Monday morning the official Numbers Facebook page changed its profile and cover pic to flat black images as rumors of a tragedy began to swirl among the goth and club scenes in Houston. In the initial silence a sad story began to take form. Owner Robert Burtenshaw, better known as Robot to the folks that had attended shows and dance nights at the old club for 35 years, had passed away suddenly last Saturday, July 27.
"Robot changed the landscape of Houston nightlife forever back in the '80s and influenced us all to this day whether you realize it or not," said the official Numbers statement delivered via DJ Wes Wallace, Robot's longtime collaborator. "To say he will be sorely missed is an understatement and to continue operating Numbers without him will be tough, but that is our intention and his wishes, so that is what we aim to do."
Burtenshaw will be interred in a small private ceremony for family and close friends, though a more public remembrance celebration will be announced by the club soon. Wallace's statement continued, "Burtenshaw saw many friends succumb to HIV and AIDS over the course of his life, and in lieu of flowers asked for donations to MFAR, AIDS Foundation Houston, or your favorite AIDS organization."
The Numbers statement also encouraged all fans and patrons, "If you know someone struggling with depression, please try to reassure them that things will get better."
The details behind Burtenshaw's death weren't revealed. An anonymous source remarked that Robot was a wonderfully friendly person when mingling at the club, "But when he stepped away from people his face would just fall."
It's impossible to deny the importance of the club Burtenshaw built. Without Numbers, who would have introduced Houston to R.E.M., or The Cure, or Siouxsie and the Banshees? Green Day played there when they were nobody, as did the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Sheryl Crow was there back when she was just some chick opening for Blues Traveler, and GWAR strutted the stage covered in condiments as they rose to prominence. Until recently, a giant mural drawn by the band was the dominating fixture of the backstage dressing rooms.
It was the last place Shannon Hoon played before he overdosed. When it happened, Burtenshaw somewhat prophetically remarked, "He was just having a general good old time. He was rocking and rolling."
This was the empire that Burtenshaw built, a true home to alternative music that in later years has become the last bastion of goth in a city once renowned for it. Others like NRG, Excess, Ocean Club, and Hippo Hyperia, came and went, but Numbers endured.
"Some rich kid who hung out here would see what we were doing and open his own club," Burtenshaw said in a 2003 Houston Chronicle article. "Sometimes they didn't last a year."
Burtenshaw was remembered fondly by Christian Kidd of The Hates. Kidd met Robot when he moved to Houston in the '70s and bought a VHS editor from his friend Dale Brooks in order to learn video production. Robot offered to print flyers for The Hates to help the band save money, and the two would often attend shows together. Bouncers once hurled him out of Agora for handing out Hates flyers, and he was know to heckle opening bands he deemed inappropriate to the show by shouting out, "Play 'Smoke on the Water!'"
Burtenshaw even asked to play bass in The Hates, and was taught their catalog on the instrument until Robert Kainer returned from college to resume the role.
Burtenshaw's obsession with music and especially with video production was groundbreaking in the days before MTV and YouTube. In an apartment stuffed with Art Deco and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia he painstakingly collected music video footage to edit together and present. His legacy of video brilliance still resonates on the two big screens that loom over the Numbers dance floor.
"It really saddens me to hear of his passing," said Kidd. "I cherish the laughs and his love for the music at the time as my passion for the early scene. Now more than ever I regret the lost opportunity that he might have had as a musician. He was such a fan and that could have translated into being a unique artist especially since there was a DIY ethos in our subculture at the time."