The scientists say it'll all wash away
But we don't believe anymore
'Cause we've got our recruits
And our green mohair suits
Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman of the Flying Burrito Brothers wrote "Sin City" about their adopted hometown: Los Angeles, California. Both men were the primary songwriters in a band that helped pioneer what became known as country-rock. Hillman grew up in Southern California, while Parsons came all the way from Florida. However, both men could plainly see that Los Angeles was not a city for the faint of heart.
Although Las Vegas is the city most commonly referred to as Sin City (notable for the 2000s ad campaign which trumpets, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas"), Los Angeles also has more than its share of vice. Such vice may not always be legal, but it's at least more tolerated in these so-called sin cities than it is in other seemingly more moral regions. Los Angeles does not have legalized prostitution, for instance, as does Nevada, but nearby Hollywood is the entertainment capital of the world, and the movies, music, and TV shows it creates oftentimes celebrate the sort of sinful behavior – including stories about happy hookers and the like – that middle America just won't tolerate.
Downtown Los Angeles at night
Photo: Michael Bubmann, Pixabay
Southern California was not the haven for the Summer Of Love that Northern California became when 100,000 people migrated to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Nevertheless, Los Angeles was a magnet in 1967 for young people experimenting in psychoactive drugs, expressing sexual freedom, and basically rebelling against the status quo in 1967. To the morally conservative, such behavior was most certainly sinful. This social movement could have easily helped give Los Angeles its Sin City tag.
The Flying Burrito Brothers sang, "This old town's filled with sin, it'll swallow you in." Perhaps no one was as "swallowed in" by sin more than Charles Manson and the Manson Family. In 1969, the same year "Sin City" was released, Manson and his followers, which he called his "family," committed a series of gruesome murders in Southern California, chronicled in the book "Helter Skelter" by Bugliosi and Gentry. These Manson people may have looked just like any other group of hippies so commonplace at the time, but they certainly did not behave as though they believed in peace and love preached by hippie leaders. Instead, taking misconstrued inspiration from The Beatles' song "Helter Skelter," these killers forever left a bloodstained mark on the '60s hippie legacy.
Another line from The Flying Burritos Brothers' modern day hymn stated, "This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poor house." This could be a reference to the famous San Andreas Fault, which runs about 810 miles through California. California is about as famous for its earthquakes as Florida is for its hurricanes. Earthquakes are also sometimes viewed as God's judgment of mankind. It's not unusual for religious leaders to blame earthquakes on the sinners in a particular earthquake region.
Some of the sins referred to in "Sin City" are of the more personal variety. When The Flying Burrito Brothers sing, "On the thirty-first floor/Your gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain," these lines likely refer to the group's bitter feelings about former manager, Larry Spector. In a Los Angeles Times
article about the song, Hillman said, "Spector was a thief, it was as simple as that. And his condo – he lived on the 31st floor behind this awful, garish gold door."
Sin was big on The Flying Burrito Brothers' minds at the time, as this memorable track came from an album titled Gilded Palace Of Sin
. These country-loving Los Angeles residents found themselves in an awkward position. On the one hand, they were part of the rock & roll establishment, each having been members of the seminal rock band The Byrds, yet the country music they loved preached a lot of homespun family values. "Sin City" is the sound of two songwriters, caught between two very different worlds.Dan MacIntosh
May 2, 2014