Jon Taffer of 'Bar Rescue' Used to Book Punk Bands so You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Interviewed Him About It
And he didn't tell us to "shut this fucking interview down"!
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Jon Taffer doesn't mess around. As the host of the hit reality show Bar Rescue, Taffer offers the kind of tough love that struggling bar owners need to hear. It's especially intimidating considering that he's built like a linebacker and can't contain his rage when he sees chefs mishandling raw chicken or bartenders engaging in the heinous crime known as "overpouring." However, once you get past the explosive drama (which, let's face it, is great for television), Taffer is actually a pretty down-to-earth guy who is legitimately trying to use his expertise to help businesses that are on the verge of shuttering their doors.
On a Nerdist podcast a few years back, Taffer discussed his time spent as the manager of the legendary Los Angeles club, The Troubadour, in the 80s and I instantly imagined him in screaming matches with people like Henry Rollins and Lee Ving over their onstage antics. But as the episode went on, Taffer let on that he had a soft spot for these pioneers of LA punk and had booked a lot of bands who are now known as legends far before he was branding bars and helping dysfunctional families mend their relationships on television.
I sat down with Taffer when he came through New York a few weeks ago as part of his Rescue Tour, a half-day workshop that he designed to help small business owners and industry professionals jumpstart growth in their companies. Despite the short-fused temper you may witness on his show, he was incredibly friendly and excited to share stories about his time at The Troubadour. While Taffer may not identify as a punk himself, it's clear that he has a deep appreciation for the genre and the innovators behind it. Jon, if you ever decide to pursue a third career as a tour manager, please hit me up.
Noisey: How did you start working with Doug Weston and The Troubadour?
Jon Taffer: It was around 1978. I was a drummer so I was playing in bands and doing my thing in LA and I got a job as a doorman at The Troubadour. Back then, everyone who worked at The Troubadour was a musician. We ate for free and drank whatever we wanted and [owner] Doug [Weston] didn't manage anything, he gave the place away and eventually I became the manager. I was preparing for this interview last night and I thought of a great story. It isn't music-related but I've got to tell the story, Jonah.
When I first started at The Troubadour there was a manager there whose name I won't mention but I remember it. Richard Pryor came to record his live album there, this would have been '78, and he comes into The Troubadour and everybody is shit-faced drunk and the producer says to the manager, "Where do you guys hang microphones for four-track recordings?" So this manager tells him where to put the microphones and they drink a bottle of Courvoisier and get shit-faced drunk in the balcony. As a joke, they listed this manager as producer of the record and the record won a fucking Grammy as Best Produced Comedy Album of the year. This motherfucker got a Grammy!
That's amazing. You also booked bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys there in the 80s. What was that like?
I remember Adam Ant and Black Flag hated each other and it was almost like the hip-hop acts of today. I mean, they fucking hated each other, so we would have to pull the tables during the shows and each of their fans would come and swing chains and it was ugly! It was almost the first-ever music rivalry in that kind of a way. It was nasty.
That's a very strange rivalry. What else comes to mind about that era?
If you remember correctly, FEAR's logo almost looked like a swastika but they were LA boys. They were actually suburban guys that happened to be into punk music whereas the Dead Kennedys came down from San Francisco and they were not an LA band, so there were all these rivalries. At the very same time that this offensive punk thing was happening with the Dead Kennedys and FEAR, there were these clean cut rock 'n' roll guys like The Knack. It was really a fascinating time in music because unlike today, which is so much about hip-hop, in those years it was about everything. You could go to The Troubadour five nights in a row and you'd see Black Flag, FEAR, or Adam Ant. Then the next night you'd see Rickie Lee Jones playing folk or Bruce Springsteen playing rock.
Did you have a sense how amazing it was or was it just kind of your job at the time?
To answer your question: not really… until The Troubadour was going broke and I put together a concert to raise money for the venue's 25th anniversary. We got George Carlin to come back, we got all of these people to come back. They weren't punk people back then because we were going back pre-'78, so people like Jackson Browne, Elton John, George Carlin, The Association, all of these bands that were really rooted in The Troubadour's history came back that month and we made all this money to fix the floor and set up the venue for the next generation. That week when we were doing it, it hit me that this was special and these people here were special and the nights that I was watching were really special. So it did register with me at the time.
Who put on the most violent shows when you were booking the venue?
FEAR was a rough one I remember pretty good. Not because of them, they were good guys. But their image, their logo, just drew sort of a rough crowd. The Dead Kennedys' crowd, if I remember correctly, wasn't so bad. Jello was his name, wasn't it?
Yes! I've got a good memory, man. I remember him. He was lanky. He was a good guy. I never had any issues, I got along with all of them just fine. I can't believe I got his name right.
The Dead Kennedys were a punk band but they also had a lot of surf elements.
Yes! They didn't have as rough of a crowd as FEAR did. Even Adam Ant was a bit of a rougher crowd, but the Kennedys were from the Bay Area. They were sort of flower children in a strange way but they played punk music.
I couldn't believe the episode of Bar Rescue where you brought in Joe Escalante from The Vandals to consult on a punk bar and the owner didn't know who he was.
Yes! I don't fuck around. "Mr. Punk" who owns this bar won't play rock—all he plays is punk. So I call Joe to come in, who I've known a long time and who is legendary, I'm sure you'd agree. But he's older now so he's got short gray hair and he's wearing a sweater and the owner insults him. That night, he must have Googled him or done his homework or something because he had a very different attitude the next day.
That was one where the owner eventually was like, "I just wanted someone to pay for our kitchen."
Yes, and I walked out on them, remember? I didn't remodel the bar. That was his thing, "I thought I was getting a free kitchen." You can't manage a fucking bar, you think we're going to give you a kitchen? He was a dick. A guy like him gives punk a bad name. The backstory was that he inherited money from his parents so he had a million-dollar house in Orange County, but he's Mr. Punk. He was completely hypocritical. [Laughs]
Do you think it's possible for a punk venue to be classy but also have that divey element?
Yes, because you can have the divey environment, you can have the band, but just have some cool food and beverage, just do something that gives it some personality. Look, grunge can be cool if you do it right but everything doesn't have to be filthy and smelly and disgusting and that's the episode you're talking about. That guy was just a disrespectful dick. I mean, you want to put up a punk band, give them a fucking sound system. Let them sound good at least!
How is The Rescue tour going so far? Do you like getting out there?
I do. You know, I haven't done it in four years and I love small business, Jonah, and helping people grow businesses. So to be face to face with people and teach them and hear from them and get the hugs, I love it. So I'm doing 27 cities in six weeks.
I imagine it would be similar to being on tour with a rock band in some ways.
Very much so, same logistics, same setup, it's just business. It's funny because young people like yourself have much more respect for money today. You know, in the days that we're talking about: FEAR, Black Flag, there was a resentment to wealth. There was resentment to a guy who dressed like me and, to me, that resentment doesn't exist anymore. Politics aside, left and right, we hate each other in that regard—but you don't hate the guy in the suit anymore and you don't hate money anymore. The great thing is that the young generation does want to make money today and they are entrepreneurial. When I was young, we were more interested in protesting the war, hanging out with the Black Panthers and money was evil. We're different today.
What advice would you have for bands when it comes to creating an identity?
Bands are three things: obviously the music, but also the appearance and the performance. For example, Lady Gaga is a great, talented performer but she puts a lot of emphasis into her packaging and you wonder, if she wasn't as packaged as she is, if she would have made it to the point where we could see her talent at all. I'm not diminishing what she does because she's excellent at it and she's a great performer, but other people don't use that image element to get ahead. So I think image is very important today and the way people look is very important today. We identify each other that way. You can't fake it in the music world anymore, you have to be what you say you're going to be because people have access to you 24 hours a day. You can't dress with big hair one morning and dress like me the next morning and get away with it.
That brings us full-circle because all of those punk bands we've been talking about who claimed to be so anti-image actually did have an image.
They had a big image! They were the rebels of the time, in essence, but they had a huge image and they created a stir because of it. Any time someone wants to be like you, that's an image. And a lot of people wanted to be like them, I mean they lit up the LA scene, it was exciting.
It surprises me that you're so into punk because offensive music seems like it wouldn't be good for business.
If I understand punk and I come to a punk show, you're pulling me into that world, so it's not rude to me, it's not offensive to me. I think it's a thing of love, it's respect of the music. If you really respect the music then you're respecting your fans at the same time, and I did not see punk as disrespectful. Their music was serious to them. They worked really hard at it.
I think it's cool that someone in your position is still open to those kinds of ideas.
Completely. Music is critical to my industry: They make it, I play it. They've gotta make great music for me to play great music. They need to give me those reactions that I can exploit, so I've had a huge respect for that my whole life.
Jonah Bayer plays in the band United Nations and the unkempt state of their van would cause Jon Taffer to rip the seats out. Follow him on Twitter.