|Steve Fishman at the entrance to the alley that once led to the Masque|
At the Former Site of the Masque
1655 N. Cherokee Ave., Los Angeles (Hollywood)
The storefronts, eateries and faces along Hollywood Boulevard are always changing, but the palpable, buzzing energy at the heart of Hollywood is a constant. That electric vibe drew a teenage Steve “Trash” Fishman to the area, as well as the late Brendan Mullen who created an underground club, the Masque, in the basement of a building at the corner of Hollywood and Cherokee.
“My friend from junior high school was playing at the Masque in 1977, so I went down to see him play drums with his older brother. I had never been there before, and it just blew my mind. This bizarre environment with all these people and their spiky hair, stuff sticking out of their faces – real alien-looking characters – it was fantastic,” Steve says. “I used to go there all the time to see the Germs, the Weirdos, the Eyes and the Alley Cats, who probably played there more than anyone.”
Although the Masque was forced to close its doors by fire marshals after just a few months, the club – which began as a rehearsal space for the Go-Go’s, the Motels, the Berlin Brats and others – made an indelible mark on the L.A. punk scene, having had X, the Dickies, Black Randy and the Metrosquad and many others perform there. Mullen penned a book, Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley, documenting the time and there’s a new documentary, Who Is Billy Bones?, about the Skulls that offers a glimpse inside what remains of the club housed in the basement of what’s currently World of Wonder Productions.
As Steve shows me the alley where one was able to access the stairs down to the Masque, I could tell how much the club meant to him personally. After getting a taste of live punk music at the Masque, the bassist became a part of bands that were equally as influential as the club on punk (Bent, the Deadbeats, DFO), recorded/toured with the Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell, the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, the Damned’s Dave Vanian and Blondie’s Clem Burke, shared stages with Paul McCartney, Roy Orbison and Elton John, and is currently a member of Chrome and a slew of other projects that you can get a taste of via the new album Bubbling Up From Underground: The State of the Art–Rock Pt 1, which released in June.
We start walking down Hollywood Boulevard in search of a place to sit and have a cold drink, and the punk veteran tells me about growing up in Burbank.
“A lot of my friends had hippie parents – their moms and dads were smoking pot, listening to rock and sharing records – but my dad was in his 40s when I was born, so it was about Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, swing, big band and pop from that day. My parents didn’t get rock, so I would piss them off by playing stuff like the Doors’ ‘When the Music’s Over’ or ‘The End.’ It would freak them out,” he laughs. “But I had a babysitter from when I was 15-months-old whose daughter was around 16, so I was in my crib listening to the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Who.”
Steve has vivid memories of watching Beatles albums spin on a turntable, having his mind blown at seeing Keith Moon’s drum kit explode when the Who performed “My Generation” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” watching crowds of girls chasing the Beatles and Monkees and thinking, “what could be better?” An older cousin introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Cream, which led to the blues, Robert Johnson and B.B. King. Then at around age 7, he met the first of the really great mentors that would enter his life
“I came home and said, ‘I want to play guitar now,’ so my parents put me in lessons. When my brother and cousin decided to play too, I was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to switch to the bass,” he chuckles. “My dad was really old and square, so when he said, ’Oh I know a guy who could give you lessons,’ I said, ‘Oh no.’ We go into the music shop, and there’s this guy with long hair and a beard, so I was relieved. Then he proceeded to completely destroy a guitar in front of me, and my jaw dropped. My teacher, John Balkin, was Tim Buckley’s musical director at the time. He also played on Zappa albums with the GrandMothers of Invention, so he was doing really experimental, cutting-edge things at the time, but I didn’t know. Later on I checked out the Tim Buckley albums he was on, Starsailor and Lorca, and the GrandMothers where he was doing improvisation, classical, and rock, and I realized how perfect that match was when I was at such a young age.”
He began cultivating his own musical taste, exchanging records with friends, and encountered another musical mentor in junior high.
“I had a friend who was in my first band, and his older brother, Steve Hufsteter, was playing guitar in the Quick. He was into all kinds of music from all over the planet, everything European – weird bands, krautrock – Miles Davis and older stuff that I didn’t really know, the Zombies,” Steve recalls. “It was a totally ridiculous education. I was just in awe at his record collection.”
In addition to diving into Hufsteter’s collection, Steve heard the Sex Pistols and Devo for the first time on Rodney Bingenheimer’s “Rodney on the Roq” radio show, was exploring Brian Eno, David Bowie and Roxy Music songs and started to take his own songwriting skills seriously as a member of a band called Bent (aka the Deadbeats).
“They were, in my opinion, one of the most important bands to come out of the punk scene in Los Angeles. Geza X was in it, and a lot of the people involved have done really interesting things. They were really good musicians and really weird, eclectic. They would go from a swing, big band thing but in a punkesque way to a Cramps thing to a Frank Zappa thing to a free jazz thing since they were influenced by Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart and Chicago as much as Bowie and Eno – a total full spectrum,” he tells. “That was actually my third mentor, Scott Guerin from the Deadbeats. He had an amazing record collection, but he was more into the weird and kitsch stuff. So I got a lot of the modern composers that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else like Xenakis, Charles Dawes, John Cage.”
We come across a Tom Jones portrait that a street artist has painted over a storefront’s window covering on Hollywood Boulevard, and Steve tells me about being mistaken for the singer while living in London.
“Every day people would go, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Tom Jones?’ I would reply, ‘It’s Not Unusual,’” he laughs. “In fact I played with him a couple of times on Jonathan Ross ‘The Last Resort’ show when the Attractions were the house band. I was playing with Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas from the Attractions on another thing and wound up getting a job in the house band.”
We duck into Rise-N-Grind café, order some cold drinks, take a seat and I ask Steve if he missed anything about Los Angeles while he was living in London for 20 years.
“I didn’t plan on staying there so long, only for six months, then all of these things happened work wise and with relationship stuff. Of course I missed the weather, my family and Trader Joe’s! English food has gotten really good now, but back then it wasn’t quite on the same level. But I didn’t miss much else, I was pretty fed up with L.A. I grew up in the Valley, and I was sick of ‘hey, dude’ ‘no way, dude’ – it wasn’t me, so I went to Europe,” he admits. “But since I came back a few years ago, it has become more international, more intelligent, more cultured here. When I left there was a few Starbucks to get a cappuccino, but now everyone knows what an izakaya is, more people from all over the world are coming here who are aware of culture.”
All of Steve’s talk about the city’s mix of different cultures and his own musical background of various genres coming together leads to the topic of Bubbling Up from Underground: The State of the Art-Rock Pt 1, which showcases songs from the different projects that are currently in his life.
“Some people have said, ’It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.’ It’s a combination of a bunch of projects that are actually being launched as individual things and at the same time,” he explains.
The tracks, all written and produced by Steve except “Lady Feline” from Chrome’s Feel It Like a Scientist album, range from funky, glam rock to jazz punk and feature guests that are equally eclectic: Shawn Lee, Pam Hutchinson (the Emotions), video artist Doug Aitken, Clem Burke and Hugh Cornwell. With collaborators such as these, it must have been hard determining which tracks made the final cut to the actual album.
“It was really hard, like choosing which kids you can take on an emergency flight out of a danger zone. You have 20 kids, but you can only take 12. When you’ve been producing by yourself and listening to all the tracks alone, you can be very forgiving since you know what’s supposed to be happening. Then you bring somebody in who hasn’t heard everything, and it changes the whole perspective. ‘Oh, that’s way too low so they’re not getting what it’s supposed to be.’ Seeing people’s reactions has helped a lot: if i see other people getting excited about it or if my daughter dances to it,” he says. “I tend to go with my favorites, too. I love Richard James of Aphex Twin, but I’m jealous because he has achieved the ultimate. I heard him say in an interview, “I never have to do anything purely for money ever again, and I don’t care if anybody likes my stuff as long as I like it and a few of my close friends like it. That’s all that matters to me.’ Yeah, that’s it! That’s what we tried to do with the album. It’s about doing what you like.”
Steve continues to do what he likes and work with musicians he likes on projects like the Bubbling Up From Underground album and producing for artists like FKA Twigs. Having been a first-hand witness and participant in the L.A. punk scene, his words of wisdom and advice for up and comers should be taken to heart.
“Kids now can study music, go on YouTube and basically take a course in oh, say the post-punk period from 1978 to 1980. It’s great, but it’s not like being there when it’s being invented. It was dangerous, exciting, wild and vibrant. Now music is a bit more studied, but there are still great bands,” he says. “The way the whole music industry fell apart, imploded was great for music because especially in the ‘80s anything that went big, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all of a sudden in the paper you would see this band is influenced by the Chili Peppers and whoever else is big at the moment. Everyone was thinking, ‘I want to be a rock star with a massive advance, limousines and all the accoutrements that come that.’ Now they’re like, ‘Maybe there won’t be a million-dollar advance, maybe I ought to do it because I love music or I want my friends to think I’m cool or I want some meaning or even just I want to impress the girls/boys and get laid’ – that’s great, it’s better and more organic than just the money and the fame. It’s the raison d’être, as they would say in French or as an actor would say, ‘What’s my motivation for this scene?’ Doing art, music and saying, ‘I just love it, and if I can’t do it, I’m going to go nuts.’”
Steve is not only still very passionate about music, but his guilty pleasure is hunting for old and unusual instruments and equipment. Most of his treasures are stored in his recording studio, which is located just up the street, and after finishing our drinks, he agrees to take me there.
We arrive at the old Security Pacific Bank Building, which was built in 1922, and Steve tells me they filmed the first music video for the album, Trashbeat’s “Come Slumming” on the roof. When we get to the studio space, I’m amazed at his collection of instruments – a teeny tiny sitar, countless guitars, even a child’s toy keyboard from the ‘80s – from all around the world and pieces of equipment that were once a part of places like Abbey Road and Motown studios.
“A lot of people will shoot pool, sleep in their room, go to the pub and drink beer while on the road, but I’m at the shops looking for instruments and music-related stuff,” he confesses. “I play with this band called the International Swingers, and the guitarist, James Stevenson, is a collector and even has a shop, so we go out together and check out pawn shops all the time.”
I wonder what his wife thinks of such a hobby that could cost thousands of dollars, and he proudly states that he would never buy something that wasn’t priced at half its potential cost.
“I could buy a guitar that will be worth twice as much next year, while her handbags will always remain the same price,” he laughs.
Steve has spent the last three months away from home on three separate tours, and the hardest part is being away from his wife and young daughter so long. When I ask if he plans on taking his daughter to music lessons one day, he smiles.
“It’s funny, most musicians wouldn’t recommend that their kids do it professionally. There’s a joke my friend told me: A guy’s on a deserted island walking down the beach, and he sees a bottle. He’s polishing it up, and out comes a genie who says, ‘Thank you, I’ve been in here for 2,000 years! I can give you three wishes.’ The guy says, ‘Get me off this island, and give me $20 million.’ ‘Done, what’s your third wish?’ ‘This whole Middle East conflict has always upset me. I would like to solve it.’ He starts drawing a map of the region, and the genie says, ‘That was going on before I was in the bottle, it’s really complicated and difficult. I’m a genie, but I don’t think I can do that. Is there anything else that wouldn’t be quite so hard?’ ‘Well actually I’ve always wanted to be a success in the music business.’ The genie replies, ‘Let’s have a look at that map again,’” he tells. “She’s already really into it, and I’ll teach her how to play things. You have to have art and creativity in children’s lives, you have to channel all of that inner energy that gets trapped. We all need that! If you don’t have a way to express yourself, let the tension, stress, worry and fear transmute into something positive, you start to lose it a little bit.”
Steve Fishman has been playing music since he was 7 years old, and he doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.
“I started young and never gave up, even when times were hard I just kept at it. There might be something like a God-given talent, but it could also be that if you do anything long enough, eventually you’re not going to suck – like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. You might just be able to rock a little coffee house for people but at least at the end of your life you can look back and say, ‘I gave it a try,’ rather than always wondering. You can get caught up being a professional, thinking about why you should do things – is it viable, good for my career – then you go back to why people do music in the first place: for the fun, the social interaction,” he concludes. “The spirit of ‘I’m going to try to find something new, I’m going to try to make a statement that’s uniquely my own even though it seems like everything’s been done’ needs to go on. I still keep the hope that I can find something that hasn’t been done, at least a new combination of things. A lot was done by, I would say, 1974. The statements had been made. There’s nothing that you could find that hadn’t really been done pretty much. But it doesn’t matter, we still try.”
Bubbling Up From Underground: The State of the Art–Rock Pt 1 is currently available. For more information, visit facebook.com/steve.fishman.50?fref=ts or majortalent.org.