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On a Friday night in late July, a crew of hired security guards stands in front of the Taj Maehall music club watching the action. There’s plenty to see. All around them throngs of shirtless go-go musicians, fans, and hangers-on are screaming at one another. The mess is so loud and frenzied that it’s tough to figure out who is mad about what. It gradually becomes apparent that the Taj Maehall’s owner, Kenny Johnson, has accused the night’s opening performer, go-go band Pure Elegance, of stealing the club’s chairs and has promptly booted them from the bill. The crowd expresses its feelings about that particular decision by pinning Johnson to the trunk of an unlucky BMW.
Johnson doesn’t look the least bit scaredjust angry he has to respond to the shit Pure Elegance is talking. The security guards aren’t too worried, eitherthey amble off for cheeseburgers at the nearby Checkers as things heat up a notch.
In the midst of all the chaos, go-go activist Maurice Shorter drives up in his cream-colored Mazda Millennia and darts into the melee in search of Johnson. Before he even steps out of his car, Shorter knows what’s up: Minutes earlier, he received a call on his cell phone from a clubgoer saying that Johnson had accused him of knowing what had happened to the chairs.
When Shorter finds Johnson, the two have at it for a few choice moments. Shorter eventually leaves, but only after insisting he has no idea what happened to the chairs. He isn’t sticking around for the resthe knows from experience that the scene will only unravel as the night progresses. “The whole situation here is preposterous,” he says, walking to his car. “Black people are afraid to come up here.”
Yelling at go-go club owners is nothing new for Shorter. As chairman of the Go-Go Alliance, he has been waging a crusade to shepherd D.C.’s most notorious homegrown music scene out of its troubled pubescence and into the mainstream, a bright future where indigenous talent draws crowds to safe stages throughout the city. It’s a mountainous taskgo-go shows have become synonymous with violence and thuggery, a stigma that hit the headlines in February when a patron of the Ibex club on Georgia Avenue allegedly killed Metropolitan Police Department Officer Brian Gibson outside the club. The authorities responded by closing the Ibex and other popular go-go venues.
Shorter, 35, grew up at Barry Farms, an embattled Southeast public housing project and a playground for the District’s early go-go bands. He regularly turned out for shows and became hooked on the music as a teenager. At age 19, he signed on as manager of Junkyard, one of the District’s premier go-go bands, and held the position for 15 years. Now headlines and politics are threatening the ground he has stood on since way back when. He’s pushing back, but Shorter knows in his heart that go-go is always going to be tagged as the bad boy on the block.
In a ceremony last February, Shorter was sworn in as a commissioner on the District’s Commission on Arts and Humanities, a panel that promotes D.C. artists and performers. The ceremonya schmoozefest for the local arts crowddrew an appearance from Mayor Marion Barry, who showed up to support his appointees to the commission. In a conversation with Barry, Shorter pointed out that even as the city authorities scrambled to shut down the clubs, go-go shows continued to go off in substandard venues that lacked security and a commitment to the safety of their audiences.
Shorter didn’t expect the mayor to do much about his appeal, but after a couple of meetings, Barry pledged his assistance in getting go-go bands into the D.C. Armory and the Kennedy Center, of all places. “I was surprised by his initiative,” Shorter remembers. “He called the Kennedy Center, and then he called me to see if they called. When they hadn’t called, he called them again, and two days later they ended up calling me.” Barry serves on the Kennedy Center’s board of trustees.
Kennedy Center president Larry Wilker sounded out Shorter on his plans for go-go, but made no commitments. At this point, says Kennedy Center spokesperson Tiki Davies, management is “taking [Shorter’s proposal] into consideration.”
When he wasn’t chatting up the city’s heavy hitters, Shorter got word out to its pipsqueaks. In a series of meetings this spring with advisory neighborhood commissions across the city, Shorter found that few community types knew what go-go was beyond being sure they didn’t want it anywhere near their neighborhoods.
Then came endless meetings with all varieties of D.C. bureaucrats. In each meeting, Shorter says, city officials pledged to move ahead with his requests to find public venues for go-go concerts. And after each meeting, he says, nothing happened. “We’re getting meetinged out,” says Shorter. “It’s frustrating.”
Despite the brouhaha over the missing chairs, the Taj Maehall show goes off as scheduled. The long hall is black and marred by spotty lighting. There’s no place to sit, and patrons wade in an inch-deep flood caused by a broken pipe. The women’s bathroom is unlit, and the men’s urinals are clogged. With no air conditioning and virtually no ventilation, the place is already steamy, even though a drum has yet to be whacked.
When Junkyard, the featured band, starts heating up, it’s no surprise that the crowd does, too. As Junkyard’s fans creep closer to the stage, competition for space intensifies. Sharp elbows and quick tempers give way to minibrawls. While his patrons are throwing haymakers on the dance floor, Johnson busies himself in a ticket booth, counting cash. After watching several fights from the stage, Junkyard lead talker Buggs Herrion stops the show. “Get these fucking knuckleheads out!” he booms.
Herrion abandons the stage, prompting an unplanned intermission. Standing outside in a weed-infested parking lot, Herrion says he tries to police the club from the stage but feels there’s nothing he can do if the club isn’t equipped to handle his crowd. “This is how I make my living,” he says. “What can we do?”
Not much, according to bouncer Stewart Prince: “[Johnson’s] had nothing but violations here. It’s one problem after another.”
While security guard Michael Robertson watches the action, a sound technician just a few feet behind him tackles two women and grabs at their breasts and crotches. The intermission has done little to soothe the crowd, as fists continue flying through the Taj’s thick air. Herrion calls it off again. “Get the fuck out! Get the fuck out!” he yells. The lights go up again, and the crowd begins to make its way out. With the entrance cramped, more fights ignite. “And lock the door, too,” another musician says half-jokingly, scanning the wreckage.
As the crowd dwindles, Herrion smiles and cues his drummer to kick out the beats one last time. The remaining kids rush the stage, relieved that the show will go on and that they don’t have to run the gantlet of angry patrons and security officers. This set, though, ends even more quickly than the last, thanks to another brawl on the floor.
In front of the club, exiting patrons hunch over and rub their eyes to banish the mace sprayed by security guards to quell the fighting. One of the security guards says there have been at least 12 brawlsnot counting the three in progress. The security guards stand still as go-go fans alternately beat and separate each other. Herrion takes a quick look at the mayhem and leaves. “It’s fucked up, that’s all,” he says. “If something happens [to me], they’ll know about it. I’m just trying to get home now,” he says. Johnson is still in his ticket booth.
Although Shorter has spent months battling with city officials, he says his real adversaries are the go-go club owners, whom he fingers for allowing violence and shabby conditions to become as much a part of go-go as the thud of the bass drum. Even though he depends on them to book go-go acts, he hasn’t been shy about letting them know that they’re a big part of the problem.
Last fall, for example, Shorter and the alliance sent letters to both the Ibex and the Taj requesting that they improve security, spruce up their facilities, and get rid of the rats. “Any time a guy won’t use your bathroom, that’s a sad statement about your club,” he explains. “Any time a woman comes with toilet paper in her hand and is not ashamed to let you see her with it, that’s a sad statement about your club.”
Both clubs’ owners refused to discuss the letters, according to Shorter. “They were like, ‘You’re not going to control me,’” he remembers. “‘You’re not going to tell me what I can do with my club.’”
Terrence Cooper, manager of Back Yard, a regular Ibex performer, shared Shorter’s concerns and confronted the club’s owner. “He normally would say they had a ‘three-month plan,’ a ‘six-month plan,’” says Cooper. “At least twice a month I would say something.”
Shorter tried to organize a boycott of the Ibex, but Back Yard balked. “If the band sticks to it, then something can be done,” he explains. “The owners will turn around.”
Nor has Shorter succeeded in getting Johnson to enhance the Taj’s hospitality quotient. Johnson says he is not required by law to have air conditioning and that the bathrooms get trashed by rowdy patrons. “They should be cleaned,” he explains. “We get girls throwing tampons everywhere. Girls go to the bathroom everywhere. They tear the place apart.”
That go-go bands agree to play in fetid dives is no surprise. The go-go scene has always been about survivalplaying anywhere, under any conditions. The music has never had a permanent home in its own birthplace, bouncing from churches and schools to clubs like the Atlas, Coliseum, the Kalorama Skating Rink, the old 9:30 Club, and Kilimanjaro. The Ibex was just this year’s model. Now Officer Gibson is dead and the Ibex is shuttered.
Shorter believes that go-go doesn’t drive people to wanton disregard for each other. If the music had a legit venue where people were treated decently, they would respond in kind. But as long as go-go is locked in dives, there will be another version of the Ibex coming along soon enough. “We’ve seen it; it’s a cycle,” he says. “[The police] come in and run up the entertainment establishments for a while and put the pressure on. They quiet down. When something happens, they come back again.”CP