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Welcome to the Club: An oral history of D.C.'s 9:30 club on its 30th anniversary

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Dave Grohl, former Nirvana and Scream drummer, and current frontman for the Foo Fighters: I went to the 9:30 club hundreds of times. I was always so excited to get there, and I was always bummed when it closed. I spent my teenage years at the club and saw some shows that changed my life. The first time I played there was with my band Dain Bramage, when I was 15 or 16. I scored my first record deal that night, with Fartblossom Records. It was already the greatest night of my life -- as a kid growing up in the D.C. punkrock scene, your first show at the 9:30 club might as well have been Royal Albert Hall or Madison Square Garden. Scream played there a few times, and then Nirvana played there just as "Nevermind" came out and we were starting to get popular.

Steve Ferguson, booking agent: The 9:30 club became the place in Washington where the misfits could go and nobody would judge them. The scene became bigger as MTV opened the doors to this kind of music. But the 9:30 club was on the ground floor.

DiSanto: It was a great period of music, before the corporate record companies moved in and it got mainstream. The Einstuerzende Neubauten show was pretty infamous. I had to rent all this crazy construction equipment as part of the rider, like a jumping jack tamper. They were in there with Skilsaws against flanks of steel, sparks flying into the faces of people at the front of the stage.

Reatig: I loved the way many of the bands were pushing the envelope and trying to be outrageous. As outrageous as one could be was a way of saying no to the limousines and fur coats and diamonds that were suddenly seen on the streets near the White House, with Reagan in office.

MacKaye: It was sort of a no man's land around the 9:30 club. It was liquor stores, wig shops, and Ninth Street at the time was largely populated by porno stores and porno movie theaters. But parking was easy.

Ferguson: The fans who wanted to see that kind of music would go into what was the crap area of town, because they didn't care. The music was edgy, and they were being edgy by going there.

Mark Hall, former 9:30 club bar manager: Everything kind of fit in there. We'd have these special events where the whole place would change to an underwater theme or a Japanese theme. We had William Burroughs doing a reading.

DiSanto: It wasn't just live music. People also danced to DJs, who were playing cutting-edge music, dropping new records to see if they'd work. And we were one of the fi rst clubs to take a Rock America subscription and do a TV installation. We were showing videos before there was an MTV.

MacKaye: Dody started doing these Sunday hard-core matinees. At the beginning, one of the big issues was: You can't go against the Redskins. The kids want to watch football. So during our shows, the 9:30 had the Redskins on the TV screens in the club.

Warrell: Yellowman played when there was a drug war in D.C., and there was a hit. The concert was over, and I was in the back bar, and you heard this pop pop pop pop pop and all this screaming. People came running back into the club. This guy shot him five or six times. Witnesses told police that there was a car out front and the guy had a shotgun. It's an absolute miracle that nobody else was hurt. There was also a New Year's Eve concert when the club was sold out, just packed, and some kids climbed up the fire escape in back to the top of the building. There was a peaked roof over the top of the elevator shaft, and it was glass. One of them stepped on it, dropped through and was killed.

Zaremba: I never failed to be amazed that the 9:30 shared a load-in alley with Ford's Theatre -- the same alley where John Wilkes Booth's horses were kept waiting and that he escaped from after he shot Lincoln. The club also had that infamous column right in front of the stage. But that wound up being perfect. I could semi-disappear for a while and come out from behind it. You could sing behind it, you could put your arms around it. It became a prop.

Ferguson: And they had these legendary rats. You'd go to the tour meeting and say, "We're going to start this tour at the 9:30 club in D.C." And the tour manager would say [in a British accent]: "Oh, is that the place with the rats? Right."


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