Three years and several scores ago, I piloted a Subaru from Colorado's Queen City of the Plains through Texas and the Redneck Riviera to rain-soaked South Florida. Upon my arrival back in early March of 2000, the folks here at New Times held my tiny hand as I squealed with delight over the cornucopia of new sights, smells, and sounds. During that first week, I ended up on Clematis Street, pining for home but pretty impressed with the 500 block, guessing that it would come to be one of the hipper places to hang my hat come beer-thirty.
And that might have happened had Clematis not started to reek of class/race-warfare bullshit and a cookie-cutter procession of try-and-fail "theme" spaces with highly original names like Spin and Liquid and Level and Vivid. Folks tired of this inglorious combination have always gravitated toward clubs at the west end of the street: Respectable Street, the Lounge, O'Shea's Irish Pub, Spanky's, and what back then was known as Ray's Downtown Blues.
But now, that end of the street is hurtin'. And Ray Carbone, who dropped the color from his joint's name a year ago, is on the ropes. "I know I've pissed off a lot of blues guys," Ray says, "but I've had no option. It's, like, die with the blues or open it up to other stuff."
Punk rock and a young crowd have constituted the "other stuff" since then. Ray's became legendary in mid-2000 when our hero Chris Carrabba built his legion of loyalists while perched on a stool in the front window. "It was amazing," Carbone says fondly. "Three-hundred and fifty paid, sitting on the floor, singing his songs. I've never seen that, not for the Rolling Stones, for God's sake. I was like, 'Wow, this guy's gonna be something.' We had him here three or four times, and now I couldn't get him if I wanted him."
Chris, if you can hear this above the roar of the "Dashboard Confessional opening for Beck" crowd... Ray needs you. Carbone, who turns 42 next month, who cut his teeth hanging out at New York's CBGB with the Ramones, who has seen the Stones enough times to know what he's talking about, is struggling to keep open the club he's operated for eight years.
"I don't want to say everything sucks," he grumbles, "but that's kind of how I feel." Estimating his monthly overhead at nearly $8,000, Carbone hopes his landlord, Rodney Mayo -- who owns most of the clubland real estate on the 500 block -- will understand his situation.
"He could pull me out tomorrow," Carbone acknowledges. "I'm many, many months behind." Given the recent changes on Clematis (Dax and Lost Weekend shutting down, well-heeled soles skipping over to CityPlace in droves), inside sources see Ray's as the next domino to topple.
Last month, a local punker kid named Jason came up with a plan to alleviate Ray's predicament. "He said, 'We'll hold a benefit, and we'll just give you all the money,'" Carbone explains. "So I'm like, 'OK, fine. '" Friday's benefit, to be held at Ray's, will include the Heatseekers, Billy Boloby, Stud Dogs, Middle Class Chaos, Alter Boys, and the Fiasco.
Ray's is a funky, small club with a low stage, a low black ceiling, and reddish walls, like those you'd find inside an old Mexican restaurant. Its front room holds the bar, bands, and beer. The back is considerably less inviting, with pool tables, harsh lights, and nappy-ass furniture. A bottle of Bud's just three dollars. "Probably the cheapest on the street," Carbone claims of the club. "You can call it what you want. You can call it comfortable. You can call it seedy. You can call it beyond relaxed -- that's the way my room is. It's an old-time regular bar, and you're going to get old-time regular prices. As far as I'm concerned, that's what makes my club different from everybody else's. Anybody can walk in there. Yeah, it's a little rundown 'cause I've let it go 'cause I just don't have the money to keep it up. It's everything to everybody. And if you don't like it tonight, come back tomorrow and there's gonna be some music I'm playing that's gonna be different."
That's one reason for the trouble. Ray is having a hard time because he's a music lover who found his way into a business rather than a businessman with a hobby. "I'm not complaining," he stresses. "I love this. I really do. I used to work making almost $100,000 a year in real estate property management. I wouldn't go back to that for all the money in the world."
"The problem in Ray's case is that his club doesn't attract the 'hip' clientele that most of the other clubs on Clematis do," Jason opines. But Ray's doesn't really attract down-and-outers: It rounds up West Palm punks who wanna slam but aren't old or flush enough to buy beer. That makes it hard to make money.
And of course, some of the blues crowd feels stiffed. "I was getting crap from the blues people who say I don't do enough blues, [but] when I do the blues, they don't fuckin' show up," gripes Carbone, who's been seen behind the bar in cargo shorts and Doc Martens, mirroring the 20-somethings on the other side.
Keeping an open mind toward new music and young crowds, Carbone has taken chances on the obscure-but-fascinating Pygmy (named Best Rock Band in our Best of Broward-Palm Beach issue last month) even in the face of diminishing returns. Following a fire in the club and a divorce within the past two years, Carbone has plunged himself into nighttime bartending at his namesake watering hole. Unlike the clubs at the other end of the street that are forever trying to conjure up a new concept to help flatten the wallets of the undiscerning, Ray's has no concept whatsoever. Sometimes there's a band on-stage. Sometimes not.
"Last night I had more fun being in there from 9 [p.m.] till 2 [a.m.], spinning my own shit," he says, " just playing all sorts of different music from Sinatra to Zeppelin to Morphine to Charlie Parker. There were only 20 or 30 people in there, but everybody made a comment about it."
Young, well-financed downtown entrepreneurs keep floating ideas past Carbone, who keeps shooting them down. "Let's turn it into a go-go club with girls in cages," one suggested. Carbone screws his grizzly face into a scowl. His answer? "Dude, whatever."
Like the Poor House in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Ray's key to happiness is live music. In that regard, Ray could use a little help: maybe a young ear to the ground who's hip to national bands touring the peninsula. Snagging a couple of those would help, he concedes, but not enough. "Who do I have to bring in there?" he asks. "One act, ten acts, 20 acts that I can bring in that'll catch me right up? No."
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On a recent Saturday night, local blues songstress Kelley Richey performed at Ray's. "I made $200 over what I paid her," Carbone reports. "I had a punk show the night before, with all the punk kids screaming they want more punk stuff. I give 'em shows with, like, eight different bands, and I make $400 the whole night."
Occasionally, Ray's hosts a local band with a big draw, like Box Elder, which always packs the room. "And I'll ring $3,500, and I can't ring more because there's too many people and not enough of me," Carbone laments. "I'm just trying to shovel beer out there fast enough. At that point, it's not about the music; it's about shoveling liquor. It gets frustrating."
So far, it's been begging and borrowing, but no stealing. Yet. "I don't want to shut it down," Carbone says. "I really don't."
Next week: The summertime blues colors Clematis Street.