The Continental Drifts

An East Village staple evolves, but dies a little in the process

This month the doors will shutmetaphorically, if not literally—on yet another East Village live-music club. Like most downtown Manhattan rock rooms, this one's not much to look at: a dark and narrow space with windowless bathrooms in various states of sanitary distress and a general decor of black walls plastered with band stickers, old show flyers, and live-performance photos. But it's a venue that has outlasted many of its competitors, helped to launch some of this city's most significant rock and punk acts, and hosted on its small stage the likes of Iggy Pop, Guns N' Roses, and on occasions too numerous to count, various men called Ramone.

It is also, it should be noted, a venue that is not named CBGB. But if you head north from what is rumored will soon be Las Vegas's Home of Underground Rock, continue up the Bowery as it branches off into Third Avenue, cross over St. Marks Place, and stop at the large gentleman with a gold hoop in each ear and a Vietnamese conical hat pulled down low on his brow, you'll find the Continental. The man in the (pointy) yellow hat? That's Trigger, who has owned and operated the club for its entire 15-year run and on most days still works the door, happy to take your money and let you in or, depending on how things go, throw you out. "Some people would probably say I'm too intense when I'm out here, but it's only because I love this place," he says. "And I have no doubt that being a hands-on owner is what made the Continental work as a live-music club."

Come Monday, however, the Continental, tucked between a McDonald's and a fast-food falafel joint at 25 Third Avenue, will no longer work as such. Sunday night will climax with a Ramones tribute, performed by a cast of New York punk rock's finest, among them C.J. Ramone, Daniel Rey, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Lenny Kaye, and Walter Lure—after that, the PA system will be shut down for the last time. "If I were a millionaire I'd keep the place going just to support the scene," says Trigger, who lives a block up from the club. "But it's just not possible anymore, and I think it's a reflection of what's happening all around me."

photo: Ofer Wolberger

The East Village and Lower East Side continue to bleed live-music clubs—last year saw the closing of Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street and Fez on Lafayette Street, and CBGB and the neighboring CB's 313 Gallery will shut their doors in October. The story is always a variation on a similar gentrification theme, one involving a mix-and-match combination of rent- jacking landlords, ambitious developers, and sky-high insurance and maintenance costs. Trigger may just be the only small-business owner in the city who attests to having a great relationship with his landlords, but the economic realities of the new downtown have nonetheless dealt a fatal blow to his club.

"The East Village has moved out to Brooklyn," he says. "When I opened in 1991, there was no McDonald's, Starbucks, or Kmart around me. That high-rise by Astor Place? I used to park my car there— I had a broken-down '61 Lincoln with four flats. It sat in there for three years because it was the cheapest spot around. Now an apart-ment in that building will cost you $12 million. So the city has changed, and without getting into my personal financial situation, all I can say is the club is unworkable for any businessman. There's so much overhead—sound people and booking people, advertising, maintaining and repairing the PA and other equipment. It's expensive, and for every great night there are 10 or 15 slow ones, because the arts scene, especially when it comes to rock 'n' roll, just isn't what it once was. There are still some bands doing it, but even then the crowds just aren't here to support them."

So Trigger will now try to court a different crowd. In mid October, he will relaunch the Continental as a dive bar. He'll retain the name and most of the staff, but the stage will be ripped out and replaced by extra seating and a flat-screen television showing "the Yankees, Knicks, and old kung fu movies." Draft beer taps will be installed behind the bar, and the downstairs greenroom—his favorite spot in the club—will get a pool table. "But I'm not going to touch a sticker or piece of graffiti in there, because of all the memories and history and energy," he says. "So hopefully when the bands come back to drink they'll be happy to see the place where they spent so many hours tuning their instruments and passing out to be more or less intact."

Born and raised in East New York, Trigger—he says that some of his oldest friends don't know him by any other name—was working as a partner at the Film Center Café in Hell's Kitchen and saving up money to open his own place when, in 1990, a broker brought him to a kitschy, dinosaur-themed bar on Third Avenue called the Continental Divide. He felt the room had a nice vibe, bought the lease, and opened as the Continental in October 1991. "My dream right off was to turn it into a great, small, classic venue in the tradition of Max's Kansas City and CB's," he says. "It didn't happen right away, but it did happen."

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