Back Alley Café

Not much seems to exist on the Internent on this short-lived punk and pseudo-punk hangout in an alley in northwest Washington, D.C. It was just a stone’s throw from where I worked at the time, the Ha’ Penny Lion, a popular hangout for DC lobbyists and other K Streeet wannabees. On a side note, I should mention that a good portion of the restaurant’s pre-lunch rush receipts came from the 11:00 A.M. lobbyists regulars ready to get a buzz-on before noon. And yes, the bar was full by noon.

From what I remember from my friends who were “in the scene,” the “Back Alley” occupied space unused by Mr. Days, a jock/sports bar, the type of which I’ve visited perhaps only once (and that was in Baltimore, not DC). The irony seemed to make it even more popular–jock bar by day, punk bar by night.

Almost every night, I would see a guy (who looked to be a light-skinned African-American bike courier) wearing a faded Batman t-shirt (before it became cool to wear them and way before it became geeky to wear them); Ben, the DJ (whom I would ask nightly to play or mix certain songs); and a few other people I shouldn’t mention right now.

I used to talk to Ben a bit. He DJ’d at Cagney’s sometimes, too. It was at the Back Alley that I first learned about Bauhaus, Public Image, LTD., Killing Joke, etc. Yes, I know that some will say that those bands are the “standards,” but in DC, there wasn’t much opportunity to hear those bands anywhere at the time. The local alternative station WHFS didn’t play that music too much, and there weren’t many other places to explore alternative music.

25 Comments

  1. I actually edited out a couple of the names I remembered (for privacy reasons), but skate wasn’t one of the names that I’d heard before (that I recall now, anyway–memory’s getting hazy!). But if you’re referring to the guy wearing the Batman shirt, I’d imagine there weren’t too many African-Americans hanging out at DC punk clubs wearing Batman shirts at the time.

  2. Skate was a “mod” kind of guy. His real name is Wayne Devers. I used to work at the Back Alley. I can’t remember the bike messenger’s name; I remember him though.

  3. Skate was heavy set, about 5’10”, sandy blond hair.

    Ben was skinny, about 6’1″, curly, unruly brown hair.

    It’s funny you mention Bauhaus, Public Image, LTD., Killing Joke as being standards. Heck, in 2008 they are Classic Rock.

    But in 1985 you simply couldn’t hear those songs on the radio. Sure, WHFS would spin one or two once in awhile, but they had that lingering Deadhead/Hippy vibe, along with what would become Americana. There was no Internet, no Usenet, no way to spread the word about great bands.

    It’s impossible to describe. There was NO way to find out about bands. Either you worked at a record store, you had friends who did, you knew bands, went to shows or were turned onto artists by a friend.

    So the Back Alley was kind of like a radio station fulfilling an unmet market. The age group was 14-30, so everyone had vague memories of 1960’s hits, and the cool ‘old’ stuff was from 1979. So I could spin a set that was The Who/The Clash/Funkadelic/Ramones/Led Zeppelin/James Brown/REM/Dumptruck/Liquid Liquid/Vigil and everyone would dance.

    It looks tame today, but in 1985 such a set was as cutting edge and out there as possible. Situated in the Golden Triangle of 1970’s-era DC watering holes, we got lots of foot traffic of lookie lou’s and interns slumming from Rumours.

    I don’t think you can do that anymore in a dance club.

    I moved onto Cagney’s after BA closed, then BA II. When Nirvana got big, we took off. I would play Teen Spirit and people would scream, jump up off their seats and dance.

    That only happened during one period of my career, and only for that song, for about 6 weeks in the Fall of 1991.

    Well, now REM, U2, Elvis Costello and Nirvana are AAA, and my setlists would seem trite to the average 20 year old. No matter.

    At least bands like The Clash and Pistols now get their due and the respect they deserve. In 1978 I would get grief at HS for listening to that “New Wave, Punk Rock faggot bulls*it”. Now those bands are in the Rock Canon.

    We came, we saw, we conquered, we danced, we had a great time, and now it is in the past.

  4. Ben, awesome post. I always loved the music you played. Sorry if I’ve said this before, but here goes. Once I asked if you could mix New Order and The Doors, and you said no, it wouldn’t work. I’m not disagreeing or anything, but that’s just one of those things that I remember.

    Yeah, a lot of those bands you mentioned are now considered almost mainstream–you can get some of them from the BMG record club.

    Vigil–I don’t recall that name. It took a while, but I finally found something on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDgIQrSlG-g Sounds pretty good so far.

    Edit: OMG! I remember that song! I LIKE that song! I’ve got to find it somewhere… Wow, thanks for reminding me of this song.

    Thanks for the great post!

  5. “Once I asked if you could mix New Order and The Doors, and you said no, it wouldn’t work.”

    Holy Crap! I remember that!

    Keep in mind that the audience was secondary. I was playing my favorite set to what I would like to hear, and if people danced, so much the better. Honestly, I considered it an artistic outlet. I dreamt of mixes and music for 25 straight years.

    Still, to this day, one will pop into my head and I will jot it down.

    You can find Vigil in DC. It’s very rare – CD or LP or the German 12″ of “I Am Waiting”. I remember someone asking me about the band, and I said to speak to the drummer. He’s drinking at the bar. And I gestured to my right where X-Factor was being poured drink after drink by Sharveen or Marco or Erin.

    Who else showed up? Brian Baker. The Dischord crew wouldn’t for the most part. The Fleshtones.

    It was a great time. I couldn’t have done those sets 3 years earlier or later and had them work, and I think WDC was the perfect city for it.

    Lucky me.

  6. Ben, Joe Bonomo here. I’m living in IL now but lived in the DC suburbs and went to UMCP in the 80s and my friends and I hit BA weekly. What fantastic memories. You were great We cheap-drank and danced our way through college with you.

    I published a biography of the Fleshtones last year with Cointinuum Books called Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band. I don’t remember seeing the Fleshtones at BA. Makes sense that they’d hit it during one of their 9:30 Club “Fleshtones Weekends.” Would’ve been cool to run into them there.

    I’ll always have great memories of BA.

    Joe

  7. Joe!

    Good to hear from you. Peter Zaremba dropped by one night with his friend Leslie, who told me he was there (and I didn’t believe her). When I said that on mic, Pete pops his head above the DJ booth and said:

    “I’m right here!”

    Egg on my face. Played “right side of a good thing” and Peter danced like a lunatic.

    Erin:

    Vigil Myspace:
    http://www.myspace.com/originalvigilband

  8. Very cool. Do you remember the year?

    Considering the number of beer cups I used to count at the end of a BA Friday night, Zaremba might’ve been there and I don’t remember….

  9. Ben, would you believe that I got the Vigil CD in the mail today? I found a copy on sale at Amazon.

    I’m in a rush, but I wanted to ask–do you have any set lists? Like I said, I was a big fan of your music, so I’d love to mine for goodies.

    Some artists I’ve been enjoying lately include Adam Freeland, Evil Nine, Film School, Electrelane, Clinic, Synax (Fluke offshoot), etc.

  10. Setlists? No.

    But I remember what I played and can drum up a list easily.

  11. Actually, I guess setlists aren’t really necessary. It’s just always good to get new ideas for music.

    Would you believe that K-Tel put out an excellent compilation of music from around that time? I’ve found a few bands on it that I’d never listened to.

    Here’s a link and a track listing:

    http://www.amazon.com/Gimme-Indie-Rock-Vol-1/dp/B00004S80C/

    Disc: 1
    1. Pink Turns To Blue – Husker Du
    2. Little Furry Things – Dinosaur Jr
    3. Too Far Gone – My Dad Is Dead
    4. My Favourite Dress – The Wedding Present
    5. I Love My Leather Jacket – The Chills
    6. Cruisers Creek – The Fall
    7. Sweet Little Hi-Fi – Pussy Galore
    8. Touch Me I’m Sick – Mudhoney
    9. US Teens Are Spoiled Bums – Half Japanese
    10. She’s Fetching – Big Dipper
    11. Jangle Town – Nikki Sudden
    12. Watching The Candles Burn – Eleventh Dream Day
    13. Black Venetian Blind – Giant Sand
    14. Swimming Ground – The Meat Puppets
    15. I’m Ready – Scrawl
    Disc: 2
    1. Slipping Into Something – The Feelies
    2. Barnaby, Hardly Working – Yo La Tengo
    3. Nothing Left To Lose – The Wipers
    4. Sun God – Squirrel Bait
    5. Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing – The Minutemen
    6. Andelusia (Instrumental Version) – Savage Republic
    7. Ghosts Of American Astronauts – The Mekons
    8. Blue Thunder – Galaxie 500
    9. Take Me To The Other Side – Spacemen 3
    10. Everything’s Explodin – The Flaming Lips
    11. Creepy Smell – The Melvins
    12. Black Coffee – Black Flag
    13. Coca-Cola & Licorice – Death Of Samantha
    14. I’m Alright With You – The Pastels
    15. Molly’s Lips – The Vaselines

  12. This is an old thread, but I worked at the Ha’ Penny Lion from ’86 – ’89. Back then we were the only bar downtown with an outdoor bar. There certainly were a lot of lobbists and K Street wannabes. Vicky was the DJ, Tom and John were behind the front bar. I can remember the faces of the other bar tenders…but their names escape me now.

    I have run into regulars over the years from Hartford to Boston and Newport RI. Those were some great days/nights…we got a lot of people drunk off cheap Stroh’s beers. I think it was 18oz for $1.25.

    We used to leave the Ha’ Penny after work and go over to Mike Baker’s and beverage there until close.

    • Yeah, it’s an old thread, but it’s the most active one on the whole blog (inasmuch as it can be called that).

      Whoa, you worked at the Ha’ Penny? Me, too! That was my first waiting job. I would have been there around the same time as you, too. Maybe a bit earlier. You’re right about the lobbyists–that’s one of the things I most remember about working there. There was this group that would come in before lunch rush, sit at the bar for a good two hours, and get hammered. Pretty much every day, too. Amazing. Don’t know how people can do that.

      Many of those names don’t ring a bell, but I do remember Vicky (the DJ), her friend Sean, Rudy and Jane the bartenders, a couple of wait staff (a Welsh girl and Billy who I think became a manager), the manager Paul and a tall, skinny blond guy, and who else? That’s about it. Oh, another waiter who used to talk about the “secretary’s special–Mexican salad and iced tea.” And the old man who ordered strawberry daiquiris and sat alone at the back of the restaurant.

      I ran into Rudy in San Francisco working at Kuleto’s. That was funny.

      As for happy hours–I remember Samantha’s. Those office workers sure did get trashed. And I was fortunate enough to work that Friday-night happy hour at the Ha’ Penny only once or twice. I quickly learned why whoever worked that shift was loath to let it go. 😉

      • Hi, I haven’t been able to find this URL address since my Dec 2011 post.

        The tall skinny guy with blonde hair was Mike. If I remember he became the night manager back then. Did you know Marta who worked in the kitchen. She used to feed us after our shift was over…she was great! Jane and Rudy worked the back bar and the patio in the summer when the patio was open. I didn’t experience the lunch crowd. I was a bouncer there on Friday nights and when we had private parties on Saturdays.

        Most of the bouncers were GW students. Paul, Joseph, Rob, Eric…etc. We use to hang out at 21st Amendment, Odds, Madhatter’s, Sign of the Whale, was there a Black/Red Rooster on L street?

        Ben, thanks for the information on Vicky. She was a lot of fun and spun great tunes. Her boyfriend whom she married used to work with us for a while too. I heard they have a lot of kids…

        Where did 25 years go….???

        • Wow, Jane and Rudy. I remember them well. Awesome to work with. I ran into Rudy a few years later in San Francisco, at Kuleto’s in Union Square. He was tending bar there.

          I remember a bunch of the managers–Mike and Paul, mainly. I remember Paul showed up to work one day all beaten and bruised. He’d been mugged that day or the day before. Poor guy. He was always so friendly.

  13. I used to pop into the Ha’Penny after the BA shut down. Until I moved on to Cagney’s.

    Vicky ended up Dj’ing sets at Bradshaws in Adams Morgan, downstairs. I forget which nights. Around 1988-1990.

    Sean turned me on to Pavement, which, in 1990, I just hated.

    The lo-fi thing did not sit well with me, as I had to play music in a club. Something with the sound of a 1960’s AM radio, with no bass at all, did not make sense.

    Now, I am a huge Pavement fan. Their stuff is derivative of very very early Fall, but still great stuff. Almost Classic Rock, but what isn’t these days?

    The tall skinny blonde guy may have been Bill Speiler who managed Crow Bar and other places.

    All great times that don’t seem 25 years in the past.

  14. I spent many nights at the back alley during the summer of 86. My band played there 2 or 3 times through the fall. The music was a great mix and everyone was there to have a good time. I remember drunken make out sessions at the bar, meeting an Iranian hooker, getting into a screaming match with one of the bands we played with about who was going on first, I think they were called the High Llamas. I also recall late night bass and drum songs on the dance floor mixed in with the Clash and Sushi and the Banchees. One night I met some girls dancing at back alley and they invited me and a buddy back to a mansion in Maryland that one was house sitting. It was really nice so I stayed there for a week, moved into one of the bedrooms, wearing somebody else’s clothes and using all their stuff and eating their food. It was amazing since I was a broke punk at the time. I ended up getting together with both girls that week and dated one of them for 2 years. It was all so easy back then.

  15. I used to go to the Back Alley nights at Mr. Day’s on Sundays in the early 90s (92-95 timeframe). I was in the Navy at the time and frequented that place often. I remember Ben and the bartenders 🙂 Ryan, Marco, and Laura were the best damn bartenders I knew and DC was a great scene then. The 9:30 Club was an awesome place too at it’s old location near Chinatown. I can’t imagine going to that place today being it’s bigger than life and quite a spectacle. I remember seeing some awesome bands at that place and frequently some solo performances. GWAR, PJ Harvey and Jeffrey Gaines come to mind. Great memories in what now seems like simpler times but definitely didn’t seem simple then. Back Alley often did special events at other nightclubs and bars. I remember going to one of those venues and Ben asking if it was true the legendary Frank Zappa had died. It was true and I could tell Ben was shaken. I’ve been to DC since then but nothing can replace those memories and DC seems to be more crowded and a lot less cooler. Some may argue that change is good but at times change is just a reminder of how truly great things were at a time pre-9/11 when the world although still complex and some sense of sanity and purpose. Thank you Back Alley Crew for all the great times and making an impression on me and my friends!

  16. I was a Back Alley visitor in the 80s as well when I was a student at AU. And I know you’re gonna groan and spit at me and call me names but the truth is that for a while, Poseurs (M St) played a lot of that music at the time, too. And with the videos.

  17. Kevin,

    The reason that the music overlapped is because the DJ’s at Poseurs would give me the vinyl for music they could not play at Poseurs and keep Lou C. happy with a packed dance floor. Poseurs was a tiny place and the dance floor was not bigger than 8ft by 8ft. They spent a large sum of money for a then state-of-the-art video and sound system and he naturally wanted to maximise the dance floor. Many of the best tunes of that time, such as The Godfather’s lp on Link Records, were given to me by DJ Adam Sartwell, the head DJ at Poseurs.

    I was familiar with all of the clubs in DC with this target market; Poseurs, Cagney’s, Carmichaels, and others included.

    I live in Asia, now. I am retired, and do little but garden and build DIY audio projects.

    Of course the best way to keep in touch now is via social media, FaceBook, and other Ft. Meade data mining operations.

    All the best to everyone,
    (Formerly) DJ Ben
    Back Alley Cafe
    1111 19th Street, N.W., Washington DC, 20036
    December 6th, 1985 – February 15th, 1988

    P.S. The address and space is now a US Department of State visa and passport processing centre, and I actually renewed my passport a few years back standing on what was the dance floor now a waiting room for DOS visa clerks.

    • The address and space is now a US Department of State visa and passport processing centre, and I actually renewed my passport a few years back standing on what was the dance floor now a waiting room for DOS visa clerks.

      Hilarious. Edit: Not being sarcastic. That’s pretty weird.

  18. Hi Ben and everyone else. Remember Scene Magazine?
    I check the web now and then to see if any of the old BA gang is still around, or maybe a BA reunion is in the works (don’t wait too long; we’ll all be in wheelchairs). Miss those days. The music, the people, leather jackets, dark gritty alleys, the whole scene. Is it really gone? Or has it all changed so much we just don’t recognize it…..?
    Anyhow, Hi Ben, hope you’re doing well.

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