Ages 18- 22 were the best years and the worst years of my life. My mother got cancer and died. I dropped out of college after a year. I squatted for a few months at an aircraft hangar in Pearl Harbor. But I also started getting recognition – and a little bit of money – for my writing, in a hippie rag called Sunbums. My streetwise editor Kathy Hellenbrand became my best friend and mentor, but she and her boyfriend, the tattooist Michael Malone, had a nasty split and she went to California to work at Ed Hardy’s Tattooland in East L.A. Sunbums folded and I went back to being a lonely nobody.
I filled the holding pattern by getting a student loan and going back to the University of Hawaii. I lived in a garage apartment off Waialae Avenue, where my landlords kept close watch on my comings and goings. Darkness On the Edge of Town had just come out and I finally got Springsteen. I’d rush home every day after classes to play it over and over.
I wrote for a sleazy publication called “Hotlines,” which had ads for waterbeds, discos and hair salons, plus articles that were paid for. Like a new pizza place would give them $150 and they’d send me out to write a story about it for $15. I also wrote film and music reviews for no pay. I ended up dating the layout person, Pam Baxter, who was about 10 years older and had great stories of her time living with the photographer Bob Gruen in New York. Pam’s father was a natural gas millionaire in Oklahoma, but he disowned her when she started organizing Vietnam War protests. Pam spent the night at my apartment once and my landlord laid down the rules- no overnight visitors. That wouldn’t be a problem because she left me for an up-and-coming hippie politician named Neil Abercrombie.
About two months later, Pam showed up, unannounced, at my apartment with another guy, who drove a bright yellow Corvette. She introduced him as an old friend she met while active in SDS ten years earlier. They came in and Pam said her friend needed help unloading a few pounds of marijuana that he’d inherited from his brother, who had fled the country. I followed them to a timeshare apartment in Waikiki, where there were marijuana plants hanging upside down to dry. The guy was a rich Canadian who bought the Stingray with cash when he came to Hawaii a week earlier. We spent hours snipping the buds and he sent me off with two grocery bags of pot. I took the weed around to friends who smoked, but on close examination the buds looked bug-eaten and the high was kinda jittery. I couldn’t move it so I brought the bags back, along with about $200 I got from sailors who were lined up at a payphone in Pearl Harbor. The Canadian weighed the weed and said it was a pound light, maybe two, I can’t remember. Me and my friends had smoked, at the most, half an ounce. I figured that the buds were damp and weighed more when I got them. But the Canadian, who’d been so nice, was suddenly yelling about where’s his fucking money!?
Pam walked me to my car and said she’d lied, this wasn’t an old friend, she’d just met him. He was in the Canadian mob and had just got out of the joint. “Did you see those scars on his arm,” she asked. “There are ten of them- one for each year in prison.” She said I had to come up with at least a couple hundred dollars or he was going to hurt me.
Kathy had sent me a copy of the DEVO single “Satisfaction” and raved about the Hollywood punk scene, so when the last installment of my student loan- $200- came a few days after I became indebted to the mobster I bought a one-way ticket to L.A. Kathy was delighted to have me stay with her in Pico Rivera, which was a two-hour bus ride to Hollywood, so the music scene I mainly immersed myself in was the lounge of the Rodeway Inn across the street. I ate all my meals at the Del Taco.
My goal was to be the hot, young music critic in L.A., so I was deflated when I got the L.A. Reader and saw how far I had left to go. It was a review of a Patti Smith record by Chris Morris that was so much more insightful than mine would have been. Shit, every writer in L.A. was better than me. But I did get a few assignments, most with L.A. Music Connection, and was able to get into the clubs for free. I interviewed the Ramones, in town for Rock N’ Roll High School, at the Tropicana Motel for two hours (they had nothing else to do). I hung out with my guitar hero Rory Gallagher on my 23rd birthday. But I was lost 95% of the time. I worked at a Winchell’s Donuts in La Mirada (the only time I ever worked in the service industry) and had to walk the four miles home if I missed the last bus.
One night at the Starwood, where I loved the power pop bands like 20/20 and the Knack, I was approached by a woman named Kittra, who saw me scribbling notes. She had a tip for me. She said she managed an all-girl group called the Go-Go’s, and they were going to be huge. But I had seen the Go-Go’s about a month earlier, when they opened for the Flyboys at some rented hall, and they were dreadful. The singer looked like a sorority girl dressed as a punk for Halloween and the bassist, with an orange popsicle ‘fro, made Sid Vicious sound like Stanley Clarke. This was about a year and a half before Kathy Valentine joined.
Kittra convinced me the Go-Go’s were much improved with their new guitarist and she got me to go to a rehearsal at the Masque club, which was closed, but bands still rehearsed there. Indeed, Charlotte Caffey made all the difference in the band’s sound. Then came powerhouse drummer Gina Schock and bassist Valentine. But nobody, especially me, could see what they’d become.
I didn’t last long in L.A.- just five months- but I did see Richard Pryor at the Pantages Theater the night before he taped “Live In Concert.” And I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Santa Monica Civic on New Year’s Eve 1978. But I was back on “The Rock” in early 1979. I took what I learned in L.A. and started a fucking brutal fanzine with Rollo called “Honolulu Babylon.”
Back to my short and dangerous career as a pot dealer: I couldn’t withdraw from my classes and still receive the $200, so I took four “F”s and ended my collegiate career, but at least all my bones were unbroken. Going to L.A. was one of the best decisions I’d ever made, even though I was miserable.