LAist Interview: Domenic Priore
Southern California is lucky to have Domenic Priore, 45, as a native son. The author and documentary filmmaker has focused his considerable energy on documenting the heyday of the Sunset Strip music scene and Beach Boys hagiography resulting in books like his latest "Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece," which can be considered an adjunct to the documentary on Brian Wilson called "Beautiful Dreamer," and his upcoming book "Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood 1965/1966."
Today, we're running an interview with the author himself. Tomorrow, we will run an LAist Interview with Domenic as if he were a resident on the Sunset Strip in 1966.
Domenic will be discussing "Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece" at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena next Saturday, July 23, 2005 at. 3:00 PM. He'll be joined by Van Dyke Parks, Danny Hutton & Wilson collaborator Tony Asher at the reading. Go early, the reading at Book Soup last week attracted a large crowd.
How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live
I was born in Pasadena, and grew up in Monterey Park during the '60s. East L.A. was a prominent influence; we celebrated when we heard Thee Midniters' "Whittier Blvd." I recently did a story about the early rock 'n' roll shows I witnessed in Monterey Park at Art Fein's website, including pictures of my band from 1969 (age 9!)... saw Surf bands... and Janis Joplin w/ Big Brother & the Holding Company. Read all that at sofein.com.
Why do you live in Los Angeles?
I'm a native, really, but moved out of L.A. for over 10 years to experience living in San Francisco and New York City. A great deal of my subject matter as a writer and documentarian is about L.A., because I feel it was fantastic at certain times, and it always gets short shrift. So currently, research here is crucial for me.
How did you come to write "Smile: The Story Of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece"
I'd done a completist scrapbook publication about SMILE back in 1988, which was picked up by Last Gasp and re-issued in 1995 (Look! Listen! Vibrate! SMILE!), so I was considered the Smile "expert." It really was a magnificent lost recording, so when Brian Wilson finally finished it for a performance in London in 2004, I was on the documentary staff for the big event (David Leaf's film BEAUTIFUL DREAMER, now on the BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE dvd release). While
in London, people from Sanctuary Publishing, who had looked me up while I was in California, had me over to their office and asked me if I'd do a straight, text-oriented book on Smile. There'd been a nice one on "Pet Sounds" by Chuck Granata, so I figured it'd be a cool thing to bookend that with... plus, "Smile" is really a lot more interesting of a story than "Pet Sounds." It's Icarus, all over again, on the 1960s L.A. rock 'n' roll scene.
In commencing this project, what surprised you the most from doing it or researching the book?
The fact that there is a missing tape of the 1967 production of "Surf's Up" in a vault somewhere, and we may now know where that is. Of course, this was the key song from Smile that was later re-assembled by the group in 1971 when they really needed the Psychedelic credential for early F.M. underground radio.
It worked, and that's where I first heard this song. Now we know the original version exists...
What impressions you did get of Los Angeles during the 60s and 70s when Smile was being recorded?
That it was all about sharing, collaborative and cross-pollenation was rampant. That's why the music from L.A. during the mid-'60s was so dynamic... that, and the interaction, direct interaction, with the audience in these cool nightclubs like It's Boss, the Sea Witch, Pandora's Box, The Trip, Hullabaloo, Whisky a Go Go, London Fog, Gazzarri's, the Action, P.J.'s, the Galaxy and all the rest. The rock star trip hadn't yet put a wall between the artist and the
listener. There was so much going on, one had to share to keep abreast of all the thrills to be had, and the best thrills were truly musical then.
What does Brian Wilson think of the project?
For years, Brian Wilson was in denial of the whole Smile period, but now, he really has accepted the music into his heart, I truly mean that. It was a lot for him to overcome, but once he got out there and played it on the road, got way into it, used to it, and saw the audience's reaction to it, he finally went with it, and started calling it the best music he's ever done. I'd agree with that assessment, even though the guitar solo on "Surfin' Safari" really
burns too. Brian offered a foreword to SMILE: THE STORY OF BRIAN WILSON'S LOST MASTERPIECE, and I'm truly grateful for that. Best of all, the Wilsons have allowed me to be an objective journalist and speak the truth, with their blessings. I really appreciate that. Of course, the Smile tour, CD and DVD were all successful in their presentation of the original work, and if I'm laudatory, its an honest reaction to the results.
What does "Smile" reflect about Los Angeles at that period of time?
There was a huge turn toward environmentalism during the mid-'60s L.A scene. I own this paperback from 1966 called THE DESTRUCTION OF CALIFORNIA, and if you watch any old Variety shows from that period, the big joke about L.A. for Milton Berle, Jack Benny and all those people, was the smog. The Folk-Rock movement, instigated by the Byrds, really set "green" album covers in motion.
Their MR. TAMBOURINE MAN album had that fish-eye lens photo by Barry Feinstein with trees everywhere in the background. Then the Beatles were influenced by that and boom, you see them in suede (like the Byrds) with trees in the background, and kind of a fish-eye lens photo on the cover of RUBBER SOUL. So then comes Simon & Garfunkel posing in Griffith Park on their SOUNDS OF SILENCE album, their first big one, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys posing with
animals at the San Diego zoo on their "green" album cover for PET SOUNDS. It became this cool "green" vibe, you see it on other records by the Tokens (from New York), I mean, look it up in any '60s album cover book. That "green" album cover thing then feeds into the environmental suite on Smile, where Brian Wilson delivered music representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water on a suite best known
as "The Elements". Beautiful stuff, which is now Brian's favorite part of the Smile shows.
The Beach Boys are such an integral part of the creation of Los Angeles/Southern California Los Angeles mythology, what do you think Brian Wilson's personal experience says about living in LA during the 60s?
It's like, you can live outside the Hollywood trip and have an
internationally unique ball (see their early albums ALL SUMMER LONG or SURFIN' U.S.A.) but then again, once sucked into the Hollywood vortex, self-control had better be an issue. Brian Wilson reached the heights of what creativity is possible here, and what I mean by that is that his music by the time of PET SOUNDS and SMILE is as cinematic as any film. SMILE, especially, is aural, pictorial, vivid, and of course, evokes Psychedelia, but more in leauge with the British Psychedelia of The Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play" or the Beatles "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" than the elongated "jam" sessions favored by Haight/Ashbury heads. This kind of Psychedelia was more about 3D audio, which Brian mastered brilliantly on SMILE.
What does the album, "Smile," reflect about Los Angeles, then in the 60s and now, as we listen to it in the 21st Century.
Well, another thing that L.A. has that San Francisco lacks is a sense of humor, and an understanding of Pop art and Camp elements. SMILE really taps into Pop art, from its album cover in the '60s by Frank Holmes to the recent BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE covers by Mark London. "Good Vibrations" really was the SMILE song that said it best in a Pop mode. Because they are media centers, unlike San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles people experience far, far more
of the Pop junk culture than anywhere else, and have traditionally learned how to weave the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly into something achieving real social commentary. There is this sense of wit in both L.A. and New York City that I just did not find in San Francisco, and some of it has to do with actually collecting Pop junk. Here's the main thing; RKO Television existed in New York and L.A. during the '60s, and these stations delivered a very deep sense of
this kind of Pop culture. There, they had amazing kids shows and of course the horror host Zacherly. In L.A., we invented the horror host in 1954 with Vampira. All that weaves through the sensibility in the music, for example, New York had the Blues Magoos' great album ELECTRIC COMIC BOOK, so if you weigh that alongside L.A. and the kind of things seen on local rock 'n' roll television shows like HOLLYWOOD A GO GO and GROOVY, it's all this huge in-joke, but a shared in-joke. New York and L.A. had inclusiveness about their sense of Pop,
which just did not go with the snobbery inherent to San Francisco. I think this still applies today, although San Francisco today has this really strong young music scene that does not bow to the old Grateful Dead/Jefferson Airplane b.s. that excluded cool San Jose bands like the Count V and the Chocolate Watchband because they weren't from "the city". I used to DJ at Cafe Dunord in San Francisco, and there was also a lot of cool stuff going on in the Mission, and even in North Beach at places like Bimbos 365 and the Hi Ball Lounge (which
used to be the Jazz Workshop). It's all cool, but in general, giddyness is frowned upon in the Bay Area, even now.
Where is the best place to write in Los Angeles?
Oh, to each his own, I imagine. For me, I like being near the center of town, and by that I mean the downtown Hollywood area with Silver Lake and Loz Feliz as the chillout annex. It's less hippie than Venice, though I do really enjoy Venice a whole lot and draw some inspiration from its history. But I like being near the Cineramadome, the Capitol tower and things like that. I'm a
huge fan of the Modernism architects, and I like being near that aspect of L.A., where you can see the Art Deco stuff, and watch as the buildings evolve into Modern. That's my kick, and inspiration.
Where is the worst place to write in Los Angeles? Any LA café where you had a bad experience writing?
I tend not to write in cafes, though I really love to edit things while riding a subway. That's always been cool, and I did that a lot in San Fran and New York... but even did it here, too, as I love riding on the Red line and the Gold line to downtown and/or Pasadena. Through this process, I got to know all the best Mexican places in Olvera Street, one by one. I've chilled out in Union Station, that's actually a good place to jot things down because few people look at you with that Hollywood status question mark on their face, and,
it's beautiful in there. Editing on the subway is really cool because you're in there with the everyday people, and you can be less full of your self... which is necessary for a good edit.
What's your preferred mode of transportation? How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
Anymore, I hate cars, but it is a necessary evil in L.A. I love the art of an old Ed "Big Daddy" Roth car, but being on the road with SUVs and Hummers here in L.A. is really pointless. 30 years from now, all the oil will be gone from the planet, that's science, so perhaps every damn old Red Car line can be re-programmed with the ever-growing L.A. subway system. This whole thing is a real issue for me about L.A., it's the reason why I left town... that and the
hessian** thing during the '80s, which is my pet peeve about L.A.... I just left. I didn't own a car for 7 years while I lived in New York and San Francisco, and really wish I had that option here today. I returned to college for a while, and rode the Red and Gold line up to Pasadena all the time. I would never go downtown with a car. So that's why Union Station and Olvera Street have become my personal favorite writing hangouts, outside of my pad.
What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA and why?
THE COOL ONES, without a doubt... it's this effervescent Pop story of a Go Go girl who starts a dance trend and realizes her dream to be a singer... in a duet similar to Sonny & Cher... but the music is by Lee Hazelwood, who is best known for his work with Nancy Sinatra. There's incredible Sunset Strip '65/'66 imagery in there, the Leaves (of "Hey Joe" garage punk fame) do a song, Toni Basil is the choreographer, and Roddy McDowally is hilarious as a send-up of
a Phil Spector-type '60s record producer/mogul. Too, too much. The Sick and Twisted Players in San Francisco did this with Connie Champagne playing the lead charachter... that's what I mean when I say that San Fran has a good, non-Grateful Dead worshipping scene now. The movie was released in 1967, but it's 1966 all the way.
My favorite television shows... ever... were the local Go Go shows HOLLYWOOD A GO GO and GROOVY.... the former was shot to look like it was Gazzarri's 1965, while the latter was shot out by the Santa Monica pier with this great, screaming DJ host Michael Blodgett and a very Mod bikini contest every day of the week, for 86 episodes in 1967. The bands on those shows were unreal, and I really don't think those two programs have been topped, anywhere.
Best LA-themed book(s) and why?
I like EVE'S HOLLYWOOD by Eve Babitz, just because she understands L.A. the way I understand L.A.... that is to say, she knows and understands why outsiders diss L.A., but she goes on to prove why that is such bullshit. There's a cool story in there about her learning from a young age how to do the Chicano dance moves, and later meeting someone she grew up with (in that idiom) one
night in Rome... LA DOLCE VIDA era... and just clearing the floor... everyone stopped and stared at what they were doing because it was so cool. Then she's got this unique thing about the Taquito stand (Celito Lindo) at the East end of Olvera Street. Eve figures if Janis Joplin knew anything about L.A., she'd have gone there instead of o.d.'ing on heroin in her hotel room. Eve makes a great point about how important it is to know and love this town in that story,
but you have to read it to understand why that Janis Joplin analogy makes total sense.
Share your best celebrity sighting experience.
It might have been seeing Al Lewis in his Grandpa Munster costume at
Universal Studios back in the late '60s/early '70s. That, and talking to George Harrison for over an hour once about cars, the L.A. highways and the tradgedy of the Red Car rail line, which he had no idea about. George dug the whole political back story on that, and we were engaged in a real good conversation that I'll never forget. Coolest guy I ever met, for sure.
What's the best place to walk in LA?
Out the door of Manuel's El Tepeyac in East L.A., after finishing the Okie Burrito. Either that, or on a surfboard that's 9 1/2 feet long... in the water, of course.
It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Depending on who's playing, jumping up and down and yelling "MODS! MODS! MODS! MODS! MODS!"* or cuffing my jeans wearing a wild Western shirt... either way, my haircut suits both a Mod or a Rockabilly show, despite their exclusive hatred of each other.. but I prefer the Exotica/Lounge stuff and recently have gone from my pad on Rossmore Ave. to Tangier to see this French singer Keren Ann, who somehow crosses Chet Baker, Nico, Francios Hardy and "Strawberry Fields Forever"-era John Lennon, at Tangier in Los Feliz. I've been there twice to see her sing recently.
Would you have wanted to live in Los Angeles in 1965-66? Why or why not?
Absolutely. It was pretty much the prime time for the full realization of this city's original design. The smog had invaded, but the traffic was nothing compared to the 1982-to-present situation. The construct of L.A., from the original Art Deco to the Modernism (with Spanish Revival thrown in), was in place and being utilized to its fullest degree. We had Tiny Naylor's on Sunset,
real space age.... Pacific Ocean Park was unreal (note: Jeff Stanton has an amazing Coney Island website that also has this great photo-based map of P.O.P.), the nightclubs and bands playing on Sunset Strip were the best thing that's happened to this town, musically, along with Central Ave. during the '40s... I
mean, it was really unique and fun place to be, and it would be impossible to re-create L.A. that good again. A friend of mine put it best when he said "You'll never be able to re-create the opening credit film at the beginning of THE BIG T.N.T. SHOW in a million years.
What's your beach of choice?
Crescent Bay at Laguna Beach, for the body surfing angles there, and the beauty. I refust to let Orange County go Confederate, in my mind, because I remember it from the '60s when it was our local L.A. getaway place.
What is the "center" of LA to you?
The Moulin Rouge during the recording of THE BIG T.N.T. SHOW, i.e., Sunset & Vine.
If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.
I might be able to deal with Orange County, if it were one of those Modernist pads in Corona Del Mar. They used to shoot rock 'n' roll television shows on the rocks at that beach, you know, Go Go dancers on the rocks and all...
If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
I might choose to live in the El Royale on Rossmore. I'm through with "yardwork".
What is the city's greatest secret?
Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
Yes, because you have to weed through a lot of really out-of-touch corporate people posing as "artists". I don't find it challenging to make new friends here, but I've got a native's radar. A lot of people come here from other cool cities, and that helps.
Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?
Drinking, eh, gives me a headache. I go to drinking establishments to hear music.
Describe your best LA dining experience.
(see Manuel's El Tepeyac reference, above).
What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
New Yorkers have a point, of course, but if they miss what's cool about L.A., I once again refer them to El Tepeyac. Or Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach. See, our culture is more aligned with Hawaii, theirs is closer to Europe in spirit. That's a huge cultural difference that they just do not understand, and that's what I get into a discussion about.
Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
Yes and no
Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
Kansas City, because it will hit there ten years later.
In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
I go over the hill around there at Beverly Glen, but the best thing to do is to avoid going to the Valley at all. Really, it's doable. Just tell your Valley friends "are you coming to the city?"... that seems to work for people who live in San Francisco... that's what they tell their East Bay friends. Seriously, how many New Yorkers trek into New Jersey all the time? The Valley offers nothing to a Hollywood, or a Pasadena/East L.A.-area resident.
Other alternatives to the 405 would be La Brea, then Century, to get to the Airport, and of course Venice Boulevard, Olympic Boulevard and Pico lead you to streets on the West Side and the South Bay that can get you anywhere, North or South. The 405 is to be avoided at all costs.
**Domenic elaborates on the Hessian reference:
Yes. Basically, one has to understand that Heavy Metal people from the San Fernando Valley used to come over the hill to Holllywood in their trucks, full of people in the back (when that was legal) and would jump Punk Rockers. It was out and out violence against Punks, and so Punk shows left Hollywood andwent out to places like the Pomona Valley Auditorium or other joints in Orange
County, or Fenders in Long Beach. The hessians hated Punk Rock, could not stand how it had replaced "Rock" and did everything they could to eliminate it from the Hollywood music scene. They took over Whisky a Go Go (a graffito near there said WHISKY NEEDS PUNKS in protest when the club banned Punk and started to bring in Metal in its place... along with Pay-to-Play for those suckers).
Any diversity in the L.A. music scene died with that during the '80s.