The Casbah is turning 26 years old. 26 years in the bar business, the music venue business is a serious accomplishment. I have never seen a show there. I didn’t grow up in San Diego going to shows there or hearing stories of the time Nirvana played there or Social Distortion, the White Stripes or any of the great bands listed here. I grew up going to shitty punk clubs in the Mid-West and East Coast. Saturday night my Casbah cherry was popped with a throw back show featuring three bands that played the Casbah in the early ’90s, and one up-and-coming punk band. Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver played the “Atari Room” in the back, and White Murder, Deadbolt & Olivelawn rocked the main stage. But this isn’t about them. This is about the Casbah.
The Casbah is a cobbled together, basement dive bar below an apartment complex on edge of Little Italy. It is grimy, gritty, dirty, loud and authentic in all the ways hipster kids have been trying to be and failing for the past decade. I say that with love. If this place were to be rebuilt today it would never happen. You’d never get the permits. The entrance opens into a patio out behind the bar. An open pathway opens up into a small open area, and into the Atari Room. The AR is just a regular room with three walls and sketchy pink panther hung on the back wall. To the left of the floor area that is considered the stage is an outdoor bar and some old school video games. The outdoor walls are soaked in dark maroon and the ceilings are black. Band stickers cover just about every surface that isn’t part of the building and some parts that are.
You can smoke in this outdoor patio area, and it is weird. You can’t smoke anywhere any more, and the presence of a few cigarettes gives the club a rebellious vibe. Even though times have changed, the smoke makes it feel like it is still 1989. The crowds fashion wouldn’t feel out of place in ’89 either. Tight jeans, Chuck Taylors, black Ramones & Suicidal Tendancies tees, shiny belts, high white socks coming out of Vans. I’d guess some of the band tees here tonight were here in 1989 too.
U.N.C.L.E. Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver is already playing when I get there only 20 minutes after doors open. Their last album, “Chick Rock” came out in 1995. They play hard and fast. They miss chords, forget a few lyrics and generally rock out with a few laughs about losing a step in between. Even though they are in their late 30’s or early 40’s it is not hard to imagine these guys in their early twenties rocking this same stage 20+ years ago. After finishing on particularly chaotic song the two leads exchange pleasantries in the form of, “Nailed it!” and “As long as you play the last chord right, that’s all that matters.” There are a lot of smiles, and they cover “Free Ride” before 9:30 PM.
Inside the Casbah feels like punk rock. It is black, everything feels like it was put together by hand. The only lights come from purple Christmas strands strung randomly around, and the stage lights. The stage is front right when you walk in, and the bar runs along the left wall. Full bar serving tap, canned & bottled beer and booze. A 24oz PBR will run you $5 and a can of Ballast Point Sculpin is about $7. No idea what booze costs, but probably similarly priced. There are a few tables with stools near the bar but for the most part it is standing room. The stage is built up a few feet above floor level so it is easy to see as long as some 7′ giant doesn’t stand in front of you.
There are little hallways and crevices everywhere. A hallway to the bathrooms then leads to the back room. Another cuts along the back of the main room to the patio. Some have bench seats to lean on, and others are just walls covered in posters of up-coming events. A never -ending stream of up-coming events. These are places to hide or slide thru like ghosts in an old graveyard. Moments of privacy or clarity when the Rock gets too much or the moment too overwhelming.
White Murder starts up on the main stage around 10:00 PM. 30 seconds into their first song I’m in. I’m in on the band and I’m in on the Casbah. They have two female leads who sing/rage into the mic, into each other and the band fills the space around them with well crafted modern punk riffs. I feel like I’m at an underground basement show with better speakers, better bands and more beer than seems should be allowed. I feel like I’m 18 and the police might shut the whole thing down any minute. The music careens out of the overhead speakers into my chest. Like all great music venues the Casbah makes these bands feel like they only exist in the magic of this night and this place. Later when I stumble in to the darkness of night it should all disappear as if created by fairy dust. White Murder pretty badass. I don’t get the name, but I don’t care either.
In 1989 the Casbah opened with a capacity of 75. In 2015 it holds 200. With the layout and split stages a crowd of 20 would feel intimate. There is so little separating you from the bands you’re watching that it creates sense of “I’m in the band…almost”. Whether in the main stage room or the Atari Room out back when the band plays it will be loud. Ear drum pulsing loud. Bring ear plugs for actually watching the band. But when you need a break the music is surprisingly contained when you head the opposite direction or outside.
Deadbolt still tours as a rock band. Since 1988, but with a few different members. Still pretty awesome. Their surf rock still rocks, but with a bit more fun than danger. That might not have been the case 26 years ago, but now they are all older guys. It’s like watching your dad get crazy for his high school reunion, but with surf rock and power tools. I took off before Olivelawn hit the stage. Not because I wanted to leave but because the magic of the Casbah will bring back time and time again. I’d hate to blow my Casbah load all in one night.
2501 Kettner Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92101