I moved to Hollywood in 1997 and was quickly initiated into the music scene, which at the time was hanging by a thread to a lost rock & roll dream that grunge had laid waste to a mere six years earlier. The glitz and glam of Sunset Boulevard had moved east – away from Gazzarri’s and their tasteless “hot body bikini contests” to more turtleneck and ponytailed nightclubs like the Roxbury, where cocaine became less of a party drug and more of a designer hangover from the 1980’s. (Yes, the Will Ferrell-Chris Kattan sketch was based on a real place). MTV VJ Riki Rachtman and his Faster Pussycat partner Taime Downe had closed the Cathouse Club when the metal crowd aged out and the less-than-subtle meat market shoppers grew more comfortable in the darker corners of places like Johnny Depp’s Viper Room and Jon Sidel’s Smalls on Melrose. About the only remaining Sunset staples were the pay-to-play stalwarts that seduced high school bands from the Valley into bringing their friends to watch them hack their way on the same stages once shredded by Guns N’ Roses, The Doors and every cheese metal hair band with a name like “Durrty Toyze”…
So, at twenty-two, new to Hollywood with a dream of fronting my own band and a love of all things rock & roll, I was intrigued by the Sunset Strip. I longed to see The Rainbow, flick a cigarette where Axl Rose did in the November Rain video and make my rounds through the streets where Nicolas Cage drove around in the film Valley Girl improvising lines about dudes getting mohawks from his buddy’s convertible. For a few months, I stumbled in and out of the fading bars like Dublin’s and occasionally chased women out of my league into the SkyBar and Argyle Hotel. I often caught glimpses of people like Dr. Dre, Vince Neil and Hugh Hefner, only to end up back at my tiny apartment wondering if I would ever find my scene in L.A. After all, I had successfully traipsed through the bars of my MTV rock video youth, but I was certainly a good ten to fifteen years younger than the majority of women I chatted up at bars who often bragged to me that they had once dated C.C. DeVille before he had joined Poison.
On most of these lonely Los Angeles evenings in the late 90s, my friends and I would end up back at some tiny apartment off of Fountain where some stranger we were partying with claimed he had a line on good weed… and we would make a call, page somebody and then wait for forty-five minutes for it to show up. Most of the time it didn’t, because we were too drunk or high to figure out how to share directions, so occasionally we would have to venture OUT to score the grass ourselves. Whenever we went to retrieve the dope, the scene often unfolded with two or three of us crammed in a smoke-filled hip-hop basement studio pooling together sixty bucks to buy a sack of weed from a crew of eleven guys with six loaded 9 millimeters on the coffee table. We’d pay and leave and feel like we just survived a bungee jump or something. Eventually, we would go home and smoke and drink and watch episodes of South Park. (Yes, that was still on back then.)
Alas, when the weed or the beer ran out, most nights ended up with the most sober member of our crew suggesting a quick trip up to the market for more supplies. After a bunch of cash and waiter tips were collected and handed over, we flipped a coin to see who would drive and we made our way up to the large, often-crowded grocery store located at 7257 Sunset Boulevard.
A place notoriously known as “Rock & Roll Ralphs.”
Ralphs grocery store is about the most basic, mid-range priced supermarket in the southern California basin. It is way cheaper than say, Whole Foods or Gelson’s, but comes with its own set of problems. It is much more crowded, much dirtier and offers low-level produce, terrible customer service and has a way more scandalous (if not homeless) clientele. This has been true since Ralphs expanded its locations to over 200 in southern California and monopolized the market for well… markets. In Los Angeles alone, there are twenty-two Ralphs supermarkets at the time of this writing, and I have most likely set foot in every one of them. And the funny thing is? Some of these stores have been given permanent L.A. nicknames.
The Ralphs grocery store at 260 S. La Brea Boulevard has been known as “Model Ralphs” for decades. Located near a number of modeling and commercial casting offices, patrons of this establishment may be treated to seeing former Calvin Klein underwear models buying orange juice, cute actresses from Modern Family searching for organic eggs in yoga pants and even Flo the Progressive Insurance lady wheeling a cart full of frozen food towards the checkout stand. Most L.A. residents consider “Model Ralphs” to be fairly safe and it boasts one of the city’s youngest clienteles.
Another Ralphs on Los Angeles’ radar is located on Western Avenue and Sunset – and is referred to as “Ghetto Ralphs” by all of the locals. This rodent-infested flea trap not only boasts one of the worst parking lot ever designed by a human being, but it shares a building with a Ross Dress for Less upstairs where I once bought a single sock for 39 cents. “Ghetto Ralphs” is also where I once witnessed a homeless man walk in, load up a full shopping cart with ten bottles of vodka and just WALK OUT, unscathed and ignored by security. As impressed as I was by his brazen activity, I eventually took my adult shopping back to the much cleaner Gelson’s up the street.
Then, down south of USC, where I went to college, there was a Ralphs known as the “Don’t Ever Go In There Ralphs,” where the deli counter was operated by a woman who I once saw lose a hair extension into my container of potato salad.
So when I first heard of “Rock & Roll Ralphs,” I was intrigued… What could be going on there? Was it like the Hard Rock Cafe of grocery stores? Full of gold records and live music and signed guitars from dudes like Don Dokken on the wall? Were rock stars drinking in there? It sounded interesting and somewhat dangerous. The store was up on Sunset, somewhat close to Guitar Center, Sam Ash Music, and the late Voltage and Vintage Guitars (both now vape shops). The Seventh Veil Strip Club, as memorialized in the Mötley Crüe song “Girls Girls Girls,” was within stumbling distance. The best thing was that it was far away from the spent casings of the Sunset Strip after-hours bars, where the ghosts of metal bands that once fired blanks into the Hollywood night aiming for world domination still believed that a deal with Mercury Records was one showcase at the Coconut Teaszer away. So, the first time I heard about “Rock & Roll Ralphs,” I knew I had to check it out. I remember calling my new L.A. friend Reese, who had already slogged five years in the City of Angels, and asking him about it.
“Dude, it’s so bad-ass,” Reese told me. “Slash and Duff are there all the time, Sebastian Bach buys wine there, I heard Sheryl Crow gets her tampons there and I’ve seen Lemmy, Nikki Sixx and one of the Living Colour guys… I think.”
“What do you mean you think?” I asked.
“Well, he was a cool looking black dude with spandex and dreadlocks and it was like two in the morning… of course that was like, three years ago.”
“What about tonight?” I inquired, the clock approaching 1:15 in the morning. “Do you think we can expect to see a rock star buying something if we go there now?”
“Hell yeah,” he said. “My girlfriend said Tommy Stinson was there two weeks ago.”
That did it. Tommy Stinson? Slash? Lemmy? I was never a HUGE hard rock fan, but I knew that L.A. was crawling with heroes of my youth and I was gonna be damned if I didn’t get a chance to run into some legendary guitar slinger while buying a 12-pack of Coors Light. Shit, with any luck, maybe I could get a guy like Tommy Stinson to come back to my apartment and jam with me… THAT would put my music dreams on the map.
So, Reese took me on my first trip to “Rock & Roll Ralphs.” Forty minutes later, after wandering the aisles like a wide-eyed kid hoping to see a celebrity while on the Universal Studios Backlot Tour, I came to a rather jarring conclusion:
This place was simply a filthy grocery store.
Reese and I failed to run into ANYBODY remotely famous. The highlight of the evening was when the checkout guy told us that Adam Duritz had been in earlier that afternoon and bought a HoneyBaked Ham.
The legend of Rock & Roll Ralphs extends back to the heyday of the 1980s Sunset Strip scene. Those years were documented by Penelope Spheeris when she turned her camera on the pretty boys and girls parading up and down the boulevard, preening and praying for a record deal to propel them onto the world stage. Re-watching The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years in 2023 is a harrowing experience, for many reasons. The sheer amount of sexism, hedonism, desperation, alcohol abuse and unbridled debauchery is enough for you to question why you ever begged your mom for a Quiet Riot T-shirt back in 1983. But what I admired more than anything was that back then, these musician kids lived ten to a room in abandoned Hollywood warehouses and apartments. They were survivors. Dreamers. They were just like me, except that dozens of females in fishnets weren’t floating me cash to pay for cigarettes and rent for a rehearsal space. To survive, these future lords of Los Angeles would rummage through Hollywood and Highland BEFORE there even WAS a Hollywood and Highland, begging for change, turning tricks and selling homemade merchandise that allowed them enough money to get high, laid and yes… buy booze at “Rock & Roll Ralphs” at closing time.
Rock & Roll Ralphs was the type of place where the bag boys concealed tattoos beneath their aprons, the checkout dudes claimed that their band once “opened for Kix at the Roxy” and vixens casually dropped produce on the floor just to bend over in case a casting director was there scouting for the next Warrant video. It was the type of establishment where you could get thirty steps inside before being asked to put out your cigarette. You could shoplift a few batteries for the apartment boom box and not be questioned. It was the type of place where young starlets just getting off of the Greyhound from Indiana could get pregnant in the bread aisle.
Today, if you drive by the store, you will notice that they have embraced their history and Rock & Roll nickname. Someone high up on the Ralphs food chain commissioned an artist to design a Japanese ripoff Stratocaster “Ralphs-logo” guitar on the front door beneath a silhouetted rock band. This weird mural is an artistic homage to a lost time in this city and to the nickname given to a random grocery store by some long-lost L.A. resident. There is one problem, however: Rock & Roll in Los Angeles hasn’t been Rock & Roll in a VERY long time.
Think about it. Since the Grunge revolution, can you name five ROCK bands that have come from Los Angeles and conquered the world? Are you still thinking about it? I thought so. That’s because there aren’t many. Maroon 5, love them or hate them, are the closest. Although they’ve adopted L.A. as a home, Counting Crows is technically a San Francisco band… and far from “hard rock.” Rage Against the Machine, Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were able to carry the flame by being original enough to march forward and you can say the same for Beck. But after that, the city is awash with a cavalcade of one hit wonders like Foster the People, Incubus and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.
The bottom line is that Hip-Hop is king. So, if I was the manager of “Rock & Roll Ralphs,” I would tear down the silhouetted rock band and Ralphs guitar and replace it with a logo of Kendrick Lamar spitting bars into a fucking champagne bottle.
A few days ago, I went up to Rock & Roll Ralphs just to see if anything had changed. I passed through the guitar doors and inhaled the familiar unclean scents of rotting produce. I noticed how the prices had risen dramatically and I looked at some sale prices and perused the wine aisle, considering taking advantage of the “30 Percent Off if You Buy Six Bottles” deal. I noticed a few neighborhood residents buying dog food and diapers and remarked how the interior hadn’t changed at all since I first went in back in 1997. I was disappointed. After coming to terms that this store was no longer something to be enamored with, I chalked it up with the rest of the long gone L.A. rock palaces. Somewhere in the trail dust of the mid 1990s, Rock & Roll Ralphs went the way of The Cathouse, Gazzarri’s and the Starwood Club.
As to not look suspicious by wandering around the grocery store, I decided to get out of Rock & Roll Ralphs for the final time. I grabbed a Kombucha and paid for it at the self-checkout aisle before hopping in my 2016 electric vehicle and driving away to my two-bedroom home in the Valley.
Not very Rock & Roll at all…