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What's that smell?: Live music should be open to all ages

By Sommer Mathis

February 18, 2004 9:00 pm

There might not be any experience in life more degrading than
being in high school. Between dodging overzealous hall monitors
busy making sure you don’t spend too long in the bathroom,
negotiating excused absences, and being marched in and out of
stuffy classrooms at the command of a shrill bell, there
aren’t many aspects of high school designed to make you feel
like an actual human being.

To add insult to injury, high school, as well as for many of us,
the first few years of college, means existing within a decidedly
limited scope of nightlife options. Yes, being under 21 means it
can be difficult to spend a night drinking. But if you think about
it, it’s a heck of a lot easier to score a six-pack of beer
when you’re 18 than it is to gain entrance to many of the
venues where good bands play.

As a live-music junkie, this conundrum led me to spend the
better part of nearly every weekend during the last two years of
high school at an all-ages club in Tucson, Arizona called Cafe Luna
Loca. It was a small, dark, funkily redecorated Mexican restaurant
that had been transformed into a concert venue by a hippie couple
who lived next door with their 4-year-old daughter Luna (hence the
club’s name).

The Luna Loca was a haven for kids like me: a place where we
could go any Saturday night for a bowl of vegetarian chili (back
when I was a vegetarian), a big frosty root beer, and an earful of
live music ranging anywhere from too-loud garage rock to ambient,
string-driven chamber pop. In my residence as a Luna Loca regular,
I saw bands like Low, The Wrens (who will be playing Bruin Plaza
next week), Calexico, Ida, and Yo La Tengo ““ just to name a

High school is a time when you begin to define and refine your
tastes, and the two years I spent at the Luna Loca were more than
just influential: they were crucial. Without the opportunity to be
exposed to such different kinds of music from all over the country
I had there and then, I very well could currently be walking around
with a large collection of Dave Matthews T-shirts and Good
Charlotte CDs.

Granted, maybe things were different for the rest of you. I
realize that as an out-of-state student at UCLA, I am something of
a rarity, and perhaps being a California native somehow increases
the opportunities to be exposed to music for those under the legal
drinking age. But as far as I can tell, suburbia is suburbia is
suburbia. Growing up in America, and even in big cities like Los
Angeles, tends to mean hanging out at the mall more often than it
does having an actual cultural experience.

Thus my preoccupation with the struggles of places like The
Smell. (See article at right.) You see, the thing is, Cafe Luna
Loca no longer exists. It itself was born after the demise of the
even more popular Downtown Performance Center, which was shut down
due to neighborhood complaints about drug use and excessive noise.
Luna Loca shut down for similar reasons a few years later.

Even now that I’ve made a home in Los Angeles, and even
though I’m now well over 21 and can get in to see most any
show I’d like, I look at places like The Smell and Long
Beach’s Koo’s and see not a threat to the social order,
but a place that provides a space for young people to genuinely
explore art and music and what kind of people they hope to

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything
that went on at Luna Loca, or that does go on at The Smell, is
entirely wholesome. It’s unlikely that I would have taken up
smoking cigarettes if it hadn’t been something a lot of other
people did between sets. I’m sure there was a certain amount
of underage drinking and drug experimentation that went on in the
bathroom, or the parking lot. But the vast majority of kids I met
in those two years were there not looking to get into trouble, but
looking to hear something amazing. They cared about the music. And
so do the people who both run and frequent The Smell.

Thankfully, The Smell’s run-ins with city officials
concerning fire code violations seem to be over for the time being.
But that doesn’t mean they are completely out of danger. If
the recent challenge to Koo’s, reported by the OC Weekly last
month, is any indication, there are still those out there who would
like to see these few and far between all-ages venues become a
thing of the past. As students and music fans living in this
community, we should do everything we can to support them.

E-mail Mathis about the best concert you ever saw while you
were in high school at [email protected]

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