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Home / Articles / Music / Music feature /  Rocking The Casbah
. . . .
Tuesday, Dec 30, 2008

Rocking The Casbah

A look back at two decades of music and memories from San Diego's premiere rock club

By Seth Combs, Scott McDonald, Todd Kroviak, AnnaMaria Stephens

It was started on a whim, but also out of necessity. A local music booker and a couple friends, tired of traveling to L.A. to see the hottest new bands, decided to take a chance by opening their own club. What they didn’t realize at the time, perhaps, was just how ready the scene was for them.And so now, two decades into its existence, The Casbah remains as relevant as ever. It’s known nationwide as not only one of the great small clubs, but also as a place that truly lives and breathes music and treats artists with respect.

In this feature, the people who witnessed its genesis and all that followed tell a loose tale of The Casbah’s history.

Mysteries are solved (do people really live upstairs?), and rumors are dispelled (does Eddie Vedder actually own the place?)—and one thing is clear: Twenty years later, San Diego still has that crazy Casbah jive. —Seth Combs

1989-1993: Raising the Bar

Tim Mays—Owner, The Casbah: I started putting on shows in 1980. From ’84 to ’87, I was doing shows in halls. Wabash, Carpenter’s Hall, Adams Avenue Theater, the Lion’s Club, YMCA. Punk-rock shows. You’d have to rent the place, deal with the owners of the building, go to the police department, get a one-time event permit, go around to the fire department, the zoning department and get signatures. It was a really painstaking process—not expensive, but time-consuming.

Mark Trombino—Musician, Drive Like Jehu; record producer: In San Diego, I went to all the shows that Tim used to put on in places like Wabash Hall and stuff. Not so much clubs, really. I think when I turned 21, I started going to [Mays’ first bar] The Pink Panther.

Sam Chammas—Owner, The Live Wire, Whistle Stop Bar: Pink Panther opened back when San Diego felt so small, and every cool scene—college kids, musicians or whoever else—you were hanging out at the Panther. Compared to now, when you have a different bar for every cross section.

Tim Mays: The Pink Panther was doing pretty well, so we had money from that. The Casbah was $30,000 to buy the business. It was just a beer-and-wine license, too, so we [Mays and partners Bob Bennett and Peter English] bought the lease…. When it first opened in ’89 [at the original location at 2812 Kettner Blvd.], I hadn’t done shows for about three years.

Steve Poltz—Musician, The Rugburns: You had the Spirit Club, which is now Brick by Brick. Then there were smaller places that we were playing, like Kelly’s Pub. SOMA was around, too. There were other ones, but The Casbah definitely filled a niche in town.

Tim Mays: Our original plan was that we were only going to book shows a couple of nights a week, and the other nights we’d just kind of be open.

Sam Chammas: Here’s a personal special memory: C.L.A. We may or may not have been the first band ever to play at The Casbah—the smaller location. I was the drummer in C.L.A. They hadn’t done entertainment there yet, because Peter [English] wanted this to be like an English pub and coffeehouse. That was their original approach. Then Tim was getting frustrated, and I think he said, “We have our own place, why don’t we try shows here.”

Tim Mays: Actually, it was the same night we had C.L.A. and Romy Kaye and The Swingin’ Gates. We opened on St. Patty’s Day. That was our first actual show.

Pete M. (Markall)—Radio deejay: I was there within the first week or so of it opening. It was a tiny little joint. You walk in and the bar was to your left and the stage was to your right, and I mean there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot else. I loved it. I lost some of my best hearing in that place.

Matt Hoyt—Co-owner, Starlite; musician: I was never old enough to get into the old Casbah, but I would watch shows from the sidewalk outside. You could just kind of see inside. Jesus Lizard, Rocket from the Crypt, Three Mile Pilot, Drive Like Jehu. There was a taco cart outside, so it was doubly entertaining.

Mario Rubalcaba—Musician, Rocket from the Crypt, Earthless: The first time I got into The Casbah was a Drive Like Jehu show. I wasn’t 21 yet, but somehow I got let in. mark rombino: [On Drive Like Jehu’s first show at The Casbah]: Honestly, I don’t remember it at all.

Tim Pyles—Radio deejay, promoter: I used to go the Pink Panther a lot. But when they opened The Casbah, I was into the rave scene, so I missed out on the Pumpkins and Nirvana thing.

Mario Rubalcaba: The Casbah had bands that no one would have—Nirvana, Melvins, Jesus Lizard and John Spencer all played the tiny old Casbah. The shows were just small, intimate affairs a lot of the time, but there was really a sense of excitement for it—an anticipation that one of the touring bands was going to skewer your face, and a lot of the time, they did just that. The ultimate carne con face asada, for sure.

Tim Mays: I wasn’t there [for Nirvana]. I missed it. I was out of town…. I’d heard of them; I knew a little bit about them, but it was right when their first record came out. No, their second album [1991’s Nevermind]…. Then, about two weeks later, Smashing Pumpkins played. I saw that. Catherine Wheel was pretty epic at the time. The Lemonheads. Uncle Tupelo.

Andrew McKeag—Musician, Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver, The Presidents of the United States of America: Uncle Tupelo on the Anodyne tour. So boring. Snoozeville U.S.A.!

Mike Halloran—Radio deejay: Old Casbah: Superchunk, genius stuff all around. Pumpkins, first tour: same deal. Catherine Wheel: huge auxiliary P.A., louder than I have ever heard it in there. Monks of Doom. But the kicker was the band called s*m*a*s*h. I can’t describe how frightened I was watching them play. Pure genius.

Dave Brown—Owner, Better Looking Records, Holiday Matinee: I was 21 and touring the West Coast. Davey [Quinn] from Tiltwheel was working at The Crow Bar, and since he was the only guy we knew in San Diego, we went and paid him a visit. Davey insisted we go to The Casbah because his favorite band of all-time was there. He proceeded to write me a note to give to the door guy. I think it read something like: “This kid is on tour from New York, has no money, has never been to The Casbah, but needs to be rocked by The Dragons.” I walked over and gave the note to the door guy. He stamped my hand, gave me a drink ticket and the rest was history.

An early Rocket from the Crypt show

1994-2000: A New Face and Eddie’s Place

Bart Mendoza—Musician; music writer: Tim’s booking policies… really opened up venues to take a chance with original local music. Before The Casbah, there wasn’t much happening, but especially by the time the second location opened, it was clear that local artists were viable in clubland. Those same booking policies helped a lot of hometown talent grow onto the national and international stage.

Tim Mays: At the [original] Casbah, even though we were busy there, it was a beer-and-wine place, and it wasn’t a very big place, so we weren’t making a lot of money there. I think in ’92 or ’93, I was making, like, $700 or $800 bucks a month in salary…. In ’93, we started realizing we had to expand and do something different. A real-estate broker who had sold us the original Casbah called me and told me to come down and look at this place. I’d driven by it every day for years. It was a gay bar, but I’d never gone in there, and it was very mysterious. So then, on a rainy day, me and Bob went in there and [the broker] showed us around. We looked at the front room and thought, Eh, this is alright. Then we walked in the back, and saw the back room, and the patio. And then we went in the office and saw the bathroom and said, “We’ll take it!” At the Pink Panther, you know, there was no private bathroom. So once I saw the bathroom, it was like, “Where do we sign?” [Laughs.]

Tim Pyles: The current Casbah used to be called Bulc. You know, “Club” backwards, and it was in its day a notorious gay leather bar. I think there are still hooks and harnesses somewhere in the club that are left over from those days, but I’m sure they gave it a nice scrub down. [Laughs.]

Tim Mays: At the time we moved there, a lot of people—we used to call them the Flat Earth Society—nobody wanted us to move. They were, like, “Oh, it’s gonna be ruined.” We went in and we built a stage and made it look as much like the old Casbah as we could. Once we opened, everybody loved it.

Andrew McKeag: Tim is a huge fan of music and has incredible taste, and he dedicated himself years ago to presenting it to San Diego. Obviously, there were other kingpins and factors that contributed, but the early- to mid-’90s scene that I was a part of simply wouldn’t have happened without his presence.

Sam Chammas: It definitely was the place to hang out, especially from ’94 to ’98. When Peggy [Chammas’ wife] and I were dating, she lived on Kalmia Street and we would walk from her house down to a show. It was when the swing scene was pretty hot. We’d see The Paladins or Big Sandy. Sometimes we’d walk down because it was the closest. But you know, we’re all Casbah kids.

Troy Johnson—Former music writer: It wasn’t just about the music. It was about the culture. The conversation. Whether you’re taking about the next Fugazi record or whatever, it was a place that people went to just be. A cool mix of people, from musicians and bankers to salespeople and artists. Everybody.

George Varga—Music writer: A comfortable place for hipsters to meet each other, get drunk and reproduce—to paraphrase former San Diegan Frank Zappa’s definition of disco.

Andy Robillard—Musician, bartender, club booker: First time I played there was with Jackie Star & The Bushwhackers. I remember thinking, Oh my god, The Casbah. Before I worked there, it was like this gilded palace that we were not allowed entrance into. And then one day, Jackie said, “Oh, I can get us a gig there, no problem.” Next thing I know we were playing. Awesome!

Mark Trombino: [On the huge mid-’90s scene that included bands like Drive Like Jehu, Rocket from the Crypt and Three Mile Pilot]: I don’t think we would have had the same scene without The Casbah. Every scene needs an epicenter, and The Casbah provided it for those particular bands.

Steve Poltz: We [The Rugburns] thought that it would be a good idea for one of us, maybe two of us… I think it was just me, maybe. I just decided it would be a good idea to eat some magic mushrooms and see how that would affect our show. I got up on stage and I was peaking…. I was pretending I was a sports-talk-show radio host and I was taking questions from the audience. People started to get pissed off and were saying, “C’mon play!” So I broke into a song, and there’s this mirror that’s to the left side of the room. The audience is mirrored. I jumped off the stage, unplugged my guitar, and ran face-first into that mirror thinking that when I saw the reflection of the people, that the room went farther back. I took a concussion from that.

Andy Robillard: I’m pretty sure it was White Zombie at this ASR party [Action Sports Retail, the bi-annual conference held at the convention center] at The Casbah and the people at ASR gave out something like 2,000 invitations and we can only seat, you know, about 200. So there’s something like a thousand skaters who ended up bum-rushing the door, and it was the only time The Casbah had to call the police. One of the guys that worked there got stabbed and he was such a tough guy that he fell asleep, woke up the next day and then went to the hospital.

Tim Pyles: Weezer played there when they were coming back, and you weren’t sure if they were going to be playing again. They played in ’97 under the name Goat Punishment. That was an awesome show.

Dave Brown: [On the Weezer show]: Holy shit, it was so packed and they ran through all the hits. Wow! Then there was Conor [Oberst] from Bright Eyes playing solo acoustic. There were only 40 or so people in the club, but I can say for certain that everyone was shaking. You could tell this kid was on to something.

Mike Halloran: I can’t remember one bad show, but you need to ask Andrew [Casbah doorman] about him almost not letting Eddie Vedder in the club one night to see Jonathan Richman.

Tim Mays: It was a Jonathan Richman show a long time ago, maybe 10 or 12 years ago. [Vedder] came to see the show, and we were all hanging around afterwards, having some drinks and playing pool. So me and Eddie were going to play pool and I said, “I’ll put up The Casbah against all your royalties from records.” So, we’re playing, and he’s a pretty good pool player, and he beat me. So, anyway, big deal, we were just, like, “Oh, so you’re the proud new owner of The Casbah, buddy.” A couple of months later, I started hearing rumors from people that Eddie Vedder owns The Casbah now. What had happened was he went back up north and he was on the air with Marco Collins, who has a radio show up there. They were talking about San Diego and he told Marco this story about the pool game. People heard it, and it kind of made its way down the coast.

Andy Robillard: No, the [men’s] bathroom was never nice. As a matter of fact, I’ve gotten a lot of shit because when I first started working there, I was really into feng shui. I’d be, like, “Yeah, man, you got some things here that are so easy to fix.” [Tim Mays] called me “feng shui” for the next two years. Every time I said something, he’d be, like “Shut up, feng shui!”

Pete M.: Overhaul the bathrooms. There have been times where I have literally split to go use the bathroom somewhere else.

Matt Hoyt: I think I’m one of the few people that have used that bathroom for actual, you know, bathroom purposes and people are shocked. It’s sort of my claim to fame.

Tim Pyles: I’m never gonna do that. I’m glad I have access to the office bathroom now.

Tim Mays: [On the tenants who live above The Casbah]: We don’t own the building. I’m assuming they have cheap rent. They don’t question how many people live in each unit. They’ve got trains and planes and rock ’n’ roll. Some of them have lived there for a long time, at least five years. One of the families has lived there for the whole time we’ve been there. There was one woman who moved in about 10 years ago, and the second day she was there, we were sweeping out on the patio, she leaned out her window and said, “Hey, do you think you could turn it down tonight?” We were, like, “Uh, no.” It’s a club. Didn’t she know that? A couple weeks later, she called the cops on us one night. The cops came and said they got a noise complaint from one of the tenants. So we turned it down ’cause the show was almost over. I called the landlord the next day and told him this lady called in a noise complaint on us. We have a clause in our lease that says unless the decibel level upstairs was over a certain volume, there were no valid complaints from any of the tenants. She got evicted, like, two weeks later.

Troy Johnson: If you’re gonna have a rock club, you’re gonna be worried about noise. Park yourself in the noisiest epicenter of the city with the planes, the trolley, the trains, the freeway. That’s the greatest cloak for a noise complaint that I’ve ever seen. That whole area’s a built-in noise complaint.

Mario Escovedo—musician, The Dragons: I remember after sound check one time, Andrew [the doorman] asked me to go check on a leak upstairs that was coming into The Casbah. I guess he figured I habla’d, so I was chosen. I went up to help this Mexican woman out and here I am in leather pants and creepers on under some woman’s sink fixing her faucet. I kept thinking some jealous husband is going to come home and I’m not going to die on The Casbah stage, but on the second floor above it!

Justin Pearson—musician, The Locust; Owner, Three One G Records: [On why The Locust won’t play The Casbah]: As far as the decision to not play age-restricted shows, I think it just happened. A lot of bands that I was friends with didn’t want to or just didn’t do it for whatever reason. For me, it just stuck. It made sense. I wanted to play to younger people and people who were more interested in the music than a scene…. I think it’s a great venue, and I’d very much like to play there, but it’s just not going to happen as far as I can tell…. Its one of my favorite places to see live bands. I’ve even been thrown out when I went to see Das Oath play there.

Sam Chammas: Jivewire [a dance club night] started at Live Wire—hence the name. We did two and they were popular, so we got Mays to come up and spin. It got too big at Live Wire, so we did one at The Casbah. The first one at The Casbah was really, really special. There were people on roller-skates. I was in my velvet jumpsuit.

Andy Robillard: The most debauchery I’ve ever seen was on Jivewire nights in the late ’90s. All the super-hipsters from the Downtown scene got wind of it, so it was this crazy mix of greaser-looking, Rocket from the Crypt-uniform-wearing tough guys who never dance just stuck in the middle of all these gorgeous hipster girls partying their asses off. Everybody who was ever too cool started dancing, and there would be people making out in every corner. You could not get drinks out of the bar fast enough. You know when people start cutting loose at The Casbah, then you know you’re into something special.

Mario Rubalcaba: Worst experience there? Probably when Jivewire started getting Downtown dewballs going there.

Mario Escovedo: I don’t have a “worst,” but the hardest show ever at The Casbah was when our friend Steve Foth of C.L.A. was murdered [in 1999] and we had a show to kind of say goodbye. Steve Poltz played and many more friends, but we played a song, and I lost it. But maybe that’s why The Casbah isn’t just a scene or a club. Tim and The Casbah crew have always found a place and a time to honor musicians who we’ve lost from the local scene, and that’s what makes it more of a family there. They get it. They care.

Uncle Joe's Big Ol Driver

2000-present: The More Things Change…

Ben Heyne—Casbah doorman: So many bands have started there. I’ve watched a bunch of bands start and eventually blow up. It’s weird, a lot of people are like, “Yeah, we’re finally playing The Casbah,” and that’s cool, but it can be a brutal place, too: “Alright, we’re going on and the place just cleared out.” But I’ve seen bands that have gone from a group of three friends showing up to having a hundred people show up. And that’s really cool.

Ben Johnson—Bartender; musician, The Long and Short of It: There is that intimidation factor, because it’s the club. Back when I first started being in bands, it was the only gig in town like that. The whole North Park thing hadn’t happened yet. It was a much more barren landscape back in the day, and there were fewer bands because it was way harder to get a gig.

Steve Poltz: I saw The White Stripes and there were probably 12 people there. I wasn’t even going there to see The White Stripes. I just happened to go in for some reason and they were about to start. So I watched them and I remember being blown away and talking to Jack and Meg after the show. They were selling their own merch, and I bought a CD. I had no clue that they were gonna become so big.

Andy Robillard: Like, The White Stripes opened up for my band, for fuck’s sake!

Matt Hoyt: It’s easy to take The Casbah for granted if you’re a quasi-native San Diegan. You don’t realize what a great club it is until you go to another city. In New York or San Francisco, certain hot bands come to town and if you don’t go buy tickets at the small club right away, it’s sold out. [The Casbah’s] full of happy accidents where you’re kind of privy to this incidental history in the making and all you’re doing is just hanging out at your favorite bar.

Tim Mays: A few years back, when they started building all of the condos—I’m gonna say, like, five years ago—we started getting a couple [noise] complaints. The cops came by and said that people down the street are complaining. They can hear the music coming down the street. Then the Little Italy people approached us about joining their association. I went to a meeting. They wanted us to participate in security and cleaning up and all this sort of thing…. They talked about how noisy it was and people walking to their cars making noise…. They basically wanted us to pay for their security detail, which was not going to go past Laurel Street. So we said no.

Ben Johnson: There was this local band called Crash Worship, and one of the guys put together a marching band to play alongside with them. Somehow, when they were playing, all the sewage came back up through the pipes that night. It was two inches deep on the whole floor and the band didn’t stop playing and nobody left, and it smelled horrible. It was the most disgusting thing ever, and we probably should have closed, but the crowd didn’t even pay attention to it. It really was medieval.

Tim Mays: Yeah, we haven’t changed anything. A coat of paint every now and then, some new lights, but nothing’s changed, really.

Matt Hoyt: Through all kinds of economic ups and downs, the fact that it’s been in business as long as it’s been and has the reputation that it does—being the venue that if you’re a musician in San Diego, you wanna play there. It speaks for itself.

Tim Pyles: It’s just phenomenal, because we are the West Coast CBGB’s. And with CBGB’s not even being around anymore, for The Casbah to still be going strong, that’s quite a legacy.

Pall Jenkins—Musician, Three Mile Pilot, The Black Heart Procession: The good thing about San Diego and playing The Casbah is that it’s such our local place that you have the excuse to be really drunk and have a silly show and people will forgive you for it. The staff won’t kick you out necessarily, but they’ll call you a cab.

Kate MacWilliamson—Bartender; musician: You can go by there any night of the week and you’re always gonna get something good—something interesting and different. It’s not like some venues in other cities where they stick to just one genre. People know if they go to The Casbah, no matter what night of the week it is, they’re going to see something decent.

George Varga: Seriously, even more important than showcasing so much great national and international talent over the years, The Casbah has been an invaluable incubator for at least two generations of gifted San Diego musicians.

Tim Mays: [The lease runs] through 2013 right now. In a couple years, we’ll start talking about five more years after that…. Even if they move the airport, it’s going to take another 10 years after that. So we’re good for now. At that point, Keith [Tim’s 15-year-old son] can take over. As long as it’s something that’s interesting or cool, we’ll do it. I used to be very narrow-minded on what we do, but you gotta be open to make it work. No reggae, though.   

The Casbah’s 20th-anniversary shows will run throughout January and feature performances by Lucy’s Fur Coat, The Dragons, C.L.A., The Album Leaf, Three Mile Pilot, Louis XIV, No Knife, The Penetrators, The Black Heart Procession and more.