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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I will always love you T-Bowl

This is for Mr. T's Bowl. No, not THAT Mr. T, this one:

I was talking to Johnny from Seasons last night before their Spaceland show (playing with Featherbeard, who was fantastic, resplendent in turban and a new beard made from white ostrich feathers; and, on the last night of their residency, Castledoor, who threw down what might have been the greatest show I've ever seen them play). He gave me some bad news about T's.

As you might have heard: the T-Bowl, as we seem to call it most of the time, is in sharp decline and has been for more than a year now. The crappy, ratty, glorious bowling-alley-turned-dive-bar that we played every month for two years straight and was our home away from home is, for all intents and purposes, gone. I think the last nail might have been pounded into the coffin: Johnny told me that Gus, who handled booking for years, was fired last week and replaced with one of the bartenders (Pauline, I think her name is), who, presumably, will book the kind of acts that will bring in money, IE, none of the bands that anyone who goes regularly to Mr. T's wants to see. As far as I know Arlo still works the board at T's, but I don't know how much longer he'll last. Presumably you're not going to see anything like this there again:

Bodies Of Water at Mr. T's Bowl

Let me be clear about something: whenever anyone asked us what kind of band we are, a Silverlake Band, a Downtown band, etc., we always, always said we were a Mr. T's band. I frankly don’t know quite enough about the place to write a real history, but: if you've never been there, T's was indeed once a bowling alley, and still has the old lanes set up behind a big saggy curtain, although bowling itself is long gone (more on that later). It is a dive bar in a sketchy part of Highland Park. The genius of T’s was that it was (usually) free to get in, the drinks were cheap, there was none of the desperate careerism of Silverlake/Sunset Strip or the too-cool-for-school snottiness/cliquedom of the downtown scene, and you could see a far wider range of music than you could almost anywhere else. I have seen ratty punk bands on the same bill as new music art ensembles, country and western bands, and jazz trios featuring bass parts played on electric balloons. T’s was one of those places where all of the bands knew each other and went to each other’s shows—sometimes the audience consisted of nothing more than the other bands playing that night, maybe a couple of drunks from the bar, and Arlo, a total gentleman, the kindest, greatest soundman of all time. It was the best club in LA.

Unpoppable [with balloon bass] at Mr. T's

When we first started playing there the stage was in the middle of the room, right in front of the curtain, instead of off in the corner. Behind the curtain was a mountain of crap, basically all of Mr. T’s possessions in a giant pile. There were always shuffling locals at the bar every evening, hanging out and playing the jukebox, and gradually wandering out as the bands started up— I saw 8-Bit there for the first time, long before I even knew who Andy was, let alone before I had any idea he'd play in our band for a year (at that particular show he singled me out from the crowd as "the world's whitest man." His brother Tony smashed a crappy old bass guitar--I still have some of the pieces). I saw the Movies for the first time there. I saw the Mormons, oh, basically every other night.

8-Bit at Mr. T's [WARNING: Very NSFW]

Two things changed: fallout from The Great White incident closed T’s for over a year, and when it was about to open again, the original Mr. T died. His son, John T (whom I have never met), inherited the place and when it reopened it seemed (to us) pretty much like it always was, minus The Gutter (a restaurant run from the kitchen by a pair of twins, and widely considered one of the best places to eat on the East Side), which was a big disappointment. We inherited a first-Friday-of-the-month residency from 8-Bit in 2006 and played it for 2 years straight; when we finally passed it on to the Seasons in June of 2008 we were ready to move on but were also really, really sad, and it never occurred to us we’d only play T’s one more time.

Our last First Friday show at Mr. T's, June 2008, with food fight

At first John T seemed to take a hands-off management approach to T’s, which suited us fine, but sometime around 2007-2008 things started to change. Drink prices started going up, and the bartenders began charging people who looked like hipsters more than people who looked like regulars. We’d never had problems with the security guards (does Duley still work there? Best security guard ever) but new guards came in on certain nights who harassed everyone: the patrons, the musicians, people hanging out in the parking lot. They were corrupt, too: I recall a certain show Cobra Lilies took part in last year, basically a night of peace-and-love flower-children bands. The promoter did charge a cover that night, I think it was $5, and the lineup featured a few underage performers (which had never been a problem before). Security on that night initially refused to let the underage musicians in, and then told the promoter that he’d bend the rules if they could “come to an understanding”—which consisted of the guard taking 90% of the money collected at the door.

Cobra Lilies at Mr. T's Bowl

And that was pretty much it for us. 8-Bit had long stopped playing, the Mormons were driven to begin a Mr. T’s boycott—more details/testimonials from pissed-off T’s regulars are in the Mormons’ myspace blog.

Mormons at Mr. T's Bowl

Finally, in May 2009 John T. began charging an $8 cover on weekdays and $5 on weekends—all of which went to the bar, nothing for the bands. Supposedly the $8 cover got you a drink ticket, but it didn’t matter: people stopped coming. As far as I can tell, John T thinks his place is the next Spaceland or Silverlake Lounge, and he wants to bring in more money. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that T’s is a dive bar in a crappy part of town: people who go to Spaceland or the Roxy or even the Smell do not go there. Mr. T’s thrived when there was no cover and the drinks were cheap; people spent MORE at the bar when the drinks were cheap. All of John T’s efforts to improve the place only resulted in driving everyone away, the bands (who never get paid anyway), the local regulars, and the audience.

Seasons at Mr. T's Bowl

Another interesting note—apparently Mr. T’s is still zoned as a bowling alley, not a bar. That’s why there is still a lane open in the back, even though it’s not used: should a zoning inspector show up and ask to bowl, they have to accommodate him/her. Because they are zoned as a bowling alley, it is only legal for Mr. T’s to prevent minors from entering the bar area, not the music performance area: it’s the same arrangement as you’ll find at Eagle Rock Lanes, or at least it’s supposed to be. They would be wise to pay attention to this.

Fol Chen at Mr. T's Bowl

After not playing T’s for exactly 364 days (our last first Friday show was in June 2008, and Seasons asked us to play their June 2009 first Friday show), Monolators were lucky enough to play once more, the weekend before our Echoplex show. It was a wonderful return, but man—we knew it was probably going to be our last, and we got all weepy afterwards. I will always miss loading in our gear behind the big saggy curtain and hanging out with the other bands on the empty, dead lanes. And while I think Monolators are as good as we’ve ever been, we lost something when we played our last first Friday at T’s. I admit it: I kissed the walls after our show last month. I love Mr. T’s still. I always will.

Monolators, circa Andy Bollas on bass, in front of the Mr. T's mural by the Figueroa Street entrance

Cobra Lilies in front of the same mural; both photos via LA Underground

Arlo the Great, photo via here, as is this:

Soundmen have terrible reputations, some of which is well deserved...Arlo is an exception as is Gus. When I have played shows there, sometimes Arlo and the bartenders are my only audience....this is OK by me.


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