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Pleasure Pits on Parade

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

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.

 

On the edge of the Crenshaw district, Fais Do-Do, former site of a bank, is a faded but still-spectacular operation, boasting some beautiful architecture, with an impossibly high ceiling and a collection of blues, jazz and rock performers regularly heating things up. The blues will always have a home at Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn, which, although recently relocated, still retains the no-fooling, house-rocking atmosphere that made it legendary. In the Valley, Smokin’ Johnnie’s and Cozy’s Bar & Grill also keep the blue flame lit, and a collection of other small blues locales (Harvelle’s, the Classroom) and the beautiful high-class woodwork and authentic grit of B.B. King’s ensure the blues’ longevity well into the next century.

But rock & roll does not require luxurious surroundings. Ramble downtown to Al’s Bar, for 20 years perhaps the ultimate in bare-bones, no-frills, chipped-paint, strange-graffiti, just-the-bar-and-the-stage-thanks underground rock & roll haven. Melrose Avenue’s Gabah, while a bit more conscious of aesthetics, is another uncut East Hollywood forum for all things rock; Bar Deluxe — intimate, dark, often steamy, with its huge suspended fish tanks and hordes of punk rock and psychobilly bands — is a comfortably scruffy destination for the disenfranchised troublemaker.

Subtlety and good taste are not requisite; over on Vine Street, the bamboo-lined Jacks Sugar Shack mixes up tropical elements with a blues-party ambiance — where else but in Hollywood could one find an 8-foot-high color rendering of Natalie Schaeffer and Jim Backus wardrobed as Lovey and Thurston Howell III, staring across the room at a beautiful framed vintage portrait of the late, great Boss of the Blues, Big Joe Turner?

There are the rambling rooms such as the Dragonfly, a dark, capacious spot with its variety of bars and tiered levels of seating; The Garage, rumpus room to Silver Lake’s scruffy elite, is another room-to-roam setting, with its showroom and back lounge, two bars and a what-me-worry? mood that perfectly suits the goateed and faded-denim-clad habitués. The folks at Silver Lake’s flagship of hip, Spaceland, home-away-from-home for that district’s modern-pop-and-beyond movement, pretty much left the existing tony-chromey cocktail-lounge décor alone, and have gone so far, bless ’em, as to install an enclosed back bar overlooking the stage wherein tobacco fiends can burn as they churn to an only slightly muffled version of the onstage audio.

On the grizzled, streetwise beat, there are no-nonsense joints like North Hollywood’s Blue Saloon, or the on-again/off-again rock bar the Silver Lake Lounge — neighborhood gin mills bursting with barfly atmosphere, ideal settings for an evening of backbeat and the pursuit of happiness. Another timelessly popular rock & roll room is long-established East Hollywood strip bar Jumbo’s Clown Room, where the sleaze-and-tease mood perfectly complements any booking. Without a doubt, the most deliciously casual spot is Mr. T’s Bowl, whose boozy atmosphere (also shared by Eagle Rock’s Bowl-a-Rama in the All-Star Lanes) makes it one of the great anything-goes-and-often-does places to hang. Over the hill, Q’s Riverbottom in Burbank has the busted-down charm of a flat-out classic dive — bar, stage, some tables and chairs, and that great musty feel only time’s passage can bring.

In the safe-and-sane category (that is, nary a howling punk rocker to be seen in these), the upstairs-downstairs, multibooking West Hollywood caba-rock center LunaPark features a small army of musicians, comics and DJs almost nightly, and perhaps the most ambitious highbrow haute food service in any of the city’s clubs. The nicely appointed, well-mannered Largo on Fairfax is another room with both full dinner service and, thanks to operator-owner Flanagan, a pleasant hint of the old world about it. Another menu-prideful club is Lumpy Gravy, whose Dadaesque décor is matched by a wild policy that brings in everything from ambient to industrial acts. Hollywood renegade Harry Dean Stanton has made Pico Boulevard’s The Mint his regular beat, a room that boasts an at-the-ready, as-good-as-it-gets studio setup to capture any performance.

The singer-songwriter ethic strums on regularly in Genghis Cohen, Molly Malone’s and the Crooked Bar, with each providing Hollywood troubadours ample room to prove themselves the next Dylan (we seem to get about six of them annually from these spots). Acoustic-musician-oriented rooms such as recent addition Boulevard Music in Culver City (and, lest we forget, Covina’s Fret House) operate like miniature concert halls, presenting all sorts of finger-pickers and folk-rockers as esoteric as they are cult-esteemed. The king of such spots remains music-store-by-day, club-by-night McCabe’s, that intimate Santa Monica shrine to singers and their songs.

 

On the Westside, things are generally a bit more ordered; 14 Below, a favorite spot with the college crowd, and The Gig on Pico, with its assortment of sofas, offer a homey atmosphere (as does the Gig’s recently opened Hollywood sister on Melrose). With two facilities specializing in tribute and disco bands, the West End clubs in Santa Monica and Redondo Beach offer big beat for the coastal set, while Wilmington’s all-ages, no-booze PCH club regularly features scads of touring underground and indie acts, from art-rock to hardcore. On the Santa Monica Pier itself, Rusty’s Surf Ranch, a temple to the beachcomber mystique, boasts an impressively displayed collection of vintage surfboards; also on the Pier is wild card Arcadia, former site of the short-lived, high-toned Ash Grove, which has been sporadically operating in and out of limbo, but threatens to re-establish itself as a showcase for big-name performers.

Outside the city itself, there’s Club Caprice in Redondo Beach, a large, low-slung affair that frequently offers touring name talent, while Hermosa Beach’s Lighthouse, which was a jazz hotspot for decades, still pumps out the jazz (legendary horn man Conte Candoli appears there occasionally), along with rock and reggae; San Gabriel’s Brave Bull is an underappreciated midsize room where stellar oldies, blues and Latin rockers often recall past glories. There are country spots gone rock, such as Signal Hill’s Foothill, an almost totally intact old-time C&W dance hall. One of the most beautiful clubs in the entire county, with a huge Western-night-sky mural behind one of the longest bars around and strategically hung oil portraits of Coast country stalwarts such as the Collins Kids, Hank Thompson and Johnny Western, it’s preserved down to the last stick of furniture — even the tables and chairs are original issue. Downey’s Dixie Belle, all dark wood paneling and cheesecake art, maintains its New Orleans atmosphere with well-kept style (and the adjoining bar and shuffleboard room always has a few interesting locals to jaw with). The Culver Saloon, another hillbilly joint gone rock, also exudes down-home country geniality.

Now, the straight-ahead country joints are well worth consideration; a journey into the dark and winding backhills of Kagel Canyon leads one to the Hideaway. For decades, it’s been the only club for miles around and boasts one of the most beautiful curving bars you’ll ever see (and what has got to be the biggest set of mounted longhorns ever wrenched from a steer’s skull). With an expansive outdoor patio and a huge stone barbecue, Sunday afternoons here really get going; the room has just been expanded and renovated, with ambitious plans for the future. Out Duarte way, Dorothy’s Stage Stop is a classic ’tonk — flickering neon, dim lights, loud music and a happy crew of mature Bacchanalians. Chatsworth’s Cowboy Palace Saloon is cheery, all blond wood, bedecked with flags and beer signs, a hitching post for your pony and a collection of dance-crazy locals who really concentrate on living it up. Crazy Jack’s in Burbank, which made headlines in 1996 when the owner challenged (and beat, mostly) the smoking ban, is another big, dark play room that features a mural so preposterously executed as to be mesmerizing. A history of popular music, presumably, the mural hosts figures with strange, distorted features — trying to figure out who’s who remains an endlessly fascinating pastime (okay, there’s Sinatra, that’s Streisand . . . is that Bobby Darin or Jimmy Durante?).

Ultimately, the nightclub, with its seductive offer of physically realized dreams, stands as the reigning sociocultural, psycho-sexual metaphor in contemporary Western civilization. The lines of order, so well defined elsewhere, blur to inconsequence, encouraging the regressive beast within to prowl openly. Nightclubs serve by their simple lack of limits, the same gift of disimprisonment that has driven rock & roll since its earliest days. In the clubs, nobody tells you what to do, nobody cares what you do, and everybody does just exactly as they please. High time to turn off your TV and make the scene.


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