In the wee small hours, as Saturday became Sunday last weekend, girlpope launched into David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” on the stage of Mohawk Place. The performance was emotional, epic, simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and irony-free. And when it was over, reality sunk in for the full house.
This was it. The final performance at the club that has acted as a fulcrum for the area’s independent music community for the better part of the past 20 years.
There were tears. More than a few hugs and “I love you, man” moments. But there was something else, too. After the last chord had resolved into silence, something unexpected happened. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” came over the PA, an impromptu performance swept the crowd into a rabid sing-along, and the place felt suddenly more like a happening holiday party than a funeral.
This moment was soooo Buffalo. “We’re down,” it said. “But we ain’t out.” We would be wise to hang on to this feeling, to nurture it and to wear it like armor. Within this feeling lurks the essence of what made Mohawk Place important to so many – the spirit of the musicians and music lovers who gathered there, who turned a hole in the wall into a heavenly patch of rock ’n’ roll real estate.
There are the very practical matters to attend to. Where will this spirit now gather to be celebrated? How are we going to avoid getting all bummed out, staying home to watch TV instead of getting out there to support live music at a time when that support is needed more than ever? What the hell do we do now?
This might seem like an overinvestment of emotion and energy into a place that was after all just a dumpy old building with a rather dubious set of restrooms. But let’s check in with David Byrne, who, with the Talking Heads, witnessed the birth and growth of a fruitful scene in late 1970s New York City, at a club with many parallels to Mohawk Place – CBGBs.
In his recent book “How Music Works,” Byrne writes this: “Where music is heard can determine the sort of music created by the artists who perform there. It might seem dispiriting to acknowledge that humble brick and mortar can shape what pours out of a creative soul, but this reality doesn’t take anything away from the talent or skill of composers or performers. Their songs and performances will be, one hopes, absolutely heartfelt, passionate and true – it’s just that we channel our ineffable creative urges, sometimes unconsciously, into figuring out what is appropriate for a given situation. The mere existence of CBGB facilitated the creation of the bands and songs that touched our hearts and souls. It was the right size, the right shape, and in the right place.”
One might easily substitute “Mohawk Place” for “CBGB” in the above paragraph and not alter the overarching meaning of Byrne’s words. Mohawk Place was the right size, the right shape and (though some might argue differently) in the right place. Its existence did affect the music being made in Buffalo. Mohawk’s “humble brick and mortar” housed much more than a bar, a stage and some thirsty customers. It housed, forgive me, a zeitgeist. And now, that zeitgeist needs to find new digs.
I’m reluctant to make predictions. We know this much: Allentown is doing well, and has developed its own niche – jam bands, funk, hip-hop, jam-tronica. Chippewa wants us about as much as we want it, which is to say, not at all. The Town Ballroom is too big for these purposes. The Tralf is awesome, but isn’t the right size, shape or in the right location for a Mohawk Place-type of movement. And the hub of indie music should remain in the city, not move to the suburbs. What to do?
We might turn to Byrne again, for some guiding principles concerning the ethos behind the regeneration of a Mohawk-like scene.
“A successful scene presents an alternative. Some of us eventually came to realize that we wouldn’t feel as comfortable anywhere else, and that the music in other places would probably be terrible. The hangout, then, is the place for the alienated to share their misanthropic feelings about the prevailing musical culture.”
Yes. There’s gotta be at least a little bit of that. “Us against them” can be a motivator, and we need motivation right now. It was my pleasure to get to know some deeply intelligent, committed and extremely talented people in and around Mohawk Place. I’m confident they’ll help us to figure out what’s next. I’m equally confident that there’s a role for everyone who cared about Mohawk Place in the creation of, and the support for, whatever comes next. We’ve said goodbye. Now it’s time to move on.