By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The owner of the new Gatti's was safely, anonymously, tucked away in Dallas, and the managers didn't care what the excess space was used for as long as it didn't cost the store anything. Neal's pizza-tossing co-workers were members of bands, too, and the earliest shows in the quickly transformed basement often featured Gatti's employees. "The first band that played there was Slobberbone," Neal says. "Brian Lane [Slobberbone's bassist] was working that night, and when he got off, he just walked downstairs and played the show in his uniform." (So damn punk!)
"And then the punk bands started coming," Neal explains. "The Sillies, Breadbox, Girls Are Mean. It was an open booking policy--I was too lazy to screen every band, and so we had some crap sometimes. High school bands. Then we had some TABC [Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission] scares because of underage drinking--and with so many younger kids hanging around, we had to cut down on the all-ages shows."
By this time, early 1995, the Argo had opened just down the street but crucially closer to campus. It was the first Denton rock club to aggressively book both local and national indie-rock acts. From Bedhead to Breadbox, Tortoise to Corn Mo, the Argo's reach was ambitiously broad (read: unfocused), but was stricken with management and financial problems throughout its brief life span. (It closed its doors in the fall of 1997.) Management would threaten to shut down every few months and beg local bands to play benefits for free; at one point the legendary John Cale turned his back on a few hundred hopeful fans and drove his bus out of town when Argo workers informed him the club couldn't pay the promised $2,000 up-front fee.
Gatti's, however, has suffered no such plagues. There's no charge at the door, no payment for the band, no percentage to a sound guy. It's all understood that you play there because you want to; you let a band play because you like 'em. "We thought about charging cover," Neal says. "We even thought about covertly charging at the door and pocketing the money. But again, we were too lazy to be sneaky. We finally gave up on it being a money-making venture."
Even though its only financial benefit was a slight increase in beer sales, Gatti's basement club thrived. From winter '94 through August '97, bands played every Thursday and Friday night, and for a brief stint Neal scheduled "Wednesday Night Solo Nights." In short order, the booking end of the job became the least of his worries.
"It was the weird place to play, something cool and different," he says. "We stopped having to approach bands, and we ended up with a solid roster of good acts. The bands booked themselves." Dooms UK, Corn Hole, Check...Gatti's was a one-hit pit-stop for Denton's local scene--punk and otherwise.
As Centro-matic, Johnson played a smattering of his initial shows there, testing the solo-musician waters after years of playing drums for one of Dallas' best rock acts. The room would fill to capacity with anxious supporters, and the skinny guitarist would turn up his tiny practice amp all the way and bound around and sing out, as though he were a kid again playing in front of the mirror in his bedroom and pretending to be a rock guy. His Denton audience would applaud like proud parents who knew they were witnessing something utterly unique--the well-crafted music and the Spartan space playing off each other in miraculous harmony. The lack of pretension and pressure made everything possible.
"I hate the word 'vibe,' but there's never a tense vibe there," Johnson says. "It's friends playing for friends. It's by the musicians, for the musicians, and all that. I mean, with no real PA and no one in particular running sound, you have people in the audience walking up and adjusting the mixer at the singer's feet, or wherever the band has put it. You get these space rockers in the audience running up during a Light Bright Highway set going, 'More 10K! More 100K!' It's downright interactive."
Neal adds: "We thought about collecting money at the door to buy a PA. Again, we were too lazy." (Again, how very punk.)
By late summer of 1997, Neal had grown tired. He was the one who had to keep things running smoothly until closing time every weekend, to clean up the spilled beer and empty cups and upended chairs after the shows, to repair the room's band-and-crowd addled damage: holes in walls, collapsed stage supports, broken furniture.
"This hard-core band from San Antonio got a little out of hand," Neal recalls. "Actually, right now a beer sign is covering up a hole in the wall. I patched it once, but then Chris Driggs from Check did this flying jump kick and re-opened it."
Neal needed a break and more free time to work on his own music projects, so he stepped down as king of the basement. He transferred to the Mr. Gatti's across town, got a job as its co-manager. And for the next six months, the Gatti's on the square was nothing more than another pizza franchise. The downstairs space sat empty, silent, a once-hopping romper room whose kids had sadly moved away.