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“That was our stomping ground,” says Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. “We actually lived literally on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Clark Street, where the Whisky a Go Go is. That will always have a special place in my heart. What a fun scene, man.”
It may be some years since Tommy Lee and the rest of Mötley Crüe abandoned their lodgings near the Whisky – much, you’d imagine, to the relief of their neighbours – but as he recalled on a recent chat with Rolling Stone, West Hollywood and its clubs played a key role in launching their career, as well as that of myriad other acts over the decades.
Indeed, while Sunset Boulevard itself stretches for miles, it’s when it reaches West Hollywood – a city of just 1.9 square miles, with a population of 39,000 – that it becomes the Sunset Strip, and rock & roll history truly comes to life. It’s there in the booths of the delightfully dingy Rainbow, a second home to Motörhead frontman Lemmy over the years, where you can dine on pizza and pasta and marvel at the memorabilia that lines the club’s walls; it’s in every fibre of the Whisky, a 250-capacity club that’s launched the careers of acts such as the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’Roses and System Of A Down; it’s on the footpath, where plaques pay respect to hometown heroes like Van Halen; and it’s on the wall outside the Rainbow, with its list of some of the rock & roll royalty to have inhabited the Strip over the years: David Bowie, Elvis, Bob Dylan, Rush… erm, Puddle Of Mudd. Guess you can’t win them all.
Nestled in the relatively quiet side street of Alta Loma Road, spitting distance from the Strip, is the Sunset Marquis, where I arrive on a warm Monday morning in late-April. Founded in 1963, it too has a litany of rock & roll stories to tell – Courtney Love was staying there when she learned of Kurt Cobain’s death and, distraught, scrawled poems in lipstick across the door of Room 103; Green Day have been evicted from the hotel three times; in the Nineties, Slash would come off the road and check straight in.
The pool at hotel to the stars, the Sunset Marquis.
On the second night there I run into legendary manager Doc McGhee (Kiss, Bon Jovi) and Vintage Trouble bassist Rick Barrio Dill emerging from the intimate whisky bar, Bar 1200, nestled to the left of the foyer. It was in that bar that Dave Grohl met his wife, Jordyn, many years ago, and where Keith Richards poured shots for guests who assembled following the Northridge earthquake of 1994. It’s also where the bartender on my first night, a former New Yorker called Courtney – who likes it in West Hollywood because she “gets to live my weird vegan life and do yoga” – makes me a Bourbon Smash (Makers Mark, muddled lemon, mint and Simple Syrup) so good that stopping at one would have been rude.
For all the hotel’s rock & roll pedigree – and let’s not forget it also has its own recording studio, NightBird, where acts such as Jay-Z, Slash and more have worked – the Marquis is relaxed and low-key. The foyer is small and its staff friendly, and with only 52 luxury villas (three of which are, at the time of my stay, occupied by Rihanna, Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger and filmmaker Spike Lee) and 100 rooms – mine is light and spacious, with a generous living area – it never feels crowded. It is, in short, the perfect spot from which to base a week in West Hollywood.
On my second night in WeHo (as the locals call it), I walk along the Strip – past famed book store Book Soup (if you watch Entourage you’ll remember it as one of Vince’s many pick-up joints; Guns N’Roses bassist Duff McKagan is doing a book signing in a few weeks), past the hollowed-out shell of the former Tower Records building (which will soon be a Gibson guitars showroom), past the Whisky – up to the Roxy, another of the Strip’s famous clubs. While the Jack Daniel’s-sponsored banners that line the Strip with slogans such as “Frontmen walked these streets in women’s clothing” might be a reminder of times past, tonight the Roxy belongs to Alabama’s Waxahatchee, who’s playing a sold-out show. Just before walking in I spot famed DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, subject of the documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip, and the man responsible for helping break acts such as the Ramones and Blondie, walking out of the venue having caught support act Girlpool.
He’s not the only star I spy in the area – two nights later, as I sit down to a pepperoni pizza in the Rainbow, the first person I see is famed porn star Ron Jeremy, occupying a corner booth. In his tracksuit pants. As I take in the photos above my booth, former Guns N’Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke strolls in with Sons of Anarchy actor Sean McNabb, and sits down at a table just, it so happens, as GN’R roll out over the PA.
During prohibition in the Twenties, the then-lightly-policed Strip was a haven for nightclubs and speakeasies, attracting a colourful array of characters to its bars and clubs. Almost a century on, that hasn’t changed.
When Not Rocking Out in Weho
Do a SoulCycle Class
Several minutes into my 45-minute SoulCycle spin class, my legs hold up a white flag and surrender. But then the pumping R&B starts to pump a bit harder. The dimly-lit room explodes with bright light. And our host, Angela Manuel – who counts amongst her clients Oprah Winfrey – begins to unleash mantras of affirmation and self-belief: “Your thoughts become your words,” she cries. “Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. [Louder] Your habits become your character! Your character becomes your legacy! Your legacy is your destiny! What are you thinking about Wehoooooo!?”
Frankly, I’m thinking about having a heart attack. But soon even I’m swept up in the SoulCycle experience – it’s like taking a spin class in a nightclub led by an athletic motivational speaker. It hurts and it burns, but I’ll be damned if I don’t walk out wondering whether it’s possible to fit in another class before I leave WeHo. No wonder Taylor Swift is a fan.
Also try: A bicycle tour with Bikes and Hikes – a great way to see West Hollywood and neighbouring Beverly Hills.
Eat at The Church Key
I’ve heard of a place in WeHo that does pig’s ear Cheetos. That place is The Church Key, and it’s one of many boutique restaurants that have sprung up along Sunset Boulevard – the area is becoming as famous for its hotels and restaurants as it is its music history. Sadly, on the night I visit the pig’s ears are off the menu – much to the delight of pigs worldwide – but all is not lost: circling the room is a waitress who, with the aid of liquid nitrogen, converts cocktails into Kool Pops. In amongst the “Modern American”-styled food – sample dish: pork belly salad – dim sum carts circle to “fill in the gaps” with delicacies such as sliders and halibut tacos.
Also try: Gracias Madre, which serves vegan, organic Mexican food grown locally.
Visit Now Boarding
Amidst the myriad bars of WeHo is Now Boarding, a vintage cocktail bar with an airline inspired theme. As I take in its Seventies decor I feel like I’m on the set of defunct show Pan Am. The Wheels Up cocktail is a killer – Birddog peach whisky, Aperol, lemon and tangerine – as are the astonishingly good band, a three-piece (double bass, keys and drums) called West Coast Getdown that play a mesmerisingly psychedelic version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”.
Also try: The Den. Unfussy and unpretentious, I walk in to see Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine) doing a karaoke version of “Wonderwall”. As you do.
Rod Yates was a guest of Visit West Hollywood.