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

By December, Gatti's employee Marc Pearson had grown sick of the peace and quiet. The 22-year-old Denton native had worked at the restaurant long enough to have enjoyed the basement's sonic heyday, and wanted it back. He told Neal he would start booking bands, and with his predecessor's earnest blessing, invited the bands to come play again. And come, they did.

"I get four or five calls a day," Pearson says. "I never have to call them. They think it's cool to play in a little basement in a pizza shack. And they're still mostly Denton bands, and some from Sanger or McKinney or Krum." His club-management practices pay homage to Neal's: no ID-checks at the door, no cover charge. No plans for a house PA or sound man, no cash for the bands.

Here we are now, entertain us.

It's not as though casual-feel rock venues don't exist elsewhere; witness Dallas' own Bar of Soap, or Fort Worth's Aardvark, or Denton's other current indie-clubs, Rubber Gloves and Dan's Bar, which have taken up much of the Argo's slack. Nor does that "spirit" of rock elude the established clubs without exception: When Darlington plays an all-ages matinee show at the Orbit Room, the bright-eyed specter peeks in on the slew of 15-year-olds crowded in front of the friendly punk band; when Bobgoblin fills up half the front room at Bar of Soap and plays at eye-level with its sweaty and loyal audience, that noble soul of pop music pays a visit.

But in the end, those clubs book bands with an undeniable smack of professional expectation and convention--it's about money and profile. They advertise, they observe crowd attendance when deciding who can play; they pay bands in dollars, not pizza and applause. And the bands that play those venues expect an expanded audience and cash.

In Denton, while Rubber Gloves lobbies for national touring acts such as The Promise Ring or hosts ambitious multi-band benefits, while Dan's Bar charges cover and treats bands as an afterthought to its liquor sales, and shiny-clean Rick's Place on Fry Street caters to the money-spending frat crowd much of the time, Gatti's celebrates rock and roll like a freewheeling, guileless bastard son.

The issue at Gatti's isn't about musicianship, it's about--as Johnson cautiously put it--the vibe. Most in the audience would take the salad days of an earnest band like The Visitors over the tricked-out agenda of some clever-clever Dallas act, especially if they could see the show somewhere outside the Deep Ellum commercial unloading zone. As one ex-Denton bass player half-jokes, "All it takes to ruin a rock band is a good musician." However, popularity has its price. As Neal and Pearson attest, while stronger bands increasingly flood Gatti's roster, the acts that come in with no sense of themselves no longer fit the bill. The improving action shows no signs of slowing, as long as someone helms the schedule and pesky grown-ups don't get in the way.

Which prompts the question: How does the Mr. Gatti's owner figure into all this, really? The pizza-punk scene comes off like a Peanuts strip--a cast of smart kids and absent adults. When Neal and Pearson speak of those in charge, it's easy to conjure up images of nameless, faceless big people who never quite mess with the plot. "He still doesn't really understand what goes on there," Neal laughs. "He kinda turns a blind eye. We never see him, and besides, it's a tax write-off. I probably shouldn't even give you his name."

"I don't think he could care less," adds Pearson. "He tolerates it. We never really get into trouble."

Not that much, anyway. Besides the TABC paranoia, Neal recounts only few stories of Mr. Gatti's gone awry: one about an older couple living in the apartment above the restaurant who would call with noise complaints every weekend ("We would just tell them, 'Umm, you're living above a bar. These are live bands. We can't just turn them down like a stereo.'") The couple moved out.

Or the time Gatti's tried carding every patron, and installed John Turner, a member of the band Check, at door duty. ("We were paying him in beer, and so by the end of the night, he wasn't doing a very good job. Letting in his friends and pretty girls and not paying attention. It didn't work out.")

When the cops are up for harassing college kids, they can always hit the Fry Street area a half-mile away, just across from the UNT campus. The high concentration of bars and restaurants make it an easier target; on Thursday and Friday nights especially, slews of hormonally driven students spill onto the streets with their open bottles of Schaeffer and Shiner and mounting energy. Back on the quiet town square at Gatti's, the kids walk in, order up a pizza at the counter, and head downstairs. Not much action for the authorities to bite, much less grasp.

That action is too specialized, too nuanced for grown-ups like cops and restaurant owners to appreciate. When a songwriter like Slobberbone's Brent Best takes the stage as he did a few weeks back for a solo performance, his acoustic strum and twang and graveled voice speak directly to his late-teen and twentysomething audience. While the crowd pays wide-eyed attention to Best's bittersweet ditty about wanting to off his own dad, they nod and smile. Maybe it's a good thing, the cops staying away.

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