If you loved music and theater in D.C. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you probably visited the Metro Cafe, the bar, theater and concert venue at 14th and Church streets NW that offered a home for fringe theater and concerts of all genres and helped launch many of the city's fledgling DJ nights. (Parties that got their start at the Metro include Mousetrap, Bliss and DJ Dredd's Prince nights, all of which now pack the vastly larger Black Cat.) Gary "Nick" Nichols, who founded the eclectic nightspot, passed away in January at the age of 45, and he'll be remembered tonight with an evening of music at Cafe Saint-Ex.
An artist and musician himself, Nichols supported local artists of all stripes. He put locals' paintings on the wall, let poets and spoken word artists perform and offered the stage to edgy theater groups, including Cherry Red Productions, who produced the classic "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack" there.
When the theater was over, it wasn't unusual to find a band or DJ waiting to go on. Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket, Wesley Willis, Jaguar Wright, the Donnas, Destroyer and Super Diamond all performed at the Metro before moving on to bigger stages, as did plenty of locals, including singer Pam Bricker, rockers the Sounds of Kaleidoscope and Citizen Cope, and hip-hop stars Storm the Unpredictable and Infinite Loop.
But it was Nichols' regular booking of DJs that will have the most lasting effect on the D.C. scene. Before the Metro Cafe, the idea of DJs spinning rock music at a venue that hosted live rock music was almost unheard of. "A core amount of our crowd is the indie crowd," Nichols told me back in 2001. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a night for them where they could get together and hang out without seeing a band?' And they're just like anyone else, you know. Sometimes you want to go out and dance. Why should they have to go to a club like Platinum and listen to a totally different style of music -- one they may not like -- if they want to move their bodies?"
And they did. Panic, the Friday night weekly hosted by DJ Pogo (of WHFS) and DJ Jim Noble (a founding member of the '80s Dance Party), had lines out the door almost every week for people who wanted to dance to the Cure, the Pixies and the Smiths. Eventually, the Mousetrap Britpop night and the Prince Dance Party got too popular and left for larger venues.
When the Metro Cafe closed in 2002 -- an early victim of 14th Street gentrification, turned into commercial space -- the rest of the DJs moved on to the Black Cat and other venues. The flame continues; Bill Spieler, who ran the Wax Britpop night, is now an owner of DC9 and DJs at the weekly Liberation Dance Party.
At tonight's memorial, some of the DJs who used to play at Metro Cafe will be spinning music and lifting their glasses in honor of Nichols and the spirit of the Metro Cafe. As a tribute, I asked a few Metro Cafe veterans to share their memories of Nick Nichols.
From Mark Zimin of the Mousetrap and the Wag, via text message:
"Nick was an artist, and [so he] saw the true value in others' music or performance art with his unique eye. The Metro Cafe played host to many budding acts that would return to much larger stages in D.C. as their careers ascended. Nick was almost always right, and well ahead of conventional wisdom."
From DJ Dredd (a k a Dominic Redd) of the Prince dance party, via e-mail:
"I am eternally grateful to Nick because of the opportunities that he gave me to play music and get started here in D.C. Metro is where the first core of my fanbase developed ,and a lot of those people still come out to hear me spin. He booked a lot of great bands, DJs, and theater acts at Metro. One of the last times I saw Nick was at Thai Tanic restaurant (where he was a regular) on 14th Street. The server came over with my bill and said 'That guy at the bar took care of your check.' I looked up, and there was Nick dining at the bar. (I didn't even know he was there.)"
"The crew at Metro Cafe (Dennis, Nick, Bruce, Sal, John) became my family, and even to this day I still have a lot of love and affection for everyone involved. ... Nick will be missed."
"Oh, two things people may not know about Nick: He could actually speak Thai and he was a great guitar player."
From Will Eastman of Bliss, via e-mail:
"Nick was an intriguing guy. For example, I didn't know his real name was Gary until I saw his dad's Facebook message that Gary "Nick" Nichols had passed away. I'm saddened by his passing at the far too young age of 45. Nick was the first club owner to give Bliss a chance. Our first party drew 45 people, and I thought that would be the first and last Bliss. Instead, he said "Good job, Eastman. See you next month." Metro Cafe was an incubator for the D.C. indie dance scene, the first venue to host Mousetrap, Bliss, Panic, and a lot of other events. He also booked my band The Secret History, giving us an opening slot for Trembling Blue Stars. He gave a lot of D.C. DJs and bands their first gigs. He believed in D.C. music and in a mixed-use arts space; Metro hosted bands, DJs, art shows, and theater. Sometimes, I'd show up for Bliss and a theater performance would still be going as our crowd formed a line waiting to get in. Nobody complained. It was just how things worked, for the sake of art, on "art" time. I'll always be grateful for his support. I hope he's at peace."
From DJ Tim Pogo of Panic, via Facebook:
[Nick] did believe in us, and gave us both a chance and a place to indulge in what we loved. Then miraculously, people seemed to love it, too ...and I wonder if he just knew it all along that it would work out. Much of what I do traces back to what he did for me 10 years ago and I can't be grateful enough.
-- Fritz Hahn (Feb. 22, 2010)