In the late '70s, artist Michael Freiwald was studying graphic design in Berlin as punk rock began its meteoric rise. He says he was "too old and too busy" at that point to become involved in the scene, though he closely watched its ebbs and flows from the periphery over the next few decades.
Then, in 2013, while on vacation in Miami, Freiwald came across a reference to Churchill’s Pub in New Times, describing the Little Haiti dive bar as "the CBGB of Miami." But unlike the storied New York City music club, Churchill's was still open.
"I had to go," Freiwald says. Thirty years late, he was hoping this would be his chance to witness the epicenter of a thriving punk scene. Almost a year later, he was back in the Magic City, sitting at the bar at Churchill’s with its founder Dave Daniels, only to learn that Daniels had just sold the beloved venue. “I said, 'Well, shit! I’ve missed it again.'"
Founded in 1979, Churchill’s is one of Miami’s oldest surviving bars. The venue, with its slightly rundown appearance, began as a one-room, 1,200-square-foot pub without a liquor license and gradually proliferated into the patchwork yet bona fide venue it is today.
After Churchill's nearly four decades of anchoring Miami's music scene, fears surrounding the sale of the pub were extreme. Though versions of events differ, there is general agreement that, on the last official night of Daniels’ ownership of the bar, anxious patrons stole several items and caused property damage. “They took everything," says Nicky Bowe, Churchill's manager from 2000 through 2015. "People got nervous after what had happened with these bars around the world. They just wanted a piece of it."
Of course, fears of Churchill's demise wound up being overblown. Despite some renovations (including a face-lift of the bar's infamously dilapidated bathrooms), not much has changed at the dive since Daniels' sale five years ago. Freiwald continued to return to Miami to visit the bar, where he gradually formed meaningful relationships with its patrons and musicians despite Daniels’ exit. “I had come into the place, smelled the smells, heard the sounds, the people — I had fallen in love, and I was home. It resembled a feeling I had in my 20s. I was at a later stage in my life and it had happened again. It was incredible,” Freiwald recalls.
An illustrator and designer by trade, Freiwald painted and compiled a portfolio of the characters who composed Churchill's inner circle, from its employees to its regular patrons and the bands that played there. “It came to the point where I had so many drawings I asked myself, What would be the next step? A book.'' The artist tested the waters with an exhibition at the venue during Miami Art Week 2018.
Earlier this month, an exhibition of Freiwald's work in collaboration with the Jellyfish Brothers, as well as the publication of his illustrations and personal histories, My Dysfunctional Home, kicked off a series of special events commemorating Churchill’s 40th anniversary throughout September. The events include anniversary editions of recurring programming curated by Hardcore for Punx, 229, Sweat Records, and All Folk’d Up. Most shows are free, while admission for others costs only $5, in traditional Churchill's form.
Ian Michael, who handles the booking at the venue, says Rat Bastard (founder of the International Noise Conference and a pillar of Churchill’s from the beginning) has “selected an amazing lineup that definitely represents everything that is Churchill's, from its rich history all the way up to today.”
Mark Pollock, half of the legendary duo New Art School, which booked national acts at the venue in the mid-'00s, says Churchill's adaptability has been the key to its survival. “The pendulum always swings," he says. "Back then, it was the center of the subculture, and now it’s a venue.”
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John Mchale, a patron of Churchill’s since the late '90s who has been booking prolifically under the moniker Breakeven Booking since 2006, agrees. “Ultimately, Miami is changing. The venue can’t stay the same, and it shouldn’t... The place has adapted from being a great place to see punk, noise, hardcore, metal to being a destination for some pretty serious tour packages.”
With 40 years under its belt, Churchill's Pub has now outlasted many of the high-profile music venues to which it was once compared. “There are so many golden eras of Churchill's Pub,’’ says Mchale, who was there to experience many of them. “That place means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”
Freiwald's My Dysfunctional Home is available at Sweat Records and its online shop, sweat-records.shoplightspeed.com.
40 Years of Churchills. Through September 30 at Churchill's Pub, 5501 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-757-1807; churchillspub.com.