Road to Ruin

Tom Cruise takes the mic as Rock of Ages unintentionally documents the swan song of music’s most famous street

Illustration by André Carrilho

The lead singer of a band called Arsenal, Stacee Jaxx is a lout and a narcissist, half seducing and half raping underage girls in the bathroom of the Bourbon Room. Jaxx also may have just enough of the savvy of a floundering movie star—Tom Cruise, say—to glimpse the end of the road, which in this case is the stretch of Sunset Boulevard that runs from Crescent Heights to Doheny Drive. In the late 1980s, the reigning maestros of the Sunset Strip were the likes of Twisted Sister, Guns N’ Roses, and singers with as many xs as their names could hold; of course Jaxx’s name is no more or less real than that of Mötley Crüe’s bassist and songwriter, Nikki Sixx, and belongs to no real person at all but to the conspicuously coiffed character played by Cruise in Rock of Ages. Based on a popular stage musical, Ages celebrates some of the most spectacularly wretched music ever made, by Poison, Whitesnake, and Night Ranger, none of whom recorded a single song that anyone with any sense can remember. The real subject and star of the film, however, is the Strip itself, a sprawling soundstage that’s always been populated by actors who don’t always know they’re in a movie.

For half a century the Sunset Strip was the asphalt time line of American popular music. My most distinct memory, from more years ago than I’ll confess to, is waiting for a table at the Olde World, which occupied a wedge of territory at Sunset and Holloway Drive where the daiquiris became more vicious the longer you sat in the sun. Across the street was the country’s biggest record store, Tower, and the country’s most metaphoric billboard—emblazoned with everybody from the Doors to Angelyne—since Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes overlooked Long Island in The Great Gatsby; when you drove the Strip from west to east into the nether regions of Hollywood, the billboard had the effect of stating YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE FUTURE. At the Olde World I was so mesmerized by a beautiful woman in the line ahead of me that it was several minutes before my gaze drifted to her escort, whom I immediately recognized as Elvis Costello, down to the red shoes the angels wanted to wear; that night Costello, music’s angry young man of the moment, played two blocks up the street at the Whisky a Go Go. Of course my generation thought it invented music on the Sunset Strip, in the way we thought we invented everything, but in fact the Strip became the musical center of the West Coast in the 1930s and ’40s, courtesy of the movies. A fault line opening up on any given Saturday night would have swallowed all of Hollywood, who convened at the Trocadero in one of its several incarnations or at the Mocambo, where Frank Sinatra made his L.A. debut as a solo singer.

Somewhat famously the Mocambo also is the club Marilyn Monroe lobbied to shatter the color barrier. If it would book Ella Fitzgerald, Monroe promised to park herself at the front table every night of the engagement; more African American entertainers followed, like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, and Sammy Davis Jr. This bit of sociological upheaval anticipated what was to come just ten years later when, as I recall, my folks went out for what they presumed would be a night of sophistication only to return stupefied by the hippie invasion and clashes with cops. Ciro’s was the club of the earlier era that made the transition to the new age, with Duke Ellington and Peggy Lee giving way to the Byrds as the author of their biggest hits, Bob Dylan, watched from the crowd. Strip nomads the Doors played Ciro’s as well as the London Fog and Gazzari’s, along with Tina Turner and Sonny & Cher, before becoming the house band at the Whisky, which would inspire Rock of Ages’ Bourbon Room; the Whisky was the local stop for the British Invasion, including the Kinks, Cream, and Led Zep-pelin, and then for the punk revolution instigated by Costello, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and X. Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, frequented by David Bowie and Iggy Pop, was the capital of glam in a city made for it. A block or two away, the Roxy broadcast on the radio one of the most extraordinary live performances in history when Bruce Springsteen played there in 1978. Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and various Beatles drank their way through the night at the Rainbow Bar, and a generation later a younger Hollywood descended on the Viper Room, the spot that was launched by rock star wanna-be Johnny Depp.

The Strip always was the part of Hollywood where the movies ceded dominance to the music, which told its own story in cinematic songs like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the Mamas & the Papas’ “Twelve-Thirty,” and Love’s “Between Clark and Hilldale.” Even when movies or TV tried to lay claim to the Strip, music took over: The first piece of popular culture to call the masses’ attention to the real estate, the late 1950s detective series 77 Sunset Strip survives in the memory for its jazz-rock theme song and the phenomenon of Edd Byrnes as Kookie, a supporting character who parked cars—Elvis as a hepcat valet. Byrnes went on to cut a Top 40 record. With music by L.A. garage protopunks the Standells, 1967’s Riot on Sunset Strip cashed in on the scene’s anarchic energy, equal parts alluring and threatening, and in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, it’s the Strip over which Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison totters on the rooftop of the Chateau Marmont, home to Leonard Cohen, Gram Parsons, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. For the Marmont, which has guarded the Strip’s entrance since Hollywood discovered sound, the boulevard is at once the king’s highway leading to the palace and the moat keeping the rest of us out.

The Strip last mattered sometime around 1987, when Rock of Ages takes place. By then the mattering had nothing to do with music because the music itself had nothing to do with music; rather, it had to do with a zeitgeist that fetishized rock to the point of cliché. Those who ran the Strip, like the club owner in Ages played by Alec Baldwin, were at an apex where everything that the music ever could procure was procured exponentially: the drugs and the girls and a sheer speed that was in love with its own velocity—everything but what once were the inexplicable possibilities the music promised, not to mention the implication of something beyond the moment. Both a cacophony and a disregard for all that had come down the Strip before, on foot or wheels, the music of that time was a white dwarf star (which could have been a band’s name, come to think of it), less light than heat before imploding. For Stacee Jaxx preparing to give his farewell performance—as it was for real-life stars from Morrison to Axl Rose—only oblivion, which is to say jail or exile someplace in the Southern Hemisphere, beckons beyond the Strip, where American music disappears as surely as does America itself, and what’s left is the pure noise of impure dreams.