Friday, April 13, 2012 / 11:15 am
Fighting the Good Fight To the Last
OC concert promoter Ken Phebus did not go quietly into the night.
by Jim Washburn
Those of you who own a pickup truck leave yourselves open to years of hauling other people’s lives around. That’s the way of it: If you can carry the load, friends count on you to be there for them. My pickup truck owning friends know when I call that there’s a 30% or greater chance I’ll be asking them to help me schlep something around town. They answer anyway.
Being a writer also comes with assumed obligations, though they’re easier on the back. You get called on to help write everything from friends’ eBay ads to their novels.
And as you get older, and your friends start dying, you write their obituaries and eulogies. I’ve lost so many friends in the past few years that my word processor has begun to feel more like a hearse than a pickup truck.
The load doesn’t get any easier with experience. Each person gone is unique, and it would take far more than a book to even begin doing justice to the life each inhabited.
The friend this time is Ken Phebus, who died of a heart attack the night before Easter. He changed Orange County’s musical landscape without ever playing a note of the stuff, and without most people ever hearing of him. Ken was a talent buyer. I never liked that title; it sounded like he was a livestock or commodities buyer, when he was a true artist at making good things happen.
He booked over 7,000 concert events over the years, the majority of them in Orange County. He’d booked shows at the Rumbleseat Garage and Fender’s in Long Beach (the latter hosting several of No Doubt’s early gigs), but Ken’s run started in earnest when he came to San Juan Capistrano’s Coach House in 1986.
The place had been a cook-your-own-steak joint buried in a nondescript commercial center. They’d done some shows with local acts and third-tier country performers, but were an unproven entity to name musicians and their agents.
I was pop music critic with the Orange County Register then, and went to interview Ken. It was not love at first sight. He was leery of the press, while, to me, Ken seemed gruff and full of himself. Gruff he remained; that was just his voice. The rest, I soon learned, was just new-job bluster, masking a guy who was in no way sure of what he’d gotten himself into with the gig.
The legendary Golden Bear in Huntington Beach had just closed, which was both a blessing—the Coach House was able to adopt many of the club’s artists and patrons—and a caution, an example of how inhospitable a climate OC could be for music.
Ken just blazed ahead, building the club’s relationship with agents and artists step by step. It soon became obvious that he had high aims, and wasn’t content to settle for the music industry’s low-hanging fruit. He booked a lot of acts, such as Ani DiFranco and Crowded House, before most people ever heard of them. He also booked commercial dreck, but that was the nature of the business. As Warner Records’ Joe Smith once explained, you put out the Black Sabbath albums so you can afford to put out the Randy Newman albums. If you ever saw Newman, Richard Thompson, Sonny Rollins, King Sunny Ade, Al Green or a host of other meaningful acts in OC, you could thank Ken for it.
We started meeting for lunch, and Ken would sometimes ask for my advice on what to book. That resulted in Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra’s one and only Orange County appearance, for which there were practically more people onstage than in the audience. He didn’t needle me too much over that, going on to take my suggestion that he book Dick Dale on a bill with Jonathan Richman. We called it the Surf & Turf Special. Dick and Jonathan hit if off, but each entertainer’s fans couldn’t stand the other one. Heckling and arguments broke out in the crowd. I was standing next to Ken as patrons were complaining to the floor manager, asking, “Who booked this lame-brain bill?” He eventually let me forget that one, too.
It took a couple of years to become great friends, and so we remained until the heart attack took him. I didn’t think anything would ever slow him.
Once, we happened to be in Seattle at the same time, and I got him out on one of my favorite diversions there. The university rented canoes by the hour, which you could paddle across Lake Washington into a maze of waterways through a lush arboretum.
Despite the Seattle you see on “The Killing,” it was a hot, sunny morning. I gave Ken some sunscreen, and off we went with a couple of other friends. As the morning grew hotter, and the exertion of paddling had sweat rolling down our brows, guess who turned out to be allergic to something in the sunscreen?
Ken’s eyes started stinging; the bright sunlight became unbearable, and soon both peepers were practically swollen shut. He insisted that we not turn back; he didn’t want to ruin the morning for everyone else. So he paddled on, all but blind to the arboreal beauty surrounding him.
Ken was in the front of the canoe, the “power paddling” position, while I was in the back, where half the work is steering. Once we’d finally exited the waterways and were to cross the lake again, power paddling became a necessity. The lake channel was awash with sailboats and motor craft. The wake alone could be enough to capsize a canoe, and even though canoes had the right of way, there wasn’t a hell of a lot those larger, faster boats could do to avoid ramming you if you got in their way. It was a matter of waiting for the right opening, then pouring it on until you reached the other side of the channel.
When the moment came, there was Ken at the prow, blind to what lay ahead of him, but plowing ahead with all he had to get there just the same.
Whatever building Ken worked for, he was always pushing at its limits. At a time when Miles Davis had abandoned playing clubs for concert stages, and when Orange County had little use for or exposure to jazz, Ken coaxed Davis into playing the Coach House, which drew a great audience. The infamously bitchy Davis enjoyed it so much he did a return gig there.
At Anaheim’s Sun Theatre (now named the Grove) Ken once again had to convince acts to play an unproven venue. It was a beautiful, nearly new building, but with a negative reputation from the short time it had been Tinseltown, a miserable dinner theater concept where every soul in the audience was briefly made to feel they were somebody on the red carpet. Before long, Ken was able to get Bob Dylan to play there, another guy who was typically only performing in arenas and concert halls.
The second time I met up with Ken in Seattle was in 2001 when I was up for my annual jaunt to the Bumbershoot Fest, a Seattle tradition that was everything the Orange County Fair wasn’t. Ken had just been named talent buyer for the OC Fair, and was at Bumbershoot with the fair’s deputy general manager to check it out. I had bitched for years in three different newspapers about the lazy approach the fair had taken to booking its musical acts, and that was about to change.
In an article that year titled “Will the OC Fair finally stop blowing corndog chunks?” I wrote, in part:
Bumbershoots past have featured the likes of Tony Bennett, P-Funk, Nirvana, the Seattle Symphony, Elvis Costello, Ray Charles, the Sex Pistols, Buck Owens and Allen Ginsberg… and hundreds of other acts, along with the usual film fest, art exhibits, dance, poetry, book fair and such. Meanwhile in OC, we got a succession of no-account, one-hit mullet-heads who started out inconsequential and went downhill from there.
My take on a fair is that it should reflect who we are, by giving some idea of where we've been and where we're headed. To judge by the OC Fair, we're a county of pigs, sheep and goats, canning apricots, using miracle mops and scarfing candied apples while listening to Billy Ray Cyrus. You'd never know that on the very same fairgrounds, at the Pacific Amphitheater, we once lined up to see Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye or the Talking Heads.
OC Fair officials have argued for years that the fair's mandate is to be a “traditional” event, which is a convenient excuse for not trying very hard. Old-school county fairs were booking Hank Williams when he was at his peak and Elvis Presley when he was a fresh, controversial phenomenon. Otis Redding played county fairs. The Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in all their fuzztoned '60s glory played them. Even the pallid Velvet Underground played them. Today, it is a rare exception when the OC Fair books acts that mattered even 40 years ago, much less now.
Such grousing about the fair had been part and parcel of the meals I’d had with Ken for years, and I was delighted he was the person picked to turn things around there.
Sure enough, instead of dragging Elvin Bishop’s stanky overalls to the fair’s stage for the umpteenth time, thanks to Ken they were getting Dylan, the Neville Brothers, Garbage, the Vandals, the Black-Eyed Peas, X, Jackson Browne, Beck, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Steely Dan and so on. He was always pushing to get Tom Waits and Van Morrison, but the stars never aligned for that.
Not that the fair made it easy for him, either. He tried to book Norah Jones just as her career was taking flight. Debbie Carona, wife of then-OC Sheriff Mike Carona (soon to be known as philandering felon ex-Sheriff Mike Carona) was on the fair’s board, and had about as much musical sense as she did matrimonial. She nixed the booking, complaining that neither she nor any of her friends had ever heard of Jones. Perhaps they were better informed a couple of months later, after Jones’ album went to No. 1 and won five Grammys, but the chance to book her was long-gone by then.
It was hard enough booking acts without such interference. It’s a complex game, involving x-number of acts, tour routings, packaging deals, competing venues and other factors tossed in the air, and somehow all juggled to land on the available dates on a calendar. The shows themselves may have been a delight, but they were the result of Ken spending much of his life in a windowless room with a phone and an outdated computer.
The first time he tried to book Jackson Browne at the fair, for example, he’d spent weeks getting Browne’s management to tentatively agree to a date. Living legend and home-town boy that he was, Browne couldn’t fill an amphitheatre himself at that juncture in his career, so the date needed an opener that could also fill some seats. Ken had been trying for years to get Browne’s old musical companion David Lindley to reconvene his band El Rayo-X, one of the best live bands ever. He was finally able to offer enough money to make it worthwhile for Lindley, so the fair was going to be hosting the first El-Rayo gig in a decade.
Then Browne changed his plans and dropped the fair date. Ken scrambled and got the compatible Ziggy Marley on the bill with El Rayo. Then, because Ken always had his ear to the ground, he had an opportunity to nab Roxy Music for their only US date that year. Trouble was, the one night they were stopping over on their way to a Asian tour was the night of the already contracted Ziggy-El Rayo show, so he moved Ziggy to the fair’s free stage, and the main stage had the doubly historic bill of Roxy and El-Rayo.
That was just one of the over 7,000 shows Ken booked, and almost all had their own headaches and hiccups. I got to watch him work when he helped organize Huntington Beach’s Golden Bear Reunion shows in 2009, and the complexities of just getting those two nights booked were mind-boggling. That was pretty much a labor of love on his part: the first rock show he’d ever been to, and the one that got him hooked on his future career path, was a 1966 Lovin’ Spoonful gig at the Bear.
The whole time I knew him, he typically had several irons in the fire: investors lined up, venues scouted from Galveston to Malibu, architects consulted; all aimed towards getting other venues going, at least one of which would hopefully allow him to get what he craved most: autonomy.
He was hungry for a situation where someone wasn’t always breathing down his neck, second-guessing his bookings; someplace where artistic and daring choices were given more of a chance to fly. After decades of earning money for other people, he felt he’d earned that.
He had high hopes for the long-languishing Balboa Theater in his old hometown of Newport Beach, where he was to be the talent buyer once its restoration was completed. He envisioned outdoor festivals, an Austin City Limits-like TV show, and a local radio station possibly springing from the venue.
He thought maybe it would light a spark, and create more of the sense of community that music engendered in the ’60s and early ’70s. For all of his business acumen, Ken was basically an unreconstructed hippie, with a Jerry Garcia beard and a sense of social justice that was easily inflamed. I forget which inequity it was—some malfeasance from Washington or some big local guy stepping on a little one—but his quote to the paper was, “That really gets my hippie dander up!”
His gruff exterior didn’t do much to mask the gentle soul inside. People with pickup trucks and writing skills never get anything like the impositions people in show business are presented with daily. Everyone thought Ken could, and should, get them tickets to any event they imagined, even if it was a show one of his bitter corporate competitors was promoting. I will admit to having imposed upon his good nature a time or 200.
He was also very giving with his experience, helping new venues with advice and mentoring several people into the business. But if you burned him, you learned that a Phebus grudge was a fearsome thing. Once, he was going to open a club with some partners, and after they’d milked him for his expertise and connections, they dumped him to hire a guy he’d mentored. So Ken at his old venue out-booked the guy until this new club was starved for talent and closed. When the guy took over booking a club in an Oregon town, Ken called the rival club in town and told them, “I’m your new best friend,” routing acts to that club until the guy who’d screwed him was again out of a gig.
He was a straight shooter in an industry that most certainly does not suffer from a surplus of straight shooters. Maybe he got his integrity from his dad, a Newport Beach cop. His pop was evidently hell to live with—Ken was out of the house and living in his own apartment long before he graduated from high school—but he was known for his integrity. He’d once caught Newport’s then-mayor in a whorehouse (upstairs in the building where the Five Crowns restaurant now resides), and arrested him, even though he knew it would hinder his career on the force.
Unlike most folks in OC, Ken was actually born here, and he took a perverse pride in the place. It was harder to get something going here than in hipster LA. It wasn’t just right-wing, but crazy right-wing, where local congressmen like James Utt were decrying the rock music Ken loved as a hypnotic, communist plot. It’s not for nothing that Angelinos joked we lived behind the Orange Curtain.
Since he lived on this side of the curtain, Ken knew there was a hunger for the good stuff here; that audiences here were ready and waiting for meaningful, soulful music. This was his home, so he particularly resented it when the new era of corporate concert promotion came in hard and heavy. Live Nation and others were behemoths, devouring independent venues and promoters.
Ken liked it better on the outside, convinced that a guy on the ground who cared about the local scene could always out-book a bunch of suits in cubicles who’d never even flown over Orange County.
He reminded me at times of one of my favorite fictional characters, J.P. Donleavy’s Schultz, a go-getting, big-dreamer of a London stage producer, always looking to prove himself anew, doing daily battle with the duplicitous, soul-crushing functionaries of the world.
It wasn’t easy. As the Dude was told, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. More often than not, when given the chance against the corporates, Ken managed to do the eating, which was entirely metaphorical since he was a vegetarian.
Every time he got near an animal, it was like Ken had been sprayed with a big can of Gruff-Off. Any dog or cat could melt him into soft-hearted goo. One of the things that kept him sane while working at the fair was his daily communing with a bison who lived in a nearby pen.
We had our last lunch together the week before he died. Even though it was a chill, blustery afternoon and he was in his usual short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt, he chose our usual spot, because it had outdoor seating and my dog could come along.
He’d had a tough time of it since being let go by the Fair in 2009. It was a cold comfort that one of the guys who’d engineered his exit had now been given the boot: Aside from rebooking some of the acts Ken had pioneered there, the fair he’d been so proud of had devolved to booking “headliners” like “Weird Al” Yankovic. Ken was still getting better talent for the little Lake Mission Viejo Community Association’s summer concerts.
We talked about that, the hard economic times and other bring-downs, but mostly it was about his dreams for the Balboa Theater, and the good things in his life. He’d lucked into a wonderful woman years before, Tracy Young, and she’d become the refuge in his life, the consistent good thing he had to turn to no matter what else was fraying and flying.
It took me a while to grasp what she was telling me when she called Easter morning. Later, that night, I talked with the Register’s Ben Wener (who wrote a lovely obit for Ken), and told him, “There were a few people I knew who had such a vital life-force about them that you can’t fathom them not being around. Along with losing a friend, it’s like losing something that should be there—like water or air. I haven’t really wrapped my head around that.”
I don’t know that I ever will.