A Special Time in Rock: 1966 on the Sunset Strip : A kid might jam with Jimi Hendrix or hitch a ride in Phil Spector’s limo.
The summer of 1966 on L.A.'s Sunset Strip was a time when many young musicians thought anything was possible.
A teen-ager from the San Fernando Valley might wind up jamming with Jimi Hendrix, while a 14-year-old hitchhiking on Sunset Boulevard could get picked up by Phil Spector’s limousine.
It’s a time and place that is enshrined in American rock history as surely as ‘60s Liverpool remains revered in British rock--a time that has become topical again because of yet another Doors resurgence.
Although the box-office appeal of Oliver Stone’s film “The Doors” waned sharply after a strong opening week, Elektra Records’ “best of” Doors album, billed as the film’s soundtrack, is a smash. The album has been in the Top 30 for a month, and an older anthology joined it there this week. A third Doors roundup is in the lower reaches of the charts.
In Stone’s movie, the Doors seemed to launch the Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll scene in the ‘60s in a vacuum. But the group was part of a burgeoning underground movement whose center was the Sunset Strip, a stretch of Sunset Boulevard that included clubs like the Whisky, the Galaxy, London Fog, the Unicorn and Sneaky Pete’s.
“The universe was changing,” says Ray Manzarek, the Doors’ keyboardist, of the time.
Before the Byrds played Ciro’s in 1965, the pop music scene in L.A. consisted of people like Johnny Rivers, Trini Lopez and the Walker Brothers playing old-style nightclubs like PJ’s (the site of what was later the Starwood rock club at Santa Monica and Crescent Heights) and Sneaky Pete’s (now Duke’s coffee shop at Sunset and San Vicente). The bohemian folk scene held forth at Doug Weston’s Troubadour on Santa Monica off Doheny, Ed Pearl’s Ash Grove on Melrose (now the Improv) and the Unicorn at Sunset and San Vicente. Bob Gibson, now head of a publicity firm called the Group, represented such acts as the Doors, the Mamas & the Papas and the Byrds at the time, and ran a nightclub called the Cheetah on Santa Monica Pier.
“The adult clubs began to die and began catering to rock ‘n’ roll and the new youthful audience,” Gibson remembers. One of the most famous was Elmer Valentine and Mario Maglieri’s Whisky-A-Go-Go, where the concept of “go-go girls” was born when, during a Johnny Rivers show, the mini-skirted lass who spun records in a cage high above the floor began dancing and audiences thought she was part of the show.
“If you had to put your finger on an event that was a barometer of the tide turning, it would probably be the Sunset Strip riots,” says Gibson, talking about the confrontations that inspired the Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills to write “For What It’s Worth.” While the “riots” were immortalized in the 1967 film “Riot on Sunset Strip,” there was no one particular incident--rather, a summerlong simmering tension between longhairs, police and shop owners along the street.
“The cops would hassle kids for being underage,” claims Rodney Bingenheimer, who now hosts a radio show on KROQ, but was then dubbed by Sal Mineo “the Mayor of the Sunset Strip.” “The Sunset Strip was like Las Vegas. People would actually walk from La Cienega to Gazzarri’s at 2 and 3 in the morning. It was a 24-hour party, but it was all very innocent. It wasn’t until later that the scene turned ugly and people starting taking a lot of drugs. It was still a mod thing then.”
At the time, Bruce Gary was a Valley teen-ager sneaking into recording studios like Gold Star and Wally Heider’s to get a glimpse at his heroes. He went on to play drums in the Knack, but he was an eager kid back then who jumped at the opportunity to sit in with England’s Bonzo Dog Band when they came to town in 1968 to open for the Who at the Hollywood Palladium and play their own sets at Thee Experience, a club at the corner of Sunset and Curson whose front entrance was painted with a huge Jimi Hendrix head.
“I would play the final song with them every night, and on the last night, I looked over to my left and saw this guy picking up a guitar who I immediately recognized as Hendrix,” says Gary. “He came on and we launched into a 20-minute blues jam. . . . . It was a memorable night for me.”
Denny Bruce was an 18-year-old from Lancaster, Pa., when he arrived in 1963 to attend Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys. It was there he met a classmate named Pepper who was a baby-sitter for Frank Zappa’s kids and turned him on to the Hollywood scene.
The two had their picture taken for a Life magazine article on the “new generation” dancing the night away at the Trip, a Sunset Strip club that popped up where the jazz-oriented Crescendo used to be.
Pepper introduced Bruce to Frank Zappa, who recruited him as a drummer for the Mothers of Invention alongside Jimmy Carl Black. “Zappa would advertise what he called his ‘Guambo’ shows, which took place in an old warehouse at the corner of Western and 6th and 10,000 people showed up,” recalls Bruce.
Bruce left the Mothers, eventually becoming a manager and producer for the likes of John Fahey, Leo Kottke and John Hiatt. As head of Takoma Records, a joint venture with Chrysalis, he put out records by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Doug Sahm, T-Bone Burnett and Charles Bukowski in the late ‘70s.
Harvey Kubernik, who produces spoken-word records and performances, used to hitchhike up and down Sunset Boulevard. “Phil Spector used to pick us up in his limousine,” he recalls. “Sometimes he’d have his driver take us to a club, then pick us up afterwards and drive us home. The chauffeur’d have to keep circling the house so my mother wouldn’t get suspicious.”
According to Ray Manzarek, the Doors had very little to do with the existing Hollywood scene when he and fellow UCLA film student Jim Morrison formed the band in 1965 in Venice. “That was show business. We were art,” he says.
Manzarek recalls the band’s playing at a club called London Fog, a few doors down from the Whisky. “There were seven people total in the club,” he says with a laugh. “But Jesse the bartender kept telling us to play. ‘No one will come in if you don’t,’ he’d say. We used to play four sets a night, which is when we began experimenting with the song structure. That was where we cut our performing teeth.”
But less than three years later--after the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, the killings at Kent State and the emergence of Charles Manson--that dream was over.
“It was a special time I was privileged to live through,” says Bob Gibson. “I wish I could have been more aware of it at the time. Thirty years later, I look back and say, ‘What happened?’ ”