On a July day in 1957, Paul McCartney met John Lennon at a Liverpool church fair and showed him how to properly tune a guitar. The result was the Beatles.
On a night in 1977, Rod Frantz walked up to Robert Goldstein outside the Keg nightclub on Wisconsin Avenue NW and said, “Robert, when are you going to get off your [bottom] and do something?” The result was the Urban Verbs.
Every band has an origin story, and every human life has a conclusion. Robert Goldstein’s life ended Oct. 7, when the guitarist died of cancer at his Washington home at the age of 66. For a while, the new wave band he formed with Rod — the Urban Verbs — was, in the words of one Washington Post critic, “the most powerful rock group in Washington.”
Robert’s friends and bandmates are throwing a free tribute concert to him Saturday from 1 to 4:30 at the 9:30 Club. That’s a venue whose history owes a little to Robert’s enthusiasms and support of local music. (More on that later.)
When they decided to form the Verbs, guitarist-composer Robert and vocalist-lyricist Rod were coming from other bands. Robert had been in the Look, Rod in a band called the Controls. The Urban Verbs would be different.
“The group wasn’t putting any boundaries on itself,” Rod said. “That was really Robert’s doing. I think about this a lot, and the analogy that I came up with is that Robert’s music was the ocean that we all sat on and floated on, and it was the ocean that surrounded us.”
Here’s an excerpt from a review by The Post’s Harry Sumrall of a 1978 live performance at the Corcoran: “The group’s name describes perfectly its music. Stark, malevolent images of modern life are sparked to action by nervous, frenzied sound whose tension is inescapable. Robert Goldstein’s guitar is like a multifaceted harmonic diamond that provides the cutting edge around which Robin Rose’s synthesizer, Linda France’s bass, and Danny Frankel’s drums revolve in spirals of controlled cacophony. The effect is nothing short of audio shock therapy.”
The review described singer Rod as a cherub whose visage “galvanized into expressions of rage and anger.”
Robert later explained: “Our music is based on restraint. Or rather, restrained abandonment.”
It was perhaps inevitable that the Urban Verbs were seen as the D.C. version of Talking Heads, given that Rod is the brother of Talking Heads’ drummer Chris Frantz. But it was their own merits — along with the support of such high-profile fans as Brian Eno — that got them a two-record deal with Warner Bros.
Perhaps Robert’s most lasting legacy will be his role in the early history of the famed 9:30 Club. In the 1970s, he lived in the Atlantic Building at 930 F St. NW while working as an art mover. He persuaded the building’s then-owner to allow him to book bands in the ground-floor space.
Saturday’s tribute at the “new” 9:30 Club will feature Urban Verbs songs performed by 7 Door Sedan, Xyra with Flight of Odin, Martha Hull, members of the Slickee Boys, Lulu Lewis, Danger Painters and Mike Thorne, along with videos of what Rod calls “Urban Verbs 3.0”
Also on the bill is Abaad Behram, a veteran local rocker who played in Razz and the Reactions.
“I think both our bands played at the Keg,” Abaad said, describing how he met Robert. “We just got to sort of befriend each other. The very odd thing is, we’re so diametrically opposite in terms of our guitar-playing styles.”
Abaad has a slashing, Stonesy style. Robert was known for his filigree.
“We had our individual musical backgrounds in D.C.,” Abaad said, “and they couldn’t have been more opposite, yet every time we got together, we felt really liberated.”
Abaad said he despaired of doing an Urban Verbs song, but then he remembered an MP3 Robert had sent him in March, after a 9:30 Club anniversary event. It was a song called “Signs and Symbols” that Robert had recorded mostly on his own.
“I went back, put on headphones and listened,” Abaad said. On Saturday, he’ll play his guitar along with Robert’s.
Even if you’ve never heard a single Urban Verbs song, you’ve probably experienced some of Robert’s musical skills. He was the longtime music librarian, researcher and archive manager at NPR. He also helped select the musical interludes between stories on “All Things Considered.”
Whenever I heard some perfect NPR segue — a melancholy snippet of mildly Middle Eastern music after a melancholy story from the Middle East — I thought of Robert.
Said Rod: “I used to tell Robert he would always be my favorite librarian.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.