There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Mark E. Smith wanted the desk chair, and he wasn’t going to leave without it. The famously cantankerous lead singer of Manchester post-punkers The Fall had recently broken his hip, and throughout the band’s April 13, 2004 show at the Black Cat, the singer had been using club owner Dante Ferrando’s rolling desk chair to maneuver around the stage. Now the show was over, and Smith had decided that the office furniture was vital to his ongoing recovery.
“Dante was like, ‘I don’t want to sell you my chair! You can’t have my chair!’” says Alec MacKaye, a veteran of the D.C. bands The Faith, Ignition, and The Warmers, and a former Black Cat employee. “But [Smith] wouldn’t leave, and he had his manager doing all the intercession between them. And finally they had to strike a deal on how much for the chair, and the chair became part of the band’s equipment that was loaded out.” The latest in a long line of touring musicians had left the Black Cat with a smile, a beneficiary of the D.C. rock club’s famous sense of hospitality.
Since opening its doors in September 1993, the Black Cat has been one of the best venues in the country for local and national indie-rock acts, a top-tier club with a pleasantly gritty vibe and a reputation for treating the customers and the talent right. The club’s culture is rooted in its history: The Black Cat’s origins lie in Jazz Age Manhattan and 1970s Dupont Circle. It was founded by Dante Ferrando, a native Washingtonian, a member of the D.C. hardcore and post-hardcore bands Iron Cross, Gray Matter, and Ignition, and a fourth-generation restaurateur. And it has survived the upscaling of both a neighborhood and a city while maintaining its welcoming, rough-hewn atmosphere. Following the shuttering of downtown music venues like the original 9:30 Club, the Insect Club, the 15 Minutes Club, and d.c. space, the Black Cat has persevered as a torchbearer of D.C. punk rock, a living monument to its inviting yet aggressively independent ethos.
And to its eccentricity, too. “The black and white tiled floor, the spotlights pointed straight down from the lowish ceiling, the pool table in the Red Room, and the small nook separated by a bead curtain, the Xeroxed ’zine the club published for the first couple of years with descriptions of the bands—those visceral memories of the old Black Cat are literally the feeling of rock ’n’ roll to me now, and always will be,” says The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison.
In a town whose underground rock scene is occupied by plenty of aging punks, the Black Cat, too, has grayed gracefully while generally shying away from overt self-memorialization. It’s certainly not atrophying: In recent months the club has pursued neighborhood and regulatory approval to build a third floor with a bar (while insisting that it has no set plans), and it maintains a busy, well-curated concert schedule. Its Food For Thought restaurant remains a cheap, necessary satisfier of late-night munchies on 14th Street NW, while its low-key Red Room bar is still the official after-party spot of any D.C. gathering that’s remotely punk-related. (Following an opening soiree for the Corcoran’s “Pump Me Up” exhibition earlier this year, there was only one obvious place to go.)
For its 20th anniversary this year, the Black Cat will gather an impressive lineup of bands from its history, including Girls Against Boys, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Shudder to Think, Tuscadero, Mary Timony, and Ferrando’s own Gray Matter, along with younger acts like The Shirks, The Max Levine Ensemble, and Coup Savage and the Snips. Before they take the stage—and undoubtedly share some tales between songs—here is a history of the Black Cat, told by some of the people who built it, played it, spun on its decks, collected its tickets, and made it a local institution.
Ferrando’s great-grandfather Luigi Ferrando, an Italian immigrant, opened the original Black Cat in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1909. “It was a restaurant, but you could also describe it as sort of a jazz piano bar,” says Ferrando. “Late-night arts crowd stuff, a weird mix of art scene people, jazz, opera, everything.”
The first Black Cat closed at the start of Prohibition in 1920, but Luigi would open another Black Cat club in New York in the early 1940s.
1950s and 1960s
Ferrando’s grandfather William Ferrando ran the Chevy Chase Lounge, a watering hole frequented by political figures and journalists like George Will and Charles Krauthammer. In the early 1960s, he opened Connecticut Avenue Caterers.
Bob Ferrando, Dante’s father, opened the Dupont Circle vegetarian restaurant Food For Thought in the space now occupied by Bistro Du Coin. In its day, it served as an epicenter of Dupont Circle’s artistic community, serving organic foods and hosting acoustic performances in the evenings. The restaurant was responsible for Dante Ferrando’s future work ethic, says MacKaye, who along with Dante worked at Food For Thought in the 1980s. “Dante’s dad basically built or repaired every single thing in Food For Thought,” MacKaye says. “It looked like a machine shop, with buckets of nuts and bolts and anvils. The air conditioning was installed in the 1930s, I think, and it was this huge, huge machine. No air conditioning company could figure it out or wanted to spend time on it. And so Dante’s dad would do that himself.”
Envisioning a hangout for a new generation of District bohemians, Ferrando decided to open his own place. “When I opened Dante’s, there was still d.c. space, there was the old 9:30 Club [at 930 F Street NW], and that was about it,” he says. “A lot of the other little clubs had fallen by the wayside. There were places that would pop up for a few years, Barbecued Iguana and stuff, but a lot of them didn’t last very long.”
Located at 1522 14th St. NW, at the southwest corner of 14th and Church streets, Dante’s Restaurant offered then-unusual items like espresso and microbrews, aiming to appeal to the burgeoning arts district. “Studio, Source, and Woolly Mammoth [theaters] were all here,” says Ferrando. “I figured it would be really nice to blend the music scene and arts scene with the theater crowd.”
By and large, the neighborhood was desolate at the start of the ’90s, and occasionally dangerous. “I remember after the Rodney King verdict [in April 1992], Chris Bald [from The Faith, Embrace, and Ignition], and [his friend] John Zylo were walking down 14th Street, and these guys rolled up on them, got out, said, ‘This one’s for Rodney,’ and just beat them in the middle of the street,” says MacKaye. “John Zylo also got shot in the face, walking home two blocks from Dante’s, going to get some money to go out. It was kind of a crazy scene down there.”
d.c. space shut down, leaving a vacuum for underground bands. Other downtown venues had closed, and “the old 9:30 Club was pretty hard to get into,” says Ian MacKaye, a member of Fugazi and The Evens and a co-owner of Dischord Records. “It was too big for small bands and too small for big bands. It was a great club, but the 9:30 in many ways created a music scene that was too big for itself. It made the room tiny, in a way. d.c. space was always a place for smaller bands.”
In the wake of d.c. space’s closure, Ferrando was eager to create a new music venue, one with a mix of local and national acts. “The 9:30’s focus was on larger stuff,” he says. “[9:30 Club co-owner] Seth [Hurwitz] was a promoter at heart, not a club owner. When he took over the 9:30 Club from Dody [DiSanto, who opened the club in 1980], he wasn’t focusing on local music or being a bar owner. He was focusing on developing bands that would get big and could play larger spaces. They did some cool local shows, but that wasn’t their main focus.”
For capital, Ferrando turned to family and fellow musicians (including former Scream drummer Dave Grohl). He appealed to locals who wanted to help with a locals-focused venue. “None of them wanted to lose the money they put in, and it wasn’t like they were doing it for some nonprofit charitable reason, but they weren’t trying to come up with a sensible investment,” Ferrando says. “They saw a need, and wanted to help me fill that need. The nice thing about that was that we didn’t wind up having to answer to a group of investors who were venture capitalists that wanted to see a certain return.”
Ferrando settled on a space at 1831 14th St. NW formerly occupied by a nightclub near the corner of 14th and T streets. “That space, at the point when we took it over, had originally been opened as a restaurant-slash-club when it had been remodeled,” he says. “It was called the Calabash. And then it shut down, and it was empty for quite a while, and then we moved in and remodeled it.
“We didn’t really have enough money to open the club when we opened it. It was definitely done on a shoestring budget. We did redecorating; we put in a sound system. We didn’t have the money to do real remodeling, we couldn’t move walls around and stuff.”
Nor could the venue sell alcohol at first, a handicap that can doom a new restaurant or club. “The liquor license battle was torturous,” says Ferrando. “We had scraped together just enough money to pull off the thing, and then some people in the neighborhood tried to fight us like crazy and managed to delay the liquor license…And to be fair, the club that had been here before, they didn’t like. So they were really worried about a large venue moving in. They thought it would be OK if a few restaurants opened on U Street, but they didn’t want to see a major expansion of nightlife in the area.” (The take of Ian MacKaye, notorious teetotaler: “[D.C.’s liquor] coding is so byzantine and nefarious. I don’t think it’s stringent because they really care; I think it’s because you have to be beaten in, like you have to be beaten into the gang. And if you can survive the pummeling, then you’re in.”)
On Saturday, Sept. 11, local art rockers 9353 played the Black Cat’s soft opening, followed by Idaho, Fudge, and Branch Manager on Sept. 12; Free Kitten (featuring Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon) and the Ian Svenonius-fronted Cupid Car Club on Sept. 15; The Fall with Slant 6 on Sept. 16; and Hoover opening for Rancid on Sept. 21.
“Most of what I can remember about The Fall show,” says Alec MacKaye, “was Mark E. Smith was in no shape to perform, and it was almost a debacle. But somehow he pulled it together with a little chemical help. It was a real nailbiter, because you want to start off with something memorable, but not all for the wrong reasons. But it was an absolute conquest when they finally roused Mark E. Smith and got him on stage, and he just killed it. They were great.”
In January 1994, the Black Cat finally got its liquor license. In its first few years, it steadily built a reputation for hosting some of the era’s biggest indie rock and alternative bands, including Shane MacGowan and the Popes (“I remember Shane MacGowan sitting at the bar downing an unprecedented number of margaritas,” says Chris Thomson, who played in Circus Lupus and The Monorchid and booked bands at the Black Cat. “All these girls were prowling the place walking right by him because he was in such rough shape.”); Blur, which played the club in 1997 just before “Song #2” exploded on radio and MTV; and Radiohead. (Thomson again: “Thom Yorke threatened not to play because the sound wasn’t up to his specifications.”)
In summer 1994, The Rolling Stones were preparing to kick off their Voodoo Lounge world tour at RFK Stadium and had been in town for a few days getting ready for the shows. One night, Mick Jagger was eating dinner at a nearby restaurant, and the waiter passed him a flier for the Famous Monsters party, a soul-punk night hosted by Svenonius at the Black Cat. “I’ve seen lots of celebrities in my time, but I’ve never seen a crowd move the way this crowd moved,” says Erin Smith of Bratmobile and Cold Cold Hearts, who was there that night. “[Jagger] is very short, and they moved in this weird swarm to give him room. The only person who spoke to him was Pumpkin Wentzel, who was in the band Guv’ner, and basically right away he left and walked back out.”
The Black Cat quickly gained a reputation for hospitality. “Having coffee when you come into a show is sort of important if you’ve been on the road all day,” says Ferrando. “Having a locking bathroom to use, and having a couch that doesn’t look like something you’re going to get crabs from. Those are kind of real basic, and not that hard to pull off, but pretty important if you’re in a van for a month or two and this is where you’re going to be when you get out of the van.”
Ian MacKaye connects the emphasis on comfort to Ferrando’s European tours with Ignition in the 1980s. “Ignition toured with a band called So Much Hate from Norway who was fucking hardcore. Grindcore, not black metal, but very hard,” MacKaye says. “The singer actually had an upside-down cross tattoo on his forehead. The circuit they were on was grisly. But one thing about the squatter circuit…they always fed you. They gave you a place to sleep or they fed you.”
At the Black Cat, that attitude has resonated with bands, says Syd Butler of the Brooklyn-based art-punk band Les Savy Fav, a self-described “Dischord brat” who once washed dishes at Dante’s Restaurant. “All the employees who have worked [at the Black Cat] all have the same aesthetic: The bands are most important. Which is the opposite of a lot of other clubs out there that Les Savy Fav has played, where they don’t give a shit about the band, and you’re just a piece of meat…Dante knows what it takes to be an independent band. It’s very easy to take care of somebody. ‘Here’s a hot meal. Here’s a beer. Welcome! Take your time leaving!’ It’s totally different when you play a Live Nation room. Your shit gets thrown out on the sidewalk right after you play.”
The Black Cat’s reputation for hospitality quickly filtered out to bands in other cities, but that wasn’t the only club policy that left an impression. “The Black Cat, it was always the rep that it was created by musicians with the right things in mind,” says Craig Finn, who’s played the Black Cat with his bands Lifter Puller and The Hold Steady. “Although there was this one funny thing: There was something kind of heavy, straight-edge about the signage in the dressing room. Like, ‘Don’t smoke ANYTHING,’ or something like that. They go an extra step in making sure you don’t smoke weed down there. I’d never seen that in any other club that I’d been to. Definitely seemed a nod to sort of the Minor Threat thing, where it’s like, ‘Don’t even think about smoking weed down here!’”
A straight-edge thing? Not quite. The no-drugs-backstage policy “has nothing at all to do with straight edge whatsoever,” says Ian MacKaye. “Dante was under a lot of fire. He didn’t want anyone giving the cops a reason to bust him. And he just didn’t have a good relationship with the authorities, like the ABC board, they were just not cozy. They were actively looking for ways to shut him down, and he didn’t want to give them anything to work with.”
Down the street, Dante’s closed in December 1995, when it was replaced by the Metro Café. “My initial concept was for [Dante’s and the Black Cat] to complement each other, but it didn’t work out that way,” Ferrando says. “The Red Room bar at the Black Cat ended up being better, and so we stole a lot of our own customer base from Dante’s, which really hurt.”
Following the Black Cat’s early success, it became clear to the owners of the 9:30 Club that some changes had to be made. “We had the only cool club in town that played national acts,” says Seth Hurwitz. “Dante opened another cool club, but this one had a bigger stage, nicer dressing rooms, and a larger capacity. I quickly learned one of my big lessons that I never forgot: It ain’t show friends, it’s show business. So all my so-called ‘friends’ were at the new kid’s house with the Xbox, while I still had the Nintendo 64. Now I knew what I had to do to win: Be better. So I basically said, ‘OK, top this, motherfuckers.’”
To top the Black Cat, Hurwitz moved the 9:30 Club from its downtown F Street NW digs to the old WUST Radio Music Hall at 815 V St. NW, near Howard University. “It got much tougher after [the 9:30 Club moved to V Street],” says Ferrando. “I think Seth realized, ‘I really have to put some money into this new place and do it right,’ and he did a great job.”
“When Dante was kicking our ass, which he unquestionably was when he opened, he was rather enjoying it too much for my liking,” says Hurwitz. “It motivated me…So when we opened and the tide turned once again, I think we both liked the idea of settling in and having our respective friendly corners. And it turned out nicely like that.”
“A lot of people thought that [the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club] were rivals, or hated each others’ guts, which was contrary to the truth,” says former Black Cat manager Bernie Wandel. “I do believe that Dante’s opening the Black Cat was really important to Washington, D.C. It was less of a ‘fuck you’ to the 9:30 Club, and more to make D.C. less of a one-horse town.”
The original Food For Thought closed.
In the lead-up to the Black Cat’s eighth anniversary, Ferrando was facing a rent increase and wanted to move into a bigger, better-appointed location. The owners of The Cage, a dance club down the street at 1811 14th St. NW (where, coincidentally, the 9:30 Club had planned to move before its new building became available), were looking to sell.
“[The Cage] was a weird place, because it was owned by people who didn’t really want to run a club,” says Wandel. “They had the venue, and they would license it out to people who would bring in their own bartenders and their own DJs and whatnot. There was really no middle management, and so it wasn’t really run very well, and so it never made any money, and so they lost interest in it. I remember hearing about it being up for sale, and I looked at Dante and I said, ‘Dude, that’s us.’ And the next thing you know, we’re buying it.”
“Moving into a bigger space was challenging,” says Ferrando. “We knew there were ways we could use the space, like separating out the restaurant spot and having the small stage be a separate room. There were a lot of things that were really great about it, but there was also the issue of the overhead, and would we be able to grow into the new space? Would it change the dynamics?”
To add to the uncertainty, the new location’s opening week coincided with one of the worst days in American history.
“We shut down on the eighth anniversary of the club, we were shut for three days, and in the middle of that was 9/11, so that threw a total wrench in the works,” says Dante. “It was a trip. But we opened on time and on budget. We had the entire staff rolling shit down the alley.”
“It was really a beautiful thing,” says Wandel. “People who lived in Virginia [who were part of the Black Cat’s renovation crew] came into the city anyway. They were told by police to not drive, so they found back-alley ways to get into the city, and we all painted and spackled and laid cable and put stuff up and cleaned things, and still got the place open on time.”
By Sept. 13, 2001, the Cage’s oak floors had been replaced with the club’s signature black and white tile, the familiar table-top art—by local artists and musicians—had been hung in the main room, the Red Room was red, and a new sound system was in place. Dance-punkers The Faint took the stage, followed the next night by local favorite El Vez.
“The first thing that I did [after 9/11],” says Alec MacKaye, “and that a whole lot of people I knew, did that was outside with other people, was the new Black Cat opening. And I DJed that night, and it was such an emotional thing. It wasn’t a huge number of people, but they were just touching each other, like, ‘Oh my God, we can do this,’ and it was such a relief.”
At 1811 14th St. NW, the Black Cat weathered D.C.’s smoking ban, the proliferation of new rock clubs throughout D.C., and the neighborhood’s rapid upscaling. Its old spot is now a design store. The club itself is sandwiched between a hip modern Mexican restaurant and a clothing boutique. More than a dozen restaurants have opened in its vicinity in the last year.
The indoor smoking ban that took effect on Jan. 1, 2007 “knocked out 5 to 10 percent of our bar gross,” says Ferrando. “It didn’t have a noticeable effect on concert turnout, but it was a big hit to our overall bar business, and we never got it back…Smokers were good regulars and would stay at the bar for a long time. Now they go outside to smoke, there’s more bar hopping, they’ll tend to leave, they’ll try a different place, they’ll head home.”
The emergence of venues like DC9, the Rock & Roll Hotel, and U Street Music Hall has also altered D.C.’s live music landscape, providing more places for bands to play and increasing competition for music fans. “Competing over shows is annoying from a business standpoint because you end up paying a band too much money, and then the ticket prices go up,” says Ferrando. “Where people think of competition as something that drives prices down, it does the opposite in this line of work; if me and the 9:30 Club are going after the same band, the only way to pay them more is for the ticket price to go up.”
Plus, the proliferation of clubs means more shows, which, at least according to Ferrando, has negatively impacted D.C.’s local music scene. “One thing I’ve noticed that really bums me out is that the local bands play as much as they’re asked to, basically. You can’t fault them; they’re not really thinking about it that much. If I offer them a cool show, they’ll take it. If Rock & Roll Hotel or DC9 offers them a cool show, they’ll take it. But next thing you know, that half-decent local band is playing three shows in three months. But if you’re their fan or a friend of theirs, but they’re not your favorite local band, you’re not going to go to all three shows. You’re going to go to one of them, whichever one is closest to your house or at whichever bar you tend to frequent more. And because of that, that band doesn’t draw that many people at any of those shows. They don’t have that ability to create a scene around them of people who are really excited about their band.”
But despite these challenges, the Black Cat remains a fixture on 14th Street. Since its arrival two decades ago as a harbinger of the changes that would envelop the area, the club has evolved into a neighborhood anchor. Through bureaucratic hassles, ANC opposition, shifting citywide demographics, the ebb and flow of the local punk and indie-rock scenes, and steadily stiffening competition, the Black Cat stands today as a landmark of Washington nightlife, a required destination for any D.C. punk fan.
“When The Damned come through, there’s no question [where they will play],” says Alec MacKaye. “Washington, D.C., is the Black Cat to them, and they don’t think about it any other way. Which is great, because the first time they came through they played The Bayou [in 1979, with the Bad Brains opening], which was a hideous, shithole bar…At that time The Damned couldn’t have cared less, they were happy just to make some money. But they toured for over 35 more years, and I think they began to appreciate the places that treat them right. So The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, a lot of these bigger, older bands just insist on [playing the Black Cat].”
“It’s a god’s honest real clubowner’s club that does bands that Dante finds worthy and sticks with them as long as they stick with him, and that’s not afraid to let them go when they get silly,” says Hurwitz. “So the people of D.C. should be grateful that they have someone like Dante with the integrity to find them good music. This is a real music club, the way real music clubs are supposed to be.”
Brandon Gentry is the author of Capitol Contingency: Post-Punk, Indie Rock, and Noise Pop in Washington, D.C., 1991-1999, released by Garrett County Press in 2012.