Thursday, November 22

What's that smell?: Club reopens after fire code stink


Hidden between an abandoned Japanese movie theater and a Latin
bar just off of Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, adventurous
music fans can only access The Smell through a nondescript back
alley entrance. If one doesn’t know where to look, it would
be difficult to tell this is a music venue, rather than another of
the many abandoned buildings in the disheveled downtown area.

But The Smell’s hidden exterior is more or less its only
exclusive characteristic. The Smell is one of the only venues in
Los Angeles accessible to all ages, opening its doors to high
school music aficionados, aging political activists and struggling
artists alike. The cover charge is $5 for a whole night of
entertainment that has featured some of the most notable musicians
to come through Los Angeles, ranging from the new wave beats of The
Faint to the spastic rock of Deerhoof to the indie punk of Citizen
Fish. If the music’s not working for you, there’s
always the art gallery, the political brochures, and a snack
bar.

Jim Smith, one of The Smell’s three founders and its only
current manager, works full-time as a union organizer during the
day. He sees The Smell as more of a hobby than a business.

“I’ve never thought of this as an enterprise or
anything that would be making me money,” said Smith.

He’s never paid for advertising, and if the club manages
to make a couple hundred dollars after rent has been paid, he
considers it a good month. This lax attitude is a big reason
regulars find The Smell such an attractive place.

But it’s not just the fans who have benefited from The
Smell’s tiny cover charge and Smith’s non-profit
spirit. The acts themselves have found more freedom at The Smell
than at other venues in the city.

“(Smith) just extended his club to anything we wanted. If
he was confident that we’d draw enough people, he’d let
us bring in any other bands we wanted for the night,” said
Todd Congliere of Toys That Kill. “This is Hollywood;
that’s really rare.”

But Smith’s laid back ways haven’t always jived with
the Los Angeles Fire Department’s building codes. On February
28, 2003, fire safety inspectors showed up at The Smell, cited
the club for fire code violations, and told Smith he would
have to close up until a number of modifications were
made.

The club was closed for over six months as volunteers worked to
bring The Smell up to code. The entrance doors were made to swing
out into the alley and were pulled farther in to accommodate the
change. Electrical work was done to prevent fires or electrical
malfunction. The Smell officially reopened on September 19th with a
show by the Sharp Ease.

Renovating The Smell came with a hefty price tag of about
$10,000. Since the club’s low profit margin hadn’t left
a financial cushion to fall back on, almost all of the permit costs
came out of Smith’s own pocket, and there was speculation
that without more funding, The Smell would not be able to
survive.

It wouldn’t be the first all-ages hangout to suffer from a
combination of city interference and money problems. The famous
Jabberjaw coffee house, which featured such notable acts as Beck
and Nirvana in the 1990s, had to shut its doors in 1997 after
financial woes made it impossible to keep going. The Impala
suffered a similar fate the same year. The end of these two local
music staples was in fact a key influence in The Smell’s
founding.

“When both the Impala and Jabberjaw closed, we really felt
obligated to do something to fill that void,” said Jim
Silberman, a co-founder of the Smell and former UCLA
ethnomusicology student.

The challenge of keeping an all-ages club extends beyond the Los
Angeles city limits. Just last month, Long Beach’s all-ages
venue, Koo’s faced the city’s board in a bid to keep
its license in light of accusations of underage drinking and drug
use occurring on the premises. Koo’s ““ which offers
live as well as workshops for aspiring photographers and artists
““ faced similar problems two years before at a smaller, Santa
Ana location.

Despite the efforts of local authorities, the board handed down
its decision in favor of Koo’s on Jan. 6, and the venue has
been allowed to stay open for the under-21ers and its other
regulars.

Good news has also accompanied The Smell since it reopened in
September. Though Smith has had to swallow the $10,000 debt, The
Smell community rallied to make sure their hangout doesn’t
get closed.

Several bands that play regularly at The Smell, including the
Sharp Ease and Toys That Kill, put on various benefit performances,
adding several hundred dollars to help alleviate Smith’s
costs.

Leftist political elements that have found a community at The
Smell are doing their bit too. Los Angeles’ Bands Against
Bush ““ a group of musicians that voices its opposition to the
Bush administration through concerts and demonstrations ““
along with the anti-war group, Not In Our Name, held a concert at
The Smell on October 11th, the International Day of Action, and
plan to give the proceeds back to the club.

“We could donate the money to one of the candidates
running against Bush, but that’d be just peanuts for
them,” said Jed Schipper, one of the organizers of Bands
Against Bush and a former member of the punk band FYP. “But
it’s in the spirit of Bands Against Bush to support The
Smell. (The Smell) has always been more about politics than making
a profit.”

The Smell is also hoping to release compilation CDs featuring
bands that have played there. Smith is already making plans for
three volumes.

Since it reopened, the club has continued its battle while
keeping its doors open to all kinds of music and art fans. On
Saturday, Feb. 14, The Smell hosted its first fashion show, and in
March it will display the animation work of several local
artists.

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