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SOCIAL CLIMES / UP ALL NIGHT

Revisiting a Burning House of Punk

July 26, 1996|MARY SUSAN HERCZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

That week in June was a bad one for Los Angeles landmarks. We had hardly finished spooning the last hot fudge sundae at C. C. Brown's when the hastily drawn up invitation came that announced the destruction of the Masque.

The Masque, birthplace of the L.A. punk movement, the spawning ground for bands whose influence still resonates, was about to be freshly painted and turned into storage space. But there may be a reprieve, thanks to a sentimental party.

Exene Cervenkova, former singer for the seminal L.A. punk band X, which got its start at the Masque, had planned a party to celebrate her Year One Records' three volume CD set "Live From the Masque." Notified of the imminent demise of the Masque and knowing a wake opportunity when she sees one, Cervenkova moved the party to the club.

As it turned out, the event attracted enough attention and indignation that the owner of the building, Tate Group Inc., agreed not to paint while the firm's negotiator, Barry Hartsfield, considered some offers to rent the space as is, including one from Epitaph Records' Brett Gurewitz. As the owner of a punk-oriented label, and a longtime fan of the Masque, Gurewitz is hoping to find a use for the former club space that would pay tribute to its past.

"It's perfectly preserved," said Cervenkova of the basement venue, which had been locked up since its closure in 1979, and of the layers of graffiti deposited on the walls by some of the most notable--and notorious--local musicians and scenesters. "It's the only place in this state from that time. It's like an archeological site."

I had never been to the Masque. But, oh, I had heard about it. Anyone who spent time in the L.A. club scene had. Opened in 1977 by club promoter Brendan Mullen as a rehearsal space, bands soon begged to play there. Immediately, the Masque became a magnet for those tapping into the new punk movement.

After the Masque shut down, myth sprang up. Nihilism. Anarchy. Really loud punk rock. Stomping ground of counterculture folk hero Darby Crash, frenzied singer for the Germs, whose death from an overdose was overshadowed by the murder of John Lennon the same day.

It was in the early days home of X, the Go-Go's and Black Flag, the only club where such music could regularly be heard. Latter day punk groups Offspring and Green Day sell millions while declaring their enormous debt to Masque alumni.

*

I was not going to miss my chance to see the club, so on what I thought was its last day, I drove to 1655 N. Cherokee, to the Deco building built by Cecil B. DeMille. It was early, but a small crowd had already gathered in the street. "Nothing's changed in 20 years--Brendan's still locked out," gleefully shouted musician Carlos Guitarlos.

I checked out other faces. There were Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey from the Go-Go's, once a group of punk girls who didn't let their almost complete lack of musical skills prevent them from playing. Cervenkova. Onetime teenage scenester turned singer / writer Pleasant Gehman.

"This is brilliant," said band manager-turned-writer John Sutton Smith. "I never went to my reunion--this is the most like a reunion I could hope to have."

"This ain't the summer of love," cautioned Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris.

A key was found and an initial group descended, about to see the Masque for the first time since it closed.

Wow. It's a pit.

"So awesome," shrieked Wiedlin. She and Caffey raced wildly from room to room, howling with delight. We moved through a dark, seemingly endless rabbit warren of various sized rooms, dusty with fallen plaster, wild with multihued graffiti. Gehman remembered that she would never leave the house without a Magic Marker. I read what I could of band loyalties doodled alongside slogans.

"America is sitting on a youth time bomb fast asleep" . . . "If you're not careful, you might learn something" . . . "I stink therefore I am" . . . "Ignore all alien orders" . . . "To escape horror, bury yourself in it--Genet."

"I forgot I was so into Genet then," Mullen sighed.

Cervenkova debated where the stage had been. Gehman showed the main spots for illicit sex. Wiedlin and Caffey dragged the group to a newly whitewashed side room.

"This was our rehearsal room," Wiedlin said. "We shared it with the Motels. This is where Charlotte had to show us how to plug in our amps."

*

More bodies filed in and the stories flew.

"The plumbing is still wrecked," Controllers drummer Maddog said. "I wrecked it with a hammer."

"Yes, but Black Randy tore the toilets out," someone else responded.

"I forgot you were in Black Flag for a while," someone said to Morris, who replied: "I almost forgot myself."

" 'No future.' I wrote that," said Wiedlin, pointing and rolling her eyes. "How deep. How punk."

"I did a lot of leaning against the wall with a bottle in my hand looking mean," said scenester role model Helen Killer. "I guess that's where I got my bad reputation."

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