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

Sunday, April 18, 2010;

On May 31, 1980, a Worcester, Mass., jazz-punk band known as the Lounge Lizards performed at 930 F St. NW, in decaying downtown Washington. The opening act was Tiny Desk Unit, a local new wave group. Don't worry if the names don't ring a bell. Just know that they made a little bit of history that night in the sweaty, peculiarly shaped, black-walled club on the ground floor of the century-old Atlantic Building: It was the very first concert at the 9:30 club, which would become one of the most famous, successful and celebrated live-music clubs in the United States.

The 9:30 club instantly became Washington's primary venue for alternative music, just as alternative was beginning to blossom. R.E.M., Simple Minds, Modern English, A Flock of Seagulls, the Go-Go's, Violent Femmes, Cyndi Lauper and 10,000 Maniacs played there, as did seminal bands from Washington's hard-core punk and go-go scenes. The funky club in a forgotten section of town became a station of the cross for ascending bands working outside of music's mainstream. Let the Bayou in Georgetown have the spawn of REO Speedwagon; the 9:30 club's bookings included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and Nine Inch Nails, making for a pretty impressive alt-rock yearbook.

The 9:30 operated in the 1880s-vintage building at 930 F until it moved, at the beginning of 1996, to an exponentially larger space at 815 V St. NW. Since then, its following and reputation have continued to grow: The landmark venue has been named Nightclub of the Year four times by Pollstar, and it regularly tops that industry journal's annual list of the top ticket-selling U.S. clubs.

With the 9:30 turning 30 next month, here's the tale of the storied club's roots, told by some of the people who lived it.

Dody DiSanto, 9:30 club founder:

In 1979, my husband, Jon Bowers, was buying property downtown, and the Richardsonian architecture of the Atlantic Building really struck him. It was primarily an investment in a style that really tickled him. He was also an enormous music enthusiast, and there'd been a club there called the Atlantis. He and his brother, Henry, got excited about opening a club in that space, and they asked me if I would consider booking it. I got drafted to go to a meeting with John Paige and Mark Holmes, who had been producing shows with new bands on independent labels, and there was this spontaneous explosion.

John Paige, former concert promoter: At that time, the major promoters like Cellar Door considered all the new music -- new wave, punk, no wave -- a joke. These groups were really good, and nobody was bringing them to town. They thought nobody liked the music. I didn't intend to be a promoter, but I wanted to see these bands. So we started setting up new wave concerts anyplace we could, like Gaston Hall at Georgetown University. We brought XTC, Devo, groups like that. I compare it to the Renaissance. There was this huge energy waiting to break through. It was looking for a focus and a place, and Jon and Dody had the building that had housed the Atlantis back in the [late '70s].

Ian MacKaye, D.C. punk-rock icon: The Atlantis was a legendary place. The Bad Brains have a song called "At the Atlantis" -- it's them talking about their ambition to play there.

Robert Goldstein, guitarist for local new wave stars the Urban Verbs: Paul Parsons owned the Atlantic Building [before Jon Bowers] and had opened the Atlantis in a space that used to be a used-furniture store. But the only bands he was getting were glam-rock bands you could see anywhere in the suburbs; nobody was coming downtown to see them. The club wasn't going anywhere. I knew there were a number of new bands that had a ready audience but no place to play, and in very early '78, we needed a place to rehearse. So I offered to book them at the Atlantis in exchange for practice space. Parsons let us have the basement to rehearse, and I booked the club for a couple of months.

Roddy Frantz, Urban Verbs singer: There was clearly something starting to happen. I lived in the Atlantic Building on the seventh floor, and I remember looking out my windows at F Street and seeing a big old Ford LTD station wagon and these blond guys getting out and loading their equipment by themselves into the Atlantis. It turned out it was The Police.

Paige: But the whole punk/new wave community boycotted the Atlantis because they were treating musicians and the audience very poorly.

Goldstein: We'd already gone to New York to record when the boycott thing happened. The club closed and the building got sold, and that's when Dody and her husband got involved.

DiSanto: Opening the 9:30 club was not something I wanted to do. I'd studied in Europe, and I was living in New York and was in a small theater company. But it was just meant to be. Bill Warrell, who was housing some of the new music at d.c. space [at Seventh and E streets NW], was the main alternative-music person downtown at that time and lived in the Atlantic Building; he was super-enthusiastic about the prospect of the club.

Bill Warrell, d.c. space founder and 9:30 club consultant: I remember meeting with a design firm for about four days, trying to come up with a name for the club. One name that almost stuck, which was absurd, was Chair Dancing Nightly. Tuba Dancing was another one.

Paige: There were a lot of different names. Two I remember -- and I don't think they got too far -- were Aerosol and Cool Whip.

Warrell: The 9:30 club was the only name everybody could agree on. Everybody got all excited: It'll be a time, it'll be a place! We'd open at 9:30, it'll be at 930 F.

DiSanto: That's how we got the digital 9:30 logo, which was really cool.

Warrell: But in Washington, D.C., you're losing half your business opening at 9:30. This isn't New York, where you start your night at 10 o'clock. The show's gotta be on by 8. It took about six months to realize that.

DiSanto: Before we opened, we painted the walls and bought a sound system. But the space was the space, and the budget was not much. This electrician who worked for the building kept coming into the office, and would say: "You know, they're tearing down the Elk's Lodge. You gotta go up there and see what they have. I know the guard." It was right up 10th Street. We finally went and our minds were blown. It was filled with tables and chairs and leather couches.

Warrell: We took everything we could get into a couple of little pickup trucks. And there was a gorgeous old wooden bar that ran the length of the hall downstairs. You couldn't pay to get a bar like that. Jon called somebody to bring a chainsaw, and we cut out probably 16 feet of the bar and some sections of the mirror behind it. We put it on the back of this Toyota, and it was twice the length of the bed. The rest was sticking out, with four of us holding it. All of the sudden, police come out of nowhere, lights flashing. But they let us go. That bar is downstairs now at the new 9:30 club.

DiSanto: The first show was amazing, packed, sold out, awesome. It was instantly a scene.

Bob Boilen, Tiny Desk Unit synthesizer player and now host of NPR's "All Songs Considered": Dody knew how to throw a party. She was, like, the greatest host in the world.

Natasha Reatig, clubgoer: It looked beautiful, even though it was a black box in grungy, forgotten downtown Washington. The back bar had flowers and a fish tank, and everybody looked elegantly underground. The costuming and makeup and the effort that went into presentation was fully 30 percent of the fun.

Larry Wallace, clubgoer: The music was the big draw. But a lot of my friends were equally drawn by fashion, and that wore off on me. You wanted to differentiate yourself, and the look was a way to do it. I remember these elaborate scarf-like things and blousy shirts, hats. The hair goes without saying. How it was styled was big.

Nancy Purcell, clubgoer: Bands were bubbling up all the time, and we were insatiable. If you knew who it was, fine. But most of the time, you'd just go and hear something new, and it would rock your world. There was also a thriving local scene. So you'd go for the Urban

Verbs or Tiny Desk Unit and whoever was opening for them. You didn't want to miss an opening band that was great, long before they broke out nationally. I remember going one weekend, and R.E.M. was one of the bands.

Mike Mills, R.E.M. bass player: I liked that the club was dark and wasn't a big open space. It was actually pretty highend, compared to some of the places we were playing at the time.

Bertis Downs, R.E.M. attorney and manager: It was very oddly shaped. There was that long hallway and it was an L-shape, like a bunch of walls had been knocked out, and there was a tiny little stage in the corner. And I always thought the sound system was really good. The word "special" gets thrown around a lot, but it was. Even if you hadn't heard of the band, they were probably going to be pretty good if they were playing there.

Paige: We were almost purists about it; we didn't book things into the club if we didn't think they were good -- even if they were going to make money. The Police wanted to play the 9:30 club, and I knew they'd make money. But I said no, because I didn't really like "Roxanne." The lineups were all over the map. We put a lot of different stuff in there: funk, punk, new wave, jazz. One night, Prince wanted to do a show. But we already had somebody lined up. Dody turned Prince down because she wanted the other group to be able to play.

Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of concert promoter It's My Party (I.M.P.), which launched days before the 9:30 club opened, and current owner of the 9:30 club: I'd started doing shows at the Ontario Theatre at 17th and Columbia -- it's still there, but it's a CVS-- and I realized that the agents I was dealing with, to really become their guy here and compete with Cellar Door [Washington's dominant concert promoter in the '80s], I had to do their littlest bands. The 9:30 had just started, and we talked and realized we were of the same ilk. So the Fleshtones were the first band I did at the club.

Peter Zaremba, Fleshtones singer: We started playing there when it was still the Atlantis, but the 9:30 club was completely different. It was like somebody pressed the fun button or something. Every time I went there, I felt like it was my birthday.

Purcell: One of the craziest things about it was that, for this punk club, they had really nice champagne at the back bar. You could get a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. So you had the weird juxtaposition of that punk aesthetic, these people drinking Rolling Rock, and ones dressed to the nines, drinking champagne. Everybody got along.

MacKaye: When Minor Threat started in 1981, Dody was really up for having gigs with us. We did three bands [for $3] that summer, and the line went down the hall, out the door, and down the block. The show sold right out, so Dody said: "Do you want to do another show?" We told everybody to come back in an hour. The second show also sold out.

DiSanto: The legal capacity of the club was only 199. But we made it work.

Warrell: If something from one of our clubs was a pick in The Post, the fire marshals knew too many people were probably going to be there, so they'd inevitably show up and shut us down.

Frantz: I know for a fact the Verbs got 800 people in there on more than one occasion. You saw the receipts and did the math. Henry Rollins used to sneak in through the back door. Our roadie would let him in because he knew him from high school. He let Dave Grohl in too, when he was some 15-year-old kid. I would've been nicer to him if I knew who he was going to be.

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."

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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