When the late Brendan Mullen moved into the filthy 10,000 square foot basement on Cherokee and Hollywood Blvd. in the Summer of 1977 he agreed to take it as it was: “trashed to hell.” The Scottish immigrant and musician got a free month’s rent in exchange for clearing out 15 years of debris from the large labyrinth-like building, whose last known occupant had been the Don Martin School of Radio and Broadcasting circa the 1940s. The building, which he turned into one of L.A.’s most notorious music venues, was a dingy mess but decades prior, it was something to behold, likened by many to be the heart of Old Hollywood, as it was erected in 1923 by Cecil B Demille himself.
The Hollywood Center Building, as it was called, was “literally dead center in the bowels of Hollywood,” recalled Mullen in his 2001 book with Rolling Stone writer Marc Spitz, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb- The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. (Mullen was a friend and I looked upon him as somewhat of a mentor when he wrote for L.A. Weekly and up until he passed away of a stroke in 2009). He initially intended the space for band rehearsal rentals, but it quickly morphed into an “illegal club space” thanks to the 70s-era boulevard working what he called, “its own sick street magic.”
“When X played there, I loved the blur between band and crowd, taking my turn jumping around in the mix of friends and weirdos then back to the band,” writes Exene Cervenka of X, in her ex-husband and enduring bandmate John Doe’s first book, Under The Big Black Sun. “We were in a vortex, a vaccuum, an underground scene so secret and beautiful, it was hard to believe it was really happening. “
Mullen’s club, The Masque, is and will probably always be the City of Angels (or rather Devils) most legendary punk place, L.A.’s answer to CBGB’s, only grittier and grimier. All the first shows at the Masque were free, open door, BYO parties. The first band to charge at the door was The Weirdos, and the cover was $2.50, though as Mullen recalled in his book, few actually paid. Slowly word about the space spread, though. According to Doe, “at first there were only 50 people there, then 75, then 100. By the end of ’77, there were 200 people… then the L.A. Times got behind it.”
While attention helped the punk scene to grow in Los Angeles and gave exposure to bands like X, The Berlin Brats, The Germs, The Bags and eventually the Go-Go’s, it also got Mullen busted. The Masque was temporarily closed down by cops for no entertainment/cabaret license early on and the only way it survived was Mullen avoiding calling it a ‘club.’ According to many who were there, it always felt less like a club and more like a clubhouse, anyway, a place where everyone knew everyone, partying, puking, pissing, kissing and rocking together in a wanton wonderland of sorts, fueled by loud, noisy music, arty expression (the walls were a graffiti-filled canvas) and an anti-establishment ethos.
“The steep concrete stairway – which I’m shocked no one ever tumbled down and died on- lead to a warren of subterranean rooms, the walls already covered in punk graffiti from the bands who practiced there,” recalls writer, dancer and former punk singer Pleasant Gehman -who was a regular- in Under The Big Black Sun. “The stage was small and low, and the sound system sucked but we were in heaven! It was also conveniently located within crawling distance of The Canterbury [where many LA punks lived] and the Hollywood Blvd Jack In The Box, where you could buy pills.”
According to Gehman the vast public parking lots behind The Masque functioned as a “free motel, and the ‘Ludes-fueled make-out sessions that started in the Masque bathrooms would inevitably be consummated there,” she says. “We’d select the nicest cars we could find, try the doors-which were mostly left unlocked- and climb in the backseat for some lovin,’ leaving the windows fogged up as we made a hasty exit to catch the next band. “
Gehman says sex in those pre-AIDS days was louche and fun, and the hook-ups were pure pan-sexual wildness. Despite punk’s testosterone-fueled rep, women were a huge part of the scene as were gay and bi men such as The Germs Darby Crash (who was closeted but not very well). Her makeout partners during the Masque era included Alice Bag, Joan Jett, Lisa Curland (who was in a relationship with Jett at the time), Crash, and her galpals Jane Wiedlin and Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s.
Wieldin has fond memories of the Masque days too. “I met Pleasant at a shop on Sunset Strip called “Granny Takes A Trip,” she tells me. “I was selling them my punk rock clothes. Plez came in to do the same. I think it was late 1976. I didn’t even know that there was a punk scene in Hollywood; I only knew about the London scene. She gave me a flyer for The Masque; it became my hang out and Pleasant became my lifelong friend.”
Though partying was rampant at the Masque it seems most who remember it have pretty vivid recollections, Wiedlin no exception. “I still can recall the smell of vomit, piss and cigarettes,” she says. “It was utterly illegal and would never have passed any building, or health or safety codes! It was a dark dank hole and it was glorious! I don’t think you could get away with [anything like] it today.”
Like the Go-Go’s and X, Alice Bag got her start at The Masque. “My bandmates and I were doing a photo session on Hollywood Blvd one evening in the summer of 1977 when one of them mentioned that there was a place down the alley that was having shows. it was underground, literally like an old bomb shelter,” Bag remembers. “My band’s first show was at the Masque. I remember hiding in a rehearsal room with a paper bag over my head, waiting to go on stage. Nervous as hell but excited too.”
Bag says there was always something going on in the space- rehearsals, flyer-making, informal parties and concerts, and though it was “a dirty, run-down concrete box, in constant danger of being shut down by the fire department.. it was a place where we felt like we could be ourselves. I think it’s possible to create places that are welcoming and inclusive in unlikely physical spaces, but nothing will be exactly like the Masque. Each generation of weirdos has to find their tribe and a place that feels like home.”
When a female regular at the Masque ended up a victim of the So Cal serial killer known as the Hillside Strangler that year, Mullen wisely hired more security at the club, so that “home” was safe, at least from outsiders. Thankfully, no major tragedies occurred within its confines. Whether it was due to the sobering effect of a murderer on the loose in Hollywood, or simply maturing and evolving tastes in terms of music and music environments, the audaciousness and anarchistic magic that was the Masque was gone after just one year of infamy. It was permanently shut down by L.A. Fire Marshalls on Jan.14, 1978 and Mullen did not attempt to reopen in the locale.
He did go on to promote shows under monikers referencing his semanal space in other Hollywood locales (including “New Masque” and “Masque 2”) up until around 1979, showcasing local and touring acts like The Dead Boys, Wall of Voodoo, and Dead Kennedys. Punk spread to the Sunset Strip, and in other venues around L.A. including Al’s Bar downtown, Madame Wongs in Chinatown and Club Lingerie on Sunset, which Mullen had involvment with as well. But the rebellious inspiration of the original space on Cherokee was never quite duplicated, and its spirit remains in the basement of World of Wonder’s offices, where the production company best known for RuPaul’s Drag Race – and this blog – stores its archives.
I took a little exploration jaunt there recently with the help of the WOW Report’s James St. James and found that even though the building was renovated in 2001, much of the original graffiti remains in tact, a time capsule evoking debauched days past. (See graffiti photos throughout this piece). There’s even some new tags courtesy of The Go-Go’s who left their mark in spray paint after receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame out front.
Over the years the old Masque has been seen in videos, documentaries, and referenced in various historical accounts including both of Doe’s books, the aforementioned Under The Big Black Sun and his recently released More Fun in the New World, both of which also feature stories by Gehman and Wiedlin. Even if you’re not a fan of punk music, reading about the Masque and the movement it helped pioneer provides uniquely provocative perspective on nightlife and music that other historical accounts just can’t match. Even when those who were there are gone, their music, their writings and the building itself will go on to symbolize this era of angst, hedonism and expression, which transformed culture in ways that remain to this day. Punk is a state of mind and it might have been ugly in a lot of ways but it was honest, fearless and fun. As Mullen’s favorite words written on the Masque’s walls -taken from the novelist/ poet Jean Genet– once declared,” To escape hell you must first bury yourself on it.”