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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Providence Rock & Roll Clubs: 1979 to 1984

My friends and I started going to Rock & Roll clubs at a time when you only had to LOOK 18 to get into a club in either Boston or Providence, Rhode Island. Most of the time, if you were tall, nobody at the door flinched when you came to pay the cover. Neither I nor my friends were ever "carded" going into a Providence club. But my first experiences in the Rock & Roll clubs in Providence had provided a lasting taste for live original rock music at the ground level and would deeply influence my life going forward. This is where I had first caught the sickness.

At the time, Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel and The Living Room were popular Providence clubs and were located practically across the street from each other in what passed for the Red Light district which was pretty much around the corner from the Providence Civic Center (Now the Dunkin Donuts Center). They both had their own sound systems and featured original rock & roll bands exclusively, having usually three bands play each evening. You could literally stand in the middle of the street and hear bands from both places playing and from that you could determine which place you'd rather go into first.

The main difference between the two clubs, from our perspective, was that Lupo’s served their beer in plastic cups and pitchers and The Living Room had regular bottled beer but not the bar bottles, they sold the bottles anyone could buy at the "Packie" or "Package Store" as we call beer stores here in the formerly industrialized North-East. That meant you could sneak in beers in your socks and just pull 'em out and nobody would be the wiser. We would do this after drinking a few in the parking lot before we went in for good measure. If the bouncers at Lupo's caught you with a bottle, they threw you out immediately so if you were on a "budget" you had to drink your fill in the parking lot before you went in. Haven't done THAT in a while. Must be a sign of adulthood.


The section of downtown Providence where these clubs were located featured high 5 to 6 story mostly brownstone buildings built at the turn of the last century, narrow streets and although there were working street lights, the light never quite seemed to reach the sidewalks somehow. Housed in these buildings there were a variety of peep shows, flop houses, nude dancing establishments and "dirty book" stores. It was always a dark area at night which afforded privacy when shooting beers in the parking lot but also, in retrospect, was also a good place for a murder. Not that anything that extreme ever happened while I was there.

The old Living Room was basically just a store front, much smaller than Lupo’s, and had a couch and a couple of stuffed chairs but mostly you just stood to watch the band. The band stand, which was a little higher than the floor, was on your left as you came in the door so you were right up with the band which was pretty good. Lupo’s, on the other hand, had a much higher raised stage, at least 5 feet, and a balcony section and was a good place to see a band from anywhere in the room. Of the two, Lupo's hosted the bigger, more popular bands.

The first band I ever saw at a club was at Lupo’s. The band was from Boston and they were called Shane Champagne after band founders Gary Shane and David Champagne. They were as professional an outfit as you'll ever see in a club and they all came out with their heads all moving in time to the songs and they were polished as hell. That was also the first time I saw a guy playing bass up close with his fingers and that was SO cool. They also played their hit song “Shadow World” which I recognized from the radio and which remains a great reggae tune. I went out and bought my first electric bass shortly after this show and the bass became my first love.

It was also at Lupo’s that I first saw perhaps the best band out of Rhode Island in those days, The Schemers, play their big hit “I Want Some Fun” years before they went on to win Boston’s Rock & Roll Rumble in 1984, beating out Boston Reggae/Ska band Dub 7 in the final. I was there for that too and they played a great set. Also saw The Hi-Beams who were Rumble runner ups the year before the Schemers took the contest.

The Living Room had some lesser known but still viable acts. One standout group was Rubber Rodeo which put out an EP titled “The Girl He Left Behind” which features a couple of cool covers: “Jolene” and the theme from the old spaghetti western movie featuring Clint Eastwood, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” They were a six piece band lead by brothers Bob and Barc Holmes and their girl singer, Trish Milliken was very good. Unfortunately their writing wasn't that strong. But they put on a good show and I occasionally put the EP on the turntable and it still sounds good. I remember they would dress all Country Western and pass out these toys called "Whistling Lariats" that you twirl and they...well they whistle. Yes, it was corny but I always liked it when bands did something more than just stand there and play. I mean, SAY a few syllables, let me know who you are. Rubber Rodeo did this very well.  

Saw one of Johnny Thunders gigs, if you can call it that, at Lupo’s. I didn't even know who the fuck Johnny Thunders was at the time and when he finally staggered out on stage as the headliner, a weird floppy hat on his head and a fender Telecaster in his hands, his backup group for the night was The Daughters I was told and he wandered from one end of the stage and back while the band played “Louie Louie” not seeming to know where the hell he was or why. I was referring to him as “Johnny No-Mind” when talking to my friends about it. Only later did someone I mentioned the show to inform me that he was a founding member of The New York Dolls.

By early 1991 Johnny Thunders was dead at 38 years old and after what I witnessed that night I don't know how he managed to hold on as long as that. Just goes to show, Rock and Roll can get you pretty fucked up. But I suppose growing up in New York City; he was probably already pretty fucked up before he found Rock and Roll.

Turns out that Lupo’s was a pretty rough place sometimes and there was a reason they served beer in plastic. One night when Shane Champagne was just getting into their headlining set, the room suddenly filled up with leather jackets, like a HUNDRED leather jackets and they were hollering, swearing, elbowing and throwing full cups of beer everywhere but mostly at the band. At one point, and I’ll never forget it, Gary Shane had had enough of that shit and he takes off his guitar, a Fender Telecaster, and holding it up over his head like an axe with one hand, leans over the edge of the stage pointing to the guy with the other and is about to bash him in the head. I can still see the guy putting his hands up saying "Wait, wait"…

And then we were out in the street. We just ran out of there with our drinks still in our hands. Years later when I got to play some gigs with Gary who had local hits with his next band Gary Shane & The Detour,  most notibly "The War Between Man & Machine", I asked him about that night and he doesn't remember a thing about it. He did however, autograph my 9 "Shane Champagne EP. When I took up the electric guitar years later, inspired by Gary's adept display of finess with the instrument, I also bought a Fender Telecaster for the same reason. The American Standard Telecaster is a good piece of wood that stays in tune after you have had to use it for a "drunk shield". The foreign made ones aren't nearly as solidly build.

There was another band that played both Lupo’s and The Living Room lot it seemed. Lou Miami and the Cosmetics were a “quirky” group and there was always something odd about “Lou” I thought until someone pointed out that he had shaved off his eyebrows. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but yeah, that was it. I can’t remember being impressed but I wasn't repulsed either and those guys seemed to be playing there pretty regularly.

By 1985 we had moved onto the Boston scene and didn't get back to Providence nearly as much. Eventually both places closed like most rock clubs do, suddenly, and the spot where the old Living Room was became the corner of a big ol’ tall office building. The owners later took over another struggling Providence rock club called The Center Stage and made THAT The Living Room for a while and that held out for a year or two afterwards but also closed.

The drinking age had started to go up incrementally to 21 years old in Massachusetts and the state of Rhode Island followed about a year later and the rock scene of “the old days” began to fade. It not only hurt the music business but I think the younger people missed out on a lot of cool music because 18 to 21 are the best “going out to see bands” years since many are still students and even if you were working you could burn the candle at both ends without feeling the effects as you do later. You had to be “cool” at a much younger age or somebody would settle you out in a hurry. By 21 you’re just onto other things and you don’t know what you’re missing and before you know it, you're dancing to a cover band playing "Mustang Sally" in some suburb joint thinking THAT is where it's at. It's sad really.

Lupo’s, after a few location changes, lives on as a concert club still in Providence catering now more to national touring original and tribute acts but occasionally having local original bands. It’s not the room it used to be but I’ve seen a few bands there and there’s a lot to be said about seeing original live music anywhere you can find it.

So if you are looking for something to do. Go See a Band!

1 comment:

  1. I grew up
    In Somerset and by age 14 was seeing all the great bands in all the same
    clubs with my older brothers and their friends. Used to see (and drink) at the Paradise in Boston. Saw Todd Rundgren a dozen times before the age of 17, he was always playing around there. Those were truly the good old days. Remember that creaky old wood floor at Lupos. We always commented we were surprised it didn't go up
    in flames the way we all smoked back then. I recall seeing Gang of Four in Providence. In
    College my dorm was right next door to
    Lumps. Dirty old men used to come in the lobby asking where "the girls" were. We didn't know our dorm had only recently been a whore house. I appreciate the way you describe how dark downtown was, it really was a huge part of the dynamic. Also remember the beer in the sock routine as I was the "drug mule" with my bell bottom
    jeans and boots, a pair of Frye boots was like a traveling apothecary/packie. Good times really and yes Johnny Thunders, by the time those NYC guys made it up to
    providence they were totally strung out , it was the norm to take the stage at 11:30 and be six sheets to the wind but by that time most of us were too and we were supportive anyway, what a scene. Priceless, the world today has no idea what it missed before reality tv, cell phones and "the Information Age" caught it in a leg iron trap.