Out of the Closet
Editor's note: Is Trees closing for good at the outset of 2006? As of press time, it has not been confirmed, though the answer could come even before this story reaches racks--check www.dallasobserver.com for updates through the week. Still, a barren December concert calendar, relocated January concerts, thousands of dollars of debt and a bankruptcy hearing on Wednesday, December 28, have cast a negative shadow on the Deep Ellum giant in the past month, leaving concertgoers and musicians alike speculating on the future of Trees--and Deep Ellum. Future issues will look into that very question, but on what may possibly be Trees' final week of existence, we pay tribute to its past. --Sam Machkovech
During the '80s the building at 2709 Elm Street sat empty. Huge glass windows in the front allowed anyone to see the ascending staircase that went straight up the middle of the room to the balcony and second tier. The owner always left the light on, and the small glimpse made me wonder about the history of the room--surely it was an elegant ballroom or dance hall during the Depression. For those of us who promoted concerts and ran nightclubs during the late '80s, the room seemed too good to be true--probably too expensive to run and turn a profit. Too beautiful to even think about.
When a public relations whiz kid named Jessica Clarke woke me up early one morning in the spring of 1990 and asked if I would meet her for breakfast, I could hear the urgency in her voice. Over grits and toast at East Dallas' Goldrush Café, she informed me that a 22-year-old kid named Brian Davis, youngest son of notorious Fort Worth millionaire Cullen Davis Jr., had just leased the Elm Street building. Brian's father was once accused of murdering the lover of his estranged second wife but was later absolved after a lengthy and controversial trial. Cullen Davis was our OJ Simpson, our Robert Blake, and now his son, flush with daddy's cash, was stumbling into business in Deep Ellum.
Davis had just moved back from Louisiana and had no experience as a business owner, yet he had tentative plans to open a Cajun-themed restaurant. He'd hired Clarke to handle the publicity for his new venture, but she enlisted me to convince him to use the space as a music venue instead. Apparently, I pulled it off, because he promptly hired me to book the venue and serve as DJ. We quickly assembled a skeletal staff of close friends, including Davis' college roommate David Webb, bartender Geoff Lane, manager "Big Steve" Shein, door girl Malina Pearson and an inexperienced sound engineer named Russell Turns (the only one of our group who endured the entire life of the club).
Trees (named for the support beams that looked like tree trunks) was, if you'll pardon the expression, a more organic enterprise during the early years. The interior was made of bricks and plywood, and the walls were decorated with autographed drum heads. A roll-up metal door directly behind the stage was often left open during concerts. A raging thunderstorm on Elm Street provided an unforgettable backdrop to a memorable solo acoustic performance by former Husker Du front man Bob Mould. Dozens of kids stood outside on the sidewalk and watched from backstage as Radiohead performed "Creep" in Dallas for the first time. Passersby could see nimbus clouds of secondhand smoke billowing from the club during sets by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill.
Because of this open-door design, anything that happened at Trees set the tone for the neighborhood on a given night.
The timing for a new 900-capacity venue couldn't have been better. Grunge was poised to take over mainstream rock radio, gangsta hip-hop was filtering into middle America and the local music scene in Dallas was in full swing. The Buck Pets, Toadies, Course of Empire, New Bohemians, Rigor Mortis, Funland, Tripping Daisy, MC 900 Ft Jesus and Rev. Horton Heat had signed record deals with major labels, and Trees quickly became their hometown venue of choice. Clarke and I nurtured an ongoing working relationship with concert promoters Mark Lee and Danny Eaton (former partners of 462 Productions), which meant artists like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith, Afghan Whigs, Guided By Voices and Marilyn Manson all made their Dallas debut performances as "baby bands" at the club.
Trees had its share of trouble, of course. Mazzy Star unplugged their instruments and abruptly walked offstage four songs into their set after someone tossed a beer bottle at singer Hope Sandoval. Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli almost got his ass kicked for propositioning a woman from the stage while she was standing next to her boyfriend. Cop Shoot Cop bassist Tod A left his gear behind and ran off the stage through the side door in a delirious, dope-sick effort to get a fix.
And who could forget the year anniversary of the death of Loco Gringos' frontman Pepe Lopez? Rev. Horton Heat hosted a "séance" which turned into a drunken open-mike confessional featuring "Dookie" (the late, smack-addicted, cross-dressing saxophonist from '80s Ellum favorites Daylights) and a twisted testimonial from born-again club owner Russell Hobbs. Things turned surreal as Hank Tolliver from Bar of Soap seized the microphone and drunkenly recited the lyrics to the Gringos' "Nurture My Pig" while Turns ran his voice through an octave divider and frequency pitch generator. It sounded like Darth Vader channeling The Chipmunks inside Carlsbad Cavern. Chairs and empty beer bottles were thrown, bewildered audience members screamed at the stage and each other, and somewhere, Pepe kicked back with a can of Schaffer's and smiled down on it all.
Still, none of those ever matched the show on October 19, 1991.
We were offered Nirvana in August of that year. The group was still relatively unknown at the time, but they had established a cult following in the Northwest, and Geffen Records was really excited. Their booking agent was asking for $3,500, which was a lot of money for a new club to be shelling out for talent--we'd have to sell 450 tickets just to break even--so I told Mark Lee I'd get back to him.
That afternoon I called promoters around the country and asked what they had been offered. The buzz was apparently on; in most cases, the amount was between $5,000 and $10,000, so we in Dallas, a smaller market for concerts at the time, were getting a bargain. When I called back a few hours later, Nirvana's agent already wanted more money, but we worked out a damn good deal.
Two weeks after signing the paperwork, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" blew up everywhere. The agents wanted to move the gig to a larger venue, but I told them it was too late--I had booking exclusivity with Trees, and we had already sent out publicity material to the local press. But most importantly, I was adamant because we needed the show--this would be our first chance at real credibility.
And we got it: There were as many people outside of the club as there were stuffed inside. When the band arrived for sound check that afternoon, Monte, their mullet-headed road manager, went ballistic because there wasn't a barricade in front of the stage. It was too late to build or rent one, so we put security guards on the stage.
Dave Grohl and Krist Novaselic were really nice, cooperative guys. Novaselic seemed a little tired, but Grohl was on fire, just hilarious. Meanwhile, Kurt Cobain had drunk an entire bottle of cough medicine and was basically being led around by the nose by the local Geffen promo person. He was barely able to walk around or even stand up.
When Trees opened that night, a huge push of people bum-rushed the front door. This sent Monte the Mullet into another panic attack. The line of people stretched all the way down to Good-Latimer Expressway. Cars on Elm Street were honking their horns and blasting Nevermind.
By the time Nirvana took the stage, almost 1,000 people (including the guest list) were packed into our club. The smoke was dense, and it was hotter than hell itself. Five biker-looking bouncers were positioned in front of the band, so you could barely even see Nirvana. Still, lunatic kids managed to climb onstage and jump into the raging mosh pit. There was no controlling this crowd at all.
During the third song, Cobain threw a temper tantrum--he took his guitar off and slammed it into the monitor console at stage right. Kurt had destroyed the console and left the band without a monitor mix onstage, so they couldn't hear a thing. Creighton Curlee, the monitor engineer and owner of the console, stood there with a look of shock. He had never really heard of Nirvana until that night.
At this point, the security guys had become more sympathetic to Curlee than the band. One of those guys, a tattooed behemoth named Turner Scott Van Blarcum, turned around and looked at Kurt just as he waved his arms and implored the audience to jump onstage. He gave Kurt the finger and yelled, "Fuck you, dude." The band started playing the next song, and Kurt used Van Blarcum's back as a diving board to leap into the mosh pit.
As the crowd pulled Kurt in every direction, he motioned to Van Blarcum to help pull him back onstage. Turner was having none of it and pushed Kurt back further into the crowd. Cobain swung his guitar around and slammed it into the side of Turner's head. Blood flew everywhere, and the audience finally pushed Kurt back onto the stage. He fell to his knees and struggled to get back up. As he rose, Van Blarcum slugged him in the side of his head, knocking Kurt about 10 feet across the stage. Grohl jumped straight over the front of his drum kit, and Novaselic tried to tackle the guard. There were bodies strewn everywhere, beer bottles flying towards the stage and total mayhem in the audience.
After a few minutes, an off-duty police officer escorted Van Blarcum outside. Novaselic climbed off the stage and went out front to look for the security guard to make sure he was OK. Grohl wandered off toward the back of the club. Cobain stood by himself onstage for five minutes making a screeching and horrible noise with his guitar, seemingly waiting for his pissed-off band members to come back and finish the show.
Finally, he heaved his guitar into the drum set. This was not good. A four-song set is not a full concert, and five more minutes went by before I realized that unless I got the guys playing again, I would have 1,000 very pissed-off audience members. They started chanting: "BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT!" I scrambled downstairs and found the shirtless Grohl leaning on the pinball machine. I begged him to get back onstage. He said, "No problem. Find the other guys. I'll be right there."
A couple of minutes later I saw Novaselic come back through the front door, his body covered in Van Blarcum's blood. He told me to call an ambulance. I begged him to get back onstage and that I would make sure we would take care of our employee. Krist was pissed at Kurt, but he was willing to finish the show anyway.
Now where the fuck was Cobain? I looked everywhere, wading through the hundreds of arms and legs and bodies sprawled all over the place, and finally found him in a closet upstairs in the very back of the club. He was in there with this long-haired creep who was trying to give him smack. Kurt was trying to hand-roll a cigarette, but he could barely move. I took it out of his hands, rolled it in about three seconds, then put it in his mouth and said, "You come with me."
I dragged Cobain through the crowd and pushed him back onstage. The three band members stood there looking at each other for more than five minutes. Nobody wanted to start playing. I made it back up to the DJ booth, where Robert Wilonsky from the Dallas Observer was waiting for me. "Man, what are you gonna do?" The crowd was getting anxious. It was almost as if the band had brought them there to take their money and insult them to their faces.
We both spied my CD copy of Nevermind. Wilonsky was thinking the same thing that I was thinking--whatever it takes to get this train back on track.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" came blazing out of the PA at full volume. The crowd went bozo--throwing bottles and chairs, people diving on top of each other, all kinds of crazy shit. Monte the Mullet came running into the DJ booth. "WRONG SONG, ASSHOLE. WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!?!"
I looked him and said, "I think the question is, what the fuck are you doing? That guy has already destroyed a monitor console, attacked one of our employees and now they're just going to stand there and make fun of the audience? MAKE THEM FINISH THE SHOW, MOTHERFUCKER."
He ran back down the stairs, climbed onstage and begged the band to start playing again. Somehow, they got it together. The rest of the show was great, and the audience stumbled out of the building feeling like they had witnessed a real once-in-a-lifetime event.
Still, there was the matter of getting the band out of the club. Van Blarcum was waiting for Cobain outside and was hell-bent on beating his ass. I called a taxi service and told the dispatcher to have a car come to the back door of the venue. The taxi was there less than five minutes later, and I shuffled the band into the back seat (Grohl and Novaselic still shirtless from the show). I told the driver, "Get these guys the fuck out of here," and they took off down the alley behind Trees.
Monte the Mullet chased after them. "They don't know what hotel we're staying at! They don't know where to go!" Fuck.
The cab stopped and made a left into the parking lot by the side of the building. The driver was oblivious as to what happened inside the club and pulled up right to where, holy shit, Turner was standing. Van Blarcum spotted them and broke the glass out of the cab's back window with his fist. By the time I ran over there the three guys in the back seat were freaking out, covered in jagged shards of glass, and the driver was screaming, while trying to pull Van Blarcum away from his cab, "Who is going to pay for this?" By this time, there was a huge mob of people watching it all go down. It took an improvised police escort to get them out alive.
Van Blarcum went to Baylor Hospital to get his head sewn back together. Mullet Monte had to extract the cost of a new monitor console (about $5,000) out of the band's pay that night, so he wasn't very happy as he left the building. I found out later that this type of thing had happened a number of times on the tour.
I've run into Grohl a bunch of times since then, and it's always, "Dude, even if I retired tomorrow, I'll always have that show at Trees to tell my kids about." So will everyone else who made it inside 2709 Elm that night.
During the '90s, Trees was the heart of the neighborhood. The club was never tied to one particular style of music, so the audience was filled with fresh faces every night. Shein had always instructed our staff of security people (before the Nirvana show, anyway) to treat every customer gently and humanely. Jessica Clarke did an incredible job of creating a public profile for the club in the local media and later became the manager for both House of Pain and Cypress Hill.
Other club employees went on to start their own record labels, music-driven Web sites, jobs at recording studios and even bands of their own. Trees was the place where we got on-the-job training that inspired us to make a music career for ourselves.
Davis eventually sold Trees to Entertainment Collaborative owners Brandt and Brady Wood. This turned out to be a horrible mistake on their part. Besides putting them into competition with themselves--Gypsy Tea Room is also a 900-capacity venue a mere block away--it left the Wood brothers exposed and adherent to the success or failure of their other businesses. When Jesse Chaddock attacked and permanently disabled David Cunniff at an Old 97's show at the Gypsy, Cunniff's civil lawsuit against the owners of the club forced their hands--and indirectly put Trees in its last death throes.
One less venue for local bands to play, and 15 years of memories tarnished and banished to history, because of a drunken skinhead with a chip on his shoulder? What had started with money that Cullen Davis had stashed in his son's bank account may now end because of a bankruptcy proceeding tied to a random act of unsolicited violence.
If Trees closes, it will be sad to drive down Elm Street and see 2709 empty once again, but we can feel good about the experiences we had there. We should thank Jessica Clarke for having the foresight to want to change Brian Davis' mind about opening a seafood joint there instead. We can give props to the people who worked, played, drank, bled, danced and fought there--they gave the neighborhood its character. We can thank them for rejuvenating the local music scene and for living up to the long-standing heritage and subversive reputation of the Dallas creative community.
Deep Ellum as a creative destination is history, but the influence of Trees will live forever.
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