Saturday, August 09, 2014

Be Loud! Sophie

Tonight was a pretty incredible night at the Cradle, with three bands that (sorta) played the Rhythm Alley back in our day coming together for an important cause.  As many times as I've heard Dex, he continues to amaze me and I've loved Sara's drumming since seeing her a frightening number of years ago.  The Connells were one of my favorite bands and it was wonderful to see and hear them again.  Back when we owned Rhythm Alley, Greg Stafford and I snuck off to The Cave after soundcheck for a beer which turned into 3 or 4 for me and I remember somewhat drunkenly (and accurately) telling him that I thought they were the best rock and roll band in the world.  I stand by that statement now and I think that they've gotten even better.

But none of that is what was important tonight.  What mattered was a bunch of people coming together to raise money for the Be Loud! Sophie Foundation.  You can read the story here  (and you should) but for those of you with limited attention spans, there's a gap between the way juvenile and adult cancer patients (and their families) are supported and the foundation is raising money to try to fill that gap and improve the support for adolescent and young adult cancer patients.

The show Saturday night is sold out but that doesn't stop you from supporting this worthwhile cause - please check it out and do what you can to help.

And Be Loud!

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 06 - November 1985

"Yeah, I don't know anything at all" - the dB's, "Black and White"

01 - Matt "Guitar" Murphy
02 - Norman and Nancy Blake
03 - Phil Woods Quintet
07 - Bangah
08 - The Phantoms
09 - Rebecca and the Hi-Tones
14 - Three Hits
15 - The Bad Checks
16 - The Pattersons
21 - Easy Club
22 - Glenn Phillips
23 - Rod Dash
30 - Moving Day

The first month might have been over but our week was far from done.  And while it started out really well, it quickly degenerated into yuck.

The Matt “Guitar” Murphy show on Friday night was a good indication of how little I knew about what I was doing.  Judy had booked this one and we had the contract and rider but not a lot else.  I should have been on the phone to his manager about how they were publicizing his tour but I never got around to it.  We weren’t sure whether to play up the “Blues Brothers” aspect or not (he’d certainly had a strong career outside of that) so we didn’t - big mistake.  I seem to recall that his guarantee was $800 plus a percent of anything over that and we didn’t come close to that.  We probably had a paid attendance of 80 people at what I’m guessing was an $8 ticket, so we had to make up the guarantee out of beer money.  Not a total disaster but we couldn’t afford many of those.  It was another night where I felt a little bad for the performers, they felt a little bad for me, but they put on a great show and the crowd, while a bit small, was quite enthusiastic.

Saturday was bad for all kinds of reasons.  It had been raining for days with no let-up (other than Halloween night, I think) and we were having a rented piano delivered Saturday afternoon for the Sunday night Phil Woods show.  So the poor guys from the music store had to drag a baby grand up the alley through a downpour, unfortunately leaving very little time for it to settle in before the piano tuner we’d hired was due.  Norman and Nancy Blake were on the bill that night but before they took the stage, we got a phone call about a family tragedy (that’s Jeannette’s story to tell, not mine) so I was left flying (sort of) solo for the first time.  I do remember the show - it was quite good (first time I’d seen them) and more than anything I remember how kind and sweet Nancy Blake was after hearing about Jeannette’s bad news.  It was a good crowd despite the rain but it was a bad night.  Then things got worse.

The Phil Woods Quintet show was another one that had us asking what the hell Judy was thinking when she booked it.  When I finally had a chance to go over the contract and look at the numbers, they just didn’t come near to adding up.  The guarantee was something like $4000 plus accommodations for 5 plus food - add to that the cost of piano rental, tuning etc and there was no way to make the math come out (even doing two shows).  If we raised the ticket prices as high as we’d have needed to in order to cover, we’d have lost sales.  I was on the phone with the booking agent in early October and laid it out for him - his contract was with Judy so we were not obligated to honor the date but given the buzz that the show had generated we were willing to do it but with different terms.  I think we settled on something like $1800 and 1 (not five) rooms and we did two seated shows and we still lost money.  Seated shows suck for beer sales - people will buy a beer on the way in and that’s pretty much it and only selling 1 beer per cover was a disaster for us.  We also couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put nearly as many people into the Alley for a seated show.  I’m guessing we might have barely made the guarantee and then ate all the ancillary costs - it was definitely a money-losing proposition.  And it didn’t even get us good-will as we weren’t planning on doing a lot of jazz in the future (just not the right venue).  I’m sure part of my disgust with that night also stems from the show itself.  I love jazz but I love jazz that swings, that has some looseness to it - that wasn’t Phil Woods’ bag.  It was much more precise, which just left me cold.  On top of that, with the constant rain and the fact that the piano had only been in place for 24 hours, it was badly out of tune which pissed off the pianist and pretty much soured the attitude of everyone on stage.  I’m not sure how much the crowd noticed but the band sure did and we heard all about it later.  I may re-evaluate this statement by the time I get to the end of the story, but at this moment I’d rank that as the show that I remember least fondly.

At least after that weekend we could take a deep breath for a few weeks.  We didn’t have any big guarantees on the calendar for the rest of the month and we could turn our attention to finding a place in Chapel Hill to live.  We settled on an apartment at Laurel Ridge off the bypass south of town, not walking distance but not far from the club.  We’d decided to stay closed Thanksgiving weekend and use that time to move ourselves over from Greensboro.  But while we were packing we still had some shows to do.

I’ve got the Thursday night show on the calendar as Bangah but I’m certain that I ended up doing that as a double bill with Foreign Bodies, because I remember Sonar joking with Zingo about being afraid to light a cigarette in the dressing room for fear of it exploding from the excessive hairspray from the guys in Bangah.  (Yes, this was the 80’s, kids.)  Bangah was pretty much run-of-the-mill synth-pop as I recall, but Foreign Bodies was something else.  There were (and are) some exceptional female vocalists around town but Sonar Strange (along with the aforementioned Wendy Taz Halloween Darling) continue to stand out.  I still pull out the EP that Foreign Bodies put out around that time and it still sounds great.

Speaking of cigarettes, I sometimes forget now how much smoking was a part of the experience.  Everybody smoked.  Even if you didn’t smoke, you inhaled a lot of smoke, but it seemed like there were very few people that didn’t smoke.  Before we bought the club I’d go through close to a pack a day, but on weekend nights when we were open, I’d smoke 2 packs and sometimes more.  I guess it was a form of self-defense - I’d rather breathe my own smoke than someone else’s.  But when I quit long after we’d sold the club, it was hard for me to go to clubs and in fact we didn’t go very often until clubs like the Cradle started sending smokers outside.

Friday’s show was a rockabilly band from Greenville, NC called The Phantoms.  I liked ‘em and thought they put on a great show but they never really developed a big following around Chapel Hill.

Rebecca and the Hi-Tones played Saturday night in what I think was their only appearance for us.  They’re another band with amazing longevity that’s still playing shows and festivals.  Dave Menconi did a nice feature on Rebecca not long ago in the N&O.

The middle of the month started with a Thursday night show with Three Hits.  I would describe them as very good power pop (I’ve still got their “Pressure Dome” single, produced by the omnipresent and possibly omnipotent Don Dixon) but more than anything, I remember Sheila and the guys as being some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  As I’ve been writing this stuff I’ve been poking around the Interwebs for additional information on bands and from other comments I found, I’m apparently not alone in that estimation.  As a side note, Michael Kurtz went on to co-found Record Store Day.

Friday night was another favorite of mine - the Bad Checks.  I’d been following them almost as long as I had the Pressure Boys (I was at the infamous Cat’s Cradle show where Hunter jumped onstage in his high school graduation gown) and I’d gotten Judy to book them the Friday night before our wedding as an impromptu bachelor party.  They’d had a cut on the Dolphin Records’ “More Mondo” compilation and had just released their first album.  By the way, I never got a copy of Graveyard Tramp, so if any of you kind souls out there has one you’d part with, let me know!  I guess punkabilly comes as close as anything else to describing them in one word - all I know it they always drew a sweaty (drinking!) crowd and put on an incredibly high-energy show.

One of the first posters that I did, featuring the beautiful IBM 3705 communication controller and a decent pair of legs (no, they weren’t Jeannette’s - hers are better)

I should remember the Pattersons (Saturday night’s act) but I don’t.  Actually the rest of November was something of a blur.  We were totally burned out after that first weekend, we were trying to pack to move to Chapel Hill, we were trying to figure out how in the hell we were going to make this work and it was still fucking raining.  It rained pretty much solid for the month of November.  So apologies to the Pattersons, Easy Club, Glenn Phillips and Rod Dash but I’ve got nothing.  However, somewhere in that period we were approached by Bland Simpson about a project that he, Don Dixon and Jim Wann were working on.  More on that in a bit.

So at the end of November, we moved back to Chapel Hill.  That, at least as far as I remember, was pretty uneventful.

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 05 - October 1985

"Small change, big deals - it doesn't seem to make it real" - The Fabulous Knobs, "Next Big Thing"

03 - Claudia Schmidt
04 - Jack and the Cadillacs
05 - Blast Crisis
10 - Jesse Winchester
11 - The Pressure Boys
12 - Bo Diddley
17 - Lo Jai
18 - Uncle Bonsai
19 - Shakin' Sherman and the Blazers
23 - Playgroup w/ Thrift Bakery
24 - Blue Sparks from Hell
25 - The Hipmovers
26 - Bluegrass Experience
30 - Relativity
31 - Terminal Mouse

Paste-up for Triangle Spectator ad for October - obviously there were a few changes after this was done

I don’t know whether it was naive, or just us being nice guys, or some other reasons, but we kept the schedule Judy had put together for October mostly intact.  Some were shows with touring acts that involved guarantees and in a few cases, accommodations.  Others played for a percentage of the door.  The standard in the latter case was 80% of the door for out-of-town bands, 70% for local bands (partly because they had lower travel expenses, partly because they often had extensive guest lists - I’m looking at YOU, Pressure Boys!).  Cover most nights was around $3 unless it was a big touring act.  So even on a sell-out night with a local band, we weren’t going to make more than $150-$175 from the door.  But on a hot night with lots of dancing, we might clear $400-$500 on beer sales.

We opened with a Thursday night Claudia Schmidt show that Judy had booked.  Despite the fact that we’d been regularly working at the bar for years, that night was a complete fog for me in my new role as owner.  It was probably a good show for us to start with, a laid-back older audience and a wonderfully nice solo artist with a fairly small guarantee (as I recall).  I think we did okay on the night - not huge beer sales but decent door.  But I’ll be honest with you - as big a deal as this was for me, I barely remember it.

Paste-up for Claudia Schmidt poster

Friday night’s show was Jack and the Cadillacs, an R&B bar band of a type that Judy used to book fairly often and that I had already decided I wanted to get away from.  They drew a decent-sized crowd of 30-somethings that would at least drink a few beers but I was much more interested in getting away from much of the R&B, blues and pub rock that Judy had favored (with a couple of exceptions to be named later) and towards what I found to be much more interesting music that was establishing Chapel Hill/Raleigh as the next new music scene (something that was to happen on a regular 5 year cadence afterwards).  That being said, I was absolutely interested in continuing to bring in an eclectic mix of rock, trad, bluegrass, folk, jazz and whatever else struck our fancy.

Saturday was Blast Crisis, a local R&B (again) band that seemed to draw half the staff from Duke Med and UNC Hospitals.  They were another band that was one of Judy’s favorites but frankly drew an obnoxious (and badly-tipping) crowd and were not someone that we planned to book nearly as often.

I’m going to say again that in almost all cases, the bands themselves were all very nice people with no real control over what kinds of crowds they drew.  And I will also not apologize for my personal taste in music - but my preferences shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of the musicianship or seriousness of the performers that I didn’t care for.  

Phew, okay, that’s out of the way...

So, first week under our belts - three fairly easy shows to start with.  Not too crowded, but frankly not all that interesting musically either.  The second weekend was going to be different, although it didn’t start out all that differently.  If you’d asked me before I started pulling together calendars for this writing experiment if we’d ever booked Jesse Winchester, I would have scratched my head and told you that I was sure we hadn’t.  Yet there he is on my calendar for Thursday October 10.  Maybe he played and I don’t remember it.  Maybe I took that night off and Jeannette ran the show (although she doesn’t remember it either).  Maybe he canceled and I didn’t mark him off the calendar.  Sorry, it was a long damn time ago.

Friday night was our first night with the Pressure Boys.  At that time, local headliners booked (and paid) their own opening bands, which sometimes led to some interesting pairings.  I have no idea who opened that night but John was always interested in giving new bands a chance (the first time I saw Fetchin’ Bones I was working the door for Judy and they were opening for a joke cover band that was opening for the P-Boys).  I saw the Pressure Boys so many times over so many years in so many venues that I have no idea which show was which, so I’ll throw in a random anecdote or two without regard to which show it actually was.  They tell the story of Greg writing “Pressure Boys Guest List” in Sharpie on the cover of the Chapel Hill phone book at the Alley after one too many lectures on how many freebies they were letting in (all the while Stafford was bitching about the cover being too low for them to make any money).  But my favorite was the huge roll of craft paper that they taped to the wall behind me at the door with made-up, vaguely Scandinavian names written in foot-high letters as their guests.  Or maybe they’d actually invited the Swedish Bikini Team.  I’m sure it was a huge night.  I’m sure we had to arm-wrestle them onto the stage to get them on before it was tomorrow.  I’m sure everyone danced their asses off, including myself when I could take a break from the door.  I’m sure we sold a buttload of beer.  And I’m sure on Saturday morning we were in there sweeping that weird black crap off the floor made up of dried beer, dirt, sweat, smoke and shed skin.  That was generally the indication of a great show the night before and the Pressure Boys never put on a mediocre show.

That Saturday was the show I’d been both looking forward to and dreading - Bo Diddley.  The Bo Diddley.  This was just a couple of years after George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” video had brought him to the attention of a younger crowd and he’d capitalized on that by non-stop touring (he told me that night that he was on the road over 300 nights a year).  He was traveling solo so I’d arranged with Lee Gildersleeve and friends in their incarnation as the Socks to back him up.  I was waiting for Bo just after noon at RDU when he came off the plane with an overnight bag and the heaviest fucking guitar I’ve ever carried.  I took him by the Holiday Inn then picked him up around 5 to head over to the club to work things out with the band and do a sound check, which took all of about 30 minutes.  He gave Gil and Brian the beat he wanted (no surprise what it was), told Lee what he wanted on rhythm guitar and they worked out a couple of lead-ins and that was that.

The show was a sell-out for us and a pretty damn good show for the crowd.  I think the biggest disappointment for Bo was that it was guys that were crowding back to the dressing room for autographs when it was pretty clear that he was hoping for some sweet young thing or two to accompany him back to the motel.  Instead it was me driving him down Franklin Street at 2am to his room to catch a couple of hours sleep before he finally headed home after two straight months on the road.  There was no way for us to get back to Greensboro that night so we’d arranged to crash at a friend’s house in Carrboro for a nap before I went back to pick Mr. Diddley up at 5am to take him to the airport.

Those first couple of weeks pointed out some big problems that we were going to have to overcome.  For one, taking care of all those arrangements, acting as chauffeur, finding a backing band, etc was not going to be possible very often while I was holding down a day job, so we were going to have to think long and hard about what types of acts we were going to book.  For another, running the club in Chapel Hill while driving home to Greensboro at 3am was going to get us killed - it was completely unsustainable.  We may have realized that previously (it had actually happened to a Chapel Hill club owner a few years before) but it was brought home in our first weekend as owners.

Lo Jai was a French trad band from Lyon that drew a small but enthusiastic crowd for a Thursday night.  There were (and still are) a large number of bluegrass, old-timey and Celtic music fans around the area but we weren’t sure how Lo Jai would draw, so I recall being pleasantly surprised.  Not so much the next night with Uncle Bonsai, a quirky (and I don’t use that word often) folk trio from Seattle that pulled up in a clapped out car towing an old caravan that they were sleeping in.  I honestly don’t think we had more than 10 paid covers that night, so being open cost us much more than being closed.  I felt bad for the band, they felt bad for us but they put on their show and crashed in their trailer and that was the last we heard of them.

Saturday night was one of those long-standing traditions that I had every intention of continuing to book - Shakin’ Sherman and the Blazers had been an on-going Chapel Hill party for years and always put on a fun show that was well-attended by heavy drinkers (and good tippers since lots of them were waits and bartenders themselves).  Jeannette still has an unopened copy of their LP with the cover photo from the old Record Bar on Franklin Street back when they had a bong display in the front counter.  Long-time Chapel Hillians will know exactly the one I’m talking about.  They’d gone through a number of personnel changes over the years (I think Sherman and Ronnie Taylor were the only original members by then) but they were talented and tight and Sherman was a great showman.

I don’t remember what caused the schedule changes but the Wednesday and Thursday shows the next week were last minute fill-ins.  I vaguely remember Playgroup but I definitely remember Thrift Bakery, a fun synth-pop band from Winston-Salem that appears to actually have an active Facebook page now.  I still pull out their demo tape from time to time.

Blue Sparks from Hell are another band that I only vaguely remember.  In researching this essay or history or memoir or whatever the hell it is I’m doing, I was reminded that they had a single on a compilation LP called “Epic Presents the Unsigned”, which also included the Pressure Boys “Cowboys”.  That’s all I got.

The Hipmovers played on Friday night.  That was not a good night.  I shall say no more.

Saturday night was Bluegrass Experience, who had already been around for over a dozen years (and who still occasionally play out after 40 years together).  I remember them as having a weekly gig at the Cradle for awhile (some of you guys correct me if I’m imagining that) but I think this was the first time I’d actually seen them play.  Very good musicians and a fun show!

Our first month as club owners ended on a high note (no pun intended).  Wednesday night, we had Relativity, featuring our friend Triona Ni Dhomhnaill from Touchstone (and the Bothy Band), her brother Michael O’Dhomhnaill and Johnny and Phil Cunningham from Silly Wizard.  I’d become a huge fan of Celtic music over the previous couple of years through Jeannette’s influence and I vividly remember the Relativity show as completely blowing me away.  Great crowd despite it being a weeknight and just an incredible show.

There’s a bit of a story behind the Halloween show that ended the month.  Judy had booked Terminal Mouse, which included some good friends of ours and was a perfect fit for the night, even though I believe this was before Wendy adopted her Taz Halloween persona.  This was long before Halloween in Chapel Hill had become such a huge event, eventually drawing more people downtown that a basketball national championship before the town decided it could no longer afford to provide security.  It was, however, a night that people did a lot of bar-hopping in costume so a low-cover door was perfect and Terminal Mouse’s mix of originals and clever takes on covers was exactly right for the night.  However, a couple of weeks before, I got a call from the booking agency handling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins - apparently his Halloween show had fallen through and they were looking for a new venue for him.  Fucking Screamin’ Jay “I Put a Spell on You” Hawkins.  On Halloween of all nights.  I kid you not.

It’s obvious from the schedule above that we didn’t do it.  As dumb as that might sound, there were a lot of reasons not to.  After some big tickets show earlier in the month and with some of the acts coming up in November, I was worried about taking on another guarantee (although I could have gotten a pretty good deal at that late date).  With only a couple of weeks to publicize it, I wasn’t sure we’d get a lot of people there and as I said, it was more a night to go from bar to bar than to pay a cover of more than a couple of bucks.  But more than anything, we were not going to screw over our friends.

As Peter Cashwell has mentioned elsewhere, this was likely the night of the unveiling of Terminal Mouse’s much-celebrated “Cows From Hell” (I think there’s still a copy posted out on Reverbnation).  That was just one highlight - I remember that night as one of the reasons I’d wanted to do this whole thing, but I have no idea how the hell I made it into work in Greensboro the next morning.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 04 - Jeannette

"I met Jeanette
Substitute Ronette
She said 'Will you remember?'
Said 'I could never forget her'" - English Beat, "Jeanette"

By the winter and spring of 1984, I was ready for some changes - and other changes were happening whether I wanted them or not.  My college sweetheart and I had broken up (for the final time) and  I had no romantic prospects in the offing.  I'd been in town since the fall of 1978 but most of my friends from school days had moved on or were settling in to marriage and I was getting bored.  I was in a good position at work (I'd started working at IBM in the fall of '82) but my friend Dirk's constant talking about moving up to DC started sounding better and better.  So around March, we both put in for transfers to the IBM facility in Gaithersburg, MD and found positions - Dirk's starting the first of June and mine starting the first of July.  I was renting a trailer out off of Damascus Church Road south of town so I didn't have a house to sell or much to pack up so I basically had time to kill.  I started killing more than the normal amount of time at the Cradle and at Rhythm Alley, sometimes both in the same night, and became something of a regular.  It didn't hurt that the majority of the bartenders at both clubs tended towards the XX end of the spectrum, including a leggy blonde lass that I made it a point to talk to during my more and more frequent visits to the Alley.

Jeannette claims that she knew I was interested in her when I started showing up for bands that she knew I didn’t care for (Glenn Phillips, maybe?).  So after chatting her up for a couple of weeks, she and her friends devised a couple of tests to see if I was a creep or not (walking her down to the Cradle, going for Little Kings at the Cave, etc).  I apparently passed as soon we were going out, despite the fact that I was moving to DC in a few short weeks.  I left for the Maryland suburbs the first of July and spent a couple of weeks getting settled in before inviting her up to see the R.E.M. show at the Warner Theater in DC.  She never went home and less than a month later we were engaged.  Yes, to be married.

By October, living in Gaithersburg and trying to get into DC a few nights a week to get to the 9:30 Club or Friendship Station (or just to see a decent movie) was taking its toll both in stress and money, so we started thinking about moving back to NC and by January 1985, we were in an apartment in Greensboro, I was working doing IT support for the company that owned Wrangler jeans and Jantzen sportswear and we were driving over to Chapel Hill every weekend to volunteer at the Alley.  I worked the bar for Judy occasionally but much more often I worked the door, which gave me a decent opportunity to see/hear a bit of the bands as well as to pay attention to the clientele.

We also started planning our wedding and yes, I was bloody well going to get married in a damn bar.  I’m sure there were family members that had no idea what the hell was going on that Sunday in April 1985.  The day before we had all been in Charlotte for my little sister’s wedding in a pretty little chapel with bridesmaids and tuxedos and the whole bit (it was quite lovely).  The next day they’re in a rock club in Chapel Hill, listening to Irish and trad music played live by Touchstone and George Parrish and officiated by the two of us, with help from our dearest friends.  There was much drinking and dancing and carousing, as well as a drunken duet of “Harborcoat” by me and Lex that I’m fairly sure was recorded but I’m even more sure that said recording was destroyed at some later date to protect the guilty.

/* see wedding album below */

It was soon after that that Judy started talking about selling the Alley.  We were in absolutely no position to do something as ludicrous as buying a club, seeing as we were swimming in credit card debt from our time in DC (these were still the days of 18%+ car loan and credit card interest rates).  But I knew how much Jeannette wanted the place and frankly, I was a complete idiot.  Really, I can’t emphasize enough how incredibly stupid and bull-headed I was.  So against Jeannette’s initial objections, we started to talk to Judy about how we could make this happen.  She was willing to finance it for us (giving her a bit of monthly income) and in all honesty, the price for the business as a going concern was too high but not absurdly so.

So by August we were committed (lord knows we SHOULD have been committed) and spent September arranging for insurance, incorporation, alcohol licenses, tax numbers, lease agreements, fire marshal inspections, etc etc.  And booking October and November while reaffirming the dates that Judy had already booked (more on that later).  Of course we were doing all of this while living in  Greensboro and with me still working full-time at Blue Bell over there.  So our challenges were more than just monetary, to say the least.  One being, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.  But somehow by the time October started, we were ready to go.

Abbreviated Wedding Album (you can see a bit of what the Alley looked like):

Set lists from the Bad Checks show Friday before the wedding - impromptu bachelor party!  I assume Hunter can read this but I doubt anyone else can.

Wedding 01a.jpg
Jeannette eyeing the cake with Stafford and Amy pretending not to notice.

Kevin Bruce holds forth

Triona, Claudine and Skip - Touchstone

Cutting the cake under the watchful eyes of Judy Hammond and John Lennon

My mate Lex holds forth

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

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.

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Monday, August 04, 2014

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.

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Rhythm Alley Redux - 01 - Preface

"Hi there" - Peter Gabriel, "Big Time"

Occasionally in the course of a conversation, I mention having once owned a rock and roll club in the 80s.  Maybe we're discussing local business ownership or music or the desire of pretty much every adult male human I've ever met to at some point in their lives own a bar.  I honestly don't think I bring it up to be "cooler than thou" but there may be some of that too because let's face it - it's pretty fucking cool.  Those mentions usually elicit double takes (and maybe a spit take or two) and some sort of explanation which has been refined to a better elevator speech that I have for my last job - "I met a woman there, we got married there, we bought the place and then we sold it after about a year".  After a recent such recitation, it hit me how much I'm now downplaying a part of my life when, almost thirty years on, not a day goes by that I don't think about the club or one of the bands that played there.  The fact that I'm still ecstatically married to the woman I met there guarantees that memories of Rhythm Alley are never far below the surface.

I also find that many people that I've come to know well since that time still have no idea that I owned a nightclub and might find it interesting.  Hell, a lot of people who knew me BEFORE that time that I've reconnected with don't know either.  And I'm quite sure that there's not a single person outside immediate family - even those who were there for it - that know the whole story of how Jeannette and I came to own what was at one point during our tenure the only rock and roll club in Chapel Hill.

Finally, as time goes on I realize that I'm forgetting more and more of the details and I'd like to capture what's left before it's too late.  The period from 1984-1986 really marks the beginning of my life as an adult human being (I refer to the time between my graduation from high school a few months shy of 18 to early 1984 as "proto-adulthood") and while I never repeated (as of yet) the experience of owning a rawk club, much of what makes me who I am today dates from that period and I want to retain as much of that as possible as I figure out who I'm going to be for the rest of my life.

Cop-outs, Caveats, Mea Culpas and Excuses

This is not a history so don't expect absolute factual accuracy - most of this will be from my memory with the occasional correction from Jeannette and others (those of you who were there, please feel free to pitch in).  Given the over-documented world we live in today, it's astonishing to me how few pictures and ephemera remain from that time.  Given my love of photography, it's even more surprising that I didn't document this part of our lives better than we did.  I have been able to dig up a couple of my (incomplete) booking calendars from those years along with a couple of flyers and club calendars, but a lot of this is coming from a memory fuzzed by many millions of missing brain cells sacrificed over the years to the God of Hops.  Those of you who were there, please feel free to fill in the blanks.

This is also not some tell-all on the seamy side of rock and roll.  First of all there's not much of that for me to tell - for the most part the people we hosted, served and worked with were remarkably wonderful, down-to-earth people and the few that left a bad taste in my mouth were likely going through a tough time or off their meds so with a couple of decades of distance between then and now, they're best ignored.  From that perspective maybe it was a little boring but that was the beauty of it - for most of the people we met, be they performers or audience, it wasn't about stardom or making money - it was about the music.  And drinking and sex, of course.  I mean, c'mon!

Finally, this is in no way a complete history of Rhythm Alley - it existed before me and it existed (albeit very briefly) after we sold it, but this is our story (me, Jeannette and RA), not its story.

I’ll be posting an episode a day for the next couple of weeks - hope you enjoy.

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