Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Metalheads, skaters, hippies, and punks—all are welcome at Red Bull Music Festival LA

Photo: Red Bull Music Festival

“Of all the empty motel pools in Southern California, why skateboard around this one?” A bastardized Casablanca quote is as good of a thought as any to have on the freeway driving out to the Pink Motel in the dusty San Fernando Valley, a place that, with respect to Clueless’ Cher, is a solid 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles without traffic. I was in a rented Kia (sorry, no white Jeep in this story) flying up the 110 on my way to check out the Illegal Civilization Movie Motel, the first event of Red Bull Music Festival Los Angeles—or, at least, the part of the festival I was there to witness. And after a 7 a.m. flight, the prospect of free Red Bull honestly sounded pretty appealing.

The entire festival, like the Chicago sister event we covered at length in November, went on for nearly a month. And like the Chicago incarnation of the festival, it was tailored to L.A.’s cultural strengths. For our purposes, that meant a handful of things: second-generation immigrants seeking communion with their Afro-Latinx roots. Skateboarding’s gradual shift of allegiances from pop-punk to hip-hop. Ambient New Age recordings straight out of a ’70s health-food store. But most importantly, it meant the intimate interplay between music and film, both of which saturate the city at every level from street artists to industry players.

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Turns out the “movie” in “movie motel” referred to the Pink Motel itself, which plays the Dusty Spur on Netflix’s GLOW and has appeared in everything from Drive to Mandy Moore videos. It also has a prominent place in skateboarding history: In the ’80s, owner Monty Thomulka used to let local kids skateboard in the Pink Motel’s fish-shaped pool during the off season. Thomulka’s laissez-faire attitude eventually led to a starring role for the motel in Stacy Peralta’s skate movie The Search For Animal Chin, featuring Tony Hawk and the rest of the Bones Brigade crew. Even I’ve heard of Bones Brigade, and I can’t skateboard more than a few inches without falling on my ass.

Rocket Da Goon performs at the Illegal Civilization Movie Motel
Photo: Red Bull Music Festival
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The attendees milling around with joints in hand had surely heard of them, too, though their voracious remixing of fashion influences reflected a subculture that’s grown far beyond baggy jeans and blazing punk. Founded by former Odd Future hanger-on (and current Robert Evans protegé) Mikey Alfred when Alfred was just 12 years old, the Illegal Civilization collective blends hip-hop, skateboarding, fashion, and filmmaking into a single ambitious whole; recently, Alfred made the jump to producing with Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, whose skateboarding crew was played by Illegal Civ-affiliated skaters Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin, and Gio Galicia.

Illegal Civ’s mini-festival was similarly multimedia-minded: photographers trying to capture the perfect midair shot nearly outnumbered the skateboarders they were shooting, and rappers shouted out for the crowd to follow them on Instagram. But while the Instagram-ready photo backdrops sprawled throughout the motel grounds, the music—all hip-hop except for one punk band (NYC’s Show Me The Body) and one ambient soundscape creator (the most efficient way to describe L.A. polymath Sunni Coloń)—was relegated to a tiny pit around the famous fish-shaped pool, which was fenced off for safety’s sake.

And although things were still gearing up when I left, afternoon performers Rocket Da Goon and 1 Take Jay got the crowd jumping with horny, funny rhymes and trap-influenced beats. The young woman with long braids and a pink crop top standing next to me went from tentatively raising her hands to chest level to full-on waving them in the air, and during Jay’s set a trio of teenagers took the stage, unselfconsciously throwing themselves into the music as Jay and his crew cheered them on. This was starting to get really fun, even if I felt ancient standing in the youthful, fashion-forward crowd. But I had to get back to Hollywood, and a subculture that was at its edgiest 40 years ago.

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That would be a The Decline Of Western Civilization reunion, bringing together director Penelope Spheeris and the subjects of her seminal 1981 documentary capturing another youth wave: The nascent L.A. punk scene of the late ’70s. Many of the bands Spheeris—a UCLA graduate who caught the music-video wave early, founding Rock N’ Reel, the first Los Angeles production company to specialize in the format, in 1974—documents in the film have become legendary. Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, the Germs, and X (whose John Doe apparently doesn’t like the documentary very much) are all featured, alongside their lesser-known contemporaries Alice Bag Band and Catholic Discipline. But at the time, they were just broke musicians with bad attitudes, drug habits, and questionably legal living situations. Spheeris documented it all with an anthropological eye and fearless disregard for her camera equipment, getting right into the center of violent slam-dancing pits in order to properly convey the freewheeling chaos of a punk show.

Whether by design or pure programming kismet, this reunion took place in an appropriate venue: the Ukrainian Culture Center on Melrose, which doesn’t appear in any of the Decline movies (Spheeris would go on to make two more Decline documentaries, one about hair metal she’s indifferent toward and one about crust punks she passionately loves) but did host its share of punk shows in the turbulent early ’80s. Listening to Spheeris, Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris, Germs drummer Don Bolles (not his real name), and devoted scenester Michelle Baer Ghaffari (Decline fans might remember her from the scene where she makes breakfast with Germs frontman Darby Crash) laugh and reminisce about club owners’ fear of punk and the LAPD’s hatred of them—by 1979, the cops showing up at a punk show was an inevitability, and the LAPD even managed to ruin the midnight premiere of Decline at a rented theater on Hollywood Boulevard—it’s hard not to feel like you missed out on something.

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Left to right: Michelle Baer Ghaffari, Don Bolles, Penelope Spheeris, and Keith Morris at the Decline Of Western Civilization Q&A
Photo: Red Bull Music Festival

Like many young punks of the ’90s, I grew up watching and re-watching The Decline Of Western Civilization on a bootlegged VHS tape (the film wasn’t officially available on DVD until 2015) and longing for the days when people besides my parents thought punk was a real threat to society. And indeed, the only regret expressed in the Q&A came from Bolles, who said, “I wish we had completely gotten rid of” mainstream rock music, not just changed it forever. But, when asked if the punk storm had passed, Spheeris replied, “Dude, it’s been raining like a motherfucker.” She wasn’t referring to the damp winter L.A.’s been having this year. And if the woman who made movies completely outside the studio system at a time when virtually no women were directing films at all, then told the studio system to go fuck itself after making it big with Wayne’s World and Black Sheep, has no time for nostalgia, then neither should I.

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The functional description of the following day’s programming at the Ukrainian Culture Center is that it was a short film program followed by a dance performance, but a more accurate one would call it a holistic expression of longing for communion with one’s ancestors through short films and dance. The program was curated under the direction of Black Radical Imagination, a national touring experimental film program that “focuses on new stories within the African diaspora, each artist contributing their own vision about postmodern society through the state of current Black culture.” BRI’s efforts were combined with those of MAPS (Movement Arts Performance Space), an L.A. arts collective that specifically focuses on the Afro-Latinx diaspora—a group of people for whom the concepts of home and identity can be especially fluid.

Dancers perform at MAPS
Photo: Red Bull Music Festival
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These themes ran throughout the day’s films, screened before an engaged audience that was shockingly large compared to other short film programs I’ve attended. (We’re talking more than a hundred people, not a handful of art students and napping retirees.) The Q&As afterwards emphasized the effects of diaspora, with one filmmaker pointing out that, even among the population of Black Brazilians, there are hundreds of different groups, and another emphasizing the importance of music and dance as ways for members of different African tribes to communicate with one another after they were kidnapped and shipped to the Caribbean as slaves. It all informed the dance performance from a group of women dressed all in white, their hair wrapped in white cloths, whose movements brought together the concepts of fluidity and transformation, set to the hypnotic sounds of hand drumming and unstructured vocals. They received a standing ovation.

The spirituality that permeated Black Radical Imagination x MAPS felt almost ironic by the next day, as the room was once again cleared so a new subculture could take up residence. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been to several live scores of the 1922 silent film Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages, a pseudo-documentary featuring dramatic reenactments of medieval witchcraft trials that’s a favorite of metal bands looking for something appropriately satanic for Halloween. But I can say without hesitation that the Red Bull Music Festival’s live score of the film, from doom metal pioneers Earth, was the best live score of the film I’ve ever seen. In recent years, Earth has incorporated more country music elements into its sound. But in the spirit of the blasphemous occasion, the Olympia, Washington trio went back to its droning metal roots, drawing out notes for long, quavering minutes punctuated only by faint whispers of cymbal—that is, until the end of the film, when that mesmerizing drone burst into a head-banging roar.

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Earth performs at the Red Bull Music Festival
Photo: Red Bull Music Festival

The roar never came at the last event that brought me out to the Ukrainian Culture Center, the one event that, admittedly, I initially attended more out of snarky curiosity than anything. In my defense, the event description of IASOS’ “full moon concert” said that “attendees will be greeted with a (voluntary) dusting of glitter and a sprinkle of jasmine upon entering,” and how is a professional skeptic like myself supposed to receive that with a straight face? It’s easy: Show up too late for the sprinkling of glitter, but just in time for the intro from IASOS, a New Age composer who’s been living in San Francisco since the ’50s and making ambient electronica since the mid-’70s. (They didn’t call it ambient electronica back then. They called it “healing music.”) “The full moon amplifies emotion... some of you are going to be very far out or very far in,” IASOS, beaming in that high-on-life way unique to lifelong hippies, told the audience, which responded with the type of buoyant giggling you usually only hear in field recordings from famous cults. What the hell was going on? Were we all going to be shaving our heads and donning matching purple kaftans by the end of this thing?

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IASOS, surveying the crowd at Red Bull Music Festival
Photo: Red Bull Music Festival

For better or worse, we did not. The weirdest thing that happened was having to step over a few blissed-out concertgoers still sprawled out on the floor five minutes after the show had ended—which was admittedly a bit cultish, as was the sustained vocal harmonizing that IASOS asked us to engage in instead of clapping. (Too disruptive to the vibes.) But the music was undeniably relaxing, delicate and dreamy enough to get your mind wandering, and gentle enough to maintain a tranquil emotional state even if, say, during this journey within you realized you forgot to check in for your flight the next morning, and wondered if you’d get a bad seating assignment as a result. If it wasn’t for the crystal butterflies and pulsing rainbow vagina (it was abstract, but it was totally a vagina) in the light show, you might think you were watching any number of contemporary ambient knob-twiddlers, a credit to how ahead of his time IASOS really was back in the ’70s.

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So what decade did I step into when I accepted an invitation to come out to L.A. and follow up on our coverage of Red Bull Music Festival Chicago? The events I witnessed spanned generations, from the hippies of the mid-’70s to the aspiring moguls of Instagram. The answer is all of them at once. In the internet age, we have the luxury of bespoke identities, of choosing which movements we identify with most and either staying with them for life—like Decline’s Spheeris, who told the Red Bull Music Festival audience, “I’ll die a punk rocker. That’s just how I feel”—or donning and discarding them as our moods shift. And what better place than Los Angeles, a place to which people from all around the world arrive every day in search of reinvention, to host them all?

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