“What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side”
“For What It’s Worth” Buffalo Springfield
November 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the youth riots of Sunset Strip.
On the evening of November 12, 1966, free-spirited teenagers and their supporters lined up against a phalanx of helmeted and heavily armed police.
What happened next became a touchstone for the cultural revolution that followed and forever shaped the image of Sunset Strip as the beating heart of rock’n’roll.
Although the arrival of Flower Power in San Francisco and New York attracted much of the media attention, the driving force behind counter-culture movement of the 1960s was right here in Los Angeles. And the fuel was the music.
Sunset Strip is a section of Sunset Boulevard stretching from Crescent Heights Boulevard to Doheny Boulevard, the border of tony Beverly Hills. Beginning with the notorious pleasure camp, the Garden of Allah, Sunset Strip served as the playground for Hollywood throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The Strip was Vegas before there was Vegas. In fact, the same owners of Sunset Strip joints took their formula to the Nevada desert to remake their own “Strip.” The supper clubs and nightspots on Sunset had well known mobster ties and since it was in an unincorporated section of town, it was convenient for officials to overlook preferred vices such as gambling and prostitution.
What was not tolerated, however, was long hair, marijuana, and generally unrestrained behavior.
Turn on, tune in, and drop out
The definitive book about 1960s music in Los Angeles is Domenic Priore’s Riot on Sunset Strip. It’s a detailed account of the birth rock’n’roll and how Sunset Strip was briefly the creative center of Los Angeles.
This new LA nightlife comprised a heady mix of modernist design, pop art, and beat aesthetics, interlaced with elements of rock’n’roll from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. Teens could interact freely and creatively with budding youth icons in clubs that had previously been the exclusive domain of the rich and famous of the 1930s and 40s movie industry.
Like so many other cultural phenomenon born in Southern California, there’s a reason why rock’n’roll took root in LA. The Southland is the western edge of a frontier totally unburdened by notions of history, tradition, or cultural baggage. People came to the Southland to reinvent themselves. Wide open spaces and endless horizons created the perfect backdrop for free thinkers of all varieties. (Crackpot religions have long been a favorite export of Southern California, as one example.)
Architectural modernists Richard Schindler and Richard Neutra had already redefined the American home with their LA commissions. Their hard-edged designs made obsolete Old World pretensions and inspired scores of architects to come.
Out of the Kustom Kar scene came a group of rowdy, swaggering artists eager to challenge the dominance of the east coast art world. The gang included Edward Keinholz, Walter Hopps, Robert Irwin, and Ed Ruscha. The Ferus Gallery on La Cienega was their clubhouse. Keinholz created a scandal with his installation sculpture, “Back Seat Dodge –38” (1964). The piece, which depicts a pair of lifeless adoloscents in sexual embrace, was so controversial that County Supervisors fought to have it banned.
And then, there was the music.
Like a true nature’s child
Bebop prophets like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy were taking the improvisational freedom of Parker and Gillespie to soaring new heights in jazz clubs along Central Avenue. By 1966, The Rolling Stones made their television premiere in a nearby Hollywood tv studio and the Beatles wrapped up a legendary stand at the Hollywood Bowl not long before that. Inspired by the new wave of British bands, proto-punk garage bands were popping up everywhere from Venice to the Valley.
The bands and their fans came together on the neglected Sunset Strip. Seminal groups like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield began to make a name for themselves as house bands at clubs such as The Sea Witch, London Fog, The Trip, Stratford on Sunset, and Whisky A Go Go. These bands were the electrified heirs to the politically-tinged folk rock sound of the Greenwich Village coffee houses where Bob Dylan and others had staked a claim.
New Yorker Magazine writer Renata Adler captured the mood along the Strip perfectly in her 1967 essay, “Fly Trans Love Airways.”
The boy in the lumberjacket, who had been looking for some time at the girl in the yachting cap, suddenly walked over and took her hand. He led her wordlessly to the point directly in front of the man who was speaking, and kissed her. When, after several minutes, they looked up, the gap-toothed man (although he watched them with apparent satisfaction) was still preaching, so they kissed again and remained in each other’s arms until the sound of a guitar farther down the street – in front of a cafe called Fifth Estate – caused the teen-age group to disperse and drift toward the music.
America’s pre-eminent art form, the movies, was about to be displaced by a new cultural force – rock’n’roll.
Baby boomers had been providing a profitable market for the entertainment industry. Hollywood was all too eager to exploit a sanitized version of the Endless Summer of California with beach movies starring former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and pop heart-throb Frankie Avalon.
But the media elite flinched when confronted with genuine freedom. Truth is, the teenagers crowding the sidewalks at night is a far cry from the genuine gangland murders that occurred along Sunset just a few years earlier.
Nevertheless, the old guard persisted.
While some fading establishments along the Strip adapted to the changes, transforming dormant clubs into youthful hangouts, others resisted and complained bitterly about impact on their businesses. When members of the Sunset Plaza Merchants Association turned toward authorities for relief they found a sympathetic ear in county supervisor, Ernest Debs. For years, Debs had been championing a freeway from Santa Monica to Laurel Canyon. He and his supporters saw a development opportunity along Sunset Boulevard. Their dream was to build a new financial center to replace the now-deserted downtown. Working together, Debs, the police, and disgruntled business owners initiated their crackdown.
The eve of destruction
Using a strained interpretation of an existing law, minors were not allowed on the street after 10:00 pm. Anyone under the age of 18 was forbidden to dance at any establishment that served alcohol. Cabaret and performance licenses were snatched away.
Weary of the constant harassment, owners of Pandora’s Box helped organize a demonstration. Tension between the newcomers and the authorities had been building for months. So, band members and patrons did what they had been doing for years. They printed up flyers and invited their friends.
Estimates place the number of protestors that night between one- and three-thousand.
At the city limits, along Crescent Heights Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard, the LAPD lined up on one side and Sheriff’s deputies on the other. In the middle were the protestors.
The devastating Watts Rebellion just one year earlier was clearly on the minds of the authorities that night as they took their positions on the street. In August 1965, an impromptu protest erupted against police brutality toward African-Americans in South Central LA. That event exploded into a week of violence leading to over 3,000 arrests, 1,000 injuries, and 34 deaths. The resulting melee, many officials reasoned, was because the initial police response was too weak.
By most accounts the Sunset Strip demonstration on November 12th began as a peaceful event. The kids sat in the street, joined hands, and sang. However, social and cultural tensions beyond LA were already stretched taut. The Civil Rights marches and a growing resistance against the Vietnam War was beginning to reveal the dividing lines in American society. Just three days earlier, the most reactionary political figure in America (at the time), Ronald Reagan, had just been elected governor of California.
At some point in the evening, a small group of Marines clashed with the protestors.
That event provided the flashpoint for the riot.
The police moved in with swinging nightsticks. Scores were arrested including celebrities such as Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. The battle lines were drawn. Stephen Stills, founding member of the Byrds, wrote the immortal protest song “For What It’s Worth” that night.
More protests occurred regularly through the winter along Sunset Boulevard.
Twelve miles east, on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, another resistance movement was underway.
The Black Cat Tavern opened in November 1966 as a LGBT bar. On New Year’s Eve 1966, undercover police arrested male patrons as they kissed at midnight. A demonstration was held on February 11, 1967, nearly two years before the famous Stonewall Riots in New York City. In solidarity, what turned out to be the last youth protest on Sunset Strip was held the same night.
And as quickly as it emerged, the scene vanished. Many decamped to the more tolerant neighborhoods of the Bay Area. San Francisco inherited the title as the hippie capital and Haight Ashbury became enshrined as the cradle of the Love Generation.
The brief magic moment had passed, but the Strip continued to hang on as rock music’s main street.
Laurel Canyon life continued much as it had.
David Crosby drove up and down Laurel Canyon Boulevard on his Triumph motorcycle wearing a purple cape . Frank Zappa played the musical court jester to a revolving door of fellow freaks at his cabin retreat. And Jim Morrison stumbled to his home above the Canyon Country Store.
In the Seventies, the musical spirit became more indulgent. As legendary party bands like Led Zeppelin crashed through town, Sunset Strip developed a reputation as a place for raucous parties rather than incendiary ideas.
Punk came and went. So did Eighties metal.
But the Strip survived.
And the music still plays.
“The beat goes on. The beat goes on.”