop hippies said. “He’s sick of the record companies telling him what to do. He’s taking his music to the people!” It’s what we wanted to believe, that the world was changing and here was the ultimate proof: Bob Dylan was checking out of the system.
We believed it for about a week. Then a more pedestrian reality made its presence clear. Somebody with a stash of Dylan tapes had decided to turn them into records and make some bucks. This was musical pillage and rape. It was unauthorized and illegal. It was a freaking bootleg.
Wait. That was MY idea!
Dammit all to hell. I had let myself be talked me out of doing something revolutionary. Adding insult, the tapes used for Great White Wonder were in terrible shape, sounded awful, couldn’t compare to the great sounding tracks I had worked so hard to get. And the song choices were a mixed bag too, nothing as cohesive as my Basement Tapes. Well, wait a minute. Since they hadn’t used the songs that I had in my possession, my tape was still unique.
I wasn’t out of the game. I could make my own album.
LA’s mainstream punk radio KROQ-FM Radio was once 1960s freeform hippie radio KPPC-FM. And man, did they play some crazy shit. Especially after midnight.
I’ll say this about the hippies, they liked their radio inscrutable. I set my reel-to-reel to its slowest speed to get eight hours of recording and ran it all night long, catching everything they played and giving myself a glimpse into the tastes of the counterculture. I’d wake up to a bizarro mix of rasta, raga, then Velvets/Zappa/Floyd, maybe even a little of the Woody Woodpecker theme. Once in awhile they’d shock me by throwing in some unreleased Bob Dylan. Whoa, we craved new songs by Dylan.
Backtrack with me for a minute. You have no idea the commotion that was raised when Bob Dylan started having hits. What do parents make of a performer whose music you can’t dance to, whose cryptic interviews you can’t decode or translate? Scary? In a lineup with other skinny rockers in their tight trousers and jungle boogie, Bob Dylan was the scariest of them all. He forever looked and acted as though he was On Drugs and in the 1960s, my brothers and sisters, that did not fly.
Radio was forced to play Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan made radio change. Across the next year his music, and music influenced by him, ruled the airwaves. Then the man himself had a motorcycle accident and disappeared into seclusion. Quit touring. Vanished. Damn.
Eighteen months passed. Hippies were born. The culture shifted to accommodate earnest new folksingers who arrived in Dylan’s wake as well as the trash rockers who emulated Dylan’s asshole side. How does it feel, bitch? Hair got long and messy, San Francisco became a drug destination for runaways and the Hollywood Teenage Fair became a psychedelic circus, inducing underage kids into lightshows and staged freakouts and I am telling you this all happened because of Bob Dylan and the way he looked like he was On Drugs.
Dylan’s accident was followed by months of clever silence as the man and his undisclosed condition were made mythological. The silence was broken when KPPC obtained a batch of unreleased Dylan songs that had slipped from the grasp of his management, and began sneakily airing them in post-midnight broadcasts. These were just demos, “basement tapes”, but we didn’t know that and assumed they were simply poor sounding copies of a brand new upcoming album. Catching bits and pieces in the late night hours, the music’s stark rootsy sound was unexpected and gave glorious hints of another musical changeover. This was Bob Dylan after all. It could herald nothing less.
But it wasn’t his new album. That turned out to be John Wesley Harding, which took another six months to appear and contained none of the foggy, swampy sounds we’d heard on KPPC. John Wesley Harding wasn’t a new direction at all. It was more of a retreat… like a quiet goodbye to wild times. It wasn’t mysterious. It was no fun at all.
But what had become of the songs I’d heard on the radio? They were off the air now, replaced by Dylan’s properly released record album. But those lo fi tapes had the feel of the moment, 1968 captured in time. I was afraid that they were going to be lost. I called KPPC to find out if anyone knew what happened to that album. Hippies were an accommodating lot; I found a sympathetic soul who informed me it wasn’t an album I was hearing, it was just a tape someone had got ahold of. Ok fine, could someone put me in touch with that person? I was eventually given the number of a downtown LA music store called Records & Supertape. The clerk there sold me my first reel-to-reel copy of the Bob Dylan Basement Tapes for $5.00.
As the tape unwound on my Wollensak I nearly got down on my knees, somewhat in awe that the reel was spinning forty-five minutes of cherished new music that I now possessed, and few others did. Did I deserve to keep this all to myself?
Wait a minute. I knew how to make a record. If Bob Dylan wasn’t going to give up this music why couldn’t I? Why not press up some copies and share it with the world..
Jerry Garcia liked to joke that the Summer of Love really only lasted about two weeks. He said it was as if someone opened up a window, and suddenly we could see a whole new world in front of us, big and bright and free. Filled with rhythm and peace, and oh! the love was gonna flow. Then the window slammed shut. And that was the end of it.
If that’s the case, I’d peg the beginning at June 16, 1967: night one of the Monterey Pop Festival. Things maybe peaked a week later with The Beatles on live TV premiering “All You Need Is Love”. Another week of afterglow followed as we awaited our new world. And the remaining summer months existed only to let us watch it all fizzle out.
Monterey Pop was a source of angst for my friend Tom and me. We crazily wanted to go. We knew all about Monterey, starting with the fact that The Who was playing. But we were only fourteen years old, there was no way we’d get permission. We didn’t even bother to ask. They’d laugh us out of our dining rooms.
Not that we couldn’t get there. All you needed was an outstretched thumb. Seemingly every freeway onramp had a hippie or two standing, hand out, headed northward, Monterey or bust. Hippies. We’d seen cliques of them at the Teenage Fair, now they were all over the city. School warned us about them, told us not to be seduced by their devilish ways. But they were in full force at the Teen Fair and they didn’t seem so bad. Their social dictum was to be nice to all, even a kid like me, and their behavior made the Fair feel like an oasis of goodwill, a zone of no judgement. Plus the clothes they wore broke all kinds of rules. First time I saw a girl without a bra I almost dropped my ice cream.
They’d probably be at Monterey too, all of them. But not Tom and me. We mollified ourselves, vowing that nothing would keep us from Monterey ’68. And we moved on to the next culture moment: The Beatles’ upcoming TV appearance. Nobody would have to miss that. The whole world would be watching.
To have caught The Beatles four years earlier on Ed Sullivan was to be inducted into a tribe; a huge, music-loving, global tribe of eleven year olds. You knew it, too. Everyone was thinking what you thought, singing what you sang. My own tribe was at school, in Campbell Hall sixth grade. We swapped comments the day after the Sullivan show, united in excitement. And we continued to monitor and discuss everything The Beatles did for weeks, months, into years.
But now my tribe was gone. Vanished with my middle-school graduation and the coming new world of high school. I distracted myself with the events of this very vivid summer.
My stepdad had sold his Pasadena house and relocated to the sterling new community of Carson. I spent alternating weekends there. There wasn’t much to do but I liked hanging out with my stepsister Victoria. She and her boyfriend had gutted her bedroom, covering its walls with testimonials to Haight-Ashbury and free love.
Her centerpiece was the requisite kama sutra poster, with its cartoons of sexy stick figures locked in different stages of fervor. It drove my mom apoplectic, and she tried to forbid me from entering Vic’s room, but I didn’t see the big deal.
“Our World”, The Beatles upcoming TV venue, was some kind of milestone. A first-ever worldwide satellite livecast, showcasing artists from every continent. A party for the planet. But the schedule was screwy. The Beatles’ zero hour was Saturday LA time: noon. I barely woke up.
I watched it in Carson. It was an inauspicious place to witness a major event, and the prospect of no school pals to bounce it around, come Monday, made me feel a little lonely. But my stepdad had PBS, that’s what mattered. My kid brother and I set up the tape recorder so I’d capture everything. And we waited and watched.
It was a new world all right. And The Beatles were the leaders. How could anyone doubt it, seeing them again on live TV? John’s guileless confidence, Paul’s leading of the band (and orchestra!) with a wink and a gum-chewing nod. George’s cool. And, you know, Ringo. Mick Jagger and Donovan sat crosslegged on the floor, singing along. That’s what we did, we sang along.
I took the tape down to my studio guy and cut a record of “All You Need Is Love”. I spun that puppy for weeks before anyone else had it.
I’d lost my tribe but my stepsister helped me find a new one. Vic was always ready to get out of Carson, and I’d tag along with her and her boyfriend to Hollywood, where we’d walk the boulevard. And right there on the street were my fellow travelers; the newly groovy street kids and the flower power hip.
We were launching a new unified community. You could feel it in the wind. Every fifth or sixth person walking by gave a knowing look. Eyes met and you’d get a small smile, a nod of recognition. The freak parade. We were the instigators of the new. Everyone was friendly. Even the Jesus freaks were ok, not yet out of hand. They still preached love, not the fire-and-brimstone harangue that was to come later, after church leader Tony Alamo got hold of them. Why not google his name right now, see what he’s up to?
The street dealers sized us up and provided stuff to puff. I demurred on that but couldn’t say no to my first amphetamines. Whoa. We usually ended up at Wallach’s Music City, holed up in the listening booths with a stack of records. Sunset and Vine baby!
The lessons I took from all this was that gentle souls would inherit the earth. Peace would surely come. And I’d never actually need to hold a job. Because we were all in this together.
When The Doors’ album came out it pulled our attention away from Love, who to that point had been the favorite band of my eighth grade homeroom.
The Doors was the first band I saw perform as a live act before they had an album out, and now hearing the difference between the two was startling. At The Cinnamon Cinder they’d been a little boring, if riveting to look at. Their debut album made them riveting to hear. That was reason enough for me to study the record more than usual and I noticed, for the first time, a credit for producer: Paul A. Rothchild. What would a record producer’s job entail, I wondered? Well for one thing he made The Doors not boring. I could hear it with my own ears.
Love’s newest album got released in the same time period and it too stated a production credit of Paul A. Rothchild. The guy got around. It’s hard to say why I gave it so much attention. Maybe because I “was there” (cry of the boomer) or maybe just because The Doors’ own album sounded better than they themselves had. Whatever, Rothchild’s name was one I now noted, a reason to think about recorded music in a different light. I never again listened to the radio without imagining smart, unnamed people working behind the music.
When, two decades later, the very famous Mr. Paul Rothchild introduced himself to me, volunteered his services and ended up working at my side for a year-and-a-half recording The Brat, I would often have to take synchronicity breaks and go outside to look at the stars. But anyways…
Love mattered because the band was just the latest evidence that racism was going by the wayside. Love was Arthur Lee and another brother, backed by a band of whites, and my crowd liked ‘em a lot.
The racism thing mattered a lot to me. My private school had not a single dark face, nor did the entire San Fernando Valley as far as I could see. Growing up I don’t think I ever saw ‘those people’ anywhere but television and even that was rare. Most people I came across appeared to be bigots, judging by the comments that they made, which were often nasty and gave me a real headache. So much energy spent beating up on the little guy.
Now in 1967, to a kid, racist crap looked to be on the wane, pushed to the side by us in the new gen. Evidence was everywhere. Love ins were proudly multiracial. Hugh Masekela jammed with The Byrds. Otis Redding was a headliner at the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. Jennifer Thaxton’s friends partied with Arthur Lee. Maybe not the best example. Anyway back to Monterey. Ah, Monterey. The dawn of a new age, represented by people like The Mamas & The Papas’ John Phillips, all showing us the way to a brighter tomorrow.
All of this buzzed in my brain as eighth grade came to an end. One more school dance before we checked out for another summer. This night would be unique. My youngish history teacher, Mr. Andrews, had promised us a surprise.
Andrews had arrived at Campbell Hall that year from Texas. He was a cool character, more like a hip uncle than a teacher. Andrews liked The Beatles, laughed when Day Tripper’s lyrics went by (“She’s a big teaser, she took me half the way there”). He was from the South but he wasn’t conservative. I was savvy enough to take note of that and I really looked up to the guy.
The Spring Dance came and my friend’s band performed, playing the hits as best they could. When they came to a break Mr. Andrews stepped forward and announced his special guest, a friend from the South. Would we please welcome Solomon Burke.
Later we learned a lot about Solomon Burke - that he was the real deal, a blues and soul man with songs that had been covered by The Rollin’ Stones – information that made the night’s memory iconic. But that night all we knew was Mr. Andrews brought forward this large black man. There was no stage, no spotlight, just a band setup on the gym floor and the twinkling of dance lights all around.
Solomon Burke plugged his guitar into my friend’s amp (which had just been put to stellar use playing Happy Together) and we all sat cross-legged on the gym floor as Mr. Burke gave us a couple songs, just him and guitar; a quick moving jaunt and then a slow blues dirge sung in a deep quiet voice that gave us the chills. Two songs and then he was gone. Outstanding.
With that we were off for the summer. The Summer of Love.
Here it is, the cradle of Los Angeles’ Anglophilia (the love of all things British and Rawk).
Lewin Record Paradise was the only LA shop that sold the rarest of musical treasures, English import albums. They stocked music you couldn’t find anywhere else, every obscure band you could possibly think of, memorabilia, displays, records and posters and a Carnaby Street sign hanging on the wall.
From the middle of Hollywood Blvd it was hard to imagine Carnaby Street, but you could read about it in magazines. It had pubs and fashion and all kinds of interesting music-making people and here at Lewin’s it was as if you could feel those vibrations. You walked in the door, you were in England. Old man Lewin and his wife filled their tiny storefront like a crazy couple’s garage, packed floor-to-ceiling with those wonderful shiny English albums, all skinny laminated covers and groovy artwork.
Lew was a ruddy (as they say), pink-cheeked Cockney raconteur. He looked like someone who’d lure bad boys to Pleasure Island. He gave us shit. Once he told me not to get too close to the Rubber Soul I was coveting. Pointing to the druggy looking cover he told me, “Don’t inhale, they put English POT in there, they do!”
"Aftermath" was difficult to keep in stock. Fortunately Lewin’s would take reservations by phone. All you had to do was call them at their number: HOllywood 4-8088.
I can’t let the semester end without a quick shout to the two most energizing girls of Campbell Hall middle school, Diane (“Dino”) and Cathy. Dino was an all around groovy person to hang with but Cathy (above right) was my love. My eighth grade crush. Cathy and I bonded over “Aftermath”.
I was Beatles, Cathy was Stones but both of us agreed that the Rolling Stones had given us the best album of 1966. “Aftermath” was nice and dark.
Cathy clued me to the fact that the UK Aftermath was a completely different animal from the American version. I had no idea the Stones were in the same boat as The Beatles, the US record companies mackin’ up their tracklists.
Cathy wanted to own the UK version of Aftermath more than anything and I vowed to get it for her Christmas present. But I’d have to save some cash. At the astronomical price of $7.99 English imports were double the cost of a US LP. And there was only one place in Los Angeles where you could get them: Lewin Record Paradise on Hollywood Blvd.
The Cinnamon Cinder was a teen nightclub located in Studio City, on Ventura Blvd in a spot that now houses LA Fitness. It was owned and run by local deejay Bob Eubanks, soon to achieve greatness as host of TV’s Newlywed Game.
The Cinder wasn’t our bag. It operated a time warp away from the goings on of fall 1966, it had more the aura (stench) of the 1950s. The closest their bookings got to current music was the surf bands that occasionally played. The club catered to all ages, we could get in the door, but none of us was interested. The music was just too lame. So we were surprised and stoked to see that our favorite band LOVE was going to play the Cinnamon Cinder.
We liked Love. Everyone agreed that their album was the hipster pick of the summer. Now as eighth grade was getting underway, we had a Friday night with something exciting to do.
It took some parental persuasion to be allowed to go to my first nightclub, and we needed to agree that my mom would be the one to drop off my friend Tom and me. It shouldn’t have been a big deal but as mom’s station wagon neared the curb Tom and I slipped into a slow motion panic: she was aiming for a drop off spot right where girls were standing. “Keep going!!” we shouted in unison. “Keep going! Keep going!!” The poor woman screamed and gunned it around the corner. Whew, close. We jumped out the door in a hurry.
Love played everything we loved and they finished literally with a bang - a drum solo. We smoked cigarettes and talked to girls. At first nobody paid much attention to the opening act, called The Doors. They were hard to hear over the chatter anyway - the club’s PA was not much bigger than my stereo, just two small speakers on the wall. And nobody knew their songs. But the singer eventually drew us in. At first I thought he looked like a jerk, a frat boy trying to go street punk. And he wouldn’t talk or look at the crowd at all. But there was no denying Jim Morrison could sing.
Picking up on their sound, if you concentrated the songs were catchy and the words kind of cool. We especially liked the one where it sounded like, “Come on baby light my..” something. Was it “pipe”? Hee hee, we got it. Light My Pipe.
They ended with The End and we were sold. Monday at school we spread the word. The Doors were on to something. They would have an album someday, and we would all own it.
I rode my bike to and from school each day, a straight shot down Laurel Canyon Blvd, two miles door to door. At the halfway point stood a thirteen year-old’s breakfast: The Big Donut Drive In. Every morning I loaded up on five or six of those glazed beauties, finishing them off as I no-hands steered it though the rest of my ride.
The trip home offered a better stopover: a tiny storefront recording studio called Crown Recording. Run by a guy named Dave who held a day job at Capitol Records, Crown was his after-work passion, a room for amateurs to come in, perform and cut a real record. As often as I could I’d poke my head through the door and see what he was up to.
The studio itself was large enough to hold instruments a jazz combo might use, a piano, standup bass etc. Not much more. But people mainly came to sing.
It was the disc cutting that intrigued me. Dave often let me watch as he’d lay someone’s performance onto a blank acetate demonstration disc right there. The thing weighed a ton but it was a real record. You could take it home, drop it on a turntable and spin your sounds all night long like you were one of the big guys.
I wanted make a record too. I cherished those things. But not a recording of myself, I didn’t sing or play. I just wanted somehow to make a record happen. I only needed an excuse. I was aware of the Elvis Presley legend, how he’d recorded his first song demo as a birthday present for his mother in a place just like this. Now Christmas was coming and I got going an idea.
I went home and pulled together all of my mom’s favorite songs and recorded them onto a brand new Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder that I’d bought on time payments, ten dollars a month. Decades before it was otherwise possible, I made a mix tape. Then I took cash to Crown and watched as Dave cut all of my mom’s faves onto a single long player album. Unveiling it on Christmas morning, I got high fives all around for cooking up such a nifty gift.
And now I knew how to make a record. It would come in handy.
LA was a backwater. Ever see a picture of the Sunset Strip in the ’60s? It was small town America. Maybe that’s why we preferred our own local TV dance party, The Lloyd Thaxton Show, to the big city East Coast alternative, Dick Clark. Lloyd was our guy. He was a midwestern transplant like everyone else in Los Angeles secretly seemed to be. His pace was slow, he acted kind and nice. And his show presented all the bands, all the dance contests, all the lipsync you could want.
TV dance shows were where rock and roll sneaked through. Tia, my teenage aunt, sat me down one morning in the nick of time to catch Jerry Lee Lewis’s famous “Great Balls Of Fire” performance with real exploding balls of pyrotechnics in the background and I was scarily impressed. Note to self, don’t get in a car with an adult who looks like this.
Lloyd took the dance show template and molded his version, dreaming up unique routines. One bit highlighted that dodgy new gimmick: stereo. Lloyd’s show teamed up with “Beatles radio” KRLA to take advantage of the weird split-channel effect on The Beatles’ earliest albums. As we watched the kids dance, they’d play the music track on TV, the vocals out of the radio. Lloyd instructed us to pull our radio and TV close together and thus we were introduced to the wonders of hard Left and Right Panning.
Lloyd’s show got national syndication soon enough, but we always felt he was our hometown hero. He played to us here, with a bit more localized chatter and jokes.
I had my own reminder that Lloyd Thaxton was an LA local. His beautiful daughter Jennifer Thaxton attended the same church school I did, and Lloyd himself often showed up at our dances. Like a lot of performers’ kids, Jennifer ran with a long leash. She was a year younger than me, but a hipper thirteen-year old you will never ever meet. Jennifer had intimidating older friends too, bad girls who were rumored to hang out in Laurel Canyon at the rented castle occupied by Arthur Lee of the band Love, where they’d spend long afternoons firing up the spliff. Ah the 60s.
The Beatles at The Hollywood Bowl. Another landmark for this thirteen year old and I didn’t even know I’d get to attend until the afternoon of the show, when my stepsister’s friend had issues and sadly had to give up her ticket.
They always said you couldn’t hear The Beatles for the screaming but it wasn’t true, not this night at the Bowl. You heard every word.
Yeah the girls screamed but we guys matched the noise, singing as loudly as we could, pushing the cacophony into the outdoor skies. Best song of the night: She’s A Woman.
The New York World’s Fair. They took me for my thirteenth birthday, summer 1965. I’d been reading and collecting articles about it for over year, had sent away to New York (the actual city) for a guide book and I read every page, every word.
By the time of our visit I could visualize all six hundred of the fair’s acres, could find all the pavilions, knew their exact locations. I carried a map I’d marked up with routes and shortcuts, and I led my father and brother (by the nose?) around the place for three days.
The press reviews were not great, comparing it unfavorably with the very awesome grandaddy of World’s Fairs, New York 1939, which really had been about the future. This time around was just a replay, the critics complained. A replay of the future. Think about it.
My favorite exhibit, the one I twice braved a two hour line to see, was the Futurama by General Motors. It was sublime. Sitting in moving La-Z-Boys, we pulled past miniature animated vignettes, staged examples of how we’d all live someday. Moon landings, remote controlled cars, underwater city life. A machine that could chew up entire rainforests and pour a completed freeway out the back. Things to come.
We were midway through third period in my sixth grade class when the announcement came across the school’s speaker system. President Kennedy had been shot.
I attended a private Episcopal school, Campbell Hall. It was expensive and heavily Republican. I remember being surprised that my teacher was so taken aback with the news; she always complained about the Kennedys.
At recess we crowded around my teacher’s car, straining to hear the radio. Halfway into my break the announcer told us that Kennedy was dead. I remember hearing my teacher say “Awww…”
I rode my bike to Sunset and Vine to watch the Cinerama Dome go up. You could witness each level of creation, from its beginnings as a bombed out weed-filled lot to the ceiling’s geodesic tiles finally being pieced together. Judging from the carpeting alone this theater was going to be unrivaled. When the seats eventually got bolted down you knew it was time to plan for a grand opening. At my last visit to the site I counted the chairs one by one, so I’d know the capacity exactly.
My dad worked as a chiropractor in Hollywood. His office was on right on Highland and my brother and I spent lots of time in the neighborhood. Dad had custody on alternating weekends and we often hung out in his office, occupying ourselves while he did paperwork. At lunchtime Dad gave me money and I’d head around the corner to the brick covered Charbroil stand (now the church of Scientology), for a burger and a shake and read the stuff I’d brought, comics or whatever. Perfectly safe, an eleven year old sitting by himself on the Boulevard.
My Cinerama fixation had survived a rough patch. A year earlier my history class took a field trip to the Warner Cinerama Theater (up one block from the Pantages) to see “How The West Was Won” and learn the America story. The trajectory from old railroads to modern freeways was inspiring to say the least, especially when the cinematic image was spread five thousand feet wide in front of your eyes. I loved Cinerama.
But I didn’t get how it worked. How could three projectors run at the same time to make this happen? I was puzzled and needed help understanding. So I called the box office.
The lady who picked up the phone was nice (“Warner’s Cinerama, may I help you?”) and said she’d answer my questions as best she could. I had so many questions. Was the film itself big? How could they start all the projectors at once? Did she like the movie?
Her name was Sally. She didn’t seem to mind the call so the next time I had a thought I rang her and got talking. And like a ten year old, I called again and again. I started hitting her up two or three times a week, always with a new angle or curiosity. She would stay on the phone with me as long as I wanted, putting me on hold when she needed to sell tickets. It’d go like this: Sally: “Warner’s Cinerama.” “Hi. It’s Mike.” Sally: “Hi Mike.” “Hi.” Sally: “What’s on your mind?” “Well, I was just wondering.” Sally: “Yes?” “Well, what happens if the film breaks?”
This turned out to be her night job. Her day job was at the actual Cinerama offices themselves. My heart stopped. She worked there? This had to sink in. Did she see get to see the cameras that were used to make the movies? Yes. Were they big? Yes. Did she like her job? Yes. Was it fun? Yes. Finally after three weeks of telephone chat she told me she was going to put some stuff together and send it to me in the mail, what was my address?
A week later brought a packed manila envelope bearing the Cinerama logo. Out fell every sort of press blurb, marketing folder and kool stuff you could imagine. Color foldout diagrams of the Cinerama process, stills from all the movies, an 8x10 glossy photo **of the camera**.
The note inside said “Michael you wouldn’t believe how many people wanted to help me put this package together. It seems everyone is happy to help an interested young person. If you and your family would like to set aside some time we would be happy to have you come to our offices for a tour of the Cinerama facilities.” I went bonkers. Everything I wanted to learn was right in front of me, spread across my bed, and soon I was going to be able to tour “facilities”. I had enough reading to keep me occupied for days, so between looking the material over and over and coordinating which parent would take me, I probably let two weeks pass.
We picked a date. Now ready, I called the phone number on the letterhead. “Hello, can I please speak to Sally?” The operator answered, “Sally has been terminated.” “Ok but can I still talk to her?” “Sally isn’t here, her job has been terminated.” “Ok thanks.” I had to ask my mom what terminated meant.
The time between Buddy Holly and The Beatles was a cultural dead zone to me. The mood was dark. Wannabe Fonzie’s raced their hot rods up and down my street at night, encouraged by their ex-Army dads. My corner of the world was the San Fernando Valley. Former desert, now boomtown, its growth was driven by soldiers returning home from World War II to new homes waiting to be purchased with the GI Bill and easy finance.
My street was a testimony to the success of that marketing plan. Most of my neighbors were Army families. My dad thought it was good for me to absorb the military influence. “The Army’ll make a man out of you” he’d tell me, sipping a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He said that a lot. I think a lot of 1950s dads did.
Music was dragging, too. Energetic rock and roll took a breather, leaving room on the radio for doo wop, the soft crooning sounds of Bobby Vinton and summer novelties about motorcycle crashes and guys named Johnny. Apropos to the moment, my most vivid memories are of the Russian scare and the Cuban missile crisis. We were all about to die, it seemed, nuclear missiles were aimed right at us. Even Sheriff John, my TV lunchtime buddy, made a point of encouraging us ten year olds to talk to our parents about “these troubled times”.
You found bright spots where you could, and one exciting distraction for me was the new craze for bomb shelters. Not just a way to protect your family but an American business opportunity too. My local mall converted a dirt parking lot into an outdoor bomb shelter showroom, displaying all the popular models in a backyard setting. These beauties were buried so deep into the ground that only the top was visible. Imagine a steel trapdoor in your own backyard..
My friend Jack and I spent our Saturdays hanging out there, climbing in and out of each model and choosing our favorites. The cheap ones were small and depressing. But the pricey ones were stylish and cool, like little bachelor dens.
Jack had been my neighbor as long as I could remember. It was hard to imagine we’d be separated for years if the Russians attacked, and we wondered why we couldn’t make plans to meet at one or the other’s shelter and stay with that family. Would there be enough time? Enough warning? Who could we ask?
By the time I was four years old I’d been trained by my teenage aunt, “Tia”, to tune the family radio to LA’s reigning rock station KFWB. My aunt was a decade older than me, and fourteen year olds always want to hear the hits.
Tia knew all the rockers, was enraptured by the Everly Bros, and she got that interest embedded in me pretty quickly. I liked everything she liked but it took another year of heavy listening for me to find a sound that I felt was all mine. And one song that really got me up and running was “Peggy Sue”. That quivering rhythm was somethin’ special. I begged my parents to buy it.
My mom surprised me with the record one day as I got home from school. She’d picked it up at Sears and had it on the changer, in endless repeat, as my dad and I walked through the front door. I was shocked and thrilled to see that spinning 45.
“Peggy Sue” was a sharp little record but it was the flip side that snuck up and became the first song I discovered by myself. “Everyday” is a classic today but the first time I played it was the first time I heard it. Breezy and calming, the song was all light tapping rhythm and the faint bells of a celeste that sounded like sparks a kid could reach out and grab.
I connected with the bliss, then & now. I think I’ll go dig it out and PLAY IT.