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I’m looking for glory holes — well, former glory holes — in the dark women’s bathroom, formerly known as the “Slave Toilet,” of the Hyperion Tavern, which was formerly known as the gay bar Cuffs in Silver Lake. I find a few suspect holes, unsure if they’re officially blowing portals or just cracks in the masonry. I give up and head back to my seat at the bar. I’m killing time before Guitar Hero Night starts. Grant Lau, one of the organizers, tells me that Cuffs used to be dark, really dark, and in the near darkness of the small corridor behind the bar men would walk naked, relishing the car-wash effect of anonymous hands on their bodies. Now the space sometimes doubles as kind of a green room for Guitar Heroes waiting to test their chops on the children’s video game that involves playing a plastic guitar with plastic buttons. Hyperion Tavern is still dark but vaguely lit by large chandeliers that drip illumination from above. The tomes that line the wall give the place a literary vibe (though the books themselves are a collection of California Appellate Reports). The swanky look might make you want a martini or a glass of wine, but only beer and bottled soda and water are served.
And almost every night of the week there’s some action, like Club Ding-a-Ling, hosted by Darcy Leonard, which provides a mix of glam garde and avant grunge (including sometime guest DJ ex-Germ Don Bolles) every Tuesday. But Guitar Hero Night, on Wednesdays, has been cultivating a following of local artists and business types who need an outlet for their inner Van Halen.
It all started when Lau brought the game home and immediately got addicted. His pal Eric Mason started swinging by to play, every other day. When Lau was asked to have a night at the Tavern, it was a no-brainer. Guitar Hero was the perfect excuse to, as co-promoter Mason says, “break up the week, get our friends together, drink beer and play our favorite game.” In the beginning, people would grab the plastic axes and face the stage to watch the Japanimation-like characters they chose to represent themselves projected on a giant screen. The cartoon image became the star, and the color-coded notes flying down the screen, which burst into flames when the player nailed them, was the entertainment. This went on for a few weeks, people playing with their backs to the bar. Mason thought about getting a second projector so players could get up on stage and face the bar, and after running the idea past Lau, Andy Dill (the third co-promoter) and regulars, they installed it. “It introduced a performing aspect to our night,” Mason says. “Having people face the crowd definitely changed the way people played the game. Ultra-wide rock stances and kneeling, tongue-out, head-banging solos became more common. So did heckling your friends that were onstage, throwing underwear, and other antics consistent with rocking the fuck out.”
Inevitably Guitar Hero Night spread like wildfire, by word of mouth, blogs and MySpace. Though you can battle other people onstage, that’s not what the night is about. “Making the bar competitive and intimidating for new people is not what we’re after,” Mason says. “These aren’t the arcade-style face-offs that we were used to as adolescents. It’s all about everyone being supportive, having a good time together, and feeling like they belong to a community. There’s a genuine camaraderie in the air, and you can definitely feel it as players are cheered on by the crowd.”
Mason shreds on the tiny plastic guitar, in a pose worthy of James Hetfield. He even retrofitted a real guitar with the buttons for a more realistic feel. On the night I show up, he and Brian Johnson, a regular, are wearing faux mustaches. It was Johnson’s idea to up the stage presence. Lau hands me a ticket. Now there are so many people wanting to play, you have to take a number and wait to be called. When it’s my turn I’m scared; it’s like karaoke for lead guitarists. I beg Johnson to come up on stage with me. He chooses Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” which is awesome, but those high-pitched whammy-bar solos are a challenge for me even on the “easy” level. But every time I hit the right note, Mason cheers for me. I’m totally hooked.
There’s some stuff in the works for Guitar Hero Night. Mason tells me that an ’80s expansion is coming out, as well as the upcoming release of Guitar Hero 3 and a brand-new game called Rock Band. “One thing’s for sure, though,” Mason says. “There will always be cold beer and rocking out on Wednesday nights at Hyperion Tavern . . .”
Hyperion Tavern, 1941 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake, (323) 665-1941. Guitar Hero Night, every Wed., 10 p.m.-2 a.m.