Wednesday night at Ray's Downtown. A 50-something guitarist alone on the bandstand idly strokes the strings between numbers as a handful of barflies down cheap drinks. Slow night. In fact, the club exhibits a barely detectable pulse, despite the dozen or so patrons who have dragged themselves away from the television to what veteran nightcrawlers will tell you is West Palm Beach's best-kept secret. But the little bar at 519 Clematis St., with more than a decade of music and revelry under its belt, is on life support.
Jonathan Jablonski sips his drink from a red plastic cup as he recalls the long, slow decline on Clematis Street, once the town's preeminent nightlife destination. Five years ago, clublife raged like wildfires on California hillsides, nightspots packed in crowds, and the street thrummed with the energy of a yuppified take on downtown Austin or New Orleans. But the city's politicians took a dim view of the festivities. Jablonski remembers Mayor Joel Daves, who lived a block from Clematis, starting the crackdown with noise-ordinance violations and increased police presence.
When Lois Frankel replaced Daves in 2002, Jablonski relates, "we figured she couldn't possibly be any worse." That presumption turned out to be incorrect. While Daves was thought of as an out-of-touch stick-in-the-mud, Clematis business owners view Frankel as an outright enemy of the city's nightlife.
Tonight, the 500 block of Clematis is dark and nearly deserted, save for a loud, drunken trio who occasionally make bold but harmless incursions into Ray's at odd intervals. "Yeah, they're regulars," winks Jablonski.
Shouting several decibels over what's required to be heard, a thin, disheveled man staggers to the bar. "Barmaid! Hey, barmaid!," he shouts, drawing in a sharp breath that puffs out his scrawny chest. "I luuuhh you! Do you hear me? I said I luuuhhhhhh yooooooooo!!!" When his slurred bellow clearly startles her, he dials his volume down slightly. "Barmaid! Lissen t' me! You're beautiful!" She blushes but, not wanting to add any encouragement, frowns and looks away. The huge beads that hang around her neck and accentuate her busty, brunet appeal are like a shiny fishing lure, and the drunken man can't help himself. "Young lady, young lady!" he hollers, rapping a bony fist on the bar.
Finally, he stumbles back outside. He passes singer/guitarist Joey George, who's onstage grinding the Beatles' "Lady Madonna" into a 12-bar blues, adding a good amount of raw grit.
It's not often that a blues act takes the storefront-window stage at Ray's Downtown Blues. Owner Ray Carbone knocked the Blues off the name a few years back (though it still adorns its sign) in an effort to broaden his base and stave off the slow starvation that had already consumed many a Clematis Street hangout. He alienated some of his old mainstays when he started allowing all-ages punk shows a few years ago, he says, but that was a necessity. "I've done everything you could possibly do," he says.
Now, after almost a year of not paying rent, Ray's is hanging onto its stake of Clematis Street with the grip of a stranded ice climber, unable to climb higher or rappel back down. "No, it's not all right," Carbone remarks testily when asked about the club's condition. "We're fighting to stay alive. But I gotta think it's gonna turn around."
With the steamroller of development crawling down Clematis, Ray's legacy is on shaky ground. Despite its dingy, unassuming interior, the club has acted as a midwife during the birth of several nationally prominent acts like Dashboard Confessional and Sum 41. Its proprietor, unusually tenacious, has remained aboard during circumstances that would force most into the arms of bankruptcy. Even as the waves of momentum lap away at its foundation, Carbone refuses to succumb. In the past couple of years, his grip has slipped, but he hangs on, mostly because he understands just how much will be lost if he doesn't.
From space, the rapid transformation of downtown West Palm Beach must look like massive geologic upheavals over untold millennia condensed down to a few years. Blocks of older, rundown properties near the city's core have vanished through the fast-acting erosion of the wrecking ball. In their place, towering condominium buildings wearing chainlink skirts silently await new residents. As this glacier of change slices through downtown, Ray's noisily readies for rebirth or destruction.
The momentum of West Palm Beach is decidedly upscale, and Ray's has always exemplified a genuine dirty-floor funkiness.
"You can call it what you want" is how Carbone likes to describe his namesake establishment. "You can call it comfortable. Seedy. You can call it... beyond relaxed. That's the way my room is. It's an old-time regular bar, and you're gonna get old-time regular prices. Three dollars for a Bud, probably the cheapest on the street."
Five or six years ago, when Ray's was busier, wear and tear gave it the look and texture of distressed jeans. Grungy but cozy, the smoke-stained ceiling tiles drooped and the ancient linoleum floor flaked and peeled, but it felt like home. Red walls and strings of red Christmas lights made the interior look like a cross between a French Quarter speakeasy and a Las Cruces cantina.
In the meantime, Carbone has continued cultivating a homey, sophisticated dive-bar vibe that evokes music-savvy cool, resisting the urge to renovate every few decades, as most clubs do. Refusing to dissolve into the dusty history of downtown, Carbone has tried everything up to and including hard-core punk as well as soft-core porn in an effort to keep the club from going under. The bar, constructed from plywood and two-by-fours, black paint, and blue light bulbs, has a punk aesthetic.
Nowadays, the place is much as it always was. With the sucking sound of an emptying bathtub drain seeming to become ever louder, not much aside from a few newish couches has been upgraded. The small liquor selection is down to the nitty gritty if you need a shot of Patron añejo, you'll need to shop elsewhere. In fact, on this slow Wednesday night/Thursday morning, beer choices are few, as evinced by the empty plastic cups adorning nearly every beer tap.
Guinness? No. Foster's? Out. Newcastle? No castle. Warsteiner? Nope. Heineken? Not today. Sam Adams? The patriot's AWOL tonight.
Maybe Carbone didn't pay the beverage distributor?
"That's a good guess," chuckles Jablonski, who, with his tousled blond hair, looks a bit like Keifer Sutherland circa Lost Boys.
By this past October, Carbone's back-rent arrears had forced his ever-understanding landlord, Rodney Mayo, to take him to court. In the resulting settlement, the money the club earns is all going to pay off the debt.
"He was at a point where he was like, 'I can't float you any more,'" laments Carbone, who's quiet and brooding tonight. His trademark ponytail is gone, his hair close-cropped and gray. He's wearing black jeans, black Converse All-Stars, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with RAYS. "Rodney has been the coolest dude. I mean, 11 months without paying rent? C'mon."
Jablonski, a regular since 1999, is sick of hearing the rumors. "After you hear someone cry wolf enough times, you just stop listening," he says. But like most regulars, he's well-aware of Carbone's money woes and admits, "If I came down here one night and the doors were locked with a sign out front, I wouldn't be surprised. Not at all."
Carbone says his only choice was to partner up to sell part of the club to outsiders. Well, not really outsiders: John Wylie of local punk label Eulogy Records and Alex Tchekmeian of ATK Enterprises had both worked as independent promoters, booking all-ages bands at venues like Ray's. The pair's first job was excavating Ray's from under its mountain of accounts unpayable.
"Things had gotten so bad," Wylie explains, "that when we stepped in, Ray was probably looking at $100,000 in debt. He was so overwhelmed."
In the new, kid-accessible environment, alcohol gets covered up whenever Ray's hosts all-ages shows. No problem. But Carbone says that in November, the city sent an under-age officer into the club during a regular night. No one checked the young cop's ID he just ducked into the men's room and walked out but Carbone got hit with a ticket for allowing someone under 21 into the bar. "I'm not kidding that's how they set me up," he says. "I haven't paid it yet." The fine is $100 more than he makes in liquor sales some slow nights.
Concurs Wylie: "They look for reasons to give us a hard time. They've sent the fire marshal in there just to pick everything apart." The city says it's concerned with maintaining a "walking lane" so patrons can exit quickly in the event of a fire.
"We can comply with whatever the city requests," Wylie says.
Even so, Tchekmeian points out, "they could come tomorrow and say you can't do all-ages shows anymore."
"They hate underage shows; they absolutely hate 'em," he says. "They try to make it hard for Ray it's like nothing he does is correct."
There's a constant drumbeat from the city, Carbone says. "Every time I turn around, there's another license due or something breaks down. People think if you own a club, you're raking in the dough. Please. The taxes on the liquor alone get you left and right. But I'm not complaining. I love it. I really do."
Halfway through his second set, Joey George is hunched over a black hollow-body guitar, a glass slide stroking the strings, as a half-drunk woman from the street positions herself in front of him. The dancefloor is empty, so no one really minds, least of all George, who ignores her. She leans in and appears to be either making a long-winded request or an animated complaint. George, who may or may not be listening, nods his head in time to the music.
When he's finished, George takes a leather-topped stool at the bar and smokes cigarettes down to the quick, his arms mysteriously covered with small, circular Band-Aids he aimlessly picks at.
His fan approaches, her dirty, thrift-store dress flapping in the air-conditioned chill. Toothless, her hair a wild mop, with a habit of punctuating every sentence with a "God bless!," she prattles into George's ear as he nods and nods, eyes half-closed. Suddenly, he turns away.
"Excuse me, brother," she says, fanning the air, barely embarrassed. "That was me. I'm sorry, brother. It's the hamburger I ate today."
She continues to bray, "God bless! No, I mean it, brother bless you!" into his ear until it sounds like she'll never stop, but George just nods and nods, and she keeps blessing him.
Finally, she leaves. Her presence, George asserts, adds character, especially in a city quickly becoming a playground for the privileged. On and off for almost a dozen years, George has been playing on Ray's stage. In fact, the band the Roadside Banditos was the first to grace it. Back in the gravy days, he recalls: "There were a lot more people in here! But it just tailed off. People just aren't going out for entertainment, and if they do, they don't come down here."
A pair of shadows one tall and broad-shouldered, one petite hit the wall in the entranceway, followed quickly by a small, thin, blond woman and her preppy boyfriend. She takes a tentative step forward, surveys the scene, and starts to back up. As they leave, one of the homeless regulars begins dancing his way toward them.
When the nearby buildings that tower hundreds of feet above Clematis Street are filled with people with expendable incomes in search of a cocktail, Carbone theorizes, he'll find himself in a perfect spot.
At 44, it isn't so strange that Ray Carbone has turned to punk rock as his salvation. When he was 17, growing up in New Jersey, he'd journey across the river and stay with friends in New York City friends who loved hanging out with the Ramones at CBGB. Carbone got to know the band and started amassing a library of loudness as it was produced. He'd collected thousands of records by the time he moved to South Florida in his 20s. The Violent Femmes, Black Flag, the Damned, and the Smithereens figured heavily, but that didn't mean he cherished his original vinyl copies of rare Miles Davis and Charlie Parker releases any less.
Soon enough, more than 3,500 albums cluttered his 1,100-square-foot house. "Minor Threat, Fugazi..." he muses, thumbing through the stacks. "I swear, I don't even remember buying some of this stuff."
During the '80s, Carbone worked in real estate property management, pulling down close to $100,000 annually. That career, he says with a shiver, was so stressful that it affected his health. "So amazingly horrible. I wouldn't go back to that for all the money in the world."
Taking his life savings roughly a year's salary and sinking it into an old coffeehouse, Carbone muscled his way out of the daily grind. With his typical go-it-alone flair, he decorated the club himself, creating a beautifully tacky treasure as well as a way to put his love of music to work. "I got into blues later in life, when I worked as a DJ," he says. When he opened Ray's Downtown Blues Bar in June 1995 (his first live show took place that Labor Day weekend), his mainstays included Bill Wharton the Sauce Boss and the Nighthawks. Ray's became a roots-music destination.
But the punk spirit and DIY entrepreneurship became the club's salvation when, by the late 1990s, blues, caught in a cyclical rut, lost some currency. When the fancy, thematic Bamboo Room opened in Lake Worth, many of the top-tier touring acts transferred there. Carbone started working with young local bands like Doorway 27, Black River Circus, and Boxelder, cultivating a younger crowd. Not just a commercial choice, he genuinely enjoyed the vigor of the new music.
Just rolling with the changes, Carbone shrugs. "I do whatever I've gotta do to make it work. I pissed off some of the blues regulars, but, you know, I can't afford to bring in acts that cost $2,000 to $3,000 and only have 50 people in the room. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury."
Adding in the Lounge, Respectable Street, and Spanky's, the 500 block of Clematis became a youth-oriented party zone. The odd blues guitarists or harpists would still come down for the occasional weekend show, but Carbone had become the official manager for Black River Circus, a twin-guitarist modern rock band, and an increasingly younger crowd found the dive-bar ambiance at Ray's irresistible. It was a cool place to play.
Stumbling through a midlife crisis and a painful (and expensive) divorce, Carbone sought solace at the club. But during the day, he worked as a manager at the chain-mall music store FYE. "I'm single for the first time in 20 years," he said then, "but I'm happy. Yeah, I gotta get up to get here at 10 a.m. after being at the club until 3. But I'm hanging out with people who're genuinely having a good time. It's better than digging ditches."
On a Sunday night, mid-January 2001, the darkened streets near the west end of Clematis were unusually crowded with parked cars. Collegiate-looking white kids parked Jettas and Civics, pumped change into meters, and hustled into Ray's. At the front door, a big-biceped guy in a tight T-shirt and a frown checked IDs and ushered couples inside. The front room was packed like never before hundreds of kids squatted, kneeled, or sat as close as possible to the stage.
The pool room in the back was uncharacteristically, uncomfortably full, every tattered couch occupied, more 20-somethings pacing, drinking, smoking under the fluorescent bulbs and graffittied ceiling.
Rocking Horse Winner, a chiming, melodic band with a winsome frontwoman, was on the stage, spinning out its stunningly simple, pretty pop song "Elementary." Earlier, singer Jolie Lindholm had breathlessly informed a fan that she'd also done some singing with Dashboard Confessional the new project from Boca Raton singer/songwriter Chris Carrabba. "He already has this huge national following," she reverently reported. "He's gonna be superfamous!"
Up next, on one corner of the stage, under a single white light, Carrabba played a set of songs on an acoustic guitar. At the time, "emo" music was in the process of defining its canon and marking its territory, and it was clear that Carrabba had grown to become the genre's bellwether. The cross-legged kids on the floor fidgeted with anticipation and awe.
Carrabba was performing with just a small PA system, and Lindholm joined him onstage for one song, but the sound had strangely filled out somehow. At first, it seemed like some prerecorded magic was at work, but suddenly, the real answer became apparent: The crowd, the young women in particular, had been singing along to every single word of each and every song. With a smile that belied his own amazement, Carrabba would move his face away from the mic, stop singing for several lines and the audience would fill in for him.
Afterward, Grant Hall, the stunned promoter that evening, counted a stack of bills and mused, "Was that wild or what? It was like being in church!"
The strange scene repeated itself two or three more times, with Carrabba's flock hovering near their savior to glean lyrics or guitar lines, getting as close as possible to the songs of heartbreak and regret that seemed to have been penned exclusively for them. But the legendary shows Carbone remembers 350 in paid attendance one night quickly outgrew the confines of Ray's. Now Carrabba belongs to the world (he's currently recording a new record with producer Daniel Lanois of Peter Gabriel/U2/ Brian Eno fame).
"Dude, it was amazing," Carbone said at the time. "It was really weird, like a cult. He'd stop singing, and they're still singing his songs. I was blown away. I've never seen that, especially not in my club. I haven't seen that for the Rolling Stones, for God's sake."
Other successful national pop-punk acts, including Sum 41 and the Offspring, with teenaged throngs in tow, also stopped by Ray's on their way up.
To his credit or downfall, depending upon how you look at it it wasn't just the moneymakers that fascinated Carbone. A jazz aficionado and harmonica whiz himself, he appreciated musicians who knew how to really rip. Not long after the Dashboard Confessional explosion had moved to bigger stages, a truly innovative force adopted Ray's as a place to let its freak flag fly.
Pygmy's music, Carbone rhapsodized, occupied a sacred space somewhere between Miles Davis, the Band, and Rage Against the Machine. A fivepiece whose members loved to wear blazers, suit jackets, and dress shoes onstage, Pygmy boasted Cuban, Dominican, Peruvian, and New York blood. That tangle manifested itself in free-jazz freakouts with maddening time signatures, chord changes like slalom ski courses, and live shows that lived up to the chaos.
"Our venue," singer Edward Adames affectionately called the club. "Whenever we write a song, we think, 'What's it gonna sound like at Ray's?' We love playing there." The owner, he explained, "completely understands us." "Every time they play," Carbone said, "I walk out from behind the bar because I never know what they're going to do."
With band members scattered throughout Miami-Dade County (North Miami, Kendall, and Westchester), a trip to Ray's ended up costing Pygmy dearly in gas money, and its difficult avant-prog never was good for more than 50 or so fans at a time. The band eventually broke up.
Crazy Fingers, a Grateful Dead cover band that had a Wednesday-night residence at Ray's, threw in the towel a few years ago when other, more popular venues beckoned.
By 2003, Ray's sparse crowds were symptomatic of the general decline of Clematis Street. Shootings and fights had cast a pall over the eastern end of the thoroughfare, and walking around at night suddenly didn't seem like such a good idea, especially when the newly minted McMall called CityPlace a clean, well-lighted place for the young urban bourgeoisie to get their spend on was built nearby.
"It doesn't do anything for me," Carbone sniffs, "but then again, I'm different." As bad as business had become, it was going to get even worse.
During the Second World War, the City of West Palm Beach like many others along the Eastern Seaboard was under strict blackout regulations. Young partiers could still find posh hotels on Clematis Street where floor shows, singers, or ballroom dancing awaited, but going down to the water for a smoke was sure to bring an angry policeman, warning that enemy aircraft were homing in on the tell-tale orange glow of the cherry.
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.
"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 raysdowntown.com 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 alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.redheads 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."
Says Carbone: "That way, I'm walking away with $800, even on a Tuesday night." Dishing out water and soda from behind the bar, wearing a pair of old shorts and quarter-century-old 10-hole Doc Martens, he looks exactly like the aging punk rocker he is. Still, Sunday and Monday nights which always used to be slow are now graveyard-empty, and the adult fare at Ray's veers haphazardly from acts like George to Frank Sinatra cover acts and swing bands in an attempt to discover the right mix.
Another young concert promoter in the area, Jared Cole, has booked events at Ray's as varied as a marijuana-themed 4:20 Fest, classic-rock tribute bands, death-metal groups, hip-hop events, and DJ nights. At several shows, he concedes, both he and Carbone lost money. "But Ray won't screw anyone over, even if he only makes $50."
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Carbone and his new crew have worked out a deal with Mayo for the back rent, and bills like FPL and water are being taken care of. "We have insurance for the first time in a long time," Wylie crows. "Everything's legit. If everything works out the way we have it planned, we'll have the debt paid off by the summer." Hall, who has spent a decade booking shows in South Florida, admires Carbone's mix of management savvy and hipster background. "Usually, it's one or the other," he notes. "Either they're all about the music and they don't understand the business, but he's not too far one way or the other." And Hall should know he's had to deal with a club owner who believes that Jethro Tull is a person. He's optimistic about Ray's chances: "It's been a hard road for him, but if the city would just ease up on him, he has a good chance of coming back."
"I really don't want to leave," says Carbone. "But." Then he brightens: "If I can make it through the summer, I'm cool."
The bad news is that the Ray's dilemma may be moving into a new dimension. The endless construction that's besieged downtown for years, drawing the ire of motorists stuck in traffic and businesses losing money, is drawing a bead on Clematis Street. The next phase of roadwork is targeting the pavement outside Ray's. Work starts in the spring.
Wylie shrugs with resignation. "We have a whole other hurdle to clear now."