music, beer, and disco lights all in West Hollywood
Up the crooked black staircase; a dingy ascent. Bathed black walls and ceilings in green via high sconce fixture. With the name of Viper Room, the green feels venomous. Reddish, white light and thumping bass eminates from the top landings open door. The main room is under constant motion of a quickly moving mirror ball. The rest of the venue is quite dark. The stage is closed with curved red velvet curtain hiding the contents within. It is surprisingly near to even the back of the room. The perimeter is lined with red, tall-backed curved booths, the floor is open for a crowd to watch live music. A decrepit fog machine loudly rattles out its smoke, creaking and coughing like an elderly veteran re-enlisted to the trenches after years of prior service. The place has that dirty charm, just what you would expect for this famed venue in West Hollywood, located on Sunset Blvd, yet it is most definitely a seedy dive all the same.
“A disgusting publicity stunt…not started by us” gargled the ticket wench, who assured us on our passing through the lower side entry, “we’re not going anywhere. And I’ve been here 14 years, so Don’t worry” she rasped from behind a blue surgical mask.
Seems she knows what she was talking about, talking with that confidence of a reliable white trash gas station manager, who has a scraggily mullet and a bottle of Crown Royal in the freezer for special occasions; like getting through another work shift for instance. All the news outlets have been running with the story, the rumor that the Viper room is to be torn down for a new twelve story mid-rise apartment building. The place founded by Johnny Depp in the early nineties, suffering a high profile OD death within its first year (River Phoenix), bar tended by Adam Duritz of the counting crows, Headlined by Tom Petty on its opening night, and a celebrity hangout of yesteryear, this place remains safe from the developers…for now. The joint is much like the rest of LA; a dump. A high-profile dump that, due to the laws of supply and demand, is properly overpriced for being located in a major hub of culture. Just down the road, in an off-patient medical center across from Cedars Sinai, rent in a similar, though even smaller space is 70 grand a month (as of 2022)! No wonder there is no money to run a vacuum let alone repair the ceilings. But this is all part of the charm of the dive bar is it not?
The bathrooms are completely plastered in stickers. I look around at all the surfaces that people would try and line out coke here. The management has built a three-piece toilet paper teepee on the back of the toilet, a straw man defense against using this old faithful surface. Likely there are glass tables in the green room I finally conclude; that room has absolutely seen its share of debauchery.
This bar starts with two tenders and a barback and adds a third once the crowd breaches about 150. The barback and one of the barkeeps is on the current fashion trend of wide, flat brimmed, almost fedora hats. The band playing has two members toting this style, as did the first opener dude and third opener chick as well, to say nothing of the crowd. These hats become exponentially silly the more there are in the same room, thinks I, the partially balding guy enjoying an Amstel light whilst people watching.
Trying to close my tab before the headline comes on is taking much longer than expected. The braless bartender is busy on the near side of the bar, laughing and talking a little too long for the number of thirsty customers piled up everywhere. Hat is on the far side. I am in the middle, where the third bartender briefly visits but seems magnetized to the far side as well. He moves with the urgency of an on-duty lifeguard strolling alongside a public pool, spinning his whistle lackadaisically. Only, unlike the lifeguard, I surmise he doesn’t have another speed in reserve, nor anything matching a definition of job-related emergency. After about ten minutes, ten minutes, I turn to my right and my neighbor voices my exact thoughts. “It’s like we are in a dead zone here” she says, her many long braids flipping around, and the whites of her eyes widening against the contrast of her dark skin. “Like we are in the Bermuda triangle of the bar” I reply. We both renew our leaning forward, grasping money, and signaling that we require attention in solidarity. Later, the bar keep approaches a guy, 5 feet east of my new friend, who had just arrived mind you, and she leaps laterally and snaps her finger in front of his face, temporarily breaking the trance he is operating in. At the same time as he stops and turns to her, she is quickly delivering her order of a double Jameson on the rocks. He silently accepts the new course life has whooshed him too and turns to the shelf. After a brief second, she calls after him “and whatever my friend here is having!” The other guy stares straight ahead with wide eyes and a half smirk on, like he was mildly stunned, but is unwilling to engage with his usurper. I loved the fact that no explanations were given to or by anyone. It was all in the law of barroom justice and etiquette, and just in time as well, as the curtains drew open, and the voice of Jimmy Gnecco filled the air. The red neon Viper Room light glowed behind the stage as the fog machine horsed along in 6 second bursts. Back within the midst of the crowd, where social distancing seems a distant memory, we watch the venue come to life with the performance. The sign on the wall says 175 occupancy max, and this allows everyone an intimate vantage point. It is small enough to share a smile with the singer mid concert and to monitor the guitarists sweat levels. A great show at an iconic dive, who can ask for more?
What to drink: Something quick and easy when there is a pileup. Don’t be the two girls occupying the slow bartender with making mojitos when there are thirty other people around the counter.
When to go: Best to see some live music and help them make that rent payment.
What to wear: anything but a trendy Stetson
What to listen to: I highly recommend Ours for that beautiful, tortured experience celebrating 20 years since their first album distorted lullabies arrived.