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Punk Rock Freaks in the Heart of Hollywood

It was the era when video killed the radio star, when glitz and glamor and bubblegum pop dominated the airwaves. Meanwhile, a handful of musicians and misfits were subverting the pop culture narrative forever.

Punk Rock Freaks in the Heart of Hollywood

Iris Berry had had enough. For the second time that day, she stomped from behind the bar, across the dance floor, past rows of U-shaped red leather booths, through the haze of cigarette smoke and stale beer, over to the DJs to ask them to turn the music down. It was 1982 and Berry was a new bartender at the Cathay de Grande, a club set in the basement of a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood. Just a couple of years earlier, she had been struggling to graduate from high school in Pacoima — a San Fernando Valley town she describes as “all gangs and car clubs” at the time. Berry had gone from wearing Dittos jeans and feathered hair as a latchkey kid in the Valley to shoplifting at the nearby mall to working in a biker bar (thanks to a good fake ID), which is where she was bitten by the punk bug. Soon she was bussing over the hill to hang out in Hollywood, and by ’82 the 21-year-old raven-haired beauty was a fixture on the scene there, her hair teased high above her sea-blue eyes, porcelain cheekbones and red “cherries in the snow” Revlon lipstick.

Iris Berry bartending at the Zero. (Photo courtesy of Iris Berry)

The Cathay featured bands of all stripes all week long, and it opened early on Sundays for the Sunday Club, a daytime event hosted by DJ/promoter Bob Forrest. A bespectacled 21-year-old who moved to Los Angeles from Palm Springs, Forrest was known for carrying around armloads of books to support his reading habit, sometimes selling them to support another habit.

On one of Berry’s first days working at the club, a few drunk punks played softball in the parking lot while two others DJ’d country and metal music. Top Jimmy, a white-boy blues singer with a Kentucky drawl, ordered a whisky and beer from Berry, pulling a roll of stamps from his pocket to pay for his drink. “This was the first time I met Top Jimmy,” remembers Berry. “He told me he had broken into a stamp machine at the post office. I told my boss, ‘He doesn’t have any money.’ And he says, ‘Let him pay with stamps.’”

Later that day, another guy walked up and emptied a pocketful of pennies onto the bar to pay for his drinks. Berry was annoyed, but the guy was cute, so she acquiesced. There was still the matter of the blaring music. “You need to lower it!” she yelled. “I can’t hear my customers.”

“Huh?” both DJs mimed, pretending they couldn’t hear because the music was too loud.

“I was getting a sore throat from trying to talk to my customers. So finally I go up to the DJ booth with a pitcher of beer,” Berry recalls. Again she told them to lower the music. They laughed and this time made it louder. So, she says, “I poured the pitcher of beer all over the turntables. Smoke was coming out. They screamed. I said, ‘I told you to lower the fucking music!’ And I just walked off.”

To her surprise, Berry didn’t get fired. It was hard to get fired from the Cathay de Grande.

That night, after working a second shift, Berry went home to her punk rock group house, a fading 1920s stucco building just off Hollywood Boulevard, affectionately known as Disgraceland. She had taken the room recently vacated by singer Belinda Carlisle, whose band the Go-Go’s had recently topped the Billboard 200 charts for six weeks in a row. The house was nicknamed for a plaster bust of Elvis that had witnessed all kinds of debauchery from its perch on the mantle — and been adorned with Alice Cooper eye makeup by Berry’s best friend and roomie, LA Weekly writer Pleasant Gehman. Flyers for punk shows plastered the walls, the house phone never stopped ringing, and a steady flow of beer and drugs kept the party going.

It was a simple time, Berry wrote decades later in her book The Daughters of Bastards: “Red lipstick, blue-black hair dye and black fishnets, that’s all I needed. Oh, and some heroin to keep the feelings down.”

Top Jimmy performing at Cathay de Grande, 1981. (Photo by Gary Leonard/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Berry got home that night, the cute guy from the bar, the one who’d paid in pennies, was passed out on their couch.

“Oh, that’s Joe Wood,” said Gehman. “He’s the new singer for T.S.O.L.” While that band, True Sounds of Liberty, might not be a household name, its members—along with the rest of the revolving cast of tenants and couch-crashers at Disgraceland—would soon change the face of popular music. The swirl of artsy, disaffected young punks who gathered here, and at similar punk group houses like the Wilton Hilton, Riot House and the Black Hole down in Orange County, had no idea yet that the makeshift music they were playing to tiny crowds at dusty bars would influence pop culture for decades to come. Fame and fortune was on the horizon for some of them, but that was never the point. Partying, playing pranks and making music together was just fun.

Berry describes these years as a time when all of her friends were living and breathing punk rock. “You went to work, they were there. You came home, they were there. You woke up, they were there.”

Punk at the time was still in its adolescence, full of what Berry calls “art school escapees.” She says the only place to buy punk clothing in L.A. was a shop on Melrose Ave called Poseurs (the name itself a derogatory term for new-schoolers or fake punks). Most of them just modified thrift store finds into whatever looked most outrageous, accompanied by mohawks or dyed hair. In 1982, the aesthetic and the attitude were still far from mainstream. Ask any ’80s-era punk about getting beaten up or threatened in some way for looking different, and they’ll tell you a story or five.

Born of the dust of garage rock and glam, largely a reaction to disco and rock dominating the airwaves of the 1970s, punk rock came screaming into the world circa 1975, with New York’s the Ramones as the pioneers, followed by the Sex Pistols and the Clash across the pond. It was a sound — the Ramones’ speedy 1-2-3-4 downstroking pop — and a demeanor, with the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten sneering “No future!” and the Clash raging about the threat of nuclear meltdown. At its heart, punk was a youth movement, an artistic expression against the status quo. For some it was a political ideology; others just loved its nihilism. For true believers, it was not just a musical genre but a way of life.

(Left to Right) John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the band X, Black Randy of Black Randy & The Metrosquad, and Pat “Rand McNally” Garrett also known as Rand McNally, of Dangerhouse Records in Los Angeles, 1977. (Photo by Ruby Ray/Getty Images)

Punk crept across the world into every major U.S. city, taking deep root in Los Angeles by 1977. The Hollywood sign, the city’s unofficial north star, loomed rusted and rotting atop the Santa Monica Mountains, high above this strange new brew fomenting below. The names of L.A.’s earliest punk bands speak volumes — X, Black Flag, the Bags, the Plugz, the Weirdos, the Germs, Fear, the Screamers, the Runaways, Vicious Circle. Old-timers remember the early days as an underground scene of no more than 100 punks. They were teens sick of being bombarded by the up-tempo beats of the Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac, self-proclaimed freaks and artists revolted by the “normies” of the Saturday Night Fever crowd. They were people searching for something new. And when they didn’t find it, they made it themselves, then found one another through cultural signifiers — a bizarre outfit, crazy hair, a handmade button or patch bearing the name of a favorite band. Finding the music was an adventure too — digging through record store bins, stumbling upon a pirate radio station, poring over magazines like NME or Creem for blips of news from the East Coast and England.

Berry’s intro to this movement came one Wednesday evening when the Valley biker bar where she worked at the time — a place where the house band was a bunch of guys from Pasadena playing rock covers under the name Van Halen — hosted a “punk night.” In the women’s bathroom, Berry ran into three young women sporting dyed black hair, some of it shaved in patches, wearing ripped fishnet stockings, heavy makeup and thrift-store dresses.

“Why do you want to make yourselves look so ugly?” she asked.

“This is punk,” one laughed. “This is beautiful,” they all seemed to add in unison. She had just met her future roommates and best friends — Pleasant Gehman, Belinda Carlisle (then known as Dottie Danger) and Helen Killer. “They took me under their wing,” says Berry. “I was gone.” That’s when she started taking the bus over the hill into Hollywood to see bands like the Dickies, the Germs, the Weirdos, Black Flag and more.

Pleasant Gehman and Iris Berry at Club Lingerie. (Photo courtesy of Iris Berry)

The Germs were the kings of this “first 100 L.A. punks” social circle. Their 1977 single “Forming” set the quintessential sound for Southern California hardcore. But there was a glitch in the heartbeat of the scene in 1980, when, after the Germs broke up and lead singer Darby Crash’s side project didn’t draw the way he’d hoped, Crash and his friend Casey Cola made a suicide pact. On the evening of December 7, 1980, depending on who tells the story, Crash gave Casey just enough heroin to let her live, then shot himself up with a larger dose, and she awoke the next morning in his dead arms.

Iris Berry was there the night before Darby died in 1980, when he hugged everyone goodbye at the Oki Dog stand, the West Hollywood snack stand turned punk gathering spot. He had talked about suicide before, but no one had realized how serious he was.

Some of L.A.’s first punk wave saw the death of their friend as the end of an era, a stake in the heart of the genre, the way the violence-plagued Altamont Festival of 1969 marked the tragic end of the Summer of Love. Crash’s death cast a shadow of grief over what had been a tight-knit group of friends bursting with humor and creativity.

But Keith Morris, who had formed Black Flag in 1976 before leaving in ’79 and starting the Circle Jerks, says he and his bandmates took Crash’s death as a sign to go faster, harder: “There was an urgency. We might not have the chance to do this again.”

Known for biting vocals and explosive energy that belied his small stature and understated skater jeans-and-T-shirt look, Morris spewed lyrics against everything mainstream. Growing up in Hermosa Beach, his sound and outsize stage presence were inspired by Long Beach’s kings of lowrider culture, WAR, as well as teenage years spent seeing acts like Iggy and the Stooges, David Bowie, and the Kinks. He skewered bureaucracy, and Los Angeles itself, in songs like Beverly Hills:

Beverly Hills, Century City, everything’s so nice and pretty
and all the people look the same
don’t they know they’re so damn lame?

Three piece suits
Spandex pants
Cowboy boots
I don’t know what I’m gonna do…
Maybe I’ll have to move.

Everything about the Circle Jerks poked fun at all that was sacred — like their album Golden Shower of Hits, which — ahem — took the piss out of popular songs with its namesake medley. And Morris often pointed the finger at himself, as he does on “Wasted”:

I was a hippie
I was a burnout
I was a dropout
you know I was out of my head

Across the country, punk kids followed suit. Many inexperienced musicians embracing the DIY mentality picked up instruments and wrote their own songs railing against the conservative new U.S. president, former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan. On the West Coast, the epicenter of the movement became the streets of Hollywood — a gritty area that was nothing like the tourist-choked Hollywood Boulevard of today. It was more like “an abandoned Times Square,” says Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, recalling the “bums and pornography, cheap food, and really no tourism except at the Chinese Theatre.”

Tourists gawk at a Mohawk-wearing punk in full regalia near Hollywood Boulevard, early 1980s. (Photo by Ann Summa/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Chili Peppers played their first show at the Cathay de Grande in 1983, which Berry remembers as “three minutes long and amazing.” Bob Forrest confirms it was “like a hurricane and then it was over.” LA Weekly called them “a wild, hot thing” featuring bassist “Flea rolling through somersaults … and the whole ensemble singing perverse jump rope songs acapella in between tunes.” Berry and Kiedis had already been neighbors twice before she had moved into Disgraceland. “I lived catty-corner from the Canterbury when he and Flea lived in La Leyenda. On hot days they would walk over with a watermelon filled with vodka,” she says. Another time, before a film crew came to Disgraceland, Flea and Kiedis had drawn all over her mirror in lipstick. “When the crew went to wipe it away, I said ‘No! That’s art. Keep it!” she laughs. Despite Los Angeles County’s population pushing 8 million in the early ’80s, Berry says punk rock made it feel like a bizarro version of Andy Griffith’s fictional town of Mayberry.

“Even if it was a big city, one of the most famous cities in the world, everything we did was in a couple of miles radius. We could walk from club to club, to gig to bar,” she says.

It was a place and time where anyone who didn’t fit in anywhere else could belong, where concepts of boundaries and freedom were challenged. Where artists like self-described “Jewish Lesbian folk singer” Phranc honed her chops alongside the likes of Tom Waits, where performance artists like Vaginal Creme Davis coexisted with people more interested in experimentation than identity politics. “I was bisexual, but I didn’t call it that,” says Forrest. “I was just wanting to meet people and experience things. We were gender fluid before the term.”

Bust of Elvis at Disgraceland, shown on MTV’s Punks and Poseurs documentary, 1984. (Still via YouTube)

L.A. punks were a family. Flea (birth name Michael Balzary) was a studied musician who had played drums then trumpet in the school symphonic band — before forming his own bands with high school friends Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons. As teenagers at Fairfax High School, he and Kiedis roamed the dance clubs of Hollywood, winning dance contests before eventually forming the first incarnation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, known as Tony Flow and the Majestic Masters of Mayhem. After morphing into the Chili Peppers, they recorded a demo tape, hoping to get more shows.

“We took a boom box and a tape and went into the Club Lingerie at 12 in the afternoon,” says Kiedis. “We say: ‘We demand to see the booker. We want to see Brendan.’”

“I’m here,” the booker replied in his Scottish accent. “What are you guys doing here? We are closed.”

“No, we are gonna play you music and we want a show.”

“I don’t really have time for this, but OK let’s see what you have.”

“So Flea and I played him a song, we dance for him not because we felt obligated but because we just felt like it. And he’s like, ‘Well, what are you guys doing tomorrow night? Because Bad Brains are playing, and I need an opener.’”

The two ran home, high on the thought of opening for the legendary D.C. band, which he still calls “the baddest of all time.” They ran in yelling to Hillel Slovak: ‘We’ve gotta practice, we’ve gotta practice, we’re opening up for Bad Brains!’”

Their set went so well that Bad Brains even invited them onstage for an encore.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers at The Roxy, 1984. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)

After briefly living in a run-down bungalow known as Pot Alley, Kiedis and Flea eventually ran out of money to pay their rent. On a walk down Hollywood Boulevard, they ran into Bob Forrest. When they shared their predicament, Forrest said, “This might be your lucky day! My wife just walked out on me two hours ago. I have a one-bedroom apartment at a place called La Leyenda. There’s space. You guys can sleep in the living room.”

Telling the story now, they interrupt one another like brothers, correcting street names and dollar amounts. But the spirit of it all is agreed upon. “That was when the friendship was born,” says Kiedis. “I like you guys. We like you. We both need a place to live.”

Forrest simply calls this era the “Generation of Yes.”

“Do you want to play a show in my backyard? Yes. Do you want to go to San Francisco? Yes. Let’s go take mushrooms at Joshua Tree. Yes. We were just like, yes — if it involves life and fun and laughing and sex and enlightenment. Let’s go.

Without a fixed venue like CBGB in New York, L.A. punk bands played a constellation of clubs — the Masque, Madame Wong’s, Cathay de Grande, Hong Kong Café, Fender’s Ballroom, Club Lingerie, the Starwood, Raji’s — some with sound systems an LA Weekly writer compared to “a tin can and string telephone.”

A punk show at Cathy de Grande in 1984, a time when parts of the scene grew more violent.

Sometimes promoters rented nontraditional spaces for shows, places like the Vex, a Chicano arts center by day and club by night, or the Ukrainian Cultural Center, a cavernous banquet hall.

Between shows, punks hung at group houses with communal-style open-door policies. In addition to Disgraceland, there were places like the Wilton Hilton — Perry Farrell’s white house in Silver Lake that came with an attached garage, perfect for Jane’s Addiction’s first band practices. Or Skinhead Manor, the home base for BYO (Better Youth Organization) Records and the band members of Youth Brigade. The Black Hole down in Orange County was an apartment made infamous by many a punk song. And over the years, many homeless punks squatted in an entire abandoned motel behind the Chinese Theatre, dubbed Hotel Hell.

After-hours spots like the Zero (co-owned by silent partner David Lee Roth) kept the party going. It was run speakeasy-style, with members drinking for free, outsiders paying $5, and a bouncer named Carlos Guitarlos keeping things in check.

“Carlos Guitarlos was a stocky Mexican-American who could play the fuck out of his guitar,” Kiedis says. “He played in the Rhythm Pigs and was one of those people who slept with his guitar, woke up and played guitar for breakfast, and he was a scary motherfucker too … fueled by alcohol, fueled by childhood mishap, fueled by ‘fuck the world and no one is gonna get in my way.’” Kiedis had seen him in action once at a dive bar called the Frolic Room. Carlos had walked in as a patron, demanding alcohol. When the bartender told him he was eighty-sixed from the bar and brought out a baseball bat, Carlos said, “Please. You and your bat are welcome.”

“And that moment the lumberjack-looking bartender realized me and my bat are not a match for Carlos Guitarlos,” recalls Kiedis.

Another time, when Kiedis lived next door to Carlos’s girlfriend and had no furniture, she gave Kiedis her faux-leopard couch, which “became my new bed and my new everything,” Kiedis says. Then “two days later Carlos came trying to retrieve the couch. He said, That’s my girlfriend’s couch, you can’t have it.’ I said, ‘She gave it to me.’ So he and I started this kind of bitter love-hate relationship where he wanted to kill me and take the couch. I was such a desperate little punk that I did not want to give up the couch.”

Later, when Forrest started his own members-only event called the Bud Club, held at Club Lingerie, Kiedis’s only wish was that Carlos never be allowed in, so Bob hired Earthquake, the biggest guy he could find, to act as doorman. “He was the biggest killer you ever saw in your life,” says Kiedis. “Had ‘Oxnard’ tattooed across his belly. We hired him for like a six-pack of Budweiser, and I said, ‘Your job is to not allow Carlos into this space, ever.’”

Of course, when Carlos found out he wasn’t invited, he had to come. And when he showed up, Earthquake said, “I will do anything. Except fight Carlos.” (Later Carlos moved to San Francisco, got sober, became a father and a “loveable Buddha of a street musician,” says Kiedis.)

A Circle Jerks show at Club Lingerie.

Despite conflicts like that, Kiedis recalls that the scene had “healthy competition, but it wasn’t divisive energies at play. It was a much more gentle feeling in the air that just allowed you to be.” Certain kinds of young people from every pocket of the expansive city breathed it in.

Jennifer Finch, a 16-year-old girl with Kool-Aid-pink dyed hair, attended Santa Monica High School by day — while taking photographs and learning to play bass — and went to all the punk shows she could get into at night.

Ron Martinez performing at the Melody Dance Center, Long Beach, 1986. (Photo by Jilly Wendel, courtesy of Ron Martinez)

Norwood Fisher and his brother Philip “Fish” Fisher, raised on soul, R&B, jazz and funk, learned to play bass and drums in their South Central L.A. apartment. When California’s desegregation laws instituted bussing Black kids like them to white neighborhoods, the Fisher brothers were sent to San Fernando Valley for school, where they met other kids learning to play music. Their band Fishbone started coming together in middle school; by high school they had found their singer, Angelo Moore. Fishbone became a six-person group, adding saxophone, trumpet and keyboards on top of the standard guitar, bass and drums rock formula. Dressed like mods or the Jamaican-inspired rude boys of England, the bandmates’ funky ska sound was sympatico with their friends the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom they would share bills with for years.

Down in Buena Park, a working-class neighborhood of north Orange County, Ron Martinez, a new wave–loving Mexican-American teenager, went to see the movie Rock ’n’ Roll High School at the Cerritos Mall because a friend was acting as an extra in it. “When I saw the live footage of the Ramones in it, I was like, ‘Wow, they’re like the Beatles, but with leather jackets and tight jeans.’ They were so energetic, and I wanted that,” Martinez recalls.

His friend appeared on screen in the film’s scene of fans waiting in line for Ramones tickets. “But he didn’t even like them. He called them ‘the Marones.’ But the next day I was like, ‘I’m in it. I’m punk.’”

Soon Martinez discovered Rodney on the ROQ, a radio show on KROQ where DJ Rodney Bingenheimer played the sounds of underground bands from all over the world, exciting the ears and hearts of Angelenos.

“It was true alternative, like put your phone on shuffle. You could hear anything from Judas Priest to the Buggles to David Bowie,” Martinez remembers. He shaved his head to look like guys on album covers he’d seen. “I wanted to cosmetically identify as this. But it was not a popular thing. Guys would throw stuff at me at the mall, try to fight me. Once I was shopping for school clothes with my mom and some jocks were yelling ‘Punk sucks!’ And my mom’s like, ‘Leave him alone.’ Totally humiliating.”

But he committed, and as soon as he could drive, he was going up to Hollywood for shows.

Ron Martinez, left, and Final Conflict, 1986. (Photo by Sandi T., courtesy of Ron Martinez)

“My older cousins and sisters were in gangs while I was going to the Cathay de Grande,” he says. It was there that he first met El Duce, the infamous singer of the Mentors. “We were standing by the pinball machine and he smelled of BO and piss. He points to some people across the room and says, ‘These people know nothing about life. But I do, because I know kung fu,’ and he does a hand motion with a 40-ounce of Schlitz malt liquor in his hand. He tried to hand me the beer, and I said, ‘No thanks, dude,’ because I was only 17 and didn’t want to get thrown out.”

Martinez later joined the band Final Conflict, got nicknamed Ron Conflict and became known for “singing about how we were constantly worried about nuclear war between the United States and communist countries.” His mother approved because, unlike his cousins and siblings, at least “I wasn’t out beating anybody up or robbing people,” he says.

The circle of punks in Hollywood started out small and tight knit, but unlike subcultures in the rest of the world, L.A.’s scene happened to be centered in the entertainment capital of the world. And soon enough, movie producers caught on to what was happening on Hollywood Boulevard.

Director Penelope Spheeris’s seminal 1981 punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization gave the outside world its first look at bands like the Germs, Black Flag, X and the Circle Jerks. In the film, one of the young narrators describes punk as something new, “It’s fun and… not bull shit. There’s no rock stars now.”

The exposure that the film gave Keith Morris and the Circle Jerks helped them sign to I.R.S. Records and begin touring. In 1984, the low-budget sci-fi film Repo Man featured the Circle Jerks and a punk rock soundtrack. That same year, Suburbia came out. The coming-of-age drama, also directed by Penelope Spheeris, features Flea as the rat-loving character Razzle, as well as performances by T.S.O.L., the Vandals and D.I. Seventeen-year-old Ron Martinez was thrilled to work as an extra. “We got paid $10 and a roach coach lunch,” he recalls. “It was a 12-hour shoot and each band played three songs. They would tell us when to stand and watch and when to stage dive.” To this day, punks who came of age in the ’80s still quote these movies the way mainstream kids quote John Hughes films.

Iris Berry, Stevo Jenson, lead singer of the Vandals, and Lisa MacLeod Bowman, bartending at the Zero. (Photo courtesy of Iris Berry)

As punk became more popular, production companies started rounding up punks to play background characters in movies and TV shows like CHiPs and Quincy, sometimes paying them in beer. Janet Cunningham, who ran the C.A.S.H. (Contemporary Artists Space of Hollywood) club a few doors down from the Zero, also had a casting agency connecting local punks with directors looking to fill nightclub scenes with colorful characters. Berry says they got paid for doing what they all did anyway — drinking, smoking, and playing cards and practical jokes. It was on set of the now cult-classic sci-fi thriller Trancers that she met her longtime boyfriend “Mad” Marc Rude.

“Janet had called me to do some extra work. I was tired when I showed up to the set because Tony Alva and Hank the Crossdresser crawled into my bed in the middle of the night and I had to kick them out,” Berry says. She and Stevo, singer of the Vandals, and some other friends piled into a van on a hot summer day to head to the set. Once there, she heard a loud New York–accented voice as rough as sandpaper, one that seemed “hard to hear that early, before coffee.” The person standing before her as she looked up was unlike anyone she had seen before. “He had sleeves of tattoos, which no one had back then. He was wearing a yarn fishnet shirt. His hair was matted black and orange on the sides. I was like, ‘Who is this, Bozo the Clown?’”

Standing around all day in the clouds from a smoke machine, drinking and listening to a band play a song called “Jingle Balls” over and over, chemistry worked its magic, and by the end of day Berry was “utterly charmed.” The two would have a turbulent on-again-off-again relationship over the next decade, as Rude became known for his stippled illustrations that graced the covers of the Misfits’ Earth A.D. album and others by the Offspring, Hirax and more.

Iris Berry, left, and Pleasant Gehman during the filming of MTV’s Punks and Poseurs documentary on the Disgraceland porch, 1984. (Photo courtesy of Iris Berry)

The camera loved Berry as much as Mad Marc did, as demonstrated when MTV came to Disgraceland in 1984 to film a documentary called Punks and Poseurs, in which Berry and her roommate Pleasant Gehman became unwitting stars.

“Plez and I promised we wouldn’t drink before the camera crew got there, then they showed up with 20 cases of no-label beer and a bag of cocaine,” says Berry.

The hour-long film intercuts footage of Berry reading poetry from her chapbook and Gehman making jokes between shots of bands performing and practicing.

After it aired, kids across the country fell in love with the punk women — local teenager Ron Martinez among them. “Suddenly I wanted a girlfriend — one that looked like them,” he says. He noticed girls in Hollywood emulating their makeup. Meanwhile, Berry and friends saw that Hollywood was suddenly flooded with guys carrying guitars in gig bags, all taking classes at the Guitar Institute of Technology on Hollywood Boulevard, wanting to be the next big punk band.

Berry and Gehman themselves didn’t see the final cut of the doc until years later. They never had cable TV.

Thanks to all of the media attention, L.A.’s original 100 punks grew to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, mostly coming from outlying areas, some “meatheads and jocks,” as Keith Morris calls them, others curiosity-seekers who misunderstood the dancing and ethos. A hardcore faction of punk began to emerge. Skanking around in a circle pit and pogoing up and down turned into slam dancing; then stage diving became a sport of its own, which some of the early punks hated, but which Morris attributes to the athleticism of the skaters and surfers who started coming to shows, doing aerials off monitors as if launching from the lips of empty swimming pools.

Sometimes the chaos was self-inflicted. At one of the annual L.A. Street Scenes concerts, attended by some 70,000 people, a drunken Morris ran on stage to dance with the L.A. Raiders cheerleaders. As security attempted to grab him, he escaped but got thrown by the crowd and landed on a rock, crushing three vertebrae. He played his next show at the Olympic Auditorium in front of 4,000 people, in a full body brace. The city abolished the Street Scenes concerts in 1986 after one person was fatally wounded and 40 others were hurt from fighting.

A Youth Brigade concert in 1984.

There is an often-told story about a show in which Fishbone bassist Norwood Fisher got stabbed on stage yet still played on to the end of their set. Afterward, his underage brother drove him to the emergency room. While parts of the legend are true, Forrest clarifies that “it turned out he just fell on a cymbal stand and cut himself.”

A handful of organized punk gangs turned the once-lighthearted dance floors into excuses for full-on brawls, and their appearance coincided with an increased police presence in the city, as L.A. cleaned up its downtown while preparing to host the 1984 Summer Olympics. Many felt like police chief Daryl Gates had it out for punks.

“Cops always fucked with us, making fun of our haircuts or calling us homophobic slurs,” says Ron Martinez. “But by ’83, ’84, they used punk shows as an Olympic training ground for learning how to do crowd control. When Channel 11 taped a weeklong look at punk and they teargassed us at Mandola’s Ballroom, even the reporter said there was no need for that.”

Ron Martinez, top right, and his punk band Final Conflict, 1986. (Photo by Sandi T., courtesy of Ron Martinez)

Martinez remembers there being four or five fights per night while he was playing in the mid-’80s. Like most singers, he’d stop the band when things got too out of hand. One time, members of a local gang tried to rob him at a show. But it all came to a head one night when Final Conflict went to play Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach. The doors to the club opened later than expected. After the show, while being paid, Martinez was told that the delay was due to “someone who had come with a gun to shoot the singer of Final Conflict.” He says that the band didn’t play for six months after that, which felt like forever.

More violence at shows meant that the bands started to hop around between short-lived venues. Some of the more established venues stopped booking punk — preferring to promote the more manageable hair metal scene. Hard rock shows were full of fist-pumping and headbanging at this time but hadn’t yet co-opted stagediving and moshing. (“Grow your hair and get some spandex pants if you want to play here,” one up-and-coming skate band was told at the Troubadour.) A few early crossover shows featuring both genres lead to disaster, like when the metal band Alcatrazz refused to get on stage following the Circle Jerks, afraid of the stage-diving punk fans. They left without playing, with the promoter throwing a tray of deli meat at their limo, à la the scene in This Is Spinal Tap.

With blood on the dancefloor and fire marshals shutting down oversold shows, some of the scene’s musicians channeled their energy into other projects — including new wave and punk-inspired splinter genres like the Paisley Underground, which materialized bands such as the Bangles and the Dream Syndicate.

Some, like Jennifer Finch, even left L.A. because of the violence. In 1985, she moved to San Francisco to start college at San Francisco State University, where she formed the band Sugar Babydoll with Courtney Love.

The scene started to splinter by the end of the decade, but the music never stopped. Forrest, still in L.A., created his band Thelonious Monster, a seven-man, four-guitar lineup known for chaotic live shows and country-tinged blues, with Forrest crooning songs of loneliness and pain. Berry says that Thelonious Monster was the perfect outlet for all of Forrest’s energy. “He was well-read and it showed. His big brain mixed with his beautiful voice, it really came together for him.”

His onstage antics were so wild that, at one show in Canada, Forrest recalls, “I broke my leg on stage and they wouldn’t give me pain meds. The next day in the hospital they had surgery and I was screaming in pain, and the doctor came in saying, ‘Mister Forrest you look like you know how to relieve your pain. I’m going to discharge you.’”

Sometimes all of the “yes” became excess, and sadly heroin claimed the lives of many in the scene, among them Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak in 1988 and Thelonious Monster bassist Rob Graves in 1990. Too many others to name suffered slower deaths due to addiction, many going in and out of rehab multiple times.

After recording their VI album, the Circle Jerks broke up for the first of many times. Morris says that they knew it was over when they found themselves playing to less than 50 people in bars across small-town America. For many years, Morris managed bands and worked as A&R for a few record labels, nurturing the careers of up-and-coming bands. For most of 2022 he has split his time between a reunion tour with the Circle Jerks and touring with his latest band, Off! At age 66, he says, “It’s ridiculous.” While he is not jumping around the way he once did, the scathing voice rings clear.

Iris Berry, center, and the Lame Flames. (Photo courtesy of Iris Berry)

Ron Martinez and Final Conflict recorded their seminal Ashes to Ashes LP, then broke up for a while due to internal and external stressors. A 1988 LA Weekly story reported that the band’s message and success drew the ire of Nazi skinheads, and at one of their shows — a benefit for the antinuke organization SANE/Freeze — two skins rushed the doors, stabbing a volunteer and a member of the Offspring. One of the attackers was apprehended and charged with four counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

“The violence was spilling into our shows, and some of our own audience was the cause of it,” says Martinez. “That was the exact opposite of what we were about, so we decided we didn’t want to play if things were going to be like that.”

Martinez was in and out of the band over the next decade and began promoting shows. He also appeared in The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, which focused on the homeless and gutter punks of L.A. He now owns a booking agency; Final Conflict reunited in 2016 and in 2022 toured Japan for the first time.

Iris Berry joined a band called the Lame Flames, then left to join the Ringling Sisters — an all-female spoken word troupe. While she has told the story of meeting and breaking up with Mad Marc Rude dozens of times in documentaries and books, her eyes still sparkle when recalling their past. She saw him one last time before he died in 2002, when he and his wife called needing a bus ticket back to Las Vegas. Berry was on deadline writing a chapter for The Underground Guide to Los Angeles, but she finally picked up the phone. “He had left L.A. very angry. No one had heard from him in five years. I was married to someone else,” she says. She met Marc and his wife at the bus station and gave them money to get back home. “I think he had been doing drugs but he was ready to quit. I told them, ‘You gotta come back to L.A.’ He dropped dead a week later. His organs gave out. I realized we hadn’t seen each other in five years, but we were soulmates, and our souls knew it was time to say goodbye.”

Berry has had several books of her poetry published, serves on the board of local literary arts center Beyond Baroque, and co-founded indie publishing company Punk Hostage Press.

Bob Forrest got sober, and after a stint on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew founded his own addiction and recovery center. Many in the 2011 documentary about him, Bob and the Monster, credit him for saving their lives with his approach to sobriety.

Jennifer Finch performing with L7 at Lollapalooza ’94, Charleston, West Virginia. (Photo by Shawna Kenney)

By 1986, Jennifer Finch had returned to Los Angeles to meet Chicago transplant Danita Sparks, who she’d heard was forming a band. They put together L7 — four musicians who rocked hard and just happened to be women. They played their first show in 1987, opening for Thelonious Monster, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and X. The band worked tirelessly to carve a niche in a world accustomed to either poppy girl groups or tokenized female musicians, macheting their own path through the jungle of the music industry — and inspiring generations of musicians. In the early ’90s they also organized Rock for Choice, a series of large-scale benefit concerts supporting the abortion rights movement. Finch and L7 just rocked a 30th anniversary tour celebrating their groundbreaking album Bricks Are Heavy. 

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ love of L.A. in all its complexity is on full display on every album they’ve made en route to earning seven Grammy Awards and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Earlier this year, they received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — just steps from where the Cathay de Grande and their other old haunts once stood.

Iris Berry with longtime boyfriend Mad Marc Rude. (Photo courtesy of Iris Berry)

Veterans of the L.A. punk scene went on to found festivals like Lollapalooza and record labels like Epitaph, while these bands’ sounds influenced a whole lineage of musicians that led to ’90s-era alt rock, grunge, thrash metal, psychobilly, pop-punk and whatever comes next in the alchemy.

Four decades later, a shared sense of gratitude vibrates through the voices of L.A. punk. Many feel lucky not just to be alive today but to have created so much — together, to have come from various chaotic backgrounds and met up in this indescribable moment in time. “This scene is what saved us,” says Berry.

Many of the L.A. punks have gone on to musical success on a much larger level, but four decades later, the magic of that scene is still imprinted in their minds.

On New Year’s Eve of 1990, L7 was playing a sold-out show at Club Lingerie, opening for Hole. Jennifer Finch had hauled her equipment there in her 1971 Pontiac Bonneville 455, spraypainted black with a white demon skull motif on the hood. After unloading the gear at the club, she parked her boat of a car on a nearby street. Shortly after soundcheck, she and Hole’s guitarist Eric Erlandson wandered out to find that the car had been towed. They both agreed not to drink that night — not until they got the car back anyway. Finch went on to hammer the bass through a typical hair-flinging sweat-soaked L7 set, decked out in an American flag and red lipstick smeared beyond her lips and across her face. Afterward, she and Erlandson sat on a curb outside the impound lot, waiting for it to open, watching the first sunrise of the decade. They retrieved her car and bought a six-pack of beer, each cracking one open on the side of the road.

“To us,” Jennifer said, tapping his beer can with hers. “Our bands.”

“Things are going to change,” said Erlandson. They both felt it.

A few sips later, they drove down Sunset Boulevard to El Compadre, an iconic family-owned Mexican restaurant. Slash, lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, sat there alone in one of the burgundy booths. He waved his friends over. They slid in next to him and ordered breakfast. It was the end of the decade and the end of a twisted, magical era that none of them would ever forget.

“People who share intense events seem to know each other for a long time,” Finch said decades later in Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records. “People from the L.A. punk scene look into each other’s eyes and just know.”