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—Thomas P. Carroll
No, Tom, you’re not alone. The mystery of the rancid odor of the 9:30 Club sparked an unprecedented response from more than 30 readers who rushed to offer me their aromaticanalyses. According to some of those respondents, the 9:30 Club smells exactly like:
creosote (Kim Giese)
fermented Band-Aids (Cheryl Stevens)
a freshly opened condom (Ben Shichman)
formaldehyde, used to preserve punk music (Peter Malamas)
my ex-roommate (R. Carter McRee)
Jimmy Hoffa (anonymous)
a hot summer cattle drive (Paul Moomaw)
“15 percent 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; 15 percent remains of Oasis fan who died fighting for one of the two spots with an unobstructed view of the stage” (Peter Bullock)
Finally, Craig D. Fisher e-mailed the following observation: “Guys. The 9:30 Club smells like Aerosmith and my asshole.”
Never had the pleasure, Craig. And I’m willing to forfeit a T-shirt to make sure I never do.
Meanwhile, club employees were flattered that eau de 9:30 had been picked as a Mundane Mystery.
“You’ve put us up there with the monuments,” gushed 9:30 booking manager Lisa White, who said that the smell has been present for at least 10 years. “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!”
And it’s not like the 9:30 Club hasn’t tried to eradicate the smell, said White. The bar thought it had two years ago when “Utility Boy” Chad Houseknecht discovered that a keg-line under the back bar had leaked, causing a particularly virulent case of “bar rot.” Utility Boy replaced the moldy wooden floor, and the bar had a “Goodbye to the Smell Party.”
Except the stench didn’t go away. A year later, at its 14- year anniversary, the bar commemorated the most overheard expression: “Just What Is That Smell?”
Considering that the best minds at the club had tried to track down the odor’s origin without success, it was time for an expert. I tapped Dr. Robert Henkin, head of the Washington-based Taste and Smell Clinic, to conduct an examination of the club’s environs.
Henkin has done pioneering work on metabolic and genetic disorders that cause taste and smell distortions. But on occasion, he has also analyzed so-called “sick buildings,” and was game to take a crack at the 9:30’s smell. So last Monday evening, while model-cum-rock-star Milla was onstage for her sound check, Henkin and I were led on an odor expedition of the club by White and Utility Boy.
Henkin, who is a good 40 years older than most of the club’s patrons, was clearly transfixed by the strange surroundings. We discussed the building’s age (built in 1887), its vermin eradication program (once a week, traps and spraying), its air-conditioning system (recently updated), its brand of disinfectant (Lysol hospital grade), and its boiler room (unspeakable).
We discovered that different areas within the club possess distinct variations on the overall aroma. For the business quarters, Henkin pronounced: “Oxidation.” The coat-check area was better ventilated, he said. “I think that’s ’cause there’s a window open in the bathroom,” said Utility Boy. I refrained from a tour of the bathroom. Henkin entered briefly, fled, and coughed. The back bar retained an organic smell, due no doubt to the remnants of the wooden floor. (Utility Boy disappeared downstairs, and emerged with tiny—and, thank god, bagged—samples of the old wood floor, which I will gleefully send to Mundane Mysteries runners-up. As a bonus, the 9:30 Club has offered to send its own T-shirts to the two winners.)
The 9:30ers were convinced that the fault lay with the plaster walls of the club. “You should see how much nicotine runs off when I wash them,” said Utility Boy. “When it’s real crowded, for a big show, the walls sweat. There’s a lot of thermal mass in this place. It’s cold during the day and then it heats up real quick, causing condensation. It’s like making out in the back seat of your car.”
Whether Utility Boy had plumbed Henkin’s nostalgia, or impressed him with use of the term “thermal mass,” the two began bonding like grease monkeys rebuilding a tranny. They discussed mapping the brain by inflicting various odors to patients hooked up to Magnetic Resonance Imagers.
“We could do that, I’ve seen mobile MRI trucks!” said Utility Boy enthusiastically.
Back to the smell at hand, Henkin announced: “There’s no mystery. It’s all doable.” It would be possible, he said, to take samples of the air, pressurize it, and feed it into a GLC (that’s a Gas-Liquid Chromatograph to you and me). The GLC would produce a spectral analysis with dark bands or “peaks” corresponding to various components. “But you’d have a lot of peaks,” said Henkin excitedly. “There’s a lot of agents at work here. And I’m not sure you’d want to ruin your special mystique,” he said, turning to the 9:30 staffers.
Lacking the resources to fire up a GLC, we’ll never know the exact proportions of the various chemical compounds that are present in the club. However, Henkin was able to theorize as to the odor’s ability to endure on clothes and skin long after patrons have gone home.
Blame the Lysol. As T-shirt winner Bob Kennedy, who was the first to fault the club’s disinfectant, noted: “The odd odor, on top of spilled beer, cigs, etc., is Lysol disinfectant cleaner (or its generic Safeway analog). I used to use the stuff on my own bathroom, but the godawful lingering ambience made me a fan of Pine-Sol (or its generic Safeway analog).”
Bob is partly right. It’s not so much the odor of the Lysol itself, but its chemical composition. The disinfectant contains phenols, noted Henkin, which oxidize the other agents (beer, nicotine, etc.). Once oxidized, the agents become what are known as “free radicals.” Free radicals are a group of atoms that have unpaired electrons, which render them highly reactive. Think of them as Velcro, a lot of little electron spurs, just waiting to catch on something, like your hair or clothes. The free radicals bond to the patrons, who unwittingly transport them home. “They glom on to everything,” Henkin sums up.
Every night, Lysol is slopped on the floor, and the employees activate the chemical process that enhances the stench. The smell itself may change from day to day, or room to room, but it is made more pungent thanks to the oxidation process triggered by the phenols. “There are constant variables. It’s like life,” says Henkin.
Next Week’s Mystery: Eerie Orb