You can come on Art Fein’s television show but you have to be ready to answer his Two Big Questions:
1. What was the first rock ‘n’ roll record you bought?
2. What was the first rock ‘n’ roll show you saw?
Which brings us to another question: Who in the world is Art Fein?
Someday there will be a coffee-table book called “Legends of Public-Access Cable Television” and all the world will know. These days only a few thousand people do. They watch Fein’s irregularly scheduled, almost-weekly “Art Fein’s Poker Party” on a variety of local cable stations and marvel at a good-natured, middle-aged music fanatic having the time of his life.
During the past eight years, making use of the Federal Communication Commission’s policy that says anybody can broadcast a show about practically anything on the local cable company’s public-access channel, Fein has hosted 400 episodes of “Poker Party.”
The subject is rock ‘n’ roll. Actually, a thin vein of rock ‘n’ roll, a subculture called “roots” music: relentless, rollicking stuff that ranges from ‘40s “jump blues” to the rockabilly music played primarily by Elvis Presley and a score of Elvis-imitating hillbillies in the mid- to late 1950s. A small, dedicated, impoverished welter of musicians has continued to play this stuff over the last 40 years as it veered in and out of fashion. This is the vein Art Fein (pronounced as in “so fine”) wants to talk about on his TV show. He wants to mine every last ounce of gold from it.
The show runs not only in Los Angeles but on local-access channels in roots-music-crazy Austin, Tex., and New York City. Fein mails taped copies of his shows there. Sometimes fans send other copies to cable stations in other cities, giving the shows a quirky life of its own.
“The only time I stop flipping channels in New York is the half-hour during the week when his show is on Manhattan Cable at 1:30 Saturday mornings,” says George Kearney, a zealous New York fan who showed up at one of Fein’s tapings recently while on vacation here. “It’s the only half-hour worth living in New York--if you’re not a stockbroker.”
The guests consist of Fein’s friends and heroes, most of them living in glorious obscurity: People like Michael Ochs, premier rock ‘n’ roll archivist; Dave Alvin, the pompadoured poet and guitarist who co-founded the Blasters, one of Los Angeles’ most beloved local bands in the early 1980s; longtime music hustler and producer Kim Fowley, who recalled on one show that he’d been so hooked on rock ‘n’ roll as a kid that he bought hit singles even though he didn’t own a record player; rockabilly old-timer Ray Campi; Steve Allen.
You don’t think Steve Allen has beans to do with rock ‘n’ roll? You don’t know history like Art Fein knows history.
Fein wanted to interrogate Allen about those evenings in July, 1956, when Elvis Presley was a guest on Allen’s “Tonight” show. This was months before Elvis’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
In the obsessive circles that Fein jokingly refers to as “Elvis discussion groups,” it has long been felt that Allen humiliated Presley by making the singer dress in a tuxedo and by posing a basset hound in a top hat next to Elvis when Presley sang “Hound Dog.”
Fein convinced Allen, who had been plugging his new autobiography, to come on his show. As the tape rolled, they spent a few minutes swapping old comedy stories and then--never losing his smile--Fein began the historical examination.
“You’re known as the enemy of rock by a bunch of petulant people,” Fein said.
“I’ve always loved rock,” Allen said. “It’s the roll I have trouble with.”
“In your book you say you don’t think he’s such a great singer,” Fein said.
“He didn’t have a great sound,” Allen said.
Fein restrained himself and did not express the incredulity he felt.
“I booked him based on his charisma, not his voice,” Allen continued. “It was chiefly his face that accounted for his stardom.”
What kind of person could produce 400 shows based on such nuances?
The kind of person who could author a book, “The L.A. Musical History Tour,” featuring photos of nuggets such as the Foster’s Freeze in Hawthorne where the Beach Boys hung out, and Morrison Hotel on South Hope, where the Doors shot the cover photo for their 1970 album of the same name.
The kind of person who hated the folk-rock-and-disco-filled 1970s and helped lead a brief but memorable rockabilly renaissance in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. The kind of person who once submitted to the National Geographic an anthropology story on what he regarded as the “tribes” of ‘50s rockabilly-style “Teddy Boys” who still prowl through Britain. The kind of person who hates the MTV era so much that he not only bans music videos on his TV show but consciously runs “un-videos,” during which he plays a record and orders the screen to go black, featuring only this message: “You don’t have to see music to enjoy it.”
Fein, 46, was raised in Chicago, lost his mind to rock ‘n’ roll around the age of 10, went to college in Colorado and then headed to California.
The first place he stopped was Santa Monica and Vine in Hollywood, at now-defunct Gold Star Recording Studios, where Eddie Cochran had recorded “Summertime Blues” and producer Phil Spector had invented the dense, symphonic “wall of sound” behind artists like the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes.
He worked for a few record companies for a couple of years but outside of that he has avoided 9-to-5 jobs, making an uneven living in the margins of rock music--working as a music consultant on films and TV shows, writing free-lance articles, writing album liner notes and, for a couple years, managing the Blasters.
By the mid-1980s, Fein was a fixture in the local roots music scene, producing occasional rock shows. He was--and remains--an earnestly pleasant guy whose 140-m.p.h. conversation drips with his love for music. He was that rare insider who remained a fan. But he hadn’t found his niche.
And then he and a bunch of rock critics who hung out together began to wonder why the stuff they loved, and the reasons they loved it, never made the airwaves. And somebody started talking about local access as an outlet.
To many people, public access is a code word for “Wayne’s World,” the parody about heavy-metal zealots who broadcast out of their Midwest basement. In fact, there are about 2,000 public-access channels operating nationwide, thanks to a 1984 federal law that allows cities to require a public-access channel any time they enter into a franchise agreement with a cable company.
Fein’s show is most often seen on the public-access channels of Continental Cable’s Hollywood system, and West Valley Cable and United Artists Cable in the San Fernando Valley. It appears intermittently--depending on when he can book time and deliver the tape--on Century Cable.
A few years ago Fein took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety seeking an investor who might help him move the show into late-night syndication, but it hasn’t happened. He drives an ’85 Yugo without air conditioning. He’s not complaining.
“If this show is a springboard, I’ll be mighty happy,” he says, “but if it’s not, I’m having a ball doing what I want to do. I’ve always had an artistic temperament, but before I started the show I never had any art. I couldn’t sing; I didn’t want to write a novel. But this is something I feel really good about. I almost feel like a knight going off to battle when I leave the house, like I’m going to really say something.”
The show even brought Fein romance. It was at a taping that he met his wife, Jennifer, who works for Century Cable in Santa Monica. They have a 15-month-old daughter.
Fein’s semi-regular panelists are longtime Los Angeles music critic Todd Everett and old friend Paul Body, a salad chef who shares many of Fein’s musical tastes.
Everett calls the show a rock ‘n’ roll version of Jim Healey’s fabled Los Angeles radio sports show, which dissects sports minutiae at an enthusiastic machine-gun pace. Body is less elegant: “It’s a bunch of old guys talking about music.”
It’s Ray Campi, jokingly complaining on camera to Fein that he’s never been paid for appearing on “Poker Party” (no one is) and drawling, “So I brought my business manager along,” and laying a gun on a table. It’s Fein spewing venom toward compact discs, complaining that the small type they use in liner notes is impossible to read, and Body responding: “You have way too much time on your hands.” It’s Kim Fowley being asked to consider not just what his favorite record of all time was, but his favorite Atlantic Records record, and what two states had produced the best rockers. (His answer, for the record, was Louisiana and Virginia.)
It’s Everett sitting in a chair off camera during one taping to baby-sit Fein’s daughter, Jessie, then deliberately letting the infant wander onto the small raised stage as the camera cut back and forth between the panelists and the girl.
It’s Fein’s smile of rapture as he watches one of his musical guests, Big Sandy and the Flyrite Boys, perform amid the relentless rhythm and shrieking and dramatic breaks of silence that make roots music so chaotic and yet so irresistible.
Just for fun, Fein has the studio technicians turn off the color so that to viewers the song segment will appear in black and white, and Fein can playfully claim it was actually filmed in the ‘50s.
“Where’re you guys playing?” he asks Big Sandy when the song is over and the cameras continue to roll.
“El Monte Legion Stadium,” the lead singer deadpans.
Jessie, still toddling loose, falls down and howls, another moment that will be shared with Fein’s viewers.
“I gotta get a baby sitter,” the host says.
He looks at the small clock he keeps nearby to time the show. Only a couple of minutes remain.
“I’ve heard the music today and I’ve heard the talk, and the music’s better,” Fein declares, “so Big Sandy, why don’t we go out on another song?”
And so they do.