You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.
The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King, Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.
Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.
There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).
He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.
Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.
Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.
Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.
“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.
“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”
What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.
Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.
With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.
Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.
The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only own ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.
And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.
This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.
In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.
In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.
That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.
Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.
Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.
With Crudup, “That’s All Night (Mama)” was straight-up Delta blues; Elvis, not likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, mixed in rockabilly and his own interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; he alone realised that the genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.
Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.
Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.
That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.
Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.
To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.
At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.
Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.
He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. Bernard, sensing someone who could well change the world, staked him for his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.
When Hal was a child, Elvis would come into the store. On Saturday mornings, he’d go horse riding at Graceland. He’s often accompanying his father when dropping in outfits to Graceland; Elvis would even open the front door and spend time chatting at Hal.
“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. He never forgot what my father did for him.”
In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.
In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.
Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).
(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)
However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.
Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.
Further suggested reading:
Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)
Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)
Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)
Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)
Happy Birthday!!! Sonny Corleone (no, the other one) turns 40.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking Mario Puzo’s ill-fated member of the fictional crime family but my 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. So the first issue to address is…..why the hell Sonny Corleone?
He’s (and here I’m referring to the car) that’s kinda guy. A loveable lug. Powerful as much as powerfully built, dependable and loyal. Protective of all who come in contact with him but sensitive enough to show a girl a good time (at a wedding, no less). Got it? Good.
On Thursday 15 June 1978, Sonny Corleone was welcomed to the world, rolling off the Ford assembly line in Wixom, MI, to the cheers of hundreds of assembled factory workers. There was portent in the air; they knew this was something special, despite this plant having largely concentrated on Lincolns since it opened in 1957 (and it was a Town Car that was the last off the assembly line when the facility closed in 2007).
In reality, the Lincoln was shipped off to Rotman Lincoln-Mercury, a dealership in Maquokta, Iowa, about 300 kilometres west of Chicago. But I like to think that Sonny had a parallel existence in some other reality, cruising the streets of New York City as a treasured member of a prestige limousine service. His dayswould be blocked out by stockbrokers and other Wall Street types, pre-generational Masters of the Universe, hoovering up lines of cocaine as they shuttled around town. The nights were blocked out with celebrities, models, disco dollies and more executive types who, depending on their proclivities, travelled from high-end restaurants to Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat or any of a number of bath houses where cleanliness was not a prerequisite.
If you were wondering just what these passengers might have been listening to within Sonny’s encompassing velvet confines, here’s just such a list. OK, maybe it’s more what I was and would have been listening to during the same period but same same.
In terms of music, 1978 is one of my favourite years, just as the 1970s is one of my favourite decades. It falls within the Golden Era of disco, rich with lush orchestrations, before the 80s ushered in synthesizers. So we’ll start the list with the most obvious:
1/ The Tramps – Disco Inferno: Although initially released in 1976 (when it reached Number One on the Billboard Dance charts), it became an even bigger hit in 1978 with a 10 minute 54 second version via the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. This time around, it made the mainstream charts, reaching Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Coincidentally, I’ve previously noted that I want this song played at my funeral. I anticipate a cremation. Burn, baby, burn.
2/ Bee Gees – How Deep Is Your Love: Again from the biggest movie of 1977-78. It’s difficult to choose just one Bee Gees song off this amazing double album; maybe More Than A Woman, although it wasn’t released as a single, or Night Fever but I’ll stick with this sensuous ballad. Interestingly, Saturday Night Fever is one of only six albums to reach sales of more 40 million. Even more interestingly, it may be one of my favourite soundtracks but it’s not necessarily my favourite disco movie; that honour would go to Thank God It’s Friday.
3/ Donna Summer – Last Dance: Speaking of which, Donna Summer was a HUGE part of my disco years; her first Casablanca single, Love To Love You Baby was in 1975, when it really started, disco-wide, for both Donna and myself. Last Dance was off the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, a truly great song, and historically notable for being the only disco song to ever win an Academy Award (Yes, I hear you say, Xanadu was robbed!!!!).
4/ John Paul Young – Love Is In The Air: As much as I was huge Countdown fan (as indeed anyone of a certain age was in Australia), I never saw the 30 April 1978 live broadcast of John Paul Young singing Love Is In The Air. I worked Thursdays to Sundays at an inner city Sydney disco so I didn’t see the first televised performance (or, at least, its most celebrated) but it was impossible to miss this Vanda & Young-penned musical juggernaut, either when it was demolishing music charts around the world (Top 5 through much of Europe, Number 3 in Australia and topped Billboard US’s Adult Contemporary Charts) or since then. I love it still.
5/ Village People – Macho Man: 1978 was the year of two of the Village People’s biggest hits – Macho Man and Y.M.C.A., but it’s the later that stands out. Number One around the world, except for the US where Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy blocked it from the top spot. As the song surged up the charts, things became more heated than a bunch of Village People fans in a YMCA sauna when the organisation threatened to sue for breach of copyright. Things were “settled” out of court and the YMCA later officiallydeclared it a “positive statement” about the YMCA. In recent times, co-writer (with VP producer and Svengali, Jacques Morelli) and lead singer, Victor Willis, won his long-running legal battle to have his copyrights restored to him; a consequence is that Willis is now touring with a reconstructed VP without any of the other surviving original group members.
6/ Rod Stewart – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy: Speaking of which, this marks Rockin’ Rod crossing to the dark side, cashing in on disco, as his traditional fans accused him. To anyone who frequented discos or nightclubs (or anywhere really, in the late 70s), it struck a chord in describing the machinations behind the boy-meets-girl scenario and what goes down (no pun intended, no, really) afterwards.
7/ Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights: While I missed the clip on Countdown (like many Australian hits, it was due largely to exposure from this one program), I would have seen it on Donnie Sutherland’s Sounds show (wherever I woke up on Saturday mornings). Like everything else on my list, I love it still although I’m no great fan of Kate’s other work. Honourable mention to another version that populates my iPod playlist; from the UK’s Puppini Sisters, which presents the song as the Andrews Sisters would interpret it.
8/ Bob Welch – Ebony Eyes: Just to prove I’m not entirely disco obsessed, here’s some West Coast rock. On the back of a splendid video clip, it was a much bigger hit in Australia than the US (heeeelloooooo again, Countdown). Welch is probably best known for his time with Fleetwood Mac (part of the ninth line-up along with Mick Fleetwood and the McVies); he left the band in 1974, to be replaced by Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. The rest, as they say in showbiz, is history. He then formed the under-rated Paris, then followed with a couple of solo albums. The first, French Kiss, from which Ebony Eyes is from, shipped platinum, the others consistently fewer. I still play French Kiss, and the Paris albums, and none of Bob’s Mac work. Go figure.
9/ Dragon – Are You Old Enough: Technically, I could include April Sun In Cuba on this list, although it was released in 1977; that was off the Running Free album which was still yielding singles into the following year. But I’ll side-step the inevitable whinges and choose Are You Old Enough instead. Typical boppy, poppy sunshine rock, I’ll always associate the late 70s Dragon output with lazy summer days, which stretched into lazy spring, summer and autumn months working on my tan at Tamarama or Lady Bay beaches. Dragon was Marc Hunter as much as he was the very essence of the late 70s sunshine lifestyle and he died way too young. Despite their best efforts, I just can’t warm to Dragon without Marc (just as the Doors and INXS could never replicate the magic after losing their lead singers)..
10/ Bruce Springsteen – Because The Night: This choice will court some controversy but demonstrates how rich our legacy of old music has become over the intervening years, repackaging classic albums with bonus and archival material being the norm these days. Strictly speaking, the only version of Because The Night that Sonny would have known in 1978 would be the Patti Smith version; early drafts of this song were written by The Boss and recorded during June and July of 1977, for the Darkness At The Edge Of Town sessions. Bruce wasn’t entirely satisfied with what he had (although the melody and chorus were constants) and it was eventually dropped. Smith, who was recording at an adjoining studio, completed the song and recorded it; it became her biggest US chart hit. According to the exhaustive www.springsteenlyrics.com, the official studio version that Bruce recorded for Darkness had Smith’s lyrics, while alternate versions digressed quite sharply in attempting to imprint his blue collar ethos. He started playing it live, with his own lyrics, during the Darkness tour. It was included on Live! 1975-85 (1986) but the alternate version released in The Promise (2010), which collected Darkness session tracks, has Smith’s lyrics. So maybe we should just stick with Patti Smith.
11/ Andy Gibb – Shadow Dancing: In truth, it should be I Just Want To Be Your Everything (my favourite Andy Gibb track) but that came out in 1977. Gibb, younger brother of Barry, Robin and Maurice, renowned collectively as the Bee Gees, had a fitful early careerwhich didn’t take off until the mid-70s when Robert Stigwood, at that time his brothers’ manager, also took on Andy. The Bee Gees’ involvement in his debut album, from playing to providing songs, worked the right kind of magic. Two Number One singles, including Everything, resulted. In April 1978, the second album, Shadow Dancing, was released with the single of the same name also going to Number One. His tragic death at the age of 30 tinges these recordings with such sadness. Let’s remember him as he was.
12/ Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band – Old Time Rock And Roll: Right through the 1970s, it seemed as if most of the music America wanted to listen to was coming out of a virtually unknown part of northern Alabama called Sheffield. Four sessions musicians, known collectively as the Swampers, left employment at the renowned Fame Studios (which had been churning out R&B hits since the 1960s) nearby and set up their own facility, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. While R&B continued to be an important revenue stream, they also extended into mainstream artists such as the Rolling Stones (tracks from Exile On Main Street), Cher, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan. Detroit rocker Bob Seger recorded a number of tracks there including one of his most enduring, Old Time Rock and Roll. While Bob’s Silver Bullet Band is credited on the album, the track itself was originally a demo produced and played on by the Swampers themselves for a co-write from George Jackson and Thomas E Jones III. While Bob tried recording the song with both the Bullet and the Swampers, he wasn’t happy with the result; in the end, he laid his own vocals over the top of the demo. And although Bob amended some of the original lyrics, he saw it more as filler than serious chart potential and passed on a song writing co-credit; royalties flow straight back to Muscle Shoals. Bet Bob is still kicking himself.
13/ Steely Dan – Deacon Blues: We unquestioningly accept the rock’n’roll aesthetic; slim, jaded, impossibly attractive young gods, prowling the manicured meadows from centuries-old English manor houses to their stages via green rooms where magnums of French champagne and supermodel groupies await to be plucked from their respective receptacles. Walter and Donald were not rock gods. They looked pretty much the way you’d expect anybody called Walter and Donald would look in the 1970s. Except dorkier. And, please understand, I mean that in the nicest possible way. Like they were on top of calculus and were just marking time until the Atari was invented. Which, as Atari was founded in 1972 and Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974, is maybe a little closer to the truth than anybody suspected. So, as for the perks of being rock stars, when it comes to Steely Dan, the mind enters boggling territory. What would a Steelie Dan groupie even look like? Perhaps it’s best not to know. Whatever, Steely Dan were an integral part of the sound of a generation and that generation was mine. Do It Again, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Reelin’ In The Years, Hey Nineteen. I didn’t understand the lyrics then and still don’t. But the sound is unmistakable. Thus Deacon Blues, coming close towards the end of their chart successes, gets my 1978 nod.
With these, and so many other great songs of the 70s, Sonny cotinues – 40 years later, to rumble the bitumen, turning heads and drawing crowds wherever he goes.
Some people don’t get it. And, most likely, never will. Some do. Of those who get it, a few will never move beyond it. They embrace it in all its forms. The rest are spectators, no matter how inflamed their interests, they’ll never cross that great divide, turn fantasy to reality, embrace the actuality.
Although this applies to collectors in general, it’s especially so for those whose main interest is cars. Most people out there are content (happy may be stretching it) with their late model Fords or Toyotas, even with the current trend towards the bland homogeneity, that has rendered all cars pretty much the same, the choice narrowed to a handful of designs and a handful of colours. Good luck finding your car in a shopping centre car park.
Yet there are those of us who want more than mere transport. Prestige, perhaps, individuality, certainly, a statement of style or their love of design excellence or nostalgia. These people really enjoy driving. It’s a pleasure for them. An adventure.
I love old cars, in particular the American variety of the 1950s to 1970s. I’ll leave it up to qualified experts to explain my preferences. Certainly, my last three cars fell within that grouping – a 1968 Ford Galaxie, a 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car.
I had the Cadillac for almost 20 years and it’s appeared in previous posts, as much for its fascinating back story as the collective joys of owning and driving a classic car.
For those not familiar with the backstory, check out:
The Cadillac has long been America’s mainstream luxury car, an aspiration noted lyrically in so much of the country’s music (especially blues and early R&B songs) and pop culture. I never doubted I’d be a Cadillac owner forever.
But it was not to be and, instead, I found myself switching alliances (perhaps a little too easily). My Caddy was what is now termed a survivor. Although mechanically excellent, the original Silver Mist paintwork needed a respray and the red leather interior (an expensive option, along with the bucket seats, in its day) also required extensive attention. I was looking at big bucks for the quality finish it deserved.
Then the engine blew a cylinder. It took me ages to mull over the options (limited as they were – fix or not) and it was probably more the case that I didn’t want to make the hard decision. What I didn’t want to face was the possibility of the Caddy ending up in a wrecking yard. In the meantime, I needed something to drive.
As I started shopping around, I ruled out another Caddy as they were priced beyond what I wanted to pay. In what turned out to be a timely combination of dumb luck and divine intervention, I found a beautiful midnight blue 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. It’s the default limousine used extensively in the United States for airport transfers, while it’s substantial bulk and moderate retro stylings gave it something of the flavour of a Mafia staff car.
The price was right, ridiculously so, and everything else checked out so I flew to Adelaide for an inspection. It was in immaculate condition; it’d been purchased from a deceased estate in Maquoketa, Iowa, brought to Australia, complianced and fully registered in South Australia just two years before.
Maquoketa is some 200 kilometres west of Chicago but the pristine undercarriage revealed the previous owner to be extremely fastidious; bless him, he was exactly the sort of person people like me dream of buying a second-hand car from. There was nothing to indicate the Lincoln had ever poked its shiny chrome beyond the shelter of its garage between late autumn and early spring in its entire existence. In fact, throughout the car, there was very little indication of the almost 40 years since it had rolled off the assembly line in Wixom, Michigan.
On the leisurely drive back to Sydney I became acquainted with the Lincoln’s left-hand drive (not as difficult or confronting as initially expected) and the rapid response of the 460 cubic-inch (around 7.5 litre) engine.
It didn’t take me long to come to terms with the idea that I should keep the Lincoln and sell the Cadillac. Still, it did take a while to finally list it on eBay, expecting a fairly low selling price considering its condition. But, once listed, the magic manifested. The opening bid landed almost immediately and, ultimately, 14 bidders duelled like wine-soaked Musketeers; it eventually realised just a little over what I’d paid for it some 20 years before (and, incidentally, more than I paid for the Lincoln). Try that with a late-model Toyota.
It’s little wonder, then, that I seek out car museums whenever I’m in the United States. Give me the opportunity to tour the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, or the America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, and I’m in like a shot.
I have no more understanding of the intricacies of the internal combustion engine than I would the opening chapter of Quantum Physics For Dummies, so the technicalities matter little (that’s where a good mechanic is essential); it’s the excess, the unashamed kitsch, that gets me far more than any technical appreciation.
And it’s not just Americans who still treasure the more outrageous examples of their automotive heritage. I have taken tours of Paris in classic Cadillacs and seen a fleet of 1950s and 1960s American cars on a club run through rural Finland.
Australians also have a similar fascination which is how I came to discover Lost In The 50s, a private collection at an industrial area in Newcastle, New South Wales.
Open just one day a month, it’s the culmination of more than 30 years of collecting American cars and pop culture memorabilia of the 1950s and 60s by businessman Glen Jennings and his family. Lost In The 50s is devoted to the Atomic Age (a sub-strata of the so-called Golden Age of US automobile design, pegged between 1948 and 1973).
It was a time when the post-war economic boom fuelled the rapid rise in US consumer culture and influenced car companies to produce ever more ostentatious designs. Immensely powerful engines, vast surfaces of brightly-hued steel panelling offset by bulky chrome flourishes and all the mod-cons consumers never knew they needed but soon came to expect (and then some – under-dash record players, anyone?).
All packaged in enormous designs that recalled missiles, rocket ships and the gleaming futurism of 1950s Hollywood science-fiction movies. The aim wasn’t so much to get from Point A to Point B but to do it in the most style and comfort.
The space race, honed razor sharp by the Cold War, dominated the skies while Detroit car manufacturers mimicked their own ever-skyward quest for dominance. In feverishly competing to make their products as attractive as possible to American consumers, there also occurred an inevitable competition between brands. And the late 1950s to mid-1960s saw the rise of jaw-droppingly audacious automotive design, as shamelessly brightly-coloured as metallic peacocks, the likes of which had never been seen before.
There was a staggering range of choice to entice consumers. The major automobile companies – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – along with a handful of smaller independents, including AMC and Studebaker, fought to differentiate their products. And each of these also had an array of brands.
Ford had, amongst others, such brands as the Lincoln, Mercury, Fairlane, Galaxie, and Mustang (best not mention the Edsel), while GM boasted the Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. Chrysler’s included the Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Imperial and New Yorker.
Many of these are represented in the Lost In The 50s collection. It ranges across family sedans, pick-up trucks, hot rods and a couple of notable movie cars. The most instantly recognisable is the 1966 Batmobile, from the Adam West television series. Adapted from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept vehicle by legendary US custom car creator, George Barris, an original and three replicas were created for filming.
All are now in private ownership. Barris’ original, designated the #1 – which remained in his personal collection – was auctioned for the first time in 2015, fetching $US4.6 million. However, there’s a thriving industry producing driveable replicas, fibreglass bodies often mounted on Lincoln Town Cars chassis. I’ve lost count of the number I’ve seen at motor museums around the world and the one at Lost In The 50s is a prime example.
My pick from this smaller section of the museum is the pearl grey 1950 Buick Roadmaster Fastback Coupe. The front grille, with a rictus of chromed malevolence, looks like something out of a Stephen King novel (small wonder as a 1953 Buick Roadmaster was the supernatural lynchpin of King’s From A Buick 8).
But it’s the central hall of the museum that holds the most glittering of prizes and it’s here that the truly wonderful over-the-top 50s and 60s cars are in evidence. Here’s my personal favourites:
1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe in two-tone green with a continental kit. The Pontiac was one of General Motor’s earliest brands, beginning in 1926, and soon became one of the favourites of American consumers. The Bonneville emerged initially in 1957 as the luxury convertible edition of the Pontiac Star Chief. The following year, the Bonneville became a stand-alone model.
The 1958 was available as a two-door hardtop or convertible. The base price was $US3,481 (against an average income of $US5,100 per annum) for a V-8 370 cubic inch, 255hp engine with a Carter four-barrel carburettor. Options went all the way up to a 330hp with triple Rochester twin-barrel carburettors.
1958 Oldsmobile Model 98 4 door sedan in cherry red. Until 2004, when the company was shuttered, the Oldsmobile was America’s oldest operating car company, dating back to 1897 when Ransom E. Olds started manufacturing in Lansing, Michigan. General Motors purchased the company in 1908.
By the late 1950s, the Oldsmobile was powered by an 8-cylinder Rocket V-8 engine (it first appeared in the 1949 models) and was the first post-war overhead-valve V-8 engine. The Oldsmobile was one of the fastest American cars of its time, capable of 0-60mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit more than 12 seconds and an absolute top speed of 97mph (156 km/h). In 1949 and 50, 88s won more than half the NASCAR Grand National Races. General Motors had the OHV V-8 market pretty much to itself for several years.
The 1958 Oldsmobile had an option of a J-2 Golden Rocket with three two-barrel carburettors. Revolutionary as the Rocket 88 engine was to General Motors and the automotive industry in general, it also played an indirect role in the development of rock’n’roll.
A paean to speed and power (and ipso facto sex), “Rocket 88” was a song written by Jackie Brenston in 1951 at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, MS. Brenston was saxophonist with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm band. The song was recorded by the Kings at the recently-opened Memphis Recording Service studios in early March 1951 but released as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston sang vocals while the sax breaks were by 17-year-old Raymond Hill.
In the petri dish of American culture that was slowly but surely fermenting gospel, rhythm and blues, and country music during that decade, black and white influences travelling parallel tracks, many music historians identify Rocket 88 as the first rock’n’roll song. It’s passionately argued for and against but within that Memphis studio was recorded one of the first, if not the penultimate, song in the development of modern music by people who would also play their own important roles.
In 1956, a precocious 16-year-old by the name of Anna Mae Bullock, first sang with the Kings of Rhythm and soon became a regular member of the band. She started dating Raymond Hill and they eventually had a baby; when the relationship floundered, she began dating Ike Turner. In 1960, she adopted the stage name of Tina Turner when Ike formed the Ike And Tina Turner Revue.
But the most enduring of rock’n’roll’s fickle flourishes of fate involved the Memphis Recording Studio. It was opened in 1950 by Sam Phillips who, two years later, inaugurated his own label, Sun Records, there. For the first few years, Phillips concentrated on emerging black musicians such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf although he was intrigued by the possibilities inherent in finding a white singer who could convincingly handle black music.
In July 1954, a nineteen-year-old blonde blue-eyed Memphis local, Elvis Presley, recorded a number of tracks, of which “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, became the first of five releases on the Sun label. The rest, as they say, is history.
1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe two-door in ice blue. The Imperial was Chrysler’s luxury brand from 1955 until the mid-70s and it was to Chrysler what Cadillac was to General Motors or Lincoln to Ford. As beautiful as this car is externally, some of its more notable refinements are inside.
Although dash-mounted push button transmissions were available in a handful of American cars, only Chrysler maintained it for any great length of time. The two-speed PowerFlite transmission was available in all Chryslers from 1954 to 1961, with the three-speed TorqueFlite appearing in 1956. Push buttons disappeared at the end of the 1964 model year.
The oblong steering wheel and seeming lack of steering column is another stylish Space Age design feature. The tyre-shaped hump on the trunk is known as the FliteSweep Deck Lid and was an option on 1957-61 models. In 1961, it cost $US55.45 extra.
At 227.1 inches (5.76 metres) long, it was the longest non-limousine car on the market.
1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser gold two-tone with continental kit. This is one car that polarised the market back in the day and continues to bedevil collectors today. Is it amazing design innovation or just amazingly kitsch?
The flagship of Ford’s Mercury division, the Turnpike Cruisers (which included a convertible option) were only available for the 1957-58 model years and didn’t exactly set the market afire; only 17,000 were sold in 1957, for example.
This is despite some entertaining innovations including the Breezeway power rear window, the Seat-O-Matic automatic adjusting seat, and a push-button transmission known as the Multi-Drive Keyboard Control, which lent the vehicle severe sci-fi street cred. A 383 cubic inch 330hp Marauder V-8 was standard under the hood, with a 430 cubic inch optional upgrade available. Zero to 60mph in well under ten seconds.
The Continental Kit, which extends the rear bumper and mounts the spare tyre externally, was perhaps the ultimate in flash. Despite all the bells and whistles, the Turnpike Cruiser was short-lived, with 6,407 produced in 1958. It didn’t help that the US was in the midst of a recession at this time and, when consumers had fuel economy at the top of their shopping lists, a shiny aircraft carrier on wheels seemed an unnecessary indulgence.
Its rarity these days, however, along with a renewed appreciation makes it highly prized.
The electric retractable rear window, a somewhat dubious innovation, was maintain by Ford for some time, possibly hoping the marketplace would eventually respond. Mercury revived the Breezeway in 1963-66 in its Monterey, Montclair and Park Lane models; within the Lost In The 50s collection is a beautiful black 1960 Lincoln Continental Sedan with a Breezeway back window.
It’s easy to spend the entire day at Lost In The 50s. Members and friends of the Jennings family act as docents, answering questions and generally acting as proud hosts of an extraordinary collection. Car clubs often set up in the forecourt along with food trucks. Check out their website for upcoming opening dates. Purchasing tickets well in advance is recommended.
But, sometimes, the story behind the story is even more interesting.
Ipso facto, the story behind the story becomes the thing. If you catch my drift.
By way of illustration, take Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles. It’s an old-time cafeteria, a place of much wonder, even magic. Clifton’s opened in 1935 and it’s continued almost uninterrupted ever since, except for a few years earlier this decade at which time it was lovingly restored, refurbished and reborn into something even more wondrous.
In its time, spanning world wars and social upheavals of so many kinds, Clifton’s served up countless millions, maybe even billions, of meals to customers who were happy to dip into their wallets and pocket books for the privilege as well as those for whom a hot, nourishing meal was simply beyond their financial means.
Due to the humanitarian principles of Clifton’s owner, there was a company policy that nobody should go hungry. And that was part of the wonder, though it wasn’t widely publicised or recognised, and especially notable as the restaurant was opened in the very midst of the Depression.
What is remembered about Clifton’s, by generations of Angelinos and visitors alike, is that visit was such a special occasion.
Because they never felt like they were just sitting in an anonymous restaurant, eating an ordinary meal. With murals and props equal to any of the Hollywood dream factories, patrons found themselves dining indoors in the Great Outdoors, in a setting reminiscent of the forests of northern California, surrounded by majestic towering redwoods and woodland creatures.
The tranquillity of nature enveloped patrons while, outside, the city throbbed. They may have just stepped off a streetcar, dodging the hectic crush of traffic, or be relaxing after a busy morning shopping at Bullock’s department store or getting ready to catch the latest Tyrone Power swashbuckler in the French Baroque splendour of the Los Angeles Theatre, or enjoying downtime from the office routine by casting a critical eye over the front page of the Examiner as it dissected the latest challenges for President Roosevelt.
Inside, with a tray of comfort food, whether it be pot roast or corned beef and cabbage, maybe followed by Jello, customers were transported to a tranquil sanctuary of their own imagination. Sure, Clifton’s was a theme restaurant, one of the earliest in a city that has always held an enduring as well as endearing fascination for the genre, and gimmickry is what this branch of the hospitality industry is all about.
But Clifton’s was special, to people both famous and not-so. Walt Disney was a regular, often with his daughter, and it’s said that Clifton’s influenced the creation of Disneyland; other frequent diners over the years include Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Lynch. Maybe it’s not too much of a reach to suggest that imaginations such as these were entranced by the juxtaposition of Jello and a faux redwood forest (certainly there’s a thematic similarity between Clifton’s and the north-western setting of Twin Peaks).
The Clifton’s on Broadway that exists today, and others in the chain that at one time existed throughout Los Angeles, was the creation of Clifford Clinton. His father, Edmond Jackson Clinton, was a restauranteur in San Francisco; although they were Quakers, the entire Clinton family – E.J., his wife, Gertrude, Clifford and his siblings – travelled overseas as a Salvation Army missionary.
In 1905, when Clifford was just a young boy, he accompanied the family to China; the incredible hardship and poverty he witnessed stayed with him his entire life. The San Francisco earthquake of the following year devastated his father’s businesses and the family returned to the States although, as soon as possible, they returned to China to continue helping the poor.
He worked long hours, up to ten hours a day, in his father’s restaurants, gaining invaluable experience, while still at school. In 1911, E.J. Clinton opened a relatively new kind of restaurant, called a cafeteria, where the diners served themselves. The Quaker Cafeteria, as it was called, was the first of its type in San Francisco.
He served in Europe in the later stages of World War I, returned home, married and had children, working in his father’s restaurants.
Eventually, as a married man with a young family, he felt it was time to start his own business. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1931, opened a cafeteria on South Olive Street in the downtown area. After searching for the right name, he settled on Clifton’s, a contraction of Clifford and Clinton.
As much as the restaurant trade coursed through his veins so, too, did his ingrained Christian values; his business plan formalised the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity – treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself.
From opening day at the Olive Street Clifton’s, two policies went instituted – “Pay What You Wish and Dine Free Unless Delighted” and “No Guest Need Go Hungry For Lack Of Lunch”.
For all his good intentions, however, his timing could not have been worse. It was the midst of the Depression and so many of the hungry and impoverished flooded through the doors that the fledgling company seemed likely to be swamped; ten thousand people were served free meals in the first three months of operations.
Clifford addressed the problem not by limiting the Golden Rule at Clifton’s but by opening another cafeteria, The Penny, nearby on Third and Hill streets, in 1932. There, nutritious servings cost just one cent each; a full meal could be had for four cents. Within weeks of opening, the Penny was serving 4,000 meals a day. The restaurant was so well run, it survived the Depression; by the time it closed, it had served some two million meals.
And it wasn’t just the customers who were well looked after; employee benefits were far ahead of their time, including a medical plan that paid for hospital stays. It’s fair to say Clifford was the very model of the perfect employer, especially as he wasn’t afraid of hard work and could often be found during busy periods bussing the tables.
In 1935, he opened a new Clifton’s at 649 South Broadway, just near 7th Street, in the very heart of Downtown’s theatre district. It was there that Clifford set out to create a point of difference with his new endeavour, something that would attract attention and make it stand out from the competition.
For five months, while the new cafeteria operated night and day, workers transformed it into something otherworldly.
As an inspiration, Clifford recalled visits as a youngster to the Brookdale Lodge, a famous landmark set amidst the redwood forests of northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. He had always remembered the Lodge’s dining room which had a real creek, with live trout, winding through it.
It was his intention to recreate a tranquil forest setting amidst the chaotic bustle of Downtown. Murals of redwood forests were painted on the walls, columns were masked in tree bark, a fully operating creek and waterfall, though without the trout, brought the sounds of nature into the dining hall. Backlit mountain scenes, and taxidermied forest animals added to the ambience.
When the renovations were complete, the new cafeteria was renamed Clifton’s Brookdale. It was an instant hit.
Theme restaurants were relatively new; the first appearing in Paris in 1885. This was a café decorated as a prison with waiters serving as the convicts. Another, also in Paris, with a medieval theme, had its wait staff dressed as nun and monks.
The first American theme restaurant appears to be the Pirate’s Den in New York City. It was opened by restauranteur Don Dickerman in 1917 and became wildly popular. A Los Angeles branch, bankrolled by entertainers Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, opened in 1940.
Certainly the most enduring theme, and one that is again increasing in popularity, is the Tiki bar. The best-known chains were Don The Beachcomber, famed for inventing the Zombie cocktail (its LA bar opened in 1933), and Trader Vic’s, which lays claim to the Mai Tai (the first opened in Oakland, California, in 1936).
While Clifford’s business went from strength to strength, his sense of social justice occasionally led him along strange paths.
It happened by accident but, by the mid-1930s, Clifford’s business precision, combined with his commitment to humanitarian endeavours, drew him into the role of political reformer, fighting corruption and government waste. This occurred quite innocently as a result of reviewing a nearby hospital’s food delivery services; his unsparing findings highlighted vast inefficiencies, wastage and supplier contracts tied to supporters of local politicians.
Ultimately, much of the corruption was traced to Frank L. Shaw, a businessman who had entered city council in 1925, and in 1933 became Mayor of Los Angeles.
Although there were some agreeable aspects of Shaw’s administration (LAX and Union Station were both commenced during his time), a lot of people, including the city’s more notorious organised crime figures, depended on the status quo being maintained and didn’t appreciate efforts to interfere.
Political opponents co-opted Clifford’s assistance on a Grand Jury investigation; Shaw, feeling cornered, pushed back.
The city’s Health Department started leaning on the Clifton’s restaurants with trumped-up violations. The Los Angeles Police Department also targeted him; in 1937, a bomb blast demolished part of Clifford’s house. Luckily, nobody was hurt. When a car bomb seriously injured a private detective working for the Grand Jury and evidence led back to an LAPD captain of detectives, the tide turned and a special recall election was held for Mayor in 1938. Support for Shaw evaporated and he lost office.
Once his career as a political reformer came to an end, leaving only his restaurants to occupy his attention, he managed to squeeze in a holiday in Hawaii. But Clifford even managed to turn this to his advantage.
Cognisant of how well his Brookdale restaurant was performing, and aware that the original South Olive Street property was in need of attention, once faced with the exotic South Sea charms of the Hawaiian Islands, he determined he’d found just the right decorating idea.
Returning home to Los Angeles, the renovations commenced – while the cafeteria remained open. In total, some $US100,000 was spent. Clifton’s Pacific Seas, as it was named, debuted in 1938. It was a riot of flamingo red neon, jungle murals, live ferns, eight-metre-tall rubber palms trees, waterfalls, aquariums, a volcano and a rain hut where a tropical storm played out every 20 minutes.
Its critics called it vulgar and tatsteless. The general public couldn’t have agreed, or cared, less. Clifton’s South Seas was an enormous success. At the peak of operations, it served 12,000 meals a day.
And its peak lasted for quite some time, although not quite as long as Clifton’s Brookdale. The South Seas closed down in 1960 and, echoing Joni Mitchell, the building was demolished to become a parking lot.
Don’t it always seem to go /
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
Indeed. Vale Clifton’s South Seas.
And the other Clifton’s branches throughout Los Angeles, all of which had varying degrees of success and longevity. In the 1950s and 60s, such outposts as Lakewood, West Covina and Century City all boasted outposts of the Clifton’s empire. None exist today.
The thing that worked in the Brookdale’s favour was that it was Downtown. Once the throbbing heart of LA’s retail and entertainment, by the 1960s its importance had declined at the same time the suburbanisation and decentralisation of the city headed in the other direction.
In such a sprawling city, Downtown quietly slipped into a kind of hibernation. The land wasn’t considered important enough, economically or socially, to redevelop. The grand old department stores, the Art Deco office buildings, the multitude of opulent movie palaces were repurposed for other uses.
Nobody went Downtown anymore, unless it was really necessary. Clifton’s Brookdale puttered along, a lovely baked anachronism with a side of Mac and Cheese. Progress would eventually have had its way with it; like so much of old-time LA, the Brown Derby (both of them), Bullocks Wilshire, the Mocambo, the Coconut Grove (indeed, the entire Ambassador Hotel), Clifton’s would have been sucked stealthily below the surface by time.
First you lose your relevance. Then, years down the track, you lose your life.
But something wondrous happened. Followed by something entirely unexpected.
Firstly, Downtown began to awaken. Developers moved in to refurbish the historic office buildings as condos and loft apartments. Now in many other places, the appearance of developers would not bode well, but the heritage protections put in place, along with a market eager to live in a revived CBD, proved a fortuitous convergence.
Secondly, the family of Clifford Clinton, who had been managing Clifton’s since his death in 1969, sold the restaurant to Andrew Meieran in 2010. Meieran is an interesting hypen, a developer-filmmaker (one of his intended projects is a bio-pic of Twlight Zone creator, Rod Serling).
On the developer side, he is best-known as the man who transformed a former Downtown power station into the ultra-hip Edison Bar. Meieran paid $US3.6 million for Clifton’s; he then spent four years and upwards of $US10 million to not only restore the entire place back to what it was but to also make it better.
Nobody knew what to expect when the hoardings came down but on the grand day of re-opening, when June Lockhart (Dr Maureen Robinson of television’s Lost In Space) cut the ribbon, the curious flooded in. It’s pretty safe to say they were enthralled by the changes.
While adhering to the original design concepts, Meieran added some audaciously original touches of his own. In the rear dining area, a central atrium has been cut through the above floors and a giant faux redwood, reaching up twelve metres, was created. On the bottom floor of the redwood, which has a fireplace built into it, is the Monarch Bar; on the floor above, is the Gothic Bar.
Meieran’s creation of hip bars is a canny commercial decision, extending Clifton’s dining hours and clientele beyond the traditional. As Downtown becomes more populated, the reborn Clifton’s, now a destination dining and drinking establishment, will become an integral part of the local community.
There’s another bar tucked away within Clifton’s, this one a little more difficult to find though certainly worth the effort. Behind a mirrored door on an upper floor, and up a few flights of stairs, is the Pacific Seas, a respectful nod to the old South Seas, and already celebrated as LA’s newest Tiki Bar. Its centrepiece is a full-size 1930s mahogany Chris-Craft speedboat.
During the day, the new revived Clifton’s does great business, drawing in the faithful as well as visitors (invariably curious tourists) who stumble a few steps inside the door before having their WTF moments. At night, it’s a whole new ballgame. Cashed-up millennials with a penchant for the offbeat, clubbers, artists, actors and the wealth of creatives who make Los Angeles their own.
While it may be a romantic notion, I like to think it’s a whole new breed of Bradburys and Bukowskis, Lynchs and Disneys, people whose imaginations power their futures and who are drawn to Clifton’s because it’s a place that, externally, complements their own internal dialogue. And makes the wondrous just that little easier to manifest. Because the story is the thing.
For further information, consult Clifton’s & Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader (Angel City Press, 2015), written by Clifford’s grandson, Edmund J. Clinton III. I’ve drawn heavily from this biography to populate this post.
A great way to experience Clifton’s is via Clifton’s Living History Tour. Conducted by the charming and erudite Kahlil Nelson, it puts the past and present into perspective in a most entertaining fashion. I highly recommend this tour. Contact via Facebook, Instagram or http://www.cliftonstour.com.
There’s a reasonably well-known Monty Python sketch in which Pope Alexander IV critiques Michelangelo’s The Last Supper (OK, OK, yes, we know, but that’s how British comedy occasionally rolls). While a complete outline is unnecessary, sufficient to say the Pope is somewhat peeved that the finished work has three Christs (two thin and one fat), 28 disciples and a kangaroo. It ends with an exasperated Pope exclaiming, “Look, I’m the bloody Pope! I may not know much about art but I know what I like.”
I may not know much about art. But I know what I like.
I get that. Because, like most people, I know fuck all about art but I know what I like.
Regrettably (because not only does it date me horribly but places me at the very outer limits of contemporary art’s target market), part of what I appreciate is that it requires a certain level of skill. I like to look at something I know I couldn’t do myself. Something that requires talent and hard work and dedication.
Or, at least, it did.
It’s an old-fashioned conceit, to be sure, in this Age of Inclusiveness. Where anybody can be an artist. Where all you have to do is declare yourself an artist and, voila, an artist you become. And, in very many cases, be very well rewarded for it.
In my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in art galleries, checking out my favourite artists. I’ve seen monumental works by Dali across the world, from Madrid to Yokohama, Klimt and Schiele in Vienna, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud at the Tate Britain, Jackson Pollock as far afield as Canberra and Venice, Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus at the Uffizi, and, without fail, whenever I was in Chicago, there had to be a stop at the Art Institute for Edward Hopper and Nighthawks. There were even times I grew to appreciate an artist by seeing their works in the flesh (so to speak), the best example being Van Gogh from viewing his works in the Hermitage.
Not surprisingly, I’m a great believer in the traditions of a formal art education, the apprenticeship system that started out with the Guilds of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, that evolved into the Academies and continue in some shape or form to the present day at the conservative end of the art spectrum.
Hundreds of years ago, young artists would learn their craft from the ground up, literally from sweeping the stone floors of their masters’ studios, along with a range of ancillary skills such as grinding pigments and priming panels. If they showed promise, there were years rigorously developing their draughtsmanship skills by copying the works of established artists; Michelangelo, for example, spent much of his youth in Florentine churches, slavishly imitating Giotto.
The last two hundred years has been marked by a rolling tide of rebellions against such tradition. Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art. Just a sampling of the movements that railed against what had come before.
In some garret somewhere in the world, there seemed always to be some paint-splattered personage, with a catchy didactic ready to be flung, knife-like, at their betters and a band of followers eager to man the barricades.
The result is that art is no longer a spectator sport. The rebellions have come so continually and spun so fast that we are all now our own Che Guevaras with the merchandise to match. With our smartphones at the ready, we’re Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and each and every one of the Kardashians in one underwhelming multi-media package.
Power to the people. And even if we have no traditional tangible talent, point and shoot, upload to Facebook or Instagram and, as the likes and comments swamp us with the toasty satisfaction that comes from the approval of complete strangers, we become not only the artist but the art itself.
And so we arrive at the 14th Factory, which has recently completed its run in Los Angeles. The organisers call it a “monumental, multiple-media, socially-engaged art installation” as well as the “largest experiential art project” the city has ever seen.
And, in a city that can lay claim to inspiring more social media than most, the crowds came, saw, recorded and uploaded in record numbers.
Its home was an empty warehouse complex in Lincoln Heights, on the edge of downtown. Hong Kong-based artist, Simon Birch and 20 collaborators put on a show that perfectly exemplified art in the age of instant gratification. Utilising video, installation, sculpture, painting and performance, it was satisfyingly snappy and tactile in ways that traditional art galleries can never be.
The audience became complicit in the exhibits, smartphones poised, making sure every trout-pout, upwardly tilted face and angled body is immediately shared with their followers. Can’t do that with the Mona Lisa.
There is, of course, a word for all this. The “artselfie” was coined by art critic Brian Droitcour in 2012. It is, he has said, part of the “…aestheticisation of everyday life in social media that has leeched the authority of image-making from mass media and from art”.
But is an art gallery that celebrates the artselfie really art? Who knows. And, really, who cares, when it looks as good as it does and provides so many self-interacting opportunities.
A room with 300 pitchforks hanging from the ceiling has a line of onlookers waiting patiently to take their own artselfies underneath. A reflecting pool in an outdoor courtyard contains dozens of salvaged airplane tail sections. The queue starts over there. A video installation showing, across multiple screens, a red Ferrari in a slow-motion car crash, with the adjoining room presenting smalls pieces of wreckage on a long table. Best you come back later.
And, at least to my undiscerning eye, the best of the lot. A full-size recreation of the eerily-lit Empire-inspired bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey (at a point in the film when the astronaut Bowman appears as old man before transforming into the Star Child). Masterminded by Birch and architect Paul Kember, it’s a major hit with the crowd and full points to the organisers who limit only a few visitors into the room at any one time. Instagrammers and Snapchatters swooned with delight.
Of course, the inevitable had to happen. In mid-July, a woman taking selfies accidently demolished one of the exhibits, causing an estimated $US200,000. Simon Birch, contacted in Hong Kong, was philosophical (though most likely delighted with the world-wide publicity which, invariably, led to claims the incident was staged). Any publicity, in the age of Insta-art, is good publicity.
So while there may be some who decry today’s “technically impoverished” artists, you can’t help but feel Simon Birch and 14th Factory have given the public exactly what they want. And what these precocious times need the most. In an ironic post-modern kinda way.
For such a long time, I had a glass heart. I have no idea how I acquired it or when. Most likely, I was suckered, as is my way occasionally when travelling, into donating to some worthy cause. The glass heart would have been my reward.
It was slipped absent-mindedly into an outside pocket of my camera bag, where I’d rediscover it from time to time while rummaging for keys or spare change. Small, about two centimetres across by a centimetre thick, its iridescent surface reflecting light through a thousand rainbow shades. It made me smile.
It came to mind only once, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the tiny sun-seared town of Joshua Tree, California. In the courtyard of the relatively nondescript Joshua Tree Inn, an establishment with a name as utilitarian as its unadorned appearance, the one notable feature of which is an outsize statue of a guitar that stands in the dusty courtyard like one of Kubrick’s monoliths.
Around the concrete base is a scattering of tributes: candles, dice, cigarette lighters, violin bows, marbles, a white angel with wings spread wide, a CD, a tiny Day of the Dead figure, empty liquor bottles, coins, badges, a candlestick shaped like a palm tree, dead flowers, a plaque showing a skeleton under the word Grievous. The flotsam and jetsam of everyday life refashioned as pop cultural fetishes.
Etched into the guitar is the legend: Gram Parsons. Safe At Home. 11/5/46 – 9/19/73.
Turn around and there’s Room 8. It’s where Gram Parsons, widely credited as the father of country rock, died. Young, vital, brimming with promise, though underappreciated in his time. A few months short of his 27th birthday.
I want to see inside Room 8. The Inn is booked out; I’ve checked. But, on this weekday early afternoon, under a fading blue canopy of lung-searing heat, it’s deathly still. There’s nobody around the swimming pool or in the shade of the verandahs. The housekeepers have packed up and disappeared, the reception desk unattended.
The tortured artist, dead before his time, is an overly-familiar trope. It gets all the publicity, the gritty biopics, the ironic hipster t-shirts. If all the people who now profess their eternal admiration had been around back then to buy his albums, Gram Parsons may still be alive. Making his music, older than the heroes he worshipped when he was too young to be taken seriously by them.
Gram Parsons’ story is anchored firmly in the southern Gothic tradition that has become as much a cliché as that of the haunted artist too pure for this world. Except that his story was agonisingly real. It didn’t need the embellishment or romantic exaggeration of modern popular culture.
Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on 5 November 1946. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of John A. Snively, a pioneer of the Florida citrus industry; his father, Cecil Connor, known in those parts as Coon Dog, cut a dashing figure as an ex-Army pilot. Coon Dog had been stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Later, he flew combat missions in New Guinea and was hospitalised in Australia after contracting malaria.
The Snively family was Florida royalty, immensely wealthy from catering to a nation’s desire for breakfast refreshment. Winter Haven was their fiefdom. The head of the family may have been cool to his daughter’s choice in men but he brought Coon Dog into the family business, putting him in charge of a packaging operation in Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was born and raised.
Both parents liked their cocktails a little too much; Avis was what was considered “highly strung” and had a dependence on prescription medicine. Due to his war service, Coon Dog exhibited symptoms that would later be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Family life wasn’t comfortable for a boy as finely tuned as Gram and he took to music as an escape. He loved playing records and holding parties. He picked out tunes he only just heard on the family piano and was soon writing his own songs. His interest turned to something far deeper, like it did for many of his generation, when he saw Elvis perform at the Waycross City Auditorium. in February 1956,
Two years later, when Gram was 12, the careful balance of his world began to falter. Coon Dog committed suicide. Avis, Gram and his sister, known as Little Avis, returned to the safe haven of the Snively family’s Magnolia Mansion on the shores of Lake Eloise.
Gram felt the loss of his father keenly. To dull the pain, he retreated further into music and his mother’s limitless supply of prescription drugs.
Avis eventually married a charismatic salesman, Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and supported his musical endeavours, to the extent of opening a local music venue. Derry Down, as it was called, became part of a network of Florida youth club venues that nurtured such emerging musical talent as the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell.
And a young musician with a burgeoning reputation by the name of Gram Parsons. The bands he became involved with reflected the musical styles of the time, first rock’n’roll, then folk. His musicianship and stage presence developed well with time although it was his plaintive presence, the inner sadness that dwelt behind his steady, intelligent gaze, that resonated most deeply in audiences, especially amongst young women.
The death of his mother in 1964, after a long agonising decline hastened by alcohol, shattered Gram anew. But if it did one thing, it propelled him out of Florida towards his musical future. In 1965, he enrolled at Harvard but lasted less than a semester. Studying wasn’t really high on the Gram Parsons curriculum. Girls and drugs, not necessarily in that order, consumed his time.
He put together the first incarnation of the International Submarine Band. After Harvard, they moved to New York City but west was where everybody with any musical ambition was heading, to the sunshine and agreeably hedonistic lifestyle of Los Angeles.
The International Submarine Band set up in Laurel Canyon and, by 1967, had a deal with LHI Records, fronted by singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. One of the stranger characters of the 1960s West Coast music scene (admittedly, a pretty crowded field), Hazlewood is generally best known as partner, musical and otherwise, to Nancy Sinatra. The International Submarine Band joined LHI in a roster that, in many ways, defied description, artistic endeavour and sound business sense.
Meanwhile, Gram and Los Angeles in the late 1960s became a potent combination. Lanky and boyish, he was quietly spoken with an endearing Southern drawl and impeccable manners, an agreeable combination of attributes that turned heads. Pamela des Barres, whose experience of such things was as vast and all-encompassing as the desert sky, famously described Gram as “totally countrified in a slinky bedroom-eyed way”.
That he had an affinity for girls, drugs, booze and music just made him one of many in the landscape. That he enjoyed a certain level of wealth (by the late 60s, the proceeds from a trust fund established by his grandfather was paying off to the tune of about $US100,000 a year), set him a little further apart and ensured he could indulge his interests in high style; it was a fact of life in southern California, however, that wealthy young gods were still ruling the landscape then as now.
His distinctions were in an increasing dedication to the more traditional elements of country music (unusual amongst his contemporaries who were all seeking, in their own ways, the alchemic formula to successfully fuse folk, pop and rock into chart gold) and his song writing.
The latter was on display during his ISB days; the first International Submarine Band single cut for LHI was pure Gram – “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes”, with the resulting album including two more Gram compositions, “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” and “Strong Boy”.
By the time ISB’s album was released, in March 1968 after a considerable delay, the band had split and Gram had moved on to another project.
The Byrds had gained attention with a line-up of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, cruisng through a folk repertoire with dreamily tight harmonies that, as the 1960s progressed, merged into psychedelic rock.
Members came and went; by late 1967, Crosby and Clark had gone and The Byrds were looking for new blood. Early the following year, by the time their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released, Gram had been accepted into the fold. With the support of Hillman (and opposition from McGuinn), Gram steered The Byrds towards a more country sound.
They immediately launched into a new album, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles a mix of country standards, Bob Dylan compositions and three of Gram’s own songs, including the now-classic “Hickory Wind”.
It was in Nashville in March 1968 that The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry, the spiritual stronghold of the highly-conservative country music establishment. Gram’s youthful exuberance for country music (and his fellow band members’ self-regard as contemporary music royalty) left them in little doubt of a warm, even rapturous, welcome.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The audience seemed stunned by the long-haired hippies in their midst (though long-hair was always going to be a relative term when set against conservative Nashville; photographs of the group on stage at the Opry reveal what we would now call “preppy” attire and their hair, barely over the ears, looks no more menacing than the Beatles’ mop tops).
The Opry’s executive elite couldn’t have been less hospitable if The Byrds had harmonised the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t helped by Gram’s last-minute decision to substitute Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (some reports state it was to be Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) as the announced final song in their set for his own “Hickory Wind”, even if he did dedicate it to his elderly grandmother.
Gram suffered a double disappointment on the release of The Byrds’ latest album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in August 1968. Lee Hazlewood and LHI considered they still had Gram under contract and most of his vocals were redubbed, much to McGuinn’s delight. And, despite his unswerving dedication to country music, Sweetheart was the worst performing Byrds album to date, nudging only as high as #77 on the Billboard charts (in comparison, the previous album reached #47, still a disaster for a band of their stature but at least, though barely, in the top half of the charts).
All the public needed, as Gram so consistently expounded, was country music played by a new generation of long-haired rock musicians. Regrettably, the public never received that memo. Fusing folk, pop and rock and any number of barely-like-minded influences was becoming quite the musical fashion but too many young people saw straight-out country music as something their parents, small-town cousins and six-fingered distant relations looked to for life lessons. It just wasn’t cool.
Gram pressed on regardless, devising new ways to describe his music, desperately trying to intellectualise it and sneak it in through the back door of hipsterdom. Cosmic American Music was his favoured term; he even started calling it roots music, decades before the term gained widespread acceptance.
He was bummed by Sweetheart’s frosty reception but he’d moved on from The Byrds by then anyway; leaving by summer 1968, ostensibly because he objected to a proposed tour of apartheid-era South Africa, although it was more likely that continued friction with McGuinn played a more central role.
In record time (excuse the pun), he founded another band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, to do his philosophical bidding. Joining him was Chris Hillman, who’d also fled The Byrds around this time. They signed to A&M Records and launched into their first album.
Musically as well as philosophically, The Burritos were closer to Gram’s concept of long-hairs playing country music; Gram also took control of their stage image by steering them to a Ukranian-born tailor working out of North Hollywood. Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohan, created fantasias of elaborate Western styling that became popular amongst such country performers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hank Williams, and then spread to others in the music industry including Elvis and John Lennon.
The Burritos pretty much blew their A&M advance on the outfits but they sure looked sharp in the publicity photos. Nudie was renowned for personally styling the suits to its clients’ tastes and Gram’s own choices were those that defined his life: marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, naked women and a cross.
The Burritos and their Nudie suits were emblazoned across their first album. The Gilded Palace Of Sin, released in February 1969; musically, it typified Gram’s dedication towards fusing traditional country with folk, rock, pop, even soul (in the latter instance, “Dark End Of The Street”, best known as a 1966 hit for James Carr). As satisfying as the album was, and it did garner considerable critical attention, the public remained underwhelmed and ignored it.
Sin stalled at #164 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, released in May 1970, didn’t even make the Top 200. Shortly after that, Gram was fired from his own band, the victim of his own overindulgence in drugs and alcohol although the rest of the band were no less guilty of such transgressions.
While renowned for their studio work, in concert they were hit-and-miss, preferring to get shit-faced and play poker instead of taking the stage. The situation wasn’t helped by such unfortunate decisions as turning down Woodstock but playing Altamont.
Gram’s drug and alcohol dependence showed no signs of mellowing; it seemed the more the record-buying public rejected his heart-felt musical intentions, the more he sought escape by chemical means. The situation wasn’t helped by an important friendship forged in the late 1960s, one of two that would define as much as emphasis his musical journey.
On 7 July 1968, The Byrds played the Royal Albert Hall in London; amongst the glitterati trawling backstage was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The two immediately hit it off; while autobiographies and memoirs are the most infuriatingly inexact of sources, Richards’ own Life (2010) pays considerable tribute to Gram Parsons’ influence, musical as well as personal, both on Richards and the Rolling Stones.
“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me,” writes Richards. “Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”
The first question Gram asked Richards was whether he had any drugs. It was shared interests – drugs as much as music – that underpinned their friendship. Following the English concerts, The Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa but Richards and the other Stones enlightened Gram on the issue of apartheid; the result was that Gram left the tour, and the Byrds, there and then. The next few months, he spent in England with Richards.
Just as the Stones, like many English musicians in the early 1960s, had adopted the blues, so Keith Richards, by the decade’s end, immersed himself in country music, tutored all the while by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable Gram. They spent long periods jamming, writing songs, experimenting with styles, building influences one atop the other like building blocks, continuing to refine the things that worked, tossing aside those that didn’t.
The late 1960s, into the early to mid-70s, was a period of musical transition for the Stones. Mick Taylor was brought in to replace Brian Jones and the band’s direction changed remarkably. Jagger was in favour of emphasising a harder sound, one that would eventually emerge as stadium rock; Richards, fired up by Gram’s intensive tutoring, was determined towards Americana, roots music and country.
Gram was never too far away from Richards for the next few Rolling Stones albums, from Let It Bleed (1969) through to Exile On Main Street (1972), and his influence as much as his direct involvement is the subject of considerable speculation by music historians. Listen to “Country Honk”, the hillbilly-ish version of “Honky Tonk Women” that appears on Let It Bleed and try if you can to ignore the spirit of Gram Parsons that haunts it; doubly haunted, perhaps, as it’s this track that was the last Stones session Brian Jones played on before his death.
On Sticky Fingers (1971), Gram’s influence is apparent on “Dead Flowers” although it’s “Wild Horses” that gets all the attention. Despite the Jagger/Richards song writing credit, there’s long been a conspiracy theory that Gram co-wrote it (most likely untrue; the song is far too straight-forward, lacking his Southern Gothic complexities). That’s not to say, however, that Gram didn’t contribute much to how the song sounded.
“Wild Horses” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over a two-day period in early December 1969. It was one of three tracks (also including “Brown Sugar”) recorded at the session and the first tracks that would form Sticky Fingers. Gram was not in the studio for it.
The Stones were at the end of a US tour that had started on 7 November; they’d been developing new material and were eager to record it while it was still fresh. After a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, they had a few days before the final date. As a strange quirk of their visas, they could play concerts but couldn’t record so a quiet, out-of-the-way location in northern Alabama was hastily arranged. That Muscle Shoals was already legendary for recording such R&B giants as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett worked on one level; on another, a bunch of white English boys went noted but barely recognised.
A few days later, the Stones travelled to California for the final date on the tour, meeting up with Gram and the Burritos who were also appearing at the free concert, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The date was 6 December 1969. The location was the Altamont Speedway. And the rest, as they say in the music industry, generally in a most ominous tone, is history.
Something that did come out of this is that Keith Richards gave Gram a demo tape of “Wild Horses” along with permission to release his own version before the Stones. It appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, a full year before the Stones version appeared on Sticky Fingers.
Mick Jagger has been quite open about the influence Gram had on the country feel of such Sticky Fingers tracks as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, as well as a few from Exile On Main Street. The version of “Wild Horses” released on Sticky Fingers (there were two takes recorded at Muscle Shoals; the second could well be the acoustic version available on the 2015 Deluxe edition re-release of Sticky Fingers) is quite a restrained country ballad, displaying little in the way of Cosmic American Music, but somewhere, forgotten, in an archives may be a version of even more interest to Gram Parson aficionados.
There is mention, amongst the multitude of GP biographies and associated material, that Gram was asked to suggest a pedal steel player to add to “Wild Horses”. His choice was Peter Kleinow, otherwise known as Sneaky Pete, who he held in high regard and worked closely with in both the Byrds and the Burritos.
As an aside, Sneaky Pete has another of the quirkier stories in American music. An accomplished pedal steel player and champion of the Fender 400, Pete had a secondary career as a Hollywood visual effects and stop motion animator, working on such film and television shows as Gumby, Land Of The Lost, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminators I and II.
Meanwhile, Gram’s departure from the Burritos in mid-1970 left him rudderless and his periodic episodes of depression deepened, a situation not helped by drugs and alcohol. His relationship with Keith Richards tided him over and he was on hand during the latter stages of recording Sticky Fingers, much of which was put down at Jagger’s UK estate, Stargrove, in rural Hampshire.
It was, however, during the recording of the next Stones album, Exile On Main Street, that things came to a head. Gram and Keith Richards were drinkin’ and druggin’ and jammin’ for what seemed like weeks on end, often to the exclusion of everything else. That the druggin’ included heroin and often left Richards disinclined, if not even physically unable, to contribute to the new album strained relations with Jagger and other members of the band and surrounding entourage.
While some of the leftover tracks from Sticky Fingers made their way onto the next album, new tracks were recorded at Nellcôte, an estate Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice on the French Riviera (the Stones had fled the UK as tax exiles). Gram arrived at Nellcôte in June 1971, one of a flood of visitors that included such figures as William S. Burroughs. Both Gram and Richards were into heroin heavily during this time. The album languished. Eventually, the chaos had to be managed and Gram was kicked out in July 1971.
It was inevitable that Gram’s next move, if his attention could be wrested from other matters, would be a solo album. And, despite the lack of financial success accorded his work with both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, record companies continued to display interest.
The first was A&M, where he was teamed with yet another of the more interesting characters populating the LA music scene. The son of actress Doris Day, Terry Melcher had already produced such acts as The Byrds and The Beach Boys but is most infamously remembered for an act he didn’t produce – Charles Manson.
Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had befriended Manson who, amongst other interests, was an aspiring songwriter and introduced him to Melcher to further his musical career. Although Manson was under the impression that Melcher would be producing an album for him, the project never eventuated.
At this time, Melcher and his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, were living in the hills above Los Angeles, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the midst of Benedict Canyon. Manson had visited Melcher at this address several times but the producer moved out early in 1969. In August, Manson sent his followers to the house, which had since been rented to film director Roman Polanski, telegraphing a not-so-subtle message. While Polanski wasn’t at home, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were. The rest, as the ominous saying once again goes, is history.
The A&M solo album didn’t get off the ground with Melcher having a hard time swaying Gram’s interest. But another attempt was already in the pipeline, and it would lead to the second friendship and musical partnership that defined Gram’s career.
In 1971, Chris Hillman of the Burritos suggested he catch the performance of a young folk singer at a Washington club. Emmylou Harris had already recorded her first album, Gliding Bird, but the record company disintegrated soon after and it had attracted little attention.
It would seem that Gram and Emmylou, at least musically, had little in common but each could see opportunities in the other. Emmylou was anchored firmly in folk but her career to date had been going nowhere fast and she needed the work that Gram offered; Gram saw the need for a female singer and trusted Chris Hillman’s initial judgement. When he heard Emmylou and conjured the possibilities of what could be, he realised that this was something, at least musically, he never knew he needed.
Together, their voices melded into the most divine harmonies. But it didn’t happen instantly. It was the result of dedication and hard work. The mechanics of generating those harmonies is visible in a studio out-take on the 1995 release, Cosmic American Music, rehearsing “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” (a track on Gram’s first solo album, GP), repeatedly exploring the same line, addressing it in different ways before reaching an arrangement they were both comfortable with.
Gram and Emmylou gradually built up their harmonies, honed in their live performances, and if his initial intention was for just a female voice, he soon found he’d ended up with something more vitally important.
Thus, when Gram relaunched his attempt on a solo album, this time under the aegis of Reprise Records, this emotionally powerful duet partnership was put down for posterity.
Recording for what would become the first of only two Gram Parsons solo albums, simply titled GP, began in September 1972. His backing musicians, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, previously recorded with Elvis Presley in the TCB Band. One of Gram’s heroes, Merle Haggard, was to have produced the album but dropped out at the last moment.
Gram did not weather the recording sessions well. He was close to breaking point, binging on alcohol and drugs, including cocaine. His fast lifestyle was evident to his increasingly concerned friends; photographs of the period show him bloated and unwell. Yet the resulting album was nothing short of magical. This was especially so on the tracks he shared with Emmylou; she added something emotionally invaluable to the mix, shades he’d never been able to achieve in his previous recordings.
Yet, once again, despite raves from such publications as Rolling Stone, GP (released January 1973) didn’t get close to entering the Billboard Top 200.
Gram and Emmylou toured through the spring of 1973 but he was spending increasing time out of LA, in the high country of the Mojave Desert. He first come to this area in the late 1960s, returning more frequently to the small town of Joshua Tree. His preferred accommodation was the Joshua Tree Inn, where he could walk, stumble or sometimes even crawl to such bars as the Hi Lo Lounge.
If he wasn’t bar-hopping, he’d retire to his favourite Room 8 with a range of friends including Keith Richards, girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Gram’s road manager/protector/confidante, Phil Kaufman.
The desert was Gram’s own haven. It didn’t temper his dependence on drugs or alcohol but it was a spiritual safe zone from the disappointments of work and personal concerns. Occasionally, he attained moments of clarity when he’d recognised the self-destructive nature of his existence and his own mortality.
During one such moment, Gram instructed Phil Kaufman that, upon his death, he wanted to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park and his ashes scattered on a local landmark, Cap Rock. It would prove to be a prophetic request.
However disheartened he was by his continued failures to break his music to the wider world, Gram pushed ahead with a second solo album. He gathered the band, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, along with Emmylou Harris, and entered the studios in summer 1973 with a batch of songs. Included were several of his own, including “Brass Buttons”, a scarring song about his mother that he’d written while at Harvard, and “Hickory Wind”, already recorded during his time with The Byrds. Other songs, such as “Love Hurts”, showcased Gram and Emmylou’s extraordinary gift of harmony.
The album would be called Grievous Angel. During recording, Linda Ronstadt would visit the studio and add harmonies to the track “In My Hour Of Darkness”. While Gram and Ronstadt (who had also become close to Emmylou) were friends, her involvement, however limited, carried a certain bitter synchronicity.
After three albums in the late 1960s as part of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt embarked on a series of solo albums. The musicians involved in her third, self-titled, album, released in 1972, included Bernie Leedon, who had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the Burritos Deluxe days, and Randy Meisner, both of whom toured with Ronstadt to support her previous Silk Purse (1970) album.
Also joining Leedon and Meisner were Don Henley and Glenn Frey; in the small-town world of the Los Angeles music scene of the period, Gram knew everybody and everybody knew Gram but he knew Frey particularly well as the musician was often to be seen at Burritos’ gigs, avidly studying Gram’s stagecraft.
The four approached Ronstadt after the album’s completion. They recognised a chemistry they wanted to explore and, as a courtesy, declared their intention of forming a band. Not yet settled on a name, they signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 and started playing live gigs.
Eventually, and different people have varying perceptions of the reasons, they settled on the name Eagles. Marked by tight harmonies and a soft country-rock styling that would typify that originating on the West Coast, their self-titled debut album was released in June 1972.
It yielded three singles; “Witchy Woman”, reached #9 on the Billboard charts, the lowest, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, scrapped into #22. The album itself just missed out on the Top 20. This was far from a failure; the market was proving receptive to the Eagles’ brand of countrified rock. By their fourth album, One Of These Nights (1975), they reached the top of the Billboard album charts, and the next, 1976’s Hotel California, went to #1 around the world.
Gram’s vision of country music being played by a new breed of young musicians was gaining popularity. It just wasn’t popular if he recorded it. Technically, the West Coast aesthetic was hardly country rock, barely country and much more pop than rock. Easy listening as we’d know it now. However, it was a close second to Gram’s ideals and the distinction was not lost on him
Meanwhile, Gram completed his second solo album and, in mid-September 1973, set out for the sanctuary of the high desert country and the Joshua Tree Inn. So much has been written about the circumstances of Gram’s death by overdose (including the ignominious role that the third-party posterior positioning of ice cubes played in temporarily reviving him) and the subsequent hijacking of his body by Phil Kaufman and friends to carry out his last wishes at Cap Rock, that to go over them here would be redundant.
Sufficient to say, Gram Parsons died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on 19 September 1973. Drug toxicity, as the coroner later declared. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday.
Even in death, however, Gram couldn’t get the recognition he deserved. The following day, singer-songwriter Jim Croce (whose biggest hit – indeed only hit outside the US – was a novelty song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) was killed in a plane crash. Any publicity attending Gram’s demise was quickly swamped.
Even worse, there was barely enough curiosity generated by Gram’s death to suck Grievous Angel to #195 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart when it was released in January 1974.
Life, and the music industry, went on without him, much as it had done when he was alive. Emmylou Harris, who had become extremely close to Gram during their professional partnership, was – due largely to Linda Ronstadt’s influence – signed to Reprise. The Pieces Of The Sky album was released in 1975 and eventually reached #7 on the Billboard album chart.
Although she would record a number of Gram’s songs, and become a continuing, enthusiastic champion of his music, in the early years, and well into the 1980s, Emmylou avoided talking about him. It was just too painful a loss.
Gradually, though, the accolades rightfully due Gram Parsons and his pioneering work began to attract increasing attention. In time, rightly or wrongly, he’s been elevated to a “founding father” position, publicly revered by successive generations of musicians, with all the attendant grovelling. His Nudie suit can be found in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame (established by the same CMA establishment that gave him and the other Burritos such a hard time at the Grand Ole Opry). There’s any number of Gram-inspired festivals and tribute albums and, not surprisingly, hipster t-shirts. And Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, where Phil Kaufman farewelled Gram in a suitably incendiary manner, continues to draw devotees from around the world.
The graffiti they leave behind draws largely upon his music. One particularly popular couplet paraphrases “Brass Buttons”, Gram’s song about his mother and which applies equally well to his own life and death.
“The sun comes up without you, it doesn’t know you’re gone”, it says.
Gram’s legacy is embodied in the unswerving, inextinguishable courage of his convictions. Not so much that he could revive country music, because it was doing very well without him, but that he could make it relevant for his own and future generations. And although he didn’t do that in his own short lifetime (and just eight albums), he did ultimately achieve that aim.
If Gram had lived, if he’d been able to subdue his demons, lock them away where they could do the least amount of harm, he’d most likely have side-stepped country rock, for his chosen interpretation was too pure. In truth, he was an early adopter, a strong influence on many who followed, but he didn’t invent country rock any more than he did orange juice or tortured southern Gothic sensibilities.
Gram, if he had lived, would have taken his rightful place as the grand old man of alt country or Americana.
Those who flock to the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn know his music, and some may even appreciate the legend behind the man. The trinkets they leave behind hold a totemic significance for each of them.
I thought about that as I stood in the blast furnace afternoon. I’d played Gram on the car stereo in the days before and on the drive up from Palm Springs. Everything I had, which was pretty much everything, and I was on the second run through Grievous Angel as I pulled into the motel’s parking lot.
It was eerie out there, with not a living being in sight, no noise, no breeze, nothing but the insistent heat. I spent a while photographing the shrine then slung my camera across my shoulder and headed back to the car. As I packed my camera bag away, I stopped.
There was something I had to do. I unzippered the tiny front pocket and dug out the glass heart.
It had travelled the world a few times over, most of the continents, and rarely gained a second thought. But it felt right, this glass heart of a thousand rainbow hues, to leave it here. Under the bright desert sun that had doubtless hammered so many of Gram’s hangovers. Another tribute, from a disciple to the master, a spiritual offering, a thanks-for-the-music from one side of the Vale to the other.
And as I pulled away towards Yucca Valley and the turn-off that would take me to Barstow and, eventually, Las Vegas, I turned “Brass Buttons” up high.
For most of its history, Los Angeles has been the Dream Factory, for those who already make their living from the entertainment industry, the countless thousands arriving each year hoping to do the same, and even those who know it only from its enduring myth and legend.
There’s history aplenty for those interested enough to seek it out, some in the most unlikely places. I’ve been a regular visitor for decades and even I find places and stories I never knew.
For just that reason, I would generally base myself in Hollywood; in one easily navigated area were so many of my favourite places, all steeped in history and still existing pretty much as they always had – restaurants such as Musso & Frank, and Miceli’s; bars – Boardners and the Frolic Room; cinemas – the Chinese and the Egyptian, and slightly more modern classics as the Cinerama Dome; bookstores and purveyors of entertainment ephemera – Larry Edmunds; and music and DVD stores – Amoeba Music.
Although it was more than a touch Midnight Cowboy with its hookers and hustlers, I was happy there, staying at a very humble hotel behind the Hollywood & Highland development. The facilities were basic but the staff friendly and breakfast included for less than $US100 a night.
As Hollywood gentrified, the sex shops and strippers’ outfitters gradually edged out by hip bars and cafes, prices edged up and my humble accommodation now runs towards $US250 including taxes. Even the formerly run-down 1960s motels along Sunset or on Hollywood Blvd east of the freeway, that used to rent out by the hour, are now made over with little more than a retro pallet and cost the same.
In terms of accommodation prices, LA is now the New York City of the West Coast. Anywhere worth staying is astronomical. Santa Monica? Forget about it. Beverly Hills or West Hollywood? The same. Even downtown, where squalid once-abandoned office buildings have been transformed into shiny minimalist loft apartments and there seems to be a Whole Foods on every corner
On the last trip, I took a chance on a reasonably-priced airport hotel and really hit the jackpot. I knew the location – the corner of West Century (the main artery leading into the LAX terminals) and Aviation Boulevard, the price was right (about $US160 including tax and breakfast, about half the price of the anonymous big chain brands) and it had a retro look that piqued my interest.
If I’d paid strict attention to TripAdvisor, perhaps I’d have passed it by. Comments were pretty evenly split between “hidden gem” and “dump”, service between “friendly and efficient” and “cold and rude”. Even factoring in the “reading between the lines” factor necessary for TripAdvisor, something told me it was worth further investigation.
And, boy, am I glad I did.
The Travelodge Hotel At LAX is a charming retro throw-back, a low-rise (just two stories) mid-century survivor with motel-style units grouped around a large swimming pool. There’s parking on-site and a Denny’s restaurant with attached cocktail bar.
There’s a couple of aspects of the Travelodge that immediately impressed me. The first was the check-in. The front desk staff were friendly and personable; disregard the TripAdvisor complaints, put them down to the usual impossible-to-please whingers who tend to populate feedback sites.
The second was, considering the vintage of the property, just how well-maintained it was. Throughout the public areas, and particularly around the pool, the gardens were splashed with vivid colour. The neatness and tidiness spoke of an evident pride. The pool furniture was arranged just-so, the pathways swept clean, no rubbish or cigarette butts littering the garden beds.
I was just as impressed with the accommodation. Over the years, I stayed at just about every LAX hotel and the Travelodge is now my favourite. Sure, it’s an older property but it’s clean, extremely comfortable and, perhaps most importantly, the bed was just as comfortable as a Westin or Sheraton.
The furnishings are plush and have an agreeably retro feel, quite in keeping with the property’s historic charm. During my stay, I posted on Instagram that my room was like staying in the Captain and Tennille’s pool cabana and that pretty much sums up the ambience.
And although the wing I was in ran parallel to Aviation Blvd, with the air-conditioning on, I couldn’t hear any traffic noise. For an airport hotel on a major intersection, it was miraculously quiet.
LA is the sort of city where a car is a necessity. However, if you’re there for a short stay, public bus stops are a short walk away; in the one direction, the Big Blue Bus goes to Santa Monica. In the other, a shuttle runs to the Aviation/LAX station, part of the Green Line of the city’s Metro Rail system. From there, it’s easy to access Long Beach, Downtown, Hollywood and as far north as Universal Studios and North Hollywood.
So there I was, happy enough that I’d found such a charming, cosy and comfortable, well-situated and reasonably-priced hotel with friendly and personable staff. What more could I ask for?
The answer was awaiting me tucked inside the guest compendium. It told the history of the Travelodge At LAX with quite a few surprises in store. For example, the little-known background to one of the country’s most prominent hotel chains (no, not the Travelodge).
Although initially I was pretty sure the hotel was vintage 1960s. I was off by a decade. The hotel opened in 1953, built and operated by an LA businessman and man about town by the name of Hyatt van Dehn.
It was originally called the Hyatt House and was the first hotel to support an airport that had opened in 1930 as Mines Field. The city had a number of small private airfields and, by the time commercial airlines started operating following the end of World War II, the major airport was Lockheed Field at Burbank, now known as Bob Hope Airport. But, by the closing years of the 1940s, such major airlines as American, Trans World, United and Western switched across to Mines Field and in 1949 it officially became Los Angeles International Airport.
Business was good at the Hyatt House and added another wing in 1955. Hyatt was young, handsome and wealthy and, while a well-connected businessman, he was more frequently mentioned in the gossip columns for his love life. His second wife, Ginny Sims, was a singer and actress, a featured vocalist with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. In the 1940s, her records sold in the millions and she had a long movie contract with RKO studios, later moving on to MGM.
Hyatt and Ginny lived in a Beverly Hills home designed by renowned modernist LA architect, Paul Williams (incidentally, he co-designed the iconic flying saucer form of the Theme Building, part of the 1961 redevelopment of the LAX terminals as we known them today).
Hyatt and Ginny had what could best be termed a tempestuous relationship and by 1951 had been married and divorced twice. They remained friends, though, after the final separation and Ginny, who also embarked as a career as an interior decorator, was involved in furnishing the Hyatt House.
In 1957, a Chicago businessman by the name of Jay Pritzker was sitting in Fat Eddie’s, the coffee shop of the Hyatt House. He was the grandson of Nicholas Pritzker, who had brought his family from the Ukraine to the United States in the late 19th century and opened a law firm in Chicago in 1902.
Jay’s own father, Abram, was prominent in the family business; something of a prodigy, Jay, graduated from high school at the age of 14 and took a managerial role in steering the company towards owning and managing extensive real estate holdings.
Jay was always on the lookout for investment opportunities; the Hyatt House was uncommonly busy and it got him thinking. Then and there, he decided the Pritzker family should get into the hotel business. He scrawled an offer of $2.2 million on a paper napkin and asked that it be forwarded along to Hyatt van Dehn.
The offer was accepted; Jay was in something of a bind. The impulse purchase of the family’s first hotel had him at a loss as to a name. It was well recognised as the Hyatt House so he kept it as such.
Years later, Jay told the Chicago Daily News that the Hyatt was “simply the first first-class hotel that I had ever seen at an airport”. He kept the strategy going along the West Coast. Jay’s second Hyatt hotel was at Burlingame, near the San Francisco International Airport. Within four years, there were six Hyatt hotels and the company went public in 1967 (it became a Travelodge, part of the Wyndham branding, in 1994).
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Travelodge had its share of celebrity guests. Cowboy movie star Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, would stay in Room 131 when they were flying in and out for personal appearances. Greg Morris, an actor best known for his role as Barney Collier on the hit television show, Mission Impossible, preferred Room 232. Rock’n’roll performer Little Richard and actor Patrick Stewart were also frequent guests.
The history contained within the guest compendium gave me a deeper appreciation of the Travelodge At LAX. Although there is at least one whimsical detail.
We’re told that Howard Hughes and Jane Russell occupied Room 225 during the filming of The Outlaw. It does make a good story, and that’s what the Dream Factory has always been about. Except for the fact that The Outlaw was filmed in 1941, twelve years before the hotel was built.
And Russell was one of the least likely Hollywood actresses to have an affair (discounting her association with actor John Payne in the early 1940s). She was extremely conservative, a devout Catholic and married her high school sweetheart in 1943, a marriage that lasted for 25 years.
The occasional fact-checking glitch aside, the Travelodge is still an endearingly authentic historic Los Angeles artefact, a piece of history that also a fun, comfortable, friendly and centrally-located hotel. And whenever I’m heading to the US, what else could I really ask for?