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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Boston Rock of the 1980s: The Pixie Theater

Band Seeks Rehearsal Space

It’s 1985 and after a year and a half in Tony’s dad’s basement on Austin Street, Hyde Park and since we have started playing at Chet’s Last Call, TT the Bears and a number of high profile clam bakes, we decided that Cool McCool is ready to move into its first real rehearsal studio.

But where do we go? Rehearsal space is hard to find in the Boston area and generally not cheap. There were the Lennox street studios out in suburban Norwood…way too expensive and not particularly close either.  They were charging $350.00 a month! There’s that place under Kenmore Square behind what is now Pizzeria Uno (and where the rock club Storyville used to be).  No, way too creepy. The place was more like an underground dungeon than a studio space, a claustrophobic labyrinth of darkness and despair! In other words, nothing different than anything you’d find in the Boston area. I think Til Tuesday rehearsed there at one point. Don’t know how they did it.

The Pixie Theater

But since we were based in the Hyde Park area, the southernmost neighborhood of Boston, there was a place right off of Cleary Square named Joseph A. Logan Square over the store fronts that was known to the musicians who rented there as The Pixie Theater or “The Pixie”.  The place originally opened in 1915 as The Everett Square Theatre and then became the Fairmount Theatre after 1934 when the city of Boston changed the name of Everett Square to Joseph A. Logan Square. In the 1970s it became the Nu-Pixie Cinema, and it was known as Premiere Performances by the 1980s, before becoming an auction hall and then being abandoned. But it wasn't abandoned at all. The actual theater stage was still there but the place had fallen into disrepair over the years and the guy who owned the place didn't feel it was worth putting money into so he partitioned the upstairs into rehearsal rooms sometime in the mid-1980s and became the home of some very good working Boston bands.

Bands entered through the big double doors at street level and took the LONG, wide and somewhat steep stairway that ran straight up to the 2nd floor with no interruption to where the rooms were laid out on both sides of a single long hallway to the right of the stairs. There was nothing like hauling stuff up this thing at 2:30 in the morning.  But what are you gonna do, give up SHOWBUSINESS?

There was a large room available at the top of the stairs. Good position but it was $185.00 1985 dollars and for three marginally employed musicians living on our own we didn't even have that kind of dough so we were fortunate enough to talk another band, friends of James our guitar player, into sharing the room with us. Dave Y and John B had a band called Those Damned Kids and who later went on to back up Ms. Xanna Don’t in the most successful act of her Boston career. Dave Y himself went on to form the Boston band Nisi Period which had a local hit with “Treat Her Like a Sailor”.

The rooms at the Pixie were pretty well insulated. You could hear the band next door if they were rehearsing but you wouldn't be put off by it. The sound was well muted and when you were playing, that’s all you could hear. As a band we didn't have to alter our volume to “get over” the band next door. Not bad.

Moving In

So now we’re all set, we've told the building manager, Bob…something, that we have a band to go in on the Pixie space with us and paid him the first and last and WE’RE IN! Our first “professional” rehearsal space complete with its punk-esque black lacquered Styrofoam covered walls, a bare light bulb hanging from the high ceiling to light the WHOLE ROOM and a vibrating couch/lounger that the last band left there perhaps because it weighted about 400 lbs. Apparently it had been in almost every room in the Pixie at one time or other. Everyone desired it but nobody wanted to lift it. How it ever even got up those straight-assed two flights of steps was something I would have liked to see. But there is was and it worked and that was the important thing.

It felt good to be out of Tony’s dad’s basement. Among the more obvious issues of carving a space out of a cluttered basement and squeezing our stuff in and out of the bulkhead door in the back of the house, Tony’s dad, Petro, was always coming down and interrupting our rehearsals asking if we wanted sandwiches and the like and Tony was always saying “Not now, dad!” 

We thanked Petro for letting us have use of his basement and giving us a place to get our ideas into song. For this and his other acts of kindness, we lovingly hold him in our hearts today. He truly enjoyed his role as our benefactor and for this we are forever grateful.

Tony’s Dad Returns

So here we are playing our first set in the new room, safely ensconced behind two locked doors and a virtual Himalaya of a staircase. Nobody could bother us now! Wait, there’s a commotion out in the hallway, I hear a voice. No, wait, it couldn't be…and in walks Tony’s dad! “I missed you boys!” he says. “We missed you too, Petro, we say”.

We Are Not Alone

There were many Boston bands rehearsing at the Pixie at that time. The one next door to us was called Forever 19 they were playing all over town and I’d say they most sounded like “Quarter Flash” that Canadian band that recorded “Harden My Heart”.

There was also Rob Nordberg’s band The Faith, an original rock band with keys, which played the Boston Scene and more local Hyde Park establishments. Rob Played drums for more than one act up at the Pixie. Other bands included Frankie Holland’s long time band, Alpha Whiskey and the local popular band, Uncalled For fronted by my friend and guitar hero, Mike DeSimone, had also rented a room there for a time. Then there were The Preapistics a band we played our first gig with at Chet’s.

Evenings after 5pm were busy at the Pixie. People loading in, out and people coming and going either trying out for one of the bands or coming in to hang out, drink beer and listen to their friends band. People would pop their heads into the rooms to ask if they had strings or hoot or to just say “hi” since nobody locked their doors until they left. Very few break-ins ever occurred there since people always seemed to be around. It was 24 hour access even though people lived over the storefronts right across the street.

Hearing Aid Joe

There was also a guy named Joe or as we called him, “Hearing Aid Joe” because he was deaf in one ear and had a hearing aid in the other.  Joe was older than us like in his mid-30s and had rented at the Pixie the longest of anybody. His room was on our side of the hallway, three doors down. Bob said that until all these new bands started moving into the Pixie and began playing out regularly; Joe had only ever used the Pixie to bring chics to. I could never imagine a woman wanting to take her pants off in ANY room in the Pixie but that’s what Bob said. Anyway, since all these bands started playing out, Joe decides to put his band back together. As a guitar player, Joe played a double Marshall stack and his bass player did the same. I don’t know how many watts that added up to but they could move a lot of air!

Working original acts of the day didn't travel that heavy.  James had a solid state Crate amp with 2 - 12’ speakers with 100 watts of power and I used a Peavey 100 watt Combo amp with one 15’ speaker, still do. Tony was sporting a Jazz kit at the time that was very portable. We would bargain on a decent stage throw, mic the amps and let the house PA do the rest of the work.

But Joe’s band was something else.

Who Is That Band Next Door?

Together with the most impossibly loud drummer I've ever heard, Joe’s band would rehearse a couple nights a week. We tried to make sure we weren't there at the same time because when those guys played, it was like time fucking stood still. Communication in our room became impossible and we were reduced to making hand motions or literally cupping our hands over the other person’s ear to speak into. People would come into our room and yell “That band next door is fucking LOUD!” and we’d just nod because we couldn't tell ‘em that they didn't know the half of it.

Then, when they took a break, the band would TURN THEIR GUITARS INTO THE AMPS causing massive feedback and then they would just sit down and smoke a joint while everything went: EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

I can’t remember his name but there was a guy who had a room on the other side of Joe’s who had the only cover band in the Pixie and his band would go nuts when Joe took his “break”.

Leaving the Pixie after one of Joe’s rehearsals, the people in the apartments across the street would yell at us because of the noise. Hard to convince them it wasn't us.

The More You Sweat…

Being up near the roof, a flat black tar roof, made Summer rehearsals a sweat-fest. There were no windows and there was no air conditioning causing our drummer Tony to coin the phrase “The more you sweat, the better you get.” And to a certain extent that turned out to be true. We busted our asses up there in that room and we got tight, real tight. It didn't matter what the conditions were, we were lean, mean, fighting machines because of the Pixie and we would often play 4 nights a week.  Our friends all knew where we’d be if they wanted to see us, either at the Pixie or at a gig.

The Official Beer of Rehearsal

Since we were on a shoe-string budget, our beer of choice was a 12 pack of Old Milwaukee since it could be had for $5.00 or under and that meant 4 beers apiece, enough to last the practice without getting us toasted. Decades later James and I still drink the stuff. Old habits are hard to break.  During the late 90’s James moved to the island of St Croix for a couple of years and the number one beer down there apparently is also our brand. He was told by the local Rastas that he was the only white guy they ever saw who drank Old Milwaukee.

Peavey Equipment

Loading in and out of the Pixie made for some interesting events. We rarely had to use our PA on the road but one time a friend was helping us lug one of our old Peavey speakers, big unwieldy square boxes with a 15’ speaker and horn built in,  up the ‘steeps’ of the Pixie and when he gets to the top of the stairs the thing slips out of his hands.

The speaker cabinet quickly reached escape velocity and rocketed down the two flights and, KAP-POW, the heavy double doors bang against the outside walls as the cab sails through them then over the sidewalk and finally tumbling to rest on the opposite end of the empty street at 2:30 in the morning. I was about 4 feet from the door when this happened. Terror quickly turned to horror as we grabbed up the speaker and the rest of the stuff and returned the neighborhood, since the long suffering people of Joseph A. Logan Square had a hair trigger for such goings on, to silence.

We plugged the speaker in later and it worked fine. The thing was barely dented. Peavey equipment of the 80s was not just hard to lift, the cabs were unbreakable.  When the end of the world does come, there will be only cockroaches and old Peavey speaker cabs left.

All Good Things

We spent almost 4 years at the Pixie Theater and many of the bands were playing out regularly, writing and performing great material and actually making some money. And sometime early in 1989 Bob Had to inform us that the owner of the building has sold out and that the Pixie, at least the top of it, is going to become dentist offices. Bob was pretty down about it since after all the time he was running the place that just as the bands were actually making names for themselves; the Pixie had to come to an end.

As a band, 1989, with 6 years of playing together under our belts, found us at the top of our game. We had an “every Wednesday night” residency at Green Street Station that lasted for well over a year, we had worked our way up to weekends at The Channel  and Chet’s Last Call and were performing 3 to 4 sets of our own written material as well as being able to play hours of cover material.

Petro’s basement brought us together as a group but the Pixie Theater made us a BAND.  We weren't an isolated entity; we were sharing a space with our peers, hearing what others were doing, seeing them perform and the spirit of competition and admiration brought out the best in everybody. We now had to make a new home somehow.

As we approached the 1990s, many things began to change for the Boston music scene and for us as people. Some legendary clubs never made it to the new decade and for which there was no replacement. The Boston original scene starting to fade and the players and participants began to move on to other things since you only have a certain window in your life to pursue your rock & roll dreams.

And even though we all continue to write, play and perform, other things in life begin to take precedent. Change is the way of all things but our love for the Pixie and those times we had there never will. 

1 comment:

  1. Ah, yes the Pixie. When I moved to Boston in 79 I responded to an ad for a guitarist in the Phoenix and auditioned for this band called The Blues Cousins who used a band called Kleen Kutt as their backup. I got the gig and the second day i was in town I played Jonathan Swifts. After a few months I went back West and fetched my little brother, but before I left I rented a room from Rob. People were living there in their rehearsal studios, so we got some cots and moved in also. We were starving, but Kenny at the Chinese restaurant adross the street felt sorry for us and would run a tab. We would walk down the street and shower at the YMCA so that we would look all spiffy when we hit the Rat or Cantone's We hooked up with Rayboy Fernandes from the Atlantics on drums and started gigging. That band was the Mystery Dates, we did okay, got some radio play and met some lovely local gals who even had washing machines. My brother stayed in Boston longer than I, Rob Johnson, he played bass in the Outlets, and fronted the Blar-os and Elephants Hips, among others. I played in the Loners, and The Insteps, and started a recording studio in that Citgo bulding in Kenmore Square. I learned a lot there in three years, played lots of cool shows at the Rat and the Channel, Paradise Theater, and got to record some early DIY releases, The Propellor Project, This Is Boston, Not LA, and lots of other stuff, The Del Fuegos, Proletariat. Quite a few bands from the Pixie got a bit of notice, Two Million BC, Lazer, who had Joe Perry's sister-in-law on vocals, other names escape me but it was cheap, somewhat warm in winter, and when you are 22 you are pretty tough and we were also very determined......Jeff Johnson, former Pixie alum.