Everybody at Monday's tribute to Elmer Valentine, the co-founder of the Whisky a Go Go who died in December at age 85, had a story about a favorite moment they'd spent in the venerable West Hollywood club.
Mine stems from Elvis Costello's first L.A. appearance at the club, back in November 1977. I'd spent five weeks the previous summer traveling through the U.K. during the height of the British punk explosion. The Sex Pistols were touring under a string of assumed names because they'd been banned just about everywhere they turned up.
I caught Generation X, fronted by an impossibly young Billy Idol, at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which was my introduction to the phenomenon of pogo dancing. One artist everyone was talking about that summer was Costello. I brought back his debut album, My Aim Is True, which had recently been released there.
I was writing for Cash Box magazine at the time, a low-budget music industry trade publication and a competitor of Billboard. I started touting Costello's music before he landed his U.S. record deal with Columbia.
As a result of those early notices, when he did sign with Columbia, I was promised an interview once he got into town. But the day of the Whisky show, label publicists said his management had pulled the plug on all interviews. Fair enough, I thought.
That night, Costello and the Attractions were positively incendiary, and I was prepared to file out with everyone else when it was over. Until I saw L.A. Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn heading up the Whisky's stairs to the dressing room behind Costello and the band. I was brazen enough to conclude that if Hilburn was going to get an interview, so would I.
I made a beeline to the stairway, where Costello's manager, Stiff Records founder Jake Riviera, was standing guard, and not looking remotely welcoming to visitors.
Cash Box didn't remotely have the clout of The Times, but I felt a bit of pride in what I might have done to put his name in front of the magazine's music-industry readership. I explained all that to Riviera, and how I'd been working for several weeks to nail down the interview, only to have it yanked at the last minute.
He said Costello was feeling wary of the press at the time, and didn't want to talk on the record. Then he said that he'd let me go up for a quick chat, but that it would be off the record. "If you publish anything about it," he said, without a drop of sarcasm, 'I'll come back and kick you in the ….'" Well, let's just say he chose a location no self-respecting rock critic would want to be kicked, and it wasn't Pacoima.
I had only a few words with Costello — the scene backstage was predictably chaotic. But his wit, intelligence and volatility were instantly apparent. It didn't turn into a story at the time, but it made for one indelible night in the life of an aspiring young music writer.