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A Portrait of L.A. Nightlife

Why does a 56-year-old man who doesn’t drink or smoke spend his nights partying with gritty young bohemians in a red-tinged Santa Monica bar?

It’s the art, man.

For the last five months, furniture exec-turned-artist John Robertson has been painting the oversized portraits of hip-hoppers, jazz cats, rappers and bongo players that hang in the large windows of the Temple Bar at 11th Street and Wilshire Boulevard. The bar doesn’t pay him, and he hasn’t sold a single $1,500 canvas, but he’s addicted to the youthful energy in the place.

On Sunday night, a standing-room-only crowd of college-age music lovers gathered to hear L.A.'s 30-piece hip-hop orchestra, Dakah. Guys in knit caps craned their necks to see 29-year-old conductor Geoff Gallegos create melodic order out of a chaos of rapped verses, DJ riffs, drum solos and trombone blasts.

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On the sidelines, Robertson snapped away with his digital camera, making studies for his portraits.

“The first time I drove by the bar and saw my portrait outside, it was like a Lenin or a Trotsky moment,” said Gallegos.

“This is the last place I ever expected to find myself,” said Robertson, who lives and works in Pacific Palisades. “But it’s great exposure. . . . People don’t even have to get out of their cars to see my paintings.”

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Driving in circles looking for a parking space on my way to the Viper Room reminded me in an instant why I moved away from the insanity that is the Sunset Strip on a Saturday night.

After pulling into several lots just as their attendants signaled they were full, I spotted a black Mercedes careening out of a metered spot.

“Golden,” I thought, before a heavily tattooed guy who was saving the spot for a friend of his threw a plastic chair right in front of my car to prevent me from taking the spot. I opened my window and let fly a string of obscenities before I could stop myself.

I drove on, not wanting to engage the burly fellow and his two friends in a brawl--even though I did take that one Krav Maga self-defense class last spring.

I finally ditched my car at the Whisky. On the walk down the hill from the lot, I was treated to such sights as a man relieving himself and piles of trash left by fans waiting to get into the Whisky to see bands with rough names such as Cannibal Corpse, God Dethroned, Hate Eternal and Diabolic.

Not wanting to walk in front of the Tattooed Parking Spot Stealers (now there’s a good band name), I crossed the street for the rest of the walk to the club. You know things have gotten bad out there when you think of the Viper Room as a safe haven.

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It was hard to tell which was thicker at the Great Guinness Beer Toast: the crowd of celebrities or the foamy heads on the stout. During the annual event, held in several cities simultaneously, the brewery tries to get as many people as possible to raise a toast at the same moment. This year’s record was about 320,000.

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Packing in pints at the Viper Room and listening to 1990s band the Cult, I spotted a blond-streaked Johnny Depp, Rose McGowan, who was not hanging out with boyfriend Marilyn Manson, though he was also there, Sheryl Crow with main squeeze Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn chatting up Lukas Haas. Spitting distance from the Cult’s Ian Astbury was Matthew McConaughey, who was rocking out, fist in the air, like the Texas metalhead I always knew he was.

Also spotted at the sticky soiree: Tori Spelling, Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland, Alyssa Milano, Kate Hudson, Milla Jovovich, Foo Fighters’ Dave Navarro, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, pro skateboarder Tony Hawk, Billy Zane, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Dorff, Donovan Leitch and Hole’s Eric Erlandson.

Free beer . . . gets ‘em every time.


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