For six long years, my Saturdays followed a quixotic routine: a 2-3 – ‘disco’ nap, only to awake from my peaceful cocoon to fancy up for a night bartending as some of the most relevant underground musical performers in Los Angeles, and occasionally, the world, raged and moaned on a tiny stage in a small bar built in 1946.
I often joked Cafe NELA was as if Raji’s and Al’s had a baby–I bartended at Al’s 1996-97, and had been sneaking into Raji’s since I was 18–and it was the same lovable mishmash of musical and aesthetic choices, which created a flashpoint that attracted various artists and miscreants, or as the boss Dave Travis referred to it, The Island of Misfit Toys.
Having done this type of work for 30 long years, when I first heard the news we were closing, I accepted it stoically, thinking it was good timing for both the bike rental business I had planned along the LA River, and the fact that I now had a 13 year-old whose weekends were starting to require closer monitoring. I won’t forget the night Dave’s teenage daughter teamed up with Frenchie’s teenage daughter to liberate a car and go on some shenanigans in the Inland Empire. (Not naming names, but do go see the latter’s amazing band, the Lovely Sand Dunes, who’ve opened for the Tubes and are currently touring.)
But as the closing date of September 22 draws near, I am occasionally flooded with emotions and memories that won’t soon be erased: the legendary original Blasters tearing the roof off in a benefit for our doorman and their longtime roadie, “Big Jamie” Cassius; The Tourists (aka original Redd Kross with Greg Hetson) playing a benefit for our beloved Dez Cadena; the three days of pure love that was Steinstock II; Mike Watt doing face melting versions of the Stooges’ Little Doll and his own mind-bending compositions; sweet memories like the romance that developed between our now 73 year-old soundman, “Dirty Ed” Fantl and 72 year-old original punk chanteuse Rosemary Reyes, that gave me hope for my own meagre dating life; sad memories like memorials for Barb Planek and Rikki Tikki Tavi, and the Dia de los Muertos gathering for Skatemaster Tate (Gerry Hurtado, rest in peace brother) that grew into a wider honoring of all the fallen Water Buffalo Lodge members and many many more; the shattering news of the loss of Kat Arthur and my own punk rock mom Janet Cunningham. I worked shifts immediately after hearing of their deaths, and I’m not sure how I got through the nights. I will give you a hint, if you were a problem customer (there weren’t many), I would often look up to the memorial cards hanging above the cash register and ask for strength from the late Louis Dufau and all the souls looking down on me.
What other venues would allow for the large-scale orchestral explorations of Gitane Demone recreating a Sun Ra album or having a choir of 40 sing Here Come The Warm Jets by Eno? Be OK with David Arnson incarnating Iggy in Raw Power Rangers so much that they’d provide a 100-foot mic cord so he could scale the telephone pole outside, luring the crowd like a punk rock pied piper? This truly was art for art’s sake, without regard for the bottom line, all for the love of music, a place where you could still trade a piece of art for a beer. These places are few and far between, and I feel sad to see it go.
In the infamous lyrics of Axxel G. Reese,, whose Gears will appropriately play the last chord, we all come from fucked up families. Cafe NELA was where we were embraced in non-judgmental arms, where we could be the freaks we were without fear of rejection, where we could walk in even after years and it was as if no time had passed. It was the punk rock Cheers that filled a hole in our community and our hearts; it was familia, it was the house party that was a business, and it bridged a gap between us old crusty punks and the new wave of younger kids carrying the torch. I’d like to think the lasting legacy, besides bringing quality music to Northeast Los Angeles, was that we learned a lot from each other. Take that, and carry the flame.