TheVex  KCET LA Letters Article TheVex

Punk Rock, Poetry, and Public Policy

Punk rock’s connection to politics dates back to the Civil Rights era. Groups like MC5 and the Stooges in the ’60s, Sex Pistols, Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Fishbone in the ’70s and the ’80s reveal punk rock’s connection to social justice and questioning the status quo. Moreover there’s a school of poets, like KCRW DJ Henry Rollins and Jamaican Dub Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, that have emerged from the Punk Rock perspective. Rollins in his book “Fanatic” recalls the ethos of the punk era: “there was a time in punk rock, a flashing moment when there was no irony and the moves weren’t choreographed and no one knew where it was all going and it was all very real.”

Many have said that a similar energy is currently thriving on the Eastside. As recent documentaries have shown, the energy of punk rock reverberated loudly throughout the Southland in not only Hollywood and the South Bay, but also in Boyle Heights. This week L.A. Letters spotlights a historic Eastside punk rock venue making a return, a travelling poetry festival, and neighborhood activists sharing the same ethos to improve local public policy.

One of the most important bridge-builders in Eastside musical history is Joe Vex. Beginning in 1977, his Boyle Heights venue, “The Vex” near First and Lorena, featured notable bands like Black Flag, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Damned, X, Suicidal Tendencies, The Cramps, Social Distortion, Circle Jerks, The Germs, TSOL, The Adolescents, Los Lobos, and many more iconic bands. Originally a close comrade with the ASCO Muralists and the Chicano Arts Movement, Vex concentrated his energy and efforts on promoting the live music community. Besides featuring well known acts, he also opened the door for many emerging local artists until the venue closed its’ doors in 1984.

Besides the historic series of live events held at the original Vex, Boyle Heights’ central geographic location made it a local music mecca that bridged the gap between Hollywood and Orange County’s local punk and new wave music scenes. The mythology about the original Vex can now be found referenced in several published books, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Smithsonian, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and many other art museums and music history archives.

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Girl Scouts at The Vex, August 7, 1980 | Photo Courtesy of Diane Gamboa.
Good news for music enthusiasts is that Joe Vex has reopened his venue in a large performance space/gallery/workshop venue on Alhambra Avenue in El Sereno, just a few miles north of his original Boyle Heights venue. The new venue is 9,700 square feet, equipped with a large stage and performance space spacious enough to hold several hundred music listeners comfortably, and hold an art show simultaneously. After 30-plus years of experience in hosting music and art events, Vex is applying all of his wisdom in the newest incarnation. They will not only be hosting live music, but will be having gallery events, fashion shows, writing workshops and other types of community arts-oriented activities. Vex wants to give back to the El Sereno community. As a longtime Eastside resident and arts advocate, giving back to the city that gave to him is an important piece in the new venue.

Omar Holguin is the Executive Director of the Vex Arts. Holguin’s excited about the future possibilities in the local area. He explains, “The Vex’s goal is to enrich the lives of the El Sereno Community by providing a hands-on arts and education program, as well as providing needed services for the community and its surrounding areas. The legacy of the Vex will continue providing a thriving music venue as well as challenging all art disciplines and forms.”

They have had a series of secret shows so far, with groups like Black Flag and quiet openings, but Holguien is collaborating with artist Steve Gates for an official opening with live performances that will exhibit artists Diane Gamboa, Bo Jennings, George Combs, Ngene Mwana, Ellla Sarkisian, Donald Frazell, Silvio Sangiorgi, Velma Gay, Lika Brutian, and other artists in a special curated group show.

El Sereno is an underserved community with a lot of teens living near the space. Vex and Holguin are in the process of working with the city to establish after school arts programs and other related workshops for the local youth under nonprofit status. They know that one of the best ways to keep the arts legacy going to cultivate the next generation of musicians and artists. This is why arts programming is just as important as their live events and gallery shows.

Holguin adds, “The Vex Arts mission is to enrich the lives of children by offering a continued arts and education program for all in safe haven, while introducing them to a variety of programs that would teach them about empowerment, techniques, structure, and enhance mental creativity, while teaching them to embrace each other’s cultures.” Holguin jokes that “the punk rockers have all grown up.” The Vex is taking the raw energy of punk rock and reapplying the kinetic force to cultivate the youth and improve the neighborhood.

The new Vex space in El Sereno | Photo: The Vex Facebook

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