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Aside from the Smashing Pumpkins opening the new Nightclub 9:30, there didn’t seem to be all that much going on in Shaw on Friday night. Still, I had trouble finding a place to park. Having been turned away from two nearby lots, I drove around the corner and far up the block, which was deserted but for the cars of fellow clubgoers, past a warehouse whose windows seemed to have received the same treatment as those in the old Granville place in It’s a Wonderful Life. We parked and walked in the street back to the club, abandoning a sidewalk blocked by trash, broken glass, mud, rocks, old furniture, and a downed street sign. As I passed a building whose faded painted lettering read Atlantic Plumbing Supply Company, I wondered if I.M.P. had actually managed to find a skankier site for its relocated club than the old Atlantic Building on F Street.
Inside, though, was another story. The structure was still recognizable as the old WUST Radio Music Hall, but it had been subjected to an extensive cosmetic redesign, along marginally classical lines. If not a temple for rock, it could at least pass for an Ethan Allen showroom. Had Palladio worked in drywall, he might have approved. Grooved pilasters dignified the space. (I caressed their spatter-painted finish. It was almost identical to that of the walls where I used to workthe employee benefits consulting company had moved to tonier digs; then they started laying everybody off.) The fake columns set off tasteful blue walls. The bathrooms were disorientingly tidy. In fact, I did something there that I had never done in the old clubI washed my hands. At the old 9:30, I always trusted my genitals to be cleaner than the faucet handles. The lavatory was also free of graffiti. How I miss the ambience of the old place! (My favorite message: “This would never happen in Singapore.”)
The band was set to go on in 10 minutes. The place was packed. Audience members and club employees alike sported 9:30 T-shirts, some memorializing various anniversaries of the old bar. They needn’t have bothered. As one clubgoer remarked after the show, this wasn’t a bar, this was a hall.
But Billy Corgan thought otherwise. “What are you all doing in our bedroom?” he asked, two songs into the show. The set had opened with the band members seated, flanked by giant metal flowers. The blossoms’ centers would later explode in paroxysms of color, and their stems would sprout spastic minispots. But despite all the fancy mood-technology, the Pumpkins had wanted to start off small.
And Corgan was almost right. The band had succeeded in drawing the audience in and setting an intimate, almost bedroomy tone. The clearly partisan crowd greeted a sloppy version of “Today” with adulation. It lapped up “Lily (My One and Only),” whose weird, spare, countrylike lope only highlighted Corgan’s mannered histrionics. The audience even forbore James Iha’s “Take Me Down.” Introduced with an ominous “I’m gonna take a little trip down Sad Lane,” the song illustrated that a little Corgan is a dangerous thing. Iha may have internalized his master’s weakness for celestial imagery and the personal pronoun, but his singing was wretched, his falsetto absolutely scary.
Not that Corgan’s singing was stellar. When submerged in guitar, his voice melts tolerably into the surrounding fuzz, but foregrounded by an acoustic setting, his cockeyed phrasing and mercurial timbral shifts grated horribly. Particularly on “Galapogos,” he created the impression of a boy frantically trying out voices in front of the mirror before a little-theater audition.
Between Corgan’s melodramatic vocal posturing and Iha’s introverted noodling, the place was awash in sensitivity. During the pajama party, the Pumpkins did everything they could think of but rock. Toward the end of the “acoustic” set, the band went fully electric, but the minor infusion of amps wasn’t enough. A restless fan turned to his buddy. “This kinda sucks, doesn’t it?” Perhaps not, but despite the genuine pleasure to be taken in Iha’s chirpy lead on “Beautiful,” the whimsy of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was starting to wear thin. It needed some big guitars and bigger beats but I wasn’t worried. Behind Jimmy Chamberlin’s small drum kit was a huge shrouded mound; large, upturned cymbals shot up from underneath a black tarp.
By intermission, I was hungry for noise, but I settled for a sandwich and a side of beans. A well-placed and descriptive sign (“food food”) beckoned. I got my
food food and found a table in an alcove in the back. A woman asked if her friend could sit down. She led him to the table, and I polished off my sandwich, nervously glancing up, hoping he wouldn’t be sick. I wolfed down the beans, which contained large chunks of dark blue vegetables. (In fact, my entire meal was dark blue, barely visible under the sepulchral club lights.) Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” played on the PA.
Several minutes of symphonic bombast followed, then the electric set was announced with Mellon Collie’s title track, a quiet piano number. The band came out, Corgan whacking the open strings of his Strat. After 20 minutes in Wardrobe, the Punkins apparently were ready to rock. Corgan had donned silver lamé slacks and selected a coordinating black and silver top from his collection of “ZERO” shirts. Iha wore a glittery blue tie and a slightly less reflective shirt. D’Arcy had on a tight baby doll T and Sumerian eye shadow. Chamberlin, the first rocker I’ve seen in a long time to sport a black muscle-T, looked ready to drive his big rig.
The band started hard, and by the time it hit Billy’s shirt’s namesake song, Corgan was letting the rock-star moves flow, doing a Travolta point with his left hand and raking the pick down his roundwounds with his right. All those lights, all that sound…my critical good sense started to drain away. And I wasn’t sorry to see it go. So long as you can’t understand the words and you allow Corgan’s voice to become just another instrument, the Pumpkins can be genuinely exciting, if not transcendent. If Corgan hadn’t exactly managed to “crucify the insincere tonight,” as the lyrics to “Tonight, Tonight” had promised, he had at least made it palatable.
I was in no mood to be a sourpuss. Even if the songs meant little to me, I was surrounded by hundreds of kids who knew betterwho knew every word that came out of Corgan’s mouth, almost as if willing him to sing them. I had come to the show concerned that Corgan’s narcissistic preening would spoil the evening. I needn’t have worried. The Pumpkins were loose and lively, plainly enjoying themselves, giving it up to the crowd with a generosity never displayed by their records. Four songs into the electric set, a playful, not prissy, Corgan introduced the band: “Hi. We’re the Smashing Pumpkins.” After the next song he joined “Mr. James Iha” in an impromptu Stone Temple Pilots tribute, singing, “We’re half the band we used to be….”
The crowd was giddy. Several chatty concertgoers offered unsolicited comments on the venue to the guy with the notebook. A woman named Marty suggested physical plant improvements: “They need more trash cans, they need a ledge for ashesthe people in the balcony keep ashing on usand they need more coat hangers.” Her friend Monica agreed. “I had to put my coat in the kitchen freezer. However, it’s a great fuckin’ place!” She also praised the air quality. “Having passed out at the old place…the ventilation here is superb.”
The Pumpkins cranked through “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” and Mellon Collie’s best-known and most questionable lyric seemed not so silly at all. Remember all those ’80s metal bands named by innocent spellers? Well Billy Corgan is the first singer who can enunciate all those new words: “Despite all my rayge, I am still just a ratt in a kage.” In fact, the new 9:30 would remind me of Balto.’s fabled metal shed Hammerjacksif I liked Hammerjacks.
Liberal with the encores, the band led the audience in a sing-along of “We Only Come Out at Night.” “C’mon,” Corgan urged, “the words couldn’t be any stupider!” Iha announced “Cherub Rock” with a hearty “And now we will rock you yet again.” And they did.
The final encore was a raggedy version of “Farewell and Goodnight” accompanied mainly by Iha’s guitar. Each Punkin took a vocal turn. Even a winded Chamberlin, sitting atop a speaker cabinet, was finally urged by D’Arcy to join in with his warped warble. It was so disheveled a performance that the Pumpkins could only get away with it by earning it. Musically marginal, it succeeded on sheer goodwill. What could have been offensively indulgent was oddly endearing. Who’d have figured Corgan and Co. had been to charm school? Each of the Smashing Pumpkins seemed to realize that to be a rock star, for all vacuity of the pose, was still a pretty great thing.
The band members walked off, while a hired hand laid down some exeunt keyboard. Then, perky dance music sprang from the PAOlivia Newton-John. As the alterna-kids filed out, I imagined how Samuel Coleridge might have mused on the “Xanadu” of D.C.’s own rockin’ Kubla Khan:
At 9th and V did Seth, the Man,
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Youth, the sacred river, ran
Past bar and Pumpkins T-shirt stand
Out to the sunless street.
At least Coleridge had some serious narcotics to blame for his flights of fancy. I had a $2.75 cup of root-beer-drizzled ice and a perverse desire to watch the joint empty out.
When the hall is empty, you can see how someone could get the idea that, with the aid of a sliding stage, WUST could become a cozy nitespot. But full, the place was huge. During the show, it had seemed like there were bars everywhere. I later counted only fourone on either side of the ground floor, one in the cellar, where I later saw Axl Rose courting a couple of young ladies (OK, so I don’t really even know what Axl Rose looks likeI’d have been fooled by any bandanna-wearing stringy blond who needed a shave), and one above the balcony. I counted six TVs, none of them on, and tallied up three “Maximum Capacity” signs. There were probably morethe place has five levels, including a mezzanine with stools just above the upstairs bar, where the rock elders hung out. Total capacity is probably in the neighborhood of 1000 patrons.
All of which left me wondering what will happen to the small-band scene in this town. The new 9:30 will no longer be able to afford the types of national acts that attract a small but loyal following. (Some of the best nights of my life were spent at the old club seeing Pere Ubu or the Mekons or the Raincoats in front of enthusiastic, sub-capacity crowdsbelieve it or not, some shows actually sounded good there when the audience wasn’t so loud that the PA had to be used to drown out the bar noise.) Instead, as a Pumpkinhead named Jade surmised, “Hopefully, since they invested all this money, they’ll start bringing high-quality bandslike the Pumpkinsto
A scruffy row of teens lined up against the security fence, waiting. Flashlight-armed security toughs perfunctorily assisted hapless moshers in futile searches for jewelry and contact lenses. Then they came out with brooms to sweep into a large heap broken glass and split plastic cups, which had splayed like fans under scores of dancing feet. It looked more like Lollapalooza than the old 9:30. At last a roadie came out and scooped something off the stage and onto the floor. What it wasa set list? a Corgan custom pick?I’ll never know; the scruffy teens were on it like dogs.CP