Owning a nightclub, particularly one including music as a significant part of its business plan, isn't quite the same thing as gathering a huge pile of cash in the middle of a room and setting it ablaze, but it's close. Between the vast amount of capital required to even open, maintenance costs of everything from beer coolers to PA systems and the steep taxes levied by regulatory bodies such as TABC, most months having enough money left over to pay the bands and the staff, let alone turn an actual profit, is an accomplishment.
Add the inherent stress of operating a business where all it takes to go under is a slow month or two — and where all it takes for that to happen is customers deciding they don't like your drinks, your servers or your artists, or they just like the club down the street/across town a little better — and it's a wonder the turnover rate isn't any higher than it is. Informal Internet research turned up several articles estimating the average nightclub's lifespan at around two to three years: "The nightclub business is a high-risk and short lifespan business," advises Powerhomebiz.com. "It is an expensive venture with a high mortality rate."
Houston, however, is unusually blessed in that several clubs and music venues have managed to remain viable for years, sometimes even decades, becoming local flagships for everything from folk and honky-tonk to metal and synth-pop in the process: Fitzgerald's, Anderson Fair, Rudyard's, Numbers, Blanco's, the West Alabama Ice House and McGonigel's Mucky Duck have all hung around long enough to intoxicate, entertain and employ multiple generations of Houston night owls. Naturally, the list of places that didn't make it is a little longer: Liberty Hall, Love Street Electric Circus, Rock Island, the Abyss, the Unicorn, Instant Karma, Pik 'N' Pak, Rhythm Room, Fat Cat's, Helios, Power Tools, Catal Huyuk and the Axiom, to name but a few.
Until it was announced the Proletariat would close in early February, it seemed like it was headed down the former path. Opening in September 2002, the squat cement building at Richmond and Montrose (onetime home of the beloved Blue Iguana) quickly became a fixture on the local nightlife circuit, especially for twentysomethings who could not only distinguish between Diplo and Devendra Banhart but likely owned several MP3s by both. Besides offering a stage and actual paying customers to artists who likely would have otherwise bypassed Houston altogether — TV on the Radio, Broken Social Scene, Art Brut — the Proletariat went out of its way to foster local music. Its "commune nights" were no-frills, cross-genre, eminently affordable affairs where any band who wanted stage time could have it, even if it was their first time playing in public. Or period, for that matter.
On the other end of that spectrum, Proletariat was beyond packed for weekend shows by honor graduates of Houston's indie scene, from Spain Colored Orange and Fatal Flying Guilloteens to Bring Back the Guns and Jana Hunter, too many times to count. Other weekly events, like ghetto-fabulous no-cover Thursday-night DJ showcase Rock Box and Friday's endearingly awful karaoke amateur hour, made the club something very rare indeed: a hard-core hipster hangout that never took itself too seriously, nor its customers for granted.
"It always feels comfortable and unpretentious," affirms Matthew Wettergreen, who cohosts KTRU's "Revelry Report" Friday nights with partner Phillip Beck. "There's almost never any trouble — unless we're making it — and it's just as acceptable to sit by yourself with your laptop and a Red Bull than to take Jägermeister shots with all the bartenders."
At least Proletariat's run ends in an appropriately unique manner: Rather than having succumbed to traditional nightclub-killing maladies like mismanagement or regulars simply moving on, it's a victim of eminent domain. The club sits squarely in the proposed path of MetroRail's University line — the roughly ten-mile span between the Southwest Freeway at Westpark and the Gulf Freeway at Elgin/Lockwood, following Richmond for the western half of its route — and the building itself is thus targeted for demolition sometime after construction on the line begins this summer. After Metro's plans were finalized late last year, Proletariat owner Denise Ramos, who was facing a long list of much-needed physical improvements to the space, decided to get out.
"There was so much we needed to do for the space itself," she told the Press's music blog Houstoned Rocks last month. "We were getting so much grief for our sound equipment, and believe me, I've been dying to get new sound equipment in there. I was dying to do a little makeover to the back room. Because of all that stuff, the back-and-forth [with Metro] and having to prolong all these things I need to do, honestly I just started losing a little momentum."
The Proletariat's greatest achievement may be that while they are certainly sad it's being forced to shut down, few in the vibrant, eclectic music scene that coalesced around the club think that scene itself is in much danger of disappearing. "[The club] has certainly contributed to the current state of the Houston music scene, which we feel has never been stronger," says Wettergreen.
"I think Houston has a really great thing, and it's not recognized [nationally] because nobody here cares about being recognized nationally. We're over that," says Rosa Guerrero, local music photographer and cohost of KTRU's "Mutant Hardcore Flower Hour." "I think a lot of the nervousness that comes locally is people waiting for the other shoe to drop: 'Oh, it's all gonna blow up, it's all gonna be over.' We'll be okay as long as people don't sit around rubbing their hands waiting for something to happen. The truth is, there's been something happening here for many years."
Ramon Medina, Linus Pauling Quartet guitarist, Free Press Houston music writer and Guerrero's husband, thinks the Internet makes the scene much less dependent on any one venue. "There's so many ways people can connect to find out what's going on," he says. "That's what's really keeping things going. It used to be, 'Oh, I can just go down the street on Lexington and see what my buddies are doing.' All the blogs that are out there, there's enough stuff that you can actually follow what's going on and actually keep up with shows."
Wettergreen reels off a long list of Houston venues he thinks will offer haven to Proletariat refugees — many of which already do, be they bands or customers: White Swan, Rudyard's, Super Happy Fun Land (itself relocating from the Heights to Midtown this month), Kelvin Arms, Boondocks and the Orange Show. Guerrero feels Notsuoh downtown is a "very important, innovative place that gets overlooked most of the time." Ramos, herself an artist and musician, says, "I hope a lot of them do go over to Walter's [on Washington], because I understand and appreciate all the effort that Pam [owner Robinson] puts into the space." Once its indoor stage area is finished, Walter's across-the-street neighbor the Pearl Bar also seems like a natural destination for this crowd — especially since one of the building's former occupants was the legendary Mary Jane's.
If any one place seems preordained to inherit Proletariat's über-hip-yet-laid-back mantle, though, it has to be the Mink (3718 Main). It's got the pedigree: Proletariat booker Dunnock Woolford is headed there, as, after Monday's Proletariat finale, are KTRU's monthly DJ nights, where various Rice Radio jocks try their hands at live mixing. The Mink's deceptively spacious Backroom already hosts bands several times a month, with better sound than Proletariat and almost as much room.
Its downstairs lounge, familiar to many Rock Box DJs, can double as a music venue in a pinch, as it did last weekend when bands like Mathletes, Indian Jewelry, the Jonx and Papermoons packed upstairs, downstairs and the surrounding patio for the all-local, all-covers Hootenanny extravaganza — a show that, under different circumstances, would almost certainly have been at the Proletariat. Still, Ryan Clark, proprietor of Houston music blog The Skyline Network and one of Hootenanny's organizers, cautions against thinking everything will resolve itself so tidily.
"This is an organic process that took cultivation, time and luck, and when the last call to end all last calls is shouted, all these different individuals and groups aren't going to pick up and deposit themselves in some other club so neatly," he says. "There will be a scattering, and scatterings generally fall heavily on the 'does not rule' side of the road."
Eric "O.G. Style" Woods, 1970-2008
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Eric Woods, a Houston rapper better known as "O.G. Style," was taken off life support by his family last Thursday night at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital after slipping into a coma believed to have been caused by a brain aneurysm for which Woods, 37, was admitted to St. Luke's Wednesday night. Woods grew up in Fourth Ward and began rapping around Houston as Prince Ezzy-E before meeting up with the producer/DJ known as Big Boss (who died from kidney failure in 2006), and forming the group O.G. Style, a name Woods later appropriated for his solo career when Big Boss left to form the group 4Deep.
In 1991, O.G. Style rose to regional fame with "Catch 'Em Slippin'," a dis of Rap-a-Lot artist Raheem that, ironically, got the group signed to Rap-a-Lot and continues to be cited as a seminal early example of Houston rap. XXL.com blogger Noz calls I Know How to Play 'Em, the album that contains "Catch 'Em Slippin'," an "overlooked boom-bap classic that would have even the staunchest of Southern rap haters nodding his head." Woods remained active up to the time of his death, recently revamping his Web site, www.ogstyle.net, and working on a new album with local rapper Smurk, which Woods's son Eric Jr. now says he will try to finish.
Eric Woods is also survived by his wife, Shelley; four other children; his father; and three siblings.