Rhythm Alley Redux - 02 - Prelude
"And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" - Talking Heads, "Once In a Lifetime"
"I was born a poor black child." - Steve Martin, "The Jerk"
There are a lot of things that have to happen to get one to the point of making a stupid-ass decision like buying a rock club. While I don't intend to turn this into an autobiography, there are a few things that are helpful to know - places and people and things that created all the conditions needed for me to get there. First of all, I was born in Nashville, Tennesseehomeofcountrymusic (that's the way the local chamber of commerce always said it) which turned me completely OFF of country music and towards rock and roll at a relatively early age. My childhood encompassed the era of "The Nashville Sound" - over-produced bland crap that eventually got us to Hee-Haw. My contemporary Mark Kemp wrote in his excellent Dixie Lullaby how Southern pride got him into bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. My experience was pretty much the opposite - I found country music as produced in Nashville in the late 60s and early 70s to be an embarrassment and for years that affected my view of Southern Rock. But it's helpful to remember that Nashville was about more than just country music - it was one of the leading music publishing centers in the US (along with Bibles and shoes, as I recall) and there were (and are) a hell of a lot of people recording there that weren't country. So music was sort of an ever-present part of living there.
"You better listen to the radio" - Elvis Costello, "Radio, Radio"
Like most people my age, my interest in particular kinds of music initially came from the radio. I hope that's not the case anymore as there are very few radio stations that I consider listenable. The first radio station that left an impression on me was WMAK in Nashville, home of famous and soon-to-be-famous jocks like Russ Spooner and Coyote McCloud. AM 1300 on your radio dial and the direct competitor of WKDA and "The Good Guys" crew. They played a Top 40 mix that introduced me to stuff that I wasn't hearing on the easy-listening Adult Contemporary station that Mom usually had tuned in. Later after we moved to Charlotte, for a short time I was able to get WRPL, which was playing a pretty eclectic format that included bands like Gentle Giant, Cafe Jacques and the pre-suckitude Genesis and also introduced me to Elvis Costello. And last but certainly not least, my discovery of WXYC in the very early '80s while at UNC cemented my interest in non-mainstream (we didn't really call it "alternative" at the time) music through heavy rotation of stuff like The Hitmen's "Bates Motel", The dB's' "Black and White" and XTC's "Senses Working Overtime".
"Speak softly but carry a big guitar" - Foreign Bodies, "Carry a Big Guitar"
The next step on the path to rock club ownership was of course the bands. My first concert was at the old (old) Charlotte Coliseum with REO Speedwagon opening for Three Dog Night (I kid you not). I saw a number of shows after that at the Coliseum, the Carowinds Pavilion and then at Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill, but my first real introduction to local music was the spring 1979 Springfest show in front of Connor Dorm on the UNC campus. I can't tell you everyone that played but I'm fairly certain that Th' Cigaretz (one of the area's first punk bands) played and I know for a fact that The Fabulous Knobs played what Jack Cornell later told me was only their second gig. A year or so later my friend Kevin Bruce got me down to Cat's Cradle to see them again and that was it, man. One night of some great muscular Stones-y rock and blues, Deb DeMilo's smoky voice, Terry Anderson's song-writing and Dave Enloe’s take-a-damn-drink attitude and I was hooked. I became a regular, seeing almost every Cradle show and driving over to The Pier in Raleigh for more than a few as well.
I'm not one of the 5,000 people who claim to be among the 5 people that were present the first time R.E.M. played The Station in Carrboro and I'm not one of the many people who actually were present for the infamous show (CHHS?) with The Pressure Boys, Eraserhead (featuring Joe Romweber, later to front UVProm and Marsha) and the Kamikazes (with Dex Romweber (Flat-Duo Jets) and Hunter Landon (Bad Checks)) - you guys that WERE there feel free to correct any of that that I got wrong. But I did catch The P-Boys soon after that and if the Knobs got me into the local clubs, the Pressure Boys were responsible for me never leaving. The Pressure Boys were typically described as a ska band (and I loves me some ska, so I have no problem with that label) but they certainly transcended that category in a hurry. Jumpy dance rhythms, intelligent lyrics, mad musical talent and as a former trombone player, you know I dug the horns. Their shows were controlled chaos - incredibly fun messes that put a smile on everyone's face and blisters on their feet.
"You come here looking for the ride to glory
Go back home with a hard luck story
I can hardly wait around until the weekend comes to town" - Elvis Costello, "Radio Sweetheart"
Those bands had to have places to play and there were a couple that set the tone for why I wanted a club of my own and what kind of vibe I wanted it to have. The first one was obviously the Cradle, which was really my first exposure to a local rock and roll club. After those early Fab Knobs and Pressure Boys shows, I started hanging out regularly, catching a number of local bands as well as regional tourers like Guadalcanal Diary and the Swimming Pool Qs. While everyone at the Cradle had serious opinions about music, it never had a music snob vibe and the booking was relatively eclectic.
After that introduction to clubs and a few forays over to Raleigh to The Pier and some of the other Cameron Village Underground venues, I was introduced to The Milestone in Charlotte. The rumor was that Bill Flowers had bought the place as a condemned property for $1 and the wonder was how it was ever un-condemned. Throughout the years it seems to have maintained the same level of decrepitude, despite the fact that the building is a century old and the Milestone has been there for almost half that time (I believe this is their 45th year). I only saw a couple of shows there before we bought the Alley (including a memorable Brains set) but it had just the right “fuck art let’s (slam)dance” vibe. I was home.
Then there was Rhythm Alley.