LOS ANGELES NIGHT LIFE IN THE 1980s
really prove it, but it seems like night clubs, bars and the like played a bigger role in the lives of young Americans in the 1980s than they do now. There was a lot less other stuff to do back then, with no internet and only a handful of TV channels — few enough that they could foist whatever crap they wanted to onto the viewing public, all those obnoxious sitcoms with laff tracks and overwrought night-time soap operas, though there was some good stuff too. If you were to go back in time to the mid 1980s and walk into a club, probably the first thing that you’d notice would be the smoke. It seemed like most people smoked back then, at least when they were someplace where beer and liquor were sold. Some clubs even had old-style “cigarette girls” who walked around selling cigarettes and chewing gum from a tray. So these places always smelled like stale cigarette smoke and maybe pot, but also the sweetish smell of those Indonesian clove cigarettes that were so popular at the time. Really you could smoke pretty much anywhere in those days. Even at McDonald’s, they used to give out little gold-colored tinfoil ashtrays with the golden arches logo embossed on them, though some people just used one of the environmentally-toxic Styrofoam boxes that the hamburgers came in and made that their ashtray. People often all showed up at a club or bar together since no one had mobile phones, and even by the end of the decade, pagers (“beepers”) were still mainly for doctors and drug dealers. But if you did need to reach someone, just about all public venues would have some pay phones, usually over by the restrooms. Calls were 10 cents, and then went up to 20 cents in the early 80s, but you could always make a collect call. In fact, when the phone company eventually switched to an automated collect-call system, people would game it by recording their name as “hey, I’m at the club/movies/etc.,” sending a sort of primitive voicemail message for free.  the decade, I began to learn saxophone, which I think is a very 80s kind of instrument. A lot of bands had saxophones — Oingo Boingo, Bruce Springsteen, Fishbone and the Specials, or whoever — though nowadays it’s mostly just for jazz. I had wanted to learn to play it after once seeing a Saturday Night Live episode with Rickie Lee Jones singing “Chuck E.’s in Love,” and for the live version they had David Sandborn, I think, playing saxophone. My young impressionable mind was somehow taken in by the idea of being that guy playing saxophone. Anyway, I eventually learned to play reasonably-sorta-okay-enough, since it’s not that difficult of an instrument. My experience on stage in the 80s is pretty thin — I was just a teenager for most of the decade, even though many teenagers played live music at clubs then, as they probably do now. That said, I did get to do a couple nights at the 1980s Hollywood landmark The Central just before it disappeared along with the era (though not actually in the 80s — below). By freak coincidence, it was with a friend’s band opening up for Chuck E. Weiss, the subject of the song “Chuck E.’s in Love” and a longtime denizen of the Hollywood music scene.  Naturally, Chuck E.’s band had a saxophone as well, the late Spyder Mittleman who also played for Tom Waits and was very well respected, and so I thought it a big honor to get to play on the same bill. The Central had a laid-back feeling, a dimly lit saloon with sawdust on the floor. Sometimes there was a line to get in, but not usually, and the beers were reasonably priced.  There was no curtain or backstage, just a riser where the bands played.  In another 80s twist, I saw George Wendt, the actor who played Norm on Cheers, at one of the shows, just on his own, having a beer and watching Chuck E. Now I should mention that those couple dates I played at the Central were in fact in the summer of 1991, a full year and a half after the 1980s ended, but in many ways you could say that the “80s scene” managed to struggle on until 1993 — that was the year the Central permanently became Johnny Depp’s Viper Room. They got rid of the sawdust and bar-room feel and put in lots of black marble and mirrors, a curtain and a backstage, and the place became way more fashionable and sophisticated. Nothing wrong with that, just different. The Viper Room had previously just rented the Central for its events, and only months after taking over, it gained wide notoriety when actor River Phoenix died there at a Halloween party. And 1993 was the same year they finally closed Gazzari’s, a famous 80s glam club just across Sunset Boulevard from the Central, and soon after that they shut down Club Lingerie, another popular spot. By then, it was about grunge, and even more so about hip-hop which was still booming, and generally in the 90s there was always some good music no matter what you liked. But old-school punk was gone, nu-wave (whatever that really was) was long gone, glam was dying, ska was in hibernation, and numbered were the days of cigarette smoke and saxophones, for better or for worse.
Back in the 1980s, it seemed as if all music bands were required to have their own bumper stickers, typically drawn in ballpoint and Xeroxed onto sticker-stock paper. So it was that fliers and stickers like the one above passed for music promotion in the days before the internet.
When Americans nostalgize about the 1980s, we always seem to mention the preposterous haircuts of that age.
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(Ok, this blog post is kind of a stretch, not really history but just reflections on an era, I guess. Like with some of these other topics, I am in no way an expert on any of this  these are just some notes from my own experiences at that time.)
These Krakatoa brand clove cigarettes from Indonesia, along with those of the rival Djarum brand, were very popular and widely available throughout most of the 1980s, at least in Southern California. (Photo from cigarettespedia.com.)
Early in
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