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Tim Murrah's Stuka goes down in flames

Well, folks, it was fun while it lasted, but after about nine months Stuka's blitzkrieg of Houston nightlife is now officially over. The club that brought us live shows from Navdeep, Riverboat Gamblers, the Dragons, Starlight Mints/Steve Burns, Longwave, A.R.E. Weapons and Edwyn Collins, among others, and some of the more enlightening DJ mixes in town, is gone.

General manager Tim Murrah is out, and the club's co-owner Trent Phan has unveiled plans to rename the joint with a much less provocative handle. Soon the place will be called Union, and most but not all of the live shows will be replaced by DJ sets. ("Gay Bar" fans take heart: The October 24 Electric Six/Junior Senior show at the club will still go on.) Murrah, meanwhile, is keeping the Stuka name and promises to maintain the club's Web site, with an eye toward reopening eventually.

As with almost any endeavor involving Murrah, his ouster from the club came laden with plenty of drama. "Intrigue, deceit, Judas, you name it. The investor got cold feet, someone else came on staff and put a bug in his ear," Murrah says. "One day I went in the club and there were plans for a new layout for the club laying there on the bar. I thought that was really odd so I called Trent and asked him what was going on. They'd been conniving…

"And it came down to kind of a thuggish evening. There was a break-in at the bar and a bunch of hoodlums were there. There was threats made, there was sons of prominent Houston businessmen there threatening to beat me up. Trent was yelling and screaming, saying I made a threat on his life, which was totally ridiculous. It spun out of control. A line was drawn."

Phan has a different version of those events. First, he says Murrah did threaten him; specifically he said he "wouldn't go out easily, he'd kill." Second, Phan laughs off the" hoodlums" bit and says that what Murrah calls a break-in was something else entirely. Without permission, Phan says, Murrah had changed the locks on the doors, and Phan called a locksmith to let him in, and he offered to let Racket see the receipt. There was a son of a prominent Houston businessman there, but Phan, who won't name this allegedly menacing local scion, says he was there only to act as a witness.

Still, that commotion-packed evening was just the beginning of the end. According to Phan, what really ended Murrah's relationship with the club was the fact that it was losing lots and lots of money. Phan says his losses were something along the lines of five to eight thousand dollars a month. Who in their right mind could continue to do that?

Murrah says the money hemorrhage would've healed given time, if and only if Phan had just let him do his thing. "I think the investor didn't realize his place," Murrah says. "He was an investor, not a manager, and he doesn't know music. He doesn't know what's going on. He's a lawyer, he's not in on it."

And if there is anybody in this town that could truly be said to be in on it, that person would be Tim Murrah. That's the problem -- he's too in on it. He's about six months ahead of the hippest of the hip, and what's worse, he knows it, and what rankles some even more than that is that he's not the slightest bit shy about telling people so. He's even been known to inform people matter-of-factly that he's a genius.

"A prophet is never loved in his hometown, is he?" the tall Pasadena native asks Racket rhetorically. "Maybe I'm ahead of the curve."

And as kind as he can be when assessing himself, he is pretty tough on pretty much everyone else in town. He sees Houston as something of a confederacy of dunces, allied to keep him down. Among others, Rudyard's, the Proletariat, the Hands Up Houston booking collective (which he calls "the white-belt crowd") and especially Numbers have all tasted his wrath, whether it has been in person, printed in this paper or on Internet message boards. It was his perception of Houston as a stale nightlife town that drove him into this business -- first at Metropol -- after a lengthy sojourn in Europe.

"I was tired of Houston being a laughingstock, so I thought that at least we could have a club that goes out on a limb, or that was basically like a learning experience," he says. "You can come if you want to learn, and if you don't, you can go somewhere like Numbers, for God's sakes, where they've had 25 years of the same thing. I want to turn people on to something new, or maybe just expose something new -- you don't have to dig it, but I want my place to be where it would get an airing. But it's frustrating."

And so far, at two clubs, his missionary zeal hasn't worked for him. Murrah is like a chef who serves up food that the public is not quite ready for. Racket talked to Press food critic Robb Walsh about that idea, and Walsh told Racket that it sounded similar to the phenomenon that bedevils Houston's pizza chefs. Without getting too technical about it, Walsh says that many a pizzeria has opened here with the notion that it would be the one that would educate Houston about what real pie was like: great crust and sparse but tasty toppings. But that's not what people are conditioned for here -- we believe the more gunk the better. Pizzerias that have caved and started shoveling on toppings by the truckload have stayed in business; those that did not have gone under.

Murrah himself brings up a food analogy. "I was told that in the north of Scotland there's a place where they invented the deep-fried Mars bar and they also deep-fry pizza and there are people there that are proud that they have never eaten a fresh vegetable in their life," he says. "That's the same attitude as what is going on at the club. They want an '80s night, they think hip-hop should go on, and I think that shit should have died 20 fuckin' years ago. It's like that old saying -- they don't know what they like, they like what they know. People don't like to take chances."

Which brings us back to Robb Walsh. "People don't want to be educated while they're out drinking," he says. Phan has come to see the wisdom of that statement. "That's a really, really good way to put it," he says.

But Murrah won't compromise on that score. It's a misconception to think he books only things he likes and likes things only he books -- he hated A.R.E. Weapons, for example. (For the record, Jagi Katial booked Stuka, though Murrah had final say-so.) But what is a valid point is that he'd never sign off on some profitable tried-and-true staple to draw people in.

Some people do get what Murrah does. "I walked into the Gap one day and this girl walked up to me and told me my club was fucking great," Murrah says. "She said, 'I go in your club and I hear music that I've never heard, but I go every week. Then a couple of months later, I hear it on our "in-store alternative tape" here at the store.' She told me how great it was to be able to go out and hear stuff before it was deemed cool."

But those people are apparently too few and far between here for clubs like Murrah's to work. Still, he won't see Stuka as a failure, even though it didn't last a year.

"We did some great shows, got some shows in there that no one else would have ever touched," he says. "Some things happened that I've been trying to make happen for a long time. And when I started out, I wanted it to be a place that you either loved or hated, and for whatever reason a lot of people hated us. I guess it's 'cause I call a spade a spade. People may ridicule me -- call me an asshole or whatever -- but who brought bands like the Faint and the Rapture here?" He points to himself. "Daddy."

And he's right, and Houston needs Murrah. His abrasive attitude keeps the scene on full boil, and since when was attitude a sin in the rock and roll business, especially when you've got the goods to back it up?

"There's great people out there pushing forward, and there are some local bands that I think are halfway decent, but that's the problem -- there's no place out there for these like-minded people to meet," Murrah says. "And there likely won't be until another investor comes along with more passion for music than sense."

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