Final chord at T.T.’s leaves Central Square contemplating changed role, fading funk
After his ManRay nightclub was razed in 2005 and turned into condos, Don Holland hung onto its liquor license for more than eight years, hoping to reopen nearby. He finally gave up last year and sold. When All Asia closed in 2013, it was because owner Marc Shulman had plans to open a bigger, grander club nearby named Prospect, but that dream also died last year for lack of funding.
With the closing of the T.T. the Bear’s Place nightclub tonight, its landlords at The Middle East say they hope to keep it as a performance space without even a pause in performances – but the economic realities of running a live-music club leaves that dream also in doubt, with rent jumping by a third when a longtime manager describes the 42-year-old club as one that could “barely make ends meet as it is.”
The loss of two independent rock clubs catering to starter bands, and a switch to DJs and electronic music at the clubs that remain, changes the music ecosystem in Central Square – the rock ’n’ roll heart of Cambridge, where Arcade Fire, Bim Skala Bim, The Black Keys, David Wax Museum, The Descendents, Dinosaur Jr., Jane’s Addiction, The J. Geils Band, Karmin, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, The Lemonheads, The Magnetic Fields, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mission of Burma, Morphine, Nirvana, The Pixies, Robyn Hitchcock and The Shins have all performed and hung out – midway through a a five-year designation in 2012 as one of four state cultural districts, granted in part because it was “home to a mix of small, funky independently owned shops and creative startups.”
With the Hubba Hubba erotica shop and Weirdo Records also moved or closed, along with a handful of other defining Central Square businesses, the beat of that heart is getting less funky.
“There’s a loss of culture in the cultural district,” said Hope Zimmerman, co-owner of the Out of the Blue Too art gallery.
“Robin did all that work and just got that tag, and now it’s going away, like instantly,” Zimmerman said, referring to Robin Lapidus, executive director of the Central Square Business Association.
It’s a summation Lapidus rejects, but there’s no question the square is changing.
Underlying the changes are soaring real estate prices. It’s a citywide phenomenon, but Central Square snakes along Massachusetts Avenue, the most desirable business address in the city.
To ensure The Middle East and ZuZu could continue as businesses at 472-480 Massachusetts Ave. in the face of a potential land sale, owners Joseph and Nabil Sater bought the property themselves for $7.1 million and now have a mortgage to pay off, leading to demands for $3,000 more per month in rent from their tenants at T.T.’s. A rough calculation of cost per square foot at The Middle East – land value divided by square footage – suggests an $80 rate a decade ago has boomed 47 percent, to just over $192 per square foot. It’s even more extreme elsewhere in the square; the old Blockbuster video space at 561 Massachusetts Ave. has swelled 140 percent, to $192 per square foot from $80.
A different analysis by CBRE New England Commercial Real Estate tracking the decade leading up through the first quarter of this year found 204,424 available square feet in the square in early 2005 for an average rent of $25.30. Ten years later there was 193,688 available square feet at an average rent of $62.67.
The price pressure is why when residents and officials debated in spring the coming of a proposed 232-unit Mass+Main apartment tower and ground-floor retail, a major talking point was whether its coming would bring useful, middle-class stores along with affordable and middle-class housing – not just high-end restaurants and tchotchkes for the wealthy.
“I think it’s going to change Central Square for the better. Having more residents will be good for local businesses,” said Patrick Verbeke, a 10-year resident of the square who works in commercial real estate for Keller Williams Realty, speaking of Mass+Main.
“I feel good about Central Square. When people ask where to live in Cambridge, I think Central Square is a great place to live,” Verbeke said. “Central Square has a character, in my view, as a special place and cultural center, and by and large I think the culture will remain.”
Not every longtime Central Square resident feels the same. Shulman, who ran All Asia, now focuses on food as co-owner of Patty Chen’s Dumpling Room precisely because “you have to evolve with the square. If you’re not a big enough factor to change it, you have to evolve to stay.” He gives the Flour bakery and Craigie On Main restaurant as examples of businesses who came to serve “the next demographic.”
The gentrification is clear in residential rents as well as commercial, as Shulman has seen one-bedrooms go from as low as $800 a decade ago to a current $2,800 or $3,100. “Who can afford that? What does that say about the average resident? What kind of student can afford to pay that?” he asks, identifying the gentrifying rent levels as going particularly “crazy” in the past couple of years. “Who can afford to hang out here?”
Looking a few blocks down the street from his restaurant to The Middle East, the last rock club standing in Central Square, he wonders how the Saters will evolve. “They have to add value to survive. I don’t know how they’re going to pay their mortgage,” Shulman said.
There was a time the local rock path seemed clear, and it started at the All Asia. With an open-door policy at launch in 2000 with “no lineup and no schedule” in Shulman’s words, All Asia, its 150-person capacity, cheap, low stage and dorm-room decor became the classic place in town to catch performers on their way to stardom, obscurity or nowhere in particular. “Were you invited to see your co-worker’s brother’s band?” Medford Yelper Joshua M. said. “This was probably the venue!”
By Shulman’s count, All Asia had anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 performances over 13 years of seven-day stage time. “No fewer than 500 bands got their first gigs at All Asia,” he said. Some gained notoriety – Bad Rabbits, Kingsley Flood and Will Dailey, for instance, and Karmin made the cover of Rolling Stone. But the club’s fame in Shulman’s eyes was to be “basically a space that’ll take on new artists knowing they have no big following – that would take anything.”
“We were like a feeder for the Middle East Upstairs,” Shulman said, referring to the Sater’s 194-person venue.
After that would come a gig at T.T.’s, a 300-person club. If a band stuck to it, next up in Cambridge was the Middle East’s cavernous 575-capacity Downstairs.
As T.T.’s closes, social media has filled with valedictories from artists who played there and thought about how bands grow now from stage to stage (literally) of existence, exacerbated by news that Johnny D’s will be closing next year in Somerville’s Davis Square. Peter Wolf of The J. Geils Band and Mark Ferranti of Bim Skala Bim ruminated this week in a 10-minute segment on WBUR’s “Radio Boston,” with Ferranti saying “T.T.’s especially was a place where … a brand-new band who’s probably not done that many gigs in front of anybody could, you know, get a gig actually opening for like a national act.”
Coming atop the loss of All Asia (with Joseph Sater agreeing it caused “a little vacuum. There are not enough places for live music” and T.T.’s manager Kevin Patey saying it “definitely caused a void”), mourning for T.T.’s is even sharper.
Among the mourners is Jen D’Angora, of the bands Jenny Dee & the Deelinquents, The Downbeat 5 and The Dents. “A lot of my fellow bands don’t really play The Middle East anymore, so the loss of T.T.’s makes Central Square kind of off the map for us now,” she said.
It makes for a diaspora: Bands can start off at such places as O’Brien’s in Allston and The Midway in Jamaica Plain, and on this side of the river there remains smaller-capacity clubs such as Toad in Porter Square and The Lizard Lounge between Porter and Harvard, where last month D’Angora launched the Girls In The Garage Music Festival. There are basement shows, of course, and The Democracy Center in Harvard Square.
“The issue is really with the bands who aren’t starting out [but also not] not super successful,” D’Angora said, noting that there are exceptions to the rule Central Square has become harder to play: Petty Morals, a Salem all-female synth-punk/dance rock sextet founded in late 2012 that did well in last year’s Rock N Roll Rumble and Boston Music Award nominations, opened for Shonen Knife at The Middle East in June.
But those exceptions and the starter bands face factors that complicate performing at clubs in Central, starting with the cost of taking the stage. At the Middle East Upstairs, there’s a $400 or higher guarantee at the door, and bands that don’t pull in enough to cover that have to pay the cost themselves. At T.T.’s, the first $275 that came through the door went to the club, and bands made 90 percent of the take after that. “If they don’t meet that minimum, we’re never gonna bust their balls and tell them they need to get money out of their pocket. So if there are four bands that can bring 100 people into the room, they can walk away with some good money,” Patey said.
Also, more clubs, no matter how grungy and independent they may seem, are booked by larger, corporate companies: Great Scott in Allston is booked by Bowery Boston, as is The Sinclair in Harvard Square. Brighton Music Hall is booked by Crossroads, which also books for Boston’s Orpheum and House of Blues.
“We can’t compete with that,” Patey said. “That’s why we had no touring business anymore, and that used to be a big part of our business here. Look on the wall and everyone from Jane’s Addiction to The Black Keys to The Shins all played here. We were one of the spots to go to for touring bands, and that doesn’t exist anymore. The only touring business we get are the scraps [the booking agencies] throw us because they can’t fit it in their own rooms.”
The DJ-EDM takeover
Finally, there’s the increasing use of DJs and electronic dance music, which are cheaper and easier to program than a night filled with live bands, each with their own equipment and need for sound checks. “Next door’s had a bit of a shift away from live music in general. They do a lot of electronic stuff over there, which – I get it, it pays the bills, but it’s a nightmare. I’m glad we don’t deal with it,” Patey said of The Middle East. (On the other hand, T.T.’s had enduring successes in two DJ’d nights: Xmortis and Heroes.) “Upstairs Middle East is smaller than us, so bands would historically go there too, but that’s just not been much of an option lately just because the change in direction.”
Soulelujah! is a regular at The Middle East Upstairs, “which means a DJ dance party every Saturday night. And it sells out every weekend,” Zimmerman said. “You can’t fault them for it; It’s just sad as a musician to see.”
Bands can still play The Middle East Upstairs on a Saturday – but the shows end by 10 p.m. so the DJ can move in. “A rock show that starts at 6 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m.?” Zimmerman said. “I love The Middle East, but this is how things are getting booked, because this is where the younger generation goes and spends that money, versus the rock show and the cultural happenings.”
Sater acknowledges that this is new – unheard of if you look back even a half-dozen years – and something that crept in at ZuZu, a 54-person restaurant the Saters opened in 2001. Even after a band plays, “then we turn it into a dance night,” Joseph Sater said. “You have to do everything, because live music cannot sustain the business these days. You’ve just got to be able to support the live music you have by adding other elements to it.”
That lumps in The Middle East with Middlesex Lounge, Phoenix Landing and others in a Central Square that still brings out the college-aged and post-college masses and still reflects a pervading culture, albeit one that has changed since the 1970s and 1980s, when Sater recalls “every other place” in the square boasting of live music – a culture that goes on thriving in places such as Austin, Texas, and Nashville, New Orleans and parts of Chicago.
It was only a few years ago the square hosted the Together electronic music festival as well as the live music of the Central Square World’s Fair and is still home to its sibling, the Mmmmaven Project school for electronic music production and DJing. It’s also where a world-class DJ duo, Soul Clap, honed its skills before heading off for shows everywhere from Miami to Istanbul.
“If there’s a trend toward more DJs and recorded music, that’s true anywhere,” Lapidus said, “and we are home to one of the top DJ schools in the country. Maybe that’s a part of the Cultural District because that’s what people are into these days.”
To the credit of The Middle East, it is also one of the few venues in town that has embraced hip-hop.
It’s all happening at Massachusetts Avenue and Brookline Street, also known as Mark Sandman Square – honoring the frontman of the band Morphine, whose six albums starting in 1989 introduced the world to “low rock,” a sound with hints of blues, jazz and beat poetry that came as close as anything to convincing the world there was a Cambridge Sound. The band thrived in soundtracks for everything from “Get Shorty” to “Wild Things,” and Sandman died onstage in Italy during a 1999 world tour.
The remains of the band play as Vapors of Morphine at Atwood’s Tavern in Inman Square, where they have a Saturday residency with a $5 cover.
The new path
There are still starting points for bands in Central Square. In Sater’s experience, a band starts at The Middle East’s Corner for a crowd of 60 people, and then will do the Upstairs, “then will go to T.T.’s,” he said. “Then they go Downstairs.”
Whether the T.T.’s option remains depends on a number of variables. (And whatever club opens in that space will likely not be called T.T.’s.)
The spiritual successor to All Asia, and the place where the next 500 bands are more likely to see their start, is at the Out of the Blue Too art gallery. The gallery, which moved to Massachusetts Avenue about a block from The Middle East late last year, won an entertainment license in February good for gatherings for up to 99 people and the right to ask for up to 30 one-day beer and wine permits a year. This made the space a player not just in visual art, but in poetry readings, dance, music, theater and even campy women’s wrestling – and in keeping Central weird.
“It’s very rare that we don’t have something going on,” Zimmerman said, rattling off a schedule with poetry, story-telling, open mic events and, increasingly, music, often booked by the lo-fi, punky Boston Hassle group. There can be anywhere from three to six bands a night, and just as the gallery’s ethic on visual art is that all skill levels get a chance, the bands also tend toward the inexperienced.
“We still give people their first show. They walk in and see the P.A. and say, ‘Wait, you have music here? I have a band.’ And we open a dialogue. ‘Oh, I’ve never had a show before, so you’re probably not interested.’ And we’re like, ‘No, you’re the first person we’d be interested in,’ because that’s what we want to do, is help those starting-out artists,” Zimmerman said.
Shows are $5 or $8 – the performers help decide, Zimmerman said – and bands are charged by the hour: $75 on the weekend, $50 during the week. “It’s a lot less risky than those bigger $450-whatever venues, but it gets the new, starting-out person to understand how to really market themselves and what a loss is and not think ‘Oh, well, whatever, only five people showed up, nobody lost anything,’” she said.
The policy evolved from a more liberal one that was losing the gallery money, especially compared with nightclubs that took profits from alcohol sales. Zimmerman said the gallery embraces its role as an all-ages, no-alcohol show venue, and even set its midnight shut-off so drinkers could go to shows at the gallery but still make it to last call somewhere else.
“It’s not a hugely profitable thing,” she said of the gallery as nightclub, “but it’s something the community needs.”
Central Square culture
It’s true three rock clubs have left Central Square in the past decade, but a comedy club, theater and art gallery (with music) have come; the Clear Conscience Cafe left, but after Life Alive came; Hubba Hubba left, but that allowed the Dance Complex to expand; late-night Hi-Fi Pizza lost its lease but the square gained a 24-hour eatery in Clover that is healthier as well. For every Pearl Art & Craft that goes, there’s a Mobius, Boomerangs or Veggie Galaxy that goes on.
“I see us as deepening our cultural roots all the time,” said Lapidus, rattling off uses such The Central Square Theater, ImprovBoston and “even creative uses of space like Naco Taco [that] all attest to the deepening of our roots and identity.”
“I think the Cultural District is here to stay, and as with every aspect of life, it’s always changing. The 24-hour Clover … is different from Hi-Fi Pizza, but things change, and I think most changes have been really positive and made good additions to Central Square. The fact you can buy food at Clover 24 hours a day is good for Central Square,” she said.
The presence of several nonprofits and social services in the square help maintain its culture in a way some perceive as negative, even as real estate prices surge and exert pressure on businesses toward the upscale. “It’s funny. The square changes and yet it stays the same,” Patey said, alluding to the presence of the homeless or addicts seeking treatment. “We have a lot of restaurants that spring up and they try to put a fancier face on it, if you will, but take a walk around here at lunchtime, man. There ain’t nothing pretty about it. The most sketchy time to be in Central Square is probably 3 a.m. and 3 p.m.”
Patey, who heads off to Europe to record an album only days after T.T.’s closes tonight, said he’s out of the music management business. He’d rather cut hair – literally – and play music, saying, “I feel like I’ve spent my time in the trenches.” And he’s skeptical about the long-term prospects for not just a T.T.’s replacement but even The Middle East (“This whole thing is a not a long-term thing … How much longer can they go on like this? Not only physically and mentally, but logistically. There’s no fucking way [the Saters are] making enough money”) and Central Square as a music destination.
But his rocker daughter, Annabelle Patey-Lord, also sneaked in a solo show at T.T.’s on Monday, a second generation of rock ’n’ roll royalty anointed in a shrine. And he’s sure live music as a phenomenon will be back, even if new clubs will have to open to accommodate it – because today’s clubs will all be gone.
Funky has multiple meanings: It speaks to a strong rhythm and unconventional style, but it also refers to a bad smell.
For some, that’s exactly what makes Central Square the place to be.
At the Out of the Blue Too art gallery, Zimmerman and co-owner Tom Tipton embrace all senses of the word, are sorry to see Hubba Hubba leave but happy to see the Dance Complex expand, and are adamant about staying in the square when relocating to a permanent home as a nonprofit. Zimmerman acknowledges the fading of the rock club but sees “the older generation trying to teach the younger generation that live music matters” as part of the gallery’s mission.
The funk is draining away, Zimmerman said, but “there’s a few of us still fighting for it.”
Homepage image of T.T. the Bear’s Place by Mark Phinney. This post was updated July 28, 2015, to note Karmin’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone.