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Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll : WAITING FOR THE SUN: Strange Days, Weird Scenes, and the Sound of Los Angeles. By Barney Hoskyns (St. Martin's Press: $27.50; 370 pp.)

July 28, 1996|Stephen M.H. Braitman | Stephen M.H. Braitman is a Los Angeles expatriate writer and editor living in San Francisco who is writing a book about the history and art of the 45 rpm picture sleeve

Perhaps surpassed only by actors in ambition, musicians have long used Los Angeles as a means to an end. L.A. has always been a symbol of success, the city of the hit record, the double platinum smash. This is where you come to get known, get a deal, get a record . . . and, as detailed in Barney Hoskyns' hilarious, chilling, thoroughly scabrous history of post-war pop music in Los Angeles, this is where you get freaky wild, get horribly used and get dead.

Hoskyns is a Londoner whose previous book, "Across the Great Divide: The Band and America," detailed his knowledge of and typically British fascination with American popular music. In "Waiting for the Sun," dry sarcasm and terse, slashing commentary color his fascinating portrait of the California sound and its epic tragicomedy.

He approaches the last 50 years as a series of discrete movements or scenes--Central Avenue jazz of the '40s; laid-back country rock of the early '70s; beach-town punk of the early '80s and gangsta rap of the '90s in South-Central--all shackled to a cycle of short, high life and hard failure that reflects Los Angeles' inability to sustain anything for long. The theme makes for riveting reading, as "Waiting for the Sun" lives up (or down) to its title.

The scandals, murders, con jobs and bummers start early in the book and continue right through to the present. Drugs in all their manifold expressions are a preeminent influence throughout the years, though heroin and cocaine seem to be the main constants no matter what the musical style or era. While highlighting the jazz scene of the late '40s and early '50s, for example, Charlie Parker spent most of his time searching for a fix. He ended up in Camarillo State Hospital for six months after setting fire to his mattress while he was in a stupor.

When the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival proved the commercial potential of the new music of the emerging youth movement, the record company money that rushed in to sign up so many bands was largely spent on speed, heroin and coke. The ridiculous era of heavy metal haircut bands in the '80s was fueled by a mixture of sex and heroin.

Along with the mantra of "sex, drugs and rock and roll" was a heavy dose of violence. Independent promoters in the '50s used everything it took to push their small record labels and acts, including strong-arm tactics. KRKD broadcast R&B and doo-wop live from Dolphin's of Hollywood record store on Central and Vernon avenues, while "mogul" John Dolphin manipulated the playlists to gather steam for the likes of Pee Wee Crayton, Percy Mayfield and Jimmie Witherspoon. Dolphin was shot dead in 1958 by a disgruntled songwriter who wanted his royalties. On the verge of national fame in 1965, transplanted Texan Bobby Fuller ("I Fought the Law") was found dead in his car in Hollywood, under circumstances that remain mysterious and still subject to speculation.

Then there were the riots. Although he recounts the black rage of the Watts Riots and the teen protests that fueled disturbances on the Sunset Strip, Hoskyns spends relatively little time on social upheavals that shaped the era and its music (nary a mention of A-bomb fears in the '50s pushing teen rebels to nihilism; only a paragraph or so on the Vietnam War's impact on galvanizing youth culture). He's much more interested in the intimate and lurid stories of rock bands on the loose.

Indeed, Hoskyns reconstructs the orgies that members of Led Zeppelin and their entourage staged at the "Riot House," the Continental Hyatt, where "the girls got younger and younger and more willing to do anything," according to aging groupie Pamela Des Barres. At the height of their fame, bands like Zeppelin felt almost invincible. Journalist Nick Kent relates an incident with Zep drummer John Bonham and road manager Richard Cole that symbolized the band's arrogant behavior: "I once saw them beat a guy senseless for no reason and then drop money on his face."

Yet this destructive hubris pales before the savage fierceness that was unleashed in the mosh pits of Los Angeles when hard-core bands like Black Flag and the Adolescents played to slamming fans in the early '80s. "Punk and violence seemed almost inseparable," the author says. To be bloodied there, in the crowd, was a badge of honor.

And, of course, there are the stories of individual disasters, the list of overdoses and overindulgences--a long list--with cruel losses like Gram Parsons, Tim Buckley and Dennis Wilson, and more pathetic exits from characters like Jim Morrison and Mama Cass Elliot.

Yet the greatest horror detailed in the book was, in some ways, the greatest catalyst for change in the Los Angeles musical world. Hoskyns suggests that Charles Manson was indirectly responsible for the ascendancy of the mellow singer-songwriter movement of the '70s, typified by the likes of Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King and Carly Simon.

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