Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
A homely ghost of a building, Strick’s sits on a desolate stretch of Branch Avenue just across the District line in Prince George’s County. On a Saturday afternoon it looks not only closed but abandoned, a decrepit Roadhouse of Usher ready to crumble at any moment. An unlit trio of neon signs still promises “COCKTAILS,” “DINING,” and “DANCING,” but there hasn’t been much of the last two activities here for years. Recently, a sad-faced man came in and took the jukebox away. The only thing keeping the place alive is a bustling booze-thru business in an adjoining liquor store.
In the tiny, silent bar, Mark Opsasnick talks about this 60-year-old dive with a reverence and emotion that borders on melodrama. You’d think he was Gibbon weeping among the ruins of ancient Rome: “When I walk into Strick’s, I’m walking into a part of history, and I think back on all that transpired here…and I’m just amazed by it all. This place had such an incredible history.” He reels off the names who headlined back in the ’50s and ’60s: country legends Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, and Jimmy Dean, rock heroes like Link Wraylocal yokels who became international stars. This was hard-core Southern music, and a tough crowd to match. There weren’t just the usual fistfights here, says Opsasnick, but epic all-night brawls that ended only when former rivals patched each other up over coffee at daybreak.
Taking a breather from the drive-thru window, the barmaid drifts in and confirms Opsasnick’s ravings. She was a customer back then, having moved to Washington from North Carolina after World War II. She points to where the dance floor once was; it’s now a storage room for the liquor store. “I saw ’em all play here,” she says, adding, “I never did like Jimmy Dean. He was nastyjust very rude.” She says the racket from Strick’s resounded clear back to the bluff at the District line. “My friends said, ‘C’mon, we’re going to take you where you can hear some real hillbilly music,’” she continues, “so we drove for what seemed like forever, and when we got to the top of the hill, you could hear the band playingthat’s how loud it was.”
Opsasnick nods in silent recognition; this is the sort of anecdote that first got him interested in penning a history of the Washington music scene. During his obsessive researching, he made a ritual of stopping by Strick’s. “I wanted to soak up the atmosphere,” he says, “to try to really understand what it was like in an era that has vanished.” After more than four years, he has finally finished Capitol Rock, a self-published book that covers 1951-76, from the dawn of rock to the birth of punk.
The first study of D.C.’s early rock culture, Capitol Rock is a feast of arcane, often fascinating detail, conjuring a long-lost world of innocent teen dances and rowdy honky-tonksand a time when rock bands still dressed in suits and smiled for publicity photos. It features extensive profiles of well-known musicians like Nils Lofgren and Jack Casady, as well as legendary bands like the Hangmen, the Cherry People, the Fallen Angels, and Razz. Early on, Opsasnick decided to leave the local R&B scene to another author, instead focusing on the Washington area’s transition from a country-music mecca to a haven for some of rock’s greatest guitarists, including the doomed triumvirate of Link Wray, Roy Buchanan, and Danny Gatton.
With its barrage of obscure names, dates, street addresses, and you-were-there data, Capitol Rock reads like a diary from a veteran insider. In fact, though Opsasnick is a Prince George’s native, the 35-year-old missed the entire scene. He spent the ’60s listening to his older brother’s Beatles records; in the ’70s, he was a long-haired jock from Greenbelt hooked on arena rock. (His musical awakening came via a copy of Alice Cooper’s Killer; his mom checked it out for him at the local library.) The fact that he wasn’t there simply stoked his curiosity. After hearing so many wild tales from locals, he realized his home county was rich in musical lore; he wanted to know more but discovered there was virtually no published material. “Rock books have completely ignored the Washington scene,” he says. After some encouragement from local music maven Joe Lee, owner of Joe’s Record Paradise in Wheaton, Opsasnick decided to write the book he couldn’t find.
But his project proved an arduous one. Sure, he was an unrepentant Robin Trower fan, but he made his living as a social worker, not an author. The only writing Opsasnick had done was a few articles on unexplained phenomena for the Rockville ‘zine Strange. When he contacted longtime music journalists and promoters for assistance, he was roundly rebuffed. To them, Opsasnick was an uncredentialed upstart invading their turf. “They would ask what newspaper I was with,” he recalls, admitting, “I’m a nobodyI’m just a local nothing who’s interested in this subject matter.” The rejection merely steeled his resolve to become Washington rock’s first chronicler.
What ultimately saved the project was the enthusiasm of those who really made the scene happen in the first place: local musicians. Opsasnick interviewed more than 200 former and still-performing rockers, many now scattered across the country. There’s the incredible saga of Punky Meadows, whom Opsasnick dubs “D.C.’s undisputed hard rock/heavy metal guitar master.” Raised in Southeast, Meadows spent the ’60s and early ’70s leading first the English Setters and then the Cherry People, before forming Angel, which broke the infamous D.C. jinx (that local bands must leave the area to make it). Known for their white satin suits, virtually illegible ultra-’70s album lettering, and cosmic yearnings, Angel was a metal-glam band that released several records (including Helluva Band, On Earth as It Is in Heaven, and Sinful) on Casablanca, and toured with labelmates Kiss. Meadows relates a gripping narrative of life in rockdom; he now operates a tanning salon in Northern Virginia.
And the book celebrates lesser-known performers who are nonetheless legendary among their fellow musicians, if not the general public. There are extensive sections on veteran drummers like Timm Biery and Mike Zack, founder of ’60s teen-band Lawrence and the Arabians, and a member of Wild Honey, the psychedelic trio Puzzle, and the (apparently seminal) Cherry People, among other fondly remembered groups.
For Opsasnick, the real thrill came in documenting the obscure careers of locals who never made the big time but developed local cult followings. There’s Joe Tass, a protopunk guitarist who was spitting fireballs into the audience years before Kiss. Opsasnick says his favorite D.C. legend remains Razz singer/wildman (and sometime Washington City Paper illustrator) Michael Reidy. Citing local musicians’ consensus, Opsasnick says, “Reidy should have been a huge superstarhe was the best frontman to ever come out of this town, and Razz was D.C.’s greatest rock band, the last gasp of what I call prime-time D.C. rock ‘n’ roll.”
Reidy’s similarly hyperbolic reminiscences, especially about growing up in working-class P.G. County, provide the book’s most entertaining quotes (“I never realized that there were white people that wore Chuck Taylors and acted like a bunch of negroes. I had no idea there were people who took automotive class. It was a shock to my system. I hated it”).
Despite Opsasnick’s obsessive research, Capitol Rock’s most renowned subjects were unavailable for interviews. Gatton and Buchanan are dead, and Link Wray left the country more than a decade ago; now residing in Denmark, he has reportedly cut all ties with his family, including three ex-wives and eight children. Still, by talking with former bandmates, Opsasnick provides the most in-depth profiles to date of these musicians, at least as far as the music is concerned. He decided to leave out sordid tales of drugs and womanizing, subjects he says would have required a separate volume.
More a highly personal reference book than a complete history, Capitol Rock succeeds in re-creating an entire era, a sort of every-gig-obsessed rocker’s almanac. (Some of the more burned-out musicians proved tough interviews, Opsasnick recalls; one former cokehead couldn’t remember where he grew up or the name of his junior high.) Opsasnick scoured decades of newspaper microfilm to give histories of long-defunct nightclubs and teen centers: the Starlite on Irving Street NW; the Rocket Room on New York Avenue NW, which often featured Charlie Daniels and His Six Jaguars; Benny’s Rebel Room on 14th Street NW; the Frog, a (literally) underground Georgetown nightclub, the Dixie Pig and the Crossroads on the Bladensburg strip; the Varsity Grill in College Park, the still-operating Senate Inn on Marlboro Pike; among countless others.
Prince George’s boasted by far the most and the wildest clubs; its lenient liquor laws and corrupt local officials laid it wide open in those days. (Thus Northern Virginia claimed comparatively few future famous rockers, except for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Zal Yanovsky, and Jim Morrison, who spent his teenage years in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Alexandria and graduated from George Washington High School in 1961.)
According to Opsasnick, the most hallowed rock hot spot was a small, cramped biker bar called the 1023 Club, now an abandoned building in Southeast. In the ’60s, the club featured caged go-go dancers, crowds of motorcycle gangs (Pagans, Phantoms, Kamikazes, et al.), and the rawhide rumble of Link Wray, six nights a week. Opsasnick regards the place as the glory of Washington rock: “I really wish that when I die and get to the gates of heaven, and God grants me one wish, I’d go back in time and see what the 1023 Club was like in 1965 with Link Wray and the Ray Men. That was D.C.’s most amazing nightclub of all time.”
For his purposes, Opsasnick settled on 1976 as his stopping point, the year the teen-club scene died and punk first broke. Pressed for an exact date, he comes up with June 21, 1975, when the Cherry People played their final gig at the Varsity Grill, although he admits that history is slippery and that the era’s real end was probably Razz’s final show in Dec. 27, 1979, at Beacon’s Backstage in Falls Church; by then, the band was being tagged with that hideous moniker “new wave.” He says other writers will have to tell the rest of the story, from the Slickee Boys to Shudder to Think and beyond; he remains stubbornly faithful to the music of his youth, declaring his eternal hatred of all post-Nirvana alt-rock.
Less than a month after it hit local stores, Capitol Rock has already spurred some controversy, with slews of musicians claiming they were given short shrift or left out of the story. Many have called Opsasnick to complain that they are the true unheralded heroes of Washington rock. The diplomatic Opsasnick says he tried his best to include everybody. His manuscript (drafted entirely in longhand) ran more than 600 pages, but he had to cut it down to its final 264 pages. “It broke my heart to leave out bands like the Telstars and Face Dancer,” says Opsasnick, “but I couldn’t afford a book that long.” Likewise, cost restrictions prevented him from including photos, except for the cover shot of Wray at the Wax Museum, which was donated by a friend. Worst of all for D.C. music obsessives, the book lacks an index.
The project very nearly consumed Opsasnick’s life; he transcribed the interviews on his lunch breaks and spent weekends tracking down long-gone nightclubs and Roy Clark’s former P.G. County residences, among many local landmarks. Including the publishing expenses, Capitol Rock cost him more than a few paychecks. For four years, Opsasnick spent all his free time working on a book that few (including himself at times) ever thought would be finished. “A dream has been realized,” he says. “I’ll never write another book.”
Opsasnick may have declared it quits from the writing trade, but he’s not yet through rocking out. He says he’s “really excited” about an upcoming concert by Robin Trower down at Jaxx. But he says he’ll be sure to drop by Strick’s on the way to the show.CP
Capitol Rock is available for $14 at Joe’s Record Paradise, Imagination Books in Silver Spring, and Deja Vu in Bowie.