#218 – Why Can’t We Be Friends? by War
– Music is never tied to a certain year or era. A good song can cast a wide shadow across generations. Staying within our context of classic rock and pop, songs recorded by Elvis and The Beatles more than half a century ago are still the soundtrack for new fans making new memories in 2016. Since I fully expect this generation to be impacting the world a half century from now, it’s safe to say these songs will still be alive and well – with an excellent chance to live on through their children
Why Can’t We Be Friends? was part of my college soundtrack in 1975. But those are not the first memories that come back when hearing the song today. Instead it takes me 17 years into a future I would have never seen coming as a college student in Ohio. I can’t actually say I heard the song at the end of April in 1992, but there’s a word association with the title that takes me back to when I was living in Los Angeles.
If you were there, you’ll remember.
For me, “Why can’t we be friends?” easily flows into “Can we all get along?” It’s not a stretch to anyone’s imagination that both phrases say the same thing. The first was sung by the band War. The second was a statement made by Rodney King during the LA Riots in April 1992. Each one alone reminds me of the other. And since The Classic Rocker is about music and attached memories, here’s what I have attached to this song…
Subtitle: The LA / Rodney King Riots
In April 1992 I was working at The Improv Comedy Club on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. For another word association, this is a Dream Songs List and I had my Dream Job. Anyone involved in the comedy business knows about Budd Friedman. He started the whole concept of “comedy clubs.” Before opening The Original Improvisation in New York City with then-wife Silver, the only places to see comedians perform live were in theaters or resort hotels (think Catskill Comics). In an earlier era there had been Vaudeville.
Once The Improv got underway in the early 1960s, audiences could go to the small club (about 175 seats) on West 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue for drinks, food and laughs. It was groundbreaking and the concept has been copied countless times around the world since. It’s also where I got my start in the comedy biz as the club manager during the late 1980’s. Thank you Silver!
Budd opened The Hollywood Improv around 1980 and by 1992 I was his assistant. To put it into classic rock terms, it was like being the assistant to one of The Beatles. And to make it even more of a dream job, I was also talent booker for the club. Yeah, I can name some pretty famous comedians I was fortunate to work with, but that’s not what this is all about…
I shared a two bedroom apartment in North Hollywood with my best pal Tim. He was in the rock music biz and I was in comedy, so there was a lot of loud music and laughs involved. We lived in the San Fernando Valley on Morrison Street and the drive to my office at The Improv was via Laurel Canyon Boulevard. I think it was only about eight miles, but with the morning traffic it would take about 45 minutes. My goal was always to get there before Budd, which was around 10 am.
“The Rodney King Riots” started on Wednesday, April 29, 1992. Without going too far into a history lesson, King had been brutally beaten by four LA police officers for resisting arrest after a high speed chase. King was black and the cops were white. The scene was videotaped by a local resident and was brutal to watch. He was definitely out of line for taking them on a high speed chase to avoid breaking his parole and going back to jail, but didn’t deserve what the cops did to him. The trial became an issue of race and when the white cops were found not guilty, much of the black community exploded with rage. There were fires, looting, beatings and killings.
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I was at The Hollywood Improv that day. As usual, I would take off around 6 pm, grab something to eat and be back at the club that night for the show. I’d leave around 11 pm and head back to North Hollywood. But almost every night, instead of retracing my Laurel Canyon morning drive, I’d take Hollywood Boulevard because I enjoyed the bright lights and people walking around.
Yeah, that’s what happens when you’re a “city guy.”
But this night was different. I had gone to Tower Records earlier and bought a cassette of Paul McCartney’s Venus and Mars album. Since my very used (and very notorious lemon) Mustang Convertible only had a tape deck I needed cassettes if I wanted a good driving soundtrack. But there was something wrong with the tape, so I had to trade it in for one that worked.
Tower Records stayed open all night, so it was no big deal making the exchange after 11 pm. But because it was later and closer to my morning drive route, I skipped the Hollywood Blvd light show and took the faster (no traffic at night) cruise home via Laurel Canyon.
When I walked into our apartment Tim was glued to the television watching live coverage of what was going on in Los Angeles since the Rodney King verdict had been announced. Angry mobs were running through the streets, buildings were on fire and stores were being looted. Much of the focus was on Hollywood Boulevard and included the stores and “lights” I would have passed if I hadn’t gone to Tower Records that night. I especially remember seeing the Fredrick’s Of Hollywood store in flames.
On Thursday morning I wasn’t sure what was going on, but since I hadn’t received a call from anyone at The Improv I assumed it was business as usual. After arriving at 10 am I asked some of the staff if the show would be cancelled that night. Everyone seemed worried (who wouldn’t be?) but the show was still on.
The television and radio reported bad news all morning about violence spreading through different LA neighborhoods. Finally around noon Budd came in my office and said we were canceling our shows through Sunday night. Since we also scheduled for The Improv in Santa Monica, that meant contacting all the comedians we had booked for 14 weekend shows.
This was an era pre-cell phones, so it took a few hours to reach everyone in person. While I was making the calls, Budd and head chef Barry Minniefield nailed wooden boards across the front windows to prevent looters from trashing the place.
* And here’s an interesting note for music fans…
Barry was a contestant on Season 8 of The Voice (Spring 2015). I hadn’t seen him in at least 20 years and almost fell out of my chair when I recognized him singing Me And Mrs. Jones. He picked Adam Levine as his coach and gave new hope to everyone over the age of 50 that they could still be rock (and soul) stars. Thanks Barry!
The rest of the staff had already cleared out while I was working the phones. One dear friend stopped by my office on her way out and warned me to put the top up on my convertible before leaving. She’d heard on the news rioters were shooting at “white people” and I didn’t need to take any chances. Not that a canvas top would stop a bullet, but I’d make sure this “white person” wasn’t a clear target.
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That’s how nuts it was. This especially hits home looking back because our business was making people laugh regardless of color, nationality, sexual preferences or any other discriminatory labels. If you’re not “color blind” you’re in the wrong biz. In fact, you’re in the wrong era.
Except for Budd, I was the last person to leave the club that afternoon. I had talked with all the comedians and walked next door to The Improv showroom and restaurant. Upstairs there was a smaller room (more like a loft) with a pool table and television where the comedians would hang out. Budd was sitting in a chair in front of the television watching live updates. He looked at me and said I should take off – and to be careful. My image of him was like the captain of a ship and can still picture him sitting there. Neither one of us knew what might happen within the next few hours.
Yeah, it was dramatic.
With the top up on my car I headed out of the parking lot on Melrose Avenue and drove toward Laurel Canyon Blvd. Out of my rear view mirrors I could see flames and lots of smoke from areas near downtown Los Angeles.
Tim was already back in the apartment by the time I arrived. We thought it might be safer in The Valley, but sometime in the early evening we saw a live television report showing a liquor store on fire and being looted only about a mile or two away from us. We could smell the smoke from our balcony on the second floor. I called my cousin in San Diego and told her we were on our way.
We steered away from the liquor store area, but had to stick with residential streets longer than usual because police had closed off the nearest freeway entrance. Luckily we didn’t encounter any problems and a few hours later we were in San Diego. We stayed through the weekend.
My usual routine was to talk with Budd every Sunday about the week’s comedian schedule. By that time the California National Guard, the Army and the Marines had gained control. Business would be as usual and we drove back to Los Angeles Sunday night. I remember Army trucks parked along the streets when we got off the freeway.
I also remember watching Rodney King on television and his now-famous quote, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”
Since I work in a business where very talented and funny people can take real life situations and find humor while still delivering a serious message, King’s statement was a source of healing inspiration. There was a benefit show at The Improv that week to raise money for Reginald Denny, a truck driver who had been pulled from the cab of his semi-trailer and beaten by a mob at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. The comedians were brilliant while talking about the riot, but not lessening or making fun of the situation. More than a few borrowed, “Can we all get along?” as a theme for the evening.
I remember Jim Carrey, who was starring on the TV show In Living Color walking on stage with a sign saying “Black Owned,” which is what many black-owned businesses had posted outside their stores to discourage looting. The great George Wallace talked about how awful the riot was, but also joked he got a new television out of it. It was a demonstration of the healing value of humor. Thanks Budd!
Comedians can lighten a dark situation. That’s why they are so important and needed in times like this.
Why Can’t We Be Friends? was running through my mind on the morning of February 9th. It fits into the subliminal category of Dream Songs, but whenever I hear it my thoughts go back to The Rodney King Riots. It was a scary experience and not at all like memories I have from 1975 when the song was released.
War was a soulful, funk R&B band I also associate with life on the streets in the inner cities. And though I lived for many years in both Los Angeles and New York, I really didn’t experience the streets they sang about in songs such as The World Is A Ghetto and Low Rider. The closest I came to it was in 1992, but I had the option of getting out of the way. Too many others didn’t.
Here’s a classic video of Why Can’t We Be Friends? by War.
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