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Rank and Revue - VOL. 1, Issue 21,  THe Back Room, Still Rockin After 30 Years

what youll find inside
The Back Room Turns 30
Room 710
Beerland
EMO'S
Elysium
Red Eyed Fly
Win Wallace : Artiste
Lance's Comix
A Funny Thing Happened
Wendy's WWAD
Grub - Guide
Remember the Movies
Cornucopia of Photos
Chump Change
R.I.P. Halloween References
Off the Street
Off-Sides

30 Years of The Backroom
The Myth, The Stigma, The Truth About The Mayhem

By Tammy Moore

There is a mysterious palpable energy than can be felt while standing within the sacrosanct walls of The Backroom, even if no one else is there. The space inside the structure has played host to many memorable events in the lives of the employees, patrons and rock stars that have graced the venue. Many have heard the legendary tales, and some have actually lived them. There are legions of stories of drunken debauchery, unruly bikers, murders, riots, ghosts, and perhaps most importantly, the musical revelry. To stand on the stage at The Backroom would be to share some linear continuum of space with so many notable artists that have played in that place before, and some that have done so describe the experience as, well, a little overwhelming. Oh, if only these walls could talk.

Now located at 2015 East Riverside, when Ronnie Roark first opened The Backroom it was housed in a small building on the corner of Burton and Riverside where Riverside Liquor and Thundercloud Subs now sit. It was famous for Bill Casher’s $1.25 oblong hamburgers. (They sold 200 to 300 burgers a day during lunch, and years later when they quit serving food, the secret recipe was sold to Abbey Inn, a now long gone sports bar.) The room held only a small bar and three pool tables. In those days, artists like Marcia Ball and W.C. Clark entertained there on a regular basis. It was the artists, their acoustic guitars, and a microphone.

In 1978, Roark made the decision to relocate up the hill and purchased the building that modern day patrons would recognize as “the band side.” What customers now refer to as “the game side” was a pool hall back then called The Copper Dollar. There was a beer garden between the two venues and pool tables in both establishments, but the new larger space gave The Backroom the edge where live entertainment was concerned. They began to host bigger shows with acts like Joe Ely serving as regular house bands.

It was during this time that the biker community developed a certain affinity for the club. You know those bikers tend to be fools for blues-based rock, and that’s just what The Backroom was serving up in those days. No offense was or is intended, but being a biker bar was never what Roark had envisioned for his venue. So, the bouncers were given instructions to try to discourage the bikers from coming in the bar. Notorious for not abiding by anyone’s rules, the bikers didn’t exactly heed these subtle suggestions, and the club was faced with what became an ongoing battle for a while.
For several years they would ask the bikers not to park their bikes in front of the club, but night after night, they lined them up. They posted signs telling the bikers not to park their bikes in front of the club. The bikers burned the signs. Finally around ’81 or ’82, when Roark made a conscience decision to turn the musical format of the club more in the direction of commercial rock, it was decided that the bikers would be refused admittance by enforcing a dress code (still in effect today) where no biker attire was allowed.

Right there is where the real trouble began. When told of the new dress code, needless to say, there were some very unhappy bikers who made it their personal mission to cause problems at the club. There were fights with security and bomb threats, like the one that came one night while Ball was playing and the building had to be evacuated. (Although no one could ever say for sure that the bikers were responsible for those threats, the timing was questionable.) Finally, the police had to be called in to help security deal with the problems. Eventually, the bikers no longer cared to frequent the place, but unfortunately, the stigma that came from their short stint there as regulars haunts The Backroom to this day.

And speaking of hauntings, this might be the perfect time to tell the story of “Shadowman,” one of The Backroom’s resident spirits. There is at least one playful ghost that inhabits the club. Every night, give or take a few minutes before or after 2:00 a.m., near the area that the old beer garden once stood, the sound of a cup of ice being thrown into the trash can be heard, and employees have come to think of the sound as a signal from “the other side” that it is indeed closing time.
But Shadowman reveals different traits. He is a malevolent entity prone to appearing in the mirror behind the game side bar. Over the years many bartenders and barbacks have been stocking beer only to notice a man in that mirror standing at the back of the room. When they turn to address the person they perceive to be a customer, there is never anyone there. Shadowman has scared at least one employee into fleeing the club late one night after he blew a chilling wind through the man as he tried to light his cigarette and finally knocked the cigarette out of the horrified man’s hands with a force so hard that it flew the length of two pool tables. The employee, a tough New Yorker who never seemed afraid of anything, called the club the next day and quit his job, never to return.

There is a theory concerning who Shadowman might actually be. Of course, Shadowman’s identity can’t be proven for certain, but he does stay localized to the back end of the game side of the club near where, coincidentally, another bar once stood during the days that the area was still The Copper Dollar. While The Backroom was knee deep in problems with the biker set, irony reared its head one day (bikers weren’t allowed in The Copper Dollar) when an irate family member of a young woman that frequented The Copper Dollar walked into that establishment. Apparently, the bartender there had known the young female customer in the biblical sense, and the poor girl now found herself pregnant. This particular family member thought that the bartender should “do the right thing” and offer to marry the young lass. When the bartender refused, he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. Shots were fired, and the unlucky bartender died in pool of blood there that day. After the murder, the owners of The Copper Dollar decided to close the doors and leave town.

Ronnie Roark, always one to recognize opportunity, offered to buy The Copper Dollar. He intended to combine the venues and use one side for music and turn the other side into a competitive arcade and sports bar. The owners gladly sold him the building, and it was then that Roark installed the entry foyer that now connects the two sides of the now 10,500 square foot venue.
For a short time peace reigned there. And then Jim Ramsey was hired to book the club. Ramsey began to scale back on the folk and blues. His mission was to make The Backroom rock, and that is exactly what he did. It was the beginning of a new decade, which always signals the birth of a fresh era of sound in rock culture, and the fast-talking Ramsey had all the right connections. He was a promoter that knew people at the major labels, he knew all the national booking agents and the glam rock scene was beginning to explode. Roark was willing to finance road shows in those days, and when mid-size venue touring bands came through Austin, they played The Backroom.
Back then the club was renowned as one of the top ten rock clubs in the world. Everyone from Eddie Money to Warrant to Iggy Pop to Skid Row and Rembrandts performed there. The list of artists to play on that stage is staggering, and space does not permit listing all of their names. However, when this writer says that everyone played there, she does literally mean almost everyone, and those that might have been too big to play there (say, arena bands like U2 or Mötley Crüe), well, you could usually find at least one or two members of those bands hanging out at The Backroom after their shows at the Erwin Center.

This was The Backroom’s hey day and it was something to behold. There was a packed house and live music seven nights a week. There were fifteen to twenty road shows a month. There were lots of big-boobed babes in tight skirts, fishnets and stiletto heels strutting their stuff, trying to catch the attention of those spandex and leather-clad musicians that mercilessly taunted the girly-girls with endlessly long instrument solos and especially with all that hair. The decadence of the ‘80s was in full in swing, and the building literally pulsated with power and corporeal tension.
By now it was 1988, and a young college kid in the summer after his sophomore year at The University of Texas walked into The Backroom to apply for a job. He had never set foot inside a bar before then and didn’t particularly care which job they gave him. He just wanted to work. His name was Mark Olivarez, and his arrival signaled the dawn of a new standard of work ethic there. For Olivarez himself it was literally the dawn of a new day (for more on Olivarez, check out this issue’s THE ROAD TO ROCK STARDOM).

He was in awe of his new surroundings, and through hard work, his quick wit, and more charm than should be legally allowed, he quickly worked through the ranks of bouncer, barback, and bartender until he was finally officially made the bar manager. He had an innate sense of good management and parlayed that into creating an atmosphere of camaraderie among his employees and his customers. Before long, not only did people go to The Backroom for the music and eye candy, they went to be part of a “scene” that was emerging there. The venue was used to develop some local artists like the Dangerous Toys and Pariah, who went on to secure recording deals with major labels.

Artists and patrons alike were treated well upon entry into the club. Though he could have been confused for one of the rock stars that frequented the joint, with his full mane of long black hair, Olivarez was gifted with something else…style. He was well-spoken and took the time to personally meet and welcome people to his establishment. He liked the idea of an almost familial feeling among his guests, and before long, that is exactly what happened. It seemed that everyone knew everyone then. Many solid friendships that linger today and fond memories were formed in those days.

But along with what seemed like a never ending party came rumors of drug use within the club. For reasons that are still unclear, the Austin Police Department issued a statement to the Austin American-Statesman listing The Backroom as the number one place to score crack/cocaine in Austin. Upon investigating the allegations for themselves with the police and the paper, Olivarez and Roark discovered that a police report concerning drug use within the city had been filed stating that the 2000 Block of East Riverside was the number one location to score these drugs, and interestingly, a still unknown person had taken it upon themselves to change the address in the report to 2015 East Riverside, which is what appeared in the paper. Furious with the implications, they threatened to sue the city and the police department, and within two weeks, the Chief of Police for APD took out a full page advertisement in The Austin Chronicle issuing a full retraction of the statement saying that the entire mess was the fault of APD and in no way was The Backroom meant to be implicated along with other locations printed in the original report. The retraction stated that there was no evidence to suggest that any such activities had ever taken place there and, therefore, they owed The Backroom and the community an apology. Still, another stigma found its place.

It didn’t help matters when events occurred like the lawsuit that was brought by an underage patron who claimed he was served alcohol in the club and then chased and thrown into a concrete ditch by security there, sustaining multiple injuries. The story and allegations found their way to the Statesman again. (What the paper may not have printed was the judgment in the suit, which was that The Backroom was found in no way responsible for what occurred.) The truth was that the young man wasn’t being chased. He jumped, and he ended up having to pay the club after they counter-sued over the false charges.

And then there was the now infamous 2 Live Crew riot, which did actually occur. Cash registers were stolen, but no one was hurt. The Statesman reported that shots were fired and chaos ensued, but the truth was that it was a scam being run by the band themselves. Luke Skyywalker would raise his hand and prompt gang members already stationed in the crowd with, “All right, ya’ll. Let’s get it on!” It looked like a fight was erupting in front of the stage, and within seconds, the “fight” began to expand. Glass was breaking everywhere. Thinking quickly, Olivarez grabbed one cash register and threw it in a cooler while telling his employees to take cover at the same time. When he turned back to the bar, he noticed two men unplugging another register, and he instructed his employees to let them take it. He called 911 at that point and informed them of the situation. The police showed up in riot gear within three minutes. By then, however, the entire club was empty, and there had been no injuries.

Though Olivarez is a big believer in civil rights, the incident did prompt him to begin using metal detectors at certain events, including punk and metal shows that might inspire concert goers to wear metal spikes (which are not allowed) or carry weapons. It’s an unfortunate but necessary precaution that is taken to ensure the safety of all The Backroom’s patrons, which is probably Olivarez’s main priority along with ensuring that their experience there is pleasurable.
For the most part, though, Olivarez relationship with APD has run very smoothly. He has made a tremendous effort to run The Backroom in a professional manor and provide a safe atmosphere for the patrons. The customers may be imbibing the “spirits,” but while they do so, the security force is forever watching their backs. If someone gets out of line, they will be asked to leave and, if necessary, barred for any amount of time that Olivarez or his managers deem fitting, including the dreaded “barred for life” sentence. Hence, there hasn’t been that much of a need to call on APD since Olivarez’s watch began. With everything else that APD deals with in East Austin, the fact that here there is only the occasional small riot or accidental death to contend with probably comes as a welcome relief.

Despite all of it, perhaps the greatest challenge that Olivarez has faced yet in his fifteen years with The Backroom came at the turn of the next decade when, again, the face of music changed. Early in the nineties, Ramsey began bringing bands like Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam to the club. These fledging rock bands who were determined to make music about music again, toured relentlessly in the year after their simultaneous national record releases. They each played The Backroom to crowds of 30 to 50 people the first time around, 300 to 400 the next, and by the time they trekked back to Austin for a third run, their records had gone multi-platinum—they were certified arena acts. Grunge Rock had arrived, and its rise was meteoric. It was a movement that not only affected music, but its attitude and messages of realism seemed to flow into almost every aspect of the culture. Whenever any musical movement is accepted by the mainstream population, many bands follow suit and pattern themselves after the current rock culture icons.

What that meant for Olivarez and The Backroom was that the current crop of glam rock bands that had been playing there for so many years were quickly losing their social value, and yet another stigma became attached to the club. All of a sudden, it wasn’t cool to play there anymore, because that was where the “hair bands” had played. The up and coming crop of new artists practically had to refuse to play The Backroom or be deemed hypocritical in their beliefs of the new movement. Suddenly, Emo’s and other venues that gave credence to indie rock were the hip places to play.
That was combined with the departure of Ramsey, whereupon Olivarez was handed club booking responsibilities in addition to his duties as bar manager and given the title of General Manager. That was all well and fine, except for the fact that he was a novice in the world of national booking, and probably for the first time in its history, The Backroom fell on very lean times. Local bands bent in the direction of glam rock, like their brethren operating in the national arena were losing credibility and their followings. Bands like that had been the bread and butter of the club, and it was strange to witness this “changing of the guard” occurring in rock music.

Then a new blow was struck and felt by all when Pariah bassist Sims Ellison committed suicide. It was a very sad chapter in the story of the once great venue and the people who had experienced the scene there. Olivarez did what he could to help encourage morale then, like the special tribute show that he hosted at The Backroom shortly after Ellison’s death. It was nice and very much appreciated by friends and fans alike, but still, a dark cloud seemed to be looming.
By now, there was little more than two handfuls of local rock bands willing to play The Backroom. Bands like The Guest and 50 Mission Crush were being used in constant rotation, and it was tough to maintain audience attendance—just as it is for any band caught in the phenomenon that is “overexposure.”

Always one to look for solutions rather than accept defeat, Olivarez began to look for ways to keep the club afloat. One cushion he had to fall back on was the games division of the club. Roark, who by now had successfully built Roark Amusement and Vending, a company that owns and services games to arcades and Wal-Mart and H.E.B. stores throughout Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana, kept the venue stocked with top of the line video street games. These constant upgrades kept people coming back to the arcade time and again. The game room today is ranked within the top five arcades in the city according to Tommy Touchett, now a foreman at Roark Amusemments, who has been an employee of Roark’s since The Backroom was originally opened in ’73.

Opportunity was found again within the music division when a friend of Olivarez suggested that the club go back to its metal roots, but this time, dig a little deeper and host bands whose sounds were darker and heavier than those that had played there before. Bands like Inhabit, Pistol Grip Pump and Gash were recruited to bring fresh blood into the venue, and they did just that. Things were beginning to turn around again on the band side of the venue, and as luck would have it, these heavy bands were on the fringe of one of the next new movements in rock—nu-metal.
Olivarez brought in Mike Boudreau at that point, an employee of Music Lab here in Austin who, through his job, had access to many local bands and who also seemed to have his finger on the pulse of the new movement, being a musician himself. Boudreau has used his booking position to develop bands like Unloco and Riddlin’ Kids and expanded the musical format of the venue to pop and commercial punk. Olivarez himself learned the ropes of the road show game through trial and error and has now succeeded in becoming a key player within that realm. In short, The Backroom is back.

The story thus far might lead one to believe that Olivarez has weathered these trials alone, but he would be the first to admit that any organization is only as good as the people within it. Olivarez places a very high value on all of his employees. (Proof of that lies in the fact that The Backroom has an incredibly low turnover rate as people tend to work there for years). Olivarez normally works at night, and when he is away he rests easy knowing the club is in the very capable hands of Assistant Manager Eddie Vasquez.

It is safe to say, though, that the one he depends on the most is Day Manager Sean McCarthy. When the need for a day manager arose nine years ago, McCarthy was the logical choice for that position. He had worked the night shift for two years already, and not only was he good with people, he had the ability to think fast on his feet and stay level-headed in any given situation. These traits were necessary as the daytime position is a solo gig.
McCarthy is truly Olivarez’s right hand man. Every day at noon the phone rings at The Backroom, and it is Olivarez calling McCarthy to confer on what needs to be handled that day. Together, they handle the day to day work load. They are a great team, and their relationship is built on mutual respect and similar values. Both men are extremely dedicated to their wives (Melissa Olivarez and Jody McCarthy, respectively) and families, and they share the philosophy that The Backroom should be a place that might feel like a second home to patrons.

They have succeeded in their quest and there are many “regulars” here. The Backroom is frequented daily by some people that have been going there for years. Despite the size and activity of the venue, it is the quintessential “neighborhood bar,” and there is a real feeling of camaraderie among those that spend time there. The bar is open 365 days a year, and for those without families at holidays, the venue is there to welcome them. Some patrons are so attached to the place that they put in appearances on holidays simply because this is a home away from home for them. They are attached to the staff. Olivarez has smartly hired many colorful characters over the years and some of them are somewhat famous in their own right, but that’s another story. They are respectful of the patrons and have a great rapport with them.

A celebration is brewing. On November 7 and 8, He Kill Three, Rubberhed, Dangerous Toys and Junkyard, among others—bands that represent the old guard and the new—will lay waste to the old stage in tribute to the place where so many rock and roll memories have been formed over the past thirty years. The homage is fitting because, in the end, the story of this historical venue is one of survival. Through great leadership and loyalty, it has held steady in the face of trials and challenges. While Austin has regretfully watched the fall of many of its beloved live music venues over the past few years, the thing that can be said about this club is that The Backroom is still standing.

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