EVENT COVERAGE: “Tales of the American”: A Documentary on DTLA’s Arts District Nexus of Art and Music
My first experience of the Arts District came in the early 80’s when someone clued me in on Al’s Bar. I think there had been a Punk Rock show, now long-lost in my memories, I got the word on Al’s after befriending some folks at the show who recommended this fun and cool and for some hijinx after the show. I remember I was told in order to find Al’s Bar you had to look for the plane (a mounted Cessna installation called “Pinned Butterfly” by artist Dustin Shuler) attached to the American Hotel above the bar. The grid changes in that part of DTLA makes it easy to get turned around and lost adding to the mystery of Al’s Bar. Pinned Butterfly was elemental in finding Al’s Bar and thus The American. Al’s Bar was among a group of bars that had credibility in the Punk scene of the time that was shared often by word of mouth only. Looking back most of my early experiences were at night, late late at night, at Al’s Bar. Some 3 of 4 years later, once I had moved to LA I sought out Al’s Bar again for a “Looser Friendly” dive bar, held in by the boundaries of it’s decrepit graffitied walls with the additional bump of music: it was mostly Punk Music and, not particularly professionally delivered, but uniquely original and in this perfectly suited space.When I look back on these memories I think we were all living in the moment. We had no idea what history we were making of this experimental lifestyle we lived. We would all eventually lead making something of value to be documented and memorialized. The venerable American Hotel was the foundation and incubator of art, music, and lifestyle that continue to echo intergenerationally in DTLA and is perfectly portrayed in the documentary “Tales of the American”.
Tales of the American, to put it simply is an onion. As a documentary Tales of the American peels away at the secrets and history of a century-old hotel originally built to accommodate African-Americans by Architect Octavius Morgan. The American started out as “The Canadian” and had a number of incarnations under different management and monikers as the 20th century rolled by. The doc is composed of chapters. Every chapter has a theme and chapter moves the story forward, either by, introducing you to the hotel’s history or introducing you to the faces and the folks who inhabited it and were foundational to the Hotel’s contemporary reputation as an artist haven in DTLA.
Tales of the American kicks off the first chapter “If These Walls Could Talk”. From this moment onward the layers are peeled away exposing nuggets of fascinating information and tales of mischief. The film offers a steady pace of linear history foundational to the segments of people’s antidotal observations, stories disaffected artist and interviews focusing on the tumultuous nature of the American Hotel’s inhabitants that are more random and personal from the artist and musicians themselves, who have lived at The American, and have revolved around this artist hub over the last few decades. Tales of the American effectively tells the story from both a historical perspective while plugging into the marvelously chaotic human element.
The human element versus the history expands as every new chapter explains how The American came to be and is thoroughly explored. A significant part of “The American” circles around AL’s Bar that became what we know of after Marc Kreisel and his partners purchased it. In 1979, Marc Kreisel bought the American purchased the bar from Alfonso Vasquez with the idea of creating a nexus of Bohemia and creativity to the DTLA arts community. From there the layers of the social fabric of the DTLA Arts community were laid. Al’s Bar was The American’s living room became a bastion of disenfranchised and anarchistic derelicts, musicians artist’s playground!
I know a host of the people who were a part of the Tales of the American because I’ve been around them for years now. There were a host of provocateurs and characters, some I know, who have circled Al’s Bar and The American for decades, who were contributors to that scene and were essential to telling this doc’s story. People who come to mind George Joaquim (who’s a painter), Toast Boyd (musician, who’s become a film maker), Nick Scott (drummer of POPDeFECT and The Swords of Fatima), Gus Hudson (who discovered Beck and contributor to Flipside Magazine), Stevie Casual (guitarist), Colette Miller (Glaobal Angel Project and member of Gwar as Amazina), Emmeric Konrad (painter), Jerico Woggon (painter), Anna Broome (host of The Anna Broome Room) and Mona Jean Cedar (spoken word artist). Others interviewed in The American are: Joe Baiza, Bill Bateman, Ella Black, James Duck, Carlos Guitarlos, Jake LaBotz, Bruce Moreland, David Travis Mike Watt, Richard Duardo, Gary Lloyd, Colette Miller, Alex Schaefer, Kent Twitchell and Marnie Weber; photographer Gary Leonard; fashion designer Oliver Manhattan, Kyle McCulloch; and actor Michael Shamus Wiles, among others. All of these players make up The American’s story that (Producer) Stephen Seemayer and (editor) Pamela Wilson of 140 alumni interviewed for Tales of the American.
The American housed the most distinctive individuals and exotic impoverished creatives that either digressed, progressed, expressed or blew up in any number of way over the decades. POPDeFect became the defacto house band of Al’s Bar. Al’s Bar being the living room of The American often became the launching pad for genre-bending, emerging artist, poets, and musicians.
Music artist and bands that graced Al’s bar included: Sonic Youth, the Residents, the Misfits, Jesus Lizard, Beck, DNA/Arto Lindsay, Ry Cooder, The Fall, Fear, Hole, Hüsker Dü, Imperial Butt Wizards, Los Lobos, Social Distortion, Mighty Joe Young, Nirvana, The Party Boys, The Residents, Sonic Youth, Urge Overkill, Wall of Voodoo, and Dwight Yoakam. You can see the impact of The American and Al’s Bar were essential to the Art’s District fabric of aesthetic existence and expression. Tales of The American captures these moments handily. One of the salient moments in Al’s Bar history was the roughly 5-year stint of Girl George performances for No Talent Night. Girl George’s performance was legendary and further distinguished The American and Al’s Bar’s with an anything goes DTLA Art’s District reputation. S.A. Griffin introduced Girl George to Al’s Bar on poet’s night. The poet night morphed into No Talent Night where Girl George led the charge every Thursday in moral abandonment, revelry and rebellion with a rambunctious set that always included the song that set the joint of fire, “You Make Me Feel Like A Whore!” Girl George always attracted a huge crowd for the years. She played at Al’s bar and kept the living room of The American pulsing and exciting with lowbrow Rock N’ Roll flash, splendor, and alcohol soaked – smoke-filled rebellion at full tilt every Thursday! Tales of the American effectively portray the energy and exuberance of Al’s Bar experience and wrapping it all up in early 20th-century brick building splashed inside and out with in ever-growing display of graffiti art. Tales of the American offers an intimate look into the most interactive space on the west coast with conspirators, influencers, and innovators housed in one explosion of expression for over 2 decades.
Tale of the American is an expansive story recounting the history of The American Hotel with the feeling of looking through a peephole that thoroughly humanizes this tale spanning for nearly a century delivering the story of individuals and events that made The American and the Arts District bloom into its contemporary relevance and a center for the arts. The hour and forty-seven minutes are well spent discovering what makes The American such a resounding voice that has contributed mightily over the last few decades to music, the Arts and culture. It hit every high note and doesn’t miss a beat. This quote resonated with everyone at the screening at the Downtown Independent and I think sums of the vibe of the doc when we watched Dustin Shuler being interviewed by a TV reporter nearly 3 decades ago about his installation Pinned Butterfly: Reporter: Is this art? Shuler: Yes. Reporter: Why? Shuler: Because I’m an artist, and I’m doing it!” That was the heart of what The American was all about.
5/1 UPDATE: Tales of the American” will be screening on Friday night, May 11, at 11 pm at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center Theatre for the 5th Annual Fine Arts Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.