How can a hotel room capture the essence of Boston's legendary shithole? And why would anyone want to?
Photo courtesy of the Hotel Commonweath
The Rat, Boston's legendary rock 'n' roll shithole, has been gone for 17 years now, meaning nostalgia for its dank environs has firmly taken hold of everyone old enough to remember it fondly. That nostalgia has manifested itself, weirdly enough, in the "Rat Suite," a room in the elegant Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square, just down the street from where the Rat once stood. If you're willing to drop several hundred dollars a night, you can now bask in the faded glory of memorabilia donated by the club's owner, Jim Harold, as well as local musicians Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys—two of the dozens of local bands who launched themselves from the Rat's cramped basement into the national spotlight.
As with any change in the eternally fickle punk rock scene, grown adults on the internet have been crying "BLASPHEMY" in caps-lock fury ever since the suite's announcement. Different people have all sorts of different—and loud—views on what constitutes "punk rock," but a high-priced hotel room is almost certainly not punk.
I was curious about the suite, though, and how it stacked up to the original. I not only saw some of my first—if not best—punk and hardcore shows at the Rat, but I also got to play my very first gigs there as a 15-year-old kid while my parents thought I was going to shoot hoops. (Thankfully they never questioned why I was playing basketball in tight rolled-up jeans, handmade band shirts, and my grandfather's combat boots.)
My parents' aversion to me going to the Rat (officially known as the Rathskeller) was fairly well founded. My mother herself had been a semi-regular during the club's early days in the 1970s, back when Kenmore Square was a homeless haven rife with drugs, muggings, and stabbings. She saw bands like the Cars, Talking Heads, the B-52s, and the Ramones in the Rat's dank basement beneath the bar. She was in attendance when the Police played their first American show there, as well as the memorable night when David Bowie—in town for a concert at the Boston Garden—jumped on stage for an impromptu jam.
A dizzying number of notable bands, both local and national, would wind up at the Rat during its heyday, such as Blondie, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, R.E.M. and even Metallica in their early years. "I loved the Rat," Thurston Moore told me recently. "But the bouncers were fucking awful. They were these macho assholes wearing bowties." Recalling Sonic Youth's 1986 gig at the venue, he said, "They wouldn't even let me in the club!"
Moore's description of the Rat staff was an understatement. During that period, one of the Rat's doormen was Paul "Polecat" Moore, a South Boston boxer and drug dealer who was loosely tied to James "Whitey" Bulger. By the late 80s, when the Rat was a breeding ground for the hardcore movement, the club's patrons had a nasty reputation as well. Vinny Stigma, guitarist for legendary New York stalwarts Agnostic Front, once remarked in an interview that the Rat had the most violent dance floor he'd ever witnessed. "Crazy kids and hard dancers," is how he described it to me recently. "As a New Yorker, I felt right at home there."
Few people can verify the brutality of Rat's crowds like Rob Lind, founder and chief songwriter for Boston's most infamous hardcore band, Blood for Blood, which got their start at the Rat. Their shows often ended in horrific and bloodied brawls. It was not uncommon to see pool balls in handkerchiefs, chains, and even cinderblocks in the hands of fans as they kicked the crap out of each other in the club and outside on Commonwealth Avenue. Incredibly, these shows were rarely shut down, though one incident, where a man ripped up an industrial fan and beat someone savagely with it, did bring some heat onto the club.
"There was always a base level of aggression associated with hardcore music itself," Lind recalled. "Some bands brought out a nastier reaction than others—Blood for Blood brought out the worst. The same applied to the many clubs we played around the country then. The Rat was also the worst."
When I mentioned to Lind that there was a Rat Suite on top of a club where he was once the musical conduit for violent mobs of savages, he grinned. "There'd better be human blood all over the floors of the room, syringes in the wastebaskets, herpes on the toilet seat, urine and feces in the sink, and shards of glass floating in the mini-bar beers."
A few weeks ago, I headed into the Hotel Commonwealth to see the Rat Suite for myself. Kenmore Square is barely recognizable from the days of the Rat—the land where the hotel stands was once home to a dingy strip of liquor stores, an Army-Navy surplus, and 99-cent shop.
I was greeted by the hotel's concierge, Nicholas MacDonald, an affable young man with a thick Boston accent, who told me what a "classy" job they had done with the Rat Suite. It was hard not to smile, since the Rat was anything but classy. I remembered how, in the spring of 1997, a flood put the club underwater and, desperate to have the Rat open by the weekend, the club hastily threw kitty litter down on the floor to sop up the rancid water. The end result was a crowd of youngsters—myself included—choking on noxious dust clouds and moshing around the room. Just about everyone in attendance was hacking up black globs of phlegm for the next few days.
The concierge introduced me to Carly Siegel, who led me into the Rat Suite itself. As we entered the two-room suite, which is close to the actual size of the club, I asked if I could use the bathroom. The Rat's women's bathroom was once the greatest underage speakeasy in Boston, mostly because it had a door, unlike the piss- and puke-covered men's room next to it. Thankfully for the Rat Suite's guests, this gleaming bathroom was not an historically accurate replication, though it did contain a framed photograph of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
Dropkick Murphys member Ken Casey's bass was in the hallway, along with framed LPs from the Police and Talking Heads and an actual papier-mâché rat that was once fastened to the club's jet-black walls. The rat is a rare piece of memorabilia—I remember kids wrenching the fake rats off the walls during the venue's last all-ages matinee before being ejected for the last time. Perhaps most poignantly, there was a picture of Mr. Butch—born Harold Madison Jr.—a local homeless legend who was long considered the "Mayor of Kenmore Square" for the decades he spent in and around the Rat. He would regularly buy us 15-packs of Black Label beer and smoke joints in the graffiti- and trash-strewn alley behind the club. Butch tragically died in 2007 when he rode his scooter into a telephone pole in Boston's nearby Allston neighborhood, where he took refuge once Kenmore Square became more gentrified in the years after the Rat closed down.
The suite's second room, facing Commonwealth Avenue, is supposed to look like a mock backstage area. There's local cult favorite Willie "Loco" Alexander's well-worn keyboard, drumsticks signed by Marky Ramone, Ric Ocasek's framed guitar pic from a 1979 tour, and the Rat Suite's centerpiece: the mirror from behind the Rat's bar, still festooned with stickers of bands that had played there.
Carly Siegel pointed out that one of the suite's windows has a direct view to where the Rat once stood, now the acclaimed restaurant Eastern Standard, which opened in 2005 with the help of James Beard-awarded chef Jamie Bissonnette, himself a Rat regular at hardcore matinees before he found international acclaim as a chef and restaurant owner.
Siegel told me that the suite opened in late September, and despite its $850-a-night price tag it's been booked solidly ever since. Their clientele is quite diverse and enamored with the history and memorabilia of the club, though she couldn't positively say that anyone who regularly paid the five- to eight-dollar cover at the Rat would be staying there. One thing's for sure: The suite's a lot more genteel than its namesake used to be.
"I remember standing on stage one day watching a good friend of mine beat this big oaf's head with the very same cinder block–anchored mic stand I'd just been yelling into," Rob Lind said. "This was seriously the 14th or 15th attempted murder during that set alone, and this shit happened every time we played, which back then was as often as twice a month. I said to myself, Again? Shouldn't I eventually become desensitized to this shit?
"Another time I personally beat some biker guy with a cue ball in a sock in full view of club security after he and his friends jumped me a few weeks prior, and I swore to myself I would avoid going [to the Rat] for a few months to be safe. Of course, I showed back up at the bar a few days later, when I ended up jumping into this brawl and beating some dude unconscious with a dog leash."
In the oddest paradox of the club's history, the more violent the shows became, the more new people flooded into the scene every weekend. In its final years, the Rat regularly sold out all-ages crowds for hardcore, punk rock, skinhead, and pop-punk shows. Those kinds of diverse but dedicated crowds can be few and far between these days, and not just in Boston.
As I left Hotel Commonwealth and walked back to Mission Hill, the same way I did every weekend 20 years ago, I was left with my conflicting feelings. Many feel that the club's passing was a death knell for the Boston rock scene, which has been plagued by an epidemic of nostalgia recently. The Rat was a place where I made some of my best friends. It was where I first got the chance to play music while the other kids in my neighborhood played baseball at the local little league field and chugged their fathers' beers.
"The Rat was the first and probably last place that I felt truly at home," Rob Lind told me. "I felt comfortable there. I felt accepted. These warm, fuzzy feelings conflicted and yet somehow coexisted with the fact that I was constantly on edge. Something terrible could happen at any given moment and often did."
He shrugged. "How can a Rat-themed hotel capture any of this? And why would anyone want to?"
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