Fire

The air is deathly still atop our hill here in Silver Lake, till the hint of a breeze brings the smell and sting of a bad burn miles away. That’s not a little fire, that smell, that’s whole neighborhoods, and jillions of molecules from burned houses fill the air in brownian motion, we inhale them, exhale them, they stick to our skin till we wash them off in the shower and they flow toward the ocean and infinity.

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Penultimate Sunday at Cafe NELA

So for I don’t know how many hours all these very creative types—some musicians, a writer, a couple artists, maybe some others—had settled in around a beat up table in an assortment of abandoned chairs at the very bottom of the Cafe NELA patio. Either gravity or our careers had left us there because you couldn’t get any lower than that table. We sat there drinking and smoking and laughing way too loud, the jokes were terrible and the insults mean and the stories were always old and sometimes true. Far nicer people than us gave us a wide circle, like plump fishes warily eyeing a circle of sharks. Sometimes one would foolishly come too close and be devoured, chomp, in a swirl of cackles and humiliation. It was all rather merciless and totally enjoyable and we sat there for hours laughing and basking in our asshole exceptionalism. We knew we were it. We knew it did not get any lower than us. More dumb jokes, each more offensive than the last, some bass players having no pride at all. Eventually three grown men were doing Jackie Mason impressions at the same time, though not quite in harmony. I’d never heard three bad Jackie Mason impressions at the same time. Probably never will again. Pipes went round. Holy vodka in a water bottle, Batman. Even friends were abandoning us by now. The Jackie Mason was getting weird, the sculptress was getting dangerously out there. We were starting to peak on our own delicious high. This is what I’m gonna miss, my painter buddy said, this. You can see music anywhere, he said, but this…. He gestured it in water colors, I saw it in words. This, he said, this is the life.

Leesa

Didn’t know I had this one, a shot of the Creamers from back in the mid 80’s, Sue Gorilla on guitar, and Leesa Poole just gorgeous at the microphone. I liked Leesa a lot, we were good buddies, and for a while she ran an office on Wilshire Blvd next door to where I worked, her day gig and my day gig side by side. I think we’re talking 1987. I can’t remember what she did, maybe corporate recruiting, while I worked then at the corporate headquarters of US Borax, running the mail room and shipping department and a small warehouse and sundry other sections. It was my sole stint as a manager, with a crew of ten or so. Leesa had called and said let’s do lunch in a couple days and at the appointed time she came down to my basement office to pick me up. I was in my usual blue collar business casual. She wasn’t.

No, she was dressed to kill in a leather mini miniskirt and crazily ripped black hose and wild heeled boots, while above she was in some tight spangled tee shirt and a studded denim jacket and her hair a platinum explosion. There was a billowy scarf and jangly bracelets and rings and necklaces and look at me earrings. There was even a tattoo. She looked fabulous and was probably the wildest thing seen on Wilshire Boulevard east of La Brea in years. I laughed—I mean I’d never seen her in this get up, on stage she looked positively puritanical in comparison, but this I assume was her daily office duds. My crew, on the other hand, did not laugh, or do anything. They were stunned into complete silence and just stared, eyes wide, jaws dropped. Remember, this was still the Reagan 80’s, dreary and conservative, and nothing had been seen like Leesa since the wild 70’s, and none of that even then had ever permeated my crew’s working class enclaves. As Leesa and I headed out they found excuses to follow us down the hall, one even ran ahead to hold the elevator door open, and when the door opened again on the first floor there was somehow a small audience trying to look like they weren’t staring. I have no idea how they collected there so quickly, but office buildings before the internet were like villages of a few hundred people, and juicy information could be passed from floor to floor with astonishing speed. Before we’d even left the building the chatter had begun.

I can’t remember where we had lunch or what we talked about, but I do remember that by the time I got back to the office the news of my supposedly wanton escapade had gotten all the way to the ninth floor. It didn’t help that I quite literally knew every single person in the building, especially the secretaries with whom I worked very closely. Every secretary, even today, is like a switchboard. If they heard that I was messing around with a real live movie star who looked exactly like Debbie Harry (as the report had it by the time it reached the ninth floor) then their entire department would know it as well, as any nearby secretaries. Over the next couple days I had to explain to the secretaries that no, I wasn’t having a fling with a wild rock star. It was just lunch, I said. Yes, my wife knows her, we’re all friends. Yes, my wife knew about the lunch. No, she’s not a movie star. No, she’s not a rock star. She’s a singer in a band. No, not a famous band…. I must have been convincing as the chatter and whispers faded away. Besides I was a nice guy. I wasn’t chasing anybody around any desks or being a creep. There wasn’t much to hang such a juicy rumor on. But lesson learned, and that was the very last time I ever let the day gig get a glimpse of my real life, something I stuck by for the next twenty five years of my professional life. It’s better that way. Let them think I’m normal became a mantra. Well, sort of normal anyway.

I hadn’t remembered any of this in years, perhaps decades, until I saw this photograph. Fun band, the Creamers. I doubt Leesa ever knew the stir she caused at US Borax. I doubt anybody I knew outside work ever did. I never told a soul. Some things are better left unspoken for thirty years or so.

Scott Drake

Scott Drake, center, with Chris Bag of Claw Hammer and one of those unidentified women. This was at Edwin & Debi’s legendary New Years in August bash some time in the late 80’s. One hundred drunken weirdos yelling Happy New Year at the stroke of midnight on some Saturday in August in Lincoln Heights. Best New Years Eve Party I ever attended, and it wasn’t even cold. Anyway, Scott was in fine form, and not long after this he totally weirded out a pair of gothy satanists. They looked great, all in black everything, and they had the whole jaded thing down, but then Scott showed up in the middle of their Anton Lavey shtick, they introduced themselves, he wordlessly burbled and squeaked, and they fled. Who needs language anyway?

Hollyweird, again

Once a nephew of mine wanted to see Hollywood. 1980, I think. Maybe ‘81. We had gone three blocks from home when a beautiful cobalt blue low rider completely tricked out—pipe organ speakers and everything—came rolling down Western from Hollywood Blvd, ran the light, jumped the curb and slammed into a lamp post. The body of the driver was slumped over the little chain steering wheel and you could clearly see the knife in his back. We all stared in disbelief. Well, you wanted to see Hollywood, I said. Cool, he said.

Hollyweird

We’ve been four decades now in what are essentially the eastern suburbs of Hollywood. First couple places were in East Hollywood, which is sort of Hollywood’s Brooklyn (I’d say Queens but that’s West Hollywood). In fact East Hollywood was its own incorporated village separated from Hollywood by farmland until it was incorporated into the city of Los Angeles I believe in the early 1910’s. Not that the city fathers had a choice if they wanted water. They lost their independence but they got their water, enough that by the 1920’s in a building boom that would give today’s anti-growth people a seizure the once sleepy village of East Hollywood metastasized into instantaneous suburban sprawl, home to all the low level studio hands and movie proles. There are photos from the top of Barnsdall Hill twenty years apart that are mind blowing: the first an agricultural idyll, something out of Ancient Greece, all groves and fields of grain and vineyards stitching to the horizon; the second, twenty years later, crowded wall to wall with cheap construction and looking basically like it looks today, except for the Home Depot. Hence all the now charming but then just quick and cheap to build bungalows (many still with the original Murphy beds that wake entire neighborhoods with violent skronks and squeaks when fucked in). In the century that followed East Hollywood never has upscaled. Downscaled quite a bit for a spell. We saw that. Sleazebags haggling over a ten dollar blow jobs in the 7-11 parking lot. Ten dollars with no rubber the john said. A minute later he realized he’d been had. They were still arguing as we drove off and a police cruiser pulled in.

So we moved a mile east into one of the tonier and older Hollywood suburbs, Silverlake, though off Sunset amid the bohos and gays and working class, hundreds of feet below the rich folks up the hill. It was a wonderful spot, we loved it. We had loud parties every weekend, and otherwise listened to obnoxious music and screwed to all hours and the neighbors must have hated us. I’d hate us. But crime oozed east from Hollywood in the early 90’s—a crackhouse three doors down, heroin three doors up—so we fled another mile east to the very edge of the Hollywood suburbs on a ridge overlooking—gasp!—the Valley, tho’ Atwater residents refuse to acknowledge that fact, freed as they are from the SFV’s rigid street grid. But up here in our Silverlake aerie we know better—it gets hot as fuck down there on the wrong side of the 5. Plus they can smell the River.

I appear to have digressed from whatever stream of consciousness I’d been in. Whatever, this eddy might be just the place to mention that that heroin house just sold for a million bucks. The rents in the crackhouse are now twice what we’re paying in our hilltop pad. Progress. Anyway, back into the current:

It’s funny to remember that when I was in second grade I began school in San Diego, then Anaheim, then Tacoma, then Anaheim again, then finished on an island off the coast of Maine. That was what, five thousand miles in one year? In 39 years we have moved all of maybe two miles. Same goddamn phone number even. Same stores and streets and stories. Some of the same friends. Virtually my entire adult life and all of my married life in less than two square miles here on Hollywood’s eastside. Hollywood. All our streets run east-west through Hollywood. Our bus lines. Our consciousness. Downtown LA is still alien and exotic and exciting to me, and I worked there for years, in who knows how many of those skyscrapers. Yet Hollywood Blvd, in our downtown, while infinitely stranger than downtown LA somehow feels normal. It’s fucked up that something that bizarre could feel normal, I know, but I’ve been seeing it for four decades. It gets into your DNA, as the hackneyed and scientifically nonsensical meme goes. But it does. I got the shit kicked out of me by cops in the Hollywood jail even. I’ve earned this feeling of being at home in this crazy place. I’ve never even considered myself an Angeleno, not really. I live in Hollyweird.

ON Klub

[Just found this amid the drafts, it appears to have been pieced together from various bits and might be ten years old, and some of it perhaps twenty or thirty years old, I don’t remember. It’s a rough draft, obviously, but I’ll leave as is.]

Someone asked about the ON Klub. In Silver Lake, right? On Sunset? Facebook archaeology. Look for the old people that remember. A few of us did. Had actually been there even. I could even recite the address, though how I have no idea. But it was 3037 W. Sunset. Silverlake–it was one word then, though it’s back to two again now–was terra incognita then. People knew Hollywood, and people knew Echo Park was next to Dodger Stadium, but Silverlake was an amorphous area inbetween, and it’s stretch of Sunset Blvd was dimly lit and dark shadowed as night fell, dingy old gay bars and botanicas and liquor stores and abandoned storefronts. Everything old and if not quite falling down, aging less than gracefully. You could tell that a generation or two before this area had been something. If you dared to turn left or right and chugged up the steep hill in whatever beat up seventies lemon you were stuck in (it was the end of a decade of terrible American industrial workmanship, when everything was built just to break down, and a whole nation was topographically divided by whether the car could make it up that hill or not) the darkness would close in around you, the houses hidden behind steel bars and lush foliage, the apartment buildings peeling and battered, and who were those sketchy guys on the sidewalk? The streets twisted upon themselves immediately, dead ended or narrowed to the width of a single car and Sunset Blvd disappeared somewhere back there and you were lost, instantly. We were new in town, just a year or two, and lived in East Hollywood with the Armenians and Mexicans and gays and losers and ancient people who tended roses in yards in front of old clapboard houses they’d lived in since the silent days. We never explored Silverlake. We’d pass through it on the way downtown till we figured out a quicker route. But that was it.

Our car had died and we were dependent on the RTD–now MTA–for transportation for a year. That was a drag. You miss a lot of things that way. At some point we scraped up enough cash for a car and bought a Pinto. They were homely and cheap and deadly in a collision. Ours was blue and it rattled and it never saw the fast lane of a freeway. But it was wheels. I’m pretty sure this was the car we first went to the ON Klub in. We kept reading about the place in the LA Reader–never bothered with the LA Weekly back then, the Reader was much hipper and Matt Groening wrote the music column–and all these bands I’d hear on KXLU occasionally seemed to be playing there. Weird bands, crazy bands, punk rock bands that annoyed everybody. We had to go there. It was a Saturday night. We’d worked our shit jobs that week and collected our paychecks. Put almost enough in the bank to cover the bills, and the rest in our pockets. ATM cards didn’t exist yet, and credit cards were beyond most of us. It was a cash only economy at our level. Cheap restaurants, cheap clubs, cheap beer and rag weed. We had apparently just smoked a whole joint’s worth because I remember being stoned out of our minds as we crept down a darkened Sunset Boulevard looking for the address. We went right past it at least once, turned around, and headed back. 3037 Sunset, that’s it. There was a marquee I think above the door. I think it said Oriental Nights. Maybe it said ON Klub too. I can’t remember if that K was to make it punk rock or if it was some affectation left over from its history as a rather notorious gay bar from the days before Stonewall. Silver Lake–two words way back then–had been a center and hide out for Hollywood’s gays since the twenties. Fyl once described a bus trip down Sunset sitting behind two elderly queens. As the bus made its way slowly along, these two kept pointing to their old haunts and reminiscing. Remember that place? Oh and that one? Mary, this, Mary that. The Silver Lake Lounge. The Black Cat Tavern. Oriental Nights was one. They giggled and whispered something about the place. By the time she got off the bus downtown she’d had the whole tour. But that was twenty years later. I have no idea what we thought the place had been as we entered that night. You didn’t really ask questions about punk rock clubs, you just took them as they came, hoping it would last more than a week. When you’re twenty something the past isn’t especially important anyway. Or shouldn’t be.

The place was a dive. It was old, built into a hillside, almost a cliff, it was almost like it was built into a cavern. East Hollywood was flat as Kansas but here just two miles away weird bars were excavated into bedrock and the neighborhoods clung to hillsides along streets undulating who knows where. It was a different world. Gays and hippies and vatos, ancient bohemians and chattering Filipinos and breathtakingly beautiful Latinas that returned your stare with a sneer. It didn’t feel like home, yet, but I liked it. We found parking along Sunset somewhere near the joint and went in.

Think the place began booking punk around 1981? But only for a couple years. It was there for years afterward, first an empty shell, lonely and sad and weed choked, and then was a film studio storage place or something for decades, might still be. I don’t remember as much ska there as later at the ON Klub in Hollywood. I remember some really nuts underground shit, though. Nip Drivers in 82 or 83 remains one of my favorite shows ever, it was demented, plus some guy was fucking with Fyl and she poured her drink over his head, but it was the wrong guy, and he got mad, and Fyl told him to fuck off, and he got madder, and she told him to fuck off, bitch, so he got even madder, all dripping and sticky, and I told him to leave (think I just pointed at the door) which he did, but he wrote us a nasty personal ad in the LA Reader, called me a “hulking boyfriend”, which we still have pressed in a photo album somewhere. I loved punk rock.