Monday, August 30, 2010

Get there fast, take it slow

"Surrounded by tall, thick pine trees and cherry blossoms, with rose-covered rail fences and a cool mountain pool overgrown with flowers, it snuggled up against the hillside.”

That’s Candice Bergen describing her former home. She recalls stone fireplaces, beamed ceilings and a hayloft, but doesn't mention the path to the guest home, or how the pool (just outside the master bedroom) threw light onto the faces of the residents. Or an old picture of Lillian Gish sitting on the wishing well. Or a white Nash Rambler in the driveway. Or a rope that hung from one of the ceiling beams.

Susan Atkins described the sound: “It was so quiet, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.” That eerie stillness of the late hours of Friday, August 8, 1969, evoked by Joni Mitchell: “I heard it in the wind last night, it sounded like applause / chilly now, end of summer / no more shiny hot nights.”

The Mamas and the Papas sang, “Safe in my garden, an ancient flower blooms / And the scent from its nature slowly squares my room.” Linda Kasabian wore Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass perfume, a scent that might waft through an open door.

There was a sudden run on shotguns, guard dogs and alarm systems in Los Angeles that August. Roman Polanski, suspicious after finding a machete in John Phillips’ trunk, held a cleaver to Phillips’ neck one night on a Malibu Colony beachfront. Stephen Stills, heavily armed, and David Crosby knocked on doors, shouting, “They’re killing everyone with estates!”

In early 1974, Neil Young had to talk a nervous Crosby into playing rhythm guitar on “Revolution Blues,” a wild-eyed rant from Manson’s perspective. Across town, Terry Melcher was preparing his first album under his own name. The son of Doris Day, lover of Candice Bergen, pal of Dennis Wilson, and a staff producer at Columbia Records, Melcher had been the owner of 10050 Cielo Drive. He had needed a tranquilizer before testifying at the Manson trial. "Manson sat there smiling at me through the whole thing. The three girls too. One of them had her skirt up, doing a little leg thing under the table."

That night, he booked studio time and recorded "Halls of Justice."

It seemed like a simple audition
there were just a few songs getting sung
and i had no way of knowing then
it was me about to get hung
now it seemed like another audition
people singing songs of peace
and brotherly love
I just can't imagine what
they must have been thinking
I never dreamed what they were thinking of
now I'm walking round those halls of justice
I keep looking for some old place to hide
I'm going through those halls of justice
that whole trip's got me so high
I just know I got to get off of this ride

"Manson had been trying to get in touch with me to play me some more music," he told Rolling Stone in 1974. "He found out where I lived in Malibu. So he went to my house but I wasn't home. He took a telescope off the sun deck to show it to my friend Jakobsen so Gregg would give him my number. Manson knew where I lived. He knew I didn't live in Bel Air. Gregg didn't bother to tell me that until almost a year later. The police didn't bother to tell me that. For nine months they had me thinking those people got killed because I couldn't be found. My guilt was monumental. I felt, 'Why couldn't it have been me? How much easier it would have been.'

Terry Melcher was a changed man. He was constantly in therapy. He hired bodyguards. He slept with a double-barreled shotgun in his bed. He began recording songs, but a 1972 motorcycle crash broke two legs and sent him further into hiding. It was two more years before the album was finished.

On the front cover Melcher wears a white suit over a white turtleneck and sports a handlebar mustache. On the back cover he poses with his new bride. Set to carefully polished country-rock (the contrite hedonist’s music of choice), the songs satirize L.A.’s affairs with psychoanalysis, yoga and vegetarianism while celebrating Beverly Hills lassitude (“Dinner and some drinks at the Luau / Sunday brunch at Nate & Al’s / Roll on by the Daisy / Watch old Eddie take some bows”). It all seems like a joke, if you're not listening carefully.

The question that opens the album—“Where were you last Friday night?"—had been posed to Squeaky Fromme, four years earlier. (Her response? “There’s no such thing as time.”) Covering Bob Dylan's "4th Time Around," Melcher's emphasis on the words “Everybody must give back for something they get” is a regretful corrective to “Safe in My Garden"; the words he chooses to omit are “She screamed ‘til her face got so red / Then she fell on the floor.” His version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” hints at the struggles from which Melcher was emerging—his voice fighting to shake off years of enervating privilege and medicated torpor. The barking dogs and begging for mercy in “Stagger Lee” take on new meaning, and—can this be?—it sounds like he’s yelling “shoulda taken me” on the fadeout.

Terry Melcher sold disappointingly; sole follow-up Royal Flush even worse. He and his wife filed for divorce in 1975, reconciled, filed again in 1976, reconciled, and finally finalized their split in 1977. He gave up on a solo career, and focused on producing and collaborating. He tried to lure Brian Wilson back into the studio; when that failed, he recorded a single with Dean Paul Martin, Tony Martin Jr., and Desi Arnaz Jr., under the name "Beverly Hills Blues Band." Later, Melcher ran the Cypress Inn with his mother, quietly worked on advertising campaigns, and raised money for the Doris Day Animal Foundation. In 1988 he co-wrote (with, among others, John Phillips) the Beach Boys’ hit “Kokomo,” which battled the Manson connection for space in his obituary headlines. Of course, the cognoscenti were disgusted that “Kokomo”—sung by Mike Love, no less!—should stand as a capping achievement. But after all this, who can begrudge Terry Melcher his wish to “get away from it all”?


Blogger Matthew said...


sorry to be a moochy drag, but I am recent Aquarium Drunkard adcit, (I love all these Terry Melcher snaps by the way, excited to read your blog) I am just trying to get a download of the LA Burnout Comps you posted. I can swap for a DVD of Play it As it Lays with Tuesday Weld, which is the ultimate LA burnout film. It's a pretty clean dub off TV with no commercials. A minor masterpiece, and it's yours for directing me to my copy of LA Burnout Pt 1 & 2.

Matt Chesse

4:06 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Behenna said...

If there is one piece of music I'll protect from fire,theft,vandalism, or acts of god it's part one of this time machine. Countless nights and strange days I've spent listening to it. It's a crown jewel. Bravo. Searching high and low for the second installment. Gratefully yours, Jonathan Behenna.

6:37 PM  

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