Pleasure Pits on Parade 

A romp through L.A.'s rock, blues and country clubs

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999

Los Angeles rock & roll clubs thrive on a common, almost mythic perception as the great leaping-off point, exotic locales where each stage offers wild, unlimited potential. For the audience, they provide the hope of elation, thrills, glamour; for the performer, they murmur softly of fame, glory, riches. A motley mix of grand openings and sudden closures, tried-and-true vs. brand-spanking-new cool, the clubs have steadily built themselves up from 1940s Sunset Strip trendsetters Ciro’s and the Mocambo to the days when Love, the Doors, the Seeds and virtually everyone else in the field made this town America’s pop epicenter, through the punk days of the Masque and today’s varied throb. The Los Angeles rock club, whether a simple beer joint or a fabulously appointed theme room, positively howls with unspoken promises, where every night is spent in a ritualistic pursuit of self-defined and self-appointed destiny.

If nothing else, even when the bands are weak, the sound quality poor and the staff obnoxious, spending a few minutes on a nightclub floor has the potential for the thrill of a sudden, shocking escapade. Hang around long enough and a certain number of mind-bending events are guaranteed. Whether it’s a claws-out catfight between Betty Page look-alikes at a Cramps show (Palace), a pair of copulating lovers tumbling over the second-floor balcony rail and landing in a heap at your feet (Palladium), someone setting Rodney Bingenheimer’s hair on fire (Whisky), a lone hot-headed security goon attempting to mace an entire pit-full of overexcited rockers (Hollywood Moguls, now closed) or an impromptu appearance by a stellar rock god (anywhere, anytime, from Bruce Springsteen to Sky Saxon), the club’s greatest appeal has always been, and remains, the unanticipated.

That fact is precisely what makes the club such an alluring destination; at the arena level, everything is done by the rules, resulting in a cut-and-dried, pack-jammed and, worst of all, liquor-free event. Gazing at those minuscule figures up on the stage and the swarm of sticky acolytes elbowing each other out of the way, all one can think about is the post-show parking lot traffic jam that awaits. Ah, but in the clubs, there’s a broad behavioral margin — a latitude that breeds indiscretion and encourages frolic to a far higher degree than virtually any other contemporary social setting. On a nightclub floor, anything goes; the best gossip in town circulates the clubs, romances bloom and fade with cyclical regularity, alliances are formed, fealties tested, teeth get knocked loose, tears flow, jackanapes abound. At any moment the cops could storm in or the Fire Department could throw you out; it’s a glorious forum for structured chaos, where one is likely to lose one’s innocence, shoes and house keys. ç

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The Strip, of course, remains the jewel in the crown, with the Roxy and Whisky a Go Go, both pretty much straightforward, same-as-they-ever-were destinations for the current hot rock flavor of the month and as the scenes of innumerable label showcases and unannounced shows by arena-level stars. The Key Club (formerly Billboard Live and heavy-metal heaven Gazzarri’s) is a far more upscale version of the traditional Strip rock pit, with its split-level floors, bars scattered everywhere, and one of the tallest stages in town; the Hollywood Art Deco of Johnny Depp’s infamous Viper Room, where the cult of celebrity reigns (offering up some bizarre moments — from Sporty Spice singing "Anarchy in the U.K." to Jerry Springer mauling "Heartbreak Hotel"), is almost incongruously tasteful. The atmosphere at House of Blues, with its genuine imported Mississippi dirt, way-weatherbeaten tin siding and folk art à go go décor, attracts curious tourists as much as the club’s wide-open booking policy of top musical talent draws serious music fans — this is one of the most impressive calendars of events any club could hope for.

Sunset Strip warhorse Coconut Teaszer (and its ground-floor, mostly acoustic-music Crooked Bar), where a half-dozen rock & roll aspirants aim to excite every night of the week (and on whose patio one can often observe swarms of bats feeding on the moths drawn to the lights of an overhanging billboard), retains a modicum of the swiftly fading Rockin’ Strip atmosphere, thanks in large part to booker Len Fagan, a cat who’s been making the scene on that fabled boulevard from the very onset of the psychedelic era. Another largely unchanged locale is the nearby Troubadour, whose presentation of everything from ’70s country-rock to the nascent Guns N’ Roses has been managed with a consistent grace that’s earned it a well-deserved reputation as one of the most historic clubs in the state.

The range of different facilities is extraordinary; there are gorgeous historic 1920s-era relics like the Palace and the Hollywood Athletic Club, preserved in all their richly detailed, old-school opulence. Fraught with ghostly Tinseltown atmosphere, these are magnificent rooms. There are clubs devoted to high-concept beauty and good taste: Observe the retro-exotica of the always-packed and tiki-peppered Lava Lounge, an ideally realized set piece lovingly overseen by glamorous hip-chick owner Michelle Marini. Goldfingers on Yucca, with its crystal chandeliers and padded gold-lamé walls, is another standout in the good-looking pleasure pit sweepstakes and is a favorite hang of R&B legend Hadda Brooks and, gadzooks, Lisa Marie Presley. Over on Pico, the Joint, a relatively recent arrival, boasts a definite rarity: gilded elephant tusks.

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