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

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    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."

    The Continental's earliest days were marked by a diverse crop. "The Spin Doctors started here," says Trigger, "and Joan Osborne performed the first month we were open, before she had a record deal. Blues Traveler played all the time, and we hosted the record release party for their first album." Harder-edged music soon became the norm, and many local punk and hard-rock bands that would go on to achieve some level of mainstream recognition—the Lunachicks, Murphy's Law, the Bouncing Souls, H2O, Honky Toast, Spacehog, and the Toilet Boys among them—were fixtures at the club. (Full disclosure: My own band, Drag Citizen, plays there on occasion.) But the act whose history is perhaps most intertwined with that of the Continental's is the now defunct glam-punk outfit D Generation.

    "We signed our record deal with EMI in the Continental's bathrooms," says the band's former singer, Jesse Malin, who was also a partner in the late Coney Island High on St. Marks Place and is currently co-owner of the Avenue A bar Niagara. "Television had CBGB, and the Velvet Underground had Max's, but for my little punk rock group it was this room on the corner of Third Avenue. It was our home, and it's where we made our name."

    But what band, if any, does Trigger believe truly owes its success to his club? "The Ramones," he says. "I'm clearly responsible for everything they achieved in their career." An obvious joke, but it is also a fact that several members—Dee Dee, Marky, C.J., and in particular, Joey—were closely allied with the Continental. Each performed there with a variety of projects, and Joey for years held his annual birthday and Christmas shows at the venue, in addition to hosting "unsigned" nights where he would sometimes play alongside local bands he championed. "He was so supportive of this place," says Trigger, "and also of the local scene in general." The head Ramone, who passed away in 2001 after a long battle with lymphatic cancer, gave the final performance of his life at the Continental, on December 11, 2000.

    "Joey was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at the time, and he said to me, 'You're gonna come up there with me for a couple of songs,' " Trigger recalls. "So we did 'Blitzkrieg Bop' and 'I Wanna Be Sedated.' What a treat that was. I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world, but it's like, you know how the kid with the baseball bat or the football always gets chosen in? Well, I'm the guy with the club."

    Trigger is still going to be the guy with the club, even though he knows that things will be different now. "I think the weekends could become a bridge-and-tunnel, spring-break nightmare," he says. "Hopefully the weeknights will bring a local crowd, but for me this place is going to become a job instead of a passion, and I'm sad about that."

    But as what was once a labor of love becomes merely labor, Trigger, who says he will book the occasional acoustic show in order to "stay in touch with all the friends who have played here over the years," finds some consolation in having contributed a bit of history to a neighborhood that is rapidly losing any signs of having had one. "One thing I know is that for the past 15 years some of the best bands in New York City have called the Continental their home," he says. "And other than CB's, I can't really think of a local club that lasted as long as we did. So I'll always be proud of that."


    Jesse Malin will perform solo at the Continental Thursday night; the club will officially close with Sunday's all- star tribute to the Ramones. For more information visit continentalnyc.com.

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