On a Sunday afternoon last March, I stood on the sidewalk outside a Silver Lake bar with a group of friends, a Chromatics billboard staring at us from across Sunset. We were there for a day party where I was one of the DJs scheduled to play. The crowd was beginning to trickle into the venue.
Talk of the new coronavirus was all over the news, but it seemed to only enter and exit our conversations in passing. I asked if hugs were still OK. They nodded yes. At that moment, we were still existing in a timeline when adults were being schooled on proper hand washing techniques.
I kept thinking about a years-old conversation with a bathroom attendant I knew. She told me about how often people didn’t wash up in the ladies room. Ever since then, handshakes have given me the creeps. Club hugs, with a light touch on the back, seemed more hygienic. At least, they did before the middle of last March. Now, I wonder if club hugs will ever be a thing again.
A week later, Los Angeles’ bars and clubs were ordered to close. In the immediate aftermath, I wondered how long it would take to “flatten the curve” and how long venues could go dark without closing permanently. Weeks passed. Then months. Sometimes there were glimmers of hope. Mostly, though, my own timeline has been a depressing mess of bad news and worse advice mixed with fundraisers and arguments. Now, a year later, I’m trying to remain optimistic that nightlife will return, while also being realistic about how that might unfold.
Out on the sidewalk at the day party, a good friend strolled towards us, wearing purple striped tights that matched the flowers on her sweatshirt. I recalled a last-minute music adventure from a few months prior. We saw Chelsea Wolfe play inside a tiny, packed club in the area, walked to Del Taco for dinner, then waited together for a bus home. The friend is someone that I saw often, usually at clubs, but we haven’t hung out in person since pandemic life began in earnest.
Now, a year later, I’m trying to remain optimistic that nightlife will return, while also being realistic about how that might unfold.
Now, my friends and I communicate mainly through keypads. We drop memes into text messages and respond to Facebook posts and Instagram stories. Sometimes, I pop into a pal’s Twitch gig to say hi in the chat. It’s not the same as talking at the clubs, where we would repeat ourselves over the music and interrupt each other to say, “I love this song. Let’s dance.”
I miss nearly everything about nightlife, even the annoyances. After a year without club gigs, I’ve grown nostalgic for bad song requests and questions about guest list spots that come in well after the venue has opened.
Inside the bar, the crowd grew thicker. I got a drink or two. One of the party’s promoters was also bartending. The two of us go way back to another venue that existed in another part of town during an era when the party people requested Peaches and Fischerspooner. I didn’t want to take up too much of her time catching up, as the bar was slammed. Now, I wish I had.
I’ve been DJing since college. Enough time has passed since then where I’ve seen L.A. nightlife change repeatedly and, sometimes, in drastic ways. Venues opened and closed. Neighborhoods gentrified and indie scenes found new spaces where they could function with low or no cover charges. But, this is different. The pandemic impacted venues across the country, leaving all of our local spaces in precarious positions. Everyone needs help and, a year later, I wonder if any kind of help, whether it’s through Save Our Stages or fundraising efforts, will be enough.
Since the pandemic started, there’s been little consensus on how we should handle it. It’s not even a question of party politics anymore. Rather, the question is, what risks are you willing to take? Then there’s the follow-up question: What privileges do you have that allow you to take or avoid those risks? Once those divides are exposed—and that’s happened time and again since last March—it threatens to dismantle any community. Certainly, the ones centered around music are no exception.
When venues do reopen, there will be people who decide to remain at home and those lining up to be the first one the dance floor. Depending on when venues reopen, there could be factions that are vocally opposed to it, leading to more friction. It’s naive to think that any kind of music venue reopening will be without controversy.
In the small front room of the bar where I was scheduled to play that day last March, we had our crates and bags of music piled up against a wall. We practically had to climb over each other to prep our sets. My own fell shortly after the sun did, inside a dark room where a sea of friends and strangers ebbed and flowed around the DJ set up. It was a short set—there were a lot of us on the bill—but long enough to work my way from Crass to Eartha Kitt. There were good vibes all around us.
It’s getting progressively more difficult to imagine the return of those good vibes. Venues may survive, but what will happen to the communities that existed inside them? Trying to convince people that they should go to your show or your DJ gig was a hard enough task prior to the pandemic. What’s that going to look like after more than a year of staggering loss?
A lot of us are anticipating the return of concerts and DJ nights, but that comeback might be harder than we want to acknowledge. Not everyone will be ready to party as soon as it’s permissible. For some, priorities will have shifted. We’ve already endured a year of pandemic life without much in the way of assistance or guidance. The economic hardships that so many have endured will make spending money on nightlife more difficult. Others might be skittish about getting together in large groups, even if there are social distancing measures in place and even if many have been vaccinated. People have lost a lot since last March—loved ones, jobs, stability, hope—and we’re not all going to come to terms with this at the same time. We’re not all going to be ready to move forward on the same date. I just hope that, when the time comes, we can at least proceed with empathy and compassion.
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