Historic Music Venues: The Roxy Theatre
By Steve Hochman
In the Beginning: A disconsolate transplanted Canadian. A dissolute transvestite Transylvanian. The legacy of the Roxy, the Sunset Strip club, would have been substantial just from these two characters who made their home there for stretches in the very first days of business.
|Bruce Springsteen at the Roxy.
Photo by Getty Images
Neil Young, downcast from the heroin death of his longtime roadie and running from the mainstream success of his Harvest album, opened the Roxy in 1973 with a run of drunken, barely together shows that ultimately became his gloriously gloomy Tonight’s the Night album. A few months later, club co-owner Lou Adler brought in “The Rocky Horror Show” for its first North American stand, with Tim Curry in the role of crazed, corseted alien Frank N. Furter.
And a few notable beginnings to storied careers began there as well. A 19-year-old Prince made his first concert appearance there in 1979 (apart from a few small shows back home in Minneapolis). In contrast — or maybe in some oddly complementary way — it was also where, in 1981, performer Paul Reubens made his first public appearance as Pee Wee Herman, introducing the character in the course of a comedy revue.
The Look: With its clean deco-lite combo of lines and curves, the Roxy has stood as the class act of the Sunset Strip clubs, suitable for nightclub-style shows with tables on the floor and the risers behind it. But the dark interior also gives the right ambience for clearing off the floor for a full-on punk mosh pit or goth gathering.
The Neighborhood: The Roxy has the benefit of being classy while offering proximity to colorful, storied Sunset Strip raunch. Its own upstairs bar, On the Rox (with its stripper poles), was where John Belushi held court before his fatal 1982 overdose. And next door, the Rainbow is much more famous as the site of generations of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery than it is for it’s not-bad pizza and other noshes.
On the Record: “All you bootleggers out there in radioland, roll your tapes!” So commanded Bruce Springsteen to open his July 7, 1978, show at the Roxy. Indeed, said bootleggers were at the ready, as radio broadcasts from the Roxy were fairly common in those days, with rock powerhouse KMET-FM carrying this particular show. And soon enough, bootleg LPs of the show hit the market; part of a fine line of trade and black market Roxy recordings that also included Bob Marley’s 1976 appearance, Lou Reed’s show on Dec. 1, 1976, and Peter Gabriel performances from his first post-Genesis tour. Some of this cherished material found official release later (several of the Boss’s tracks from the July 1978 show, as well as one from a 1975 concert, made it to his Live/1975-85 box set; the Marley concert was given “real” release in 2003). But for years, many of the best live-at-the-Roxy records were underground-only. There were, of course, some above-ground live albums of note: most of Frank Zappa’s fittingly titled Roxy and Elsewhere (1974); Jane’s Addiction’s indie debut (including the eventual radio standard recording of “Jane Says”) was recorded at an early ’87 show for a total cost of $4,000; Brian Wilson and Social Distortion have also released Roxy concert recordings.
You Had to Be There: A few personal memories from hundreds of Roxy visits include jazz-blues crooner Leon Redbone unfazed when power (and air conditioning) went out on a 108-degree night. He merely grabbed a flashlight from a security guard and finished the show with low-tech aplomb. Then there was the 1987 night when a young, unknown singer took the stage as the opening act for Lyle Lovett, with just an acoustic guitar and a stunning voice. Percussion was provided by the dropping jaws of the jaded music biz crowd. Her name was Melissa Etheridge. You may have heard of her. And speaking of music biz crowds, there was an early-’90s night when an unsigned artist going only by his first name, Beck, treated the gaggles of record company executives there who sought to add him to their roster with a show that saw him in full performance-art mode, stomping and squawking around stage and at times wearing a helmet with a flashing siren light on top.
Big Names, Little Club: Countless wannabe stars have taken the Roxy stage on their way up (or on their way nowhere), but many established stars have used the club for special, intimate concerts. David Bowie brought his Tin Machine side project there in 1989; Rage Against the Machine packed the house for an intense night in 2000, and Courtney Love launched her solo America’s Sweetheart album with a ragged (what else?) late-night appearance in 2004.
Up to Date: In recent years, the Roxy hosted several Camp Freddy happenings — rock-centric jam sessions organized and anchored by Cult guitarist and sometime radio personality Billy Morrison. Starting in the mid-2000s, the events have featured Stone Temple Pilots/Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland as a mainstay, along with Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro (co-host of the Camp Freddy radio show with Morrison) and Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver drummer Matt Sorum, with star and semi-star guests galore. For the most part, though, the Roxy is not quite the must-go place it was in several past stretches. Those things are always cyclical, though, and it will be again.