Clematis Street Blues

Eleven years later and Ray's Downtown is still standing.

June 16, 1995, was like any other Friday night for an 18-year-old Fats: loafing around Clematis Street with my other underaged punk-rock pals, the brothers Wallerstein and the perpetually messed-up Jason Compton. Yes, I used to be a member of the 561. I know the pains of Palm Beach County all too well. You think West Palm's music scene is dead now? Back then, there was nothing — nada, zilch, zippo — as far as all-ages venues went. Foundation, the only club in the county we cared about, had just closed. So we took it downtown, where we'd get drunk and play hide-and-seek with the cops. To no one's surprise, the city soon caught on to us. I found out the hard way... by reading about it in the June 17 edition of the Palm Beach Post.

I remember the strange mixture of horror and hilarity I felt when I saw the paper that morning. There, smack dab on the front page, was Jason Compton, sportin' a green mohawk, a spiked dog collar, and matching bracelets. The headline read "The Other Side of Clematis" and asked, "Where's a person with green hair to go?" The article went on to explain the plight of the poor city officials, how they were desperate to attract beautiful people with money but all they got were freaky-looking kids with bad haircuts. Of course, there really weren't that many of us — and none of us looked as fucked up as Compton. But perception speaks louder than truth, and that photo said only one thing — West Palm's gutter runneth over.

Times were tough for the underaged music fan, but things were about to change. Four days after that Post article ran, a new bar opened at 519 Clematis St. — Ray's Downtown Blues. Now, anyone reading this probably doesn't need an introduction to the venue, which is now called simply Ray's Downtown. New Times has spilled plenty of ink on owner Ray Carbone's financial woes and battles with code enforcement, as well as his staunch support of all-ages shows. So let's forget about city politics for a moment and focus on what really matters — the music. That's certainly what Carbone will be doing come June 23, when Ray's Downtown's 11th Anniversary Weekend kicks off (more on that later).

With my scene historian cap firmly in place, I gave Carbone a call to see how much he remembers of the early days, starting with the obvious question.

"Ray's opened on June 21, 1995," Carbone recalls. "We held a grand tour of the bar and had Popa Chubby play at Respectables."

Then who was the first band to actually play inside Ray's?

"The first show at Ray's was the Roadside Banditos, September 4 of the same year," Carbone says. "Their lead singer, Joey George, still plays every Wednesday and Thursday."

Damn, this guy's got a better memory than most bar owners and musicians. Maybe this next one will stump him: When did you start doing all-ages shows?

"It was when the Worms played in 1998," he says. "That was the first one."

What about the Food Not Bombs benefit show in '96? That was the first one I went to. Hell, my old band, the Mute-Ants, played the damned thing. I've even got pictures.

"Oh yeah!" Carbone suddenly recalls. "How'd you remember that? I barely remember that!"

Shit, I don't know. Must be the pictures. Judging from the trashed look on my face and frightening (forgive me) pink spandex pants I was wearing (it was a gag, I swear), there was obviously a reason for my mangled memory. (Note: Ray's played no part in my intoxication; I showed up that way.)

But as Carbone confirms, that was far from the weirdest thing he's seen on that stage.

"This one band, Man Scouts of America, had flaming torches on the end of guitars that shoot flames about 20 feet off the stage without me knowing it," Carbone says. "And then there was Candye Kane, the 250-pound ex-stripper who decided to whip off her top and play piano with her boobs. That was realinteresting."

At the time, perhaps. But in retrospect, what's most interesting is the handful of big names that passed through Ray's, many on their way to stardom: Sum 41, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, and Audioslave's Tom Morello.

"Tom Morello played three years ago; he did a side thing after Lollapalooza," Carbone says. "That was cool. But what was even cooler was that he came in the next night and apologized for acting like a rock star the night before. He got drunk with me, and we talked for about three hours. He ended up being really cool."

What's not cool, though, is the cost of booking those big leaguers. That's why Carbone has no qualms about letting outside promoters book most of the shows — even for his own anniversary shindig. Though Carbone is keeping the bands to a minimum on Friday and Saturday (Something Else and Boxelder, respectively), Sunday's finale is a real schmoorgisboard (sic). Yes, that would be the one-time return of Jared Cole's Schmoorgisboard Sundays, the weekly mishmash of bands Ray's hosted from October 2004 to May 2005.

"The thing about doing a show at Ray's is you don't have to worry about the owner flipping out," Cole says. "You can relax. You know Ray's not going to come up to you and ask what the hell is going on."

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