Never in my life have I claimed to be a punk. I never wore leather or dyed my hair a radical color or got kicked out of school or any of that shit. But, I grew up in the suburbs and sure listened to plenty of punk music, rode a skateboard around, smoked cigarettes in high school and generally stayed out of trouble. I’m not sure all of those statements apply to Nathan Williams, but I bet I am getting pretty close. I wonder how much Williams knew about the venue his band Wavves, for which he is now the primary songwriter rather than the sole songwriter, decided to have their record release party at on Wednesday evening. I didn’t know shit about it. Well, a little (like, really little) research revealed Madame Wong’s to be a former Chinese Restaurant located in the most Chinatown part of Chinatown you can imagine.Basically, the name suited it. It would also be the second to last show at the venue. Ever. So, was it fitting that a place that was never supposed to be a punk venue hosts a band that is surely not a punk band in front of a crowd that certainly weren’t punks for a celebration of the end of one thing but actually seemed like the beginning of something just as promising?
Well, yes. I mean, I wasn’t going to drop a sentence like that and not agree with it. That would be a dick move.
Anyway, Esther Wong aka Madame Wong, according to LA Weekly, is known in some circles as “The Godmother of Punk.” Anyone who’s watched a documentary of The Ramones or Black Flag or read Our Band Could Be Your Life knows that punk music didn’t exactly have an easy time in its infanthood. In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of places to have punk shows. So, staging a punk show at, say, your own restaurant, was a risky venture. On one hand, you were guaranteed to sell some fried rice, but on the other, you attracted a rather unpredictable crowd. Even at their most well-behaved, you still ran the risk of scaring away your regular clientele.
So, while faced with uncertain financial future, Wong worked with Paul Greenstein to begin putting on shows from unsigned bands that couldn’t find more respectable places to play in L.A. Though the original venue closed in 1985 after a fire, the place helped cultivate a now blossoming punk and underground scene and some of the notable bands to play the iconic spot included The Police, Black Flag, Guns N’ Roses, The Ramones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Go-Go’s, Oingo Boingo and on and on.
In the past year, however, the location’s wave of tenants landed squarely on Ben Kramer, of L.A. blog and record label Aquarium Drunkard (and strangely enough, K-12 classmate of CoS photographer Jesse Bloch), who opened the doors to Madame Wong’s in the past year to sporadic shows and events, including a much-talked-about Halloween show from Vampire Weekend. But, all leases must come to an end and the new tenants are supposedly putting an end to shows at Madame Wong’s for good. Not that anyone would ever be able to find the place without GPS, but still, it was with slight sadness that I entered into the green pagoda, knowing I would never have another opportunity to do so.
The scene was nothing like what you would imagine in the 80’s; mohawks replaced with unmanaged shag and leather jackets exchanged for H&M apparel. The large, indoor space was like something you would see an artist using in New York or Chicago, but not Los Angeles. A short trip up more stairs to the roof revealed a stunning view of Chinatown, the downtown L.A. skyline, and the hills that conceal Dodger Stadium. A genorous portion of the evening’s crowd congregated up there, while Williams and bandmates Billy Hayes and Stephen Pope got in their altered states while sitting on some couches, generally undisturbed. In short, the place that our hosts Ben and Stuart rent is amazing and the record release party felt like an actual house party (Let it also be noted that the gentlemen are gracious party-throwers and made CoS feel literally welcome in their home).
And there was music! I almost forgot! The opening act was LA three-piece Woah Hunx, a band perfectly fit to open for Wavves. The obvious reference point is punk and classic hardcore. But guitarist Preston Olson matched vocalist Katherine Peterson’s precision shouting with ooo’s and ahhh’s that brought their quick-paced songs together into a nice package. It’s music you imagine would be impossible to market, but it definitely fulfills a niche that has plenty of openings, with the sorry state of punk-inspired music these days. At some point, the best punk music started being made by artists classified as indie, like music just went full circle and new wave is about to sprout up. (If this is true, then the good news is The Replacements are on the way).
After a short break, Wavves began their somewhat brief set to a laid-back but warm audience. Now, I don’t need to give an egregious history of Nathan Williams, but this is L.A. and one thing we love more that tearing down our idols in scandal is a comeback story. Think Mickey Rourke. And Wavves is definitely the comeback story of the year, along with my man Vladamir Guerrero. Not only was it a surprise to hear just how enjoyable King Of The Beach is, it is surprising to see how composed Williams is live. I mean, he is still very much the same guy who rose and fell from grace quickly just this last year, but he seems to be having so much more fun than the last time I had seen him. Furthermore, and I don’t know if this will be easy to explain, but he seems younger. Most people seem to mature and age with profound life experiences, but Williams is the opposite, appearing to have regained some of the enjoyment of music that he was so close to losing. And on this, the celebration of his triumphant return, he had every reason to be smiling. Many people don’t get a second chance and even fewer come through the way he has.
As they made their way into “King of the Beach”, introduced as “the stupidest song off our stupid new record” and an obvious highlight, Wavves revealed itself to be much more of as complete band than its earlier incarnation. Hayes and Pope not only have songwriting credits on the new record, but are vocal members of the live show, looking like lost vikings with Williams as the child-prisoner forced to sing for his freedom. He announced each song title with fake intros, like this song is about so and so’s mom or mentioning something about a bloodfart, clearly not taking anything too seriously, even admitting to being a Jersey Shore fan and showing a profound appreciation for JWoww (clearly a match made in heaven based on their spelling habits).
Sure the sound hissed at times, the microphone was feeding back often, the low stage made it tough to see (I took in most of the show from the staircase to the balcony, a smart move that surprised me with it’s accessibility) and a most-pit started to form multiple times with no great success, but if any of these things are likely to bother you, chances are you wouldn’t like a Wavves show in any condition. The band knows it’s strongest material and sticks with it, playing inspired versions of “Idiot” “So Bored” and “Super Soaker”. And though the music was as enjoyable as it is on record, with the older material even proving to be more enjoyable, Wavves laid-back atmosphere and commitment to not stressing the music scene fits the vibe of summer in Los Angeles perfectly. At least the vibe for these music fans, who like the beach and the sun as much as the next guy, but know that there is a bigger world out there than Hollywood clubs and celebrity sightings. Wavves is party music for people who don’t want to like party music, it’s rock and roll for people that think the new album from The National is kind of boring (maybe that is just me), and it’s anthems for people who thought there would never be a music scene worth while in this damn city and have suddenly found themselves in a captivating climate that is turning heads everywhere.
Williams did announce, again, that “Mickey Mouse” would be removed from future pressings of the King Of The Beach and that the new song performed was intended to be a B-side, but will now be on the album along with another track. But that is the last reason why you need to get the album. It’s a document of a new beginning, one rarely captured in such a permanent form. And on this evening where the atmosphere of a great ending loomed heavy over the floorspace, a future that looks bright and full of possibility was the silver lining that lifted any somberness away from the festivities. Which is good. It’s how a punk venue should have a funeral, which is exactly what we needed.
Photography by Jesse Bloch.
King Of The Beach
To The Dregs
New Song (I Won’t Ever Die)
No Hope Kids