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A visit to the intersection of art and artifice, Sunset Strip

The A.V. Club
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July 01, 2012 AT 8:00 PM
Embodied by the '80s karaoke party of Rock Of Ages, then wrapped in a bedazzled anarchy-symbol T-shirt and $100 skull bandana, the last lingering shreds of rock 'n' roll "rebellion" have long since been sanitized and repackaged as a Halloween costume. And when you get right down to it, this was probably inevitable: After all, much of rock's rebellious image can be traced to a single street running through the heart of Hollywood, a town that swallows authenticity and regurgitates phoniness like a snake eating its own tail (which would make for a wicked tattoo). The Sunset Strip has such a big place in music history, it's surprising to see that it's geographically small, taking up barely more than a mile of prime West Hollywood real estate—slightly more if you stretch to include the Troubadour around the corner. As such, every billboard-choked block comes loaded with history, and histories of being loaded. Famous nightclubs like the Rainbow and The Roxy are within stumbling distance from each other, making it easy to see why John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, and Keith Moon made both of them their homes during Lennon's fabled "Lost Weekend." Flanking either side of the Strip are the Viper Room and the Chateau Marmont, where River Phoenix and John Belushi left the street permanently scarred with the flash burns of talent flaming out. Basically, you can't throw an empty Jack Daniel's bottle without hitting something with a story. But for our own Sunset sojourn, we mostly had two locations in mind: the louche, long-running Whisky A Go Go and the Andaz West Hollywood—better known by its '70s-era sobriquet, the Riot House. Like everything else on the Strip, they're nearly right on top of each other, yet both span several decades' worth of earth-shaking musical quakes. Founded with ill-gotten mob money by former Chicago cop Elmer Valentine, the Whisky started launching trends—and setting the standard for nightclub sleaze—almost as soon as its doors opened, beginning with the first time short-skirted girls sashayed within the suspended cages that used to hang above its stage. From there the Whisky's roster reads like a rock 'n' roll encyclopedia, beginning with '60s residencies from The Byrds, Alice Cooper, Love, and most famously The Doors, who were kicked out over the Oedipal coda of "The End," yet whose sex-infused self-mythologizing forever loomed large over nearly everyone who would play there. (Quite literally: A mural of Jim Morrison oversees stage left.) The club also welcomed some of the first stateside performances from British bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Roxy Music, and The Kinks, while in the '70s, it became an epicenter for punk by regularly hosting groups like X, the Ramones, the Misfits, and the Germs. And of course, it practically spawned its own genre by nurturing bands like Guns N' Roses, Metallica, and Mötley Crüe, plus myriad other shades-of-metal groups who made the Sunset Strip their home and the Whisky their garbage-strewn living room.And when they were ready to sleep it off—or more likely, keep the party going—nearly all of those bands did it down the street at the Riot House. The former Continental Hyatt earned its nickname for turning a blind, indulgent eye to the antics of its rowdy residents, as captured in the famous poster that used to hang behind its front desk depicting a typical long-haired miscreant and reading, "Be kind to this customer. He may have just sold a million records." That welcoming, opportunistic attitude led to it becoming the place where Zeppelin rented out entire floors so John Bonham could drive his motorcycle down the hallway, or fill it with foam as a slide for naked groupies. Or where Axl Rose caused a mini riot by barbecuing steaks on his room's balcony, then flinging bits of charred meat at adoring fans below. And most iconically, where a bored Keith Richards once tossed a TV set out the window, spawning an idiom for the very idea of rock stars behaving badly.Expecting to mine some of these sorts of crazy anecdotes about the good ol' days, we hit up two lynchpins of the L.A. music scene: Riki Rachtman, former host of MTV's Headbangers Ball, proprietor of local club the Cathouse, and Zelig-like figure of the Strip's hair-metal heyday; and Keith Morris, founding member of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and a punk stalwart who keeps that early-'80s spirit alive with his current band, OFF! But rather than entertain us with stories of yesteryear (which Rachtman claimed were so wild he couldn't remember the details), they both separately came to the similar, all-too-familiar conclusion that nothing's the same—that the clubs' switch to a pay-for-play policy sullied Sunset's legacy by turning it into a place where "making it" means getting your rich parents to buy your screamo band a show, and the only ones reveling in rock's hedonistic glory days are the easily impressed tourists and the balding, bewigged hair-metal refugees still tottering sadly through the Rainbow. These days, it seems the Sunset Strip's road of excess leads mostly to the palace of marketing wisdom.The Andaz offers perhaps the most telling sign of the times: While it takes pains to honor its rock 'n' roll past—even hosting the occasional show from bands playing down the block—its most out-of-control itinerants are now safely encased behind the glass of commemorative photos. The balconies where Robert Plant bellowed, "I am a golden god!" are now carpeted sunrooms, and the flat-screen televisions are mounted securely to the walls. And when we jested to the general manager that we were there to trash a room for old time's sake, he quickly (and only semi-jokingly) replied, "Then I will call security." Meanwhile, down the street at the Whisky, Keith Morris complained to us bitterly that his upcoming OFF! record release show was only being done at the Whisky—a club he has almost nothing but bad feelings about now—as a favor to his promoter. He offered a list of amazing bands he'd seen there, unexpectedly singling out one early Lynyrd Skynyrd show in particular as his all-time favorite Whisky experience, but mostly by way of pointing out that their like never come this way anymore. In the estimation of Morris and Rachtman, it seems, the modern Sunset Strip comes couched in quotation marks, a theme-park version that relies heavily on the money that can be mined from nostalgia.And yet—as we came to realize after spending some time there, and attempting to put a philosophical spin on what had turned into a somewhat-negative day—the Sunset Strip has always toed the line between the fun and depressing kinds of corruption, and it's long been the home to that exact sort of manufactured revolution. It is, after all, where the 1966 "curfew riots" inspired both Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and the ridiculous teensploitation film Riot On The Sunset Strip. It was the testing ground of genuine iconoclasts like Frank Zappa and Darby Crash, but it also gave the world countless glam-metal bands who dressed in uniforms of Aquanet and leopard print while pumping out power ballads that wouldn't shock Amy Grant. In other words, that contradiction has always been inherent in the Sunset Strip, a street that begins at the intersection of art and artifice. In many ways, that's rock 'n' roll.