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‘Cafe NELA Was Our CBGB,’ One of L.A.’s Last DIY Punk Rock Bar-Venues, Is Closing to Become a ‘First of This Kind’ Record Store

In a time when bars that double as music venues in Los Angeles were going nicer, Cafe NELA in Cypress Park went grittier. On Monday, Permanent Records announced that starting October 1st, they are “expanding yet again with a new venture” and will be taking over one of the last remaining spaces in the city to sip a tallboy while catching a very fast and loud local punk rock band for $5-7 at the door.

The news comes as Permanent Records, originally opened in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, approaches its 13th anniversary as a DIY record store. In its place, will be a “bar / venue / record store” that will be the “first business of this kind in Los Angeles.” It is a milestone for both Dave Travis, the owner of Cafe NELA who has arguably kept the northeast L.A. punk rock scene alive the last six years, and Lance Barresi of Permanent Records, who made a name for himself among vinyl heads in the city for offering a collection of both new releases and rare older records that some have compared to Amoeba Music in Hollywood.

 

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🎈 BIG NEWS! 🎈 It is with great excitement that we come to you this week with incredible news! Permanent is expanding yet again with a new venture! As of October 1st, 2019 (our 13th anniversary), we will have another new location, and this time it will be a bar / venue / record store! That's right, we're going to be the first business of this kind in Los Angeles! The location is in Cypress Park, halfway between Highland Park and Echo Park, at 1906 Cypress Avenue. You may recognize that address as Cafe NELA. The current owner, Dave Travis, has owned the venue for the past 6+ years, where he has hosted nearly 1100 shows! Dave has done a great service to the local music community, but the time has come for him to move on, and fortunately he's chosen us as his successor. As great appreciators of Dave's work, we're excited for the opportunity to expand on what he started. In addition to hosting shows, we plan to be open 7 days a week and will be operating as the record store you've come to know and love. We'll also be serving BEER and snacks while we're open and plan to expand the drink menu soon! We are super stoked about this new development and have a lot of great things in mind for the short and long-term future. We hope you all are as excited about this prospect as we are, and we promise to share news with you as it develops. For now, let's all give Dave and Cafe NELA three cheers and toast to the future Permanent Records! 🍻🍻🍻 A million thanks! -- Lance Barresi and the Permanent Records Crüe #bar #venue #recordstore

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Nonetheless, the news is a blow to L.A.’s thriving DIY punk rock scene. It is a scene that has survived since the late 1970s and now made famous in documentaries. In communities like the Valley, East, South, and Northeast L.A., it has been dominated by mostly Latino youth. In Northeast L.A., the scene turned to Cafe NELA as one of the few available brick and mortars in town willing and able to host their often raw and abrasive sound that is usually not welcomed elsewhere. 

'At first, I thought Cafe NELA was a gentry spot and didn’t want to support it, but then I met the owner and the vibes were cool. I saw a lot of people of color there and I felt comfortable.' 

“Since my neighborhood started changing, all of the backyard shows that I used to throw started to get raided,” Jane Alvarado shares with L.A. Taco over a phone call. She is 26 and the lead singer of a Cypress Park-based punk rock band named Forced Identity that has songs about gentrification. “At first, I thought Cafe NELA was a gentry spot and didn’t want to support it, but then I met the owner and the vibes were cool. I saw a lot of people of color there and I felt comfortable.” 

“Cafe NELA is like one big family for the scene." Photo courtesy of Jane Alvarado

She identifies herself as a woman who was raised in Cypress Park and has thrown nearly a dozen shows at Cafe NELA since 2015. She was in disbelief when she first got the news, “Cafe NELA is like one big family for the scene. A lot of people came to shows there to escape whatever stuff they were dealing with at home.” While she is not very optimistic about the possibility of playing or being able to throw shows in the space under the helm of Permanent Records, she is grateful for Dave and for what he did for her neighborhood. “You don’t see the kind of local bands that played Cafe NELA playing the Hi-Hat or any of the newer venues in this part of town.”

“Dave did a lot for the community but I understand that he did what he had to do.” 

‘Cafe NELA was our CBGB’

Since opening in 2013, Cafe NELA threw nearly 1,1000 shows. Jimmy Alvarado (no relation to Jane), a punk rock historian from East Los Angeles and the lead singer of two punk rock bands, played there 17 times. When asked about the news of Cafe NELA closing to become a new kind of record store over the phone, he reflects on the gap it will leave.

'On any given night you might possibly have a death metal act followed by a pop-punk group, followed by a jazz trio, or even an Aztec dance group.'

“It's a huge loss for the community. While there are other places and spaces that cater to punk, few, if any, are in the East Los Angeles and NELA area and fewer have the eclectic booking policy that made Cafe NELA's bills so special. Dave also paid bands who played there, which, as any band will tell you, isn't always the case. He is a stand-up dude."

“On any given night you might possibly have a death metal act followed by a pop-punk group, followed by a jazz trio, or even an Aztec dance group. Dave had different generations, and different corners of the underground intermingling, building bridges, and quite possibly creating something new as a result.”

'It was market forces.'

Alvarado’s bilingual punk band, La Tuya, is playing one last show there this Friday night. 

Forced Identity at Cafe NELA. Photo courtesy of Jane Alvarado

Jessie Castro, frontman of the San Gabriel Valley punk band Hungry Ass Youth, also played a few shows at Cafe NELA. He likened the venue to New York’s iconic underground music venue. “It was a place where you didn’t have to travel to Hollywood or the OC for a great show and time. Cafe NELA was our CBGB.”

Why Did Cafe NELA Do it?

“It was market forces,” Travis shares over the phone in a matter-of-fact tone when asked what caused him to sell the bar. “We give all of our money from the door to the bands and we only sell beer, so it’s hard for us.”

He shares that Barresi was interested in the space a while back and that the deal started to come together in the beginning of the year. “As costs keep getting higher, you have to sell more beer to stay open and not every day did we do that.” He admits that Cafe NELA always broke even, but never became sustainable as a business. However, as dire as things got, Travis kept the DIY punk rock dream going. “I did it for as long as I could—six years— and I could have probably kept it going for another year or two but it just seemed like the right time.”

'Although I'll miss Cafe NELA, there's some solace that it wasn't sold to some random hipster douchebag or faceless international conglomerate of speculative capitalism.'

To clear any rumors and address the concerns of the punk rock community that Travis helped to foster within his bar head-on, he hosted a three-night viewing party for all the archival footage of all the bands that played there over the years. “There will be snacks and Dave Travis will answer any questions about why we are closing,” the event post mentioned. Before Cafe NELA, Travis threw shows at Mr. T’s Bowl, Al’s Bar, and other now-defunct punk rock venus. He grew up in Hollywood and grew up in the city’s punk rock scene through the 80s and 90s. He balanced owning Cafe NELA with being a teacher and has lived in Northeast L.A. in 2000.

“It seems like Permanent Records has a good concept, hopefully, there will be some kind of memorial or something and it’ll be a place where [the community] can still do stuff.” Travis confesses that he is “not or mad or sad,” but grateful for all the friends he made and reconnected with, including all the money he raised for various causes through benefit shows. “It’s just the way it is. The offer was good and at least they will do more music here instead of tearing it down for a development or something.” 

As for the future of punk shows at Permanent Records' new concept, Barresi assures that he is very 'punk-friendly, generally speaking, as long as punks are friendly to me.'

Travis is looking forward to taking a few months off but chances are that he’ll be throwing shows again as soon as next year. The last show at Cafe NELA will be the almost exact same lineup as the first show that Travis ever threw there on September 21, 2013. It will be seven bands in total, including Carnage Asada and Atomic Sherpas, on Sept. 21, 2019. 

The DIY Torch is Passed On 

Todd Taylor, the Publisher of the leading DIY punk rock print magazine, Razorcake, said it best. 

“Although I'll miss Cafe Nela, there's some solace that it wasn't sold to some random hipster douchebag or faceless international conglomerate of speculative capitalism.”

Like many others, he crowns Cafe NELA for being his favorite local over-21 place to see shows. “I thought it carried the torch and spirit of both Mr. T's Bowl and Al's Bar. It'll be sorely missed, but Lance is smart and knows how to run a shop.”

Diego Guerrero, a local DJ, vinyl collector and resident of northeast L.A., is a customer at Permanent Records. He is generally excited for the new concept but also shares a bit of concern. “From a vinyl collector perspective, it’s a dope concept just like Gold Line and In Sheep’s Clothing. I love hearing music on vinyl while enjoying an ice-cold beer. I’d hope that they respect the local community and keep that punk rock spirit intact. They should continue to offer a safe space for local bands of all types.”

'I have played in punk bands over the years, I was in an L.A. garage-punk band called Endless Bummer for many years...in case anybody is questioning my punk credentials.'

As for the future of punk shows at Permanent Records' new concept, Barresi assures that he is very “punk-friendly, generally speaking, as long as punks are friendly to me.” He tells L.A. Taco that Permanent Records have “hosted punk rock in-stores at our shop for free for almost 13 years now, so of course, we will have an element of that but I want to diversify as well, to have a little bit of something for everybody.”

“I’ve been on the hunt for a commercial property to be the permanent home for Permanent Records,” Barresi tells L.A. Taco. “Permanent has been a DIY operation since the beginning. I’m an aging punk rocker but I don’t have the energy that I used to. Since we started in 2006, we’ve also carried lots of local bands releases on consignment, have stocked punk records and have been known as a place to come for punk, DIY and independent rock music since the beginning.”

The most noticeable change will be that the bar will now be open for seven days a week, as opposed to the Thursday-Sunday hours that Cafe NELA worked. “Immediately, we’re going to offer a lot more craft beer options than Dave currently has, though we are always going to have classic brands like Tecate and Modelo.” Barresi is planning to update the current beer-only license to a beer and wine, then a full liquor license eventually. 

“I have played in punk bands over the years, I was in an L.A. garage-punk band called Endless Bummer for many years...in case anybody is questioning my punk credentials.”

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