Watts Towers and Death in LA
Back in 1979 Los Angeles was very racially segregated. There were Chicano area, Black areas and White areas. There were Chicano gangs, Black gangs and White gangs. As an English person it was all a bit strange. I was to teach in a High school in Norwalk and that year Norwalk had the highest number of gang related murders. That was scary. The week I arrived a young man was executed. He was walking in the park and a group of youths chased him, dragged him back to their car and shot him in the head. It seems he was new in from Mexico. He’d innocently walked through the park wearing the wrong colour jacket. They thought he was from the rival gang. The Crypts and Bloods had a turf war.
We were given a lecture on where it was safe to go and which streets not to go near. We were told not to stop at traffic lights in certain areas. People would shoot you. We had to keep all our doors locked.
Needless to say we took no notice at all of all the warnings. We drove where we wanted.
One of the places we wanted to visit was Watts Towers. They were an amazing set of structures created by Sabato (“Simon”) Rodia who was an Italian artist. It was made out of old bottles and cans all cemented together into these great spindly towers. It was an impressive work of art and one that we were eager to see.
The only problem seemed to be that Watts Towers were in the middle of Watts. That was a black gang area. According to the teachers at school this was a ‘no go’ area. To go into Watts was certain death.
Undaunted we loaded up the van with kids and headed off to Watts. I didn’t have an issue with race; I didn’t see why anybody else would have. We hadn’t done anything wrong.
As we headed down the boulevard it was noticeable that we were part of a multicultural group. In the cars around us and on the sidewalks there were black, white and Chicano all seeming to be in harmony and getting along fine.
When we reached the intersection for Watts it was noticeable that this changed. We were in traffic driven solely by black people; all the sidewalks were full of black people. All the white and Chicano traffic had turned off.
At each intersection groups of black youths, lounging against walls, peered in at us. They seemed bemused. They were wondering how ‘whitey’ had managed to get lost.
We found Watts Towers, despite the fact that satellite navigation had not been invented, due to Liz’s map reading, and had a good look round. They were incredible. We returned to our van and went home.
We hadn’t been shot once! We hadn’t even been threatened. Everyone we spoke to was polite and friendly.
When I told them at school the next day they were horrified. They could not believe we had put the poor kids at such risk.
I believe you have to live by your principles and take people as you find them.
The Byrds started up in Los Angeles in the wake of the Beatles. They married the style of the British Beat Group to Folk Music. This was not quite as radical as it might appear. They had all been Folk musicians. When the Beatles stormed America they were instantly smitten and wanted to form a Rock Band with the same instrumentation as the Beatles. The Folk and Beat elements came together naturally.
The band got hold of a demo of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tambourine Man’ and produced a Rock version of the song. The jangley sound of Roger McGuinn’s 12 string Rickenbacker and the close harmonies of the group gave it a distinctive sound. They had created something different that went on to be described at FolkRock.
They invited Dylan along to hear it and he was impressed. He even joined them on stage at Ciros’ on the Sunset Strip where they had a residency pulling in all the hip dudes. It was the start of a long and fruitful two-way relationship. Dylan, who had started out in Rock before going down the Folk route, was turned back on to doing Rock by the Byrds, Manfred Mann and Animals, who had successfully converted his or other Folk songs into Rock, and the Byrds got the endorsement of Bob Dylan who was riding high as one of the hippest dudes around.
The single and album took off and established the Byrds as a major force. They followed it up with other Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger Folk songs as well as a number of their own compositions.
When they arrived in England they were served with a writ by the British Birds, a Beat group featuring Ronnie Wood, who were doing a publicity stunt about the American Byrds stealing their name.
As the sixties went on the Byrds moved with the times into a more psychedelic direction and got themselves in trouble with the media for what was perceived as drug references in their lyrics. They made the cross-over into being viewed as serious members of the alternative counter-culture and also have been cited as major influences on the Acid Rock scene in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their songs were spacey with extended psychedelic phases though the relationship with Dylan material and Bob himself continued.
They suffered a series of personnel changes and their best album by far was the wonderful ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’. The singing, songwriting and musicianship all reached a peak. Unfortunately things inside the band were not so hunky dory. Crosby was acrimoniously ousted and instead of building on this perfection they got Gram Parsons in, went down a Country route with Christian overtones and petered out into mediocrity.
It was a sad end to what was an outstanding band, a true original sound and a great force on the scene. They left a legacy that was immense.
Frank Zappa is probably the most cynical person who has ever lived. He did not seem to believe in anything. You set it up and he knocked it down. He had his own views on freedom and was deeply suspicious of the great American society he was brought up in. He despised its hypocrisy. Not that he found much solace in the sixties counter culture either.
Frank came out of the desert near Los Angeles. He went to school with Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) and they hung out together listening to music and working on early projects. Frank recorded and made films. He set up his own studio at an early age. He reputedly got busted for making shows that were considered pornographic.
Frank believed in sexual liberation, detested censorship and considered the American attitude towards sex repressive and hypocritical. He thought that all the repressed sexuality resulted in the violence, aggression and sado-masochism that was prevalent under the surface.
His early records did display an aligning with the new counter-culture but he rapidly became disparaging of that as well. He saw it as a bunch of kids getting stoned and looking to get laid. He parodied it unmercifully.
Frank went his own way and was an individual in every sense of the word.
The main focus of his political stance was that he considered American values and the American dream phoney and shallow. He saw it as a way the establishment had of exerting power and maintaining grossly unfair inequality. He saw religion as superstitious nonsense pushed by wealthy money grabbing cynics. It was all about power and control.
He even considered standing for President himself. I would have voted for him! It’s about time we got somebody intelligent and independent.
When it came to music his two passions seemed to be fifties Doo-Wop and modern classical composers like Stravinsky and Edgard Varese. Frank saw himself as a classical composer. He operated mainly in the field of Rock though he incorporated all kinds of electronic sounds and experimental structures. As for the content – everything was fair game. He sent it up, parodied it, used humour and satire.
Once you’d cracked the code it was easy to understand. The society was plastic. The morals were empty. It was all run by the establishment with profit being the only motive and the status quo being maintained. Most people were mindless vegetables slotted in to their pigeon-holes, brainwashed, mindless and going through the motions in the American Dream. The whole thing was a self-perpetuating game.
The band was always the weirdest around. Even when the first album came out, which sported some fairly standard tracks, the band were the strangest group of individuals ever and the album descended into extreme weirdness. But it was a wonderful, thought-provoking type of weirdness. I loved it.
The best album in my opinion was the wonderful ‘We’re only in it for the money’ which is unclassifiable. The cover was a send-up of Sgt Peppers featuring the Mothers in drag. The music was unconventional interrupted with asides, breaks, scratches and songs crashing into each other. Yet it all held together, had amazing songs, brilliant musicianship and was like nothing else.
In the seventies Frank decided to take up the guitar and made himself into something of a guitar hero. The live shows were perfectly orchestrated, incredibly complex, full of the same interruptions, theatre, interjections and non-stop flow of songs, asides and commentary – all delivered in Frank’s laconic style.
I have a great number of favourite Zappa compositions. They are like nothing else. They include ‘Help I’m a rock’, ‘Call any vegetable’, ‘What’s the ugliest part of your body’, ‘Cosmic debris’, ‘Titties and Beer’, ‘Who are the brain police?’ ‘Concentration moon’, ‘Who needs the peace corps?’ and the uncensored ‘Harry you’re a beast.’
I love Frank. His humour kills me and there’s always a serious intent lurking in those lyrics. He makes you think. In the end he is unclassifiable and I guess that is just how he wanted it. The world needs more intelligent critics like Frank.
Contrary to the connotations of the name Love were not always soft and full of flower-power naivety. They came steaming out of the heat of Los Angeles with its urban gangs, racial tribalism and harsh culture. Los Angeles was a city like no other. It sprawled out from the freeways and boulevards and was constructed for the motorcar. It was not a place you could walk the streets; you cruised in your Cadillac and frequented the Sunset Strip to sample the London Fog or Whiskey-a-go-go where the action was.
Love’s first couple of albums were earthy with a Punk feel to them. The songs were melodic and memorable but they had an edge to them that was raw and full of energy.
Arthur Lee and Bryan Maclean shared the writing and vocals creating a great blend of harmonies that fitted well with the guitar-based rhythms.
Those albums were groundbreaking but Love really came together on the third; the immaculate Forever Changes. This reflected their songwriting, musicianship, vocals and production all at their peak. It was one of the stand-out albums of that Acid Rock period. This was a masterpiece of West Coast Hippie culture that has been voted the best album of all time a couple of times. The album has sophistication and is complex with a divine sound without losing the immediacy and distinctiveness of the band. I love it.
Love capture the counter-culture feel of Los Angeles in the heady days of the sixties.
They also epitomise its collapse.
All the idealism and hopes of those times crumpled. The creative force dried up and it descended into violence, hard drugs, free-loading and sell-out. Greed and abuse destroyed it.
Hard drugs were the main reason for Love’s decline. It was all so predictable. After having broken big they were consumed with adulation, sycophancy and overwhelmed with expectation. They were plied with heroin. After the adrenaline high of performance it is difficult to come down and return to any normality. They were hugely successful, swamped with groupies and expected to live the life.
They were young men and succumbed. After one last OK album they split up.
Bryan went on to produce one solo album before going off into Christian Rock and dying in 1998.
Arthur stumbled along reforming versions of Love but failing to recapture the magic. He got himself into trouble discharging a fire-arm and ended up with a prison sentence.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that he finally got it back together. He found himself a group of young musicians called Baby Lemonade (After a Syd Barrett psychedelic number). He groomed them and formed a new vibrant incarnation of Love.
Suddenly the energy and magic was back. They were every bit as good as the original band in their heyday.
I caught a number of their concerts and they rocked. They even got Johnny Echolls back for a concert. I asked him where he’d been and he said ‘Around’.
Arthur wore his fables leather jacket and a headscarf and looked and sounded brilliant. The band was pulling enthusiastic crowds. Was it all about to happen again?
I had a chat with an enthusiastic Arthur. He was full of optimism and talked of recording an album of original material.
Just as it appeared that it was going to come to fruition and culminate in a renaissance Arthur was diagnosed with leukaemia.
He died. It died.