In a city with 6,500 miles of blacktop, one stretch of road might be the most legendary in Los Angeles: the Sunset Strip. It's where the vibrant L.A. music got its vibe; imagine The Doors blaring through the gates of one club and The Byrds softly strumming just a few doors down. From one decade to the next, from folk to metal to hip-hop, iconic music was born there.
But the Strip has taken a few hits over the years. August Brown covers pop music for the Los Angeles Times, and he recently wrote about the venue closures and cultural shifts that have thrown the future of the district into question — particularly as regards whether to revel in history or try and stay on music's cutting edge.
"You can only survive so long as a museum piece," Brown says, standing in front of the storied Whisky a Go Go club, whose exterior now sports a plaque from the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame. "You need to need to get young bodies in the door drinking six, seven nights a week if you want to stay open, especially today. Reputation will only get you so far."
NPR's Arun Rath joined August Brown for a walking tour of the Sunset Strip, with stops at the venues that made this part of Hollywood so influential. Hear more at the audio link.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
We'll stay in L.A. for this next story. In a city with 6,500 miles of blacktop, this might be the most legendary stretch of road in Los Angeles, the Sunset Strip. The vibrant L.A. music scene got its vibe right here. Imagine The Doors blaring through the gates of one club...
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RATH: ...the Byrds softly strumming a few doors down.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN! TURN! TURN!")
THE BYRDS: (Singing) Turn, turn, turn...
RATH: From one decade to the next, iconic music was born right here. But the Strip has taken a few hits over the years. August Brown covers pop music for the L.A. Times. He's along with me now to talk about what's happened here. August, thanks for coming out.
AUGUST BROWN: Oh, thanks for having me.
RATH: Now, I'm in a spot that - I kind of feel like this is almost hallowed ground here as someone as a teenage boy who wanted to be Jim Morrison, probably like a lot of teenage boys. This is where The Doors used to be the house band. The sign is still on saying the Key Club, but the Key Club is actually closed, right?
BROWN: Yes. The Key Club closed back in spring. Before the Key Club, it was a great club called Gazarris that was kind of a founding spot for - from '60s folk up until '80s hair metal. And pretty much any band with aqua net and leather pants took the stage here at one point.
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RATH: So we're standing here now in 2013 and things isn't what they used to be. It's not really kind of like the furnace of creativity and rock and roll that it used to be, is it?
BROWN: No. And over the last 10, 15 years, they'd all migrated eastward to neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Echo Park. And, yeah, after the first drum fill of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it was the sound that kind of destroyed the neighborhood in a lot of ways for rock music for several years.
RATH: It was grunge that did it?
BROWN: People very instantaneously realized that it was just getting decadent and kind of lame. And it - to this day, the reverberations of that are still felt in a lot of these venues.
RATH: It's weird. It feels like the cycle kind of repeats with rock and roll a little bit. I mean, you think about glam rock in the '70s, and then punk coming along and kind of punching it in the gut. And then sort of the same thing with these air bands and grunge in a way, right?
BROWN: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, today, the kind of corollary is, you know, after the sort of bloated late '90s, early 2000s of these, like, kind of big arena bands, you know, dance music just socked it in the gut. And now, people - if you're under the age of, you know, 25, you might not have heard a record with a guitar on it. And that's kind of the worst nightmare of a lot of these places.
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RATH: Well, let's take a little walk down the street and check out some of these historic spots.
BROWN: Let's do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALABAMA SONG")
THE DOORS: (Singing) Well show me the way to the next whiskey bar.
RATH: We make our way toward a black brick dungeon-like facade. Its weathered black awning doesn't reveal its name until we get closer. But as soon as I can make it out, I'm left a little queasy. The name brings up a haunted association, The Viper Room. Now, the first time I heard about The Viper was probably - the first time a lot of people heard of it was when River Phoenix died here, right?
BROWN: Yeah, that's the most infamous event that happened really pretty much right where we're standing. It was right outside.
RATH: And I thought at the time that The Viper Room - it sounds like it's been around forever. But it was brand new then.
BROWN: Yeah. And it was, you know, the hot new Sunset Strip nightclub, and that was back when, you know, kind of rock and roll and edgy new celebrity nightlife still kind of had a parallel. It was - it opened in '93, Johnny Depp was a part owner. If you wanted to go see young Leo DiCaprio and the cast of "Friends," you know, really letting their hair down on a weekend, this was where you would go.
RATH: And the celebrity death, I guess, didn't cast a pall or maybe even gave it creepily a certain cache or something?
BROWN: Yeah. I mean, it was definitely really sad and tragic. And in the long ledger of L.A., and particularly West Hollywood celebrity deaths, all these rooms have really dark, sordid pasts. You know, the Roxy was the last place that John Belushi performed before he OD'd. And, you know, these rooms have seen the best and worst of what Hollywood has to offer.
RATH: So what about now? Is it - are you - like to do much star spotting at The Viper these days or - Johnny Depp doesn't even own it anymore, right?
BROWN: No. He got out of that in the mid-2000s, I believe. But they still have shows pretty much every night. And they've been getting, you know, some of the, you know, better local indie rock. But it's not really the first place you think of when it's Friday night and you want to go see some rock music, generally.
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RATH: August Brown and I then head over to maybe the most historic club on the strip, the Whiskey a Go Go. Bands that defined entire genres played here. Buffalo Springfield and Love in the '60s, The Germs and X in the '70s, Quiet Riot and Guns N' Roses in the '80s. Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played all over the world in the '90s, but they started right here at the Whiskey.
As August Brown and I walk up to the rope line, I notice two telling items that suggest the Whiskey might not be on the cutting edge anymore. One is a poster. Apparently, the hair metal band Kix will be playing here on New Year's Eve. And there's a plaque given to the club by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It says Whiskey a Go Go here on the brass plaque. Since opening in 1964, the Whiskey a Go Go has been one of the world's most prominent and important rock and roll venues.
It seems like there's a tension here in a way, you know, because of all the history here between turning into a rock and roll museum piece or actually still being a living, breathing part of vibrant, modern, forward-looking rock and roll.
BROWN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And that's both its biggest asset and its biggest curse. You know, CBGB has got ripped up for scrap and it's in Las Vegas right now, you know? You can only survive so long as a museum piece of even really beloved rock history. You need to get young bodies in the door drinking six, seven nights a week if you want to stay open, especially today. And, you know, reputation will only get you so far in that regard.
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RATH: Which brings us back to where we started, the now closed Key Club, the former home to house bands The Doors and Van Halen. It's shuttered and dark now, but a sign out front points to its new direction, 1 Oak. 1 Oak is a chain of dance clubs stretching from Las Vegas to Mexico City, and soon, the Sunset Strip.
BROWN: It's kind of focused on rave and hip-hop and a lot of more sort of higher end, high margin...
RATH: Bottles of expensive liquor, not Jack and Coke.
BROWN: That's it. It is not Vince Neal pouring Jack Daniel's down his chest. It is people ordering $1,000 bottles of Ciroc at the bar.
RATH: Is that a good thing?
BROWN: It's a profitable thing. We'll see. It's a different thing for the neighborhood, that's for sure, compared to the legacy of what a lot of people associate with the Sunset Strip. And that speaks to the resiliency of the street is that it's reinvented itself musically three, four times over the course of its lifespan in L.A. rock history. You know, it started as a place for hippies, then it turned into kind of a dark Jim Morrison, post-hippie kind of thing. And then it turned into really big-selling, pyrotechnic, hair metal thing.
And I can't think of many other streets or cities that have put so many different kinds of very cutting edge contemporary music on the same mile. And anybody who would write it off forever needs to remember that.
RATH: May have another chapter to go.
BROWN: Yeah, it may still yet.
RATH: That's L.A. Times pop music writer August Brown. We've been strolling around the Sunset Strip. August, thanks so much.
BROWN: Well, thank you. This is fun.
RATH: It's been a blast.
BROWN: Stay metal.
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RATH: And for Saturday that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Thanks for following us out west and on Twitter @nprwatc. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. Tune in tomorrow for a look at L.A.'s foster care system facing the same challenge as many places are, too many kids in care for too long. Till then, thanks for listening and stay metal.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.