Standing at the car-rental counter in Los Angeles, a pair of visiting Midwesterners contemplate, just for a moment, whether to upgrade to a convertible. They don’t, but as soon as they see a freeway exit for Sunset Boulevard, the Midwestern boy wants to drive it. Steely Dan told him to, in “Babylon Sisters”:
Drive west on Sunset
To the sea
Turn that jungle music down
Just until we’re out of town
This is no one-night stand
It’s a real occasion
It’s everything they say
The end of a perfect day
A look in the tour guide indicates, however, that what he really wants to see is the Sunset Strip, a mile-and-a-half section of the boulevard in West Hollywood that ends at the border with Beverly Hills. Clogged with traffic and dense with advertising, the Strip holds little magic at 2:00 on a Monday afternoon, but it’s nevertheless a drive into the heart of American pop-cultural history.
The Strip’s fame goes back to Prohibition, when its location, then outside the city of L.A. proper, made it a perfect place for nightclubs, casinos, and speakeasies. Movie people flocked there in the 30s and 40s. Wannabes, too: there’s a sign for Schwab’s Drugstore, where Lana Turner was famously discovered, although the original building is gone. By the 60s, the movie people were gone, too, but then the rock stars, many of whom lived in the mountains of Laurel Canyon just to the north, moved in. Here’s the Chateau Marmont, where the members of Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby, where Jim Morrison claimed to have used up the eighth of his nine lives trying to climb onto the roof, and where John Belushi’s life finally ran out. There’s the Roxy, where Belushi started his final evening, and where John Lennon hung out during his Lost Weekend. Here’s the Whisky-a-Go-Go, where several famous bands were launched, including the Buffalo Springfield (whose “For What It’s Worth” is about a 1966 riot on the Strip), the Byrds, and Alice Cooper, and where the Doors were the house band for a while. There’s the Hyatt West Hollywood, known in the 70s as the “Riot Hyatt,” where rock stars raised room-trashing to an art form, and where the members of Zeppelin are supposed to have ridden motorcycles in the halls as well. Then it’s across the line into Beverly Hills, a place with its own unique claims on history.
Coming tomorrow: Seeing stars, on the ground and in the air.