The Mormons at Cafe NELA
Photo by Amy Darling

An Emerging Punk Venue is Closing, But New Owner Plans to Keep the Vibe

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Cafe NELA is being sold to Permanent Records. But before its transformation into another space for music heads — it’s going out with a certifiable bang. 

Cafe NELA is a hidden gem. A tarnished and chipped gem wallpapered in band stickers, but a jewel in the eye of discerning beholders nonetheless. It lies nestled between a Salvadoran restaurant and a convenience store, just a few blocks from the very first King Taco. It’s easy to pass by without noticing this charmingly disheveled punk bar tucked behind a large tree which obscures its cheerful sign stamped with smiling skulls, beer glasses and musical notes.

For the past six years, Café NELA’s 98-person capacity venue has served as a haven to underground music under the tutelage of veteran music scene supporter Dave Travis. Just last week, he announced that NELA was officially closing come the end of September, and he’s handing the keys over to Permanent Records owner Lance Barresi, who will open a combined record shop/music venue in its place.

“When we started there were no live music venues in northeast L.A.,” says Travis. “My goal was to put on 1,000 shows. We’ve done almost 1,100. We gave a home to old punk bands, and Chicano punk bands and obscure jazz bands to play. We did a lot of good shows and a whole little scene developed around it.”

Once a roadie for Redd Kross and cellist for bands like Carnage Asada and W.A.C.O., Travis put on DIY generator shows at Skull Rock in the Santa Monica Mountains and Neptune’s Net by the beach in the 1980s. The first punk band he ever saw was X at age 14. In the days before camcorders, he would attend shows with a camera plugged into a VCR in his backpack powered by a battery belt to capture performances during the golden age of early L.A. punk rock. He then took his recordings and compiled them into a movie, “A History Lesson Part I.” His realtor wife found Cafe NELA’s location. At the time it was known as New Tops, a beer bar frequented by Latinos in the neighborhood.

“Before Cafe NELA, this was our dad’s and uncle’s and big brother’s stabbing bar.”

Axxel G. Reese

“Before Cafe NELA, this was our dad’s and uncle’s and big brother’s stabbing bar,” says Axxel G. Reese of seminal punk band The Gears, putting it bluntly. He’s lived in the Glassell Park neighborhood since he was a kid and saw the bar change from The Spot — although the sign read “The Tops” for decades due to a spelling error the owners never bothered to correct — over to New Tops, then to Cafe NELA. “My wife Becky and I, we were the first customers on the first day of Cafe NELA and The Gears played one of the bar’s first shows about a week or so later.”

New Tops closed at 2 a.m. on September 8, 2013, and NELA opened at 8 p.m. that same day.

Formed in 1978, The Gears, Reese proudly claims, were the first punk band conceived in northeast L.A. that he knows of. The surf-infected punkabilly group were in fact one of the best-drawing local bands in Los Angeles from late 1979 to early 1982.

The Gears at Cafe NELA
The Gears rocking out at Cafe NELA. Photo by Martin Wong.

“We were hanging in Hollywood at the time because that’s where everything was happening, at Raji’s and Cathay de Grande,” Reese says. “Cafe NELA is the closest thing that we have to what those places were as far as being local and very comfortable to punk rock and all of its denizens.”

Now comprised of members hailing from a number of influential punk bands, The Gears played NELA several times a year, including a birthday party for bassist Mike Villalobos every 4/20, alongside other old-timers and young bands cutting their teeth on NELA’s green-carpeted stage.

The mixing of generations is one of NELA’s greatest achievements. On any given night the clientele and performers range in age from 21 to 70-something.

Rosemary at Cafe NELA
Rosemary Reyes, a Cafe NELA regular, performs with her punk band she formed at age 70. Photo by Jenny Luna.

From Thursday through Sunday, NELA’s most dedicated regular, 73-year-old Rosemary Reyes, could be found sipping iced tea and chatting everyone up among the random chairs and broken mannequins on the venue’s big back patio. Both Travis and Reese refer to her as “the queen of NELA,” a title earned for her affable nature, the cookies and cakes she always brought to the bar and for forming a punk band at age 70 that played there regularly and will once again before the venue closes.

Reyes had a short-lived punk band in the 1970s called the Rosemary Reyes Band but gave up music to work as a costumer in the film industry for 32 years.

“When my parents moved me to California, from Detroit where I was born, I wasn’t accepted by the Mexican girls at school,” Reyes says. “They called me ‘Chicana falsa.’ I just kept on being a loner for many years, even as an adult. I still lived my life but I always felt there was something missing. I don’t feel that anymore. Cafe NELA opened up my life and gave me a huge family of people that love me and I love them. I sort of became the matron.”

She also found love at NELA. Her boyfriend is the venue’s dedicated sound engineer known as “Dirty Ed,” who can rock denim overall-shorts like nobody’s business.

D.I.Y Ambiance

Dirty Ed’s throne is an office chair situated on a small, elevated sound booth reached by a stack of milk crates. The entire venue, from its checkered floor to low, glittery foam ceiling, is covered with thousands of stickers, random art left from exhibitions, tinsel and string lights from Christmas and St. Paddy’s Day that no one ever bothered to take down and show posters from the past and present. There are also shiny red vinyl-covered booths lit up by Tiffany-style vintage overhanging lamps equipped with colorful bulbs. Much like the ceiling, the booths are cracked and ripped at the seams, and though the hypnotic floor dips in the middle of the space like it’s about to be sucked into the earth, the whole ambiance of Cafe NELA is undoubtedly inviting.

The venue’s imperfections appealed to Barresi, and he actually approached Travis a few years ago about buying the space. “I’ve spent the majority of my life almost exclusively in clubs like this,” Barresi says. “I can count on one hand how many shows I’ve gone to outside of that setting and I’ve gone to thousands of shows.”

The band The Mormons pose with Cafe NELA’s renowned hot dog sculpture. Photo by Amy Darling.

Meet the Venue’s New Visionary: Lance Barresi

Barresi opened Permanent Records in Chicago in 2006 and the first L.A. store in Eagle Rock in 2011. After a few years, he moved the shop to York Boulevard, later adding an Echo Park location where Origami Vinyl stood before closing in 2016, and then expanded into the former home of Wombleton Records across the street from Permanent’s York location in Highland Park. The plan is to close his first York spot and move most of the inventory to the new Glassell Park location, while keeping the second, smaller space on York open, as well as the one on Sunset Boulevard.

His shops stock used and new records along with out of print and limited releases ranging from inexpensive to worth-eating-crackers-for-a-week-to-buy. Flipping through the record crates, there’s plenty of little-known bands to discover among the more covetable selection. Whatever the genre, he champions music that’s adventurous and gutsy, a credo that extends to the bands he releases on Permanent’s record label and hosts for in-store performances. He says owning a music venue has always been one of his dreams.

“ I think Dave has a cool thing going. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I really like the vibe of the place.”

Permanent Records’ Lance Barresi (CAFE NELA’s new owner)

“I really like the atmosphere of a small, one to two bartender kind of club,” Barresi says.I feel like that environment breeds community in a way that larger venues just don’t. You get to know the people that work there and the regulars become your best friends.”

Some repairs will take place after the transfer of ownership on September 27, with plans to reopen under a new yet-to-be-revealed name in mid-October or early November, but Barresi isn’t going to change everything that gives this historic space its charm.

“I don’t think a lot has to be done,” he says. “I think Dave has a cool thing going. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I really like the vibe of the place.”

Cafe NELA’s Dave Travis. Photo by Jenny Luna.

He plans to spruce up the patio — hopefully keeping the oversized hot dog statue squirting itself in the face with ketchup — and the bathrooms, as well as patching holes in the ceiling and floors.

Barresi’s vision for this space is creating somewhere that can be a comfortable place for people to crossover from these parallel circles. “There’s tons of crazy music heads that don’t go to record stores because they’re really not into vinyl,” he explains. “I love the idea of a social meeting place bringing these diehard music fans into the same room alongside people who are super into records but maybe aren’t typically bar people.” Moreover, most record stores aren’t open late at night, and even fewer offer the opportunity to sip a beer while perusing records.

“Those people are going to be brought together in a place where otherwise their paths wouldn’t cross,” Barresi says.

In addition to live bands, Barresi plans to bring in DJs with amazing, rare records to spin music that typically isn’t heard at regular bars. “We can really push the limit as far as the genres of music we have in there because it’s a record store. We’re trying to appeal to people who want to experience different kinds of music and socialize. Every now and again I’m sure people will get down but that’s not really the vibe. It’s to turn people on to new music and play stuff that will blow people’s minds across all different kinds of genres.”

Going Out With A Bang 

Cafe NELA fans are uncertain about what all this means for the little world they’ve carved out for themselves. Greg Thomas, NELA’s second-most-frequent regular, and an underground coffee roaster, hopes the spot won’t lose its “grungy charm” or become a place that isn’t as welcoming to all ages and types.

Pedal Strike
Pedal Strike amps up the crowd. Photo by Amy Darling.

“It’s a place I could just show up to without looking at who was playing because I always knew there’d be interesting music being played there and more importantly, I’d always find someone to talk to,” Thomas says. “There was plenty of jazz, country, experimental, classic rock and some totally indescribable stuff.”

Travis has stacked his final weeks with a cornucopia of the DIY scene’s unsung heroes. NELA’s penultimate show on September 21 features the same lineup that played the venue’s first show, with Carnage Asada, The Atomic Sherpas, Somos Mysteriosos, Swords of Fatima, Garretson and Gorodedtsky, Hookah and Nostradumass. The last show takes place the following night and it’s filled with punk icons, including The Gears, The Alley Cats, Midget Handjob, which is Keith Morris’s spoken word over pots and pans band, and the Black Widows.

With that line-up, Cafe NELA is slated to go out with a certifiable bang. Its regulars wouldn’t expect any less.

“All kudos to Dave for making this thing last as long as it did,” Reese says. “I know it was a rugged enterprise but he hung in there and kept doing it despite not making a lot of money. He did it for all of us.”

Los Angeleno