Sunday, November 18, 2007

Suburban Voice blog #51


(something a little different this time... the reviews will be back in the next blog)

On November 15, 1997, the legendary Boston punk rock club The Rathskeller aka The Rat closed its doors forever. The flyer at the top of the page is from the last all-ages show at the club. Gang Green were the last-ever band to play the club later that evening. I can’t recall if I knew that was the final show, at the time and, even if I did, it was only a short time before the show.

I didn’t even think about this anniversary until James from the Pinkerton Thugs pointed it out on the Lemmingtrail message board. As the title of this blog says, where does the time go? The Rat had actually been around as a nightclub since the 60s, was known as TJ’s for a time and reverted back to the Rat name in 1974, according to the New England Music Newsletter. There’s a two part story with reminiscences about the club that you can see here: (Part 1) and (Part 2).

It was located in Kenmore Square, around the corner from Fenway Park for you non-MassHoles/New Englanders. Kenmore was seedy and scary at that time and gradually became gentrified and sanitized, which I’ll get to. It had “charactah,” as we say in Massachusetts English. There’s an interview with the club’s owner Jim Harold that appeared on the Boston Groupie News site and you can read it here:

The Rat became ground zero for Boston’s burgeoning underground rock scene. There was a double disc “Live At The Rat” album on Rat Records (of course). The label later released two singles by the Nervous Eaters. The second, “Just Head/Get Stuffed,” in addition to being one of the best early Boston punk singles, is hopelessly rare, especially with the picture sleeve and with the record not pressed off center. In any case, if you listen to that LP, there was quite a bit of more bar-type rock. Still, DMZ had a solid driving garage rock sound. Vocalist Jeff Conolly, aka Monoman, has kept the flag flying for three decades, most of it with the Lyres. The snotty Real Kids also made a strong impression as John Felice exuded a defiant yet vulnerable Jaggerly performance on their sole song, the stomping “Who Needs You?”

I heard about this place and when I started at Boston University, in the fall of ’78, I knew I had to go into Boston’s most intense underground dwelling… that subterranean cavern of lurid vice and gla-mour known as the Rat…” That was punk DJ Oedipus’s introduction on that album. Oedi, born Eddie Hyson, was the first punk DJ in Boston, on the MIT station WTBS, which changed its call letters to WMBR when Ted Turner bought them for his Turner Broadcasting System. Oedipus’s show, The Demimonde, was must-listening every Saturday afternoon. He even had cool music for his concert reports—the Real Kids doing a cover of Link Wray’s “Rawhide.”

I first entered the club in the fall of ’78 with a high school friend visiting for the weekend. The drinking age was 18 and so it was possible to go to clubs. When the commonwealth raised the drinking age to 20, I was 19 and couldn’t get into clubs for another year. It sucked—they didn’t “grandfather” people in and I missed god knows how many great shows that year. At this Rat show, we saw a wretched Springsteen-esque band, the Stompers. I refuse to call that my first punk show. The band later gained some popularity, signed to a major label and you can probably find their records in a 99 cent bin somewhere.

Nope, the first real show was the Plasmatics and the Molls. I’ve told this story a ton of times, as well, and just did a piece on it for My First Time (AK Press, where so-called luminaries (hah!) write about their first punk rock experience. To give the Reader’s Digest version, that was my first punk show. The Molls had an electric bassoon player but still connected with a cool artsy-punk sound and their 7”, “White Stains,” is a KBD classic. As for the Plasmatics, it was quite the baptism into the live punk rock experience. Wendy O was one hell of a performer, in her bloodstained t-shirt and sheer nylon panties, grinding around, just out of reach of groping hands. This was before they had broken nationally, just around the time when their “Butcher Baby” EP was released. Of course, the climax was the sacrifice of the guitar via chainsaw for “Butcher Baby.” Not bad for the REAL first show I saw. They were one raw, fast, frenetic band. That was punk fucking rock, exactly what I wanted to see. I had to go solo since I had no friends and almost all the people on my dorm floor hated punk, anyway. Shit, one of the disco loving assholes down the hall, a big jockish goon, threatened to break my records.

So, for the next 18 years, I went to shows at the Rat. Night shows, all-ages shows later on, all kinds of shows and a wide variety of bands, everything from punk to hardcore to metal to post-punk to pop. While it had a rep as a punk club, the Rat booked lots of different bands over the years. Off the top of my head, here are some of the bands I saw: Mission of Burma, Effigies, Husker Du, Wipers, REM, Minutemen, Big Black, Sonic Youth, Youth of Today, Naked Raygun, Uniform Choice, Acc├╝sed, Helmet, Hard-Ons, Warzone, Varukers, Genral Foodz, GG Allin, Dickies, Angry Samoans, Dwarves, Soulside, Marginal Man, Bl'ast, Flesh Eaters, Slapshot, Goo Goo Dolls (in their punk days before they turned into top 40 swill), DOA, DYS, Dag Nasty, Descendents, Unnatural Axe, 7 Seconds, Citizen Fish, Jawbreaker, Aus-Rotten, Violent Society, Poison Fucking Idea, Sheer Fucking Terror, Freeze, Scratch Acid, Business, Anti-Flag, Queers, Doggy Style, Megadeth (just before "Peace Sells" came out)…

I mean, I could go on for days and that’s without digging into my “archives.” I also have a list of bands I WISH I’d seen there, had the chance to and didn’t: Zero Boys, in late ’80 or early ’81, around the time their 7” EP came out; DMZ, who I heard on the “Live At The Rat” album but never saw; Dead Boys, who I never saw, either; Metallica, opening for Raven! I was too cheap to cough up $7.50. FUCK!

And then there was the Police. They played a few nights there in the fall of ’78. This is another story I’ve told many times so if you’ve seen it before, my apologies. I’d heard the Police’s debut single “Fall Out” on a college station when I was just starting to listen to punk on the radio, sometime in late ’77 and thought it was a pretty good song but never did get the record. So I stopped by the room of one of my dorm-mates, Mark, and saw a 45 record on his desk. He told me they were giving them out at Strawberries, a record store in Kenmore near the Rat. It was “Roxanne” by Police, as they were listed on the record. I told him I’d heard of the band, that they were punk and he seemed repulsed by that fact and told me I could have the record. I thought it was OK—kind of surprised to hear the reggae in the verses but the chorus had a pretty punk rock feel to it, I thought at the time. That was the week they played four nights at the club. By the time they came back the following April, to play the larger Paradise, tickets sold out in advance. And I never did get to see them play at all. I suppose I could have gone to see them play at Fenway Park last summer (talk about coming full circle—sort of) but I didn’t have a few hundred bucks to do that. If they had guaranteed they’d only play songs off their first two albums, I might have taken the plunge. Much like I would have gone to see the Saints, recently, if Chris Bailey promised to only play songs from “I’m Stranded” and “Eternally Yours” and Ed Kuepper was playing guitar with them. Alas, it wasn’t to be and I heard I didn’t miss that much, anyway.

By the 90s, the place seemed really run down but that’s when I started going to a lot of all-ages shows again, as my interest in punk had been regenerated. There were matinees there almost every weekend and, once again, covering different punk sub-genres although most of the bands fit into the spiky/mohawk/up-da-punx and street punk bands. The first time I saw Dropkick Murphys, with the original lineup, they opened for the Unseen. Mark from that band booked quite a few of those shows and I’ll bet I saw them 15-20 times during the final few years of the club’s existence.

The club did have a rep for nasty bouncers. When they started doing some all-ages show in 1982, there was a show with Mission of Burma and the Proletariat. I reviewed it in the second issue of my zine and said the the club “maintained its reputation for having the most mentally deranged and fucked-up bouncers in any music establishment in Boston.” I imagine that could have also applied to the Channel, a much bigger place with alleged mob ties. But some people started “slamming,” as I called it in the review and the bouncers stopped the kids and said it wasn’t allowed. Things got ugly late in the show and there was a bit of a brawl and Clint from Mission Of Burma said “we don’t think kids should pay four bucks to get beaten up.” I also alluded to the fact that the club had been shut down for three weeks prior to that due to bouncer incidents. Speaking of Burma, they were a lot better then than when I saw them recently at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where I had to shell out $25 x 2 to take my lovely wife. She deserves it, especially after not complaining about all the punk shows I go to. Anyway, by the time the next all-ages show happened at the Rat, with the Effigies, they did allow dancing and removed all the tables and chairs. Unfortunately, according to the same issue of my zine, when the Wipers played there after that, the bouncers once again went into attack mode. And so it went…

In spite of those rough situations at times, I never really had any problems, personally, except for the time I saw Youth Of Today around ’89 or so (it may have even been Shelter. I just know it was one of Ray Cappo’s bands) and someone broke into my car on the street behind the club and boosted around 50 tapes, including many irreplaceable demos and mix tapes. I made jokes about how, since I’d criticized the spiritual content of Ray’s bands, maybe it was some sort of karma but I think I’ll just leave that alone.

I also have to mention Mitch Cerullo, the manager and doorman at the club for years, with his silver hair and impeccable three piece suits. He had also had a laryngectomy, where they removed his voice box and he had to use a device to talk. Sadly, he passed away in ’95. He was only in his early 60s. He was an imposing figure and a friend once told me that Mitch packed heat when he was working there. I can still visualize him standing by the stairway that led down to the club. It’s sad to think that stairway is gone and Mitch is gone, as well. There were even t-shirts made in his honor. T. Max from The Noise zine wrote about it on the New England Newsletter site: “I was afraid he wouldn't like me making money off his image, so I promised to make only 24 shirts. The first 24 sold as fast as I could collect the money people were shoving at me. Mitch saw this, put his arm around me, and walked me outside. He held his small microphone up to the hole in his neck and his mechanical voice spoke the words, “I respect your business endeavors. Make more T-shirts.””

MITCH AND FRIENDS (photo by Blowfish, used without permission, don't kill me)

More memories? Some of the interviews I did in that place. GBH, upstairs from the bar, where we were eating some tasty BBQ and Jock, their guitarist, put some greens on my plate, saying “’ere—it’ll put ‘air on yer chest.” Out behind the club, I interviewed the guys from Sheer Terror in a car and it was one of the most non-PC and hilarious ones I’ve ever done. Even when they said things 180 degrees opposed from my beliefs, I was in stitches. Their inimitable vocalist Paul Bearer referred to Al Sharpton as a “fat Barry White lookalike” and also said that Spike Lee looked like a frog. I mean, you really had to be there but I can still hear Paul pontificating with that New York accent of his. I interviewed David Sims and Brett Bradford from Scratch Acid and a real rat actually scurried near us, while we were in the back parking lot. In the same lot, I hung out with Jerry A from Poison Idea, who finally hit Boston in 1990. He put away a fifth of Jack Daniels and it had no noticeable effect. He’d promised me a shirt when they came to town but they ran out and so he reached into his suitcase and gave me one of his own shirts. It’s never even fit me right but it will never leave my possession. It means more than any standard band shirt. I’m sure other people have much crazier stories about the Rat than I do. I’ve never been a partier and the Rat wasn’t a place I’d go just to drink. The bands were the attraction for me.

In all honesty, this place was a pit. I mean, it was your classic seedy dive club but its history is undeniable. I was just reading an interview with the club’s owner Jim Harold and he talked about the club getting flooded. I remember that happening during a Tad show there around 1990--the toilets exploded! They made everyone go upstairs, pumped out some and once things seemed to be OK, we were allowed to go back downstairs. I don’t even want to know what I stepped in that night. They had a flood another time and someone came up with the brilliant idea to put kitty litter on the floor. You can imagine what happened when people started dancing during a Kiss It Goodbye show there. A fucking dust storm. I can’t remember if I had some kind of bandana in my bag or not but I tried to cover my mouth and nose to keep the dust out. Which, of course, didn’t happen and I was blowing black snot the next few days. Ugh. I mean, I’ve been to some basement shows with dirt floors where they’ve had the flying dust problem but this was just as bad.

As a side note, kitty litter should only be used for something that cats poop into. I found that out the hard way last winter when we had a snowstorm, our driveway was iced up and I went to the store to buy some sand. They were out so I bought five bags of kitty litter and put it down on the driveway and, of course, it turned into this disgusting gooey substance when it got wet. And it stuck to the bottom of our shoes and boots and we had to be careful not to track it into the house, over the new carpeting, which we had to put in when the downstairs of our house got flooded. I don’t think I want to talk about it anymore.


So the Rat closed and the decimation of Kenmore Square was already underway. A record store, Planet, got burnt out of its space a few doors down before the Rat’s demise. Other cool restaurants and shops gave way to chains. Eventually, the entire block where the Rat existed was bulldozed for the disgusting, gaudy Hotel Commonwealth, catering to fuckers who have over $300 a night to piss away, while visiting their obnoxious college student spawn infecting the area. Besides the Rat and Planet, that block also had the Pizza Pad, Nemo’s, an army/navy store and Charlie’s Cafeteria, which later become an iHop that pretty much blew. There were other clubs, including Storyville, which operated for a short time in the 80s. In that same building was the legendary Radiobeat studio where many great bands recorded, including SSD, DYS, The Proletariat and a lot more. That building is now an Uno’s.

There was the unofficial mayor of Kenmore Square, Mr. Butch, about whom I could write an entire column. He was a dreadlocked, African-American gentleman, who was a long-time Kenmore fixture. Butch was a street person, chose to live his life that way but also had people who looked after him. He played guitar through a small amp and I even saw him play a show with his band, the Holy Men, when they opened for Flipper at the Channel club. He was there in 1978 when I started college. After Kenmore got gentrified, Mr. Butch (whose real name was Harold Madison, Jr.) moved on to the Allston-Brighton neighborhood, where he resided until he was killed earlier this year in a scooter accident. Here’s another link if you want to know more about the legend of Mr. Butch:

It’s all gone now. Safer, I suppose. More “family friendly,” as the whole Kenmore/Fenway area is becoming. Lots of high-rises with expensive condos going up, skyrocketing ticket prices to the baseball game, when you can get them or don’t mind taking out a second mortgage to buy them from a scalper—excuse me, ticket agency. Chain restaurants like Uno’s, Bertucci’s and McDonald’s. Just like anywhere else. They’ve even cleaned up the subway station, building a fancy new entrance way. Ah well, at least the huge Citgo sign, corporate emblem or not, remains perched atop 636 Beacon Street, as it has since the mid-60s, and acts as a beacon to draw you to Kenmore. Trouble is there ain’t that much to draw me there anymore. And that’s a pity…


David Grenier said...

Holy shit, I can't believe it's been a decade since The Rat closed. You're right. Where did the time go?

Tommy said...

Al - great read.. I miss the rat!

ps, added my own twist at -

ian said...

Good post. I was at BU in the late 80s and was at the Rat a lot (well, at least when they had 18+ and all ages shows). I remember seeing some of those bands you mentioned (B'Last especially -- whatever happened to them?) but also some really good local bands, too. The place was small but had a lot of good memories.

TS Rogers said...

What a fantastic show.