Rest in Pieces
One of my most vivid and fondest Washington Square memories is a Genitorturers show, Halloween 1992. I witnessed most of the piercing, poking, and stroking with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion, which peaked during the segment where the bisexual dominatrixes groped each other while urinating on the young male volunteer who was masturbating frantically beneath them. I don't know, call me old-fashioned, but that was a classic.
Among other personal highlights flooding back in the final days of the the club's life: Square co-owner Kevin Cornish, a man roughly the size of Grizzly Adams and the bear combined, with a full pitcher of daiquiris in his hand, giving a slick-looking dude $200 for a Rolex so the grateful idiot could afford one more drink. Of course the Rolex was a fake, but it was a damn good fake, worth at least double what Cornish paid. And the time co-owner Bill True played bass with Scraping Teeth, the Worst Band in America, and got so caught up in the emotion of the moment that he almost burned the place down with a Hendrix stunt gone awry -- dousing the guitar with lighter fluid and setting it afire. The club reeked of Eau d'Zippo for hours.
I arrived a few minutes too late to catch Paul Rodgers's impromptu acoustic set on Sarah Jacob's borrowed guitar one open-mike Monday. But I was there the night the Krishna band Shelter performed. Hundreds of Krishnas and skinheads packed the club and milled about on the sidewalk, a jarring sight even by South Beach standards.
I could go on and on, but it's more fun to share. Here's nearly four years crammed into a few Square regulars' snapshot memories (which are all that'll be left after this weekend's farewell blowout):
Sturgis Nikides (Square doorman): "It was the day before Madonna's big release party for Sex. They had her publicity stuff plastered all over the bookstore next door. I went into the bodega on the corner to buy some cigarettes and when I came out this chick who had been peering in the bookstore window turned and stared at me. She was with a group of people; they were all kind of staring. I shouted, 'What the fuck are you lookin' at?' Of course it was Madonna. Needless to say she didn't come into the Square.
"I can't believe they're going to put a pizza place on my spot [Spo-dee-o-dee, the upscale dance club that will replace the Square, will include a walk-up pizzeria]. It's depressing. The New York scene died in '85-'86. I thought I'd never see those days again, but the Square came close. Essentially they've been paying me to sit on my ass and relive my youth."
Zac (musician): "Seven Brushes: -- Hairpiece." [A performance artist named Seven dipped his head into buckets of paint, splashed a canvas in an abstract artwork, and then had Diane Ward shear his locks.]
Laren (Square doorman): "There was always weirdness going on outside. One night this couple got out of a cab, arm-in-arm, very expensively dressed and very wasted. They stumble up. He walks right in through the open door, but she slams into the glass door next to it, which is shut. Boom! She falls to the ground, out cold. He keeps walking, completely oblivious, into the club.
"Another time a guy's car overheated in front. He unscrewed the radiator cap and it blew up in his face. Everybody got sprayed with boiling water, and it covered the entrance in anti-freeze.
"But the scariest thing was this guy who looked like a street bum. He came running over, all freaked out, saying, 'Man, what should I do? I just ran out of the hospital. They want to cut off my arm.' There was an IV tube still hanging from his right arm with blood dripping down it and everything. His left arm was swollen huge with gangrene. There was a gaping hole in the elbow, the bone was sticking out and everything, but not a drop of blood. Nastiest thing I ever saw in my life. I told him, yeah, I thought he oughta go back to the hospital. He disappeared. I still have nightmares about that big sore."
Jeff (bartender): "Have we ever thrown anyone out for having sex in the bathrooms? Hell, no. But there have been some amazing ones. One night we had a guy in there so drunk and sick he had his head practically in the small hole in the toilet, drowning. We pulled him out by the belt loops. His girlfriend helped him up. He threw up all over her, all over himself, it was disgusting. Then he just sort of sat there on the couch in the back room. About a half hour later they're making out, she takes him into the ladies' room, locks the door, and does him there."
Diane Ward (musician): "Nobody who was there will ever forget Shelly Novack [infamous local drag queen] singing 'Brass in Pocket' with Rat and Zac backing her up on guitar."
Doc Wiley (Square music director): "I've had to throw Yngwie Malmsteen out a couple times. Jeff came up to me one night and said, 'Do you know somebody named Iggly Walmspeed?' I said, 'Yeah.' Jeff says, 'I served him a beer but when I asked him for the money, he said, "Do you know who I am? I'm Iggly Walmspeed."' So I go to the bar and Yngwie says, 'Would you tell this man who I am?' I say, 'Jeff, this is Yngwie Malmsteen. Yngwie, that'll be three bucks for the beer.' He was outraged and refused to pay. I think he called it a 'travesty.'
"There was always sex going on in the bathrooms, but the most amazing thing that ever happened sexually was this couple celebrating their anniversary a few months ago. They were making out everywhere, going at it in my sound booth, which is a big no-no. I told them to get a room. Instead they went out back [into a small fenced-in courtyard] and started going all-out. I said, 'Ahem, excuse me!' Nothing. Like I'm not even there. Buck naked, 69ing, spread eagle. I'm trying to lock up for the night. So I got Sturge. The two of us try. 'Ahem, ahem. Excuse me!' Nothing. So we went back in, got eight or ten people, and made cards like they use to judge Olympic ice skating. We all go outside, laughing, giving points for degree of difficulty. They just ignored us. Finally a group of their yuppie friends who'd been waiting outside showed up. 'Where are they?' 'They're out fucking in the back.' 'We'll go get them.' They come back a minute later. 'They're almost done.' Finally, they leave. Suffice it to say they gave Sturge and Jeff really good tips.
"A couple years ago we had a band in here, there were maybe six people waiting to see them. While they were setting up, the drummer started fucking with the stage lights. I warned him several times to wait and I'd take care of them, but he wouldn't wait. He kept fucking with the lights. Finally I screamed, 'If you can't control yourself, get the fuck out!,' and he shouts back, 'Do you know who we are? We're Urge Overkill!' They ended up playing at Churchill's. But I saw them on MTV the other night. They're huge stars, famous now. That's probably the worst band experience I've ever had.
"But we've had some great concerts in here. Ugly Kid Joe. fIREHOSE. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Yellowman three times. Pato Banton. L7. School of Fish. Bad Brains. Mighty Mighty Bosstones. And, of course, we turned down Lenny Kravitz because he showed up without equipment. I wasn't working that night.
"Prince came in to see the play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Eight security guards. He came in the front, left through the back. I think he thought the play was over but it was only intermission. He sat ramrod straight the whole time, didn't look around. I walked over to get him to autograph a CD for me, and this wall of flesh materialized. 'Prince isn't signing anything today,' they said."
Rat Bastard (musician): "So many strange things happened to me there, it's hard to pick one. Once Emris, the magician/musician, played an entire song on the guitar using a dead pigeon for a pick. I've got it on tape somewhere. He took a lead and everything. During a Scraping Teeth set shortly after the Square opened I got possessed on-stage. I started playing the guitar like no one's ever heard, not even me. There were lots of people there. It was the greatest guitar performance ever. I don't even know what I was playing. It only happened one time. I'm still waiting for it to happen again. It was the weirdest thing."
Shane Soloski (musician): "It's ironic. I was thinking about it the other day when I heard they were closing and I remember thinking, when it opened, 'Man, these bathrooms are really nice.' White. Stencil trim. Very ornate. Who'd have guessed what they'd go through.
"But the most memorable thing that ever happened to me there was the night a girl offered me money for sex. She said she wanted to buy me for her friend. $200. I declined due to performance anxiety."
Performance anxiety. You have to wonder how often it afflicted the hundreds and hundreds of musicians who played their guts out on that stage over the years. From the Mavericks, Nuclear Valdez, and Charlie Pickett, to Voidville, Forget the Name, and Natural Causes, the top of the local crop has strutted its stuff under the hot lights off Washington Avenue. And so has the chaff, from the merely bad, such as yours truly, to the official Worst Band in America, Scraping Teeth. If the Square was the kind of club where you could feel comfortable no matter what you were wearing, it was also the kind of club where you could hone your chops and work your way up from an occasional midweek gig to a Saturday headline show. And now it's history.
Or is it? Many musicians remain cautiously optimistic. Broken Spectacles's Ed Hale: "The scene's not dying. It's just moving. Think positively."
Adds perpetual optimist Zac, "Something better's coming. It's neat the way this is bringing everyone together. The fact that it's even a problem is a good sign."
But while their spirit may be admirable, it seems safe to assume the Square-to-Spo- dee-o-dee conversion will drastically change the face of local music, at least temporarily. Soon-to-be-unemployed doorman Nikides's attitude is more representative: "I'm massively bummed out at this point. Even if they do get something else going in another location, it won't be the same. I don't know what I'm going to do. It was my livelihood and my lifestyle. The Square was unique."
Nothing lasts forever. There's a silver lining behind every cloud. It's not an ending, it's a beginning. If a cliche helps, choose one.
It's been three weeks since word leaked out that the Square -- that glorious pit; sweaty, smoky, black-walled den of iniquity; home away from home for musicians, strippers, drug dealers (off-duty, of course), and bleary-eyed music writers -- would be closing to become Spo-dee-o-dee, under the watchful eye of a fellow named Tommy Pooch. I've received just about every expression of sympathy in the book from concerned friends. They haven't helped. Neither do the cliches.
I predicted the Square's death months ago, but I was hoping the club would prove me wrong. There was no shortage of warning signs -- the increase in bottled-beer prices, the cold sweat that broke out on Doc Wiley's forehead when I mentioned how crowded the Talkhouse was for their first anniversary party, the sprouting up of terminally trendy clubs Bash, Union Bar, and Chili Pepper on a block of Washington Avenue that once belonged to the Square alone. But predicting the end and actually coming to grips with it are two distinctly different tasks.
Losing the Square hurts. Yes, there's almost as much speculative buzz about a new version as there is about co-owner Bill True's real motivation for going into partnership with Mr. Pooch, but the key word there is speculative. This we know for sure: first Glenn Richards's local show on WSHE-FM got the ax, then Richards himself got canned, and now goodbye Square. Forget Cheers and all that phony yuppie TV bullshit. If you were a local rock musician, Washington Square was the place where everybody knew your name.
In the words of Marnie Smith, Atlanta-based A&R scout for Sony, "It's the end of an era. When the Square got going, so did the whole South Florida scene. It created the home base that Miami never had before. The location was great, the sound system was more than adequate, and it was the greatest thing to be able to go there and hear seven bands a night. If I lived on the Beach, I'd probably hang out there every night."
I don't live on the Beach, but I did hang out there every night. It was my office.
With all due respect to venerable old Churchill's, eager newcomer Stephen Talkhouse, and the still-open Cactus Cantina (rumors of whose imminent demise continue to swirl but appear to have been greatly exaggerated), the Square was the epicenter of seismic activity in the local rock strata. The club put on an average of twelve to fifteen bands per week. More than 300 bands played in Thon '93, the club's month-long-o-rock orgy.
You have to wonder what will happen to them, especially promising bands of the punk/hardcore type, like Load or the Holy Terrors.
Offers Marnie Smith, in a statement that pretty well sums up the fear of everyone who cares about original music in Dade, "I hope Miami doesn't become the wasteland that it was before, with, like, two bands that were worth anything."
Joe Galdo, Smith's counterpart at Island Records, shares her concern. "It's a tremendous loss. The Square was a one-of-a-kind place. Half the time the bands were pretty out to lunch, but the kids went there and threw down. And some of them could really play. You could go there any night and hear four bands playing with wild abandon. It was not pretentious, not like all the discos and the other clubs with all their attitudes. We did a couple of showcases there for my boss [Chris Blackwell]; I suppose we could use the Talkhouse or whatever, but the vibe won't be the same.
"It's such a sad thing, the saddest thing that's happened on the Beach. If I could get some people motivated to open something with the same vibe, maybe I'd even put my own money into it."
Adds band manager John Tovar, "The closing couldn't have come at a worse time. For once they got their fucking air-conditioning fixed, and the sound, monitors, and lights have been greatly improved over the years. I remember doing a showcase there with Marilyn Manson for Atlantic Records, and Jason Flom, Atlantic's A&R guy, had to walk out after four songs because he thought he was going to pass out from the heat."
Tovar laughs now when he reflects on some of his memories of the club. "The Mansons played there maybe four or five times. One time Mr. Manson lit his lunchbox on-stage and he used maybe too much lighter fluid or whatever. The flames shot way up. Bill True came running and screaming, 'You can do whatever you want in my club, but don't set my stage on fire!' Another night Doc had a cow because someone in the audience tried to pour a bucket of water on Marilyn. He took the bucket and poured it on himself, in the process splashing water into all the monitors and ruining them. Doc made us pay for new ones."
Sony's Smith calls South Florida "the most bizarre and unorthodox scene I've ever seen. It's always fighting itself. Why is Miami always putting out its own flame?"
Good question. Unfortunately, the answer, if there is one, no longer matters to Washington Square.