It’s one of the most evocative cold opens in recorded history. “Good evening everyone,” a voice intones. “You’re at Boston’s most intense underground dwelling, a lurid den of vice and l’amour…” The den of iniquity to which our unnamed tour guide is introducing us is The Rat, which over a thirty-year period played host to some of the most beloved, infamous, and/or unfortunately forgotten bands. Even after its demolition in the early oughts, punk fans spoke of it in mournful whispers, but it has only been eulogized in fragmented form. LET’S GO TO THE RAT (2013), a new documentary by Andy Szava-Kovats, seeks to set the record straight about the fallen venue.
According to an article in Suburban Voice, the Rat originally operated as TJ’s, a greasy spoon that sometimes hosted hootenannies in the back room. Busboy Jim Harold got fired from the joint, which led him through a surprising string of events that ended with him buying the club. “It was the classic turn around because I came back and I had the idea that I would never be fired again so if I bought the building I could throw them out, couldn’t I?” he later recalled to Boston Groupie News.
In its earliest days, the Rat programmed music on a sporadic basis, with bands like Barry and the Remains headlining. “…We would just roll our amps down the street,” bandleader Barry Tashian recalled in September of this year. “We started in the back room at street level, which was the bar, when we were only a three piece, when (keyboardist) Bill Briggs was still in high school. But when we came back (to the Rat) the following year, people were really liking it, and were lining up on the sidewalk to see us. So they opened up the basement, and that’s what the Rathskeller was – a bunch of milk crates and boards lashed together to make a stage. And you had picnic tables and a jukebox and a bar and pitchers of beer is what it was mostly about.”
In the late 1960s, the Boston rock scene experienced an awkward growth spurt, as the popularity of garage rock bands like the Remains gave way to the commercial failure of “the Bosstown Sound”. With the advent of punk rock, however, the Boston music scene started to come into its own, with idiosyncratic artists like Willie “Loco” Alexander and Jonathan Richman fusing poetry and garage rock into a new musical dialect. Just as Hilly Kristal fostered an experimental and eclectic scene at a little Bowery juke joint called CBGB, the seedy Rathskellar became home to some of the most cutting-edge bands from Boston and beyond.
Here, the phrase “cutting edge” is not used lightly. In a recent article in Vice, writer John Liam Policastro depicts the rusty, serrated peripheries of the club: “[Shows] often ended in horrific and bloodied brawls. It was not uncommon to see pool balls in handkerchiefs, chains, and even cinderblocks in the hands of fans as they kicked the crap out of each other in the club and outside on Commonwealth Avenue. Incredibly, these shows were rarely shut down, though one incident, where a man ripped up an industrial fan and beat someone savagely with it, did bring some heat onto the club.”
All the same, a cursory glance at the artists who once graced the club with their presence is enough to make ardent music fans weep. Savvy booking agents like Lilli Dennison kept the club occupied with a dizzying array of bands, from hardcore stalwarts Gang Green to the idiosyncratic, ambitious Game Theory. (Nothing makes this writer long for access to the TARDIS quite like the Husker Du/Minutemen bill in ’84.) For most of the ‘80s, the otherwise-unhygienic Rat also served food from the nationally recognized Hoodoo Barbecue.
In the early ‘90s, however, Kenmore Square grew more gentrified. As BU bought up the buildings surrounding the club, the neighborhood went from “a homeless haven rife with drugs, muggings, and stabbings” (to quote Policastro) to a more genteel milieu, and the Rat became a sign of Old Boston. Harold, who still owned the club, had booked it more or less on its own towards the end, and with the closing of other venues, the Rat hosted bands it might have passed on in its heyday. The club finally hosted its last show in 1997, and the building was torn down in 2001 to make way for the Hotel Commonwealth.
Local music mavens, like former Phoenix columnist Brett Milano, greeted the club’s death knell with a shrug. “Most of the old-school Bostonians you’d expect to see at such an event — the Titanics, Willie Alexander, the Lyres, the Bristols, David Minehan, the spinoffs of Mission of Burma, the Neats, and Scruffy the Cat — played within a week of the Rat’s closing,” he reflected. “They just played at other clubs. That pretty much says it all.”
The last days of the Rat was the beginning of the end for the Boston music scene. Radio stations WBCN and WFNX went off the air in the middle of the last decade, and the fanzine Boston Rock and alternative newspaper the Boston Phoenix ceased publication around that time as well. In spite of websites like Vanyaland and Boston Band Crush, the Boston music scene has become more decentralized, and finding out about local rock is a challenge for all but the most ardent followers.
Watching LET’S GO TO THE RAT could make nostalgics mourn for a simpler time in our fair city, even as viewers cringe at the violence and disgusting bathrooms. Still, it’s great to have a time capsule of what the local scene once was, and what it might still be again.