Rock bottom

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...

College towns, Denton included, have gears that click and whir to the beat of a youthful pulse--growing, restless suburban kids free from parental scrutiny for the first time. Denton's University of North Texas and its 25,000 students make up a sizeable portion of the city's population, and its academic and creative energies float like a passionate and sometimes pretentious haze over the whole town.

Clusters of young people, like their counterparts in Chapel Hill and Austin and Ann Arbor, find their way into music projects with surprising ease, thanks to punk's introduction to the do-it-yourself ethic, MTV, and the rapid spread of all things counter-cultural by the media. Old boundaries of rock have evaporated. Ten years ago, playing in a band was the special realm of the creative, the determined, the eccentric. Now it's as common for a 20-year-old to start a band as it is to eat breakfast.

UNT's prestigious music school attracts would-be geniuses from all over the country to its flat, beige jazz-focused campus, but over the past few years, the membership of Denton rock bands has shifted from music students to other kids--English majors and film majors and, frankly, a shitload of dropouts. They chose UNT because it's cheap and easy to get into; they stay in Denton because it's cheap and easy to negotiate. And since the bands are often new and ever-transforming (some would call their interchanging line-ups incestuous), the members haven't started calculating their money-grubbing potential. They're still learning to play their instruments and write songs.

Thus, the non-agenda of a college town music scene; Denton has built itself a healthy rock microcosm, one that often shows more backbone and credibility than commercial-minded, non-college-enhanced Dallas. Even though crap-quality Denton rock clubs open and close as often as school lets out, the Dallas music contingent has learned that Denton rock bands are a force to be reckoned with, either on their own academic turf or as they move on and trickle into Dallas itself, often infiltrating Dallas bands. Many of Dallas' strongest acts--from Baboon to the tomorrowpeople to Bobgoblin to Slow Roosevelt--have at least some genetic makeup in Den-tone's music scene. As Denton bands recognize that migrating to Dallas doesn't guarantee musical happiness, Dallas bands migrating to Mr. Gatti's may be finding just what they are looking for.

"We wanted to play here. We asked to play here," says Benji Bollox, the spike-haired Visitor, after finishing his Gatti's gig. "It's a good room, it's fun, it's a good audience." The band had driven in from Dallas to unload its cheerful ire on Denton music fans, as did the act that followed them on the Thursday-night bill. Supersport 396, three guys looking far more like a 1998 band than the Visitor's circa-1978, with unremarkable haircuts, tennis shoes, and slumped postures, graced the dim basement for the second time in several months, and had made the trip up from Dallas as well.

"It's one of the most comfortable rooms in the whole country," says Will Johnson, better known as Centro-matic, a musician who, while touring with his former band, Funland, has played just about every indie-rock club across America. "And I feel comfortable in most rooms. I booked [Centro-matic's] only June show there. It's like playing in a friend's living room with beer and pizza being served, and pinball games, to boot."

Johnson, who moved back to Denton a few years ago to finish up his undergraduate studies at North Texas after a four-year stint in Dallas, could play anywhere here--Trees, the Curtain Club, you name it. But he chooses to play Mr. Gatti's basement, as have so many since the club opened in late 1994.

George Neal is the pizza guy-musician who started Gatti's puppy-love affair with rock. At the time, the bespectacled, articulate Neal was newly employed at the pizza place, playing in various Denton bands and recording solo work as Little Grizzly. He was also frustrated with the lack of music venues in his town.

"Gatti's had only been open a few months," he recalls. "We had that downstairs set up for dining, and we already served beer. There really wasn't any place in Denton to play; the Main Event had shut down, the Argo hadn't opened yet...We thought, why the hell not?"

And the precise notion spark? In October, 1993, Neal attended a party at the same spot, which then was just the hollowed-out apartment of John Norris, who at the time was a member of the band Chomsky (now of the tomorrowpeople). Norris had invited some fellow bands to play a Halloween bash--Factory Press, Caulk--and Denton's close-knit rock community flooded the place. Shoot up to fall of '94, when Neal was walking around the just-installed pizza parlor and reminiscing: "At that party, there had been all these cats running around, all this cat shit covering the floors. So it had been rock bands and cat poop. It was perfect." (Now is when we all yell, "Punk rock!")

"I wasn't sure what kind of club it should be at first, whether to charge cover, what kind of acts to book," Neal says. "Rock bands, or have a coffee-house feel, or what."

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.

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.

It's after midnight, the same Thursday night that the Visitors and Supersport 396 played. Supersport has cleared the stage for Denton's own Dooms U.K., which is a crowd in itself. All the members, most Denton rock veterans, seem very much at home; Dooms have played this club countless times. As the band sets up, the crowd lolls about in tiring, glassy-eyed anticipation in a room that seems even smaller, hotter, and ranker than it did an hour before.

"Last call!" someone shouts from above, and a handful of kids, presumably legal-age ones, trip up the stairs to buy one last beer. The lights dim one final time, and the band roars to life, ripping playfully through its odd array of comedy, metal, and cabaret. Halfway through the set, orange-haired frontman John Freeman surveys the night-weary crowd and strikes a quasi-defiant pose.

"Stand and deliver, fuckers!" he squeals, and the crowd jerks back to full attention and laughs and shouts back at him. That response is the band's payment, and tonight in the basement of a pizza shack, that's enough.

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