Our Lunch With Irving; the First of a Two-Part Series

Today, Irving Azoff is one of the most powerful figures in the entertainment business. But four decades ago he was just a bright, ambitious kid from the Midwest who decided to head to L.A. with dreams of making his mark and his fortune, like so many thousands of others of his generation. The ’70s were a golden age for Los Angeles, which was then—and is once again—a mecca for talented artists as well as for those who aspired to work behind the scenes, and Azoff soon found himself smack-dab in the middle of the action. So, as it happened, did future
HITS Publisher Dennis Lavinthal, Editor in Chief Lenny Beer and VP/Sr. Editor Bud Scoppa. The four of them recently gathered to talk about the old days and the changes 40-some-odd years have brought to the business that has consumed each of them from the beginning.

Irving Azoff: First of all, I am pleased to sit here with you three geniuses. I haven’t done an official Hits interview in a long time, but since somebody fed me stupid pills, here we are.

Lenny Beer: So we’re sitting here at the Riviera Country Club because it’s old-school, and it makes me want to know about some old-school things. What was it like when you first came to Los Angeles? What was the music business like then?

IA: When I first came to Los Angeles, the center of the business was on Santa Monica Boulevard. It centered on the Troubadour bar and Dan Tana’s next door. It was 1972. I met Albert Grossman on the sidewalk in front of the Troubadour. I was like a young kid hangin’ around the fringes, but I’d be in the Troubadour bar, and there would be David Geffen and Albert Grossman—all these guys yelling at each other and fighting, which was just the normal thing. I saw Elton John and Bette Midler there, their first shows. So the two places in town then were the Troubadour and Richard Doolittle Presents at the Greek Theatre. I went to see Chicago there, because those guys were friends of mine from back in Illinois. In those days they played a week at the Greek, or five nights, but everything was booked by the week. So when you went into the Troubadour, you played like eight shows in five nights—Wednesday to Sunday—and you would get $750 your first week, $1,000 your second week, $1,250, then $1,500. Doug Weston would have like five options, including to move you up to theaters and arenas, and this was chafing at David Geffen, Elliot Roberts, Lou Adler and others.
So right as I’m getting there is when they were talking about building the Roxy, which they then did. It was Lou, Geffen, Elliot Roberts, Elmer Valentine—who owned the Whisky—and Mario. And when I leave Associated Booking and I go to work for David and Elliot, I was the first booker at the Roxy, and we didn’t ask for options. The first two weeks were five nights of Cheech & Chong, and five nights of Neil Young. So I start booking it, and four or five weeks in I was able to get the Temptations, who were hotter than shit at the time—they were selling out arenas. So I get this call from Lou Adler, "What are you fucking doing, you idiot?" "What are you talking about, Lou?" "If Cheech & Chong and Neil Young play five nights, the Temptations either play five nights, or they can’t play the room, right?" So I said, "Fuck you. You book the Roxy." And that was that. [Laughter]

I would hang out with these two crazy lunatics, Bob Gibson and Gary Stromberg, who were the publicists to everybody in those days. Originally I went to work for Jerry Heller, so it was Heller, Gibson and Stromberg. Heller, who was hilarious, had this love-hate relationship with Geffen. So I was in the middle of a war between those two all the time. But it was sex, drugs and rock & roll. I moved out here with Dan Fogelberg. We shared an apartment. It was fun times.

Dennis Lavinthal: When did your relationship with Joe Walsh start?

IA: Around the time I moved here, I knew Walsh from the James Gang. This is about the time Joe leaves the James Gang to start Joe Walsh and Barnstorm. Mike Belkins from Cleveland was the manager. But I had stayed in touch with Walsh. Somewhere in my first year here, I ended up managing and booking Walsh. Dan came with me.

Bud Scoppa: Did you book Walsh in college?

IA: No, I promoted Walsh. I did a couple shows with the James Gang. I was like an agent/promoter in those days.

DL: We did anything we could do in those days.

IA: Dennis was in Seattle doing anything he could do. Actually, he came from the record side and the distribution side, so basically he was stealing records from his father and selling them out the back door. [Laughter]

DL: The DJ copies. They used to pay for my haircut, my groceries and for my laundry getting done—all of the DJ copies.

Yeah, us writers had review copies; that’s how we paid the rent.

Is it true that Elliot Roberts always had the best pot?

Still does.

LB: Are you still friends with Lou Adler, David Geffen and Elliot Roberts?

IA: I was never friendly-friendly with Lou, but he’s an acquaintance. I’m friends with David and Elliot. Yeah, when David and Elliot recruited me it was when David sold Asylum and it became Elektra/Asylum. David says, "You need to come and be part of the management company instead of being an agent, and help, because Elliot can’t do this alone." John Hartmann and Harlan Goodman, along with Ron Stone, were the guys working there. So I go there and within a week they fired Hartman and Goodman.

BS: What was Geffen like then? I met him in ’72 or ’73. He seemed like a young, dynamic guy.

IA: David has never changed. He was a younger version of what he is now. You know what? He’s more fun now. He probably wouldn’t like me saying that, but he’s a lot of fun now.

BS: Were you guys always on the same side?

IA: We don’t want to turn this into a Geffen story, but the scene in Hollywood in those days was the Forum, the Troubadour, the Greek, the Whisky to some extent, and then very soon thereafter, the Roxy. And it was really fucking healthy. If you watch the Eagles documentary, people were moving here on both the business and the musician side from all over the country to taste the American Dream. It became the melting pot for American music. It was exciting and the music was varied, everything from Elton John coming from London to Joni Mitchell to Cheech & Chong to the Eagles to Linda Ronstadt. It wasn’t any particular sound.

LB: When did you first meet the Eagles?

The first time I spoke to an Eagle was when Leslie Morris, who was Elliot Roberts’ secretary, came into my office, probably the first week I was there, and I was a big fan of the Eagles, I had seen them open for—which I didn’t understand—people like Yes. She came in my office and said, "Glenn Frey is on the phone screaming that he needs a limousine to go to the airport. Elliot’s not here, and David said to get him a hippie and a cab. Can you deal with this?" So, of course, in my inimitable fashion I picked up the phone, disobeyed Geffen and sent the guy a limo.

LB: In his book, Bumping Into Geniuses, Danny Goldberg talked about just staying in the game long enough and getting lucky when you meet the right great person. Did you know the Eagles were great right away?

Beyond great. The first time I saw the Eagles play live was somewhere like Pomona College or something. I’d just drive out there as a fan. I’m an agent at the time, and I can’t say I didn’t have ulterior motives, because I wasn’t gonna go to Geffen and Roberts—and stupidly as a young kid agent—and say, "Fire Frank Barsalona and hire me to book the Eagles, because they’re being badly booked." But I thought they were amazing.

DL: Where were they in their career at that point? Had they released an album yet?

IA: It was probably right as "Take It Easy" was hitting the airwaves. Nobody knew who they were yet.

LB: They were just a nice pop song that you liked.

D: It wasn’t really until album three that they became the Eagles that we know today.

Honestly, for me, it was like seeing The Beatles—I thought it was that good. You know, my Midwest upbringing, the country-rock roots to it, those vocals—the haunting Henley vocal with the Frey kind of really dry country vocal. I thought they were equally just phenomenal. Funny thing, I always thought that when I first saw them, for me it was the Frey/Henley band. The hype in those days was that Randy Meisner came from Poco and Bernie Leadon came from the Flying Burrito Brothers. I went, "Hmm, sidemen."

DL: They had some pedigree, those two guys, though.

But not off a lot of record sales. They were from hipster bands.

The great thing was everybody going west. It was like a gold rush, with everybody coming to L.A. I don’t care whether you were a drummer, a songwriter, a manager, an agent…

DL: I couldn’t wait to get here.

L.A. was really fun in those days.

DL: What year did you get here, Beer?

LB: ’74.

BS: October of ’73. A&M.

So we all got here in the early ’70s. L.A. was so great then.

The first time I ever went to the Roxy was with Marshall Blonstein and Lou Adler, and they took me to dinner at the Rainbow, and then we saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I think the first time I ever had dinner with Beer was at Dan Tana’s. I took him in the bathroom and offered him some blow.

There you go. That’s what we did then.

BS: Yeah, way too much. How did you meet Irving, Dennis? ABC Records, right?

DL: I think it was Joe Walsh.
ABC was a happening place in those days.

DL: Joe Walsh’s solo career. The big hit was "Rocky Mountain Way." I was head of promotion and marketing.

IA: By then I’m Joe’s manager.

DL: And then it was Jimmy Buffett and Steely Dan, which you end up managing, and both were on the label. And when I got fired at ABC.

IA: Did you get fired?

DL: Yes and no. Jerry Rubinstein and Gibson come in; Geffen calls me and says, "You don’t want to work for these guys, come to work for me." He was at Elektra at the time. He and Steve Wax called me. I said, "Geez, they just doubled my salary—$45,000 a year to $90,000." I signed a three-year deal. Frankenheimer did my deal; he was just starting out. One year into my three-year deal, they fired me because…

They were so smart?

They were so stupid. They like toileted the company. Jerry Rubinstein was a nice guy, kind of, I think, but knew nothing about the record business. So we signed Poco. I’m in London, first single’s coming out, and we’re a hot company—Jim Croce, Steely Dan, Rufus & Chaka Khan, Buffett, the Four Tops. We’re rollin’. And I’m in London and he calls me and says, "You know, I think we’re coming with the wrong first single on Poco." And I said, "Yeah, but that’s what I do. That’s not what you do." He said, "Yeah, but I’m the head of the company." I said, "I’ll see you tomorrow." I get on a plane and I come back and said, "Listen, I really know what I’m doing—I got this." And I didn’t like him because he was just not a record guy. I said to him, "Listen, you need to get somebody else to do what I do." He said, "OK, I will." And he hired Charlie Minor.

Well, we were all rash then, and it seemed so easy. You always knew that if one job went away there was another one you could get.

IA: There were far fewer of us than there were of them.

DL: And part of what was going on, the older guys wanted to hire us, wanted our youth and our ears and our feeling for what was going on. It was coming out of the ‘60s and there’s this giant cultural social revolution going on based around drugs—sex, drugs and rock & roll. And the guys that were running these companies, they had no clue what was going on, so they looked to you to be part of that. And then there were the guys who had a clue—like Jerry Moss, Chris Blackwell, the guys who were just starting their companies back then.

IA: Chris Wright, Terry Ellis.

DL: Those guys were part of our peer group.

Do you remember any funny or any unique moments that stand out, like throwing televisions out of hotels, and those kinds of stories?

Most of that was Walsh. Those stories are pretty well documented.

DL: But I can’t remember how many hotel room TVs we were in pouring glasses of water into.

IA: Well, Johnny Carson was always thirsty, so we had to water the TV. That was a Walsh. And then, of course, because the TV wasn’t working it was taking up space in the room, so it had to go out the window.

BS: Oh, so there was a rationale for this behavior. I did not know that.

DL: Walsh was one of the funniest guys in the business. He just was a funny guy. Is he still funny?

IA: I was hangin’ with Fallon, and we were just reminiscing back to Almost Famous, when he played the manager, Cameron Crowe, my life, his life and all that. We got to talking, and he said something like, "God, I’m hosting The Tonight Show." And I started laughing, and he goes, "What are you laughing at?" And I said, "I just can’t hear the words Tonight Show without thinking ‘Johnny’s thirsty.’" So I had to tell him the stories. I think I may have to get some old-school TVs and show him how we did it.

To be continued. Coming in January, "Part Two: Modern Warfare."

                    Photographed for HITS by Chapman Baehler

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