Hot August Night: 25 Years Since the End of the Mark/J’Net Continental

By Michael Corcoran. Austin American Statesman/Austin360.com, Aug. 28, 2012.

[Note: Photos from the last night of the original Continental Club are here on the site.]

There were three times more people outside the 300-capacity club than were able to fit inside, where it was brutally hot and gloriously sweaty. Sitting in little clumps on the sidewalk and standing in the street behind the stage, the throng drank 7-11 beer, smoked joints and reminisced about nights spent in the glorious black wooden box where Bad Brains would play one night and Lou Ann Barton the next. And you’d go to both.

A club where you’d go even if you’ve never heard of the band (which explains why a handful of kids in mohawks and leather jackets showed up to see 10,000 Maniacs in 1985), the Continental Club closed its doors for good on Aug. 29, 1987. It was replaced on New Year’s Eve, four months later, by the Continental Club, no relation, until years later when former True Believers Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham would provide undeniable links.

After a bumpy first year as a yupscale red-and-black-tiled hamburger/music joint, the Continental of Steve Wertheimer and his veteran staff has grown into an internationally known roots-rock haven. It’s where Toni Price’s Tuesday “Hippie Hour” is now in its 20th year. Austin’s two greatest meat-eating guitarists, Redd Volkaert and Junior Brown, are known to play there on weekends when the sun is out: How cool is that?

But the CC that closed 25 years ago today is the one many local nightlife veterans no doubt recall as their favorite club ever. Leaning against the back wall, pulling on a $2 beer, was a 28-year-old’s natural body position.

For a room that had the ambiance of a milk crate, the Continental was a magical place because of what happened onstage. My first night in Austin, April 1, 1984, I wandered in off South Congress, paid $3 cover, and saw a band called the Butthole Surfers. For the next three years I’d see so many great shows: accordionista Steve Jordan, the Replacements, Johnny Thunders, the Skeletons, Billy Bragg, Del Fuegos and on and on. But the cozy confines ruled by Mark Pratz and J’Net Ward had become especially known as the clubhouse for the “New Sincerity” bands — True Believers, Zeitgeist, Glass Eye, Doctors Mob, Wild Seeds, Texas Instruments, Dharma Bums, Daniel Johnston, Black Spring and more. These bands, many of whom are regrouping Sept. 8 for a tribute to South by Southwest creative director Brent Grulke at ACL Live, also forged a scene at the Beach (now Crown & Anchor), but that was more of a cool hangout. The no-frills Continental Club was where you went to get a face fulla music and former soundman Grulke, who died of a heart attack Aug. 13 at age 51, was known to mix it loud. Conversation? Take it outside.

The repute as a rockin’ live room started in 1979, when the owners of the infamous One Knite (at current Stubb’s location) looked for a place to move the party and teamed with rock lifers Summerdog and Wayne Nagel to take over the lease at 1315 S. Congress Ave. During the ‘60s and the first 9/10 of the ‘70s, the club was a dank old man’s bar, with happy hour from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.

The new owners liked Chuck Berry-based rock & roll and so they’d book the LeRoi Brothers, Little Charlie (Sexton), Joe Ely Band, the Cobras with Stevie Ray Vaughan — those kind of acts.

Mark and J’Net took over in 1983 and kicked up the national bookings, while keeping the focus on local acts that could draw. A club reflects the personality of the ownership and in Pratz and Ward, who also ran Liberty Lunch together, the bands and clientele got an ever-smiling pair that was open to nutty things. The club was a playground, so Pratz was well prepared when he became an elementary school principal.

The clubhouse was shuttered because it wasn’t making money and it took time from the profitable Liberty Lunch, which was three times bigger at half the rent.

But what the Continental had was an air of coziness to go with the rock ‘n’ roll. Not as easy as it sounds. One of the cooler nights was Sunday, when Michael Hall, now a writer for Texas Monthly, resurrected the “Hoot Night” concept — a throwback to the ‘60s folk boom. One Sunday night, a street band from Hawaii called Poi Dog Pondering rolled up to the club after driving all day and ended up charming everyone. They decided to stay a few years.

Frank, Abra and the rest of Poi Dog were hanging around outside on the club’s swan song, just enjoying the cool vibe, not really in any panic to get inside. The doors were open, the music was playing and everyone in the periphery was into their own trip — until the True Believers arrived at the club’s back door like gunslingers.

Alejando Escovedo’s glamericana band would’ve been the indisputed kings of the scene except for the existence of Zeitgeist, who had to later change their name to the Reivers. Zeitgeist made better records than the Troobs. They had better songs and a unique vocal dynamic. And their fans were more devoted.

What the True Believers had was raw power. They dressed like rock stars, while everyone else was tees and jeans, and they carried on for their heroes: Iggy, T-Rex, Velvets, Mott.

That final night, the advertised lineup was Doctors Mob, Glass Eye, Wild Seeds and headliner Zeitgeist. True Believers had another gig booked in town, but, thanks to the generosity of Zeitgeist, they would play at the very end. With Brent Grulke (dressed in drag, as were the members of Wild Seeds) at the sound board, the swaggering Troobs were so excruciatingly loud that folks in the street needed earplugs. The Escovedo gang set out to conquer Croslin and company, once and forever. Instead they blew out Zeitgeist’s amps after about four songs. Lasting memory from loadout: John Croslin of Zeitgeist talking to TB bassist J.D. Foster about paying for the amps and Foster shrugging, “Hey, man, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.” Eventually the Troobs had the amps repaired.

Peter Blackstock, the former Statesman music writer who would go on to co-found No Depression magazine, drove 4,600 miles in seven days to see this show. “Well, I had to make the drive anyway, after spending the summer interning for the Anchorage Daily News,” Blackstock recalls. “But when I heard about the Continental closing, I talked the paper into releasing me from the internship a week early.” The last night of the Continental was mostly a blur, he says, but one thing stands out. “I very specifically remember going over to 406 W. 30th (the infamous party house across from Trudy’s) after the show and finding the huge Continental Club sign taking up the entire north wall of the front room of the house.”

The sign eventually made it back to Wertheimer, a noted restoration addict, who had the vintage neon sign painted and repaired.

Wertheimer’s first experience at the Continental Club was around 1981 when he was dragged to a LeRoi Brothers show. “The place was packed, but I felt a little out of place in my white, button-downed shirt,” he says. Wertheimer had come from his job as a CPA.

Through his mentor and catering partner C-Boy Parks, Wertheimer became involved in running Ski Shores, a hamburger joint on Lake Austin, in the mid-‘80s. The Schuler family, who owned the building at 1315 S. Congress, were regular customers and told Wertheimer and his Ski Shores partner Hank Vick in the fall of ’87 that they had a vacant club available to rent.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved,” says Wertheimer, “but Hank was all gung ho and he kinda charmed me into it.” The lease called for $1,150 a month rent, with an option to buy the building within a year for $125,000, but the club was barely staying afloat. “After that first year, I got rid of the kitchen and put in a pool table and things started slowly turning around,” said Wertheimer, who eventually bought the building, for a lot more than 125 K.

Working without a partner after year one, Wertheimer turned things around by booking an act that was a strange mix of Ernest Tubb and Jimi Hendrix to play for free every Sunday night. In the first few weeks Junior Brown barely drew 10 customers, but when the word got out about this sensationally unique guitarist, the folks started lining up an hour before the doors opened to ensure getting in.

Then, such touring acts as the Palladins and Dave Alvin from the West Coast, the Iguanas from New Orleans and Southern Culture On the Skids from the East Coast made the Continental a favorite stop.

Today, the neon Continental sign is an Austin landmark. It’s the original sign from 1955, when Morin Scott owned the building and jazz musician Bill Turner ran the Continental Club as a “private” saloon so they could serve mixed drinks. Turner’s jazz trio was the house band, with various guest singers. The Sunday night jam session brought out some of the area’s best jazz musicians.

We can all marvel at what the Continental has become, especially with the addition of the Continental Gallery listening room upstairs.

And then there’s the go-go dancing back bartender Clara Que Si, an inadvertent music critic who gives an instant thumbs-up whenever she’s overtaken by the music and jumps onstage to frug unselfconsciously.

There’s an amazing vibe on a hot night and if the Continental Club closed at the end of the month, you can be sure there would be a thousand people outside, just to be there.

But instead of a closing, there will be a happier 25th anniversary. On New Year’s Eve, the Wertheimer Continental Club will have been open for 25 years. With no sign of letting up.

That building at 1315 S. Congress Avenue is a special, special place, the home of not one, but two, legendary nightclub runs.

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