Big Lead Sports Bar

1/22/2008

Pittsburgh's Rocky Past

by A.J. from 105.9 The X
Last week the Steelers announced that they are once again looking to develop an entertainment complex on the North Shore next to Heinz Field. This proposed $10 million dollar facility would have a 2,000 seat indoor concert club and an additional outdoor event area. Last year plans for a 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater in the same location fell through, much to the chagrin of area concert goers.

If you’re a live music fan living in Pittsburgh, you’re aware of the desperate lack of quality venues in this city. This town gets passed over more times by national tours than Brady Quinn got passed over in last year’s NFL draft (and oddly enough, most of those tours also end up in Cleveland).

Now with the hope of a new venue on the horizon, maybe music fans will have something to cheer about on the North Side other than the Renegade video on the Jumbotron at Heinz Field. Of course the Steelers have a already proven themselves as heavyweights in the concert promotion business, so nothing bad could possibly come of this business venture.



Oddly enough, the 2001 AFC Championship game wasn’t the biggest travesty to take place at Heinz Field that year.


One by one over the years, this town has lost more live music clubs than the Pirates have signed free agent busts. With the encouraging news of a new place to swill $8 beers while listening to the sounds of the latest touring version of REO Speedwagon, perhaps this is a good time to look back at a few of the historic Pittsburgh concert venues that are no longer with us. (Oh, don’t get too excited about seeing REO Speedwagon at the Steelers’ new facility, it looks like the Pirates have already booked them for PNC Park this summer. You stay progressive, Pittsburgh!

In no particular order, here are four of my all time favorite now-defunct places to suffer permanent hearing loss…

Three Rivers Stadium


Obviously cherished as the home of champion football and baseball teams, Three Rivers Stadium also played host to a who’s who of rock n’ roll during it’s 30 year tenure on the North Side. Face it; every summer you knew that if somebody was playing at the stadium, it was a pretty big deal. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Dead, The Who, and the Rolling Stones were just a few to play there. The biggest concert crowd in the history of Three Rivers belonged to Bruce Springsteen, when over 65,000 yinzers showed up to see his Born in the USA Tour in 1985.

Personal highlight: My first big time stadium show was at Three Rivers in the summer of 1988 when the Monsters of Rock Tour came to town with Van Halen, The Scorpions, Metallica, and Dokken. Mom dropped me off in the parking lot and wondered aloud why it smelled like burning leaves.

What is it now?: Demolished in a blaze of glory in 2000, it is now the parking lot between Heinz Field and PNC Park. It’s also a favorite area for John Madden to use his telestrator to show where the Immaculate Reception took place.

The Syria Mosque


The Mosque was a favorite place of mine simply because it was a fantastic old building located in Oakland. The place seated about 3800 in the main theater and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. There was also a smaller venue in the basement referred to as the “ballroom”. Ask any Pittsburgher over the age of 30 what their favorite concert was, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll probably tell you about a show that was held at The Mosque. The building was once a home for the Pittsburgh Symphony and everybody from the Chuck Berry to the Red Hot Chili Peppers graced the Mosque stage. Given its close proximity to Oakland’s college campuses, it became a haven for many of the MTV-friendly alternative and hair bands of the eighties. It was the perfect sized place for artists that were too popular of a draw for the smaller rock clubs in town, but not quite popular enough to fill an arena. Something the city has lacked and missed since the demise of the Syria Mosque. Oh yeah, Bruce Springsteen also played there in 1975 & 1976.

Personal highlight: I saw Living Colour and Urban Dance Squad in the basement ballroom my senior year of high school. While we were at the show, somebody stole my friend’s Dodge Omni.

What is it now?: The University of Pittsburgh leveled the building in 1991 and turned it into a parking lot for UPMC employees. A civic outcry over the destruction of the Mosque became a public relations nightmare for the university and fueled the creation of the Pittsburgh Preservation Society.



“It was way cooler when The Cure played here in ‘87."


The Decade

Opened in 1973, The Decade became the center of the Pittsburgh local music scene. I suppose you could call it the house that Joe Grushecky built. Many national acts also got introduced to Pittsburgh audiences on the stage of The Decade and it’s the history of this place that makes it so interesting. For a little hole in the wall located on Atwood Street in Oakland, artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Ramones, The Police, and U2 are just a few who played there. A certain MFOG (Musical Friend of Grushecky) was also known to make frequent stops at The Decade, Bruce Springsteen.

Personal Highlight: Honestly, I never made it to a show at the original Decade because I wasn’t old enough to get in during the club’s hey day. I did however enjoy many nights at a later incarnation of the club called The Next Decade. Thursday rockabilly nights with $1.50 PBR pounders made for some rough Friday mornings. I also found a bootleg on the internet of U2’s performance there in 1981.



Bono before he knew where Darfur was located


What is it now?: The Decade officially closed the doors in 1995 with a show by Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. Since then the club has gone through more changes than Guns N’ Roses. It remained a live music club called The Next Decade for a few years. It’s also been a deli, a lesbian bar, a produce store, a bar called Cumpie’s, and most recently the Garage Door Saloon.

The Electric Banana


Never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

The Electric Banana makes this list as number one with a bullet (literally). Another famous Oakland club located on Bigelow Boulevard, the Banana hosted the bands that nobody else wanted to touch. A former go-go bar, The Banana was the birthplace of Pittsburgh punk. It was this city’s version of New York’s CBGB. Shows there were dangerous, decadent, and loud. I’d call the Electric Banana a dump, but I’ve been to several dumps and they always had nicer bathrooms. The club owner’s notorious reputation preceded him amongst the bands that played there. The owner Johnny Banana was rumored to enjoy a cocktail or two and occasionally brandish a firearm if things got out of hand. A former roadie for the band They Might Be Giants recounts an excellent tale of what it was like to play there in this journal:

"we'd heard some disquieting things about Pittsburgh's Electric Banana and its balding proprietor, Johnny Banana. A stout fellow said to be fond of the occasional midday highball, Johnny's reputation preceded him in a big way. Reports had him pulling a gun on the celebrated headbangers Circle Jerks when, following an appearance at le club Banana, they had the audacity to request payment in full.

We shared our concern about Mr. Banana's special sense of theater with Bill, a regular Joe who fills in as the club's soundman. Not to worry, he counseled, as we stood around the stage setting up equipment. "Johnny fired over the guy's head. Besides, he only gets nasty when he's been drinking..."

Johnny’s wife Judy often tended bar and acted like a mom to the throngs of tattooed club goers who ventured there to hear bands like Black Flag, DRI, The Dead Milkmen, Misfits, and the rest of the bands that weren’t quite ready for MTV. Despite having a penchant for rarely paying bands their fair share of the door, Johnny Banana would give almost anybody a chance to play on his stage, a rarity amongst local club owners both then and now. The best part, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN NEVER PLAYED THERE!

Personal Highlight: I saw countless shows there, but in 1993 I was in a very lousy band called Situbüsit. We played the Banana on a Tuesday night in front of about 13 people opening for some band from Cleveland. We got stiffed at the end of the night when it was time to get paid, but Judy gave us a free round of drinks.

What is it now?: Johnny shut down the Banana in 1999. It was transformed into a coffee shop for a few years and is now Zarra’s Italian Restaurant. John & Judy Zarra (their real surname oddly enough was not Banana) still own and operate the place, preferring to dish out polenta over punk these days.

I realize that there are plenty of other erstwhile places that also bear mentioning. Grafitti, Laga, Rosebud, Nick’s and the Stanley Theater all hold places in Pittsburgh’s rock n’ roll heart. Hopefully, this stirs a few memories of your own. Club Café, 31st Street Pub, Mr. Small’s, and The Rex have all picked up where these places left off. The important thing is to go out some night and catch a band at one of the city’s current crop of clubs because as Cinderella once sang You Don’t Know What You Got(Till It’s Gone).

14 comments:

H8KingTut said...

Some Other Dead Venues.

City Limits located in Penn Hills brought in some of the best metal, thrash, punk etc. in the 90’s. Plus they had Bingo board.

The Brass Factory on Penn Ave was a short lived all ages venue in 2000 – 2001 that mostly featured punk, oi! and hardcore that made the bathrooms at The Electric Banana look clean.

Mr Roboto Project 2
The Sonic Temple

okel dokel said...

Nice article it brought back a lot of memories.

The Electric Banana was a great place to see a show and catch a disease. I used to go there frequently when I was a volunteer DJ on WRCT.

The best show I ever saw was Talking Heads at the Stanley Theater in 1983. Another good one was the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Graffiti.

The Duke from Dukes Court said...

I am a big fan of The Rex Theater. The great thing about the Rex is that the bar is in a separate room from the stage so if you don't want to get your ears blown out from loud music you can hang in the bar area.

Louis Lipps is my homeboy said...

What about Club Laga in Oakland?

All the punk rock shows used to be there in the 90s/early-2000s.

And Metropool (spelling?). That was the place for the bands too big for little clubs, but too small for arenas for quite some time. Didn't they change it's name? Do bands still play there?

When I was home this summer my friends and I saw GWAR at Mr. Smalls. It was my first time there.

And how dare you not mention that Bob Marley's last concert was at the Stanley Theater!

AJ said...

Sorry Lou... I could have gone on for another 30 pages. I never saw a show at the Stanley, so I had to leave that one off the list. I believe Rush played their first US concert there.

Metropol is now called Club Zoo. They still have an occasional show there, but it is an all ages venue with no liquor license. To be honest, I saw some great shows there but sort of hated it because of the restricted view of the stage.

Laga was great, as was the Upstage just downstairs from Laga. I could have written a book about Graffiti too. Seeing Nirvana there was pretty special.

Maybe I will write a part two to this article someday

Sean said...

Of all the posts written by the new writers, this has been my favorite. Great post!

Louis Lipps is my homeboy said...

Great article either way aj. I wasn't seriously trying to criticize, just stir up discussion.

Wow, the new club where Metropol was has no liquor license? You used to be able to go to all ages shows there, and still drink.

I remember hanging out with the Dropkick Murphys in the bar below Laga after a show. I don't think it was known as "The Upstage" anymore, but my sister who's about 9 years older than me talks about hanging out at the Upstage way back when all the time.

My sister also always tells me a story about how Nirvana played at Graffiti right before they got big. The story is that the owner tried to screw them out of many, so Nirvana's manager lit a couch on fire! They said they'd never play in Pittsburgh again, but I'm not sure if they stayed true to their word on that one. Anyone out there know if Nirvana came back to the 'burgh when they hit it big?

I never was at the Stanley Theatre either (too young), but I think it's interesting that Bob Marley played his last show and Babe Ruth his last home run in Pittsburgh.

vinnie said...

I can't believe you didn't list the Stanley Theatre!

Bradley said...

a great forgotten tour hit Graffiti back in '91. Red Hot Chili Peppers on the "Mothers Milk" tour with special guest Smashing Pumpkins (their first big tour, during "Gish").

the opening act was some band without an album, and the audience hated them and thought they were some local schmoes.

i think they were called "Pearl Jam".

TheStarterWife said...

I know I am a few days too late, but that '91 concert with RCHP was at the AJ Palumbo center for the Blood Sugar Sex Magic tour that Pearl Jam and Pumpkins opened up for.

And yes I still have my concert shirt.

TheStarterWife said...

And an awesome post btw. I spent so many of my mispent high school years at Graffiti and the Banana.

Affordable Floors forever!

Rick said...

events like this are so cool, many bands let the world know it in events like this, but as you say is a problem when some "good Samaritan" make the favor that record this and sell it later in some pages, for example the incredible presentation of Generic Viagra in Oklahoma, one of the presents record the presentation and when the band become famous the guy make some money with that tape.

Jessa said...

You just know how good a thing is to you when you're labeling these as "favorite places to suffer permanent hearing loss".

hearing centre

mildredpierce said...

Hello, folks!!!

Do you know someone who taped Nirvana show at Graffiti.
Sowhere i heard that taper have a 2 nirvana shows from pittsburgh 91 and wilkinsburg 1989.
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