Miami is known for a lot of things: sun, beaches, the hedonistic excess of vice — but it was only very recently that we’ve become known as a haven for art. However, what the New York Times and all the other news outlets drooling over Art Basel don’t seem to recognize is that our scene down here has always been a vibrant community of outsiders, misfits, and artists. And most, if not all of them, have called Churchill’s home at some point.
Churchill’s, for those not yet acquainted, is a pub that has been standing tall since 1979 in a section of Little Haiti some might call a “transitioning” area. Not too long ago, the neighborhood was just Little Haiti, and only the bravest of eager souls would venture to Churchill’s risking life, limb, and shattered car windows to experience Miami’s true underground music scene. Dave Daniels, who owned the joint up until a year ago, helped cultivate a thriving group of artists and musicians, allowing them the freedom (in every sense of the word) to do their thing on Churchill’s stage. This meant art shows and musical events ranging from free jazz nights to bloody punk shows and even the dreaded/revered noise showcases on Thursday nights hosted by Rat Bastard (who's been just as important to Churchill's as anyone) and his revolving cavalcade of Laundry Room Squelchers. After over 30 years of mixing ex-pats and off the wall events, Dave Daniels, at the age of 73, decided to see the world and sell his bar.
When the call came in that Dave would no longer be the captain at Churchill’s wheel, an alarm sounded throughout the community, igniting panic from every corner of the ship.
Who would buy the bar? What were their intentions? With the encroaching Design District inching closer and closer to Little Haiti, there was a sense of impending doom looming over the heads of many of Churchill’s most stalwart enthusiasts. How long was our beloved institution of artistic freedom going to last without its figurehead? Many feared this would surely be the end.
But they were wrong. Or, at least, they've been wrong so far.
It’s been a little over a year since Dave sold the place and Churchill’s is still packing itself full of punks, ex-pats, daytime drinkers, and any number of adventurous audiophiles seeking a fix from the outside glitz and glamour of the polished Miami that exists right down the street. As if to assuage the naysayers who were convinced the place would never be the same, a slew of Miami music scene veterans descended on Churchill’s stage last April to hold a benefit for one of their own: Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa, a band that defies logic and description (other than: amazing).
When Priya Ray, KLS singer and violinist, needed to raise money for a handicapable van after suffering a spinal injury, her friends came out of the woodwork to make sure she got one. Cavity reunited for the first time in 15 years. This is the band that in the '90s defined the current genre du jour: Doom. The Shark Valley Sisters, a duo consisting of two of Miami’s angriest sons: Rob Elba of the Holy Terrors and Fausto Figuerado of Load, christened the benefit as well. These bands represent everything that Churchill’s is built on and anyone who thinks that the place isn’t the same would have had a hard time differentiating Churchill’s 2015 from the Churchill’s of 1992 during that benefit show.
“It comes in waves," Figuerado says of Churchill’s tenure as the CBGB of the south. "There was a time when Load, KLS, Quit, the Holy Terrors all ruled that place. Then there were the Hialeah hardcore kids in the early to mid-'90s, and they just took over. Then there were the Enough kids and the Jellyfish Brothers and now Nayra Serrano [of Idle Hands Booking] is there. It just comes in waves and there’s always more and more coming.”
Churchill’s has transcended the typical venue status over the years. It's become a living breathing entity, something representative of a philosophy rather than a genre, like a cathedral for many of Miami's lost souls who had nowhere else to go. And that's why so many people took it personally when they felt Churchill's was about to be stripped away from them. “Most touring bands wouldn’t know the difference if they played here before compared to now. It’s basically the same,” Rob Elba, who was one of the voices in our oral history of Churchill's feature story, says.
Over the years, Churchill’s reputation has attracted iconic names like Kurt Cobain, Iggy Pop, and Thurston Moore. U2 even stopped by in 1996 to watch a soccer game (they were still charged $20 to get in by the doorman Mr. C). The bar has emerged as a petri dish for developing new ideas such as the International Noise Conference, which — while initially causing many people to scratch their heads in confusion — has blossomed into one of the most compelling things to happen in Miami for underground music probably ever. The Conference hosts artists from all over the world every year that would most likely never find a following if they didn’t have a place like Churchill's to welcome them.
The locals become very territorial over their favorite venue, and there's nothing wrong with that. For so many, Churchill's is personal. There are those who have not been able to reconcile the new ownership with the old Churchill’s. It has become a bone of contention for many in the scene, but Churchill’s endures despite the brewing discontent. Legendary New York hardcore punk outfit Agnostic Front recently filmed their video for “Never Walk Alone” at Churchill’s because the venue is like a second home to them.
However, the absence of Dave Daniels is what many think will eventually kill Churchill's lights — even a year later. “It seems sort of shaky at the moment," says Rob Elba. "All the great clubs, you knew the owner: Hilly Kristal at CBGB’s, Bill and Kevin at Washington Square, even Jay at the Poorhouse in Fort Lauderdale.”
But despite all the trepidation, Churchill’s continues to host some of the most fun and wildly inventive exploits in the tri-county area. There has been a spate of fantastic shows that have come through in the last year, and an even more interesting slew of new faces gracing the venue. Since the buyout, the venue has expanded into even more unknown territory: booking bigger acts that may not go over as well at places like Grand Central, and filling the gap left by the now defunct Vagabond.
Realistically, nothing lasts forever. And as so many fear, Churchill’s may very well get caught up in the maelstrom of gentrification.
“Whatever it is now," Elba says, "it seems like it could go away in a second.” And, sure, maybe it is wishful thinking to assume any business-savvy investor would buy a bar just to keep it the smutty little pub we all know and love. Given the rising property values and the escalating reach of the Design District, it seems like only a matter of time before Churchill’s becomes either something else completely different or a shadow of its former self.
No one thought CBGB would ever close and eventually even that shrine to the bygone days of the Ramones’ Manhattan had to buckle under the pressure of a cleaned up lower east side. It may happen eventually, but in the meantime Churchill’s is still what it always has been: a place to get together, get crazy, make art as loudly and unabashedly personal as possible and have a really great time while doing it.
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The changing neighborhood has made it easier for outsiders to venture into Churchill’s sacred halls and maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. Your car windows are probably a lot safer for it.
L.A. punk band the Germs had a song called “What We Do Is Secret” about living in the L.A.’s punk rock underbelly. Skip ahead 30 years, and no more secrets remain about that place and time because those kind of secrets need to be shared in order to be fully appreciated by a wider audience. This may just be Churchill’s opportunity to be recognized for its contribution to Miami’s all encompassing outlaw art scene.
But even if it does close, even if we wake up one day to find that it has been converted into a colorful macaroon shop, wouldn't it be nice to say that we savored it in its final years rather than to have spent that time moping around in tortured anticipation?
May it live forever, even if it’s in the ashes of the place that fostered it.