G marks the spot
South Florida has more local bands than ever before and more people going to see thesm. And you know what? It doesn't mean shit, not when the scene's a scattered mess.
This has always been the biggest pain in the ass for the people who make things happen around here. And though Fort Lauderdale is smack in the center of it, the town feels the sting every bit as much as any of its neighboring cities. Its music scene has no nucleus, no epicenter a place where people hang out whether their bands are playing or not.
It's not like those music lovers aren't out there. Think of the thousands of fans who go to the Warped Tour and Ozzfest each year when was the last time you saw those crowds at a local show?
But it doesn't have to be this way. Not when there are joints like The G. Yes, the place that used to be known as Gumwrappers Bikini Dance Club. Changing its name last month was just the last part of a transformation to rock club, one that's been more than a year in the making.
Located on A1A just north of Oakland Park Boulevard, it's not out of the way. And because it's not large enough to book national bands, the G has the potential to be the local spot a place where new bands can develop a fanbase and hook up with other groups as well.
Go ahead. Roll your eyes like a properly jaded scenester. Just don't complain the next time you're bored on a Friday night because there's "nowhere to go around here." And don't even try peddling your whiny bullshit to someone like Christopher Lee, the outspoken drummer of Death Becomes You and an employee of the G. Like many Broward County residents, Lee moved from New York, and he wouldn't mind returning one day. But for now, he's more interested in making things happen in the 954 and he thinks the G is the right place to do it.
"That place could be the next CBGB as far as South Florida is concerned," Lee says. "That's what I thought from the minute I went there. That's why I got involved in it. Everyone who works there does it for love of music because they're not making any money."
Lee should know. Though he works at the G only a few nights a week, he's been frequenting the club since it began hosting local shows at the beginning of last year. In fact, most of the people who work there are in bands, from General Manager Dean Garrow (who fronts the trio Knickers Down) to the G's newest employee, AkKi, the synth player and programmer in Human Factors Lab.
On a recent Friday night at 11, AkKi, with a headful of pink hair tucked beneath a cat-ear hat, was trying to direct traffic into the club.
On the sidewalk outside the G, she tried to get the attention of passing motorists on Federal Highway with two signs one read "G," the other "Spot."
Hey, man, sex sells. It was AkKi's first night working as a server at the G. Though her band wasn't playing tonight, she was just doing her part to get people into the club to get passers-by to not pass her by.
"Come on in to the G! We've got live music!" AkKi shouted.
A driver honked. Another stared. Some gawked; some didn't even look. Just then, a ragged, weather-worn, apparently drunken woman approached. She'd been walking northbound on the sidewalk and didn't look like she'd be up for seeing any loud rock bands. Indiscriminately, AkKi offered her the bait.
"Hey! Do you like music? We've got live bands tonight," she said.
The woman stopped for a moment, answered with a confusing bit of friendly but incoherent muttering, and then continued her slow trek up A1A. But that's just as well; AkKi also had a small group of patrons inside to check on.
Garrow took AkKi's place outside the door. And not a minute passed before a young guy in a buttoned-down dress shirt and pleated pants approached, having just parked his SUV. Garrow knew exactly what the guy wanted.
"Does this place still have dancers?" the man asked, almost like he was jonesing for drugs. "I live in New York and haven't been back here in years. I'm just looking for a good strip club."
"Not anymore," Garrow answered. "This is a music club."
Dejected, the boob fiend walked back to his vehicle.
Garrow meanwhile, had other things to think about than disappointing horny former frat boys. His headliner, the Stop Motion, had canceled.
It's hardly the first time a band had flaked on him. And besides, it takes a lot to get on Garrow's shit list. Having managed the club since its days of bikini dancing, Garrow's had his share of bullshit from patrons and dancers alike. But when he added live music to the mix, it was only a matter of time before the club got its rock 'n' roll christening, Who style. And it was delivered by none other than Fang, the Creepy T's (now former) drummer, whose Keith Moon-like antics got him booted from the club as well as from the band.
"I almost got into it with him in the dressing room," Garrow recalls. "He broke one of my microphones, he tried to tear down one of the speaker poles, and was acting like a jackass. That was the closest I've ever come to hitting a musician in my club. And it wasn't because of anything he broke. He was being so disrespectful, kicking other bands' stuff it was horrible. And he left half his equipment there. Most club owners wouldn't give it back, but I did. I know how hard he works for that stuff."
That's a pretty forgiving attitude. It's not like Garrow needs to put up with that kind of stuff; live bands haven't exactly been a cash cow for the club. But it's what Garrow wants and it's the reason behind the name change.
"We're really trying to forget about Gumwrappers," he says. "And people have always called it the G, anyway. But this right now, with the name change, this is do or die for us."
Garrow's glad for the switch, but there is one dancer left. She's done shakin' her stuff by 7 p.m. (And she declined to be interviewed for this article.) The rest of the dancers weren't fired. They simply went away, and Garrow gave up trying to find replacements. It wasn't his plan to stop hiring dancers, he says. It just happened that way.
"That wasn't anything we chose they just stopped coming," Garrow says. "They couldn't make money when the bands were playing. Eventually, we stopped hiring new girls."
For more than a year, the bands and bikini babes tried to coexist. The stage in back was for music; the platform in the center and the table behind the bar were for the girls. In theory, they were separate but equal. But the competition heated up, and weekend nights turned into all-out turf wars between bikinis and guitars.
"I remember one time, a girl actually climbed on stage during a band's set," Garrow says. "She was insisting that they let her do a song and caused a bit of a scene. The biggest problem with the girls, though, was what they'd do in the dressing room, touching customers inappropriately, getting nude... stuff that's illegal. But that mostly happened before the bands were around."
"If you touch this you will get a boot up your ass!" warns the sign on a locker in the G's dressing room. A relic from when the club was still a bikini dance club, it reads like graffiti in a school bathroom from a class that's long since graduated. The author is unknown, but one thing's for sure if her moneymaker is making any money these days, it's not here.
Out in the main room, the band Matter is hosting its weekly Wednesday open-mic night, kicking things off with a few cover songs to help loosen up the small crowd, most of whom are signed up to perform. Standing at the back of the audience is Brandon Sullivan, an assistant manager. Not surprisingly, Sullivan is also in a band, the pop-punk quartet A New Start.
"We're all musicians here," Garrow says, noting that he's no stranger to playing for little pay. "I'm sometimes embarrassed when that's all I can pay a band at the end of the night. But I've been the guy who gets paid only 25 bucks after a show and is told, 'Sorry, that's all you made tonight.'"
But since Knickers Down formed (a few months after the G's first show), Garrow hasn't had to deal with bookings. He's left that up to Chrissy Vision, a former bartender who decided she wanted to do more than just serve beer to the bands she wanted to book their shows. But it became a time-consuming venture, so much so that Vision eventually quit bartending to book bands full time, under the name Cherry Sonic Promotions. While some promoters make new bands jump through hoops to get a show, Vision likes hiring bands she's never seen. They may not pack the club, but they've got to start somewhere, you know?
"Many of the bands we've had at the G are playing their first shows," Vision says. "Some of the younger bands like the Coffin Caddies and CRiMiX totally rocked the stage too. I like to encourage young musicians. Though it's bands that play on a regular basis like Friendly Fire, Knickers Down, Mindspin, Horizonfall, Chicken for Chico, THC... They carry the weight."
The question of whether bikini dancers and rock bands could peaceably coexist has been answered. The question now is whether live music at the G can survive at all.
"It's really not faring well," Garrow admits. "We've had some really good weekends, but the rest of it hasn't been bringing much business. Diamond Dolls pretty much pays the rent," he says, referring to owner Gus Carchio's other property, a traditional strip house in Pompano Beach.
"Our biggest struggle has been getting people to come to the shows," says Vision, pointing to the Internet as a possible deterrent. "Too many people around here are more inclined to spend hours on MySpace listening to bands' sound clips and watching videos than actually go out and get the live experience."
For Garrow, the only other solution lowering the age of admission from 21 to 18 is more trouble than it's worth.
"At one point, we talked about holding an 18-and-up show," Garrow says. "The state said yes, and the county said as long as it's OK with the state, it was fine. But the state said we'd have a problem with the city. The city attorney called me and said that, according to the municipal code, unless 90 percent of our revenue is from food, we can't allow anyone under the age of 21. If we decide to do a show that's 18 and up, I can't sell liquor what's the point? I'd have to cover all the booze, put away all of the liquor signs, put away all the liquor advertising, and open it up as a soda and juice bar. Again, what's the point?"
So it's adults only for the G, even if there aren't any more bare breasts to gawk at. It's not like the club is entirely without vice, and the bands aren't playing Christian pop-rock. There's also Tuesday night's Salvation, the weekly industrial/goth party. And, Garrow says, Thursdays will soon be home to a fetish night, hosted by Josepher of Abusement Park. Garrow is quick to point out that this isn't a return to the old days of boobs and beer.
"What Josepher has planned could be a step back for us, but the way he'll do it as a private party will work fine," Garrow says.
For Garrow and Carchio, that's the important thing right now putting the club's past behind it and building a new core of regulars.
"We're hoping people will forget what it was," Carchio says. "We want everyone to look at the club's music more than its history."
As for that history: When Gumwrappers opened in 1982, Fort Lauderdale was still known as a spring break town. Back then, bikinis were strictly for the beach Gumwrappers girls came fully unwrapped. Nudity was legal at dance clubs, and Gumwrappers took advantage of that law while it lasted. By the mid-'80s, however, Gumwrappers found itself the target of a puritanical City Commission. Carchio says politicians had it in for him from the start. He's owned several nude dancing clubs in the past two decades. (Currently, his only other club is Diamond Dolls.) But Gumwrappers was Carchio's first. And though it caused him loads of legal grief over the years, he never considered giving up.
"When the club opened, nudity was legal in Fort Lauderdale, and there were about ten other clubs open in the city," he says. "But then a certain politician ran for commissioner. He ran on the platform that he'd close down all those clubs if he got elected."
That politician was Doug Danziger, Fort Lauderdale's crusading former vice mayor and member of Coral Ridge Ministries. He resigned in 1991 after his name came up on Kathy Willets' list of clients. Willets, wife of former Broward County Sheriff's Office deputy Jeffrey Willets, was arrested that year for prostitution a scandal that no one wanted to be linked with, especially a Holy Roller like Danziger. But even with him out of office, the City Commission's crackdown on nudity was a done deal.
"After banning full nudity, the city went a step further and disallowed semi-nudity," Carchio says. Gumwrappers adapted again, this time covering up nipples with flesh-colored pasties.
Then came the strangest transformation of all. For six weeks beginning in June 2003, the place became Club Decadence a South Beach-style dance club with a dress code and doormen.
"It was a cheesy dance club, and it failed miserably," Garrow said. "So we brought the Gumwrappers name back."
Garrow, who had been working as a daytime DJ, took over as general manager. He started thinking about booking bands.
The G's new life as a rock club began on Saturday, January 29, 2005, with a show featuring Trapped by Mormons and Southern Flaw. The night saw a full house, a much bigger crowd than on a regular Saturday night.
That show, and the next eight or so, were put together by Garo Gallo and Yvonne Colón, the promoters behind By the Way Inc. But soon, Garrow took promotions in-house.
"We already knew we'd be obsolete once the club started booking its own shows," Gallo says. "We knew they thought of us as the middle man. So we figured it was better for us to get out before we got kicked out."
But even though By the Way hasn't worked with the G in a year, it still refers bands to it.
"It's a really good place for new bands to get their start," Colón says. "When a band asks where they should book a show, I tell 'em to try [the G]."
And that brings us to the bands.
"A lot of these bands that play there expect something for nothing," Lee says. "And when there's a mediocre turnout, they blame everyone but themselves. Dean and Chrissy have been way too supportive and way too kind to people who are just antisocial. I would say 30 or 40 percent of the bands are not even friendly people."
But many are, Lee says, and they make his job a lot less stressful. One of the more affable bands Lee cites is Friendly Fire. The group's frontman, Casey Cook (AKA Stunner), says the same thing about the club.
"Dean and Chrissy always treated us great from the get-go," Cook says. "Chrissy really is into the bands she books. She's always there, front and center. And she's always been a huge supporter of us. I don't want to dis any other bars, but [the G] is my favorite place to play. It's a little decadent, a little dangerous it's what you're looking for in a rock 'n' roll club."
When Miami-based electro-rockers Fallz played their first show at the G, they weren't sure what to expect.
"Our keyboardist, Robert, was upset there weren't any strippers," says the group's bassist and guitarist, Brett Fisher. "But our singer, Aya, was glad about that. Overall, it was a good show. We even had a fan wearing a giant alien costume full of elaborate lights. That's always a good sign."
But like any venue, the G has its critics, the most vocal being the band Radar O Reilly, Broward's purveyors of unapologetically loud rock. New Times spoke with the band's bassist, Death Metal Douglas, who complained that Garrow made him lower the volume on his amp. But his two bandmates had their own grievances as well. All three band members sent their comments via e-mail.
"People who don't like their rock loud have absolutely no business booking live rock bands end of fucking story," the band wrote.
Guitarist/vocalist Righteous Richard took issue with the time slot Radar O Reilly was given. "The third and final show we played, Chrissy and Dean decided to put us on at 2, even though we were supposed to go on at 12... We had people that came as early as 11 (possibly the only ones spending any money at the bar). Luckily, Friendly Fire saved the evening by letting us have their 1 a.m. slot."
Drummer Sense Sensational pulled no punches while summing up his band's view. "Dean had it in for us right after we played our first show," Sense writes. "I think he was jealous of us because he's a talentless wannabe."
Asked about Sense's comments, Garrow replies: "Who?"
Sensational let on that his friend TV (of the band Childproof) had his own issues with the G. A day later, he sent over his own e-mailed gripe.
"Death Metal Douglas asked my band Childproof to play his birthday," TV writes. "After waiting around three hours, we finally started sound-checking. Chrissy, a woman dressed like a stripper, bitches at us to 'Turn that guitar down!' Jason, our guitarist, is actually somewhat hearing-impaired in one ear. So even if he would've listened to her, he couldn't hear her. She made no attempt to address us politely and obviously doesn't know what a sound-check is."
Vision says it was a simple case of a band being disrespectful. "When I asked him to turn his amp down, he stood there looking at me," she says. "Chris Lee was next to me. I asked him, 'Am I being disrespected here?' He nodded. I asked another person who agreed. So I told the band to take their stuff and go."
Childproof was sent packing; they weren't allowed to play that night. Though it's nothing TV has lost any sleep over. He has no intention of going back to the club.
"I really wonder why you're writing about Scumwrappers," TV writes. "It's the shittiest, shadiest, crappiest venue in town and no one even goes there. Is this feature for a 'Worst Of' issue? I might pee my pants if Knickers Down gets the cover."
Relax, dude. Check the front page your pants can stay dry. Besides, it's Vision who has the most to worry about; it's her livelihood on the line.
"All I wish right now is that everyone would unite instead of attacking each other," Vision says. "Our scene is so dire, the last thing we need is infighting."
Right. That stuff's best left to Internet message boards. Sure, the G may not be the Ritz. But it's here. It's ours, it's what we make of it just like every other local music venue. Again, roll your eyes if you must. Keep being jaded. Just don't complain when the only clubs left charge 20 bucks at the door. Besides, there's plenty of music on the Internet.
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