For Vanity Fair’s first music issue, I was assigned to write a fun history of America’s most notorious rock club, the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip. Not totally my scene—I’ve never been a big Doors fan—but I got lucky: the story’s protagonist, Whisky founder Elmer Valentine, was a terrific character, straight out of Damon Runyon or Joe Mitchell.
The Sunset Strip is officially a NO CRUISING ZONE, as cautionary white signs remind you every quarter-mile or so. But in the glare of business hours, the scourge of “cruising” isn’t much of an issue. The Strip in daytime is mostly worker-mobiles shuttling hurriedly between Beverly Hills and Hollywood, which was actually the original purpose of this 1.7-mile stretch of road: to get movie people swiftly from their homes in the palmy west to the studios in the sunbaked east, and back again. One radical soul, however, defies the cruising ban and rolls westward at lawnmower speed in his black Lincoln Navigator, pointing at things like a tourist. His name is Elmer Valentine. He is 77 years old and is driving barefoot. “That island,” he says, motioning to a blank triangle of land marooned in the intersection of Sunset and Crescent Heights, “was where they had a little club called Pandora’s Box. The kids used to spill out into the road so you couldn’t move. You couldn’t fucking move! Kids 10-deep on the sidewalk, into the road! That’s where the riots started. You heard of the riots on Sunset Strip?”
Someone behind us honks—a disapproving noncruiser. “Fuuuck you,” says Valentine, though not with the combustive anger of the salty and aged, more the sighing bemusement of an enlightened old-timer who’s thinking, Jeez, loosen up, kids; you see more when you take it slow. This is a man who first arrived in Los Angeles via freight car and upturned thumb—he was 14, it was the Great Depression, and after the hobo trains got him as far as San Francisco from his hometown of Chicago, he hitchhiked the rest of the way downstate.
Up on the right comes the Comedy Store, formerly Ciro’s, the crown jewel of the Strip’s glorious 1940s champagne-in-a-bucket epoch. Valentine explains that Ciro’s reconstituted itself as a hip 60s rock club just long enough to launch the Byrds, but, unable to secure a liquor license, morphed into a short-lived teenybop haven with the risible name It’s Boss. Moving along, Valentine points out an undistinguished building on the plot where Dino’s Lodge was, “Dean Martin’s place, where Kookie worked in 77 Sunset Strip.” The next site of note is an empty lot across the street from the ersatz mid-century greasy spoon Mel’s Diner, formerly the genuine mid-century greasy spoon Ben Frank’s. “That’s where I had the Trip,” says Valentine. The Trip was a tiny but chic rock club Valentine opened in 1965 in the space vacated by the Crescendo, a jazz club; one of its gimmicks, devised by Valentine’s music-mogul buddy Lou Adler, was that the names of the current Billboard Top 10 singles were displayed on its façade.
But the highlight of Valentine’s tour comes a few blocks later, after we’ve passed the spot where the Classic Cat topless club used to be (now the Tower Records classical annex) but before we’ve hit the former sites of Gazzarri’s (now the Key Club) and the very first Hamburger Hamlet (now Beverly Sunset Motors). “There it is,” says Valentine adoringly, as if proffering a school photo of a granddaughter. Behold, at the northwest corner of Sunset and Clark, the most famous club in the history of rock music, the Whisky à Go Go—its façade currently painted in a queasy alternation of yellow and pastel-purple rectangles. “Aww, I’m proud of it,” Valentine says. “It was just so popular, right from the very first night. I tell you, I was just lucky. It was easy. You know what? It was easy.”
Valentine opened the Whisky à Go Go in January of 1964. Johnny Rivers, later famous for the song “Secret Agent Man,” was the headliner. The club was an instant smash, a cultural trendsetter from the outset; we have Valentine to thank for introducing the terms “à go go,” “go-go girl,” and “go-go cage” into our vernacular, and, more significantly, for helping launch the careers of some of the best rock ’n’ roll bands ever. “Once the Whisky started to happen, then Sunset Boulevard started to happen,” says Lou Adler. “L.A. started to happen, as far as the music business—it blew up.” Indeed, the mythologizing of psychedelic San Francisco and Brill Building–era New York often obscures Los Angeles’s status as the seat of American pop in the 60s, the city that gave us not only the explicitly California-identified Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, but also the Doors, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Sonny & Cher. (To say nothing of the fact that Phil Spector, a man often presumed to be a New Yorker, was actually an L.A. kid who recorded the bulk of his celebrated Wall of Sound output at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard.) Today, the words “Sunset Strip” may automatically summon a mental montage of sleaze— cocaine, skull tattoos, breast implants, hamburger grease—but 35 years ago there was no place more sunshiny and brimming with possibility. “It was an amazing time,” says Gail Zappa, who met her future husband, Frank, when she was 21 and working as Valentine’s secretary. “In those days [on the Strip], people with long hair who had cars waved to each other—long hair was a mark, a signifier. Like ‘Wow: there’s another one! We’re actually making progress!’” The Strip offered the Aquarian good vibes of Haight-Ashbury with a Hollywood difference: better-looking people and no body stink. As Gene Clark, the handsomest Byrd and the one with the best Beatles-cum-Prince-Valiant haircut, remarked upon his return from a trip to San Francisco in the mid-60s, “Long hair is all right, but they look like girls out there. I mean, you don’t even know if it’s clean, man.” Roger McGuinn, Clark’s then bandmate, remembers apologizing to his San Franciscan friends for L.A.’s shortcomings—the smog, the traffic, the lookism—but adds, “I liked L.A. It was an amazing music town then, almost more than it was a movie town.”
The Whisky was the hub of this remarkably fertile scene, a place for the aforementioned acts to perform and/or hang out, and for these acts’ fans to share in the rapture. Valentine was the scene’s unlikely paterfamilias—an ex-cop and jazz aficionado from Chicago who was already past 40. “Back then, we really believed in ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30,’ but Elmer was different,” says Cher. “He was the one older person we trusted.” The kids loved Valentine not only for his peaceable demeanor and soft, jowly mug—Jack Nicholson has described him as looking like “all seven of the dwarves”—but also because he genuinely enjoyed their music and their company. “You didn’t know who owned Ciro’s, you didn’t know who ran Ciro’s,” says Adler. “But Elmer was a face, someone you could connect to, a celebrity in his own right.”
Which makes his obscurity today, in our relentlessly archival Behind the Music-slash-E! Hollywood True Story culture, all the more curious. Valentine has retreated so quietly into retirement that few people realize he’s still around. He says he has seen himself referred to in print as “the late Elmer Valentine,” and several people I interviewed for this story made a point of asking me when he died. Still others, L.A. music scenesters who pride themselves on being in the know, said they’d heard that Valentine “isn’t doing so well,” and is a shut-in befogged by Alzheimer’s. In fact, Valentine is hale and vigorous and contends, “I’m better than I ever was.” Though he doesn’t get out much socially anymore, he walks several miles a day and bides his time happily at his house up in the Hollywood Hills, smoking herb and listening to jazz CDs in the company of two dogs (a boxer and a pit bull), two tankfuls of tropical fish (“I think of fish as living art”), and two greenhouses full of orchids. His legendary lovability is apparent from the moment he appears in his doorway. He has a snuffly Doc/Sneezy speaking voice to match the face, a jolly cast to his features, and the sturdy build of a benevolent protector: good height, broad shoulders, large hands, an air of latent strength; picture Fred Mertz if he grew his hair out and acquired a predilection for cheeba. Up in his bedroom, he shows me, in the most unassuming, nonboastful way, concrete evidence of his charm and continuing vigor: bountiful home snapshots, held fast under plate glass on top of his dresser, of the young lovelies he’s walked out with over the years—women 40, 50 years his junior, including Gia Carangi, the doomed, heroin-addicted 80s model whom Angelina Jolie played in a TV movie, and the knockout Polish model in her 20s he happens to be dating now. “I know I’m pushing 80,” he says. “The wonderful thing is, with all these girls, music is the common bond. With music as the common bond, they look beyond the physical.” Adler, more succinctly, says, “Elmer is a wolf.”
Is this man still alive? Is he ever. What’s more, his recall is better than that of the rock stars who spent the 60s in his club.
Johnny Rivers, the Whisky’s star attraction for the first year of its existence, recalls the state of the Strip before his arrival on it as “pretty dead, really.” The early 1960s were something of an interregnum on Sunset. Old-Hollywood nightspots such as Ciro’s, the El Mocambo, and the Trocadero were either dead or dying, having lost their action to the big rooms of burgeoning Vegas, and rock ’n’ roll hadn’t yet stormed in to the rescue. Small clubs like the Crescendo and the Renaissance did good business with jazzers and Beatniks, but the closest thing there was to a cohesive youth movement in Hollywood was off the Strip, in the folk clubs. At the Ash Grove on Third Street and the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard, young folkies were able to bask in mutual admiration and earn better money than they did in, say, Greenwich Village, where Roger McGuinn had been making “three to ten dollars a night after they passed the basket around.” Among those who met for the first time on this circuit were McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark, who formed the Jet Set, the precursor to the Byrds.
Valentine, meanwhile, was running a restaurant-nightclub at the corner of Crescent Heights and Santa Monica called P.J.’s. Named in homage to P. J. Clarke’s, the New York pub, it was more a lounge-act kind of place than a folk club, but it gained a measure of national fame thanks to the quasi-folkie Trini Lopez, whose 1963 live album, Trini Lopez at P.J.’s, featured a hit cover of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”
Valentine had moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1960. (That first trip to California, in 1937 on the freight trains, was merely a youthful escapade.) “I left Chicago because my wife dumped me, and I was flipped out,” he says. He was also having a little career trouble. When I ask him what kind of cop he was—meaning detective, beat cop, or whatever—he cheerfully responds, “Corrupt!” In the grand tradition of Chicago law enforcement, Valentine was on the take from the Mob. “It was a way of life,” he says unapologetically. One Chicago old-timer from that milieu remembers Valentine as a “real sharp dresser, a nice-looking fellow,” who worked as a so-called Captain’s Man, “collecting the filthy lucre on behalf of the captain.” But the authorities caught on to him, and he was indicted for extortion. Though he was never convicted, it was in Valentine’s best interests to get out of town. Fortunately, he had picked up another vocational skill while on the Chicago force. “I used to moonlight running nightclubs for the outfit,” he says. “For gangsters.”
So it was that Valentine found himself trying his hand at full-time nightclub management, overseeing operations at P.J.’s, which he co-owned with some fellow ex-Chicagoans. The club did well, and Valentine took instantly to his new line of work, but he wasn’t yet convinced that his future lay in L.A. In 1963 he traveled to Europe with the intent of opening a club in one of the cities there and beginning a new life as an expatriate. But while he was in Paris, he happened to visit a discotheque that was called the Whisky à Go Go. “They had these kids, young people, dancing like you wouldn’t believe,” he says. “So I came back to Los Angeles, and I wanted to open a discotheque. I wanted that badly. ’Cause I saw what was happening—the frenzy and the people and the lines.” Valentine had made $55,000 by selling his share in P.J.’s. He re-invested $20,000 of this money in the refurbishment of a failing club whose lease he’d taken over, a place at the corner of Sunset and Clark called the Party, in an old Bank of America building. The club’s new name was nicked straight from Paris: the Whisky à Go Go.
Now he needed an act. One night, he happened to see Johnny Rivers performing at Gazzarri’s, a tiny, non-descript Italian restaurant on La Cienega. Rivers, a 21-year-old guitar phenom hired out of expediency by Bill Gazzarri—whose previous booking, a jazz trio, had bailed out on him—had unexpectedly turned the place into a word-of-mouth hot spot. Three times a night, Rivers, a slight, wiry, pompadoured kid from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, played an upbeat set of blues, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll covers—“Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles, some Bobby Darin stuff, Chuck Berry,” he says—accompanied only by a drummer. Unremarkable as this sounds now, no one in circa-1963 L.A. had ever seen anything like it. “Johnny was like the Pied Piper,” says Valentine. “People were waiting in line to go in and dance. When I saw that, I said, ‘I gotta get this guy.’”
Another person enamored of Rivers was a new acquaintance of Valentine’s named Lou Adler. Though he was only in his late 20s, Adler, a young hustler from East L.A.’s working-class Boyle Heights section, had already established himself as a music-industry operator—running the West Coast office of Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music publishing company, producing Jan & Dean’s hits, starting up Dunhill Productions (which would evolve into the Dunhill Records label), and dating Ann-Margret and The Donna Reed Show’s Shelley Fabares. Like Valentine, Adler had stumbled upon the Johnny Rivers phenomenon—in his case, while killing time before a Don Rickles show down the street—and felt the same shock of recognition. “When I first saw Rivers, part of what interested me was the audience that I saw,” he says. “Because they were adults dancing to rock ’n’ roll—people in sport coats and ties. That showed the audience was getting really broad.” It had previously been presumed that rock ’n’ roll was strictly for American Bandstand teenyboppers, and was therefore unsuitable for nightclubs, where the real money was in the liquor tabs. But now, all of a sudden, a white guy playing Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and “Maybellene” on an electric guitar was a viable grown-up attraction—for young grown-ups, anyway.
Adler advised Valentine to sign Rivers to a one-year contract as the Whisky’s marquee act. Rivers agreed, the deal being that he’d play three sets a night, with a drummer and a bassist. Between sets, the audience would dance to records spun by a D.J.—but not just any D.J.: a girl D.J., suspended high above the audience in a glass-walled cage. This faintly ridiculous idea was Valentine’s pragmatic response to the room’s space limitations: the Whisky was not a big club, and the only way he could fit the D.J. booth was to mount it on a metal support beam that ran alongside the performing area. Making the most of the situation’s public-relations potential, Valentine asked one of his early partners in the Whisky, a P.R. man named Shelly Davis, to run a public contest for the new girl-D.J. position.
But on the very night of the Whisky’s opening, January 15, 1964, the contest winner called Valentine in tears, explaining that her disapproving mother wouldn’t let her take the job. So Valentine pressed his reluctant cigarette girl, a young woman named Patty Brockhurst, into action. “She had on a slit skirt, and we put her up there,” he says. “So she’s up there playing the records. She’s a young girl, so while she’s playing ’em, all of a sudden she starts dancing to ’em! It was a dream. It worked.” Thus, out of calamity and serendipity, was born the go-go girl. Valentine acted fast to formalize the position, installing two more cages and hiring two more girl dancers, one of whom, Joanie Labine, designed the official go-go-girl costume of fringed dress and white boots.
Just about the only person who didn’t care for the go-go girls was Johnny Rivers. When they danced during his sets, he let Valentine know how peeved he was: “I said, ‘When I’m playing, I want people to listen to my music. I don’t want any sideshows.’” It was agreed that the girls would contain their enthusiasm while the star artiste played, though Rivers turned out to be the only Whisky act ever to make such a demand. Generally, everyone involved in the Whisky’s first year reveled in the exhilaration of instantaneous success. Rivers’s built-in following ensured that the Whisky drew sellout crowds from the night it opened. The novelty of rock ’n’ roll on the Strip, plus the added novelty of the girls, attracted national media attention and Hollywood stars. Within months of the Whisky’s debut, Life magazine had written it up, Jack Paar had broadcast an episode of his post-Tonight weekly program from the club, and Steve McQueen and Jayne Mansfield had installed themselves as regulars, Watusi-ing away on the dance floor almost every night while flashbulbs popped. “Everybody was there,” says Rivers. “I mean, you’d look up, and there was Cary Grant dancing.”
When the Beatles arrived in Los Angeles that year on their first American tour, they let it be known that the Whisky was the place they wanted to see. Valentine took it upon himself to personally chauffeur John Lennon and Paul McCartney to the club—and brought Jayne Mansfield along for the ride as a bonus. “John was putting Jayne on,” says Valentine. “‘Jayne, those aren’t really your tits, are they?’ ‘Yes they are!’ ‘No, no, I can tell ... ’ He got her to show them to him.” In a not dissimilar episode involving a randy Englishman, James Mason joined Valentine in a booth one night and stared in wonderment at the go-go girls. “I remember this exactly,” says Valentine. “He said [clipped English diction], ‘Oh, my gosh—how those girls jiggle so much with their titties while they’re dahn-cing.’”
Shrewd businessman that he was, Adler wasted little time in seizing the opportunity to record a live album at the club. Johnny Rivers at the Whisky à Go Go was released in May of ’64, its back cover laden with celebrity testimonials: “JOHNNY CARSON: ‘At 12:00 o’clock I kissed my wife, I thought it was New Year’s Eve! Johnny Rivers is the Pied Piper of The Watusi Set.’ SAM COOKE: ‘Nothing is more exciting than talent on the rise, and Johnny is going all the way.’ YOGI BEAR: ‘Johnny is my Bobo.’ george hamilton: ‘Johnny Rivers’ beat is magic. You can’t help but dance.’ JAN: ‘Johnny turns Sunset Boulevard into an adult Dick Clark Show.’ DEAN: ‘Right!’”
“I think I wrote all of those myself,” says Adler now, smiling sheepishly. “But some of ’em actually were there.” A similar degree of jiggery-pokery was involved in the actual recording. Though the album sleeve says, “Recorded Live—Very Live—At the Whisky à Go Go,” Adler admits, “it was all enhanced. I took the basic tracks into the studio ... and had about maybe 75 to 100 people there,” the visitors functioning as his “audience,” offering fake-spontaneous commentary on Johnny’s show and breaking out into sing-alongs. In any event, the album is a convincing approximation of the ramalama ambience of the early Whisky—an aural picture of hips shaking in shiny suits and kneecaps straining through tight shifts—and it did terrific business, charting at No. 12 and yielding a No. 2 hit in “Memphis.” Just two months later, a follow-up album, Here We à Go Go Again, yielded a No. 12 hit in “Maybellene.”
But the runaway success of Rivers and the Whisky was not without its consequences. When Valentine’s mobster associates in Chicago caught wind of their old buddy’s gangbusters business, they swooped in, looking for a piece of Rivers’s action. One night, Adler recalls, he was summoned to Rivers’s dressing room. There, he found the terrified guitarist quaking in the presence of some very large gentlemen. “He said, ‘These guys want me to sign these papers,’” says Adler, meaning documents turning over a percentage of Rivers’s earnings. “I said, ‘You’re not gonna sign any papers.’ And the guy said to me something like ‘How would you like me to rip off your arms and choke you to death with ’em?’” Adler managed to stall long enough to get Valentine involved, but Valentine had to travel all the way back to Chicago to get his friends to call off the goons for good.
An implicit part of the respect accorded Valentine and his partners by the under-30 crowd was the widespread perception that the Whisky was a Mafia-run club. Even now, the Byrds’ Chris Hillman shudders as he says, “Whoever financed Elmer, I don’t want to know.” Frank Zappa was more explicit in his memoir The Real Frank Zappa Book, dryly asserting that the Trip and the Whisky were “owned by the same ‘ethnic organization.’” This perception was only encouraged by the fact that Valentine was half-Italian—“My father was a Wop and a greenhorn named Valenti”—and the fact that his most prominent early partner was an L.A. gambler and cardplayer named Phil Tanzini, who, says Valentine, was “involved in the gin-rummy scandal at the Friars Club—he was the eye in the sky, looking at players’ hands through a hole in the ceiling.” (“Tanzini was a nightmare—sleazeball-desperate,” says Gail Zappa, a victim of his roving hands in her secretarial days.)
With his customary blithe candor, Valentine cheerily explains that, while he was not necessarily of the Chicago Mafia, he was certainly friendly with its members. He even had some gangsterish tendencies of his own in the old days. There’s an extraordinary photograph on his bedroom wall that captures him in his 20s, sitting in a restaurant booth flanked by two ugly mugs straight out of Little Caesar. “That’s right after we held up a gambling joint,” Valentine says. Given that he was a cop, I take this to mean they’d all just staged a vice raid. No, he says, that’s him with two of his gangster friends: “We held ’em up! We said we’d fuckin’ shoot ’em if they didn’t hand over the money!” Did Elmer ever actually fuckin’ shoot anyone? “That’s personal,” he says.
One “very close friend” of Valentine’s in his Chicago days was Felix Alderisio, also known as Milwaukee Phil, who was arguably the most feared hit man in the country in the 1950s and 60s, carrying out at least 14 murders for Sam Giancana and other Chicago bosses. “Milwaukee Phil would chin himself on the go-go cage as it was being built,” Valentine remembers. His friendship with Alderisio came in especially handy when Bill Gazzarri decided to voice his displeasure that Valentine had poached Rivers from his place. Gazzarri, calling in connections of his own, sicced another famous Chicago gangster on Valentine, Charles Carmen Inglesia, better known as Chuckie English, who was Giancana’s top lieutenant in the early 60s (and who met his end when he was shot between the eyes on February 14, 1985—the 56th anniversary of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre). One day, Chuckie English paid Valentine an unexpected visit and announced, “Johnny Rivers back to Gazzarri’s or you’re a dead motherfucker.” “So I got Milwaukee Phil to come in from Chicago, and it was straightened out,” Valentine says. (Gazzarri didn’t exactly suffer anyway—he relocated his club to the Strip, where it persisted well into the 1990s as a heavy-metal showcase.)
Few people outside of Valentine’s inner circle were cognizant of these behind-the-scenes shenanigans, though. For most of America, the Whisky was one of the bossest things going in 1964. It quickly spawned imitators, complete with hit-spewing Rivers-alikes and hastily hired go-go girls frugging in hastily erected cages; even the Whisky itself spawned two short-lived satellite franchises, in San Francisco and Atlanta. Patty Brockhurst’s unthinking little shimmies of joy were reverberating throughout popular culture: from the Strip to the soundstages of Shindig and Hullabaloo to prom halls to the White House, where First Teen Luci Baines Johnson was shakin’ her ample thang Whisky-style before the year was out.
If there were dissenting voices, people who found it all a bit corny, no one in the mainstream paid them any mind. But certainly the voices were there—the voices of the folkies, loons, and freaks looming on the horizon. People like Frank Zappa, who reflected in his memoir, “During this period in American Musical History, anything with ‘Go-Go’ pasted on the end of it was really hot. All you were required to do, if you were a musician desiring steady work, was to grind your way through five sets per night of loud rhythm tracks, while girls in fringed costumes did the twist, as if that particular body movement summed up the aesthetic of the serious beer drinker.”
And over in L.A.’s Westwood section, two U.C.L.A. Film School students with intellectual pretensions, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, were duly unimpressed with the goings-on a few miles off to the east. “The Whisky was for Hollywood swingers,” says Manzarek. “When you were at U.C.L.A., it was the antithesis of everything artistic that you could imagine. Everyone derided it. It was slick and Hollywood and Sunset Strip—a rock ’n’ roll version of the Rat Pack.... And then we wind up being the house band there. How ironic life is.”
Ed Ruscha, the L.A.-based artist, recalls “an abruptness, a cultural jump,” transforming the Strip in 1965 and ’66. Ruscha lived in Hollywood throughout the 1960s and made a habit of photographing the various establishments on the Strip in a cold, reportorial deadpan—as the truth-in-advertising title of his 1966 photo book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, suggests. “I liked the plastic glamour of the place,” he says of the Strip in its early-60s incarnation. “But suddenly there was this changeover to the hippie thing. What I remember most is that you could stand anywhere on the Sunset Strip and see cars going down very slowly, always with someone in the backseat tapping on a tambourine—going tap, tap, tap.”
While Rivers had been tearing up the Whisky, the folkies in the Jet Set—McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby, now augmented by bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke—had become enamored of the Beatles. They hit upon the idea of electrifying their sound, achieving a folk-rock synthesis that no one had yet essayed, and grew their hair out into mushroom-cap dos even more luxuriant than the Beatles’. Changing their name to the Byrds and securing a residency at the down-at-its-heels Ciro’s, they honed their sound and built up a following. When the very first Byrds single, their famously jangly version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” went to No. 1 in May of 1965, it ratified the notion of the Strip as a progressive music scene, and the notion of folk-rock hippiedom as a way of life. “From ’64 into ’65, the focus shifted from Johnny Rivers east to Ciro’s—on us,” says Hillman. “And when ‘Tambourine Man’ became a hit, everything suddenly went from Jay Sebring hairdos”—he smooths his hair back tightly on the sides to simulate a neat, sticky quiff—“to a more bohemian atmosphere.”
“The Byrds were the catalyst—they brought all the kids to the Strip,” says Terry Melcher, the band’s producer, who was then something of a boy wonder: an A-list producer, a Columbia Records executive, and the son of Doris Day. “They took the Dylan songs, we electrified ’em and rock ’n’ rolled ’em, and kids came from everywhere. It just happened. One day you couldn’t drive anymore. It was, like, overnight—you couldn’t drive on the Strip.”
The Strip became a magnet for all sorts of budding hippies, runaway teens, and oddballs without portfolio—Hollywood freaks on the Hollywood scene, to borrow a phrase from an L.A. music star of much later vintage, Beck. The greatest freak of them all was Vito Paulekas, a bearded, longhaired, middle-aged sculptor with a fondness for flowing robes, saturnalian dancing, and comely young girls. “Vito was an art instructor. When I was in high school, we’d go to his art studio because he had naked models,” says Melcher, a 1960 graduate of Beverly Hills High. “I’d just pop in and say, ‘Hi, I’m thinking of taking some art lessons.’” Now it was Vito’s turn to sponge off of the scene Melcher was part of, sashaying from Ciro’s to the Whisky to the other Strip clubs now showcasing rock acts—the Galaxy, the Action, the Sea Witch, Pandora’s Box, and Valentine’s new joint, the Trip—with several whacked-out acolytes in tow, all swaying exotically to the ragas in their heads. “Vito would come in every night with an entourage—mostly four or five really great-looking girls,” says Adler. “It’s a weird parallel, but it was like a nonviolent Manson situation, a little cult.” Among Vito’s male disciples was Kim Fowley, a six-foot-five, whippet-thin Strip scenester who’d produced the Hollywood Argyles’ 1960 novelty hit “Alley-Oop,” and who was the son of actor Douglas Fowley, Doc Holliday on TV’s Wyatt Earp. “Vito had people from 17 to 70 following him,” says Fowley. “I was particularly notorious for my interpretive dancing—I did kicks, jumps, martial-arts moves, the Watusi.”
“I remember Kim dancing at the Whisky with a very short girlfriend,” says Ed Ruscha. “He was so tall, and he’d hold a five-dollar bill in his teeth. She would try to grab the money, and he would shift so she couldn’t catch it. Kim made a whole dance out of that. I was impressed.”
Another sometime member of the Vito contingent was Pamela Des Barres, a cute Valley teenager who’d discovered with her high-school friends that meeting pop stars was as easy as getting a ride over the hills, knocking on the dressing-room doors of the Whisky or Ciro’s, and batting one’s eyelashes. “We would wear almost nothing—little bits of lace and stuff—and just be wild girls,” says Des Barres, who would go on to chronicle her groupie adventures in her 1988 memoir, I’m with the Band. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we had a lot of sex. For instance, I would see Jim Morrison sometimes, and we would just make out.” John Densmore, the Doors’ drummer, says his favorite Vito dancer was Rory Flynn, “Errol Flynn’s daughter. Real tall and”—wolf whistle—“a looker. I’d be playing and getting off on Rory Flynn in her sheer negligee, dancing. And then I’d notice guys in suits trying to be cool and acting like they didn’t see.”
As in the Johnny Rivers days, the dinner-jacketed denizens of old Hollywood emerged from their Beverly Hills and Bel Air homes to see what all the fuss was about. The cabaret singer Bobby Short, in an E! documentary on the Sunset Strip that aired last year, recalled, “A sort of social thing had developed in Beverly Hills. After dinner, you put your friends in your car, took them for a ride down the Sunset Strip. That was the floor show.” “It was slumming for the Hollywood of the 40s and 50s,” says Fowley. “Ed Begley Sr. would come in with a pack. Paul Lynde would come in with a pack. I’d be dancing and I’d bump into Ed Begley, and he’d smile and say, ‘Oh, you’re just great.’”
With all things hippie and freaky taking hold on the Strip, Valentine, with the plugged-in Adler serving as his informal musical adviser, began booking more outré acts after Rivers’s residency ended—starting with the Young Rascals, followed by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, who even played luncheon dates (wearing derbies for some reason). “Ciro’s was the catalyst, but Ciro’s couldn’t maintain the energy,” says Hillman. “So the energy went back to the Whisky and the Trip, because Elmer knew what he was doing.” The go-go dancers stayed, but their undulations became stranger. Roger McGuinn’s homemade 16-mm. psychedelic films were used as background projections during shows. (“I filmed Lava lamps and sloshing oil and stuff,” he says.) Valentine turned a blind eye to the dealers selling acid in the parking lot behind the club, while the Whisky’s new manager, an old Chicago acquaintance of Valentine’s named Mario Maglieri, kindheartedly looked after the mongrel kids who now littered the club’s doorstep, offering them friendly (if unheeded) anti-drug lectures and free bowls of soup. The Whisky reasserted its dominance. Not only did Valentine get prestigious U.K. acts like the Who, the Animals, the Kinks, and Them, he also instituted a policy of showcasing local bands in support slots and on the off nights when big-name acts weren’t available. The roster of bands who played in the Whisky’s “house band” slot—among them Love, Buffalo Springfield, and the Doors—is a testament to the wealth of great young talent milling around Los Angeles in the mid-1960s.
And why shouldn’t this have been the case? If the summer of 1965 proved anything to aspiring pop stars, it was that L.A. was the place to make it. The Byrds were already huge. Next up were Sonny and Cher, who had labored anonymously through the early 60s under Phil Spector’s wing—Sonny Bono as a minion, Cherilyn Sarkisian as a backup singer—before hitting it big in ’65 with “I Got You, Babe.” (Cher insists that she and Bono were a huge influence on the sartorial revolution taking place on the Strip. “The bobcat vests—we absolutely started it,” she says. “There was a guy on La Cienega, a boot-maker, and we saw the bobcat vest hanging outside his store on display, blowing around in the wind. I wanted it, but it didn’t fit me, so Sonny wore it.”) On the heels of Sonny and Cher came Barry McGuire, a New Christy Minstrel turned Dunhill Records solo artist, who went to No. 1 in late summer with his Lou Adler– produced debut single, “Eve of Destruction.” Two people paying particular attention to these rapid-fire developments were John and Michelle Phillips, a husband-and-wife folksinging team living in near destitution in New York City. “We were astonished that the Byrds got a record deal, let alone a hit,” says Michelle Phillips. “We thought, ‘If the Byrds can do it, anyone can.’” Through their sloggings on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse circuit, the Phillipses had gotten to know both the Byrds’ McGuinn and Barry McGuire, and couldn’t believe what they were missing out on; they would later capture this sense of yearning and envy in their 1967 song “Creeque Alley,” with its famous line “McGuinn and McGuire just gettin’ higher in L.A., you know where that’s at.”
“We arrived in L.A. at the end of the summer of ’65, and we were living with a friend, three blocks from the Whisky à Go Go,” says John Phillips. “Elmer was one of the first people we met. He let us in for free, let us stand in the back for a couple of sets. We were nobodies, and we had no bodies, we were so starved. Elmer just took a liking to us.” But it didn’t take long for the Phillipses, along with their singing partners, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, to hit the same heights as their old Village friends. A month after their arrival in Los Angeles, they had a record deal with Dunhill—McGuire had brokered the introduction to Adler—and by May 1966 the Mamas and the Papas’ first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was No. 1 in the country, with two Top 5 singles, “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday,” to its credit. Buffalo Springfield’s ascent was hatched under similarly informal circumstances. Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and company hadn’t even spent much time together as a band when Hillman caught on to them and asked Valentine to give them a tryout. “I remember Chris coming up to me, saying, ‘Listen, I got a band, I think they’re gonna be really big stars, would you put ’em in?’” Valentine says. “And it was the Buffalo Springfield! It just fell into my lap.”
Less remembered now but equally important then was the band Love. “We started playing the Whisky five nights a week, and we had crowds lined up around the block to get in,” writes Love’s enigmatic front man, Arthur Lee, from California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison, where he is 4 years into a 12-year sentence for illegal firearm possession. “Before Love started, they were thinking of closing because business was bad.... We helped keep the Whisky alive!” That’s stretching things, but certainly the group sustained the scene’s momentum, bridging the L.A.-pop divide between the optimistic Byrds and the sinister Doors. Lee, a handsome black mod with straightened hair and a tightfitting Carnaby Street–style wardrobe, was striking enough by himself, but his multiracial band’s ingenious fusion of wildly disparate styles—garage-punk, lounge music, English psychedelia, mariachi—is what made them a sensation. Their reputation for chaotic live shows didn’t hurt, either. “We had no stage presence,” the group’s guitarist, Bryan Maclean, recalled in an interview shortly before his death in 1998 (conducted by Des Barres for her own as-yet-unpublished memoir of the Whisky). “We would stop in mid-song, Arthur would say, ‘Your guitar is too loud, motherfucker!,’ and I’d run off in a huff. One time I ran offstage and into one of Elmer’s hoods.... He looked like a kneecapper to me—a sweet guy, but the real deal.... We were the Jerry Springer Show of the 60s.” (Lee’s drug use and hot temper are what have landed him in the clink. In 1995 he allegedly fired a gun into the air during a dispute with a neighbor, a charge he is appealing. With a drug offense already on his record, he opted to go to trial rather than cop a plea, and lost; hence the inordinately harsh prison term.)
As these bands got famous and the royalty checks began to come in, an L.A.-pop aristocracy began to take shape—the various members of these groups forsaking their squatty rentals near the Strip for roomy houses in Laurel Canyon, up in the hills above Crescent Heights. The de rigueur splurge for the newly minted male pop star was a Triumph motorcycle, which you’d use to bomb down the Canyon to your gig at the Whisky or the Trip. (Always taking Fountain Avenue, says John Densmore. The incongruously quiet street just a block south of Sunset was invariably traffic-free, whereas the Strip had become so crowded with tambourine rattlers as to be unnavigable.) And if you weren’t performing yourself that night, you’d settle into one of the tufted, comfy booths in the Whisky. “It was tough to get a booth,” says Adler. “There weren’t that many, and the place was packed to the walls.” The booths—“wonderful red Naugahyde, like a Mob restaurant,” says Hillman—offered a terrific vantage point for people-watching, both because they were a few feet higher than the dance floor and because they were near the entrance, so you could check out who was coming through the door. Adler, V.I.P. that he was, had his own booth, which he regularly occupied with John Phillips and Terry Melcher, occasionally augmented by Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, and Denny Doherty. Valentine held court in another booth with Steve McQueen, with whom he’d become best friends. Groupies such as Des Barres prided themselves on being invited into the booths of visiting Brits like Mick Jagger or Keith Moon.
The loose, ad hoc nature of the scene—the way nobodies could collide with somebodies and have their lives changed as a result—contributed to the general feeling of bonhomie and anything-is-possible. “There were no laminated passes, no boundaries, and you could be just a kid and walk up to Lou Adler, and he’d talk to you,” says Harvey Kubernik, a music producer and journalist who, as a teenager in the mid-60s, found it delightfully convenient that the Whisky was just “two hitchhikes up the Strip” from his school, Fairfax High. Gail Zappa remembers an incident in which she and a girlfriend found themselves being ticketed by a cop for jaywalking on the Strip, only to be rescued by two heroic young strangers who zoomed to the scene on motorcycles and spirited them away. “And it was Hillman and David Crosby,” she says. “My friend told me later that evening, ‘I’m gonna marry that guy,’ meaning Chris. And she did.”
An air of sexual possibility charged the room, too. “I was a creep, an ugly guy, and suddenly even creeps could get laid,” says Fowley. “For a pretty girl, going out with a creep was revenge against your parents. You’d find beautiful girls just lying in the street next to the gutter, sleeping under lice-covered blankets, and you’d take them home, clean them off, and you had a girlfriend for the night.” Virtually every man interviewed for this story marveled about the uncommon beauty and availability of the girls at the Whisky in the 60s, and offered words to the effect that “I never went home alone.” Valentine fondly recounts how Duane Allman remarked to him shortly before his death following a motorcycle crash, “Elmer, I’ll always come back here—you’ve got the best dope and pussy in this country!” He repeats Allman’s words with a disarming unfilthiness, like a resort owner pleased that a fat-cat visitor has written “Great golf! Will return soon!” in the guest book.
As for Valentine himself, he’d found his Nirvana; any remnants of Chicago toughness left in his makeup had been vaporized by the good vibes and the high-quality pot McQueen had turned him on to. “Elmer was a romantic, a guy who moved from the Midwest and loved California. He saw the Whisky à Go Go as this paradise,” says Fowley. “I ran into him once and he gave me this, like, five-minute chamber-of-commerce speech about how great we have it in Los Angeles.” But then, that’s how everyone felt. Even crazy Arthur Lee, whose lyrics tended toward the menacing and oblique, wrote an upbeat, relatively straightforward song called “Maybe the People Would Be the Times, Or Between Clark and Hilldale”—the Whisky’s block—which he today describes as “a panoramic picture of the Strip circa ’66–’67.” Thinking back on this scene now, Lee writes from his prison cell, “It’s like a psychedelic movie in technicolor!! That my mind rewinds and plays if I blink real hard. It’s an endless montage of beautiful people.”
The Doors were always different—never schmoozer-socialites in the John Phillips vein, nor folkies like the other bands had once been. As late as mid-1966, they were still considered something of a loser-outcast band, playing in a seedy dive next door to the Whisky called the London Fog, which came complete with indifferent drunken sailors and a B-grade go-go dancer. “Her name was Rhonda Lane, and she was a little, as the Japanese say, genki—meaning substantial,” says Ray Manzarek, the band’s keyboardist. Densmore remembers peering forlornly through the door of the Whisky—which he couldn’t afford to get into—and seeing Love playing to adulation. “I really wanted to be in Love—they were making it,” he says. “But I was in the demon Doors.”
But they got a break when Ronnie Haran, a young woman working as Valentine’s promotions director, sauntered into the London Fog one evening and liked what she saw. “She saw Jim, and that was it—she was smitten,” says Manzarek. “The arrows of Eros went flying and struck her directly in the heart.”
“That’s bullshit,” says Haran, who now goes by the name Ronnie Haran Mellen. “Jim was too rough-trade for me. I was smitten with the group. The poetry of the words—I’d never heard lyrics like that.”
Whatever the case, Haran Mellen confirms that she launched an all-out campaign to sway her boss. “Ronnie said, ‘You’ve gotta put this band in,’ and she told her friends to call and ask for the Doors,” says Valentine, who admits he was skeptical. “Well, I got so many goddamned calls, so I put them in. The 60s! I couldn’t go wrong. I didn’t have to know shit!” Actually, it wasn’t quite that smooth a trip to stardom for Morrison and company. Though their residency at the Whisky in the summer of 1966 afforded them a fantastic opportunity to workshop the now famous songs that would form their first album—songs such as “Break On Through,” “Light My Fire,” and “The End”—the flower-power kids didn’t always get Morrison’s Baudelaireisms or the band’s jazz-odyssey explorations. As Densmore says, “We were darker. We were not folk-rock. We would scare people.” And Morrison was even then a loose cannon, prone to scream unprompted “Fuck you, Elmer!” from the stage when drunk or otherwise chemically altered. Nevertheless, they became the toast of the Strip as the summer went on, their music proving to be particularly conducive to the Dionysian swaying of Vito’s dancers, whom Densmore admired for their ability “to Martha Graham-ize what they were hearing.”
One night, however, the Doors’ fierce experimentalism proved too much to bear even for the indulgent Valentine, and it finished them off as a Whisky band for good. A Doors set had traditionally ended, appropriately enough, with “The End.” “It had started off as a little two-and-a-half-minute love song, a good-bye to a girl: ‘This is the end, beautiful friend,’” says Manzarek. But through repeated improvisatory explorations at the London Fog and the Whisky, the song had grown into a 10-minutes-plus epic, a literal showstopper: Morrison would extemporize some Beat poetry, Densmore, Manzarek, and guitarist Robbie Krieger would noodle around experimentally on their instruments, and they’d bring it home for a big finish. On the night in question, though, it looked as though they wouldn’t even get to play “The End”: Morrison had failed to show up for work. The other three made do playing jazz and blues instrumentals, and would have done so for the second set had Phil Tanzini, still a presence at the club in ’66, not made plain that he was paying for a four-man band, and that the singer had better show up or else.
Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore piled into Densmore’s Volkswagen bus and drove to the Tropicana, the Sandy Koufax–owned motel where Morrison happened to be living at the time. They found him in his room, “eyes blazing, wearing underwear and cowboy boots,” says Manzarek—totally gone on acid. Hastily, they dressed him, packed him into the van, and drove back to the Whisky. “He seemed to revive in the dressing room,” says Manzarek. “He had a beer and went back to normal. But his eyes still had that strange LSD blazing intensity about them.”
Just three songs into the set, Morrison called for “The End”—way prematurely, since they had about 40 minutes of performance time left. But the band obeyed and kicked in. As usual, they played a few verses before transitioning into the improvisatory section, where the instruments undulated in a raga style, leaving space for Morrison to freestyle on top. The musicians vamped and vamped, waited and waited ... until Morrison finally spoke up. “The killer awoke before dawn,” he said. “He put his boots on ... He took a face from the ancient gallery, and he walked on down the hallway ... ” It was the lead-up to the famous Oedipal climax that everyone now knows from the recorded version of “The End.” But that night in 1966, no one had ever heard it before—including the other three Doors.
Morrison’s recitation was so mesmerizingly bizarre that the room fell silent—even the ambient nightclub hum was extinguished. The band continued to vamp quietly, perplexedly, as Morrison got to the part where he says, “‘Father?’ ‘Yes, son?’ ‘I want to kill you.’”
“At that point, I realized, My God, he’s doing Oedipus Rex!” says Manzarek. “And then I thought, My God, I know what’s coming next!”
Sure enough, Morrison, after a dramatic pause, came forth with “Mother ... I want to FUCKYOUMAMAALLNIGHTLONGYEAAHHHH!”
The band instinctively erupted into a cacophonous frenzy, and the audience broke out in furious free-form dance—proto-moshing. The crowd, evidently, had loved it. But to the old-fashioned, Runyonesque fellas in Valentine’s crew, this was way, way outta line. An appalled, disbelieving Maglieri summoned Tanzini as the drama unfolded to witness the scene for himself. After the show, says Manzarek, “Phil Tanzini came running up the stairs [to the dressing room] saying, ‘You filthy motherfuckers! You guys have the dirtiest fuckin’ mouths I’ve ever heard in my life! Morrison, you can’t say that about your mother—“Mother, I want to fuck you.” What kind of pervert are you? You guys are all sick with that crazy, loud music! You’re fuckin’ fired!” Tanzini had already called Valentine, who was at home, and reported, “You got this fuckin’ Jim Morrison singing a song about fucking his mother! What are you gonna do?” Valentine responded, “Pull him off the stage and break his fuckin’ legs!”
“I was serious!” says Valentine. “I was a redneck ex-policeman from Chicago! Catholic boy. Fuck your mother? That’s the worst thing I could ever ... ” The Doors were allowed to finish out the week, but were then sent packing. Though they would become only more famous in the following year as their debut album came out, they never played the Whisky again.
Ironically, though, Valentine and Morrison subsequently struck up an intimate friendship. As the fame got to Morrison and he began to self-destruct, he used Valentine’s house as a hideaway when he felt like shirking his responsibilities. “He had four or five guys like me, people he’d hide out with,” says Valentine. “He couldn’t handle being that big. Remember how he got arrested in Miami for indecent exposure? He was up here in the house one night, and he said, ‘Would you like to hear what really happened? You don’t know what it’s like to be a pop star. They think I have a 12-inch dick. I wanted to show that I have a little one’—and he did have a small dick—‘so that they’ll leave me alone.’” In 1969, by which time Morrison was an alcohol-bloated mess alienated from the rest of the band, Valentine tried to get the singer into acting—his buddy McQueen was involved in the production of a picture called Adam at 6 A.M., about a young college professor, and maybe Morrison could star in it. He persuaded Morrison to cut his hair and shave the beard he’d grown, the better to impress McQueen’s co-producers at a lunch meeting, but it was to no avail. Michael Douglas got the part.
The same summer of the Doors’ residency, the police and the local merchants on Sunset Boulevard grew increasingly alarmed by the throngs of young folk on the Strip. The NO CRUISING ZONE policy took effect, and Sheriff Peter Pitchess’s force bore down on the clubs, enforcing curfews and rounding up kids into paddy wagons. (“‘Vagrancy’—that’s what everybody got busted for,” says Gail Zappa.) The city’s sudden announcement that it needed to demolish Pandora’s Box in order to widen the road at the Crescent Heights–Sunset intersection seemed spurious to the smarting longhairs, and thus began a series of demonstrations characterized in the national press as the “riots on Sunset Strip.”
“Sonny and I were right in the middle of it,” says Cher. “We were in a huge protest when they tore down Pandora’s Box.” Adler insists that the events of that summer and fall were “nothing more than a major crowd that was controllable,” but Des Barres remembers that a bus got overturned, and Valentine, Sonny, Cher, and David Crosby all lent their names to an advocacy organization called CAFF (Community Action for Facts and Freedom). The so-called riots also inspired Stephen Stills to write Buffalo Springfield’s most famous song, “For What It’s Worth” (“There’s battle lines being drawn / And nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”), and Hollywood to make the tut-tutting teensploitation flick Riot on Sunset Strip, featuring a truly awful title track by the also-ran Strip band the Standells (“Long hair seems to be the main attraction / But the heat is causin’ all the action”).
More consequentially, the Whisky’s dance license was revoked by the city of Los Angeles. “Because they felt if the kids couldn’t dance they wouldn’t come in. It’s like cutting my legs off,” says Valentine. He successfully sued to get his license back, and counterpunched with a scheme of his own. As Gail Zappa tells it, “Elmer decided, ‘O.K., I’m only gonna book black acts.’ Which, by the way, were extremely popular. But overnight the Strip was black. The merchants really got nervous then. And Elmer thought it was a great joke.”
“It’s fuckin’ true!” says Valentine of Zappa’s recollection. “It was out of spite, but also because I loved the music.” Indeed, it was no skin off Valentine’s back to “go black.” He was close to Otis Redding and loved Motown acts such as the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye, and was already booking them into the Trip anyway. But the merchants, mindful of the Watts riots of ’65, found throngs of Negroes even scarier than throngs of white longhairs. The point was made, and a more integrated booking policy resumed at the Whisky.
The intimacy of the scene started to come undone in 1967, a victim of the L.A. groups’ success—bands were touring rather than hanging around the Whisky, and as their wealth grew greater, some of the musicians left tight-knit Laurel Canyon for ritzier neighborhoods. (John and Michelle Phillips, for example, bought Jeanette MacDonald’s old house in Bel Air.) Compounding matters was the Monterey Pop festival, held in June of that year. Organized primarily by Adler and John Phillips, the festival brought together the L.A. groups, San Francisco acts such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, British bands such as the Who and the Animals, plus Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Ravi Shankar, among others. The massive exposure the festival provided to its performers, and the presence of contract-brandishing record-company executives from the East Coast, marked Monterey as the moment when rock music grew up and became a business. “Monterey completely turned the music industry around,” says Adler. “The groups all got better contracts. The record companies that were aware of what was happening all of a sudden became bigger. You know, Clive Davis started signing groups.”
David Crosby’s virtual defection from the Byrds to Buffalo Springfield at Monterey—he played with Springfield for most of their set—was symbolic of the death of jingle-jangle Strip pop, and indicative of where rock music was headed. Soon he and Springfield’s Stills would team up with Graham Nash to form the first big-money supergroup (which would occasionally be augmented by Neil Young), and the loose, hangin’-at-the-Whisky days would take on a cast of juvenile naïveté. “If I had to, I’d blame it all on David Crosby,” says Melcher, only semi-facetiously. “He broke up the Byrds and joined Buffalo Springfield, and broke them up. And then formed C.S.N. I’d have to say that, personally speaking, Crosby was worse for the good feelings of [L.A.] rock ’n’ roll than Manson was.”
There’s a devilish glint in Melcher’s eye as he says this, for his name is inextricably linked to Charles Manson’s—it was his house on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon that Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, were renting in 1969, and it was there that Manson’s “family” murdered Tate, hairdresser-to-the-stars Jay Sebring, and three others on August 9 of that year. Manson, sprung from prison in 1967 after having run a prostitution ring, was an aspiring rock singer who had managed to insinuate himself into the L.A. music community, befriending the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. He’s generally remembered more as a desert presence and a Malibu presence than a Strip presence, but Mario Maglieri recalls a late-60s incident in which he fielded a desperate daytime call from his secretary at the Whisky, who reported that a menacing punk had installed himself in one of the booths. “I came in from my house in Canoga Park,” says Maglieri. “He was sitting in the booth, writing—whatever he was writing. I said, ‘What are you doing here? We’re closed. You can’t be there.’ He looked at me and says, ‘I can have you killed.’ And I fuckin’ grabbed him. Threw him out. Threw him out the fuckin’ door.... I shoulda strangled that son of a bitch.” The interloper was, of course, Manson.
The news of Tate’s and Sebring’s gruesome deaths was chilling enough to people in Hollywood—Valentine was friends with both, and Adler was an investor in Sebring’s salon—but the subsequent implication of bearded, longhaired Charlie Manson and his similarly styled acolytes was especially disturbing. “It changed the tenor of the scene a lot,” says Melcher. “Because they looked like all the other runaway kids on the Strip. So there was an obvious loss of trust.” As it turned out, the lead killer of the bunch, Charles “Tex” Watson, was a regular patron of the Whisky, a wide-eyed college dropout from Texas who cruised the Strip in his yellow 1959 Thunderbird convertible. “I went there often,” writes Watson, now a born-again Christian, from his cell in a California prison. “It was so laid back in those days that you could go by in the afternoon when they were not even open, walk in the door, and watch a practice. One afternoon, I recall, the Fifth Dimension was practicing. My friend and I were welcomed to watch.” It was one of his Strip adventures, Watson says, that led to his “family” induction: “I picked up Dennis Wilson hitchhiking on Sunset, took him home, and he introduced me to Manson. I did what a lot of kids did, dropped out of society, so to speak.... [Manson’s] philosophy took over my mind as the drugs made me gullible to his influence. Pretty soon, his drugged, crazed philosophy became mine, although I did not totally understand it.”
Valentine insists that business at the Whisky never suffered in the aftermath of the Manson murders—the street-level kids who just wanted to hear music “didn’t care about that shit,” he says—but the paranoia wrought by the killings was the final nail in the coffin of a cohesive L.A.-pop nightclubbing brigade. “That was it—that’s when our innocence was shattered,” says Michelle Phillips, who took to carrying a loaded gun in her purse. “The social fabric was completely torn by the murders.” Before Manson was implicated, says John Phillips, “Roman Polanski suspected me. And I suspected him.” (The hard drugs that Phillips and his friends had gotten into didn’t exactly help in tamping down the paranoia.) Polanski even went so far as to hold a cleaver to Phillips’s neck and demand, “Did you kill Sharon? Did you?” Melcher, for his part, had to weather the charge that he was in some way responsible for the deaths, since he hadn’t signed Manson to Columbia and was therefore the murderers’ target that night—a charge that miffs him to this day. “I should probably put the record straight,” he says. “The Manson family knew I did not live in my house. They knew I’d been living in Malibu for a year.”
Even with the old in-crowd staying away, the Whisky lost little of its luster in the late 60s, remaining the premier venue for any band passing through Los Angeles—Valentine recalls with particular fondness Led Zeppelin’s 1969 engagement, “five straight nights with Alice Cooper as the opening act.” But as the decade turned and rock spread to ballrooms, arenas, and stadiums, the Whisky did begin to struggle. And when Valentine changed strategy in the early 70s, briefly turning the club into a legit theater and cabaret, the glorious heyday of L.A. pop was emphatically over.
There’s no tragic, gutter-ball ending to this story, no vacant, weedy lot where the Whisky once stood. The place is still there and still turns a profit, and has enjoyed two significant renaissances as a scene nexus since its original run: first in the late 70s, when L.A. punk blossomed with such bands as X, the Germs, the Dils, the Weirdos, and Black Flag, and then in the 80s, when spandex metal took hold with Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses. Today, the Whisky is in the hands of Maglieri and his son Mikeal, to whom Valentine sold out just a year ago, as did Adler, who’d bought into the club in 1978. Valentine and Adler still own the Roxy, a larger club farther west on the Strip that they opened in 1973; and Valentine and Maglieri, despite a falling-out, are still partners (along with Adler) in the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the dark, beery-smelling rock ’n’ roll pub up the block from the Roxy.
Sitting at a café table outside the Rainbow, where the spirit of 80s metal rocks on—the walls are covered with candid snapshots of David Lee Roth, Pamela Anderson, and members of Poison—Mario Maglieri puffs on a cigar and talks about how good life has been to him. “The Whisky used to be a Bank of America,” he says, smiling. “It’s still a Bank of America. Generates a lot of money.” Maglieri is, above all else, a businessman. As he holds forth, talking about “Ozzy” and “Blackie from W.A.S.P.” as warmly as he does about Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, you’re happy for his success, but there’s no escaping a feeling of lost magnitude, of cultural fizzle. “As far as crossing the lines of music and culture and social, it was those early years,” says Adler. “Up until ’68—those were the really great years of the Whisky.”
The Whisky today, he says, is “pretty much a space that acts are booked into. Other than the name, which remains, it doesn’t really have a personality.” The booths and cages are gone. Right now, the club gets a lot of the angry-white-boy bands currently in vogue—Slipknot, Papa Roach, Corrosion of Conformity—and, like a lot of places on the Strip, does a percentage of its business as a “pay to play” venue, where aspiring bands actually put up money to stage a concert.
Valentine could easily play the crank, blathering on about how it’s not how it was, but that’s not his nature. He asserts his belief that, above all, fortune smiled upon him. When he was a child, he says, a teacher said to him, “Elmer Valentine, when you grow up, they’re gonna send you to the electric chair!” Even his beloved mother, when he announced his intention to leave Chicago for California, responded, “You’re going to California? No, you’re going to 26th and California—the county jail!”
So the way he sees it, he’s come out way ahead. “It was easy,” he reiterates. “You know why it was easy? How the fuck could anyone miss? Being on Sunset Boulevard in the 60s! I’m not being humble. Fuckin’ idiots that I had for competition!”