One of the few counterculture wellsprings in Montgomery County, the Psyche Delly in Bethesda, has given up the beat after a decade as a nightspot and showcase for such local talent as Root Boy Slim and the Nighthawks. It remains open as a deli and will expand into a restaurant, but the music is gone.
At the same time, radio station WHFS, the Delly's progressive rock neighbor in the Triangle Towers across the street, is turning from vanguard music to news. That adds up to more bad news for Washington musicians already staggering under a half-dozen club closings in the last year and a half.
"It Psyche Delly was really a place where area musicians would hang out and jam and mingle," guitarist Tom Principato said. " 'HFS was right across the street; a lot of people performing in Washington might end a gig early and go across to hang out . . . . But they'd hit the Delly first for last call."
They'd crowd into a long, narrow room that smelled of closeness and shook with electic vibrations and somehow share dreams and aspirations and stories about life on the road, even when that road was just a Beltway.
"What a mess for Bethesda, is all I can say," said Kim Kane, guitarist with Washington's long-lived psychedelic rockers, the Slickee Boys. Few 1970s-style musicians in this area don't have some strong memory of the Delly.
The nightclub business being what it is, those memories are not all pleasant, but the Delly was one of the few suburban refuges for, and one of the last survivors from, the Washington music scene that sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It now joins the Childe Harold, Columbia Station, Desperado's, the Cellar Door, the Far Inn and Mr. Henry Tenley Circle in the past tense.
That same tense applies to many of the bands that worked the Delly regularly--Bill Holland and Rent's Due, Good Humor Band, The Allstars, Babe, the Fat Boys, Smalltalk, Bobby Radcliff and Powerhouse--but that eventually disbanded because of small followings and fewer clubs.
There were really two Psyche Dellies, the first, and the best remembered, born in 1973 in the cramped back room of a small carryout when Steve Paul, Kenny Cornfield and Joe Triplett--known collectively as The Slippery Eels--urged the owner, Jim Anderson, to expand his offerings.
"We talked to the guy, said, 'Look, what you need is live entertainment in here," recalled Triplett, a gifted singer and songwriter who went on to join the Claude Jones band and who has been with the Rosslyn Mountain Boys for several years. "We said, 'We'll build you a stage for free if you'll book our band.' He paid for the material and we built the stage; the rest is history."
Enter Lou Sordo, in September 1974: "When I first went into that back room, it was atrocious," Sordo chortled over the phone from Cleveland, where he is comptroller for a national nightclub chain. "My only thought in buying that club was to make it a neighborhood tavern.
"I was not going to do any music whatsoever. The room needed to be remodeled; it was just horrible, a joke. It sounded so bad." But he went ahead with the music, letting Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks do the booking.
After some remodeling--and the addition of a bar--local bands were quick to jump on the bandwagon and the Delly became one of the hottest nightspots in the metropolitan area. Musicians were always welcome to sit in, and some of the ensuing jams were legendary, especially when the Nighthawks or Danny Gatton performed. Among those who came to catch their acts were rock stars Jimmy Buffett and Johnny Winter, who wanted the Hawks as his backup band.
Acts, which most often worked for the admissions charged at the door, were allowed to develop original material in an intimate atmosphere. For the fans, there was no separation between listener and player. When a local legend, such as Gatton, would play, the first few tables invariably would be filled with aspiring pickers, plunkers and strummers hoping to pick up a lick or two. The jukebox was filled with local singles.
It helped that the Delly had a symbiotic relationship with WHFS across the street. It was the only station that regularly played home-grown music, that supported the growth of a local scene with remote live broadcasts of unknown groups, and some that would become known.
Josh Brooks, who would host his fabled Jump Parties with local bands and records broadcasting from the Delly's tiny back room, was always the most visible 'HFS disc jockey: He could be found tending bar during the Superbowl or dressed as Santa Claus and distributing presents at Christmas or in a gorilla suit introducing the soon-to-be-notorious Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band.
The Nighthawks, who probably did more than any group to establish a Washington music community, even recorded an album, "Live At the Psyche Delly," that remains one of its best efforts.
There was a drawback to the Delly, of course: The back room could legally hold only 95 people. It was busting its britches when Sordo, who had once sworn to "stomp out disco," decided to sell out in March 1979.
"I had the choice of continuing to operate it as it was--music in the back with beer and wine--or expanding it . . . if I could get liquor. But I could not get liquor in Montgomery County, and I didn't want to put $100,000 into expansion of the place without that."
The new buyer was Massoud Mortazavi, who at the time owned several other area clubs and discos. He went ahead with the renovations and expansion, and the Delly reopened with an enlarged capacity of 250. But the new club never reestablished the warmth and intimacy of the original ("It never got personal," guitarist Kane said), although it continued to do well for a while.
"I saw it coming for a year in terms of the draw that bands had," Mortazavi said of the decision to drop music. "Part of it was the availability of local and national bands which lost much of their drawing power . I don't know whether it's the money in the pocket of the people that's doing that or just that people are getting away from that kind of rock and roll."
There was, in fact, a marked difference between the basic boogie and honky-tonk music of the 1970s and the often-dour New Wave sound of the early 1980s. The Nighthawks were the perfect example of a classic bar band working out of an exuberant blues and R&B bag and promising a night of blistering, barrelhouse fun: theirs was the kind of music that encouraged drinking and general carousing.
"That had a lot to do with it," Mortazavi said, "especially for the kind of sophisticated clientele we had in Bethesda; they really didn't go for the punky, New Wave thing," a situation that held true for the city as whole.
It also didn't help when Maryland raised the drinking age from 18 to 21 last July. That cut off a large part of the Delly's natural constituency and sent it to bars in the District, several Maryland bar owners said.
So the music died in Bethesda with the dawning of 1983, although a new club, Friendship Station, has just opened in the city on Wisconsin Avenue NW near the Maryland line. It appears to have much of the spirit of the original Delly.
Mortazavi is quick to point out that "we're not closed but are still open to our normal clientele for the Bethesda area."
He has not decided what kind of restaurant he'll install in the big room, but the carryout and 50-seat front room likely will be the part to keep the name. "We'll keep at least something of the old Delly going," he said.