How a Historic Black Queer Disco Became the Unlikely Epicenter of Los Angeles' Industrial Scene
Das Bunker and Jewel's Catch One built a decades-long partnership on outsiderdom. Now, the party's coming back home.
In 1973, Jewel Thais-Williams, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, bought a little bar just off Pico and Crenshaw, miles from anywhere considered to be a nightlife hub. She named it Jewel's Catch One, and modeled it a disco for those seeking refuge from both racial discrimination in West Hollywood and homophobia in the black community. It was one of the first black and gay clubs in America, and eventually the longest-standing. Everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to Chaka Khan performed behind its darkened windows; it was one of the hallowed halls in which disco turned into house and electronic music culture first coalesced stateside.
As the years passed, Jewel's Catch One expanded from one room to the whole building; other than that, it was as durable and unchanging as its notoriously stubborn owner and namesake, a scruffy beacon of defiance against Hollywood glitz. For decades, Jewel's Catch One seemed to stand alone—that is, until it the mid-90s, when it discovered a strange bedfellow in Das Bunker, an emerging industrial club night seeking a similar escape from the Hollywood club oligarchy. Thus began an unlikely 20-year union between two subcultures, one that has left an indelible mark on Angeleno club culture and is still playing out in front of our eyes.
"LA was weird in the 90s," says John Giovanazzi, promoter of Das Bunker, now Los Angeles's longest running industrial night. Born from EBM in Belgium and Germany, the industrial scene had spent the final decade of the last century splintering to include everything from nu-romantic goth to cyberpunk to techno; but around the time that Das Bunker came to Jewel's Catch One, things were getting a little stale up in Hollywood. "I thought industrial music was dying," Giovanazzi laughs. "At the time, your options were either Nine Inch Nails or Nine Inch Nails, and you wouldn't go west of Fairfax, south of Melrose, wouldn't go east of Vine, and you wouldn't go north of Hollywood Blvd. You would hear 8 or 9-year-old songs all night long, and this new generation wanted to hear new stuff."
In 1995, a tiny Wisconsin label named RAS DVA released a 4-CD compilation of previously unheard industrial acts like Numb, Project Pitchfork, and Wumpscut. It was titled There Is No Time, and it was exactly the new stuff that Giovanazzi and his friends had been craving. It ended up in the hands of a man named Franck "H-Bomb" Huyghe, who was so inspired that he began Das Bunker as a space to showcase these progressive sounds to the local community. The night kicked off in 1996, at a 100-person capacity dive bar in Long Beach. At the time, that city meant only two things to the music world: Snoop Dogg and Sublime, neither of which bore any resemblance to the black-clad gaggles of goths that converged for early editions of Das Bunker. Still, a community began to form around the new party.
In the early years of the Internet boom, Das Bunker built its reputation through message boards and online groups. It thrived on the URL to IRL exchange that is now a ubiquitous pattern in the formation of niche communities. Despite a brief stint in the less culturally colorful suburb of Downey, the party's reputation and attendance continued to grow steadily. By 2003, Giovanazzi was brought on by Huyghe to oversee Das Bunker's expansion to a new location, one close enough to the action to make a mark.
Looking for a new home, Giovanazzi went on a mission to check out every single venue in LA. He looked in the back of every newspaper and zine, made calls to every promoter and club kid he knew, trawled every message board. He'd spend hours driving around, looking for empty spaces. Eventually, he found Jewel, by then nearing her 60s, and she gave them the opportunity they'd been aching for.
Black, gay disco culture and industrial goth culture may not be an obvious match, but they share a common bond as outsider communities brought together by electronic music. Over the ensuing eighteen years, Friday nights at Jewel's Catch One became the most important cultural meeting place for industrial music culture in Los Angeles. A neon sign emblazoned with the word "disco" in a curly block-font welcomed a community that favors pentagrams and black leather over sequins and flared jeans. It was a beautiful thing.
Jewel's four-roomed, labyrinth-like environment allowed Das Bunker's programming to pay a diverse homage to industrial's sprawling landscape of sub-niches, including power noise, cold wave, industrial rave, and post-EBM. Its dual role as a monument to the industrial culture of the past and a research lab for future sounds made it a dominant force within the subculture, while also a favorite amongst Angeleno night-trippers and clubland tourists looking for a novel night out.
Fast-forward to 2014, though, and Jewel's Catch One had the appearance of a club that had seen better days. The toilets constantly overflowed, the speakers were older than most of Das Bunker's patrons, electrical systems blew out, and handrails dangled from iron staircases. And sadly, little was being done to remedy any of it. "I watched a bartender plug in a DVD player and get electrocuted," recalls Giovanazzi. "Her arm caught on fire!" The same single-mindedness that allowed Jewel Thais-Williams to blaze trails decades before was having an ill effect on the club because she refused to change with the times. Catch One had become a relic.
By this time, Giovanazzi had developed into something of a clubland entrepreneur himself, opening Complex in Glendale and developing Das Bunker into a nightlife brand with gigs at Hollywood clubbing destination Avalon. From that vantage point, he had seen a major shift in clubbing culture develop. "For a long time, the weekly club was the thing to do," he says. "But that doesn't really exist anymore. There's a whole generation of people who came of age when nightclubs were [about] bottle service and velvet rope [culture] and they were turned off by that. Now the culture is that one night you'll go to a warehouse, another an art gallery opening, another night a bar. It's about the one-off party or the monthly or the occasional, the festival. We knew it was time to retool."
It's rare that a venue, let alone a club, sticks around in Los Angeles for twenty years. When Das Bunker finally decided to leave at the tail end of 2014, it didn't seem like the end of an era. It felt like the end of a few. Giovanazzi was a little less sentimental than many Das Bunker patrons, though. "It was unsafe," he says. "That was the bottom line."
Some Das Bunker parties moved to Complex, and others to Los Globos in Silverlake, a storied latin disco that had been recently purchased and remodeled into a double-deckered pan-indie melting pot by infamous local club owner Steve Edelson, whose checkered past reads somewhere between that of a supporting character in a Coen Brothers movie and a loudmouthed antagonist who dies in the first 15 minutes of a Tarantino flick. Through it all, Giovanazzi and co were tight-lipped about their long-term plans.
In 2015, after 43 years of independent ownership, Thais-Williams finally relented and sold Jewel's Catch One. Its new owner bore a familiar name: Mitch Edelson, only son and protégé of Steve Edelson. The Edelsons have a long and noisy history of being outsiders in the LA club scene, and their establishments—which include Dragonfly, Martini Lounge, El Cid—often favor an approachable edge, two elements that suggested a good fit for the the Catch One ethos. The Edelsons run clubs that don't overshadow the parties that take place there, and they are welcoming to niche communities like drum and bass (Respect) and queer disco (A Club Called Rhonda). Los Globos even hosts The Moth, a storytelling hour that broadcasts on KCRW. It's not the kind of stuff you find behind a velvet rope.
When the younger Edelson set about remodeling Jewel's, it was like LA club history came pouring from the rafters. "They found false walls erected and secret rooms, trap doors, and these hidden mezzanines that had just been lost in the 99 years since the place was built," says Giovanazzi. "They stripped a lot of it away and created a bigger, more dynamic space. There's rooms that didn't exist before, tons of walls knocked down. " Edelson renamed the venue UNION, the third iteration of a club built by his family to bear the name, and it opened officially on February 12, when A Club Called Rhonda, a queer-friendly bacchanal of underground house music, invited Bonobo, Guy Gerber, and The Martinez Brothers to christen the venue's historic dancefloor.
A week prior to the official opening, Das Bunker was given the symbolic honor of saying goodbye to Jewel's Catch One, as the host of a special UNION preview event. "We were the last party of the old era," says Giovanazzi. Inside the dark caverns and labyrinths of the revamped venue, old faces returned, and another new generation was introduced to one of the most storied dance parties ever to hit Los Angeles.
At a time when other historic Angeleno gay venues like Studio One and Circus Disco are being demolished to make room for condos, the fact that Jewel's is still standing, in one form or another, points to its importance as a cultural institution. In fact, Jewel's and Das Bunker's refusal to partake in the Hollywood rigmarole may have been a saving grace for them both, as the perpetually expanding gentrification machine is still miles away from where UNION now sits, on the edge of Arlington Heights. It'll come. Perhaps this change of ownership is just the beginning of it. But as long as outsider discos like A Club Called Rhonda and Das Bunker call UNION home, Jewel's will still get weird in a way that honors its past.
Das Bunker, meanwhile, has grown into something bigger than any dancefloor can hold. "It's a monument to the history of this culture" says Giovanazzi. "We've been really fortunate to cultivate an audience that's not just people who listen to industrial music. I've been to tons of clubs where they play really great music and I had a boring time and never wanted to go back. We make going and having fun the most important thing. Because of that, we get a demographic from all over, basically anybody who likes going out...and wearing black."
Jemayel Khawaja is THUMP's Editor-at-Large - @JemayelK