Free for All Watch, Week 2: Feeling Groovy

I get results!

Just one week after launching my Free for All Watch, dissecting the many gripes of the Washington Post‘s Grumpy Old Man page, the public has spoken. Or typed.

This week, Oct. 18, there were three — count them, three! — positive letters for the paper, an unheard of level of generosity in the two weeks I’ve been officially taking note. One letter saluting Michel Du Cille for his photograph, another lauding a front page map, and a third thanking writer Martin Weill for his light-hearted zoo story.

Now that’s three out of 13 letters, but this could be a trend. Or, to phrase it in current headline-writing fashion: Could this be a trend? (See also Twitter’s SavedYouAClick for a welcome antidote for such link-bait question-mark headlines.)

scott butterworth retweet

And speaking of Twitter, Post editorial page editor Scott Butterworth re-tweeted my inaugural Free for All Watch column, which I am taking as proof positive that my brave work is finally being heeded. While the editors did not choose to run any letter similar to the one I predicted would appear (and really, how could they?), I remain convinced that I am the power behind this week’s outpouring of love and good will for D.C.’s paper of record.

You’re welcome.

Washington Post Free For All Watch

My Saturday morning breakfast ritual is to turn to the Free for All page in the back of the A section of the Washington Post and fill up on righteous indignation along with my English muffins. Free for All is an entire newspaper page devoted to letters to the editor, almost all of them ranting about the many failures of the daily paper. I call it the Grumpy Old Man page, though women are equally represented among the aggrieved.

As a grumpy old man, my name has appeared on the Free For All page with sad regularity. I rose to defend the honor of Alfred E Neuman, nit-picked sloppy illustration for a design story in the Local Living section, and complained about bicycle regulations, among other vitally important issues. That level of pedantry is not out of place on Free for All. Basically, the editors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on any and every topic.

Thus, I am something of an expert at spotting what will get a rise out of Post readers. One of the most common types of Free for All letter is the complaint about what does or doesn’t appear on A1. In this inaugural post for the series, I will predict next week’s Free for All. You will surely be reading something along the lines of this:

Dear Editor,

What possessed you to waste precious space on the front page of the newspaper with what is for all intents and purposes an advertisement for a Hollywood movie? ["For real-life Alexander, the days are pretty good," A1, Oct. 11.] Even to the point of using not one but two stills from the film as illustration!

How very nice for Alexander Viorst that his mother wrote a book about him (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), and that it has now been turned into a big-budget Steve Carell movie. But such stories, if they must appear at all, should be relegated to the Style section and not the front page of what used to be a great national newspaper.

Grumpy Old Man, Silver Spring

P.S.: You also misspelled the name of the movie’s co-star. It is Jennifer Garner, not Gardner. She is the wife of Ben Affleck, Mrs. Batman, for heaven’s sake!

Give the Drummer Some

Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer
By Mike Lankford
Chronicle, 264 pp., $22.95

This is an unexpected pleasure—a book about musicians that concentrates on what it means to play music and not on the tragic consequences of twisted genius or the cruel wages of fame. There is nothing about the recording industry, no tales of hotel rooms petulantly trashed in Mike Lankford‘s Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer. Lankford was carefully watching the crowds who were watching him and has written as authentic a report from the bandstand as I’ve come across. Who would suspect such insights from a guy who smacked things with sticks for a living?

Though the book does indeed go into depth on the subject of drums and drumming (and is therefore a must for any percussionist), Lankford makes his personal obsession charmingly accessible. If you’ve never considered playing an instrument, his wry and perceptive storytelling will at least let you understand “the tribal joy of breathing with others and seeing the results magnified.”

life in double time mike lankford

Born in 1951, Lankford belongs to a generation of musicians for whom craft was as important a guiding principle as art—often more so. As improbable as it sounds, the highest compliment you could pay to a high-school band in the ’60s was that it sounded “just like the record.” A pimply 16-year-old kid could count on plenty of girl reaction if his onstage Mick Jagger impression was deemed “authentic.” Many a white suburban Otis Redding found out what r-e-s-p-e-c-t meant, too. Believe it or not.

In this post-punk world, one can become a musician by the sheer act of proclaiming it so. The punk revolution so thoroughly tore down the wall between stage and audience that now it’s not how well you play, it’s that you play that counts. If you are in the know, you are in the band. Fiddle with an instrument until it produces enough sound for your purposes, and count on getting booked into a club to perform. Craft is not the issue it once was.

Which makes Lankford’s book almost an archaeological report—from the distance of 30 years. None of the many bands that Lankford played with wrote an original song. That wasn’t their purpose. The point was to play a variety of music together and to play with precision. By that standard was satisfaction judged. When a musician isn’t offering much that is obviously new, but is lost, as Lankford puts it, “so deep inside a tune, it became like four walls around me,” critics not unreasonably dismiss the result as “mere” musicianship, selfish expression.

But when the band is on, locked in the pocket, a willing audience will respond and join in the fervor. This was Lankford’s goal each night when he picked up his sticks: to connect with the beat and his bandmates until they found that “special something that puts a twirl in a girl’s skirt.”

Double Time is filled with charming observations, as Lankford describes his development from geeky gawker at the teen club—paying closer attention to the stage setup of bands like “Dewayne and the Belldettas” than to the girls—to accomplished journeyman. When the drum bug fully hit, “melody ceased to exist for me,” he writes. On his first exhibiting drummer tendencies—while listening to a song on the car radio—his mother was so startled she drove home and took his temperature. “That was the start of my becoming a suspicious person,” he notes.

Lankford nicely charts the dynamics within the high-school music community—a fragile hierarchy where a fortuitous solo at a jam session can solidify a reputation. For a week. Lankford and his fellow fledgling musicians also confront “the girlfriend factor”—the irony that guys start bands to meet girls, but that, once met, girls have a tendency to “complicate things” to the point where bands fall apart. Some may wish to dismiss the Yoko Paradigm as sexist twaddle, but all my experience confirms Lankford’s. Then again, as he admits, “nothing is as unstable as a band.”

The meat of the book begins in the early ’70s, when fresh-faced 20-year-old Lankford answers a blind phone call and finds himself sitting in with the group Salt & Pepper. He becomes the “salt” in a trio that includes two middle-aged black veterans from Chicago, Vince and Dennis. (Why they didn’t just change the band name instead of always insisting on hiring white drummers is not explained.) Dennis operates a Hammond B-3—that singular-sounding furniture-size keyboard that underscores so much of rock, R&B, and jazz—playing bass parts with attached pedals. Vince is an apparently inspired guitarist.

After the first week, the trio packs the van and drives immediately to the next gig, 1,200 miles away, nonstop. Lankford spends the next three years on the road with Salt & Pepper, playing six nights a week, every week of the year. There are no vacations.

Vince and Dennis had played together 30 years by the time Lankford joined and seemingly knew every tune ever written. To their young protégé, life on the road was an exciting adventure. The elder duo had a handyman’s approach to music: It’s a skill with which to earn money. So they spread their talent as broadly as possible. In some clubs, Salt & Pepper was a soul band, in others a rock band, in others a country band, and in certain swanky hotels, a mellow jazz group.

Lankford, on the other hand, was carried away by the “idea” of the road: “Without an idea you just got a van and equipment and a couple of weird guys in front and a job you’re driving to. This was different. After a gig we wouldn’t go home but drive to some place else, and then some place else. An endless string of some place elses.” The most important thing about going on the road, he writes, “is that you go and stay on the road. It has to be open ended or you’re missing the flavor.”

One of those flavors was heroin. Lankford tried it, once.

The not-unexpected reason why Vince never completely traded on his talent was his fondness for drugs. That was also why Dennis kept the band booked 365 days: idle veins, etc.

Lankford is curiously blasé about his decision to sample. He professes to hate needles, but he didn’t just say no when offered the chance. Equating the drug’s effect with “slipping into angel skin,” Lankford makes a strong case for the complexity of the drug issue. That night the band’s performance was particularly inspired—Lankford claims to have experienced an epiphany about keeping time. Addiction is not just a moral weakness, he contends, noting that “the danger with heroin lies in waking up that one taste bud you didn’t know you had.” Lankford was aware enough to recognize a lesson and move on.

Claiming immunity to stage fright, Lankford relates clear-eyed accounts of performing in places that should have scared him. He witnessed murders, nearly got stabbed, and was branded with a white-hot coat hanger. Lankford’s account of van-club-hotel, van-club-hotel—with gas-station rest stops and diners in between—is exhaustingly exhilarating.

Ultimately, the grind took its toll, and Lankford said goodbye to Vince, Dennis, and the road. When he left Salt & Pepper, Lankford abandoned music completely, to the point where he claims to have virtually stopped listening to it or seeking it out in clubs.

While Lankford’s notes from the stage are engagingly specific, the “confessions” part of the book’s title is a bit misleading. We have no idea what he did in the 15 years he wasn’t playing music, nor what he does now. Press materials mention that he’s a graduate of the Iowa State writer’s program, which shows.

As Mick and Keith have demonstrated, giving up rock and roll is difficult. Eventually, Lankford’s now-middle-aged friends talked him into joining a weekend group. Slowly, reluctantly, he found his way back into music.

At first he scorned his contemporaries for “pretending” to make music. But finally, timekeeper Lankford came to a deeper understanding of the nature of time—that life is to be savored moment to moment, not with an eye to the set list. Playing music is a great way to spend time. And there’s only one reason to play: for the hell of it.

So the next time you’re at some wedding, don’t laugh too hard at the band. They may be having more fun than you.

Rock & Roll Will Never Die — If The Fabulous Hubcaps Have Anything To Say About It.

hubcaps washington post

My piece on the Fabulous Hubcaps takes over most of the front page of the Washington Post Style section today. The assignment called for 1,200 words. I wound up with nearly 13,000 transcribed words. So I think I undersold the piece. Coulda been a magazine feature, ’cause there was sooo much fascinating, fun, and relevant info that did not make the cut. I will say that I’m glad to be able to use the serial comma again. Also, when will publications stop putting a K in the abbreviation of microphone? It’s mic, not mike. Mike is a person.

But these are personal peeves and not aimed at any of the fine staffers and friends at the Post. Go, newspapers!

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Above is a photo I took last week of one the last remaining Little Tavern buildings. Like most of the rest of the chain, it had been turned into something else, in this case a Chinese carryout, Golden House. (I have placed orders there on more than one occasion. Not bad.) My plan was to snap pictures of what few remaining LTs existed so that I could post them on the article I wrote about the fabled D.C. diners.

Below is a picture I took today. I have no explanation, other than the new X-Files movie just opened.

(Originally posted July 28, 2008.)

Deathball 2009: The Return of Little Tavern

I’d been meaning to go to Laurel to see if its Little Tavern Shop was still standing and snap a pic if it was. The Laurel location was the last operating restaurant in the once-proud chain, and one that I had never been to. (Shame on me, I know.) I’ve posted my previous LT articles here and here, and planned to add fresh images.

So imagine my surprise to find that not only is the building still standing, but you can get a burger. All praise Harry Duncan!

So many of the old locations have become takeout spots, been repainted, expanded, and otherwise mashed into the landscape. The Maryland Historical Trust put this shop on its registry (“an excellent example of mid-twentieth century roadside commercial architecture”), an honor not accorded similar outlets in D.C. While it was initially alarming to see the big “DONUTS” marquee, kudos to the signmaker for reworking the original Little Tavern typography into the new Laurel Tavern.

Inside, the place seems even more crowded than the old shops were. The stools and counter have been replaced by a glass case filled with donuts. And the grill has been replaced with donut-making machines, looking as vintage as the building and coated with sugar. I should have asked if the new owner acquired the equipment from the old Krispee Kreme on Rt. 1 in Alexandria. That would be fitting.

A small hand-written piece of paper taped to the side window proclaims “We have Burgers!!” I dared not dream it was true, and so first ordered a glazed, which looked fresh and was. If a Little Tavern has to be replaced, fresh donuts is not a bad option.

When I asked if they actually made the old-style hamburgers, owner Jin Kwon said, “Small ones. Yes. I just make these,” and opened a heating tray. She pulled out a three-pack, a trio of tiny burgers stuck together. Apparently, there’s a deal if you buy ‘em that way. Not quite the bygone bagful, but enough for breakfast today.

So…how do these 21st century models stack up to the Deathballs of yore? Well, they’re small (good), damp from the warming drawer (good), covered in greasy chopped onions (good). Asked if I wanted ketchup and mustard (of course!), Kwon applied same from separate yellow and red bottles. The single mutsup/catard concoction was a model of efficiency in the old days, but once it all mixed together the effect was the same.

The first bite was truly nostalgic nirvana. But — the beef is too spicy. Pepper, I think. Which is to say, there is spice where the old meat was just gray. Not unpleasant, but not what I was expecting.

Still, they warmed me up all the way back to Silver Spring. And, in that patented Little Tavern way, I can taste ‘em still.

Ironically, the Laurel shop is across the street from the Laurel Tastee Diner, which is the only Tastee location I haven’t been to. Guess I gotta start spending more time in Laurel…

Here’s a Gazette article about the Laurel LT’s return from about a year ago. And here’s an account from a diner blog.

Death for the Deathball?

The area’s last Little Tavern may not make it to the millennium.

little tavern

The sign reads “Lease or Build to Suit.” No big deal on a fast-changing corner in suburban Maryland. Unless, that is, you like your burgers greasy, cheesy, and little. That’s because this ominous notice of real estate transition hangs from the last Little Tavern near D.C., an outpost on busy Viers Mill Road in Wheaton. Has the eatery that has stood for decades along the suburb’s original commercial district slung its last greaseball?

Inside, Tony the cook dismisses the huge banner with a laconic “Just negotiating the lease, just scare tactics.” His full attention is turned to starting a run of the large-sized burgers. But if you turn your gaze past Tony and out the window, you’ll see that what until very recently was a half-block of low-rent office buildings is now rubble—bulldozed, the cook says, to extend a parking lot. The rubble heralds a future much friendlier to T.G.I. Friday’s than to the venerable local burger joint.

Up and down Viers Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the ‘burb that was once described as “a funky ethnic enclave” is in danger of defunkifying. Wheaton Plaza is planning an expansive “revitalization.” Not long ago, a bright new car dealership went up across from the aging Little Tavern, which still boasts a Ms. Pac-Man in one corner and a Street Fighter II machine by the door.

Defunkification is also a pretty good way to describe what’s happened to the rest of the region’s string of Little Taverns. What had once been a mighty chain of more than 50 locations had dwindled to fewer than five when former Tavern employee Al Wroy bought the business in 1992 (“Places That Are Gone,” 11/10/95). Although a new tavern opened in Ocean City this summer, and there are two shops remaining in Baltimore and one in Laurel, the Wheaton shop is the last option for most D.C. epicureans in search of distinctive dining.

Wroy won’t say much about the sign that obstructs half of his view. “That’s just standard,” he says. “They will put a sign up on your building to force you to come to the table on their terms. It’s just a standard thing that landlords do.”

But he won’t comment further about his last local franchise’s future. “When you’re in negotiations, you don’t say anything about it,” Wroy explains softly over the phone. “I don’t own the property, the landlady has sold the property, and the new owners…I feel they have other plans for the property, but I really can’t tell you what. They always try to make you feel like they have other tenants for the property.”

“I wish I could answer you more,” says the understanding Wroy. The landlord’s real estate agent did not return a phone call by press time.

Sitting at the Wheaton restaurant’s empty counter, manager Cynthia Johnson Brown isn’t talking about Little Tavern’s birth way back in 1928, or about how Arthur Godfrey used to pitch its burgers on the radio, or about the “Buy ‘Em by the Bag” slogan that was the chain’s claim to fame.

Maybe that’s because Brown is spending a weekend afternoon watching cars drive up and down the hill outside, toward Rockville or Silver Spring—or to the Shoney’s up the block. Shoney’s just went 24-hour, adding competition in what had been Little Tavern’s exclusive niche. “To make a long story short, we would like for more people to come visit us,” says Brown. “I’m trying to save a part of our history. I need all the customers I can get my hands on. And then some.”

With Godfrey’s ads long gone from the airwaves, Brown appears to be Little Tavern’s only weapon against an endless stream of competing burger advertisements. This afternoon, she’s giving Ronald McDonald and Dave Thomas a run for their PR money.

“It’s still a family place,” Brown announces. “I get a lot of couples, this is where they met. Right here in this Tavern. There’s this one man—I don’t know his name, but I know him by face. And he said he remembered when they built this. And he’s like 86, 87 years old. He comes in, gets two burgers, nothing but onions only. Last time I saw him was last year—I thought he might have expired. But he came in last week. And I was really glad to see him. I was really glad to see him. He said he was under the weather and all that. But he came in, ‘Got to have my two—onions!’ He said, ‘You still here?’ I said, ‘You still here?'”

“And then this one man who had had open-heart surgery…” Brown adds. “Believe it or not, this is where his wife had brought him, because he really had a taste for it. She said, ‘If that’s what it takes…’ and he came twice. And that made me feel good, so I made him a little something special. I threw in a few extra burgers. He don’t get out of the car, but he’s like this—thumbs up!—so everybody was happy.”

Brown agrees with me that Little Tavern hamburgers are the best in the world.

little tavern

“Yes they are. Yes, they are. You can’t beat ‘em. You cannot really beat ‘em. And one thing, over 30 years and still—fresh meat. Our meat is not frozen. You’re getting fresh meat. We’re giving you the best service we can. We hand-roll our patties, our balls. We’re still the old-fashioned way.”

The old-fashioned way is quickly becoming older-fashioned: Soon we will be referring to recent events as occurring “in the last century.” But perhaps history can save the Wheaton Little Tavern. Brown suggests that her shop has been submitted for landmark status. But a call to Gwen Wright, historic preservation coordinator for Montgomery County, proves this statement wrong.

“The Wheaton Little Tavern has never been evaluated for historic preservation status,” says Wright. Four Tavern structures in the county were looked at in the early ’90s. The Bethesda location, now a Chinese carryout, got the nod.

“My sense is—although I don’t really know this—my sense is that the County Council that designates, that makes the final decision, it was a little bit of a leap of faith for them to designate the Little Tavern, so they said, ‘We’ll do one,’ and it was the one in Bethesda,” says Wright, adding, “The one in Wheaton was never brought up.”

A glance at the Montgomery County Code suggests that the last Little Tavern might be a shoo-in if anyone were to nominate it. The code has nine criteria for determining a structure or area to be historic. Among them is whether the site “is identified with a person or a group of persons who influenced society.” Of course, Little Tavern is the country’s second-oldest restaurant chain, after White Castle. Founder Harry F. Duncan once claimed to have invented the cheeseburger. Consider the history of America without the cheeseburger.

Another criterion is whether the building “embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction.” The application for the Bethesda Little Tavern, built in 1939, makes much of the “symbolic nature of the design,” noting that “all of the Little Tavern Shops were built in a style reminiscent of an Old English tavern as a way of conveying a pleasant, familiar environment. However, in order to evoke the notions of speed and efficiency associated with fast, inexpensive meals, the design utilized the newer technology and materials of the ‘moderne’ era—neon lighting, tile, formica, metal alloys, and vitrolite.”

Do Starbucks use vitrolite?

And according to the regulations, a site may become historic if it “represents the work of a master” [pass] or “possesses high artistic values” [pass]. Also, if it “represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community, or county due to its singular physical characteristics or landscape.”

Well, Wheaton without Little Tavern would be like D.C. without baseball or congressional representation. Or, er, uh…

Anyone may nominate the Tavern for landmark status, says Wright. “That would mean filling out the appropriate forms and submitting them to the county. And certainly that could happen. I think I had a call last week from someone with historic preservation in Silver Spring, asking about the process regarding the Wheaton Little Tavern.”

“But just because it’s designated doesn’t mean that it will stay a Little Tavern,” Wright warns. “Historic designation does not control use—it just controls the facade. Historic designation cannot force a landlord to grant the existing current Little Tavern a lease. It could be designated historic and still become a Chinese restaurant.”

Coincidentally, the day after speaking with Brown, I run into Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan at one of those typical MoCo dedication ceremonies. I ambush him with questions about the Little Tavern, pointing out that Silver Spring’s Tastee Diner was saved from the wrecking ball. There is a proud county history of supporting good bad food.

Duncan—no relation to the chain’s founder—chuckles and says he’ll look into it.

Back in Wheaton, Brown smiles and shakes her head. “For all the old customers, or the ones who don’t believe we still exist, we’re here, we’re here—11143 Viers Mill Road. Please come and visit. Please come and visit.” CP

(See also: Places That Are Gone: Remembering Little Tavern Restaurants, D.C.’s Greasiest Greasy Spoons

Reprinted from Washington City Paper

Places That Are Gone

Remembering Little Tavern Restaurants, D.C.’s Greasiest Greasy Spoons

little tavern

Club LT. The LT Lounge. Deathballs.

In 1928, Little Taverns began springing up on the Washington landscape like pimples at a Lisa Loeb concert. With their steep-pitched, green-tiled roofs, the restaurants resembled miniature Swiss chalets—or very large cuckoo clocks. Inside, a greasy grill and maybe a dozen stools invited customers to partake of a menu that was Henry Ford basic: any food you want as long as it’s a hamburger. By the mid-’40s, there were 50 Little Taverns, and Arthur Godfrey pitched their charms on the radio.

Today, D.C. diners in search of a high-fat diet have exactly one choice: The last tavern sits on a sloping lot in the “Wheaton Triangle,” down the street from Chuck Levin’s music store, across from Wheaton Plaza. (For the serious commuting gourmet, two LTs remain in Baltimore, and one in Laurel.)

Little Tavern was founded by Harry F. Duncan, who spent more than 60 of his 93 years in the Washington metro area. Duncan claimed that his was the nation’s second-oldest chain, after White Castle. (He also claimed to have invented the cheeseburger, in Louisville, Ky., during the ’20s. He died in 1992, so we can’t grill him for specifics.)

little tavern

The burger baron had a gift for clever marketing. His slogan, “Buy ‘em by the bag,” was not a desperate threat, it was an exclamation of value. At a mere nickel a burger, a bagful of 20 Little Tavern patties could be had for a buck. Two bits got you a meal of three sandwiches and a cup o’ Joe. (And McDonald’s used to hype “change back from your dollar”!) My family’s picnics sometimes began with a stop at Club LT for a couple bags to go. This was, I hasten to point out, considered a treat and not child abuse.

And what burgers they are! The “famous” Little Tavern hamburger is about one-fourth the size of the average modern patty, barely larger than the paper-thin slice of pickle sitting on it. The grayish-looking meat is hand-packed, with chopped onions smushed in, and rolled into a ball to be set on the griddle. Flame, grease that cooked 1,000 other burgers, and a square little bun transform it into the affectionately christened “deathball.”

But the real secret of the LT burger is storage. No heat lamps for the Little Tavern: Burgers are kept under a damp towel in deep drawers beneath the grill. Opening this meat humidifier releases an aromatic cloud of steam. Your order, warm and slightly moist, comes served on a tidy square of wax paper.

Condiment options are three: catsup, mustard, or a concoction of both—the latter generously squirted out of its own dispenser in a murky, bilious orange blend. Is it mutsup? Castard? Whatever—it’s the only way to eat a deathball.

Open 24 hours a day, LT used to be a night light for night owls. While the shops drew their share of ne’er-do-wells, deathballs probably saved as many lives as they ended. For hearty-partiers wobbling back to bed, a quick stop at LT was an effectively sobering experience.

But the good things in life never last. By the ’70s, stagflation had rendered the bag o’ beef concept impractical, and “large”—i.e., regular-size burgers—had been added. When the century and he had reached their early 80s, Duncan decided to concentrate on other businesses in retirement-friendly Florida. In 1981, he sold the 30-unit LT chain to GEW Inc., headed by lawyer Gerald Wedren. The barrister had big plans. A “dress code” was established. Over the institutional white shirt—so effective at showcasing grease stains and sweat—slipped a green, logo-imprinted, hardware-clerk-style apron. The staff also wore matching paper army-style garrison caps.

Other “improvements” included broadening the menu to include fries (never a culinary success) and a steak ‘n’ cheese sub, and adding lettuce and tomato to the topping options. The “buy ‘em by the bag” motto was resuscitated, but now the Tavern bag held only three burgers, and several dollars had to change hands.

Most misguidedly, the new management tried to get swanky. In 1987, they appropriated the “Club LT” nickname for a faux diner at The Shops at National Place. A more un-LT-like place would be hard to imagine. This sop to respectability predictably lured the Washington Post’s Phyllis Richman, who, in a March 1988 Weekend review, bemoaned the new diner’s burgers: “They miss the old LT’s minced onions and pickle slices which add a flavor punch.” “Sucker punch” would have been more precise.

little tavern

Wedren threw in the spatula four months later. Atlantic Restaurant Ventures Inc. (ARV), a Clinton, Md.-based firm that also held the local Fuddruckers franchise, acquired the chain, which had shrunk to only 22 units. Profits fell, and in 1990, ARV sold the now-20-unit chain to ARV co-founder and former President Roger Kisiel for $1.6 million.

That wasn’t the end of the deal. In November 1991, ARV sued GEW for fraud, charging that Little Tavern’s worth had been misrepresented. In filing the lawsuit, it came to light that Wedren had a silent partner: Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). A teeny tempest swirled around the upscale, consumer-crusader Metzenbaum’s involvement in such a downscale endeavor, but the grease failed to stick. The case never went to court.

The Kisiel era continued, and so did the downward trend. By 1992, landlords were foreclosing on Little Taverns all over town. Before the wrecking balls arrived, Al Wroy, who had joined the Tavern team under Wedren, stepped in and renegotiated with landlords and vendors. In December of that year, Wroy took responsibility for the chain.

Wroy oversees his four-Tavern empire from his Bel Air, Md., bedroom. “You don’t need a fancy office when you have to paint stores, buy new ice machines,” he notes. “Every penny goes back into the business.”

Wroy is currently negotiating for a fifth store, and his business plan calls for 15 new taverns to open over the next 10 years. None in the District, however. “The District is too hard to run a business in. Too many laws, too many fees, too difficult for a small business to make a profit,” he says, adding, “Nothing against the public there, of course.”

Perhaps Wroy can restore Club LT to its former “glory.” Perhaps not. When even McDonald’s is offering carrot sticks, and a Twinkie can claim to be “low-fat,” the greasy spoon seems doomed.

The (near) death of the deathball also speaks to the bottom-line business chic of the late 20th century. Little Tavern began with a visionary entrepreneur—“Plop some cheese on that sucker!”—who built a successful enterprise with sweat equity. Duncan shepherded his modest shops for more than half a century, but once he was gone, it was less than a decade before his legacy was, too. (A sad commentary: Placing a call to the Silver Spring Boys Club that Duncan founded—a building that still carries his name in 10-inch-tall letters—yielded the response, “Never heard of him.”) Duncan’s chain had become a mere “investment opportunity.”

After taking control of LT in ’88, Fuddruckee Kisiel was quoted in the Post thusly: “We can impart to the Little Taverns a knowledge of the hamburger business that hasn’t been imparted heretofore.”

As these pictures warn, knowledge is not to be confused with smarts. And a hamburger is sometimes more than just a hamburger.

(NOTE: This article originally appeared as a photo essay with wonderful photos by Darrow Montgomery that I don’t have. I snapped the pix for this post. Check this site for historical images of the wonder that was.)

little tavern

(See also: Death to the Deathball

Reprinted from Washington City Paper

The Song Remains Inane

Novelty music is still silly, stoopid, and weird—which is exactly why the Top 40 could use more of it.

THE SMALL THINGS DISAPPEAR FIRST, and in their absence the future is revealed. You’re downloading yesterday’s My Name Is Earl onto your U2-branded iPod, say, when suddenly your digital reverie is interrupted by a realization: Something’s missing.

Where in this always-on, P2P, wirelessly instant-messaged existence is that great Harry Potter parody song? Or even a lousy one? Where, come to think of it, are the musical mockeries of Mariah, Fiddy, and Jeezy? Did we all forget to add “novelty tunes” to the RSS feed? That Chronic—WHUT?!—cles of Narnia video might do, if it had as much fun with Aslan as it does with the idea of white guys rapping. And you can’t exactly hear it on the radio.

The Eagles warned us of the dangers of “everything, all the time,” only to be castigated by Mojo Nixon in “Don Henley Must Die.” But the Eagles are back together, smugly raking in millions on the oldies circuit. And Nixon? Well, even Deborah Gibson wouldn’t bear the guy’s two-headed love child these days. Pop culture keeps coming at us at 52x speed, with only “Weird Al” Yankovic still tilting at its windmills. And if ever a culture deserved to feel the polyphonic sting of a fine-tuned accordion—or to share a gentle laugh with anthropomorphic chipmunks—it is America 2005 Inc.

Yet what should be a golden age of novelty songs is lackluster indeed. There was a golden age, roughly the ’50s and ’60s, and it’s chronicled in a book wisely titled The Golden Age of Novelty Songs. While charting the history of wacky records, author Steve Otfinoski posits that “In the last sixty years there have been only four masters of the form: Spike Jones in the ’40s, Stan Freberg in the ’50s, Allan Sherman in the ’60s, and Weird Al Yankovic in the ’80s.” The author notably dismisses the ’70s, snidely saying that the decade “was its own parody.” Tell that to Ray Stevens (“The Streak,” 1974), C.W. McCall (“Convoy,” 1975), and Steve Martin (“King Tut,” 1978).

Still, he has a point. Otfinoski’s claim that novelty’s heyday has passed is undeniable, regardless of when the genre first faltered. The fact that nobody approached for this article could agree on either when or what the last big novelty hit was is telling. And that was going by a pretty loose definition of “novelty hit”: an intentionally humorous and/or strange song that sells a boatload because it captures or critiques a moment in popular culture—or because, bizarrely, it becomes its own moment in popular culture. “Pac-Man Fever” (1982, No. 9 on the Billboard chart) is a good example; so is “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” (1966, No. 3). Jimmy Buffett’s parodying himself in a duet with Alan Jackson (on 2003’s country No. 1 “Five O’Clock Somewhere”) isn’t novelty; it’s clever cross-promotion.

Some cite Afroman’s “Because I Got High,” which reached No. 13 in 2000, as an example of a recent novelty hit, and it might be: Its tongue was at least somewhat in cheek, and its mind was in another dimension. But other candidates come up short. As Patrick Milligan , an executive with novelty purveyor Rhino Records, told Grammy magazine last year, “I don’t think…‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ was meant to be a novelty song, but it kind of became one because people thought it was funny or kooky.”

Next week, Rhino is releasing something called TBS Tunes: Fun Tracks Wisecracks, a compilation from television’s “very funny” network. Included are such not-quite-novelty hits as Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” and Devo’s “Whip It.” Humorous, yes. Weird, sure. But earnest, too, and momentarily pop-cultural mostly by virtue of their videos. In other words: Where have all the purple people eaters gone?

The godfather of novelty tunes is unquestionably Dr. Demento, whose syndicated radio program of “mad music and crazy comedy” has aired for more than 30 years. Having written the introduction to Golden Age, the Lakewood, Calif., resident also known as Barry Hansen concurs with Otfinoski, suggesting that the novelty record’s disappearance may have started “back in the late ’60s, when rock started to get more serious and the emphasis came to be on albums instead of singles.”

Demento notes that morning radio shows now make up topical parody songs, but “there is generally little attempt to try to sell those things commercially. Somebody might make up a new song about Sylvester Stallone making another Rocky movie, to pick something out of the news, and maybe it will get played on Howard Stern and Bob & Tom a few times, but then it will be forgotten. Maybe deservedly. But in other times, that would have been a record that might have had a chance to sell some copies.”

“Most stations,” he adds, “seemed to come to the conclusion sometime around, oh, the mid-’80s, that novelty songs—even the real good ones—should only be played in the morning.” A representative of Billboard, who wished to remain anonymous, explains the ramifications: “In the ’80s, stations would have to tell us what their most played records were. There was no automatic tracking like there is now. So if a song was played as a one-off on a morning show even two or three times, the program director…wouldn’t count that their station was playing it.” According to another anonymous ratings-industry type, “If DJs take it upon themselves to do ‘Mr. Jaws Part 4,’ we’re not gonna know what that is unless they’ve sent that to us. Most of the time, those things are unique to the particular radio station.”

Since 1991, all commercially released songs have been “tagged” electronically by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems. Its parent company, the Netherlands-based VNU, also owns Billboard. But better playlist tracking hasn’t helped novelty songs boost their numbers. Says the Billboard source: “Even if they were registered, counted up against songs that were being played five to 10 times a day, they wouldn’t amount to much anyway.”

Of course, people continue to make novelty music. Arlington a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook even managed to score what today might constitute a novelty “hit” with its rude 2002 anthem “Enormous Penis.” The song was picked up by the Bob & Tom Show, which broadcasts out of Indianapolis and is syndicated in the South and Midwest. Demento also took note. And then…that was it, though the group could count on even this small notoriety to get bookings.

“In its own way,” says “Penis” author Paul Sabourin, “it sustained the last two years of Da Vinci’s existence.” Sabourin and fellow Notebooker Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo now perform as the “satirical/comedy acoustic duo” Paul and Storm. They have continued their novelty success with Demento Funny Five hits such as “Epithets” and “Opening Band.”

But the world Paul and Storm find themselves touring offers fewer opportunities than Allan Sherman had in the ’60s, when the portly parodist could sing “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” on a different television show each week for a month. Even in the ’80s, “Weird Al” had the national platform of MTV, which approximated “music television” most of the time.

Demento notes that when “The Chipmunk Song” was released, in 1958, “Bam! Seven million copies out the door. That got played everywhere on the radio, and the whole nation experienced that at once, for better or for worse.” By the late ’70s, he notes, “‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ took, oh, a decade. It took at least 10 years to make the impact that it did.” Today, “there’s so many more channels of input for people,” says Sabourin. “It’s tougher for anything to get traction. I mean, a successful television show isn’t what it used to be 20 years ago. Because instead of three networks, PBS, and some fuzzy UHF channels, we have 100 to 500 channels….And now radio has become so corporatized that it’s no longer about what would be cool or interesting, it’s all about the bottom line.

“And the novelty song,” he adds, “is not much about the bottom line. There’s certainly a very strong core of fan base for novelty songs, but it is very highly specialized. Or as Spin¬al Tap would say, its appeal has become more selective.”

Just how selective is exemplified by Meatus Murder, a one-man band from New York that recently released its first album, More Songs About Balling and Food. The band name references the Smiths, the album title Talking Heads. The cover art parodies Belle and Sebastian. The songs take on B&S as well as such music-nerd touchstones as Wire and Orange Juice. It was probably inevitable that Balling and Food found its way onto one of Pitchfork’s hipster-authored best-of-2005 lists, but that’s not exactly the Hot 100—or even the Hot 1,000.

It’s also probably inevitable that an indie geek would feel compelled to make fun of music only he and his friends care about—after all, that’s what fanboys do. The act reinforces one’s status as an insider, even among other insiders. Demento’s own show charts this impulse. Originally, in addition to legitimate novelty hits, its play list included old 78s and obscurities from Demento’s huge collection. After a college kid named Yankovic sent in a homemade tape in 1976, got it played, and repeated this process until he had a record contract, the show became increasingly fanboy-generated. Now, laptop jockeys such as Whimsical Will and the Great Luke Ski chop up their iTunes and TiVo downloads in their bedrooms and remix them into wacky raps along the lines of “Hey Phantom Menace!” and “Stealing Like a Hobbit.” Today, says Demento, his younger listeners “seem to love these generally hiphoppy parodies based on movies and TV shows.”

Of all the would-be “Weird Al”s, probably the most successful in terms of Demento airplay is Luke Sienkowski, aka the Great Luke Ski, who’s made it on the show 101 times since 2002. Sienkowski has also created an audio manifesto, the 15-minute MP3 “History of Dementia.” Sampling pretty much every significant novelty number since Spike Jones’ “Der Führer’s Face,” the piece ends with a cavalcade of dozens of novelty hits that might have been: “Bulbous Bouffant,” “Carrot Juice Is Murder,” “The Devil Went to Jamaica,” “Nobody Loves the Company Band,” “Viagra in the Water,” and, of course, “Enormous Penis.”

The professorial narrator intones, “With nowhere left to be heard, the comedians retreated, never to be heard among the mass populace again.” Then he reverses course and calls for an uprising: “Are you ready for the Dementia Revolution?”

Hmmm, lemme check with Clear Channel.

Yes, it’s easy to blame Clear Channel, to say that the conglomerate that claims title to our airwaves is in some part merely giving an uncurious public what it keeps on buying. But take a look at television, where the parodic Daily Show goes as deep inside as any inside-the-Beltway shoutfest. During the most recent presidential election, it drew more 18-to-34-year-old viewers than its non-fake-news counterparts.

In a culture that so willingly embraces pop-cultural comedy, why no love for Steve Goodie’s “Walk on the Wonka Side”? Again, look at television: Before he was booted off of American Idol, off-key warbler William Hung enjoyed almost 10 times as many viewers as Jon Stewart. And common to our attraction to both—and, indeed, to most of today’s nonfictional TV—is a love for irony-draped sneering. The “Curly Shuffle” was silly. Hung singing “Rocket Man” was just sad. But it’s the latter who got his sudden-death-overtime 15 minutes of fame on Fox while the Great Luke Ski has had to content himself with posting rants on his personal Web site.

The loss of the novelty song that everyone can simply, unironically love is but one more example of the vanishing common ground in our common culture. Even if much of that commonality was in fact illusory, it was still a worthy goal—e pluribus unum and all that. Today, separated into our various niches and special-interest groups, everybody’s laughing at; few are laughing with. An intentionally stupid novelty ditty could be a real uniter, even if we all agree to hate it passionately.

Of course, a united culture is something that would please the execs over at Clear Channel, too. And the soulless suits who run the declining music industry—not to mention the diversity-hating neocons The Daily Show sends up. But good comedy—the kind that’s about more than just laughing at—does a society the service of keeping it honest, of deflating its self-importance and revealing its hypocrisy. When it comes to e pluribus unum, comedy might even be essential. Nineteenth-century British novelist George Meredith called it “the ultimate civiliser,” a force for “correcting…the vestiges of rawness and grossness yet to be found among us.” If we can’t laugh at ourselves, he might suggest today, the terrorists, neocons, and fanboys have won.

But our fragmented, irony-infused culture is skeptical of any force that goes about correcting things on a large scale—no matter how gross the correctee. “If I can meta-analyze on why there hasn’t been a great novelty song on Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter,” DiCostanzo says, “it doesn’t feel like people would accept it. ‘Weird Al’ did a great parody when [the first sequel to] Star Wars came out, and it’s almost like, well, you know, people aren’t really celebrating these things. They’re acknowledging that they’re big. But [they don't] reach everybody the same way.”

So we’re left with…bigness. If we don’t like it, we can always retreat to the smallnesses of our pigeonholes, unreachable even to “Weird Al.” “Really,” DiCostanzo says, “the only experience that Americans share anymore is Sept. 11—and we’re not ready to write a novelty song about that.”

From the January 6, 2006, issue of Washington City Paper< .em>

Rock in a Hard Place

Rock ‘n’ roll on the friends-and-family plan

ONE SATURDAY AT AROUND 7 P.M., Colin Hoss is at his bar, the Grog and Tankard. The joint is open for business, but the club is nearly empty as the 36-year-old Hoss steps into a tiny sound booth for a quick double-check of the equipment. In a couple of hours, a band you never heard of will be jumping and sweating and shouting on the wooden stage sticking halfway into the middle of the rectangular room. It wouldn’t do for the eardrum-shattering sound to cut out while the kids are standing around not dancing.

Whoever walks in the Grog’s door later that night will not have read about the show in the Washington Post. Or the Washington City Paper. In the next day’s paper, there’ll be no reviews of the show, no mention of the deer head on the wall, the big cloth butterfly floating over the pool tables, the sweating rock fans crowded into a narrow, smoky room. Word of the performance will have leaked out only through the primitive channels that seem appropriate for the Grog’s throwback look: People will have heard about it from their friends, who will maybe have friends in the band, which will have sent out an e-mail. Maybe the audience will be mostly family.

They’re certainly not the usual “North Georgetown” yuppies who ply the strip of Wisconsin Avenue on which the Grog has squatted for 40 years–the folks who chew upscale pizza at Faccia Luna Trattoria or down margaritas at the Austin Grill next door. And they’re probably not regular patrons of the adjacent strip club, JP’s.

No, the scene at the Grog is its own little bluejeaned world in the middle of pressed-khaki Glover Park, a world that changes ever so slightly from one night to the next, depending on which band has coaxed enough of its mailing list to the show.

The club’s Web site makes much of the fact that there is no built-in audience. Every band must bring its own crowd. Phishy jamheads one Wednesday, aggressive rap-metalers on Thursday, bluesy roots-rockers the next Friday, power-poppers on Saturday.

The Grog draws largely from the nearby colleges: American University, George Washington, Georgetown. Unlike the moody dreamers and self-defined outcasts who populate the Black Cat, Velvet Lounge, or Galaxy Hut, a Grog crowd usually looks to heavily represent the pre-law, pre-med, pre-middle-management aesthetic.

And the Grog has perfected a business plan for catering to that demo. Family entrepreneurs in the time-honored American tradition, the Hossainkhail brothers left Afghanistan to come to, as Colin says, “the greatest country in the world called U.S.A.,” when Colin was about 14. After acquiring the Brit-pub-style club from Englishman Nicky Williams in 1984, the Hossainkhails grafted the same name onto a second club, in Baltimore. The chain grew to include another Baltimore venue and Planet Nova in Virginia. Now the family concentrates on the D.C. Grog. Oldest brother Abdul handles the day-to-day operations, as well as dealing with the D.C. bureaucracy over permits and the like. Middle brother Hammed watches the door. And Colin, né Khaled, has been in charge of the music–both booking the bands and running the sound–since he was an 18-year-old high-schooler.

The fraternal collaboration has brought local rockers five or six nights of live tunes each week–for the past 20 years. That’s 60 to 70 bands a month, upward of 16,000 bands total. Some, such as Hootie and the Blowfish and Vertical Horizon, have used the club as a launching pad. Before their big break, 2 Skinnee Js broke the stage with their enthusiastic pogoing. Others, like Zox, are still waiting, touring relentlessly in support of CDs on infinitesimal independent labels.

It’s a remarkably consistent record of lower-middleness. The Grog is located on lower-middle Wisconsin Avenue. It hosts bands of lower-middle caliber. Its patrons are lower-middlebrow. Its owners are lower-middle-aged.

And they even speak of the place in lower-middle terms. Hoss, for instance, says the grungy, musty Grog qualifies as a “regional showplace.”

“Who are you here to see?” Hammed Hossainkhail asks of everyone who steps in the door. At Hammed’s side is a sheet of paper carrying the names of each act on tonight’s bill, three of them. As people declare their loyalty, Hammed makes a check mark next to the band name. Many fans arriving for their first Grog experience are momentarily stymied by the question.

This system, explains Hoss, ensures that the cover charge is distributed proportionately among the evening’s acts, which together claim half of the door take. “We want to make sure that we pay bands fairly,” he explains. “Because it doesn’t really make any sense if you charge $5 [and] one band draws everybody [and] the other bands don’t. So we can’t really split the money three ways. Because that’s unfair to the band that drew most of the crowd. So what we do to make sure everybody’s happy, we keep track of how many people are here for which bands.”

Not everyone appreciates the system. Kate Belinski stands at the back of the crowd, waiting for her friends’ band, Down to This, to go on. A George Mason University law student and, she says, a historian, she lives in the neighborhood and often finds herself at the Grog.

“I wish there were more nights when you didn’t pay a cover charge,” she says. “Because they definitely haven’t established themselves as a neighborhood place to go. Because every night you come here you have to pay a cover charge, and sometimes the bands are not that great.”

“I understand that bands want to get paid,” Belinski continues, “but some nights, honestly, when there are mediocre bands, they really shouldn’t charge $7 to get in.”

“We’re cheap,” counters Hoss.

However, the club has a flexible policy just for locals like Belinski, who aren’t groupies and who find themselves sauntering down Wisconsin Avenue, thirsty for a drink and a dose of rock. “Actually, we don’t charge the neighbors,” says Abdul. “Neighbors come in for free. If they come to the door and say, ‘Well, we’re here to socialize and get some drinks…'”

THE GROG MANAGEMENT’S ATTEMPT to make patrons and performers happy doesn’t always work as intended. Musician Steve Bowes, for example, has not played the Grog since the mid-’90s, when a gig for his band ended very badly. (To this day, Bowes prefers not mentioning the name of the band, because of “ongoing unpleasantness.”) “The complexity of these calculations for who gets what percentage of the door are amazing,” he says via e-mail. “If Hussein really wanted to develop nukes, he should have rounded up some thick-necked meatballs working the door at rock clubs and put them to the task. They’re mathematical geniuses in too-small Beefy-T’s.”

Bowes claims that after his last Grog show he asked for his “guaranteed $25.” “‘You didn’t make shit–go ask the bartender,'” is how he recalls the conversation. “I figured even if I didn’t really understand the algorithm, that if there was indeed shit collected–and we were supposed to get some percentage of the shit–that we were entitled to at least some measure of said shit.”

Armed with “a bellyful of pure rock fury and crappy domestic beer,” the diminutive Bowes went round and round with the bartender before leaping on the bar and yelling, “Give me my $25, motherfucker!…Give it to me!…Give it to me!”

He soon found himself flat on his back, the bartender’s boot on his chest. Bowes was told he was banned for life from the Grog and Tankard.

Hoss says he has no memory of the incident, and he has no comment other than to restate that the club makes no guarantee of a flat fee and the policy that each band “make their money off their friends and fans.”

“I’m pretty sure I could walk in there just fine, as so much time has passed,” says Bowes today. But he refuses, “until I get that $25 and a private tutoring session in quantum economics from the doorman. I do have principles, after all.”

But not every performer is so quick to anger. Kevin Avery, lead singer with the Fairfax aggro-rock outfit Element, faces the cash question with a philosophical shrug. “You make what you’re worth,” he says. “And what you’re worth is what you bring in the door. So that’s fair enough.”

It’s not hard to figure why the joint has strict rules on cover charges: There aren’t too many revenue streams at this gin mill. The party-room Grog concept offers the basics: microphones, a stage, and big speakers for bands; standard alcohol choices for their fans. The microbrew revolution passed the Grog by. And nobody’s coming for dinner. A handwritten sign over the bar spells out the entire menu:

SNACK FOOD
POTATO CHIPS
CHEESE CRACKERS
$1.00

At 8 p.m. on a miserably cold, snowy Wednesday, the club is rapidly filling up. Of course, there are five acts on tonight’s bill, including MFA (Motion for Alliance), an electro-rock combo from Boulder, Colo., which was passing through and which Hoss agreed to give a last-minute gig.

As much machine as manpower, MFA cranks out amusingly hypnotic sample-based jams. As the set ends, the musicians are basically standing around cheering on their computers. It’s damn entertaining, if not exactly radio-issue programming.

Though now living in Colorado, MFA drummer Jonathan Modell grew up in Arlington and played in some Dischord bands as a teen, along with some hiphop groups, including 3LG. His impression of the Grog when he was growing up was that it was the place for frat rock: “You weren’t really going to see any of the Dischord bands or, like, experimental music.”

But more experimental music is on the bill tonight. As MFA clears its gear off the stage, local percussionist Anthony Allen moves his electronic drum kit into place. Tied onto the rack is an HP laptop. Allen also has a slide projector ready. Tonight, he’s joined by keyboardist Justin Custer, in from Baltimore. They’ve never performed together before and will improvise a short set of spacey sounds and visuals.

“We’re coming through for our first time, and this was the only place that we could get a gig, that would give us a chance,” says Modell. “They don’t know us. We could bring one person in here tonight. They took a chance.”

Fortunately for the owners, MFA has actually brought out a fair number of family members, high-school friends, and fans. Even Modell’s mom and dad are here. Tonight’s crowd is more diverse than usual. The MFA and Allen crowds skew artsy, and tonight there’s even a member of uber-hap’nin’ Thievery Corporation, not usually associated with old-fashioned rock venues. Kristen Putchinski, singer for Baltimore trio Ellen Cherry, is doing a solo acoustic set and has a contingent of Charm City alt-poppers. And Frederick hard-rock band Brother Trouble has brought out the T-shirt-and-jeans crew, though the drummer will be shirtless by the end of the night.

Thievery Corporation representative Rob Myers says the Grog doesn’t feel like the sort of place Vice President Dick Cheney could walk to. “Actually, my girlfriend, Vida, and my friend Steven Albert were just saying they totally felt like they were in a Boston club,” says Myers. “Like, it felt like they were in Boston. Because it does not have a D.C. feel in here. Steven used to live in Boston, and he said he felt like he was 17 years old in Boston, so I think he’s having a bit of a time warp.”

“Yeah, it felt like I’d just stepped back in time,” Albert confirms.

“But, I mean–look at it,” Myers continues. “That’s probably what the D.C. crowd holds against the Grog and Tankard–that it doesn’t have the prototypical D.C. feel.”

If the “prototypical D.C. feel” arises from exclusivity, Myers has it exactly right. “My door is open for all bands,” says Hoss. “We don’t have one generic music, a blues room or a folk club. This place is all about live music. It’s all about bands. Anything from post-punk to punk to folk music to reggae to blues to rootsy bands. That’s how this place was established. And we want to keep that, because we want to make sure that everybody gets a chance.”

Which may explain part of the Grog’s less-than-stellar rep among the hipoisie. A true musical democracy is anathema to the taste-making elite, who prefer to unilaterally confer hipness upon their own discoveries.

Hoss puts it succinctly: “Even if you suck, you know what? We’re not going to tell you. But we wish you good luck.”

THE GROG’S LUST FOR VERY COMMON-MAN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL reaches its maximum expression on Monday nights, when more elite clubs are keeping barbershop hours. Monday is open-mike night at the Wisconsin Avenue standby, which lends its big room and humongous speakers to pretty much anybody who steps in and signs up.

The whole concept of open mike–that is, generally bad musicians playing their favorite tunes in front of other impatient wannabes–takes on a particularly stark feel in the environs of the Grog.

“I gotta tell ya,” says keyboardist Ben Doepke of the Cincinnati-based Homunculus, “the biggest positive with a room like this is the band’s got nothing to hide behind. If you want to come down here and see if the band is really good…[As a musician,] you’ve got nowhere to hide. The stage faces a wall that’s 15 feet away. All you’re doing is looking at that reindeer. And that reindeer’s got no patience for bad music. It sits and looks at you. And I think the feeling’s contagious. ‘Cause when you look in the audience, they kinda got that same look as the deer. It feels like we’re playing Inside the Actors Studio. When you finish you feel like, OK, does anybody have any questions?”

Yes, about the decor. There is that stuffed dear head mounted opposite the stage. And that huge butterfly hanging from the ceiling, and a bunch of pictures of celebrities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Einstein. “Very random. Very random,” admits Hoss. He points to a large sculpture of a sort-of-human head hanging on the wall next to a speaker. “The story about that face right there—-this guy had run a tab, right? He didn’t have money to pay his $25 tab. So he goes home, brings me that face. So that took care of his tab.

“Those weird pictures, abstract pictures, paintings we have,” Hoss continues, “I was dating this girl in Baltimore when we had [our place in Baltimore]. She was an artist. So I paid her some money, and she did that.”

“But most of the pictures—-Einstein, Marilyn Monroe–they’ve been here ever since the Grog first opened. Of course, we added a few…”-—he motions to the standard mall-issue sports posters hanging by the pool tables–“a couple TVs for games.”

The butterfly used to hang over the stage at the Baltimore Grog.

“So it’s random. It’s an old building. We didn’t want to do too much about this place as far as fixing it up, because then Grog and Tankard would lose its character. A lot of people would not like it. They come here for the originality of the room itself.”

Against this “random” backdrop, singer and guitarist Bruno De Lima-Campos has run the open-mike show since April 2003. By day, he heads the car-stereo-installation department at the Myer-Emco in Seven Corners. Bruno likes to keep his evening “real open, whatever happens.” None of that “three songs and you’re out” stuff here. Plus, other open mikes are too cliquish, he thinks. Tonight, the guitarist is so loose he has arrived without a pick. Whatever.

Bruno’s laid-back management style is in full effect as he sits onstage riffing through half-finished licks on his Takamine, bantering with buds at the bar, waiting for the club and the sign-up sheet to fill. A couple of pool players–happy-hour types–pay no attention. Bruno does an impressive Segovia-style excursion up and down the neck, tapping out harmonics. He asks Hoss if he wants to sing. “Led Zep,” is the non sequitur reply. There are no other takers.

“I really like Pearl Jam,” says Bruno, after singing one of the band’s hits, “so I hope I didn’t ruin that for everyone.” He then segues into one of the ballads from the songbook of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

One of the waiting open-mikers calls out, “Have you played every song from 1994?”

“Not yet, dude,” laughs Bruno.

“‘Cause all these songs are on a mix tape I listened to on the bus,” responds the heckler.

“Remember this?” asks Bruno, plucking a playful riff. It’s from a movie, he hints. No response. “Top Gun!” reveals Bruno, surprised that nobody has picked up on this obscure incidental music. “That’s the sunrise. The sunrise from Top Gun.”

Aside from the pool players, most of the audience consists of Andrew Dunn, Matt Jacobs, and Kevin Steffen. Dunn is a junior at American, and this is the first club he’s been to since arriving in town from Nashville. “The open-mike scene, the pool tables–this really reminds me of home,” he says.

“Back home,” says Steffen, referring to his Kansas City roots, “you’ve got a lot of people just driving really hard to make a big impact and try to get signed. You come out here, you’re dealing with people like these cats….” Steffen motions to the stage, where Bruno is aimlessly plucking. “They just want to play an instrument and receive acclaim from their peers. That’s satisfaction enough. They don’t really need the recognition that everybody else is looking for. You come here, and it’s an open and honest music scene. People come here because they love music. That’s basically why I come here, for the music.

“To come here on a Saturday night and there’s three bands playing that maybe I’ve never heard of, but who’s to say that five years from now you’re not going to be hearing their music on the radio and buying their albums on the Billboard charts? It’s fun to think of it in that way,” says Steffen.

One doesn’t have to think too hard. Hootie is the obvious example.

“When Hootie and the Blowfish started off,” says Hoss, “they gave me a call about 10, 12 years ago, 14 years ago. Mark [Bryan], the guitar player from Hootie and the Blowfish, he used to come here with his parents when he was still in high school for half-price pizza and beer.”

“So, like three or four years later, he calls me from Chapel Hill. ‘Hey, Colin, do you remember me? I’m in college, I have this really cool band–we wanna play at the Grog.’ So, I’m thinking, Oh, great–another band from out of town. I’ll be lucky if I get 30 friends out of these guys. Sunday night, summertime when school is out, I drive by the Grog, right? I see a line of 400 people on a Sunday at 8 o’clock. I’m like…” Hoss makes a stunned face. “I get in here. I call all my employees, everybody I know. I say, ‘You better get your ass in here right now–otherwise you’re fired!’ I put a crew of, like, six together within, like, half an hour.”

Hootie played the Grog for two years, almost every other Saturday, before getting signed and moving to larger clubs. And, apparently, forgetting the little guys. Repeated calls to Hootie’s management for this story went unanswered.

Not all famous Grog alumni are stricken with amnesia about their roots. Vertical Horizon got its start on the Grog stage, and it’s still accessible. On the phone from Los Angeles, Vertical Horizon singer and guitarist Matt Scannell remembers “walking to the Grog and Tankard from my place in Burleith.”

“The great thing about [the Grog] was that we didn’t have to play someone else’s music. We could go there and perfect our own,” says Scannell.

“The thing that was special about the Grog wasn’t the atmosphere so much as the spirit of the place. You were encouraged to come in and be creative, be an artist. You don’t find that too often. What you find are Jimmy Buffett songs. And that gets old, even for the people listening.”

The Grog, says Scannell, allowed him to take chances. “I have memories of saying, ‘I have a song I wrote this afternoon. If you don’t like it, I’ll probably never play it again. If you like it, I’ll probably put it on the next record.’

“The Grog is a club where you pay your dues, in the truest sense. You’re proving to yourself that you are good enough to make it to the next level. If it’s not happening for you at the Grog,” Scannell says, “you need to reassess.”

Tony De Rosa, who launched the bar’s current open-mike night, appears to be reassessing. He’s standing at the bar, staring into the mirror. Lost in thought, or maybe in gin or vodka.

De Rosa is concerned that this area hurts for metal outlets. “It’s very difficult, because most of the venues are coffeeshops and the like. I mean, college rock rules around here,” he says with a sneer. “There’s just no real good venues to play at.” For now, De Rosa concentrates on singing with his band, Three Faces of Eve, in Northern Virginia.

“I think the Grog has the potential to be something more than it is,” De Rosa says, warming slightly to the topic. “And more that it might probably end up being. It’s cool. That’s why I come back. There’s something cool about it, and I don’t think it’ll ever be as cool as it actually is. If that makes any sense. There’s something that’s here, but nobody’s gonna fuckin’ ever see it. None of the right people are ever gonna do the right thing to make this place as cool as it should be. ‘Cause it’s a cool…cool place for music.”

De Rosa pauses.

“It’s a place. And there’s music here. What more do you really need?”