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Ghosts of Washington Avenue

Noise goes whistling through the scenester artery's music venue graveyard.

Don't weep for Washington Avenue. One of Houston's oldest thoroughfares, it was a primary stagecoach route before eventually being paved, and the city's principal Austin highway in the pre-freeway days. The neighborhoods surrounding the three-mile strip between the Westcott traffic circle and downtown have been in pretty much constant flux since then, and probably always will be.

Nevertheless, Washington arrived at a grim milestone last week with the announcement that indie mecca Walter's on Washington would relocate to an undisclosed location — rumored to be a downtown warehouse near DiverseWorks just north of I-10 — in November. Since the late '70s, the avenue has been home to a sizable percentage of Houston's notable live-music venues. Although few of them were open at the same time, and fewer still at the same time within reasonable walking distance of each other, together these dozen or so venues opened their doors to thousands of performances.

Today, of course, bars that cater to Houston's young, affluent professionals — places such as Pearl Bar, Reign Lounge, Ei8ht and Block 21 — are the order of the day on Washington. Popping up seemingly every day, bringing more and more traffic and the attention of publications like The New York Times, they (as well as the apartments, townhomes, condominiums and shopping centers constantly under construction on the avenue) are driving property values up and small businesses such as Walter's out. And so it goes.

Noise thought the best way to mark this moment in history would be to take a virtual tour through Washington's rich musical past. We weren't the only ones; local musician Jeff Balke of Orange Is In posted a similar blog last week at blogs.jeffbalke.com. We would like to thank him, as well as the dozens of people who responded to our call for Washington Avenue memories on Hands Up Houston, for the inspiration and assistance.

(Note: we were unable to unearth enough information on the Washington Avenue Showbar and Cosmos to include them here, but they should not be forgotten either.)

The Abyss
Address: 5913 Washington
Years Open: 1993-1998
Today: Professional offices

Description: The Abyss took over from the Vatican as Houston's hard 'n' heavy venue of choice, hosting sub-arena alternative, grunge, punk and metal acts until the dawn of the nü-metal era.

Alumni: Jesus and Mary Chain, Spiritualized, Curve, Flaming Lips, Sugar, Afghan Whigs, Killdozer, Quiet Riot, Limp Bizkit, Lush, Weezer

Pat & Pete's Bon Ton Room
Address: 4216 Washington
Years Open: 1990-1993
Today: Pearl Bar

Description: Opened by former Club Hey Hey owners Pat and Pete Selin, the Bon Ton hosted local, regional and national blues, R&B and roots-rock acts and often gave out free beer and hot dogs. "Watch your ass on Washington Avenue," Pete Selin once told the Houston Press.

Alumni: Arc Angels, Beausoleil, Subdudes, Marcia Ball, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tailgators, Paladins

Local All-Stars: Carolyn ­Wonderland, Townes Van Zandt, Pete Mayes, Ezra Charles & the Works, Miss Molly

Club Hey Hey
Address: 3716 Washington
Years Open: 1987-1990
Today: Apartment complex

Description: Homey blues bar opened by future Bon Ton Room owners Pat and Pete Selin. Located across the street from Rockefeller's, the two venues shared customers and occasionally performers — Balke remembers Albert Collins, who was playing at Hey Hey, and Rockefeller's featured act B.B. King once meeting in the middle of Washington for an impromptu jam session.

Local All-Stars: Albert Collins, the Hollisters

Fabulous Satellite Lounge
Address: 3616 Washington
Years Open: 1992-2003
Today: Hair salon

Description: Owned by controversial Houston nightlife personality Dickie Malone, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge prospered throughout the alt-country heyday of the '90s and gave Austin artists a home away from home. The club's landlord refused to renew its lease in 2002 so customers at Star Pizza next door would have an easier time parking — one of the first intimations of what Washington Avenue would eventually become.

Alumni: Whiskeytown, Wilco, Son Volt, Old 97's, Dick Dale, Drive-By Truckers, Link Wray, Southern Culture on the Skids, Yo La Tengo, Red House Painters, Exene Cervenka, Vallejo, Royal Crown Revue, Reverend Horton Heat, Luna, Reckless Kelly, Patrice Pike/Sister 7, Bob Schneider, Storyville, Iguanas, Ian Moore, Mojo Nixon, Todd Snider, the Gourds, David Garza, Los Lonely Boys

Local All-Stars: Jesse Dayton/Road Kings, Robert Earl Keen, Banana Blender Surprise, El Orbits, the Hollisters, Trish Murphy, Chris Masterson, Lupe Olivares, the Basics

Mary Jane's Fat Cat
Address: 4216 Washington
Years Open: 1994-2006
Today: Pearl Bar

Description: The former Bon Ton Room and Shimmy Shack blossomed into Houston's premier place to catch touring indie and punk shows through the last half of the '90s and the first half of this decade; Walter's owner Pam Robinson bought Mary Jane's in 2002 and ran it until it closed in 2006. The staff was friendly unless you got on their bad side, as Florida agit-punks Anal Cunt once found out. "Pretty sure at the end of the night all of AC's tires were all slashed, and I think the bartender showed them the special bar shotgun and told them to get fucked," "AWAKE" commented on Hands Up Houston.

Alumni: Cat Power, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, Unicorns, Fiery Furnaces, Melt Banana, Dillinger 4, Hey Mercedes, ? & the Mysterians, Death from Above 1979, The Ex, the Fall, Clinic, Liars, British Sea Power, Feist, Oxes, the Delgados, Crooked Fingers, Les Savy Fav, Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Kills, Lightning Bolt, VHS or Beta, Blood Brothers, Bevis Frond, Xiu Xiu, Acid Mothers Temple, Anal Cunt

Local All-Stars: Rusted Shut, Junior Varsity, Horseshoe, Japanic, Dune TX, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Tody Castillo, ZZ Top (who once played an invite-only pre-tour warmup there)

Rhythm Room
Address: 1815 Washington
Years Open: 2002-2005
Today: Pandora Lounge

Description: A Mexican dance hall long ago, the Rhythm Room was by all accounts an excellent room to see live music, and for a few years in the early 2000s offered an eclectic alternative to Mary Jane's a few miles up Washington. It also had a foolproof after-hours security system, as some employees reportedly used to sleep on the pool table.

Alumni: Stellastarr, the Killers, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Octopus Project, Twilight Singers, Sondre Lerche, Tegan & Sara, Rebirth Brass Band

Local All-Stars: Filthy McNasty, Moses Guest

Rockefeller's
Address: 3620 Washington
Years Open: 1979-1998
Today: Wedding/party/event space; hosts occasional musical performances

Description: Still referred to as "the granddaddy of Houston nightclubs," Rockefeller's was known for its generous acoustics — thanks to its location inside the Heights Bank building — and dominated Washington Avenue live music throughout its 20-year run (it closed briefly around 1993 or '94 but reopened soon after). It hosted just about everyone who was anyone from the worlds of jazz, blues, country and rock, and is said to be the inspiration for Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble's "The House Is Rockin'." Rockefeller's demise came when many artists began booking one show at larger venues such as the Aerial Theater (now Verizon) rather than multi-night stands.

Alumni: Bonnie Raitt, Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Roy Orbison, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Jane's Addiction, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, Dwight Yoakam, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Mogwai, Jerry Jeff Walker, Medeski Martin & Wood, Dixie Chicks, Los Lobos, Chick Corea, Leo Kottke, Ottmar Liebert, Graham Nash & David Crosby (Crosby's first performance after being released from prison in 1986), Tom Waits, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Little Feat, John Prine, Roger McGuinn, Three Dog Night, Buck Owens, Jaco Pastorius, Richard Thompson, Kinky Friedman, the Church, Lionel Hampton

Local All-Stars: Bill Hicks, Townes Van Zandt, Chris Whitley, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, King's X

Shimmy Shack
Address: 4216 Washington
Years Open: 1993-1994
Today: Pearl Bar

Description: The short-lived Shimmy Shack bridged the Bon Ton Room and Mary Jane's eras, hosting mostly heavier alternative rock.

Alumni: Flaming Lips, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Jawbreaker, Jawbox, Poster Children, Greg Ginn (ex-Black Flag), Alice Donut

The Vatican
Address: 5213 Washington
Years Open: 1991-1993
Today: Professional offices

Description: Although it was only around a couple of years, the Vatican — fashioned out of an old church and owned by future Butthole Surfers manager Tom Bunch — played host to several artists on their way up who would soon become the '90s' biggest superstars. In 1993, it became the Abyss, which pretty much booked more of the same.

Alumni: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Pantera, Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies, Tool, Marilyn Manson, Jesus Lizard, My Bloody Valentine, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, Social Distortion, the Cramps, Peter Murphy, Dinosaur Jr., Fear, Neurosis, They Might Be Giants, Dead Milkmen, L7, Cheater Slicks, Pere Ubu, Ride, Lemonheads

Local All-Stars: deadhorse, End Result

Walter's on Washington
Address: 4215 Washington
Years Open: 2000-2009
Today: Still Walter's until November; rumored to be the future site of a Little Woodrow's

Description: The cornerstone of owner Pam Robinson's "Pamland" mini-empire that also included Mary Jane's and the blues bar Silky's (now the Dubliner), Walter's opened as a roots-rock venue in 2000. It inherited Houston's indie mantle when Mary Jane's closed in 2006, and not long after made national news when an HPD officer roughed up a member of Two Gallants and a few onlookers after someone phoned in a noise complaint, an incident that led to interminable hand-wringing and navel-gazing about whether or not Houston was an indie-friendly town. It is, if not quite as much as other places — Walter's impending relocation to a larger venue is proof enough of that.

Alumni: The Hold Steady, Silver Jews, MGMT, Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, the National, Band of Horses, Be Your Own Pet, Dr. Dog, Devendra Banhart, Blue Cheer, Black Angels, Melt Banana, Los Campesinos!, Two Gallants, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Six Organs of Admittance, Lucero, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Gris Gris, Castanets, Mono, Islands, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, Say Anything, Man Man, Smoking Popes, John Vanderslice, Portastatic, the Warlocks, Nebula, Okkervil River, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Flaco Jimenez, Los Lonely Boys, Tony Joe White, Micky & the Motorcars

Local All-Stars: God's Temple of Family Deliverance, Sharks and Sailors, Spain Colored Orange, Studemont Project, the Jonbenét, Young Mammals, Wild Moccasins CHRIS GRAY

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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