Great Taste, Less Lame

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

During the second Iraq War, West Palm Beach is slightly less uptight. But Carbone, critical of Lois Frankel and her well-publicized animosity toward Clematis Street clubowners (especially Rodney Mayo) still sees parallels with the past. Frankel and Mayo regularly scuffle in print, and Frankel once dissed one of his eateries and called him "trash." Complains Carbone: "It's the same story. The mayor sucks, man. I don't know what else to say. She doesn't want the clubs anymore. There's absolutely no help whatsoever for downtown bars — it's like they're trying to get us out."

Frankel declined to comment for this article. But City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, whose district includes Clematis, says she understands local club owners' attitude. "I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to look at the street and see that we have a problem down here," she says. But Mitchell thinks the big problem is traffic. "It's really the roads being closed downtown that is killing the businesses."

The most damaging punch from the city was thrown during the spring of 2004, when the City Commission unanimously decided that no one under 21 could enter nightclubs ever again — effectively ending the practice of allowing all-ages shows where adult clubgoers with ID could get a wristband and drink.

Feeling at home with Ray Carbone.
Colby Katz
Feeling at home with Ray Carbone.

"So now, nobody can be in the room while alcohol is being served, so I've lost a lot of my shows," Carbone grimaces. "The bigger national rock shows? Can't do 'em. The people who drink won't come out."

Taking the color out of the club's name was more a sign of the times than anything else, notes Hall. "Once every seven years, the blues becomes hot again," he remarks. "Kind of like Disney DVDs when they rerelease 'em to a whole new generation."

Weekly punk shows that did bring in the numbers also trashed the already bare-boned room. The cash to fix things up was in short supply, but in the meantime, Ray's developed a rough-hewn character that made up in authenticity what it lacked in creature comforts.

"That beaten-down vibe he has there is not being appreciated in West Palm at the moment," Hall continues. "But because the architecture isn't that old down here, there aren't many rooms with the type of history that can dictate a vibe."

While the club was sputtering, the website bristled with activity the bar didn't necessarily match. An ill-fated strategy to garner attention, the site became infamous for its collection of soft-core photographs. Part of the hubbub was a forum devoted to posting pictures, which began with patrons' Polaroids but eventually developed into a repository for nude photos found on the Internet. At one point in 2004, it looked like most of the archive had been uploaded to Ray's site. Unfortunately, none of the increased web traffic translated into business at the bar.

"I didn't get shit out of it; all I got was grief from women," Carbone gripes now. "I had to get rid of it — it was too nuts. My girlfriend freaked. She said it was degrading to women."

Not only women regarded the photos with wariness. A longtime patron called "bluedude" asked, "How do you stay open? Your club used to play blues all the time, in fact one of my bands used to play there. Then all of a sudden you started playing more rock and the crowd changed. What the hell happened? ... and what's with all the porno stuff? I mean I love tits, but what are you a former porn star or what? Let us know..."

Another blues fan chimed in: "[H]ow does Ray's survive? That's a very good question. I suspect (hope?) they have other sources of income and need a tax write-off. Either that or they are hanging on by a thread."

Carbone conceded that West Palm Beach was probably not the best place in the world to open a blues club. He added that he lived an ascetic life, driving a beat-up 1996 Caddy, barely making ends meet. "My personal goal is to never close Ray's," he said, "and to die in the club one quiet night after too many Jägers and beautiful women."

"There really wouldn't be anywhere else," Alex Tchekmeian says after a moment's pause. Without Ray's, West Palm Beach wouldn't be able to offer any live music for the under-21 crowd at all. After the draconian measure was enacted, the Red Lion Pub in Boynton Beach picked up much of the slack. But Tchekmeian and Wylie decided to stay and help Carbone mop up the red ink.

"We decided that what we had to do was to keep the music and keep it all-ages," the soft-spoken Tchekmeian says.

Last year, a spate of code violations ended up shuttering the venerable sports bar/music venue Spanky's. "It's gonna be condos, I guess," sighs Wylie, who holds no illusions about how difficult it will be to pull Ray's out of its hole. "It's a tough uphill battle — try paying off $80,000 over six months."

Because Wylie and Tchekmeian are booking young, nearly unknown acts, most of the all-ages shows charge around $8, with all the money collected at the door going directly to pay off the debt. "Which is fine," Wylie says. "It's a good way to give the kids something to do and keep live music alive. Then we'll fix the place up."

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