Memories of the Old 9:30 Club, Lost to Time? Maybe Not.
For those that called the original 9:30 Club a home away from home in the '80s and early '90s, the sight of a cameraman perched in a crow's nest on a pillar shooting the stage was a familiar one. Between and before bands, the club played raw music videos (quite a novelty in that day) or, sometimes, clips of recent live performances from the club. The audience could feel the energy in the room pick up when the camera person took her or his place—it was like a curtain going up.
When the set began, the crowd could watch the show on video monitors away from the stage or in the back bar. The camera setup was important, see, because the original, L-shaped 9:30 Club—as much we loved it and that smell—was never known for its generous sight lines.
I couldn't have been the only one, who, while straining for a view of Agent Orange, Bad Brains, or Scream at the old 9:30 Club on F Street NW thought to myself, "Well, at least they're filming this... [bonk] Someday, we'll be able to go... [bash] rent this show [clonk] on tape and you know, see what we couldn't see with combat boots flying towards our faces." I assumed the 9:30 Club was amassing a video catalog of live performances, capturing the DayGlo decade's key underground acts in industrial, goth, punk, reggae, jangle rock, or whatever genre Scruffy the Cat was in—hundreds of acts in their hard touring primes on F Street NW.
YouTube arrived in 2005, yet despite eight years, millions of uploads, and my own hard wishing, not that many treasures from the old 9:30 Club have appeared online. For sure, there are videos (seemingly shot from the video guy's vantage point) of D.C. punk legends and local heroes like Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, Soulside, Velocity Girl, Shudder to Think, Bad Brains, Government Issue...and that's beautiful. But shouldn't they be the tip of a larger iceberg? Where are those videos I saw on the monitor screens? Do they exist?
There are glimmers of hope. About 10 years ago, Eric Cheevers, a filmmaker currently based in Los Angeles, discovered a stash of roughly 100 U-Matic tapes on the sidewalk outside the Barrel House liquor store and grabbed a few of the labeled ones. The tapes he brought home were RockAmerica compilations of early music videos by The Plastics, Los Microwaves, and others. They were the same tapes that the club played between bands back in the day.
A month later, Cheevers, having done some digging, concluded that the tapes belonged to a recently evicted Mitch Parker—the punk musician who helped shoot Minor Threat's 1983 concert at the club, which you'll find on the Buff Hall DVD. Could the tapes he left behind have contained footage of those old 9:30 Club performances? (I tried to reach Parker through his former bandmate John Stabb, and I was unsuccessful.) Cheevers went back to see what was there, but the tapes were gone by then—"probably winding up in a landfill somewhere," he says. His experience trickled through friends and time and eventually reached me all the way in Chicago, via Ian Svenonius. I couldn't stop wondering what might have become of a potentially huge collection of videos.
To get to the bottom of the F Street tapes mystery, I got in touch with ex-9:30 Club employee Lisa White, who booked the club (and several bands I played with in the '90s) at both locations.
White lowered the boom on me and my dreams.
Firstly, White writes via email, most of the tapes the club owned were those RockAmerica compilations or single videos issued by record labels. They were in lousy shape from years of smoke and moisture exposure in the DJ booth and from storage in a basement office prone to flooding. As for the live performance videos, White says very few were made. Just because a camera was feeding the monitors didn't mean that a tape was rolling. Most of the time, it wasn't, she says.
"It was just a live video feed from the camera person up on the pillar that was shown on the TVs to help compensate for the terrible sight lines in the club," she writes. "The video was patched into the 3/4-inch video deck, but usually there wasn't a tape in it." If the band wanted a video, they'd have to cough up $50 for the cost of the 3/4-inch tape, and the audio was from the video camera's microphone, not directly from the board. "It wasn't something the club promoted or went out of the way to offer, but if an act inquired about getting a video we could accommodate them if we had a blank 3/4-inch tape on hand...which we didn't always, they were expensive."
"The price always seemed so exorbitant that we never took them up for it, except for maybe once," writes Unrest's Mark Robinson via email, linking to a "Cath Carroll" clip from Sept. 1993. Ex-Fugazi drummer and current Deathfix member Brendan Canty, meanwhile, guesses his old band Rites of Spring plunked down the dough for tapes in the '80s.
But Canty also gives me a big tip. There was an ex-9:30 Club videographer, Teri Stubs, he says, who started working at the venue in 1986. She could have some key intel on the tapes.
I contacted Stubs. She says she remembers 9:30 Club's first videographer only as Valerie, who spearheaded the idea herself. Valerie had worked on videos at a club called the Wax Museum, and she pitched the video initiative to 9:30 Club owner Dody DiSanto as a way to mitigate the venue's sightline issues. When Valerie departed for California, Stubs and Melissa Koval took over the job. Stubs says four videographers rotated through typically, vying for prime gigs, sometimes landing on just the right night.
"Sometimes it was my third job of the day and it was a crappy band, and sometimes it was my third job of the day and I am the luckiest person in the world," Stubs says. On one such night, she filmed Jeff Buckley. "I just shot an angel," she thought at the time. "I didn't know him, I didn't know his music...but this voice, [I thought] that's unbelievable. Oh my god, I'm so lucky." Unfortunately, neither that Buckley show nor a Nirvana set were recorded to tape. But she often did make free dubs on her portable video recorder for bands—usually local ones—and she held onto the bulky 3/4-inch tape herself.
Stubs doubts it, but she may have the largest surviving archive of live video from the club. "There are bands that purchased [tapes]," she says—like The Sugarcubes. "I shot around 1,000 bands, but the number recorded was far less," she says. "I may have around 100 3/4 inch tapes, but I don't know what's on them. They're so old and I may have far less. Tape has a lifespan. We're talking the '80s, which is a long time ago."
Canty has been in touch with Stubs about digitizing the collection—she recently lent the filmmaker the original tape of his great, late '80s band Happy Go Licky live at the 9:30—but he has no concrete plans for the videos right now. (Neither does Stubs. "I wouldn't use any of the footage without asking the band's permission," she says.) "She's got some great ones. I'll just have to start digitizing and see where it takes us," he writes in a message.
"In hindsight, of course, it's a damn shame that all the performances on F Street weren't recorded," writes White. "In fact very few photographs exist, either. It was a different time when cameras weren't ubiquitous and the audio/video technology was expensive and not that great to begin with."
Stubs' collection and Canty's involvement gives me hope. I'd like to think that somewhere out there there's a club employee or a superfan with a mega-stash of prime U-matics secretly dubbed in the club, too. But the '80s flashed by like a brush fire, and our reflexive need to document everything hadn't yet been supported by technology. We were OK with blurry Polaroids and a shoebox of flyers to augment our memories. In those days, most of the past remained in the past. Now, little of it does.
Do you have recordings from shows at the old 9:30 Club? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at @johnedugan.