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Long Live the Queen

Legendary local club QE2 lives again—if only for a couple of nights

by Ann Morrow on January 14, 2010

Photo Credit: Leif Zurmuhlen

It was the club in the White Tower burger stand, the club that brought Living Colour, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Marilyn Manson just before they broke into arena-sized audiences. It was where spoken-word provocateurs Henry Rollins and Lydia Lunch appeared on the same bill. It was an incubator for seminal experimental 1990s bands such as Cop Shoot Cop and Alice Donut, and a launch pad for local bands who went on to major-label contracts including Clay People and Stigmata. Allen Ginsberg read there, Sonic Youth amazed there, Les Miserables was performed there, and thousands of patrons were influenced by its creative attitude. It was the QE2, the Albany nightclub that was as legendary in the region as CBGB’s or Studio 54 were in New York City—and it was a little of both: Celebrity customers included Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, Robert Plant, and Metallica. And it accomplished all this with a maximum (legal) occupancy of a mere 175 and (for most of its run) only one owner-promoter.

It was also the place with a gigantic bat skeleton hanging over the front bar and hand-painted murals on the back wall. “I was an artist, so I wanted a place where artists could hang their work on the walls, because that’s how I got started,” says QE2 owner-promoter Charlene Shortsleeve.

After several years booking bands for Club 288 on Lark Street, Shortsleeve and her husband, Dave Shortsleeve, started looking for a club of their own. “I wanted it to be a theatrical, arts-center kind of place,” says Charlene. In 1985, when they were told the defunct White Tower on Central Avenue was available, and that it had a vacant lot behind it for expansion, the Shortsleeves knew they had their location. “I loved the building, I thought it would make a cool entrance for a nightclub,” says Charlene. She also loved the distinctive White Tower light-up sign outside. “I wanted a big sign,” she says. “And I wanted a name that could be big on it, just two or three letters and maybe a number, and I love the Sex Pistols, and the queen [of England], so I thought, QE2, from ‘God save the Queen.’ ”

She adds with a laugh, “Then it became ‘God save the queen of clubs,’ because we needed all the help we could get.”

The expansion took over a year, during which time the couple depleted their savings and maxed out their credit cards. A month after opening, the club got an unexpected boost of publicity from, of all places, the QE2—as in the QE2 luxury liner. Cunard Cruise Lines sent a threatening letter to the club to cease and desist in using the QE2 name. Charlene put the letter in the club’s wraparound streetside window, where it was spotted by a reporter from the Associated Press, who wrote a story about the corporation wrangling over rights with a little club. The story was picked up by the New York Post and other publications, and even earned a spot on Radio London. “I got calls all summer,” says Charlene.

Even so, the first year was exhausting. “We were both working 20 hours a day, seven days a week,” Charlene recalls. “Live music is so expensive, you have to work your butt off just to break even. The couple divorced around the time the club reached its height of popularity.

Of the halcyon, 1990s years, Charlene says, “Everything was working together,” mentioning support from Buzzz, Metroland, Real George’s Backroom, WEQX, and all the indie labels.

But there were pressures, too: “Finding the time to do all the things that needed to be done,” she says. “Bands in and out, 200 phone calls a day, 30, 40 press kits a day, all the advertising, giving bands directions on the phone . . .”

What she most enjoyed, she says, was the artistic stimulation. “It was awesome being in a big family of artists, and just being where all the music and poetry was happening,” she enthuses. “That’s why I called it Artists for Artists. Hanging out with them in the dressing room until the sun came up, it was so much fun.”

“I usually didn’t know about the bands I was going to see, I just went there all the time,” says sculptor Jeff Brower. “I was fascinated by the counterculture of it, the creativity of it, the insanity of it. With so many bands coming through that club, and so many artists coming to it, you got exposed to a tremendous amount of diversity.” He adds: “People remember the famous bands, but it’s the more obscure ones that stick in my mind, like Caterwaul, a small band with a fabulous female vocalist. And the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and the Genitorturers, bands where you could scarcely believe what you were seeing.”

Brower was a regular at the club from its opening until its closing in January 2000, and his Halloween-inspired creations—a werewolf that menaced from the ceiling, a vampire gent usually placed by the DJ booth, and the batwing skeleton—were integral to the club’s décor. “What was also important was that I met a younger generation of artists,” he adds. “For example, the Upstate Artists Guild took me seriously because of seeing my sculptures in the QE2.”

Tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday, Jan. 15-16, the Fuze Box (at the former QE2 location) will host Vamp Remembers the QE2. The homage was planned by Nicole Plummer, who works at the Fuze Box as DJ Auryn. “I was DJing at this place that used to be legendary, and I wanted to know more about it,” she says. “So I Googled it, and saw pictures of this really wild atmosphere, and I wanted to experience it.”

It was a casual conversation with Brower, however, in which she learned that he was the creature sculptor, and a friend of Charlene’s, that made the event possible. The sculptures will be exhibited, and Charlene is selecting the music and providing posters, statuary, and other “relics.”

“I want to get it as original as possible,” Plummer says. “People still talk about the QE2, but the younger customers don’t know much about it and I want for them to experience it, too. This will be a one-of-a-kind event, she adds, “and I’m hoping for a lot of mingling.”

Asked how she feels about the event being held on the 10-year anniversary of the club’s closing, Charlene replies, “I feel rested.”

Vamp Remembers the QE2 will be held at the Fuze Box, 12 Central Ave., Albany, on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 15 and 16, 10 PM to 4 AM. Admission is $5.