Vex Populi: at an unprepossessing eastside punk rock landmark, Utopia was in the air. Until the day it wasn't - Culture
Los Angeles Magazine, March, 2003 by Josh Kun
"I'm here in L.A., got no place to stay."
--LOS ILLEGALS, "EL LAY"
IT WAS THE NIGHT THE CHICANOS got blessed by the Pope of L.A. Punk. * In 1980, the Atomic Cafe sat on a lonely stretch of Alameda, just south of Olvera Street and Union Station. Run by an army of Japanese American waitresses in short skirts, dagger earrings, and sky-high jet-black hair streaked with electric blue, it was an after-hours outpost on the edge of pre-Home Depot downtown with picture windows and squinty office lighting. After last call, it's where the L.A. punk scene went to get fed.
The Chicanos, Willie Herron and Jesus Velo, remember the night like this. They were eating wieners and beans after a midnight club crawl and in walked the punk pope himself, Darby Crash--the chronically cut-and-stitched lead screamer for the Germs, the most infamous local crew of musical screwups. Pale, white, and out of control, Crash was the punk scene's misfit poster boy, as well known for smearing his body with mayonnaise and burning circles onto his skin as for his noise assaults. He had just come back from a stay in London with a new Mohawk and a new death wish the night he walked into the Atomic Cafe, cruised all the tables full of bands and groupies, and then stopped to fix his blurry stare on the Chicanos.
"He just nodded at us, letting us know he saw us," Velo recalls. "I was like, `Este pinche vato.' We got the Darby blessing!"
For Velo and Herron it was an unexpected baptism. They may have been at the center of the East L.A. scene as cofounders of Los Illegals, the bilingual avant-Chicano new wave band that would sign with A&M Records later that same year, but that night they were on Crash's turf. He was L.A. punk's icon, and for the rising punk band his nod meant everything--a welcome mat laid down by the keeper of the kingdom himself.
Back home in East L.A., Los Illegals were royalty in their own kingdom, headquartered a world away from the Atomic Cafe in a makeshift, second-floor space called the Vex. Herron had cofounded the club with Sister Karen, a Chicana nun from the Eastside, to give punk rock an East L.A. home and merge it with the neighborhood's rich history of Chicano public arts activism. Herron, who was already legendary as a muralist and a founding member of the Chicano art group ASCO, met Sister Karen in 1973, when he had a show at Self-Help Graphics, the community arts organization she helped run. After Self-Help moved into the Catholic Youth Organization building on the corner of Brooklyn and Gage, she and Herron decided to turn the top floor into East L.A.'s only punk venue. There was already history there: In the '50s and '60s, the CYO had been a mecca for pioneering East L.A. garage bands like the Premiers and Cannibal & the Headhunters.
From March to November 1980, the Vex was an oasis for Eastside punk bands who were tired of hustling for gigs on the Westside. The punk scene was no different than L.A. itself. The L.A. River was a line. Cross it, and the rules changed. On the Eastside, the Chicanos were their own mayors. But travel over the 6th Street Bridge to the Westside, and you were always reminded just whose city this really was.
The original incarnation of the Vex closed with a Black Flag show that ended in a riot of broken glass and vandalism. White Huntington Beach punks threw chairs out the windows and into the parking lot, broke copiers and art equipment, and destroyed paintings and sculptures. "It was like when Manson struck and broke the whole hippie feel," says Velo, who still wears mariachi pants and a United Farm Workers band around his arm when he plays. "That show just broke what the Vex was all about. It was like having your friends come to your house and tear up your parents' furniture. It broke our hearts."
A month later the Pope said good-bye, too. Just after a farewell show with the Germs at the Starwood, he traded his dominion for a heroin afterlife.
TO GET TO THE VEX YOU HAD to climb an ancient wooden staircase that snaked from a pair of double doors off Brooklyn Avenue. The Vex was all empty space, nothing but old hardwood floors and tall windows, with an elevated wood-beamed stage in front and a counter in the back that doubled as a beer bar. It looks the same now as it did then--bare, aging, and minimal, the unlikeliest place to surprise a city with a punk insurrection.
"East L.A. punk is still an untold story." The proclamation belongs to Velo, but it's something that every band from the Eastside--the Brat, Thee Undertakers, the Warriors, the Stains, the Odd Squad, the Violent Children--agrees with. The story of L.A. punk has long been the story of punk west of the L.A. River. Penelope Spheeris's 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, released when the Vex was in full swing, ignored the Chicano contingent completely More recent histories of the scene, like Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen's We Got the Neutron Bomb, treat it like it was treated back in the day, as one of punk's unincorporated ghettos, marginal barrio music with permanent residence in history's footnotes.
"I always felt that our scene was invisible and unrecognized," says Herron. "It wasn't anything that many other bands or writers were interested in. When they would review our shows, they just didn't get it. We had to remain in the shadows. We couldn't be ourselves and represent the East L.A. we knew. We couldn't be white punkers, and we didn't want to be white punkers. We were trying to come up with our sound."
The Westside was an inhospitable place for emergent bands made up of second- and third-generation Mexican Americans who grew up speaking English and listening to British punk. Save for Los Illegals--who occasionally sang in Spanish and directly addressed immigration and racism in their lyrics--the East L.A. bands sounded just like the Westside bands (or in the case of Thee Undertakers and their faux British accents, just like the Brits), but because the music was coming from Chicanos, promoters and labels had different expectations.
"The booking agents always wanted us to play rancheras and stuff," recalls the Brat's Rudy Brat, now a special education teacher at Garfield High. "That was cool for Los Lobos. It worked for them. But we weren't coming from that. We weren't playing weddings. But that's what they expected, and they had a hard time categorizing us."
Brat met the band's lead singer, Teresa Covarrubias--one of the few women in the Eastside scene--at a Jam show at the Starwood. At the time, both were playing in separate Ramones cover bands. "When I went to shows on the Westside," says Covarrubias, "I always got a sense that I was an outsider. There was always a hint of racism in the punk movement in Hollywood. It wasn't always overt, but it was there." Art Reyes of Thee Undertakers even remembers being told by producer Ted Templeton, "You can't mix wheat bread with white bread."
Unable to secure gigs at any of the major Westside punk venues unless it was East L.A. Night (as the Roxy frequently called its Eastside showcase), the Brat played car shows and backyard parties closer to home. Los Illegals landed their biggest early gig at an Eastside Jewish temple, which they filled with Chicanos in platform shoes and glitter. Even when Los Illegals did play the Westside with bands like the Plimsouls, the Alley Cats, and the Go-Go's, the line of the L.A. River was never too far away. "No matter who we played with on the Westside," Velo says, "the audience was primarily white, unless it was an East L.A. Night, and even then it was only fifty-fifty."
All of this changed on March 22, 1980, when Herron and Sister Karen opened the Vex's all-ages doors for the first time. On a night hosted by au courant Chicano artists Gronk and Jerry Dreva and featuring sets by Los Illegals, the Brat, Plugz, and the Fender Buddies, East L.A. put in its bid as West Coast punk's first multicultural utopia. The Vex's floorboards bent under the pressure of art hipsters mingling with punks, Chicanos in leather pants mingling with white kids in Mohawks, and Boyle Heights sharing the pit with Hollywood. Plugz did their version of "La Bamba"; Los Illegals covered the Dave Clark Five. "You know how there are moments in time when certain elements come together and create a spark?" Covarrubias asks. "That's what it was like that night. It was really tangible for me that something special happened."
The debut of the Vex marked yet another moment when East L.A. artists--facing legacies of exclusion and stereotypes that have trailed L.A. mexicanos since East L.A. started to blossom at the beginning of the last century--took history into their own hands and threw their tag on the walls of a city that had consistently tried to keep them in their place. The Vex's beloved host organization, Self-Help Graphics, had been doing this for years, providing Chicano artists with one of the few public outlets to exhibit and sell their work. Like Self-Help, the Vex wasn't just a space that recognized community; it was a space that made community possible by giving it a place to be proud of. And in the Vex's case, community meant more than just Chicanos from East L.A. It meant kids who believed in punk as a cultural roller coaster that anyone could ride without ever feeling like they didn't belong.
For Herron the Vex's mission was simple: Give East L.A. bands a chance to play somewhere on their home tuff and prove to Westside bands that the myth wasn't true. They could come east to play, have a great night, and not get killed. "Friends took turns working the bar and the door," he says. "We all trusted each other. We were all in it for the same reason, to create a space we could call our own, a place where we could throw a party like it was a party in our house. That's what it felt like, home."
The Vex did shows twice a month, even hosting the notorious "Punk Prom," with X and Hal Negro and the Satin Tones, just two months after opening. Each show stuck to what Brian Qualls of the Warriors--a band of predominantly African American Eastsiders--refers to as "the Vex spirit," the commitment to having crowds of mixed races from all sides of the city and mixed bands (from the Minutemen to the Speed Queens, from the Gears to the Smog Marines) come together in a place where you paid what you could at the door, beers were a quarter, and punk was another word for unity. At the Vex, the city left its borders at the door. If you showed up, you weren't just pledging allegiance to a new vision of punk, you were pledging allegiance to a new vision of L.A.
"It was the great Chicano acid test," Velo quips. "Can we get these people to come to our side of town and become our friends? It allowed both sides of the river to come together and understand each other better, so we didn't have negative feelings about that side and they didn't have negative feelings about this side."
Like all good utopias, though, this version of the Vex had to end. One month after the Los Angeles Times put the East L.A. scene on the cover of the Calendar section in October 1980, Black Flag came east and broke the Vex spirit. It was the last time that Self-Help Graphics would host the Vex.
Herron and Sister Karen turned it over completely to longtime Vex affiliate Joe Suquette, who kept it running as a more traditional nightclub through 1983 at the old Paramount Ballroom. Even though Suquette's Vex continued to bridge East L.A. and Hollywood, most East L.A. bands now look back on it as a commercial sequel, the reality that utopia gave way to.
"We had hoped that punk was gonna be something noble," says Qualls, who's now a reverend at Mount Cannel Missionary Baptist Church. "Something that would not just be a negative reaction but actually something cool, something that could make people stop and think. And then you see mindlessness settle in and dominate the whole thing, and it starts to look like everything else."
BLACK-AND-WHITE CUT-AND-paste flyers for some of the first Vex shows are framed on the wall of Willie Herron's home office, right next to his kids' honor roll certificates. He now lives more than an hour away from East L.A., in a two-story house in a planned, association-run community in Aliso Viejo where American flags fly over manicured lawns and every house looks the same. Herron bought his land in '88 before the developers showed up, back when there was nothing but dirt and power poles. You can tell Herron's place by the 1957 Pontiac he keeps in his driveway (a '62 right-hand-drive Jaguar and a vintage Volvo wait for repairs in the garage).
"There's more of a sense of community in East L.A.," he says while checking on a batch of tamales, his still new wave hair dyed with bits of bronze, his Chuck Taylors custom-painted in zebra stripes. "I could walk out my door for a gallon of milk or a beer, walk around the corner and say hi to six or seven people and have conversations. Here I have to drive in the car three miles to a frickin' mall and nobody knows anybody."
Herron grew up in City Terrace, across the street from Cal State Los Angeles, just around the corner from an alley where his brother was stabbed by local gangbangers. He painted two of his most famous murals on the very same alley wall: The Wall That Cracked Open and The Plumed Serpent. He is now in the process of restoring both after the city's graffiti abatement program buried their original images under four coats of white paint. The "whitewashing" of the murals and Herron's quest to restore them are apt metaphors for what he's trying to do with the Vex's role in L.A. punk history: Peel off layers of cover-up and misrepresentation to not just restore the truth but let it be seen by new pairs of eyes.
Herron painted the murals in 1972, the year he joined forces with Gronk, Patssi Valdez, and Harry Gamboa Jr. to form ASCO, a conceptual art collective born out of the Chicano civil rights movement that specialized in guerrilla public performance. For most of the '70s, Herron and ASCO worked to channel the Chino Movement's political battles for social justice into artistic wake-up calls, like doing "walking murals" (ASCO-speak for bringing murals to life through performance) down Whittier Boulevard or tagging their names on the exterior walls of LACMA.
But Herron was also an aspiring musician (his black-key Vox organ is still a prized possession), and he wanted to extend ASCO's visual subversions into edgy, bilingual musical composition. He formed Los Illegals to be part Tito Puente, part the Clash, and part Chicano Movement agitprop--a coiffed and primped soapbox for jagged, guitar-cranked rants against police abuse and immigration clampdowns. Creating a physical space where these worlds could all come together was the logical next step. With the Vex, Herron wanted to turn ASCO's public art into post-Movement public music that was as much about the Chicano Moratorium and the Brown Berets as the Van Der Graaf Generator and Frank Zappa LPs that sit in his living room.
"Just having the space was a way to be experimental with music," he says. "I wanted to foster musical versions of these instant murals. It was very difficult to put a band in the back of a pickup and drive down the street playing music. So we found a space, created a landmark, and had these experimental shows where the audience was just as important as the band that was playing. We were taking everything that ASCO set up during the '70s and bringing it to a broader audience through music."
Herron shares his Aliso Viejo house--which is covered in ASCO and Los Illegals memorabilia--with his 14-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. His son plays in a punk band, too, Moral Restraint, but he's the only Chicano (the rest of the band is the new face of Orange County: Japanese, Native American, Filipino). At the end of 2001, Herron organized the first Vex anniversary show in the original space and invited Moral Restraint to share the bill with Los Illegals, the Stains, Thee Undertakers, and the Warriors.
"We suddenly all became really cool parents," jokes Herron. "My son got a chance to see what we created out of nothing with our own hands."
The audience at the anniversary show was as Westside-meets-Eastside as any old-school Vex gig. Friends were still working the door and pumping the keg. Some hair was gray and some bellies had grown big, but it was punk rock enough for the Stains to leave a pool of blood on the stage's wood beams. With a crowd full of L.A. kids from all over the city, the show was as much a reunion as a debut, a living lesson in punk history for L.A. punk's next generation.
"It was no nostalgia trip," says Herron. "It was an education."
And by the end of the night, nobody at the Vex could miss the main point. These are the Chicanos. This is punk rock. Let the new blessings begin.
Josh Kun is an assistant professor of English at UC Riverside. He writes an arts column that appears in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Boston Phoenix and has been a contributor to Spin, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. Kun wrote the introduction to the recent reissue of Papa, Play for Me (Wesleyan University Press), the autobiography of musical comedian Mickey Katz