This article is part of a special installment of Deep Dive created in partnership with Jameson Irish Whiskey, telling the stories of bars of yesterday that shaped the neighborhoods of today.
San Antonio’s famed St. Mary’s Strip was once known as a hotbed for heavy metal throughout the 1980s. It became even more popular in the 90s, during the age of grunge, garage bands, and punk.
“You know we were called the heavy metal capital of the world?” said Roland Fuentes, a lifelong San Antonio resident and former heavy metal director for a local college radio station during the time. “The whole college, Lollapalooza thing happened in the ‘90s, and that’s kind of what St. Mary’s turned into.”
Fuentes briefly lived on The Strip, which is situated between Trinity University and a community college in Tobin Hill just north of downtown, and has consistently booked shows in the area’s famed venues for the past three decades. It’s an entertainment district which consists of a revolving cast of a dozen or so famed bars, venues, restaurants, and clubs from yesteryear like Nona’s, Saluté International Bar, Tacoland, Playa Santa Maria, The Warehouse, Wacky’s, Enchilada Warehouse, and The White Rabbit, serving as incubators for up-and-coming talent, stomping grounds for famous musicians, and a mecca for anyone in the Alamo City invested in music. It’s “rowdy crowds rivaled Austin’s Sixth Street,” and “surpassed them in diversity,” according to a recent San Antonio Express-News piece about the revitalization of the Strip, which, it stated, for the first time in decades, “is no longer about its epic ghosts.”
But what epic ghosts they were.
The college crowd swarmed The Strip, nevermore than when a popular TV network held a massive televised block party there in 1990, bringing in more than 15,000 people. Chris Alonzo, a San Antonio native whose high school punk band, Sucka Punch, used to gig on The Strip, remembers watching the event from home in awe. “The mayor at the time was Lila Cockrell and they got her to dance over there during the intro to it,” he said. “I remember being shocked it was happening in San Antonio at all. Before that, the only thing that we were really known for was that Ozzy Osbourne pissed on the Alamo.”
Although bigger, more popular acts weren’t really doing tour dates in San Antonio, Alonzo recalls everyone that was a part of the scene was very protective over what they’d established. “We recognized that if anyone has a choice, they're going to go with Austin over San Antonio,” he said. “But it made it a specific kind of creativity and the specific kind of energy.” Largely ignored nationally, San Antonio and its music scene decided to forego approval. The thought was, according to Alonzo, “We'll make our own weird scene.”
During that time, Fuentes was booking a lot of shows at venues like the legendary Tacoland and Wacky’s—a venue that has seen at least three name changes since. Back then, with The Strip jammed packed with foot traffic, a large crowd was a foregone conclusion, especially on weekends. The entertainment was cheap and the rent was cheaper: A local band could make their modest $275-a-month apartment rent in one gig, and there were plenty of them to be had—in addition to the bars, clubs, and venues, some mom and pop Tex Mex joints on St. Mary’s also hosted live music. It was “Heavy Metal’s Eden” turned ‘90s Alt-Rock Haven. It was insular. But that didn’t mean it was exclusive.
“It was all-welcoming,” Fuentes said. “It was the one part of town with a string of bars where you could find a punk rocker sitting next to a lawyer sitting next to a fireman. That was the vibe. It wasn’t segregated or anything.”
Looking back, after leaving San Antonio for Austin and later spending about 15 years in Brooklyn, Alonzo recalls a diversity—both in terms of audience and the bands that performed in front of them—he’s been unable to find elsewhere. “In San Antonio, our punk band was two Mexican guys and a black guy,” he said. Other towns, he said, he recalls mostly playing to “rooms full of white people, whereas it was a very multicultural scene in San Antonio.”
He especially remembers the crowds at White Rabbit—a fabled room that had an impressive 18-year-run and hosted countless acts, whether they be buzzed-about locals with modest followings or international juggernauts before they became ascendant. Alonzo’s Sucka Punch played the venue a lot, and as a jewel in the crown of St. Mary’s Strip crowds there always swelled. “Everyone knew to go there,” he said. “It had a built-in crowd. We’d just show up and we'd just rock out their faces.”
San Antonio musician Joseph King has similar memories of the venue. “I used to do an acoustic show there every Tuesday,” he said, recalling one specific night a famous English rock band played an arena show in San Antonio and were looking for a spot to party afterward. Someone sent them to White Rabbit. It ended up being one of the most memorable nights of King’s storied time playing the scene. It was perfect St. Mary’s Strip: the feeling that anything could happen in this wild corner of the world; a giant tour bus pulled up out front of a small local linchpin, which gave the Brits a taste of multi-culti Texas.
After the ‘90s, things took a turn downward. Much like video killed the radio star, people began finding bands on their own online, and discovering a music act in a live setting lost a bit of its power as it became less and less necessary. Back then you could watch a band play to larger and larger crowds, both through exposure as openers for bigger acts or through word of mouth by playing out so often. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” said Fuentes.
But there is a resurrection afoot—evident both on Instagram and in the sheer number of new bars, restaurants, and club openings over the last few years on North St. Mary’s Street between Mistletoe Avenue and West Grayson Street. Many of them pay homage to the glory of the ‘80s and ‘90s St. Mary’s Strip heyday, an eclectic mix of tacos, Heavy Metal, and punk rock.
The epic ghosts from decades past are still being honored.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.