Situated on one of West Hollywood’s most storied bends in the road, the House of Blues casts a long cultural shadow over the Sunset Strip. In its 15 years of operation, the live-music venue has become a lodestar for some of Los Angeles’s most notable exports: rock-and-roll excess, saccharine teen pop, snarling hip-hop, and silky R&B.
Best known in certain quarters as the glammed-up juke joint the Notorious B.I.G. shouts out in Going Back to Cali (“I’m sippin’ on booze/in the House of Blues”), it’s also the garish night spot where Phil Spector downed shots of Bacardi rum with champagne backs before going on to murder Lana Clarkson in 2003.
And on Monday evening, as part of a three-day cross state fundraising swing for President Obama, the House of Blues became an unlikely ground zero for Los Angeles’s Democratic faithful. A crowd of about 1,000, who had paid between $250 and $10,000 to rub elbows and drink spirits from plastic cups, thronged the club to hear the president preview his 2012 campaign stump speech.
They even got to witness him be heckled by a sweaty, bearded man who called the commander in chief “an Antichrist” before being dragged out by security to a chorus of “Four more years!” by the crowd.
There at House of Blues, amid the quirky ceiling murals, the voodoo curios and bottle-cap art—in a precinct of the city that couldn’t lean any more left if it fell into the Pacific Ocean—Obama delivered an address that threw down the gauntlet to his Republican opponents in Congress to pass his recently proposed American Jobs Act. The president’s speech also tapped themes of national unity (at a time, he acknowledged, when Americans have “gotten discouraged”), conjuring images of the country rolling up its collective sleeves to enable taxation for the rich at a level commensurate to the middle class and forecasting an end to Washington politics “as usual” thanks to his administration rather than despite it.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Obama said from the stage. “And that’s where I need your help.”
But before the president’s arrival, the scene more resembled some kind of strange variety show or campy revival performance by an aging pop act than a political rally. DJ Adam 12 initially roused the largely middle-aged crowd with a medley of old school R&B, nu-soul, and even a smattering of presidentially appropriate hip-hop that included Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Obama confrere Jay-Z, and controversial White House poetry paragon Common.
The music didn’t stop there.
Before introducing the first of the fundraiser’s featured performers, West Hollywood Mayor John Duran gave props to his city’s proud embrace of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities: “Welcome to the home of the Sunset Strip. Welcome to the home of Boys Town—the LGBT epicenter of the world.” He then brought on the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, which performed rousing covers of two ’80s pop standards: Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Pat Benetar’s “We Belong,” both repurposed for this context as an empowerment anthems.
The event’s second headliner, the chart-topping, multi-Grammy-nominated rapper B.o.B., flat-out bombed. You could blame the lackluster response on the same kind of apathy that makes attending L.A. sporting events an exercise in tedium. But running through a short set that included his smash hits “Airplanes” and “Nothin’ on You,” the crowd stood almost bolt-still despite repeated entreaties by the rapper’s hype man to put their “hands in the air.” At which point an elderly woman fainted. And, worse still, B.o.B. neglected to give Obama the requisite shout-out on stage. Instead of something like “Barack Obama 2012, y’all!” the best B.o.B. gave Monday night was, “Thank you to Obama, everybody for inviting me out here.”
So much for rocking the vote.
The evening’s master of ceremonies, Jesse Tyler Ferguson of the Emmy-winning ABC comedy Modern Family, lavished praise on the president for his recent repeal of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, hailing the move as “the signature civil-rights accomplishment of our time.”
And reaching the podium at about 6 p.m. to finally galvanize the audience, Obama returned the compliment. “Michelle and the girls love them some Modern Family,” he told the crowd. “They love that show.”
Barely a minute into the president’s arrival at the podium to thunderous applause, however, he was interrupted by a sweaty, bearded man who began shouting, “The Christian God is the one and only living God!” before referring to Obama as an "Antichrist" and being hustled away by security.
From there, Obama touted a laundry list of his successes as president, custom-selected to strike at the heart of his progressive Angeleno constituency, including installing two women as Supreme Court justices, passing sweeping health-care reform, the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, and the government’s bailout of the auto industry.
“All of those were tough fights,” the president said.
“Don’t forget medical marijuana!” someone in the crowd shouted.
Obama laughed. “Thank you for that.”
The president also continued to make hay of a news tidbit that has come up frequently in his recent speeches as a means of putting pressure on his tax-hike-averse Republican adversaries. Citing Warren Buffett’s lament about being taxed at a lower rate than his secretary in spite of his vast wealth, the president said the solution to the country’s problems was not further tax cuts favored by the right wing but instead a higher tax rate for the wealthiest Americans and corporations.
“That’s not class warfare,” Obama said. “Republicans are going around talking about, ‘Well, that’s class warfare.’ You know what? If asking a billionaire to pay the same tax rate as a plumber is tax warfare, then sign me up!”
“The only warfare I’ve seen waged is against the middle class and ordinary families.”
From there, Obama fleshed out what will almost certainly be his 2012 campaign’s central theme: that his first term has served as a corrective to nearly a decade of political mismanagement by the previous Republican administration, which got the country into its current economic morass, and that it represents his initial steps to create lasting political change—an argument delivered with no small amount of Clintonian “I feel your pain” sentiment.
“I know you’ve gotten tired,” Obama said. “I know sometimes you’ve gotten discouraged. I know that. I know it’s been tough. But look, here’s the thing. I never promised you easy. If you wanted easy, you would have never campaigned for Barack Hussein Obama.
“The promise was, there was a vision of America we believed in. The promise was, if we worked hard, we could achieve that vision …There were going to be setbacks. And there were going to be challenges. And there were going to be folks who were fighting us every inch of the way. And trying to change the way Washington works, given the bad habits it’s gotten into, was going to be more than a notion. But what I said was, if you’re willing to stick with me, if you’re willing to hang in there, I was positive we could achieve our dreams.”
With that, and after wrapping up his remarks, Obama left the stage with the House of Blues on its feet cheering with borderline Beatlemania fervor. He was late. He was expected at another, more intimate fundraiser a mile off Sunset, where dinner with the president cost $17,900.