Great Taste, Less Lame

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

"Excuse me, brother," she says, fanning the air, barely embarrassed. "That was me. I'm sorry, brother. It's the hamburger I ate today."

She continues to bray, "God bless! No, I mean it, brother — bless you!" into his ear until it sounds like she'll never stop, but George just nods and nods, and she keeps blessing him.

Finally, she leaves. Her presence, George asserts, adds character, especially in a city quickly becoming a playground for the privileged. On and off for almost a dozen years, George has been playing on Ray's stage. In fact, the band the Roadside Banditos was the first to grace it. Back in the gravy days, he recalls: "There were a lot more people in here! But it just tailed off. People just aren't going out for entertainment, and if they do, they don't come down here."

John Wylie to the rescue.
John Wylie to the rescue.
Jackie Patterson will bring jazz to Ray's every Thursday night.
Jackie Patterson will bring jazz to Ray's every Thursday night.

A pair of shadows — one tall and broad-shouldered, one petite — hit the wall in the entranceway, followed quickly by a small, thin, blond woman and her preppy boyfriend. She takes a tentative step forward, surveys the scene, and starts to back up. As they leave, one of the homeless regulars begins dancing his way toward them.

When the nearby buildings that tower hundreds of feet above Clematis Street are filled with people with expendable incomes in search of a cocktail, Carbone theorizes, he'll find himself in a perfect spot.

At 44, it isn't so strange that Ray Carbone has turned to punk rock as his salvation. When he was 17, growing up in New Jersey, he'd journey across the river and stay with friends in New York City — friends who loved hanging out with the Ramones at CBGB. Carbone got to know the band and started amassing a library of loudness as it was produced. He'd collected thousands of records by the time he moved to South Florida in his 20s. The Violent Femmes, Black Flag, the Damned, and the Smithereens figured heavily, but that didn't mean he cherished his original vinyl copies of rare Miles Davis and Charlie Parker releases any less.

Soon enough, more than 3,500 albums cluttered his 1,100-square-foot house. "Minor Threat, Fugazi..." he muses, thumbing through the stacks. "I swear, I don't even remember buying some of this stuff."

During the '80s, Carbone worked in real estate property management, pulling down close to $100,000 annually. That career, he says with a shiver, was so stressful that it affected his health. "So amazingly horrible. I wouldn't go back to that for all the money in the world."

Taking his life savings — roughly a year's salary — and sinking it into an old coffeehouse, Carbone muscled his way out of the daily grind. With his typical go-it-alone flair, he decorated the club himself, creating a beautifully tacky treasure as well as a way to put his love of music to work. "I got into blues later in life, when I worked as a DJ," he says. When he opened Ray's Downtown Blues Bar in June 1995 (his first live show took place that Labor Day weekend), his mainstays included Bill Wharton the Sauce Boss and the Nighthawks. Ray's became a roots-music destination.

But the punk spirit and DIY entrepreneurship became the club's salvation when, by the late 1990s, blues, caught in a cyclical rut, lost some currency. When the fancy, thematic Bamboo Room opened in Lake Worth, many of the top-tier touring acts transferred there. Carbone started working with young local bands like Doorway 27, Black River Circus, and Boxelder, cultivating a younger crowd. Not just a commercial choice, he genuinely enjoyed the vigor of the new music.

Just rolling with the changes, Carbone shrugs. "I do whatever I've gotta do to make it work. I pissed off some of the blues regulars, but, you know, I can't afford to bring in acts that cost $2,000 to $3,000 and only have 50 people in the room. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury."

Adding in the Lounge, Respectable Street, and Spanky's, the 500 block of Clematis became a youth-oriented party zone. The odd blues guitarists or harpists would still come down for the occasional weekend show, but Carbone had become the official manager for Black River Circus, a twin-guitarist modern rock band, and an increasingly younger crowd found the dive-bar ambiance at Ray's irresistible. It was a cool place to play.

Stumbling through a midlife crisis and a painful (and expensive) divorce, Carbone sought solace at the club. But during the day, he worked as a manager at the chain-mall music store FYE. "I'm single for the first time in 20 years," he said then, "but I'm happy. Yeah, I gotta get up to get here at 10 a.m. after being at the club until 3. But I'm hanging out with people who're genuinely having a good time. It's better than digging ditches."

On a Sunday night, mid-January 2001, the darkened streets near the west end of Clematis were unusually crowded with parked cars. Collegiate-looking white kids parked Jettas and Civics, pumped change into meters, and hustled into Ray's. At the front door, a big-biceped guy in a tight T-shirt and a frown checked IDs and ushered couples inside. The front room was packed like never before — hundreds of kids squatted, kneeled, or sat as close as possible to the stage.

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