Part 1: JIMMY SWAN
A few years ago, when the kids were in their early teens, we took a trip down to LA to see the sights. Not quite National Lampoon's Family Vacation, but definitely think "tourists from cowtown." We splurged and stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Hollywood, the legendary old highrise, with the rich, dimly lit Spanish Revival lobby, bespeaking the golden age of LA. The evening we got to the hotel, we went down to the big outdoor pool, and the kids were frolicing around after being in the car all day. The security guy down there struck up a conversation, and we talked about the history of the place. He ended up taking our family up to and into the suite that overlooked the pool, on the second story. This is where Marilyn Monroe lived for two years, when she was modelling and her star was rising. Although the suite had been entirely redone, it was cool that he showed us that.
We did the town: La Brea tar pits, Hollywood sign, the walk of fame, Warner Brothers Studio, a trip down to the beach, Olvera Street, and a stop at a cousin Liam’s favorite hip pizza place on Melrose. One night, after a full day of touring we were in the room and the kids and Meg were hunkered down watching some tween comedy movie. I was restless, not ready to turn in for the night, and honestly, I needed a little time away from the family. So I headed out to grab a beer. I walked down Hollywood Boulevard, past the Elvis, Johnny Depp, and superhero street performers, the Scientology touts, theme wedding chapels, the cheap novelty shops, all the dirty, cliched tourist-hell offerings. At a certain point, I began to doubt I would find a place that wasn’t pimping 2-for-1 flourescent margaritas. Finally after wandering around some more, I came across a little dive of a spot, called the PowerHouse.
I walked into a long, narrow old school bar with barflys and regulars bellied up to the rail. Refuge! I ordered a beer, and had another. I noticed people going in and out of the door in the back. So I headed back there, popping out onto a dark, grungy, chain link fenced utility space full of graffiti that was the smoking area. There was a small group of leather clad bikers out there smoking cigarettes. I walked up to the group and asked to bum a cigarette. I used to smoke a little socially back when, and every so often I’ll have one, especially in situations like this where the ritual grants you access to circles of people. The biggest, meanest looking dude in the group gave me one and lit it.
I introduced myself and he said his name was Jimmy Swan--a name right out of central casting. He was wearing a ratty leather vest, shoulder length hair, Fu Manchu moustache and goatee, ink covering his arms and neck, piercings, maybe 40ish, and he had clearly seen some wild times.
I introduced myself and he said his name was Jimmy Swan. He was wearing a ratty leather vest, shoulder length hair, Fu Manchu moustache and goatee, ink covering his arms and neck, piercings, maybe 40ish, and he had clearly seen some wild times.
As we talked, I realized these guys were not real bikers, but a Hollywood poseur version. They didn’t have that menacing, rough feel like they were just itching to kick someone’s ass. Being a little self conscious about my square appearance, I came clean and told them I was a dad from Sacramento, on a getaway from the family back at the hotel room. They appreciated the honesty. I asked Jimmy about this little bar, which seemed so out of place in the tourist district. He said this is where the Beatles came to drink before their Hollywood Bowl concerts in the mid 1960s. Very cool. I shared some of our tourist itinerary, and then asked Jimmy about himself.
He had come out to Hollywood in the late 80s, like so many others, to get into the music business. He was in a band in the vein of Guns and Roses— of the hair/bandana/leather variety. He related some stories of the wild years on Sunset Strip, playing the Whisky A Go Go, and opening for a few major bands of that genre. I later looked him up, and a fledgling band website verified the story he told. He said his band had a good run, but he was now trying to transition to acting. He had an upcoming audition for a bit part in Sons of Anarchy, and he went into talking about the grind of trying to make it in show biz.
We had a good talk out there behind the PowerHouse. I finished my smoke and was getting ready to head back into the bar. I was dizzy from the nicotine and thought it might be time to retreat. Before I left, I asked Jimmy, “Got any LA recommendations?” trolling for a few locals places you wouldn't find in a guidebook. He thought for a minute and began, “When you’re in LA…” He leaned in closer as if he were a zen monk about to drop a secret little nugget on me. “When you’re in LA...just pay for the parking.” That was it, the sum total of his advice to me. He explained that I shouldn’t be an asshole circling endlessly trying to find street parking or free parking. Just pay and park in a lot. I laughed at the simple, practical advice, not exactly what I was fishing for. I thanked him, parting ways. I was initially a little baffled by this bit of counsel that seemed pedestrian at best. On the walk back to the Roosevelt, I started to realize the brilliance of this sage wisdom, presumably hard won over the years in LA. Maybe it was the beer, or the nicotine buzz, but by the time I got back it seemed positively genius.
But throughout the remainder of the trip, we referred back to Jimmy’s words which became something of a mantra. And there were more than one situations, we believed, where Jimmy Swan helped expedite our journey forward.
Meg was just nodding off, but in my excited state, I shared my story of Jimmy Swan. She told me to be quiet and go to bed. But throughout the remainder of the trip, we referred back to Jimmy’s words, which became something of a mantra. Since then, there have been many situations, both parking-related and otherwise, where we believe Jimmy Swan has helped expedite our journey forward.
Part 2: CONFIDENT IMPROVISATION
Fast forward a few years. Meg and I recently went down to LA for a little anniversary getaway. We had a list of spots to check out. This was augmented by our friend Ed, a legislative lawyer who grew up in LA, and happened to be on our flight. He was going to visit his dying aunt, and told us a crazy family story about his showgirl mom and his playboy dad, who lost the considerable family fortune in a bad import/export deal, and then tried unsuccessfully to rescue himself by owning a nightclub and restaurant. He told of bill collectors harassing him on his walk home from grade school...and also how he found out the family backstory accidentally on a case law data base search.
Our list had a few live music spots gleened from the LA Weekly. One of the bands was former Dr. Dre collaborator Anderson Paak and the Free Nationals. They were just then blowing up on the music scene with their third album. A guy from SPIN called it "a melody-driven rap release that moonlights as a funk opus, with a serious emphasis placed on soul." They were playing the Hollywood Palladium on Sunset. We Ubered over to a little bar near there called the Sassafras Saloon. The pics online had an old timey feel, sort of an eclectic cross between New Orleans shabby and steampunk. At the door two bouncers told us there was a private party but to come back after 11. We asked whether the Palladium was close enough to walk to. One of the guys asked if we were going to Anderson Paak. We had a nice moment of recognition with him about this hot act, mentioning we didn’t have tickets and that we thought it was sold out. I offhandedly asked if they had any tips to getting a ticket or getting in. The one guy mentioned scalpers, and the other guy offered this up: “You could try to just walk confidently in through the back door.” We laughed, and he said, "seriously, that works sometimes if you can pull it off."
When we got there, it was 45 minutes till the headliner went on. We jousted with a handful of sketchy looking scalpers out front, unwilling to pay 100 bucks each for what could have easily been fake internet-printed tickets. Heeding the bouncer’s advice, we even walked around back, past a side stage door, past a Snoop Dog look alike transacting on a cell phone, past a kid sitting on the sidewalk against the wall of the venue with a pool of vomit between his spread legs. Rock ‘n Roll baby! I even found myself assessing a fence climb, but immediately realized this was a no go given that I was with my classy wife and was now fifty two...not twenty two.
Heeding the bouncer’s advice, we even walked around back, past a side stage door, past a Snoop Dog look alike transacting on a cell phone, past a kid sitting on the sidewalk against the wall of the venue with a pool of vomit between his spread legs. Rock ‘n Roll baby!
We took one more run at the scalpers and then bailed. This was a good decision—there are times you gotta just walk away. We Ubered to Ed’s suggested place in East Hollywood, called El Cid. And then to the Dresden Club up in Los Feliz. This is where the bar scene in Swingers was filmed twenty years before. A hipster mecca, an old original joint. We lucked into two spots at the crowded bar and watched Marty & Elayne do their famous lounge act in silver lame jumpsuits. This old eccentric couple had been doing this for decades. It's somehow campy and authentic at the same time. She beamed with an odd doe-eyed enthusiasm at the keyboard, and he sauntered around the dark bar, working through Sinatra standards with a boozy, loungy elan. The Moscow and Kentucky Mules were delicious. As we were about to settle up, the flamboyant, talkative kid next to us bought us another round, that we did not need. That put me over the edge. We got out of there as soon as we politely could.
I wanted to call it a night, but Meg wisely insisted we go back to the Sassafras, which ended up not the old timey bar we imagined. It was a crowded, thumping scene, with people dancing everywhere and a really nice vibe. I rallied and we enjoyed this lively place late into the night.
Fast forward to the next day. We went downtown to eat at Clifton’s Cafeteria, check out the Grand Market, the Bradbury Building and another Ed spot, the Perch, a rooftop French place overlooking Pershing Square and the downtown skyline. We were about to head back to our hotel, and I asked if we could walk a few blocks more down Broadway to check out the Ace Hotel. Broadway is the main street in downtown LA, adorned by many fading, grand movie palaces, most of which are now graffitied, boarded up, or housing down market electronics retailers.
The Ace, a chain of urban boutique hotels, had renovated the Spanish gothic United Artists theatre—an exquisitly ornamented 1,500-seat venue. We chatted up the guys in the small ticket office next door to the main theatre entrance, asking if we could poke our heads in for a look. They said there was a load-in going on for the Linda Ronstadt tribute concert that night. She has Parkinson’s disease, and this was a benefit event for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The poster listed Jackson Browne as was one of the headliners.
We thanked them, and then something came over me. Instead of walking back out the street door, I went through a door going the other way, and made a quick left. Meg followed. We heard live music and followed it through thick velvet curtains and a quick right and we were in the theatre.
“Walk confidently in through the back door.” Our LA odyssey had come full circle back to the previous night’s advice.
On the purple gelled stage the two girls from Brooklyn indie pop band Lucius were powering though the Ronstadt song When Will I Be Loved. It sounded really good. We quickly sat down near the back of the dark theatre. There were only a few promoter types in the seats near the front and the guys running the soundboard. I was sure someone was going to kick us out. But nobody seemed to care, or they thought we were with one of the artists. We looked at each other, thrilled at this good fortune, and whispered about the possibility of seeing Jackson Browne. No sooner had we said this, then out he walked, thin, with long dark hair, jeans and a plain black t shirt, still a good looking dude, carrying a guitar case. He hugged several people on stage, hooked up his guitar and eventually did four takes of the song Willin’: “And if you give me weed, whites and wine...and you show me a sign....” Bentmont Trench, founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, was on keyboards. It was amazing to spy on these guys working out how the song should go, the finer points of emphasis and how to integrate the solos.
Folk and blues legend Maria Muldaur came out next and sang Heart Like a Wheel. Then Grace Potter, the sexy blues country queen who sounds like a mix of Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt. She ripped through a sultry number, and then she and three others did it acapella around a tight circle. Blown away. We were about to leave and thought we’d wait for one more artist. An older guy in a plaid shirt made his way out, a ballcap pulled down low over his eyes. In the off mic chatter, we heard, “So we’re doing Desperado.” He started, and we realized it was Don Henley. The crowd of muscians standing in the wings stopped talking. He knocked out a soulful rendition of the Southern Cal cowboy ballad. When he finished they asked him if he wanted to run through it again, the way the other singers had done. He coolly said, “no, we got it.” Then he strode right up the aisle past us. Wow.
Walk confidently in through the back door. There's some life advice packed into that little directive.
In the off mic chatter, we heard, “So we’re doing Desperado.” He started, and we realized it was Don Henley. He knocked out a soulful rendition of the Southern Cal cowboy ballad. When he finished they asked him if he wanted to run through it again, the way the other singers had done. He coolly said, “no, we got it.” Then he strode right up the aisle past us. Wow.
In many ways Los Angeles is true to its Tinseltown moniker, home of the shallow and the image obsessed. But if you listen to the nightlife characters, you may just stumble into some wisdom.
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