Tony picked us up at Los Angeles airport in a rental car, a small blue compact hatchback, a Ford Pinto; their petrol tanks had a propensity to explode if the vehicle was rear-ended. We drove north through the Inglewood Oil Field, where pumpjacks like primeval birds bent and fed upon the blasted earth; past Culver City, Miracle Mile and La Brea Pits; on towards Hollywood, where we were staying at the Howards Weekly Apartments, just off Hollywood Boulevard at 1700 and something North Whitley Avenue. Tony seemed to know his way around already. He and the rest of the band—drummer Stanley John Mitchell, guitarist Richard Kennedy, singer Jean McAllister—were already domiciled in the Apartments and when we got there we had a reunion of sorts, even though we’d only been a week or maybe two weeks apart from each other. Like any band of musicians, they wanted to play and were already working towards finding the means and the opportunity to do so. It was my job, evidently, to help them.
Howards Weekly Apartments was nondescript, rundown, a warren of a place full of dubious, itinerant types like us; but affordable and comfortable enough for now. Our room looked south towards the Boulevard but there were impediments to the view. An air-conditioning unit was fitted into the window, which otherwise couldn’t be opened, and it wheezed and laboured day and night to produce, not cold air, but a smooth slab of encrusted ice—which you could lean your hot forehead against if you wanted to. The other obstruction was the atmos itself. When you looked towards the Boulevard, you saw dim shapes through a yellow-brown oily haze that hung wavering in the air and was made up of the noxious petro-chemical smog which the concentration of automobile engine emissions under an inversion layer produces. Maybe it was ever thus: as long ago as 1542 Spanish adventurers called this place La Baya de los Fumos because the smoke from cooking fires of the local Tongva Indians—or from fires in the chaparral—was likewise trapped beneath a layer of cool maritime air which was itself caught between the sierra and a higher layer of warmer air.
Hollywood Boulevard did not posess the glamour I imagined it would have. It was sleazy, desperate and sad, populated by small time drug dealers, hookers and pimps, grifters and hustlers, who spent their nights and days passing back and forth looking for a mark, a john, an opportunity or a score. If you went east, the porn shops, the head shops, the liquor stores and the general air of dissolute abandonment and threat increased; the Museum of Death is down that way now. If you went west, there were Grauman’s Egyptian and his Chinese Theatres, the expensive restaurants, the Walk of Fame with the stars set in the pavement, a classier sort of people perhaps. Or not—Angelinos in our neighbourhood, like Americans everywhere, turned out to have a voracious and disconcerting appetite for the proximity of celebrity and, the first time we walked down to the Boulevard, Jan was assailed by people wondering who, with her short red hair and tight silver trousers, might she be? David Bowie’s sister?
And yet, once you were away from the main drag, you entered quiet, leafy, elegant streets of red-roofed, white stucco apartment buildings with plantings of palm and hibiscus, massed hedges of flowering pink oleander. I remember the smell of gardenias on the balmy night air as I walked around to the 24 hour supermarket to buy ridiculously cheap, high quality fresh fruit and vegetables there: cantaloupes, to me the acme of luxury, could be had whole for just 37c each. Contrasts abounded: Stan and Tony, jazz aficionados, were entranced by the fact that legendary players they’d heard on record could be seen live and free at cafes where you might sit at a table all evening so long as you had a drink in front of you. By the same token, acts we thought must be huge turned out to be hard-working musicians with a modest following, just like the bands we knew in New Zealand. After a gig at the Palomino in North Hollywood, Commander Cody (but not His Lost Planet Airmen) stood at the entrance and, as we left, shook the hand of each and every punter who had come out to see him play.
One night when Tony and I tried to buy some dope in the carpark behind a fast food outlet—was it a Wendy’s?—the guy in the passenger seat took our money and then the driver accelerated away, leaving us bereft of both cash and drugs. I think we found some other, more honest, source soon after; marijuana was accounted a necessity in those days. Shortly afterwards, out at Brentwood, we bought our own car, a bronze 1972 Buick Estate Wagon with a Hebrew (perhaps Zionist?) sticker on the rear window and a knock in the big end. It was capacious enough to seat all six of us, three in the front and three in the back, with room for the guitars, the amps, the keyboards and the drums, behind. And so we joined those ranks of other large cars cruising the wide streets; they all travelled at the same speed, accentuating their resemblance to schools of predatory fish, with their grills gleaming like bared teeth. We too began to make our contribution to that strange, oily, petro-chemical smell that was always in the air.
We bought the car because, for reasons I no longer recall, we decided to go north to San Francisco. Perhaps because we thought, as a smaller city, it might prove more manageable than the intimidating vastnesses of Los Angeles were; perhaps because we knew someone living there. The plan to join the Moles in New York seemed to have fallen into abeyance. On the other hand, it was still only August and they weren’t even there yet. In fact, I don’t think we knew where they were; we barely knew where we were ourselves. These were times of confusion: when, for instance, I might turn the wrong direction into a one way street and find three lanes of traffic bearing ominously down upon us. There would be cries of alarm from the musos, I’d be sweating, wrestling with the wheel, trying to ignore that chorus of frightened voices, the thump in the diff (always worse in reverse), the outraged horns of other drivers, as I backed around the corner again. I’d make it without mishap and we’d carry on, shaken yet relieved, down the wide avenue or boulevard to wherever it was we were going.
Before we left LA we drove into the Hollywood Hills to visit Hello Sailor, who were living in a rented house up there. Tony had been their bass player in an earlier incarnation of the band; I’d known Dave McArtney and Graham Brazier since we’d been twenty-year-olds knocking around Auckland in the early 1970s. There were five saloon cars parked on the road outside and, up some steps and around the pool, five proto-rock stars were lounging, some with, some without, bikini-ed girlfriends. In the gloom of the mansion, David Gapes, their manager, an ex-Radio Hauraki DJ, was on the phone. He looked frantic, with his mop of curly hair seemingly about to stand straight up on end; but the Sailor boys seemed pretty relaxed.
They discussed the recent proposition, by Ray Manzarek, keyboard player and founder member of The Doors, to reform the band with Graham instead of Jim Morrison as lead singer. Ray had seen Hello Sailor at the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard. Graham wasn’t into it. I’m my own man, he said. We left feeling faintly abashed, like poor copies of the real thing; yet Hello Sailor were already in disarray and would soon retreat to Auckland. Perhaps that was another reason why we wanted to go to San Francisco: no other band we knew of had played there yet.
image: Inglewood Oil Field c. 2017; courtesy Chevron