Not Down, Just Underground

Proving the adage about a good man, Ray Carbone couldn't be kept down. His West Palm Beach music venue, Ray's Downtown, inhabited the 500 block of Clematis for 12 years before giving up the ghost last August — a year and a half after New Times first reported the dire news that the place was on life support. Recently, thanks to good karma, it was reincarnated. Sort of.

The grimy dive achieved legendary status when Carbone defied the city's goal of making downtown a tidy, soulless tribute to commerce and consumerism. Notorious for its support of local musicians and poets, whether the talent came as aged pro or hopeful newbie, the club nurtured the careers of future stars, Chris Carrabba notably among them.

When the city targeted Ray's and its all-ages shows as an obstacle to its sterile vision rather than an opportunity to nurture its cultural future, Carbone vowed to stick it out, even when times were bleak.

"I was like, 'I'm gonna beat this,' " Carbone recalled.

He didn't. Lois Frankel and her lackeys finally buried him.

So what did Carbone do? He dug deeper. The 46-year-old reanimated his dream just two months later by taking the scene underground — in the truest sense.

The Underground is one of South Florida's few basements, and it's now the site of what Carbone is calling "Ray's Downtown Goes Underground." Once a hip coffeehouse whose walls doubled as an art gallery (according to legend, it was a speakeasy during Prohibition), the place remained sadly vacant for years until its unveiling as a dance club during Moonfest 2006. The 18-and-up venue closed soon after, because of that underaged drinking problem. But all of that, owner Sean Thompson assured, is a thing of the past.

"I got rid of the circus," Thompson said. "I got rid of the dead weight." And by that, he means both illegally imbibing teenagers and former partners. From Thursday through Saturday now, the Underground lures customers with VIP specials and dance music that ranges from electro and bass to hip-hop, sexy house, and mashup.

But what brought me to the newly re-opened place was a MySpace posting by the band Hollywood Lovescene for — once again — an all-ages Saturday show.

I was still on the sidewalk talking to a well-muscled Thompson — and completely oblivious to Carbone's contribution to the soul of the new establishment — when the beautiful bald head of the blues impresario himself emerged, climbing the dark stairs to ground level. In an almost involuntary response, I threw my arms around him.

"Yeah, I'm the pied piper of West Palm Beach bringing all the rats with him," he said, with his typical self-deprecating humor, his eyes sparkling behind horn-rimmed glasses. "I'd like to promote local music like I was doing because there's really no live music venues."

Thompson agreed. "I don't want the scene to die out with Ray's," he said. That's why he green-lighted not only the all-ages show on Saturdays but also a weekly Sunday blues night, the two nights that Carbone steps in to run the sound and tend bar.

Downstairs, the kitschy décor from the coffee shop is no more. Just cement floors, mostly bare walls, and support beams. Beneath the black ceiling's exposed pipes were lots of leather couches at the room's periphery to accommodate the missing hordes who hadn't yet gotten hip to the revival of all-ages shows downtown (only a few dozen were in attendance).

Bowing to city restrictions, the shelves behind the bar were entirely empty. Even the beer taps had been removed. Below sea level, a block from the Intracoastal, the place was dry. People weren't even breaking a sweat. Unlike some of the hardcore shows at Ray's, the scene was upbeat but comparatively sedate.

An eager audience of casually dressed young people, many with skinny jeans cuffed as fashion now dictates, gently rocked their bodies to the music pounded out by the five-piece band the Projects, whose sound reminded me of the indie-rock band the Killers. The boy-next-door singer and pierced and pompadoured bass player took up half the dance floor with their performance antics — especially the bass player's entertaining jumps and gyrations.

Between songs, a feminine "Woo!" drew my attention to the demure brunet behind me. Lydia Jennings, an 18-year-old journalism student, had driven down from Port St. Lucie. With her were her boyfriend, Matt Stubbs, a 20-year-old law school student (he'd finished his associate's degree while still in high school), and his 19-year-old best friend, Jerry Pierce, a business student who works in a law firm in the building. The two young men are responsible for booking the bands two Saturdays a month.

They all seemed like nice kids, including Pierce, a lanky stud who lived up to his name by puncturing both his ears and nipples. That is, until the dude called me ma'am. Twice. Never mind the lack of booze. Here was the only real problem with an all-ages show.

When I came back at 10 the next night, the blues beckoned, floating up the stairwell and out into the street. Beneath red spotlights illuminating the bar, Carbone doled out cold beers as the good Lord intended. I could have my choice of either three domestics or two import lagers, he told me. Besides the acrid smell that has always lingered by the door (the price of being subterranean), the slender selection of suds was my only complaint.

I was greeted by people who considered me "old school" rather than merely old. I swapped stories with Mark O'Neal, for instance, who'd worked for years with Carbone at Ray's and had been a regular fixture on the downtown scene long before its "revitalization." He told me he'd "had the misfortune of being the first guy who ever lifted a rope on Clematis Street." I remembered him as a member of the antiracist gang Color Blind, which he now referred to as "a gentlemen's club." Times had changed, but the stories remained the same, especially as the Underground seemed to be the de facto clubhouse for Clematis veterans.

It's not every day that you hear folks wax nostalgic about the time one of them (Thompson) got shot in the ass while working the door at Wildside, a strip club that's now Spearmint Rhino.

"I didn't even know I was shot until I saw the blood," the bouncer-turned-bar owner laughed. O'Neal and Carbone laughed with him. Good times.

Proving that he was still a tough guy (though his beefy body and bulging biceps were enough evidence for me), Thompson whipped out his laptop so we could watch him battle a blubbery Russian in a recent mixed martial arts match in Estonia, where the 31-year-old club owner lives half the year, producing such competitions.

While Thompson's friends cheered him on, a couple at the end of the bar engaged in a match of their own — a slithery, slobbery make-out session — as Joey George and his band played "Little Red Rooster." People were having fun, including the conservatively coifed Josh, a 36-year-old securities trader who lived in the neighborhood and found the place a few weeks earlier "more by happenstance than anything else."

"So you're a recidivist?" I said, shooting him a flirty smile that earned me a free beer.

He might be a newcomer, but with goals like "I always wanted to date a girl with purple hair" and judging by his most recent musical purchase, the latest Dinosaur Jr. album, it was clear that the New England transplant fit in. Later, he'd argue politics with a City Cellar chef articulate enough to condemn some politicians as "pernicious and vile," but for now, Josh was rooting for the Patriots as they played out their drama on the small, boxy TV behind the bar.

A few seats away were Becky and Limo Steve (so called for his line of work). Becky, an excitable 47-year-old who owns Sleepyhead Waterbeds, claimed to be a blues club aficionado. Having visited such clubs "from Maine to San Francisco," she appreciated "the seedier side." Assessing the Underground as "just like Ray's but with nicer bathrooms" (in fact, the alternating blue and red flashing lights shining through the translucent doors of the loo were my favorite decorating feature), she was optimistic about the latest manifestation of Ray.

"Even if he doesn't have his own club, he has enough of a following that he'll be a plus to any club he goes to," Becky opined. "I've run into a lot of young musicians who've said the only place they could play was Ray's."

Without a committed idealist like Carbone, she wanted to know, "Who's gonna nurture the young music?"

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Marya Summers