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This Godfather of California’s Punk Scene Founded Goldenvoice Before Going to Prison For Smuggling Weed

In the early 80s, Gary Tovar named Goldenvoice after he smoked a strain of Thai weed. He threw the biggest punk shows in the country, filling up spaces like The Grand Olympic Auditorium with 5,000 punks. Decades later, Tovar still plays a part by consulting and helping to formulate some of the biggest punk shows today.

Photo via Gary Tovar/Facebook.

Photo via Gary Tovar/Facebook.

One day in 1981, Gary Tovar was standing on a veranda in Santa Barbara's Riviera neighborhood and had a thought that changed his life, as well as the trajectory of the punk rock scene in California.

“I said, ‘I’m gonna shake this town up,'" Tovar tells L.A. TACO over the phone. "'This town needs a good shaking up. This town needs some action.'"

Tovar had been itching to do something with punk rock after watching the Sex Pistols in 1978, but the idea eluded him for years. Then, on December 4, 1981, the Huntington Beach native shook the town of Santa Barbara—where he lived at the time—by throwing a punk rock show at Casa de la Raza featuring T.S.O.L., Shattered Faith, and Rhino 39.

Tovar organized this gig under his then DIY booking company, named “Golden Voice”—the same live events and promotion company behind the biggest concerts and festivals in the country today, including Coachella, Stagecoach, Cruel World, Cali Vibes, and countless others. 

The inspiration for the name "Golden Voice" came to Tovar after he tried a weed strain from Thailand with the same name.

"When you smoked it, it felt like the angels sang to you in a golden voice,” he says.

Tovar says Santa Barbara locals were “up in arms” about the T.S.O.L. show, but kids from all over Santa Barbara and nearby Oxnard appeared in swarms. So Tovar continued to throw gigs because he wanted to “bring punk rock to everybody and spread the word.” 

Image via Gary Tovar.

“This music had every right to be put on an even platform with the Cheap Tricks and the Journeys, even though I knew it was a cult following,” Tovar shares.

As the Goldenvoice founder continued to book bands and set up shows, he faced a reoccurring problem.

“Nobody wanted to rent to punk rockers,” he says. “The only ones that rented to punk rockers were foreigners who didn’t know better.”

Punks who went to his shows often damaged and destroyed property, making it difficult for Tovar to book shows at more established, proper music venues. He says the cost was high in various ways.

“It was hard because there was no money in it," Tovar says. "It was destruction, a lot of destruction, they trashed the bathrooms, they tore the sinks off the walls, hit holes into the walls. You know, people want you to pay for that when you leave."

“We raised the consciousness of punk rock. I didn’t start punk rock, but I put it on a higher platform.”

Gary Tovar

Tovar was purely motivated by his love of the music, which kept his momentum and the shows going for months of throwing gigs in the Santa Barbara area—putting on bands like Misfits, Broken Bones, GBH, and Subhumans. 

“It was the perfect storm, Santa Barbara was good,” Tovar shares.

But in 1982, Tovar relocated his operations to L.A., which forever changed the punk rock music scene.

Tovar’s first official Goldenvoice show in L.A. featured Black Flag, 45 Grave, DOA, Descendents, and Husker Du on July 17, 1982, at the Olympic Auditorium.

“That was my training session there,” Tovar recalls.

Image via Gary Tovar.

The crowd was so wild and full of circle pits that they broke the barricade at the venue.

“It collapsed. The guys of that barricade company got really mad at me,” Tovar says. “It's their fault because they didn't build it strong enough.”

Tovar went on to organize the bulk of his gigs there, which was so spacious that it could fit 10,000 people at a time.

“I knew it was big enough to put everybody in," he says. "The shows we were putting on earlier, the venues were too small."

In the book “Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records,” by Mark, Shawn, and Jamie Stern, Tovar’s Olympic shows are described as “the biggest punk shows in the world." It says Tovar’s shows “were doing 3,000-5,000 people every other week and none of these bands were drawing this many people anywhere else.”

“There were probably 10,000 punks in all of Southern California; it was a cult following, a large cult, but still a cult following,” Tovar recalls. “I worked hard to get half—half the punks in Southern California would go to my shows, I’d have 5000 people at those Olympic shows, which was unheard of, New York was doing 1,200… we had the biggest shows by far ever.” 

At the same time that Tovar was throwing shows, the Stern brothers had also been setting up gigs in the area through their BYO DIY organization, and after becoming friends with Tovar, they briefly collaborated with BYO and Goldenvoice to organize shows together.

On February 11, 1983, they decided to host a massive gig called Youth Movement ’83 (the Stern brothers previously organized Youth Movement ’82, which ended in a massive riot).

For Youth Movement ’83, BYO and Goldenvoice booked The Exploited with support from Channel 3, Youth Brigade, Vandals, Aggression, and Suicidal Tendencies at Mendiola’s Ballroom in Huntington Park.

According to “Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records,” the venue owner told the punk promoters they could fit 1,500 people at Mendiola’s Ballroom. Journalist Chris Harris and his KTTV crew famously attended and covered the gig, and revealed during their segment that Mendiola’s Ballroom had a fire limit of “440 people,” but tickets had been sold to “over 1000.”

Nearly 1000 kids made it to the show when the venue’s employees shut the doors because they thought too many people were inside. A crowd began to build outside, and police arrived in riot gear. According to the Sterns’ book, someone threw a bottle through the front window above the door, and the police began storming the venue and beating up everyone in sight. 

“That was the worst riot I ever had,” Tovar says.

Even though Youth Movement ’83 ended in a riot, it was a testament to how big punk rock gigs had gotten in L.A. Tovar was at the forefront of these massive gatherings.

“They were classic shows, 5,000 people, that might not sound like a lot nowadays, but you got to understand punk rock was smaller, you got shit for being a punk rocker, most people were mainstream,” Tovar explains.

The Goldenvoice founder shares that the punk gigs peaked in ’84, and while he kept other types of alternative shows going through the ‘80s, he lost a lot of money. Tovar’s covert affairs in smuggling marijuana was far more profitable, something he says he did for 25 years, but by 1987, Tovar’s luck was starting to run out.

“They had busted some friends of mine" Tovar shares. "I knew that they were going to eventually get enough information to arrest me.” 

Tovar says authorities took four years to build a case against him, and in those four years, he prepared for the inevitable with Paul Tollett, his assistant at the time.

“They make sure they have a good case,” he says. "They take their time; I was grateful, though, in those four years I trained Paul, and I traveled, I was traveling like I was gonna die."

Decades later, Tovar still plays a part in Goldenvoice by consulting for them and helping to formulate some of the biggest punk shows today, including the upcoming No Values Festival, an epic celebration of punk rock past and present, which speaks to Tovar’s legacy.

Tovar was eventually arrested on March 8, 1991. He handed over Goldenvoice to Tollett and Rick Van Santen.

“I wanted it to keep going," Tovar reveals. "I want that. Of course, you’re sad when you give away something you created and started."

While Tovar served eight years in prison, Goldenvoice continued to organize and promote shows, though according to Tovar, they were $7 million in debt. In 2001, AEG purchased Goldenvoice, which Tovar says was a lifeline for the company.

“It paid off the $7 million debt," he says. "The first Coachella got them into debt, and AEG paid for it and told them, ‘Let’s try it again.’ They were gonna trash Coachella. AEG encouraged them to try again.”

Decades later, Tovar still plays a part in Goldenvoice by consulting for them and helping to formulate some of the biggest punk shows today, including the upcoming No Values Festival, an epic celebration of punk rock past and present with an insane lineup of revered punk bands, which speaks to Tovar’s legacy.

“We raised the consciousness of punk rock," Tovar says. "I didn’t start punk rock, but I put it on a higher platform."

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