In 1977, Scotsman Brendan Mullen, self-described in his latest book, Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley, as “a recent illegal immigrant to the USA,” was looking for “a cheap place to hang ’n’ bang.” What he found was a 10,000-square-foot, $850-a-month basement nuke shelter under a porn theater just south of Hollywood Boulevard. Within months, as much from Los Angeles’ “pre-existing local appetite for something…well, new, ANYTHING that wasn’t country rock, disco, or prefab Kim Fowley” as from deliberation, Mullen found himself impresario of the proto-punk club the Masque. The shortlist of bands that played before the club was shut down in 1979 included the Weirdos, Dils, Germs, Screamers, Avengers, and Dead Kennedys, and that doesn’t include those that debuted there, among them the Dickies, X, the Go-Go’s, the Controllers, the Plugz, and the Flesh Eaters.
As he did in his earlier books, We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk and Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, Mullen documents, with hundreds of photos and fliers and memento mori, “the artists, designers, writers, junkies, physically/sexually-abused teen runaways, fashionista casualties, ex-high school delinquents, hippies, pedos (yep), murderers (yep), record thieves & collectors, fan-club creeps, washed-up glam rockers, hookers, ho’s and hustlers of all stripes, all creepin’ around the basement of this beautiful five-story office building just south of Hollywood Boulevard originally commissioned by Cecil B. de Mille.” Before Mullen reads at Powell’s Books this Friday, WW found out how he became the anti-mayor of L.A. and why today’s punks are at the head of the class.
WW: You open the book with a list of Masque shows that reads like a social registry of punk royalty. Was there a lineup where you thought, “This is going to blow up,” and if so, who was playing?
Brendan Mullen: The Screamers and Weirdos playing together on the same bill for the first time defined 1977 punk L.A. for me, in sheer numbers. The two most popular acts on the scene and among the most determined. Crowds overwhelmed the club space and spilled out into the alley and all over the street…. Various openers were Skulls, Bags, Controllers, Arthur J & the Gold Cups. Since some Masque regulars had a bit of a gnarly rep for hounding “poseurs,” the Screamers were a little paranoid about how they might be received. So they put up a chicken-wire fence around the stage the first night for fear of being pelted. But the punks (who weren’t really violent people, after all) tore it all down, and everyone went crazy and loved the band to pieces. Second night: no chicken wire.
Did you think the Masque would last longer, or did you know then, “Burn hot, burn fast”?
I had no idea. I had no time to think, no time to reflect, no time for perspective…blind, blinkered, boozy, instinctual scuffling to survive one day at a time. One never knew what was going to happen next with cops, fire marshals, landlord, where one’s next shower and meal was coming from, where was the next whiskey bar…the nearest liquor store…the after-party…and so on.
It probably didn’t help that the city closed you down every few weeks.
Other Hollywood merchants hated me. I was perceived as street riff-raff contributing to the “decline of Hollywood Boulevard,” as if that hadn’t been going on for decades. I became Hollywood Boulevard’s “anti-mayor,” golden punk boy to the owner of a chain of porno theaters who happened to be the landlord. Since the Masque was the basement to one of the Pussycat theaters, these suspicious merchants assumed Vincent Miranda—the wicked dogfather of West Coast porn—was moving into something even freakier than jizz movies: punk rock.
My teenage daughter’s friends have a real veneration for original punk. Why so beloved? You don’t see kids forming the next Sha Na Na or Flock of Seagulls.
To steal a line from Layla Gibbon at Maximum R&R, “Live at the Masque is a great document of a period in music and cultural history that might not be possible in this post-message board-Myspace-overblogged world.”
Kids in newbie teen punk bands these days live at home while learning to play while they do the punk thing. Some have even remarked there’s an alarming amount of “punk stage parents” out there pushing their kids into it. Teen punk bands have great equipment, many play their asses off—technically; some have wonderful air-conditioned practice spaces (the family garage converted with all the best gear). You can have a whole successful career in punk rock these days without even having to be “anti-establishment” or authority. It’s a creative pastime for the very young. Recently at an all-ages kiddie-punk show [a mom] told me, “Thank God for punk rock. It’s creative, and at least we know where they are.” [She was] hiding in the family SUV in the parking lot, like the other moms pushed out of sight by kids who don’t wanna be seen anywhere near ’em.
Contempo punk is no longer primarily about rebellion or overthrowing anything. The up-and-coming punks certainly don’t feel there’s any need to be a fuck-up over this—and as [Henry] Rollins, [Ian] MacKaye, [Mike] Watt are wont to say: Why destroy yourself on drugs and alcohol over this music? Committing suicide over punk rock? Hell, no. And why should they? They’re all too smart. Teacher friends tell me the punker kids these days are the A students, and they’re frequently the smartest heads in the class.
I bet people try to make you the eminence grise of the early L.A. punk scene, and when they do, what do you say?
I just squirm.
READ IT: Brendan Mullen reads from Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley on Friday, May 30, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Free.