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."
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.
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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.