Above photo by Wayne Valdez
by Rick Ouellette
In its heyday, the Rathskeller club’s unassuming façade was tucked into a homely jumble of mis-matched stores, restaurants and nightspots in Boston’s Kenmore Square, where the tony Back Bay neighborhood met the Fenway district and Boston University. Once you crossed its perpetually darkened doorway you could head straight to the street level bar (and later, James Ryan’s popular Hoodoo Barbeque) or turn left and head down the stairs to the subterranean music room. Along with cigarette smoke and the vestigial smell of sweat and spilled beer, the dim interior featured black walls, overhanging water pipes, dodgy rest rooms, tilty tables and a low bandstand that was cheek-by-jowl with the narrow dance floor. From 1974 until it closed in 1997, the Rat (as it was universally known) featured untold hundreds of bands, from rock’s living legends to the lowliest also-ran punk combo. That means about 8000 nights of edgy good times where the music was more often than not delivered at fever pitch.
Twenty years to the month after it closed, a Rat reunion show and benefit auction event was held at Kenmore’s Hotel Commonwealth. The supportive vibe that owner Jim Harold provided over the years for so many local groups starting out was a common theme, as it is in the commemorative “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD (more on that in a bit). The event took place in the second floor function area of the hotel whose giant footprint looms over the space where the Rat once stood. On an evening where exclamations of “Long Live the Rat!” were heard more than a few times, this irony was noted by many of folks in attendance.
Willie Alexander and band in front of the Rat’s original backdrop sign. (Photo by author)
Performing that night were a handful of local rock mainstays. Willie “Loco” Alexander, a godfather of Boston punk since the days of his raucous Boom-Boom Band, kicked things off with a mini-set that included the anthemic “At the Rat.” This tune was the lead track of the 1976 compilation double live album of the same name, organized by Harold to promote the local scene (now re-mastered and available on CD). It proved as popular as ever, two decades after the joint was shuttered. “Thanks for being alive,” Willie said in parting. The Nervous Eaters, led by singer-guitarist-writer Steve Cataldo, are another local legend that came up in the Rat’s earlier days; their buzzsaw riffing and unbridled lyrics set the course for many groups that followed. Having long lived down the compromised album they made in 1980 for Elektra, the Eaters reverted to the tough-as-nails sound in subsequent recordings and gigs. Songs like “Last Chance” and “Loretta” are for many people as much of a Boston tradition as the Swan Boats and were welcomed accordingly.
Steve Cataldo (Photo by author)
Emily Grogan and her band were of a later vintage than the two acts that preceded her and her impassioned songwriting and vocals were just as well received. Emily also told a touching anecdote about her early days when she was a bandmate of the late Mr. Butch, the beloved dreadlocked street person who was dubbed the “mayor of Kenmore Square.” Closing out the musical festivities were the Dogmatics. They were a prime example of groups that came into local renown in the mid-80s with a sound now twice re-generated since the 60s when garage-rock royalty Barry and the Remains played the Rathskeller when it was differently configured. Led by Jerry Lehane, the Dogmatics were a popular act not just for the Rat and the similarly downscale Chet’s Last Call, but also for the gig parties they’d have at their Thayer Street loft. At the Rat party they faithfully lived up to their legacy with the punked-up garage riffing and raffish townie humor of such nuggets as “Pussy Whipped” and the Catholic-school testimonial “Sister Serena.” They were joined by another Dorchester-bred favorite, Richie Parsons ex of Unnatural Axe, for a few numbers including the always reliable “Three Chord Rock.”
Emily Grogan (above) and the Dogmatics’ Peter O’Halloran and Jerry Lehane w/ Richie Parsons. Photos by Sara Billingsley.
The night ended sentimentally with a few words from Jim Harold as well as from former Del Fuegos drummer Woody Geissman whose Right Turn addiction treatment center was the charitable recipient of that evening’s fundraising. (I chatted with another Del Fuegos drummer, Joe Donnelly, but if either of the Zanes brothers were there I didn’t see them).
I moved to Boston shortly after the Blizzard of ’78, somehow getting my meager possessions from my hometown of Salem, Mass. to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. I began checking out the notorious Rat as soon as the snow banks started to recede. In the last few months of the apartment me and my older sister shared with rotating cast of third bedroomers (we had moved back there, unimpressed with Ft. Lauderdale where our family had re-located) a few albums had circulated that changed my musical life. I had purchased “Talking Heads ‘77” and Television’s “Marquee Moon” pretty much on the strength of reviews (both were revelations) while a roommate owned the equally eye-opening “Rocket to Russia,” the Ramones third album. Elvis Costello’s debut record was also making the rounds. But the first time I ventured down into the occluded interior of the Rat it was a misfire: it seemed to be an open-amp night for suburban bands whose mountaintop was the first Pat Travers album—-it was like they wanted to send me back from whence I came.
The Talking Heads at the Rat in ’77. By the time I first saw them they had graduated to the Paradise club, which had a higher capacity but less exposed plumbing.
Determined to right this wrong, I went back a few nights later when the Romantics were headlining. These guys, in their pre-red shiny suits day, had a buzz about them esp. after getting a positive notice in Creem magazine’s recent review of the Detroit scene. After a couple of pumped-up power pop numbers (where most everyone stayed seated) the singer presumptuously suggested that this was the place “where all the dancing girls are at.” As soon as they launched into the next song, two sets of young ladies emerged from either end of the bandstand and met in the middle of the dance floor. It was like some vision from a half-remembered rock ‘n’ roll dream. The jig was on: soon after I was going to the Rat every weekend.
I say “half-remembered” because in its original form that what it was all about: the small venues, the dancing, the aspirational groups, the chance encounters. By the time I was old enough to go out to shows, rock music’s economy had changed. My early experiences ranged from the precipitous old Boston Garden down to the 2800-seat Orpheum Theater. But at the Rat (capacity about 300+), the close quarters meant the physical and physic space between performers and audience was reduced or overlapped. I saw dozens of great local groups in this hothouse atmosphere and many of them have remained highly-regarded here even though only a few acts “made it big.” This is evidence of the staying power of a community of outsiders, sort of like why you see Harley-riding guys of Social Security age still riding around in packs.
Do Go Back to Rockville: R.E.M. were one of the last of the really big names to play the Rat. Others who came before them included the Ramones, the Runaways, Talking Heads, the Replacements, the Jam, the Police, the Stranglers and the Boston-based Cars. And few who were there will ever forget the Plasmatics’ three-night stand in March of 1979. I deny all rumors that have my hand brushing Wendy O. William’s derriere moments after she put down her chainsaw at the end of their set.
“The Sound of Our Town,” to borrow the title of Brett Milano’s excellent history of Boston-bred pop music, is ably laid out in the “Live at the Rat” album. It was a dynamic scene that was second only to CBGB on the east coast. Willie Alexander is out front with three tracks, leading a line-up that includes frenetic rave-ups by mid-70s staples like the Infliktors and Thundertrain as well as a fistful of bands known for their distinctive front men: Jeff “Monoman” Conolly (of DMZ), John Felice (the Real Kids) and Richard Nolan (Third Rail). These outfits were definitely the type of the times—with razor-edge riffing that would often build to cathartic peaks that sent the kids on the dance floor into a pogoing frenzy. But the three of them were also savvy songwriters, as were people like Frank Rowe of the Classic Ruins, who Milano suggested was the Randy Newman of punk.
This was a direct result of Harold’s policy of giving a chance to most any band that played their own material—or at least it served to unlock a lot of latent talent. Many bands that came along a little later in the late 70s or early 80s (the Neighborhoods, La Peste, Human Sexual Response, Pastiche, etc.) turned out to have quite a knack at evoking the urban milieu of the times. And what was that like for those who weren’t there or whose memory is getting a little hazy at this point? The “Live at the Rat Suite” DVD, produced and directed by David Lefkowitz, does a good job at hashing out that side of the story in the interviews interspersed with the stripped-down performances in the Hotel Commonwealth suite festooned with the club’s memorabilia. Doing songs are the same performers from the Rat party plus John Felice, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, Billie Connors and the good ol’ Dropkick Murphys (worthy youngsters 21CF cover La Peste’s “Spymaster”).
At the Rat reunion party, it was like old times in front of the stage. In the background, “Live at the Rat Suite” is projected on the wall (Brett Milano is interviewing Al Barr of the Dropkick Murphys). Photo by author
It’s great to hear your old faves in this cozy setting but also illuminating are the relaxed conversational segments, conducted by a trio of former Boston Globe music writers (Milano, Jim Sullivan and Steve Morse) along with local radio luminaries Oedipus, Carter Alan and John Laurenti. To Alexander, the supportive management and undemanding surroundings (“We were lucky if there was a door on the bathroom,” notes Willie) left a space that was a focal point where a scene could grow on its own. He says the kids, you know the artsy and non-conformist types you see in most every town, found a place of their own and a symbiotic relationship with the new bands that continues to this day. But while it may have been our clubhouse it was not the excluding type: also in the mix were adventurous suburbanites, post-game Red Sox fans and B.U. students.
The back cover of the DVD shows the partially-demolished Rat, while the front shows the well-meaning Rat-themed suite where you can have an “authentic experience” for several hundred dollars a night.
Ah, yes: Boston University. That’s where our story starts to fall apart. The school was always a convenient whipping boy for hometown rockers, ever since Jonathan Richman, in the early proto-punk days of the Modern Lovers, told his girlfriend to “Put down your cigarette and drop out of B.U.” But the ever-growing institution, under the presidency of the irascible John Silber, bought up large chunks of the Kenmore district. The eventual eviction of unwanted elements, whether it be leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ rollers or the hodgepodge collection of mid-century business, was almost an afterthought to the manifest destiny of outsized colleges, block-long hotels and chain stores (a similar fate has befallen Harvard Square).
Rat owner Jim Harold with some parting words and (on the left) Woody Geissman, whose Right Turn treatment center (“A Creative Place for Recovery”) specializes in the substance abuse issues of performing artists. Photo by author
In the photo at the top of this article, local musician Linda Viens stands in front of the Rathskeller, a quiet moment on a snowy day. A tip of the cap to Wikipedia for making this simple but remarkable shot by Wayne Valdez the featured image for their article on the club. All the loud music and edginess have fallen away, and the Rat’s tiny frontage is squished between a vintage clothing shop, a hairdressing school and the pre-Internet bank of pay phones. Viens’ casual pose suggests a kinship (even protectiveness) with her town’s most famous rock club. But not ownership. There’s less of a place nowadays for a “bon vivant” right-place-right-time proprietor like Jim Harold, who had the knack to know when to let something just happen. And boy did it ever. In the 21st century, the Boston rock scene has moved to nearby cities like Cambridge and Somerville where a vibrant blend of veteran bands and newer acts light up venues like the ONCE Ballroom. (I recently wrote about Linda’s new band Kingdom of Love and that abiding sense of musical community here). It’s the idea of the Rat that lives once the wrecking ball has cleared the way for the monolithic streetscapes of today’s gentrified cities. We plant the flag elsewhere and rock on.
Video by John Doherty
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