Friday, July 12, 2024

Boots Riley performs at The Middle East Downstairs in Central Square on Dec. 5, 2012. (Photo: Marc Levy)

News that Club Bohemia is shutting down Sept. 1 below the Cantab Lounge leaves The Middle East complex the last rock clubs standing, and while co-owner Joseph Sater assured that the family establishments would be around so long as his generation lived, he could offer only hopes that the next generation of Saters would stay in the music business.

“All that I know is that we’re not going anywhere. It’s our livelihood,” Sater said in a recent interview in the offices over The Middle East Upstairs, which the family owns and runs along with The Middle East Downstairs, its Corner Cafe and adjoining ZuZu; the Armory building in Somerville; and The Firehouse in Allston. “And hopefully the kids will carry the torch onward.”

“They love it, but when you’re gone, you can never know. Hopefully they’ll carry on. They’re good kids and they have the know-how,” Sater said. His brother, Nabil, and sister, Sonia, make up the generation running the clubs since 1970, when it was a Lebanese restaurant; the coming generation is made up of niece Lily, 28, and nephew Khalil, 36. They are already involved in running the businesses; Khalil has been identified as a co-owner.

Generation hex

Though Central Square lost the defining ManRay nightclub in 2005, the shift began in earnest at a paradoxical time: In 2013, as the square won its Cultural District designation from the state but lost the ramshackle All Asia in July after 13 years of launching bands, then saw the Hubba Hubba sex shop move to Mid-Cambridge; instead of seeing All Asia reopen as the upscale Prospect, the square instead saw T.T. the Bear’s Place shut down in 2015 after more than four decades, joined by Weirdo Records. The Out of the Blue Art Gallery fell victim to rising rents late last year, and more than 200 artists and performers were evicted this spring from the EMF Building and its rehearsal spaces and supporting businesses.

Club Bohemia has been run by Mickey Bliss since 1993 – first at The Kirkland, then in the basement of the Cantab Lounge at 738 Massachusetts Ave., which supporters are urged to petition to let the club stay open.

Joseph Sater talks in February 2017 with journalist Kristina Kehrer about the opening of his family’s new club, Sonia, in Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Sater scorns the generational turnover that is flipping properties and longtime businesses elsewhere in the city as heirs ratchet up rents, turn management over to impersonal companies or sell outright. “They just cash in,” he said. Especially for arts-related businesses, the new generation owners find “more value in the real estate. And we’re talking about any kind of art, not just music. I mean, you have to do it for the love of it. There’s no tax incentive for it like in Western Europe.”

It was exactly that generational shift that turned the Saters from longtime leasers of 472-480 Massachusetts Ave. into owners, with a 2014 purchase of $7.1 million that brought with it a mortgage that demanded to be fed; the financial squeeze led to the closing of T.T.’s.

Still, his niece and nephew will not be required to keep the Sater family businesses open as homes for the arts. “No. No. You don’t want to force it,” Sater said, laughing at the idea of a legally binding bequeathal. “They grew up in here, they got raised in here, they’re good kids – they’re not kids anymore – and they’re dealing with it now.  We talk about it, and they like what they do.”

“The heart and soul of Central Square”

The Boston Poetry Slam is held Wednesdays under the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, a break in Club Bohemia’s nightly rock. (Photo: Marshall Goff Photography)

Michael Monestime, president of the Central Square Business Association, expressed shock at the looming shutdown of Club Bohemia and concern for other landmarks of the square facing uncertain futures, but said losing The Middle East would be unthinkable.

“The Middle East has become the heart and soul of Central Square. The Saters have run that corner at Brookline Street and Massachusetts Avenue like the living room of their home – where guests come in and feel welcome and invited,” Monestime said. “When you talk about the Cultural District there’s no question you have to mention The Dance Complex and the Central Square Theatre, but you also have to mention The Middle East. I went to my first rap or rock show at The Middle East – that was the first concert of my life, and I know I’m just one of many. I know [state Rep.] Mike Connolly tells the story of being a kid in Norwood who would travel in and see shows at The Middle East.That’s so many people’s story.”

“That’s such an important piece of Central Square, and if it was ever at risk I would be all in to make sure we retain it,” Monestime said.

He hoped the next generation of Saters gave the businesses “the same love that Joseph and Nabil do – but I don’t think anyone will ever replace them.”

No competition if you care

Joseph Sater was nostalgic for the period in the 1980s and 1990s when live music was everywhere in Central Square, kept alive in part by musical styles and a scene that encouraged young musicians to hang out, taking inspiration from each other and making the clubs their second homes. In the current isolated pockets of performance at La Fabrica Central, Thelonious Monkfish, the Cantab and, farther off in Mid-Cambridge, The Plough & Stars, the often Latin, jazz and Americana bands are likely to play, pack up and leave for the distant homes they can afford to rent or buy.

Far from being pleased at dominating live rock and hip-hop in the square, Sater said that “the issue is that you need more. The more the merrier. If you believe in it, you have no competition – if you believe in competition, you kill the scene. Back when we used to have all the clubs, everybody wanted to play music. Everybody was thriving.”

The long-ago Middle East known primarily as a restaurant featured belly-dancing and Middle Eastern music – including one Persian night and one Greek night – along with one weeknight each dedicated to jazz and blues. That formula started to pall when political differences from strains throughout the geographic Middle East raised tensions among patrons in Cambridge, Sater recalled. At the same time, a customer named Billy Ruane began pushing the Saters to host his birthday party.

“We resisted for a while,” Sater said. “And Billy said, ‘You gave Roger Miller a night for his record release party, you gotta give me a night for my birthday party.’ So we gave him a night for his birthday party. And that was the introduction for rock ’n’ roll here.”

Bringing the rock in

Ruane claimed Tuesdays for rock, then “managed somehow” to take over more nights – until only Sundays in the Corner Cafe remained for belly dancing and Middle Eastern tunes, Sater said. (“You can’t listen so much to Middle Eastern music all the time.”)

“It was an easier crowd than the crowd we were used to. Before, you had to have tablecloths and a maitre’d, but if you sell out it’s like one customer for the whole night [per table],” said Sater, who said the family found that they wound up even by throwing out the suddenly cigarette-scarred cloths, slashing the menu in half and increasing turnover.

“When you brought the rock in, you took the tablecloth out,” he said.

Ruane died in 2010. His ashes are on display at the club, and a petition still seeks to turn Brookline and Green streets (near the former T.T.’s and current Sonia) into Billy Ruane Square.

One signer of the petition this year spoke in the past tense not just about Ruane, but about the music scene he promoted so effectively. 

Ruane played “a huge part in people actually caring about this neighborhood,” said signer Steve Nester, “because for awhile rock ’n’ roll carried it forward.”

This post was updated Aug. 29, 2018, to correct that the Saters own the Somerville Armory building but are only landlords to the Center for Arts at the Armory that operates in the building.