Ryan McDonald

Last call for Suzy’s leaves musicians singing the blues

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The crowd takes in the final open mic night at Suzy’s on Aviation Boulevard. Photo by Ryan McDonald

by Ryan McDonald

Chuck Mathieu stood in front of a podium near the entrance to Suzy’s Bar and Grill on Tuesday night. With his Suzy’s t-shirt, his periodic glances at a bound book resting on the podium, and the swarm of people coming up to talk with him, a newcomer to Suzy’s could be forgiven for thinking of him as a host for the restaurant.

It soon becomes clear, however, that nothing so formal is needed at Suzy’s. The menu leans toward tacos and bar food. Finished kegs are signaled by covering tap handles with red Solo cups. And on the outdoor patio, Hermosa Beach’s ban on smoking in public feels more like a rumor than a law.

Mathieu is there for what Suzy’s does treat with utmost care: music.

Tuesday marked the last open mic night for the Hermosa tavern, which is closing June 30. (The night was exceptionally busy, and Mathieu scurried about organizing acts; the bound book was there for people to share memories they had made over the years.) Owner Sal Longo has sold the business and is retiring to Ventura.

Patrons and musicians frequently used the term “end of an era” to describe the closure of Suzy’s. The venue has some kind of live entertainment on offer almost every night. Over its nearly quarter-century of existence and multiple owners, Suzy’s has played host to a variety of acts whose musical breadth is fitting for a town that gave birth to both the Lighthouse and Black Flag. As a result, there are dozens of South Bay musicians who trace their performing heritage to the humble strip mall on Aviation Boulevard.

Mathieu, who has hosted the open mic night for the past seven years, said Suzy’s has been “a local home for musicians.”

“I can’t even tell you how many people got their start here,” he said.

Hermosa resident Jonathan Coleman has been playing in Abra Cadabra for more than three decades. His band regularly appears at Suzy’s — they’ll be one of nearly two dozen acts playing in a Suzy’s send-off jam session on Saturday — and he has served as one of the house backing musicians on open mic night. He said that, while venues such as Saint Rocke or the Standing Room might draw larger crowds for high-profile shows, Suzy’s has provided a steady place to play for musicians, both accomplished and new.

Musician Jack Tracy points to his picture on the wall at Suzy’s. Tracy, like many South Bay musicians, got his start at Suzys. Photo by Ryan McDonald

“Suzy’s has been a venue that’s supported musicians, more so than probably any other club in town,” Coleman said.

Suzy’s took over space once occupied by a steakhouse in 1995. Patrons recall that the steakhouse had an open mic night, but that the newly christened Suzy’s expanded the musical offerings.

Suzy’s opened at a fortunate time. Bands forming in the South Bay were pushing punk in new directions, while others were tapping back into the region’s roots. The namesake original owner made the decision to allow all-ages punk rock shows, which often took the form of matinees featuring multiple bands that would start and finish in daylight. Joe Hobi, known as “Slo the Drummer” from Hermosa punk band The STDs, said Suzy’s became the heart of a scene at this time, in part because of the paucity of other all-ages options in the South Bay. The all-ages shows started just as an older generation of venues, like the Wolf’s Den in Manhattan Beach, began to shutter.

Hobi described a scene that feels vanishingly rare in the South Bay these days: kids, gathered together at an affordable price, expressing themselves and getting out some aggression.

“For us, there was nothing except for Suzy’s. That place was a mecca,” Hobi said.

Drew Pearson played Suzy’s for the first time in the early 2000s, while still at Mira Costa High School. The venue was loose and laid back, ideal, he said, for “that point in your life when you’re in high school, and you just want to be on stage.”

Suzy’s easy-going attitude toward booking sometimes made for shows with totally different bands on the same bill.

“There was something about it where the art punk kids, which is I guess is what we were, the surf nazi punk scene, the Pennywise-skater scene, were all there. My mom was there too, drunk,” Pearson said with a laugh. “Somehow all of those people could be in one place together.” 

The diversity of the acts and the energy of the music occasionally led to clashes; one of Pearson’s bandmates recalled being spat on by the crowd while playing. Nonetheless, Pearson, who today lives in Oakland and plays with the band Golden Drugs, found it preferable to the sanitized, overly curated atmosphere he said prevails in DIY venues these days.

“Everyone stayed safe, but it was always kind of on the brink of chaos. There was no one there to kick us out, which I thought was a good thing. It’s always better to have kids solve their own problems than some buff [security] guard beating us up,” Pearson said.

Suzy’s began to develop a reputation. Along with becoming a reliable place to play for local acts like the STDs, it attracted bands from out of town. Among the acts to play on Suzy’s stage at this time was The Lost Sounds, one of the early bands of famed garage punker Jay Reatard.

“This was an actual punk rock stop. European bands would come through town and play Suzy’s. It was epic. When the STDs played there, we took pride in that place,” Hobi said.

The punk shows started to fade out when Longo and his wife Deborah “DK” Kahlo took over in 2008. (Kahlo passed away in 2017.) This created lingering resentment from some in the punk scene, who were stung by the loss, and felt relegated to traveling to farther reaches of Southern California for all-ages shows.

But other young South Bay musicians continue to find opportunity at the venue. Jessy Blackman sat in the back of Suzy’s Tuesday night, waiting her turn to play, with her guitar case close by. The recent Redondo Union High School graduate plays at Suzy’s almost every week. She plays what she describes as “country-pop.” Someone in the audience predicted that she will be “the next Taylor Swift.”

Blackman, who will attend Belmont University in Nashville in the fall, said that it is difficult for her and other musicians her age to find a place that will let those under 21 in, let alone play. She discovered Suzy’s a few years ago, and has since come to love the place.

She was nervous the first time she got on stage, but has since grown comfortable, and now relishes “everyone cheering me on.” 

“It’s really supportive and really encouraging,” Blackman said. Mathieu and Longo “let me be myself.”

Longo’s favorite music is the blues. He fondly recalls seeing Fats Domino in his youth, and he has been on several “blues cruises.” But he is proud of the way he has opened Suzy’s to aspiring musicians playing across genres. And, as he approaches 80, he maintains a wry attitude about aging and experience.

“You should be born old and get younger. There would be more juvenile delinquents,” he joked. 

After taking over, Longo invested significant money in upgrading the sound and lighting systems. He created what those who play there today call one of the best stages in the South Bay.

That includes Jack Tracy, who started playing at Suzy’s in 2010. These days, Tracy and his ukelele seem to pop up everywhere in Hermosa: serenading shoppers at a farmer’s market, crooning on the corner during a sidewalk sale, or even entertaining the City Council at a civic event. The credit, he said, goes to Suzy’s.

Suzy’s owner Sal Longo, left, with his wife Deborah “DK” Kahlo, who died in 2017. File Photo

“When I get on that stage, I feel free to make mistakes. If I’m able to play around the South Bay, it’s in large part because Sal has given me the opportunity,” Tracy said.

Among the others who have convinced Longo to give them a chance is Tiki McPherson, who leads a “Gospel Lunch” at Suzy’s one Sunday a month. McPherson was bringing some of her fellow Christian musicians to the open mic night, and pitched Longo on the idea of a regular slot.

Longo “resisted a little at the beginning,” recalled McPherson, whose group goes by the name Saved by Grace. But these days, a post-church crowd fills the place up.

“We’ve done it for about five years, and now we’re one of his biggest events,” she said.

Although the pairing of a bar and Christian music may seem an odd one, for McPherson it is a match made in heaven. Longo gives the band a percentage of food and drink sales, which they, in turn, pass on to a Bellflower charity aiding the homeless.

“You know, it isn’t a common pairing. But as a Christian, as a follower of Christ, I think it’s exactly where my Jesus would be hanging out,” McPherson said.

Tuesday’s final open mic night made for a packed house, but the atmosphere was bittersweet. “Where have all these people been all this time, when we needed you?” muttered one musician.

Longo decided to sell in part out of frustration over his inability to obtain a full liquor license, saying it’s too tough to meet margins on just beer and wine. City staff has said that modifying Suzy’s Conditional Use Permit to grant them full liquor, while maintaining the business’s current hours, would run afoul of Hermosa’s alcohol intensification ordinance. Longo, in turn, has mostly unprintable words for city staff, and bemoans what he describes as the creeping transformation of Hermosa, where he has lived since the mid ‘70s, into a town that has forgotten how to have fun.

Taking Suzy’s place will be a Mediterranean restaurant run by Adnen and Lenora Marouani, who own Barsha in Manhattan Beach. They told Easy Reader’s Richard Foss that they plan to renovate the location and offer more upscale food with a Mediterranean touch. They plan to reopen sometime in late August.

The new owners intend to continue offering live music when the spot reopens, but many of the musicians interviewed for this story were nonetheless sad to see Suzy’s go, and uncertain about what their performing future holds. Mathieu said he has been looking into other places to hold an open mic night, but hasn’t found a place that has a comparable stage and sound system. And he is doubtful that another location would be able to command the same kind of loyalty from patrons.

“Nobody in this group is going to drive that far,” he said, gesturing at the Tuesday night crowd.

Reid Haessly has been playing at Suzy’s for seven or eight years. When he first started showing up, he had years of experience writing and singing songs, but hadn’t performed in public in a while. Suzy’s, he said, helped him dive back in.

He plans to play at the farewell party on Saturday night, and will keep up periodic performances at the Hermosa Saloon and the Standing Room. But the vibe just won’t be the same. Suzy’s, he said, stood out because it managed to emphasize things that often work against one another: a focus on music, and an openness to all comers.

“There’s a great sense of community here. It’s been a wonderful opportunity for local musicians to play, and newer musicians to learn their craft. We’ve been really blessed. It’s tough to say goodbye.”

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