Gary Tovar Has His Goldenvoice
"Hey, look at this one," Gary Tovar says to no one in particular. "I liked this one. This is when Keith [Morris] broke his back, so I knew he'd go on early, right?"
Tovar positions the poster over the trunk of his champagne-colored, 1990s-era Toyota Corolla parked in the empty lot belonging to what used to be Acres of Books in Long Beach. The black-and-white poster advertised a show on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1984, at the now-defunct Grand Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. The background was splattered with the iconic photograph of Japanese fighter planes queuing up for their attack on Pearl Harbor and the words "SYNCHRONIZE WATCHES! ALL-AMERICAN SKANK-OFF!"
The lineup? One that would sell out venues even today, with Circle Jerks, the Vandals and Youth Brigade leading the pack.
"I had to talk to the Vandals and tell them, so I said, 'Vandals, take the 11 o'clock spot.' By 12:15, they'll be burnt, and sure enough, by a quarter to 1, a half-hour into the set, people were leaving."
Meanwhile, Paul Tollett is quietly thumbing through a well-preserved photo album, the kind with adhesive pages, picked at random from a pile stacked child-high that was sitting shotgun.
"Keith Morris," he says, gesturing to the photo. "From OFF! And Circle Jerks."
"Oh, look at this one!" Tovar exclaims, unfurling another oversized poster. "Remember Melody Dance Center?"
Another poster unraveled: "Oh, here's another one . . . the Damned."
And another: Fishbone, Bad Manners at Fender's Ballroom. Long Beach.
Another: "FUCK OFF, WANKERS!" is scrawled at the top.
"A show with a message," Tollett says.
"Who did Public Enemy?"
"That was March of '88," Tovar answers. "Or do you mean the [Santa Monica] Civic one?"
"N.W.A was at the Palladium; that was '87. That was their debut."
"Their debut? Huh."
The sun is just starting to dip below the buildings of downtown Long Beach, and the men are only beginning to reminisce. Tovar wears a freshly pressed, blue dress shirt over a white crew T-shirt. Jeans, dark wraparound sunglasses and a pair of black Docs top it off. He's the founder of Goldenvoice Productions, the wildly influential Southern California concert-promotions company. With roots long-steeped in punk, Tovar and Goldenvoice helped usher the genre from small clubs scattered throughout the suburbs into all-ages, large-capacity venues such as the Palladium and the Olympic.
Tovar spent seven years in prison on charges of drug distribution and left Goldenvoice in the very capable hands of employees Tollett and Rick Van Santen. While the subsequent years weren't exactly the smoothest ones for the company, two decades and a little something called the Coachella Music and Arts Festival later, it has secured its reputation for gathering the best, most innovative artists together for bills that span from intimate clubs to Imperial Valley polo fields.
And this weekend, Goldenvoice celebrates 30 years of riots, organized mayhem and beautiful music over three days with a lineup straight from the early years of the company.
"There were many bands Goldenvoice helped along through the years," Tovar explains. "But this is a festival to help celebrate the bands who made Goldenvoice."
* * *
It was 1981, and punk rock was a liability.
Just as promoters and venues tend to freak out over electronic- and rave-anything these days, promoters and venues back then wanted to avoid punk.
"Nobody wanted to do punk rock because it meant damages. I didn't see it as this Neanderthal music that some people wanted to stamp out," Tovar says, sitting outside Jan's Health Bar just off the main drag in Huntington Beach. He speaks energetically, with a passion that has clearly remained intact. "I refused to let the police, the authorities dictate what kind of music [could] be presented. We had every right to perform and every right to this culture."
Although Tovar's first punk show was catching the Sex Pistols at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in January 1978, he was introduced to punk's plight through his younger sister Bianca, who had alerted him the police were tightening their grip around shows in Southern California. The heavy-handed crackdown convinced a 20-year-old Tovar that he wanted punk rock to flourish.
"I saw the culture. I wanted to push it as far as I could," he says. "I wanted to expose it to as many people as I could. I thought there were a lot of good thoughts that were getting a lot of resistance. And I think we won."
Chuck Dukowski, founding member and bass player of Black Flag and the man behind the Goldenvoice logo still in use today, says there was one main distinction between Goldenvoice and other promoters at the time: "Gary and Goldenvoice were willing to work with us and other new groups coming out of the punk rock underground. When the going got rough, Gary wasn't scared away by police pressure."
Born in Los Angeles, Tovar was now splitting his time between Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach. He decided to start his venture first in Santa Barbara, comparing it to "practicing in the minor leagues before I came into the majors." Goldenvoice's first show featured T.S.O.L., Shattered Faith and Rhino 39 at La Casa de la Raza on Dec. 4, 1981.
"The town was completely unaware of what was coming," T.S.O.L. singer Jack Grisham explains. "Gary put on a crazy spread and had a really nice house. It was kind of a trippy situation because you always wonder when a guy goes, 'Heeeey, I want to put on a show,'" Grisham rasps in a pretty spot-on impression of Tovar's doddery voice. "Sure you do, guy. Really? But Gary was totally legit. We drove up to Santa Barbara; he had this bitchen house in the hills and, like, a full-spread buffet table."
"Food for everybody, like a really classy party. Like classier than the people who were invited," he continues. "It's like, 'What the fuck is this?' And unlike those other people who were just throwing shows, Gary actually stuck around. It was like he became part of the community," he says. "It was like Gary was a fan. I don't actually know if he was one. But he was into it. A lot of times, Gary was like a kid, the way he would act. 'Oh, we got a great shooooooowwwww.'"
Grisham pauses for more laughter. "You know how he talks, right? He's got that voice: 'This is grrrreaaaaat.'"
When asked how T.S.O.L. knew Tovar was more than your average concert promoter, Grisham responds promptly: "When he started paying us more than anyone else in the country would pay us. I mean, it pissed people off. Gary really started paying these bands what they were worth. We'd play a show, and the show would be packed, and a band would get 100 or 200 bucks. Gary was the first punk promoter who actually paid what they deserved—well, if we all got what we deserved, we'd all be in jail—but it was unlike any other promoter. Everybody wanted to be on Gary's shows, and it was only a short time before he was the biggest promoter around."
Joe Escalante, bass player for the Vandals, thinks Tovar's reach extended far beyond California. "Gary started a booking agency to help bands like Social Distortion and the Vandals to break out of LA and across the U.S.," he says. "[They] booked us an awesome tour, but we didn't have a vehicle. Gary bought us a van just in time to make the tour. He was like an angel."
On top of that, Escalante shares that Tovar had also made sure the Vandals got to Hawaii when the band were still very young. "He met me in Huntington Beach at a parking lot and handed me four plane tickets to Oahu," he recalls. "We had the time of our lives."
Social Distortion front man Mike Ness chalks up his band's success to Tovar himself.
"[Tovar] was a hustler; you gotta respect a hustler," Ness explains. "He provided venues and places for us to play at a time where we were just starting to grow."
He recalls instances when Tovar reached out and helped him, even while he was a heroin addict. On Aug. 15, 1983, Motörhead were playing Billy Barty's Roller Fantasy in Fullerton. Ness called Tovar, wanting to see the show. The promoter obliged.
"[Tovar] probably knew it was the wrong thing to do, helping out a junkie, but he felt bad for me and he had a big heart, you know?" explains Ness. "I didn't think any of us would stick around, so it's great to see survivors and people still doing what they love."
* * *
But that whole punk-rock-liability reputation was pretty well-earned: Tovar experienced some growing pains in 1983 with three major riots.
T.S.O.L. were involved in what's now known as the Sunset Riots: Riot squads, Redd Kross, Social Distortion and T.S.O.L. were all on the lineup that night, and Grisham had the audience sit down in protest—"John- and Yoko-style," as Tovar describes it. Only later did the 2,500 punks pour into the streets, clashing with cops in riot gear.
"A lot of the riots were due to the fact that a lot of people outside wanted in," Tovar says. "All that was polarized. It fed the fire and gave us more. More people wanted to join the fray. . . . But after each riot, kids would call me from different states and say, 'Oh, God, I wish I were there.' The riots accelerated, and that brought the growth."
But Goldenvoice's run at the Olympic Auditorium—which has since become a Korean church—seems especially memorable for fans . . . and Tovar.
"In late '83, I wanted to get a building where I could fit everybody in and close the door behind us. If you're inside, the cops aren't going to mess with you. I got the Olympic because I thought it would hold large crowds. I had just gone to England the year before. You know how the Russians had a five-year plan? I went to England and made a three-year plan."
Tovar brought bands in—and is now particularly acclaimed for helping to usher stateside such U.K. outfits as Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Damned.
"I'd fly bands in, and other cities would benefit from this," says Tovar, who has been accused of being an Anglophile. "I would send them to San Diego, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Francisco, Fresno."
And it wasn't just punk rock: Alternative (or underground, as it was known then) and Goth also flourished under Goldenvoice, and those shows even brought forth the birth of speed metal, thanks to a Venom/Slayer lineup at the Palladium. "That's when the speed metalers tore off their spandex pants," he says.
The Olympic shows averaged out to about one per month. Admission was kept low at $7.50 ($8.50 at the door), and the bulk of the audience was from 12 to 21. "[The Olympic] was centrally located—east, west, north, south, all gathered in the middle. LA was the hotbed, but especially OC—our company was located for years right here in Huntington Beach," Tovar says as he gestures down the street. The Olympic began welcoming bands such as T.S.O.L., Circle Jerks, Dickies, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, M.I.A., FEAR and D.O.A.—and along with them came the crowds of 4,000-plus kids, beating New York shows that were tapping out at 2,000, as Tovar gleefully points out, his eyes twinkling.
Brett Gurewitz, guitarist of Bad Religion and owner of Epitaph Records, believes Tovar was the first to recognize the band for what they really were. "Tovar knew that Bad Religion was popular before we knew we were popular," he says. Bad Religion were Goldenvoice's "secret weapon," he explains; Tovar would slip them into supporting slots whenever there was a concern about selling out a show, knowing Bad Religion would easily bring in a battalion of fans on their own.
"There was a huge scene in LA," Gurewitz points out. "The Olympic Auditorium [shows] were a manifestation of that. Goleta would sell out; Cuckoo's Nest would sell out. Goldenvoice would say, 'Let's have a big show. I think there's enough to draw 3,000.' No one else thought that. It proved the true size of the scene. All the little pockets of scenes—punks from Pomona, Oxnard and South Bay—congregating in one place."
Tovar says the Olympic shows peaked around 1985, and Goldenvoice stopped the monthly concerts due to lack of demand. But that was also when Goldenvoice began producing indie shows—including the 40 shows in the late '80s at the John Anson Ford Theater, where the Ramones played at $5 per ticket and Jane's Addiction performed seven straight sold-out nights.
And then things came to a brief halt around 1991.
* * *
Goldenvoice was known as Goldenvoice from Day One.
Named after a type of marijuana—something some of us figured out only years later—it may come as a surprise to some that the company once had actual ties to the drug.
"Goldenvoice ganja," Tovar says now, with a smile in his voice. "When you smoked it, they said it was like when angels spoke to you. There was also Elephant ganja, which they say felt like an elephant stepped on you. I figured [Goldenvoice] was more musical. Otherwise, we would be Elephant Productions."
Little-known to some of the bands, musicians and employees Goldenvoice dealt with on a daily basis, Tovar had a secret: He was a marijuana trafficker, beginning some 10 years before the conception of Goldenvoice. In fact, it was the money Tovar had collected throughout the years via pot—reaching into the double-digit millions—that enabled Goldenvoice to function.
"We were ahead!" he admits. "We had the resources . . . enough to gamble. And be very daring and bring over bands who were ahead of their time. Some of the bands, they would come through, and people would tell me six months later how I should get 'em. We were ahead of the fans in a lot of ways. And I paid for it dearly by losing money."
Despite what it looked like from the outside, Goldenvoice wasn't exactly a lucrative company. Any time Goldenvoice lost money, it was out of Tovar's pocket. "I lost $3 million to $4 million over 11 years—that's 1980s dollars now," Tovar says. "I had a lot of money, but it was like $300,000 to $400,000 a year.
"I had two worlds," Tovar continues. "I had my Goldenvoice legit world, and then I had my marijuana-smuggling world. But in the middle of the marijuana world, people were going down, and I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened to me."
He ended up pleading guilty to four charges of participating in a ring that attempted to purchase marijuana in Arizona for distribution; as a result, Tovar served seven years in Arizona and Nevada prisons starting in 1991. Social Distortion, Porno for Pyros, Thelonious Monster, the Meat Puppets, Tender Fury and fIREHOSE threw a benefit concert at the Palladium to raise money for Tovar's legal bills. But before he served his sentence, the founder signed over ownership of Goldenvoice to the two men responsible for how we know the company today: Paul Tollett and Rick Van Santen.
Tovar had met a then-19-year-old Tollett at a Bad Manners show at Long Beach's Fenders Ballroom. Now 46, Tollett has a palpable sense of admiration and respect in his voice when he speaks of Tovar. The Laguna Beach resident is sitting at a picnic table just outside of Newport Beach's Kéan Coffee. He wears a black LA Dodgers cap, black Asics and a Quiksilver flannel. By the time the afternoon's conversation arrives at the 2012 Coachella lineup (lesson learned: Tollett? Good at secrets), the hipster kid with the horn-rimmed glasses at the next table has nearly decapitated himself craning his neck, trying to listen in.
"I remember the first time I met Gary," Tollet shares with a small smile. "I was walking past this alley, and I look and just see these two good-looking dudes with great hair talking to each other."
Those two good-looking dudes? Tovar and Mike Ness.
Tollett was a fledgling promoter, hustling for small ska shows around Pomona. He had heard of Goldenvoice and decided to chat with Tovar about his upcoming shows in the city; Tovar offered him tips on where to properly publicize in the city. Tollett began fliering for Tovar at shows and stores and dropping off tickets at record stores.
"When Gary first started doing ska, I go, 'Okay, I gotta go talk to him.' I wanted to work for him. So we hit it off, I felt—you should verify this with Gary," he says with a laugh. "But we had fun right out in the beginning."
Van Santen, just 20 when he began working for Tovar, was the manager of 45 Grave (guitarist Paul Cutler is still Goldenvoice's graphic designer) and began helping out with publicity, booking and advertising. Tovar shares that Van Santen was very bright: "When I left, I made sure I put the two of them together."
Tollett says that he and Van Santen were inseparable from 1988 to the time of Van Santen's death of flu-related complications in 2003. "We couldn't have done it without each other," he says.
Tollett is the current president of Goldenvoice—"but we don't use titles or have business cards," he says. The lack of formalities seems to be a habit left over from the foundations of Goldenvoice.
"[Tovar] didn't seem like a boss; he was a friend," Tollett says. "He never acted like he was my boss—we were just together. I didn't know it, but he was obviously the guy in charge. He didn't treat you like that. I hope that was passed on to me with my staff. I hope they don't think of me [as their boss]. I just want to be their friend. People doing shows together."
And Tollett isn't just the president of Goldenvoice—he's also the founder and producer of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which started in 1999 with a bill of Beck, Morrissey, Rage Against the Machine, Tool and others.
"At Coachella, when you get out to the desert, there are no titles; there's just friends taking care of one another," he says. "There's a lot of stuff going on, but just like a punk show, there's no one person who's in charge of this and that. It's very communal."
Goldenvoice suffered a near-$1 million loss that first year—while they were trying to make $1 million—and Tollett says there was no single turning point for Coachella. "It was the equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary pass," he explains.
Tollett and Van Santen decided to sell Goldenvoice to Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) in 2001, with no regrets. "Owning it, not owning it. Thing is, I still get to do the shows, and I'm happy."
Coachella, which is now half-owned by AEG and half by Tollett, has since grown to be a Southern California behemoth, with legions of die-hard fans traveling to the desert each year, snapping up tickets before headliners and lineups are unveiled. The annual Stagecoach Country Music Festival, now going on its sixth year, is another testament to Goldenvoice's stellar reputation, drawing a different type of troupe since its debut in 2007. Coachella will expand in 2012 into two consecutive weekends—and, Tollett says, he is working on plans to bring a Goldenvoice-produced festival to Irvine's Great Park.
When asked if he learned anything from Tovar, Tollett responds almost instantly: "Everything."
He explains, "[Tovar] was always drive-drive-drive. I liked it. But the thing I liked the most—and I think this is probably what I picked up—I liked how he built shows. Stacked the bill, stacked the deck, understood the bands and how they fit in with other bands. Which ones would resonate with people when they saw it on a flier. If I had to point to anything to this day, one of the No. 1 things that relates to how Coachella works, it's understanding the music first."
* * *
"Gary goes to more shows than any human I know," Tollett says. "There are some people who give up on new bands, and it's natural in life—you get a set of bands you like, and you add a few over the years, but right now, today, he's still looking for new stuff. He gives me tips: 'Do you have this for Coachella?'"
A quick inventory of Tovar's latest concerts reveals that's actually not too far from the truth: Sting on Monday, Morrissey on the same day, Holy Ghost, People Under the Stairs, Lucinda Williams, Chromeo, the Sounds, Pixies, We Were Promised Jetpacks, GWAR, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Danzig, Mastodon, M83, tUnE-yArDs, to name just a few. While Tovar still serves as a consultant for Tollett and Goldenvoice, he resolved in prison to be "done" with music as a career, he says. He wants his ashes spread at Coachella ("And maybe Hawaii"). "I didn't feel like I wanted to come back into the music business. I felt it was [Tollett and Van Santen]'s turn. It was their baby now."
"I think he watches more bands at Coachella than anybody. It's amazing," Tollett says. "He's running back and forth, and I'll tell him, 'I haven't seen you all day!' And he goes, 'No time to talk! I gotta go to the next.'"
Perry Farrell, front man for Jane's Addiction and creator of Lollapalooza, says Tovar has made an "indelible mark" on his promotional style. "[Tovar] made the artist feel immediately accepted, and his savoir faire is infectious to the evenings," he says. "The team he assembled at Goldenvoice thought out of the box in terms of locations and talent—making an 'event' out of your average show. When I sought out a promoter to work with Jane's in Los Angeles, my choice was Goldenvoice."
But a true testimony to Goldenvoice's legacy here in California and beyond is its impressive roster of alumni who have gone on to do their own extraordinary things. Take Jim Guerinot, owner of Rebel Waltz Management, representing the Offspring, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Gwen Stefani, Robbie Robertson and Josh Freese. Guerinot, 52, grew up in Fullerton, attended UC Irvine, once managed Social Distortion and served as executive director of Artist Development at A&M Records—small wonder he's considered one of the most prominent figures in the music management world today. At Goldenvoice, Guerinot did advertising for a while—even though he really had no idea what he was doing at first—and headed up its now-discontinued booking-agency division.
"[Gary] paid me to do graphic design, which I never had done before. I thought he was awesome!" Guerinot says, laughing. "I gotta tell you, it's really impossible to talk about this without sounding extremely old, but the scene was very small. And Gary, in a weird way, he made it really big. He really, really did. And to seat 5,000 people going to see the Exploited or GBH, that's like the US Festival of punk rock, and this guy was doing it on a weekly basis. And he was selling tickets at London Exchange and Bionic, and he had his own ticketing system!
"You take all that stuff for granted today, that grassroots kinda thing, but he exposed a lot of bands in a very basic way," continues Guerinot, who now lives in Laguna Beach. "Live entertainment! To a lot more people. If you were on a Goldenvoice show, you gained a certain level of credibility because you were able to get on that show, but also, you were exposed to a lot more people. It was a very important method for people who weren't going to get radio play or get on MTV or be signed by a label. . . . You know what I mean? It was as big as it got, getting on Goldenvoice shows."
Kevin Lyman, 50, creator of mega-successful national touring festivals the Warped Tour, Taste of Chaos and Mayhem, attended Cal Poly Pomona with Tollett when he began handling production needs for Goldenvoice. "Whatever they needed," he says. "It allowed me to learn a lot about production and touring. Being able to put on shows? That was the coolest thing. Watching Gary, he was always generous with the kids, and he always wanted to put on the best show and something extra for them. Paul and I, we put on some of the biggest festivals of the country. I put them on the road, and Paul is stationary, but we always try to do something different and special for the fan—and I think that's what Gary taught us."
He recalls seeing Tovar pull money out of his pocket to help kids hanging around outside venues to get into Goldenvoice shows. "He was proud of his shows," Lyman says. "That's the thing: He taught me to try to be proud of your shows."
When asked about thriving list of Goldenvoice alumni, Tovar lights up. "I'm so proud of my boys! They make me look good," he says. "It really does. Because I picked these guys. We were very personal. We listened to the fans; we were educated by the fans."
* * *
The passion Tovar had for music 30 years ago exists today. It's evident when he discusses GV30, a three-day series featuring X, the Vandals, Social Distortion, the Descendents, Bad Religion, Youth Brigade, Adolescents, Dickies and more (including a few special guests, plus offering some limited-edition tees designed by original Goldenvoice artist Costa Mesa-based Bad Otis Link) at Goldenvoice's old stomping grounds, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Exene Cervenka, co-vocalist of LA's X, says she believes Goldenvoice was a pioneer, just as the bands were.
"It's a really tough thing, trying to keep the steering wheel straight on success—I know I wouldn't know how to handle it," she says. "The fact they've been around for 30 years, maintaining the same as much as possible, the same ethic, is pretty great. It's nice we can do a show like this and not get beat up."
Cervenka laughs and continues, "That punk ethic, you just never give up."
When asked how he and Tollett decided on the bill, Tovar says it was a careful process. Instead of pulling some of the hugest bands around, which they easily could, Goldenvoice made the conscious decision to return to its origins.
"We chose bands that embraced our ideas, and together, we carried it as far as we could," Tovar says of the sold-out shows. "I think it's time to celebrate the greatest punk-rock city in the world. We want to celebrate punk heritage and culture, both of which are so deeply ingrained in Southern California."
He glances down at his hands, then back up. "I had so much fun. I wanted the world to see punk rock. I really did," he says. "I think we got as much mileage as we could out of the thing. We rode this wave all the way to the sand."
Tovar pauses and grins. "Eh?" he asks. "How OC is that? We rode this one all the way to the shore."
This article appeared in print as "His Golden Voice: Gary Tovar's iconic concert production company birthed Coachella, helped punk-rock luminaries early in their careers—and he isn't done yet."
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