Grammy Museum digs into LA history and music

Stepping off the elevator to the sound of Steven Tyler belting out “Livin’ on the Edge” over the intercom is a perfect start to the exhibit Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles, 1945-1975, currently featured at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live.

History lesson · “Search for Weapons, Watts Riots” (1966) by Cliff Wesselman shows Los Angeles police searching black men in the 1900 block of East 103rd Street. Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles will be on display at the Grammy Museum through June 3. - Photo courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

The gallery explores the development of music in Los Angeles from 1945-1975 and the interaction between music and culture. The exhibit originated at USC, in an undergraduate communications class at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism under the supervision of Professor Josh Kun.

His goal was to give an arc of different periods in American history — a picture of cultural politics and social unrest.

“1975 provided a good stopping point for our timeline,” Kun said. “We wanted to stop before disco, funk and punk really changed the narrative of music.”

Thirty years offers quite a variety of music to pull from for curation, and if the exhibit suffers from anything, it’s the vast scale of the material that it attempts to fuse into one space. Pulling from R&B, jazz, beach party, Chicano, gospel, folk and rock genres, each section of the exhibit could stand as a collection of its own; however, each segment brilliantly captures music’s relationship to society, justice and other contemporary concerns.

USC students developed some of the key pieces that elevate the exhibit from a run-of-the-mill museum tour through time to an interactive, engaging space. Kun, acting as a guest curator for the Grammy Museum, said that his favorite student idea — a revamped 1970s jukebox — became an exemplary feature of Trouble in Paradise.

The jukebox features approximately 90 MP3s for passers-by to choose from and offers vitality to the exhibit, as it never allows the space to sink into a quiet, dreary museum feel. And its inclusion is fitting: According to Kun, one of the biggest shifts in music was the disappearance of the jukebox.

“In the heyday of jukeboxes, people would make a public choice and have to live with it. Everyone knew who picked what song,” Kun said. “It gave people the opportunity to learn to be in each other’s presence through music.”

Another central piece of the exhibit is a timeline comparing moments of social and political importance with chronologically corresponding albums and music memorabilia. The piece strives to show that constructed environments, public policy and music have a symbiotic relationship in culture.

One part of this timeline, highlighting the mid – to late-1960s, showcases newspaper clippings of the Sunset Strip riots and The Doors’ nightclub debut at the London Fog. These sections are set up with headphones and a selection of six songs, giving viewers the opportunity to consider the evolution of music throughout the period.

In particular, the exhibit’s undertone of police aggression acts as a connective theme and is perhaps best exemplified in the 1966 Freakout Hot Spots! map from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, which highlighted areas of high LAPD activity.

“It has died out, but Los Angeles is always reliable for police brutality,” Kun said. “It won’t go away, and as we can see here at the exhibit, culture comes out of that clash.”

Major cultural seismic shocks that changed Los Angeles’ image are displayed throughout Kun’s vision of “L.A.’s quaking racial fault lines,” such as the 1965 riots and the 1970 Chicano anti-Vietnam demonstration that turned violent. Notably, though, Kun gives the most significance to the 1969 Charles Manson murders.

“Just look at the evolution of Laurel Canyon folk singers. In the late 1960s, the Mamas & the Papas were singing ‘Safe in my Garden,’ this bucolic, happy song; 1969 and Manson come along, and then the 1970s bring Jackson Browne’s ‘Before the Deluge,’” Kun said. “It’s the end of innocence — innocence and hope to fear and paranoia.”

Maybe the greatest L.A. concept the exhibit explores is the advent of the car. At the end of the exhibit, a car that’s been converted into a couch sits in the center of the room while a projection of music performances, L.A. imagery and photo compilations showcase the relationship between the car and music.

Surrounding the couch are pieces from Radio DJ Art Laboe’s late 1950s to early 1970s drive-in radio show at Scrivener’s Drive-In. Pieces include albums, photographs and the very microphone that he used on the show.

Laboe, one of the first DJs to play rock music in the Western United States, was on site for the exhibit’s opening.

“It felt like overnight we moved from Doris Day to Elvis, from big bands to rock ‘n’ roll,” Laboe said.

An informational placard at the beginning of the exhibit denotes that a goal of the exhibit is to “listen to the heart of the city in the songs it sang,” and the exhibit certainly does not disappoint.

From handwritten lyrics of Ritchie Valens, depictions of the Watts Towers as album iconography and videos of the 1965 Watts Riot paired with background music of the era, the exhibit is approachable from various perspectives and makes viewers appreciate contemporary music’s place in an ever-lengthening timeline.