A Shared Tribute to D.C.'s Arts Evolution
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, July 27, 2007
A Starbucks now sits on the corner of Seventh and E streets NW, a few blocks south of Verizon Center and its accompanying forest of chain stores and restaurants. It's hard to believe, but 30 years ago, this was the urban frontier, a sketchy corridor where music and the arts flourished -- at this address, which once held d.c. space, and around the corner on F Street, where the original 9:30 club was located.
The d.c. space venue was "a rickety, crumbling building," says journalist and former DJ and concert promoter Tom Terrell, chuckling at the memory. The building might not have looked like much, but between 1977 and 1992 it was one of the most important in the Washington arts community, housing a bar, a restaurant, artist studios and a performance space that welcomed everyone from punk bands to John Cage.
Terrell says that before the opening of d.c. space, which is being remembered with a big 30th-anniversary bash on Sunday at the 9:30 club, the local arts scene "was spotty and all over the place. For people who came of age in the '80s, d.c. space was finally a place where, whether you were 16 or 30, it was a very artsy space where everyone could hang out. It was a very unpretentious place. There were so many characters who were larger than life, but they were all regular people."
"On a Friday, you never knew who'd be there: if it would be music or movies or performance art. Then later, the downstairs would become a de facto mini-mini-mini theater."
To prove his point, Terrell rattles off a laundry list of favorite d.c. space moments: seeing the African American punk pioneers Bad Brains and performance artist Laurie Anderson ("back when she just had a violin and a tape loop"), the massive party that followed a Talking Heads concert at the Warner Theatre, an appearance by Philip Glass, plays by Robert Wilson.
Terrell, who says he was at d.c. space "all the time," was an important figure in the Washington music scene from the late 1970s and through the '80s. He booked the roots-reggae band Steel Pulse's first U.S. show (a concert at the 9:30 club on the night of Bob Marley's funeral) and worked as a promoter with District Curators, bringing Allen Toussaint, Don Cherry and Kid Creole to Washington.
He began DJing while a student at Howard University, where he created Washington's first reggae show in 1978, then moved on to host shows on WPFW and alternative rock station WHFS. There he launched the "Sunday Reggae Splashdown" and "Cafe C'est What?" When he wasn't on the air, Terrell was the house DJ at d.c. space (where he sometimes worked the soundboard) and the old 9:30 club. A gifted writer, he wrote about music for Jazz Times, the Village Voice, Vibe and the Washington City Paper.
Last year Terrell learned he had prostate cancer. He's receiving treatment at the Lombardi Cancer Center in Georgetown. "My doctors are very happy with my progress, and I'm holding steady," Terrell says by phone from Canada, where he's attending the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Still, medical bills are expensive, so d.c. space founder Bill Warrell decided to host a concert to raise money to help Terrell's battle against cancer and also to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the opening of d.c. space.
More than 50 artists of all stripes have agreed to be involved, so the event has ballooned into a eight-hour mini-festival that represents the freewheeling spirit of d.c. space and includes some of the biggest names from the '80s scene as well as newer names: art-rockers 9353; new-wave band Tiny Desk Unit, which played both the opening and closing nights of the old 9:30 club; Slickee Boys singer Mark Noone; go-go godfather Chuck Brown; saxophonist and jazz composer Oliver Lake; Americana and country band Ruthie and the Wranglers; "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" director Jeff Krulik; and poets E. Ethelbert Miller and Reuben Jackson.
In the basement, filmmaker Paul Bishow and documentarian James Schneider will show concert footage from d.c. space, including shows by Minor Threat, Grey Matter, 9353 and Marginal Man.
"I don't think any of us dreamed that so many people would participate or get involved," says the 9:30 club's Lisa White, who helped book the bands, as she once did at d.c. space. "Once all these people said yes, we were like, 'Oh, God, how do we make this work?' "
The solution was to try to make everything short, sweet and run like clockwork. Doors open at 4 p.m. and the music begins at 5, after a screening of the short film "Heavy Metal Picnic," which predates the better-known "Heavy Metal Parking Lot." The last performers should -- should-- finish by 1 a.m., eight hours later. All performances will be limited to 10 minutes each, with (organizers hope) a maximum of five minutes between acts. "Even if people just come for a little while, they'll still see some really cool stuff," White says. "We're spreading everything out, mixing up the bands. . . . I'm making sure that there won't be three movies in a row."
It might be "a logistical nightmare," in White's words, but it seems like a fitting way to pay tribute to d.c. space and Terrell.
Terrell is "a man of many, many parts with a huge heart," explains Michael Jaworek, a founder of the Washington Area Music Association who does the booking for the Birchmere. What makes Terrell unique, Jaworek says, is that "he knows Kid Creole as well as Johnny Rotten as well as he knows Tiesto."
Despite his illness and the chemotherapy, Terrell is keeping busy. ("I can't just sit around the house," he explains.) He reviews jazz music for NPR's "All Things Considered," is the music director for the satellite radio channel World Zone, which is carried on XM, and just finished writing the liner notes for a six-CD Miles Davis box set. He has been asked to do something for Sunday's show, but he's not sure what that will be, because he has been feeling tired. But he says he's looking forward to seeing many old friends again.
"It's great that people are still around and still remember," he says. "It's just amazing."