The morning of Monday, July 29, Numbers Nightclub's official Numbers Facebook page profile and cover pictures changed to solid black images as rumors of a tragedy began to swirl among Houston's goth and club scenes. After the initial silence, a sad story began to take form, that owner Robert Burtenshaw, better known as Robot to the folks who had attended shows and dance nights at the old club for 35 years, had passed away suddenly the previous 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 Numbers' official statement, delivered by 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."
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 his death were not immediately revealed, but CultureMap reported a couple of days later that the Harris County coroner's office said Burtenshaw had taken his own life near a Catholic church in Humble. 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."
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It's impossible to overstate the importance of the club Burtenshaw built. Without Numbers, who would have introduced Houston to R.E.M., The Cure, or Siouxsie and the Banshees? Green Day played there when they were nobodies, as did the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Sheryl Crow once played there as 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 that band dominated Numbers' backstage dressing room.
It was the last place Blind Melon's 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. Other clubs, 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 Kidd moved to Houston in the '70s, and Robot bought a VHS editor from a friend 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 known 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 did so 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 footage to edit together and present; his legacy 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. 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," he added, "especially since there was a DIY ethos in our subculture at the time."
Burtenshaw was interred at a small private ceremony for family and close friends, and was remembered at a public memorial at Numbers this past Saturday.
Only in Houston
The Arena Theatre's rotating stage just keeps on rolling.
Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Rocks Off recently ran an article recalling some of the numerous music venues that have come and gone in our fair (albeit fickle) city. We listed more than two dozen, and readers offered many, many more. By the time we wiped away our collective tears, it was clear how much we miss and love our departed former music spots.
But one venue thankfully not on that list is the Arena Theatre. The longtime Houston showcase is alive and kicking, still tucked safely between neighboring office buildings on the Southwest Freeway near Fondren.
It could easily have been just another remnant of Houston's musical past. In 2004, the space — known for its intimate, in-the-round layout — stopped booking shows. The circular stage was dark for several years, but new ownership swooped in and revamped the theater, with an updated sound system, video screens and fresh carpet.
It also retained a lot of its old charm, with concession stands inside the auditorium and aisle markers that recalled its earliest days as a venue. Best of all, the music returned, and that rotating stage has kept moving ever since. Here are three of my favorite nights at the Arena, in hopes that the venue might inspire other former nightspots to see that everything old can be new again.
The Temptations, Four Tops, June 8, 1984
Motown was hip again in the early 1980s. The Big Chill dusted off some Hitsville USA classics like "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and a whole new generation learned the songs. When the Temps and Tops "battled" on 1983's Motown 25 TV special, it set in motion a joint tour that came to Houston in the summer of '84.
Even without David Ruffin or Eddie Kendricks, The Temptations looked great. They moved in unison, never missing a step, and sounded fantastic, too. The Arena seats just under 3,000 people, and the seat farthest from the stage is only 60 feet away. Listening to the entire room sing along to "My Girl" was entrancing.
Seeing Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, still a unit of original members at that time, throw down on songs like "I Can't Help Myself" is still a highlight of my concertgoing lifetime. The single best moment of the whole show was when the entire song went silent for a full second, before Stubbs resumed with his soul-wrenching plea — "Bernadette!"
James Brown, March 14, 1986
In 1986, James Brown was one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inaugural class members. He didn't need a comeback tour — he was already the legendary Godfather of Soul. Nonetheless, he rode into Houston that spring high on his sudden hit, "Living in America," from the Rocky IV soundtrack. Was he proud of his return to pop prominence? I'm pretty sure he opened and closed the show with the song.
In between, though, the Arena's mini-dome shook with the repeated stops and count-offs Soul Brother No. 1 was known to command of his airtight band. Fortunately for us, that night his band included sax legend Maceo Parker. They played the good stuff — "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Get Up Offa That Thing."
Blondie/Devo, September 19, 2012
My wife was sitting next to me, tugging at my shirttail and telling me to sit down and stop taking pictures of Deborah Harry every time she rotated into view. But there she was, just feet away from me. I reminded my wife there was a time when Harry was one of the music world's most photographed women. She wouldn't mind a few more. She might even be a little flattered.
I'd seen the Devo show before — same songs they played at Warehouse Live a year earlier — but it didn't matter. I loved it. Hearing "Girl U Want," "Whip It" and "Uncontrollable Urge" again was like a great encore. Only this time, I had one of Arena's seats to plop into if I needed a rest.
Blondie opened with my favorite Blondie song ever, "Dreaming," and kept the hits coming. Also, just for fun, Harry mashed up "Rapture" with the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn." I gotta say, I'd have preferred being 17 and standing ten feet away from her in CBGB, but, all things considered, the Arena wasn't a bad alternative.
Monsters of Sludge
The Melvins ooze into town on their 30th-anniversary tour.
In the annals of alt-rock, pretty much nobody can lay claim to a longer, stranger trip than the Melvins. Since 1983, the ambitious, eclectic godfathers of sludge have traversed enough territory both creatively and geographically to buckle the knees of even the most dedicated touring acts. Along the way, they've managed to inspire nearly as much music as they've written, picking up new fans and friends at seemingly every stop.
Next week, the group swings through town on a trek celebrating its 30th year in business, a span that has seen the release of more than 20 studio albums and nearly ceaseless touring through every two-bit burg with a stage. It's been a tad more than drummer Dale Crover bargained for when he joined up with Buzz Osborne in alternative rock's heady DIY days, but certainly not more than he could handle.
"It's actually only been 29 years for me," says Crover, who joined the Melvins just as they were beginning to gain a modicum of traction in their home state of Washington. "I'd seen the band play in Aberdeen before — the very small town where we're from. And I thought they were kind of cool, probably one of the only bands in town doing original music.
"We had a mutual friend in Krist Novoselic," he continues. "They were looking for a new drummer, and Krist brought those guys over to my house and they asked if I wanted to join the band. Here we are almost 30 years later."
Was there any inkling back then that the Melvins would become his life for the next three decades? It's a question Crover can't help laughing off.
"Back then, we were more concerned about playing a show," he says. "We thought that would be cool. I knew that I wanted to play music professionally — you know, be in a band, have that be my job, more or less. But there was never any big plan. We never thought, 'Well, 30 years from now, we'll be playing on another six records!'"
Okay, so if careful planning wasn't the key to making it through the wild ups and downs of so many years on the road, what exactly has been the magic ingredient keeping the group together through countless lineup changes and shifting trends? Not mainstream success, certainly, although the band is justifiably proud of wringing three albums out of an Atlantic Records deal in the '90s.
But even the Beatles, the most successful group of all time, only made it through ten years. The Melvins have outlasted nearly all of their alt-rock peers, some of whom sold a hell of a lot more records in their day. So what's their secret?
"None of us have gotten any massive heroin habits where somebody has died in the band and given us a reason to break up," says Crover wryly. "I don't know; bands are weird.
"A lot of musicians are lazy, for one thing, and we're definitely not," he adds. "We've got a ton of records out, and we're constantly touring and stuff like that. We just really like what we're doing. Musically it's great, and it's worked out well as far as making a living."
The Melvins perform with Honky Thursday at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel. Doors open at 8 p.m.
Ask Willie D
Mom Gone Wild
A reader is concerned that her mother might be partying too much.
Dear Willie D:
My mom is a party queen. She goes out every weekend and returns home well into the wee hours. It wouldn't be so bad if she were in her twenties or even thirties, but she's 57 years old. We share an apartment, so it is very embarrassing whenever my boyfriend is visiting and she walks into the house stumbling from a night of drinking and clubbing. She divorced my dad years ago, but it wasn't until she got a new job and started hanging out with new friends that she began to act differently.
I went out with her once and everybody in the bar knew her name. I'm used to seeing her dance, but to see my mother bumping and grinding against strange men was rattling and much too much. How do I get her to calm down and act her age instead of running around like a teenager trying to rekindle her youth?
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Hurricane Mom is probably going through a phase where she wants to party and have fun while she still can. It could be a delayed midlife crisis. If she's waited this long to get buckwild, I don't think you have too much to worry about. She has new friends and a new attitude, but that's really not who she is.
More than likely, she'll realize the nightlife is overrated and return to the mom you know. So far you've survived landfall. The only thing left to do is hunker down and ride out the storm.
Ask Willie D appears Thursday mornings on Rocks Off.