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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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Donna Westmoreland, longtime 9:30 club employee, now an executive at I.M.P.: We just coexisted with them. When I think about it in retrospect, it was disgusting. You would leave a packet of duck sauce on your desk from having had Chinese food for lunch, and you'd come in, and it had been destroyed -- and there was a calling card next to it. How did we not run screaming?

Rich Heinecke, co-owner (with Hurwitz) of the 9:30 club and I.M.P.: Every night, we would give the act a pizza. It was really bad pizza, but it was something. This rat was stumbling on the pipes above the dressing room -- we had just gassed the rats -- and it falls from the pipe, face up in the pizza, feet up, tail up. We had some Three Mile Island rats.

Hurwitz: We had some bands come in and walk out, like: You're [expletive] kidding me. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince -- Will Smith -- looked at it and said it wasn't a real club. Two sold-out shows and he wouldn't get back off the bus because he felt it was beneath him. It was cramped, it was too hot and it smelled.

Boilen: That rancid smell was awful, especially in the summertime when they couldn't keep it cool.

Zaremba: It was hot even in the winter. But in the summer, it was dump-a-pitcher- of-ice-water-on-your-head hot.

Westmoreland: At the end of a really hot show, the walls would sweat brown nicotine. The smell was the combination of all that smoke, the sweat, the rats, the occasional patchouli, the plaster of that building being 100 years old, probably the garbage in the alley coming through the back doors. And the beer kegs leaked and saturated the subfloor. I have a vial of the smell somewhere. But I don't want to open it. The vial is vile.

Hurwitz: There was no way for Dody to make money in a club that tiny.

If a band got big, we'd do the show somewhere else, like R.E.M. at the Cap Centre. But Dody didn't make any of that. If she kept the losses to 100 grand, it was a good year. She said she was getting out and we had first dibs. We didn't really want to buy it. It was more work and responsibility. But I told Rich: "We've gotta do it, or she's calling Cellar Door." She sold it to us in '86.

DiSanto: "Sold" is a generous term. I practically gave it away, for what I owed other people. I was in debt to loan sharks for video installations and bathroom renovations, stuff like that. Jon funded it when it wasn't working financially, but in 1983-84, we separated and divorced, and I was on my own. And I didn't like being a bar owner. I went back to Paris and did a graduate fellowship where I got my pedagogic chops. I've been teaching ever since.

Warrell: When Seth and Rich bought us out, I didn't see a lot out of it except for the fact that I can pick up the phone whenever I want to see a show. It was an extremely modest price, even for its day.

Hurwitz: It seems to me it was in the 100-grand range or less. I did things that made business sense. The club was started by people who weren't looking at the bottom line. I did. I'm a music fan who wants to do shows and make money on music. But changing the club would be like buying Wrigley Field and starting to tinker with it. You just don't want to do that. I think we preserved the magic. The sensibility and the staff didn't change.

Westmoreland: When I started in 1990 as bar manager, I was pretty straitlaced. It was the pre-grunge, post-punk world -- lots of leather, lots of tattoos before they were trendy. But it was appearances. They were the most gentle, family group of people I'd ever worked with. We just looked different. I evolved a little, but I never got a tattoo. It's one of my crowning achievements that I made it through the '90s at the 9:30 club without getting a tattoo.

Josh Burdette, current night manager and an iconic 9:30 figure, at 6-3, 350 pounds, with a shaved head and plentiful tattoos and facial piercings: I went to the old club as a kid; my first show was Shudder to Think, and I remember seeing L7 and White Zombie there. A lot of us work there because we love music and grew up going to shows at the 9:30 club and wanted to be a part of it.

Heinecke: The entire time we were in that F Street location, we were looking for something bigger, better, more user-friendly.

Neal Duncan, architect of the new 9:30 club: I was going to the old 9:30 club four or five nights a week. The rumor got around that they were losing the lease and were going to have to move. I had started my own practice and said: "This is the perfect job for me. If you need any help, I'll do it for free." I got a call from Seth, and we literally spent the next six years looking at different spaces around the city. Obviously, they didn't lose the lease. They stayed until Dec. 31, 1995.

Hurwitz: What changed everything was when the Black Cat opened [in 1993]. I started being looked at by young punk rockers as the establishment, the bad guy. We'd always been the cool club that got most of the cool bands. The Bayou was the uncool club.

Jack Boyle, former Bayou owner whose Cellar Door Productions (now owned by Live Nation) has long competed with Hurwitz: I'll say two things: Seth and his partner Rich saw a great opportunity and developed [the 9:30 club] beautifully. And Seth is a good promoter and a nice man. That's about the extent of it.

Hurwitz: The original Black Cat was a little bigger than the old 9:30 club, had a little nicer dressing room -- everything was just a little better -- and had a celebrity investor in Dave Grohl. When it opened, all these bands I thought were loyal started a mass exodus. I remember one agent said to me: "Nobody plays the 9:30 anymore. It's dead." I had to prove them wrong.

Grohl: That club had a special place in everybody's heart. But it was difficult for local bands to get shows there, and some of the tickets were a little too expensive for some people to afford. The idea with the Black Cat was to open up a bigger room that wouldn't have to have a high ticket price. It would be for local bands, rather than national touring acts, and it would be a little more musician-friendly. There were lot of good things about the old 9:30 club, but there were some bad things about it, too. Load-in was a bitch, the dressing room was small, and it had that [expletive] pole and those rats. Then Seth went and opened the new club. Ask any band that's toured the country more than once what their favorite venue to play is, and nine out of 10 will say the new 9:30 club.

Heinecke: We looked at a lot of buildings. But when Seth and I walked into WUST Radio Music Hall [at 815 V St. NW], we knew it was the place.

Hurwitz: It was perfect. But the Jewish cousins who owned it didn't want to sell.

We started renting it and doing shows there -- Live, Hole, Oasis -- and looking around for another space. We found one on 14th Street, Mattos Pro Finishes, and made a deal for a lease. We were about to start construction, and I got a call from the real estate guy; the cousins agreed to sell WUST. I told Mr. Mattos the place we've always wanted is for sale, and I'd really rather do that. He let me out of the lease. The ironic thing is that the Black Cat ended up moving there.

MacKaye: WUST was this cavernous building where punk kids were doing shows. It was really terrible-sounding cement madness. When Seth decided to go into that room, I remember thinking: "They're crazy." But the new 9:30 club is one of the premier concert venues in the country. They didn't just throw up a building on the cheap.

Hurwitz: We paid $700,000 for the new 9:30, and it cost about $1.3 million to build. We set out to design the greatest venue ever. We wanted to have the best big club, but also the best small club so we could still get bands at the very start and then cash in when they got bigger. That was the challenge.

Heinecke: The key to the new 9:30 club is the idea [former I.M.P. employee] Chad Housenick had to put the stage on wheels. Everything moves, according to ticket sales. If there's 300 people in there, it looks full. And if there's 1,200 people, the stage rolls back to the wall and it's definitely full.

Hurwitz: It wasn't about the audience; we wanted to make sure bands were happy and absolutely wanted to play here. We would have meetings about every inch of the place: Now let's discuss this hallway; now let's discuss this bar. Acoustically, the place sucked, so we found this guy to put baffles in the ceiling. And I said I wanted so much air conditioning that I'll never hear anybody tell me it was too hot at the 9:30 club again. Did you notice the subtle difference in the logo? The old logo slanted right, and when we moved, the logo slanted left. I thought we had to change it somehow. A new slant, because there was a new slant on the 9:30 club.

Wallace: The closing party at the old 9:30 club [on Dec. 31, 1995] was fun. People came from all over the world. On one level, it was sad to see it go. But at the same time, I think everyone knew it was probably a good thing that it wasn't going to go on. It would just become a parody of itself.

"Big Tony" Fisher, founder of go-go band Trouble Funk: We played the very last show. I had my van parked in the back, and this guitar player got drunk and ran his car into my van and kept going.

Hurwitz: I had a hangover the next day that woke the neighbors. I think I played [drums] with Trouble Funk that night, but I don't remember. People were walking out with pieces of the club. Someone had the idea to put in the ad: "Take away a piece of the club." I don't think they meant it literally, but everybody thought it was. There were people carrying toilets out. I never went back.

Westmoreland: The Smashing Pumpkins opened the new club, on the 5th and 6th of January, 1996. There was such a great buzz.

Hurwitz: I spent 16 years apologizing for the old place, and now bands come in and tell me how much they love the place. I never get tired of hearing that.

Marc Roberge, Wootton High graduate,singer for O.A.R.: If you come from the D.C. area, the 9:30 club is it. It's the white whale. The first time we went in there to play, I felt like a rock star. We were just kids, but they treated us right. We never got that treatment from anybody else, until we started making them money. It's not your typical club.

Kevin Griffin, singer for Better Than Ezra: It makes you feel good about what you're doing for a living. Every touring band will tell you that it's one of the best venues in the country, without a doubt. Pollstar, the bible of the [touring] world, names it best club pretty often.

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar: The nominations are made by a select group of about 200 industry professionals, from road managers and booking agents to other promoters. Because so much of the industry is concentrated in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, it gives an immediate advantage to venues based in those cities. The fact that the 9:30 club has been able to get around that by having such a great reputation is really a tribute to the job that entire organization does. It also helps that Seth is a boisterous personality.

Ferguson: Seth's a character, and there aren't many in our business. Everyone else is vanilla/white bread/Applebee's, and he's Indian food or Thai food. But that's the reason he's successful. He's sold more tickets than anybody and earned a lot of accolades. He's doing something right.

Hurwitz: I never thought we'd sell out more than one or two shows a month. We just wanted to keep the bands and maybe break even. The new 9:30 doesn't make as much money as most people would think, but the club does pretty well. But the bulk of our money is now at Merriweather [Post Pavilion, which I.M.P. books].

Zaremba: For the Fleshtones, the new 9:30 club doesn't have the same feeling of home that the original did. It's a really fine, fine place to play, and they still treat bands really well. But it's a different scene, a different audience. It's just not 1980 anymore. But that's a good thing.


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