INTERVIEW: Atomic Nancy of Atomic Cafe, L.A. punk hangout

Wikimedia Commons/Bibbe Hansen

LOS ANGELES, February 17, 2014 — Nancy Sekizawa, otherwise known as Atomic Nancy, was the heart and soul of Atomic Cafe in the 70s and 80s. Located in the little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, it became a popular hangout for punks. Atomic Cafe closed its doors in 1989. The building, which housed the cafe is set for demolition in 2014. There will be an event held in the original location on February 22 celebrating Atomic Cafe. Atomic Nancy took some time to meet up with Wells On Music to talk about Atomic Cafe.

Kevin Wells: Going back to the beginning, how did Atomic Cafe transform from a regular café into a punk hangout?

Atomic NancyNancy Sekizawa: There were a couple guys taking pictures right in front of the cafe and they were called The Screamers. I didn’t know it at the time. They were doing a photo shoot in the front and then they came in. They were checking the place out and they thought it was really cool. They saw the jukebox. I had already started putting, not punk, but my own kind of collections in the jukebox. So, they thought it was a really cool looking place. I guess the word started spreading from that point on. It just started being this place where everybody could come to. I’m thinking, why little Tokyo? The next Chinatown, you know? There was this one guy. His name was Paul Greenstein and he came over. He was selling these guitar pins. He just started spreading the word about making this a cool hangout for the kids. That’s how it really started and then word started spreading.

KW: Was it more of a weekend hangout or a daily thing?

NS: I would say any time after nine o’clock, it just started getting crazy, nightly. Our peak times were weekends when the bands were playing Chinatown. After that, they would come over here and start hanging out.

KW: Did you ever have bands play at the cafe itself?

NS: No, but we had a bar and we sold this bar to a lady named Claire. She’s this big ol’ lady and she turned it into a punk hangout. It was a punk bar called The Brave Dog. It was a tiny little place and she would have bands play there. They would play and then come back to our place.

KW: Why did the cafe close?

NS: My dad had a stroke and he was having a series of strokes towards the end. I was having problems too. I just said, let’s shut it down. Plus, the whole punk scene at the time, this was the mid-80s, it had died out anyway. It was all new wave and on to the next. The peak time was from the mid-70s to the early 80s and that was it. Atomic Cafe finally closed in 1989.

KW: By that point had it stopped being a hangout for punks?

NS: Not really. It just kind of slowed down because I wasn’t there. My mom used to say, “Hey, if you’re not there, nobody wants to come.” I did a lot of drugs too, okay? I was pretty obliterated. So, I was just like this circus act too, you know? I guess I was going around on roller skates in this cafe and wearing this punk makeup and I made all my waitresses look like that too. I said, “The weirder, the better. I don’t care. Just don’t look like you’re normal.” I think that was the biggest draw. I was getting tired of doing the same thing over and over again, so I just stopped after that.

KW: Have you lost contact with a lot of those people?

NS: I saw Exene [Cervenka from X] at the House of Blues recently. We just kind of hung out and talked for a little bit. I don’t know where they are anymore. They’re either in rehab or dead, you know? That’s just how it was. Or they’re in the 12-step meetings [laughs].

KW: What have you been doing since Atomic closed?

NS: Right now, I am a certified addiction specialist. I treat drug and alcohol and trauma and PTSD. So, that’s what I do. I used to be a singer in an Asian band called Hiroshima. I don’t sing publicly all that much anymore, but I do sing in an all-black gospel choir. That’s a lot of fun. I work with a collaborative group called Great Leap. They’re well known in the Japanese-American community. I do collaborative pieces with a woman named Nobuko Miyamoto.

KW: Do you have a favorite story about something that happened here?

NS: We had six booths and a large middle table. If I had a piece of paper I could tell you each character or each artist that used to be there. David Bowie would come in, just casually come in and then he’d leave. Then we had David Byrne from Talking Heads. He ordered egg foo young and a glass of milk and he would be by himself. Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt [came]. They were an item back then. Andy Warhol [came in].

Oh, here’s one! Sid Vicious brought his little entourage. He sat in the third booth. It wasn’t crazy, but it was gonna be crazy. He ordered a bunch of f**kin’ fried rice. I was cleaning up a table and all of a sudden I see [food fly by]. And then another one goes [flying by]. I was sweeping up and I gave him a dirty look and then all of a sudden it became this f**kin’ food fight. That was the best part. I laughed. I did, I did. You know, I engaged too.

KW: And then you were left to clean it up?

NS: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] F**k it.

KW: Have you ever wanted to get back into the restaurant business?

NS: No. I love cooking for myself. My husband and I ran the place. He was more the waiter and I was back in the kitchen. I was doing everything because I knew everything. After my husband passed away, I didn’t want to do it anymore.

KW: Do you have a worst memory of being in here?

NS: I was so high on drugs and it was just unbearable. It got to the point where I just go, “Wow.” I don’t remember the night, you know, I was like a total blackout. I knew I was in real trouble. I used to get in fights a lot. My husband wasn’t the bouncer, I was. Who’s gonna hit a woman? I’ve been slugged though [laughs]. I was getting crazy, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do this.” I had to clean up my act.

KW: How long have you been clean?

NS: Ah, about 28 years.

KW: What was your drug of choice?

NS: Everything under the sun. Kevin, everything I could get my hands on and more, yeah.

KW: Sitting here now, does it look completely different?

NS: What’s weird is coming in the front and I knew where I was sitting, before you got here, was booth one. I’m going, “S**t, I don’t want to sit here. I’m gonna go outside because it is all different out [there].” I have a lot of memories, just a lot of memories, good and bad.

KW: Is it a good feeling being in here or is it uneasy for you?

NS: Yeah, at first when you said, “Let’s meet at the old location,” I said, “Nooooooooo.” But I told myself, “You’re gonna have to play. You’re gonna have to do this event. So, okay.”

KW: When was the last time you were inside this building?

NS: I did a documentary in September and the owner, Enrique, was gracious enough to open it up for us to do the documentary.

KW: How do you think you will feel once this building is finally torn down?

NS: Really, inside, good riddance, man. Next chapter. A new generation. I want them to do something.

KW: Can you tell me about the event coming up celebrating Atomic Cafe?

NS: Yeah, on February 22, I am supposed to do this Atomic Café thing. It will be here [where Atomic Café was]. It kicks off at eight o’clock and I do a DJ spin; a lot of 45s. I think the folks are gonna be coming out of the woodwork. I’m just gonna spin all my freakin’ 45s I’ve collected. Thank God I didn’t sell all that stuff. I’m just gonna spin for three hours or so. I don’t care, I’m just gonna do that. Everybody else will schmoozing or whatever they want to do. I have no idea what the event is gonna be aside from me. I talked to the event planner and she said, “You’re it.”

The event celebrating Atomic Cafe will be held on February 22 at Senor Fish (the building that used to house Atomic Café) at 422 E 1st Street in Los Angeles starting at 8 p.m. all ages.

Kevin J. Wells is the Sports Editor for Communities and also writes about Major League Baseball, punk rock music, and food. Follow him on Twitter @WellsOnBaseball

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