City Paper is not for tourists
Everyone has their own 9:30 Club story. Whether it’s a recollection of seeing The Smashing Pumpkins or Foo Fighters before they hit it big, a mesmerizing and utterly chaotic performance by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, or just one of the 80-plus performances by The Slickee Boys on its stage, the 9:30 Club holds a special place in D.C.’s heart.
And then there are the other stories. Like the time Edsel’s Sohrab Habibion saw Marion Barry at a Public Enemy show. Or when Thelonious Monster’s Bob Forrest was investigated by the Secret Service following a performance. These are the stories that, in the 35 years of the 9:30 Club’s existence—from its original digs at 930 F St. NW to its current home at 815 V St. NW—elevate it from a notable venue to a legendary one.
Few places in D.C.—let alone the country—have a reputation like the 9:30 Club’s: Rolling Stone has said it has the “Best Big Room,” “Best Sound,” and “Best Backstage” of any venue in the U.S.; Billboard has named it “Most Influential Club” and “Top Club” five times; and it has won Pollstar’s “Nightclub of the Year” award five times. And as long as City Paper has been doing its annual “Best of D.C.” survey, it’s been voted “Best Music Venue” by readers. It takes a village to amass accolades like that.
To celebrate its anniversary, the 9:30 Club has put out an oral and pictorial history book documenting the club’s 35 years of existence, compiled by author and curator Roger Gastman. Here, City Paper exclusively debuts excerpts and anecdotes from 9:30: A Time and a Place, 1980-2015 The First 35 Years. —Matt Cohen
Text and images © 9:30: A Time and a Place, 1980-2015 The First 35 Years, except where noted. Cover photo by Jim Saah, courtesy of 9:30 Club.
When History Began… Opening Night at the Original 9:30
The 9:30 Club would go on to become one of the most legendary and talked about clubs in the world. But every story has a beginning…
John Paige [former booker, promoter at 9:30 Club]: On our opening night (May 30, 1980) we booked the Lounge Lizards and Tiny Desk Unit. We booked them for the first two nights. The first night was meant as a thank you to all the people who had helped us out in the D.C. community, and the second night was open to the public. We were originally slated to have Joy Division open up, but that was unfortunately around the same time as Ian Curtis’ suicide. We got the Lounge Lizards, and they were great. Tiny Desk Unit opened, so they were actually the very first band to play the 9:30.
Bob Boilen [creator and co-host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered”; Tiny Desk Unit]: It was cool to be on a real stage with lights. It was an actual stage that was more than ankle deep. I’m going to guess it was probably two and a half or three feet high, which meant that you could see people and people could see you. That was awesome. It had a sound system that actually was good and permanent, and that was amazing. No other place I knew of had a sound system that was part of the venue. And there were real lights, cans of lights. So it felt like you were really playing on a stage in a venue. We had done it in New York, but this was special.
Dody DiSanto [original co-owner, 9:30 Club]: I was interested in having the club be a reflection of the people that supported it. A lot of things were generated by that impulse on my part. I wanted to do things that made people want to come there and made it feel like it was their place.
The Show Before the Club…
By Dody DiSanto
Pioneering the early stages of the D.C. downtown renewal, Jon Bowers (co-owner of the original 9:30 Club) purchased the Atlantic Building in 1979, along with the lease on the first-floor space previously operated as the Atlantis Club. The architectural icon was erected on F Street, Washington’s Great White Way, in the late 19th century.
At the time, F Street had become a kind of half-deserted carnie show. The building’s tenants were a cacophony of characters who epitomized all of SoHo in one single structure. There was a jeweler, a bail-bond bounty hunter, Queen Esther the coppersmith, a photographer, a restoration artist, an outcall massage service, the Rastafarian Live & Learn record mart and head shop, a violent poet, and the ghost of a deceased lady whose estate still maintained her record producing office, among many unique others.
Stretching the length of the 106-foot-long hallway, hung with fluorescent lights and painted drab brown, was a disheveled indoor-outdoor carpet, mopped diligently with Lysol by the janitor. One of D.C.’s very first elevators carried you up and down eight floors, hand-driven by a man who explained to you he was “operating on forgiveness.”
Who Dares Dwell In The Atlantic Building…
930 F Street was known as The Atlantic Building before The 9:30 Club ever existed, but the beginnings of the club’s legacy and emphasis on community were starting to form here. The Atlantic housed the bizarre, the avant-garde and many unique personalities, which set the stage for truth to once again be stranger than fiction…
Dody DiSanto [original co-owner, 9:30 Club]: It was a historical building and it had beautiful architecture. There was an article in the Washington Post in 1979 about the building and about the unusual tenants. At the time, that building represented a sort of SoHo for D.C. Anybody unusual was in there. The sculptor who designed one of the sculptures associated with the Vietnam Memorial was sculpting on the top floor, I think. There was a Rastafarian record mart, there was an advertising firm. It was just a funky old building.
Jared Louche [former staff]: The building used to be full of artists, including the penthouse on the top floor. There was an elevator, an old operator-run elevator. There was a woman who would sit in there and run the elevator up and down. She went away on vacation at one point in 1981 or 1982, and Dody said to me, “Do you want to run the elevator for a couple of weeks?” I just said, “Yeah, sure. It sounds like a lot of fun.” And it was. There were a million interesting people you got to talk to.
Christopher Johnsen [former tenant, 930 F Street]: One of the oddest things about living there was about a block away, there was the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building. I’d be eating my breakfast and I could see people through the window opening up the file cabinets. I just thought, “How bizarre is this?”
Robin Rose [Urban Verbs]: So one day we went down to see Paul Parsons [original furniture store owner at the Atlantic Building] to find a place like Atlantis so we could practice. Paul was a real character to say the least. He had a real scene going on down there, and I don’t know, he had a bunch of guys around who were close buddies and he would have these parties and get people like Ms. Washington D.C. and her soul band come to play downstairs, which would become the Atlantis Club. His buddies from Chinatown would do hors d’oeuvres and make the grossest Chinese food you ever had in your life. He was just a character and it came off like a party place—even in the building that place was in hysterics.
Seth Hurwitz [co-owner, 9:30 Club, I.M.P.]: In the Atlantic Building, Bill Warrell had this wonderful mutt Nicky. Everybody knew Nicky, who roamed the halls on her own. They had an elevator operator and Nicky knew what floor she lived on. You’d be on the elevator and see her getting on and off by herself all the time like it was this normal thing. It was a normal thing.
The only club so cool it had its own smell!
By Clara Jeffery (Mother Jones)
Twenty years ago, when I was a young staff writer at Washington City Paper, I wrote a column exploring the story behind mysterious objects in the city’s landscape. Forgotten monuments, weird street art, possible listening posts, and the stench of the 9:30 Club, “a certain combination of keg slop, butts, cloves, puke, and sweat-sopped polyester that stays with you—literally. Sashay into the club for the briefest of moments—to make an appearance or pick up a schedule—and you’ll be marked with the bar’s scent like a tree on your pet’s turf.”
Readers mailed in (with a stamp back then) their suggestions: “the blood of overweight, middle-aged Department of Agriculture bureaucrat who got sucked into the mosh pit while out on the town with his Killdozer-loving administrative assistant,” and the club’s employees were no less, uh, enthused: “You’ve put us up there with the monuments,” gushed booking manager Lisa White. “It doesn’t just smell like cigarettes and stale beer. It’s more pungent. It permeates your clothes and hair more than the typical bar smell. It clings to people. When I DJ on Friday and Saturday, when I go home I have to shower immediately, otherwise I can’t sleep!”
The club had tried to eradicate the smell to no avail; indeed, at its 14-year anniversary, it issued commemorative T-shirts asking, “Just What Is That Smell?”
So I enlisted the help of Dr. Robert Henkin, a “sick building” expert. We examined samples of historic bar rot, urinals, nicotine-soaked walls. After debating the (theoretical) possibility of employing a Gas-Liquid Chromatograph to pinpoint the various compounds at work—“I’m not sure you’d want to ruin your special mystique,” Henkin warned staffers—he solved the mystery. Each night, hospital-grade Lysol oxidized the nicotine and beer slop, creating free radicals—atoms with unpaired electrons, basically tiny Velcro-like spurs that seemed almost diabolically designed to catch on to hair or clothes. “They glom on to everything,” said Henkin.
The old 9:30 Club is gone. But for Washingtonians of a certain era, nostalgia for the smell faintly lingers. I live in California now, but every once in a while I find myself in a conversation about those days, those shows, that smell. And as often as not, the reminiscing will end like this: “You wrote that? I remember that piece! God, what a stench.”
Claudette Silver [former 9:30 coat check worker]: In the old club, there really was this funk, and it was a combination of cigarette, sweat, alcohol, and rat.
Rich Heinecke [co-owner, 9:30 Club, I.M.P.]: It permeated the club, and somehow also permeated your clothes. When you got home you wanted to just take all your clothes off, leave them outside and go in your house. You smelled that bad.
Amy Austin [publisher emeritus, Washington City Paper]: There was a column that we did, a “Mysteries of D.C.” column. People would ask us questions, and we would investigate it. People wrote us asking, “What’s that smell [at the 9:30 Club]?”
Lisa White [former local talent booker, 9:30 Club]: Washington City Paper did a story about the smell. They hired an expert to come over and determine what the root of the smell was. I gave him the tour of the club, and he determined that it was a combination of nicotine, beer, sweat, and rat piss. It was absorbed by the plaster walls and it exuded back out.
I Saw Them At The 9:30 Club Back In…
The shows played at the first 9:30 Club are the stuff of urban legend. It’s hard to believe fans still tell stories about who they saw there—lots of times even if they weren’t really there. It’s a badge of honor to this day for the bands and the audience members that lived through those shows. It’s hard to believe this all happened in one place.
Alec MacKaye [Faith, the Untouchables, former 9:30 staff]: The best show I ever saw was George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars. Part of it was because of the drama of just getting him there and onstage. He didn’t come for sound check. The rest of the band got on stage and started playing without him while he was still on his way. Finally he got there, and he was just passed out in a station wagon in the alley.The manager of the club was like, “He’s unconscious! He can’t play.”
His people were like, “Just get him onstage, you’ll see.” Six people just picked him up and ran up the back stairs and through the crowd. They put him up, feet first, and he just immediately went into his show.
He was just on fire. He played for about three hours. Every flat surface in the place had somebody dancing on it, in the basement, in the bathroom, in the back bar, everywhere. It was just completely oversold and over packed and every single person was having the time of their lives.
Amy Austin [publisher emeritus, Washington City Paper]: What I remember most were the go-go shows. In a city that at the time was known for its homicide rate and lack of inclusion between whites and blacks, go-go shows were a great way of bringing people together.
There was a lot of chanting back and forth. The audience was always right there with the performers. They were all together. It was very communal. There was a real sense of “one city.”
Mark Noone [Slickee Boys]: The 9:30 Club was neutral ground. It was kind of a white-boy club, but it was neutral ground. And that was a great thing. A lot of people still talk about that. 9:30 and I.M.P. would have Minor Threat and Trouble Funk play the same show, stuff like that. You would have things that were completely incongruous.
Eric Hilton [Thievery Corporation]: The Skatalites played there on all acoustic instruments, which was amazing. It felt like you were hearing ska the way that people heard it in the ’60s. It was probably one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Rich Heinecke [co-owner, 9:30 Club, I.M.P.]: Black Uhuru/Sly & Robbie played a few times. I remember one show where one very irate Jamaican fellow who couldn’t get in set a dumpster on fire out in the alley, just to create havoc. And it did. We had to clear out the club.
Big Tony Fisher [Trouble Funk]: We got the opportunity to play the 9:30 Club, the small one. There was one of those punk rock bands performing with us. It was kind of weird in the beginning because it was like, “OK, I don’t think this is going to be a good match.” But it was totally the opposite, man. They loved both acts.
Ta-Nehisi Coates [senior editor, The Atlantic]: The 9:30 Club wasn’t a hip-hop club, but there weren’t a lot of places doing hip-hop shows. I believe I saw the Roots for the first time at the old club. They played a great show, they were really impressive. They played some old school hip-hop songs and Black Thought would rhyme. I think they also called up some local hip-hop acts and let them freestyle.
Lisa White [former local talent booker, 9:30 Club]: One of the really fun things we used to do at the old club was Three Bands for Three Bucks night. Some bands that played those shows went on to be huge. Sonic Youth did one, Smashing Pumpkins did one and got paid $100.
Dave Rubin [DJ, former runner, 9:30 Club]: Prince, easily one of the biggest rock stars I had ever seen in my life at that point. I was like, “How the fuck am I going to meet him?” I got this idea to hang out at the other door that he’ll leave out of. I held the door for him as he limped out with his cane. I said, “You have a great night.” He looked back at me and said,“You as well.” He acknowledged me. That’s all I needed.
Craig Wedren [Shudder to Think]: Shudder to Think played a show there in ’92 or something. We finished our show and felt really good. We thought we had slayed. But there’s a yucky feeling when the club double books shows and they totally clear out the room. The band was allowed to stay, and there was some new band that was playing. They had a little bit of a buzz around them, so we were like, “Oh, well, let’s check it out.” It was Rage Against the Machine.
Ted Leo [Chisel, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists]: I remember playing there with Edsel once. In this period of the ’90s, when alt nation and Lollapalooza were happening, the shows got very chatty. Clubs were becoming more like “the place to be” than a place to really pay attention to music and watch the bands. Edsel’s singer, who’s now with Obits, had a plastic cup of water or beer. The crowd wouldn’t stop talking, so he whipped the cup to the back of the room. It hit the wall above this group of people who were being very loud. It was kind of inspiring.
A Capital City
The 9:30 certainly became synonymous with its host city, Washington, D.C. During the early years D.C. was a unique place in both good and bad ways. The bands who came into town saw it, as did the fans and staff who were living in the city. All of this played a part in shaping the events going on at 9:30 each night.
Dave Grohl [Dain Bramage, Scream, Nirvana, Foo Fighters]: I honestly think that the difference between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. is that the Washington, D.C. community—I don’t think anyone felt like the world was listening. It felt like this was ours, and that was enough. So there were these small little bars and nightclubs and community centers and VFW halls and churches where we kept the music scene alive. Whether it was the 9:30 Club or d.c. space or Reno or any of those places where people would put on these renegade shows, I think it was just to keep the music alive for us, and in a city like Los Angeles, you got industry, and you got fame and opportunity and career ambition, and I never felt that when I was young and in Washington, D.C. I just felt like everyone was doing it because they had to do it. They were burning inside and they had this passion and were dedicated to music and that was it. I think that a place like 9:30 Club was really important to keep that alive. So I think people eventually took notice of Washington, D.C., because what we had was really on our own, like we had character and the city had its own aesthetics and personality and I don’t think Washington, D.C., was trying to be anything or anyone or anywhere else than Washington, D.C. It’s what made it so great.
Nona Hendryx [Musician]: The period I played the 9:30 Club, the ’80s to the early ’90s, it was my home away from home for playing D.C. I don’t think I played another venue in Washington with the exception of a party to celebrate Bill Clinton winning the presidency in 1993!
Corey Glover [Living Colour]: There was always something political going on there. We started coming there during the [George H.W.] Bush era, and there was always someone saying something about something that was going on. There were always people who wanted you to sign a petition or get involved in one thing or another. There were always those kind of folks who came to the show.
Ted Leonsis [Owner, the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics]: I think it’s a unique mash-up of what makes Washington, D.C., one of a kind and special, and maybe the greatest city in the country. There’s an inordinate amount of talent that was spawned here and grew up here, and they see Washington, D.C. as home, and 9:30 Club was always aspirational for these people.
Bob Forrest [Thelonious Monster]: I was really drunk and I was on this kick ’cause I thought George Bush senior was going to run for a second term and I was like, somebody’s got to kill him. I started saying it at concerts and I said it at the 9:30 Club. The next morning, I found this all out from the reports of Secret Service and the grand jury thing, these kids, whose parents were in the Justice Department, were joking about what this guy said at the 9:30 Club last night. That’s how it got picked up. Then those parents went to work, one of them worked in the Justice Department and handed over to Secret Service, like there was a threat against the president last night at the 9:30 Club. I talked to the Secret Service, they got this report, they get them all the time, and they know drunk people say stupid shit. But then he background researched me on whatever federal computer they have and I was a registered member of the American Communist Party, and I only did that ‘cause I liked a girl that was in it in college.
Bob Mould [Hüsker Dü, Sugar, Blowoff]: You have institutions like that, and in a city that is filled with institutions, whether it’s the antiquities of America, the Smithsonian, or the government, or the military, these large establishments, and for us, what we do—we’re the lowly court jesters of late twentieth-century Western music—it’s nice to have plans when you’re out preaching door to door. You come and oh, this pulpit is nice, this stage is nice, it’s the set-up. This is really set-up to deliver your message to people. It’s important.
Sohrab Habibion [Edsel]: I saw Marion Barry hanging out at the back bar of the 9:30 Club. He was wearing a Senegalese kaftan, watching a Bad Brains video and waiting for the Public Enemy show to start.