Rock out

They're looking for a scapegoat up in Denton right now, someone to blame for the silence you hear creeping up from the stairs connecting the restaurant to the basement at Mr. Gatti's on the downtown square. Up until July 3, the basement--described in these pages just weeks ago as 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"--was acting as an asylum for those bands in Denton Rock City who liked playing the smallest of small rooms for the most intimate of intimate crowds. Bands such as Dooms U.K., Check, Jet Screamer, the Visitors, centro-matic, and so many more made the Gatti's basement their home-away-from, playing to the fanatical handfuls who discovered their little punk-rock oasis in the pepperoni pit.

But the Mr. Gatti's basement is off-limits now to the rock faithful, closed down by management tired of getting hassled by The Man. Or The Men, more appropriately--City of Denton Fire Marshal Rick Jones and Inspector Chad Weldon, who, Gatti's "officials" say, cracked down on the pizzeria after an article appeared in the Dallas Observer celebrating the music made at "Rock Bottom" (the article's headline).

According to Kathy Stark, the manager at Gatti's, Inspector Weldon started showing up at the pizzeria not long after Christina Rees' May 28 article appeared, chronicling the goings-on in "the best rock club in the region." Stark says Weldon told her that "people were voicing concerns about the article in the Observer" and started filing complaints against the club, claiming it was overcrowded and, potentially, dangerous. Stark insists that there had been no trouble with the fire marshal's office ever since the club opened in 1995--not one single visit, in fact, even though the pizza restaurant had been hosting bands almost from the get-go.

"We did everything to code," she says. "The safety inspectors went through there and said everything was fine. We did everything they wanted. And then, four years later, everything wasn't fine."

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Stark says that sometime around the end of June, Weldon started coming around Gatti's and posted a capacity load sign insisting that no more than 30 people were allowed in the basement at one time--and that number included Gatti's employees and band members. Weldon also posted a sign saying no more than 34 people could be upstairs at one time. Stark says there's simply no way the basement could handle just 25 or so audience members--especially after the article appeared, as Rees' piece dramatically increased the number of patrons wanting to enjoy a little basement rock and roll.

"Our basement isn't that big a deal," Stark insists. "The article was complimentary, but it made a bigger deal out of us than we are. It was just a place where kids could come play and people could come watch them. We had people calling us wanting to know about the club in our basement called Rock Bottom, and it started to worry people, who wondered what was going on down there." In the end, Stark says, she had to shut down the basement because her staff was spending more time turning away patrons than serving them, and it "became a waste of time." Stark insists the biggest crowds ever to fill the basement were no larger than "50, 60 kids, and that's rare"; more likely, she says, it numbered in the handfuls.

But Fire Marshal Jones insists the article had nothing to do with his office's interest in the club--in fact, Jones says he has never even heard of the Observer, bless his heart. He says he sent Weldon to Gatti's on June 25 or 27--he's not exactly sure of the date, and Weldon was out of town, so he couldn't comment--because he had received complaints from citizens about the overcrowding at Gatti's. Till then, Jones says, he had no idea that Gatti's was hosting rock bands downstairs.

"When my investigator told me we were getting complaints on Gatti's, I said, 'What--is their buffet that good?'" Jones says, laughing. "When we made an investigation, we found there was not an occupancy-load sign, and we got with the building official and set the load at 34 upstairs and 30 downstairs because of the size of the building. It is pretty small."

At the end of June, Weldon gave the restaurant's management a warning; a week later, on July 3, Jones says the inspector returned to the club and gave Gatti's a citation for overcrowding. That night turned out to be the last time live music would be featured in the dank, dim basement; Jet Screamer, the Banes, and Socially Retarded played its last call.

"But I didn't shut down any concerts there," Jones says, irritated at the suggestion that his office stopped the rock. "We're not in the business of shutting people down unless they don't abide by the code. In the 13 years I've been doing this, I've closed only half a dozen establishments...I don't have any problem with the bands or the majority of clubs in town. Like anybody else, I enjoy a good time. I just want it to be safe."

Yet Jones and his office are still being blamed for the shut-down--as is the Observer. Last week, an essay appeared in a Denton fanzine, Welcome to the Valley, written by a Gatti's employee named Jenny (don't know her last name--it wasn't signed, and her bosses are reluctant to give out her last name). Headlined "Grape Ape Shit Eating Grin," Jenny's essay insisted that Rees' "article did more harm than good" for the basement.

"Christina Rees decided to earn some sort of twisted journalistic integrity by making an elaborate 'story'/expose/praise in behalf of Gatti's," she wrote. "The article implied that there was underage drinking, overcrowding, irresponsible employees, and so on. But in her eyes, she was boasting about how 'punk rock' all of those things were. In turn, Gatti's did get a lot of publicity, bad publicity...We can all thank CHRISTINA REES for this mess."

Jenny insisted the story resulted in a crackdown by state troopers, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officials, and the fire marshal. But according to Stark, she had never heard of any TABC officials hassling management, and no state troopers had ever stormed the pizzeria.

There's no denying that Jenny and the punk-rock faithful have every right to be brokenhearted over the closing of the basement--but in the end, the decision to do so was management's, not the fire marshal's, certainly not the Observer's. Rees wrote about the club because it was a special place--where some of the best bands in the Dallas-Denton-Fort Worth copper triangle shone brightest beneath dull lights. Nothing remains a secret forever; such is the price paid when something's successful, even in the shadows.

The rock isn't necessarily dead at Gatti's: Stark says management is looking into remodeling the basement and dealing with Denton inspectors on how to accommodate the code and the crowds. But till then, the lights are out, the sound is off, and a room that is said to hold only 30 now hosts none.

"I really feel like we're being picked on," Stark says. "It's too bad."

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