|Sugar Shack coupon courtesy of Chuck Starr|
When most people think of their teenage years, they remember things like football games or the Senior Prom. Not me. The summer of 1975 was a highlight in my Peak Experience-filled teens. And nothing is sweeter in my memory than the nights I spent at The Sugar Shack in North Hollywood. The Shack, as we called it, was a refuge for “adventurous” teenagers- oh, wait, I really meant to say Juvenile Delinquents With Very Little Parental Supervision. If you imagine combining the degeneracy of the Weimar Berlin with an episode of Romper Room featuring Jayne County as the hostess, and a soundtrack by Suzi Quatro, you’ll get an idea of what an average night at The Sugar Shack was like.
I was Sweet Sixteen and had just moved to LA, a city that was in the throes of a strange musical limbo. The Hollywood club scene was in that “no man’s land” between the end of Glitter Rock and the beginning of Punk; but let me assure you, there was plenty going on. While the rest of the world was grooving to the boss sounds of the latest Disco hits, there was a crowd of Tinseltown hipsters-although we would’ve abhorred being called that- going to see Toni Basil or The Tubes at The Roxy, Queen or Iggy at The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, or the Cycle Sluts, a theatrical drag queen troupe/ heavy metal band who were in residence at The Whisky A Go-Go. Since many of us were too young to drink legally, we’d prime ourselves for these gigs by scarfing handfuls of Quaaludes- the original Rorer 714 article- which could be purchased in The Rainbow’s parking lot for a mere buck a pop.
Back then, rock music wasn’t the only thing that was caught in a gray area. My crowd and I were streetwise and sophisticated enough to be experimenting with drugs and sex, but hideously below the legal Age Of Consent. Since it was The Swingin’ Seventies, our nascent sexuality was also one big fat gray area…and it’s not like anyone was keepings tabs, either! Our adventurous spirit fit in perfectly with the prevalent freewheeling attitude of the time. Mixed with the handfuls of pills we took combined with the Olde English 800 tallboys we guzzled in back alleys, it made any sort of sexual classification totally irrelevant.
We were a crowd of groupies, teenage hustlers, bisexual school girls and fringy sluts out, as the New York Dolls said, “Lookin’ For A Kiss”…or more, if we could get it…and usually, we could. Our favorite hangs were late-night coffee shops where trannie hookers turned tricks in the Ladies Room; places like Arthur J’s on Santa Monica Boulevard or the two haunts on Hollywood Boulevard: Danielle’s and The Gold Cup which was immortalized in Black Randy’s song “Trouble At The Cup”. Mostly we hung out at these establishments after hitting Westwood to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the millionth time. None of these places served liquor, so of course they didn’t card anyone. You could be totally at home in your fishnets, heavy make up and Sally Bowles’ fierce Divinely Decadent attitude. After all, who was gonna to hassle you about your appearance…a stoned drag queen? Rodney’s English Disco had closed and The Masque wasn’t open yet, so these were our haunts…until The Sugar Shack opened.
Located in the depths of LA’s San Fernando Valley on Magnolia and Whitsett, The Sugar Shack was a juice bar where you had to show ID to prove that you were under twenty one…unless of course you were Kim Fowley or Rodney Bingenheimer or a visiting rock star. The place was tiny and wood paneled, with a long bar down the right side as you walked in. There was an upstairs lounge area that had a working fireplace, clanging pinball machines, and couches were everyone eventually wound up writhing around with someone they’d just met.
Main attraction was the dance floor, which took up at least a third of the club. Racks of colorful lights whirled around overhead, along with a Disco ball, a siren that sounded frequently, and strobe lights. The notorious Chuck E Starr was the DJ playing Shack faves like Roxy Music’s “Do The Strand”, The Sweet’s “AC/DC” or “Fox On The Run” and “Planet Queen” by T. Rex. He also favored hits from LA’s “grown up” (read: 21 and over) gay clubs, like The Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More” and “Party Line” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing”. Ziggy Stardust look-alike Rick Ferris (aka Rick Bowie) would jump up and lead an off-handed, infinitely hot Hustle. Everyone in the whole place was in love with him, whether they’d admit to it or not. But he big crowd pleaser was anything from The Rocky Horror Show – the entire dance floor would be filled with kids doing “The Time Warp” in Busby Berkeley precision, and “Cherry Bomb” by local gals and Shack regulars, The Runaways. David Bowie was in a class by himself– “Rebel Rebel” and “Golden Years” were heard multiple times a night and no one ever got tired of them- everyone went insane. My late bestie Randy Kaye, (Co-editor of my punk fanzine Lobotomy and later an A&R man for Slash Records) remembers:
“No matter what Bowie song Chuck played, we’d all scream and run to the dance floor!”
The main thing I remember about the dance floor- aside from making an ass of myself on numerous occasions by literally falling off my silver glitter platforms in a Quaalude stupor- were the mirrored panels that surrounded it on three sides. They were covered in a thick band of kiss marks in every conceivable shade of lip-gloss because everybody would dance facing the mirrors and kiss their own reflections. How very Seventies; we might’ve been messed up, but we sure didn’t lack self-esteem!
“The Sugar Shack was a magical place,” sighed Cherie Currie, former Runaways lead singer, who, along with her twin sister Marie were the belles of the ball.
“Everyone would make a circle around Cherie and she’d…like…do her stage moves,” Randy said.
Jane Wiedlin, who in the days before The Go-Go’s was a Shack regular, remembers:
“ Me and my friends were all afraid of Cherie! The Sugar Shack was fun, but it was full of teenagers. I wanted to meet rock stars, so I liked Rodney’s and The Rainbow more.”
“The Sugar Shack was a great place to sort of…get over Rodney’s, where everyone was fucking three guys a night! ” said my former roommate Ann MacLean, who was in 11th grade at the time.
“ You’d get there early, get really wasted in the parking lot, then hang out with gay guys and make out with your girlfriends. I remember a lot of chicks wearing those chubby rabbit fur jackets, which I thought were so cool! Money wasn’t important… everyone was running around screaming “GIRRRRL!” and “MISS THING!” and we’d all cram into the girl’s restroom to make out with each other.”
“There were a lot of bisexual girls,” recalls Rodney Bingenheimer, wistfully and with great relish,
“I brought Roger Meadows-Taylor from Queen there and he loved it! When I brought all of Blondie there, they couldn’t believe what was going on- a club only for teenagers? They thought it was really wild!”
Drama always ran high at The Sugar Shack. When the beautiful blonde bartender Vicki Ronald became the singer for Kim Fowley’s “punk” project, Venus And The Razorblades, everybody speculated in hushed whispers, wondering if it would cause a rift between her and Cherie. They not only looked identical, they were best friends. Date-stealing was common. If you lost sight of your paramour for even a few minutes, it was a safe bet you’d find them entangled with someone else in a parked car on one of the dark residential streets or in the alleys surrounding the place.
“God, I remember getting there really early to drink in the car,” Randy Kaye recalled, “…and then waking up on some side street, not knowing how I got there!”
My close friend and bon vivant, the late Dennis Crosby (grandson of Bing) recalled:
“Sex in cars… sex on the couches upstairs… sex in the girl’s bathroom…French designer bell-bottom jeans that laced up the front and the back…Tuinals and Southern Comfort… stumbling outside to puke across the street then going back inside to dance!”
Because most of us were underage, the good stuff usually happened outside or after hours. The movie Foxes, which featured Cherie Currie, came close to what our secret teenage lives were like back then, but it didn’t quite cut it- outrageous as the film was for the time, it still whitewashed our real life experiences. We were rock n’ rollers adrift in suburbia, dealing with the adult-like harsh realities-and hardcore substance abuse as escapism-when most of us weren’t even old enough to drive! And as for driving: getting to the Shack was a nightmare that involved sneaking out of the house, and either hitch-hiking (which we all did then) or careening across Coldwater Canyon in a car with seven other people who weren’t old enough to drive yet either.
Eventually, most of us stopped going to The Sugar Shack in favor of a gay club in Hollywood called Gino’s II…and then punk rock happened, dividing our crowd into two very distinct factions. Some of us saw it as the Second Coming; the others preferred dance music, puka shells and feathered hair.
The Sugar Shack’s been closed for decades, but I still can feel the ecstatic sweat of the dance floor when Chuck Starr hit the siren and threw on “Suffragette City”; the enthusiastic and utterly wasted casual sex with someone whose name you didn’t know… and hoping all week long that you’d see them again the next Wednesday night. I remember my red heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses, kept on after dark and miraculously never lost. I always wore my Carmen Miranda 1940’s style Kork- Eaze wedge platforms and “Drive-In” pants: Chemin De Fer bell bottom jeans that zippered all the way from the front waistband to the back through your crotch so they’d fall off you in two pieces. It was such a rush to get out of the house on a warm, jasmine scented summer night…and watching Rick Bowie strutting around in the strobes on the dance floor like he owned the place.
I remember a lot about those Sugar Shack nights, and what it was like being a teenager in Los Angeles during the Seventies. To my own amazement, as these memories come flooding back to me in minute detail, I put on “The Timewarp”…and evidently I didn’t kill too many brain cells back in the day, because my body remembered every move as though it had been imprinted into my DNA. Dancing in my living room , I take Just A To The Left and then A Step To The Right with the sassy flair I used to show off on the Sugar Shack’s dance floor.
I’d gaze into the mirror looking myself directly into the eyes, slowly lower my lids, pucker up my Mary Quant Black Cherry glossed lips and kiss my own reflection, just as the final chords of the song ran out.
The story you've just read is from my forthcoming memoir Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere , which will be published by Punk Hostage Press in early 2015.
Saturday, September 27 I will be reading from my book Showgirl Confidential: My Life Onstage, Backstage, And On The Road with the women of Punk Hostage Press at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd, LA, 90291 at 7:00pm. Info is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/345505825625345/