Farewell to Sunset Strip’s Legendary Key Club

by Tony Shea on March 9, 2013

in IN PRAISE OF..., MUSIC, OBITUARIES, VIDEO

It was recently announced that the legendary Sunset Strip venue, The Key Club, will close its doors on March 15, 2013. Originally opened as Gazzarri’s in the 1960’s, and renamed The Key Club in 1998, the club played host to some of music’s biggest names through the years including: The Doors, Van Halen, and Guns and Roses.

I consider myself fortunate to have played there half a dozen times during my career as a musician in Los Angeles, fronting the rock n’ country pop n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M). Holding 650 people at capacity, The Key Club had a good sound and video system as well as an interesting design, with a tall stage that could be viewed by the audience from above as well as below.

On a two block stretch of pavement that otherwise includes The Roxy, The Whiskey and The Viper Room, The Key Club was always a fun place to play. But “The Strip’s” glory has been steadily fading over the last ten years as the Los Angeles music scene has moved east into Los Feliz, Silverlake and lately downtown, and the Key Club’s closure must be seen as another downgrade for the once hallowed patch of rock and roll pavement.

I’ve played some solid shows at The Key Club with large revved up crowds, fronting novelty acts like Powder and Steel Panther, as well as a variety of other local showcases, but I think the memory of the place that strikes me the most is the night I played there to an utterly and completely empty room – that is except for guitar and country legend Glen Campbell. He was an audience of one.

You have these moments in Los Angeles sometimes, these weird encounters, when the six degrees of separation are uniquely magnified in a way they can’t be anywhere else, as the famous and the humble collide. This is one of the things I love about Los Angles, you never know what or who you’ll see next. The magic of surprise. That was how I felt the night I played for Glen Campbell.

C4M had won a contest sponsored by an online radio station. The prize was a slot playing The Key Club. It should be noted, perhaps, that we actually came in second in the contest from online audience votes, but the band that really won couldn’t do the gig because the lead singer committed suicide. We became the winners. Hooray! The online radio station told us the good news six hours before show time, which was fine with us. It was a cool gig, there was no “pay to play,” and we didn’t have to feel any pressure to promote the show because there was really nothing we could do by that point. There were five other bands on the bill that night. Maybe there would be a built in audience. Maybe we could pick up a few new fans and sell a few CD’s. At the very least, we could get out of the house, have a few drinks and have some fun.

We showed up at The Key Club at 5:45 pm and unloaded our gear in the stairwell behind the stage. The other five bands were loading up their gear as well. Like always with clubs on “The Strip,” the bands were completely different from one another in terms of style, fan base, and genre. All the clubs on “The Strip” burn and churn, which means they pretty much swap out the crowd after every band.  New band, new crowd – one right after the other, all night long.

One band on the bill was a death metal band, serious beefy dudes with long dyed-black beards and tattoos on their shaved heads, ready to get their agro on, assembling the drummer’s 25 piece kit and tuning up their Ibanez guitars. There was some kind of alt-new wave band cultivating an English Mod sensibility like a 1960’s James Bond movie, unwrapping their keyboards. Two guys in a country band wearing rodeo shirts and holding acoustic guitars were standing beside a girl holding a banjo. Wow. Welcome to Hollywood. Blonde, about six feet tall, just beautiful. Mrs. Country America maybe. When she plucked a few notes on that banjo of hers it practically broke my heart.

I walked outside to the alley. I typically hate being around other bands when I play a show. I make a point of never seeing any of them play, because no matter what happens it’s bad news. If the other bands are lousy, well then they’re lousy. And if they’re good, or worse great, then I can only become morose with envy. I noticed several more bands arriving to unload their gear: a twelve piece ska band with a horn section greasing up tubas and an old school punk band sporting watch chains with their hair done in greased ducktails.

It should be mentioned that I was wearing a tuxedo, a yellow one, the coat anyway. The pants were black and I was wearing custom shoes that were gold and black, along with a yellow and black striped tie. I have five show tuxedos: two standard black, one Humphrey Bogart reverse white, one Cerulean blue, and of course the yellow one, the jacket anyway that I was wearing now. Sometimes  the other guys in C4M wore suits and ties. Sometimes they wore jeans. Our guitar player usually wore sunglasses. One time our bassist wore an African Kente cloth.

What a cross section of American hopes and dreams.  What variety. Several more bands seemed to be arriving. A hip hop-outfit unloading turntables, another metal band, two girls with Cellos. Seemed like a lot of bands.

It was too many bands. Even for the burn and churn, there were four extra bands on the bill, because there had been a mix-up with the scheduler, who had booked his regular Wednesday night, but forgotten about the winners of the online radio-station  (apparently there were several categories of winners) so now there were nine bands milling about, looking for places to stash their gear.

After much discussion between the booker and the reps from the online radio station and the bands, it was decided that we would go on at 7:30 and play for thirty minutes. Great, except for the fact that the club did not even open it’s doors until 8pm, not normally. But they would tonight, which meant that we would be playing a half hour before anybody expected a band to be playing at all.

Well, win some, lose some. One minute your victorious. Chosen. And the next minute you fall. That’s how it was the night I played for Glen Campbell.

We took the stage. Did a short sound check. Testing. Testing. Whacked the drums. Throbbed the bass. Strummed the guitar.

“You’re on,” the soundman said, making a few cursory adjustments on the board, before exiting through the rear door, as the clock on the stage started counting down in large red numbers, 30:00, 29:29, 29:28. Thirty minutes of glory underneath the flickering lights.

The four of us onstage were now the only people in the room. Even the bartenders and waitresses were gone, having gathered downstairs for their pre-shift meeting. And while I had played a variety of shows in my career as a musician that were “lightly attended,” this was the first time that I had ever actually played a room that was empty. You think of all the rehearsals, recording the albums, all the other shows you’ve played, all that time and energy, and here you are on the Sunset Strip at the Key Club playing for the walls. There was something hilarious about it. We won a contest. This is what we won. The four of us on stage were looking at each other and laughing so hard that tears streamed down our checks.

“Hey everybody. We’re Candygram For Mongo and this one’s called “Anything” I said like I usually do, and then we launched into it. Somehow the empty room was actually urging us on, for we had no other choice. We decided to play our very best simply for the honor of it, if not the glory.

Rapid fire, we were tearing through our set list, absolutely blazing. By the end of the half-hour I  had ripped off half my clothes, stripping down to my undershirt which was sopping with sweat. As  we roared into our last song, the anthemic “Story of Triumph,” it happened. I saw Glen Campbell. He was sitting in the balcony by himself, underneath a halo of yellow light, with his legs casually crossed and his hands folded in his lap.

Is that Glen Campbell? I was asking myself.  And If I had been in Bethesda, Maryland or Akron, Ohio or a million other places, I would have said no. But I was in Los Angeles, where these kinds of weird encounters happened all the time.

Yes that was Glen Campbell, all right. Glen Campbell, music legend, friend of Elvis, lover of Tanya Tucker, sitting in the balcony watching me do my show. And then there was the luminous moment of electric thrill as we slammed it down with a big ending and Glen Campbell stared into my eyes, and I into his, as he nodded sagely before raising his hand to his brow, quietly saluting.

glen campbell

The clock on the side of the stage read 0:00.

“Thank you, goodnight!” I called out to Glen Campbell as he rose from his seat and exited the real of the balcony.

Afterwards at the Rainbow Room, another legendary Hollywood hangout that is conveniently located next door to The Key Club, we threw back our beers and congratulated each other on the job well done. Another one for the books. Even if no one had seen it, we felt it. We felt the presence of Glen Campbell, who would walk through the door in another five minutes along with the beautiful banjo player from the country band I had seen earlier. That lucky sonofabitch, I thought. Glen Campbell, still a ladies man. But then we put it together. The banjo player was his daughter – presumably from his last marriage, since she looked about 20 and he was about 70. He was there to see her, which made sense. Of course, as an add-on, he had witnessed the awesome power of C4M.  He had saluted it in fact.

A few minutes later as Glen Campbell was standing against the bar asking for an ice water, I walked over to him and extended my hand, expecting him to brush it aside as he moved in for the hug, since we had just shared a powerful epiphany, him illuminated like God beaming his thought message of complete approval to me on the stage. I imagined he would lead me over to his daughter’s table an introduce me as a great man, and then perhaps she would immediately fall in love with me and then together we would lay around our ten bedroom house, a wedding present from Glen, making babies whom we would teach to play the banjo and sing , before touring the world as a family band.

But then I realized Glen Campbell was not saluting me from the balcony but scratching his eyebrow, as he repeated the gesture now, holding out his hand at attention and rubbing it slightly back and forth across his forehead. He quickly gave my hand a cursory shake and turned away, leaving me with my mouth hanging open, unable to sing or speak a word.

In another week The Key Club will be gone. Another week after that so will Candygram For Mongo upon the release of our third and final album BANG!

bang

Thanks for the memories.

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) candygramformongo.com who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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