(This is the first of several posts I’ll be putting up this week and next, in preparation for the Rockafellas Reunion coming up November 16-17 in Columbia, SC, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the closing of the best little live music club this town’s ever seen.)
When I arrived at USC in the fall of 1985, Rockafellas was already becoming the place to be for great music. Unfortunately that freshman year, the legal age to enter was 19, so I missed out on shows like Black Flag because I was only 18 and couldn’t get in. The next year when the drinking age rose to 21, all the bars with live music instituted an 18-and-up entrance policy, no drinking allowed if you were under 21 of course. This was my chance, finally, and boy did I take it. For the next three and a half years I probably averaged three or four nights a week at Rockafellas, sometimes more, and the sheer number of bands I saw there still amazes me. There were hundreds of good shows, but back then I wasn’t taking notes, or pictures even, so what follows is a ‘highlights’ reel of sorts, with my best recollection of some select shows and other memories surrounding the storied club.
There were many bands I saw multiple times at Rockafellas, and not just the local bands. Regional touring acts were frequent visitors to the tiny stage, and repeat viewings were unavoidable even if I had wanted to not see them again.
I saw Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ for the first of dozens of times at Rockafellas around 1986 or so. They had just released their debut, Scarred But Smarter, and they were featured on a great compilation album from Atlanta’s 688 Club alongside bands like Dash Rip Rock, Arms Akimbo, and a few others I don’t remember. All I remember from the show was Kevn Kinney’s bleached blond long hair and the then-trio’s rapid shifts from energetic punk-infused hard rock songs like the debut’s title tune and, “Another Scarlet Butterfly,” and some cornpone honkytonk songs like, “Bring Home The Bacon.” I was hooked, and they have been a favorite of mine ever since.
WUSC was in its prime back then, and plenty of the bands played on the USC station made their way to the Rockafellas stage. An early favorite of mine, the Boston band Scruffy the Cat, were scheduled to play as the opening act for Dreams So Real the same night that R.E.M. played the Township Auditorium on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour, I think it was the spring of 1987. There were a group of WUSC DJs that went to see R.E.M., but left the show early because Scruffy was playing before the Township show would be over and we didn’t want to miss them. Dreams So Real were an Athens band that created a sound similar to R.E.M. and actually made a decent album or two, but that night we weren’t interested in anything but seeing Scruffy the Cat, who were an incredible live band.
There was something about those bands from Boston back then, so many of them came to Rockafellas and they were all good. In addition to Scruffy, the others included the Dogmatics, Dumptruck, The Bags, Bullet Lavolta, and the Neighborhoods. The Dogmatics only played there once that I remember, they were fun punk-ish rock. Dumptruck came through a couple times, they had a more REM/Feelies kind of atmospheric rock/pop groove going. The Bags were a great hard rock band with some insane, hook-filled tunes like, “What Do You Want,” and, “Tailbone,” both off of their Rock Starve album—if you ever see a copy of this record, buy it. Bullet Lavolta were on the borderline of the grunge era but I actually liked them better than most of what came out of the Seattle/Sub Pop scene a couple years later. They even put out a few releases on RCA records which are worth finding, but I don’t remember much from their shows at Rockafellas.
The Neighborhoods were one of, if not the best, bands to ever play Rockafellas, and I know that’s saying a lot but it’s the truth. Only a trio, the band took Aerosmith riffs and played them with what we’d probably call punk-pop abandon now. They were a dynamite live band, with an always unpredictable show. Singer and guitarist Dave Minehan had some interesting ideas about playing live, one of which was the band’s lighting. Instead of using colored gels over the light cans shining on them, they insisted on removing the gels to produce a nearly blinding white light on the band. The intensity of the lights matched the intensity of their playing, and the amount of sweat rolling off Minehan especially was so great he had clear plastic sheeting laid over his effects pedals. Their shows almost always included a covers portion, which they even had a name for, like, “Fun time,’ or something, and it was this portion of the set where they would play nearly anything they could think of, and even take requests from the audience for songs—everything from Cheap Trick, to Bon Jovi and more, and they always sounded better than the originals.
Dash Rip Rock, from New Orleans, were frequent visitors to Rockafellas also, and they put on such a great show that for a while they were billed as the best bar band in the country, or something like that. Of the times I saw them, nothing beats the show when Hoaky, the bass player, was doing a minibottle shot of Jack Daniels that someone reached up to him while he was playing. Taking it in his teeth, he proceeded to upend it, emptying the contents into his throat. Since this wasn’t the first one of these he’d had that night, this one decided to come back up, and while he continued to play whatever song it was they were doing at the time, he leaned forward off the side of the stage, where there was a walkway of sorts leading to an exit door on each side of the small stage, and proceeded to puke without missing a note. Now THAT’s rock ‘n’ roll.
More to come: seeing them “before they were big,” and memorable local bands and shows.