Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Marble Bar (1978-1987)

(The following was written for Tim Hinely's "Dagger Boy" magazine.)

Baltimore City Paper writer Michael Yockel described it best: “Dark. Dank. Sweaty. Fetid. Subterranean. A physical eyesore in the basement of a once posh hotel long gone to seed. In other words, the perfect rock venue." He could have been talking about any number of grubby clubs providing refuge for rock and roll misfits and their bands, but he was talking about Baltimore’s answer to CBGBs, The Marble Bar

The Congress Hotel, 306 W. Franklin Street

Buried in the basement of the Congress Hotel (306 W. Franklin Street), a once swank venue that had become a fleabag hotel by the late ‘70s, the Marble Bar became a mecca for punks and New Wavers under the management of Roger and LesLee Anderson from 1978-1985. 

LesLee Anderson behind The Marble Bar (photo by Jim Moon)

“Talk to any Baltimorean who was a punk in the late ’70s and ’80s, and they will wax rhapsodic about the Marble Bar,” Kendall Shaffer and Hope Tarr observed in a May 2022 Baltimore Magazine retrospective. 

What’s in a name? The iconic Marble Bar

"It was a dump, no two ways about it,” Adolf Kowalski (Thee Katatonix) recalled, not quite rhapsodically, in a 2000 City Paper profile ("Glory Hole" by Brennen Jensen, City Paper, December 6, 2000). “In the summer it was blistering hot, in the winter it was freezing cold. It was dark, dingy, and stunk like piss." 

Maybe so, but it was also the only game in town for aspiring local indie bands like Da Moronics, Judie’s Fixation, Thee Katatonix, The Accused, Food For Worms, Infant Lunch and countless others - not to mention nearby DC-based acts like Bad Brains, The Razz, Black Market Baby, Tru Fax & The Insaniacs, Root Boy Slim, The Insect Surfers, Teen Idles and especially The Slickee Boys, who adopted the Marble as a second home. Roger and LesLee Anderson themselves played there with house band The Alcoholics, who were fronted by David Wilcox (aka Steptoe T. Magnificent), a veteran musician (Pooba, Rockhard Peter, Problem Pets, Pang Pang, Chelsea Graveyard) and artist who, along with his brother George, created many of the club’s iconic flyers. Even Baltimore native David Byrne’s Talking Heads played there in their early days. “At that time, the network of clubs where emerging acts could play was spotty and limited,” Byrne told Baltimore Magazine. “We played Marble Bar when Talking Heads just had our first record out [1977], which allowed us to play outside the handful of NYC clubs that had supported us.”

David “Steptoe” Wilcox and LesLee Anderson of the Marble Bar house band, The Alcoholics (photo by Jim Moon)

And it was also a haven for Baltimore weirdos of all stripes, be they from the ‘burbs or creative types from the nearby Maryland Institute of Art.“It was a refuge for a lot of people, and nobody judged you,” Wilcox said in a 2022 interview with Baltimore Magazine. “You knew you were hiding in a safe place to be who you were. If you had a two-foot-high mohawk, nobody was going to bother you, but you walked out onto Eutaw or Howard Street and somebody might hit you in the head with a rock.”

Probably the highest-profile alumni of the Marble Bar scene is Gina Schock, a Dundalk gal who went on to find fame playing drums with The Go-Gos after playing there in Scratch 'n' Sniff and backing John Waters's underground film star Edith Massey in Edie and the Eggs. “It was like the hippest, coolest place,” she fondly recalls. “If you were a musician, that’s where you wanted to go.”

And then there were all the national acts that came to town, from Bauhaus, Black Flag and Butthole Surfers to The Stranglers, The Undertones and X (the latter featuring baltimore native John Doe). Many were standing room only affairs, including Iggy Pop, The Psychedelic Furs, Squeeze, Simple Minds, The Cramps, Dead Boys, 999, The Ventures, A Flock of Seagulls, Johnny Thunders and The Dead Kennedys. Who can forget: Dead Kennedys' singer Jello Biafro almost getting electrocuted when his microphone shorted...Katatonix frontman Adolf Kowalski writing "Huey Lewis SUCKS" on the men's room wall just as Huey Lewis came in to take a leak - and then shaking his hand and giving him a Katatonix button!...Mark “Harpo” Harp (Null Set, Cabal, etc.) shaving his beard onstage with the Casio Cowboys...Rootboy Slim passing out in the dressing room...Judie's Fixation singer Ben Wah (Vaughn Keith) opening beer cans with his teeth...Da Moronics singer Don White banging his mic and ad-libbing "Spinal tap, I got a spinal tap" during technical difficulties...Edie Massey doing her "punk" show with a last-minute pick-up band to open for Eddie & The Hot Rods...Half of the Sex Pistols (Steve Jones and Paul Cook) showing up as The Professionals…A well-medicated Johnny Thunders vocally abusing the crowd throughout a shambolic set until someone plunked him in the head with a beer can and he abruptly pulled his band offstage...The Butthole Surfers taking a dump in the electrical closet and wiping their asses with (local band) Grey March flyers...So many memories of performers there spring to mind, covering all styles and skill levels, from the comedic performance art of Oral Fixation and the Motor Morons to the guitar artistry of Jorma Kaukonen and Chris Spedding…and from  the prog rock stylings of Allan Holdsworth and Pierre Morlen’s Gong to the hardcore thrashings of Fear of God and the Circle Jerks.

Goodbye Marble Bar poster listing all the bands that played there

“The Marble Bar had its own fanzine, Tone Scale, and its own after-hours restaurant, the Renaissance Room,” Michael Yockel wrote in a 1987 City Paper appreciation. ““Both were crummy. Both were cool.” The Marble Bar also played host to open mic nights, jam nights, poetry readings and film screenings like John Ellsberry and Michael Gentile’s Dead Strippers that was shot in Baltimore’s famous red light district, The Block.

When Roger Anderson passed away following a sudden heart attack in 1984, LesLee carried on managing the bar for one more year before calling it a day. She then passed the baton on to others. Ed and Robin Linton ran the Marble for another year until closing the doors for good on May 9, 1987 with a final “Goodbye Marble Bar” gig featuring Da Moronics, Thee Katatonix and Human Remain.

The final show: May 9 1987

Many people lost their marbles at the Marble Bar and the club lost a number of regulars as goodbyes would follow to many who once called it home. Edith Massey (Edie & The Eggs) died in 1984; Roger Anderson (Clear, The Alcoholics) died in April 1984; Vaughn Keith (aka "Beh Wah," Judie’s Fixation) died in 1990; Scott Marcus (aka "Stoc Markut," Fear of God) died in 1995; Mark Linthicum (aka “Harpo” and “Mark Harp” of  Null Set/Cabal, The Beatoes, Casio Cowboys, The Motor Morons) died in 2004; City Paper writer and Marble Bar chronicler Pam Purdy died in 2007; Kraig Krixer (The Accused, Orange Wedge, Poobah, Weaszel, Razor, Trixy & The Testones) died in 2011; Tom “Pope” Croke (Infant Lunch) died in 2012; Chris Dennstaedt (Poverty & Spit, The Beatoes, Casio Cowboys) died in 2020; David "Steptoe" Wilcox - who probably fronted more bands at the Marble than anyone - passed away in June 2022; Keith Worz (Iowa Basics) died in October 2022; Adolf Kowalski (Ross Haupt of Thee Katatonix, Poverty & Spit, Blunt Force Trauma, All About Susie) died in March 2023; Billy Bien (Fear of God) died in July 2023; and Mark O'Connor (OHO, The Dark Side, The Beaters, Food For Worms, Trixy & The Testones, B.L.A.M.M.O., Buck Subtle & The Little Planets, Big Top) died in August 2023.  

"The only reason any scene ever happened in Baltimore was because of the Marble Bar,” Wilcox said after the lights went out for good in 1987. It truly was a place and a scene etched in time that may never come again. Or, as Baltimore Magazine’s Kendall Shaffer and Hope Tarr concluded: “It was the coolest place, with the coolest bands, and the coolest vibe—like nothing that came before it or since. Either you were lucky enough to have been there in person, or you missed out—your loss.”


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