X Plays Folk Fiasco: 7/30/81 at the Whiskey
Here's a slice of what the seventies-eighties Los Angeles music scene was like in all its goodness, badness, and ugliness—mostly its badness and ugliness. In 1981 I sent this review (of Los Angeles punkers playing unplugged, billed as a "folk night" at the Whiskey on Sunset) to BAM. (Remember that paper?) It stood for Bay Area Music but covered Los Angeles, too.) The editor didn't get it. He sent it back with snide remarks written all over it, and I didn't write for BAM as long as that editor was around. I still think it's hilarious, though. Critical language is best when it's critical!
Good ideas should make a good show. The line-up and idea at the Whiskey on July 30 (1981) looked good. The bill said Phranc (the 'female Tom Robinson"), Tito Larriva (leader of the Plugz), and Exene and John Doe (who lead X) were getting together for an acoustic "folk music night."
How nice to see punk-rockers going back to folk! In this era it sometimes seems all music has to be amped-up and "original," like a song written by somebody else is no good. Maybe I'm too old (as in out of college) but I remember what folk shows were like in the pre-Beatle sixties.
To me, a folk show means jamming, improvising, surprises, solos, duos, trios, and songs that have survived decades and even centuries. I don't think I was expecting too much. I don't think anything could have prepared me for what the Whiskey passed off as a show.
For the first hour after the billed start time, nothing happened except projections of old TV commercials that appeared to be courtesy of someone's Beta Max. If I wanted to watch TV, I'd have stayed home.
I didn't catch the name of the first guy that (finally) got on the stage and I don't think we need to publicize his appearance by publishing his name, anyway. I have nothing against sexy literature but what this guy read was the definition of "utterly without redeeming social value." It was just certain four-letter words thrown together for shock value. It wasn't poetry or literature--it had no rhyme, no rhythm, not even any expression or emotion. If a little kid wrote or said these things, he'd be spanked and sent to his room. Somebody allowed this grown man to get on a legit stage and say these things. If I want this kind of entertainment, I'll read the Whiskey's bathroom walls.
Then came another interminable, inexcusable break for more Beta Max viewing--like anybody who wants to watch Beta Max is going to pay good money to come down to the Whiskey to do it. Finally someone who was introduced only as “Hal” showed up with a guitar, looking like a prom-going extra from the TV show Happy Days (more TV that we left the house to get away from).
“Hal” sang three of his own songs (I guess that’s what they were because I sure didn’t recognize them) and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” He left. Another break that must have lasted an hour—and this time, instead of a Beta Max, was a recording of a squawking woman telling racy jokes to a shrieking audience. If I want to hear squawking and shrieking, I’ll stay home and watch my parents fight.
Tito Larriva finally showed up, but it was a different image from the Larriva with flashing dark eyes and glistening good hair. He wasn’t anything like that Larriva that leads the Plugz through hard-rocking swinging music. This Larriva wore a suit and his hair was greased, and he barely looked up as he sang his signature song “La Bamba” and two other songs in Spanish. He acted like his guitar wasn’t plugged in meant he wasn’t alive.
He left after being on-stage for perhaps ten minutes. Listen, I’m glad he performs songs from his Hispanic heritage, that’s all well and great, more power to him—but he wasn’t singing to a Hispanic audience. Would it have killed him to stay around an extra three minutes and sing a song in a language his audience could understand?
At this point we were three hours past the billed starting time and we’d seen maybe a half-hour total of anyone doing anything on-stage. Finally three-quarters of X—John Doe, Exene, and Billy Zoom—plus a guy on bass fiddle gave us a faint glimmer of what we’d expected—but only with four songs.
John Doe sang “God Made Me, He Made a Travellin’ Man” and “Rock Island Line.” Then it was Exene’s turn, and she, dressed humorously like a Dust Bowl Okie, sang “Broken-hearted Me.” They sang a duet of “Jackson” (the duet Johnny Cash and June Carter did in the sixties). Exene danced. Billy Zoom actually looked at the audience and smiled as he played rockabilly guitar.
Did they continue? Did they introduce the acoustic bass guy or give Billy a solo spot or call back Tito for a guest vocal? Are you kidding?
Back to another interminable inexcusable delay—and nearly midnight. In four hours we’d seen perhaps 45 minutes of live music, and Phranc still hadn’t shown. This writer gave up and went home.
So many questions! How many people will never go to a show billed as “folk music” ever again after this exercise in audience masochism? This was a folk show—an acoustic show—no big tech demands, so why on earth were the breaks so long and the sets so short? Lastly, who’s responsible for (dis)organizing this fiasco? If he/she’s planning another one, it better be called “Boredom Night” or someone’s likely to charge false advertising.