Saturday, November 5, 2011

Blitzkrieg Bop in Bailey's Crossroads: Louie's Rock City and the Birth of Punk in DC

In June 1975, Hawaiian restaurateur Johnny Kao rented the former site of Giant Food at at 3501 S. Jefferson St. in Bailey’s Crossroads and turned it into a Las Vegas styled lounge called the Royal Hawaiian Supper Club. The club opened to much anticipation and fanfare in December 1975 with Patti Page and a comedian named Freddie Roman headlining the first week. The club was beautiful by all accounts and appealed to the over-thirty suburbanites driven from the city by crime and racial tension. In short order the club featured The Platters, Phyllis Diller, Eddie Fisher, The Smothers Brothers, Billy Eckstine, The Supremes (post Diana Ross), and Bobby Rydell. However, the article on the club’s opening night sounded some ominous warnings such as the strange location of this glitzy club in the middle of a suburban shopping mall and, worst of all, on opening night it was only three-fourths full. Patti Page expressed surprise at the club’s location and Roman joked about performing in a shopping center.




By June of 1976, the club ran into financial problems and was sold to new owner named Mike Munley. Mike Munley had been co-owner of the Bayou in the fifties with the Vincent and Tony Tramonte (in 1980 after selling the Bayou, Vincent Tramonte would start the Italian Store on Lee Highway). After he was bought out from the Bayou, Munley ran the Place Where Louie Dwells located originally at 1000 4th Street, SW in DC and later moved to 1011 Wesley Place, SW. It was a typical lounge in the Southwest waterfront area opening around 1966 featuring mediocre food and lounge jazz. Louie’s gained some brief notoriety when the local piano-man Samuel Marks collapsed at the piano and died. When Munley bought the Royal Hawaiian, he began to work to change the name of his new restaurant to the Place Where Louie Dwells.


While Munley worked on the name change, he expanded the line up with his first act being the country singer Lynn Anderson of “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” fame. In July 1976, one of the last acts to appear at the Royal Hawaiian Supper Club was the Mills Brothers during the week they would entertain the ever-square Gerald Ford at the White House. Munley also inherited a dire financial situation and checks sent to entertainers bounced, which led to a $15,000 lawsuit by singer Jack Albertson. The club featured artists such as the Amazing Kreskin, Brenda Lee, and Sarah Vaughn.

Probably driven by economics more than anything, in October, 1977, the name of the club had become Louie’s Rock Concert City, but it was commonly known as Louie’s Rock City and they began to bring in rock music in the hopes of saving the business. In November 1977 Summersault and Cactus played, a few weeks later were Dr. Feelgood and Gentle Giant, Rick Derringer, Johnny Winter. Immediately, it became the place in NOVA for the burgeoning hard rock scene hosting brand new acts like Judas Priest before they hit the big time. Even though the club focused on rock music, it was cool to the new punk music coming out of New York. In 1977, the club cancelled the legendary punk bank the Nerves when they got a look at the band members.

By 1979, the owners of Louie’s Rock City accepted punk enough to host the Ramones. At first the Ramones were supposed to play on April 2, but it appears that show was cancelled for reasons lost to history. The Ramones would play Louie’s on July 27 and the show would be a cultural marker for the DC area. Of course, this wasn’t the Ramones first appearance in the DC area. They had played the Childe Harold October 22-24, 1976; October 11, 1977 at the Bayou; October 15, 1977 opening for Iggy Pop at the Baltimore Civic Center; and the Cellar Door with the Runaways March 19, 1978.

This time it was different because the punk scene in DC was coalescing around some kids for Northwest Washington, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. A young music promoter named Seth Hurwitz saw the Ramones were coming to Louie’s and decided to bring them down a day early for the premiere of the Ramones’ new movie “Rock and Roll High School” at the Ontario Theatre in Adams Morgan. On July 25, 1979, The Slickee Boys and Razz played to a packed crowd as the Ramones signed autographs and mingled. For many kids, this was the beginning of punk in Washington and Hurwitz would go on to own the 9:30 Club and founded the musical promotion company Live Nation. As “Rock and Roll High School” rolled fans danced in aisles to the music and cheered through best scenes. The newspaper described the crowd as a mix of punks, hippies, and lawyers ranging from “preteens to aging rockers”. The next day, the Ramones signed records at Penguin Feather at 5850 Leesburg Pike. The building has been torn down, but it was located roughly on the parking lot of the recently shuttered Borders Books in Crossroads Center.


Ramones at Onatrio Theatre

Sensing the excitement in the city, the Washington Post was on hand for the Ramones gig at Louie’s on July 27, 1979. Initially the Post dislike punk because it upset the neat order of Washington, which was neatly divided into the three strata of the city, black people, polite Washington, and hippies. Punk didn’t fit and the old curmudgeon of DC music Richard Harrington declared punk was the “music for empty spaces of the mind.” In his review of the earlier Ramones show at the Bayou, he sounded a hopeful tone that punk was a passing fad when he said that half the crowd was there “out of curiosity” and “a number left after it became apparent that a Ramones set consists of monochord songs.” It’s a bitch being a cultural arbiter when the great unwashed don’t heed your cultural orders.

In a rare moment of wisdom, the WaPo hired a decent reporter, named Joe Sasfy, to cover the new music scene. Sasfy managed to straddle his reporting between a sympathetic eye towards the new sounds, but always writing in a way that polite Washington could understand. Wisely, Harrington was allowed to go to bed at a decent hour on the night the Ramones played Louie’s and the Post sent Sasfy to capture a cultural moment for the DC area. Sasfy noted in his article the Ramones fans showed up and were surprised by Louie’s dress policy and had to sew the tears in their clothes to get in. As the soon-to-be singer for Minor Threat and later Fugazi, Ian MacKaye recalled:

I have great memories of seeing the Ramones in 1979 in Virginia, a bit further out in the suburbs at a place run by the marines. It had almost a Hawaiian theme, an old-school bar/lounge kind of place, with cocktail waitresses and stuff. There was a huge line of people waiting to get in the show, and there was a skirmish at the front of the line, and the word spread like wildfire and came down the line that there was a dress code, and you couldn't have torn jeans. But you were going to see the Ramones-everyone had torn jeans! It just rippled: Dress code, they won't let you in with torn jeans. Suddenly-it was in a little shopping mall-people made a beeline for the pharmacy and started buying needles and thread. There was a whole fucking parking lot of people sewing their jeans up trying to get in this gig.

It’s surprising that Louie’s had a dress policy given they hosted Judas Priest and other hard rock bands. This incident may have stemmed from the club owners nervousness about hosting a punk show and was implemented as a way to control the crowd. Despite this barrier, the crowd packed into Louie’s to see one of the great Ramones shows. One recent high school graduate named Henry Garfield was there. The show would transform his life and he would form a band called Black Flag and change his name to Henry Rollins. Rollins speaks often about his experience at the show saying he “never got over that gig”. Later he said,

I saw them at a small club, Louis’s Rock City, which is now a Chinese restaurant, in Falls Church, Virginia, right over the bridge from DC. It was one of those over-sold events where there’s no breathable air. I was right in front of Dee Dee. It was the first time I can remember being really star-struck. A lot of us were just coming out of arena rock. I’d seen Led Zeppelin a year and a half before. But with the Ramones there was no barricade, I could’ve leaned over and grabbed the head-stock of Dee Dee’s bass. Johnny and Joey were very tall people, so they had quite a presence up close. There was no space between the songs; they just beat you over the head with it. It’s a hot night, there’s no air, it was kind of painful, really loud, and we knew every word to every song – so you walked out of there, knowing you’d been put through something. You felt physically pummeled; it was really a full-on experience. I realized I was gonna be in this mindset for the rest of my life. I had no idea then what I was doing with my life. I had a minimum-wage job, $3.50 an hour, and a really bad apartment with a friend. So the Ramones had a very big impact on me.

These few days the Ramones spent in the DC area would change the landscape of the city and in short order it would become one of the centers of punk music in the United States. The Ramones at Louie’s would echo through the years as DC developed a unique and thriving punk and new music scene that would bring sounds and clubs the city now considers routine.

As for Louie’s Rock City, the club would go on to host memorable shows by Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry in 1981. By this mid-eighties, it became primarily known for heavy metal and hosted a regular Battle of the Bands featuring local heavy metal bands trying to break into stardom. The club closed in 1989 and became a Chinese restaurant. Today it is the Babylon Futbol Club featuring soccer, Arabic, Caribbean, and Latin music.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting post. This is a great blog.

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  2. I remember seeing Chuck Berry, but even though he was scheduled, Jerry Lee Lewis never showed up for his concert. I was one of the many disappointed fans that were told that The Killer wouldn't be performing. We were told that he was rushed to the hospital with a stomach ailment, but legend has it that he was arrested that day for cocaine possession.

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  3. Thanks for adding to the story. Jerry Lee in Baileys was too good to be true!

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  4. Great article! Connects a lot of the dots for someone who has some hazy memories (me!)

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  5. Great post, I was just a kid then. My parents owned the Chinese restaurant next door, Dragon Palace. I never knew all this information, thank you!

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  6. I remember The Place Where Louie Dwells in the late 60's. I worked there. There was a great female vocalist that sang there when I worked there. I also remember the Munley boys. Michael, Jimmy and Kevin. I always wondered what happened to them.

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