Deb Frazin Photo Column—Goodbye Cafe Nela

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In 2001, Al’s Bar closed, and for twelve years afterward, there just wasn’t any place in the Los Angeles area for the Al’s Bar/Raji’s/Hell’s Gate/Cathay de Grande crowd to go see punk bands play that felt “right.” It was an extremely long twelve years. Then suddenly, in 2013, Dave Travis came to the rescue, bought a cool dive bar in Cypress Park, and Cafe Nela was born. It was an incredible gift to all of us punks who were crushed after losing our beloved Al’s Bar.

The minute I stepped foot into Cafe Nela, I fell in love with the place. A comfortable dive bar with a worn out black and white checkered floor, red vinyl booths, a big stage, X-mas lights all over the place, punk rock stickers and flyers posted all over the paneled walls, neon beer lights, a spacious back patio to hang out on—and best of all—a magical sparkly foam ceiling and psychedelic lighting that kind of changed my life (we’ll get to that in a minute).

The first time I went to see a show there, I couldn’t believe the lineup: The Controllers (one of my favorite L.A. punk bands) and The Gears! Billy Bones (The Skulls) was there—everyone was there! So many faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. It was a punk rock reunion.

Cafe Nela not only put on punk rock shows: it was also a place where you could watch Joe Baiza play jazz, there were metal nights, hardcore nights, experimental/electronic bands, and some exceptional local East L.A. punk bands such as Pedal Strike, Akrid, and La Tumba all got their start there. It was very eclectic, and that’s what made the place so special.

Another thing that made the place so special was that it felt much more like our personal clubhouse than a bar. It was a place for good friends to get together and watch great bands, hang out on the patio, drink beer, and talk and laugh until closing time (the summer nights and the BBQs were extra special). Cafe Nela was a place where I met some of my very best friends, and reconnected with old friends who I hadn’t seen in over fifteen years.

All the great bands played there: Redd Kross, The Tissues, Flat Worms, The Paranoyds, Dez Cadena, Grant Hart, Legal Weapon, Saccharine Trust, Alice Bag, Rikk Agnew, The Gears, Mike Watt, The Dogs, Gitane Demone Quartet, Trap Girl, Naked Aggression, Egrets On Ergot, The Alley Cats, Haunted Garage, Frankie And The Witch Fingers, The Last, Pop Defect, Reverend Beat Man, Radolescents, Schizophonics, Cat Scan, The Darts, The Mormons, The Hickoids, Blood On The Saddle, Midget Handjob, and so many other bands. The list is just endless. It was extra special to see musicians like Keith Morris, Mike Watt, and Alice Bag play at Cafe Nela as opposed to other places because at Cafe Nela, it felt like you were watching these bands play in your own living room. So intimate and completely comfortable.

But there’s another reason Cafe Nela is so extra special to me: It’s the place where I learned how to shoot bands. I would go to Nela as much as I could, sit in a corner and experiment with my camera settings. I realized early on that I was getting much cooler photos at Cafe Nela compared to other venues. Why? It was that fucked-up, foam-sprayed ceiling with all the space-age sparkles. And the psych lighting bouncing off of the ceiling was the perfect complement to my specific camera settings. The result was absolute magic. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to capture the kind of photos I captured at Nela anywhere else.

Losing Cafe Nela feels more devastating than losing Al’s Bar and Raji’s. Cafe Nela offered us a lot more than the other places in the past did. You just had to be there to truly understand why this one hurts so much.

Thank you Dave Travis for giving us so much over the past six years. You always made everyone feel so welcome and at home. It hurts so much to say goodbye, but now it’s time for you to take a much-deserved rest. You should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished—Cafe Nela is a punk rock legend that will never be forgotten.

As a tribute to Cafe Nela, I’ve attached a slideshow and a reel with live performances from Mike Watt, The Paranoyds, Alice Bag, et cetera. Enjoy!

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