Let’s be clear: The outlook is anything but. When the Albany Medical Center released its Park South redevelopment plan last week, the block on which Valentine’s sits, at 17 New Scotland Ave., was slated for demolition in preparation for a new mixed-use structure associated with the medical complex, part retail, part residential. The construction plan covers two full city blocks, moving north from the hospital toward Dana Avenue, bordered on the West and East respectively by Robin Street and New Scotland Avenue. Neighborhood residents have been given until the end of the year to move, but Howard Glassman, who owns the rock club but not the building in which it’s housed, has yet to be given any direct word of how long he’ll be able to remain open in his current location.
It’s long been rumored that Valentine’s might eventually face the wrecking ball, as Albany Med rapidly devours Park South, but this announcement comes more or less like a death sentence. Glassman still has a solid lineup of acts booked for the club’s two stages all the way through November and remains hopeful that he’ll be given the time to make good on these commitments and find a new place to open shop. So, it sounds like the end of an era but not the end of the music.
Still, the news has cut deep within the Albany music community, as fans and musicians respond with a mixture of sadness, anger, nostalgia and hope for Glassman’s next venture. Valentine’s is the kind of rock club every town deserves: unpretentious, welcoming, bomb-proof to rock chaos and really fucking loud. Anyone who’s stepped foot in the place has a story to tell, and as the venue’s fate hangs in the balance, those stories have been flowing like the $3 Schaefers always on tap. The following is a collection of our recollections and reminiscences: favorite shows, best nights, weirdest incidents, etc. Maybe you were there. Maybe you have an even better story of your own. Feel free to share in the comments thread below.
I cannot imagine my life without Valentine’s.
My first gig at Valentine’s was in August 1994. I was a teenager, playing drums in a short-lived band called (prepare to hate) Alex Droog. All four of us were in our teens, actually—a fact we neglected to tell the management when we called to book our First Gig at an Albany Rock Club. There was no stage and no PA downstairs at the time, so we had to set up on the barroom floor and use our cheap guitar amps to broadcast the vocals. Then there was the small matter of . . . we sucked. The bartender shut us down after about 10 minutes, and Alex Droog split up just a few weeks after our less-than-auspicious Albany debut. The world just wasn’t ready.
Since then, I’ve joined or started about a million bands, and every one of them, up until I left town in 2008, played at least one set in that building. In the mid-’90s, my bands routinely played the showcases put on by Dominick Campana and Paint Chip Records. Dominick not only gave us our first decent Albany gigs, but he often ran the soundboard as well, and he had a hand in the upstairs stage’s first and best migration, from the back left to the back right corner.
When Howard Glassman took over Valentine’s at the beginning of 1998, after years of booking bands at Bogie’s, we (the Explosives, at that time) played his opening weekend. Later that year, the Explosives broke up in front of the club, just after opening for the crushing double-bill of Sloan and You Am I. It wasn’t the first time one of my bands broke up inside or adjacent to the venue, and was far from the last “last” gig I would play with a band there. (I’m sure at least one of my bands played our first, last, and reunion shows on that same stage.)
I don’t remember exactly when the downstairs room got a proper stage, but I think we can all agree that it wasn’t finished until Howard painted “No Pepper” across the front of the stage, the same ballpark reference that adorned the similarly step-high stage at Bogie’s. (For a while I hoped he’d add the “Games” bit around the side, but it never came to pass.) As a musician, this is how I’ll best remember Valentine’s—with Mike McGrath slinging Schaefer behind the bar, and three or four bands on that low stage, right in front of the bathrooms, playing for a five-dollar cover.
Valentine’s was the place where the weirdos and punks and goths—and musicians of every stripe—could do what they do, no questions asked. Howard opened his doors to almost anyone who could put a bill together, and he gave me the run of the place more times than any reasonable adult should have, indulging even my most ambitious ideas. There was no other venue where I could have staged a dozen or more bands playing back-to-back, without breaks. No other venue had two stages, after all. Howard repeatedly allowed me to put on shows of that scale. That’s the mark of a true believer.
As a music fan, I’ll fondly remember a stretch in the early 2000s when, in the space of a few years, Valentine’s booked GBV and Spoon (on the same bill), Ted Leo/Pharmacists, Nada Surf, Mike Watt, the fucking Buzzcocks, that impossibly hot and packed Frank Black and the Catholics show, and Superdrag, who played a free show, then sat with me and my friends at the downstairs bar and watched themselves on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. And Valentine’s was where the road warriors played—the bands who, time after time, played the kind of courageous, guts-on-the-floor, miracle-of-rock-&-roll shows you should expect from superstars, even if there were six people in the room. Bands like Dash Rip Rock, the Gravel Pit, and Two Cow Garage.
I’ll remember Valentine’s for countless awkward attempts at picking up girls. I’ll remember almost having my chest crushed by a Marshall cabinet after a Subduing Mara show. I’ll remember watching a former lover fall down those damned stairs(!) at one of my events, and I have a scar to remind myself of the time I sliced my hand wide open at another.
I’ll miss the exhaust from whatever soon-to-close pizza joint happens to be next door at the time.
I’ll miss jamming along to the metal band upstairs while in the middle of my gig downstairs.
I’ll miss the countless, endless Figgs shows.
I’ll miss smoking weed in that creepy-ass alley behind the club.
I’ll miss the trough.
I’ll even miss smashing my head into the monitor wedge hanging at stage left. (My next concussion is dedicated to you, Valentine’s!)
Every town should have a club like Valentine’s, but not every one does. We got lucky for a while. I know the scene will continue to thrive, the Deadbeats will jam on, and Howard will find a new place to bring his simple, old-school, rock & roll vision to life.
I know there will be another.
But I can’t imagine it will be the same.
A Stomping Ground Sublime
The most memorable rock show I ever saw was at Valentine’s. Actually, several of the most memorable rock shows I ever saw were at Valentine’s, but I’m going to single out Opeth—for the sheer surprise factor of seeing a symphonic doom-metal band from Sweden in a venue more accustomed to American beer-joint music (surprises being the unsurprising norm here). Taking the stage with all the majestic hauteur of the biggest band in Northern Europe (which they were), Opeth played the third stop on their first American tour, to about 100 patrons, with as much momentous passion as their performances for tens of thousands at European festivals. Mid-set, the aloof virtuosos halted their melodic tsunami for a playful, Swedish-chef rendition of “Happy Birthday” for a fan. Legend.
Yet, it’s Valentine’s little-known dark side, as an alternative-music dance club, that I am going to miss the most. The many, many hours I’ve spent on dance floors have been among the happiest, and that definitely includes stomping to the jackhammer beats of industrial and darkwave and synth-poppy electronica on the concrete floor of this grungy hangout, where on prearranged evenings neon-haired dancers in sateen skirts could be seen lounging on the pool table while corset (or cravat) -wearing DJs worked their laptops mere inches from the beer taps. It’s to the considerable (and decidedly non-monetary) credit of Valentine’s ownership (Howe) and management (Mike), that after being orphaned by the closures of QE2 and the Power Company across town, the area’s dark-dance scene was welcomed with open arms by the club, allowing local DJs an opportunity to develop a home base and destination for national DJs, as well as continuing to provide a second home to the darkwave bands—most notably the Cruxshadows from Florida—who began their climb up the international dance charts right here in downtown Albany.
Seconds became lifetimes as the cue ball cut a smooth path across the green felt. The bar was noisy, but under the harsh lights over the pool table, silence prevailed. As the shiny white sphere smacked into the ebony surface of the eight ball, the energy shifted and the cue ball sat motionless while the black orb shot into the table’s corner pocket.
In a single instant, time, sound and space became one and the same. My roommate, and sometimes lover, Jennifer and I cheered and ceremoniously shook the hands of our opponents—two testosterone-jacked guys who were less than happy that we won. One of them started to get hostile and we took leave, laughing and slightly delirious with beer and power, into the hot summer night.
This is how we spent many of our evenings, between college classes and restaurant shifts. This particular hangout, Valentine’s, was a tiny pocket of salvation on a dark and gritty street. We chose it over the other bar options a few blocks away on Lark Street—an area that, at the time, could also be treacherous at night, but was undoubtedly more trafficked—for a lot of reasons. This wasn’t a place where regulars greeted you with a smile, but if you had earned a place at the bar or the table, you just became a part of the fabric and the scenery. No questions asked.
After Jen moved away, I still frequented the joint. I ventured out from the pool table and explored the music scene. Valentine’s was, and still is, the kind of place where local bands graduated from playing their friends’ apartment parties to a stage raised a foot or two above the crowd—a leap of greatness known only to those warming up for their first “real” show. National acts shared the same stages; there were two—one upstairs, one downstairs.
I remember when Steven Gaylord and the Wasted, his latest incarnation, took the downstairs stage. I knew some of his music but hadn’t seen him play live yet, and as the music filled the space, everything else disappeared. During the set, my trance broke for a split second and I glanced over at my friend Dave, who was playing with a band called Struction then. We were both slightly swaying. He caught my eyes and said, “This is the gospel.” I nodded and was lost again.
Jonathan Richman played the upstairs stage, probably a few times, but I only caught him once. I went to the show because a few of my friends told me I couldn’t miss it. Honestly, I didn’t know a whole lot about him. I was one of the people in the crowd who gleaned a lot of their cultural knowledge from Farrelly brothers’ films, like There’s Something About Mary, in which Richman had appeared when it was released a few years earlier.
The show started, and it was packed. The crowd stood shoulder to shoulder, and we became one moving, sweating mass. Richman has a very fluid way of performing, as he works the crowd, he stands sideways and at times he stretches one arm outwards, limb and hips undulating as he croons. He glides all over the stage, eyes open, connecting with the audience. At other times, he closes his eyes for long periods of time, singing out loud but perhaps mostly to his own memories. At one point, as he shifted his concentration around the room, we locked eyes. It was a second, it was a minute, it was forever. This song was in Spanish, which I barely speak, but I understood every word. Song became air, and as I breathed, it became me. I haven’t experienced this since.
I don’t know any other venue in Albany that would have booked acts like Vic Chesnutt or Wesley Willis, or any of the local bands who played there while they were trying to figure it all out onstage. I hate to say that, after I started a family, I don’t get out as much to see shows. But I won’t ever forget how much Valentine’s was a part of the years I spent shaping and forming my tastes in music and friends. I’m really grateful to have been a part of this whole history.
Circle of Trust
It’s hard to pinpoint one favorite show from 13 or so years as a patron and local musician—plus some nights were clouded by too many Jäger shots. Strictly as a music fan, some of the best shows would have to include seeing the likes of the Meat Puppets, Mike Watt, Mark Mulcahy, Richard Buckner, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Jason Molina, Chuck Prophet, Barbara Manning, Guided by Voices, and Frank Black & the Catholics (pre-Pixies reunion, with some then-little-known Texan band named Spoon opening), all up close and personal enough to get their sweat dripped on you.
Another thing that impresses me about the way Howard has run the Valentine’s ship was the sense that everybody, musicians, staff and audience, were on the same level playing field: Once you’ve earned his trust, Howard encourages you to be as involved as you want to be. It could be something as solipsistic as booking your own 30th birthday celebration (an excuse, admittedly, to get to play on the same bill as my favorite local band at the time, Small Axe), or as selfless as taking part in the many charity and benefit shows the club hosted over the years for any number of causes, both regional and local. You could also try your hand at getting a personal favorite to come visit Albany (the two shows I am proudest of having helped book being the aforementioned Oldham and Molina shows, the only times said musicians have visited the area).
Any local musician worth their rock and roll salt has their own stories of glory and despair to tell from playing the stages at Valentine’s. I have many a tale to tell, but most would bore anyone who isn’t a direct friend, and honestly, I’ll be sort of glad that those ghosts will be laid to rest. That being said, it’s been great to see the last wave of Albany bands make the club their own. In my own heyday, Matto Laque was the firebrand who was always certain to organize a stellar night or weekend of fun, punk rock and beer. The last few years, it’s been the B3nson crew who took over the club quite regularly to regale us in their own passionate, sometimes whimsical way. And there were always those nights when you tumbled slowly downstairs, to take a break from some upstairs ponderousness, to hear some gentle lope emanating from the No Pepper stage. And you would remember, “Oh yeah, it’s Wednesday night. Man, the Deadbeats are pretty great, aren’t they?”
Insert Urban-Renewal Debate
One night in July 2006, I was standing on the corner of Madison and New Scotland trying to figure things out. I had formed a two-piece a few months earlier and we had just finished playing out first gig at Valentine’s. Nobody showed up. Hardly anybody showed up to watch headliner Hamell on Trial, either.
I stood there cursing the city and the scene to my friend, the poet K.J.P. Garcia. I bought him a drum kit and forced him to be a drummer against his will. This was not the introduction I had in mind to the world of being in a rock & roll band. The two of us turned to walk back into Valentine’s and gather up our gear and drink whatever canned beer Mike McGrath would offer us. We didn’t even make enough money to buy drinks.
Three people approached the club. I recognized one of them immediately. It was a girl I had gone on a date with two years earlier. A date that didn’t go well. Her name was Jill and I met her at another extinct Albany institution: Cafe LuLu. She had long dark hair and reminded me of a less-dirty-mouthed Sarah Silverman. We met later in the week, wandered around Center Square, she accused me of being the Mayor of Albany because I knew so many people, and the next day she decided that one date was enough. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see her that night at Valentine’s.
Garcia and I went upstairs and stood with about 12 other people who showed up to watch Hamell on Trial. After the show, Jill came up to say hi. After talking for a few minutes, she asked, “Do you want to give me another chance?” I did. We fell in love that summer and a year later our daughter Charlotte was born.
I understand that nothing lasts forever in a city. Businesses come and go, buildings get demolished. Progress demands change in urban environments. The city of Albany has a bad history of enacting those changes. An entire neighborhood was razed during Empire State Plaza construction. Washington Park would have become a highway on-ramp if forward thinking citizens hadn’t stopped that project. Now Albany Med is going to bulldoze an entire neighborhood. Insert urban-renewal debate here.
With the QE2 gone and Valentine’s closing, Albany is losing part of its appeal. If Mayor Jennings would make one trip to Northampton, Mass., he would see that having music venues near places where musicians actually live creates a scene, some buzz and tourism. Where will residents of Center Square and nearby neighborhoods walk in order to see their friends’ bands play?
I hope Howard Glassman has an idea, because all the city seems able to come up with is a boat-launch landing and a carnival known as Pearl Street.
Rain in the Summertime
Maybe it was Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
That’s a village in northern Wales, and also the longest place name in Europe (and one of the longest in the world). For what it’s worth, while Wales is known for having many long and colorful names, this one is not particularly authentic, having been contrived in the 1860s as a publicity stunt to draw attention to a potential tourist center.
But that’s not the point. The point is that one day back in the ’90s, I received a postcard from a Welsh town with a really long name, and as soon as I turned it over to see who it was from, it brought a smile to my face. “Hey Steve,” it read, “Has the power come back on in Albany yet? –Mike.”
As a rock journalist, I interviewed and occasionally met touring musicians, some famous and some not so famous. Mike Peters, frontman of the Welsh band the Alarm, wasn’t a big star, but he wasn’t a small one either. They had a good run of albums and singles in the ’80s; they charted higher in the U.K. than the U.S., but built up something of a cult following here mainly through exposure on college radio. In the shadow of U2, they were known for a ringing, anthemic sound that earned them comparisons to that (more famous) band and also to Scotland’s Big Country (a band whom, in a strange twist of fate, Peters now fronts). The Alarm played here several times, and I got a few phone interviews with Peters, with whom I hit it off unusually well, enough so that he actually remembered me when I finally met him at Saratoga Winners, where he opened as a solo act for Radiohead. I’ve never been one to seek out the company or approval of rock stars (I once turned down a bowling invite with Cheap Trick), but I enjoyed having a couple of beers that night with Peters, who is a super down-to-earth guy.
So there we were some months or years later, sitting on the dark stairwell of Valentine’s waiting for the power to come back on as the black sheets of rain continued to fall outside. But no such luck; as Peters and I and a small but faithful crowd waited patiently, the rain kept falling and the club stayed dark. I knew that the Alarm had been known in their early career for playing live with three acoustic guitars and a single snare drum, or something like that, and it entered my head that Peters could easily pull off an intimate show with no amplification. Was I the one who suggested it to him? Maybe, I really can’t remember.
But the show did go on, as Peters set up downstairs and played an inspiring acoustic set to a hushed and appreciative crowd. With bar candles glowing, that room turned out to be a perfectly cozy space for the recast performance. It was a strange and special night, not as over-the-top ecstatic as shows I’ve seen upstairs at Valentine’s by the likes of Guided by Voices and Frank Black, but one whose echoes will just as surely continue to haunt those old rooms and stairwell until the wrecking ball hits.
The power didn’t come back on that evening in Albany—but then again, in a way, it did.
On the Circuit
I first heard about Valentine’s three months before I moved to Albany, hunched over my laptop in a café in Santa Cruz, Calif. I’d been watching a video tour diary from the Brooklyn freak-folk band Akron/Family, with whom I’d been unnaturally obsessed—a montage of song snippets recorded in various venues across the United States: Cleveland’s Grog Shop, Seattle’s Neumos, Brooklyn’s Union Pool . . . and a grungy little room in Albany called Valentine’s. A white sheet hung behind the band and the folding chairs on which they had their amps propped, but you could still see audience members wandering back to the bathrooms behind the downstairs stage.
I was psyched. The prospect of a November move to upstate New York was not exactly soul-nourishing, but this was a beacon of hope. Albany was on the circuit. And why shouldn’t it be? With Albany situated smack-dab in the middle of northeastern tour routes, it seemed inevitable that the Capital Region should wrangle adventurous new bands on their debutante outings, despite Albany’s somewhat middling cultural reputation. So, when I got to town, I moved just a few blocks away, to an apartment on Dana Avenue only marginally more hygienic than the Valentine’s bathroom. It’s in neighborhoods like this that rock clubs belong.
It’s funny how the place’s cosmetic blemishes become endearing with time. The dangling heat ducts, the urinal trough, the mysterious odor that lingers on your clothes after even a few minutes inside the place (is it the pizza shop? stale beer? the aggregate musk of so many rock legends?). Some people (OK, everybody at one point or another) like to bitch about this stuff, but really Valentine’s wouldn’t be Valentine’s with a nose job. It’s comfortable like a messy house, a worn-out pair of jeans, the imprint where you always lay on the couch.
And it’s because of this that Valentine’s has become the HQ for so much local music, when so many other spiffy, agreeably smelling rooms in the area might claim the honor. Certainly some really big shows come to mind: half-naked kids losing their shit to Lightning Bolt, who’d set up in the middle of the floor upstairs; the line of rain-drenched kids snaking around the block, trying to get in to Sleigh Bells’ bonkers sold-out show. But what I’ll miss the most are all those midweek happy-hour shows downstairs before the sun even went down. Local band X playing 35-minutes before Brooklyn band Y dusts off nervous material for the inaugural night of a national run. These were the nights I realized that Albany was where it’s at and that everyone who talked about moving to the city was deluding themselves. Valentine’s is great because it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is, and we should be so lucky to have another place like it wherever Howard goes next.