The Smell's future looks a little brighter after artists, fans rally to save the all-ages club

Leroy Macqueen climbed off the makeshift stage, gingerly walking on an Ace-bandaged knee.

His band the Gooch Palms, a bubble-gummy punk duo with just a guitar and half a drum set, had just played to a few hundred teens and punk-scene regulars at Saturday’s Save the Smell benefit concert in Lincoln Heights. Sweat dripped off his pink-dyed hair as he hauled equipment backstage.

The Saturday afternoon gig was an important show for Macqueen.

The Gooch Palms live in L.A. now, but even in the act’s small hometown of Newcastle, Australia, the all-ages L.A. punk venue the Smell loomed large in their collective imaginations. The space even helped inspire the decision to move to Southern California.

“I knew about it when I was 18 in Australia,” Macqueen said. “A place like the Smell, you start going at 15 or 16 and it becomes so important to you.  Even now, all-ages culture has carried me in my career.”

That’s what 500 fans were out to save on Saturday.

The Smell, a downtown L.A. venue famed for its grimy alley entrance and its young fans’ devotion, looked imperiled in early June, when owner Jim Smith received a demolition notice on the building from his landlord, the L&R Group of Companies. 

After an outcry from fans, the Smell got a stay of execution and a year extension on its lease (though Smith doesn’t expect to stay much longer than that). Everyone involved knows the Smell’s probably going to have to move somewhere, someday. 

Saturday’s show — with Smell acts big and small, from No Age and Cherry Glazerr down to the scrappiest instrumental noise band — was meant to shore up the venue for the long haul, wherever it goes. 

The benefit’s Lincoln Heights location was a warehouse complex where, like at the actual Smell, fans and bands mingled interchangeably. Dean Spunt and Randy Randall from No Age happily listened as kids came up to recount punk rock war stories. The three members of Health, who were not performing that night, all paid for tickets in salute of the venue where they recorded their debut album.  

Backstage (well, more like the load-in zone/smoking patio),  Smith was dressed in his typical clean-cut Oxford shirt, the cool history professor in this sea of eager teenagers. 

“We actually had to cut the number of bands off at 36 today,” he said, owing to overwhelming interest from acts that wanted to help. He admitted that the chance of saving the Smell in its current location was improbable, and that his total fundraising goal of $1.4 million to buy a new venue was ambitious, to say the least.

But after an online fundraiser brought in close to $24,000, and with a few other benefit shows like this lined up, the future of the Smell -- wherever it leads — looks a little more stable.

“We now have enough time to decide what we want to do. We want to stay central in L.A. and at least skateboardable distance from public transit,” Smith said. “Ever since the notice went up, there’s been such an outpouring of support. After seeing this, and hearing how many people are saying they’ll do whatever they have to do to make it live, I know we’ll survive.”

Out in the crowd, most fans felt the same about the future,  as the Smell has been an important part of their pasts. 

“I’ve been going since I was 14, and I have so many memories there,” said Gabrielle Shoemaker, 17, from West L.A. “It’s not just a place to see new bands. I met a lot of my best friends there.”

Denise Gutierrez, 17, of Riverside, put it even more succinctly. “It sucks,” she said, recalling her favorite show there (the Aquadolls) and the prospect of the venue going away. But would she follow the Smell wherever it ends up next? “100%. Definitely.” 

Young fans get so invested in the venue because many of them also work there in some capacity. 

“It’s so important to us, it’s our CBGB’s,” said Angel Santiago, 18, of Culver City. He’d volunteered to work the sound booth for the benefit’s afternoon shift with his friend, 18-year-old Juan Lopez from Highland Park, who was on volunteer security detail. 

The Smell encourages young volunteers to learn concert production skills, so it’s also something of a punk rock trade school. “It was life-changing for me as a place for kids to go and find a great community,” Santiago said.

Unlike most warehouse shows in L.A., this one also abided by the Smell’s ethic — no drugs or alcohol, all ages were welcome and order was kept by a self-policed progressivism.

“So many people go there every day, whether they like the bands or not,” Lopez said. “Being so close to Skid Row, you can see how screwed up things can get with drugs down there. But the Smell serves vegan cookies. It’s so good for kids to have a community that inspires them to avoid all that stuff and live healthier.“

Right now, the fiscal health of the venue was the most important thing on the minds of fans. Across America (and around the world), big cities are going through waves of rent increases that put small, profit-indifferent venues like the Smell in jeopardy.

This wasn’t even the only all-day concert venue benefit happening in L.A. in the past month — Echo Park’s Pehrspace, facing its own eviction, had just held a 36-hour festival as its final concert to raise money for the same reason.

“It seems like it’s happening everywhere in the world,” Macqueen said, noting Sydney’s recent string of club closures. “It’s not just music, it’s artists getting squeezed out of everywhere. At some point, you have to wonder, ‘When does this stop?’ ”

Tickets, by Smell standards, weren’t cheap — $25. But for 14 hours, fans could mosh, linger and hang out with at least two full generations of bands that rose from a back alley in downtown to Coachella stages and the pages of the New Yorker.

All-ages music spaces are rarely long for the world in any city. But on Saturday, it was clear that the Smell occupied a different place in everyone’s imaginations. The venue couldn’t exist without L.A. and the chance to make local acts into actual stars that could rally this sort of support.

But it also couldn’t exist without the sea of teenagers from the Inland Empire, Orange County and East L.A. who show up night after night to make it work. 

At the end of the night, Smith texted with good news. The benefit had sold out, and the night’s haul was around $15,000.

august.brown@latimes.com

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