All-ages venue thrives in Downtown’s gritty underground

When the news broke in early 2003 that the Birch Hill Night Club, which sat on the border of Marlboro and Old Bridge, N.J., was sold to housing developers looking to construct an active adult community estate, teenagers in both townships, as well as the surrounding areas, swelled with hormone-driven anger.

If you were classified as a “punk” or “freak” by your high school peers, then Birch Hill was your refuge on Friday and Saturday night. Safety pins, Etnies sneakers and thick eyeliner ruled the smoky, low-ceiling venue that was at the forefront of New Jersey’s hardcore movement during the 1980s.

But at the turn of the 21st century, fights, consistent drug use and an accidental drowning in the grounds’ dilapidated swimming pool tainted the club’s reputation.

Once a “For Sale” sign was slapped onto Birch’s aging marquee and all was said and done, Central New Jersey had lost a priceless slice of its underground hardcore heaven.

On the other side of the country, however, a similar all ages venue was just beginning to get the recognition it deserves.

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In the alley running parallel to Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles, a cloth-covered office chair collides with a six-foot high metal fence, provoked by a slight, after-the-storm breeze. With this breeze also comes the pungent smell of urine, stale beer and fried food, the latter two presumably wafting from the Mexican restaurant on the corner (though from where the stench of urine originated is anyone’s guess). Other than the echoing clang of the metal fence, the alley is lifeless on a Saturday afternoon.

At night, however, the unassuming alley takes a screeching automatic external defibrillator straight to its heart.

Against the backdrop of swirling ice blue and fuschia graffiti, concertgoers ranging from high school freshmen to late 20-somethings smoke and mingle outside. A man wheeling his bike mutters, “excuse me, scenesters” as he passes through the hundred or so eclectically dressed Angelenos. Yes, the sight of these young misfits is quite the spectacle, but the Smell is hardly a part of a typified scene.

Stinky · The Smell’s main door hides behind this graffiti-covered gate during the day. The entrance lies in an alley off Main Street in Downtown. - Lauren Barbato | Daily Trojan

Twelve years ago, after the closing of Jabberjaw and Impala Cafe — two infamously underground clubs — low-key businessman Jim Smith opened Downtown’s seminal all-ages, alcohol-free venue the Smell.

Smith’s vision was clear: rebuild a community for avant-garde musicians and music enthusiasts that were conflicted in whether they should head to the once-loved, now-dreaded Sunset Strip or the hills of Silver Lake. Since 1998, Smith has charged a mere $5 per show and recruits anyone — friends, performers and eager high schoolers — to man the club’s sole entrance and vegan snack bar.

If Silver Lake is the sanctuary for artistically minded urban professionals attempting to rid themselves of their parents’ West side lifestyle, the Smell is the alternative to the alternative Los Angeles.

The Smell, like Downtown Los Angeles, teeters the fine line between the good and the ugly and the aesthetically pleasing and undeniably gritty. Located on the fringes of the city’s feeble attempt at gentrification — posh bars and restaurants line 3rd Street, while the Walt Disney Hall looms nearby — and just a block from the ghost town of the Toy District, the Smell has literally abandoned the L.A. music scene.

Devoid of a VIP area, band members often partake in their fellow performers’ mosh pits and personally sell their own merchandise beside the club’s makeshift library. Sound technicians are nonexistent, leaving the musicians to figure out how to continue their sets with a malfunctioning mic.

Upon one’s first visit to 247 Main Street, it’s nearly impossible to fathom how this tiny venue is both churning out and reigning in the nation’s most exciting musical acts.

Or how, on day two of the club’s 12th anniversary show last Saturday night, hundreds of dedicated followers filed through the back alley to pay tribute to the movement in the making.

Yet the Smell remains largely untouched from media bigwigs, existing seemingly as a No Man’s Land for L.A.-based journalists. Save for an LA Weekly cover story, published last year, one is hard-pressed to find even a published show review when conducting a Google search. Not until recently has the Los Angeles Times — which is located less than two blocks from the Smell’s chipped facade — acknowledged the venue’s shows.

Perhaps this is because the Smell and its resident bands are not overtly concerned with performance but instead devote their onstage energy to forming an animated dialogue with the audience — a fluctuating crowd of high schoolers and 20-somethings that will dance/skank/mosh to anything as long as it’s decibel-defying. Much like the hardcore scene in Central New Jersey, ears will ring, guitar strings will snap and lyrics and melodies are optional.

For both the home-grown bands and the ones passing through, these Goodwill sweater-wearing teens are the bands’ prime customers, shelling out $10 for screen-printed T-shirts and vinyl EPs. And it’s precisely this audience that has catapulted several Smell legends — experimental noise-punk band No Age, tropical punk-rock band Abe Vigoda, electro-rock band HEALTH and the now-defunct, all-girl punk band Mika Miko — to the national stage.

For No Age, arguably the Smell’s most famous alum, its seemingly overnight success has the band worried about the venue’s credibility. As guitarist Randy Randall said last year after playing his first show in Los Angeles since the duo’s global tour, “We were in our home, but there were a bunch of strangers in it.”

But to doubt the underground that made you is to doubt your integrity, and Randall should understand that his band’s dubious homecoming is a blessing in disguise.

Although long-time fans of the noise-rock duo can become lost in the sea of new ones, No Age’s success has resulted in L.A. underground converts and handed over the musical torch to newer, aspiring bands looking to continue the Smell’s do-it-yourself aesthetic.

Unlike my beloved Birch Hill, which was an anomaly in an affluent, culture-deprived suburb, the Smell’s location in a the most schizophrenic section of Los Angeles preserves the venue’s reputation as well as the humble beginnings of its noise-rock stars.

With much of Downtown remaining in its post-apocalyptic disarray and Echo Park/Silver Lake maintaining its hipsterdom, the Smell’s authenticity appears to be safe for the time being. Although a lot can change in 31 years — as the owner of Birch Hill eventually realized — the young venue’s “yeah, whatever” attitude cuts through the current L.A. music scene as fierce as the alley’s ambiguous stench.

And as the young audiophiles weaved through the puddles and cigarette butts after the show Saturday night — some drenched in sweat and others already donning their newly purchased merchandise — it was obvious that they knew it too.

Lauren Barbato is a senior majoring in screenwriting. Her column, “Sound Check” runs Tuesdays.