It's Saturday night at the Shamrock on Hollywood Boulevard. Around 10 o'clock the crowd begins to come in. Stan Sherby, perched on a bar stool under the red lights of the makeshift stage area between the Naugahyde booths, leans back with his eyes closed and croons a tune about a girl he knew back in Minnesota. His fingers deftly draw a rhythmic, harpsichord-like accompaniment from his old battered Yamaha 12-string.
Stan's been singing since 8 o'clock, mostly to a couple of disinterested regulars, the music punctuated by the clack of billiard balls from the next room. His tip jar is empty.
But now, with the influx of a younger, hipper crowd, a number of whom have just come from an art opening at nearby Barnsdall Park, the atmosphere in the dark and cozy dinosaur of a bar livens up. A number of the newcomers are delightfully surprised to find a place with live entertainment--and someone who honors requests (when he knows them). Soon the whole place is singing and clapping. Stan's tip jar grows green with cash.
A Rough, Disappointing Life
Great nights such as this are few and far between. The life of an itinerant singer/songwriter can be pretty rough and very disappointing, sometimes. But Stan doesn't mind.
More times than not in his 25 years of entertaining, he's sung to a row of backs in some dive somewhere, performing for tips, free drinks, or, if he was lucky, a weekly wage for a couple of weeks or months. As often as not, the only girlfriend he's had is that one demanding mistress: music. The romance of this sort of life is purely in retrospect, and only in the eyes of others.
So why keep it up? Stan Sherby's not a kid anymore. He's 40. Can he still nurture dreams of "making it?"
"I think making it is inevitable," he says, nursing his drink during a break, while the jukebox blares a country tune.
"I've paid for the privilege. It's my turn. I've spent over half my life doing this. If I didn't believe I'd make it, I'd have become a bricklayer or something by now.
"I'm driven, I guess. Do you think I like living in a car?
It may not be generally known outside of musicians' and folk music-lovers' circles, but Los Angeles is full of places where you can go to hear real-live home-grown music--blues (Simply Blues, Gorky's Cafe, the Studio Suite); folk & acoustic (the Shamrock, Lhasa Club, the Music Machine, the Ensemble Theatre's Titanic Lounge, Club Lingerie); original rock and art music (Al's Bar, the Central, Fellini's); traditional, Irish and original songs (Molly Malone's)--performed by modern-day troubadours such as Stan.
The best of these performers are usually in their 30s and 40s--folks who grew up during the '60s and early '70s, and preserve the ideology of those times.
This ideology was particularly pertinent to an artistic temperament, the folk/blues musician's ethos being molded by the likes of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan and Jerry Jeff ("Mr. Bojangles") Walker.
An Underground Industry
Like the growing jazz scene (see Zan Stewart's "All This Jazz," The Times View Section, Sept. 19), the folk/blues scene is, to be sure, something of an underground industry--underground simply because this area is so full of major auditoriums, theaters and music halls, which cater to the popular scene dominated by big-name acts playing contemporary rock, heavy metal, country, punk, New Wave and other forms of mainstream popular music.
But you don't have to look very hard to find small bars and clubs where you can listen to old favorites and new compositions, and sing along.
Perhaps more than any American city other than New York, Los Angeles attracts droves of hopeful musicians and songwriters every year. They come here looking for that big break or just for better wages. Some come as bands that have already established themselves locally elsewhere; others, like Stan, are solo blues, folk or rock singers, just hoping to get heard by a record producer or big-name performer.
There is, after all, considerable precedent for coming to Los Angeles to "make it." It wasn't too long ago that Linda Ronstadt was singing at Monday night open mikes at the Palomino, a country/Western/rock club in North Hollywood, where many aspiring musicians pay $3 for the chance to sing (one song each) before a large audience and, frequently, talent scouts and producers.
Not so long ago, Tom Waits was hanging out at the Tropicana, banging the keys and belting out the blues wherever and whenever he could around town, and Billy Joel, now a big-time rock star married to Christie Brinkley and touring all over the world, was playing at the now defunct "Executive Room" on Wilshire Boulevard downtown.
Joel's popular tune, "Piano Man," is all about playing in the Executive Room--the kind of place in which many young musicians wind up entertaining. In the song, he mentions "John at the bar . . . / who gives me my drinks for free." Well, John the bartender is in fact John Maclean, who is alive and well and bartending at El Chiquitos in Burbank.