Saturday, October 3, 2020

September 1-6, 1970 960 Bush St, Troubadour North, San Francisco, CA: Elton John/David Ackles (New Era)

History is like the ocean, all-encompassing but very hard to track from close quarters. In music, unlike war or politics, it can be difficult to identify exactly when a historic moment changes. Once in a while, though, you do get to see it, and even put a date on it. Rock music in the early 1960s had been defined by London and the Beatles, but in the late 1960s it was defined by San Francisco. Rock music exploded in the minds of young people, with phenomenal economic returns as well. 60s rock in the United States had its own institutions: their own concert halls, modeled on the Fillmores, free-form FM radio, and hugely successful bands that seemed to owe little to the traditional starmaking machinery of New York and Los Angeles.

By the 1970s, that had changed. The studied indifference and self-important--some said self-indulgent--music of the Fillmore bands was replaced by "singer-songwriters," singing catchy, heartfelt songs that captured the imaginations and hearts of huge swaths of the listening public. The singer-songwriters of the era, like Carole King, James Taylor and Cat Stevens, came from all over, but they made it big in Los Angeles. In particular, the critical venue for early 70s LA was The Troubadour. The Troubadour had been opened by proprietor Doug Weston as a coffee shop back in 1957. By 1970, it was a bar where the best of the singer-songwriters played for the Los Angeles music industry, who in turn made them famous. Hollywood, whatever else you think, knows how to make stars.

When did the California rock zeitgeist move from San Francisco to Los Angeles, from the Fillmore West to the Troubadour? There could hardly be a more emblematic 1970s rock star than Elton John, and in his recent autobiography and biopic, he describes playing the Troubadour in a performance so ecstatic that he felt he lifted off the ground. Elton John's "career trajectory" was straight up like a rocket from then on. Yet the very next week, Elton played the entirely forgotten Troubadour North in San Francisco, rocked a packed house and got a sniffy review. San Francisco didn't notice, and Elton didn't remember. It didn't matter.

Elton John 1970

Elton John had been a working musician in England in the mid-60s, playing with Long John Baldry and others. He also had a songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin. Elton (birth name Reginald Dwight) had released his debut album Empty Sky in 1969. It was only released initially in the UK, and made little impact. In 1970, he released his second album, Elton John, but it was his first album released in the United States, on the tiny Uni label (DJM in the UK). Ultimately, there were two big hits off the record, "Your Song" and "Take Me To The Pilot," but the single wasn't released until October of 1970. Still, I believe that Elton's album was getting FM airplay on rock stations.

Elton's management sent him to America mainly to expose him to the music industry, so that he could get radio play. It was the form book for success in the 1970s. The old 60s model had been that bands toured all the Fillmore-type places, as well as the civic auditoriums and the rock festivals and college gyms, first as an opening act, then second and finally headlining. As a band became known, they started getting airplay on the local hippie FM stations. Bands like Ten Years After became huge on this model, without any really major records. The 1970s acts inverted this model--get big on the radio, and then rake in the concert receipts. In that sense, Elton John (along with his manager John Reid) were pioneers.

The Troubadour, The Whisky A-Go-Go and West Hollywood

In the latter 60s, bands made their bones in the ballrooms, with the light shows and people swaying. Word would pass on the underground telegraph that Cream or Quicksilver Messenger Service  or Ten Years After were great, and you would check them out the next time they came to town. There were a few rock nightclubs, but most fans weren't even 21 yet, and clubs in any case were too small to create much residual buzz, not compared to a college gym. There was one exception to this rule, however. The infamous Whisky-A-Go-Go club in West Hollywood (at 8901 Sunset Blvd) defied all these rules. Name bands played for union scale just to get heard. The Hollywood hip people, whether in the record industry or just cool cats, heard the bands and helped to decide who got some buzz. In August 1966, the house band at the Whisky were some unknown called The Doors, and they became as big as anybody. In January, 1969, a new group built on the ashes of the old Yardbirds played the Whisky, and within a week the word was out about Led Zeppelin.

Hollywood proper had been part of the city of Los Angeles since the 1930s. But West Hollywood was unincorporated, part of the county but not the city. It was insulated from the notorious Los Angeles police and the machinations of the LA City Council. Thus West Hollywood was, paradoxically, the entertainment district for Hollywood, and had been since the 1940s. There were clubs, restaurants and jazz, and plenty of stars came to hang out, and that was how tastes got made. Rock and roll wasn't that different. The Whisky had opened in 1964, and made "Go-Go" a thing. By 1966, the club had a new act every week, all trying to catch the Hollywood buzz. Cream and Jimi Hendrix each played there in 1967, for practically nothing, just to get heard. So did numerous other ambitious groups, because rocking the Whisky was a ticket to a big tour.

A mile East of the Whisky, however, was a former coffee shop called The Troubadour. Proprietor Doug Weston had opened the club in 1957, but by 1970 it had a full bar and regular performers. Initially it presented folk acts, and in a sense it still did. Electric instruments were standard fare by the end of the 60s, and the Troubadour wasn't for purists. But the Whisky was for rocking out, and the Troubadour was for reflection. Now, wherever you are on the spectrum of Elton John fandom, it's undeniable that he cut across a lot of boundaries. Bernie Taupin's lyrics were thoughtful, and Elton sang them with feeling. The songs were carefully arranged so the full impact of those lyrics could be heard. Yet even just with a trio, Elton John rocked hard, his piano covering a lot of musical territory. Elton could have rocked out the Whisky, no problem. But he played The Troubadour the week of August 25-30, 1970, and elevated it, and the era of the singer-songwriter had begun, with its most successful performer.

960 Bush Street in San Francisco, the site of Troubadour North, when it was the Boarding House (some years later in the 1970s)

The Troubadour North, 960 Bush Street, San Francisco

In 1969, rock music taste was being made in San Francisco. Mercury Records and Columbia Records were building studios in town, Wally Heider's, a big Hollywood studio, had opened a studio in the city, and so on. The biggest new act in the  country, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were recording in San Francisco.  Even after the initial Fillmore wave, bands like Sly and The Family Stone and Santana kept coming out of the city. The music industry was in Los Angeles and Manhattan, but San Francisco mattered. So The Troubadour, already an established presence in West Hollywood, and soon to become a world wide institution, decided to open a San Francisco affiliate. No one remembers.

The Troubadour North, as it was called, was at 960 Bush Street. The room, seating about 300, was a circular bowl with great sightlines. The building had been a recording studio (Coast Recorders), and the place sounded good. For a manager, Weston chose David Allen, the former house manager for San Francisco's famous 60s nightclub The Hungry i. I think the Troubadour North opened about August of 1970, maybe July. It was only open for a few months (closing on November 1) before it disappeared with hardly a trace. 960 Bush was between Union Square and Nob Hill, not really accessible from the suburbs and not easy to park. The Troubadour North site was ultimately revived in 1972 as The Boarding House, run by Allen, a much-beloved City club, but very different than the industry showcase that was Troubadour North.

September 1, 1970
Elton John played The Troubadour in West Hollywood from Tuesday August 25 through Sunday August 30. It made his career. The very next week, from Tuesday September 1 through Sunday September 6, he played The Troubadour North. Not only does no one in San Francisco seem to recall it, even the remarkable Eltonography site only vaguely alludes to the booking in its 1970 concert chronology (it says "date unknown").

The very first night, Tuesday September 1, was reviewed in detail  the next day (Sep 2) by San Francisco Examiner critic Michael Kelton. The key points of his review sum up why Elton wasn't going to break in San Francisco in 1970. The fact that he had busted out in West Hollywood tells you what you need to know. Kelton:

The trouble with  Elton John is that he's about as good as his publicity. His opening last night at the Troubadour was preceded by almost evangelistic Los Angeles notices, yet he drew enthusiastic applause throughout his inaugural San Francisco set and was rewarded finally by a standing ovation from a crowd composed primarily of news media representatives...

Outfitted in flashy red corduroy bib overalls, aluminum colored shoes, Donald Duck buttons and wire-rimmed glasses, John fits in nicely with the hippie-chic atmosphere of the Troubadour. He seems, at first glance, to deserve little more than a yawn.Why the raves? The music, undoubtedly...

John combines county funk with rhythm and blues, rock and roll and good old mainstream melodrama to create a sound that somehow seems to transcend derivation. It is also good listening. 

The most disconcerting aspect of John's act--for me at least--is that it is so obviously an act. He communicates, but a maturity of feeling is missing. The jumping about, hand-clapping and "soulfulness" he employed in the finale are purely dispensable.

Kelton's review is fair, and probably accurate. The music is excellent, and shows his influences without being a prisoner to them. Yet Elton's performance style is the opposite of Fillmore-cool, Jerry Garcia or Carlos Santana crouched and squinting over their guitars. Even more active Fillmore performers, like Sly Stone or Janis Joplin, had somehow branded themselves as "authentic," in the way contrary to a middle class Englishman in stage clothes framing himself as more artificial. Authenticity is a product of its time, and Jerry Garcia was no less of a performer than Elton John, if in fact his performance was just a guy in a black t-shirt playing a guitar. In terms of perception, San Francisco saw Elton as a talented musician with too much artifice, when Los Angeles saw the future. 

There could hardly be a more scientific comparison. The same venue in its Los Angeles and San Francisco incarnations, probably more or less the same sets, just one week apart, and media reps getting the first look. Los Angeles found a star, and sent him back to London as such, while San Francisco wrote him off. Now, sure--Elton played the Fillmore West a few months later (opening for The Kinks on the weekend of November 12-14, 1970) and apparently killed it. Elton played sold out concerts in the Bay Area for the next several decades, as he did everywhere else. But SF wasn't Elton John's town, not the way it was Eric Clapton's. And now we can put a date on it.

Appendix: James Kelton's San Francisco Examiner review September 2, 1970




9081 Santa Monica Blvd (at Doheny), West Hollywood (near Beverly Hills)