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Historic Music Venues: The Sunset Marquis



Historic Music Venues: The Sunset Marquis


Although the Sunset Marquis hotel isn’t a music venue per se, it definitely qualifies as a historic music hotspot. Equipped with a full recording studio, the Hollywood hotel has long played host to the music community as artists such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, U2 and hundreds of others have called the hotel home during their stints in Los Angeles. Because of its music roots, Fender recently selected the storied hotel as its location for the new Fender Select short film.

By Steve Hochman

“Man, that’s one swingin’ house.” -Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top

 

Paradise City: So maybe the late, lamented Hyatt on Sunset Strip — the “Riot House” — got the rep as the Temple of Rock Debauchery in the ’60s and ’70s. But right around the corner, tucked away on a quieter side street, has stood the clear rock HQ for several decades now: the Sunset Marquis.

With its main hotel building (also housing a cozy bar and, for the past couple of years, an art gallery), mazes of two-story Mediterranean villas (20 new ones joined the 1953 vintage originals in 2007) and even a state-of-the-art recording studio tucked away in the basement garage (more on that later), the Marquis has been the West Hollywood home for rockers galore.

Billy Gibbons will tell you. So will Slash. And Jeff Beck. And Dave Grohl, Ozzy Osbourne and Green Day. Walk into the lobby, duck into that cozy and friendly bar, and walk by the pool up to the restaurant, and you’ll see their photos (most shot by house lensman Ross Halfin) and a few mementos (including Beck’s blonde Stratocaster in a display window). But don’t be surprised if you turn around and find one of these people right behind you.

“What makes us unique is we took rock ‘n’ roll when no one really wanted to take them,” says Rod Gruendyke, general manager of the Marquis for 21 years now. “But we did it with restraints. We want you to come here, but we want you to behave. This is your home and we want to protect you. We keep your secrets. That’s why we have the loyalty.”

“Always something going on. Rod Gruendyke, the owners and the entire staff are artists in their own right, like the guests inside, and it makes for a place loaded with energy and always a little bit of the unexpected intrigue around the corner. Best part of it — you can stumble and sway comin’ home from the whiskey bar ’coz the halls are wide and the rooms ain’t far.”  -Billy Gibbons

Gimme Shelter: Though just half a block from the Sunset Strip, the Sunset Marquis is generally a calm oasis. And though it’s generally crawling with stars — film and television as well as music — it’s remarkably gawker-free. That’s the whole idea for the hotel; a private enterprise still owned and operated by the Rosenthal family, which built it.

“We really have to watch and control what’s going on,” says Gruendyke. “We really limit photography. A family taking pictures with the kids is fine. But scanning the property with a camera, we don’t allow that.”

Much of the time, the rockers are comfortable enough to let their guard down and just relax. “A lot of times people don’t even recognize them, and they don’t have to have 15 security guards around them,” Gruendyke says. “People come in and feel safe. Guests might have someone famous sitting next to them and not realize it.”

“Ah, those after-hours dice games! Those were the days. Kid Rock still has a pair that he swears were loaded.” -Billy Gibbons

Walking Contradiction: Not that the Sunset Marquis hasn’t seen its share of colorful incidents. Courtney Love reportedly trashed Trent Reznor’s room there after a 1995 fight (they had been involved) and even left what may have been a suicide note in her own room. A year later, Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan overdosed on a speedball in the hotel, surviving only because paramedics were able to restart his heart.

And Gruendyke notes that he had to ban Green Day for a time after three exploits reminiscent of the golden years of rock excess. The first time, they threw a roomful of furniture off a third-floor balcony. The second time, after Gruendyke cleverly booked them in first-floor rooms, they dyed the carpet in one room green and brought in an array of potted plants from outside to get that nice jungle effect. On the third time, they put bubble bath in the Jacuzzi.

Love made amends in her own manner, writing a song titled “Sunset Marquis” intended for 2010 Hole album Nobody’s Daughter but still unreleased. Green Day drummer Tre Cool, the apparent instigator of his band’s pranks, also took a very rock ‘n’ roll route to commemorate his role in the legacy; getting a tattoo on his shoulder depicting himself tossing a TV off the balcony.

Long after cleaning up, Gahan showed his appreciation more directly and conventionally.

“He came back in some years ago to say thank you,” says a gratified Gruendyke. “He introduced us to his wife and daughter and said, ‘Because of you guys, I’m here today with all this.’”

“We wrote a few songs down there, several that made the charts and even a few more that are still brewin’. It’s cool and dark down there and always locked up tight. Got that cave thing goin’ for it. You’re down with a parking garage full of hot rod cars, lots of shiny metal and muffled sounds of guitar through the walls.”   -Billy Gibbons

Garage Rock: Step into the lobby and you’d never know it, but a future number-one song might be happening right below your feet. Literally. Tucked into the garage is a cozy recording studio complex, dubbed Nightbird, that has been used for chart-topping sessions (Cee Lo Green’s “F— You” was made here, as were hits by Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, Nas and many others just in the past few years) and spontaneous creative bursts by hotel guests, sometimes sparked by chance meetings in the hallways.

 

It was, in fact, an in-room jam session that led to the facility’s advent in 1993. Jeff Beck and band member Jed Leiber (son of legendary early rock ‘n’ roll songwriter Jerry Leiber) were jamming upstairs.

“The manager said, ‘You’re making too much noise! Move it to the garage!’” recounts Ed Wisztreich, Nightbird’s general manager. “So they did, and after that Jed said, ‘If you give me enough parking spaces, I’ll build you a state-of-the-art studio.’”

Gibbons recalls a session with Jeff Beck, Jed Leiber and Billy Bob Thornton down there, and another time when Beck brought him down to meet singer Imogen Heap, only to find her — “all six feet of her” — dressed in white lace and roses, sprawled across the mixing console as they listened to her haunting song “Hide and Seek.”

In contrast to its garage placement, the studio itself is very comfortable; parlor-like, with dark wood walls and ceilings and cushy couches for a simple homey environment. That’s the whole point.

“If you can make someone feel at home, it’s more creative,” Wisztreich says. “That’s what these artists are here for.”

The Sunset Marquis is preparing for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2013, with a commemorative book in the works. Gruendyke invites anyone with great stories or anecdotes to share them on the hotel’s website.

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