(All photos courtesy of Steve Trimboli)
If you are lucky enough to be a musician who ends up defining a period of American culture—Bob Dylan, say, or the Ramones, or hell, even Metallica—you gain a certain type of immortality. But the constellation of people who helped you get there—the siblings, the members of the “original” lineup, the manager—usually winds up on the sidelines.
Most overlooked of all in the star-making village are the scene-creators, who treat their venues like tumblers, shaking misfit kids and outcasts over and over, polishing some of them into rock gods worthy of the world’s stage. There are the occasional stars in this New York subset, men like Hilly Kristal of CBGB, Mickey Ruskin of Max’s Kansas City and, of course, Andy Warhol, with his Factory of talent.
For most, however, creating a home base for future stars is often anonymous work—as it has been for Steve Trimboli. He has spent the past 44 years bartending, managing or owning some of the most influential venues in the city’s underground music scene. Places like Be Bop Cafe, Tribeca and Scrap Bar were all legends in their own right, each a community hub for poets, prodigies, punks and others.
Today, only Mr. Trimboli’s last venture (or as he calls it, a “content generator”), Goodbye Blue Monday, still stands. And though Mr. Trimboli no longer owns or manages the establishment, he can still be found slouching in one of the repurposed cafeteria booths near the back, keeping an eye on the place. Like his previous bars, the venue would probably cease to exist if its guardian ever truly left.
Times have changed, though. Forced to sell the bar in 2010 after declaring bankruptcy, Mr. Trimboli can’t officially work at the bar in any capacity. But as he lives above it and is its sole founder, he can’t very well watch it die either. Mr. Trimboli has helped start an Indiegogo campaign to raise $50,000 for GBM, which was never the most financially stable business to begin with. At press time, the campaign had raised $1,210 of its $50,000 goal, with 35 days left to go.
It was freezing cold when I arrived at Goodbye Blue Monday to see Mr. Trimboli in the curio parlor/free-form music venue, located in the no-man’s land under the J line in Brooklyn, a slice of steel acting as a border between Bed-Stuy and the never-quite-gentrified part of Bushwick.
I walked straight past the twisted heaps of scrap metal that served as watchful gargoyles: the clawed metal gates, the motorcycle welded together and bearing a giant mannequin’s head as its rider, the seemingly infinite number of sharp edges and jagged spikes that guarded the entrance with a promise of tetanus. This used to be my home. I lived above Goodbye Blue Monday for two years in an old factory loft while tending bar downstairs.
Working at Goodbye Blue Monday was my connection to Scrap Bar, the legendary venue Mr. Trimboli opened in 1986, when I was just a kid. Scrap Bar was known as the place where punk went to die and hair metal held the wake, captured live and broadcast around the world by the burgeoning music station MTV.
Before the bar even opened, Allen Ginsberg stopped by to hold an impromptu lecture on the history of the space. Then on Day 1, Trimboli was forced to boot out his first customers for taking his new business cards and throwing them on the ground. After that, the Psychedelic Furs weren’t welcome at Scrap Bar.
On a random night, you could find guitarist Johnny Thunders of the Heartbreakers nodding off in the corner. The year it opened, MTV held its Christmas party there. Had you been there, you could have witnessed the birth of Pac-Man, or saw Joey Ramone having his face smashed into the bar (three times!) for using the N-word on a bouncer. It’s where Slash infamously received a blow job from porn star Savannah in full view of other patrons. Scrap Bar was also the watering hole for struggling comics like Jon Stewart and Colin Quinn, a place to grab a drink before taking another stab at the Comedy Cellar across the street.
Legendary though it was, Scrap Bar was not immune to more mundane disasters like theft, greedy partners and drug abuse. By 1995, the bar had been shuttered. “You know you’re not going to have a good business if your bookkeeper has tracks up her arms,” Mr. Trimboli said about his former bar, BeBop Cafe. By the time Scrap Bar was ending, the needles had given way to cocaine.
But he refused to die along with Scrap Bar. Unlike his contemporaries, who defined themselves by the music they listened to, the rock ’n’ roller from Brooklyn was adaptable. In fact, if there was one thing he hated, it was hearing the same song over and over. Hence the broken jukebox that seeded his next venture.
“There was this jukebox at Scrap Bar, and it had maybe 200 songs. Of course, we only got to hear about 10 of them. I’d call up the repair guys and say, ‘Hey, the jukebox is broken!’ Every couple weeks, they’d come in and see that someone had busted in the window and added some new LPs, taken other ones out.”
“I think finally they figured it out,” Mr. Trimboli said. “At least, they stopped trying to fix the jukebox.”
In the late ’90s, Mr. Trimboli was running a storage business in Hoboken, N.J. He found the Broadway location in 1999 and was planning to use it as space for items he had purchased at an estate sale. He moved in above the venue in 2006, the same year he began using the warehouse on Broadway as a sort of community coffeehouse. For new residents of the otherwise desolate strip, Goodbye Blue Monday was a godsend. Mr. Trimboli began to sell beer and wine at night. He also started encouraging local bands to play—the more varied the better.
“I knew it was going to be what I first envisioned for Scrap Bar,” Mr. Trimboli said. “It would be free-form. Whatever happened here, it would be that. It would be a metal bar if someone played metal, it was a jazz bar if people were playing jazz that night.”
If you wanted to play at GBM, all you had to do was sign up on the store’s MySpace calendar and confirm it with the owner. It was an obviously flawed plan, especially when there were four acts a night … none of whom knew who’d they’d be sharing the bill with. There were a lot of open jazz nights. A lot of terrible music. But also some gems.
Before Boardwalk Empire, actors Michael Pitt and Michael Shannon were both known to show up and play sets. Vampire Weekend had one of their first performances in the space, and the Mountain Goats stopped by for a quick show. Bands came from various locales: Finland, England, Spain, Canada. If you had an idea and some friends and weren’t an asshole, Mr. Trimboli gave you a shot. That was the genesis of the Bushwick Book Club, where musicians like Joshua Bell would perform an original piece based on the night’s text.
“Sure, there was a lot of free-form jazz and noise the first year … there still is,” Mr. Trimboli explained. “But I wanted this to be open to all forms of musical expression.” Despite its financial struggle, the venue has won fawning accolades from The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Village Voice. Its concerts are regularly listed in all three publications.
“The vibe there is really cool, like a cross between an art gallery and a garage sale,” said Benjamin Miller, formerly of Mission of Burma, who first played at GBM in 2006 with one of his side projects and has frequented the stage since.
Not all of Mr. Trimboli’s discoveries were such gems. His Goodbye Blue Monday iTunes account offered an unlabeled library full of “Track One”s, and anything could turn up. On one occasion, his employees (myself included) wound up listening to a 30-minute spoken-word/noise compilation that we realized halfway through was the final recordings of the Jim Jones cult. We were literally listening to them drink the Kool-Aid.
When I asked Steve Trimboli why a half hour of mass suicide was preferable to the time I accidentally let Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” play twice over the course of the night and found myself on the receiving end of one of his more colorfully worded lectures. He shrugged at the memory. “It was the same as the jukebox,” he said. “I didn’t want to hear the same shit anymore.”
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