Monday, February 26, 2024

Club Bohemia before its first show Dec. 11, the day the Cantab reopened. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The downstairs performance space at the Cantab Lounge, known for 17 years as Club Bohemia, is now the Cantab Underground. The confusion and battle behind it represent another bump in the rough ride the bar has had returning to life at 738 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, during a pandemic – a time bar business has been, by all accounts, brutal.

The cause for the name change is the breakup of a longtime partnership between music booker Mickey Bliss and publicist Joe Viglione. Bliss is staying with the Cantab while Viglione has left, an ugly divorce that played out online as the club and Viglione scuffled over social media ownership and access.

It followed the supposedly permanent closing of the Cantab after the coronavirus shut down indoors entertainment in 2020 and, under new owner Tim Dibble, a hard and expensive renovation after decades in which the club saw little maintenance. That caused repeated false starts in relaunch dates; when doors finally did reopen Dec. 15, they closed again for a week almost immediately after a Covid exposure.

With Viglione’s departure, publicity for the club remains a tangle. As of Saturday, there is still no website; there’s one Facebook page by Viglione that is shut down (cantablounge) and another handled by the club (thecantablounge), as well as a third with a single post by Viglione from 2010 that has several years’ worth of comments; there’s a Club Bohemia page on Facebook that belongs to Viglione and now has nothing to do with the Cantab, and a Cantab Underground page with no content. An Instagram account run by the club has 16 posts over the past 73 days. There’s even a Web page run by Viglione called Rock n Roll Central that adds to the confusion with its URL:

Talking with Viglione and some from the Cantab crew, including Bliss, it looks like missteps resulting from a good start: Dibble brought back everyone associated with the old Cantab, but found that wasn’t feasible for current conditions. Viglione was going to be laid off – he says “fired” – to potentially be brought back when economic conditions improved. It didn’t go well.

The fracturing began Jan. 7, as Viglione, 67, said he was “working away getting all the publicity out for both clubs” and was approached and asked for the passwords. “They had intended to take everything down and fire me,” Viglione said. (In Bliss’ telling on Saturday, bar manager Kylie Connors asked for access “to clean up a couple things that Joe was doing that were a little bit old-fashioned.”) It led to angry posts online and back-and-forth lawyers’ letters, with one directed at Viglione dated Jan. 21 demanding that he straighten out the social media situation before the Cantab “pursues its legal rights and remedies to protect its good will and reputation.”

A revue in a bar, not a club

Joe Viglione, Mickey Bliss and Bliss’ daughter, Nicole Anzuoni, in September 2016. (Photo: Joe Viglione)

The complication of Cantab publicity had a simple start.

“I don’t like social media,” said Bliss, 70, who sports a haircut familiar from The Beatles’ arrival during the British Invasion of 1964 that has made him iconic over the years – particularly when paired with a mod pair of sunglasses.

Before there was social media, Bliss didn’t like computers. He launched Cafe Bohemia in 1993 at the Kirkland Cafe, a club at 425 Washington St., Somerville. It was the same year the World Wide Web began its takeover of the Internet. Bliss hired Viglione, a friend since 1978 when Viglione booked Bliss’ band to play Cantone’s in Boston, to do the publicity he didn’t want to do; when it came time to have a Web presence, Viglione handled its creation. When the Kirkland closed in May 2007, the drummer for a band called The Chicken Slacks – the Cantab’s Thursday night band all these years later – suggested moving to the Cantab, Viglione said. Club Bohemia has been downstairs since, though in the period it looked as though the Cantab wouldn’t reopen, Bliss and Viglione explored moving it to the Wonderland Ballroom in Revere, Viglione said.

“It’s not a physical club. It’s a revue that can be at clubs – we just happened to be at only two clubs for 29 years. But the Kirkland didn’t own it, and the Cantab didn’t own it, and Fitzy knew that,” Viglione said, referring to the Cantab’s owner before Dibble, Richard “Fitzy” Fitzgerald.

Viglione’s work expanded to Fitzgerald’s Crystal Lunch business and his Cantab after Club Bohemia moved in – much like how Bliss began booking the upstairs stage as well as his downstairs revue. But Crystal Lunch never owned Club Bohemia, and when Dibble’s Dancing in the Dark bought the Cantab, the longtime identity of the downstairs space wasn’t in the contract.

Complicated relationships …

Downstairs at the Cantab Lounge are souvenirs from 17 years of hosting Club Bohemia. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Club Bohemia belongs to Bliss; its online presence belongs to Viglione.

Still, by Bliss’ way of thinking about the Cantab, “We work for them. They have a right to the image they want to portray, and we have to do what they want. So let’s find out what they want to do, and we can work it out,” Bliss recalled saying to Viglione.

For a while, Viglione and a Cantab employee were making dueling posts on the Cantab Facebook page, which always existed alongside the Club Bohemia page even though Viglione handled both.

The Cantab page that’s shut down on Facebook was Viglione’s; the new Facebook page launched Jan. 10 under Connors’ control, saying it was “under new management.”

And the name downstairs changed. “It’s the Cantab Underground because I was relentless and refused to let them steal Club Bohemia,” Viglione said Jan. 20. “They completely destroyed my work. That [Facebook] page was so powerful. That was one of the reasons we sold out shows.”

… in complicated times

Mickey Bliss adjusts sound equipment Dec. 11 before a show at Club Bohemia – now the Cantab Underground. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There are more reasons for some chaos in bookings and shows not selling out, including a stricter Covid policy that followed the infection of around five Cantab employees in December, when the easily transmissible omicron variant was already common. The law allows for people to be unmasked indoors when they eat or drink, though Viglione also said he stayed away after the bar’s reopening when he saw a problem with other enforcement: “The club wants you to wear a mask, but there was all this dancing without masks going on,” he said. A vaccine requirement for performers has since led to some bands declining shows, while Bliss said others say no out of caution, telling him “we’ll wait until April to see what happens.” Another strict policy around collecting W-9 forms for tax purposes has irritated some band members who expect to make just a few dollars from a performance.

“They don’t want to play, the ones that play can’t get really draw too well, and people don’t want to come out,” Bliss said. “You’ve got to remember, the business was dying even before the pandemic.”

Bliss and Viglione are in a similar position, music fans and musicians who’ve spent decades working for the love of live rock and the bands they promote – and now approach the same dwindling goal from opposite sides of the Cantab’s faux stone walls.

Viglione said Saturday that he was upset that Bliss chose the Cantab, which was “taking Club Bohemia away,” over a 44-year friendship. “We never had an argument, and that friendship is over. I don’t know what happened,” Viglione said. “He stabbed me in the back.”

Bliss wishes Viglione had let the Cantab have its control. “I just want to do whatever I can to make myself useful at the Cantab so when my bands don’t draw, they might overlook it for a week or two until I can get a band that comes in and does,” Bliss said. “At this point in my life, I was really just wanting to retire. I could stay home and watch TV with my wife and play my guitar and study philosophy. But I wanted to help get the Cantab going and make sure that the bands still have a place to play.”