Monday, May 9, 2011
Chapter XI The Chinaman's Quarters
There was a palpable difference in standard of living between London and Los Angeles. Even London's main airport Heathrow seemed shabby in comparison with the modernistic LAX of 1977 at which I eventually arrived after a connecting flight. My actual departure airport of Stansted was little more than a large hut and a long expanse of asphalt; the 2 lane main access road was controlled by a traffic light as it crossed the runway to reach the Spartan terminal facilities. On the other hand, everything seemed gilded or, more appropriately, coated with the green sheen of affluence in Los Angeles. My father presented me with a Pinto station wagon, humble by American standards but several generations away from the Morris Minors and Austin Minis that I had been accustomed to owning in England. I was to live in the servants' quarters behind his Hancock Park manse; just having a self contained apartment with a private bathroom was a quantum leap in comfort from the shared bathroom of my London flat and its gas meter. And to think, the roof of my new apartment did not leak!
I had arrived thinking I would stay for an extended holiday; I still had my London flat and I had not given up hope of finally being called to start a career at the BBC. But just expending a fraction of the energy required in London to achieve any result, I found myself on a roll in Los Angeles.
After an absence of 5 years, there were people to look up, haunts to revisit. Upon arrival in Oakland in the northern part of California, I had telephoned my father to announce my homecoming. Within several hours of that call, I was stepping out of the bright Los Angeles sunshine through the portals into the timeless under lit ambiance of the Bull 'n Bush, my father's venerable restaurant in the mid-Wilshire district of the city. Essentially a steak house, upon entering the Bull one came upon the main drinking area, a fully fledged cocktail bar, customers often standing 2 or 3 deep, some awaiting table assignments for dinner. Everything seemed so American when I came back to the Bull; not only was the restaurant full of character, there were plenty of characters, too.
The waiters were worthy of being cast in a David Mamet play : Tommy Palma, the hard drinking 40 something illegal bets runner who took the fall in a federal gambling bust and later served time before dying from heart disease in his early 50s. Leo Egan, Auschwitz survivor, from a genteel upbringing in Poland who never lost his war-time hunger and slaved for every nickel he made. Merle, bald headed, straight out of 1930's L.A., lavished his money on his queen-like wife and the horses, seemed destined to die flat broke. Joe Roman, half Mexican and half German from El Paso, Texas, patriarch of a Chicano family that had made good.
All of the waiters had watched me and my siblings grow up, most having worked at the restaurant since soon after it opened in 1956; with his dyed black hair, Joe seemed to relish having known Gordie (my father) and Nancy (my mother) as a married couple. Since 1949, at the old Blarney Castle on Western Avenue, Joe had worked with my Dad. As recently as the early 1990's, well into his 70s, Joe was still waiting tables for my father at his surviving restaurant, H.M.S. Bounty.
Occasionally a waitress would work a shift and bitch afterwards how she made a fraction of what the pro's did. Many of my father's employees became financially secure from tips much of which they invested in southern California real estate, in that by-gone era of under reporting of gratuities received. Often, Marcy the restaurant's long serving bookkeeper (a Lebanese Jewess, she had taken me at my request to see Watts in 1968 - something unthinkable a few years later) would exclaim in examining the previous day's tallies, "Leo made $120 in charged (to credit cards) tokes". The implication being that these humble waiters were making as much as a bank manager might.
They were uncles to me and with the exception of Tommy's, I listened to their advice as a dutiful nephew might. Meanwhile they fought like a pack of ravenous dogs over the few walk-in customers who had not made reservations with a specific waiter in mind.
The customers were only slightly less entertaining. To be sure, the lunch time crowd was business oriented, but of those there were a bunch of ten martini drinkers, insurance executives, lawyers, advertising copywriters, who began their imbibing for the day in a booth in the back of the restaurant. Sadly, there were many characters who spent more time at the Bull's bar than with their families in the suburbs. Politicians, newsmen, sports figures would drop by; I met many Hall of Famers without any profound knowledge of who they were; I would soon spend half an hour being berated by Dick Butkus on the demerits of punk rock.
In case I had time on my hands over the next weeks, I knew where I would always be welcome. And this time I was able to enjoy the many proffered drinks, for now as a 24 year old it was legal for me to drink alcohol in California.
I was made keenly aware of the dark side of booze as I attempted to look up Larry Thor, associate professor in the UCLA film school, mentor from my 1971 and 1972 sojourns in L.A. . Thor, a 1950s character actor, contemporary and friend of Jack Kent Cooke, Lorne Greene and other Canadians who came south to Los Angeles was unmistakably of Viking stock, intensely proud of his Icelandic heritage. I had envied his Malibu beach life-style, his domestic bliss with wife Jean Howell, 3 children in tow : sons Cameron and Leifur, daughter Stina.
A year or so had passed without receiving one of Larry's frequent letters; I reached Larry's wife in a different house away from the beach in Santa Monica. Her husband had passed away the previous year, it was explained. After 20 years on the (temperance) wagon, he had fallen off for no particular reason and within a few months of drinking heavily had died in hospital, but not before inflicting a heavy emotional toll on his family. Stina was literally off the rails, crashing Larry's beloved Benz coupe that she was bequeathed. I was to meet Cameron (school mate of Jan Paul Beame a.k.a. punk rocker Darby Crash!) as he went through a stoner period in his life. A generation later, I was glad to see him follow in his parents' footsteps, the actor Cameron Thor making a cameo appearance as one of Peter Banning's associates in Spielberg's Hook and later becoming one of Hollywood's top acting coaches.
As Jaron Summers, another of Larry's disciples from UCLA, has written
there was no fairy tale ending for Stina, dying at age 44 in 2002.
Gone too, was my beloved Aunt Lois (Pantages), having succumbed a few years earlier to liver cancer. On the bright side, my Grandma Dorothy (Lois' and my father's mother, born 1 May 1900 San Francisco, raised in Stillwater, Olkahoma) was now living in a Las Vegas mobile home park with husband former navy cook Frank Withers, playing poker most days in one or other casino.
I had to look up Mario Machado, another former mentor who had stood me up 3 years previously at the (soccer) World Cup in Germany. Still, I had landed on my feet, picking up experience as a stringer for the London Evening Standard, learning how to file a report by telex, then the foreign correspondent's main communication tool. I bore no ill will towards Mario, who for his part didn't seem to regard his misleading me as to his whereabouts (a studio in New York City as opposed to one in Frankfurt, Germany) as anything more than an unfortunate, unavoidable Hollywood change of plans.
The last time I had seen Mario on his home turf was during the summer of 1972, he an up and coming news reporter and noontime anchorman for local CBS affiliate station KNXT, channel 2. I had watched and observed carefully the processes of the TV newsroom, been instructed as how to write formatted copy, even been guided to the former studios of KMEX TV, the local Spanish language outlet, next to Paramount and been amazed at a bi-lingual broadcast of an international soccer match, with the English language and Spanish language commentators taking turns to describe the action in their respective tongues.
Now, in 1977, Mario had moved onto other things. Fortunately for me, Mario had one particular scheme, Sports Ink, that needed cheap, talented labor and I and a highly experienced female soccer journalist were recruited as writers to develop a pilot issue of a soccer magazine. At least that was the general notion of what we were supposed to be doing in some newly re-painted offices located within a printing plant in the crime ridden west Adams section of Los Angeles.
There were liberating moments for sure. I had been enlisted to be part of my first entourage, someone whose sole function was to amplify the importance of the man in charge, a job for which I had received no training in the generally understated business climate of pre-Thatcherite Britain. Perhaps, had I been cast as a schoolboy actor in some Moliere farce, I might have had some grounding in being a courtier.
This is not to say there were no rewards : I received the princely sum of $325 every two weeks plus the benefit of my very first expense account; through Mario I was able to meet the greatest footballer of our generation, Pele; accompanying Mario on his missions throughout the L.A. area was like living an episode of a television dramatic series, one moment roaming the deserted Los Angeles Coliseum, the next dropping in on a Vicki Carr recording session. As our artwork was out-sourced, the most frequent and pleasant of my gofering (go-for-it, to run an errand) was visiting the art studios of Rod Dyer, a transplanted South African graphics arts entrepreneur. Under his tutelage were some of the most brilliant, up and coming illustrators to work in the L.A. entertainment business : Vartan, Mike Fink and a shy girl called Ginger.
Rod's Hollywood studio was always a hive of creativity, a welcome change from the deathly quiet of our too funky surroundings on the other side of town.
The greatest reward I received for my dutiful service was being invited by Mario each week to assist him in the commentary booth at local PBS affiliate KCET, where he would add U.S. commentary to English football matches being re-broadcast on a minimum one week time delay basis. Previously, in 1972, Mario had requested me as a 19 year old to negotiate a package in London with the very show's owner, Lew Grade's ITC; amazingly Lord Grade's people had taken me seriously and we negotiated a package to include something like 6 months' royalty-free rights to broadcast their weekly Star Soccer shows throughout the USA; the main area of difficulty was finding a mechanism to reduce the incredibly high cost in those days of converting the PAL colour signal to the U.S. standard NTSC (Never The Same Color) array. While I had visited Los Angeles that summer of 1972 I had written a pilot script for the Americanized version, using the raw English footage. Incredibly all my reports back to Los Angeles from London resulted in no perceptible activity and I continued with my master plan of obtaining a British university education.
Now, 5 years later Mario had been enlisted as the soccer commentator for the very same matches. Mario, part Portuguese, part Cantonese, had spent the early part of his career at IBM; endowed with a rich, sonorous, speaking voice he made his way into TV News and show business. His soccer commentary was perfectly American in tone and as a counter weight to its inflection, Mario liked to have someone more English alongside him in the voice-over booth to add "color". Armed with my detailed knowledge of every English football stadium, the fans and the Game, I felt I could help the realism of our commentary as Mario would want to create the illusion of our actually being present at the matches as they were played. As for my identity, Mario knew perfectly well that I was not English but with my plummy accent, I was told to assume the role and Mario never ceased introducing me to people as a "young English gentleman". I was too naive to know that my success in Hollywood would lay in being what other people wanted me to be, honesty and genuineness be damned.
R.F. moonlighted as a soccer correspondent in the 70s. He hitch-hiked around Germany in the summer of 1974 covering the World Cup as a freelancer for the London Evening Standard. The soccer magazine never materialized but this guide to soccer did, written by R.F., illustrated by Mike Fink.
I also looked up some of my former overseers from my time in 1971 as a copy boy in the old View section at the Los Angeles Times. The food writer, Rose Dosti had always taken a keen interest in my well-being and was to prove a wonderful friend for the next 10 years, always generous with professional and personal advice until her own life was engulfed by personal tragedy. One of my fellow copy boys, James Brown had stayed the course and made good as the radio critic. It was together with James that I had huddled with writer Bob Hilburn the August morning in 1971 when news had arrived from Paris of rock singer Jim Morrison's death. Bob had wondered as to the lasting impact of Morrison's demise, a fair question for the day considering we may have been the only 3 people in the then staid L.A. Times organization who were even aware of the alive Jim.
Now I returned to Bob's office, passing by Martin Bernheimer's, wherein the serious music writer had once tried to share his interest in pornography with me. I suppose Bob may have been relieved that I was not there to ask for a job. I wanted to know what was happening in the L.A. music world. To my bemusement, he mentioned the unfamiliar name of Tom Waits and the continued success of the Troubadour club as the place to hang out.
The visit was to prove pivotal for my life : on the drive back from downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood, I stopped to pick up a hitch hiker. Her name was Lori Fay, a runaway from Toronto with pre-Raphaelite, long flowing, dark red curls. I posed the same question to Lori that I had to Hilburn : this time I received the excited response that the place to be that night was the Whisky for the appearance of Lori's heartthrobs, The Dickies, to be sure, an unusual and also unknown name to me.
I felt I had everything to gain by going to The Whisky that October night. Just weeks after beginning at Sports Ink I felt a creative prisoner : I wanted to explore another realm of Hollywood. And sure enough upon entering the dark confines of the Sunset Strip club, I happened upon an other worldly scene of a group with 2 dark male lead singers, counter-balanced at one end by a statuesque blonde, singing at a Farfisa type keyboard, staring coldly off into the audience. Not The Dickies, this was San Francisco's Nuns making one of their first L.A. appearances at the zenith of their creativity. To be sure, The Dickies received greater adulation that night from their hometown audience, but their cartoonish, sped up music had none of the dark, enticing foreboding that much of the Nuns music communicated to me that night.
Even though it was a Thursday evening, I was in no hurry to catch an early night before a work day; rather, every minute that I mingled with the crowd in the club I felt that these were the people in the know that I had to get to know. It may have been Lori Fay or any one of the many cognoscenti there that let me in on the open secret : once The Whisky emptied, sometime after 1 a.m., most of its habitues would drive the several miles into the heart of the old Hollywood, into an alley off Cherokee, behind Hollywood Boulevard itself. There they would descend literally into an underground club - The Masque - where more music could be heard, more people mingled with.
This time, the music took on a more avant garde nature : it was hard to see where there might be any distinction between audience and performers. Among the audience were the members of the two groups that had played the Whisky. The group playing on a low riser were being joined seemingly on a random basis by members of the audience, sweating profusely in the poorly ventilated confines. I struck up a conversation with Jeff Olener, one of the Nuns' lead singers. In my exuberance I compared his stage presence at the Whisky to that of Jim Morrison whom I had seen perform in London a generation earlier. That comment seemed to please him; my entreaty to him to perform again at The Masque did not. He was dismissive of the notion, in a way befitting the jaded New Yorker that he was.
Soon, taking the stage was the power trio known as the Dils, the 2 Kinman brothers, Chip and Tony then accompanied by drummer Rand McNally. Now suddenly this was the best group I had seen in a long time, setting the crazy pattern for the next 5 years of my and many others' club going, constantly falling in love with a new group only to find something more enticing the next week, the next night or just 15 minutes later. The Kinman's were Navy brats from San Diego and their upbringing as a senior officer's progeny aided by their genetically bestowed tall stature never failed to allow them to pull rank on me, to make me feel less than competent in their presence. Even in those early days, they had a manager, the apparatchik-like Peter Urban. At the time he seemed knowledgeable about the music business to one as ignorant as I. Just a year later, Peter would be his self important best as he allowed me to obtain an unconscionably good deal with another band in his stable, Negative Trend, for my new label.
The real businessman that night was the elf-like Brendan Mullen, a ne'er do well Scot, product of a minor English public (private) school. As a tenant, Mullen had come into possession of the basement area, partially divided into rehearsal rooms. Without benefit of any of the requisite city permits, Mullen proceeded to populate his realm with the numerous groups, the Go Gos and The Motels (Martha Davis) among them, wandering Hollywood searching for affordable rehearsal space and in some cases, like that of Geza X, a place to unroll a bed mat. By the end of my 2 hours or so, that first night at the Masque, I had button holed Mullen and offered my services in any way he saw fit.
Within the week, I had been entrusted to act as mid week doorman to collect the token few dollars required of each person entering the club. The only other person so entrusted was Paul Collins, of The Beat, then in The Nerves along with Peter Case (Plimsouls) and Jack Lee (writer of Hanging On The Telephone, a hit for Blondie). This would prove an ideal way to meet all and sundry, despite alienating a few scene makers by insisting on their paying to get in.
(L to R) - Robbie Fields, Dan or Dave Kessel, Rodney Bingenheimer, Dave or Dan Kessel, Trudie Arguelles, Connie Clarksville, Brendan Mullen. The Kessels are best known for being Phil Spector's bodyguards. 1978. (Photo - Jenny Lens)
Now I would discover that some of those deserving complimentary admission would be members of groups playing the Masque, including one infamous one that never quite managed to perform on stage, that is, playing their instruments. The Plungers, were a collection of girls who hosted the party after the Masque which was in itself after The Whisky or Starwood, depending on the main attraction in clubland some particular evening.
Plunger House was a dingy apartment, located behind a gay bookstore on a seedy section of West Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard. There was Trudie (Arguelles) who soon became the face of L.A. punk as the cover girl for an early issue of Slash magazine; less comely, but also photogenic was Helen Killer; Trixie was the innocent looking one, nonetheless with cropped hair and safety pins decorating her face and clothes. Mary was almost too docile to be a Plunger. Theirs were the parties to be at, the Sex Pistols' newly released album Never Mind The Bollocks played over and over again to everyone's delight. The pictorial book California Hardcore recounts an infamous scuffle that took place at Plunger House on the one double bed, crowded with various inebriated souls, between your writer and the emaciated English writer Mark Plummer.
Mario Machado had introduced me to the heady atmosphere of Dan Tana's restaurant, located on a more fashionable stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard; Tana was a Yugoslav sometime movie producer and sometime owner of London football club Brentford. His restaurant offered straightforward Italian fare which was for the 1970s was slightly exotic for innately conservative L.A.. One of the more unusual dates I had that year was inviting Trixie Plunger to gorge herself on Veal Piccata at Tana's ... I dressed in a fashionable London suit, she in clothes copied straight off the King's Road punkettes.
Back at the office, no slouch for work, I failed nevertheless to understand the essential requirement that I live and breathe Sports Ink 24 hours a day, to the exclusion of all else. There was a cultural difference between boss and employee that I was not to bridge. Mario wanted to confide in me, to have me as a trusted lieutenant. I should have been flattered by his estimation of my intellect; instead, I felt at once suffocated and put upon. I was not prepared for the highly charged work ethic of Hollywood, of what was once described to me as "the need to kiss ass until you could afford to kick it".
My emotional inability to handle my subordinate position was put to the test as I discovered my fate in a scene so typical of the town : I was working late one Friday afternoon when Mario on a rare visit to the wilds of west Adams requested that I keep my door open to the hallway outside. Some minutes later, I could hear his magnificent voice booming from within his open office : he had confirmed with someone else their taking over my spot in the commentary booth for that weekend's taping of a Star Soccer match.
I used my remaining time that afternoon to fire off a petulant letter of resignation to Mario's financial backers. No doubt, I broke the news of my liberation from corporate America to my new confidant Brendan Mullen as soon as I could drive over to his upstairs office, located across Cherokee from the basement. That may have been the fateful day when Brendan first dubbed me "Posh Boy". What with my still plummy English accent and my penchant for wearing a suit and tie during this period of my life the name seemed appropriate. And just about everyone seemed to have a nom de guerre in those days.
Armed with my new moniker, I soon hatched my first
venture : Posh Boy Services, Posh Boy servicing the publicity
needs of the under publicized bands of our scene.
My career in alternative Hollywood was now set : it was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, the unemployable 24 year old, drunk with adolescent ambitions, stumbling from club doorman to label owner within 8 months.
Updated June, 2011