Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Love Letter to The Masque--33+ years later

If eating sustains life biologically, storytelling sustains it culturally; a story gives a person a second, fourth, fifth life.--M.F.K. Fisher

Nearly 34 years later, it still amazes me that the original LA punks, without social media or even cell phones, found one another. But to begin with, by the mid 70's rock music had become bloated, and corporatized, and Disco, country rock, and Prog Rock had reared their hideous heads. Bored LA kids started hearing about the scenes in NYC and London and it peeked our interest. I was amazed and intrigued by the photos of The Sex Pistols that I saw in Rock Scene, and other music magazines, but I had no venue in which to hear the music until KROQ gave Rodney Bingenheimer a show and he started spinning records from the NYC and UK scenes, and other places too, including the remarkable "Stranded" by The Saints--these kids who were working in isolation in remote Australia. Oddly enough, I had been in London in August of '76, but other than reading a piece on the SEX shop in Harper's and Queen's magazine, I had little inkling of the youthquake then happening there. But actually hearing the music--it spoke to me, and touched something primal.

Punk bands started coming West in early '77: Blondie and the Ramones in February, then in April the Damned played the Starwood, usually there was not much to do after the concerts, although there were private parties of course, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone showed up apr├Ęs their  Whiskey gig at Belinda, and Lorna's apartment off Sunset, and stood around silent and oddly watchful as these newly hatched baby punks drunkenly swirled around them; the Tropicana was party central for a while with lively gatherings of the tribe celebrating Blondie, and The Mumps among others, but the cops soon broke up such gatherings, and that is why the Masque was so important to us--being underground meant that the bands could play loud, and that punks could drink and make mischief in relative comfort without the cops coming around--at least at first.

To begin with, Hollywood Blvd in 1977 was clearly in decline; dirty, populated by hustlers, drag queens, prostitutes, and junkies, it was not the sort of place that nice middle-class suburban young people should have been hanging out in, but of course, I loved it. For one thing, there was the insta-photo booth which I and my friends frequently repaired to after a night of drinking at either Rodney's (till it closed), or, The Rainbow, which was a pathetic excuse of a club IMO--it was a place were celebrities such as Gene Simmons (in full KISS make-up once!) flexed their considerable egos at pliant young women--ugh. Then, in the afternoon (being Los Angeles, this could be any time of the year), as the heat thickly shimmered off the Hollywood Hills and the sidewalks sizzled, we would go to The World Theater which sat at the far east end of Hollywood Blvd proper--in air-conditioned splendor, an afternoon of soft core porn could be had for $1.25--another plus was the interactive audience which was mostly black, and the comments they made back to the screen were hilarious.

It was in this atmosphere of lost souls, and relentless grime, that The Masque surprisingly came to life in the Summer of '77. I have wracked my brain trying to remember who took us into the Masque one afternoon before it opened as a club, but I cannot recall who (it might have been Nickey Beat, but whoever, I am thinking that it was someone Joan and I met at one of the afternoon rock shows that played the Whiskey at the time.) Anyway, we descended into the bowels of this old building, the entrance to the basement being set off from a narrow alley that was bordered by N Cherokee, on one side, and a block and half away lie a "residential" area, Selma Ave, where squat, run down California Bungalows shared street space with desperate young rent boys (Cue the Jobriath tune, "Street Corner Love" which paid homage to Selma, and the trade plied there.)

Down a steep concrete staircase lie a rabbit warren of small rooms to one side, the rehearsal spaces, and one central larger space where the bands would play, adjacent to that was another largish room that had a staircase to nowhere with a cement ceiling at one end, and along the sides were these arched semi private "chambers" where some dirty deeds were done no doubt. Every sub-culture has its physical epicenter; think of The Cavern, CBGB's, The Hacienda, The Roxy, The Mabuhay Gardens--The Masque was our meeting ground, it was the place where our tribe confabbed, and unlike those other places, The Masque was more like a private hang out rather than an actual functioning business enterprise. Most of us had already met in other venues, and we had organically come together with the surprise of recognition--"here is my kind". Of course, all the important local, and San Francisco bands played there, but frankly, most of all, it was the scene that mattered. On any given night, to the beat of our own frantic sound-track, people would fuck or fight, kids would dance and get high; in retrospect, the "drugs" of choice were so innocent initially, alcohol, speed, quaaludes primarily, the deaths had not started yet--tragedy was waiting patiently bidding his time.

This is not to suggest that there was not any assholishness, there was plenty of that--"hippies" (any guy with long hair) were not made welcome, eventually a sign went up next to the front door which read something like, "Admission: normal people, $2.50, hippies, $5.00, and Nicky Beat FREE." I remember the constant teasing of a girl who looked like a refuge from Gazzaris--the "right look" was de rigueur, those who refused to conform (ironically) paid the price. Suffice to say, the original 50 or so Hollywood Punks had usually been the outsider, the freak, the outlier at their high school, and suddenly they became the popular kids--it was a super-power with a potential to be cruel that was hard to resist, and most of us did not. That said, usually we came together, and had FUN.

As I've said, plenty of live punk music was to be had before The Masque (a journal I kept at the time shows that Fall '77 through Winter '78 had weekend after weekend of great shows at the Whiskey and Starwood, not to mention the various SLASH benefits), so it was the social scene at the club that was most important to me, although I saw many a memorable gig, and the thin divide between musician, and fan was never so obvious as when standing nearly eye level with the band who were propped up on a short stage. This inherent egalitarianism was proven when "famous" punks like Steve Jones and Paul Cook showed up at the Masque, they lounged around, unmolested by "fans", like the rest of us.

Presiding over the madness, was Brendan Mullen (it seemed to me that he was usually hanging out in his office near the front steps.) I did not get to know Brendan very well, but my friends and I once spent hours with him at an emergency room after a junk-yard dog down the alley gave him a severe bite one night--I think that in a drunken stupor he tried to pet the beast, which as I recall was snarling and lunging at the cage in which it was kept.

Other times the action inside almost had a Marx Brothers comedy aspect to it, I recollect an evening when my close friend Pearl Harbour kept drunkenly harassing our mutual friend Meredith, now Meredith by nature is not a violent chick, but enough was enough, and she cold cocked Pearl so hard that she flew against a wall and sunk to the floor in slo-mo while various punks started applauding. A lot of the action of the night would spill out into the street as people escaped from the fetid atmosphere of the basement, and hung out in the alley and parking lot with a can of beer in their hand. After a while, the cops took notice, and responded by raiding the joint, and attempting to clear the streets; thus, I spent New Year's Eve 1977 in an empty walk-in dumpster behind The Masque splitting a bottle of cheap pink champagne with Meredith, Claude Bessy, and Phast Phreddie rather than clear off as the Po-Po would have us do--snug in our malodorant capsule we could hear the cops hassling kids, and chasing people off, so staying put in that dumpster and continuing our New Year's celebration was a flip of a finger to LA's finest.

Of course with no real money behind it, and without the proper permits and licenses, The Masque was destined to live fast, die young, and leave a well mourned corpse. The last Masque function I went to was in February '78 when 20 odd bands played the Elk's Lodge down town across the street from MacArthur Park. Obviously this venue later became the scene of a punk riot provoked by an over-zealous LAPD, but at the time, punks were just coming into sharp focus on the cop's radar. To be honest, I had seen most of the bands featured, X, The Weirdos, The Dickies, etc. dozens of times by then, and each band had a limited time to play anyway, which led me to note, in my last edition of Generation X, that, "The big problem with the Masque benefit was too many bands in too short of time, consequently, a good portion of the audience spent more time getting drunk then passing out on the huge staircase that led up to the Concert Hall than listening to the bands."

Part of the problem as I see it was that large scale "official" concerts lacked the intimacy of the crumbling graffitied basement we had made our home, but then, of course, by the time of the Elk's Lodge gig punk would naturally have growth pains, and in the way of the World, change was coming. As for the Cops, the coming crack down was presaged for me when a few punks-- Rod Donahue, Robert Lopez, Joel, this quiet kid with sad crazy eyes whose last name I do not recall, Meredith and I went across the street to drink at a picnic table in the huge old park, a once Grande Dame fallen into a decrepit seediness--we were only there for a few minutes when PD came up and started hassling us, and insisted on taking only the boy's photos, and looking at their IDs, in case they "needed to identify the bodies." Assholes. Not long after this, I stepped away from punk for various reasons and decades passed as they always sadly do....