Starting From Zero

The rise and fall of Hollywood’s legendary punk rock speakeasy, the Zero Zero Club

Greg Renoff
Aug 24, 2015 · 20 min read

By Greg Renoff

At the dawn of Reagan’s America, Hollywood’s underground community of punk musicians, struggling artists, and scene-makers lived for the night. Their mornings, accordingly, began in the afternoon. In the evenings, they’d gather at nightclubs like the Starwood and the Whisky a Go Go to catch performances by punk, new wave, and psychobilly bands. But when 2 a.m. hit, city ordinances required that these establishments turn on their lights, turn out their patrons, and lock their doors.

This abrupt end to the night sucked for everyone on the scene, but especially for the working musicians who’d barely had time to finish their first post-show beer before last call. These performers, their friends, and their fans then caravanned to after-parties held at cramped apartments scattered across Los Angeles. All too frequently, however, the night’s momentum quickly waned, especially when cops busted these gatherings.

By the late spring of 1980, an art school refugee turned musician who went by the stage name Wayzata de Camerone had come to find this routine increasingly intolerable. The way Wayzata remembers it, “I knew this struggling actor, John Pochna. He was an Eastern-educated, almost Ivy League kind of guy. He’d wear sport coats to all the punk rock gigs. I kept running into him backstage at gigs like the Screamers at the Whisky or the Germs at Club 88. He and I had a lot in common, so he became a pal. Around two, we’d be looking for the party. So I’d always say to him, ‘We should start an after-hours club.’” Pochna soon agreed to partner with Wayzata, thinking that such a venue would provide an ideal solution to Hollywood’s late night social problem.

Brendan Mullen, founder of the legendary Hollywood punk rock club The Masque, hangs with Wayzata in the Zero Zero’s back room, circa 1981. Photo: Gary Leonard

Out of these conversations came one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated cultural landmarks, the Zero Zero Club. Within weeks of its summer 1980 debut, the Zero Zero became the late-night destination for everyone who was anyone on the city’s wide-ranging punk scene. As the club’s reputation grew in the Hollywood underground, celebrities came to haunt the Zero Zero as well, making for late night scenes where upstart punkers and aspiring artists rubbed elbows with stars like actor John Belushi and Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. This kind of social leveling produced gatherings where the coolest, rather than the most famous, people in town could come together to carouse and network until dawn. As former Zero Zero bartender Pleasant Gehman explains, “It was like going to Studio 54, without the velvet ropes. If you knew about a place like this, it meant that you were hip enough to go to it, and so it didn’t matter if you were a celebrity or not a celebrity.”

But what had begun as a Prohibition-style speakeasy reinvented for the 80s soon came to fill another, arguably more important, cultural void. By the end of 1980, the Zero Zero began operating as an art gallery as well as an after-hours club. In an approach befitting the Zero Zero’s countercultural vibe, Wayzata and Pochna hosted shows by Los Angeles artists like Raymond Pettibon and Richard Duardo, individuals whose work was deemed too lowbrow, abrasive, or confrontational by mainstream gallery owners, making the Zero Zero unique on the city’s art scene. Painter Hudson Marquez asserts, “Most of the artists I know are fucking bougie-bougie. They’re ‘don’t rock the boat’ types who want to sell paintings. But the art at the Zero Zero was anti-authoritarian. Everyone there was making art, but they were also causing trouble. All that art had that attitude about it.”

By filling these dual roles, the Zero Zero came to be what artist Mike Mollett, who showed at the gallery, terms “a sleazy-cool, outlaw, after-hours, music-meets-art social club.” Its illegal nature, of course, meant that the club was not built to last. In the end, the only surprising thing about the fall of the Zero Zero was that it collapsed as much from internal as external pressures.

In July 1980, Wayzata and Pochna found a boarded-up storefront at 1955 North Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood for rent. An initial visit made clear that it would be perfect for their purposes. The front room was compact, measuring something like 400 square feet. Just beyond it stood a couple more small rooms, a bathroom, and up above, a cramped attic. Cockroaches skittered across the battered floor, giving the space appropriately gritty vibe. To Wayzata, even the address number seemed like a fitting omen: 1955 was the year that James Dean had met his end in the California desert.

The location also felt right. The unit stood in a decrepit, 1920s-vintage six-story building, located in a semi-industrial area just a stone’s throw from the Hollywood Freeway. The building was only partially occupied, with a fleabag hotel doing business on some of the upper floors, and an art gallery called C.A.S.H., which punks frequented, just two doors down. Basically, it was in a low-rent, little trafficked part of Hollywood, would make it ideal for hosting loud, late-night parties. They didn’t wait long to sign the lease.

Soon after, they came up with a moniker for their establishment. “We named it after a club in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novel, My Gun is Quick,” Wayzata recalls. Pochna thought the name particularly apropos since launching this kind of underground establishment by definition meant “starting from zero.”

In the days that followed, the pair prepared to launch. They left the front room empty, so their guests would have a place to congregate. In the adjoining back room, they set up a small wooden bar that they’d found abandoned in the building. “We then bought a jukebox and two used refrigerators. We painted the fridges with bright red enamel, so they’d stand out against the walls, which we’d painted black,” Wayzata explains. “We put them behind the bar. Then we decorated around the sides of that room with a bunch of ratty couches and old throwaway tables.”

The final step before their August 1 opening was to fill their bar with a suitably lowbrow selection of beverages. “We bought like ten cases of generic beer at Ralph’s Supermarket and stocked the fridges,” Wayzata remarks. “We also got six gallons of white and red wine, the cheap stuff.” Their guests, once they paid five bucks at the door, could draw on this supply until they went blind, passed out, or both.

On opening night and the evenings that immediately followed, business was less than brisk. As Wayzata tells it, “We didn’t post any flyers on the street and we didn’t put ads in the paper because we knew we were running a place that let people drink, illegally, after 2 a.m.” Word of mouth was their only form of advertising, and the two men clearly hadn’t done enough of it before launching the Zero Zero.

They’d also resolved to stay open every night of the week, which quickly proved to be the wrong approach. “That was crazy,” Wayzata explains. “It would be Pochna and me, sitting in the club, looking at each other. So then we decided, we’ll just open on Friday and Saturday, because that’s when all the big rock shows happened and that’s when people were looking for parties.”

The pair coupled this new weekend schedule with another idea designed to both drive attendance and to give the Zero Zero a patina of quasi-legal legitimacy. “We decided to call it a ‘private club,’” Wayzata explains, “so when we’d throw parties and charge, we were doing so to raise dues and rent for the club. We’d charge people a few bucks, and we’d give them a card, then they’d be members.” He continues, “I had one thousand business cards printed up. On them it said, ZERO ZERO CLUB. Below that, there was a black line. I had a rubber stamp. I set it at 0001 and stamped one, and that was my card. John’s card was 0007, because he wanted lucky number seven. We then stamped up a whole bunch. For the first hundred, we gave them away for free. We gave them to all of our friends who were in the big local bands like John Doe and Exene of X and Dave and Phil Alvin of the Blasters. We’d give them to members of the Go-Go’s, the Screamers, the Gears, the Plugz, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and the Weirdoes.”

Zero Zero Club membership cards and the rubber stamp used to number them. Photo: Wayzata De Camerone

Now members of a club that let them drink for free at a time when no other bar in Los Angeles was open, the scene’s musicians invariably ended their nights at the Zero Zero. Wayzata stresses that their constant presence significantly spurred attendance. “Once they started coming,” Wayzata recalls, “they’d bring their fans. We’d let the member in free, and then we’d collect five bucks from the others. Of course, we’d let cute girls in for free, because it’s always a good idea to have cute girls in your club.”

By the early fall, everyone on the Hollywood punk scene knew that on weekend nights, everyone you’d want to hang out with would be at the only after-hours party worth attending, the one at the Zero Zero. Pleasant Gehman explains why the club filled every night it was open: “Other big cities like New York had after-hours spots like the Zero. There needed to be a place in L.A. where people could go once the clubs closed. The live shows were so amazing, but it was impossible to talk at a punk show because it was so loud, so people would go to the Zero Zero to socialize.”

In the weeks that followed, business boomed, necessitating a staff expansion. Wayzata recalls, “My bouncer was Carlos Guitarlos. He played with Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs. He was this burly Mexican dude who wore a black leather jacket. He was very gruff. I’d say, ‘Carlos, this guy is spilling beer on the girls and starting to feel them up.’ He’d go, ‘Hey fucker! You’re outta here!’ He’d then throw him into the street by the scruff of the neck.”

Zero Zero bouncer Carlos Guitarlos puts the squeeze on a Penthouse Pet and a pint of Jose Cuervo at the Zero Zero, circa 1981. Photo: Gary Leonard

Even though the bar had always been self-serve, Carlos’s band mate, the blues-shouter Top Jimmy, claimed squatter’s rights and created a new role for himself. Now if someone wanted a beer from the fridge, Jimmy grabbed it and popped the top, and then demanded compensation for his work. Photographer Gary Leonard, who was tight with Jimmy’s band, recalls with a laugh: “Top Jimmy figured out he could get a decent amount in tips, because the beer was free after you paid at the door. He made the bar his own. It was Jimmy’s, for a long time.”

Wayzata, too, worked every night the club was open, manning the door with Carlos. He says these evenings sometimes went from the routine to the bizarre from one moment to the next. “We’d stand there at the door looking out at the Hollywood Freeway, which was less than 100 yards away. Someone would park a car and I’d see this person come walking up. Who would it be? Someone like Eric Burdon of the Animals. These celebrities would hear about the Zero Zero and just show up. So we’d stamp a number give them a card right at the door. Bill Murray. John Belushi. Tom Smothers. Then I’d go back inside and see a very straight Tom Smothers standing right next to John Doe and Exene of X, who’d be smoking a joint. It was surreal.”

Top Jimmy, the Zero Zero’s unofficial mixologist, stands behind the bar at the Zero Zero, circa 1981. Photo: Gary Leonard

Another memorable 1980 night came when David Lee Roth made his first appearance. The way Pochna remembered it, “Roth showed up at the Zero one night very early on and just loved it. He showed up the first time in a limo, and he had two chicks with him and Eddie Anderson, his personal security guy. The chicks thought they were going to some fancy place… They completely freaked out when they saw the look of the place and this raw, totally fucked-up downscale crowd.”

Roth’s future visits invariably began with a spell in the club’s cramped VIP space. Wayzata says, “There was a construction ladder kept behind the bar. You’d go up the ladder through a trap door. In the loft, the ceiling was so low that you had to stoop and crawl over to a couch that I’d put up there. That’s where David Lee would want to hang. He’d show up and say, ‘Wayzata, I’ve got some blow.’ We’d go up the ladder, do our blow, then we’d go down and enjoy the party.”

In the aftermath of these nights, the club was a disaster area strewn with broken bottles, discarded clothing, cigarette butts, and pools of vomit. Cleanup was at least a two-man job, but Wayzata soon discovered that Pochna had no interest in this aspect of club ownership. “One thing I hadn’t counted on,” Wayzata says, “was that Pochna would have a complete lack of responsibility when it came to sharing the weekly chores of running the club, cleaning it up, and restocking the bar. I’d call and get his answering machine. I’d go over to his apartment and pound on the door. He’d never come to the door. After about two weeks of that, I said, fuck it. I’ll do it myself. Many days, he’d never even show up until 2:30 in the morning. He’d come waltzing in like he was a movie star. I’d say, ‘John, where the fuck have you been?’” Gary Leonard, who at the time was the only photographer that the Zero Zero’s proprietors allowed to shoot inside the club, remarks, “John liked owning the club and not doing much else. It was tough, because he didn’t mind letting others do the work. Yet Wayzata liked doing the work, so that led to conflict.”

After some months of going it alone or calling in favors from friends, Wayazta secured some janitorial help. “So I hired Top Jimmy and El Duce of The Mentors to do the mopping and brooming, and to pick up all the empties. They’d fill two huge trash cans with beer cans, wine bottles, and the odd pair of porno panties that had been thrown away.” Pleasant adds with a laugh that even though the pair worked for free, the job did have its benefits. “Anything they’d find half full they’d drink. Plus people were so wasted that they were dropping drugs, and leaving drugs all over the place, which they’d then find. So it was kind of a lucrative job for them.”

Despite the tensions between them, Wayzata and Pochna moved to expand the club’s offerings in the fall of 1980 by opening the front room as art gallery. Artist Richard Meade explains: “Wayzata had this space that he’d only use on the weekends as an after-hours club. We’d gone to graduate school together and both had art backgrounds. We thought: We’ve got this big space and a lot of artists. Let’s use it beyond the weekend. So that’s how it evolved into a gallery.”

Wayzata handed the reins to Meade for the gallery’s launch. “The very first show we had at the Zero-Zero,” Meade recounts, “was the Erotic Mail Art Show. It was designed to test the limits of what you could send through the postal system. I was corresponding with artists around the world. So I sent them information about the show, and the word just spread. At times I’d get twenty or thirty pieces a day in the mail; we got over 300 entries total.” Hudson Marquez, who showed his work in the show, explains why artists responded enthusiastically to Meade’s call for sexual art. “From time immemorial,” he says, “everybody who makes art who has any sort of sense of humor always draws dirty pictures. We thought, This is great, we get to show off our pussy drawings. The Erotic Mail Art Show was fucking great.” In the end, the multi-week exhibition drew steady traffic and write-ups in the local press.

Catalog for the first exhibit shown at the Zero Zero, the Erotic Mail Art Show, November 1980. From the Collection of Richard Meade

The Zero Zero’s showings continued in subsequent months. On the heels of the Erotic Mail installation came another successful group show, this one featuring Chicano printmaker Richard Duardo and the group of artists who worked with him at his studio, Hecho en Aztlan. As Wayzata recalls, this punk and new wave-inspired show broke new ground by bringing two communities together. “Richard’s show was really phenomenal because he was from the east side of the city. Like West L.A., it had its own punk rock contingent, but East L.A. and West L.A. punks didn’t hang out much together. But this show at the Zero Zero created a confluence of people from East L.A. and West L.A. The opening was packed. There were so many people it spilled out into the street, so I was really worried about the cops. Then a Herald Examiner reporter showed up to write a review. I asked her not to give out the address or use my real name in her article, and she kept her word. The show got great reviews, so I was really happy about all of that.”

In March 1981, Gary Leonard put on his first ever show. He recalls, “The Zero Zero show included photographs that I’d taken of the music scene in L,A. I called the show ‘Clubs and Halls’ because lots of these events took place not just at nightclubs but halls like Rotary Clubs and Polish Halls that bands could rent. But in my work I was chronicling the music, and the counterculture, and the city. So I included photos of celebrities like Rick Nelson, Annette Funicello, and Peter Tork from the Monkees. I think the show even included a shot of Rudy Vallee. I’d pepper it with people who were shot in the same style as my live shots, but at other venues that were more mainstream, to bring in the idea that I’m covering Los Angeles. Visually, I wanted to bring all these people together.”

Even after the Zero Zero began showing art, its speakeasy operation continued unabated. Incredibly, by the fall of 1981 Wayzata and Pochna had run this illegal establishment for more than fifteen months without attracting the attention of the LAPD. That all ended on the night of November 21. The way Wayzata remembers it, “Carlos and I were working the door. I saw the cops gathering down the street. I thought, Oh fuck. This is not good.

“We went inside and locked the door and told everyone: ‘The cops are outside. We’re going to let everyone out the back.’ Of course, everyone started fleeing like cockroaches. [laughs] So we had the place about half-empty before the cops came in. You know, for L.A. cops, they were pretty moderate. They said, ‘Party’s over,’ and they just let everyone out the front door. They didn’t arrest anyone. I didn’t want to leave because I was afraid they were going to padlock the door. So after a while, it’s just me and four or five cops in their black uniforms. They say to me, ‘Who runs this place?’”

“I do.”

After taking down Wayzata’s name and address, the ranking officer announced, “We know what you’re doing here. You’re charging at the door and giving people liquor. That’s against the law. So here’s how it’s going to work. If we ever have to come back here again, we’re only going to arrest one person, and that person is you. We’re not screwing around. It’s over.”

After the cops departed, Wayzata couldn’t believe his luck. “They didn’t search me. In my pockets, I had wads of cash, all these five-dollar bills. I may have had some blow, a little bit of pot, maybe some black beauties. So I locked the door and closed the club down.”

Knowing the range of charges he could face if the cops returned to the Zero Zero — and that the LAPD would now keep a watchful eye on the club — Wayzata resolved to keep the gallery open while shutting down its after-hours operation. “I found Pochna the next day. I said, ‘The [after-hours] club is officially closed.’

Promotional flyer for shows at the Zero Zero featuring the work of Raymond Pettibon and Gary Leonard, January 1982. From the collection of Wayzata De Camerone

“Then I found out a few days later that Pochna had a few of his friends over there for a party. I went over to the Zero Zero and confronted him. I said, ‘John, you don’t understand. We’re not opening this weekend [at 2 a.m.].’ I changed the locks.

At this point, their long-dysfunctional relationship collapsed. Pochna soon located a new space at the corner of Hollywood and Wilcox, above a lingerie store called Playmates Of Hollywood. He named his new club the Zero One, carrying forth the model established at the Zero Zero: a gallery that doubled as an after-hours club.

Despite his troubles at 1955 Cahuenga, Wayzata refused to let the Zero Zero die. Sometime in early 1982, he relocated his gallery and after-hours operations to a basement located at Gardner Street and Sunset Boulevard. In practice, this now meant that the community that had congregated at the original Zero Zero now had two clubs vying for their attention — the Zero Zero and the Zero One — run by former partners who were not on speaking terms. This split, as much as pressure from law enforcement, would mark the beginning of the end of the Zero Zero scene.

Still, Wayazta had found another seemingly suitable space. Zero Zero regular Iris Berry describes it as follows: “You’d walk into an alley off of Gardner, and there was a stairwell. You went down the stairwell, and that’s where the Zero was. Basically, it was a big space with a hanging light bulb. On one side, Wayzata had space for a DJ. There was a huge dance floor there too. On the other side there was another entertainment room where, say, Jeffrey Lee Pierce would do Velvet Underground songs.”

Wayzata did make one significant improvement to the basement by adding a VIP room. Gehman explains, “At Gardner, there was a big back room. It was walled off with drywall. David Lee Roth would hold court back there; it was the drug room and the hot girl room.” Marquez adds, “Everybody kept an eye on that door to the VIP room, to see who was going in and who was going out.”

Somehow, during the move from 1955 Cahuenga to Gardner, Top Jimmy lost his bartending gig to Berry and Pleasant Gehman. Berry laughs, “It was the best job I ever had. It was open two nights a week, Friday and Saturday. You went in at 1 a.m. and you got out at 5 a.m. Behind the bar, I couldn’t even see where the people ended, there’d be so many people crammed in there. Everyone would be waving money around, five dollars, and ten dollars, because they wanted their booze. Every once in a while, I would look in the tip jar, and they would be a hundred-dollar bill, or a couple hundred-dollar bills, that someone tipped us anonymously. That was so amazing. I’d walk out with five hundred dollars a night.”

Celebrities, still possessed of their Zero Zero membership cards, made appearances at the Gardner location as well. They came and went, drinking and talking with the other patrons in unaffected interactions that seem unimaginable in today’s celebrity-obsessed world. Marquez comments, “Celebrities today are locked away. It’s so different. It used to be the case that if you wanted, you could get David Lee Roth’s phone number from somebody at the Zero Zero and call him up. Today? Fuck. It would be impossible.”

Marquez recounts one story that highlights a deviation from the normal pattern of celebrity interaction at the Zero Zero involving his friend, the late John Belushi. “I remember taking John to Wayzata’s Gardner Street place. Now John never got bothered there. No one ever said anything to him other than, ‘Hey, man? How ya doing?’ Except for this one night.

“John was driving this muscle car around Hollywood. Some fan had given him the keys to it. After he picked me up, I had taken over the driving because I was afraid we’d die. So we park in the alley at Gardner, and John says, ‘Keep it running. We might need to get out fast.’ I go, ‘Okay, sure.’ [laughs] So this valuable car is idling while we’re sitting on a bench inside the Zero Zero. Now there was this punk rock chick who was on the scene then — she’s dead now — named Elektra. She just comes up to John and says, ‘Your movie Neighbors? That’s the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen.’ I yell, ‘What the fuck are you saying that for?’ Suddenly, John’s security blanket at the Zero was gone. He got up and ran outside. I went out after him and I could see the taillights going down the fucking alley.” Some weeks later, Belushi ended up dead of a drug overdose at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont.

Because the Zero Zero now stood in a more populated part of Hollywood, it didn’t take long for the police to zero in on its operations. The club was raided at least twice. In contrast to the kid-gloves approach taken by the LAPD at the 1955 Cahuenga location, the police now thoroughly shook the place down. But the way Berry tells it, these busts had a humorous side as well. “They’d have everyone up against the wall, like all the way around the room. If you looked you’d see pills, syringes, weed pipes, joints, and bindles of heroin and cocaine just go flying, just rolling around the room because no one wanted to be caught with any evidence. It was hysterical.”

Once again, though, Wayzata came away unscathed. He says, “We lasted at Gardner for about five or six or months [in 1982] before we were busted. Luckily, the cops in West L.A. did not communicate with the cops from the metro division, so they didn’t look for me. After all of that I said, ‘Fuck it. I’m done.’” With that, the Zero Zero was no more.

Wayzata huddles with Screamers drummer K.K. Barrett at the Zero Zero, circa 1981. Today, Barrett is an Academy Award nominated production designer and art director, known for his work on films like Lost in Translation and Her. Photo: Gary Leonard

Today the survivors of the Zero Zero are both nostalgic and philosophical about the club and its legacy. For photographer Gary Leonard, the Zero Zero was a unique place where he could document key aspects of the city’s early 80s countercultural scene. He remarks, “I really found a home there. On any given week, as I was trying to tell a story about Los Angeles, I’d go to the Zero and everyone who’d been at all the different clubs would be at there too. So all I’d have to do is go to the Zero. Then if there was something else during the week I’d want to cover, I’d hear about it there. So the Zero became a chapter in this story I was telling.”

Hudson Marquez, for his part, underscores the importance of the community that developed at the club. “I just remember how wonderful it was because of the sense of community. That felt really good, and that was important. It was a place for visual artists and musicians. A lot of these people weren’t getting a lot of love for the [artistic] things they were doing then. But one day, the tide would turn for them.”

Wayzata, too, points to the shared sense of purpose that developed at the club. “Even though there was a lot of wild-ass after-hours stuff with this very strange mix of people — the movie stars, punk rockers, artists, bon vivants, and movers and shakers — the cultural impact we had was that a lot of musicians met there. Bands were formed there. A lot of people got ideas for writing film scripts there. So people had the opportunity to get inspired and write songs, write stories, and fall in love. But the legacy that I’m most proud of is that we showed this great art there.”

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Top Image: Zero Zero owners Wayzata De Camerone (L) and John Pochna (R) at the club, summer 1981. Photo: Gary Leonard

Greg Renoff is a historian and the author of Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal, which will be published by ECW Press in October, 2015.

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Greg Renoff

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Author, PhD historian. Van Halen Rising, my deeply researched bio of VH's rise to fame, out now via @ecwpress. Diehard #NYJets fan since 81.



Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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