It's just a tiny big town, and when opportunities dry up, summer doldrums set in. Is it the stifling weather that fuels petty tensions and brings out the worst in the music community? Doubtful. More likely, it's the fear of diminishing resources that has everyone fighting over the last few crumbs.
We can look right to downtown Fort Lauderdale's famous late-night party spot, the Poor House, as one probable culprit. As reported in this column almost six months ago, one of the area's more popular live acts, Hashbrown, who'd made the room its main squeeze, was on the verge of being permanently booted. Guitarist Duncan Cameron made it clear those few months ago that, in fact, he'd been informed that his presence at the Poor House was unwelcome. He says the band was pissed at first -- after all, it was Cameron's letter about racist bullshit at the club that drew press attention toward the Poor House -- but they've survived with plenty of shows from Boca Raton's Surf Café to well-paying gigs on South Beach.
Derek Cintron, the Miami rocker who's made significant inroads in Broward lately, winning a recent battle of the bands at the Factory, played his first and last Poor House show with his band in May 2001. A disagreement (reported in Bandwidth in June 2001) about volume -- a common Poor House gripe -- or song choices ended up ruffling feathers, and needless to say, Cintron and Co. haven't been invited to return.
Lately, a growing number of disgruntled indigenous musicians have been coming forward to report that they too have been banned from the Poor House stage. Among the loudest: Lee Lowenthal, singer/harpist with Fort Lauderdale jump-blues outfit the Regulators, a man who's been performing in South Florida since the early 1970s. The Regs used to be a happenin', hoppin' weekend draw at the haunt, filling the room and the registers, Lowenthal reports. His problems -- evidently centered on a dispute with Poor House manager Robert Pignone -- began over typically trivial nonsense (though being stiffed on $50, as Lowenthal claims happened once, might not seem trivial to a working band).
In fact, after the Regulators made a deal to also do weekends at the nearby Yellow Moon (a now-defunct bar on Himmarshee), Pignone basically accused the band of cheating on him. "As soon as we did our first gig there," Lowenthal remembers, "I was banned from the Poor House." This December, he reports, will mark four years since he's been welcome there.
"[Pignone] will cut off his nose to spite his face," Lowenthal claims. "'Cause he knows we always did good in that room. His attitude is, 'If you don't like it, go somewhere else.'"
Stephen "Slip" Mahoney, the guitarist who captains the rockabilly-blues band Slip and the Spinouts, also used to play at the Poor House. Mahoney's tale of woe is even more trivial than most, something about $200 in unpaid rent that led to a schism between him and his then-bandmates, which resulted in a tepid little fracas at the bar. Evidently, his bass player brought in a few pals one late night in an attempt to call Mahoney out to the parking lot.
"There was four of them and only one of me," he says. "Also, I didn't want to fight because I have a plate under my left eye from a motorcycle accident." He says he remarked to the bartender on duty, "If you let these guys jump me in here, I will sue." That comment apparently failed to endear him to the Poor House management.
Mahoney ended up getting a restraining order against his antagonist. "But," he says, "I was banned from the Poor House."
He realizes that being forbidden from the one room in the area that caters to a greaser/rockabilly crowd is cramping his style and wishes the Poor House would reconsider. "I really want to put all this crap behind me," he claims.
Fort Lauderdale singer/saxophonist/washboard wizard/harmonica specialist Stan Street is a high-profile working musician who nonetheless hasn't performed at the Poor House in nearly five years. "I'm still playing, so it doesn't bother me. I just laugh at the way things are here," he shrugs. "I don't know why I'm not playing there. I always liked the place." In fact, at one point, Street performed there three nights a week. But when he took another paying gig at Smuggler's on Las Olas, he says Pignone's demeanor changed. Street, who wonders aloud if Pignone might be possessed by the devil, mentions that he even used to display and sell his artwork at the Poor House.
"He doesn't get it," Street says of Pignone. "In the '30s and '40s, cats played in a different bar every night. It was just good for business. We should all be working to keep the music alive." Nowadays, Street can be found plying his trade at the Downtowner and Cheers on Sunday nights.
Pianist/vocalist Motel Mel Seba has been performing blues in Broward since 1971, most recently linking with singer Betty Padgett and her band, the Right Stuff. It's been about a year and a half since he's performed at the Poor House.
"I was never told that I couldn't play there," begins Seba's story. "It's just that I was treated so shitty that I don't want to ask to go back." He charges the Poor House with double-booking him one night and stiffing him on a payment and says that when he complained, Pignone became angry. "I've never been told I couldn't play in a club before," Seba says, "but I tell you, the closest I ever came was Bob over there at the Poor House." Seba says that future dates he'd already booked with Pignone were not honored. "If I ever step in that room, it'll be too soon for me," Seba concludes.
Pignone sheds no tears for these lost soldiers. "I'm not looking to win any popularity awards or anything like that," he says.
"Hashbrown can play here -- just not Duncan," Pignone says, adding that the guitarist betrayed him. "I wish that shit had never happened with him so I could still have Hashbrown in here, but it did, so that's that."
Cintron, he confirms, is still banned for life. "Oh, fuck yeah! Believe me, I'll give him a fuckin' beating, 'cause he's a lying motherfucker. Actually, he's too small to hit."
With Lowenthal, he explains: "It was a personal thing with me directly. I don't like him as a person, though his band was a good draw. He's a prick, and I gave him chance after chance after chance. Tell the Regulators if they want to come back for $50, fine."
Slip and the Spinouts? "Weren't fuckin' producing," he declares. "It's unfortunate, but what do you want me to do, keep 'em here? If they want to come in for $100, fine. Stan Street outpriced himself, but I'd love to get him back in here. He's a great performer. With Motel Mel, people just didn't come in for him."
In fact, Pignone says, economics is really the only factor that determines his booking decisions. "Half the bands here now, I don't even listen to. I just come in and look at what the ring [take] is. If I'm making money, they're coming back.
"I'm not going to start charging at the door [one of the best things about the Poor House, which recently won this newspaper's Best Bar in Broward award], and a draft is only $3.50 -- I don't want to go higher than that," he points out. And he notes his great relationship with most of the other local bands in the area, including good friends Teri Catlin, the Clap, Jerrods Door, and the Hep Cat Boo Daddies. "I get along with the guy great," says the Daddies' guitarist, Joel DaSilva. "He treats me pretty good all the time, and I love playing there. The Poor House is the only place in the area where you can play your heart out."
Pignone issues one caveat to bands wanting to play his stage: "I'm not here to keep bands that are trying to make it from playing, but I'm not going to be held hostage by these guys either. I'm all about spite," he warns. "You fuck me, I'm gonna fuck you."
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