Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Decade - The Corner Of Roc and Rol

The latest incarnation of the Decade, the Garage Door Saloon,
(Image provided by Hobo Jones from Wikipedia)

The Decade in Oakland wasn't always a rock 'n' roll hall. It started out back in the day as the Oaklander Hotel, and was doing business as the Pizza Pub by the time Dom DiSilvio and his wife Jan Chepes bought it in late 1973.

They renamed the club The Decade. Oddly enough, the decade they honored was the fifties; the venue started out as a restaurant and local bar with oldies acts. Their first featured group was The Brotherhood from Youngstown in October, but the oldies format quickly proved, well, old. Located a hop, skip and a jump from the Cathedral of Learning on Atwood and Sennott, the pair decided to go with the youthful flow and turned to rock 'n' roll.

By the mid-seventies, local bands like Bob Corbin and Dave Hanner's Gravel, Joe Grushecky & the Brick Alley Band (later to become the Houserockers) and Norm Nardini & the Tigers were ripping the place up. Then promoter Danny Kresge talked the pair into turning the Decade into the "Whiskey A Go-Go" of the east and began bringing in up-and coming national acts, which he could book for $500 and under per appearance.

The opening show was played by David Johansen of the New York Dolls, followed by the Ramones (the only touring band to ever play consecutive nights at the venue) in March, 1979, and there was no turning back.

The acts that took the stage at the Decade included Sting and The Police, Bono and U2, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, Cindi Lauper, Jimmy Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Koko Taylor, The Romantics, Meat Loaf, and Joe Jackson. The club drew some unannounced guests, too.

The night before his two sold out Arena shows in September, 1984, Bruce Springsteen and his bud Joe Grushecky hooked up. The Boss felt like chowing a hot dog, so Joe took him to the Oakland O, where he was mobbed.

After escaping, they went to Grushecky’s car and Springsteen spotted the Decade. Asking Joe if that wasn’t the club he played in, the Boss decided to pay a visit. Bon Ton Roulet was performing, and Springsteen & Grushecky hopped up on the stage with the band, playing a three song set of “Lucille,” “Raise Your Hand” and “Gloria.”

Three years later, in March, 1987, Jon Bon Jovi joined his ‘Burgh running mate Norm Nardini after an Arena show and played a 50 minute set with Pittsburgh’s “Love Dog.” It was just a favor being repaid: earlier in the evening, Nardini had shared the Igloo stage with Bon Jovi for CCR’s “Travelin’ Band.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played the Decade a couple of times, also dropped into the club after a Syria Mosque gig and sat in for a three-song set with Bon Ton Roulet.

There were, of course, other stories like when local punkers Carsickness got into a fistfight with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1984 over a tipsy girlfriend who fell into the RHCP’s drum kit. We wouldn’t want to forget the night in 1992 when Billy Price’s buds - Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito, in town to shoot the movie Hoffa - stopped by to catch the show and down some tequila. Houserocker roadie Bob Boyer’s ashes were buried under the Decade stage, too. His resting spot was said to have scared a Louisiana zydeco player from performing, fearful of stirring up some bad voodoo juju.

Dom and Jan didn't forget the local bands, either. Competing with DJ'ed disco joints like Zelda's Greenhouse, the Decade kept the volume pumped up by showcasing Kenny Blake's King Solomon, The Mystic Knights of the Sea, Red Hot & Blue, Bon Ton Roulet, 8th Street Rox and Billy Price & the Keystone Rhythm Band. The list goes on, with the Silencers, Donny Iris and Diamond Reo, plus the previously mentioned Gravel, Grushecky, and Nardini.

The Mystic Knights, as the story goes, came together as pick-up band in 1984 when DiSilvio approached guitarist Warren King to form an "all-star" group to pump up the club's slow Monday nights. And the Kingfish did, in spades.

The result was the Mystic Knights of the Sea, originally composed of King (Houserockers, Diamond Reo, The Silencers, Red Hot & Blue), vocalist/drummer Ron "Byrd" Foster (The Igniters, Roy Buchanan's Band, the Houserockers, the Silencers, Kingsnake Allstars), guitarist Bryan Bassett (Wild Cherry, Molly Hatchet, and Foghat) and keyboardist Gil Snyder.

While the bills may have been top flight, the club itself was a nondescript brick building, a hardy home for what DiSilvio called a "Wild West saloon." It held 400 fans if the fire marshall turned his back, and they paid a beefy doorman $2 to get in. The crowd was generally a mix of college and working kids at night, while it was popular Pitt lunch spot by day.

It had two rooms, a front bar and back stage. It was cramped with a low ceiling that sported a jury-rigged acoustic system - parachutes! The bar was topped in copper, and the tables and stools were few and far between. Some nights, the blood boiling combination of deafening music, tight quarters, the college-blue collar mix and a few beers made the club's bouncers more of a main act than the band. In other words, it was the epitome of a perfect Pittsburgh rock 'n' roll bar.

But all good things must come to an end. Faced with increased competition and tax problems, the Decade's 22 year run came to a close. Appropriately, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers played the last show at the club on August 21st, 1995 when its final curtain fell.

But the Decade’s legend lived on, at least in memory. In 2009, the original Iron City Houserockers held a reunion gig at the Altar Bar to honor Dom DiSilvio and the Decade era. And old rockers will recall the corner of Roc 'n' Rol as fondly as sixties AM teens remember the corner of Walk and Don't Walk.

The building still exists; after a few reincarnations, it's now The Garage Door Saloon. It looks much the same; stop in and maybe you'll catch Bob Boyer roaming the back room stacking amps.

(The ultimate article on the Decade was penned by the Post-Gazette's Scott Mervis in 1993, "Two Decades of the Decade," and provided much of the color for this post.)

The Iron City Houserockers; - "Junior's Bar"


Anonymous said...

As a point of order, it's Bob Boyer. And a sidebar story - a touring act, whose name escapes me - saw the memorial plaque bolted to the stage wall and asked it it were for real. When assured that the ashes of Bob's 350 bulk were under their feet, one musician refused to keep playing.

Ron Ieraci said...

Oops & thanks - I'll fix that; the reference I got it from said Billy. And the story about his ashes scaring away a player are true; a zydeco performer from Louisiana refused to play the last set when he found out he was stomping over Bob's ashes.