Jerry Roach of Cuckoo's Nest: Not Dead

Jerry Roach is not dead.
Jerry Roach is not dead.
Photo by John Gilhooley

Controversy and the Cuckoo's Nest--it's as if Jerry Roach never left us. But many assumed the owner of the former Costa Mesa punk rock club had left permanently.

"People thought I was dead," he tells me with a chuckle.

Actually, after the Nest's 1977-'81 run, Roach went on to open other nightspots in Orange County before moving first to Los Angeles and then Costa Rica. He calls himself "sort of a transient now," as he was called back to Santa Ana to help one of his sons.

He's also back in town to help promote the new Cuckoo's Nest documentary We Were Feared, which makes its world premiere today as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival.

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Which brings us to the latest Cuckoo's Nest controversy. As detailed in "Punks vs. Suits," Roach claims he owns the footage that what would become the 1983 documentary Urban Struggle: The Battle of the Cuckoo's Nest. Writer-curator Paul Young, who shot the footage, claims he owns it and has threatened legal action because much of Urban Struggle is used in We Were Feared without his consent.

If Jerry Brown's Suede Denim Secret Police do not stop the We Were Feared screening today (or repeat showing Tuesday), the audience will be in for quite a treat, as Jonathan W.C. Mills' documentary is like a metal boot to the head, jolting viewers back to the birth of hardcore punk in Orange County.

We Were Feared skillfully enhances the Urban Struggle footage that was released in 1983 with new interviews. The soundtrack's hard chords seem fresh considering the current American Idolization of popular music.

Given all the shitstorms Roach encountered then and again with the Nest, he could only joke about it.

"First they banned dancing at the Cuckoo's Nest," he said during our chat, referring to a law the city of Costa Mesa passed aimed at shutting down the club. "I wonder if they will arrest me [today]. Am I allowed in the city? Did they put my picture up in the post office? 'Don't let this guy in the city, he might film you. He might fuck you over.'"

Yes, this impunksario gives as well as he gets. He's heard early in the film saying of cops, city leaders and an alarmed citizenry, "I wanted to shove punk rock up their asses."

Jerry Roach of Cuckoo's Nest: Not Dead

His late, great hellhole hosted live shows by X, 999, the Go-Gos, the Ramones, Red Cross, Black Flag, the Minutemen, the Circle Jerks, the Blasters, the New York Dolls and the grandpappy of punk, Iggy Pop (among hundreds of other acts).

It was also the proving grounds for local talent like D.I., TSOL, the Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange and the Vandals, which released two songs based on mayhem in the Nest's parking lot, "Urban Struggle" and "The Legend of Pat Brown."

We Were Feared not only credits the Nest as being the place where slamdancing--later renamed moshing--was born, but the filmmakers tracked down its supposed inventor, Jim Trash (now known as Jim Decker), who is reluctant to take credit on screen.

Roach says the anti-dance law was the last straw for him, explaining he did not want to see kids arrested for expressing themselves. The original Zubie's, the former cowboy bar across the parking lot name checked in "Urban Struggle," later took over the Nest and renamed it Zubie's Chicken Coop. Both Zubie's structures were eventually torn down amid a transmission shop's expansion.

The Nest may be long gone, but Roach has never stopped clinging to its place--or his--in music history. He notes that Hilly Kristal, founder of legendary New York punk venue CBGB; Brendan Mullen, founder of LA's Masque; and Malcolm McLaren, the so-called inventor of punk rock, are all dead now. "I'm like the Keith Richards of punk rock promoters," Roach tells me. "I'm all that's left."

Not that he did not have rocky relationships with bands, most famously the Adolescents, which was essentially the Cuckoo's Nest house band. Their shows filled the club just as consistently as the national acts did, but when band members learned Roach paid them less than he did the out-of-towners, they bitched about him in the music press.

Roach read it--and banned the Adolescents and their then-fledgling opening act, Social Distortion. Everyone eventually made up, and Steve Soto of the Adolescents is among those shown in We Were Feared now signing Roach's praises for being about the only grown adult who stuck up for them.

Bands pissed at the owner called it the "Roach Motel."
Bands pissed at the owner called it the "Roach Motel."
Courtesy of Jerry Roach

In a separate interview, Mills told me he wished he could have snagged an interview with Henry Rollins, a dependable quote machine in any situation.

But Roach left the impression in our talk that he was fine with We Were Feared keeping the former Black Flag vocalist off screen, perhaps because a threat from the band led to their removal from Urban Struggle.

Roach was more direct about the absence of another usual suspect: Jack Grisham, who only appears in We Were Feared in the archival Urban Struggle footage. Roach told me he did not want the TSOL frontman in the film because he's appeared in so many other punk documentaries.

There's a reason for that, of course: the crazy sombitch is media candy. But, hey, whatever Jerry wants. We Were Feared's owner, Endurance Pictures, is positioning the documentary like Stacy Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys, which was the springboard for the feature film Lords of Dogtown. Endurance president Ivan Correa and his partner, actor and snowboarder York Shackleton, already have a film in development based on Roach's years at the Nest. Shackleton wrote the script and will direct.

Roach says he knows the interest is out there, based on how quickly "buzz" spread about the documentary. And he figures he is due his due.

"I gave them a place to play," Roach says of the first punkers. "That's how I fostered the genre."

What's amazing is Roach was from a different generation than the kids, and he didn't quite get their music at first.

"I grew to like it," he said.

What really pissed him off was how the kids "were treated like second-class citizens." As someone mentions in We Were Feared, other promoters would have eventually given up in frustration, but Roach took the police harassment and city moves personally--and refused to back down.

Ironically, he says now, city fire marshals could have shut him down any night of the week because when Roach took over what had been a bar, he tore down a posted sign stating the legal capacity was 225 people.

"We had way more than that in there most nights," he said. "No one ever called me on it. All they had to do was walk in."

Now that Roach has reached his golden years, he's reflecting more on the bad old good old days.

"If you look back now and see what really happened, I was a martyr for punk rock," he says defiantly. "I'm not complaining. It was quite a ride. Unfortunately, that is what defines me."

We Were Feared screens at 5:45 p.m. today (sold out) and 9 p.m. Tuesday at Edwards Island Cinemas. Go here for ticket info.

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