Part 15 | CHUPA
—–The End of The Beginning —–
After seven years of over-the-top, culture changing events, the Phoenix Underground was coming to end. But not because Blaz wanted it that way. His vision was to take the events national and eventually global. He reflects on its downfall and the role he didn’t play to cause it.
People live by the opposite of what they say, and even more so in the promotions/events game. My favorite lie is “It’s nothing personal, only business.” That statement is never true. It’s always personal in the DJ, nightclub world because it’s relationships that make the entertainment business thrive or fail. Ultimately, we do what we do for self-promotion and notoriety. To expend the brand of self and make our name synonymous with the “best”. When you’re working on that level, nothing is too outrages or audacious because you have to “wow” people every time. That mentality goes beyond a bottom line or balance sheets – it goes to a level of personal accomplishment and pride for which their is never a price.
Running underground events is not like running a business; if you’re in it for the cash, you’re not in the right industry. If you want money then turn your event legit and make it more generic to draw a larger paying crowd – it’s easier and you’ll make more. Promoters that make an underground more generic for the money will begin to make their decisions based on money. The first thing that is sacrificed in this case is freedom of expression and the passion to take risks. Another unfortunate side effect is that your risk attacking an unrolling crowd. It was these decisions and the decision makers that killed the first generation of the Phoenix Underground.
Here’s what was going down: I was living back in LA and was about to return to Phoenix. Raves had become the flavor of the day and were popping up everywhere. In LA there was a new movement of Party Monsters and dark Goth clubs. Club Fuck was one of the more popular along with Sinomatic. There were also two undergrounds going on; Club Cunt and Blue Ball. I was hanging out with some kids I met at a clothing store in East LA. They lived in Barrio Nuevo Estrada and were the first Gay/Cholo/Party Monsters I had ever met. They would spend months making their outfits for The Monster’s Ball.
When I got back to Phoenix, Eddie was doing Raves and finishing his residency at the Works. Pete Salaz was doing Top40 in Tucson. But I wanted to do another event. As was my way, I wanted to do just the opposite of what everyone else was doing. I teamed up with Mark De La Garza, an amazingly talented artist who was connected in all the scenes. I wanted to create something that would combine two worlds that people would have thought could never co-exist. I wanted to combine the East LA House Music with the Goth /Party Monster scene. Since I’m Mexican, I put a different spin on it with Dia De Los Muertos and Santaria. When I pitched the idea to the Eddie and Pete there were very reluctant, they watned nothing to do with Day of Dead (but as we all know money talks.) But when I Pitched it to Mark he was all over it.
CHUPA (Spanish for ‘suck it’) was born. Our first event was in a brick warehouse just off Central. We were hurting financially from having to play it low-key so our resources were at the lowest they had ever been. But when you’re low on cash, make sure you learn to use what you have. I had some money so I was able to get Eddie to help out.
I also hired Pete Salaz to come in with the sound system. Lighting was the simplest, yet most dramatic I had ever done. I hung 100 votive candles from the ceiling at various heights and let their flicker light the room, making it feel like a large Catholic grotto of prayer candles to the dancing saints below. Beautifully eerie and perfect for the contrast I was looking for.
On the walls I had paintings of Dia De Los Muertos cholo skeletons in everyday gangster life, but in fluorescent paint (very much like the Tattoo art you see today). This was matched with gay Latino S&M porn. Not easy to find in Phoenix back then, and looking for those videos was an eye-opening experience to say the least (a story all it’s own). The porn attracted quite an interesting crowd around the barb wired TV set.
As the people walked in they were first greeted by an amazing shrine that Mark built. An artist (who helped with CHUPA 2) lived across the street and lent us a Gothic angel sculpture that had robotic wings that flapped on their own.
People that went that night said it was the most visually stunning display I had ever created. I was able to take images and sounds that no one would ever put together and make it work beautifully. Big props to Mark De La Garza for helping me pull it off.
But that’s not all people were saying about that night. Little did I know but it had become a balls-out bacchanal – literally! There was a threesome with two guys and a girl on the dance floor and there was real-life Gay S&M porn in front of the TV. But it didn’t become a remake of the BBC’s Caligula. Remember, people respected each other in the Underground, where the freedom to express yourself as you wanted was sacred ground that no one ever defiled.
I found an art space on Grand Ave where the owner was cool and heard of my events. After seeing CHUPA 1 the artist who lent us the angel sculpture said that he definitely wanted to help with the next one. After Eddie saw what I did with CHUPA 1 he wasn’t so scared of the Santeria concept and actually liked that I was Latino-izing the Goth/Party Monster world.
When the artist showed up Eddie and I were in full event mode, stacking speakers wiring up amps, setting up the lights. The artist asked where the paint was; I showed him two milk crates of spray paint. He asked for the canvas; I showed him our famous plastic drop cloth (look at Tech Geek Notes for more about that). Being he was a Mexican like us he didn’t bitch that it wasn’t real canvas or oil paint he just said “Cool”. This was half-an-hour before we were going to start and we thought we were not going to have any art. When he was done it looked like a bunch of dash lines but when the lights went down and the black light came on I was astonished – he had done a 3D painting of a man smoking an opium pipe with a bull coming out. The other painting was of me with this long, film-noir shadow. We hung another painting as our DJ back drop of a very sensual female angel. Amazing what people can do when their allowed too.
As gorgeous as the evening was, it didn’t go so well. We were packed as usual with more people waiting outside. The owner freaked out when he saw how things were going. He called the cops and we were shut down. And this guy wasn’t part of the Mafia!
It was late August when the next event was scheduled and I needed to find a place, fast. By this time I had reconnected with my equally geeky and nerdy friends Imbroglio. They were going to help with the sound and lighting. Eddie and I had done a Funktion at 130 N. Central some three years earlier so we went back to see who still had a space. Fortunately for us one of the artists who used to do art work back at Groove had a studio there. The space was quite small and the ventilation was non-existent, but we didn’t care.
I still remember the look on Pete and his friend’s face when they showed up to the event. Although they liked it they couldn’t understand why I was playing “WAR” and the lights were full on. The veterans from the past events knew exactly what was going on – a mere prelude to the kiss that they were about to receive. Eddie and I were doing Bulk at the time so we paid Imbroglio to do most of the functionality setup.
After an hour of WAR the lights went out and the visuals came on. We did a killer slide show of Virgina Marys, Goth , Punk, Dia De Los Muertos , Santeria and Latino Gay Porn.
That night was hot, somewhere near 100 and we had over two-hundred people crammed in this little space. It was so hot it started to rain inside the room! Ah, there’s nothing like being bathed in the sweat and condensed breath of people going nuts. I don’t remember doing this at the time, but one of my girlfriends reminded me the next day that I grabbed the mic and said, “Are you hot and sweaty?” The crowd screams. “Well it’s Phoenix your supposed to sweat, so sweat like the pigs that you are!” Didn’t make much sense, but the crowd went mental after that.
CHUPA -The End:
We needed to find something bigger, but also keep it under wraps. The perfect opportunity came again at 800 West Madison St., the place where it all started with Gallery X six years earlier. We made a deal with the owner and it became the headquarters for all our next events. We even sectioned off a place and called it home. Yes Eddie and I lived there – Pete was still living in Tucson but joined us a bit later.
Even though things were looking up event wise, I was in a personal hell that no one outside of Eddie even knew about. In the last eighteen months I had fallen into a deep depression and it was only getting worse. A couple years earlier my real father was killed in a work-related accident and years before that I lost my mother and stepfather in an auto accident. I hadn’t let myself fully grieve from all that. My only solace were my grandparents (who had raised me) but after so many decades together they decided to get divorced. All that I knew as stable, all that I knew as love was now gone. The thought of no longer having a home to go back to was devastating. I was beyond suicidal, becoming completely indifferent to life, death even to the scene.
I’d like to say I picked myself up by the boots straps, got some help and soldiered through to do amazing things with my life. Instead I had become an intolerable asshole who most people avoided at all costs. The room I chose in the warehouse didn’t have any windows and only a vent to the roof that let a small ray of sunlight in the room. This did nothing but deepen my depression. I now know that I was alienating my friends and associates, but I really didn’t give a shit at the time.
About this time Pete Salaz, Anton Spevcek and Tommy joined the team . The only one to see me through the depression was Eddie. He had become my only friend and confidant. He knew I wasn’t the dick head I had become and was patient with me.
Other people weren’t so patient. As always, I wanted to push the envelope with music, art and the event as a whole. But the others didn’t always agree with my vision, considering it too audacious, expensive or just plain strange. Keeping quiet about my pain and my current attitude didn’t help. So the others did what anyone would do in their situation. They agreed Pete and Eddie would tell me to leave. They unfortunately took it a bit further and plotted behind my back to have me completely removed. They had met with all the artists, Imbroglio (who were supplying the sound), security and DJs involved and gave them an ultimatum – get kicked out with me or stay with them.
Pete and Eddie asked me to meet with them. I thought we were going to plan our next big event but instead, they told me that I was out – nothing personal, only business. I was pissed! I told them they could never do it without me. Pete then told me the list of talent and techs that were still doing the event without me. Fuck it, they could have the event, but the CHUPA name was mine. (You never want to look like an imitator, especially in the Underground). Pete didn’t give a shit. He said they’re still going to use the name CHUPA. “You’ll either have to kick my ass or sue me, and you’ll get nothing because I have nothing.” I was completely stunned not only is he going to use my name, but he also used a line that I told him I used on the Mafia. As though it was his original line..
When I told what had happened to my girlfriend she was as shocked as I was that the others were going to use tactics that are only found in the corporate world (and with Vanilla Ice). I explained to her that there is a difference from those who are raised in the underground from others; We who are raised in it have a more profound respect for it. This type of mentality and tactics works well in the nightclub world but not for the underground. The underground is meant to be an escape from the corporate world. It’s when this type of mentality is brought into it that it becomes watered down, money driven and attracts the wrong element. She was also mad that I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I kept my deep loss of my family from her (like I did with everyone else).
Besides, I could barely get out of bed each morning, I was in no state to deal with all this. Pete had it all, and all I had was the remnants of my sanity.
I had forgotten my cardinal rule about the underground – it’s all about people, no matter what you do, so treat them right. Regardless of what you’re going through, always treat them right. I was a big, arrogant jerk and this was not fair to the rest of the crew. Many of my friends apologized to me and felt terrible that they were forced to choose, but I knew they needed to keep working and doing their thing, regardless of my involvement.
I like to think I’d have treated someone differently if they were in my shoes back then, and truth be told, I would have asked them to leave too. The difference is I would not have kept the name or made my friends choose. It would have been better if they had done like everyone else and close for three weeks, change the name and the look of the place. This is what everyone did with River Bottom lounge. First Chris Flores was there with Aqua, then Eddie with Jumbo and finally Pete with Red Monkey. This would have given Pete a fresh clean induction to the underground. Instead, there will always be a mark on the name CHUPA and unfortunately the crew too, but that was their choice.
Pete is still a very good friend of mine and he has gone on to do some amazing events. Yet, I’ve always wondered what CHUPA could have turned into if it had stayed on its original course. It was already up to Club Fuck, Cunt and Sinomatic; perhaps it would have been BlowUpSF or Mustache Mondays of the mid 90’s that people would fly into Phoenix to experience. The fact that it never reached that level really sucks.
I am very thankful that Pete was used as an instrument to ask me to leave, him doing so was actually a blessing is disguise. I was so immersed in the thoughts of my parents’ death along with the break up of my grandparents and loosing a place to go home to that I needed to take care of myself and leave the scene behind. A day after I left the scene I got a really good-paying job at Circuit City repairing VCR’s and Camcorders. In one week I was living in my own house with clean showers, a kitchen and bedroom with a very cool and very attractive girlfriend. Now that I wasn’t side-tracked by the underground I was able to properly grieve. What else could I ask for? Oh yeah, sanity, but that would take another 15 years.
CHUPA kept going and became quite successful, even though I wasn’t involved in the least. Me, Pete, and Eddie are still close friends. Eddie went onto international fame and Pete now runs his own night club.
Personal conflicts, pain, judgement, ideas and how we express ourselves to others and the effect it has on them that’s all that counts. In entertainment it’s always personal, that is the business.
A big thanks to KJ Jarmillio who helped me through those 15 years of rebuilding — A true brother indeed.