The wonderful PBS SoCal/KCET series “Artbound,” which specializes in historical and contemporary documentaries about Southern California culture, from comics to gospel music to ceramic tableware, opens its 14th season Wednesday with “Chinatown Punk Wars.” , a retrospective look. to when Madame Wong’s and Hong Kong Café faced off in Chinatown’s Central Plaza like the Houses of Montague and Capulet on a stage full of new music fans.
So take us back to those heady days of yore, when hair was standing on end and bands were on stage almost before they formed. Angelenos of a certain age and persuasion might enjoy the trip back to the brief heyday of this trash-bag Camelot, while interested youngsters could learn how grandma jumped back in the ’70s.
“Wars” (unfortunately at the time it was called Won Ton Wars) overstates the issue a bit; It was more psychological than a real rivalry, as each club developed an individual audience and neither hurt business, although the Hong Kong owners were into pranks and Esther Wong could be doctrinaire about not booking bands to play in Hong Kong. . Still, “wars” sell newspapers and is Kind of a punk word.
The larger story, as it unfolds in cities and towns across the country and across the ocean, quickly emerges: Popular music had become bland, overblown, and corporate, serving a superstar system that put a premium on music. increasing distance between the people who made it and the people who made it. she consumed it; he had nothing to say to an audience looking for something less self-satisfied and less educated. Punk, among other contemporary movements, brought loud, fast original music to small, sweaty rooms, rewriting the rules of the business. Musicianship mattered less than desire, originality and energy, which is not to say that there were no musicians among them. You don’t have to look any further than X, the ne plus ultra of Los Angeles punk bands, to prove it.
An impressive list of participants, journalists and historians (“Chinatown Punk Wars” happily doesn’t omit the community to focus solely on the musicians and fans who were there for a few years) tells the story. Commentators include director Penelope Spheeris, whose documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” became the video bible of the era; the writer Kristine McKenna, who was the main guide to the underground of this newspaper in those years; Gary Lachman, punk name Gary Valentine, former member of Blondie and frontman of Know, who played Wong’s opening night and many nights after; John Doe of X, punk Gary Cooper (many who have never heard his music might recognize him from his role in “Roswell”).
Also: Alice Bag, from The Bags, one of the first punk bands of the first wave; Rudy Medina of East Los Angeles’ The Brat (Chicano punk bands form a subset of the story); Black Flag co-founder Keith Morris; Dave Alvin of the Blasters, Carla Olson of the Textones; Minutemen (and later Stooges) bassist Mike Watt, who declares himself disheartened at never having played in Hong Kong; and Mamie Hong Weinberg, whose father, Bill Hong, owned the restaurant upon which the Hong Kong Café was established. As veterans often do, they look back with humor and perspective; They are a lovely and experienced group. Most still make music and some are legends.
For the sake of critical transparency, I should point out that I know some of these people, but none as well as Paul Greenstein, my best friend from high school (and later godfather), who started the Chinatown scene when, in En 1978, he convinced George Wong to convince his wife Esther to let him put on shows one night a week in their second-floor restaurant. Knowledgeable about the old city, with a genius for befriending waiters and shopkeepers and a talent for bringing life to anything that occurred to him, he had become a regular customer of Madame Wong’s quiet, ornate bar. “I wasn’t in the music business, I wasn’t a promoter,” he says here. “I was just a guy looking to do things.”
The rapid success of Wong’s led, not long after, a trio of entrepreneurs to open the Hong Kong Café just across the square. Since Esther Wong was hostile towards gangs causing damage to the establishment that bore her name, the two clubs naturally split into two camps. Madame Wong’s (Greenstein left after four months over creative differences) featured a variety of bands that could be loosely called new wave (“A little lighter, but not necessarily bland,” says Lachman), while Hong Kong booked bands that could be loosely called punk, insured by a system (born at the suggestion of Darby Crash of the Germs) according to which any damage would be deducted from the group’s pay. “When losses are minimal, the working relationship improves,” admits Alice Bag, whose band was responsible for punk being banned at Madame Wong’s.
While it necessarily leaves a lot out, “Chinatown Punk Wars” provides a good introduction to the L.A. underground music scene of the late ’70s and its rise and – not a fall, really, but a transition. The scenes are productive while they last and they never last. As most observers agree, L.A. punk became less fun with the arrival of a new, more combative crowd, and benign pogo gave way to brutal slamdance. “The music was always aggressive,” says Doe, who had no time to be spit on. “It was the audience that changed.”
However, the most committed artists manage to stay; players who continue playing become better players; amateurs become professionals, and some, who never make a career, continue doing it for fun. X, Go-Go’s and Dickies graduated to major labels. Pat Smear of the calamitous Germs was eventually recruited by Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. At the same time, punk as a style, sound and attitude has had a remarkable trajectory, on and off the globe (Green Day brought it to Broadway), providing an annuity for its founders and a gateway for new bands: the Linda Lindas. . , young, Asian and Latino, who have partial roots in Chinatown, complete this narrative. It has long gone global.
The Hong Kong Café closed its doors on the last night of 1980 (it was revived as a venue between 1992 and 1995), while Madame Wong’s remained in business for several more years, until a fire in 1986; A Santa Monica branch, Madame Wong’s West, continued until the early ’90s. While he is sometimes presented as a villain in this story, if you make punk rock the hero and paint him in his casually racist era as a “lady dragon,” “The Chinatown Punk Wars” gives Esther Wong her due. “She was a tough girl,” says Lachman. “She knew what she wanted.” Says Alice Bag, whose band banned her from the club: “She was a business woman and I respect that.”