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Catch One, Catch All

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Jewel's Catch One | Photo: Zagat/Google Plus

Being a tail-end baby boomer has its disadvantages. Not to complain, but I fell through some important chronological and sociocultural cracks -- born in 1962, I was too young to experience the '60s and still too young to take advantage of the '70s. Let's put it this way: in 1980, when I turned 18 and became eligible to vote, Reagan was elected president. By the time I could join the party, it was officially over.

The saving grace of the '80s was going clubbing. To my chagrin, I had missed out on the fleeting phenomena of discos (I dreamt since junior high of going to Osko's on La Cienega) and had to content myself with doing disco routines at a hotel ballroom at my high school senior prom in 1979. The next year, when I was actually old enough to get into discos, they were disappearing from the landscape like cloud afro's and bell bottoms. Yet another important cultural moment that I'd missed.

So I had to content myself with the '80s. Fortunately it turned out to be a splendid decade for dance clubs; the dance-floor craze that gave rise to disco in the first place was still around, and the electronic pop and house music that emerged was still anchored in those relentless, disco-worthy beats. No more serious partner dancing, but since I was going out mostly with my girlfriends and male buddies, that was fine. We went to clubs not for the pickup scene or the drug debauchery, but for the thrill of the music and the dance.

But the thrill was often hit and miss. We had to hunt for it, hope for it. On Saturday nights we went to hot spots like Florentine Gardens or Carlos and Charlie's in Hollywood in search of the best grooves. Sometimes we danced more or less nonstop but more often we hugged the wall, waiting for something with a beat (Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna remixes) that would give us permission to really get down.

And then I discovered the cavernous Catch One on Pico. At the Catch, you never had to wait for good music: that's what it was made of. Located on Pico near Crenshaw, it kind of straddled South Central and Hollywood in more ways than one, much like the World on Wheels skating rink, which was just west of there. The Catch catered to the black gay crowd and so differed from other black spots for that reason, but also because it had elements of glamour and performance unmatched by even the toniest clubs. Going there for me was familiar and comfortable, but also an event.

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The Catch One is closing soon, and its impending loss reminds me a bit of the loss of Central Avenue of jazz clubs and other black entertainment spots that lost their cachet not just to changing times, but to integration. After the late '40s, when black people could legally live where they wanted, institutions sustained by segregation and the social and social cohesion it created started to crumble. Black folks could spend their money elsewhere, and they did. The problem was that the integration was one way; blacks spent money in jazz clubs on the westside or Hollywood, but they weren't running the places. They were consumers, paying for the privilege of being there and of not being stuck in the hood anymore. In the '80s I had the option of going to black clubs like Little J's or Golden Tail, where the music was reliably funky. But what my friends and I really wanted to do was to turn out the places in Hollywood and the westside and Wilshire, show them what we were made of. We were young and wanted to arrive to the world at large, not to the world at Little J's; in other words, twenty-odd years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act we were still trying to effect meaningful integration, though we didn't know it. We were just out to have a good time, per the dictate of the '80s. But having a good time was still a political act.

I drove late last Saturday night down Santa Monica Boulevard and was impressed by the crush of clubs, by the vibrant, open street life that's still a rarity in L.A. Yet in the recent L.A. Times story about the Catch One, black gay men admitted they are still fighting for a certain equality in this inviting-looking scene. They said they still feel token, unwanted. At least one club had something called Urban Night, a night designated for hip-hop and specifically black music. It reminds me of the practice of businesses during Jim Crow years to set aside certain nights or days for negroes, at clubs or skating rinks or amusement parks. Somewhere in the '80s 'urban' simply became the acceptable marketing term for black, a nonsensical one at that -- what, white people don't live in big cities too? That 'urban' became especially common in stratifying pop music is ironic, given that all American pop is rooted in a black aesthetic. Even Madonna knew that, which is why she and many other big names frequented the Catch in its heyday. For dance clubs everywhere -- then and now-- every night should be urban night.

But here we are in 2015, still needing to separate urban anything from polite society.

Nothing defeats integration like isolation, and we're still living it, even in the age of Obama. We can go where we want now, true. But what matters is what you find--what music is playing -- when you get there.

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