Rising From the Ash’s Ashes
Destination: Ash Grove.
In Dave Alvin’s 12-year-old mind back in the ‘60s, that was the ultimate challenge--figuring out how to hitch a ride from his home in Downey to the Melrose Avenue blues and folk club in West Hollywood.
Sometimes Alvin would get lucky and score a ride from his mother. Other times, he and his 14-year-old brother, Phil, would find some “older guys” who’d let them tag along.
Today, Dave Alvin, who wrote all those classic songs for his and Phil’s band the Blasters before moving on to an acclaimed solo career in 1986, still has a shoe box full of ticket stubs from the shows he saw at the Ash Grove on those magical nights in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
On the back of each stub he wrote the names of the artists who inspired him to become a performer: Lightnin’ Hopkins . . . Juke Boy Bonner . . . Johnny Shines . . . Willie Dixon . . . Big Mama Thornton . . . Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
“I probably wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for the Ash Grove,” Alvin says now.
He wasn’t the only one moved by the greats who played the landmark club, which was housed in the Fairfax district building that is now the Improv.
From 1958 to 1973, Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl brought raw blues and even rawer Appalachian folk music to the heart of Los Angeles, and the room became a training ground for artists such as Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt.
During an era when slickly produced music was the focus of the day, Pearl was scouring the country’s aural landscape, inviting musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Pete Seeger to perform at the 250-capacity club, while providing and encouraging a political forum for the music.
After surviving two acts of arson, the club was attacked a third time and was effectively burned down Nov. 11, 1973. Pearl believes the arson was an attempt to stop the social activism.
Today you’re lucky if you can find an authentic blues or folk experience around town--corporate theme parks such as the House of Blues certainly don’t provide it, while other venues neuter the music’s politics by showcasing it as a safe, innocuous relic.
It begs the question: Could a club willing to combine authentic American music and its politics survive in the ‘90s?
Pearl, 59, says he thinks so, which is why he is reopening the Ash Grove on July 11 on the renovated Santa Monica Pier. And he believes all it will take the second time around is what it took the first time: courage.
“If you’re terrified of offending everybody, you usually say nothing. I never did that from the beginning and I’m not gonna do it now.”
Unlike the original club, located on a then-dowdy stretch of Melrose and in a continual state of homespun disrepair, the new Ash Grove will be in an inviting location near the pier’s famed carousel. Besides the music and the ocean backdrop, the 350-capacity room will feature “pan-Caribbean” cuisine.
Although patrons can still expect to hear the blues, Pearl has expanded the club’s musical horizons to include everything from Cajun to contemporary rock en espan~ol.
Despite the approaching grand opening, Pearl, a soft-spoken East L.A. native, is relaxed and upbeat as he sits in his upstairs office. A refreshing ocean breeze wafts through a porthole above his desk and blows his paperwork around.
The slight chaos that ensues is a nice metaphor for the confusion Pearl initially felt as he worked his way back into clubland after a long absence. It didn’t take long for Pearl to realize that a lot of the phone numbers in his old Ash Grove directory had been disconnected. Clearly, the rules of the game had changed since ’73. So despite all his experience, Pearl has spent several months in a crash course in the music biz, ‘90s-style.
“It was like I went to sleep and woke up in the ‘90s and didn’t know anybody,” says Pearl, venting his frustration at dealing with the world of agents and managers. What used to take a call to an artist’s home now takes repeated attempts to weave through the industry hierarchy.
“I was so upset that I called Pete Seeger after about three days, and he said, ‘I know what you’re gonna say. . . . The prices are outrageous, and you’re right. What you need is for me and a couple of the guys to come out there and play for nothing for a couple of weeks.’
“I said, ‘Great Pete. When can you come out?’ He said, ‘Next January.’ I told him I’m opening in July and he said, ‘Sorry Ed, I’m booked.’ ”
Pearl quickly addressed the situation by organizing an entertainment committee made up of some music industry heavyweights, most of whom were involved in the Ash Grove’s first incarnation.
Besides his business partner, Tim Rosenfeld, the members of Pearl’s booking council include Sam Epstein, a world music expert and Rhino Records executive; Betty Miller, a blues booker and former owner of the Music Machine in West L.A., and Mike Minky, an entertainment CPA who worked at the Ash Grove while in high school and college.
During a recent committee meeting in Pearl’s office, the subject turns to a discourse on the blues--then and now. One of the key features of the old days, they concur, was the artists’ accessibility as an educational resource.
“Brownie McGhee came through and I paid him to teach me guitar,” says Bernie Pearl, Ed’s blues musician brother who played in the old Ash Grove house band (though he had to resign from the committee because of other commitments, he remains closely involved in the operation). “I fastened on to Lightnin’ Hopkins. . . . These artists had been out of favor within the black community for about 30 years or so, and they saw us as people who wanted to receive the legacy.
“It wasn’t just the musical thing. It was educational and most of the artists were keenly aware that the music was dying.”
During that era, the Ash Grove’s customers--who also included the likes of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan--were the thirsty benefactors.
“The old masters would play there and the young performers would open up for them,” says Minky, who did everything from sweep the floors to handle sound and lighting. “You had people like Taj Mahal and Canned Heat and Ry Cooder developing by listening to the masters play. . . . It was music and politics, and there hasn’t been anything like it since.”
It’s unanimous among committee members that the blues and folk traditions adopted by such venues as McCabe’s present these music cultures in “museum-like settings.” But Betty Miller notes that the changes boil down to business.
“You have a contract,” she says. “They come at 7 p.m. and leave at 1 a.m. and that’s it. It’s a big business now.”
But it’s not just the business that’s changed, Ed Pearl acknowledges. The music and cultural scenes, too, have shifted. The blues and folk world has shrunk with the deaths over the last two decades of many of the acts that graced the old Ash Grove stage, and they haven’t been replaced.
So he’s broadening the Ash Grove’s musical spectrum for the ‘90s by booking an eclectic mix of music, including tejano, bluegrass, jazz and flamenco. A free twilight series of multiethnic music will be presented, as well as weekly nights dedicated to music from South-Central L.A. and East L.A.
“That’s where I feel I get a chance to remedy the past,” Pearl says. “I didn’t include enough local ethnic music, virtually ignoring the Mexican music culture. This time, that won’t be the case.”
Pearl, who realizes the difficulty of re-creating the Ash Grove’s prized “learning” aspect in today’s club climate, says he’d be satisfied “if we simply could dignify people’s culture and . . . present that, and then let people develop as they may.”
During the two decades between the closing of the original Ash Grove and its reopening on the pier, Pearl made a living producing music and theater, including productions for the San Francisco Mime Troupe and El Teatro Campesino.
A mixed-media piece he wrote on apartheid was performed in 1987 at high schools and junior high schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. The rebirth of the Ash Grove, however, is his biggest challenge yet. (Pearl and Rosenfeld came close to reopening the club back in 1987, but the shaky financial climate dashed their plans).
As he prepares now to open the doors, does he feel intimidated by the legacy of the club?
“It pleases me that it was so important to so many people,” Pearl says. “But my greatest regret in life since the closure of the Ash Grove is nobody has even tried to do anything like that--to have enough respect for the average human being to really present legitimate culture and to assume it will affect people deeply and inspire them.”
For Dave Alvin, the chance to bring his music to the Ash Grove’s stage in the ‘90s is somewhat daunting.
“It burned down several years before I was ready to play,” says Alvin, whose gig with Peter Case on July 20 will mark his Ash Grove debut. “I still don’t know if I’m ready.”
He’s not exactly joking.
“I’ll be scared driving home, because I’ll feel in a way my life’s come full circle and I might die.”
The Ash Grove, 250 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. All ages, cover varies. Opening scheduled for July 11. (310) 656-8500.