Sarge

(1998)

It was last summer. A Sunday night in fact, in a little East Hollywood dive called the Garage. For years it had been a bath house called the Bunkhouse, all cowboy and leather, back when this neighborhood had been all bad boy and leather. That was before the Plague. I seem to recall wandering into to it once during it’s next, non-deviant phase, the name of which escapes me but it was something collegiate, pathetically so, being that the only college within miles was a battered City College a few blocks away. Then Silverlake came into vogue and someone bought the place and brought back the deviants and began booking bands on Sunday nights. Those Sundays became quite the chic hangout for the hungover crowd. The fact that the corner of Melrose and Virgil was not in Silverlake—not even “Silverlake adjacent” as the realtors say—did not prevent the various national magazines—the Rolling Stone’s and the Buzz’s and the Los Angeles’ and Hirsute Woman’s Whatever’s—from labeling it as such. From then on you could see a smattering of tourists mixing uneasily with the boys in leather and the punks and the jaded old scenesters.  But that‘s all ancient history.  I’m on my way to see the Nip Drivers.

Parking on Santa Monica was fucked as usual. I popped into Jay’s real quick for a burger (better than Tommy’s), then crossed Virgil there (right at the magic invisible line where Hollywood’s southeastern fringe meets Virgil Village; those hills back over my shoulder, that’s Silverlake…) and passed the permanently grafitti’d billboard.  This is varrio La Mirada Locos 13. I quicken my step. This is a marginal neighborhood, but getting better. Still, there’s a pretty unfriendly crowd over at the 7-11 parking lot. But that’s not the reason I pick up the pace. The Nip Drivers are on the bill tonight, and I can hear from a block away that they’ve already started.

You’ve probably never heard of the Nip Drivers. A little more ancient history, going all the way back to the mid-eighties. I’ve been a Nip Drivers fanatic from the moment I heard “Cindy” on Adam Bomb’s old show on KXLU.  Weird minor chords and keening vocals that suddenly lurch into fierce thrash and back again…. We went and saw them at the old O.N. Club (a long since abandoned cliffside hole on Sunset–I think that was the very first Silverlake club but don’t quote me on that) in what must’ve been 1984. It was a stunning show. Really, really weird. Weirdness for its own motherfucking sake. The bassist was so miniskirted skinny she looked frail, with an ancient, tiny, even frailer amp. The skinheaded drummer just wailed away, his kit skittering across the floor in all directions so he had to pull it back into formation after each song. The guitar player was good, laying out big jagged melodic chords. And this demented singer—he spent what seemed like the whole set hiding–crouched down behind a P.A. speaker, singing and engaging in snappy patter with the audience, telling us how much better he looked than us. The audience too seemed from another planet (I recall the late Craig Lee reviewed the show for one of the local papers and referred to the band and its following as the under-underground.)  This one weird looking skinhead in particular spent the entire set vibrating and jerking like an amphetamine St. Vitus dance. We were witnessing yet another example of that stunning reinvention of the whole concept of rock’n’roll that punk had unleashed and that LA’s South Bay was reinventing again through Black Flag and Saccharine Trust now this crazed bunch. It got nasty in the crowded club. The weirdos let loose, spazzing, freaking the normal people who reacted hissily. Some UCLA nerd looking dude bitched at my wife for standing in his way, blocking the view from his table. She dumped a beer on his head. He got up screaming a protest. I stared him down and out of the club. The band continued on its demented way. “Cindy” in particular soared.  This was 1984. America was hopelessly Reaganized. We sought escape and truth in madness in dank clubs dug out of the crumbling hillsides of Los Angeles.

Fifteen years later I pay my five bucks to get into the Garage. It’s maybe two or three songs into their set, the place was packed, the band wild, and I was back, back almost at the door. No idea of who else was in the joint. It was packed far beyond the legal limit. Just smoke and a sea of heads washing back and forth in the mosh. A nasty edge in the air. Very cool, very mid-80’s, and very nostalgic.

The moshing had gotten a little heavy up front, apparently. That inchoate bouncing electrons style, instead of the more ritualized swirling hurricane of the ’80’s.  Kids these days.… Then something about the bouncing bodies set me off that a brawl had broken out. A tremendous crush of leather clad punks and pretty boys came washing back, surging like a wave. The bar narrows towards the door, and the panicked bodies in front of me began piling up, so I went into the standard unlock-the-knees edge-of-the-pit stance. On they came. Some of that there’s-a-riot-goin’-on thrill began surging in my gut. The wave was on me, bodies actually lifted up off the floor, and there, where the floor narrowed down almost at the door, it crested and broke and spit out—Sarge!  Flying backward past me, bouncing on his ass, with a knot of six hardcore-looking dudes trying to untangle themselves to get at him. I couldn’t believe it. The nostalgia swept over me like deja vu.  Sarge picked himself up, ran up to me, yelled “that motherfucker hit me over the head with a bottle!” and threw himself right back into the maw. He grabbed one—apparently THE one—and threw him up against one of the booths and made to clobber him so hard that assuredly the stupid bastard’s jaw would’ve been busted clean, teeth scattering across the floor like chiclets. But half-a-dozen arms reached out and grabbed his arm, yanking it down. They then combinedly hurled him backward once again, past me, on his ass.  Sarge scrambled to his feet and made to go at them again. Now I had been watching this seconds-tick-like-minutes scene more bemused than alarmed. I’ve known Sarge for years, through his many fights.  I was there the night he was jumped by two big Huntington Beach punks at the Anti-Club, and he dispensed with them readily, biting off an earlobe in the process. (The sight of these big, spoiled rich thugs searching that filthy floor for the missing lobe is something I’ll never forget). And I’ve broken up a few of his confrontations when they were turning ugly or bad. But this was Sarge’s movie, and a great one it was. Sarge vs.half-a-dozen stupid punks (they would have been stupid metal-heads in ‘79) and beating a couple of their asses in the process. Still—there was one problem. So, as he got to his feet next to me I said into his ear— “Sarge you got two kids now.”  He looked at me. “But that motherfucker hit me on the head with a beer bottle!  Look!”  There was blood on his fingers. I just shrugged. He glared at the little motherfucker, now bottleless and scared silly. The motherfucker’s friends never moved, either. They kind of slunk back, feigning more interest in the show. It was a goddamned draw. Sarge vs. half-a-dozen punks. Sarge roaring—”If I ever find that sonofabitch by hisself I’ll kick his ass!” And he went outside to nurse his sore skull on the curb and complain loudly to all that would listen.

Some homeless black guy had been hanging out front, lackadaisically spare changing, mostly just talking. He went up to Sarge. “It ain’t worth it man. I been there, too. And it ain’t worth it.  Anymore violence ain’t gonna do you no good.” Sarge thought about it. “Thanks, man”, he said, “you’re right. I got kids.” And he reached into his pocket and gave this itinerant wise man a few bucks and went home.

Inside, the Nip Drivers just tore that place up. One of the best shows I’ve seen in years.

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