Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Like any other rock bar, the 9:30 Club hadnights where a mediocre band played, its fans drank beer and cheered, and everyone went home unaltered. And then there was the evening, in 1984, when German proto-industrial ensemble Einsturzende Neubauten made its Washington debut.
Someone had broken the front door of the building, some drunk from happy hour,” remembers original 9:30 Club manager Dody DiSanto (then Dody Bowers). “He was so out of control that he was [occupying] two of the staff,” she says. “And I was going to owe the building $1,000, $2,000 for a new door.
“It was snowing, a freak snowstorm, but somehow 300, 400 people had gotten there to see Neubauten. I called the cops, and they said they couldn’t get there. They asked, “Do you have some rope?’ and I said, “Why?’ They suggested we tie [the drunk] up!
“Then the phone rings and it’s a friend of mine from L.A. I say, “I can’t talk now, I’ve got Neubauten,’ and she says, “Oh, they’re great. I just saw them here and they set the stage on fire.’ “
Neubauten’s manager demanded to get paid in advance, but the suddenly fire-conscious DiSanto countered that she’d pay them after the gig—and only if they didn’t set anything ablaze. Then she spotted the guy who provided food and drinks for the dressing room putting out lines of cleanser on a platter for the band. “Apparently they’d been abusing him. He said, “They said they wanted powder. I’ll give them powder!’ “
After DiSanto stopped her employee from presenting this poisonous treat to her German guests, some cops finally appeared. “They told me to rifle [the drunk’s] wallet, “because that’s the only money you’re gonna get.’ This is a D.C. cop!” Meanwhile, emissaries from inside the club were informing her about the progress of the set, which was being performed largely with construction tools: “He’s got a jackhammer applied to the column that’s holding up the club!”
Those who didn’t bear responsibility for managing the chaos remember a simpler, if no less powerful, experience. “The first Neubauten show blew my mind,” says musician and Fifth Column Records General Manager Jared Hendrickson, who worked at the 9:30 Club from 1983 to 1990. “That was one of the top five shows that changed how I perceived music.”
“It certainly was quite an experience to see Einstürzende Neubauten the first time they played there,” seconds Howard Wuelfing, a Columbia Records publicist who viewed the club from both sides of the stage as a member of such bands as the Slickee Boys and the Nurses and as rock critic for the Washington Post and his own local music ‘zine, Descenes. “I’d never seen anything like it, and in a small space like that it was very powerful. It was quite a pleasant shock.”
Surprisingly, even DiSanto doesn’t disagree. “There were people pressed up against the stage, and there was all this metal reflected, and the audience was shining,” she recalls, based on seeing the video of the set made that night. “And it was a great show.”
There will be great shows at 815 V St. NW,where the 9:30 Club will move next month. But it’s unlikely that the relocated club will ever again be what it was: intimate, experimental, almost communal. Rock ‘n’ roll will stand, but everything else has changed: the times, the music, the business, the club’s ownership.
Though no one knew it at the time, the establishment of the 9:30 Club 15 years ago also meant the establishment of punk, aka new wave, indie-rock, alternative, or whatever. The club brought a new attitude, and proved the vanguard of a new
Others would argue that the 9:30 Club lost its identity almost a decade ago, in 1986, when it was bought by Seth Hurwitz and his partner, Rich Heinecke, the principals of I.M.P. (short for “It’s My Party”). The duo, who started booking the club in 1981, met when Heinecke worked as a substitute teacher at Hurwitz’s Montgomery County junior high school.“We had this fear that the soul of the club would be lost,” admits Hurwitz, a former WHFS (99.1 FM) disc jockey, but he now thinks the change was inevitable. “As it turns out, if Dody still owned it, the scene would have gone away anyway. Because it just went away.”
Once a scene, 9:30 became a venue, known for hosting the Washington debuts of subsequently multiplatinum bands like R.E.M. and Nirvana, as well as such reliable, endearing small-time regulars as Marshall Crenshaw, the Mekons, the Feelies, and Robyn Hitchcock. Though it was no longer an in-group hangout, it still had the identity provided by Hurwitz’s booking policy.
“By now, the 9:30 Club is history that I think you feel when you go there,” says Hurwitz. “You can’t help but think that this is where R.E.M. and Live and Billy Idol and Jane’s Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins and all these bands played. We hope to take that history with us. The only thing that isn’t coming with us is the physical structure. That’s really it.”
The club’s history can be said to begin in1976, well before 9:30 actually opened its doors in May 1980. That’s when D.C. punk buckled its Doc Martens, strode out of the basement, and looked for a place to play. It didn’t find a lot of takers.
D.C. punk’s first home was the Keg, a since-demolished Glover Park bar where such bands as Razz, Overkill, the Slickee Boys, and the Look performed. That lasted a few months. Then it was on to clubs like L.A. Cafe, One Flight Up, Reek’s, Columbia Station, and the Chancery, as well as such noncommercial venues as the Washington Project for the Arts, the Museum of Temporary Art, and Madams Organ art collective. Some of these places booked punk bands for more than a year, some for a few months, some merely for a night or two.
The first Washington rock club to adopt a punk-oriented booking policy was the Atlantis, which opened in 1977 at a familiar address: 930 F St. NW. Robert Goldstein, then the guitarist for the Look, remembers meeting club owner Paul Parsons when he rented practice space in the Atlantic Building in 1976; Parsons, who also owned the building, then had a used-furniture store in what is now the 9:30 Club. The Look soon split up, but Goldstein rented space in the building again the next year for his new band, the Urban Verbs, one of several erstwhile 9:30 Club stalwarts that has temporarily regrouped to pay a farewell gig this month. “At this point, the furniture was no longer there; it was the Atlantis Club. In terms of bands, it was sort of a Bayou kind of place. The problem, of course, was that nobody would go downtown to see bands like that when you could see them at suburban or Georgetown clubs,” says Goldstein, now a music librarian at National Public Radio.
“The club was going nowhere, and I [told Parsons] there’s this new kind of music, there’s no place to play, but there’s bands and an audience. I don’t remember who actually said it first, but [we agreed] that in exchange for practice space, I’d book some of the bands down there. It was a trade-off of us getting practice space in this horrible basement room full of rats and dogshit in exchange for attracting new bands to his club, and that’s how it started.”
Among local musicians, enthusiasm for the club was short-lived. “Some of the D.C. bands that played there either didn’t attract enough people to suit [Parsons], or the people they attracted didn’t drink, which meant he didn’t make any money,” explains Goldstein. When Parsons responded by filling the stage with New York and Boston bands like the Cramps, Nervus Rex, the Marbles, and the Real Kids, local musicians organized a boycott.
“It lasted however long it did until that whole boycott thing started,” remembers Goldstein. “The Atlantis lasted maybe a year, maybe less than that.”
While the Atlantis sank, a new entity, Interzone, was promoting concerts by such new bands as Pere Ubu, Devo, the Buzzcocks, and Magazine. Interzone was a high-minded collective whose membership included Mark Holmes, Tiny Desk Unit drummer Chris Thompson, and John Paige, a prog-rock champion at Georgetown University’s radio station, WGTB, from 1971 to 1979.
“I was like a frustrated progressive-music purist,” remembers Paige, now a partner in Universal Media, which does “research, acquisitions, and clearance for music-related projects.”
“A lot of the acts that we were playing on the station, there was no place to put on. So we started doing some [shows] at Gaston Hall, people like Fred Frith and Pere Ubu. Then we started looking for a regular venue.”
By 1979, the Atlantic Building belonged to John Bowers, who was planning a new club with his brother Henry and his wife Dody. They recognized that downtown had become an alternative-arts center, in part because of the funky ambience, but mostly because space in the old, underused buildings came cheap. The city, which had bought up whole blocks for renovation, allotted empty storefronts to such institutions as the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) and the Museum of Temporary Art (MOTA). Artists adapted old office buildings for studios, and they and other arty types sometimes used such spaces—not always legally—for living quarters. Urban Verbs singer Roddy Frantz, for example, lived in the Atlantic Building, as did Jared Hendrickson; many other musicians and artists lived within walking distance.
The 9:30 Club’s arrival was presaged by a “punk art” exhibit at WPA that included several nights of live performances, occasional gigs by local bands at MOTA, and the establishment of d.c. space, an art bar and performance space that attracted a faithful clientele to 7th and E Streets NW from 1977 till it was evicted in 1991 by its landlord, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp.
“The scene was burgeoning at d.c. space, and there wasn’t enough room for it there,” says Dody DiSanto.
The Bowerses approached Paige at a Gaston Hall concert, he recollects—“I think it was Devo.” Interzone proposed a four-area operation, with a chill-out room, a speakers’ space, and a videotape gallery as well as a live-music stage, but “that was a little too ambitious for what the budget allowed,” Paige says.
Among the names proposed for the club were Aerosol and Cool Whip. “I think it was Dody who actually came up with the name,” Paige remembers, “which in retrospect turns out to have been better than the other contenders.”
“The opening date kept getting pushed back,” he says. “We had a lot of different potential openers lined up. At one point, it looked like Joy Division would open it up. That was right around the time that [Joy Division singer] Ian Curtis committed suicide, so that was off.”
When 9:30 finally opened, it was with a bill of the Lounge Lizards and Tiny Desk Unit; disaster was narrowly averted when Paige talked principal Lizard John Lurie out of his threat not to play. Soon the club was an established stop on the alternative-club circuit then under construction. “It wasn’t much of a paid gig back then,” Paige says, but “there was a lot of energy. There was a palpable sense of excitement about the music. Back at that point, it was totally ignored by Cellar Door [the area’s dominant rock concert promoter] and everyone who was booking concerts. The commercial promoters thought it was a joke. We knew a lot of the bookers. And they were looking for a new venue. They weren’t getting much play at the Bayou.”
We can't make City Paper without you
The 9:30 Club opened just at the time when new bands were realizing that they could tour without major-label support, and there were beginning to be enough punk-oriented clubs to encourage even European bands to attempt tours. “We just opened the club and the phone started to ring,” says DiSanto.
“I had a fairly unrealistic purist attitude about it,” Paige thinks now. “It was not on a commercial basis when it started out, and that was clearly an unrealistic basis to run a club. I remember turning down the Police, because I really didn’t like what they played. I didn’t like “Roxanne’ or anything else when they came out. It wasn’t a matter of money; I knew the Police would make money. Very misguided. As I said, I was coming from the progressive music, experimental music snobbism.”
In the early ’80s, the 9:30 Club was booking the hippest music in town, but it was not known simply as a rock club. It was conceived as an art and performance space as much as a rock bar, and that image was cultivated with regular changes in the arty decor, as well as theme parties.
“Back then, it wasn’t just the younger music audience” that attended the club, explains Paige. “It was the arts people, the whole downtown scene. There was a broader spectrum of people who came to the club in the first couple of years. It had a cachet to it that no place else had. It had that kind of urban downtown vibe that everybody liked.”
In addition to music fans, the club attracted gays, art-scene makers, and new- wave socialites like Natasha Reatig. “The place looked absolutely beautiful,” remembers Reatig, a regular during the early years. “It was dark and very spare. The back bar was very elegant. There were always fresh flowers.”
According to Reatig, there was an element of New York decadence to the club’s early days. “At the back bar, there was a fish tank with a piranha in it, and a goldfish bowl next to it. For the guests’ amusement [the bartender] would periodically grab a goldfish and throw it in the tank and it would disappear in a minute.
“Those were the pre-AIDS days,” she remembers. “We used to walk around the corner to Making Waves [at 7th & D NW], which was one of the first bathhouses. I remember repairing there and then making it back for the second set.”
Some of the younger local musicians who performed at the club found its artier aspects amusing, while others were leery. “One of my favorite evenings was when they turned the downstairs into a Japanese rock garden,” laughs singer/guitarist Peter Hayes, who was to play the club with the Mourning Glories and the High-Back Chairs. “They had pillows and everyone drank sake. That was in the arch new-wave days.”
“We thought it was totally chichi, New York style,” says Alec MacKaye, who later played there with such bands as Faith and Ignition. “We thought it was totally fancy because it had video monitors and the only time we’d ever seen those was at the Peppermint Lounge” in Manhattan.
In addition to being cool, Paige recalls, the club aspired to be congenial. “When we started the 9:30 Club, there was a feeling that concertgoers had always been treated as second-class citizens. We tried to turn that around. We were essentially concertgoers who’d had that experience. We did try to set a tone that people would be treated decently.”
“When it first opened up,” remembers Columbia publicist Howard Wuelfing, “it was the one place in town where musicians and fans actually had some respect paid to them. In other places, it was like, “Yeah, let’s let these creeps in and take their money.’ ”
“In its time, it was the only place that spent some time and money to make an interesting environment,” he adds. “Not to say there weren’t aspects to it that weren’t pretentious, but it had a nice feel to it.”
“I was the first promoter for a lot of bands who paid them honestly for their percentage,” remembers DiSanto. “They were like, “What?’ ”
At the center of the club’s early image wasMark Holmes, who did much of its artwork and served as “techno DJ” before the term “techno” was widely in vogue. “I think everyone will tell you that one of the things that really set the tone was Mark Holmes,” says Paige. “It looked like there was a roving party wherever he went, and people wanted to be a part of it. I think 9:30 would have been a lot grubbier if a certain tone hadn’t been set, and I largely credit Mark for doing that.”
Holmes left the club in the mid-’80s, but his influence was felt right up to his death from AIDS in 1990. “It was all summed up and embodied by Mark Holmes,” says Hurwitz. “He changed my life.”
“One of the things the 9:30’s been famous for and that we’ve always done is try to have interesting, entertaining people working there,” he adds. “That’s something Dody really taught me.”
“It’s the only club where the people who work there are the stars and the band are hired hands,” former High-Back Chair Peter Hayes says an out-of-town musician once griped to him.
Perhaps even more important than her employees was DiSanto, who dedicated six years of her life to the club before selling it and heading for Paris. (She returned to Washington in 1990, and is now a massage therapist, a teacher of physical acting in D.C. and at Towson State University, and a member of a performance collective, Membrane.)
“Everyone thought that [Henry Bowers] would actually be the manager of the club when it opened,” says Paige. “Fairly shortly before it opened, it was decided that Dody would manage the club. And I remember at the time, being a snobbish musical purist, I was horrified. But she did an incredible job. I can’t believe how she persevered in making that place work.”
“There wouldn’t be a 9:30 Club if there wasn’t Dody,” agrees Hurwitz. “To this day I think the 9:30 Club is her, not us.”
“When I first started going there I didn’t like her,” remembers Alec MacKaye. “I thought she was really bossy. Mostly because she was an adult, I guess.” Once he started to work at the club, however, his opinion changed. “Dody’s sense of community for employees was really important.”
“I think the most important thing was Dody Bowers,” concurs Hendrickson, who now lives in New York, where he plays in Chemlab and two other bands. “She allowed interesting things to happen there. [Her] booking policies were more aggressive and experimental, and she ran [the club] in a very open, humanitarian approach. It provided a sort of sanctuary for a lot of us, who were wreckage,” he says. “It was a little ledge where you could sit on and dry your wings. And that was very useful.”
“It was sort of a de facto decision to hire me, because I was there all the time anyway, having nothing else going on in my life,” says Hendrickson, who started cleaning the club by day and eventually became its night manager. “It helped to save my life, quite literally. Because I was living on the street. Dody let me sleep on the stage. I kept my clothing in a locker at Union Station, 25 cents a day.”
DiSanto doesn’t claim too much credit for the atmosphere in the years that she managed and then
In its early days, DiSanto notes, the club survived because of “the incredible benevolence of John Bowers, who financed the whole thing. John bailed the club out all the time. The club never made money. If there was a couple of hundred bucks lying around, did I pay the insurance? No, I was buying a videotape deck.”
“I began to lose interest in it personally when the machinery of the business started to roll in,” says the former owner, who remembers how she and most of the other attendees at the first New Music Seminar dismissed the concept of MTV as too crass. “As something gets commercialized, the tone becomes different. It becomes less personal.” After a while, she realized, “I was a bar owner. That wasn’t too deep for me.”
“What happened was, it became more of a music thing,” says Hurwitz. “As it became more a music thing, I was more interested in it and Dody was less interested in it. That’s probably why Dody wanted to sell it. The club wasn’t making money, and there was no scene anymore.”
“Seth could never understand the concept that I would leave,” remembers DiSanto. “It took me years to convince him to buy the club.”
“The character of the club changed a lot when I left, I think. Absentee ownership makes a big difference. I was always there. We were like a family. And the kids act a lot differently when the parents are out.
“You have to feel grateful that you had that experience in your adult life. Because that kind of experience is looking kind of scant in the ’90s,” she laughs. “It was really an honor.”
Former Fire Party singer Amy Pickering, who worked at the 9:30 Club for two years, laments the passing only of the Dody years. “I’ll sigh about those times,” she says. “I won’t sigh about it after that.”
Though 9:30 kept its arty reputation foryears, its booking policies evolved in a more commercial direction quickly, as Paige ceded his booking duties to Hurwitz and Heinecke’s I.M.P. In law school at the time, Paige had less time to devote to the club. Also, “because I was so into music and loved it so much, I was kind of wary of making it a job and coming to hate it. That’s one of the reasons I wasn’t sorry to wind my participation down.”
Hurwitz “clearly had a more realistic idea of how to book concerts in that sort of space,” says Paige.
“He has a more businesslike approach,” says Hendrickson. “It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.”
That businesslike approach, however, started rather informally. Hurwitz was booking English-language films at the Ontario, an 1,100-seat Columbia Road NW theater that also featured Spanish-language fare. (The building is still there, but it now houses a CVS drugstore.) One day, he happened to notice that a film called The Punk Rock Movie was available. To complement the movie, he and Heinecke decided to book several bands, the Cramps and two local groups, the Slickee Boys and Nightman.
The show almost collapsed when the Cramps canceled after guitarist Bryan Gregory suddenly quit to follow Satan; the concert went on with Tex Rubinowitz substituting, says Heinecke, and “we made money.” I.M.P. then promoted Magazine, U2, Gang of Four, and others at the Ontario. When booking agents started to offer smaller acts like the Revillos and the Fleshtones, the duo turned to 9:30.
“Back then, there was really an alternative scene,” says Hurwitz. “That’s what Rich and I were interested in. I got fired from WHFS because I used to play Roxy Music, BeBop Deluxe, and stuff that [Rich] turned me on to. It was too radical for them back then. I’ve always liked the stuff nobody else liked. I was one of these kids who if it was too big it wasn’t cool anymore.
“I was never ever interested in promoting Boston, or Heart. I hated that shit,” he says. Cellar Door was “doing their Journey shows, and their Springsteen, and Paul McCartney, and they really weren’t paying any attention. We really didn’t have a lot of competition.”
These days, Hurwitz understands the 9:30 Club as a “loss leader” that allows I.M.P. to make early contact with bands that may later sell out sports arenas, but that wasn’t the original formula. “It was never part of this plan that if it we did it when it was small we could do it because it was big. It was because, “Isn’t that a great album.’ We didn’t think that far ahead.”
“When I see Seth critiquing Cellar Door, I have to laugh. From what I see, he wants to be Cellar Door,” says Mark Andersen, an admitted “punk idealist” and a leader of Positive Force, which has attempted to create a noncommercial local circuit where punk bands could play.
Andersen would prefer that D.C. had something akin to Gilman Street, the nonalcohol, noncommercial (but notoriouslycliquish) Berkeley punk performance space that nurtured Green Day. “It’s really ironic that a scene that was so anti-alcohol ended up beholden to a couple of alcohol-serving clubs,” he says. “But that’s part of the reality.”
“My bias in this is rather obvious; I would like to see the punk community stay away from the rock industry.”
Hurwitz doesn’t argue that he’s anything but a rock industrialist. “I do this to make money. I treat this like a business,” he says. “I like the house I live in and the cars I own. We’ve all had a lot of fun making all that money.”
Yet he thinks that he retains some of his original spirit. “I remember I got a call from Richard Marx’s agent when he first had a hit. This guy could not understand why I would not book Richard Marx. It’s not what we’re about, you know. People trust us to some degree. We just try not to book crap, you know.”
“I think a lot of people who come a lot—this sounds really pretentious—[come] because they trust our judgment,” says Norm Veenstra, who’s been the club’s night manager for more than five years.
9:30 recently turned down Blessid Union of Souls, who went to the Bayou instead. “Is that some schlock or what?” asks Hurwitz of the band’s unctuous Southern hiphop pop.
Still, argues Heinecke, “you can’t be expected to like everything you put in your club.”
“I like it less and less,” admits Hurwitz.
“Rich has always been, and still is, the music guy,” he notes. “He still collects shit, obscure 12-inches; I guess it’s CDs now.”
Hurwitz, on the other hand, “always enjoyed presenting stuff. I liked to see people happy. My favorite thing about a show is walking around and looking at the crowd. The bands I get bored with pretty quick.”
“I like to disrupt,” he says. “It’s so hard to shock people these days. A band like [theS&M-oriented] Genitorturers suits me just fine. There’s nothing like real rock ‘n’ roll that’s out of control. Never mind how valid Green Day is, it’s the crowd.”
Before there was Green Day, there was thelocal hardcore (or “harDCore”) of such bands as Teen Idles, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Faith, and others. Since that scene nurtured a whole generation of musicians, many of whom are still active 15 years later, the club’s early pact with it may be the most crucial element in its survival.
“When it first opened, the word on the street was that they weren’t going to book any punk bands. That we were banned from the word go,” remembers Dischord Records co-owner Ian MacKaye, who subsequently played the club with such bands as the Teen Idles, Minor Threat, and Embrace, as well as his current ensemble, Fugazi.
“It was just guilt by association,” he says, and the Idles got their first gig there within six months, although the band members “had a major argument about whether we should play there.”
Hard, fast, angry, and played mostly by kids who were too young to enter a regular bar, harDCore was as upsetting to some new-wave devotees as their favorite music was to fans of Boston and Heart. Many heard the style as unmusical, and its slam-dancing fans as unpredictable and violent. Yet the scene also had a strong moral stance and a powerful sense of self-reliance.“It took me a while to understand hardcore,” admits DiSanto. “It was kind of a parallel universe.”
“My initial reaction was, I was a little bit nervous” about the slam-dancing and stage-diving at hardcore shows. “I would stand in the sound booth and it would look like people were killing themselves.”
Finally, DiSanto went into negotiations with the young punks. “We had a meeting on a Saturday afternoon, and they told me what they wanted. They didn’t give a damn about alcohol. They wanted Coke in a can, because they didn’t want to pay a lot of money for soda from a soda gun. I asked, “Do you have to do this at night?’ and they said no.”
The results of this understanding were the club’s all-ages policy and its weekend hardcore matinees. “They were pretty open to different ideas. They were one of the first nightclubs to go for the all-ages thing, which I think was totally instrumental in building one of the musical communities in D.C.,” says Ian MacKaye. Hardcore kids would “put the X’s on our own hands,” indicating that they couldn’t drink booze.
Alec MacKaye, Ian’s young brother, remembers when his band, Faith, sold out a hardcore matinee. “Dody was delighted. Then it sort of spread all across the country. They had hardcore matinees in New York for years after that.”
Even Mark Andersen, a steadfast enemy of the music business, doesn’t deny the significance of hardcore’s F Street tenancy. “The 9:30 Club has been terribly important, in terms of the punk community here,” he concedes. “It’s clear that it’s been a really crucial venue. It’s been an all-ages venue. What people hoped the Atlantis would be, in many ways the 9:30 Club ended up being.”
“I don’t think the D.C. hardcore scene would have happened the same way, or even at all, without the 9:30 Club,” concludes Dischord co-owner Jeff Nelson.
Despite hardcore’s inclusion, there were stilltensions. Slam-dancing’s passions periodically spilled over into plain old-fashioned fistfights, and the anti-intoxicant “straight edge” ethos of some hardcore kids didn’t exactly turn the club into a drug-free zone. And even though they were still fellow outsiders in the world of AOR rock, the various musical factions didn’t always get along.
“New wavers were goofy and silly. And we were serious and bored and angry,” says Nelson, a veteran of Minor Threat and the High-Back Chairs. He remembers heckling an arty band, perhaps the Bush Tetras (who’ve reunited to play one of 9:30’s farewell gigs). “We were very punk, and they were very new wave. I was yelling, like, “B-52s, go home.’ This girl behind me, probably deservedly, beaned me with a beer bottle. And it hurt.”
“The 9:30 Club went through a weird period there where there was a lot of fighting,” admits Jared Hendrickson. The violence bottomed out in October 1983, when there was a shooting in the hallway after a Yellowman show. Hendrickson had been at a John Cage performance at the Pension Building, and “came in just in time to hear “bang, bang, bang,’ and see everyone swarming back into the club.”
After that, however, things were quieter. When go-go clubs got a reputation for gunplay, the 9:30 Club became a secure haven for Troublefunk, E.U., and their fans. Hiphop shows too seemed safer there. Hendrickson recalls when Public Enemy played the club: “It was pretty tense. People thought it was going to be like the Yellowman show. But it was fine.”
The most committed hardcore kids didn’t even drink, and Hurwitz says he’s always tried to keep the club “drug-free.” Still, heroin became integral to the art-punk scene. An arty local band reportedly broke up because one of its members kept pawning the other musicians’ equipment to buy junk, and Nurses guitarist Mark Halprin took a fatal dose in an upstairs room just a few blocks from the club. After he left the city, Hendrickson was profiled in the Washington Post as an unrepentant heroin user, which Hurwitz says was a surprise to him.
There were also a few drug users onstage. “Johnny Thunders canceled five times in a row, and he finally showed up and he was drugged out of his mind,” remembers Hendrickson. “He barely got up on stage. It was an interesting example of how the stage can animate a corpse. Thunders was playing, and he was green. He spun around, threw up behind his amp, then spun back around. He didn’t miss a note. It was beautiful.”
By most accounts, hardcore punk bandsprovided some of the club’s most intense experiences. Wuelfing cites “all the times I saw Minor Threat. It was a scale at which they were as powerful as any band could be.
“At the time, I was pushing 30, and most of the hardcore kids were pushing 20. I would end up in the girl area, instead of in the pit with the boys. They were protective of me, like I was their punk uncle.”
“Some of the greatest shows I ever experienced I saw there,” says Andersen, citing Bad Brains, Fugazi, and “seeing Scream right after Dave Grohl joined. They were at the height of their powers.”
Hendrickson savors the memory of the Dead Kennedys: “From the first note, someone went just flying across the stage. Those shows were fabulous. And seeing Minor Threat on that stage was always a gas. They were so high-energy you could taste it.”
“Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of bands there,” says Ian MacKaye, citing Rites of Spring and Black Flag as “shows that for me were really mind-expanding.”
Though even folk singers sometimes faced asweltering 9:30 Club, hardcore in particular evokes damp walls and wet heat. “It’s always been a lovely, stinky, sweaty place,” says Nelson, who used to enjoy telling visiting musicians how John Wilkes Booth had fled down the alley behind the club. “One of my favorite things about the 9:30 Club is the way the back door, where the bands load in, is right next to the back of Ford’s Theater.”
Soundchecks used to drown out rehearsals at Ford’s, so the club bricked up the back window through which fans sometimes watched sold-out shows. “As a result,” Nelson says, “it went from being a sweatbox to being an insane sweatbox. You could tell how good a show it was by how much sweat was on the wall.”
Hurwitz promises that the new club will be more comfortable, but some recall the 9:30’s tropical conditions with fondness. “I always loved shows that were too big for the club, with people just jammed in there,” revels Jared Hendrickson. “It would be the middle of February and it would be sweaty in there.”
“I remember those nights when it was packed, like with a go-go band,” says Peter Hayes. “The ceiling was dripping, it was like no other place I can think of. It just became like a gigantic organism.”
Though some musicians (notably those from cool, gray Britain) bemoaned the club’s humid intimacy, Robert Goldstein says he and the other Urban Verbs “loved playing the 9:30 Club, we always did. Because the crowd was right in your face. I remember walking up to the stage every time, walking through waves of body heat. It was great. I think we all felt that way.”
“It was a really small space, with good sound. It could really generate a sense of community,” says Positive Force’s Mark Andersen. “It left me feeling that the most important thing had just happened, and I was part of it. It generated the kind of peak experiences you spend your whole life trying to recapture.”
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the coerced fraternity, however. “A hundred-fifty to 200 people at the 9:30 Club was really fun,” says Ian MacKaye. “More than that seemed to be a little abusive.”
“I think part of the appeal of it is the crush of it, the adrenaline rush of being in the midst of the crowd,” says Elizabeth Greene, a journalist and law student who wrote City Paper‘s Clubland column in the late ’80s. “On the other hand, it grew to be sort of a drag. The intimacy of the club was part of the appeal for me at a certain age. As I got older, I got less interested in being part of the crowd.”
The crowds will be bigger at the new 9:30,but there should more breathing room per person and more reasonable temperatures. The new club will be able to hold 500 to 1,000 people, depending on the placement of the stage, which is on tracks. The added capacity will make the new incarnation more competitive with the club’s new rivals, the 500-capacity Black Cat and the 1,000-capacity Capital Ballroom. So will the new club’s many amenities, including four bars on three levels, food service from Austin Grill and Rocklands, and massive air-conditioning units.
Hurwitz’s stated ambition is nothing less than to create “the best place, perhaps, in the world to see a show. When people come to see a show at this place, when they leave they’re gonna wish they could see every show there.”
As those who’ve attended I.M.P. concerts at 815 V St. NW have no doubt deduced from the address, the new 9:30 is the old WUST Radio Music Hall, which was something of a sweatbox itself. It’s been thoroughly redone, however, and bears little resemblance to its previous self—even if the neighborhood remains, in Ian MacKaye’s words, “sort of raw.” There will be improved sight lines from the revamped balconies, spiffy new dressing rooms and offices, and a no-cover bar area (actually containing the old back bar from 9:30) in a newly opened basement area.
“They thought of every damn thing,” says Ian MacKaye. “I hope they didn’t outthink themselves.”
“What the new club is,” argues Hurwitz, “is all of [the old club’s appeal] in a much more comfortable place to see a show, and to hear it. All of that, without the rats, without the smell, without the ickiness.
“That raises the question, is the fact that the old place was uncomfortable and didn’t have adequate air conditioning, was crowded and smelled and all that, did that have a certain charm? I guess. But it certainly wasn’t an attraction to people. That it’s an element that they’ll actually miss I can’t imagine.”
“The Black Cat is a nicer place than the 9:30,” Hurwitz admits. “And that was a clue that people were ready for this. And if they like that, wait’ll they see what’s coming.”
“Once upon a time just having any place to play was incredible,” marvels Alec MacKaye. “Now you have people who are trying to compete with each other with sound systems—and food, of all things! Who goes to a show to eat? It’s hilarious.”
The new place will be so different, Hurwitz says, that he and Heinecke even considered not retaining the 9:30 name. “We assumed if we called it something different, people would still know it was the 9:30 Club,” he explains. “But too many people kept saying that people would be afraid that that means it is something different. And it really isn’t.
“I would have liked to give it a new name just to have a new era. But people might not get it.”
The new building may give the 9:30 Club anedge on its principal challenger, the Black Cat. It also leaves the city without a significant venue that holds fewer than 400 people. While the larger clubs compete for acts and audiences, it remains to be seen where young bands
In fact, Hurwitz says, I.M.P. has been looking for new space for five years, ever since they were first threatened with eviction by Ed Daniels, the Atlantic Building’s current owner, who Hurwitz labels a “classic bad-guy developer.”
“One of the impetuses for our looking around was that this developer bought the building and wouldn’t tell us what the fuck he was going to do with it,” he says.
Under the historic-preservation zoning deal that Daniels’ Clover Development made with the city, the 9:30 Club is supposed to be allowed to stay in the Atlantic Building even after it’s redone. Hurwitz says Daniels has violated the spirit of that deal by refusing to keep I.M.P. informed about his plans. The club has been on a month-to-month lease, and was recently served with an eviction notice effective Dec. 31. That means 9:30 would have been homeless next year if Hurwitz and Heinecke hadn’t already made their plans to move.
“We will start construction shortly after the 9:30 Club moves out,” says Daniels, who bought the building in 1987. The project will be “essentially a façademy,” which means a new structure will be built behind the Atlantic Building’s historic façade. Though no space has been leased, Daniels says “we’re talking to several tenants. We fully expect the market to continue to strengthen, as it has substantially in the past year.”
“The 9:30 Club has a right to move back into the building,” he notes. “If it’s not the 9:30 Club, it will be some sort of cultural use, up to 10,000 square feet,” according to the developer’s deal with the city.
Daniels “hasn’t taken my calls so many times,” counters Hurwitz. “He’s always said he’s committed. OK, Ed, then where’s the deal? He has yet to hand me a deal.”
Hurwitz says he’d like to retain the current 9:30 Club and rename it the Atlantis, after the smaller stage established earlier this year for up-and-coming acts downstairs at the F Street location. “We would still like to operate a small club, to keep the space we’re in, but he would not give us any plans, any firm offer,” Hurwitz says. Daniels “deliberately made it vague so that we would have no future there.
“He’s banking on the fact that there’s nobody [in the D.C. government] watching anymore. And he’s probably right, unfortunately,” concludes Hurwitz, who calls this “a classic case” of a developer attracted by an area’s liveliness and then driving out the elements that made it lively.
“We’ll be fine. We can still do some of these shows in our new space. But the really small shows that we did in the Atlantis, I don’t know where they’re gonna go.”
That’s a question other observers are also asking. “It’s good that these venues can sustain themselves,” says Ian MacKaye. “I guess that’s good. What’s missing at this point is something smaller.”
“What’s most important is the scene that’s a rung below this butting of heads between the 9:30 and the Black Cat,” contends Andersen. “For people who are genuinely pushing toward the edge of musical innovation, the real story is the club that doesn’t exist now, which is a club the size of d.c. space.”
“d.c. space was really important. I don’t know where the impetus for a similar institution will come from. If I had one plea for the people trying to create a scene, it would be, “Find that space and make it happen.’ ”
“I don’t really mourn the passing of the place,” says Ian MacKaye about the F Street incarnation of the 9:30 Club. “I was there the other night, and I was thinking, there’ve been so many defining moments for me there. But I’m not really interested in nostalgia. It’s just a matter of finding another place to create those moments.”