I went to the Universal Amphitheatre, it will always be the Universal Amphitheatre to me, last night.
We used to salivate, waiting for the two page announcement in the Sunday Calendar section of the "Los Angeles Times". The bookings for the cut in the hill open air bowl where music THRIVED in the seventies. "Miles Of Aisles" was cut there. As well as so many other live albums you played to death.
You'd get off at Lankershim and drive up the hill next to the Sheraton. And then take a circuitous route through the Universal Studios tour and end up at a vast sidewalk and a concrete wall, on the other side of which was the half of a saucer embedded in the hill.
If you bought six shows you got
preferred parking. Only one year did I acquire that many tickets, but I used to go multiple times a season. To see Jackson Browne, the Blues Brothers, Hall & Oates and in the summer of '78, Warren Zevon.
You'd buy beer and margaritas in these waxed cardboard containers. And then go sit in plastic seats akin to those in a baseball stadium and take in the music of your favorite acts under the stars.
But that all ended. Because the neighbors COMPLAINED!
Would you complain about hearing the Eagles for free?
Well, those in the hills did.
So they put a roof on the building. Allowing them to function all year long, but removing the essence of the venue. The feeling that you were listening to music driving in a convertible.
Now up on the hill there's an ersatz Venice Beach called CityWalk. There are parking structures that fly high into the air. And I go in through the artists' entrance, behind it all. Where I pay twenty dollars to have my car valet parked. EVERYTHING'S a profit center in the music business now. Even the PRIVILEGED parking.
The opening act was Richie Furay.
I told him I'd seen him at Fordham University back in '68 with the Springfield. In a triple-header with Arlo Guthrie and the Union Gap (Arlo was the headliner, and the Union Gap played "Young Girl" TWICE!) And that as a member of Poco, he'd played my college.
But this was after he'd gotten a standing ovation. From the early arriving patrons. Wow, that must have been a rush. Then again, his voice hadn't seemed to have lost a note. And his band was tighter than today's acts are with the parts PRERECORDED!
And after this confab with Richie, hearing about his being a pastor in Colorado, we went back into the venue to see Linda Ronstadt.
She started off with standards. There was a detour into a Mexican tune, which garnered some of the best applause of the night, showing the makeup of the audience, people are ethnically LOYAL, and then Linda rocked. And when it was just about all done, her old buddy John Boylan took the stage with a blue acoustic. And when he started to strum it, playing, as he later told me, the Waddy part, I felt that rush of adrenaline.
"Well I lay my head on the railroad track
Waiting on the Double E"
There were no synth drums (oh, you remember THEM, this was one of the first hit tracks to feature them), but Boylan was playing that acoustic underpinning PERFECTLY!
But, suddenly, having heard this track ZILLIONS of times, I got it.
Linda's take on "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" is EXUBERANT! What makes it is the sound. But there are some pretty nasty lyrics in the middle of it all, and I finally got them. This was the tale of someone TRULY FUCKED UP! Warren Zevon.
I bought Warren Zevon's debut record in the summer of '76 at E. J. Korvette in Trumbull, Connecticut. I had the world's worst case of mononucleosis, but I dragged my ass there to buy the record of Jackson Browne's inspiration, one he'd produced.
But what I got wasn't something mellifluous, but EDGY!
Having paid for it, I played the record over and over. I liked the opening cut, "Frank and Jesse James", and "Mohammed's Radio", but I knew "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me". It was the strange LYRICS!
I was stunned when Linda ended up covering the track.
Well, not that stunned. She'd already cut "Hasten Down The Wind". But what would she do with a song so left field, so WEIRD!
She'd change it. Make it from the female perspective instead of the male. And leave out a whole verse. Hell, America was not ready for these words from the mouth of their sweetheart. Hell, they're STILL not ready for the words emanating from this almost sixty year old rock diva. Then again, she bashed Bush last night and got CHEERS!
Both Linda and Warren sang of a member of the opposite sex putting them through a Waring blender. (Popularized by the musician Fred Waring, did you know that?) But in Warren's case, it happened in WEST Hollywood, adding a specific edge. And we don't really think of women being worked over by men. We think of them being ABUSED, the male exercising force, but when it's reversed… We see a sad sack, a guy who's paying for it, who NEEDS IT, getting in over his head. Warren was in over his head.
But then it got worse.
Warren's original "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" has got the same changes, but it's a completely different song. It's ANYTHING but slick. It sounds like something sung in a bar after midnight, when the musicians (and everybody else in attendance!) have had too much beer and don't really care. The guitars sound like power tools. And Warren doesn't seem to be worried about getting it right, the words are just tumbling out.
And then the song slows down. Almost sotto voce, after the instrumental break and another run through the chorus, Warren sings…
"I met a girl at the Rainbow bar
She asked me if I'd beat her
She took me back to the Hyatt House…
I don't want to talk about it"
In the seventies, the Rainbow and the Hyatt House were rock and roll circus stops every bit as famous as the Universal Amphitheatre. This was before the Crue, before the metal renaissance, before MTV and everybody knew about the debauched establishment astride the Roxy. As for the Ryatt House… May Cameron Crowe be banished to hell for putting on celluloid a complete MISREPRESENTATION of what went down in the number one music hotel in the world. In "Almost Famous" Crowe made the shenanigans in the Ryatt House look like a pajama party, whereas English musicians were dripping wax on the groupies ensconced in their rooms. Anything went in the Ryatt House, and it did.
You can't quite get it READING the lyrics above. You get the impression Warren had a good time. But if you HEAR the song… He doesn't want to talk about it the same way guys NEVER want to talk about it, when they took a flier, went to an edge they always avoided, and fell off.
But Warren Zevon didn't avoid the edge. He rushed headlong towards it. And that's what made him such a character, his music so fascinating.
Oh, he ended up having a hit on his next, cleaned-up album. But alcohol took its toll. He never quite achieved the success he was supposed to. And now he's gone. And most of the songs are too. Nobody's singing them. Except for Linda Ronstadt.
So I'm sitting there in row JJ at the Universal Amphitheatre. that was always our goal, to get double letter seats, UP CLOSE, and the band is on a tear, they're playing this thirty year old song, and the little girl with the big lungs is singing the story.
In a world of winners, it's hard to believe we used to be interested in, CELEBRATE, the loser. That it used to be ALL RIGHT to be the loser. Hell, it's the human condition to lose.
But now the President won't even admit he's wrong. And we revere the airheads. Pretty human beings who don't have a thought in their brains. We learn nothing about people, there's just a bright sheen in place of a bumpy topography.
So I'm sitting there, reveling in the sound. And finally realizing that although Warren Zevon didn't die for our sins, he certainly WROTE ABOUT THEM!