Creation Stories: Riots, Raves and Running A Label - Alan McGee (2013)
Chapter 21. LOS ANGELES
I started escaping the English winters by going to Los Angeles every year for a few months. I went out there to mix the Dirty Pretty Things album with Dave Sardy in November 2005, and immediately remembered how much I loved the place. Maybe it’s because I’m Scottish. The climate is the exact opposite to Glasgow, clear, bright and hot every single day. You could live a lifetime in Glasgow without seeing the sun you see in a month in Hollywood. I decided I’d stay there for the rest of the winter and was there - apart from some trips home to see the family - until April 2006. I did it every year for the next three years. Perhaps that was my midlife crisis.
I’d always go on my own and stay at the Standard on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. I’d been flying to Los Angeles for years by now and I had loads of pals out there. It was great not having to face the winter. The English pound was really high and it made it quite affordable.
Charlie was young enough so she didn’t really mind me being away. One day, though, I was about to go out there again when she was seven and she grabbed my arm and said, Don’t go. She was still young enough then that she would crawl into bed sometimes. You’d wake up and there she’d be, looking at you, Hello.
I don’t want to miss her growing up. I like being there to say hello when she gets in from school, watching how she grows up. My whole life until Charlie was very indulgent - I just pleased myself. I used to think, if you’re not pleasing yourself, then you’re doing something wrong. I still do. But the best way to please yourself is by taking care of those you love.
On another rainy day in the valleys, I remember those Californian summers. There was a girl I was friends with called Nellie Kim, a stylist who used to go out with one of the Thrills. She phoned me up one evening before I was flying home and we arranged to go for dinner at Toi, a Thai restaurant on Sunset, where a lot of rock and rollers hang out.
She picked me up and while she was driving me there, she told me her friends wanted to meet me and could we go to theirs instead and get take-out? She mentioned the names of her friends, which I didn’t recognize, and said they were in a band. I went along with it, fairly reluctantly, I must admit - the last thing I wanted to do was talk to some talentless band. She took me to a house with a studio in it and I was introduced to a guy called Joaquin and a guy called Antony Langdon. This guy Antony said he used to be in a band called Spacehog and he’d met me before when they supported Oasis. So we shook hands. I didn’t really remember him but I went along with it.
The other guy, Joaquin, fancied himself as a musician. He played me seventeen songs. They were rubbish. Bombastic. They sounded like Pearl Jam. I took every single song apart. When I take a song apart, I fucking take it apart. Marks out of ten: fucking zero, that sort of thing. Halfway through the tenth song in a row I’d demolished, Joaquin was banging his feet on the floor, not with anger but with delight.
He was loving the way I was slaughtering his songs.
There was the hint of some decent songs under the production so I started to give him advice. I was like, You take the drums off, you take all the electric guitars off and replace them with acoustics, you redo the vocals, maybe put some shaker on it … I was telling him this when Kirsten Dunst came in and kissed this guy. I don’t go to the movies and I don’t watch TV but even I knew who Kirsten Dunst was. So I presumed the guy with the weird name was her boyfriend, or someone in her management.
By this time, the lad Joaquin had realized I really didn’t know who he was. He’d thought I’d only been pretending not to know him at first, that it was my way of taking the piss out of him. He gave me his full name when I was leaving, Joaquin Phoenix, and I thought it must be something to do with River Phoenix, like maybe he’s his brother?
Too many people were paying homage to the guy, he must be someone.
I was planning to google him when I got back to the Standard but before I arrived back I spotted his face on a massive billboard with his name in huge letters. He was currently starring in Walk the Line as Johnny Cash. I was the only person in Hollywood who didn’t know who he was.
A week later, when I got back to London, I got a call from his friend Antony. He was in a diner with Joaquin beside him. This is winter, early 2006. ‘We want you to produce the record.’
We made about three records, just as friends. Bits and pieces came out as Antony’s solo record Victoria, but nothing under Joaquin’s name.
We took it seriously though. I’d hum a melody and then we’d spend a day working out something around that.
Joaquin was completely wild. Carl Barât was in town one night and we were recording his second Dirty Pretty Things album with Nick Leman. Carl didn’t believe that I knew Joaquin Phoenix and was winding me up. Go and get him then, he kept challenging me. So I rang up Joaquin and told him we were coming over. He was like, Great, bring them up. We ended up having the most bizarre night. It ended up in a big competition between Carl and Joaquin trying to prove to each other who was the crazier. Joaquin kept kung fu kicking Carl’s guitar. But he was so hyped up he didn’t realize he was actually kicking his own guitar. That was Joaquin being friendly. It’s a good job it wasn’t Carl’s guitar because Carl’s actually a really hard guy.
All the way through this I was sitting quietly and drinking Diet Coke in the corner of the room. Joaquin started pointing at my drink, going, ‘You’re fucking crazy! You’re the most insane person in the room!’
I thought that was a bit fucking much. I’m crazy? Compared to him and Carl, I’m crazy? I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Either way, I’m glad I met Joaquin and Antony. They were great friends, great fun, and they made LA for me.
I remember a party Joaquin threw on Independence Day 2007 in his house at the top of Mulholland. The party was in the garden. Me and my friend Belowsky were chipping a football over the dinner table where all the celebrities were eating. Chipping it just over their heads. We could both vaguely play football and could just about get away with not belting them in the face with it. They didn’t know this at the table though. So we’re winding them up, just for fun.
This Scottish woman piped up, ‘Are you that Alan McGee?’
I’m thinking, Oh fuck, it’s a Scots woman. ‘I am that Alan McGee.’
‘I’m Angela McCluskey.’ She’s a singer. I know who she is. She’s mates with Courtney Love. So I had to stop playing football and sit down and talk to her.
There was an American woman at the table across from us, sitting in the shadow of a tree. When she realized I was involved in the music industry, she started firing questions at me, about digital royalties and Apple and what I think is a fair reward for musicians in the MP3 era. Very intense, knowledgeable questions.
So, I asked her, ‘Are you in the business?’
She thought for a second and said, ‘Yes, I am, my dad was Elvis.’
So that was how I met Lisa Marie Presley. We got along really well - she and her husband Michael, a musican, are lovely - and she invited me to her birthday party. I thought it would be massive, but there was just me, her agent, her husband, her mum Priscilla Presley, her mum’s boyfriend and her kids. They’d hired this huge place which seemed really empty. Then we were taken in a horse and carriage to see a band who one minute were Led Zeppelin and the next Gram Parsons. They could play ‘Kashmir’ and then ‘Love Hurts’. Mental cover versions, absolutely bang on. There were eleven of us in a space for 400. Her son from her first marriage is a model. He turned around to face me and - shit! - it was Elvis. From the profile it wasn’t obvious, but when he faced me, it was like looking at the man himself.
Lisa Marie was friends with Courtney Love too, who seemed to keep popping up in my life. It’s been suggested to me on a number of occasions that I should sign Courtney Love. She called me out of the blue one summer in 2000. I’d met her only briefly when Teenage Fanclub were touring America.
‘Hey Alan, it’s Courtney.’
‘Courtney Love. Can we meet up?’
I was enjoying a quiet afternoon and immediately thought, How do I get out of this one? So I suggested we meet somewhere I thought she’d never find, Bill and Bill’s record shop, just off Portobello Road. See you in fifteen minutes, Courtney.
I got there, ready to wait ten minutes and disappear, and of course she walked straight in.
We ended up spending the whole day together. We went to a pub in St John’s Wood and when we walked in the entire place was silenced. Everyone’s jaw dropped. She’s a big celebrity of course, but it’s more than that; people just look at her and they’re struck by the force of her personality.
After a while the people in the pub began to get used to her. We were eating dinner when she suddenly said, ‘Alan, I need to go outside and do some exercise.’
So then the whole pub watched as she went outside - you could see her straight through the window - and started kicking her leg up over her shoulder, doing gymnastics in high heels.
She called me up later and asked me to go to a West End play with her that Woody Harrelson was starring in. Okay, I said, and picked her up. As soon as the play started she fell straight asleep and began snoring, and she kept it up until the moment the applause began, when she leapt up and started cheering like mad. People had been turning round all the way through the performance, ready to wake her up, but no one had dared when they realized it was Courtney Love.
She’s been to stay at my house in Wales. She’s a keen horse rider, like Kate. You can ride out of my place for miles into the countryside. She lost a £40,000 bracelet when she fell off her horse up there and asked me to send out a search party. There’s no way we would have found it. For all I know, there’s still a £40,000 bracelet up the hill.
Courtney’s such a force of nature but the nicest times I’ve had with her have been when she’s been behaving normally. I bumped into her in the Standard, my favourite hotel in LA, just after she’d been sectioned and released. She was calm and fun to talk to, and she was broke. Being broke was good for her. She did a deal shortly after that which made her $50 million and started behaving erratically again.
I think it was in the Standard that she introduced me to Paris Hilton. I was wearing a new hat that my friend Héctor Mijangos had bought me as a present. ‘Hot hat,’ she said. ‘Hector,’ I said to him later that night, ‘the hat stays.’
I was watching TV with her once. Courtney was watching her favourite programme, The Suze Orman Show. Suze Orman is really big in America. She specializes in giving tips to black single mums with three kids on how to make ends meet. All of a sudden, Courtney said, ‘That fucking bitch.’
‘What’s she done?’ I asked.
‘She took three weeks to get back to me.’
I was thinking, Why do you need tips on how to survive ghetto poverty? ‘What did you ask her?’
‘I wanted to know what I should do with ten million dollars,’ she said. She wasn’t joking at all.
‘And what did she tell you?’ I asked.
‘Buy a big house and invest four million in stocks and shares.’ The woman was meant to be saving impoverished kids and Courtney thinks she should be looking after her. Hollywood, what a place.
But I do respect Courtney. She’s had a hard life. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a young woman with a one-year-old daughter and have your husband kill himself? The media obviously can’t, the way they write about her. They like to blame her for Cobain’s death - total bullshit. And then they make out that she didn’t mourn him. It’s not true. She loved him and she was in bits. She mourned her husband in her own way, immersing herself in touring. The media love to judge other people, but it’s so sanctimonious. No one but Courtney will ever know what she went through, and no one has the right to make their mind up about her who doesn’t know her. I know I really love Courtney. I think maybe that’s because, like me, she’s a square peg in a round hole.
It was in those days that I also met the last of my three greatest heroes and role models from the music industry. I had been lucky enough to be friends with Malcolm McLaren and Tony Wilson, and now I got to meet Andrew Loog Oldham.
I was DJing in Mexico City. Joe Foster knows him and told him I was going to be around in Mexico City for a couple of weeks and invited him over. He lives in Bogotá, Colombia, with the model he married. Andrew flew over and we got on like a house on fire.
We just hung out and it was brilliant. He told me his life story, which was crazy. By the time he was twenty-six he’d done it all. He’d snorted it all, he’d fucked them all, and then he fucked off to Studio 54, met his missus and fucked off to Columbia. He was a kid - they were kids - when he was managing the Rolling Stones. He was only thirty when he was in New York hanging out at Studio 54.
Andrew’s a god. I’m just a guy who worked in the music business and picked some good bands and brought out their records. Andrew put Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room and told them to write songs! He’s a total artist.
The only time I ever missed Charlie’s birthday was in 2007. She’s never let me forget it. It was early September, she was turning seven and I was in Santa Monica, recording drums with Gary Powell of the Libertines for the second Dirty Pretty Things album. We came out, met the producer Nik Leman (who sadly died at Christmas 2012 of an overdose) and we were going towards one of those typical brilliant American restaurants, chicken and chips, portions the size of a table. Then something extraordinary happened, something paranormal - and at the time I was the most unspiritual human being you could come across. (There was certainly no room of interesting spiritual books, like I have now.)
Suddenly, the electrical wire us above started crackling and feeding back, and the street lights started flickering on and off, and we all backed off, worried we might be about to be electrocuted. Then the light went off completely.
It was silent, apart from the noise of crickets. Eerie. Area 51 is only up the road in Nevada. And across the sky, the fastest thing I’ve ever seen in my life traversed from the furthest left point of the horizon to the furthest right. Faster than any plane, much faster. This was going at three or four thousand miles an hour. A ball of light, about 12,000 feet up. It was completely silent. Gary couldn’t see it but Nik and I both did straight away.
That was strange, because Nik and I described it to each other in exactly the same way. The thing we had in common though, me and Nik, was that we had both been drug addicts (or still was in Nik’s case).
Now, I’m not saying it was aliens, more likely American military - some kind of secret weapon. Secret technology. But it couldn’t have been powered by any natural fuel. That was the weird thing, the feedback on the street lights. It was 9 p.m. at night, and dark.
So when I got back to England I went to a party and started telling people. I told Bob Geldof and he started taking the monumental piss. ‘You’ve fucking lost it, McGee! You fucking loony.’ Even Joaquin Phoenix was telling me to get off the acid. And he’s one of the most far-out humans on the planet.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d seen, and reading up on the subject I quickly became obsessed with deep underground military bases. From finding out about this, I was led to Robert Anton Wilson and from there to Aleister Crowley, and then to Austin Osman Spare, and to automatic writing and then to the chaos magicians. It’s a study of reversal of energy. I’ve been studying it for five years. I’m obsessed by it. It’s good fun.
I know my readers now are thinking, This guy is genuinely off his rocker, but I’m willing to risk them thinking that. Geopolitics and metaphysics are very connected. What they call magic one year is science the next year.
Aleister Crowley is one of my heroes. His influence is monumental. He changed society. Who do you think Sergeant Pepper was? That was Aleister Crowley. Crowley died in 1947, Sergeant Pepper came out in 1967. Twenty years ago today, who taught the band to play? The Beatles will never admit it, but he’s on Sergeant Pepper twice. I suspect McCartney’s obsessed by him - he just denies it so people don’t think he’s mad. I’m willing to risk it.
I think it was because I was friends with Courtney Love that the News of the World started to tap my phone. When the phone-tapping scandal broke in 2011 I got a phone call from the police to inform me that there was evidence suggesting someone connected with the News of the World had listened to some of my messages. The funny thing is that anyone who knew me knew I would never listen to my voice messages. They’d just stay there unlistened to and then be automatically wiped after a week. So they’d have got nothing juicy on there at all. It didn’t stop me suing them and settling for an undisclosed sum. That felt good.