Summer Reading on the Sunset Strip
by Mike Sonksen
Dating back to 1997 I’ve been giving Los Angeles bus tours, and one of the most frequent locations is the Sunset Strip. Once avocado groves and poinsettia fields, the Sunset Strip’s decadent history ranges from Mafia speakeasies during Prohibition to its evolution into an epicenter of the music scene. Two new books cover these very different histories of the Sunset Strip and Los Angeles history period.
The first is Tere Tereba’s new biography Mickey Cohen: The Life & Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster. Published by ECW Press, the author does a masterful job extolling Cohen’s escapades and power: “His finger in every pie, his hand in every wallet, Cohen’s influence reached from downtown, Chinatown, and South Central to the Sunset Strip, Hollywood, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Burbank, Long Beach, San Pedro, and Glendale. He controlled activities in Gardena and Pasadena and out to Orange County, Lake Arrowhead, Palm Springs, and into Mexico. There was talk that San Francisco, Honolulu, and Manila were in his grip.”
By all accounts Cohen is L.A.’s Al Capone. He grew up in Boyle Heights and was a professional boxer in his late teen years, fighting 79 bouts. After years paying dues as an enforcer in the underworld, Cohen got his chance to run Los Angeles after Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was killed in 1947. The savvy Siegel flourished in L.A. for a decade before he was assassinated. Siegel was from New York and already very famous when he arrived in L.A. Cohen was also born in New York, but came to LA at a very early age and worked his way up. Cohen eventually became not only the King of the Sunset Strip but perhaps the most powerful mobster in the city’s history. The recently postponed Warner Brothers film Gangster Squad is about Mickey Cohen and his epic battles with the LAPD and other gangsters during the postwar period.
Tereba also shows how Cohen was the ultimate Angeleno decades before people even considered such a thought. Cohen enjoyed all the subcultures of Los Angeles long before it was cool to do so. He spent lots of time in the Jazz District of Central Avenue, and would book Black musical acts in his Hollywood clubs in spite of Jim Crow Los Angeles. After growing up in Boyle Heights, Cohen embraced other cultures. “If anyone called someone a kike, spic or a wop in our neighborhood, we would beat his head in,” he said. Tereba paints a full portrait of Mickey Cohen and also manages to squeeze in a fascinating historical overview of the Los Angeles underworld.
John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’Roll captures a whole other era of the Sunset Strip, but no less compelling. Set in the period from the early ’70s to 1984, Scanlan not only charts the rise of Van Halen through the Sunset Strip nightclub scene, he argues that Van Halen’s ethos as a band characterizes a state of mind and being called “Zen California.”
Historian Kevin Starr in his book Coast of Dreams characterizes “Zen California” as “a state of mind, an idea of a time and place, and a way of being that celebrated ‘the now’; that rode on its passion for the moment in a manner that could be seen elsewhere in much Southern California culture. It was present, most obviously, in the practice of surfing – the pre-eminent Californian art of mind, body and nature that was defined by receptivity to the moment.”
Using the theoretical framework provided by Starr, Scanlan shows how the exuberance of Van Halen epitomized what he calls “California Zen rock’n’roll.” Starting from their youthful beginnings in Pasadena and their first gigs as the house band at Gazzari’s at the present-day Key Club, Scanlan highlights the unique set of circumstances that created Van Halen. Capturing the chemistry of David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, he also shows how Roth’s early exposure to Greenwich Village poets and musicians prepared Roth to become such a spontaneous artist.
Scanlan writes, “Roth’s artistic temperament stemmed from somewhere else. Its main characteristic was a childlike artlessness that combined the immediacy of the everyday with the ‘no-mind’ of Zen. Like Kerouac, for whom ‘future ambitions or past memories’ were ‘an evasion of the immediate’, the ‘Tao of Dave’ involved, as he often said, tearing off the rear view mirror and looking no further than a few meters ahead.” David Lee Roth epitomized California Zen. Scanlan also writes, “For Eddie Van Halen the unconscious was encountered in a manner more common to aesthetic romanticism, and to the synesthetic dimensions of sound, music and feeling.”
The book concludes with the first break up of the band in 1984. The author’s philosophical and aesthetic observations into Van Halen go a long way towards capturing the spirit of the band and the Sunset Strip just before the onslaught of the hair metal era. One mistake made in an otherwise excellent book is that Scanlan incorrectly notes that John Belushi died at the Sunset Marquis. Considering that Scanlan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom, it is conceivable that he would not know that Belushi died at the Chateau Marmont. The two hotels sound enough alike that the mistake is acceptable, because the rest of the book is accurate and well-conceived. Scanlan offers an enlightening read that significantly adds to the scholarship on Sunset Strip musical history.
This one goes out to Grand Park, Mickey Cohen and Van Halen, benchmarks in the ever-growing landscape of L.A. Letters.
This article is reproduced from the LA Letters website of KCET Television in California, in which “Mike Sonksen aka Mike the Poet celebrates bright moments from literary Los Angeles with spoken and written word.”