Beautiful Freaks on Sunset
Around 9 on a mild pre-summer Thursday night, he sets up shop on the sidewalk in front of the B-of-A ATMs on Sunset, between Gil Turner’s and the Rainbow and the Roxy. He might catch a peek at himself reflected in the glass partition that firewalls off the ATMs from the foot traffic but doesn’t, carrying out his ritual with concentration and workmanlike blasé. He is not that kind of spooked self-muttering tramp. His set up is the common street performer/sleeper cluster of daily living essentials and eccentric found detritus, the most important of which is his Casio keyboard, juiced by some combination of a car battery and D-cell batteries. In the midst of his 3’x3’ pile of worldly possession hangs a pristine white baby mouse, the size and shape of a rabbit’s foot, laying in a wheel. The wheel is actually just the open outer shell of a busted pet cage spinning wheel contraption. The mouse lies there, undistracted by passersby.
A few yards down, some jovial lummox is guarding the Rainbow Room, collecting a $5 cover this night, but that fiver will get you a glossy card that you can trade for a “well”drink, provided you can get the fit blonde behind the bar’s attention. Negotiating the outdoor patio on the way in after handing the guy your $5, you pass a full patio of Hollywood rock types, telegenic, right out of Central Casting. Initially, you might think they are unironic, blind devotees of a fashion and a lifestyle, but on closer look, the tears in the clothes are expensively manufactured, the hair is expensively cut. They’re tattooed, sure, but these longhaired dudes and chicks look healthy, even though there’s smoke in the air. There’s either a lot of yoga or plastic surgery at work here, probably some combination of both. Adding to the chaos of their patio, Ozzfest is holding court here, in search of Miss Ozzfest ‘06. They are a good-looking, healthy, glowing bunch, not the scrawny, hungry rock types with frizzle fried platinum hair you see on VH1 Classic who frequented this very bar & grill in the 80’s. In a sort of glossy mag/TV way, these freaks are just plain beautiful.
It is no coincidence that yards from tonight’s scene at the Rainbow, just across Sunset, opposite Gil Turner’s Liquor were the former offices of Geffen Records, the single record label that delivered both the pinnacle and deathblow for Metal, in Appetite for Destruction in 1987 and Nevermind in 1991, respectively. Within spitting distance, also two staged incarnations of the rock mythos, one artful, one not, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch: The Musical and something called “Metal Skool.” It’s as if the fallout from the Rock Wars has lingered in the area, and survived, having mutated into resistant strains. The West Hollywood Rocker circa 2006 likely has Nirvana and G N’R loaded up on the same iPod, probably not making the distinction any longer (if they ever did) between what Axl and Kurt represented at the moment of their peaks, the ultimate rock star and anti-rock star, respectively. (The Eastside Rocker will come around to Nirvana [again], but that’s a whole other topic.) It is worth noting that in the next years immediately following, Geffen would go on to put out Beck’s Mellow Gold and Weezer’s Blue Album, both seminal releases by two of the most ironic, reluctant, egoless anti-rock star front men ever. Those CDs I’m sure sit comfortably alongside Appetite and Nevermind on many a shelf in overpriced apartments off the Strip.
Up the stairs at the back of the Rainbow is their “attic,” a little bonus area away from the noise up front, also guarded by some lummox. He’s charging admission, but only if you say you are here for any one particular performance. Kind of a play-for-pay set up they have going there. As looky-loos killing some time, we’re waved in for free. The dÃ©cor is ostensibly a nautical theme, a few ladders and ropes and dark wood musty with decades of beer absorbed in its fibers. The area holds a bar and the most awkward performance space in town, which is appropriate as it hosts the most awkward open mic performances in town. (Memorably, I once endured a Francine Dancer performance here.) The craning of your neck to get a glimpse of the stage is only a mild pain compared with the performances themselves. The stage is a sunken box that is viewable from exactly two positions in the room above it. The best seats are on a staircase. The entire attic itself has much potential if they’d kill the open mic. It has a sweet Galaga/Ms. Pacman twofer (a sit-down!), with Ms. Pac tweaked on that double-speed crystal meth setting. Even better, there is a little bird’s nest still higher up the stairs, a dark room, clearly designed to accommodate a little discrete 3rd base action.
Killing time before Eels come on, we hang back to catch on the attic stage at this moment some kind of acoustic world rock thing with 2 female singers and some bearded dudes on acoustics and bass. One of the singers is clearly the diva of the band. She sports her best frilly department store duds and trampy make up; she clearly is trying hard. For some reason (probably the beer) I imagine her backstory as an executive secretary named Linda with dreams of singing for a living. She photocopied her band’s flyer on the office copier, spicing it up with some colored paper. Her boss told her she can only put them in the break room. She tried to drag her co-workers to catch her set (really, really loving to say that phrase) but only two of her friends are here to see her. When they start up, she stops their first number twice, unhappy about something in the sound mix like she’s Shania or somebody. My chest aches for her delusions. The kid on the mixing board couldn’t care less about her requests but makes some 1/32”twist on some knob and nudge of a fader to assuage her perfectionism. From where I sit, with the 8-bit stork dropping off a baby to Mr. & Ms. Pac Man (always wondered if that “Ms”was about her being single. And how do they have sex? Is Pac Man the only male of his species? OK, no more beer) there is no discernable difference in sound when she starts up again. The man playing the “box”dominates the mix. (A dude sits on some wooden cube resembling an oversized center channel woofer, alternately using his palm and finger tips to provide “kick” and “snare,” ostensibly.)
There is a full wall mirror at stage right. I catch her bassist checking himself out in hit as they are tuning up. Goatee and hair: Lookin’ good, he thinks. Linda, however, does not look once into the mirror. I love this beautiful freak for her utter obliviousness. She is doing it and she is thinking she can make it. Not a trace of irony in her performance. I suspect she does not own Appetite, Mellow Gold, the Blue Album or Nevermind.
The good news is that the Rainbow’s next-door neighbor, the Roxy is on the upswing for a rebirth, hopefully putting behind the pay-for-play era for good. With its comfy medium size between the Troubadour and the El Reys and Fondas, this club should grab more buzz shows. In the 90’s, every young breakout band played either the Whisky or Roxy, and the Whisky circa 2006 seems determined to never host a watchable show ever again. In 1992, My Bloody Valentine played their last Los Angeles shows there (2 in one night, if I remember right). With their pedigree, there’s no reason they can’t compete for hot tours. And I’m not just saying this as a Westsider afraid of a DUI coming back from Silver Lake. Tonight, the Roxy has Eels.
Geffen Records spun off DreamWorks Records, in the mid 90’s and Eels’ debut LP was their first release in 1995. The advance single had a pinging snare backbeat set against a toy xylophone melody and E’s husky deadpan vocal and was an instant alterna-hit. E was widely (if somewhat dismissively) likened to Beck, perhaps because of his willingness to use a variety of sounds and his gruff singing style. The full length LP, titled Beautiful Freak, featured a single image on its minimalist white cover:, that titular beautiful freak, depicted as a young nymph crouching before the viewer, with her gray round eyes blown up into huge saucers, well, freakishly, giving them something between an alien and a feline appearance.
Cut from there to the Roxy in 2006, and we find E masked performing behind darkened welder’s glasses (and flight goggles on his head) underscoring all the metaphoric associations that come with the act of seeing and the sense of sight: self reflexivity, self image, for starters, and a general refusal to look at and acknowledge at his audience, who might know him as something other than what he wants to present tonight. In fact, E has taken the active distancing of himself from his audience to a high (comedy) level, with the addition of a “bouncer”as his proxy on stage. The Bouncer provided an array of antics, from providing canned phrases (“This is what it feels like when doves cry”, “We need to keep the lines of communication open” were a couple of his nonsequitors) as a between-song banter, to curling barbells, to spraying whipped cream into audience members’ mouths. As pop music trends tend to be reactionary, maybe against a political climate, the broader musical trends of the time, or against an artist’s own established sound, Eels’ swampy bluesy rock show at the Roxy largely seemed to be of the later variety, a 180° against his own poppier sensibilities, looking right into that mirror and doing the opposite. Since his LPs do have their moments of full-on rock, the show was at least a deliberate attempt to do something different performance-wise from his last live performances, which were billed as “Eels with Strings.”
After the Eels come off stage for the second time, a haphazard 2nd encore played to a room emptied save for the drunkest devotees, we find Sidewalk Casio Man in full sidewalk show mode, riffing with his Casio on his lap, trying to drum up business with his charm. He is glad to have Eels as his opening act. Well aware of his value as a freak commodity to passing ironists, Sidewalk Casio Man milks his shtick, but he also charges $10 dollars for videos and $2 for pictures. He has made $20 within the last hour or so he boasts.