Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
If you suffer from PST fatigue (PST-igue?), “Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles, 1945-1975” at the Grammy Museum may be the antidote. This small but engaging show covers the same era as other PST exhibitions, but through a decidedly different lens.
Musicians—with the exception of a few concerts and performances—have been largely absent from the PST roll call. Curated by the Grammy Museum’s Tory Millimaki and University of Southern California professor Josh Kun (whom, full disclosure, is a friend), “Trouble” rectifies this situation to a large extent, providing glimpses of jazz and R&B on Central Ave., psychedelic rock and folk on the Sunset Strip, Chicano rock in East L.A. and surf music from the beach cities.
The show is a bit of an outlier in the PST universe, but its chief concern is not charting a relationship between music and the visual arts, but rather drawing potent connections between the various L.A. music scenes and the larger social and political forces that shaped them.
These stories are told mostly through video clips, grouped thematically and presented on screens embedded in the exhibition’s walls. Visitors may listen in on headphones, although the sound is sometimes drowned out by a loud digital jukebox that fills the open space with songs from the era. Artifacts—posters, lyrics, album covers, clothing, instruments, etc.—are sprinkled throughout in glass vitrines.
An introductory video describes Los Angeles as “a chocolate city with vanilla suburbs,” and this is largely the image “Trouble” paints: a collection of more or less discrete music scenes that mirrored the region’s racial and class segregration. It’s not a sunny picture, but the show astutely traces these divisions to the racist policing and restrictive housing convenants of the 1950s and 60s.
Accordingly, stark contrasts abound. Footage of elegant singer Hadda Brooks, the first African American woman to host a musical talk show on KLAC in 1957, appears near a goofy sketch from the Jack Benny show lampooning the slacker style of the Beach Boys. A clip from “Wattstax,” a documentary of the landmark music festival commemorating the 1965 Watts Riots, rubs shoulders with “Riot on the Sunset Strip,” an exploitation film inspired by the 1966 riots in which young club-goers took to the streets to protest a curfew. This particular contrast is driven home by an item in the exhibition’s timeline describing how Frank Zappa was inspired to write “The Watts Riots Song” (which later became “Trouble Every Day”) after watching Watts burn on his TV in Echo Park. It’s as if he wasn’t even in the same city.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t instances of mixing and border crossing. The lyrics to Richie Valens’ “La Bamba,” a rock update of a Mexican folk song, are on view—handwritten by his grandmother. There’s also an acoustic guitar—sporting stickers in support of Jesus and Bob Dylan—that belongs to Willie Garcia (“Little Willie G.”), lead singer of Thee Midniters, a Chicano band that blended British invasion pop, West Coast R&B and salsa. And then there is a mention in the timeline about how, in the mid-1950s, Marilyn Monroe convinced the owners of the Mocambo club in West Hollywood to book their first African American act: Ella Fitzgerald.
Perhaps most intriguing in this regard is the wide-ranging career of Johnny Otis, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and record producer. Otis, who passed away in January, began as a swing musician and moved into R&B, discovering such talents as Etta James and Jackie Wilson. He was an influential radio DJ and had his own TV show on KTTV from 1954 to 1961. He was also a white man, of Greek descent, who made the unconventional decision early on to identify as black. On view is a striking 1960 photo of Otis standing with a group of people protesting Woolworth’s segregationist policies. The image is both a reminder of a divided L.A. (and indeed, a nation), and a testament to the ways in which such lines are crossed, in small ways, everyday.
Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., (213) 765-6800, through June 3. Open everyday. www.grammymuseum.org