Rhythm Alley Redux - 03 - Introduction
"The time is now and the clocks move backwards" - Fetchin' Bones, "All Clocks"
Rhythm Alley was quite a literal name as it was located down a narrow alley off of West Rosemary Street between Tijuana Fats and Dip's Country Kitchen. Yeah, I know that neither of those establishments are still there, so that description will be lost on most of you, but the common way Chapel Hillians give directions is “turn left down where that place that used to sell the leather purses and bongs used to be”, so there. I have no idea what the original use of the building was but my first experience with it was during its tenure as the home of Cat's Cradle, which even then was one of the best known clubs on the East Coast and the main stop between Atlanta and DC for touring bands. At some time in the early 80's, owner Dave Robert moved the Cradle to a location on Franklin Street closer to campus and Judy Hammond opened Rhythm Alley in its place.
According to the fire marshal, we could put a couple hundred people in there and we tried to stick fairly close to that. The room was rectangular but it didn't look like it as the stage was in the corner and there was a wall (with a large plexi window) that cut across the room on a diagonal, separating the bar area from the seating area/dancefloor. The sound system was built for the room by Arch Altman and we leased it back from him. There had been various seating/dancefloor configurations over the years, but for the time we owned the place, there were a few booths alongside one wall and a set of risers/pews in another part of the floor - the rest was open for dancing/milling about.
When I go to other bars I'm always intrigued by their backbars - ours typically didn't see nearly this much light (I took this photo of the late Stacy Guess and my lovely wife in the afternoon with the lights up).
1 - cymbal-playing bar monkey (today sits on a bookcase in my home office)
2 - Rohrwaggon poster - I believe Stacy designed that one
3 - band beer. Long before PBR became the hipsters' choice, we had 75 cent long necks primarily for musicians that weren't playing that night. Nobody else would drink that crap unless it was ironically.
4 - Picture of Zombie Barry Manilow
5 - "King Mackerel and the Blues are Running" poster (we’ll get to that later)
6 - Kids, those things are called "cassette tapes" and contained music - some demo tapes, some board mixes and other stuff that we played in the bar before shows and between sets
7 - the First Aid kit, consisting of WD-40, aspirin, band-aids and coffee filters.
We had a pretty decent beer selection for the time (long before craft brews were a thing). In addition to the aforementioned PBRs, you could get 7 oz. Little Kings and Rolling Rocks for .50, domestic cans (Bud, Miller, Iguana Light and Miller Lite) for a buck, domestic long necks for $1.25 and a vast (ok, not so vast) array of imports from $1.50 to $2.00. This was back in the days of returnable long-neck bottles (for the domestics, at least) so we collected the empties each night for the distributors for credit on bottle deposits for the next order. We also always had Guinness and Harp on tap, as well as some cheap domestic swill. North Carolina had (and has) some weird alcohol laws - we were able to sell beer but to sell wine we'd have had to serve food (the occasional pack of Lance crackers we sold didn't count) and for mixed drinks, we'd have either had to be private (which was much more onerous then than now) or make 50+% of our receipts on food, which sure as hell wasn't going to happen. So we happily and responsibly sold beer to those 19 and older and did the occasional all-ages show for the younger set (the drinking age for beer was raised from 18 to 19 a couple of years earlier and wouldn't go to 21 until right after we sold the club). And we were in fact responsible - I usually worked the door and was known to send middle-aged women grumbling back to their cars for ID. Our bartenders were all empowered and encouraged to cut people off at their discretion and they knew that we would back them up - being a loud asshole was enough for me or Jeannette to send someone packing. I didn't have any strong opinions about recreational chemicals in general but I was damn well highly prejudiced against anything that could endanger our license, so we had a definite "no tolerance" policy about anything that we hadn't sold someone. I'm sure there were people that found that to be a party killer but I still believe that the vast majority of our patrons appreciated it and felt comfortable coming in, regardless of the band or the crowd.
In fact, I think one of the selling points both before and during our time owning the club was that people felt comfortable coming in. Chapel Hill in general, but I think Rhythm Alley in particular, was a place where people in their 20s, 40s or 80s could all be comfortable at the same show. For what was usually a $3 cover, you could afford to wander in, have a couple of beers and check out a band you’d never heard (or heard of) before and not worry about what kind of crowd it was. And there was something that seems to be missing from a lot of clubs - we actually had barstools at the bar (not out in the room), so you could come in and just hang out (and chat up the bartenders), which is kind of what started this whole thing. I mean to say, that’s how I met Jeannette.