Illuminated by the glow of a neon beer sign, David Travis crosses the checkered-tiled floor of Cypress Park’s Cafe NELA as a hardcore punk band plays on a modest stage. Patrons and performers come in all shapes and dress: tattered leather jackets with safety pins, women in high boots, others are peroxide blonde. Cafe NELA is a real hodgepodge of punk veterans, hardcore chasers, and bar patrons in love with music and camaraderie.
It’s a far cry from the generator parties that Travis used to organize as a teenager back in the 1980s.
“A lot of these old guys who come here have been in the scene since they were kids. Now the people who come in are in their early 20s, so it’s a continuous cycle of the scene,” says Travis about the spiritual successor to places like Cathay de Grande, Al’s Bar or Mr. T’s Bowl. Bands like The Mormons or The Bloody Brains carry punk traditions to Cafe NELA, while day-long events like “The Rock Orgy of the Living Dead” or “Gender Fest” remind people that the spirit of anarchy lives on in Northeast Los Angeles.
Before Travis happened upon Cafe NELA, he taught history and economics to high school students in South Los Angeles. But when cutbacks were made at LAUSD, Travis found himself without a job. It was a deciding moment for Travis, husband and father of two. Would he look for work or try to find a venue to call his own? The pivotal moment came when Travis and his wife, a real estate agent, came across a Mexican bar with a liquor license that was up for sale.
“It has always been a dream of mine to own a place to call my own,” says Travis who has been involved in the punk and hardcore scene since the 1980s, and has a large video archive of live shows he’s recorded over the years.
Cafe NELA had its first show in September 2013. Punk, hardcore and other genres live on at the club, though sometimes Travis has to let bands know that they might not fit with Cafe NELA.
“I’ll have to tell them that they might stand out here. I do it for their own good, because I wouldn’t want people having a bad time here,” says Travis of non-punk bands or groups who use computers with their sound.
Show promoter Hugh Asnen recently booked a three day music festival to Cafe NELA, where more than 40 bands played. He calls Cafe NELA an institution, a bar with a purpose.
“I grew up with hair metal bands and recently got into the punk scene here at Cafe NELA, but all the guys here are the fathers and grandfathers of the punk movement. I’m so glad they’ve accepted me,” says Asnen.
Cafe NELA sits along Cypress Avenue among truck yards, apartments and La Cocinita restaurant. Before Cafe NELA the Mexican bar New Tops Club inhabited the space with rancheras music and men in cowboy hats.
Monica Rivas notices the difference. Rivas, 17, works next door at La Cocinita with her family. She says that patrons from New Tops Club were loud, and rude. “Now they’re much nicer. Kinder,” she says about Cafe NELA’s patrons. “They don’t eat here always, but they always play nice.”
Timothy “Timbo” De La Garza works the doors at Cafe NELA and sometimes gets the occasional customer who thinks the club is still New Tops. “They come up, yell at me in Spanish and leave when I tell them the cover charge,” he explains.
Cafe NELA is flanked with red booths, a bar, jukebox, and a proud sense of being a dive, even though Travis is constantly cleaning up after patrons, and server Cheryl von Winckelmann always greets customers at the bar with a smile.
On a slow Saturday night, the band Blank Expressions play, as newsreels are projected on stage, onto their bodies, and words crawl across the walls.
Musicians sweat here, they perform as though this were their last show ever. It’s vivid and raw. Guitar solos misfire, singers take a swig from their beer bottle when they should be belting out notes. Friends are in bands, and bands become friendly. It’s the best type of dive, where it’s OK to be nameless here for the sake of making nice with the people in the room.
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.