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The Burghers Who Killed Rock

If you’re an Orange County rock music fan who would like more opportunities to see major nightclub concerts, you owe a debt of gratitude to the Laguna Beach City Council for saving you from your own most self-destructive instincts.

Thanks to the council’s unanimous vote last week denying Club Postnuclear permission to sell beer, there will be fewer shows in the county tempting you to risk your neck for rock ‘n’ roll. Without beer sales, there are likely to be few, if any, major live attractions at Postnuclear to risk your neck for, given the economics of running a concert club.

This is how the five Laguna Beach council members see you, the rock fan who might patronize Club Postnuclear:

If you are over 21, you will guzzle too much beer, drive onto treacherous Laguna Canyon Road (the club is at 775 Laguna Canyon Road) and wrap your car around the nearest utility pole.

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If you fall into the 18-and-over, college-age bracket that Postnuclear also admits, the council assumes that you will filch drinks illegally and meet the same fate as your elders. Even if you obey the law and don’t drink, you will somehow be corrupted by all the drinking going on around you.

“The canyon road, alcohol and youth do not mix,” was Mayor Robert F. Gentry’s pithy summation before the council voted to cut off Postnuclear’s potential to become a first-rate, major-league rock club.

What the council members did not say is that alcohol, youth and the canyon road already mix routinely in Laguna Beach, which so far has not re-enacted Prohibition. Every day, bars, restaurants, grocery stores and liquor shops throughout Laguna Beach--and elsewhere in Orange County--sell alcoholic drinks to people who travel on Laguna Canyon Road, the coastal city’s main link to the freeways.

There was no council motion last week to revoke their right to dispense alcohol or to remove the beer and wine concession from the popular Sawdust Festival, an all-ages event that sets up shop each summer on Laguna Canyon Road.

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If the Laguna City Council is right, perhaps other government bodies should play Big Brother and force the Celebrity Theatre, Anaheim Stadium, the Coach House, Irvine Meadows, Pacific Amphitheatre, South Coast Repertory and the Orange County Performing Arts Center to dry up before they wreak more death and destruction on the community. All of these major arts and entertainment venues admit patrons under 21 while serving alcoholic beverages.

Thus singled out for wanting to do what so many others are already doing, it is not surprising that Club Postnuclear’s owner, William (Max) Nee, is feeling like a scapegoat these days.

Nee, in fact, is not a Spuds MacKenzie kind of guy. When the wealthy real estate investor opened Postnuclear in the summer, he did it with a no-alcohol, no-smoking policy.

Nee thought that if he could make the club sufficiently comfortable and attractive, it would draw a crowd without smoke and alcohol and set an enlightened new precedent for the nightclub industry.

Nee thought wrong. As time went on, it became apparent that to succeed with live, original rock, Postnuclear would need an adult clientele in addition to college-age audiences--and that those adults would want a beer during the evening.

Nee has proposed to sell beer with unusual care. Drinkers would first have to show identification and receive a glow-in-the-dark wristband. Nee promised to add staff members and to train them how to serve alcohol responsibly, slowing or cutting service to those showing signs of becoming drunk.

He also pledged to serve free non-alcoholic drinks to “designated drivers” who agree to abstain while others in their party drink beer. Furthermore, he promised to stop beer sales and start dispensing free coffee a half hour before closing. If all that failed to keep patrons sober, he proposed to send tipsy people home in a cab, with Postnuclear picking up part of the fare.

It was pointed out to the council that if Nee failed to live up to his pledges, or if problems arose, officials could simply revoke his beer permit.

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Not good enough.

All of this elicited not a single question, not one specific comment or substantive observation, from any member of the City Council during the Feb. 21 hearing.

Afterward, Nee, who is of Chinese extraction, wondered whether he might have been the victim of “subtle racism.”

“It was like a jury in the South in the ‘60s,” he said this week. “They already know you’re guilty. It’s just a matter of going through the procedures. The evidence was never heard or discussed, or even acknowledged.”

Gentry denied this week that racism had entered into it. “Ethnic considerations were not at all a part of our decision,” he said.

But if racial discrimination is not involved here, cultural discrimination surely is.

What makes Club Postnuclear suspect to the City Council is not just the sale of beer, it’s the 499-capacity club’s aim of promoting adventurous, new rock music on a major scale. For a substantial segment of the county community, that means cultural enrichment.

But for the powers that be (and on the Laguna Beach City Council the powers average 52 years old), rock is something foreign and not easily controlled, something that signifies rebellion. Its sound is unruly; its messages challenge many of the conventions and beliefs of the county’s burgher elite, for whom quiet, tidy affluence is the ideal.

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This was the vision of Laguna Beach that Gentry, an associate dean of students at UC Irvine, set forth in an interview last year: “Our city has always attracted non-traditional people, independent thinkers who wanted a different quality of life. We’re not just another suburb, but a real town with a very unique character.”

On a short list of independent thinkers whom Postnuclear has brought to Laguna Beach in recent months, you find Jamaican Joe Higgs, a pioneer of reggae music; Canadian Lillian Allen, respected for her socially conscious poems set to reggae, and Scotsman Steve Bronski, a leader in the musical expression of gay pride and dignity.

Given a chance to thrive, Club Postnuclear might have continued bringing vibrant, unusual examples of rock culture to Laguna Beach. But the City Council, like so much of Orange County officialdom, seems content to let the community remain just another suburb.

Sleep tight, tidy burghers. Don’t let the rock fiends bite.


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