The Sunset Strip
From “The ME ME” by Ken Levine

If you were going to drive into the city from Woodland Hills it meant you were going “over the hill.”    Whether it be Hollywood or Westwood or even San Diego – it was “over the hill.”    And you only went “over the hill” if you had a real purpose.    You’d think we were living in the Texas Panhandle and had to pack saddlebacks to ride into town for vittles.  

But there was a new attraction that the kids were buzzing about.  The Sunset Strip.   In the ’40s and ’50s this stretch of Sunset Blvd. between Beverly Hills and Hollywood had been nightclub row.   Sinatra played there.  Sammy played there.   Dino even had his own club.   These hot spots featured dance floors and palm trees and exotic names like the Macambo, the Trocadero, Casa Manana, and Ciro’s.   I was never actually in any of these nightclubs but there were several Warner Brothers cartoons that spoofed them so I had a pretty good idea of what went on there thanks to Bugs Bunny.  

Now the clubs were starting to cater to young people.  Whisky A Go Go led the charge.  Some say it was because of the location, others say popular singer Johnny Rivers was the big draw, but I contend it was the hot girls in mini skirts dancing in suspended cages that attracted the crowds.   Rock groups would stagger down from Laurel Canyon to perform.   The Byrds, The Doors (in matching suits), The Seeds, Buffalo Springfield, Love, and even the great Captain Beefheart performed in clubs like Gazzari’s, London Fog, and Pandora’s Box.   They weren’t content to just do cover versions of popular songs or pale imitations of current styles.  No sir.  They delved into musical roots, experimented; challenged themselves to become artists in the truest sense of the word.  Their music was new and daring and groundbreaking.  God, the action those douchebags must’ve gotten.  

The problem was these clubs couldn’t serve alcohol to underage teens.  And of course, they make their money off the bar.  State laws prohibited anyone under 21 from even entering such establishments.  Some clubs just forfeited liquor and figured the sheer volume of teen business would compensate for it.  The Trip and It’s Boss were two such clubs.   

Other clubs were sneakier.  They started serving food.   So all of a sudden their establishments were considered “restaurants” and anyone could enter.    Teens had to have their hands stamped, identifying them as underage, but who are we kidding?  A jam packed club, strobe lighting, frenetic dancing – A Doberman Pinscher could buy a bottle of Schlitz and no one would notice.   

My 17-year-old cousin Craig was visiting from Louisville that summer.  So for two weeks I had a chauffeur.  One night we ventured “over the hill” and cruised down the Sunset Strip.   We must’ve looked like the Beverly Hillbillies gawking at all the activity.    We were lucky and found a parking space only a mile up the hill from the strip and we headed down to “check out the scene.”   Who’s hipper than a 15-year-old who still draws comics and a kid from Kentucky?   

People were just hanging out, standing around, and many of them were smoking.  I didn’t know what, but that smell was weird and unlike anything I knew. You never forget your first second-hand reefer smoke.  Oh, so THAT’S what “Jimmy” was puffing in those health class films.     

We got into one of the non-alcohol clubs and it was deafening.  A band I had never heard of (and either disappeared into obscurity or Eric Clapton was playing and I just didn’t know it) was electrifying the room.   This was a much harder-edged sound than I was used to.  Piercing guitars and ferocious percussion.  I loved the newness of it more than I loved the actual music, but I felt that same twinge I had when I first saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.  

I asked Craig if he ever heard music like this before and he said, “In Louisville?  Are you kidding?  I haven’t seen girls like this before.”

The other clubs were so crowded with such long lines that we decided to just bag it. Too much of a hassle.  I’d just wait for the Looney Tunes version.

Pandora’s Box was a teen club the size of an outhouse perched on a triangular traffic island on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights. Crowds became too large and were snarling traffic at that major intersection. So cops tried to enforce a 10:00 PM curfew (good luck) and just close the club. This resulted in a protest rally – a mob of mostly clean-cut teenagers and twenty-somethings wearing pullover sweaters and miniskirts. Police broke it up, a riot resulted, and observer Stephen Stills wrote the song “For What It’s Worth” about the incident. A month later Sonny & Cher performed at Pandora’s Box but not without serious repercussions. They were kicked off a Rose Parade float. It’s amazing Sonny Bono ever got elected to public office with that stain on his record.

I was not part of that riot. But I did buy the record.

©2012 Ken Levine, All Rights Reserved
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