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Historic Music Venues: Troubadour

Historic Music Venues: Troubadour

By Steve Hochman

In the Beginning: The Byrds formed there. The Eagles formed there. James Taylor and Carole King made a home there. Elton John’s rocket to global fame launched there. Lenny Bruce and John Lennon got in trouble there. Van Halen, Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses might not have made it without key gigs there.

So who played when Doug Weston first opened the Troubadour’s doors in 1957 in what is now West Hollywood, a scruffy outsider outpost in the prime of the Eisenhower years? Must have been somebody. Or not. Would be great if there had been some sort of auspicious inauguration heralding the arrival of what would become ground zero for successive generations of West Coast scenes — ’60s folk rock, the ’70s California sound and ’80s hair metal.

But nope, as far as anyone today can recall. The club’s initial incarnation, on La Cienega Blvd. just east of Beverly Hills, was no big deal. Even when it moved a couple years later to what became its permanent home on Santa Monica Blvd., even closer to Beverly Hills, “It was really a coffee house beatnik hangout with a four-foot wide stage and an upright piano,” says Brian Smith, current Troubadour manager and passionate historian. “Tiny, tiny.”

Photo by Flickr user djwhelan.

Take Two: With the dawn of the New Frontier, the “Troub” started to become HQ for hipsters and a Mecca for the musicians and comics/satirists who would soon be at the center of a new movement. “You would get Mort Sahl and the Limelighters and Kingston Trio; Hoyt Axton,” Smith says of the era, which saw the Troub expand into the larger back room that has been the main venue ever since.

It was Lenny Bruce who put the Troubadour on the national map. In 1962 he was popped at the club on obscenity charges, leading to a high-profile trial that was one in a series of government harassments that built his notoriety while effectively ending his career.

The Look: It’s always the ’60s in this cozy club — wood grain everywhere you look, sit or stand; perfect for the folkies and singer-songwriters of the first couple of decades. But the headbangers, punks, DJs and such that have formed the rotation in more recent years? Somehow it’s worked for them too. Granola rules! The bar in front is a good hang, as is one inside at the back of the room and under the balcony — not a bad place to see the show if you don’t mind being in back. There’s a little grill back there that serves burgers and fries, etc., and there’s a VIP room on the street side upstairs, with a window so the Important Personage can watch the show (but probably not hear it too well).

Taking Flight: A few years ago, David Crosby stood on the Troubadour stage with Graham Nash during a benefit performance and said, “We formed the Byrds right there,” pointing toward the front bar room, where he, folkie Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, bluegrass musician Chris Hillman, singer Gene Clark and drummer Michael Clarke conceived their soon-to-be-groundbreaking mix of folk tradition, Dylan bite and Beatles pop sweep in 1964. Not many years later, another bunch of musicians came together in the same place, coalescing as Linda Ronstadt’s backing band before branching off on their own and paying homage with another avian name, the Eagles.

“Rejoice”: That was the first word of Los Angeles Times music critic/editor Robert Hilburn’s review of opening night for Elton John’s six-night Troubadour run in August, 1970 — opening up the careers of both. The Beatles had broken up and Altamont buried the ’60s spirit. A new star with a new feel was needed, and Hilburn, who went to the show a skeptic, felt he’d found it in John in terms of both songs and presence. The glowing review reverberated far and wide, not only making the rest of the series the hottest ticket in town, but also making John the buzz artist of the moment. Wonder whatever happened to him.

First Couple: The Troubadour celebrated its 50th anniversary (more or less) in November 2007 with a series of shows marking the 30th anniversary (more or less) of 1970 breakthrough dates by James Taylor and Carole King. Those original gigs came just after the release of Taylor’s debut solo album and saw King, prodded by Taylor, make her first-ever concert performance after years as a hit songwriter. They returned for a 1971 co-headlining engagement that was a key step to stardom for each. The 2007 shows, featuring the same band as the original performances, were commemorated in a live CD/DVD release and spurred a 2010 large-venue tour that, remarkably, retained much of the feel and all the spirit of the intimate club reunions, thanks in no small part to Taylor’s genial, self-effacing humor.

That in turn served as the basis for documentary Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, which chronicled the club’s history and featured interviews with Taylor, King, John, Crosby, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Steve Martin — who was a wild and crazy banjo picker on the club’s stage long before he became the Wild and Crazy Banjo Picker he is today (but nothing compared to the increasingly wild and crazy persona that founder Weston — who died in 1999 at 72 — took on as the years went by).

Imagined: One night last December a young man attending a Troubadour show sported a jaunty cap with … what was that dangling from the top — a feminine hygiene product? What? Oh, right! It was the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and this was his dubious tribute, evoking what are arguably the most notorious incidents in Troubadour history. In those infamous episodes, the mid “long weekend” Lennon and cohort Harry Nilsson heckled the Smothers Brothers and harassed a waitress, and the ex-Beatle put a you-know-what on his head. Only he didn’t. Not that last part. Well, yes he did, but in another place (a Los Angeles restaurant) on a different day.

Surprise!: The Troub has been a site for the unexpected through the years. After a 1964 gig by house band the Men, Bob Dylan took the stage for a jam before an audience of club staff. Dylan did it again 12 years later with his Rolling Thunder Revue, pulling the tour bus up and coming in to play a short set during Roger Miller’s encore. Then-unsigned but much-hyped band the Knack did a set in 1979 that featured guest appearances from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills and the Doors’ Ray Manzarek. Perhaps no surprise was greater than that experienced by Poco when the band arrived late for a show in 1969 due to flight delays, only to find Steve Martin performing the group’s songs on banjo.

On the Record: Other live documents of the club’s history include Richard Pryor’s eponymous 1968 debut album, Neil Diamond’s Gold (1970), Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974), Miles Davis’ Live at the Troubadour (1975), Phantom Planet’s own Live at the Troubadour (2003), And while it wasn’t recorded there, 1978 Eagles song “Sad Café” is about the club.

Still Rockin’: After the ’80s metal detour, the Troub rejoined the full club circuit with some consistently impressive bookings. Artists who played key gigs on the way up included Pearl Jam (in 1991, playing its first gig under that name after having been Mookie Blaylock), Fiona Apple, System of a Down, Radiohead, the Strokes, the White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age (with Dave Grohl on drums) and John Mayer, while Mudcrutch (the band that evolved into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) played a belated L.A. debut in 2008 and Prince made a near-surprise stop in May 2011 for an intimate three-set night in the middle of his 21-date run at the Forum.

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