Checking Out Hoskyns’ Hotel California

Hotel California

By Barney Hoskyns

A Book Review by Michael Witthaus

Barney Hoskyns’ “Hotel California” is an immensely readable account of the savants, moguls, and craven opportunists who shaped the Southern California music scene from the early Sixties to the late Seventies.

Coalescing around the Troubadour, a Santa Monica nightclub known for its open mike night, and the bungalows of ramshackle Laurel Canyon, the period produced a lot of unforgettable music. The warm weather was a magnet for winter-weary Greenwich Village folkies like Joni Mitchell, Brill Building refugee Carole King, and Detroit native Glenn Frey, among others.

For a while, there was a magical glow to it all. The seminal Buffalo Springfield was born when Stephen Stills and Richie Furay spotted Neil Young and bassist Bruce Palmer riding together in a 1953 Pontiac hearse during a Sunset Strip traffic jam.

The Byrds, the first act with a hit record, came about after a sheepish Gene Clark introduced himself to Roger McGuinn after a Troubadour hoot: “You want to start a duo?”

Graham Nash likened it to “Paris in the 1930s … there was a freedom in the air, a sense we could do anything.”
The response to the Byrds’ success embodied the “music first” sensibilities of the scene’s early days. Says Linda Ronstadt, “David Crosby had a suede jacket; that was affluence beyond description. “

With the arrival of more business-minded characters like Mo Ostin and Joe Smith, such quaint views began to change. Barry Friedman, the Springfield’s first manager, was squeezed out by “a pair of Hollywood hustlers named Charlie Greene and Brian Stone” when the duo menaced him with a pistol during a harrowing limousine ride.

Benevolent artist and repertoire, or “A&R” guys like Reprise Records “house hippie” Andy Wickham, who “worked Laurel Canyon’s narrow-laned hills, had long hair and did not keep office hours” were more typical. Relationship-savvy manager Eliot Roberts teamed with William Morris wunderkind David Geffen to form a friendlier version of Greene and Stone, “with credibility and Levi’s,” ushering in an era of “great rock executives, maverick facilitators of talent.”

“That was the time before bean counters came in to run things,” said Little Feat’s Paul Barrere. “A&R people actually had ears.”

Reprise President Lenny Waronker defined success as “… coming out, getting rave reviews, and selling fifty or sixty thousand albums. And that’ll allow us to go to the next one and the next one. And somewhere in there it’s gonna blow up.”

It was this attitude that allowed Little Feat, Randy Newman, Van Morrison and even Joni Mitchell to continue working when their first records didn’t sell well. That viewpoint is almost completely absent in today’s music business, a fact that has more to do with its decline than a dearth of quality artists.

Sadly, the open door euphoria of the Laurel Canyon scene came undone, partly because of the ever-present and rampant drug culture and the parasites it attracted. It was also undone by a sense of VIP entitlement where, says light show artist Joshua White, “we were applauding the presence of the artist rather than the performance.” Much of “Hotel California” chronicles the decadence, decay and death in the wake of that loss of innocence.

Says Phil Kaufman, who lost friend and client Gram Parsons to an overdose, “Los Angeles was a dangerous environment at that time. It was blatant drugs.”

When David Geffen started Asylum Records, he famously promised to never sign more artists than would fit into a sauna. Such high-mindedness evaporated with the arrival of the Eagles, a band that “set about success with the pragmatism of a Tin Pan Alley partnership.” By the end of 1972, the year the first Eagles album was released, Geffen had sold the company to Warner Brothers and became a millionaire – an act many viewed as a betrayal.

“When he first started out, David dealt almost completely from the heart,” says songwriter Jimmy Webb. “Once money has accumulated to a certain amount, people have a tendency to go into alternate realities.”

“Corporate rock became the name of the game,” laments Lenny Waronker. “The business became very sexy – a cash-cow business. And when you become a good business, look out.” With the mega-success of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, along with talents like Boston and REO Speedwagon, rock became a commodity.

Hoskyns’ account of this era works because he managed to engage many of the key players in the scene. As Tom Waits observes in the book’s preface, “the problem with history is that the people who really know what happened aren’t talking and the people who don’t … well, you can’t shut ‘em up.”

Fortunately, “Hotel California” isn’t so burdened; it’s a rich and instructive tale of a formative phase in American music.

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Local Rhythms – Make Mine Alfresco, Please!

Despite rainy weather, the recent Fredfest was quite satisfying, if a bit bittersweet.  Charlie Hunter recently revealed that the 2006 four-day Roots on the River festival is likely “the last one in this configuration.”
What I like about Roots, along with the performances, is that it marks the start of the summer outdoor music season.  This year it promises to be terrific, with many great musicians lined up throughout the region. 

Most shows are free.  One exception is this Sunday’s concert by the Misfits, probably the oldest punk band still playing, at the Vermont State Fairgrounds in Castleton.

The free Lebanon Front Porch Series begins next Thursday in Colburn Park with Annie Clark, who’s billed as “folk with a twist.”  Upcoming performers include the Bluegrass Gospel Project, Dave Mallet and my favorite, roots chanteuse Eliza Gilkyson on August 3.  The series ends with the Buskers August 10.

Always a favorite summer destination, Sunapee Harbor kicks things off tonight with a country performance by Karen Morgan and the Pony Express at the Newbury Gazebo.  Next Thursday the festivities move to the Ben Mere Bandstand in Sunapee, with the retro-cover band Boomerang.  Flanders Stage had some fine free shows last year, including a memorable set by James Montgomery.  Click Horning leads off Friday, July 1; Pete Merrigan, freshly back from Florida, stops by July 8 for a twilight show. 

Over in Chester, the Okemo Series gets moving at the end of July.  The Marble City Swing Band entertains Village Green picnickers on the 27th, followed by the earthy Dave Davis-fronted Brown Trout and the Country Lunkers August 4th.  The Celtic Gypsy Reel, Starline Rhythm Boys and the immensely talented vocalist Sandra Wright also grace the Thursday night stage.

Finally, Claremont will soon have a spot for al fresco troubadours when Bistro Nouveau completes work on a new deck, expected to open late next week.  In addition to nearly doubling the restaurant’s capacity, the 50-seat addition is a more fitting spot for music.   Pete Merrigan’s July 22 set is the only definite booking, says owner Doug Langevin, but others, including Chris Kleeman, Lydia Gray and the sensational Jason Cann are close to definite.  Bistro also has plans for later performer starts, and a special after-hours patio menu. 

I can’t wait.

Now, what’s happening this weekend?

Thursday:  Ameranouche, The Windham – It really feels like the end of an era over in Bellows Falls, what with the scaling back of Fredfest and this, the final show at one of the most music-friendly venues ever in the area.  Gypsy Jazz inspired by Django Reinhart, this New Hampshire band is just back from Arizona.  The show is simulcast on WOOL-FM and http://www.woolfm.com.

Friday: Shaw Brothers, South Sutton Meeting House – The bards of New Hampshire, they wrote the state’s official song, “New Hampshire Naturally.”  I grew up listening to folkies like the Limelighters, Kingston Trio and Brothers Four.  The Shaws carry that torch quite ably, and when they play, you can’t help smiling.  This show is, fittingly enough, presented by the Sutton Historical Society.

Saturday: Jesse Peters, Sophie & Zeke’s – The Acoustic Folks Series continues; an open mike stalwart with an impressive catalog of his own songs, Peters plays guitar and sings for diners and music lovers alike.  This Springfield native has a way with a crowd; I hope he plays “PK’s Blues,” a song celebrating another soon-to-pass Bellows Falls tradition.  When Ezra Veitch leaves later this month, the PK’s torch is passed to Josh Maiocca.

Sunday:  Pete Merrigan, Murphy’s on the Deck – Contrary to rumors, Three Season Pete isn’t planning a permanent Florida move.  “We may take a long term renter on our house in Goshen,” he told me in a recent email.  “It could SHORTEN our summer visits to N.H. but at present, we don't really know what's going to happen.” In the meantime, his outdoor performances at this Sunapee hub continue.

Monday: Train w/ Anna Nalick, Shelburne Museum – I can take or leave Train, a band that often sounds like it creates music the way Chevy markets trucks.  But Anna Nalick is a different story, a singer who brilliantly synthesizes the fluidity of Norah Jones, the emotional gut punch of Beth Orton and the soaring majesty of pre-surgery Mariah Carey.  If you’ve heard “Breathe” on “Gray’s Anatomy,” you already know she’s one to watch.

Tuesday: Andrew Root with Baxter the Fly, Canoe Club – I wonder how diners at this sedate downtown Hanover restaurant plan on talking over THIS?  Described as “a blend of funk, jazz, reggae, Latin, hip-hop, and rock,” they’re bound to cause more than a few bowls of cold avocado soup to ripple, don’t you think?  “The Fly” is drummer Brady Baxter.  The combo includes Root on bass, keyboard player David DiLorenzo, and Andal Sundaramirthy on vocals.

Local Rhythms – The Second Set Satisfies

Music at downtown Claremont’s latest venue, Sophie & Zeke’s, is off to a rousing start.  With some great performances completed, and more on the way, it’s becoming a popular weekend destination for fans of folk, rock and country.

The ambience is always comfortable, and during food service hours the management takes care to make sure the performers don’t overwhelm diners who might not want serenading.  The chatter of table conversation can be distracting at times for those who are trying to listen, though.  A gaggle of foreverinmotion followers staked out a table just a few feet from Brendon Thomas last Friday to assure they didn’t miss a note. 

But when the dinner hour ends, the second set begins, and that’s when those who fancy themselves aficionados (like yours truly) kick back and enjoy themselves.  The other night, local tunesmith Rick Davis and his companion lingered after the meal, and when Brendon turned up the volume a couple of notches, others also paid closer attention.

It’s not an easy transition, though after four weeks of posters in the window advertising upcoming shows, S&Z’s is starting to solidify in people’s minds as a place for music lovers.

That’s the way trends are born.  Bit by bit, people are finding their way to downtown, and starting to view Pleasant Street differently.  It’s not Broadway in Nashville, with bands playing from one of end of the block to the other, but things are picking up.  Nick Koloski of the Hullabaloo Martini Bar told me recently of plans to bring talent to not only his club (in addition to occasional music and DJ dancing, they’ve had much success with comedy), but also to other places in the area. 

In the meantime, the downtown grows as a magnet for culture mavens, and there are some exciting upcoming performances, like Stonewall’s Josh Parker playing unplugged June 30, and what may be Pete Merrigan’s first downtown sets in years on July 7.  There are plans for bluegrass, too, with the Spiral Farm Band July 21.

The eclectic mix is exciting, to be sure.  If you really want to enjoy, though, take my word for it – stay for the second set.

Here’s the weekend picks, with top choices in and out of town:

Thursday:  Over the Rhine with Hem, Iron Horse – Ethereal pop from a seriously underrated band who deserves better than cult status.  With music bridging alt-rock to cabaret, they’re hard to pin down, which is probably why the mainstream hasn’t picked up on them yet. Don’t make that mistake.  Hem, a neo-folk combo opening the show, is pretty interesting in their own right, enough so that they’re headlining half the shows on this mini-tour.

Friday: Colin McCaffrey, Sophie and Zeke's – I’ve sung this man’s praises for a long time now.  What a joy to see him in downtown Claremont.  With a demeanor worthy of James Taylor, with perhaps a more Northern sensibility, he’s a good storyteller and a great songwriter.  McCaffrey’s built a fine following in the Upper Valley – let’s show him how we do things in the south, shall we?
Saturday: Third Anniversary Party, Salt Hill – Three years is a long time in the bar world.  Tonight, the Tuohy brothers, Josh and Joe, celebrate the continued rewards of the risk they took back in 2003 when they poured the first pint of Guinness and resumed the family tradition begun at Sunapee’s Shanty way back in the Sixties.  Tonight, it’s a main stage Irish Session with Dave Loney, followed by the “singing bartender,” Will Michaels, until closing. Congratulations, guys – here’s to many more years!

Monday: Little Big Town, Lowell Brewery Exchange – An up and coming country band with lush harmonies and potential staying power beyond their first hit, “Bring It On Home.”   Their latest, “Boondocks,” has the same great sound. The Brewery Exchange is the perfect venue for this CD release party.  It reminds me of Gilley’s in Texas, only with better beer.

Wednesday: English Beat, Tupelo Music Hall – Way back before MTV, this ska band rocked steady with the best of them, then spawned Fine Young Cannibals and General Public, two 80’s bands that had pretty successful runs.  They’ve still got it, if a clip from a recent NYC performance of “Tears of a Clown,” available on their website, is any indication.  They’re playing two nights at Tupelo, and there’s a show set for next weekend at Iron Horse.

Finally:  Steve Smith, Program Director at Rock 93.9, has redoubled his efforts to boost the local music scene.  He just announced plans to do an August 5 show at Whaleback Ski Area.  Six bands, including Hexerei and Stonewall, are tentatively lined up.  The event will also include an “X Games” styled competition – dry mountain skiing, perhaps?  We’ll tell you more in the coming weeks.

A Family Affair at Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival

Candi Sawyer found her passion for bluegrass music at an early age.  “I grew up with it,” says the promoter of the four-day Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival, which begins June 22 in Weston, Vermont.  “My mom and my grandfather used to have a band together.” 

Her grandfather, Fernan Parker, is a long-time presenter of bluegrass shows at the Weston Playhouse, and Candi Sawyer says, “It’s been in my heart to produce a bluegrass festival ever since I was a little girl.”

Sawyer met her husband, a guitarist and songwriter, on the bluegrass circuit.  From an early age, she says, “I went all around to the festivals, everywhere,” traveling with the White Mountain Bluegrass Band to festivals in South Carolina. 

“I went with them on the bus, but I traveled around here on my own,” she says.  “No wonder my father has grey hair.  Can you imagine a young girl driving off to all those festivals?”

These days, Candi plays bass in her husband’s band, joined occasionally by their two young sons.  At this year’s Jenny Brook Festival, her mother also shares the stage with the Seth Sawyer Band.  “She hasn’t played in a long time, but she’s gonna get up this year – I talked her into it,” Sawyer says. 

“The kids steal the show anyway,” she laughs. “They’re only little, 10 and 7.  They don’t play their own instruments, but the can really sing.  They do this song, ‘If I Were Your Brother,’ you can see the look on their faces, when they hit that harmony note, they can feel it.”

Also on hand this year are headliners and regional stars the Gibson Brothers, Grand Ole Opry and “Hee Haw” featured performer Leroy Troy, the long-running Massachusetts band Southern Rail, Smokey Greene and 10 other acts.

Sawyer is especially excited about Springfield Exit, joined by members of the long-disbanded Johnson Mountain Band.  Dave Goslin, Tom Adams and Marshall Wilborn join singer Linda Lay.  “It’s my kind of music – polished,” she says.  “I can just imagine what she’s gonna sound like with them backing her.

The festival closes on a familiar note, with Nick Anderson and the Gospel Friends performing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” and the Sawyers wishing everyone safe travels.  But it will be a happier farewell than last year, when Candi wasn’t sure if she’d be able to see another Jenny Brook Festival.

“I was in pretty bad shape,” she says.  Sawyer suffers from Multiple Sclerosis; since being diagnosed in 2002, her condition had weakened her to the point that doctors recommended she stay in a wheelchair. Fans in the audience could sense her pain, and when her farewell did not include an assurance of “we’ll see you next year,” bluegrass fans sprang into action.

A series of benefit concerts, dubbed “Pickin’ for Candi,” raised over $26,000 for holistic treatments.  “I didn’t even know they had started doing that,” Sawyer says, “and I was kind of uncomfortable knowing they had raised that much money.”

She also wasn’t sure about the holistic approach, which involved a diet and vitamin regimen, and electrode scans coupled with blood samples used to locate the brain lesions.  Once located, cold laser therapy is used to help dissolve the lesions.  Vitamin detoxification therapy, coupled with footbaths to draw out toxins, completes the process.

“I didn’t want to be let down again,” says Sawyer, apprehensive of “trying something new and having it not work.  But within a month, I was out of that wheelchair.  So it was meant to be.”

“It was thanks to all the bluegrass people,” she says.  “There was a benefit in every single state in the Northeast, and we had friends down in Alabama who gathered money, and Florida.”

“We’ve got friends all over, it’s amazing,” she continues.  “They’re all like your family.  I fact, they were actually more supportive than some of my family members.”

Sawyer’s part of the bargain is to try and stay well, in spite of there being no known cure for MS, and to keep her girlhood dream alive as well – for her musical family, and her extended bluegrass family.  For now, anyway, the circle remains unbroken.