Lamenting lost venues sometimes feels like counting your fallen comrades. You've both had some great times together, maybe a few bad ones and at the same time you've grown up together. But now it's years later and your friend has only been demolished and replaced by apartments and offices. Excuse us while we shake our fist at the sky.
It's no secret that Denton music venues have been falling by the wayside like a plague in the past year, the most recent of which was J and J's Ol' Dirty Basement late last week. This trend is not exclusive to Denton. In the wake of the change we're taking a moment to think back. Read on to learn how the music scene and J&J's has impacted us over the years.
I remember being 18 years old, a freshman at UNT and my friends and I thinking that we totally had Denton figured out. We spent our evenings eating J&J’s pizza off of paper plates on the courthouse lawn and drinking mocha and mint milkshakes from Jupiter House before heading off to a show at Hailey’s to catch Mouse Parade or Explosions in the Sky or Flickerstick. I would make sure my cash and ID were ready, knowing that my hand was about to be stamped with ink that would take days to get off, which would alert the bartender that I was not old enough to enjoy the beer that everyone around me was drinking. We would hunt down house shows in ramshackle rent houses on Bernard Street, or in some kid’s apartment on Avenue G, hoping that the cops wouldn’t bust it because of too many cars on the street or the music being too raucous. We would roll into our dorm rooms sometime before dawn, peeling off our clothes that reeked of smoke and sweat and spilled beer - and close our eyes, too tired to wash the smell off of our bodies.
I’ve never been a musician, I have not a single musical bone in my body, but I’ve always loved music. I’ve traveled across the country to catch a band live, I’ve been the crazy person at the computer, waiting for the tickets to be available for purchase. I’ve spent days camping out at festivals, nights waiting in line to get in the door, been pushed by someone who was trying to elbow their way to the front of the crowd, waited in a long line to see a favorite musician just to be blocked by the six foot tall dude standing between me and the stage. J&J’s basement has a place in the memory bank as well.
I remember the first time I made my way down those narrow stairs, unsure of what to expect. Would someone need my ID at the bottom? Would my hand be stamped? Do I need to grab a slice of pizza pre-show, or should we wait until after? Is this ceiling about to cave in and kill me? Yet - still - we made our way into the dark, dank basement. People settled in, the band started to play, and then the beat of the drum washed over the crowd and envelopes them in such a way that they all start to move in a strange rhythm - like the waves of the ocean. That was the first of many shows I witnessed in the basement. I remember a band that set up a pile of old televisions, all set to static screens that were front and center during the show. I remember ambient noise bands that brought in discarded old floor lamps, with thrift store scarves covering the lampshades. There was always the gaze of the virgin mother watching over us from the corner. There was the band that set up a sort of sheet fort that they played from. I remember big crowds and small crowds. I remember shows where there were two dudes in the back playing pool who would occasionally pause their game to nod to the music. I remember the thick stale air, and the basement being so crowded you could barely move. I remember not caring about it being unbearably hot and humid with sweat and breath and pizza grease because the only thing that mattered was that moment.
I remember distinctly going down to watch Big Round Spectacles, what was then a two man band made up of best friends Jon Ladner and Matt Terrill, who sang songs about their life with a dry poetic style not so far off from Conor Oberst. I’m not sure if they still play together today. From the looks of Facebook they’ve possibly added a few people, and their last album was released on Bandcamp in 2014, aptly named Nostalgia. Today Matt and Jon both teach in Denton ISD, and they have wives and families. Which goes to show that things change over time. They’re not the same people they were when they first started playing together, and I’m not the same person I was 12 years ago either.
This is another great reflection of the ever changing scene in Denton. In recent years we’ve seen the passing of Macaroni Island, Hailey’s, Rubber Gloves and now the Ol' Dirty Basement at J&J’s. This closing and changing and growing thing isn’t new to Denton though. Over the last 40 years Denton has seen many a music venue close. Rick's Place, Argo's, Secret Headquarters were all once great music venues that meant something to a group of people at a certain point in their lives. Somehow, a new one opens, a new space comes alive, a new crowd keeps the spirit alive. This is where the challenge lies; how do we both mourn the past and look positively towards the future?
The fact remains that things change. Denton doesn’t look the same as it did 100 years ago. 50 years ago we had a department store on the square. There was a pizza shop with a music venue in the basement in 90’s. Back then it was a Mr. Gatti’s. I used to see bands I loved at Hailey’s, now I see local bands play at Dan’s or sometimes Harvest House. In fact, the other night I was walking down Hickory to show a friend some of the changes since they were here last. We headed into Harvest House for a cocktail that was essentially gin-spiked beet juice and caught part of the Sol Kitchen set, where there were Grammy-nominated artists playing on stage for free.
I serve on our Historic Landmark Commission with the city, and I was recently challenged into re-thinking education about our historic landmarks and homes. The challenge to preservationists of places and buildings is to get them to stop asking "What from the past 50 years can we save," and start asking "What do we want our city to look like in 200 years?" Preservation isn’t about freezing time in a capsule, but is about celebrating how a time or place impacted us.
Our city is a growing, changing, living organism; therefore change is inevitable. We have to savor the nostalgic moments in time, we need to remember the sentimental moments that changed who we are, that impressed something greater on us as individuals, as a large community of creative people, as a city. But we can’t just stop at that.
Instead of pointing fingers at the city, the changing music industry, the perceived lack of support, or the internet, let’s have a constructive conversation. Let’s take a moment to remember the past, and then press on into the future.
What will be the next gathering place of artistic minds, musicians and more?
Our city is lousy with talent, and we are in a prime moment for a well-supported all-ages DIY venue of some sort. We need a place for artists and bands who are maybe under-21to develop their skills and sound, because it is actually good for our city as a whole. How that happens is up to you. One of our owners showed up in Denton 13 years ago with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar, took one look at the city, and thought, I can do something here. I can actually create something here. Some cities are for consumers and some are for creators. We have the unique opportunity here to create the city we want… for both creators and consumers.
We would like to take a moment to thank the past DIY venues that have impacted the culture of Denton over the past 45 years.
Shipley Manor (Where OSDH&CP is now. Legend has it at one party, there was a woman dressed in all leather with a giant whip)
Slum Manor (Apparently the Budweiser delivery guy would pull up and sell kegs out of the truck)
Green Means Go (Collection of people doing a DIY space… and one of those people happened to be the lead singer of the Riverboat Gamblers, Mike Wiebe)
The Yellow House
The Mulberry Street House
The Delta Lodge
The Argo (Sure it was a legit bar, but it sure wasn’t run like one)
Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios (Back in the day, it was someone’s living room, then a DIY venue, then a legit venue)
The Bonnie Brae House
Mr. Gatti’s (currently J&J's Pizza)
The Rib Shack (Where Oriental Garden is now – Midlake played their first show)
Early and Mid- 2000’s
The 8th Continent / Wisconsin / Majestic Dwelling of DOOM
The Fra House
House of Tinnitus
This is not an exhaustive list. We're sure there are some that we’ve left out. If you’re aware of others please share them with us in the comments section below.
*A special thanks to Dr. Michael Seman, the man who is my indie rock, DIY scene and economics guru. You have always been an excellent support system through all of the many changes that have occurred during our time here Denton.