We’ve all watched Axl Rose slither across the “Paradise City” music video wearing a black and pink Cathouse tee underneath that white leather jacket countless times. But the Cathouse was much more than a T-shirt.
The Cathouse was a rock & roll dance club that initially opened Sept. 23, 1986 inside the old Osko’s Disco building on the corner of La Cienega and San Vicente. Rockers loved the club because “they could get away with anything” there, says co-founder Riki Rachtman. “It was our clubhouse.”
Later on, Rachtman would become known for hosting MTV’s Headbangers Ball, during the heavy-metal-themed show’s prime. But in 1986, he was a local “rocker dude” DJ in Hollywood. He’d DJ at Ice and other dance clubs, spinning tracks like Sly Fox’s “Let’s Go All the Way,” but mixing in rock stuff like Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil” over those tracks. Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and actress Heather Locklear happened to hear Rachtman spin one night, and he ended up DJing at their May 1986 wedding.
Rachtman started Cathouse with his friend, Faster Pussycat frontman Taime Downe. They met each other for the first time at a party at a stripper’s place. They soon became roommates, sharing a Hollywood Boulevard apartment. In addition to getting Faster going, at the time Downe was working a day job at Retail Slut, the edgy, now-shuttered Melrose Avenue clothing retailer from which Slash stole his first top hat.
Downe and Rachtman came up with the then-novel idea of doing a club where people danced to a DJ playing rock music instead of dance tunes. “So we don’t have to clean up the mess in the apartment — we were always having parties and stuff,” Downe says, checking in from Faster Pussycat’s tour bus. “And Cathouse just kept going. So we didn’t have to clean up anything.”
Their club’s name came from a variety of inspirations: Downe’s band's name; cathouse being another word for whorehouse; and Rachtman’s fondness for actual cats.
Rachtman struck up an arrangement to use Osko’s on Tuesday nights. The venue kept bar profits and Cathouse got the door. Cover was five bucks the first night. Eventually, Cathouse settled into a membership card format, with members getting in for $8 and non-members for $10, Rachtman says. There were often deals where members could get in for free before 10 p.m.
Why Tuesdays only? “Saturdays and Sundays were always kind of amateur nights," Rachtman says, referring to the suburban crowd that would descend on Hollywood's nightlife scene every weekend. "Another club, Glam Slam, was Wednesdays I think. Tuesday just seemed to be a good night.”
The Cathouse brought in Vinyl Fetish record store owner Joseph Brooks to DJ. When Downe, a Seattle native, first moved to Los Angeles following a short stint in San Diego, he met Brooks through other clubs like Glam Slam and TVC15. At Cathouse, Brooks would spin classics by the The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Aerosmith and Generation X, as well as more recent jams by The Cult and Love and Rockets. As local bands like GNR, Faster and L.A. Guns released music, Brooks played those records, too.
Once a futuristic palace where the 1978 comedy film Thank God It’s Friday was shot, by 1986 Osko’s was “pretty much this dilapidated disco,” Rachtman recalls. “This was a club that was done. It broke every code there was. Anybody that went to the club will tell you the same thing: You walked up the stairs and sometimes your foot went through the stairs.”
Downe recalls Osko’s having “tons of different rooms and nooks and crannies and sort of caves downstairs.” To transform Osko’s into Cathouse, Rachtman spray-painted the walls black and stapled a bunch of posters to the wet, mushy drywall.
Opening night, Cathouse was actually slow. Then photographer Gene Kirkland walked in with Lita Ford. “I was so excited because Lita Ford from The Runaways was in my bar,” Rachtman recalls. “And I was like, ‘We have to keep her here. Bartenders, give her as many drinks as she wants.’ So she got sick and she ended up puking. At end of the night, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, I guess it didn’t work. Hey, it was a good idea.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t understand. Lita Ford puked in my club!’ That to me was the greatest thing in the world.” By its third week, the Cathouse was jumping, Rachtman says, with around 600 people or more turning out to party and dance every week.
No cameras were allowed in the Cathouse, which made the club all the more appealing to hedonistic rockers, as well as young actors rising in Hollywood at the time, like Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Depp, Judd Nelson, Keanu Reeves and Virginia Madsen. Married With Children's Christina Applegate would sometimes help out with coat-check. Rachtman recalls bands doing blow in the DJ booth. The time Nikki Sixx famously OD'ed, Cathouse is where he was partying earlier. It’s also where Slash raised hell on a nightly basis during the recording of Appetite for Destruction — and where, on one of those nights, he stumbled through a plate glass window.
The girls at the club partied just as hard as the boys. "Taime and I at the time were dating strippers, so then all their friends would go," Rachtman recalls. "It had this decadent feeling — not in porn way, but in Russ Meyer way. And then you had all of these girls that were secretaries, accountants, that run businesses, that want to come to the Cathouse and dress decadently and have that fun.”
Downe was around 21 years old at the time Cathouse opened. He adds, “It was very Hollywood and a lot of fun, especially when you’re a kid.”
Rachtman wanted to play up Cathouse’s rock & roll dance club vibe and not book live bands. That way, people would show up each Tuesday automatically without worry about what band was playing. But two months in, either Rose or drummer Steven Adler suggested having the release party there for Guns N’ Roses’ 1986 EP Live Like a Suicide and Rachtman, a fan of the then-local, pre-Appetite band, was into the idea.
The band decided to play acoustic. “And this was before MTV Unplugged. So the idea of having rock bands doing an acoustic set, that wasn’t normal, that wasn’t happening at that time,” Rachtman says. Soon, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns and Jetboy were added to the bill. “It was a lot of fun,” Downe recalls. “It was just all of our friends jamming. Our set was a little more not-so-acoustic because we weren’t that great at acoustic," he adds with a laugh.
Downe’s libations of choice back then were pretty much what they are now: Jack and Coke or a Budweiser. Faster Pussycat’s 1987 self-titled LP, an underrated slab of eyeliner-rock, contains the rollicking track “Cathouse,” originally titled “Whorehouse.”
So did he get much writing done at the club? “Hell no!” Downe says with a chuckle. “That was all about mackin’ and drinkin’. There was no time for writing at the Cathouse."
Besides the local young guns, rock royalty like Steven Tyler, Billy Gibbons and Robert Plant would hang at the Cathouse. Over the years, more bands played there, including Alice in Chains, Black Crowes, Stone Temple Pilots, Megadeth and Pearl Jam. GNR filmed the infamous “It’s So Easy” video at Cathouse and the club appeared in the excellent documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. The Cathouse is also where Rose got into it with David Bowie after Bowie flirted with Axl’s then-girlfriend.
For Rachtman, Alice Cooper’s 1989 show was the ultimate Cathouse gig. As a kid, his father didn’t let him go to an Alice Cooper concert because Riki had received bad grades at school. “I was devastated because Alice Cooper was not only my favorite rock star, he was my favorite superhero.” So when Cooper included a lyric in the title track to his hit album “Trash” referencing the Cathouse and played the club on, of all nights, Halloween, Rachtman couldn’t help but think, “What do you think about that, Dad?”
Downe fondly remembers running into former Sex Pistol Steve Jones outside Cathouse on a weekly basis upon arriving at the club. Which brings us to what Rachtman says is a Cathouse misconception. "We never had anybody from Bon Jovi at the Cathouse, but we sure had the guitarist from the Sex Pistols. And we might not have had somebody from Slaughter but we had Danzig. It was not set up to be this like Sunset Strip-type club. It was supposed to be the dark underbelly, going more towards punk." Offering free early admission, Rachtman and Downe encouraged their biker friends, famous and otherwise, to park their motorcycles outside the club, establishing a rogue vibe before patrons even entered.
As Downe remembers it, Osko’s was finally condemned and that property was sold. (The building, despite being a mid-century architectural landmark, was later demolished to make way for a high-end retail complex.) In 1987 or 1988, Cathouse relocated to the Probe, a gay nightclub at 836 North Highland Avenue, even further from the glitz of the Sunset Strip. As Faster Pussycat took off, signing with Elektra Records and touring the world with the likes of Guns N’ Roses and Alice Cooper, Rachtman took on full control of the club, which became known as “Riki Rachtman’s World Famous Cathouse.”
At one point during Cathouse’s run, which lasted until 1993, Rachtman recalls Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher hanging out in the DJ booth. The club was getting press as the “in” club. “And I looked at that and said, ‘We’re done.’ That was the beginning of the end because as soon as you become the trendy thing it’s gonna end. And it fizzled out.”
After Cathouse ran its course (and Rachtman started a new club, Bordello), Downe saved some of the old Cathouse merch and put it in a box with some early Faster Pussycat memorabilia. “We didn’t own the building and it wasn’t like Dodger Stadium where you could go like, pull a fucking seat out or anything,” Downe says. “There really wasn’t anything you’d want to take. Just memories.”
Rachtman says he owes his entire career to the Cathouse. In addition to his iconic run on Headbangers Ball, he later co-hosted MTV’s Loveline, as well as various reality shows, NASCAR and pro wrestling programming. It probably also didn't hurt that Rachtman arrived at his Headbangers Ball audition with Axl Rose in tow. “[Axl] was a really, really big part of me getting the job. So people that hated me on the show, blame him!”
But, he adds, "I wouldn’t have met Axl if it wasn’t for Cathouse.”
Rachtman has the word “Cathouse” tattooed on his body. Twice. He calls in for this story from his Mooresville, N.C., home, where he’s in an office decorated with guitars, NASCAR stuff and an autographed Alice Cooper photo. “I thought I would never leave Hollywood and I did and I miss my friends like Taime and Gilby [Clarke, former GNR guitarist] like crazy, but I’m not moving back. It’s too expensive now.”
Still, Rachtman’s set for a temporary return to Hollywood for Cathouse’s 30th anniversary. Cathouse 30 shows set for Oct. 5 at the Roxy and Oct. 6 at the Whisky a Go-Go sold out in minutes, despite the fact that the bands playing are being kept secret. “Most of the good Cathouse L.A. bands are playing, the ones you’re expecting to see,” Rachtman says. “At least one band that might close out the Roxy, nobody is guessing they would play, because they’ve never played the Cathouse. And that’s all I can say.”
Motörhead played several Cathouse events in the past, including the fifth anniversary. Rachtman is deeply saddened Lemmy Kilmister, who passed away in late 2015, will not be a part of this anniversary. “Lemmy was such a big part of the success of the Cathouse.”
Rachtman is pouring his heart into Cathouse 30th anniversary events, which also include a Sept. 28 “birthday party” featuring guest DJs at Saint Felix on the Cahuenga Corridor. There’s no cover charge, but fans who want to attend must sign in as “going” on the event’s Facebook page. An Oct. 1 “Hookers Ball” cruise, featuring performances from Faster Pussycat and London Quireboys, is also sold out.
“Let’s be honest, right now I am really on the red on this,” says Rachtman, who’s been involved with several Cathouse projects in recent years, including a 2015 festival at Irvine Meadows. “I’ve invested more money than I’ll probably make back. And honest to God truth is: I really want people to have fun and to remember the Cathouse because I am not doing another Cathouse event after this. This is my mic drop.”
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While Cathouse’s “no cameras” policy was a draw to its rowdy clientele, it isn't aiding Rachtman's search for photos now. "They’re not really around. Which is my own fault. The idea was I want a place where anything can happen and people can do what they want. And I had no idea that I’d be wishing I’d have something to remember it.”
Rachtman also laments getting rid of some classic Cathouse merch at a garage sale years ago. He didn’t save the banners bands played in front of either. But he has been known to buy vintage Cathouse tees on eBay.
“If anyone out there has a Cathouse Alice Cooper T-shirt," he says, "I’d love to have one.”
For more info on upcoming 30th anniversary Cathouse events, visit the Cathouse Hollywood Facebook page.