I originally wrote this as a short book review for Washington City Paper, but the paper was in the process of being sold, then bankrupted, with various editors—and finally myself—leaving. So the piece got lost in the shuffle and I post it here because I still think it’s an interesting look at the supposed true history of punk rock and standup comedy in Washington, D.C.
The book that started the argument is I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America’s Top Comics (Crown, 264 pps. $23.95), co-authored by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff. It’s a heartily amusing Whitman’s Sampler of odd, outrageous, and inexplicable human behavior as experienced by traveling comedians. (Jay Leno gettin’ freaky—who knew?) The generally brief anecdotes may be savored piecemeal. Taken as a whole, the book is a horrifyingly hysterical tour of America after hours.
Shydner’s entry stands out, and is what started this investigation into D.C.’s comedy and punk-rock past. Titled “They Weren’t Sedated,” the piece concerns the comedian’s 1978 gig opening for the Ramones at “a big pub off Dupont Circle.” In an phone interview from California, Shydner confirms that the club was the Childe Harold. “I lived right around the corner at 17th & N,” he said. “I really hung out at the Childe Harold a lot.” Shydner was a George Mason student at the time, studying to be a lawyer. That career path veered wildly when Shydner got caught up in D.C.’s comedy boom.
As with the punk explosion in music, standup comedy also freed itself from the hegemony of “professional” show biz in the ’70s. Kids realized you didn’t need a tux and a spot on Ed Sullivan to tell jokes. Shydner credits Saturday Night Live, which began in 1975, with igniting the boom. Because before SNL, “you just didn’t see people your age or close to it doing comedy on TV,” he notes. “You just didn’t see it in a sensibility that you related to. SNL kinda popped it. And everybody starts doing comedy.”
The CBGB’s of D.C. comedy was a tiny dive bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Anacostia called El Brookman’s. Future comedy stars such as Lewis Black and Rich Hall started there. And before venues dedicated to comedy appeared—places like Garvin’s on Connecticut Ave. and the Comedy Cafe on K Street NW—the eager young jokesters caught the attention of local booking agents seeking low-cost fodder for music shows—someone to fill time while the roadies set up the gear. Thus, the young Shydner’s early work was mostly in rock clubs, opening for bands. Here’s how he describes his Ramones show in I Killed:
“When the room was filled with two hundred people, all smoking and spilling beer, it was possible to experience the sense of death by suffocation with a stale gym towel.”
Shydner paints a very funny picture of an unnamed, coked-up bar manager betting the fledgling comic $100 he wouldn’t last five minutes in front of the overly-excited crowd. “I was not far removed from my high school and college jock mind-set,” Shydner writes, “so I tended to view each performance as an athletic event, a game to be won or lost.” He happily took the bet, and then the stage.
“The audience booed so loud I didn’t even hear my first joke,” Shydner writes. “Seconds later, someone threw a beer in my direction. It didn’t hit me, but there was no time to determine whether it was thrown as a warning or simply to gauge distance, because the next one DID hit me. Once they saw I wouldn’t move and they wouldn’t get tossed, the crowd had themselves a new sport.”
The beer barrage continued, with the plucky Shydner valiantly holding fast for the full five minutes. The manager paid up and one of the Ramones even offered congratulations as the band made its way to the stage: “You’re good man. Fucking good.”
A funny story, and one that contains a certain truth about the life of a performer. Shydner’s portrait of standup-as-gladiator is compelling. “I won the game,” he writes. Much of I Killed chronicles similar experiences, not always victories.
However, I mentioned the anecdote to Washington City Paper‘s former music critic emeritus Mark Jenkins, who instantly snorted that the story couldn’t possibly be true. “It wasn’t a rowdy scene at all,” he insists, further explaining that he was at all three shows that the Ramones played here. “I never saw a comedian open for the Ramones in D.C.,” he says flatly.
Turns out, Jenkins was not only at the Ramones’ first D.C. show, he was instrumental in getting the band booked here.
“This is how it happened,” he says, explaining that he and Howard Wuelfing—a member of such seminal D.C. punk bands as the Nurses and Slickee Boys—were seeking a place to get New York bands to play in D.C. “We went looking for the names of the managers of all these bands, Television, Talking Heads. We said, those bands are fine for the Childe Harold, but you don’t want the Ramones.” But the clubowners wanted a band with an album out and at that point only the Ramones qualified.
Jenkins also puts the Childe Harold show in ’76 or ’77. “It wasn’t that mad any times that I was there,” Jenkins contends, who characterized the group’s act as “performance art.” He recounts how at the same spot in every show, the band would stop. “Then Johnny and Dee Dee would take off their jackets—and then they would start again.”
Jenkins recalls the audience as mostly “curiosity seekers. Not many Ramones fans in the audience, it seemed to me.”
Jenkins’ timeline also has the Ramones graduating from D.C.’s small rooms early, making a Childe Harold gig in ’78 unlikely. “They were in the Warner [Theater] pretty quickly, with the Runaways, ’cause I ran into them at the Burger King at the Greyhound station on New York Avenue before the show,” he remembers.
Over the phone, Wuelfing wracks his brain a moment, then declares, “I don’t remember a comedian at all.” Wuelfing now runs Howlin Wuelf Media, a music PR firm out of Morrisville, Pa.
“I do remember going to maybe all the shows, if not all the shows. And it was pretty well-behaved. My main memory of the show was how big a PA they brought in.” The “huge” sound equipment dwarfed the “teeny” stage. “And there they were, crammed in between these huge, huge PA speakers, with [manager] Danny Fields sitting at a table—when I say right in front of it, I mean with his head was up against the speaker.”
Wuelfing recalls a scene much like the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, England, that inspired the creation of the Smiths, the Fall, Joy Division, etc. “I do remember the folks that wound up being the early D.C. punk scene were all there,” he says.
“To say it was a regular Ramones concert—well, none of us knew what a regular Ramones concert was,” he continues. “Well, I guess I did. Because I’d seen them play at CBGBs in a 15-minute set on a 10-band bill maybe a year before. But, yeah, I don’t remember there being any mayhem of beer-bottle-throwing. And I’m not sure how that could have happened. Because the original punk crowd was kind of an older crowd, for the day. It wasn’t a bunch of 16-year-olds. It was people more in their 20s and kind of on the intellectual side. And seeing the Ramones was a big deal. People were not there to start shit.
“The comedian thing is really throwing me,” Wuelfing says.
After more brain-wracking, Wuelfing becomes more convinced that Shydner’s story is wrong. “It sounds great, getting bottled off the stage at a Ramones show,” he says. “It’s what you’d expect. Because it’s in keeping with the punk mythology that arose down the line, but was kind of not like what it was. The whole idea of there being punk violence came around when you had kids, teenagers, getting into it. The guys like Minor Threat—not that Minor Threat were like that, but a lot of the dumber kids in that scene. Like the guys in Iron Cross and stuff. As more dopey people showed up at punk shows, the jocks and stuff like that.
“But the first batch of punk-rock people were music freaks and they tended to be smart from what I saw,” he continues. “And they just didn’t misbehave. The people who started misbehaving were people like fucking Henry Rollins. I don’t mean that facetiously; that’s what he did. He was a pain in the ass. ‘Cause he would get these places closed down. When [punk music venues] would open in Georgetown, he’d be in there and some off-duty Marine would make some crack or punch some kid, and notoriously Henry was the first to go in wailing. Which is really funny because now you hear [Rollins say], ‘Oh, yeah, it was tough being a punk kid and the Marines would come after us.’ Dude—yeah, good story. That’s not what was going on. He was the one who was doing it.”
Wuelfing also recalls the difficulty the early D.C. punks had in creating and maintaining any kind of scene, calling it “a pretty tentative thing.” Once a venue agreed to host a show, “the last thing people would want to do is start shit,” he says. “Because there you go—there’s a venue down. People wanted to see music. Nobody’s gonna go and throw a bottle at a stuffy place like the fucking Childe Harold and put that in jeopardy.”
Wuelfing suggests that Shydner is “misremembering.” The bottle-throwing scenario sounds to him more like a Bayou gig, the Bayou being the storied Georgetown waterfront club that closed in 1998 after nearly 60 years of hosting everyone from U2‘s first U.S. gig to frat-rock jam bands. “That strikes me as that would be more logical,” says Wuelfing, who characterizes the Bayou crowd as “It’s Friday night, let’s go out. Hey, we’re at a punk rock show, we’re punk rockers, let’s throw beer bottles at the comedian.” And I’m saying that kinda facetiously, but at the same time trying to recall the zeitgeist then and who acted like what. That’s a much more logical scenario. And it’s a long time ago, it could be that the guy is conflating a couple memories. Which is what you do when you make movies or write [books].
For his part, Shydner laughs off the complaints. “I was there that night,” he insists from outside an LA hospital where he’s taken his daughter for a checkup. (“Nothing serious.”) “I have a buddy who was there that night who had to walk me home.”
Shydner also discounts the idea that the show was actually at the Bayou. “I opened up for a lot of people at the Bayou,” he says. “I have a story about opening up for Rick Danko there.” (Shydner later sends the story, which is also quite funny and may wind up in a second edition of I Killed.)
Shydner will admit that the Ramones gig may not be “the absolute first time they came to town,” but insists that the crowd was not sitting quietly. “I never saw any show [at the Childe Harold] where they sat quietly. It’s not a symposium hall, it’s a little bar.”
And it was definitely the Childe Harold, of this Shydner is certain.
“I don’t know what [Jenkins and Wuelfing] saw, man, but I got crushed before I got up there,” he laughs. “Believe me, they would have remembered my show. They might have sat back down after they doused me. Trust me, they would have remembered my show. Sitting there quietly at a punk show—that’s hilarious.”
So, a stalemate of memories. Maybe it was the Bayou. Maybe it wasn’t the Ramones. Truth becomes slippery over time. And a comedian’s job is to tell stories that aren’t technically true. But there is truth within the jokes. And sometimes the truth hurts. Like a bottle to the head.