Rock/pop Clubs by Night
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Jazz Bands in Town
Geno’s, the underground rock club at 13 Brown Street, celebrates 20 years in the business of damaging eardrums next weekend, with a three-day concert featuring more than 20 of the bands that have made their name there. In Portland, a town where nearly every rock club comes and goes in the span of a just few years, the endurance of Geno’s is nothing short of astonishing.
What is it about the charmingly decrepit basement bar that’s kept drawing people to shows for the last two decades? Is it the fake wood paneling? The dim lighting? Is it the carpeted stage? According to Barb Moran, bar manager for most of the club’s existence and booker for the last 12 years, it’s all about the mixology, baby. On stage, says Barb, " you can have seals one night and monkeys the next and no one will bother you. But it’s when you have bad Bloody Marys " that people stop coming.
Drinks aside, though, Barb is a dedicated fan and patron saint of just about all the monkeys and seals this town has had to offer. Anyone brave enough to descend the staircase leading down to the bunker-like rock club has discovered that, despite its rough-and-tumble punk-rock reputation, Geno’s is a charmingly unpretentious club hosting a wide variety of musical styles.
A rock club going out of business, fading away, or being forcibly shut down, is nothing new in this town. Our live-music scene, from the bars to the band names, is a rich, ever-changing mosaic, so it stands to reason that a club would go out of fashion. A rock club sticking around for 20 years, that’s news.
But this town wasn’t always so blessed with musical venues. There was a time before rock clubs even existed in Portland. The 1940s? ‘50s? ‘60s?
Walk into any bar in Portland today and there’s a good chance of encountering some form of live music. But that wasn’t always the case. When Bill Dowd, a young fellow with an ample handlebar moustache, looking every bit like a Byrds–era David Crosby, opened up Popeye’s Icehouse in the West End, he installed the best jukebox in town, but the space just wasn’t big enough to fully realize his vision for filling what he saw as Portland’s gaping musical void. He managed the place for a year, before finding a venue in which he could expand into live rock music: the Capitol Motors building on North Boyd Street on the corner of Marginal Way and Fox Street. He called it the Loft.
" It was rough; it was nothing, " Dowd remembers. " I don’t think it had been used for two or three years, but [the owner] gave me a couple of months free rent to open it up and I scraped together the rest of the money, kind of worked night and day to put it together and opened up with [the band] Sweat Grease, and there was a line out the door. We probably held five- or six-hundred easy. It was wild. "
It was 1975, and Portland had never seen anything like it. Besides a few gigs a week in hotel bars and restaurants, there had never been a club devoted to regular live music. On the other end of the spectrum, big national acts would occasionally roll through town and play a large venue like the Expo or City Hall. There wasn’t a whole lot of middle ground. But people were hungry for it. " The time was ripe, " says Dowd. " There was such a demand for it, you know. And there was a line almost every night for the next two or three years. "
They may have kept coming back because Dowd poured a hell of a lot of money into the club. After two years, according to the Maine Sunday Telegram, Dowd had sunk more than $250,000 into the place, installing ceiling fans, bar, walk-in cooler, and a mammoth sound system. Richard Julio, who owned the Wax Museum record store on Fore Street at the time, remembers it was " never overly loud, " the sound system " had a nice, warm, rich sound. " Dowd clearly knew to spend his money on the stuff that mattered: keeping the beer cool and the PA system top-notch.
The club’s image, too, was in keeping with Dowd’s pioneer spirit (and image: see his picture, this page). Originally a warehouse, the Loft retained the scuffed concrete floor, garage doors, and some of the original barnboard walls. " I bought some old wagon wheels at a junk shop and put some lights on them, " says Dowd. " It was a country atmosphere. " Laid back. No frills. Right down to the clientele.
" The audience was good, " Julio says. " They weren’t into any trendy thing. They were just people out for a good time. The dance floor would be packed. There were some hot summer nights there where people would be crammed in. " Ceiling fans maybe, but no A/C.
The music was pretty straight up the middle — Sunday night was country & western; Monday, blues; and the rest of the week was filled in with a hell of a lot of ‘70s rock bands like locals the Blend, who signed to MCA and had a minor hit with " I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, " and Oak.
Barbara Beardsley, writing in the March 16, 1979, edition of The Portland Independent, described a typical show there with cover-band Oak: " Directed by the gesticulations of lead singer Rick Pinette, the band moved through tunes from Styx to Steely Dan with great aplomb. A particularly luxuriant version of ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ was the technical masterpiece of the evening . . . The suspendered Pinette, with prancing choreography, aroused the dancers and listeners. "
The Loft did manage to maintain its more roots-rock side with near-constant gigging from Bill Chinnock, who had albums on Atlantic and CBS, and who, in 1976, released a live LP on North Country that he recorded at the Loft called Alive at the Loft. For $3, one could’ve caught Tom Waits slumped over the baby grand pre–Swordfishtrombones. And Maine country-music legend Dick Curless even played the Loft on occasion. Surprisingly, he didn’t pack the place like many of the now-forgotten bands, but had a pretty decent following. His daughter actually ended up marrying Chinnock, who recently directed a documentary about the late Curless for PBS.
Towards the end of the club’s existence, around 1980, the Loft began booking a few punk bands — Julio remembers " some new-wave bands out of New York that had played on the now classic double-LP Live at CBGB’s (the Shirts maybe?), and the Ramones.
" I remember going up to [guitarist] Johnny [Ramone] and saying that I had read somewhere that he was collecting Famous Monsters of Filmland (it had pictures of monster movies and articles) and I had issue number one. In some interview I had read, he rattled off a dozen issue numbers that he had in the top of his head — and they weren’t consecutive. So I said, ‘Do you want it?’ And then he spoke in a very high nasally voice, which kinda threw me off because I had never heard his voice before that time, and he goes, " and here Julio does his best Johnny imitation:
" ‘Oh, I have that. Somebody gave it to me.’
" And I’m thinking ‘Whoa! I would never give it to him; I was hoping I could sell it!’ " he laughs.
Dowd scored a promotional money clip from the band after doing them a favor. " I can’t even remember what it was to be honest with you, " Dowd says, " but they really appreciated it. I don’t think they were used to club owners being nice to them. " One can only imagine what the Ramones could have needed.
After the initial success of the Loft, Dowd opened Bottoms Up (where the Great Lost Bear is now on Forest Avenue) in ‘78 as more of a dedicated listening-room type of venue and, in the Old Port, Squire Morgan’s, in ‘81. However, due, in part, to the state’s drinking age jumping from 18 to 20 in October of ‘77, and the proliferation of live clubs in general, Dowd was forced to shutter the Loft in 1980.
" The Old Port wasn’t even hardly there when I first started, " explains Dowd, " so if you wanted to go out on a Friday or Saturday night, or any night for that matter, you went to the Loft. And then somebody opened up a blues place, somebody opened a rock place. It got fragmented. " Dowd held onto the property for years after he closed down the Loft, during which time it was home to several other music clubs, including the Great Northeast Music Hall, and the Free Street Pub (which had moved from lower Free Street but, inexplicably, kept its original name).
The Plaza Hotel, formerly the respected Graymore Hotel, had seen better days when the Downtown Lounge opened up on its ground floor in 1979. Kim Murphy, reporting in the June 30, 1980, issue of the Evening Express, put it this way: " The last time I was at the Plaza Hotel on Preble Street it was 1972. I covered a murder. A 63-year-old man who lived there was stabbed with a screwdriver. "
But as any enterprising young club owner knows, the seedier the better, or at least cheaper (whether it be a run-down hotel, burlesque hall, or a former porn theater). Will Jackson, a music writer and reviewer for Sweet Potato, the local-music rag at the time (and the precursor to FACE), understood this. Fred Muccino, then owner of the hotel, was looking for someone to book the lounge with anything, as long as it made money. And with the 99-cent cover charge and 275-person capacity, Jackson made it work for about a year. It helped that the bands he booked — mostly punk and new wave — played for little or nothing, including bands like the Squares, the Neighborhoods, the Dawgs, the Thrills, the Remakes, the Nuns, and the Donns, according to a Maine Times article from May 9, 1980. Sounds like a good venue for the Strokes or the Hives, eh?
Many of Boston’s finest made the trek to Maine to play the Lounge, like Jonathan Richman and Mission of Burma, as did the Lyres, another Boston punk band, fronted by the Farfisa–playing " Monoman " Jeff Conolly. Between bands’ sets, and often segueing into them, Richard Julio DJed at the club with one Tim Warren, who later founded Crypt Records. When Warren put out the Lyres’ Early Years Live 1979-1983, he called up Julio, who had recorded a particularly blistering set from May, 1980. Of the handful of tracks from the DTL that made it onto the record, Ned Raggett, writing on AllMusic.com, says, " the club-show tapes are of a slightly furrier fidelity, but no matter — there’s plenty of sass all around. "
Barb Moran, now manager/booker of Geno’s, remembers the club fondly. " That was funky. I mean, that was sophisticated. You sat down at a lit table, with a little candle, and you just felt like you were in New York City instead of Portland, Maine. It had great ambiance. The décor was early ‘40s — you just felt like you were gonna talk to Bogart any second. " That is, of course, if you could make your way through the barflies and often inert drunks at the outer bar first. " The room was such that there was dancing in the middle and tables surrounding that, so you had views all the way around of the dancers and that was really cool and kind of sedating: You could get loaded and watch these people dance. "
People-watching was at least half the fun with many of the clubgoers on a good night looking for all the world like Joe Jackson in the album photos for Look Sharp! — all perilously pointed shoes, tailored sports coats, short hair, and skinny ties. That was on the tame side, however. Journalist Kim Murphy’s fish-out-of-water foray into the club yielded sightings of " a boy with blue lipstick. The second person I noticed was a girl with a garbage bag wrapped around her like a sarong. There was no garbage in it. She also had an aluminum foil horn above her right ear. "
The inventive threads came from numerous raided attics, Salvation Army stores, and, on Center Street, Tijger Trading, a hip store that stocked hair dye, vintage ‘50s and ‘60s duds, shoes, sunglasses, fanzines, punk 45s, and skinny neckties, of course, and was run by Beth Blood, who now owns the similarly themed Suitsmi on Danforth Street.
But despite all the ink spent describing the " outrageous! " fashions of the club kids, it really was all about the music and the frenetic dancing. As Blood’s band mate in the Stains said in the Evening Express, " punk is for people who don’t like what they see when they look around. New wave is for people who don’t look around. "
That said, it wasn’t long before the good days at the Downtown Lounge were at an end, despite the success (or perhaps because of it) of October 30th’s Halloween party featuring the debut of Bebe and the B-Sides, a screening of The Mummy vs. The Punk Rockers, and " an evening of horrible music from the archives of the Wax Museum. "
In an article entitled " The invasion of the sleazoids " in the November 13, 1980, edition of the Evening Express, local music columnist Dyke Hendrickson reported that manager/booker Will Jackson had been let go in favor of Johnny-come-lately Keith Ward, " and the hardline adherents don’t like it one bit. " According to Hendrickson, " Ward, who has been living in Portland just three months, rode the crest of the successful Bebe Buell show to his present position. He handled sound for the recent event, and also administered the admission procedures. "
But the troops rallied: " Rock followers disgruntled at the treatment of Jackson have, in fact, organized a boycott of the lounge. Protestors, calling themselves C.A.S.T., an acronym for Committee Against Sleazy Takeovers, say ‘sleazoids are in control.’ And they vow to fight for Jackson’s return. " (Such a high-tension brouhaha in club land — glad nothing of the sort exists today!) The club’s owner cited lack of a profit for the change in management: " The punk rockers don’t drink — they just listen to the music and dance. "
Ten days after Hendrickson’s article was published, the DTL witnessed another monumental evening with a sell-out show from Buell’s band, with Rick Ocasek, Greg Hawkes, and Benjamin Orr of the Cars in attendance. But the wave had crested. The Downtown Lounge was kaput. Four years later, the entire building was demolished (the Portland Public Market sits there now).
Roots to branches
By the late ‘80s, the local music scene had come a long way from the one-club-town days of the Loft and the first, tentative steps of a genuine scene at the Lounge. The Old Port, no longer a deserted wasteland of abandoned warehouses all " dreary London, Jack the Ripper and shit, " according to Barb, was coming alive with clubs, bars, eateries, and tourist shops. And a few club owners were upping the ante in terms of nightlife.
In 1987, Herb Gideon opened the Tree Café at 45 Danforth Street, in the building that now houses Sisters. Gideon had owned the building for years, previously leasing the space to Jim Peterson, whose Jim’s Neighborhood Café had its share of bands on stage. But, in some ways, Gideon’s vision was wider in scope than anything Portland had witnessed to date.
" The Tree was wonderful. Herb spent a fortune renovating the building, " says Julio, who DJed there occasionally. Gideon actually put in about a year’s worth of work on the place before opening his doors.
" My idea was to open a ‘performance space,’ " says Gideon in an email interview, " specifically built for that purpose with all the ingredients for great performance to occur, both planned and spontaneous. " Gideon constructed a truly multi-faceted space, too, with a balcony looking down on the main floor and two stages, one small, one large, depending on the size and needs of the band, that could collapse into the wall if they were not being used. Pretty handy if you’re going from Jim Carroll on a Thursday night to the 21-piece Sun Ra and his Cosmic Love Arkestra on Friday.
For the club’s three-and-a-half years, Gideon stayed true to his vision, booking a truly diverse range of acts — John Cale, Camper Van Beethoven, the Indigo Girls (they were paid $35 and dinner: eat your heart out, Sisters), Pere Ubu, Circle Jerks, the Pixies, the Mamas and the Papas, Young Fresh Fellows, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Toots and the Maytalls, Soundgarden, Killing Joke, and the Innocence Mission. Toots and the Maytalls, who played there half a dozen times, were one of the many reggae artists who played the Tree, thanks to Gideon’s childhood in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Gideon was able to land some of these big-name national and international acts by booking them on off-days, mid-week, when they were on the move between higher-paying weekend gigs in Boston and Montreal. " Great acts either on their way up or on their way down — occasionally at their peak, looking for a perfect setting in which to try out some material unannounced, would welcome a venue that had all the right technology in place, " like an impeccable sound system literally built into the wall, says Gideon.
The great acoustics were a " happy accident, " according to Gideon, that garnered kudos from Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) and Mick Fleetwood, who reportedly said to Gideon, " I haven’t heard sound like this in any club from London, Singapore, New York, to LA. "
" What I saw in Portland in the mid ‘80s was an opportunity to build a small venue in which great performance could happen on a daily basis, " says Gideon. But trying to fill a 300-seat venue seven nights a week in Portland, even if you have the kind of quality acts that Gideon did, was (and still is) a tough thing to achieve. " It was too much for Portland, " Gideon admits. " The market was not adequate to support the aggressive scheduling that we attempted. "
Though the Tree established the model for successive night clubs in Portland — Zootz the following year, Granny Killams, Stone Coast Brewing Co., the Skinny — American Federal Savings Bank of Sanford foreclosed on Gideon’s mortgage in March of 1990. Gideon later packed up his bags and moved to Austin, Texas, where he’s still involved in the arts; he’s hard at work on the Film Conference and Festival portion of the annual SXSW music showcase.
Walking past the building a few years back, after seeing an amazing set from Grant Lee Buffalo across the street at the Stone Coast, I noticed that the gigantic elm, one of the trees for which Portland was dubbed " Forest City " and which inspired the name of Gideon’s club, had been cut down, one of the final victims of Dutch Elm Disease.
New Year’s Eve, 1983, Barb Moran walked down the stairs at 13 Brown Street to grab a pre-party drink and came back up with a job offer. Eugene D’Alessandro Sr., " Geno, " actually tried to get Moran to work for him that night.
" I had worked 11 New Year’s Eves in a row, " recalls Moran, " and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to a party. I just spent $300 on an outfit and shoes — you’re nuts!’ But I thought he was a great guy and I pondered the thought that night. So I went to this lousy party and I came back at two (bars were then open until two on New Year’s) and said okay. "
Geno Sr., after giving the Brass Rail pub on Morrill’s Corner an overhaul in the early ‘70s, had been looking high and low for a space to open a live-music club. He found it in the basement of the old Bernie’s Fashions building, replacing the Pickle Barrel Deli (look closely at the street-level doorframe next time you go and you’ll spot the original " pickle barrel " bulge).
After knocking down a few walls, retooling the bar, and constructing a small stage, Geno’s was open for business and ready to rock. Almost.
After his record store closed, Richard Julio had been heavily involved in the record mail-order business. " One day, " he says, " Kip Brown, a guy I know, he came by and he was in a band called the Restless Hearts, and he says, ‘Hey, Rich, I found a place . . . Geno’s on Brown Street, so I went down there and it’s got a stage and everything. My band’s playing — do you wanna come and do the door for me?’ And I said ‘sure.’ And I thought ‘Wow, this place has a lot of potential.’
" Other bands were starting to come out of the woodwork and Geno was writing down their numbers on little scraps of paper and losing them behind the register and double-booking nights, so I made a proposal to him one night. "
With the contacts he’d developed during his record-store days, Julio put together a good lineup for the month and designed and Xeroxed a bunch of calendars, which have become a Geno’s tradition (most of them now adorn the walls of the club). Plan 9 and the Del Fuegos were on that first calendar, as well as Lou Miami and the Kosmetix, a band Julio had met when they played the Downtown Lounge; and some local groups like the Hopelessly Obscure and the Fashion Jungle, which featured former Phoenix classical writer Doug Hubley.
" A career isn’t going to be made or broken at Geno’s, " says Julio, " but it was a good place for bands to go and make their mistakes for when they get to critical audiences. "
New Hampshire punkers the Queers played there back in the ‘80s, supporting their fellow statesman GG Allin. Allin, with his band the Jabbers, had played the Downtown Lounge previously, but had grown ever more outrageous in his onstage antics (this is the guy who regularly smeared himself with his own shit, cut himself, and started fights with the audience). By the time he played Geno’s (with his new band, the Scumfucs), he had gone too far over the top: After allegedly grabbing a waitress’s breast, he was quickly hustled out the back by Julio.
For the most part, though, the rabble at Geno’s was respectful. It might have been " Halloween every day " for its first seven years of existence, but Moran points out that " the behavior was wonderful, too. Everybody maintained. So even though we had the wildest of shows back then, everybody was cool, so I think that was why we were able to go on. "
In the beginning, kids were forming punk bands left and right, but most of them were primitive at best. " The bands maybe had 15 or 20 minutes of material, " says Moran, " so you could do eight acts a night no problem. " But over the first few years, many of these musicians matured, " people like Jordan Krantz, " who plays now with Big Meat Hammer. " He had the Gorehounds back then, he was Jordan and the Half-Transplants at one point, and he’s Gore Productions to this day, " Moran says, referring to his promotions and recording company.
" I don’t know anybody who’s stayed so true to his style. I call him the Woody Allen of punk. "
It was, at least partially, due to Kip Brown’s help that so many of the bands who gigged regularly at Geno’s grew artistically, according to Moran. " Kip Brown taught everybody in this place how to play guitar. He’d hook up people who knew like three chords and advance them on his time, we all call him the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll around here. Rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, I mean, he plays guitar with a beer bottle, behind his head, between his legs — you talk about being entertained. "
During Julio’s tenure as booking agent, roughly the first third of Geno’s existence, he put together a good mix of national and local acts — DOA, Blood on the Saddle, the Fleshtones, the Chesterfield Kings, the Insect Surfers from away; and the Pathetix, the Kopterz, Bates Motel (who will reform for a special appearance for Geno’s 20th Anniversary weekend), and Pastiche from Portland.
He eventually got burnt out and Nancy Chalmers, who still puts on the annual Oysterstomp rockfests there, booked the bands for the next few years. Moran said the booking was " difficult " for Chalmers. " She tried to book out-of-state bands more and we lost sight of some of the local bands during the process.
" Then we had a year that we didn’t have bands, " says Moran. " We thought, ‘We’ve had enough, we wanna reassess.’ " Then, the food stopped (Geno’s had food?!?). The crowd thinned.
" Things got quiet, " says Moran, " and we said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ and I said, ‘Well, I have so much contact with bands, why don’t I try to develop my deal and book the club?’ And I’ve been doing it ever since. " At this point, Barb’s reign has lasted nearly 13 years, beginning with punk, dishing out healthy doses of hair metal, and returning to the club’s garage-rock roots. Her regime shows no sign of weakening: Young bands still cut their teeth on that stage (audioblacK, the Points, Confusatron), oddballs still mature in those depths (Eggbot, the Horror), and the original denizens are still rocking (Krantz’s Big Meat Hammer, Julio’s Lady Kensington and the Beatlords, and Kip Brown’s Pontiffs play there just about monthly).
" The first rock club, the last rock club, " proclaims the Geno’s motto. Well, it may not be the first, but with an almost cockroach-like resilience, it may just end up being the last.
Thanks to John Rolfe for his many suggestions and remembrances. Josh Rogers can be reached at email@example.com
Geno’s 20th Anniversary Party features audioblacK, the Points, the Pub Crawlers, Down to Kill, the Skids, Ogre, Redeemer, and Big Meat Hammer, on March 28; the Hot Tarts, Hollerin’ Man, Urban Creeps, Long Black Veil, Capitol Gunmen, Lady Kensington and the Beatlords, and Jenny Jumpstart, on March 29; and Welfare Mafia, Eggbot, Joe Mazzari Band, the Pontiffs, Bates Motel, the Vatican Sex Kittens, and Barbie and the Bruizerz, on March 30, at Geno’s, Portland. Call (207) 772-7891.
Issue Date: March 20 - 27, 2003
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