City Paper is not for tourists
In the Bayou’s no-frills, stone-and-brick building on K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway, a singer was once fed a rat sandwich as a practical joke. Employees had sex under the club’s stage. Jazz bands swung. A manager nicknamed “Little Hitler” ruled the roost. Foreigner played there—-twice.
The Bayou: D.C.’s Killer Joint, a 90-minute, locally produced documentary that airs Monday night on Maryland Public Television, tells a lot of stories about the Georgetown music venue that closed in 1998 after nearly 50 years in business. The club that began in 1953 as a Dixieland jazz restaurant reincarnated as a burlesque spot, a rock ‘n’ roll joint, a cover-band bar, and later a hotspot for national and international acts. When it closed, an AMC Loews movie theater eventually took its place as Georgetown’s K Street transformed into another stretch of pricey real estate.
The film takes us back to a time when the block wasn’t so posh, but still pulled big names: Billy Joel recorded live at the Bayou; Bruce Springsteen made a surprise guest appearance. But the venue pissed off just as many famous people as it charmed: Viewers will learn that the Bayou sent Mickey Mantle fleeing, kicked out Robert Plant, and stoked the rage of Todd Rundgren, D.C. blues rocker Mark Wenner, D.C. punk Ian MacKaye, and a healthy number of regular ol’ music fans.
This documentary, too, might be alienating for regular folks: The thing goes deep, sometimes too deep. With a fanatic’s energy, it pulls out grainy footage, newspaper clippings, and loads of interviews with musicians, promoters, critics, and old employees—-the product of 14 years’ work. It came together with the shared efforts of several dedicated locals: Dave Lilling, president of Metro Teleproductions; former DC 101 producer Bill Scanlan; former Washington Post staffer Vinnie Perrone; onetime Washington City Paper employee Dave Nuttycombe; and New York University film school grad Adam Bonsib, who was added recently as editor.
The film begins with the club’s pre-Bayou roots, telling the story of the 1951 shooting death of convicted killer George Harding at the same address, for which D.C. mob boss Joe Nesline was charged and later acquitted. The club remained closed for two years, until the Tramonte brothers and another partner bought 3135 K St. NW for $5,000 apiece, later settling on the name “The Bayou.”
The documentary takes us through the venue’s early years, when politicians flocked to what was then a jacket-and-tie establishment. It shows how as decades passed, larger societal and cultural changes began to trickle through the club’s doors, particularly around the time of the Vietnam war. But it omits mention of the Civil Rights movement and the club’s relationship with D.C.’s black community. The film does mention some African-American performers—-it includes an interview with Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown—-and it speaks to black Bayou staffers like manager Wilbur Slaughter, but it doesn’t contribute much context to the issue.
In the early 1970s, the Bayou became a haven for mainstream, regional bar-band rockers, and by later in the decade, major-label rock acts like Kiss, The Runaways, and Dire Straits. Members of Cherry Smash and FaceDancer are filmed reflecting fondly on the club—-much more fondly than a subsequent generation of musicians hired by its new owner, Cellar Door Productions (now part of Clear Channel) that bought the club from the Tramonte family in 1980.
Interviews with MacKaye and the 9:30 Club’s Seth Hurwitz show just how corroded the club’s reputation became with the emerging alternative-music community. While footage of Bad Brains opening for The Damned rolls, MacKaye tells a story about using a fake ID to get into the venue and dealing with “asshole” bouncers. Both Mark Noone of The Slickee Boys and Wenner of The Nighthawks remember the club’s staff much the way I do: obnoxious types, constantly telling folks where they could and couldn’t stand.
The film itself may, too, leave indie fans feeling a little dissed: While it covers in depth both Foreigner gigs and U2‘s debut at the club in 1980, it skips over shows from bands like Gang of Four, Madness, and Echo & the Bunnymen.
The club soldiered on through the 1990s, booking national acts and jam bands, but the film only briefly alludes to its declining booking schedule in the 1990s and its eventual sale to a developer. After a final New Year’s Eve performance in 1998, the Bayou closed its doors.
The Bayou: D.C.’s Killer Joint may not convince the Bayou’s many critics that the place was a treasure, but that’s probably not what it aspires to do. It serves as a valuable document of the venue’s long, influential history as a D.C. pop-cultural center—-not to mention its simple, timeless importance to some as a boozy refuge.
The documentary airs at 9 p.m. Feb. 25 on Maryland Public Television. Channels 22, 219, 220, 612, and 1022 in the D.C. region.