Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hollywood Diaries: The Morgana Welch Interview

Morgana Welch wasn't the girl staring dreamily at the David Cassidy poster on her bedroom wall. Nor was she the girl caught thumbing through Creem magazine in sophomore biology class. Instead, Morgana was the girl who thumbed to the Sunset Strip to hang out with rock's ruling class.

Morgana released her debut book, Hollywood Diaries, in October. Hollywood Diaries is Morgana's actual diary, told in her teenage voice. The story is more organic and genuine when told without the interference of mature reflection. As Morgana recounts her adventures on the Strip, the details emerge as immediate and as relevant as they were in 1973. So honest that one gets the goosebumps of snooping through very private property, Diaries hasn't been edited, erased, or censored.

In the days before the teenage orgy that is MySpace--and there were days before MySpace, kiddies--a diary was a sacred text, a communion between the writer and the soul. You didn't share your diary. You either burned it, read it when nostalgia trips replaced tripping on LSD, or in the case of Morgana, published it when you turned 50.

This is more than just a girl's account of playing catch with the baddest boys of English rock. A strong sense of place and time is fundamental to the story and provides valuable sociological insight into what was the middle period of the Strip's halcyon days.

Generation X didn't get to experience music the way the Boomer generation did. Before the Internet and file sharing, before Walkmans and iPods, there was AM radio. AM radio was a limited playing field that relied on Top 40 programming for its rock stations. The music business was smaller than it is today and the Top 40 was populated only by the biggest, most commercial acts. AM radio didn't play indie music; a band either had an enormous deal or it wasn't worth wasting the airwaves on. It wasn't until FM broadcasting moved away from classical music into prog rock in the mid-seventies that a listener got to hear more than the A side of a single. If you wanted more than that, you had to buy the album.

So limited in number were the bands that did get AM airplay that the release of a new album was a huge event. Disc jockeys would start talking up, say, Sticky Fingers months before its release, teasing the listener with the single and building up anticipation. An album's release was an epochal event followed by both European and American tours. The radio stations also did advance promo for the tours, which were titled with supreme braggadocio. The big touring bands (Led Zepplin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd) could be counted on to sell out enormous arenas. The events were seen as as having tremendous cultural criticality, with local media coverage beginning as soon as the band's private 707 landed at the airport. The term "royalty" wasn't modified by "rock" out of overenthusiasm; you could cut the air with a diamond-dusted razor blade when any of the bands rolled up to the Continental Hyatt flanked by their police escort. As was common practice, the bands were on the lookout for a little female companionship after waggling their sock-stuffed crotches at a coliseum full of screaming fans. With superstars came supergroupies, and the LA scene had the most famous groupies in the world.

Morgana's story begins at Beverly Hills High, an atypical institution of learning in the most atypical city in America.

1) You were on the music scene in the early seventies, when you were still in high school. What drew you to the scene initially and what cultural impressions did you have at first glance? Of course you grew up in LA, but that Hollywood scene appeared to occupy a niche unto itself even within the greater LA conurbation.

The freedom of expression drew me to the music scene and to its culture. There was another universe on the Sunset Strip that was unlike anything I had ever seen. Since I was a kid I was attracted to the "counter culture." I always liked the beatniks, hippies, and the psychedelic culture. Some of it was like a living cartoon, full of color and costume-like clothes, hair and makeup. Hollywood is like an island of avant garde, I was highly attracted to that wide array of style and freedom.

2) Many people considered (and still consider) Hollywood to be a place of no culture, of no morals, a dysfunctional and artificial planet separated from the rest of America by what is perceived as self-indulgence and anti-intellectualism. Did you feel this at the time, or did you consider the rest of America to be out of step?

I didn't feel that way at all about Hollywood then. I still think it is full of culture, any culture you can imagine. I think the dysfunction is more apparent today than it was back then; we have pop psychology to thank for that. Everything is put into little boxes of dysfunction these days. I did feel, and it was true, that the rest of America, except maybe San Francisco and New York City, were years behind in trends back then.

3) The zeitgeist of that era and the music scene was one of reckless abandon; consider the bad-boy notoriety of Zeppelin and of someone like Keith Moon, for instance. Were these just boys being boys and immaturely enjoying the spoils of success or was there some deeper psychological aspect at play? (In other words, do you think the music of that era attracted a certain type of incautious personality? We can contrast this to today's business-like musician, who often seems to be oriented towards self-preservation.) What was it about the seventies that encouraged the type of excess you describe in your book?

I think drug experimentation had a lot to do with certain behaviors and that was a core aspect of the 60s "counter culture." The drug scene was a response to a narrow-minded view that was then prevalent in the world. I think we were looking for more meaning to life than the "American dream." There was a youth rebellion against all the established rules. It was a conflicting time where anti-materialism was in full swing in the younger generation and perhaps this clashed with fame and fortune. I don't think the awareness of drug abuse was as apparent as it became in the 80s. By that time many of us realized we had abused our bodies enough and stopped. The drugs were becoming more dangerous. We may have thought that we were invincible too, I know for a time I did.

The music business was not the same back then. An artist was honored for being unique and perhaps being a bit wild was a novelty. Being a business person was almost a dirty word. Things change. Now we can run our own businesses as technology empowers us in ways that were not available then.

4) What was the reward for negligence? One gets the sense of a lack of regard for consequence. Did you ever get the sense of a limit to recklessness or was it anything goes, even down in flames?

The culture, and people, was very different; things that may seem reckless now were not so much then. I consider hitchhiking very reckless for a young girl, but back then people wanted to help one another and hitching was something many people did. I guess some people were of the down-in-flames mentality. I don't think that is a product of that era though, I think that is human nature. Personally, I don't feel I lived a life that neglected to consider the consequence. For me it was not anything goes. I knew my limits yet stretched them at times. I did find myself in many situations I would not do today, but that could be part of growing up.

5) Did you feel a critical eye looking over your shoulder? I recall the country as being very Republican (what used to be called "uptight"), still trying to hold on to morals of the fifties. The generation gap from the sixties was still very much in evidence. Did you ever feel judged for your choice of lifestyle?

No, I never felt judged in Hollywood. The lifestyle was completely Hollywood. I don't think the "Republican" influence really affected Hollywood. Things that happened there stayed in that little niche. But outside of Southern California, yes, I did notice that we were very different and we were severely judged. I also encountered that with my family; they thought I should be more traditional. If I were ever judged, I really didn't care, I thought the rest of the world was out of step.

6) When we look at pictures of the era, it seems there were a number of fashion influences on the scene--for instance it appears that a Hollywood-type glamour still extant in the sixties was corrupted by early-70s British glam influence and also by the Sunset Strip folk rock. What was your look and how did it evolve?

My influence in fashion was somewhere among all three styles. I love the Janis Joplin look and the glam look as done by Marc Bolan of T Rex. Fashion is a way of art for many of us, a personal expression. I don't think I really had a look. I never had a definitive style, more whimsical I suppose. If anything, I looked like the blonde beach girl, an image that used to bother me because it was so plain. I wanted to be more exotic.

7) Where did you shop? What stores were popular at the time? How creative were you with your personal style?

I shopped at some shops on the Strip - Holly's Harp, Columbine, The Garment District, Linoleum Experience, and then at places like Fred Segal, Judy's, Contempo, Pier One. And of course there were the thrift shops and a great swap meet that used to be on Santa Monica and San Vicente. The thrift stores were gold mines because not many people were into it and there was a plethora of vintage stuff. We used to go out with five dollars and come home with a couple bags of clothes at the thrift shops.

I have always been creative with my style and influenced by the late-eighteenth-century artists like Maxfield Parrish and Mucha, and probably a little Marlene Dietrich too. I loved her men's suit looks. A lot of times I dressed to be comfortable dancing. I liked to wear very short cut-off jeans that were embellished with tons of rhinestones and studs, perhaps a few patches. I mostly wore boots, I have a lust for boots. There was also the vintage me who loved the beaded dresses from the 20s and long satin gowns from the 30s and 40s. You could get them all the time at the swap meets then, but not any more! I would wear boots with those dresses and find vintage jewelry too. And there were the satin and velvet trousers, boas, and glittery tops. Being young and in the rock and roll world left the door wide open for expression. I still like that

8) When dressing up to go out for the evening, what did you take into account (venue? event? band?)?

Dressing was gauged mostly by mood. I didn't usually try to blend in to a certain style. It was always more fun to use surprise as an element in fashion. I think I tried to dress differently or outrageously to attract attention. Sometimes you had to dress up or down depending on a venue and what party might be happening afterward.

9) I have to ask about Sable Starr and Lori Maddox, since for some they were the face of the LA groupie scene. Did you feel any fashion competition from them? Sable in particular dressed cheaply and flamboyantly, all legs and giant platforms. Yet you seemed more casual--did you use your wardrobe as a provocation?

I never felt any fashion competition from them. We were very different people, even though we hung out in the same scene.

I may have been more casual, sometimes, not all the time. Of course we used wardrobe as a way to entice, perhaps all of the time. Clothing is a great tool for that. A first impression happens in the first few seconds. There were many fashion trends that were great for provocation, such as see-through tops. I wore them frequently.

10) Did you ever experiment with different looks, trying on a different image?

A couple time I did experiment, especially with looking more like an average citizen, or with short hair, which I have always hated on me. I was never one though to venture out into totally new looks. I have always been comfortable in the same mode, perhaps refined a bit along the way. I think the 80s really stretched my appearance when I had purple spiked hair and dressed very punk, skulls and crossbones and ripped clothes type of thing. The 80s were a fun time in wild clothes like the 60s.

11) How would you describe the look of the bands you hung out with? Which musician would you say was the best dressed? Who was the vainest about his appearance? Who looked good no matter what debauchery had gone on the night before? Who would you say had no taste?

Long hair, beautiful. Many men wore female tops, I liked that edge. Men had much more fashion sense then I see today. They were more expressive through wardrobe and not afraid to wear frills. Some guys in bands had great vintage stuff, like jackets and shirts. There were a lot of great, one of a kind clothes in those days. I always loved Rod Stewart as a flamboyant one, and Marc Bolan. Looking back I think the early 70s was about jeans and cool shirts...and snakeskin boots. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page always dressed well. I think they all looked great no matter what happened the night before. I really didn't like the dirty hippie look, I'm not mentioning

12) As you met more rock stars, how did they change in your opinion? Did they become more human and perhaps turn into clay idols? Did you change your perspective after seeing them in mundane daily activities?

Many of my ideals about "stars" were shattered after meeting them. Some people turned out to be very rude, or just too full of themselves as stars and that was disappointing when their art created another persona of them. For the most part I found very nice people, I was lucky. I think many public people lead double lives and it is probably no different than any other career, you are one way at work and another way at home. I did know some people who changed when the fame and fortune hit, there was more money to buy drugs. The drug scene and alcohol abuse got to me eventually. I began to notice how some never grew beyond that as the years went by.

13) How much were you influenced by mainstream magazines (Seventeen, Cosmo, Glamour) or were you mainly influenced by the local publications (Star)? How would you differ from a girl from the Valley who never made it to the Strip?

In my time we rebelled against the mainstream. I never looked at the fashion magazines or music magazines. We were creating the fashion by experimenting and expressing ourselves through clothing. There were certain fashion cues we took, but for the most part I think the music scene created the fashion we liked. We were much bolder and more revealing than someone outside the Hollywood scene. We dressed like we were "somebody" and I think that was a huge part of being different. I don't think the rest of LA was as bold as the fashion on the Sunset Strip.

14) Did you feel a sense of privilege, of being part of a strange and wonderful community at a momentous time? There was a lot of wildness and very little self-censorship.

We knew that what was going on was very special. In some ways I did feel privileged at knowing some amazing people. I think it was intense and fun, and like living many lifetimes in a few short years.

15) Do you think the scene at some time became harsh and ugly, and if so, why? Many people feel that a shift occurred in the late sixties, after the Manson murders. Others think that punk rock heralded a move towards a distasteful aesthetic. Still more see those seminal events as expressions of personal freedom. What caused formative change?

By the time the 80s came along things on the Strip were completely different, a new group took over. That is how it goes. There were probably many factors leading to the shift. The wackos were everywhere and you had to have a certain toughness about you to survive. I thought the scene also shifted into a game of who could be more outrageous than the other. Perhaps my generation set the bar for that. But I don't think we acted outrageous to outdo each other, well maybe sometimes in fun. I think in my time it was all new. There was no roadmap so we experimented. By the 80s the experimenting was over. Attitudes were changing, the "Yuppie" era came to be and it was all about "ME." The innocence was lost. And, AIDS certainly changed everything too. The entire lifestyle was wiped out then.

Tomorrow: Morgana on writing, the future, and meeting Led Zeppelin.

Hollywood Diaries can be purchased through Morgana's Web site.

Photo credits: Morgana Welch personal collection


WendyB said...

OMG! I HAVE to read this book but when will I have time? I'm swamped with empresses!

Suzanna Mars said...

WB, I KNEW you'd dig this!

You've need to read it. The diary format makes it amazingly relatable to people of..uh...our generation.

And Morgana is one hip lady!

Imelda Matt said...

Ahh the synchronicity I was reading this post when your comment dropped in! If it’s Harry’s CafĂ© De Wheels your thinking of then a scoop of mash potatoes is in order…but only after several beers!

I’m in need of something new to read and this is right up my alley cat!


Suzanna Mars said...

IM, for God's sake the idea of a pie (and potato with mushy peas) at nearly midnight--let's go for it and the brews too.

But then I'd want a midnight sail around Sydney Harbor and out-of-season roses and probably something to do with sailors...I cannot resist a dock.

susie_bubble said...

I'm picking this up to read on my flight to NYC.... such an indepth interview. The world she describes sounds like a much nicer LA... or am I being too naive?

Suzanna Mars said...

SB, Morgana makes the point that the eighties changed things--more aggressive drugs and AIDS. The vibe had changed. The folk-rock scene that was around the Strip in the late sixties was far mellower, and the scene that Morgana was involved it grew out of that.

riz said...

This reads a little like Joan Didion's 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem." (kinda) well maybe I'm just really not well read in this genre era. I really enjoyed the interview. I am coming to the conclusion that there is a huge problem of historicism between that time and the 'new millenium' - that 40 years is just sort of frought, now as postmodern daily life has taken its hold and we all live fragmented and partial identities. It seems that era was the birth of all of that, when such an existence was exceptional and singular, and not simply the exhausted norm...

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, this is a very valid point.

Morgana and I are both knew a totally different America, on every level. Even though Morgana had the specific experience she describes here, there are similarities with my own experiences.

What changed all of this, besides what Morgana mentions, was the Reagan presidency (this colored how we would work as employees in the future) and then computer technology.

And I'm sure other people will have their own thoughts on this.

Lu said...

Great Interview! All the right questions, all pure and honest answers. I’m close to Morgana’s age, maybe 1-½ years older. I grew up near Galveston Island in Texas. The scene there was comparable to a California scene with hippies and surfers everywhere. I was a surfer myself entering some of the women’s heats and watching all those cute beach hunks as “Who Do You Love” by Quicksilver Messenger Service blared from the Flagship Hotel. Most of the glitz and glam stars and the big bands came to Galveston in the late 30’s and throughout the 40’s in my mom’s and dad’s era. Dad remembers all their names as he was born on the island. Leon Russell frequents this area and I always catch him when he does. My best memories are what were called CYO dances the Catholic Youth Organization put on to raise money for the church. We also had a teen club but everyone seemed to congregate at the CYO location because the 13th Floor Elevators played there, The Moving Sidewalks who immediately became ZZ Top, and the Fever Tree. I still remember some of the band members putting down their instruments on occasion and coming out on the floor and dancing with us! It was a HOOT! Yes, my friends and I were little groupies too from the ages of 12-14 then the guys moved on and made it BIG. Sure wished I had had the sense to take lots of pictures like Morgana did!! I MUST get her book! I think we are all in total agreement that those days are over so I can truly appreciate Morgana’s lifelong work!

Suzanna Mars said...

Lu, thanks so much for stopping by and adding your memories to the mix!

I think this is the first time anyone has described the scene in Texas; you'd only hear about Janis's dreadful experiences there before she blew the joint and came out to SF at the end of the beatnik/North Beach era.