The Boston Phoenix
November 26 - December 4, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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Paradise lost

Remembering the Rat

by Brett Milano

If you're old enough to remember when the Rat was great, you were probably a little depressed last weekend because . . . well, because you're old enough to remember when the Rat was great. But mostly because the long-rumored shutdown, which we reported in these pages three months ago, finally happened. Last Saturday night, Gang Green became the last band ever to play the Rathskeller. And the venerable Kenmore Square club -- where Peter Wolf & the Hallucinations opened for the Remains in the '60s, where the Neighborhoods, Real Kids, Lyres, and Nervous Eaters sprang up in the '70s, where Hüsker Dü opened for R.E.M. in the ultimate "wish you'd been there" show in March of 1984, and where nothing much happened in the '90s -- is history. Just a shut-down building halfway between a McDonald's and an IHOP.

The loss to the Boston music scene is mostly symbolic, since the whole Cambridge circuit burst forth around the time the Rat declined. But the Rat was a hell of a symbol, and there isn't a room in Boston that holds more music history than that now-deserted subterranean basement. The '70s punk explosion was born and nurtured here, and the club reigned supreme well into the '80s. Willie Alexander recorded "At the Rat" ("Down on Kenmore Square! All the bands play there!") in 1977, and the next year's double album Live at the Rat, with DMZ, the Real Kids, and Nervous Eaters, was the city's first important punk document. There was more money to be made at other clubs, but the Rat was the street-credibility gig, and everyone who played there came away with some underground cachet -- even Tiny Tim, whose Rat rendition of "Another Brick in the Wall" remains one of my fondest memories.

It was only part of the story that some eventual big names played the Rat -- and most of them did, from the Cars, the Police, Talking Heads, and the Ramones to Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, and the Pixies (Nirvana never did, but this was where Kurt Cobain met Mary Lou Lord, at a Melvins show). But the Rat was more than a music club. It was a hangout and a refuge, the kind of place Paul Westerberg wrote "Here Comes a Regular" about. And if you didn't go downstairs to see a band, at least you could see Lilli Dennison (now of Charlie's Tap) waiting tables and local luminaries chowing down on barbecue. I remember wandering in with a broken heart one night, seeing the Dogmatics at a corner table figuring out the chords to Eddie Cochran's "Something Else," and knowing that things were going to work out fine.

And yes, I was at that R.E.M./Hüskers double bill (which happened the night after R.E.M. headlined the Orpheum on the Reckoning tour), but at the time it felt like just another good night. I have equally strong recollections of a "Battle of the Garages" bill around that time, when the headliners were Boston's Prime Movers and New York's Das Furlines, an all-female polka band whose lead singer spent half the set swinging from the rafters and the other half rolling on the stage floor. (R.E.M. had their own history with the Rat in the early days: some less-than-complimentary graffiti about Peter Buck's sexual prowess remained on the women's-bathroom wall for years.)

There wasn't a particular moment when things went wrong, though the club was hurt by the departures of various booking agents, the gentrification of Kenmore Square, and the death of well-liked doorman Mitch Cirillo (whose memorial show two years ago was the last proper Rat bash). Some say it all ended when the Rat's old singles jukebox, where Unnatural Axe's "They Saved Hitler's Brain" was the most popular selection, was replaced by a CD model. In recent years owner Jim Harold was doing without a full-time booker, and the club suffered from an erratic schedule and an influx of suburban metal bands -- the same type who played across the street at Narcissus during the Rat's heyday. Even the food in the upstairs kitchen -- once the home of the great Hoodoo Barbecue -- got a little scary.

At least the club received a fitting sendoff from Gang Green, whose anthem "Alcohol" can go down in history as the last song played there. The Rat missed the chance to reunite the A-list of local bands for one last party. But then, most of the old-school Bostonians you'd expect to see at such an event -- the Titanics, Willie Alexander, the Lyres, the Bristols, David Minehan, the spinoffs of Mission of Burma, the Neats, and Scruffy the Cat -- played within a week of the Rat's closing. They just played at other clubs. That pretty much says it all.

"The last night wasn't very special, I have to say," admits former Prime Movers drummer Dennis McCarthy, who played the final show with his current band, Ape Hangers. "It felt like something that had already ended. The Rat was really the punk-rock Camelot -- it fell from grace, but you kept hoping for a resurrection. Maybe some day it will get good again. There wasn't a lot of sentimentality in the room, it was more like `Oh gee, what a bummer.' I came in early and the first thing I saw was a couple of drunk guys beating each other up, in the Rat tradition. At least you could keep the bad element at the Rat -- now where are all the big meatheaded guys going to go and work out their repressed homosexuality on the dance floor?"

McCarthy says that when he walked out of the Rat at closing time, it felt like walking out on any other night. "I saw Jim Harold at the back of the room smiling at people. But mostly he was telling everyone to clear the hell out, just like always."


The Gravel Pit The past week has brought the quiet release of three albums by bands who've made bigger noises in the past. The Gravel Pit are letting their new rarities album No One Here Gets In for Free (Q Division) slip out with relatively little hoopla so they can put out an all-new album early next year. The 22-song CD nearly doubles the number of Gravel Pit tracks on disc, showing off their great taste in covers (10 points for the Kinks' "King Kong") and rescuing a few tracks, like the droll "Simple Fact," that weren't good enough for the regular albums.

The first eight tracks come from a cassette they released in 1989 before moving here from New Haven. At the time they were more conventionally poppish. There's even a pair of love songs here, one of which bears the non sequitur title "Paul Westerberg." You can also hear an R.E.M. influence that got discarded later on, notably on "The Southern Crawl" (which is derivative but extremely catchy) and "Focusing on One Specific Goal and Achieving It," which resembles R.E.M.'s "Undertow" -- another song about drowning, except that the latter wouldn't be written for another couple of years.

Albums like this usually allow a band to be goofier than they'd be on an official release. So it is with the Pit, who include a excruciating cover of Def Leppard's "High & Dry" and a phone message from a disgruntled agent (good thing he's not identified, because he sounds like a royal jerk). And "Suckin' on a Holiday Treat," originally on a Christmas tape last year, lets them run wild with sexual innuendo. But since the Gravel Pit usually come off as a nice bunch of guys, it's worth noting that the funniest track is also the nastiest. Performed solo by singer/organist Jed Parish, "Suburban Rock" is a parody of the Clash's "Revolution Rock" that bears the scars of too many lame opening bands: "You can't even increase your own pulses, how you going to raise anybody else's? . . . You say to be polite, but I'll tell you where I stand: if you're boring as a person, you'll be boring in a band." Something tells me this guy would make a good rock critic.

A lot have people have written the once-mighty 6L6 off for dead. That's what happens when you stay out of the studio for three years and your lead guitarist leaves for another band -- in this case, John Skibic with the Gigolo Aunts. Because he joined a pop group, Skibic got some retrospective credit for 6L6's songwriting, but the just-released Incendio (Wonderdrug) proves it wasn't that simple. This is the most song-oriented of 6L6's three albums. That's not to say it's all pop -- if anything, 6L6 have become more abrasive. But the new album shows a willingness to shake up the metal formula and play more with arrangements and dynamics. "Books on Strings" is as accessible as they've gotten, an arena fist waver with a sing-along chorus and a Hammond organ somewhere in the mix. "March" has one of their odder arrangements -- a long build-up with military drums and plucked U2 guitar, before singer/bassist Ted Condo does a throat-tearing "I feel okay!" that suggests just the opposite.

Elsewhere there's a more brittle industrial sound, with Condo often distorting his voice in David Yow style. Not all the new directions work -- their two excursions into white-boy rap are no better than most people's -- but it's at least as consistent as their two previous discs.

Maybe it's because I happened to break out Gang Green's Another Case of Brewtality (Taang!) on the weekend the Rat closed, but it was good to hear a part of old-school Boston punk that's still intact -- especially a part that sounds so determined to stay true to its school. Yes, GG do the same ol' thing on this disc, but they do it wholeheartedly; and it's some of the best teenage hardcore ever played by 35-year-olds. Chris Doherty still rants and raves, Walter Gustafson still drums at 78 rpm, and a roomful of drunks apparently join in on backing vocals. Also getting into the spirit is producer David Minehan -- true, he produces everybody and their uncle nowadays, but on this one you can hear him shouting along and rousing some of the old Neighborhoods guitar sound.

There are 23 songs on the 45-minute disc, way too many for one listen. So you can program the mini-album of your choice. If you want serious stuff, go with the handful of songs ("Accidental Overdose," "Break the Bottle") that seem to deal with the consequences of substance abuse. For the Gang Green you know and love, stick with the songs that glorify those same pursuits, consequences and all. I'll take the latter set, which includes "I'll Worry About It Monday," "This Job Sucks," and the highly unrepentant "Tricked into Bed Again." The cover of Stiff Little Fingers' "Suspect Device" is a nice touch, especially after Gang Green nearly stole a show from SLF at the Middle East last month.


Most clubs will be quiet for Thanksgiving tonight (Thursday), but the R&B party band Bellevue Cadillac will be at the House of Blues . . . Tomorrow (Friday) things gear up again with Charlie Chesterman at the Lizard Lounge, blues great Koko Taylor at the HOB, Nashville punkers Spider Virus at Bill's Bar, and pop-hero-turned-lounge-lizard Todd Rundgren at the Paradise . . . Central Square goes ska on Saturday, as the Allstonians play T.T. the Bear's Place and the Skatalites are downstairs at the Middle East. Also on Saturday, Syrup USA and the Ghost of Tony Gold are at the Middle East upstairs, the Sundays are at Avalon, and Chucklehead play their farewell show at Mama Kin . . . On Tuesday WBCN takes over the clubs for its "X-Mass rave": look for Jen Trynin and Love Spit Love at T.T.'s, Dandy Warhols and Stereophonics at the Middle East, and Letters to Cleo at the House of Blues . . . Former Alarm frontman Mike Peters does old and new stuff in a solo show at T.T.'s Wednesday, and the proudly offensive Feces Pieces are at Mama Kin.
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