A luminary in the underground 1980s Los Angeles rock & roll scene he helped create, Henry Peck died on May 5 after a battle with cancer. Peck lived and breathed rock & roll; it was his passion. His superlative taste in music, and his innate bellwether antenna for the fashion, art and no-holds-barred lifestyle that went along with it, made him a counterculture icon whose reach spread internationally. Nowadays he'd be called an “influencer,” but the work he did wasn’t to gain followers, it was purely a labor of love.
His affinity for the burgeoning subculture began organically, almost accidentally, and it became his life’s work. Along with partner Joseph Brooks, Peck ran the groundbreaking record store Vinyl Fetish on Melrose Avenue and was a huge part of the legendary L.A. dance clubs and radio shows that grew out of it.
“Henry was the most colorful, authentic person I ever knew. He was just — himself,” recalls Brooks, who met Peck at Humboldt State University in 1975. “He’d walk down the street in Eureka, California, in a wild Ian McLagan shag, sequin hot pants and glittery platform shoes, oblivious to the fact that lumberjacks were staring at him, wanting to kill him.”
The duo quickly bailed out of NorCal small-town life and began following artists like Patti Smith and The Ramones around the country. “We believed that we learned everything we needed to know from album covers,” Brooks recalls. “The walk, the talk, the attitude. It was as though we’d found our tribe.”
A turning point in their lives — as with the lives of many others — was the Jan. 14, 1978, Sex Pistols show at Winterland in San Francisco. There they met Brian Tristan, soon to be known as Kid Congo, who sang the praises of the vibrant L.A. punk scene. After a stint living in London’s Earls Court, where they’d made friends with artists like Siouxsie Sioux and Adam Ant, Peck and Brooks relocated to L.A. Peck cut and colored hair, Brooks painted billboards, and they saved up the money to open Vinyl Fetish. The records they stocked and in-store appearances by then-unknown artists — Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, Siouxsie & the Banshees and many more — put the store on the map. Along with a coterie of rebellious teenage music aficionados, customers included the likes of John Belushi, Bono of U2 and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
By 1981, the pair's interest in the dark side of indie music — or death rock, as it was known before it was called goth — conjured the Veil, their first club, held at the infamous Hollywood Cathay de Grande, which I was booking at the time. The weekly club had such unique atmosphere, especially for the era. Girls and boys alike would take hours to get made up, and swirl across the floor in a gorgeous array of black: 1950s ball gowns, tattered 1920s lace, Edwardian-era priest’s vestments, wild teased hair and vampiric, lurid, painstakingly applied makeup. Unreleased promo 45s of bands The Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim or up-and-coming New Romantic bands like Bow Wow Wow blared on the turntables.
During this time, Peck and Brooks started making appearances on KROQ 106.7 FM via The Import Show with DJ Dusty Street. There until 1984, they broke several U.K. artists into the American market, including Culture Club, Duran Duran and their pal Siouxsie.
The Veil outgrew the Cathay de Grande and moved to the larger Club Lingerie, and the guys started another night, Fetish, at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Later, Peck oversaw and DJed “solo” at two more seminal hot spots, English Acid and Glam Slam. Longtime close friend and musician Bruce “Ravens” Moreland of Wall of Voodoo, Nervous Gender, Concrete Blonde and many other bands remembers of Peck at the time, “Henry had the deepest eyes; they were catlike. In the ’80s, if you were at one of his clubs, drank too much and bumped into one of the turntables, you could swear he’d shred you. But more recently, he was teddy bear–like, innocent, vulnerable and so full of love.”
Brooks also recalls Peck's eyes. “He never just smiled with his mouth — his eyes smiled, too.”
Though he continued to be a rock aficionado, over the years, Peck gradually made the transition from rock & roll to his other love, hairdressing, both on his own and at the Fairfax district store Goo. KXLU DJ Stella of Stray Pop commented, “Henry was a huge part of my life: I bought records at his store, I danced at his clubs, he did my hair, and … next thing I knew, he was cutting my son’s hair!”
Another scenemaker and perpetual bestie, Mare Meyer says Peck had began embracing his spirituality in later years, too. “He wasn’t just 'Party Henry,'” she explains. “He saw the best in everyone and was a loyal friend and a true light. He wanted to move to India. He was absolutely in love with Indian culture. Before he knew he was sick, he used to tell me that he wanted to die there.”
My own fondest memory of him, one of many, involves spirituality, too. It took place in the late 1990s in Memphis, during Elvis Week. Abby Travis and I had both performed with El Vez (Robert Lopez) on Beale Street the night before and were, to put it mildly, extremely hungover. Our local pal Bobby McClellan picked us up super early and escorted us to the Reverend Al Green’s church. As we walked in, the choir, made up of about 20 elderly women with insane Salt-N-Pepa hairstyles and mustard yellow satin robes, were already rockin’ the gospel songs, sounding incredible. The church band’s guitar player, whose face was covered with jailhouse tattoos of stars, started wailing on his ax. He looked like a cross between Jimi Hendrix, Bootsy Collins, Little Richard and Ziggy Stardust in a satin psychedelic outfit. His wah-wah pedals and fuzzy feedback blazed as he took an extended solo during a hymn. The congregation started testifying, mopping their faces with hankies, crying, screaming and literally fainting in the aisles. The choir director himself fainted, falling so hard and dramatically that his glasses flew off his head.
In the midst of taking this all in, suddenly there was Henry, in his signature Krazy Kolor–streaked hair and a nicely pressed, copper-colored satin Nehru jacket for church, smiling and waving us over to his pew. None of us had any idea he was even in Memphis — apparently, he was on a cross-country road trip.
Afterward, we all stood in the parking lot marveling over what we’d just witnessed and admiring the guitar player’s van, which was painted with stars and had hundreds if not thousands of toy animals, dinosaurs, soldiers, Matchbox cars and Barbie dolls glued all over it.
Rest in peace, Henry. I know a custom vehicle like that is taking you to heaven. Your wings will be rainbow- feathered, glittering drag-fab couture that matches the streaks in your hair, and of course the music will be absolutely wild … 'cause you’ll be at the celestial golden turntables.
[Ed note: In 2009 Peck, being the artful fellow he was, decided to post a different profile photo every single day on Facebook, because why not? His friend Cherie Gillette made a compilation video a few years later of what Peck called “The Year of Dred” (he rocked colorful dreadlocks at the time). See clip below for a great tribute to the DJ and L.A. taste maker's style and energy. Look for more rockin' wordsmithing and reflection from L.A. punk goddess and former L.A. Weekly writer Pleasant Gehman here on Public Spectacle very soon.]