Rock bottom

Tucked away in the cellar of a Denton pizza shack is a club that offers punk rock bands a place to re-discover why they make music in the first place

On a balmy late night in a historic town square, the welcoming glow of a pizza parlor beckons the hungry and the bored. Inside, a tidy row of tables, a soda fountain, and polished wood paneling reflect the smooth operation of a modest business; the guy working behind the counter smiles patiently as he jots down an order from a group of college kids. A few patrons promptly disappear down a flight of stairs, while others sit at a nearby table to peruse an abandoned newspaper and munch on their pepperoni pizza. A young man with tattoos snaking down his right arm feeds quarters into a winking, bleeping pinball machine. All is well in this little world.

Suddenly, noise erupts from somewhere down below--a manchild wildly yelping, "We want a riot!" Then music--loud, full-throttle--whooshes up the darkened stairway and washes through the restaurant; it's the hoarse grind of a Les Paul and the determined pound of a kick drum---thunk, thunk, thunk--and again the stricken cry, "We wanna riot!"

Dip into this scene: two weeks ago, Thursday night, down the dark, narrow flight of worn steps into a low-ceilinged area not larger than a standard living room, with a few bare red and blue light bulbs sputtering at one end above a shallow stage. Standing below these lights with the rest of his band is the yelper, with his short mane of bleached white spikes, red plaid pull-on slacks, and leopard-skin creepers; he wails earnestly into a microphone, though his static limbs betray youthful nerves. The freckled guitarist, sporting heavy red bangs fringed over Elvis Costello horned rims, sneers and smirks with jittery concentration.

The band is called the Visitors, and it churns out hook-laden punk tunes in rapid-fire succession, each one familiar in tone ("Sniffing Glue" and "Twelve-Inch Ruler" among them), though entirely new. Forty or so young people fill the cramped space. They scuffle about and yell to one another; some stand near the band and grin widely when the guitar player glances up at them; some perch on the edges of frayed rattan chairs, clutching oversized glass jars of pissy beer. Beads of liquid gather on the glass bottoms, hot sweat pours off foreheads; water drips slowly from the dented vent in the ceiling at the back of the room, forming a small, puddle on one of several wood veneer tabletops. A kid in the shadows slams his beer down into the center of that puddle, scattering it, and whoops joyously for the fifth time in five minutes.

This could be anywhere. New York City, 1977. Manchester, England, 1980. Olympia, Washington, 1991. But tonight, it's about 35 miles north of Dallas, in the heart of Denton. Hardly anyone knows about it, only a handful of regulars attend it, and most Dallas bands would turn down playing there. Yet it's the best rock club in the region.

The room is the below-ground peripheral to a standard-issue Mr. Gatti's pizza parlour, one flanked by pawn shops and a big red courthouse, and several nights a week, it doubles as an all-ages rock club in an otherwise rock-club-bereft town. But the irony isn't just in its geography. It's in what happens on those nights when the kids file downstairs and the bands switch on their amps, when that basement air grows undeniably thick and hot with the stench of sweat, and then throbs with something most of us thought rock and roll had lost some time ago.

Sometime this very decade, rock and roll lost its driving spirit, like an alcoholic mom loses track of her own child: carelessly, lazily, drowning in self-loathing. The money-hungry, industry-driven part of rock killed off much of the creative part, and that spirit--the spitting, bright-eyed, finger-pointing love-child of R&B and C&W, the uppity fire starter that begat Buddy Holly who begat John Lennon who begat Jello Biafra who begat Peter Buck and so on, sought refuge underground. Literally--because that spirit is alive and well and hiding out in a basement in Denton, Texas, of all places.

This tiny sunken oasis thrives despite a world where rock music is as watered-down and attention-deficit as it's ever been, a world where bands as tepid as No Doubt introduce generations to a "new" rhythm (we called it ska back when), and the closest a 16-year-old gets to the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" is a throwaway song called "Wonderwall" by Oasis; where Matchbox 20 is considered "alternative." Alternative to what? To intelligent songwriting? To pioneering production? To originality?

Sure, it's a bitchfest, but it's the sad and increasing truth, and that basement of Gatti's is the only place in the region that flies straight in the face of that truth. There's no hovering club owner angling for big cash flow, no promotion company fishing for ticket sales, no musicians preening in a too-bright spotlight, or patrons playing the "see-and-be-seen" game. Hell, there isn't even a PA system: The bands bring whatever they have on hand, including home stereos. Is it really about the music and the camaraderie? Ah, purity--thy name is "college town." And why play here, when all these musicians will receive in exchange is some free pizza and 30 minutes in a sunken room that can't possibly launch their careers further than a flying anchovy? Sure, the pizza's good and all, but...

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