Elton John made his dazzling American debut there. Lenny Bruce was arrested there. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young made their first Los Angeles appearances there. Glenn Frey and Don Henley met there. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” had its genesis there. Janis Joplin is said to have partied there the night before her death. Yes, it all happened at the Troubadour, the West Hollywood club that opened its doors in 1957. That was then. Now, the club is just another small business threatened by COVID-19. “This would be a tragedy for the music in general and for Los Angeles in particular,” producer-manager Peter Asher said.
And the Troubadour is not the only privately owned music club in danger. More than 1,600 local outlets that have been temporarily shuttered have formed a new group, the National Independent Venue Association, to request special help from the federal government. Encumbered with rental fees, staff salaries and insurance payments, many clubs face a bleak future since they can’t join restaurants and other businesses in partially reopening. “We are gathering places, where people want to sit shoulder to shoulder,” NIVA spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer said. “We are the first to close and the last to open.”
In the case of the Troubadour, a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $70,000 before it was disabled. “It’s been amazing the response we have gotten,” general manager Christine Karayan said. While she has said that going into another year seems unsustainable, she has clearly learned the NIVA mantra. “The one thing I really want to say, other than THANK YOU, is reach out to your local/state/federal reps and ask them to help modify small business loans and the Payroll Protection Program, and to offer tax relief, mortgage and rent forbearance, and guidance on how to reopen safely when the time comes.”
Many are rooting for the Troubadour to pull through the crisis, especially boomers who grew up going to the club almost weekly. “The Troubadour was a temple where legends were christened and royalty gathered in the bar,” said Tim Sexton, a longtime music business executive. “It was, to my ’70s generation in music, what the old Yankee Stadium was to baseball fans.”
Danny Goldberg, who represented many artists who performed at the Troubadour, most recently Steve Earle, has fond memories of the venue. “The last time I was there, I sat in the small balcony with Courtney Love on one side and Billy Gibbons on the other,” Goldberg said. “The club was distinguished in both the taste, and the music business savvy of (original owner) Doug Weston, and its prime location next door to Dan Tana’s.” That old-fashioned Italian restaurant was pretty much part of the life of every musician — and customer. (And where Glenn Frey and Don Henley penned “Lyin‘ Eyes.”)
Asher represented James Taylor, whom he surprised during a gig by bringing songwriter Carole King on stage… to introduce a song she’d just written called “You’ve Got a Friend.” He later produced the audio for a PBS special with the two of them from the club. Asher was also a friend of a then-unknown 23-year-old named Elton John (both are British) but had never seen him perform live. So he stopped by the Troubadour in August 1970. “It was one of those nights when no one knew Elton’s name before, and everyone knew it after,” Asher recalled. (The star’s first Troubadour gigs were re-created in last year’s “Rocketman.”)
In 1971, Michele Willens had gone to the Troubadour to see Don McLean and was so moved by the experience that she called her friend Lori Lieberman, who had just signed a management and artist’s contract with songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. Willens insisted that Lieberman join her the following night, when McLean was performing again. When McLean started singing “Empty Chairs,” Lieberman took out a pen and started scribbling words on a napkin. (“He’s singing like he knows me! … Like he read my diary.”)
The next morning, she read her scribbled words to her songwriting team, who turned them into a final cut for her 1972 album (produced by Gimbel and Fox). Yes, a little ditty called “Killing Me Softly With His Song” — that became a huge hit for Roberta Flack in 1973. There have been fights over the years about songwriting credit, but Don McLean gives Lieberman full credit for that starry, starry night. “Without her sensitivity and artistry, it would have been just another night at the Troubadour,” McLean said.
The road ahead looks questionable for all small musical venues. “90% will not be able to reopen if this goes beyond six months,” Schaefer said. “Right now, artists are livestreaming, but they want to get back on the road.” Surely the music industry, with all its wealth, will come to the Troubadour’s rescue. We can’t stand by to see Don McLean’s most famous lyrics ring true: another day when “the music died.”