The Hollywood Bowl – and the Religion of Rock and Roll

If you’re a die-hard classic rocker from New Jersey, you grew up permeated by the mythology of the west coast’s Hollywood Bowl. You heard Paul McCartney sing about the arena in his Wings song “Rock Show,” you knew about the Beatles infamous performances there in ’64 and ’65, and you owned The Doors’ iconic album “Live from the Hollywood Bowl.” You knew that Jimi and Janis had played there, along with Elton John, the Grateful Dead, and countless others. After all, it was THE venue for a generation of bands to play, situated there in the shadow of the infamous Hollywood sign, mere blocks away from the sidewalk stars of Hollywood Boulevard and the record company offices that transformed these musicians into superheroes.

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While I came to this fabled amphitheater with a solid awareness of its rock and roll lineage, I knew nothing about its architectural history. The location of the Hollywood Bowl was selected in 1919 for its distinguished natural geography and acoustics. It is, in fact, a natural amphitheater. The first performance, a Sunday church service for which wooden benches arranged around a simple stage sufficed, took place in 1922. Improvements began in 1926 and continued into 1927 when Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Lloyd, constructed a makeshift pyramidal stage from wood leftover after a set construction project. A more permanent bandshell was unveiled in 1929, and that structure stood – albeit with many improvements over the years – until 2003. The year 2004 saw the inauguration of the current shell, which combines features of the previous incarnations while preserving its original art deco-style layered concentric circles. The current shell has state-of-the-art acoustics, including individual speaker tuning and time-delay features that allow all 17,000 concert-goers to enjoy the same high quality sound as the fifty folks in the pit hear.

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I finally made the pilgrimage to this musical shrine a few days ago, and I did it to see one of our century’s great guitar gods and songwriters, David Gilmour. While you may not recognize his name, you’ll almost certainly recognize the name of the revolutionary British rock band he played with – Pink Floyd. Incidentally, they shook up the Hollywood Bowl back in 1972.

As I walked up the hill towards the Bowl from the insanely busy Hollywood and Highland intersection, I was swept into a throng of – well, let’s be honest, “men-of-a-certain-age” – wearing black t-shirts and exuding a palpable anticipatory buzz. While waiting for a light to change, I chatted with a couple of guys from Sacramento who, in a sadly misguided attempt to pick me up, taunted me at length for going to the show alone. “Who goes to see Gilmour by themselves?  I mean, why wouldn’t you just buy two tickets and assume that you can find someone to go with? I mean, he’s epic, right? And no one ever goes to these things alone, especially not hot chicks like you,” one remarked. I’m not sure they liked my explanation of not knowing anyone who would appreciate this show at the level of financial commitment it required, so I didn’t even bother with the real answer – this is really all about my relationship with the music; no intermediaries or distractions required. After asking me if I had any mushrooms (I disappointed them yet again), they took off. Back on my own I took long uphill strides past the majestic old ficus trees that guard the parking lots and merged with the pack of people flashing bar coded tickets at the gate.

It was then that I realized that I had landed in the Jazz era. Everything at the Hollywood Bowl is white, beige, and stone gray. The lines of the buildings are distinct and abrupt, and the sign fonts are all classic 1920’s typefaces. The fountain and accompanying sculptures that adorn the venue’s entrance were designed by George Stanley, creator of the thirteen-inch Oscar statuette that epitomizes Hollywood culture. The statues were built in 1940 from graceful light granite quarried in nearby Victorville, CA, and they depict the muses of music, dance, and theater. Their curvy understated lines captivated me, even as the crowds of fans pushed past them (and me) to take selfies in front of the “sold out” marquis sign.

My Great-Gatsby-feeling escalated as I walked over the threshold into the amphitheater space. The arena proper is truly striking – moreso perhaps when seen for the first time while thousands of people gather at sunset for a show whose tickets they’ve been greedily clutching for eight or nine months.

I found my seat in a six-person box and quietly absorbed the assembly of the audience. Quietly, that is, until my next-door neighbors arrived – a couple of guys in their fifties (yes, again, that describes most of the crowd) who had flown in from San Jose for the show. The one sitting next to me had that neo-Sumerian look that seems to be popular with the hard-rocking Middle Earth-loving crowd these days – the six-inch long, four- inch wide wiry beard that stands alone on an otherwise clean-shaven face. He was Gimli-built and barrel-chested, and he repeatedly warned me that he “was really really really excited” and might “lose his shit.” During the show, this excitement manifested itself in his shouting, “You’re a fucking monster!!”, “You’re a freaking alien!”, and “We’re not worthy!” in the general direction of the stage at some point during each and every song. Entertaining and endearing for a while; a bit tiresome towards the end.

Quirky social dynamics aside, the show was truly awe-inspiring. Of the many guitarists I have listened to and followed over the years, Mr. Gilmour is the most tasty and tasteful of the bunch. As my friend Julian has said, “with him, there’s never a wrong note, and there are never too many notes.” Every one of them counts – as do the spaces between. (if you want a taste, try the solo at 4:30 on this video) Each tone is like a little depth charge, lodging in your nervous system to instigate an immediate and potent physical response. Yes, those depth charges are packed with history and memories for most of us as well, doubling their emotional power; but even out of any cultural context, his bending, stretching, and twisting of sound facilitates feeling. Add to this performance the sheer dynamism of 17,000 people simultaneously chanting lyrics – words of substance that they have been consistently listening to, singing, quoting, and even living by since their alienated-teenage-boyhood (or girlhood, in my case) years – and you’ve got something special happening.

To top it off, there were fireworks for the finale, and who among us doesn’t love a side dish of pyrotechnics?

After the show, while my section filed out of a gate and onto a path whose trajectory wound us behind the stage through the tour buses, amp crates, and catering trucks, I suddenly remembered having read that the first real performance in the Hollywood Bowl had been a church service. I’m a card-carrying atheist – as is Mr. Gilmour, I hear. But that doesn’t mean I can’t experience transcendence. It doesn’t stop me from relentlessly searching for meaning, nor from worshiping beauty from the core of my being. It just means that I do so without belief in a prime mover, without the support and structure of organized religion, and without anticipation of an afterlife. I might argue, in fact, that my beliefs make my quest all the more immediate and compelling.

If this is all we’ve got, we’d better plumb the depths, rock hard, and blow the roof off while we can, right?

 

After all, that’s what temples are for.

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4 thoughts on “The Hollywood Bowl – and the Religion of Rock and Roll

  1. this is the most interesting concert review I’ve ever read!

    what are the crazy boxes in the front that look like they have folding chairs in them? they look so cramped & hard to see the stage- did you sit there?

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    1. Yes – there are wooden benches in the way back of the bowl, then the typical folding seats in the middle, and the “boxes” towards the front. Six director’s-style chairs in each box) with the funky wooden shells around the six chairs. It’s set up so you can pull out these little tables, turn the chairs around, and have a little picnic. I didn’t know that the whole scene is set up to make it easy for little groups of friends to have their own little section. A little awkward given that my box held a dad and his son, a high school kid from LA, the Sumerian rocker boys from San Jose, and me…

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