|Hard to Believe They Let Me In, Part I
||[Jun. 3rd, 2014|10:32 pm]
Yikes! First Wednesday in JUNE already! Okay, I know my Readers (Up to Three Now, Not Including my Mom!) have been lurking restively by their computers, waiting for me to share other exciting Adventures of Jocelyn. For now I shall resort to posting something written in August, the "Director's Cut" (so to speak) of the Sunset Strip Music Festival article(s) I wrote for Rock World Magazine. Scroll down a few entries for links to the articles as they appeared online, wherein fully half of what I wrote was lopped off for space reasons. What's here is my full version, with all the pie fights put back in. Pull up a chair and a cup of something cozy (or refreshing). I hope you enjoy it.|
Sunset Strip Music Festival 2013: Finding My Inner Badass
by Jocelyn Parrish
I gotta ‘fess up right away: It’s not like I did this on a dare or anything, but I would never have gone to this event on purpose. A friend was in need of a writer, however, so I signed on for the adventure, even though I’m totally the wrong person to cover a gig like this. I had a Surprisingly Good Time, albeit for completely different reasons than everyone else who went.
So here's what I know about rock music: I like classical music. I don’t mean that in a snooty, exclusive way, but I grew up listening to Mom’s Beethoven (and Brahms and Franck). I could pronounce all the composer’s names correctly, so when the college radio station needed announcers I stepped up --the only theatre person in their crowd of music majors (weirdly enough, the jazz DJs were all studying Business). To be perfectly accurate, there's classical music I just. Don't. Like. (Vivaldi: Mosquitos Crashing into a Metal Bucket. Bach: Tedious AND Prolific! Berlioz: Whyyyyyyyyy?) So really I’m an Equal Opportunity Snob, like everyone else. I enjoy big band, celtic, world music, and lots of obscure stuff, in addition to Paul Simon, Ella Fitzgerald, and (I kid you not) Fred Astaire; I got over my crush on Neil Diamond a lonnnnng time ago, but I still know the songs. Country music on road trips. Beatles, definitely.
The point is that I’m fairly open-minded, but (apart from quite mysteriously knowing Cosmo's Factory very well) anything described as “rock” is just not on my radar. I actually had to ask Diana, Rock World’s co-founder, lead photographer, and my personal guide through this music festival weekend, what she meant when she referred to “STP.” And even then all I know about Stone Temple Pilots is that people buy their t-shirts. Are ya beginning to see how NOT the Target Demographic I am? Nevertheless, armed with earplugs (which nobody seems to take as a sign of disrespect), good shoes and --this is LA-- sunscreen and sunglasses, I stepped forth to see what there was to see.
The opening event of this festival was held Thursday evening at House of Blues, a tribute ceremony for 2013 honoree Joan Jett. Once it really sunk in that we’re on, you know, THE Sunset Strip I kind of expected to...feel something...special. It was then and there I vowed to write this whole article without using the word "iconic" just because it’s so tempting.
So, Joan Jett:
According to her friends, she's a truly wonderful person: hardworking, kind, a humanitarian;
She's 50-something and still very hot;
She's a lesbian, and possibly a vegetarian;
And (this was uttered frequently, sincerely, reverently and as a tremendous compliment) she’s a Total Badass.
Once the glowing accolades (from the likes of Carmen Electra, Margaret Cho and, on video, Howard Dean) concluded, everyone waited for an hour politely if listlessly, all but ignoring the footage of old MTV videos (big blue eyes, lush pillowy lips, OMG we all looked so young!). Word trickled through that the expected 9 pm start time was for some reason delayed an hour (Don't they know we're paying for parking?). I went outside, past the red carpet, in search of some fresh air, which took some doing to get beyond the alley of smokers.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts came on at 10 pm, at which point everyone in the room went completely bananas --I could hear them from my perch outside the House of Blues, so I went scampering back inside. Hundreds of people were suddenly very, very happy. She loved them right back, and gave them the rock they came for.
I am entirely serious when I tell you that the man next to me, a reporter (who was gallant enough to offer me a seat in a VIP section) leaned over and shouted, "Pretty good for a lesbian, huh?"
Now, what DO ya say to that, really? Point out that even I know that Ms. Jett is virtually a priestess to several kazillion people who appreciate her authenticity, humanity, integrity, her standing for everyone’s right to do what they believe in? That she made some truly brave, groundbreaking (contract-declining!) choices early in her career that forever changed the way artists reached their audiences?
In an effort to politely dodge the tacky question, I made some kind of glorfling noise and shrugged.
Then --apparently in case I didn’t know what a lesbian was-- he said, “She likes girls.”
I nodded gravely.
A moment later came the question, “Do you like boys or girls?”
I eyed him contemplatively and considered replying disingenuously that “I like everybody,” but realized that could lead into deeper waters than I had the energy to swim out of, so I just smiled and said that I liked boys. Shortly after that, Diana had as many photos as she needed, so I thanked him for the seat and we left.
So we covered the part about my not being a rock fan; did I mention that I don't like crowds, either? I guess I like PEOPLE okay, but maybe fifteen of 'em at a time, ya know? More than that is fine if they're an audience --by which I mean they’re all sitting politely over there somewhere. So I wasn’t really looking forward to attending a huge, crowded event. However, A LOT of people worked very, very hard to give an enormous street party that spanned three days (well, two evenings and a full day). And I gladly state that they did an amazing job. Legions of volunteers, staff, security, vendors, rockers and roadies totally brought it, to show fifteen thousand people a good time.
Sunset Strip Music Festival was a gateway into several worlds at once, and they all sort of overlapped each other. I noticed a subtle shift over the course of the day in the attendees; people who came earlier in the day were there for the music, more of the evening people were there for the “scene.” There were 42 different artists on Saturday alone, something for every possible taste within the rock music genre. Sponsor booths gave away swag, and Jack Daniels “uniformed” hotties roamed the crowd handing out bandanas and sunglasses (Did they find those jobs in Variety, or through a temp agency? I tried to imagine the posting: “Seeking T&A Babes: Young (20s), hot, blondes preferred. Big boobs, fake okay.”) There was a LOT of female cleavage, which at some point almost became invisible (to me, anyway; I didn’t ask any of the men). It seemed that a great deal of individual effort went into being noticed, resulting in an enormous collective Meh. Since I don’t even own a pair of jeans I had agonized over what to wear, but ended up with the outfit that worked best with my most comfortable shoes (yeah, 'cuz Nondescript is the new Hip).
Standing in line for one thing or another is also a big part of festivals. I’m sure that numerous lifelong friendships have been started, arguments carried on, babies conceived, apartments found, all while standing in one line or another to get stamped, ticketed, or let in somewhere. Total strangers become fairly chummy in a short span of time, exchanging lore about the bands, commiserating about the weather when appropriate, sharing snacks and um... yeah, snacks. So while waiting to get stamped at the Viper Room on Saturday for Scott Weiland’s second night, I chatted with the guys next to us about our Top Five Best. Concerts. EVar... until Diana tapped me on the shoulder to introduce me to her friend. I turned around to meet surely be the nicest man ever to be covered in ink. Rick is tall and lanky, with long dark hair and lively eyes twinkling out from under a low-slung fancy black leather cowboy hat. He wore a sleeveless shirt and leather vest, and jeans that are shredded but not sloppy. I don’t personally care for body art, but his “sleeves” are unique and quite beautiful. It’s a little hard to pinpoint his age; he’s clearly been in the scene for a long time yet has a bright, youthful quality (I can only assume Rick has a painting of himself somewhere that makes Dorian Gray’s portrait look like Elijah Wood...). He’s had his own band for years, has played and partied with people you’ve heard of, if ya know what I mean; he’s also kind, polite, curious, has genuine enthusiasm for the music, and a steady --if unconventional-- Day Job. Even with bone-deep badass rocker cred, there’s something pleasantly sleek about him; he knows exactly who he is and doesn’t need to prove anything.
I’m not particularly embarrassed to admit that I’d had to miss Friday because I just couldn’t stay out late three nights in a row. From Rick’s glowing recount, I almost wish I’d gone. Almost. The timing on Friday night’s festival experience was to some extent one of competing headliners, requiring a Game Plan for getting in to see everybody (get stamped for the Whisky, then wait in line for Scott Weiland, get stamped for the Roxy, go to a friend’s art opening, have a drink at the Rainbow, then go back to the Whisky, and so on). While surely some people go out of morbid curiosity to see whether an old rocker has still got it together, Rick and Diana averred that Scott Weiland’s Friday night show at the Viper was spectacular. Weiland is a unique singer who can go from a beautiful, almost tender sound to a powerful, grungy rock & roll voice. Stone Temple Pilots were (and continue to be) mega-big, and to get this close to a near-legend is a rare experience. His band was bigger, the space smaller. Weiland and the band were in great form, compelling and clearly into his performance, and the crowd was right there with him. Sometimes people want a stimulating new experience, at other times we want a communal experience of familiarity. Weiland and his band (the “Wildabouts” part of “Scott Weiland and the Wildabouts”) played several STP hits from the mid-90s, and the fans sang along, which was satisfying for everyone.
In contrast to a trip down memory lane, The Icarus Line at the Roxy was a different kind of compelling, Rick reported. “Mesmerizing on every level. Blew my f**king mind.” Diana enthusiastically concurred. Reminiscent of punk blended with early Pink Floyd in the sense of experimentation and coolness, their singer has powerful, Mick Jagger-level charisma. The crowd loved them, and everyone connected in an inspiring, unique, special way. My companions seemed to agree that The Icarus Line was one, if not the, highlight of the festival.
In general I like to think that most people would have the good sense not to sit next to a jet airplane on an aircraft carrier. Yet here we all were, standing beside various gigantic equipment putting forth vibrations surely felt at LAX, with everyone apparently very proud of the volume produced (and withstood).
As we arrived, Street Drum Corps got the West Stage underway, fronted by a trio of masked, heavily-inked blokes drumming with panache. After the first vigorous number, the lead singer uncovered his surprisingly sweet face and took over. That’s when I noticed the scantily clad women dancing at either side of mid stage. On stilts. I can't say I would have come up with that idea, but apparently someone thought it was important to cover all bases, in case watching the drummers wasn't interesting enough.
Somehow rock seems a little incongruous in the daytime. It seems odd to put a band with a couple of albums under their belt, and that has toured the US and Japan, on a tiny stage back behind the food arena, but I felt like LA alternative/indie band Sabrosa Purr “played big” as though the place was packed and they were on at 10 pm.
Then it was over to the Whisky. Whisky a Go-Go is about to celebrate 50 years as a venue, and Van Halen and Motley Crue are among literally scores of bands that got their start there (even I have heard of Van Halen, okay?). My favorite part of the Whisky’s Yelp profile reads, “Noise Level: Very Loud” and “Good for Kids: No.” Sad Robot recently held the #1 spot for 4 out of 10 straight weeks on KROQ’s Locals Only Playlist with “Hold On.” It was a pleasure to actually be able to hear the lead singer, well, sing: definitely got a little Janis goin' on, there. I loved their cover of “Ain't no Sunshine” for showing me something new about a song we all know pretty well. I had a delightful interview with the band (see interview). Keep your eye on these guys.
The Dreaming (Diana's fave local band) definitely had the most “committed” hair flopping (and hey, it looks great in coloured lights!). Everybody really “brings it”; nobody phones it in for a festival. Diana insisted I come up front for a totally different experience, which I was only able to stand for a couple of minutes. My teeth rattled and my heart was confused about which beat to follow, but I GOT it: Something ineffable passes back and forth between the crowd and the band.
So the Good News is that Orgy was quite the popular show. The Bad News is that the place was so packed that security declared The Whisky at capacity and wouldn’t let anyone in, even with our press wristbands. Presumably this will be taken into account for next year and they'll get a bigger venue or better time spot. Then I’ll be able to hear what “industrial glam rock” sounds like. Somehow the gracefully seasoned Diana slipped past the guards with a flash of her impressive camera lens (which I swear is the size of a Jack Russell Terrier).
While waiting outside the Whisky I wandered up to the East Stage and listened to Slick Rick and beatbox innovator Dougie Fresh. They brought on surprise guest Wayne Brady, comedian, improv artist, and new host of Whose Line Is It Anyway? This seemed like a totally different crowd, leading me to realize that there were actually about three different festivals showing up in one place. Event organizers had taken some pains to appeal to different listeners; a savvy move.
Diana returned to move us along our rock journey. I kinda liked what I heard from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club --a bit wistful, and bluesier than what I’d been hearing all day-- but I got an even bigger kick out of Diana describing them as “old-school shoe-gazing” music. Originally from San Francisco, they have albums on Echo and Virgin, and the good size of their crowd on the main West Stage spoke to their repute.
A highlights for me was having dinner (finally, at ten o'clock!) at the Rainbow. I was fine with making another trip to the ad hoc food court, but Diana insisted that this was an experience not to be missed. Once again, she was right. Those in the know, go to the 'Bow.
Diana and Rick looked way more rocker-chic “in” than I, not to mention recognized by the gentleman at the gate, who almost didn’t let me in with them. I’m glad they vouched for me, because I loved the Rainbow. It was a different kind of Loud inside; festival headliner Linkin Park was launching their mortar shells outside but in here I could sing along with “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Neither Rick nor Diana seemed too interested in Linkin Park; both agreed it was a disappointing evolution of the festival that didn’t honor the “Sunset Strip rock” they loved.
The restaurant was large and busy yet very cozy, the walls closely paved with photos and music memorabilia; think 1970s Howard Johnson’s, done over by very “hip” hobbits. The entire day must have been hellish for the service staff, yet we were met with indefatigable good cheer and well-served. The halibut was fantastic, and mashed potatoes...oh, my.
If it is possible to EAT a hug, that's what it would be like.
On any given night, you could go to the Rainbow and see someone who is, was, or will be famous. People come from all over the world for a glimpse of that. But more importantly the Rainbow provides the space for musicians to hang before and after shows on the Strip, and because they’re fed and cared for as well as at home (possibly better), they keep coming back. According to Rick, everyone is treated like family there, which is unique on Sunset Strip. Mario Maglieri, Lou Adler and Elmer Valentine started several of the clubs on the Strip in the 1960s, and all this time they really seem to have “looked after the kids” and made sure everyone was all right. It’s a tough world, a tough business, even a tough town; but the regulars at the Rainbow feel looked after, welcomed, cared for. I was a total stranger --and clearly not a rocker-- but I felt that way, too.
I did encounter a resident jester on my way up to the ladies’ loo; a leanly vulpine, youngish blond man standing at the top of the stairs offering “assistance” by steering unwary neophytes rightwards into a blank corner instead of leftways to the restroom. Since the mistake is quickly discovered and corrected, the only purpose I could discern was his own amusement. On my way back out I asked how many people he had “gotten” including me, he admitted to “thirteen so far, and you’re about to mess up my next one," so I left him to it.
Before we left Diana escorted me to the Rainbow’s attic bar/dance floor/party nest, an intimate, multi-level wooden loft I found delightful in an anthropological way, since this Uptight White Chick is far more likely to end up in outer space than to organically arrive here in a social situation. A velvet rope hangs across the teensy wooden ladder staircase that disappears into a dark alcove. With an air of affable debauchery, I’m encouraged up into the nook --past the sign that reads “RESERVED”-- and told stories about decades of goings-on there that are anything but.
Scott Weiland live at the Viper Room is surely the best rock event I never went to. Diana and Rick reiterated that this was a not-to-be-missed occasion. Rock fans often thirst for and revel in the sense that Something Magical is Happening in This Moment that May Not Ever Happen Again... And I’m Here to Witness It. That’s the appeal. Not bragging rights, but being part of something that cannot easily be duplicated. So: a guy who fills stadiums. Playing in a club. Like the Beatles one afternoon on a rooftop... Despite the hordes of people still outside begging to be let into the once-in-a-lifetime intimate show, our press wristbands earned us some special (if slightly reluctant) treatment: we waited for only 90 minutes. Others waited longer and to even less purpose.
As an actor I've worked in some utterly miniscule blackbox theatres in my time, all of them bigger than this one. At surely double capacity, the only way we were gonna even make it past the top of the stairs and into the room would be to scoot in behind the bar, and I didn’t think the bartender would let me do that even if I gave him ten bucks and showed him my rack. From what I heard about Friday night’s show, I imagine that the people who wedged themselves into the Viper on Saturday were very happy with their close-enough-to-hear-AND-see experience. Compelling musician, great voice, great tunes, sharing the love, RIGHT THERE. I bet it was awesome. But the squeeze was just too much, and even the downstairs “overflow room” set my claustrophobia wiggles going. We backed out, disappointed (if a little relieved). A fresh-faced young man out on the street seemed mystified that we were leaving, but asked hopefully if we could sell him a ticket.
As we surfaced and walked back up Sunset Boulevard a little before midnight, crews were already dismantling the stages and collecting the trash, putting the magic away for next year.
HERE’S WHAT I LEARNED:
1. Form follows function. The best rock hairstyles allow for maximum swingage, and to cover earplugs, whether you’re a performer or not.
2. No matter where you are, the proper response to "How Y'all doin' tonight?" is always, always, always "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
3. It takes a very particular set of skills to work as a doorman or a bouncer at a nightclub. There’s probably a special school for it.
4. Non-conformist vibe aside, rockers work as hard to excel at what they do as anybody else. Even if rock music isn’t my thing, I have enormous respect for the people who actually perform it -- they work as hard, schlepp as much, and sacrifice as much as anybody else.
Among all the Goth and Punk I’d seen in the crowds that day, there were also plenty of fashionable but not statement-oriented Angelenos (and a resounding absence of any Midwestern vibe whatsoever). An impressive percentage of people sported tattoos of varying acreage. I idly wondered what these people do for day jobs and how many of them can show up to work dressed that way.
That’s when it came to me: This is all about the Quest for the Inner Badass. Rock is about calling it like it is, daring people to either like “it” or fix “it.” We’re all here to be seen, and to connect with the part of us that isn’t fully... domesticated. The part of us that doesn’t conform or give a Flying Eek-a-Mouse what anyone thinks. For millennia we humans have designated shamans to represent and mentor our connection to our deeper selves, both primally and spiritually. The Bacchanal had a sacred purpose. Long before music ever branched into genres there were two basic truths:
We’re all Soul, and
Everything is Energy.
We NEED poets to articulate deep feelings --longing, loss, alienation, need, hope. Some of us will be inspired to show up and make our own expression, others will enjoy that a part of themselves is spoken aloud for them, enough that they can go find it when they need to. Particularly in rock music there's a premium value given to passion and/or abandon; to being carried away by the sound and emotion. Whether we make art or music ourselves, we need and designate someone in our tribe to do it for us. Someone like Joan Jett. She never became just a persona; she’s still one of us. She’s just a hardworking, convention-busting, truth-telling...
We need her.
And every other rocker out there.
Diana's photos for the magazine article are quite wonderful, if you check out the links. I snapped this one with my phone that Saturday evening; it caught the light and the crowd surprisingly well, and there's something about the couple in the right-hand foreground that really delights me.
Special thanks go to Ben Hunter (who really knows from Rock & Roll) for helping me find my way to writing respectfully about an unfamiliar world from an outsider's point of view.
btw I was kidding about the pie fights. I'm so sorry.