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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Boston Rock Clubs of the 1980s: Jack's

Jack’s was right on Mass Ave in Cambridge just before you hit Harvard Square and where it once stood has been occupied by a large office building ever since.

The place was basically a retail store-front that was turned into a music club with the thick high glass windows still in place but blacked out. It was a good sized club for the Boston area but it would be a stretch to say it was big. It was larger than downstairs at the Rat and about the size of TT the Bear's but with a high ceiling that gave you the impression that it was bigger than it was. Not a rough crowd like at the Rat or what would sometimes show up at the Channel. Cambridge was what we called the "Soda & Lime" crowd in reference to Cambridge's reputation for an unusually low level of beer consumption. I don't know how bars even survived in Cambridge but somebody was out drinking because there are a lot of bars in that town.

As a music venue Jack's was laid out pretty well. They had a stage that had room enough for a five-piece band but not much more. Nobody was going to Duck-Walk it at any rate and it was set rather high and located to the right as you walked in the door and the bar was against the opposite wall. A major plus was that Jack's had a decent sounding pa system. Can’t recall if the monitors worked and most likely they did not since although we played there twice and I don’t remember a fucking thing about the shows, I'm going to rely on the premise that if a monitor on a Boston stage outside of the Channel Nightclub had ever worked, it would be such a standout memory in my mind.

Cambridge sported a number of music venues in those days and Jack's had plenty of competition. Johnathan Swifts, TT the Bears, Bunratty’s and the Plough & Stars were all in that neck of the woods and showcasing similar entertainment. Of these clubs, Johnathan Swifts was the better place to see a band. I was only in there once to see Til Tuesday and there was no place to hide on that stage, it was right out into the audience and you could see and hear the performers from anywhere in the room. There was also the Western Front but that was a different animal since they stuck to touring Reggae acts. Neither I nor my friends ever actually went in there because the cover was $20.00 in 1980s money which was $15 to $17 more than any place else we went to in town and hell, I didn't pay half that much to see Jimmy Cliff at the Channel so I'm gonna shell out that kind of money to see who, nobody I ever heard of at the Western Front? Fuck that. I was paying rent on my apt in West Roxbury and rent on our rehearsal spot at the Pixy Theater, I wasn't made of money! I was only insuring my car half the year as it was and I would cringe every time I broke a string on my bass since it was going to cost me $5.00 for a replacement. Makes you wonder why you put yourself through such things. But what, and give up Show Business!

We got into playing Jack’s during its last year or so of existence but it had a reputation of being one of the “in” places to play in Boston since, much like the Rathskeller, had a famed “History” that had come and gone. We ended up playing two of the three shows, all Wednesdays, booked there and would have played the third except that the place suddenly had a fire the Saturday prior to our scheduled show later in that same week.

It is now part of Boston musical history that the band Treat Her Right had all their equipment burned up in that fire since it broke out just after they setup and then did a Telethon on WBCN to raise money to replace it. WBCN was the top radio station in Boston at the time and they played the bands music ALL DAY and had the band members live on the air, winning new fans and getting them signed to a major record label as a result. We were all saying what “Good Luck” they had! But the bottom line was that Treat Her Right WAS a good band and getting all their stuff burned up wouldn't have done them much good if they weren't.

Jack’s was the hardest time we ever had booking a Boston venue in our seven "odd" years stay on the city music scene. It was the twenty question routine we always got with a new place but more intense: "So why should we book YOU GUYS?" “How many people can you bring?” “Are you POSITIVE you can ABSOLUTELY bring that many?”  "Where else do you play?" “You’re not playing anywhere else this month are you?” And this is for a spot on a Wednesday lineup. It took a lot of time for them to decide to book us at all. One particular back and forth with management lead to what later became an oft quoted declarative out-of-the-blue statement that James made at the time: “No, we are NOT going to give you any Cocaine!” 

Not to play a Wednesday at 11:00PM in Cambridge at any rate. It’s not like we were actually expecting to get PAID for this gig in the middle of the week so far out from our regular and gainfully employed fan-base or any other absurd Pie-in-the-Sky notion. Just what on Earth were the other bands being shaken down for?

Jack’s was the home stage for a popular Boston band named New Man that put out a not-so-well engineered album of pop rock at the time. Although they were a bit slick for my liking in those days of my musical infancy and punk mentality, they certainly sounded better than that live and their shows had more energy than the record had captured. I’d seen the band a couple of times; once at Jack’s and another at Scotch & Sounds (where nobody sounded bad) and heard cuts on the radio where it did a slow fade. From what I saw of them they drew a good crowd and played a lively set. Then the bass player cut out to join the Jon Butcher Axis and I think that was it for them.  

Other acts that played Jack’s on a regular basis were the Greg Greenway Band and Asa Brebner. Greg Greenway has had a long professional music career since then and put out a number of records under just his own name as a “solo” act although I guess he always was a solo act and Asa of course was previously with Robin Lane and was always on the scene playing with different names of bands that came after his own name like Asa Brebner and "Idle Hands" and such. What these three groups had in common was more of a well rehearsed and polished guitar based pop sound as compared to a more, let's just use the term "less-refined", energetic and straight ahead rock & roll which was where our band, Cool McCool, fell into as a genre.

James reminded me that Jack's was the place that George Thorogood was a popular performer and also where he was playing when Rounder Records discovered him and he then put them on the American musical map.

But that was in the past and the New Man\Greenway\Brebner model was what Jack’s was looking for and if you didn't fit that genre and still wanted to play there, I guess you had to pay. Once again we found ourselves as a bit of a square peg in the Boston music scene but you can't be all things to all people, nobody else was either. Only the most popular acts could draw well anywhere in town. We all had our home markets, ours was Green Street Station, Chet's and The Channel but the tough part for any band was breaking out and getting a foothold in a new area. 
The drinking age had gone from 18 to 21 years earlier and the pressure that caused rolled downhill to the bands. So many bands, so few original venues. But ultimately Jack's just gave us the Wednesdays without tribute. 

Our “Sister” band, the group we shared our rehearsal space at the Pixie Theater in Hyde Park with, Those Damned Kids: Scott Harris, Dave Yanolis and John Brelia had gotten into Jack’s first and so we went to their show and knew ahead of time about what management was looking for and what you got in return.

We knew we were never going to move up the ladder at the place but had the chance to book one more show there and took it because word was already out that Jack’s was on its last legs and what the hell, a gig’s a gig, right? The owner of the building, as the story was told, had a new tenant with deep pockets just waiting to get in there and who was willing to pay much more to lease the property than Jack’s could possibly come up with and so, since the lease was going to be up later that summer, Jack’s was doomed, doomed, DOOMED. No, we weren't broken up by this prospect. 

Well it never got that far. The place had an “accidental fire” a month or so before the lease was to expire and the result became Treat Her Right’s well timed and well deserved destiny.

We all joked afterwards that if only Jack’s had burned up four days later that perhaps we would have had a Cool McCool Telethon on WBCN and have signed a recording contract.

I guess we’ll never know. 

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