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For Those About to Rock 

Seven nights at the Whisky, where dreams still die hard

Thursday, Mar 10 2005
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Photos by Wild Don LewisI’m in a near dream state of too much alcohol, shivering eardrums and rock & roll over-saturation. Though the sound is ear-pummeling, I could fall asleep right here, my chin against this wooden railing. The band is Stronger Than Death, a nonsensical name even Spinal Tap wouldn’t stoop to. The lead singer demands that the crowd chant along with him to “Suck my dick!” Later, he snarls, “We’re a fucking garage band trying to make it!” He introduces the next song with “I took some ’shrooms and wrote this motherfuckin’ song! ’Shrooms! ’Shrooms! ’Shrooms! ’Shrooms! MOTHERFUCKER!!” God, I hate Stronger Than Death. It’s my third straight night at the Whisky, not even halfway to the finish line, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the hardest job here must belong to Travis. Poor Travis. He’s the big guy who tells everybody to stand clear of the imaginary strip that borders the dance floor in front of the stage and the rest of the club. When the Whisky’s packed, Travis has to push his way through the herd of humans and make sure the line stays empty in case of emergency. And when the club’s sparsely populated, he’s constantly reminding roving fans not to stand there, most often to looks of “What’d I do wrong, jerk?” You’d think he’d be a huge asshole, considering that his entire function is to quash people who are here to have fun. Yet night after night he does his tedious, toilsome, thankless job and never loses his cool. The world-famous Whisky a GoGo exists as its own black hole of rock. A once-seminal spawning ground that helped launch bands like the Byrds, the Doors, Love, Mötley Crüe, Van Halen and others, it’s now a place where desperate bands shell out their own money to get onstage, and patrons, employees and would-be rock stars get sucked in by the gravity of its past and their slim hopes for a rock & roll future. After seeing the documentary Super Size Me, where the filmmaker used himself as his own subject by eating only McDonald’s food for an entire month, I was up for a similar immersion-journalism adventure, one that would answer the question: What separates the little unknown band that pays to play at the Whisky on a Tuesday night from the marginally better-known “buzz” band that plays the so-called hipper clubs in Silver Lake and Echo Park? Besides, of course, that the bands playing the Whisky are way more likely to — intentionally, I think — spell their names wrong and call themselves something with “death,” “coma” or “black.” I knew a month of rock & rolling EVER-EE NIGHT could either kill me or lead to expensive and time-consuming rehab. So I settled on a week at the Whisky. NIGHT 1: VERB THE NOUN! “Fuckin’ Whisky — what the fuck is up?” Friday night. My first night. It’s billed as “Battle for Ozzfest,” which I expect will mean a hotly contested competition for a slot on the heavy metal mega-tour. It doesn’t. Two chicks — that’s not a derogatory term in this case — roll their eyes when I ask them where the judges are. “These bands were all on the MTV special,” one says. My first band is Stemm. The opening song begins with a prerecorded piano intro, then the foursome slam into raging, thunderous mega-chords of noise. Not good noise. Like Black Flag on steroids, minus the coherence. Even the mosh pit is subpar. I never realized there could be such a thing as lame-ass moshing, but the big boys down front try to start a human whirlpool and end up speed-skipping, then the whole thing just disintegrates due to lack of commitment and momentum. I make out the lyric “I can’t live my life the way you want me.” There’s something very disconcerting about watching a young man sing about his yearnings. When it’s communicated in a song that’s not very good, it just makes me feel embarrassed for him. They break into their Tool-sounding song, with completely indecipherable lyrics, and I feel a little better for the poor fellow. Stemm really aren’t bad. They’re giving it their all, and the lead singer shreds once-healthy vocal-cord tissue for 20 minutes in the name of his art. The last song, “Holding On,” is introduced with the thought “Believe in people and keep your friends close.” As a parent, I approve of Stemm’s positive message. Since it’s a pay-to-play night, the Whisky is packed with the band’s friends and family, so there are spontaneous little reunions all over the place as people recognize their neighbors. The Whisky a GoGo could be Anywhere, USA: guys in black T-shirts and baggy pants, girls in tight tank tops and jeans, the occasional mother-of-the-band-member trying to find an inconspicuous place to stand, clutching her handbag. I ask one kid, Edward, 17, who he came to see, and he says he just came with a friend because he heard that the Doors played here. He likes Stemm. “They got pretty wild by the end,” he says after their set. Guilt by Association come on next and open with a song that sounds like “Eye of the Tiger” as covered by Gwar. It’s my first night, and I’ve made my first major mistake: I drove here. Therefore, I can’t drink, which I didn’t think would be a problem, but I can see that it is a very big problem to be sober in this environment. Next up are Manntis, from Riverside, who’ve brought a sizable chunk of San Bernardino County with them. It’s the band with the most buzz of the night. As I scribble in my notebook while in line in the ladies’ room, a Manntis fan asks me, “Are you doing a report?” Her friend chimes in, “Write that Manntis rocks! And they’re really nice guys, too.” Mark Cutter is a Manntis fan from San Bernardino, and it’s his first time at the Whisky. Without taking his eyes off the Jägermeister girls at the bar, he boasts, “I’ve been to every Ozzfest.” When a whirlwind fistfight breaks out near us, Mark quickly pulls me by the arm away from the fray. He smells like he took a shower. Tonight, Mark’s like the best man at a wedding. The upstairs balcony fills with Manntis pals and fans showing up to support the home team. Mark greets most with a bear hug as if their team has just won the blue ribbon. Manntis don’t have Metallica’s or even Mötorhead’s ear for melody, but they do what they do — bash and scream — with skill. At the end of the set, the lead singer signs off with “I love you guys so much!” The night is capped with the loudest band of the whole night: Bleed the Sky. Bleed the Sky is one of many “verb the noun” bands that play here, like Kiss the Whip and Train the Living. NIGHT 2: JET LAGGED Saturday night. Same type of bands, different head. Yep, I took a cab tonight. A one-way ride from my house is $7; parking can be $15 on the Strip. I did the math. Now, after front-loading at home with a strong vodka-rocks, I order the first beer from upstairs bartender Buffy Morton. “Weren’t you here last night?” she asks. It’s another lineup of slam-core, a term I think I coined but which sums up every band I have seen so far: The lead singer mauls his vocal cords, the lyrics are indecipherable, no choruses, no melodies, but for some reason, a pretty amazing, athletic drummer. “I love my job,” says Buffy later. I believe her. Buffy’s one of those peppy, friendly people. She moved here two years ago from Washington state and got a job bartending at the Olive Garden in Burbank, but she wanted to be on the Sunset Strip. “I dropped off my résumé, and three weeks later they called and took a chance on me. I think they thought I could relate to the tourists who come here from far away who’ve heard about all the history here. I’m just a people person.” Does she like the music? “Before I worked here, I liked hip-hop and some rock. Now I love metal. I love the energy, and maybe it’s not always clear what they’re saying, but you know the message is uplifting.” A band called This Fall are playing, and they’re really bad. The guitar solo sounds rudimentary at best. Even worse, they look bored. With six bands on the bill, it’s imperative that the bands get on and off the stage quickly and efficiently. This Fall end their set, and immediately the door to the street is opened. The next band, Onset of Effect, cram onto the little landing above the stage. They high-five each other while roadies and band members load equipment into the waiting van like worker bees. The man responsible for making everything run on time tonight is sound engineer Jet Lag (the names have not been changed). Mr. Lag, whom I never see without his cigarettes, gum and coffee, is as affable as they come. Lanky and laid-back, he tells me he also works in recording for TV and film, has his own band (“We’re uplifting, spacious and melodic”) and a 2-year-old son, and sleeps “maybe four hours a night.” He calls Onset of Effect and their ilk “Cookie Monster” bands. “It means total aggression,” he explains. “You’re scared at what you have inside you. You gotta get the monster out. You can’t sing, but you want to be powerful. Everybody’s angry.” Even Strata, who are from the mean streets of Laguna Niguel. Grindcore, slampunk, thrash — whatever you want to call it — is, by its very nature, unromantic, undanceable, unsexy, unjoyful. It is, however, cathartic, intense and simple. I talk to Julie McCullough and her husband, who came from Laguna Niguel because their 13-year-old daughter is a fan. Julie prefers Tom Petty; her husband’s partial to the Eagles. Onset of Effect are the best band of the night (with the worst name). They play with passion and even have changing tempos. Strata sound more Tool-like than the other Cookie Monster bands. That is, their singer actually conveys raw emotion. They’re good but unremarkable. Jet Lag shrugs. “These bands spend more time on promotions than on rehearsing.” Does he think the Whisky could ever return to its pre-pay-to-play days? “It would take a superpromoter to return to the old way,” he says. “That’s just the way the industry works these days. It was developed to give everyone a fair chance. Bands actually used to audition to play here. That’s what the Doors did.” Why don’t these bands just play other clubs, where they’re based on talent, not ticket sales? “The Whisky is a whole different mindset than clubs like Spaceland. I like those bands, but Spaceland doesn’t have good sound and good lights. If you want to showcase at the Whisky, you need to look and sound great.”

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