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Stink for Yourself

The banality-battling bunker known as the Smell boasts one of the most idiosyncratic voices tearing across the cultural cosmos today -- collecting artists and musicians who might otherwise know nothing of one another, filling the all-ages void left by similar venues such as Jabberjaw, the Alligator Lounge and the long-deceased Starwood. The attendees here are at turns tattooed, bangled, blase, bespectacled, and pierced in so many places it’s as if they fell downstairs with a box of fishing tackle. Illustrating Lo Pan‘s proverb “You are not brought upon this world to ’get it,‘” this vaguely dissatisfied coterie gravitates toward the Smell with the implicit assumption that there are more ways than one to perceive and approach the explicit world.

Outside, the City Hall spotlight sweeps skies muddled with police helicopters. Inside, bathroom graffiti: “You deserve more -- we all do . . . worldwide non-ruler communism.” “Dogs & cats should be friends.” “Nicole Panter was the only real punk rocker.” “Anarchy & peace -- not power & destruction.” “Hipsters are fucking boring!”

Founded in 1997 in North Hollywood by Mackenzie Mann, Ara Shirinyan, Jarrett Silberman and Jim Smith, the Smell (so named for the closeness of sweaty air in the narrow corridor of the original space) now resides off an alley behind Main Street beside the hallowed, hollowed Linda Lea Toei film emporium. It breaks even and progresses slowly (through the optimal evolution of subtle, unfelt changes) with its roster of concerts, exhibitions and film screenings -- sometimes all at once -- against the downtown backdrop of commerce and condos.

Dawn Garcia, Smell consultant and onetime doyenne of the downtown Palace Theater: “It’s a youth-oriented existence [here], completely.” Silberman: “Small shows are what the Smell is.” Regarding a recent near riot at a live action starring crust-punks Dystopia, Smith says, “Those kids that were there that night can go somewhere else, I don‘t care what my ’cred‘ is like with them. I did those shows because they needed a place to have those shows, but the majority of those kids did not -- and could not -- respect the space.”

The agitators perhaps didn’t know what they were trashing. Smith: “People come to the Smell because we are what we are.” Garcia: “As a community group, when we do this fund-raising campaign, we‘re going to have a ’Smell Town Hall Meeting‘ for all the people that want to be more a part of this, day to day.”

Jeff Rosenberg, booker: “We rely almost entirely on the Smell community of volunteers and friends to help run the club, with the collective knowledge that we are all working to keep something good alive.”

Successfully?

“There are so many different people involved in creating this very open-ended thing. We offer all-ages shows -- nobody else can do that at $5. We take on the riskiest and most ’out there‘ bands -- the Faint, Unwound, Le Tigre, The Need have sold out the place several times.”

The Smell is undergoing substantial renovation, with Smith fronting most of the money out of the severance pay he got from his last job. “We’re doing a bunch of small benefits to pay him back,” says Rosenberg. New soundman Lee Gilliam knocked out a wall, increasing the main room‘s capacity, and built a much higher stage. There’s a new sound booth that will soon be equipped with recording capabilities; there‘s a new, louder PA with a new console, monitors and lots of mikes; there’s a changingrelaxation area behind the stage -- “All the stuff we didn‘t have before,” says Rosenberg. “There are a lot of bands who debuted at the Smell, or at least played there in the early stages, who feel like giving something back. We are planning a benefit with Erase Errata soon, one with the Locust, and perhaps some other hardcore bands. We are planning expansion.”

Some standbys remain. There was no other entirely vegan restaurant downtown before Katherine de Cook ably addressed the situation by offering her vegan hot plates during actions at the space. The Smell’s chief promotional outlets continue to be its Web site (www.thesmell.org, designed by Ben Wolfinsohn) and homemade fliers distributed around the area, day jobs notwithstanding.

A wall drips, in black ink, “Our relationship is practical” -- part of an earlier exhibition about betrayal and pornography. The space stands steadfast, a magnet in the tarnished scuzz of a city famous for its remoteness, in a universe rapidly accelerating away from itself. The Smell is at once many smells -- an amalgam of food on the burn, the Mexican restaurants up the alley, clove cigarettes, sweat and desperation.

It‘s said that long-term olfactory memory -- the sense of smell -- is nearly unassailable. It’s what you look back on as a particular smell that makes you feel how you used to when you‘d hear how strange your taste was. This is what abides.


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