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COVER STORY

Now That's L.A.

A blast of vibrant new music and club life has sprung from the city's gleefully bohemiancorner called Silver Lake.

August 04, 1996|Heidi Siegmund Cuda | Heidi Siegmund Cuda is a regular contributor to Calendar

"The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past."

--Joan Didion, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream"

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In a metropolis known for tossing its history out with the trash, reinvention is a means of survival. Forget rearview mirrors, baby, this is Accelerator City. Blink, and you might miss the next big thing.

The most vibrant happenings in L.A. usually emerge from the underground, and the bohemian refuge of Silver Lake--the current cultural flash point--is no exception.

This diverse region--divided roughly from Hollywood by Vermont Avenue and mingling with such low-key areas as Echo Park, Los Feliz, Mount Washington and Atwater--is garnering big attention with a plethora of wildly original bands and an equally eclectic group of clubs.

The scene has already given the pop world two of the most acclaimed albums of the '90s, the folky hip-hop trip of Beck's "Odelay" and the roots-flavored punk of the Geraldine Fibbers' "Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home," which speaks of the confusion and conflicts of life in Los Angeles.

And there's excitement building about more than a dozen up-and-coming groups, some of which have been signed by major labels--including Extra Fancy, Possum Dixon and Lifter--and others that have scouts sniffing around. The latter include Touchcandy, a coed glam- and punk-spirited quartet fronted by sexy London transplant David Willis, and Velouria, an excellent pop trio with a battery of infectious songs.

These and other colorful acts have honed their craft in lively Silver Lake clubs that range from Spaceland, a live music oasis located in a '70s discotheque, to the Garage, an underground dance and live music haven created from the ashes of a gay cowboy bar, to You've Got Bad Taste, a quirky retail store that doubles as a live music venue, and Dragstrip 66, a monthly drag club held at a former Mexican restaurant.

No small feat for an area so little it doesn't even warrant its own ZIP Code.

"It's a spot on the map, a drip in the universe," says Lezle Stein, who was the main force behind "Silver Lake . . . What a Drag!," a compilation album of area bands recently released on Neurotic Records. "A lot of cool bands and artists are living in Silver Lake and the spotlight's on them."

For decades now, this multiethnic region has been a haven for musicians, artists and filmmakers drawn to the area by its low rents and scenic landscape.

"People settle here because it's cheap and the architecture is beautiful," says Brian Grillo, the thirtysomething lead singer of Extra Fancy, who's lived in the area for 15 years. "It appeals to people who appreciate a certain aesthetic. The buildings haven't all been torn down. The apartments have views. It's hilly and it has culture."

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Silver Lake club scene is its lack of conventional sexual boundaries. You won't find anyone caring which nights are gay or straight on the club circuit. Much like the kindred venues of San Francisco, Silver Lake nightspots offer an effortless fusion of gay and straight audiences--along with music that seems to bend all gender lines.

Dragstrip 66, whose promoters Paul V. and Mr. Dan emphasize its "queerness," has attracted a mixed crowd since its inception in 1993, and the Garage extended an open invitation to the gay community when it opened last August by offering weekly theme nights with a homoerotic bent.

One of the places where this carefree attitude is most visible is Spaceland, not because it's the hub of the gay community--on the contrary, it probably offers the most traditionally indie alternative music on the circuit--but because stereotypes are broken down here most dramatically by virtue of the club's wide popularity.

On any given night, you'll find drag queens sharing the dance floor with arty chicks and indie rock boys, all of whom may have turned out to see a local punk act. And this isn't a once-a-month or once-a-week occurrence, but a probability six nights a week.

Inspired in the early '90s by the eclectic Saturday night Highland Park club Fuzzyland, Silver Lake resident Mitchell Frank wanted to create a comfortable performance space to showcase local musicians.

"It was done in the spirit of, 'If you come to my show, I'll come to yours,' " says Frank, who opened his club at a venue called Dreams in March 1995. "Sure enough, it started to snowball into the 'Silver Lake scene.' "

Frank, who was the keyboardist and percussionist in a now-defunct band called Gutbucket, already knew the area was rife with musicians. But by upping the ante to nightly live music, he believed, the industry was sure to come 'round.

"Now, industry people not only are coming here to seek out music acts, they're moving here," says Frank, who co-owns Nickelbag Records with the Dust Brothers, the critically acclaimed production duo behind Beck's "Odelay." "They come up to me at the club and thank me for turning them on to the area."

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