Tuesday, December 02, 2008
It was Christmas morning 1999. After a Silent Night I awoke in a Silent House, greeted only by weak strains of sunlight that filtered through the tattered curtains of my bedroom window. I lumbered down the stairs and found no fancy presents under the plastic tree, but my self-induced holiday cheer remained intact. This time around I had made special plans to gift-wrap my own little treat – with the on-coming Washington, DC holiday season filled with waves of joyful tourists energetically visiting the various monuments, gaping at the magnificent Capitol and deftly dodging daredevil cabbies, I would get a jump on the multitudes and intrepidly embark on a special pre-noon pilgrimage to the remains of an inner-city rock and roll den that still harbored ghosts from DC’s musical past. It would be a Cool Yule indeed.
I hopped in my big black Buick and departed for the city, keenly aware that not many people realized that the nation’s capital stands still on Christmas Day. The kids stay in their homes and break their newly-acquired toys, most adults hide indoors and either prep for church services or ponder visits to nearby relatives, and miscellaneous others remain holed up in their bedrooms until the visions of sugar plums have had their final dance. As a result, the inner core of the city is left to slumber underneath covers of glass-and-concrete structures that tower over empty streets. On this one day of the year, Washington rests in peace, if only for a short while.
I wheeled the Buick down 10th Street NW past the MLK Library and instinctively swung right at the next intersection. At the middle of the block I cut the engine, noted the exact time – 9 a.m. – and stepped out of the vehicle to take a long look at my strangely serene surroundings. Never in my life had I experienced a more eerie sense of calm then on this particular morning. The sun was shining brightly and the sky directly above was a piercing bright blue. I could feel the light winds gently swirl about in the freezing city air. Office buildings, some old, some new, all speckled with green and red decorations, lined both sides of the fairway. I looked around and the 900 block of F Street was desolate and motionless – no traffic, no Metro buses, no people, no noise – a forgotten world completely devoid of life. It was Christmas morning and not a creature was stirring, not even a rat.
The quiet calm around me was broken only by the sound of my heavy boot steps as I scuffled my way to the middle of the street. Suddenly, my vision focused on the object of my quest: the ancient, now-boarded-up Atlantis building and its grimy, ground-floor doorway that once welcomed the masses to the original 9:30 Club. Gallantly it stood, its most famous tenant having relocated to other quarters, now a fading temple to a segment of Washington, DC’s 1980-1995 rock and roll scene that will hopefully live on in the memories of those who had reveled within. I took a seat in the middle of F Street, legs crossed hippie-style on the pavement, oblivious to the frigid surroundings. Before me a procession of musical ghosts who had worked the 9:30 Club came and went: local favorites like Tiny Desk Unit and the Slickee Boys, legendary punk bands like Minor Threat and the Bad Brains, future superstars like REM and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, dinosaurs like Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer, and on and on and infinitum.
An eternity passed and it dawned on me that in the nation’s capital, every decade seemed to have had its own distinct musical trends, hot spots and highlights. Guitarist Tommy Keene appropriated the term “Places that are Gone” for one of his album titles and I could think of no better way to describe the ties that bind the music-oriented hangouts of one era to another. The Casino Royal, the Blue Mirror, the Hayloft, Kavakos Grill, the Lotus, the Merry-Land Club, Rand’s – all names from DC’s distant nightclub past, all removed from the landscape, all leaving entertainment legacies that evolved, expired, and experienced cultural reincarnation in modern-day places like the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat, and the Velvet Lounge.
Contributing to the cycle, the 9:30 Club had moved on. It was Christmas morning, 1999 and here I was, frozen in time, staring at an empty building in the heart of the nation’s capital. For someone who loves the city’s rock and roll history, I could not think of a more appropriate gift.