I sank into the plush soft leather seat and snapped on my seat belt. My surroundings were the inside of the private jet owned by WEA (Warner Music Group, at the time known as Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) We were flying west from New York to Los Angeles. The flight was full, all twelve seats occupied. The other passengers were music business executives and rock stars. I was (maybe) a junior executive, an assistant A&R man for Elektra Records. My boss was Steve Harris, Elektra Records A&R man.
I was heading west to join The New Seekers, a British vocal group formed after the breakup of the original Seekers, doing their first American promotional tour to back up their 1971 single “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” That smash hit later became a Coke ad, as those of us as a certain age might remember. In hindsight, I’d say The New Seekers were possibly the inspiration for ABBA. Who came later and were much more successful. ABBA had better songs. Today was a travel day and I’d meet up with them tomorrow.
We landed at Santa Monica Airport and there were a bunch of limos waiting for us. I was ushered into a limo along with Harry Nilsson. The driver asked where we were going and both of us gave our addresses. Knowing my way around LA, I realized that Harry was going to Beverly Hills, and as luck would have it, on the way to Harry’s house we had to pass within half a mile of my apartment, which was located in West Hollywood on San Vicente Blvd.
I said to the driver, “drop me off first,” and Harry says “no, me first.” I said to Harry, “why not drop me off first; it’s just slightly out of the way.”Again, he said no. I didn’t understand, it didn’t seem to make sense, so I asked, “why?” He looks me in the eye and says, “because I’m Harry Nilsson!” And that was that. We were silent for the rest of the ride.
After Harry was dropped off the limo takes me to my apartment. It is just 500 feet down the hill from the Whisky A Go Go which is located on Sunset Blvd.
That night I walk up the hill to the Whiskey. It’s a music biz event for an A&M Records act, Split Enz. They were touring in support of their new hit “I See Red.” Once in the Whiskey I sit with some A&M record company guys and watch the set. About forty-five minutes into the set this drunk behind me starts talking loudly and making noise. I try to ignore him, but he gets louder. Finally, I turn around to shush him and to my surprise, it is Joe Cocker. A very drunk Joe Cocker. He is smiling and trying to stand up and do a toast or something to the boys on stage. Finally, someone next to him quiets him down.
I should mention that Split Enz is a New Zealand rock band fronted by the Finn brothers, Neil, and Tim. Their biggest hit was “I Got You.” A few years later Neil started Crowded House, which Tim later joined; they also had a mega-hit with “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” (Recently Neil joined Fleetwood Mac, replacing the departing Lindsey Buckingham.)
After the set, we all went upstairs to the dressing rooms. There were about forty people milling around and partying. The group included Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, a very pregnant Donna Summer, Bette Midler, and The Exorcist actress Linda Blair. The Finn brothers and band, some of The New Seekers, but no Joe Cocker. I guess Joe couldn’t navigate it up the stairs.
I walk up to Harry and John and say hello. Harry looks at me and says, “you get home OK?” Before I can answer he turns away from me towards John. (Years later I ran into Harry while he was recording Nilsson Schmilsson and he greeted me like an old friend and invited me into the control room to watch and listen to some of that day’s recording session.)
I walk over to a group standing with Linda Blair. I mention that I understood she came from Connecticut. “Yes, she said, but now I live here in LA.” We chatted for a few minutes, and then I asked her, “how did they spin your head around in The Exorcist? That was amazing!” She looked at me as if I was the stupidest person in the world and hissed at me, “that was a puppet!” Red-faced, I turned away from the group. Truth be known I never did see the movie, but I saw that scene a few times and took it at face value.
Not to be discouraged I walked over to the Finn brothers and Bette Midler. I knew the Finn boys, but not Bette. This time I listened more than I talked. They were telling music biz stories and it was interesting. After a few minutes, Nathan, (Split Enz’s manager) walked over to us. He was looking very annoyed and told the boys that he wanted a band meeting, Now!
That left Bette and me standing there, and she said to me, “Oh God, I remember those kinds of meetings.” I knew what she meant. I had read about her first manager and how he yelled and bullied her, basically intimidating her and trying to control her. She was signed to him for a few years till she found lawyers that were able to work out a settlement and break the management contract. “I hear you,” I replied as I knew Nathen was a mean-tempered controlling son of a gun. Bette was fun, unassuming, and very real with no drama. I instantly liked her; I think everyone did.
About forty minutes later the band (Split Enz) came out of the meeting looking a bit drained. Nathan was pissed off that the Finns had changed the setlist and added a new song without checking with him. But even before Split Enz, the brothers had made an impact on the music scene in Australia, having moved there from New Zealand in the mid-1970s. They were successful, eventually becoming one of the biggest groups in Australia. They knew what they wanted to do and had good instincts. Nathan was also Australian and felt easily threatened; he wanted total control of the band’s activities. His alliance with management company Champion Entertainment, run by music biz heavyweight Tommy Mottola gave him influence with the band and that connection helped in getting Split Enz a label deal and their first tour. However, as their careers flourished, especially in the States, Nathan’s grip on them loosened. (Tommy managed Hall and Oates at the time, among others; this is before he became the CEO of Sony Music and married Mariah Carey.)
The next morning, I had to fly to New Orleans with The New Seekers, and Split Enz had to fly up to Seattle. We were all leaving around the same time so Neil asked if I could shepherd both bands to LAX the next day. Sounded like a plan so I had another drink, said good night to everyone and walked down the hill to my apartment.
The morning after, I gathered up The New Seekers and Split Enz, got them checked out of the Continental Hyatt House (known as the Riot House because all the big touring rock bands stayed there and acted like Big Touring Rock Bands; it was a truly wild scene). I loaded them into their cars with me taking the lead car with Neil, Tim, Lyn, and Eve (The New Seekers girls).
We were driving south on Robertson toward the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10 West) when I had stopped at the light at the freeway entrance. I’m looking over my seat speaking with Lyn when I was startled by a pounding on the hood of the car. I face front and it is Bette! She is standing right in the middle of the road. She’s dressed really casual in a peasant blouse and jeans. Her car is stopped at the light alongside us and her driver’s side door wide open. She is smiling and bobbing up and down while pounding on the hood of our car (you cannot make this stuff up). Never mind that she’s stopped her car in the middle of the road with cars all around us. What an amazing coincidence. The traffic light changes to green and Bette jumps back into her car, waves at us again, and drives south on Robertson to go do whatever she was in the middle of doing, while we turn on to I-10W heading for the airport and another rock and roll adventure.
Header image of Los Angeles courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Pintaric.