The Next Page: Tales from the Electric Banana -- Pittsburgh's punk laboratory
Today, 3887 Bigelow Blvd. is Johnny Zarra's excellent Italian restaurant. Long ago, it was a disco dive. But from 1980 until 2000, it was the crucible for a certain kind of rock 'n' roll, a place that put Pittsburgh on the alternative cultural map. Doug H
November 14, 2010 5:00 AM
By Doug Hughey
On a Monday night in January 1980, Oakland's punk scene descended on the Electric Banana -- at that time, a former disco down on its luck. The bands were called the Cardboards and Carsickness. It was one of the few times either lineup had ever played a real club in Pittsburgh. By the end of the night, mountains of empty Rolling Rock cans littered the bar, convincing owners Judy and Johnny Zarra to begin exclusively booking live bands, playing original music.
The bands, along with some other local acts, usually played house parties in Oakland's college living rooms and basements. They'd been renting out halls like the Lion's Walk and the Paul Younger center, where they dragged in kegs of cheap beer and charged $3 covers. Or they'd been playing public venues at Schenley Park, Market Square and the Skibo Gymnasium at Carnegie Mellon University. To promote they'd been making fliers out of photocopied pieces of magazine ads, which they put up across Oakland using wheat paste or condensed milk in a spray bottle.
"No one else would book 'em," was how Johnny would always put it to me when he talked about those days when he was "doing rock'n roll."
From 2004 to 2006 I worked at Johnny's current-day restaurant, Zarra's. For much of that time I was his "ace," his "right-hand man." While "hanging out" and riding around in his big, black Ford F-150 with the silver skulls plastered all over it, Johnny reminisced about those days when he was running a punk club.
He liked to say that he gave a lot of bands their first shot. Pittsburgh's own Cynics, who grew to international fame, got their start at the Banana. Touring bands on their way to bigger things -- They Might Be Giants, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Red Hot Chilli Peppers -- played there, sometimes for their first gig in Pittsburgh.
But the Banana's role as a rock incubator was not ordained. Johnny and Judy's club had emerged from the disco era in 1979 without an audience or an identity. Following the lead of the Decade in Oakland and other area nightclubs, they had started booking bar rock bands and been giving weekly rotation to one in particular named Le Slick that played Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd and other Top 40 hits.
By the time Karl Mullen of Carsickness and Reid Paley walked through the door asking for that first gig, the Zarras had seen months of abysmal business. When Mullen said they played punk -- pronouncing it as "ponk," in an Irish accent -- Johnny didn't hesitate, didn't even so much as stop as he walked past the bar carrying a tray full of glasses.
"Book 'em," he told Judy.
It has now been 10 years since a band last took the stage at the Banana. In between those first and last shows, it continued to facilitate Pittsburgh's underground music scenes, often by booking the bands no one else wanted. Its willingness to do so, and the efforts of those who played there, put Pittsburgh on the map for bands that would alter the course of rock history.
"They were good kids," was how Johnny liked to describe the punks. "A lot of them had parents who were doctors and lawyers."
He fed that line to a number of reporters over the years, probably in order to counteract the pervasive reputation punk had earned thanks to the emerging, violent hardcore scene out West and the declining, drug-addled one in New York. One of those reporters was Pittsburgh Press jazz critic Gary Bradford, who showed up at the Banana in 1981 at the behest of Paley to cover a show featuring his new band, the Five.
Bradford made a similar observation as Johnny's. In his piece, titled "Not-So-Punk-Rock," Bradford describes a scene in which kids wearing jeans and sneakers hug the bar and walls relatively early on a Friday night, drinking and looking "awkward." Missing are the Mohawks, razor blades in the nose and, in particular, the slam dancing.
"That stuff never caught on here," Bradford quotes Johnny as saying.
But actually it was just getting started. In a couple years, hardcore would descend on the Banana. Mohawks and skateboards would replace leather and the place would shake on its steel girders as teenagers slamdanced on underage nights. Hardcore's progenitors were already showing up there by 1981 and listening to bands on the club's sidewalk.
But Pittsburgh's original punk progenitors were artsy and intellectual. Most were enrolled in college and studying fine art or the kinds of things that didn't lend themselves to finding a job. Mullen was then enrolled in a fringe program at Pitt taught by Marxist professors; Paley had been an English major before dropping out of college. A handful of others attended Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and for them a fun Saturday night meant watching an experimental Stan Brakhage film and then heading to the O to highjack the jukebox.
Almost straight from the get-go, Johnny instituted a policy that bands work for the door. He liked to say he was the first in the city to start doing it, right after he got word of clubs in other cities doing the same. As a result, the bands that were connected and did their promotions did well. Others were happy to have just made it on stage, while the rest blamed the decrepit and isolated venue, the lack of a proper sound system or Judy and Johnny for outright ripping them off.
Isolated on a stretch of road skirting the Hill in between Downtown and Oakland, the Banana had by that time spanned a gamut of era-defining venues, which were often dictated by the club's fringe location. Since the Zarras bought the place in 1970, it had gone from a risqué go-go joint to "the most popular black disco in town," according to a 1978 article by nightlife reporter Mike Kalina, to the city's most popular gay disco.
But with punk as their new low-rent meal ticket, Johnny and Judy did little to halt the declining state of their once posh disco. When a hole opened up in the drop ceiling and a family of raccoons moved in, Johnny started feeding them hot dogs on the end of a pole cue. The bands, meanwhile, didn't have a stage and didn't need one. Instead they set up on a bit of floor at the rear of the building underneath a string of red Christmas lights that lit the place up like a cheap strip club. They also dragged in their own sound equipment, which usually consisted of someone's borrowed or stolen PA.
Given their druthers, Johnny and Judy would have preferred to continue booking Le Slick, but they endured the strange and at times inaccessible music because business was good. Mullen's band Carsickness regularly mobilized Oakland's punk scene, as did most of the bands he or Paley recommended. Mullen was an accomplished guitarist even before shedding his long hair and going "punk" after returning from trip home to Ireland where he was exposed to the movement; Johnny at least respected Mullen's skill.
And after Mullen started sending up-and-coming bands like the Waitresses and Black Flag the Banana's way, Johnny's affection for Mullen only grew. It got so that after Johnny's father passed away, he gave all father's clothes to Mullen, who incorporated them into his secondhand wardrobe. When a fight started to brew between Mullen and Bobby Porter -- the late front man for Thin White Line and also a former Marine -- it was Johnny who stepped in between them. Johnny even started walking on stage with Carsickness and singing, albeit the wrong lyrics.
And the night Mullen went around with a bottle collecting urine for a research study at Pitt, Johnny didn't do a thing, except maybe laugh.
Paley, meanwhile, had stepped out of the booking role he'd once filled while bands were playing gigs at Phase III. Back when the Banana was still doing disco, Paley and the rest of Oakland's punk scene started taking the hour-long bus ride to the hole of a club after it started booking punk acts. Among them were the New York-based Richard Hell and the Voidoids and the Dead Boys, both of whom played there at the behest of a local rock band named Diamond Reo.
Paley took over the booking duties there after making good on a promise to book an obscure, though influential, new wave band out of Cleveland named Pere Ubu. Using a payphone around the corner from where he worked at National Record Mart in Oakland, Paley phoned the band's manager, Cliff Bernstein. Paley figured that getting punk bands that up until that point had only played house parties or obscure venues gigs at a real club would get them shows elsewhere.
But when Phase III unexpectedly shut its doors, Paley instead started haunting Oakland's shot-and-beer dives, trying to get the owners to let him book bands. He and Mullen had also gone back to hosting bands at their South Bouquet Street apartment. For a while they attempted to muffle the noise from loud parties fueled by massive amounts of cheap beer and loud bands by pressing mattresses up against the windows. But they were inevitably evicted.
"We're not musicians," William von Hagen -- aka Puke percussionist Bill Bored -- declared in 1979 on the local TV show "30 Minutes."
Bored's pronouncement echoed a key tenet of punk embraced by Johnny Ramone and acknowledged by the announcer during the segment. With just a few chords or by smothering all the strings on the fret of the guitar with one hand, and hammering away with the other, anyone could do it. Anyone could play punk. And Bored wasn't kidding. He really didn't know how to play, and throughout much of the Puke's existence he'd been drumming with one hand on a single snare. But what the band lacked in technical skill they made up for in theatrics, instead gaining notoriety for tearing up a Bible at Phase III.
The Puke were Pittsburgh's second real punk band, right after the Shut-Ins, who -- frustrated by the lack of a local scene -- split for New York in 1977 after playing a single gig at Chatham. Like many of the early local punk bands, the Puke's raw sound made them unbookable until the Banana came along. But by 1981 they were even playing the Decade.
"It was me, and then it was the Decade, and then it was everyone else," Johnny always said.
Oakland's punk scene eventually took over the turf of bands that were more talented than themselves, and the Banana played no small part in that. By the mid-1980s the Banana had legitimized them, and helped win them a turf war with Pittsburgh's bar rock bands, who the punks viewed as the vanguard of tired 1970's rock.
Among those bands was Diamond Reo, who went on stage one night at Phase III in front of some Oakland punk fans who had come to see the headlining act, Richard Hell. As they did, a member of the Puke flipped the band the finger.
Diamond Reo had by that time released three albums, gotten a spot on the charts with their cover of "Ain't That Peculiar" and opened for the likes of Ted Nugent, Lou Reed, Kiss and the Blue Oyster Cult. They'd even played CBGB in New York and gained the acceptance of the Dead Boys.
But to the punks, Diamond Reo were still a glittery rock band who thought being "punk" meant putting some duct tape over their platforms. To Diamond Reo the punks were rich college kids who felt entitled just because they'd picked up an instrument.
The punks might have been poised to take over the scene, but that night Diamond Reo still owned the stage. Part way through their set, Diamond Reo bassist Norm Nardini stepped off it in the middle of a song and walked across the table tops until he was standing on the Puke's, where he stood playing until they finished the song. The Puke may not have been musicians, but Diamond Reo certainly were.
a writer living in Boston, is a Pittsburgh native and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh (
). He is at work on a book about Johnny Zarra and the Electric Banana.