Soul Man: Larry Kidwell, 1947-2017

lawrence and the arabians

Larry Kidwell has passed. Larry was the singer/piano player for the legendary D.C. band Lawrence & the Arabians. (That’s him in Jesus pose behind his bandmates, circa 1967.) Before the term blue-eyed soul, he was its embodiment. As Michael Dolan wrote about the band in Washingtonian in 1988, “They were the original soul rebels, white kids who grew up on black music and in turn played black music for other white kids to grow up on.” One of those kids was me.

Larry and the band get their own section in Mark Opsasnick‘s essential book, Capitol Rock, deservedly so. In the era of teen clubs and dances at the fire hall, before there was such a thing as a concert industry and professional music venues outside of classical halls, the band routinely drew 1,500 or more kids every weekend.

Lawrence and the arabians card

Of course, there were no Arabians in the band. As with many band names of the time, it was a play on something current, in this case the film. Yes, it was a more innocent time; please put your comments about “appropriation” aside, especially if you never heard the man sing. The few recordings that Larry and the band made don’t really do him justice. As with so much about music, you really have to hear it live.

Larry generously gifted me with the original photo of the band after I interviewed him for City Paper. He wrote on the back:

“If this picture means anything good to you, please keep it that it would give me pleasure, too.”

Larry, this picture means the world to me. And I hope I thanked you enough.

Condolences to his family. This town lost a bit of its soul.

R.I.P., Mickey Toperzer

(NOTE: Reposting this by request. The original post, itself a repost from a Washington City Paper piece I wrote in 1994, got lost in the Great WordPress Upgrade Disaster of ’13)

Frank “Mickey” Toperzer passed away on Oct. 12. He was the owner of Drums Unlimited on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda, when Bethesda was a place where you could open a small shop selling only drums.

Below is the article I wrote about him for Washington City Paper, almost 20 years ago. I was still fairly new at the journalism game and I started the interview with some question that did not meet Mickey’s approval. “Stop. Turn of the recorder,” he said sternly. Startled, I did as he ordered. He then informed me that my question was so foolishly broad and uninformed that it was impossible to answer and that it would only make me seem foolish. Then he told me the question I was really trying to ask and we started again.

mickey toperzer

I’ve been told that Mickey kept a copy of the article in his shop, framed a bit sideways–because he felt it would catch people’s eyes better if it was off-kilter and then they’d stop and read it. A perfect example of how how Mickey’s mind worked.

The reason I wrote the article is that I worked at Drums Unlimited right after high school and knew Mickey to be an entertaining raconteur, among other things. It was a great experience and Mickey taught me many lessons that I didn’t know I was learning until years later.

Drums Unlimited made much of its money renting equipment, any and everything for a band, school, and orchestra. For a symphony gig at the Kennedy Center, the store came up short for seats. So Mickey gave me the keys to his house and told me to grab the bar stools from the basement. And I was also to pack up his son’s drum set. He’d rented that, too.

When Burt Bacharach was playing the Kennedy Center, his drummer complained that the cymbal stand he’d rented from Drums Unlimited wasn’t tall enough. Highly annoyed by this affront to common sense, Mickey cobbled together a frankenstand that was probably 12 feet tall. I got in the van and drove it down to the KenCen. Because I was a clueless teen with no perspective, I just burst into the rehearsal room, interrupting the musicians, and walked the ridiculous piece of hardware right to the drummer. There were some laughs and a confused, then stern look from Burt. I don’t know who the drummer was–he could have been one of the Wrecking Crew who played on many of the original Bacharach-David songs. I hope I didn’t get him fired.

Much of my time was spent delivering equipment to and picking it up from the newly-opened Kennedy Center. In fact, Drums Unlimited rented several tympani and a large bass drum to the National Symphony for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass,” which officially opened the Center. Even though Jackie Kennedy was just one floor above me, I remember being annoyed that the ovation went on and on and on, making me wait so long to pick up the gear.

That was the real treat of the job — wandering around the still half-completed building, underneath the public spaces. One day I poked through a door and found myself standing on the stage in the empty Opera House. I took in the grandeur, took a bow, and snuck out quickly.

In exchange for the keys to the van, I had to wear overalls with a Drums Unlimited logo. One day after a delivery I was heading to the vending machines by the dressing rooms when I spotted a tall man with long but well-coiffed hair who was wearing platform shoes and carrying a purse. Well, it looked like a purse. It was probably a standard messenger bag, but in the early 1970s guys did not carry bags, nor wear platform shoes. At least none of my high school pals did.

But, because I watched The Tonight Show religiously, I recognized Robert Klein, who was appearing in a play. As he passed, I smartly called out, “Robert Klein.” He gave me and my overalls a snooty once-over and replied, “Drums Unlimited,” and continued on his way. I never much cared for him after that.

Also, when I tried to score points by bragging to my friends that I had seen Robert Klein, nobody knew who he was. Rubes.

Then there was the time I was hauling a couple of tympani drums back to the van, I got snagged trying to lug one down the stairs, tripped, and fell head-over-tympani. Bang, crash, boom, indeed.

Another time, I peeled out from the light at Wisconsin and Bradley on my way to the KenCen. At the next light, a driver frantically caught my attention — the 28-inch bass drum had fallen out the unlocked back door and rolled down the road.

I believe I was making $1.35 an hour — minimum wage at the time. After a while, tired of Mickey calling me at home at night to give me instructions on where I had to be the next morning, I asked for a raise — to $1.65 an hour. I was promptly told that my services were no longer required.

Bang the Drum Profitably

It’s been 32 years since Frank “Mickey” Topics hung the small sign over the door of his shop on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda. For any business to last three decades is a feat; it’s especially remarkable for one with as narrow a product line as Toperzer’s. The blue-on-white letters on his modest marquee read “Drums Unlimited.”

Perhaps the “Unlimited” part of the sign explains it best. The wee retail store is but the tip of the drumstick in an almost sprawling empire that includes a rehearsal space, a mail order and instrument manufacturing business, and a musical-equipment rental service.

All of which arose from the typical drummer’s complaint; having to lug carloads of equipment for the same paycheck as a less-burdened flute or guitar player. “I’m a musician, not a truck driver,” Toperzer scoffs.

In the ’50s, Toperzer was one of the busiest drummers in town, working hotel one-nighters with dance bands and orchestras nearly every evening—this after putting in a full shift as a public-school music teacher. The grind took a toll. “I don’t show up three hours early and leave three hours late for the same money as somebody who walks in with a fiddle, or a piano player who walks in with nothing,” declares the drummer, a trace of aggravation in his voice even now.

So Toperzer had the audacity to demand that promoters not only pay him for showing up, but shell out an additional rental fee for his station wagon full of gear. Surprisingly, it worked—to the point where Toperzer was soon contracting out equipment for other musicians. He quickly found himself with a house full of musical tools and a burgeoning rental business. He opened the retail shop partly to store his clattering collection. Eventually, he quit teaching, believing that he could have more impact providing materials to educators than teaching tots where the one-beat is.

Still, Toperzer retains something of a professorial air. Offering advice, criticism, support, and strong opinion in his lilting Boston brogue, he clearly enjoys engaging all who enter his store in hardy debate—and not merely about percussion. You may think you just stopped in to pick up a new pair of drumsticks, but if he senses you’re a bright student, Toperzer will hit you with a pop quiz. (Example: What’s the difference between a piano and an organ? You play a piano, you operate an organ.)

As philosophical as Toperzer can become, he is surprisingly dispassionate when discussing the mainstay of his business. “A drum is a drum is a drum,” he says with indifference. “It goes boom boom. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. If it does and you can’t play it, you’re in trouble. Otherwise, it goes boom boom boom.”

Of course, Toperzer is not entirely without sentiment. He points out an old red bass drum. “I bought that for $5 in 1945. At that time, it was about 40 years old. It was built by George Stone,” he says. Stone is one of the seminal figures in modern percussion, a drum maker and teacher whose books are still in use. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful drum,” he says affectionately. “The drum next to it is almost 100 years old,” he continues, indicating a scruffy wooden bass drum. “And they’re still working. I got my five bucks back a couple of times.”

Toperzer speculates that his old-time beater might have been used in John Philip Sousa’s band. “And of course that music is still played and that drum sounds like the drum should sound.”

Toperzer dispenses these heresies and verities from the Kensington warehouse/headquarters of Rehearsal Spaces and Professional Rental Services, the Drums Unlimited subsidiary run by his son, Michael. Conversation vies with the constant sound of musical instruments being tested and loaded onto one of five trucks that deliver them to such disparate places as Georgia theme parks, Atlantic City casinos, and the stages of Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center. The clanging concerto of chimes, drums, bass, piano, and electric drills and sanders provides a suitably percussive background.

But we don’t spend much time talking the usual drum talk—Buddy vs. Gene, Ludwig vs. Yamaha, blah blah blah. We talk of history, discipline, and the cycles of nature. In explaining the complexities of sending musical instruments around the world, Toperzer mentions the half-dozen sets of tuned automobile horns that he supplies to orchestras intent on correctly playing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

But to fully explain how one tunes automobile horns, Toperzer must first go back to the 1890s and the celeste, which, he points out, did not exist until Tchaikovsky heard it in his head and thought it might be nice for “The Nutcracker Suite.” “Somebody had to invent what he heard,” Toperzer says, beginning a story about the composer traveling to France to find a man who could build his imaginary device. “George Gershwin heard these taxi horns in Paris and found a guy in Germany who made things like foghorns and sirens.” He pauses slightly, knowing he has a good punch line. “And that man still makes them,” he says, before adding with a grin: “He’s hard to find.”

Not content to pick up the usual catalogs and order the usual soundmaking machinery, Toperzer acquired some of his inventory by roaming through Europe “finding lots of these fellows”—ancient artisans including “the man who tunes cowbells. And the man who makes the cowbells that the other man tunes,” he says. “The cowbells are made on an island in Bavaria. And a man 200 miles away goes to this island and goes through bins of these Swiss cowbells, and finds things that are close to a note. And he collects these and he puts them in his van and he goes back to Germany. And they have a little shop there and stroboscopes, and they bring these into tune by cutting them and reshaping them and so forth and so on.”

Simple. But Toperzer’s Indiana Jones-style adventures cover the percussive gamut. Though the more reliable plastic drum head has been the norm since the late ’50s, there are, says Toperzer, “purists out there who want calfskin or goatskin or monkey skin or snakeskin—or sturgeon skin even, which the Egyptians use—on different kinds of ethnic drums. And so we’ve had to find sources for these things.”

“It’s not just a primitive catch-as-catch-can,” he asserts, maintaining that there is a skill and an art to both the making
and the buying of musical exotica. He adds, almost sadly, “I never did find a safe source for fish skin that wasn’t rotten.”

In an age of digital sampling, where anybody can be an “artist” with the push of a button, this sort of insistence upon authenticity is refreshing. It also goes a long way toward explaining why that small sign in Bethesda is still beckoning after all these years. Another example: When Modern Drummer magazine published a list of “The 25 Best Drum Books,” all 25 could be found on Toperzer’s shelves, a fact the former educator is proud to announce.

These days, the globe-trotting is left mostly to his inventory. And as he has backed up the likes of Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, and Julie Andrews, you won’t find this sixtysomething stickman pounding out a fox trot at some wedding. But the lure of the traps remains.

Toperzer mentions a recent party where he ascended to the drum throne. “A number of wonderful players were there,” he says, including Ray Bryant and bassist Keter Betts. His face brightens as he remembers the fun. “Except Keter and I were exhausted. There were three piano players. They each played an hour nonstop, showing everything they could do. And we played for all of them.” He laughs softy. “That kind of thing is wonderful for me.”

Of course, he still had to set up all those drums himself. —DAVE NUTTYCOMBE

From Washington City Paper, Sept. 23, 1994

The Sound of Our Town

Red Fox Inn Bethesda Md Nuttycombe Archives

C&O Canal
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
Red Beet Records

Hometown tunes from the 1970s and ’80s are the unifying theme of Eric Brace and Peter Cooper‘s heartfelt and nostalgic new album, C&O Canal. A love letter to the musicians who inspired the D.C.-raised duo, C&O Canal is a set of cover tunes penned the likes of the Seldom Scene‘s John Starling, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joe Triplett, Karl Straub, and more; it’s an ode to a particularly fecund era for the local music scene.

C&O Canal Eric Brace Peter Cooper

The liner notes connect the many dots tying these D.C.-area musicians together, and hearing the songs filtered through the mesmerizing harmonies of Brace’s mournful baritone and Cooper’s high-lonesome tenor reveals the depth of craftsmanship and artistry this area has produced. “Washington history is as rich with genius-level roots music as it is tricky politics,” Brace writes, correctly. The album is dedicated to, among lots of inspirations, many of the D.C. clubs that hosted live music every week: The Birchmere where the Scene had its residency for so many years, Bethesda’s Red Fox Inn, where Emmylou started (pictured; I played there, too!), Gallagher‘s on Connecticut Ave., where Carpenter hosted an open mic (pretty sure I played there in the late ’60s when it was called Sam’s Place), the fabled Cellar Door (so many nights there; so much magic).

Almost every week in the ’70s, you could hear the Rossyln Mountain Boys‘ Joe Triplett sing his lament, “Been Awhile.” B&C bring it back with just enough reverence, while putting their own stamp on the song.

Likewise, if Cooper’s plaintive version of “Boulder to Birmingham” won’t make you forget either Emmylou’s definitive original or the nearly-definitive version by co-writer Bill Danoff‘s Starland Vocal Band, he acquits himself well.

I’d somehow missed Carpenter’s “John Wilkes Booth,” and so thought at first that the song was taken from some 1870s tract. But this recitation of historical perfidy manages to be both haunting and jaunty. Jauntily haunting? Is that a thing? On this album, yes.

From the opening title track, John Starling’s “C&O Canal,” B&C establish a consistent tone and mood, a celebration not only of this particular town, but of honest music made by and about real people. In this age of individual downloads, C&O Canal is one of those too-rare releases that work as a unified whole. The result is a listening experience to be savored at length, even on shuffle-repeat.

Brace and Cooper bring their Americana goodness to Jammin Java on Friday, June 3, for the official record release party.

The Greatest Radio Spot Ever Produced

I say so because I remember it vividly some 35 years later. It’s a vivid ad, but the fact that it was a promotion for a one-time concert that probably ran only over the course of a few weeks, at most, makes it all the more remarkable that I could recall every sensationalized second. (Sadly, I did not go to the show.)

This airing was recorded from Steve Lorber‘s infamous Mystic Eyes show on WHFS, which I was in the habit of taping because one never knew what to expect from Lorber. Insistently unprofessional, Lorber flaunted both his lack of a “DJ voice” and his enthusiasm for and encyclopedic knowledge of the then-current punk/new wave/weirdo music scene. I’ve left some of Steve’s back-announcing at the end of this transfer so that you can get a taste of his refined taste. Eventually, I’ll transfer the entire tape, and several more filed away in the Nuttycombe Archives.

You have been warned.

How To Make a No-Stress Commercial

Here’s the new commercial I produced, shot, and edited for Middle C Music, D.C.’s only full-service music store. (Also played the swingin’ hi-hat cymbals.) The spot is running on Me-TV, the channel that airs all of the TV shows that were broadcast in the years before cable.

Which means not widescreen hi-def. So, I got out my trusty Panasonic AG-DVC30 miniDV camera, which was expensive state-of-the-art before inexpensive widescreen hi-def became the state-of-the-art. The Panasonic shoots in the same nearly-square aspect ratio (4:3) as the programs that air on Me-TV. So it was a good fit.

The downside production-wise is that the camera records to tape, which has to be transferred in real time for editing. I shot an hour-and-a-half of footage, so had to sit staring at the computer for an hour-and-a-half while the tapes played back.

But I finally used my last two DV tapes. So the camera is now for sale.

The song, or jingle, was created almost instantly by Middle C staffer Michael Sweeney, who is the fellow singing in the video. Darn catchy. I cut 60- and 30-second audio versions of the jingle and I’m trying to convince the store to run radio spots as well. I think this jingle will give Mattress Discounters a run for its money.

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!

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:


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?”