I moved to downtown Los Angeles in 1989, right after graduating college. I found a 1500 square foot loft at 7th and Santa Fe, and asked my friend Scott to share the raw space with me. He was an aspiring chef, and I was a photojournalist working for the Associated Press while also singing and playing guitar in a band. With its proximity to the AP bureau and its cheap rents, downtown Los Angeles seemed like the perfect place to start making my mark on the world.
Downtown living back then was very different from what it is now. The closest supermarket was in Boyle Heights, and you had to have a working knowledge of Spanish just to be able to buy your groceries. We shared our street with a duck processing factory, the Los Angeles River, and a freeway off-ramp. The soot that rose from the trucks exiting the 5 freeway blackened our windows. There was one restaurant, the Santa Fe Café, which was closed more than it was open, and there were no ATM’s or gas stations, but we loved it. To us, it was a cultural mecca. There were art galleries, a brewery, a fish market, and a big building down the street that was chock full of rehearsal rooms, one of which my band, The Hens, rented. The sound emanating from that building at night was a cacophony of rock and roll that got my pulse going every time I approached it. And up the street from us, on 3rd and Traction, was Al’s Bar.
You may have heard of Al’s. I think it closed in 2001, but for about 20 years it was ground zero for seedy local punk rock acts, artists, poets, and homeless wanderers; it also hosted some of the most influential acts of all: Nirvana, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Sonic Youth, The Misfits, Bad Religion and Mudhoney all played Al’s Bar in it’s heyday, and it was even Chet Baker’s watering hole for a while.
Al’s bar was rock and roll. Yes, there were other famous spots in Los Angeles, but at Al’s bar you came to drink and hear music and there was no pretense: no guest list, no green room, no backstage, and no industry presence. In fact, legend has it that anyone identified as a music industry type was charged double at the door. The graffiti covered cement walls were cold to the touch, no matter how hot the room was (and since there was no air conditioning, that room got hot and sticky). And I would bet that every single person in there at one point in the night had the same thought- “My car is going to get broken into while I am here.” When a band started playing there was no escaping the music. The sound bounced off of those cement walls like they were amplifiers. You had to go outside to have a chance of a conversation. So everyone listened, and everyone sweated, and everyone drank. That was Al’s Bar.
We finally got our chance to play Al’s in the spring of 1990. We hired a homeless man who lived in front of our rehearsal space as our roadie (his name was Al as well). He acted as sort of a doorman and watchman for the building. Al had a bulbous alcoholic’s nose that bloomed out around his black-framed glasses like a crimson mushroom. We loved him, and he took his job very seriously that night, guarding our stuff as we loaded in, and then stationing himself by the side of the stage.
The great thing about Al’s was that there were so many regulars that would show up that it didn’t feel like a typical gig where you knew most of the audience because they were your friends, there to support you. So when it came time to play, I felt like we were playing to an honest audience who wouldn’t just clap and cheer because they knew us. And if you lived downtown in that era, you know that there were a lot of very hardened and seedy characters that made up the scene. So as we took the small stage, we were in a roomful of shady characters that (in our minds), we had to win over, and it made us all play harder. The thing I remember most about that show is being completely soaked in sweat, and wondering if I was going to get electrocuted, because every time I accidentally touched my mouth to the microphone, I got shocked. And it was loud! We dug in, and played a hard, fast set, and the crowd was into it. Before I knew it, it was over, and I remember thinking, “I want to keep playing! I don’t want to lose this feeling!” I glanced over at my band mate Eric, who had the same look on his face—this is rock and roll! But the next band was humping their gear up on to the stage, and the surly soundman was telling us to get our shit off the stage, and to hurry up about it. The moment evaporated, and old homeless Al, now most likely very drunk, was nowhere to be found. I lugged my amp out to my 81 Honda Civic, the cool air a slap in the face after the temperature inside. And that was that.
Having Dave Grohl in my studio and hearing him tell stories about early gigs and about his overwhelming urge to beat the shit out of his drums was like sniffing the vapors of that night at Al’s Bar. Dave’s life was that night at Al’s Bar, and he earned all the success he now has one sweaty show at a time. When he told me how he begged for a little extra time and tape in his friend’s studio, so he could try to get some songs down, I couldn’t help wondering what might have been. When you have a rock and roll dream, nothing quite compares to it. And Dave is living that dream in the best way I could imagine. He is the link between the world of punk rock clubs and a sold-out Wembley Stadium, and he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
And the truth is, they broke the mold when they made Dave Grohl. The guy dropped out of high school, with his mother’s blessing, to play drums in a punk rock band. He never had a safety valve or a back up plan to bail him out if the whole musician thing didn’t work out. It didn’t even cross his mind to ask himself those questions. He just kept his head down and kept playing drums, writing songs, and asking for a little bit of left over recording tape here and there. Dave is where he is now because he wouldn’t even consider doing anything else with his life. He is an inspiration, and a badass. Dave Grohl is rock and roll.
To see the whole episode go to offcamera.comTags: dave, foo fighters, grohl, grunge, kurt cobain, nirvana, punk rock, sound city