Saturday, Sept 1, was supposed to be like any other night at Club Bohemia, a small basement rock venue that has served as an oft-overlooked spot for unknown bands to perform. But with barely two weeks before the date, the night’s acts suddenly found they had the duty to close out and pay tribute to a 25-year legacy on what would be the club’s final night.
Located below the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Club Bohemia is yet another in a growing line of Cambridge venues that have closed their doors in recent years due to rising rents and declining attendance. While the tiny hole-in-the-wall didn’t have the same notoriety attached to it as T.T. the Bear’s Place or the more recently deceased Out of the Blue Too, its closing nevertheless marks the loss of a venue where unknown bands could get their first gigs and build followings without the pressure to fill high-capacity rooms or conform to genre standards.
Speaking with Dig, Club Bohemia founder and manager Mickey Bliss said the club’s closing came as a surprise to him mid-August when Cantab manager Stephen Ramsey told him the Sept 1 show would be the last and all future dates were cancelled. The ownership, he said, had decided to replace the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night live concerts with a computer jukebox where patrons can choose the music from a playlist of songs—a change that will ideally bring in young college kids but likely keep away the punks, metalheads, and various scene members Club Bohemia welcomed.
According to Bliss, the change had been coming for some time, at least since the Cantab’s longtime owner Richard Fitzgerald retired due to health issues roughly a year ago. Fitzgerald’s son, Scott, has since taken over. With rents on the rise and frequent tension between management and the bands, Fitzgerald decided it was time for a change.
“This summer we were starting to get a pretty good following of punk rockers, with the mohawks and stuff like that, and we had some pretty good shows, and the revenue was good,” Bliss said. “They didn’t really cause any trouble or anything, but they were just in and out of the club all night and he didn’t dig that.”
While sales were up in August and Bliss had planned out a band schedule through December that he believed would draw big crowds, attendance in June and July was abysmal, he said. He hoped a rebound would impress Fitzgerald, but by that point it appeared the owner had already made up his mind.
“The music venue has basically run its course,” said Cantab manager Stephen Ramsey when reached by phone at the club. “It’s time for a change. It was getting chaotic with four or five different bands every night, loading and unloading in the back. It wasn’t drawing either.”
The basement space has since been renamed Cantab Underground and is open Friday and Saturday nights with the Be Your Own DJ setup, and Bliss is staying with the venue to run the sound system. Cantab also still hosts its long-running bluegrass nights on Tuesdays and poetry slams on Wednesdays in the basement—two events that were not promoted under the Club Bohemia banner.
A Club In Its Prime
Club Bohemia was founded in 1993 at the Kirkland Cafe on Washington Street in Somerville—at the time a spot known as a townie sports bar. Bliss had got wind that they were having trouble finding bands to play and, seeing an opportunity to get consistent gigs, he proposed that he take over Friday nights. To bring in crowds, he coined the Club Bohemia name and went hard and fast on promotion to gain media attention and generate hype around a new live music space in the city.
“We transformed the whole club,” he said. “We had curtains and we had a logo and all that. We really made it look like this underground New York City village club even though it was a sports bar in Somerville.”
Some of Club Bohemia’s most memorable performances happened at the Kirkland, according to Bliss. Jeff Buckley sold the place out one night and other name acts like Willie Alexander would provide big draws. Bliss also remembers mid-’90s fads, like a monthslong stretch where he could generate crowds by just having the words “surf rock” on a flyer. But mostly it was a place for local, unknown bands to test the waters, ultimately forming a community of regulars.
Boston music scene veteran Joel Simches told Dig that the Kirkland was the home of Club Bohemia’s glory days. As a young musician, he played the space with numerous bands, including Curious Ritual and Butterscott, and said he admired Bliss’ generosity and willingness to take risks on new acts.
“It was a cool safe space for bands to play,” Simches said. “It was a place for unknown bands to play without having to worry about filling the space. It was a place to play that was fun. You could have a fundraiser there and raise money, you could try out new material.”
But the Kirkland days entered decline in the late ’90s when owner Joe Hernon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. According to Bliss, Hernon left control of the bar to his family, who sought to change the tone to a family-centric Irish Pub. Renovations took longer than expected, and the regular crowd moved on. When it finally reopened the new management was more hostile to the bands, sometimes yelling at them to turn the volume down, Bliss said. Ultimately, in 2007, the Kirkland Cafe closed and Bliss took Club Bohemia to Cantab.
Central Square’s Changing Face
Rising rents, contract disputes, the creeping specter of corporate blight. All have contributed to the loss of Central Square’s unique, artistic character in the past several years. While T.T.’s and Out of the Blue Too have been two of the more high profile closings in recent years, the area has also lost Weirdo Records, the EMF Building, and All Asia in the past five years. Beyond the arts, however, Bliss said he laments the loss of local mom-and-pop coffee shops and department stores that used to give the area a local flavor.
“Yeah, that’s what’s happened, gentrification,” Bliss said. “They’re building more and more condos for the yuppies and moving out the people who make less money. It’s sad, very sad. Same thing happened to Park Square. I used to work at a place over there called Jack’s Drum Shop, and it’s just sad to see it going from a vibrant local space to just being big hotels and faceless corporate structures.”
Simches, who was priced out of the city and now lives in Peabody, said that although he’s frustrated with the state of the music scene and hates to see good clubs go, he views the loss of venues as a natural part of the course.
“What’s happening to Club Bohemia is indicative of what’s happening to the Boston scene in general,” Simches said. “But I don’t think the scene is dying; it ebbs and flows. I don’t know why Cantab is not doing live music, but I can tell you a lot of bands didn’t want to go there anyway. But they went to see Mickey.”
The Last Night
Wanting to put a bow on the club’s final night, Bliss quickly booked a last-minute acoustic set from Nolan Hill and Andy Mac of local punk act the Runouts, who played their first-ever show at Club Bohemia, to play the final set.
“It’s a bare-bones room, it’s just you on the stage in a basement, the crowd is right up in your face, it’s a great place to cut your teeth,” Mac told Dig, and added that he was honored to be the final act. “There’s nothing to hide behind, it’s a great place to hone your craft. The great thing about Mickey is he trusts people.”
Simches said he doesn’t see the appeal of Cantab’s decision to become a jukebox bar and that it risks losing a steady source of revenue in live underground music. With Cambridge locals being increasingly priced out and pushed into the suburbs, small clubs are suffering, and losing flavor is only going to exacerbate the problem.
“No one can afford to live here anymore, so who is coming through?” Simches said. “It’s the students and foreign exchange students, the tourists. So what is the appeal of going to a hole-in-the-wall dive bar? It just doesn’t appeal to the people who come here for the art and culture. They want to go to museums, or if they see a show they want a more established venue.”
Club Bohemia’s fans started an online petition to save the venue, which at the time of writing has 203 signatures. Although Bliss is sad to see the space go, he’s accepted the Cantab’s decision. At 66 years old and with parents to take care of, he said he’s not sure whether he wants to seek out a new venue to host shows or if it’s time to hang it up. With competition from places like the ONCE Lounge and PA Lounge—both in Somerville—moving is no guarantee that crowds will return. But whatever he decides, Bliss said he’s proud of his career.
“It’s funny,” he said. “This past spring and summer, even though there weren’t that many bands, I can remember just sitting there and thinking about how much I enjoyed doing this. Whatever it was like during the 25 years, I enjoyed it more than ever and I thought how lucky I was to be able to go in there three nights a week and listen to live music. And actually make a little bit of money at it. Not that I got rich, but I made a couple of bucks anyway.”
A shorter version of this article appeared in the DigBoston print edition.