By Adam Lovinus
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Photo by Keith MayTim Hill, a burly 40-year-old guy whose head is never far from a baseball cap, spends his days running his Santa Fe Springs electrical-wiring business, which he built from nothing in his garage 20 years ago and is now a $2 million-per-year, 17-employee enterprise.
Yeah, he makes decent money. But stop by Chain Reaction on some sleepy weekend afternoon-that's the Anaheim rock club he runs after the sun goes down-and you'll find Hill exhibiting decidedly unwealthy behavior. There he is, picking up trash sprinkled around the parking lot by fans of some forgotten band that played the night before. There he is, sweeping up spent cigarette butts on the outdoor smoking patio. There he is, beating nails into the hardwood of a new drum riser he's making for the stage. There he is, worrying if the bands booked to play tonight will be able to find his club amid the cheapie furniture stores, strip malls and random tackiness that pepper this particular stretch of Lincoln Avenue near the eternally under-improvement 5 freeway.
Welcome to Hill's night job, one that has to be more interesting than his day gig. In its relatively short 1 1/2-year life, Hill has turned Chain Reaction into the hottest, most vital live-music club in OC.
The interior decorating hardly suggests such prominence. Stickers, T-shirts and posters of some of the bands who've played here are on the walls: Supernovice, Longfellow, Smear, Ten Foot Pole, Das Klown, Slick Shoes, Acme Bomb Factory, the Killingtons, My Superhero and dozens of others. The "backstage" area was a kitchen when the building housed a Mexican restaurant. There are a few old couches shoved up against the back wall, which romantic couples quickly commandeer before shows so they'll have a good makeout spot. And there's a decent-sized dance floor/mosh pit in front of the decent-sized stage. It's a club, basically. Just a club.
But not just a club. Live-music junkies who come here speak of the place as if it were some sacred rock & roll temple, an all-ages (translation: no alcohol) oasis in a county of 21-and-over. It's not packed to its 190-body capacity every night, but when it is-when it's filled with wide-eyed, open-eared kids checking out some local band they would never have heard otherwise-you realize how important the room is for the bands, the fans and the state of whatever constitutes an Orange County scene these days.
That such a place has lasted so long is practically miraculous, considering the long, sordid history of here-today-gone-tonight all-ages spots in OC-the Ice House, Viva Las Vegas, the Galaxy Roller Rink, Flashdance, the Back Alley, Old World and too many others to mention.
"I've rarely seen an all-ages club last for even a year in OC," says Final Conflict singer Ron Martinez, who also books most of Chain Reaction's hardcore and punk shows. "It has always been violence, drinking, skinheads or cops that have shut them down."
"We run a pretty tight ship," Hill explains between drags of his broom. "We make sure nobody's in the parking lot drinking, even over at the Denny's lot down the street. Skinheads really haven't come around, and when they have, we let them know that they're not wanted. And I think we've only had one fight."
"We're always on our toes with the alcohol," Martinez says. "Some kids will get belligerent, but for every one kid we have to deal with who's being a jerk, we have three who are totally down on that. They see this as their place-that you shouldn't shit where you eat."
Credit for the club's smooth operation goes to the people Hill has chosen to surround him, most of them employees from his wiring shop or relatives out to earn some extra cash. Hill's wife, Brenda, runs the candy-and-soda counter, helping to make Chain Reaction an honest-to-God mom-and-pop startup biz in this age of corporate everything.
You've gotta wonder how a guy goes from electrical wiring to electric guitars in less than two years. In late 1997, a friend talked Hill into loaning him money to put on outdoor raves near Lake Elsinore. The turnouts were dismal, and they lost money. Then the same guy talked Hill into starting a club, with the idea that it would generate income for better rave promotion. They found the room on Lincoln and christened it the Public Storage Coffee Lounge (it wasn't really a coffee place, but it sounded a lot friendlier than, say, the All Age Cage). For the most part, Hill stayed away while his partner ran everything.
There were big problems. The first show was a ska bill with Low Pressure and Channel 6. Ninety minutes into the night, Anaheim's finest came and shut it down-no one had thought to get an entertainment permit. The permit was eventually secured and weekend shows were scheduled, but the crowds stayed away, partly because of the swift-moving bad rep the club picked up on opening night.
And a lack of experience was obvious. "When I first went, there were all these old security guys packing guns," says Killingtons and Teen Heroes manager Vince Pileggi. "I mean, these were kids at these shows! But when I went back some months later, everything had totally changed."
By then, Hill's partner had bailed, seeing that the club was losing money every week. Hill took over, but instead of closing the place, he started sinking money into improvements, repairs and advertising. He upgraded the sound system and put in a new mixing booth and a high-grade lighting rig. He ripped out walls, cut the bar in half, carved an outdoor smoking area and fixed everything that looked like it needed fixing. To date, he has invested nearly $80,000 in the club-all out of his own pocket.
Gradually, the club's bad rep vanished. The bands came and fell in love with the room. Chain Reaction, as it's now called (the people who own the Public Storage storage company threatened Hill with legal action if he didn't dump the old name), now has a much better, well-deserved, musician-friendly rep.
They actually pay bands, for one thing. With real money. They let bands keep the cash they make from T-shirt sales, instead of taking a percentage, which is common practice at many larger clubs and venues. "We tell bands from LA that, and they can't even believe it," says Aaron Christopher, who books most of the club's pop, rock and ska shows.
"I've dealt with the best and the worst promoters," says Martinez, "and Tim is the best. Usually, if a band doesn't like something, the promoter will just tell them too bad-if you don't like it, don't play. But Tim is cool. If a band wants something, they usually get it."
"My bands love to play there," says Pileggi. "And they're totally hospitable. At some other clubs, you're almost guilty until proven innocent. At Chain Reaction, you're innocent until proven guilty."
With all the cash Hill shells out-on bands, staff, equipment, maintenance and who knows what else-coupled with the no-alcohol policy, you gotta wonder how his club could possibly make any money.
"We might make a little one month," Hill explains, "and then the next month, I'll lose a little bit. So it kind of washes. But it ain't always about making money. It goes way deeper than making money."
How deep? How does a guy who had only been to a fistful of concerts in his life (lame ones, too, like Alice Cooper, Yes and Cal Jam I), who never went to clubs when he was the age of most of his current customers, who didn't have a clue about how to run a rock club two years ago-how does such a guy suddenly become one of the major players on the OC scene?
"I honestly don't know why I'm doing this," he says. "I could say I do it for the OC music scene, but that would be bullshit. Maybe I just realized there was a big demand for a place like this in OC, and that's what made me want to keep it open. But maybe it's a quest to be the best. I'm very competitive. I feel like I'm ready to go up against other promoters right now."
Hill tells you that he wants his little club to be as famous as the Roxy or the Whisky A Go Go someday, a bit of braggadocio that you snicker at-until you consider that Hill has already pulled off what until recently seemed impossible. And if he can keep an all-ages club going in Orange County, you get the feeling that the guy can do just about anything.