Rocking locales ranging from local dive bars to exclusive Hollywood parties, DJ Howie Pyro is one of our city’s unique and unpredictable DJs, a vinyl nut whose cheeky mixes combine vintage grooves and bodacious beats. But many of the hip Angelenos his gigs attract have no idea of his history.
Before moving to L.A., Pyro was a New York punk-rock legend, involved with creating some of the East Coast’s most fabled music and nightlife. From DJing the infamous Mudd Club as a teen to co-creating seminal spots such the Green Door and Coney Island High to playing in kiddie-punk band The Blessed, proto-metal acid rockers Freaks and, later, D Generation and Danzig, Pyro has always had something burning.
“I had been obsessed with music since I was 5 or 6 years old. One of my first actual memories is sitting on the floor before I could walk and staring at my sister's Beatles record on the little kid's record player, and just watching the orange and yellow swirl of the Capitol Records label going around at 45 RPM,” recalls Pyro, just before he’s about to put his own needle to record for the airwaves, on his show Intoxica Radio on Luxuriamusic.com. (Disclosure: I have a show on the Glendale-based station, too.)
“I took guitar lessons when I was 13 [or] 14 from a guy in Queens who was in bands who played at Max's Kansas City, and he knew The New York Dolls. There was a concert venue called the Academy of Music where most midlevel concerts were held. It was on 14th Street, three blocks from Max's. I would drag my friends there so I could stare into the window looking at the glitter rockers and hopefully [see] someone famous. Within two or three years, punk happened. “
The Blessed were the first underage band to play many of the era's famous adult clubs. With a harsh, stylized sound, they were the part of a next wave that also included The Cramps and Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and The Jerks.
Pyro's youth, inventive music and omnipresence in the clubs led to frequent DJ jobs and eventually bonds with iconic rockers, which today makes for a wild mosh of memories. Chatting with Pyro is as fun as dancing to his DJ mixes. He was famously with Sid Vicious the day and night he died. He took Siouxsie Sioux on a date and the duo bullied everyone at the clubs they attended. And while he’s sober now, he recalls shooting dope with recently deceased actress and Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg, and he has druggie or scoring tales involving Nico, Johnny Thunders, John Belushi and Keith Richards, to name a few.
His various bands have shared stages with The Misfits, The Ramones (Johnny was one of his besties, in fact), Johnny Thunders (who was his roommate for a stint), Cheap Trick, KISS, Crass, Psychic TV, Dead Boys, Television, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Stiv Bators, Iggy Pop and on and on. He seems to get even more excited talking about the mind-blowing moments he watched from the crowd, recalling Devo’s debut show at Max's Kansas City (introduced by a fine British fellow by the name of David Bowie), RuPaul’s early performances at the Pyramid Club, “insane shows” by Hasil Adkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, The Troggs and Sam the Sham at Max's Kansas City, and Lou Reed, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, The Cramps (their second show ever), Link Wray and The Damned at CBGB.
“I’ve never moved too far into the spotlight to be off the street, meet the new people, see all the new geniuses do their thing … but I get a bit involved here and there,” he says humbly. “That in itself is a gift.”
Though Pyro’s New York roots run deep, he belongs to L.A. now, and he says he prefers being here for a variety of reasons — our city's abundance of nightlife being foremost. “We brought the feeling of the '60s Warhol scene and Max's Kansas City to the '90s with Coney Island High. It was one of the most incredible times of my life,” he recalls. “Fuck Rudy ‘Hilter’ Giuliani for closing it and all the other clubs in New York City down. New York nightlife, then versus now, is like comparing a huge steak dinner with an empty paper plate.”
Pyro moved to L.A. in 2000 after joining Danzig as bassist. He tried to live on both coasts for a while but couldn't do it. “I'm really glad I made the move,” says Pyro, who had a couple brief band stints after Danzig and rejoined another of his bands, D Generation, for their reunion tour last year. “L.A. is way better than New York, for me anyway. Especially as a huge film buff.”
Right now, Pyro’s life is centered around DJing and his L.A.-based radio show, which has fans around the world. His show and his parties allow him to feed his vinyl record addiction (he owns well over 30,000 records, some worth thousands of dollars), and he obviously relishes turning people on to the newest, oldest, weirdest and grooviest sounds he can find. He just ended an almost five-year weekly run of his night Jerk Boom Bam at Little Joy and launches a new monthly party called Twisted at Footsies on Wednesday, on his birthday. Pal Roger Mars (Cretin Hop, Green Slime) will spin alongside Pyro and special guests may pop by.
With all of Pyro’s turntable pursuits, making people move is the priority. “I always say live DJing is all about people dancing, lifting their spirits physically and emotionally while they do whatever it is that they do to lift their spirits chemically ... or not,” says the DJ, who obviously knows a bit about chemicals. "It's certainly wild enough to be surrounded by loud, fun, like-minded people, lovers of pop culture and great music. “
Pyro’s other long-running regular DJ gigs include the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs and DTLA. His sets there (and pretty much everywhere) feature different forms of “danceable rock & roll,” as he calls it, usually from the '50s and '60s, with a bit of '70s. “But I love concepts and challenges, too,” he says. “For instance, I was hired to DJ last week by art dealer and exhibitor Carlos Iglesias, who just wanted me to do my thing, but then I noticed the name of the [art] show was 'Tastes Like Chicken.' So instead of taking the easy way out, I decided to pull three hours' worth of chicken-themed 45s.
“I love weird, unexplainable records,” he continues. “I love researching, doing puzzles, finding connections. Which is why I love writing, too.”
Pyro writes for Dangerous Minds and Ugly Things magazine when he can, but his main pastime is collecting 45s and B-movies from the '50s and '60s, stuff that’s often extremely teen-oriented. He loves obscure records and amateur stuff filed under rock & roll, rockabilly, garage, surf, rhythm & blues, instrumentals and soul (but not Northern soul), and this is the stuff he's become appreciated for in L.A., regardless of his impressive New York pedigree.
“Everyone thinks they're a DJ in the last few years, which is a big bummer, as the quality level goes down. But that just makes me look better,” he chuckles. "And it keeps my DJ fees high.”
Never one to shy away from brutal honesty, Pyro is very vocal about his hate for requests. "It’s an insult to the DJ,” he insists. “Only certain types of people make requests: insecure morons who are clueless about music or their surroundings. They are usually trying to show the people they're with that they 'made' the person in control bend to their will.
“People that come up who know about music, know how to have a conversation and how to give a compliment, showing their interest and knowledge, aren't making a request, really,” he says. “They are being cool, starting an intelligent conversation or maybe even a friendship.”
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And just as it was when he started in New York as a teen, these kinds of friendships are what continue to inspire the DJ and music aficionado to play music and throw gatherings. “There's nothing like an applause from hundreds or thousands of people onstage, but DJing is similar. I have actually gotten standing ovations for DJ sets. That's something I had never experienced before. Using music to make people happy and literally move their bodies is very magical and always satisfying.”
Howie Pyro DJs the last Sunday of every month from 9 p.m. till closing at the Ace Hotel Palm Springs (next on Sunday, July 30), and the first Saturday of every month from 2 to 8 p.m. at the Ace Hotel in downtown L.A. (next on Saturday, July 1). His new night, Twisted, starts Wednesday, June 28, at Footsies.
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, "Nightranger," for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her "Lina in L.A." interviews for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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