When Poco made their live debut at the Troubadour club on Santa Monica Boulevard in October 1968, they were dubbed the happiest group in Hollywood. Their winning combination of pickin’ and grinnin’ country music with super-hot rock licks made them the virtual house hootenanny band at Doug Weston’s legendary West Hollywood venue, where the elite gathered to check out the latest new West Coast happenings – and pick up a waitress or two for a night of passion in the nearby Tropicana Motel.
Which colour door do you want tonight? The Tropicana had one in every colour, most of which were regularly banged shut by ladies’ men like Jackson Browne, Dennis Hopper, Gene Clark and David Crosby as they flung their ironed Wrangler jeans across the floor.
And the Troub… What a place to hang if you were a young, handsome rock’n’roller with money in your pocket and weed in your wallet. Indeed the club was so high on good-looking, tanned, testosterone-filled rock stars that, as one bar girl put it: “You had to wear a diaphragm just to walk across the floor. The semen potential was so intense it was enough to get you pregnant just standing there!”
LA photographer, model, novelist, chronicler and curvaceous ‘friend to the stars’ Eve Babitz breathed that air. “You could smell the sex in the Troubadour as soon as the doors swung open. Everything was great! You couldn’t miss it.” Good times.
For Poco – or Pogo, as they were initially called – the presence of George Harrison, Doug Dillard and Janis Joplin at their shows was surely a sign that they were going to join that aristocracy. On their debut gig they supported the well-established Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and blew them off stage. A banjo player and wannabe comedian called Steve Martin became their regular warm-up act as Hollywood flocked to catch this new sensation.
Influential LA Times rock critic Robert Hillburn said Poco were destined for the top and, with Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt offering their congratulations, they believed him. But Poco didn’t become the next big thing. Or the one after that. Their story is one of temptation and corruption, thieving managers who doubled as drug dealers, openly internecine hostilities, and a side order of rampant ambition and green-eyed jealousy.
Poco were formed from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield after Neil Young effectively quit that group for the last time following a drugs bust in March 1968. During a noisy jam session at Stephen Stills’s Topanga Canyon ranch, irate neighbours called the cops.
Hearing the patrol cars, Stills escaped through a back window, while the Malibu sheriff rounded up Cream’s Eric Clapton and three Buffalos – Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina – and hauled the brain-mushed stoners off to the LA County jail, where they spent a weekend in the cells with a bunch of Black Panthers who admired their shiny hair and pink boots.
Severely traumatised, Young stuck around merely for a farewell show then got out of Springfield in the same Pontiac hearse with Ontario number plates on it that he’d arrived in – and with the master tapes for his solo album. Cut adrift, Furay and Messina immediately began rehearsing a new band, with the Springfield’s nominal guitar tech Rusty Young, a pedal steel ace who could play anything with strings on it, and his drummer friend George Grantham.
“Me and Jimmy started Poco,” says Furay. “I’d been the frontman in Springfield but it was Stills’s band. Neil was restless; he had too many agendas. We bossed places like the Whisky, the Palladium and the Troubadour, but there were too many Canadians with immigration problems in the group and it just fizzled out.”
Or as Young said: “We thought we’d be together forever. But we were just too young to be patient.”
Everybody knew that was nowhere. Rusty Young recalls the early days: “I came from Denver to play on a Richie song called Kind Woman for the Springfield’s Last Time Around sessions, only to find they’d broken up. Richie and Jim had this concept – to mix country and rock with banjo, mandolin and dobro. It was a new idea. We searched Los Angeles for recruits.
"We tried out Greg Allman on organ, and Gram Parsons way before he joined The Byrds. They released Sweetheart Of The Rodeo using our sound, which Gram took from us and taught them. It was typical that they beat us to the punch so everyone thought we were copying them. Gram was into George Jones; there was no rock in his country at all. It’s a myth that Gram invented country rock. Chinese whispers. It became the truth, but it was an absolute lie. Sure, he formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. But only because he’d played with us."
Furay, originally a pleasant farm boy from Ohio, had more reason to admire Parsons: “I knew him when we were folkies in New York City. He played me The Byrds’ first album and prompted me into that music. But I’m definitely a pioneer, because it was Poco who broke down barriers between hippies and rednecks. Country clubs, even in California, were real intimidating places. Watch out if you had moderately long hair."
With Buffalo Springfield’s accounts in disarray, and the Troubadour’s Doug Weston paying absolute bottom dollar, action was necessary.
“We had no money at all,” says Rusty Young. "Our manager, Dickie Davis [Springfield’s road man], had dozens of airline tickets spread on a table. One was for Neil Young, who never turned up for gigs half the time. The name said ‘Mr. N.Young’, and since my middle name is Norman… Neil got our band off the ground.”
Having enlisted bassist Randy Meisner, Poco were slow off the mark as a recording act, and had trouble settling on a band name after running into a legal battle with Walt Kelly, the creator of the wildly popular Pogo The Possum newspaper cartoon character. They flirted with calling themselves RFD (standing for Rural Free Delivery), before returning to the Troubadour in their new guise, wearing cowboy gear stitched by wives and girlfriends. Stardom seemed but a step away.
“To begin with it worked out good,” says Young. “The Troubadour was a happy hunting ground, a real den of iniquity. The waitresses were there to meet the musicians, the actors and producers. Jaid Barrymore [later mother of Drew and a Playboy centre spread] worked there looking for men. Jackson Browne roamed that bar with his young wannabe actresses. Him and [future Eagle] Glenn Frey were known for their escapades. They did quite well. I hung out with Michael Clarke, drummer from The Byrds, and Hoyt Axton [who wrote Steppenwolf hit The Pusher] and we got into a lot of trouble.
“The Troubadour was a wild place. I was there when Jim Morrison was thrown out one night,” Young continues. “He was standing on the balcony shouting: ‘You guys suck! I got more talent in my big toe than your entire group. I’m more famous than you’ll ever be’, etcetera. He was such an arsehole. When they dragged him out by his hair and put his sorry ass on the sidewalk everyone cheered.”
Michael Clarke was no angel, though. “He was the perfect great-looking rock star who could have any woman he wanted,” says Rusty Young. “But he drank too much, and then he got mean and started a lot of fistfights. Lucky we had Hoyt there, cos he was like a lumberjack. He rescued Michael from a lot of scrapes.”
Pickin’ Up The Pieces, Poco’s debut album, eventually released in 1969, received great reviews, moderate sales, and no sign of Meisner on the cover. He’d been booted out after complaining that he hadn’t been allowed to attend the mixdown. “I told Richie: ‘Look, I don’t feel like I’m part of the band now. I should quit.’ And he said: ‘Go ahead.’”
Poco signed a prohibitive, nine-album deal for Clive Davis’s East Coast label Epic. An odd choice for a West Coast band. According to Young: “We ended up with Clive Davis, who everyone thinks is a giant, in a swap engineered by the brilliant or twisted mind of David Geffen. Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun was desperate for Stills and Nash, while Davis wanted Richie, and gets shot of David Crosby.
"Everybody at CBS hated Crosby and hated working with him even more – he was famously an asshole. So Davis threw Crosby in for free; they were delighted to get rid of him, and Nash was traded for Richie Furay. Everyone’s happy, most of all Clive, who thinks Poco is gonna be huge.”
But Davis wasn’t keen on Rusty Young. And the feeling was mutual. “He played us his mix of our first single, Pickin’ Up The Pieces. And remember our concept? Well, he took off every country instrument, like the steel guitar; there was no dobro, no real harmonies. Richie says: ‘What the fuck is this? You’ve removed all the country sound.’ And Davis says: ‘Exactly. You can’t have a country record with steel guitar on it!’ The guy’s an idiot. It was ludicrous and foolish. But people wanted to hold us back, right from the start.”
Poco’s dysfunctional career was a classic SNAFU – Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. Enter new bass boy Timothy B Schmit, a kid from Sacramento who had a dynamite high harmony voice, much like Meisner’s honeyed larynx, and a pretty, sensitive image that girls went nuts for.
“I’d auditioned for them already but didn’t get picked,” Schmit recalls. “I grabbed my second chance, because I was desperate to play with Poco. I loved them. I was a fan, so joining was a dream. I even hitchhiked to the first rehearsal.
“The early days were fantastic. We worked on the road constantly, because management told us we were always in the red. We built up a following in California, we were stars in New York – got stopped on the streets – we were big in the Midwest. I guess there was decadence around but a lot of work got done. I lived at night and I loved partying, but I used the, er… other stuff as a reward."
Unfortunately Schmit was not popular with Messina and Young. “We were from different tribes,” says Schmit. “We didn’t rub along well. There was a lot of tension. Jimmy was like a jock who drank, whereas I smoked pot, which he hated. Rusty and me just didn’t see eye to eye. He made me feel I wasn’t good enough. After my very first show, the road manager told me: ‘This isn’t going to work out.’ But Richie said: ‘Forget it. You are the right guy.’ So we co-existed. We worked together but we did not hang out. Richie smoked pot but in a dinner party way. It was all very formal at his house. I didn’t really fit in. But I persevered.”
Rusty Young is less diplomatic: “I hated it when Timothy B Schmit joined. I was furious they signed him up without talking to me. Randy hated that too. He resented being kicked out. I missed Randy because he was better for the band. So we got on the wrong foot from day one.”
Schmit and Young’s lifestyle clashes were catastrophic. “The reason was drugs,” says Young. “I didn’t do drugs. Once cocaine appeared it was an ugly scene. The road manager was involved, and the roadies. People were spending everything they earned and coming home with nothing for the wife and kids. It created an entirely horrible and ugly atmosphere. To this day I meet women who say: ‘Poco are the worst thing that ever happened in my life. I worked as a waitress and you were rude and you never left a tip.’
"I didn’t know at the time, but the road manager was pocketing the hundred-buck tips and spending it on cocaine. The managers were skimming even more. It ended up with them stealing my equipment for drug money. They went to jail for that. So eventually I put my foot down when I sent a guy home and sacked him. That was also the end of my relationship with Tim – and it hadn’t been that good before. I’d seen what the drug scene did to me and people I liked. So we just parted ways.”
Poco’s next three studio albums – Poco, From The Inside and A Good Feelin’ To Know – didn’t do much better than the debut, although the live Deliverin’ appealed to their core fan base. Furay fingers the band’s struggle as “an inability to crack the AM radio market. A Good Feelin’ To Know was supposed to be ‘it’. I was convinced it was a smash, and when it didn’t happen I said, that’s it, I’m outta here."
More galling for Furay, a self-confessed control freak, was the sudden and immediate fame of a band called the Eagles, who seemed to have a similar template but hit pay dirt with their very first single, a cover of Jackson Browne’s Take It Easy, which waved and winked at A Good Feelin’ To Know as it raced up the charts.
It was followed in short order by Witchy Woman, a biographical account of the girls who hung out and gave out at the Troubadour, and the sublime Jack Tempchin-penned Peaceful Easy Feeling, that wrapped up everything Poco tried to do – with old adversary Randy Meisner, who was now an Eagle, providing harmony vocals.
Furay was justifiably mad. “I was as talented as those guys! Poco were prolific. Why were we a dead horse? Meanwhile, Steve [Stills] and Neil [Young] are becoming superstars and I’m not?” Furious, Poco’s leader called up David Geffen, who had been getting his claws into him on the pretext of advising the group into better tailoring their sound. “He told me straight: ‘Poco will not happen. You are not going to make it. But there is an out. Why don’t you hook up with the songwriter JD Souther, and Chris Hillman who wants to leave Stills’s band Manassas and form a supergroup trio?’
"It was pitched that we’d be the new CS&N. Was that all that there was to it? I can become an overnight sensation after all? I bought it, but of course it didn’t happen that way. It was a bad time. Music was my life, and it took everything from me – my bands, my family because I went through a divorce. Everything gone. It was my fault too, because I neglected the important things. I was jealous, not envious, of others, and in my drug stupor mind I had my most jealous thoughts. I was glad for Steve and Neil, but I guess I wasn’t that glad.”
Suddenly the whole Hollywood Babylon scene, the incestuous ‘You play on my album and I’ll play on yours’ world, started to turn sour for those who didn’t make it big. “There was too much excess,” says Furay. “Too much everything. The love of money or success is the root of all evil. Trying to get that left me deluded. I remembered how the Eagles’ Glenn Frey sat in my living room when I was rehearsing Poco in 1968, watching us intently. Well he certainly knew how to take what we did to the limit. Or was that Randy?”
It was certainly chaos. And Poco were sliding down the pecking order. “Being on the road ceased to be enjoyable,” says Furay. “I’d done a lot of that with Buffalo Springfield, where we played in places when people didn’t have a clue about us apart from the single For What It’s Worth, and this was turning out worse. Deliverin’ was a great live album, but after that the record company gave up on us, didn’t promote us at all. They weren’t interested. A Good Feelin’ To Know was also terrific – absolutely no filler. They didn’t even say thank you.” So when Geffen poached Furay he already had his bags packed. “I knew I was going but the band didn’t. I didn’t tell them.”
Schmit was shocked by his ally’s blasé departure, although he did leave them the excellent Crazy Eyes album as a parting shot. Ironically, Crazy Eyes was an homage to Gram Parsons (who would die four days after its release and have his corpse burned in the desert.
“Gram’s death didn’t help,” admits Furay. “It was a severe warning to people like me. As marijuana shifted to cocaine use, and even heavier stuff, people were losing their inhibitions and their lives. I got out of that scene just in time, because we all did it. I remember the exact time and place I first took cocaine at a party. It’s vivid. And abuse was totally rife in LA among musicians. Hardly a person wasn’t involved. Then there’d be a death and you’d think, uh-oh! I’d better be more careful. That would last like a week.
"It sure didn’t take long to get back into it. And it was so hard to quit. Gram hit the self-destruct button and I saw him do it. We told him enough times, but he just wouldn’t listen. Or couldn’t. He needed to be around ultra-successful people like the Rolling Stones. He had to hang with people on the edge, but he became so bad they stopped wanting to see him. Plus he couldn’t take the pace, he was much too frail.”
For Furay, who was close to following a similar path, matters came to a head when he realised Poco didn’t have the grit to capitalise on their sound. “The Eagles did. They had that dirt, and they could dig it out.”
Schmit was also starting to notice cracks in Poco’s façade: “Even though I was emotionally immature, almost like a teenager when I joined, I was still enjoying myself. But us being this happy type of group, a little simpler, made it hard to dig into the underbelly in the way that Glenn Frey and Don Henley could. Especially Don. We just didn’t have a hit in us like Take It Easy, and so we were struggling, which was tough on Richie. The Eagles just knew how to crack a song to everyone’s liking. They had more charisma. They wrote better songs. And there was that air of mystery and an appealing surliness about them. Poco was way more naïve."
West Coast photographer Henry Diltz shot the cover of Poco’s second, self-titled album (aka the Orange Crate LP). “Poco had a squeaky-clean image,” he says. “When they were the house band at the Troubadour they were very fresh air. By the time they made Crazy Eyes Jimmy Messina was gone [replaced by guitarist Paul Cotton] and they were living in a ranch in Colorado. The LA singer-songwriter boom kind of left them behind. They were nice guys, but that wasn’t a great image.”
Rusty Young saw the band’s decampment as a positive. “It was hard to stay grounded in LA,” he says. “Some folks started to believe their own publicity. Neil Young, I’m not a big fan of. We had many chances to become involved with him on the road and in the studio and they were all unpleasant. He hurt a lot of people. I saw how success affected musicians. I saw it when Messina joined up with Kenny Loggins. I saw it affect Timothy. When you’re told everything you do is great and you weed out your critics, even regular guys suffer.”
Yet Furay’s departure enabled Schmit to blossom as a singer and writer. His Keep On Tryin’ gave Poco a rare radio hit. The attendant album, Head Over Heels, found Poco on a new label, ABC Dunhill, and playing with some fancy friends from Steely Dan. From being the unwanted new kid in town, Schmit had outstripped his compadres. He sang and played bass on the Dan’s Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam and Aja albums, guested on Gene Clarke’s magnificent No Other, and evolved into someone who was too talented to rust in a group like Poco.
“Timothy hated Colorado,” Young insists. “Even though Steve Stills and Chris Hillman followed us there, it wasn’t LA. It was the last place he wanted to be. He moved in a different crowd and he wanted that fast-moving, celebrity California scene. I noticed how at gigs there’d be two lines of people. One was all these good-looking women who wanted to meet Timothy B Schmit, and the other was hairy-legged old boys who wanted to know how I tuned my steel guitar. He was a great singer and he was already aiming to get in with the Eagles. When our bands’ paths crossed I noticed how the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon would ride in our station wagon, whereas Tim would always ride with Don and Glenn in their limousine."
Unlike Furay, Young didn’t resent the Eagles. “They wrote about what they knew. They took what Poco and the Burritos did and they were much smarter. They were such clever businessmen. They panicked when Desperado bombed completely, but they came back. Glenn Frey played me the demo of One Of These Nights – ‘See what you think.’ I loved it. Yeah, I was jealous, but it was such a cool song. Later that night I saw Leadon, told him I heard the track and liked it, and he said: ‘Really? I fucking hate that song.’”
Meanwhile, unbeknown to his fellow band members, Schmit was being courted by David Geffen, who knew the Eagles were tired of Randy Meisner’s eccentricities. In early 1976 Geffen brokered a meeting with Schmit, Eagles manager Irving Azoff and his superstar charges Henley and Frey.
“We had dinner at Dan Tana’s, the ultimate Hollywood hang-out,” Schmit recalls. “They wanted to be incognito and I was told to keep a lid on me joining them, which was strange because Dan Tana’s is such a famous place. I had to keep my mouth shut with Poco, but I honoured my commitments until I couldn’t do that any more.
“It was sad because I loved it, even the drama. Poco was my education – it allowed me to step up to the Eagles. It was a great experience. We played with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Doobie Brothers, Mountain, we came on before Jimi Hendrix at the July 4 Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970.”
Even that came at a price. To land that prestigious slot, Poco were told by management that they had to waive their appearance fee. That their name was left off the Festival poster was a further blow. Original team leader Furay wasn’t exactly going places with John David Souther and Chris Hillman, either, but he got his life together. “Al Perkins from Manassas saved me when he introduced me to Jesus Christ and Christianity. That wasn’t popular. I felt like I’d started country rock and been told I was too country. Then I’m told: ‘Don’t do your Jesus songs. People don’t like them.’”
Hillman, Souther and Geffen certainly didn’t. Richie’s pals, sensing that their trio was about to bust, briefly formed a group they called the Heathen Defense League, as a satirical riposte, while the title of their second album, Trouble In Paradise, was an obvious sideswipe.
By 1975 the music scene in America had changed beyond recognition. The bands and the corporations ruled. The lunatics took over the asylum. Ever savvy, the Eagles led the charge, although as Frey once said: “Without Don Henley’s lyrics we’d have been Air Supply.” Old haunts like the Troubadour were also viewed as an unnecessary embarrassment by many.
Frey: “The Troubadour, man, was… full of tragic fucking characters – has-beens and hopefuls. I was always worried about going down there because I thought people would think I had nothing better to do. Which was true. But they loved us. We met some great girls down there.”
Eve Babitz, the Queen of the Troubadour, knew all the characters and wrote about them with matchless skill. “My book, Eve’s Hollywood, was the direct inspiration for Hotel California,” she says. “Don and Glenn adapted it freely and I didn’t get paid a cent. But I loved ’em all. Those rock stars were so great. Even Poco – though I have to admit they were not ladies’ men. Last time I saw Richie he was Born Again. I asked him for a drink and he said: ‘Go to the bathtub and help yourself.’ It was full of orange soda. Jim Morrison they were not.”
Rusty Young didn’t miss the old places. “I never wanted to be a rock star. They didn’t exist where I came from. Hollywood was a haze. The bands had set-ups to get women. It was Sodom and Gomorrah. Don Henley had this thing where he would lay on Lear Jets for girls. The phrase at the time was ‘Love ’em and Lear ’em.’”
When Schmit told the band he was leaving to join the Eagles, there were no tears. “Just handshakes and good luck,” he says. “Any one of ’em would have done exactly the same thing, given the chance.” But, by supreme irony, Schmit’s departure didn’t kill Poco, it made them stronger. Their Legend album, released in 1978, had hit singles. It went gold. Rusty Young was vindicated at last.
“When people get wildly popular the clique is finished,” he offers. “It didn’t drive me crazy but it drove Richie Furay crazy – literally. Once those stars get success they don’t hang out with you any more. They’ve got their houses and their circle. It’s over.”
For Richie Furay, who formed Poco in the first place as “an antidote to the negativity in Los Angeles”, his ideal wouldn’t be entirely shattered. The band’s motto – expressed in Pickin’ Up The Pieces – was an optimistic message: ‘We’re bringin’ you back down home where the folks are happy/Sittin’, pickin’, and a-grinnin’.”
Not a bad legacy after all.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 169, in April 2012.