RENAISSANCE AFTER HOURS
It’s late at night . . . it’s good crowds . . . it’s young people . . . it’s sweaty . . . and it’s dark. It’s not the cleanest place, but it gives you a chance to rub up against people. People are like insects who need to rub up against each other to communicate.
--Perry Farrell, lead singer of Jane’s
Addiction, describing the club Scream
For the first time in 10 years, L.A. has a vibrant alternate rock music scene worth raving about. But to find it, you’ve got to stay up till the wee weekend hours and delve into the underground--sometimes literally.
At 3 on any Saturday morning you’ll find hundreds of young scene-conscious rock fans in downtown L.A. Some are wandering through the dank catacombs at the rear of the once-stately Embassy Hotel on Grand Avenue--the home of Scream, a cavernous after-hours rock club. Down the street, other tonier late-night scenesters are hoping they’ll be picked by the doorman and admitted into the spiffier, deco-styled disco Vertigo.
On a recent Saturday night at Power Tools near MacArthur Park, a woman who would only identify herself as “Kim” said she often goes to three of these after-hours clubs a night. Dressed in a leopard-print bodysuit, she explained that the people are more down to earth at these clubs than at singles bars: “It’s not a meat market. You don’t feel like you’re on display. You can just go around and meet people.”
These aggressively eccentric early-morning hot spots--and similar clubs like White Trash au Go Go underneath Osko’s on La Cienega Boulevard--are the physical and spiritual centers of L.A.'s latest rock renaissance.
Ten years after a handful of punk fans changed the face of rock music in the squalid environs of the near-legendary Masque Club in the basement of the Pussycat Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, the scene has once again gone subterranean.
Perry Farrell, whose band Jane’s Addiction is the scene’s first certifiable star, believes this surge of after-hours activity will also have a long-term effect on popular music and culture.
“I think L.A. holds some of the best bands in the country, but they’re not getting recognition,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. In the next 10 years, L.A. is going to be in its prime . . . like New York in the ‘40s.”
The scene at Scream and its ilk isn’t the first new rock scene since the Masque. In the continuing search by young rock fans for a new look, a new beat . . . a new way to define their own generation, scores of post-punk trends have blossomed and died during the last 10 years.
Punk was followed here in L.A. by a succession of colorful fads: the Gothic gloom/doom brigade, the rockabilly revival, the parka-clad, scooter-riding Mod squad. None of those fads, however, has generated quite the buzz of this season’s late-night love affair.
Dr. William Roy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA, explained why this current after-hours phenomenon could be more than just the usual case of a young people seeking their own identity.
“You have (young adults) living at home much more than 10 years ago,” he said. “That means, first of all, they want to stay away as much as possible and, secondly, they’re not as bound to have a job. Twenty years ago, if you were 19 or 20 you were either in college or working full time and looking to have your own place to live. Now there are 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds living at home, especially in this part of the country where it’s expensive to have your own place.”
So then, as with the English punk explosion of the mid-'70s, this late-night surge has at least as much to do with the socioeconomic situation as with music. In fact, it’s difficult to identify any predominant characteristic of the music being offered in the wee hours, though more and more acts--from such neo-punks as the Little Kings to neo-glams like Jet Boy--are incorporating heavy-metal elements into their sound.
What is constant from night to night and club to club is fashion. Think basic black: the Hollywood trash look that mixes the old gloom/doom trimmings with the leather and teased hair styles that straddle heavy metal and punk.
There are other reminders of L.A.'s early punk days. The comical Dickies, a local mainstay 10 years ago, recently performed at Scream to a slamming mass of mohawks and skinheads, while over in the next room a 1977 film of the Sex Pistols showed Johnny Rotten screeching “No future!” Yet today’s underground scene is not simply a replay of the Masque era.
“I think a lot of the bands now are taking things more seriously,” said Dayle Gloria, talent booker at Scream, which admits 18-year-olds and stays open until 4 a.m. “A lot of people are cleaning up, not taking as many drugs or drinking. I just think it’s the next step. It’s a little more mature than it was. I think Scream is a lot more advanced than Masque was.”
At the Masque in the late ‘70s the bands seemed happy just to be able to get on a stage. The punk movement in this country was then so far removed from the commercial reality of pop that a major label record deal was out of the question. But current underground bands like Jane’s Addiction--and most others that play these clubs--are actively pursuing major-label contracts. In fact, Jane’s Addiction has just signed with giant Warner Bros.
The clubs, too, are thinking big.
Scream has just opened a sister club in New York City and is exploring possibilities in Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County. There is already a second, “members-only” version of Scream at Hollywood’s Probe Club on Monday nights.
And on the boards is a project that will formalize the club’s role as an L.A. music catalyst: a compilation album featuring contributions from Kommunity FK, Jane’s Addiction, Tender Fury and other bands associated with Scream. The album is being overseen by Scream deejay Mio Vukovic, and Geffen Records has expressed interest in releasing it.
“I hope we make club history,” said Bruce Purdue, co-owner of Scream. “I hope 10 years from now, if the club is closed down, people will still write about us and say ‘Ten years ago, the hip club was Scream.’ ”
Even as Purdue talks big about the future, you can feel the tension on a busy night at Scream as members of the after-hour elite check each other out to make sure that the club is still on the edge. No one wants to admit being a late-night lemming.
Climbing the stairs at Scream--in heels and drunk--is the ‘80s equivalent to playing chicken in the ‘50s.
--Gwen Kelly, at Scream, 1 a.m.
Scream is not only the most important after-hours rock spot in town, it’s also the biggest: five rooms, two patio areas, with room for 1,500-plus people.
“We were recently voted by the readers of the Westwood Voice as the most likely place to lose your date,” said Purdue. “You can almost consider us three clubs in one--a video club, a dance club and a live venue. It’s just all put into one. It’s a nightclub shopping mall.
“When you think about it, what else is there to do for someone that age? You don’t really want to go to an arcade late at night, and movies are usually over by midnight.”
In many ways, the most entertaining aspect of Scream is its people. Park yourself in the patio at the base of the stairs that lead from the ballroom area up to the video and dance rooms (which Purdue calls the “Stairway to Hell”) and just watch the parade.
Stairway to Hell is an apropos name, considering the music and videos one finds in the two rooms at the top--unless you like your music ultra-loud and you’re not afraid of the dark. And indeed the higher you climb, the darker it seems to get.
But then everything about Scream is fairly somber-hued: the decor (urban blight minimalist, relieved every so often by huge Day-Glo skulls), the dress of the patrons (black on black, with ratted black or red hair, black underthings and occasionally black lipstick), the lighting (are you kidding?).
Scream has ambiance, it has style . . . a sense of what it is and where it is that seems right in sync with its clientele. It is bewildering: a warren of sights, sound and smells that oddly brings to mind one of the huge multi-level underground cities that blossom beneath major Tokyo train stations.
The concept, according to Purdue, originated with New York’s multi-floor Danceteria, but the execution is very L.A., as the live music lineup often suggests.
Ultimately, the club itself is the attraction.
“Some people come just to dance,” said Gloria. “They don’t even care who’s playing. They walk in through the (basement) ballroom and go right up the stairs and never come back down again the whole night.”
Scream is still pretty new. When a club has been around about a year, then they die out.
--Kim, 23, at Power Tools
Before Scream, Power Tools was the hippest club in town. Andy Warhol, Annie Lennox and a host of other celebrities attended its inauguration two years ago. The club’s combination of arty theme nights and such musical events as the Beastie Boys’ first local club appearance last August were an inspiration to the many late-night clubs that followed it into existence.
But this is Power Tools’ final weekend. It’s closing for good. Owners Jon Sidel and Matt Dike say they just got bored with it. But Power Tools may also have outlived its role. Hipsters who once flocked into its halls began looking in recent months for newer, more exciting clubs.
Will the same fate await Scream? Maybe, maybe not. Two things that might help it stave off the kind of decline other cutting-edge clubs have experienced is its focus on live music (including such visiting hotshots as Lords of the New Church and Flesh for Lulu) and its massive size.
But Scream’s size is also a liability. With a staff of 40 and because its size allows it to book more expensive name bands, Scream’s overhead can be staggering. At a show with TSOL last year, for instance, more than 800 people showed up, yet Purdue and partner Mike Stewart each walked away with profits of only $26. Of course, at Scream, 800 patrons is considered a slow night, and lately there haven’t been too many of those.
There are a lot of tourists here, people who come to see the weirdos. It’s the same with everything. First you like it a lot, then it gets tiring. And it got more well known as well. It’s sort of like going to the Red Onion after a while.
--Jonathan Broderick at Scream
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Scream--and all alternative clubs--is to avoid becoming too popular, too mainstream.
Purdue believes that the very nature of his club precludes that. “There’s a harshness involved, sometimes almost a punk element, people with mohawks and stuff,” he said. “It’s hard for that to make a crossover, to become popular with a lot of people.” Purdue acknowledges that “a few ultimate cool people” have become disenchanted with Scream’s increasing appeal, but he dismisses it as a minority opinion.
Still, there seems to be a significant amount of grumbling among the Screamers.
Kristi, Debbie and Alexis, three friends who are only 18, nevertheless consider themselves part of Scream’s Old Guard. “I used to feel like I knew everybody here last summer,” said Alexis, leaning against a wall on one of Scream’s patios. “Now it’s like ‘Wow, who are those people?’ We stopped coming because it got boring and monotonous. You go and see these people and think, ‘Why are they here?’ ”
Added Kristi, “It just gets to a certain point where it’s popular and people want to come. You come here to get away from the (popular scene), but it’s become sort of fake. I guess it’s sort of an elitist attitude, which is sort of stupid, but it’s true.”
Robert Briones, 25, has attended Scream sporadically over the last seven months. He was there on a recent Friday night with his wife Josie and a pair of friends: “Animal,” a imposing 23-year-old skinhead with a small heart tattooed on his chest, and his girlfriend Sylvia.
“Too many trendies come here,” complained Briones. “A lot of these people don’t know what the music’s all about. They come here dressed in their clothes like they’re trying to be somebody. They shave their heads one night and they think they’re part of the scene or something.”
Added Animal sourly, in a gravelly voice: “Wanna-be punks, wanna-be skinheads.”
To me there’s not enough cool people in L.A. to have a club for 2,000 . ... With a place that holds 300, you can hopefully be a little more selective.
--Janyce De Soto, owner of
White Trash au Go Go, 2:30 a.m.
For some who find Scream already too much of a mainstream affair, the search for a new watering hole in the wee hours has crossed town to White Trash au Go Go underneath Osko’s.
Susanne Storey, 21, is a UCLA student who goes to White Trash every weekend with her roommate Kathy. She sees a big difference between it and Scream. “The people here are more hard-core,” she said, wearing snakeskin pants and a leather, lace-up bodice. “At Scream you have a lot of trendies and poseurs.”
Compared to spacious Scream, White Trash’s stucco cave motif is claustrophobic. Though owner Janyce De Soto knows she can never attract the masses that fill Scream, she believes the deliberate exclusivity of her club gives her an edge.
“We have a reverse dress code,” said De Soto, who originated such former trend-setting clubs as Ballroom Blitz. “We encourage outlandishness and craziness. (Our crowd) is definitely a very cool crowd, and if they’re not cool, they don’t get in.”
But she admits that sometimes you just can’t stop a cool club from getting boring: “Even if you have a great space and a great crowd, all of a sudden the trickle-down theory happens. You have Valley people--or whatever people you consider undesirable--finding out about it and all the cool people move on to the next best thing.”