Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Alley

It's so easy to slip ,
It's so easy to fall ,
And let your memory drift ,
And do nothin' at all .
All the love that you missed ,
All the people that you can't recall ,
Do they really exist at all ?

I got a call the other day from my good friend Jim Beus. Some of you may recall that Jim was the lead singer of The Buzzards. I say 'was' because for all intents and purposes, The Buzzards are no longer a going concern. Or should that be 'The Buzzards is no longer...'? I always get that mixed up. Anyway, about a year ago I found out that Jim had re-formed The Buzzards with a new lineup which didn't include me. He was under the impression that I had left the band. I was under the impression that the band was taking a break. But, Jim wanted me to play a solo opening set at the new band's first gig. And that actually sounded like a pretty cool idea to me, so I agreed.

And that's how I left the band.

The "new" Buzzards didn't really have much momentum, though, and currently the whole project has been tabled. Or as I like to put it, The Buzzards have transcended into legendary status.

But that's not why Jim called me. See, Jim's new job is in commercial real estate, which means he spends most days driving around looking at empty lots, eating fast food, and talking on his iPhone. He was calling (on said iPhone) to tell me about a rumor he'd heard that The Buzzards old rehearsal studio, The Alley, is being sold. This came as somewhat disturbing news, because The Alley is more than just a rehearsal space, it's an important part of music history.

My introduction to The Alley came by way of another important part of music history, founding member of The Buzzards and celebrated guitar-wizard Will Ray. When we first started putting the band together, we were meeting at one of those run-of-the-mill warehouse-style rehearsal studios in North Hollywood where the hyperactive squawking of the mariachi band on one side and the sickening drone of the death metal band on the other would bleed through the cheap drywall to form a horrifying melange I liked to call "Satan's Pinata Party." Will decided we needed a more harmonious atmosphere in which to craft our sound. So he decided to book us a session at The Alley.

From the moment we first wheeled our equipment into the studio, we knew we had found a home. The place was like a time capsule from the 70's, with overstuffed couches, a driftwood coffee table, hanging plants, patchwork-quilt sound buffers and rough-hewn beams. We had booked the smaller of two studios which is known as 'The Basement' even though it is on the ground floor. Two of the walls of The Basement are covered with graffiti. But not just random graffiti, the names of nearly every band who has ever played there are written on the dull yellow brick walls. Bands you've heard of, bands no one has ever heard of, famous bands, legendary bands, long forgotten bands -- thousands of bands.

The list of artists who have played at the Alley is far too long for anyone to ever remember, but it includes people like Jackson Brown, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Dwight Yoakum, Ozzy Ozbourne, The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers and my personal least favorite, System of a Down. One of Dwight's gold records hangs on the wall by the mixing board in The Basement. I often used to gaze at it when we were playing. Kind of my own version of Jay Gatsby's green light.

Playing in that environment gave us the sense that we were part of a great musical tradition. Surrounded by it. Inspired by it. We did some fine jamming in that room. Probably some of our best performances ever. Hell, we even managed to impress the Red Hot Chili Peppers one night. And of course when I say "we", I mean "Will Ray."

The Chili Peppers used to play across the hall in the larger of the two studios, which known as 'The Loft' because it has a loft at one end where groupies and other special guests can hang out during rehearsal. Once, when we were poking around the studio, our drummer Tom and I climbed up into the loft to get a first-hand look. Nothing amazing, just a few couches, coffee tables and plenty of ash trays. Tom took a look around and quipped, "imagine the DNA in this place."

Tom and I were in the habit of arriving early to rehearsal and having a quick bite to eat at the picnic table just outside the entrance. The Alley is literally located in an alley off Lankershim Blvd. It shares a parking lot with a burrito place that blocks the view of the entrance from the street. To the uninitiated, it can be quite a challenge to find the place.

One evening, as I was munching my free-range turkey sandwich, I noticed some particularly amazing sounds coming from inside The Loft. Really funky bass and drums. Tom soon joined me and also remarked on the quality of the music. Whoever they were, they were damn good. Just a few minutes later, the music stopped and three guys came out of the studio. The first guy was instantly recognizable due to his short-cropped haircut and bare chest covered in tattoos. It was Flea, the Chili Peppers inimitable bassist. He sat down across from me and started digging into a huge organic salad from Whole Foods. He was joined by drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Fruscianti. We chatted for a while about band stuff like guitars and amps. Then Fruscianti asked us if we were the same band who was there the week before.

We nodded.

"You guys were really sounding good, especially that guy on pedal steel."

I grinned. "That's Will," I explained, "only he doesn't play pedal steel, it's slide guitar."

Fruscianti looked doubtful. "No, I'm pretty sure I heard a pedal steel."

"It's the way he plays -- he wears a slide on his right hand as well as his left to get that sound. It's his own invention. He calls it a 'stealth slide.'"

At this point Fruscianti was looking at me like I was full of shit. But then Flea looked up from his salad and chimed in, "it sounded good."

Anthony Kiedis, also shirtless, stepped out of the studio and looked around. He remained in the doorway for a few minutes, looking like he desperately needed attention, but trying hard not to show it.

Tom and I finished up our dinners and started hauling our equipment into The Basement. I told Fruscianti to come by and check out Will's setup, but he never did. We saw them a few more times at the picnic table. It felt pretty cool to be treated as peers by a band as cool as the Chili Peppers. Except for Kiedis, that is. He never said a word to us and avoided eye contact as much as possible. But Flea was always there, shirt off, wolfing down his organic salad. At The Alley we were all the same, just a bunch of musicians hanging around the picnic table.

After Will left L.A. for greener pastures, I took over the task of booking rehearsals and began learning more about the history and charm of The Alley. This was mainly due to the fact that I was dealing with Shiloh, who along with her husband Bill, owns and runs The Alley. Climbing the spiral staircase to Shiloh and Bill's apartment above the studio became a ritual for me at the end of each rehearsal. While the rest of the band loaded their equipment, I stood in the enclosed front porch that served as the business office and looked at the literally hundreds of photos, posters, framed articles, artifacts and memorabilia that cluttered the room. Here a poster from a Don Henley show, there a picture of Linda Ronstadt, underneath it, a teetering pile of old Rolling Stone magazines next to a dusty old guitar case. Shiloh would drag out the big appointment book and page through to the next week to book our next rehearsal. Then she'd hand me a handwritten receipt for the current week. I never saw a computer or even an adding machine.

I would sometimes question Shiloh about various bands that had been at The Alley at one time or another. After my trip to Joshua Tree, I was warming up in the studio with a Gram Parsons song and Shiloh started talking about when Gram was still around. She said they still had one of his old pianos in storage. When they filmed the movie Grand Theft Parsons, Bill let them use one of his many vintage bikes, a three-wheeler, for Johnny Knoxville to ride. Shiloh tended to get a little wistful when talking about Gram. I think he had that effect on people. Especially women.

The band I wanted to know the most about, though, was Little Feat. One evening, we were supposed to be booked into The Basement, but due to a mix-up we ended up in The Loft. It was the first time we'd played in there, and it felt like going from the minors to the majors. On the wall behind the low stage was a giant banner depicting a woman with a tomato for a head lounging in a hammock. I recognized it right off as the banner that had hung behind Little Feat during their Waiting For Columbus tour. I had seen them on that tour, playing at the Wesleyan hockey rink, and have never seen a hotter live band. Unfortunately, lead singer and songwriter Lowell George only lived a few more years after that. He was one of the true greats of all time.

Little Feat continues perform and record, but without Lowell it's just not the same band. I saw the reconstituted version of the band once in New York, and even though they were very good, there was still something missing. They had added three guys to take Lowell's place -- one to write, one to sing and one to play guitar -- but it still didn't come close.

Shiloh told me the band wants her to give them back the banner, but she won't do it. These days it covers the ceiling above the stage in The Loft. When I heard that The Alley was for sale, I decided I really needed to get back there at least one more time to see that banner, and to read the names of some of the bands on the brick wall, and to ask Shiloh more questions about Gram Parsons and Lowell George.

I called her up to find out if the rumor was true -- was The Alley really being sold? She said that it wasn't "being sold" but it is "for sale." She and Bill are in no hurry to let go of it. What they really want to do is find someone who will take it over and keep running it just like it always has been. I hope they do. It would be a shame to see such an amazing chunk of history disappear.

On the other hand, I once had a friend who said that music wasn't meant to be preserved, it was meant to be played and enjoyed and released into the wild. Music is a live event that exists in the moment. Instead of bottling it up and listening to it over and over again, we should be playing some new music. Even an old song played again can be new. Why keep living in the past?

I guess I agree with some of that notion. But I sure think we'd be missing out on something great without those original 29 Robert Johnson recordings. Or Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Or Vladimir Horowitz. Or Coltrane. Woody Guthrie. Ray Charles!

So I think it's good to try and hang onto a little bit of history. And it's cool to think that in my own insignificant way, I am part of that history. And if I had a couple million dollars, I just might buy The Alley for myself.

1 comment:

Jonny Octane said...

Wow! thanks for your story on "The Alley." I got hipped to it last week and was floored by the place, the people, and the vibe. It was ungodly.

Someone should make a documentary about the place before it becomes one of those "Things That Used to be There."

I also appreciated your frank reporting about The Peppers and Mr. Keidis. Tell it like it is!