Great Taste, Less Lame

With Clematis Street sputtering, Ray's Downtown barely holds on as a beachhead of hip

In the meantime, Carbone has continued cultivating a homey, sophisticated dive-bar vibe that evokes music-savvy cool, resisting the urge to renovate every few decades, as most clubs do. Refusing to dissolve into the dusty history of downtown, Carbone has tried everything up to and including hard-core punk as well as soft-core porn in an effort to keep the club from going under. The bar, constructed from plywood and two-by-fours, black paint, and blue light bulbs, has a punk aesthetic.

Nowadays, the place is much as it always was. With the sucking sound of an emptying bathtub drain seeming to become ever louder, not much — aside from a few newish couches — has been upgraded. The small liquor selection is down to the nitty gritty — if you need a shot of Patron añejo, you'll need to shop elsewhere. In fact, on this slow Wednesday night/Thursday morning, beer choices are few, as evinced by the empty plastic cups adorning nearly every beer tap.

Guinness? No. Foster's? Out. Newcastle? No castle. Warsteiner? Nope. Heineken? Not today. Sam Adams? The patriot's AWOL tonight.

Street survivor
Street survivor
A younger crowd breathes new life into Ray's old room.
A younger crowd breathes new life into Ray's old room.

Maybe Carbone didn't pay the beverage distributor?

"That's a good guess," chuckles Jablonski, who, with his tousled blond hair, looks a bit like Keifer Sutherland circa Lost Boys.

By this past October, Carbone's back-rent arrears had forced his ever-understanding landlord, Rodney Mayo, to take him to court. In the resulting settlement, the money the club earns is all going to pay off the debt.

"He was at a point where he was like, 'I can't float you any more,'" laments Carbone, who's quiet and brooding tonight. His trademark ponytail is gone, his hair close-cropped and gray. He's wearing black jeans, black Converse All-Stars, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with RAYS. "Rodney has been the coolest dude. I mean, 11 months without paying rent? C'mon."

Jablonski, a regular since 1999, is sick of hearing the rumors. "After you hear someone cry wolf enough times, you just stop listening," he says. But like most regulars, he's well-aware of Carbone's money woes and admits, "If I came down here one night and the doors were locked with a sign out front, I wouldn't be surprised. Not at all."

Carbone says his only choice was to partner up — to sell part of the club to outsiders. Well, not really outsiders: John Wylie of local punk label Eulogy Records and Alex Tchekmeian of ATK Enterprises had both worked as independent promoters, booking all-ages bands at venues like Ray's. The pair's first job was excavating Ray's from under its mountain of accounts unpayable.

"Things had gotten so bad," Wylie explains, "that when we stepped in, Ray was probably looking at $100,000 in debt. He was so overwhelmed."

In the new, kid-accessible environment, alcohol gets covered up whenever Ray's hosts all-ages shows. No problem. But Carbone says that in November, the city sent an under-age officer into the club during a regular night. No one checked the young cop's ID — he just ducked into the men's room and walked out — but Carbone got hit with a ticket for allowing someone under 21 into the bar. "I'm not kidding — that's how they set me up," he says. "I haven't paid it yet." The fine is $100 — more than he makes in liquor sales some slow nights.

Concurs Wylie: "They look for reasons to give us a hard time. They've sent the fire marshal in there just to pick everything apart." The city says it's concerned with maintaining a "walking lane" so patrons can exit quickly in the event of a fire.

"We can comply with whatever the city requests," Wylie says.

Even so, Tchekmeian points out, "they could come tomorrow and say you can't do all-ages shows anymore."

"They hate underage shows; they absolutely hate 'em," he says. "They try to make it hard for Ray — it's like nothing he does is correct."

There's a constant drumbeat from the city, Carbone says. "Every time I turn around, there's another license due or something breaks down. People think if you own a club, you're raking in the dough. Please. The taxes on the liquor alone get you left and right. But I'm not complaining. I love it. I really do."

Halfway through his second set, Joey George is hunched over a black hollow-body guitar, a glass slide stroking the strings, as a half-drunk woman from the street positions herself in front of him. The dancefloor is empty, so no one really minds, least of all George, who ignores her. She leans in and appears to be either making a long-winded request or an animated complaint. George, who may or may not be listening, nods his head in time to the music.

When he's finished, George takes a leather-topped stool at the bar and smokes cigarettes down to the quick, his arms mysteriously covered with small, circular Band-Aids he aimlessly picks at.

His fan approaches, her dirty, thrift-store dress flapping in the air-conditioned chill. Toothless, her hair a wild mop, with a habit of punctuating every sentence with a "God bless!," she prattles into George's ear as he nods and nods, eyes half-closed. Suddenly, he turns away.

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