Title: Fifty Years Of L.A. Rock
Source: men.style.com (GQ magazine blog)/ USA. March 2009 by Alex Pappadema
Date: March 12, 2009
Keywords: Los Angeles. Troubadour, Tropicana
Accompanying picture
Source: Men.style.com (GQ magazine blog)/ USA, March 2009. Date: 2008. Credits: photography by Ben Watts


Fifty Years Of L.A. Rock


When you think of Los Angeles, maybe you think only of actors, agents, poseurs. But this town is so much more. It's hippies up in Laurel Canyon and punks down in the gutter. It's the Sunset Strip and hair metal. It's surfing, tripping out, turning on, and a guy called Tom Waits. Interview by Alex Pappademas; photograph by Ben Watts.

GQ: You actually grew up in and around Los Angeles?
Tom Waits: Yeah, yeah. Whittier. I was born in Pomona. But then my folks split up and I moved to San Diego. I moved back to L.A. when I was of age. I was 20 when I moved back - 19 or 20.

What brought you back?
TW: For someone who wanted to be in music, it was Oz. I was picked up hitchhiking - I had a guitar, I was on the side of the freeway - I was picked up by a guy named Eden Ahbez. You know who that is? He wrote a song called “Nature Boy”(1) [sings] There was a boy / A very strange enchanted boy. / And he traveled very far, very far. A big hit for Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole and a lot of other people. He was in an old VW bus. Hair down to his waist. That was encouraging to me. It kind of validated me somewhat; I got picked up by somebody who was really in the business. Or someone who, in my mind, was really in the business. Who had written a song that had some meaning. So that was really one of those early defining moments, in terms of me going to a place that, in my mind, had great cultural diversity and endless possibilities. I was really there to absorb as much of the atmosphere and the life there as I could. Most of the things that you absorb, ultimately you secrete in one way or another. I was counting on that. I kicked around in a lot of different neighborhoods, lived a lot of different places. You’d have a kind of collision of cultures. You’d have a mariachi band on one street corner and a Pentecostal preacher on another, competing for the same audience.

I imagine there were a lot of things you could experience in L.A. that you couldn’t get in San Diego.
TW: Oh God, yeah. I was auditioning at the Troubadour(2), way back when. There were three spots available. If you camped out on a Monday morning at about 8 a.m. and stayed there until 6, when they opened the doors, they’d sign you up for an open mike, and you could get up in front of kind of an industry audience and do three songs. I did that with great frequency. That was a big deal. You might meet somebody who was in the business, who might be able to do something for you. That was the idea.

What kind of people were you waiting in line with?
TW: Everyone. Like, an entire Mexican family, a family band, a whole family of singers. And then you’d have a guy who played the trumpet, who’d hitchhiked down from San Francisco and was on LSD. Really old-school Borscht Belt comics. Actresses. It was a vaudevillian atmosphere. And [Troubadour owner] Doug Weston was a character unto himself. He was almost seven feet tall, and he would come onstage naked and recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” - y’know, that Eliot poem. I saw Miles Davis at the Troubadour. I saw Little Richard at the Whisky, and Muddy Waters at the Roxy. But mostly I was there for, I guess, the life underneath that, y’know? I was a lot more daring in those days. I had a ’54 Cadillac that had safety-equipment problems all the time. Unsmogged, no registration, unwashed. Bullet holes in the windows. I got pulled over a lot. It was all a big adventure for me. I’d go anywhere. Before we were married, my wife and I used to play a game called Let’s Go Get Lost. We’d be driving, and she would just tell me to turn. “Turn here, turn here, turn here.” I’d say, “Baby, I know this town too well. I can’t get lost.” And she’d say, “Turn, turn, turn.” Until we were out in Indian country, and they were shooting at us. That’s the other big thing that happened. I met my wife in L.A. We were married at a wedding chapel in Watts(3), at two in the morning, and that was fun. We’re still married.

They had places where you could get married at two in the morning back then?
TW: Yeah. Twenty-four-hour wedding chapel. Just like Vegas. 

How did you end up living at the Tropicana Motel?(4)
TW: It was nine dollars a night. Eventually I moved in there, got a place in the back. Stayed there for a number of years.

What were the advantages of living there?
TW: Probably the price, I don’t know. I was on the road all the time, so when I got home, it just seemed to make sense to stay in a hotel, because that was where I was staying the rest of the time. It became rather famous for being a band hotel, because it was reasonably priced and it was in the center of all the clubs. You could practically walk to all the clubs from there. The Ramones used to stay down there at the Trop. Elvis Costello. Tim Hardin used to stay at the Tropicana. A lot of different bands. But at the time, it really wasn’t a musicians’ hotel. It was mostly itinerant businessmen from the Midwest. Or hat salesmen. Or people trying to break into the children’s-book industry. Or call girls. Or dope dealers.

Was there something inspiring about living in a place like that, surrounded by that cross section of society?
TW: You could imagine you were living like the Orwell book, Down and Out in Paris and London. You could imagine that you were in some place that’s constantly sweating and heaving and offering up ideas. I was trying to have a genuine authentic artistic experience. That’s what I really wanted. I had a piano in the kitchen, and in those days I’d stay up all night, sleep half the day.

You could play piano all night there?
TW: Nobody would bother me.

There were probably worse things going on there at night.
TW: Good Lord, yes.

Who were your neighbors?
TW: Most people were fairly transient. Anyone you’d meet might not be there a week later. Most of the people were passing through. It was a hotel. I was there permanently, but that was an unusual case.

What were the best places to go eavesdrop on people’s conversations, maybe pick up an idea for a song?
TW: I don’t know. Any place is good for eavesdropping, if you know how to eavesdrop. There was a place called the Dewbra Room, on Vermont, where Eddie Albert’s twin brother used to drink. Interesting place. Or Ben Frank’s, big café on the strip. Lotta ambulance drivers, lotta cops.

It seems like at that time in the ’70s, there were a lot of L.A. singer-songwriters exporting a very specific idea of the Southern California lifestyle. It seems like you were experiencing something very different from what they were singing about.
TW: I really wasn’t part of a scene. I didn’t want to be part of a scene. I wanted to take it all in - and then kind of, y’know, set it all on fire and see what remained. I didn’t really want to be part of a clique or a niche. But I also was looking for my own voice, as a writer, y’know? And a world I could call my own.

Were you consciously cultivating a persona back then? Were you thinking about wanting to be a certain kind of writer and trying to live the way a guy like that would live? 
TW: Well, all writers are looking for that, y’know? Where do you have to go to find the real shit? But it still requires a great deal of craft and the correct sensibility and style and… Yeah. I probably should have changed my name. It would have been a lot simpler for me. Because you’re trying to find out what it is about you that’s genuine, and what you have to invent. Most people don’t care if you’re telling them the truth or if you’re telling them a lie, as long as they’re entertained by it. You find that out really fast. You could tell somebody that you used to work in the circus, or you worked at a slaughterhouse, or you drove an ice cream truck, or you worked at the racetrack. It doesn’t much matter to anybody. Everyone’s selling their story. Made-up or true, it doesn’t matter. It’s a place of commerce as well, so everyone’s trying to make it, y’know?

It seems like everyone’s engaged in that kind of self-invention out there.
TW: Sure. That’ll never change.

What was your reason for leaving, ultimately? Why did you leave? 
TW: Oh, I don’t know. I had kids. The town changes once you have children. I wasn’t hanging out in bars at that point.

Do you ever miss it?
TW: Y’know, I can kind of compose the whole thing into one night and remember it that way. You’d still hear music on the street. There were still panhandlers and buskers on the street in those days. I used to go down to a place called Ernie Francis’s Parisian Room. You could see Redd Foxx down there. Or Jimmy Witherspoon, the blues singer. Shelly’s Manne Hole was still up on Cahuenga, by the newsstand. There was a place called Art Laboe’s. I used to go out to the Palomino and hear Jerry Lee Lewis. Captain Beefheart was playing, like, at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. Richard Pryor was playing clubs in those days. Taj Mahal played at a place called the Ash Grove, which became a place called the Improv. There was a whole rockabilly scene back then. Ray Campi. Levi & the Rockats. There was a gospel scene. There was Musso & Frank Grill. The Nuart Theater. The Cinerama Dome. The Ivar Theater(5). Canter’s Deli. The Pantry. Felipe’s. Wallach’s Music City was still around back then; that was a big music store on Sunset and Vine. The Continental Club was out in Silver Lake; that was a big Latin club. I used to go there. Schwab’s Drugstore was still around. MacArthur Park(6) was on Sixth and Alvarado. I remember the summer they drained that lake in MacArthur Park. They found countless skeletal remains, and firearms, and vehicles. Swords and knives. Fifth and Main downtown was pretty wild; it was like Mexico City at the time.
I had a lot of friends who were comics. I had a buddy named Larry Beezer(7). He used to do a train impersonation. He played a lot. He was from Philadelphia. Chuck Weiss(8) was my good buddy in those days. We were inseparable. Eddie Olmos, the actor - I used to bump into him all the time. Bette Midler was around. Michael J. Pollard was around in those days, the actor. Ed Begley Jr. These were just people on the scene at the time that I would encounter. You’d see Angelyne. You know, Angelyne - that strange old gal in the pink Corvette? You’d see her around town. Charles Bukowski was writing a column for the L.A. Free Press called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.” He was reasonably unknown at the time, still kind of a rumor. Zappa was still around. Hubert Selby Jr. was living in L.A. at the time. Harry Nilsson. Bernard Herrmann was still around. Gene Kelly was still alive. Alice Cooper. I think Mae West was alive, even. Jimmy Durante was alive. Phil Ochs was around then. Phil Ochs had changed his name to John Train and was wearing a samurai sword, sleeping on the railroad tracks on Santa Monica Boulevard, in front of the Troubadour. I used to drink with Richard Berry, who wrote “Louie Louie.” I used to have coffee with Big Mama Thornton at the Jolly Roger. She wasn’t big in those days; she was about ninety pounds. But she was around. It was kind of like big-game hunting when you’d go out. Who did you see, who did you meet, what did you do? What did you find? You’d see actors in coffee shops who you’d only seen in episodes of The Twilight Zone. You’d go, “I know that face!” You’d go into a bar and there’d be Roi-Tans, and pickled eggs. All those bars downtown were like out of the ’30s. I loved those places.

What do you think of L.A. now? When you get back there, do you recognize any of it?
TW: I lay low when I go there now.

March 12, 2009


(1) Nature Boy: A song by Eden Ahbez (1908-1995), published in 1947. The song tells a fantasy of a "strange enchanted boy... who wandered very far" only to learn that "the greatest thing... was just to love and be loved in return". Nat Cole's 1948 recording of the song was a major hit. The content of the song is based on a 1940s Los Angeles-based group called "Nature Boys," of which Ahbez himself was a member: "There was a boy. A very strange enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far, very far. Over land and sea. A little shy and sad of eye. But very wise was he. And then one day. A magic day he passed my way. And while we spoke of many things. Fools and kings. This he said to me "The greatest thing you'll ever learn. Is just to love and be loved in return". "The greatest thing you'll ever learn Is just to love and be loved in return".

(2) The Troubadour: further reading Troubadour.

(3) A wedding chapel in Watts: further reading: Wedding Chapel.

(4) The Tropicana Motel: further reading: Tropicana.

(5) The Ivar Theater: further reading: Ivar Theatre

(6) MacArthur Park: A park in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, named after general Douglas MacArthur. The park is famous for the song named after it, written by Jimmy Webb and first performed by Richard Harris in 1968. One of the best known covers of this is the Donna Summer disco 1978 hit. The park, originally named Westlake Park, was built in the 1880s, along with a similar Eastlake Park in East Los Angeles. Despite the rather poetic homage paid to it in the 1968 song, the real MacArthur Park became known for violence after 1985 when drug-dealing, shoot-outs and the occasional rumored drowning became commonplace, with as many as 30 murders in 1990. The Westlake area also became infamous for the sale of fake identification cards. When the lake was drained during construction of the Red Line tunnel hundreds of handguns and other firearms were found to have been disposed of in the lake.

(7) Larry Beezer
- Larry Beezer (1949-2000) was a standup "sound effect" comedian who appeared in radio, film and television, including spots on "The Tonight Show". Starting in 1968, Beezer made six appearances on "The Tonight Show." The recognition he received led to a successful string of appearances at Hollywood comedy clubs, including the Comedy Store, the Improv and Igby's. A native of Hatboro, Pa., Beezer moved to Philadelphia and later San Francisco to study and perform comedy. He relocated to Los Angeles several years later, emerging in the standup circuit, where he toured and appeared with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Robin Williams. Beezer also hit the Las Vegas scene, delivering his routine at the Riviera and the Dunes hotels. 
- Tom Waits (intro to Ol' '55 from Storyteller show, recorded April 1, 1999 in Los Angeles): "This is a song about an automobile. I had a '55 Buick Roadmaster when I was a kid. Actually, this really eh... was inspired by an old friend of mine named Larry Beezer, who... I was staying at the Tropicana Hotel, and I got a knock on the door very late and... Was that a clap for the Tropicana? Excellent! I don't think I got any new towels for the whole like nine years I was there. But I never asked, I didn't wanna upset anybody. This is about eh... What was it about again? It was about eh... It was about the car! All right, Beezer came over at about 2 a.m. He said, 'I'm on a date, and she's only seventeen, and I gotta get her back to Pasadena. And all I got left on the car is reverse.' I said, 'How can I help?' He said, 'I need gas money', and so he sold me a couple of jokes. He said, 'You can have these jokes, and you don't even have to tell folks that they're mine, cause you paid for 'em for chrissake!' And I said, 'That sounds like a good deal to me.' Anyway, he rode home, in reverse, on the Pasadena freeway. In the slow lane. I think they should give awards for that kind of thing! But anyway, it was a '55 eh... what was it? Was it a "55 Caddy?" (Transcribed by Ulf Berggren. Tom Waits eGroups discussionlist, 2000). 
- Beezer might have inspired Waits to do his "passing car" impersonations.

(8) Chuck Weiss: further reading: Rickie and Chuck