I DIDN’T KNOW ED PEARL
Never even met him. Only went to the resurrected, mid-’90s Ash Grove on the Pier a few times during its brief run. What a surprise: Pearl said he got a lot of grief from the City, even though they were supposedly trying to revitalize the Pier as an entertainment center. Among other requirements, he had to spend more than half a million dollars to refurbish the old Billiards Building, next to the carousel. Then the City evicted him less than a year later.
The original folk music club was on Melrose, seating 250; it later became Budd Friedman’s Improv comedy club and I spent quite a few uproarious nights there. The Ash Grove, named for a Welsh folk song, operated from 1958 to 1973 and I was still in NM, missing all that great LA music and trying to figure out how to get there with my young son.
It’s fun and mostly justified for me to mock the backwater, small-town mentality of Albuquerque (the largest city in the state) where I grew up, and especially the dearth of good music possibilities, but when a young UNM administrator named Tom Hogg started messing around with these new-fangled computers and discovered they had a really good application to booking concerts, he transformed the music scene there, then left town and quickly rose to the number three position at a nascent Ticketmaster, transforming the music scene everywhere.
You may hate on Ticketmaster for the way they raised the cost of your concerts but they also made it possible for you to get those tickets without driving to the Forum and waiting in line for hours. (Oops! — sold out.) And Tom is truly one of the good guys, a philanthropist who has supported good causes and people, especially fighting the AIDS scourge.
So thanks to Hogg the music drought in Albuquerque ended and my last few years there were tolerable, though the wait between great shows was still too long.
CLEANING OUT OLD BOXES
As many of us are, I came across the layout sheet for an issue of the UNM Daily Lobo newspaper, where as a student I was the Arts & Media Editor. Back in those Paleolithic days, you had to glue the photos and typeset copy onto a full-sized mock-up page, before sending it to the printer.
I kept one, labeled, “Putting Out: A Selection of Concerts, UNM, ‘73-’74, photos by Mel Buffington.” Mel was a ridiculously good concert photographer, as good as any. Period. Really. Not only did he manage to unobtrusively, invisibly, get his diminutive body onto areas of the stage that were illegal and dangerous — OMG there’s Mel! Peeking over the top of that tower of amps! And now he’s practically resting his camera on the drummer’s shoulder! — he was able to snap facial expressions and stage poses that gave no advance notice and were gone in an instant (instinct, I guess), and under stage lighting effects that are murder to take into account.
These were the concert shots from that school year that he liked the most. There were more concerts than these, and Buffington was also not able to shoot every show. The year before he shot the Stones and as many thousands of times as that’s been done, I’ve never seen anything better than what Mel got.
I wish I could show them to you. But on that one page were nine fairly large, sumptuous photos of Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Rod Stewart, Steve Howe of Yes, Three Dog Night (dressed for their doo-wop segment), the Pointer Sisters (dressed to kill), Gordon Lightfoot, Jackson Browne and Terry Kath of Chicago (one of the most underrated rock guitar slingers ever — and of course Buffington focused on him).
Thanks, Mel, and Tom. An honor and a pleasure to have worked with you both.
BACK TO DIVING FOR PEARLS
I’ve probably lost the readers who recommended I cover Ed Pearl’s passing at 88 two and a half weeks ago, of COVID and pneumonia complications, but… I mean… those photos. It’s a music column. I had to mention them. And there’s a connection.
Pearl railed against the commercialization of the music business, combined his love of political activism (he helped found the Peace & Freedom Party in 1967) with folk, blues and ethnic music, and was an unlikely acoustic, DIY success. Hogg brought technology and big business to bear to make much more great music available, in the desert. Love of music from two different approaches.
But the road was bumpy for Pearl and he long believed that fires at his club, that quickened its demise, were arson attempts to stop his social activism. They started after he booked some artists returning from Cuba who gave talks and showed films, he said, adding he had received threats from Cuban exiles.
BOYLE HEIGHTS BOY
Pearl was an LA product, growing up in Boyle Heights with a true melting pot of friends that made multiculturalism a natural for him. His parents fled Jewish persecution in Russia around 1900. The Ash Grove was billed as “the West Coast University of Folk Music,” and “it educated a lot of people to the cultures of America,” Pearl told the LA Times in 1993. “It legitimized the American potpourri and gave it a dignified stage.”
There’s the story of Mick Jagger, a frequent visitor, exiting a show and seeking out Pearl to pump his hand and thank him, for all the entertainment, and education. Ry Cooder played his first time in public there when he was 16, backing Jackie De Shannon on guitar. It was the first place Linda Ronstadt headed after hitting town from Tucson, and she met songwriter-singer Kenny Edwards, who also loved Mexican music, and thus was born the Stone Poneys and Ronstadt’s notable, enduring career. Future Byrds Chris Hillman and Clarence White met at the Ash Grove while both were in high school. Spirit, one of my favorite LA bands, debuted there.
FOLK AND BLUES
Were the bricks and mortar of the Ash Grove, but Pearl’s eclecticism led him to also book relevant jazz and rock performers like Chuck Berry, Oscar Brown Jr., Jackson Browne. He also presented cutting edge comedy, often politically tinged, like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and the Firesign Theatre, Dr. Demento and San Pedro’s Charles Bukowski and other poets.
There’s another local (SM) person connected to the Ash Grove that I am saving for next week. You’ll never guess.
Charles Andrews has listened to a lot of music of all kinds, including more than 3,000 live shows. He has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org