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Downtown Art and Music Brought Out from the Underground

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Monday, February 18, 2008, at 11:47AM
Panel Ed Fuentes

Inside Red Dot’s café, “The Parties, The Punks, The Past, The Present" had a civilized panel of artists and former club owners talking about Downtown’s punk past without the sentimentality of reminiscing. Both speakers and audience shared the comfortable air of lounging in a familiar restaurant, talking about the events of the night before. The event, sponsored by the Downtown News and LA36, featured Downtown underground pioneers Richard Duardo, Paul Greenstein, Regina O'Brian, Lili Lakich, and Judith Markoff Hansen. All brought stories from the inside of Downtown L.A.’s art and music inner circle from the late 70s to early 80s.

That was the Downtown where artists and musicians occupied lofts and storefronts, filling them with art happenings, concerts and gallery shows. Some became club owners and managers to offer a place for politics, community, music, and an unlimited selection of beers. As expected, the memories were strong while the dates were fuzzy.

Artist Richard Duardo spoke about his initial 5000 square foot space. His silk-screening studio took up only 200 square feet, allowing him to convert the rest into a venue until “The riot police would come and shut it down." Later, a reputation for art shows pulled in a small crowd that was attended by Andy Warhol and Basquiat. The venue was Power Tools, named after the fading sign on the side of the warehouse.

Regina O'Brian grew up in Orange County and had fond memories of Los Angeles from her “teenage mind.” She said “People used to meet at 'Power Tools' and the art scene was really growing." She opened Plastic Passion as a magnet for creative experimentation, based on NY clubs she visited.

Before opening Gorky's, Judith Markoff Hansen was a librarian and with little experience she was booking acts in between making muffins: “I was frazzled, but it gave a place for alternative thinking," she said, before fondly recalling how the beer preferences of the athletes in town for the 1984 Olympics allowed the staff to know where they were from.

Lili Lakich, who has owned her art studio at Traction and Hewitt since 1980 recalled that, “In 1992, the people stopped coming because of perceived fear of the riots. They didn't happen downtown but people weren't coming anymore.” With a changing music scene, MTV, streets growing dangerous from increased narcotics and cuts in social services––or as one panelist mumbled “It was Reagan.” Still, there were no bitterness that the punk and narrow-tie Downtown music scene eroded, and the gigs closed.

After the discussion, Weeneez looked like the backstage of a small downtown club, with people talking over each other, and club veterans grabbing a hot dog before escaping into the night. Panelist Paul Greenstein, who picked the music for the Atomic Café’s juke box and handled booking chores at Madame Wongs, shared with blogdowntown that the idea of clubs playing music wasn't new, but being it being done independently of record companies and promoters was: “It was only thing we created was putting it in the hands of amateurs."

Just as eloquent was a brief exchange during the panel that must have been replayed over and over in the early morning hours of Downtown. Regina leaned over to Judith to whisper “We loved going to Gorky's. Thanks for being open." Judith replied with a scholarly smile, “Thanks for coming."

Anthea Raymond directed the discussion, and LA36 will broadcast it at a later date.

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