East To Eden by Sean Carrillo
First published in "Forming: The Early Days of L.A. Punk"
Smart Art Press 1999
At the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles, beyond the converted factories and gleaming spires of Little Tokyo, lies the Los Angeles River. Like a moat surrounding an ancient city, the river separates Los Angeles from East LA, the largely misunderstood, ill-portrayed, seldom-experienced Latino subsection of Los Angeles. Although Los Angeles has always been a sprawling metropolis, it may be observed that the sprawl seems to stop dead at the river. Unlike San Francisco, where the Mission District is a thriving and integral part of the city, East L.A. is considered a no-mans land where few but the inhabitants venture.
In 1976, however, the music knew no bounds. Punk arrived in East L.A. like the invention of television, simultaneously and in different places, and like television, it hit big. Many claim to have been the first person in East L.A. to purchase a punk record; some claims even predate the release of the records in question. It matters little now.
What matters is that when the L.A. punk scene was born, Latinos were integrally involved, and throughout its lifespan the contributions of Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena of Black Flag, Dave Drive of the Gears, Gerardo Velazquez of Nervous Gender, Joe Ramirez of the Eyes; as well as the Brat, the Odd Squad, the Rents, and the Girl Scouts, among others, were an undeniable part of its history and growth.
One of the first groups to gain prominence, the Bags, featured a magnetic singer from East L.A. Alice Bag, a.k.a. Alice Armendariz, boisterously broke free from previously held stereotypes of females as male accessory or pop coquette. Alice neither mimicked nor played to male rock attitudes. Other groups, like the Zeros, were not from Los Angeles, but they played so frequently here that one might never have known they weren't local. Robert Lopez (now El Vez) recalls how he used to drive two-and-a-half hours each way from Chula Vista, California to play shows in Hollywood at clubs like the Masque, the Whiskey, and the Starwood.
The Plugz (Tito Larriva, Chalo Quintana, and Barry McBride) was a tight, fast trio whose rendition of "La Bamba" is unequalled. Tito deftly turned the Mexican standard into a freestyle, raging battle cry of youthful exuberance. There have been many versions of "La Bamba" including one by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir(!) butnothing beats the unforgettable sight of several hundred people frenetically dancing as if possessed while Tito insisted, "Yo no soy capitalista! Soy anarquista!"
In 1979 Madame Wongs and the Hong Kong Café two restaurants located in the heart of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles, began showcasing bands, heralding an unprecedented reversal of prevailing cultural attitudes. Now punk fans from all over the city were pouring into the backyard of Los Angeles and East L.A.
If punk had headquarters it was surely the tiny coffee shop at the corner of East First Street and Alameda in Little Tokyo known as the Atomic Café. "Atomic Nancy" Matoba, a singer with the group Hiroshima and punk fan extraordinaire wallpapered her parents coffee shop with punk posters from the floor to the ceiling, literally. The centerpiece of the café was its wonderful jukebox showcasing the most extraordinary collection of punk 45's ever assembled. The Atomic Café soon became a punk mecca. Visiting dignitaries included Blondie, the Ramones, and Iggy Pop.
Simultaneously, the downtown loft scene was nearing its peak, and the entire inner city exploded with activity and events. Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) was located downtown in a predominantly commercial Latino area. The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) was on Traction Avenue across the street from Al's Bar and the recently opened American Hotel.
Perhaps nothing captured the spirit of that time better than the now-legendary Dreva-Gronk art exhibition opening at LACE. Gronk, founder of ASCO and muralist from East L.A., had been corresponding with Jerry Dreva of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dreva was a conceptual artist and member of Les Petit Bon Bons; he also participated in the mail-art movement. In 1978 LACE mounted an exhibition of their correspondence and other artworks. The Bags played a chaotic set, and the space was crowded beyond its capacity. Inevitably, the police were called to disperse the crowds, and much of the artwork was destroyed in the frenzy.
In 1980, Self-Help Graphics, a local arts organization on Brooklyn Avenue in East L.A. became the site of the Vex, a twice-monthly punk-rock club founded by Willie Herrón of Los Illegals and entrepreneur Joe Suquette. This entirely new and foreign concept of hosting a club for one evening at a venue known for other purposes was an instant success, and Willie and Joe soon had trouble not exceeding the legal capacity of four hundred at Self-Help Graphics hall. A debt of gratitude is owed to the late Sister Karen Boccalero, director of Self-Help, for her many inspired collaborations that served the needs of the community including East L.A. punks.
With the opening of the Vex the scene had come full circle. Now Latino bands were playing Hollywood clubs while Hollywood bands were playing East L.A., and everywhere the musicians went the fans followed. The punk scene had done the impossible. It had accomplished what few cultural movements before it had been able to do; it attracted people from all over town to see Latino bands, and it brought musicians from all over the city to a location deep in the heart of East L.A. The Vex lasted several years in two or three locations. The effortless intermingling of cultures found there has never been duplicated.
Unfortunately, few of the East L.A. bands were captured on tape, either live or in the studio. Except for Los Illegals, who released two records on A&M, and Los Lobos (who were not punk though concurrent); none of these bands were signed. In spite of these groups tremendous popularity, major record labels maintained a hands-off policy whether due to institutional racism or simple ignorance almost totally ignoring English-speaking Latinos.
Only Tito Larriva of the Plugz made a dent in this dearth of recordings. Together with artist Richard Duardo and financier Yolanda Comparrán Ferrer he founded Fatima Records and released an album by the Plugz, an EP by the Brat, and an album by Paul Rubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman). The contributions of Latinos to the L.A. punk scene are best known to those who listen to early Black Flag and to viewers of the Decline of Western Civilization Part 1, the film by Penelope Spheeris which includes a brilliant performance by the Bags.
As long as ethnic diversity is considered a problem instead of a solution, there is little hope that governments or institutions can accomplish what artistic freedom is able to pioneer. The inclusiveness of the seminal East L.A. punk scene demonstrates that alienation and separateness are imaginary hurdles in the face of genuine collaboration.