The brown bus that picks up passengers every Saturday night outside Canter’s Deli in L.A. isn’t bound for any place normal buses go to, like Burbank or Bakersfield. For the select few who are allowed on it—most of them young, lovely, trendily dressed and looking to rock ‘n’ roll—the Party Bus is a celestial chariot that will wing them along a changing route, hitting five or six of the very hippest clubs an hour, then setting out again. It is a movable feast, because drinking is permitted, and some stay on board and party there until its final run at 4 a.m.
The Party Bus symbolizes the coolest kind of club to fire the imagination of U.S. scene makers. It is the kind that sets up shop, sometimes illegally, in an unlikely spot like a warehouse, for a few months, a week or even a night, then moves on into the darkness before hoi polloi can desecrate it with their wingtips. Such places, variously called renegade, outlaw, floating or one-night clubs, share an almost messianic zeal for being hard to locate. To find one you’ve got to be hip. Ergo, the club is hip because you found it.
As a man bops by, his blond hair sticking straight up, Mark Hundahl, owner of L.A.’s Probe, observes sagely, “This is not middle America.”
What prompts these furtive in-spots to move may be the threat of discovery, a mere mood, or the authorities nosing around about revenues. Word-of-mouth is their only advertising medium, and as-is is their basic motif. A would-be customer may make it onto a hip list and get a call from a stranger revealing where a club will be next. Once there, the in-type may find himself or herself boogeying past a front-end loader, an assembly line for lawn sprinklers or the gun mount of a WWII Liberty Ship. The management usually adds eccentric decor—lasers or videos or, at San Francisco’s Glas Haus once, eight chandeliers each made of 400 water-filled Baggies and each Baggie containing a goldfish. Right now, or at least last week, the clubs to go to include Glas Haus (it’s been on a boat and in a showroom), the Black Market on 20th St. in New York City on Thursdays and Fridays, and the Black Cat, roaming Chicago’s loft district.
London is probably where all this began, when two men, known to history only as Rob and Phil, opened the anti-establishment Dirt Box in 1982. The first such club in the States was either Matt Dike’s Power Tool, which opened above a hardware store in L.A. in 1985, or Solomon Mansoor’s Dirt Box, which operated in warehouses in L.A. before being busted in 1986 for selling alcohol without a license. Dike now runs the club Alcoholics Anonymous; Mansoor has Mother Knows Best, both in L.A.
“We offer a contemporary alternative to the stale scene that’s been happening in L.A.,” Mansoor says, not generously. “They’re all froggy Frenchmen running get-rich clubs. It’s very disgusting.” An Englishman, he has feelings about clientele too. “We have a door policy,” he says, “so we’re not surrounded by wankers.”
The renegade clubs aren’t all refuges for the hipper-than-thou. Some stay put and turn renegade one night a week. Thursdays, the Lotus Blossom restaurant in N.Y.C.’s TriBeCa becomes a club where clients sing their favorite songs backed by a sound track. Glas Haus is even considering sending out a national road company that would ship artists and decor to a different club in a different city every night.
Mary Podgurski, a creator of Glas Haus, has thought about why such places are proliferating. “Our formula is to confuse people a little bit,” she says. “It’s a funny way to attract people but it seems to work.”
On the other hand, if you have to ask the driver where to get off, you’re probably on the wrong bus.