It's a desolate Monday night at Casola's Pizzeria on SW 17th Avenue in Miami, just south of where I-95 ends and close to where suburbia begins. On weekend nights, the joint is jammed with loud, drunken clubland refugees soaking up the evening's booze with the mammoth slices. But tonight the joint is quiet and feels haunted by the ghosts of 1995 to 1997.
Back then, South Florida's music scene was bursting across the street at Cheers, now a Quiznos Subs. The lesbian-meat-market-turned-all-ages-punk-club seeded and nurtured the careers of nearly every local band that made it big: New Found Glory, the Vacant Andys (which featured future Dashboard Confessional singer Chris Carrabba), Against All Authority, Shai Hulud, Strongarm, and the Crumbs, among others. The venue fostered a thriving, vibrant scene where high school kids and 20-something punkers and hipsters congregated, up to 300 at a time at the small, cigar-box-shaped club, whose legal capacity was 89. Cheers was the kind of place where ska-punk stars Less Than Jake performed for half their normal guarantee just for the atmosphere and to play for the kids.
"It could have been the shadiest operation ever, but I never even drank there," Miami expat punk-rock impresario Amy Fleisher says as she gazes from her table at Casola's to where Cheers once stood. Thirteen years ago, a then-16-year-old Fleisher was passing out photocopies of her fanzine, Fiddler Jones, in the Cheers parking lot when she was approached by the club's owner, the late Gaye Levine. The tanned, wisecracking 40-something music industry vet didn't understand punk rock, but she loved the youthful energy it brought in the door.
"I showed her my magazine, and we became friends," Fleisher recalls. "She saw me as a way to find out what the kids were listening to. I'd sit in her office and booking agents would call her, and she'd turn to me and ask, 'Does anyone like Snapcase?' And I'd say yes or no. And I'd get to pick the opening bands — which wound up helping me a lot because I was putting out records by those opening bands."
On March 16, 1996, Fleisher booked her first show at Cheers, featuring pop-punk bands Quit, Milkshed, and the Vacant Andys. Levine paid her 50 cents a head, and Fleisher made $60 that night. After saving $600 from promoting shows over the next several months, Fleisher invested the money into her first release on Fiddler Records, a single by the Vacant Andys.
The entire process of her first record was captured for posterity in Brant Sersen's documentary Release. ("All my failures have been well-documented," she says, chuckling.) The vignette featuring Fleisher is a perfect frozen-in-time slice of her life as a teenaged punk mogul. The ponytailed pixie holds court on her bed, the room's walls plastered with posters. She's then shown booking the record release party, making a flier at Office Depot, and later putting on a brave face when the show tanks. A crushed Fleisher glumly gathers herself together for the camera and spins it thusly: "Only about a third of the people I expected showed up, which really sucks, but the records sold well. So I should be happy about that."
Fleisher soon had plenty to be happy about, for her touch in signing bands proved golden. Her label's fifth release, New Found Glory's It's All About the Girls, broke nationwide. It eventually sold more than 80,000 copies, as New Found Glory went on to pop-punk stardom and multiple gold records for major labels. Fleisher went from calling local record stores and placing five CDs with them on consignment to becoming a sought-after commodity by national distributors. And as her bands grew out of the Cheers scene, she went with them, road-managing and driving for multiple tours during her semester breaks from the University of Miami's film school.
In fact, Fleisher's love of music and the road proved too strong for film school, and she dropped out to run Fiddler. Her time was then split between road-managing, meeting bands, releasing records, and bugging Chris Carrabba to record the acoustic material that eventually became Dashboard Confessional's first album, The Swiss Army Romance.
In March 2000, Fiddler released that album while Carrabba was serving as singer for Pompano Beach emo band Further Seems Forever. The record blew up, and within a few months, the first pressing of CDs had sold out and Carrabba left Further Seems Forever to pursue Dashboard Confessional full-time. Unable to meet demand, Fleisher sold the record to MCA subsidiary Drive Thru for $15,000. As if that didn't move fast enough, that same year found Fiddler showing her wares to Rich Egan, owner of Vagrant Records, then the epicenter of everything popular in emo-styled rock. Fleisher remembers: "He took a look at the Dashboard CD and said, 'You put this out? You want a job?' "