“Well, none of the Rolling Stones have ever played here,” quips Local 506 co-owner Dave Robertson from behind the bar, when quizzed on what rock celebs have graced the club’s stage over the past 9-plus years. Behind Robertson, next to the liquor bottles and porcelain 1940s girlie figures, photos of local and national musicians–most personalized for 506–are taped to the mirror: a photo of local rockabilly legend Dexter Romweber, a “glamour shot” of Squirrel Nut Zipper Stu Cole in drag, an awesomely retro cheesecake photo of Southern Culture on the Skids chanteuse Mary Huff, and an autographed photo of ’50s guitar legend Link Wray. There’s also a photo of notorious former Chapel Hill wild-ass Chris Phillips (best known as drummer for SNZ) dressed in a nun’s habit, looking pious as all get out. The inscription? “To my 506 family, I love you like a sister.”
While bars catering specifically to garage, rockabilly, surf and rock exist in major metro areas, having a local club where you could see anything from Japanese American-rock disciple Guitar Wolf to an unannounced show by Ryan Adams (featuring his close pal, the Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha, on guitar and good hair) was a real plus. For local musicians who spend their time on the road, Local 506 was homey and familiar. Both Robertson and co-owner Monica Swisher (yup–little sis of former COC bass man Phil Swisher, now of Leadfoot) spoke rock, and understood its nuances. Besides hosting Sleazefest, the annual three-day celebration of “BBQ, B-Movies and Bands,” where else could you see cult legends like Hasil Adkins, The Amazing Dolores, Ronnie Dawson, Davie Allen and Robert Gordon, as well as the new crop of wild-eyed rockin’ young’uns (The Greenehornes, BellRays, Quintron) doing their own interpretation of rock, surf, or what have you?
But Robertson and Swisher say they’re calling it quits.
“You want to live a life like everybody else,” Robertson says, sounding tired. He and Swisher are–where else?–506, where I’ve met them for the interview. “God, I wish I could just come in here and have a drink and not have to work all the time.” Swisher agrees: “It’s not sad! It’s cool. Ten years, what a beautiful thing! I’ll be 30 this year and I started at 20.
Although there’s a big “farewell show” booked for Aug. 31, Robertson now plans to keep the club open another month or two until a new owner can move in without the club having to shut its doors. In the meantime, bands have been booked well into the fall. Rumors about the club’s fate are a dime a dozen: A garage rock club owner in L.A. will take over; local musicians are trying to get the capital, and so on. But no new partnerships have been forged, no papers inked. And even if new owners keep the 506 open as a music venue, many locals figure the vibe is something the present owners will take with them.
The idea of losing the club is a sobering thought (literally–it’s the main Chapel Hill rock club that serves liquor) for area musicians. The bulk of the local alternative bands cut their musical teeth on the 506’s humble stage. “It’s a very musician-friendly bar,” says bar regular Ed Crawford (aka “Ed from Ohio,” longtime fIREHOSE guitarist and now Grand National frontman). “In this town, for this kind of bar to even exist for this long is amazing. It’s a place where you knew you could get a gig. And you knew other musicians would come and check it out. For anyone who plays music, you know how important that is.”
Originally the home of Margaret’s Cantina, with a brief stint as Margaret’s Rock & Roll Cantina, the space was re-christened Local 506 in ’90 or ’91, according to Robertson. At the time, the club had a stage that extended across the back of the club with a hall behind it, and a DJ booth–no go-go cage, no funky artifacts or objets d’art courtesy of Laird Dixon. No patina of beer and liquor funk that eventually turned the cement floor black. Owners Brendan Kelly, Anne Boling and Jason Hjaduk were young investors with a vision and the money to bankroll a club; Robertson and Swisher had the rock ‘n’ roll attitude. “We pretty much ran the place from the get-go,” Swisher recalls. Robertson and Swisher worked their first shift on New Year’s Eve, 1991. Before working the club, the two had never met.
“That was the beautiful thing about never knowing Dave before owning 506, and vice versa. We’re brutally honest, and I mean brutally,” says Swisher. “We’re a lot better about it now, but we used to throw down.”
Over the years, they’ve had their share of brawls–“turning over bar stools to get to each other,” they both admit, laughing.
“One of the funniest things we ever did was a domestic violence commercial with John Enselin,” Robertson says. “It’s still on. You ever see the one with the jack-in the-box? That’s me and Monica in the background yelling at each other in the bathroom of 506.”
Within several years, the other partners got bought out by Swisher and Robertson, who changed the club’s layout, revamped the sound system (they’ve been through three or four mixing boards as well as several soundmen), and ultimately closed the bar area off from the band room, giving people the option to chill and talk.
Swisher grew up in clubs, going along with COC and getting into shows by the time she turned 13. (She recently road-managed Leadfoot.)
“I grew up in rock clubs,” she says. “I never had to sneak in–I was always ‘Phil Swisher’s little sister.’ It ruled,” she says, laughing. “My father also played music; I think that had a lot to do with me and Phil easily finding our way into it–not being shy musically, or in clubs.”
By 16, Swisher was lying about her age to get her first club job. When she heard that Legend’s was opening in Raleigh, she slipped a note under the door (the club hadn’t opened), offering herself as a cocktail wait. (“I have a blue Mohawk,” the note offered.) Though Legend’s hadn’t planned on having a cocktail server, Swisher got the gig. She later worked at Club Zen in Chapel Hill (above Ye Olde Waffle House), a dance club that featured local bands every Sunday night. “All the people from Pepper’s Pizza, everyone would come up,” she remembers, as bands like Superchunk, Teasing the Korean and others played some of their very first shows.
Washington D.C.-native Robertson moved to Chapel Hill straight out of a stint in the Navy. After breaking his leg at sea, he was sent to Andrews Air Force base to fill out his remaining two years, where he ended up tending bar. Having relatives in the area and having visited the town since the ’70s, Robertson moved to Chapel Hill, working with future Cat’s Cradle owner Frank Heath at the Carolina Coffee Shop. He cooked for years at the Hardback Caf&233;, worked as a tree surgeon and a vet assistant, and then decided to get into the nightclub business.
Another ground floor employee was long-time 506 house soundman Dave Schmidt, who now does sound at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. As a musician, engineer and producer, Schmidt added to musician-friendly vibe to the club. A guy who spent nearly every night of the week behind the mixing board for seven-plus years, Schmidt has seen plenty of the goings-on at Local 506.
“The idea was to make bands feel that it was a cool place to play, kind of show ’em a good time,” he says. “And that means a lot to bands on the road. They go away saying, ‘Remember that time we played the 506 and Dave was telling us funny stories and stuff?’ And it helped, business-wise, because it was a place where musicians really felt comfortable hanging out.
“Dave’s the traditional Irish bartender, except he’s Scottish,” Schmidt quips. “Dave used to come into the old Cradle and I remember him as being this guy who was always really happy to see you.”
As a club where spirits and attitude flowed freely, tempers occasionally flared, and several local rock personalities have found themselves 86’d from the bar for varying reasons (and lengths of time, usually until they delivered a handwritten apology to the owners). According to Robertson, Brian Walker (Zen Frisbee frontman) was the only employee ever fired–he semi-strangled 506 doorman John Dzubak one night, leaving him blacked out in the bathroom. “[Brian] asked me if I was going to fire him for that, and I said, ‘Yes. Strangling a fellow employee is something that is fireable,” recalls Robertson, laughing.
Laird Dixon (Zen Frisbee, Shark Quest) was 86’d for spitting during a foosball match– “unsportsmanlike conduct,” to be precise. “He had to write a 500-word note of apology, and it was exactly 500 words,” Robertson recalls, laughing. “I’ll never forget it. It began, ‘Foosball. Sport of Kings.’ ”
And then there was the legendary fight between two local well-known rock critics that ended in fisticuffs. As Robertson was pushing the critic out of the door and down the street, he turned and yelled as his parting salvo: “I’ll see you … I’ll see you on the internet!”
To regulars, the 506 became famous as the place where you could catch the members of Southern Culture on the Skids when they weren’t on the road. It was SCOTS who sponsored the first Sleazefest in ’94 (inspired by Link Wray Fest put on by Groves Willer and Dave Jiminez), which firmly put the club on the map as a national garage-rock hotspot.
“The club and Sleazefest became inextricably linked, especially as the club achieved a national profile in the garage rock circuit,” says SCOTS drummer Dave Hartman.
Hartman, who lived in 506 briefly after Hurricane Fran took out his deluxe trailer (speakers in the ceiling of every room and a round Jacuzzi in the bathroom), has been a regular for the past seven years. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he says of the club’s imminent closing. “When the time comes for Dave to turn over the keys to the landlord, he’s not going to be able to do it.”
As the club staged more shows, sometimes stacking three or four bands on an evening, the club occasionally hit rough financial straights, with Robertson digging into his own pocket to cover debts and losses. They lost their shirt bringing Link Wray to 506 (the guitar legend had played the Cat’s Cradle not long before). In a college town where much of the population doesn’t take a chance on live music, it’s always a gamble to feature live music.
“There are people that look for adventure in their music–they’re not being spoon-fed whatever contemporary radio has to offer, just looking to rock. And if they’re brave enough to come out here [to 506], they have a good time,” Crawford says.
But in a small college town with a changing student population, where East Franklin Street is crowded with students learning how to get drunk on Long Island Teas or Purple Schoolbuses and listening to whatever’s hot on radio or with the above-ground press, Local 506 is an anomaly: a bar that catered to rockers, a place where you could find members of locally (and nationally) known groups, a place where, if you were a musician, you could always find someone worth talking to. A place where “everybody knows your name.”
“We’re just trying to work it out so that there’s no gaps and everything stays open,” Robertson says. “There are so many rumors flying around. I’ve heard shit that I don’t know where it’s come from. I just smile: ‘Sounds great. Go with it.’”