Notorious NYC punk club/dive bar shuts down for good this time
December 15th was the final party at The Continental. The Lower East Side club has been limping out of relevance for nearly a decade. A 2006 decision to quit booking live acts and “just be a dive bar” did away with the already lax booking and dwindling live music crowd. They settled into a weird wannabe dive vibe, which basically meant drink “specials” consisting of extremely cheap shots, and in the 2000 teens that means a load of NYU students or tourists standing around between puke breaks to talk about hedge funds.
Add in awful accusations of racial profiling from the top down, beyond-acceptably “Noo Yawk” bartender grumpiness, and of course the changing neighborhood around it, and if the writing wasn’t actually spray painted on the gnarly downstairs bathroom wall, then management itself would tell you they’re closing – which they’ve done publicly at least four times in the last three years. Hey, it’s a great way to get people to come by “one last time” for a few months.
But for an interesting decade there, The Continental did help keep the ol’ dirty NYC rock ‘n’ roll scene going. Previously known as Jack the Ribber, The Continental Divide (the “Divide” in its original name a casualty of time) opened circa 1990 — when lifelong New Yorkers were already lamenting the end of an era or two. The place offered a fitting, just-around-the-corner stop for the final heydays of St. Marks as the fucked up, junkies, crusties, drunks, head shop, record store, and dive-peppered epicenter. Loads of local rock knockabouts played near nightly. Infamous gigs involved Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and Guns N Roses.
The, uh, atmosphere did not even offer the usual cool, beat-up, vintage bar accouterments. It was just a plain hang, but in that, it had its charms. You could reliably stumble in late knowing you might not have to wait too long for a drink, could probably find an open stall, and you might run into Joey Ramone, who, by the latter ’90s, made The Continental his stomping ground, featuring solo sets and old school punk reunions and such.
My own Joey/Continental story was a favorite moment of my life. It was during a CMJ Music Marathon festival (if you remember those, ‘cuz they’re gone too). As a visiting rocker/tourist from Ohio, I had slipped into Coney Island High on St. Marks. That place was hopping in the early ‘90s with D Generation’s “Green Door” vintage rock’n’roll DJ parties. So that night, they were supposedly going to have a surprise Ronnie Spector performance. I left to go try to find my friend, and after failing that, when I tried to get back into the club, slipping in was no longer in the cards. Though I did see Ronnie walk right by me, and just thinking of it makes me swoon.
So I ambled out, bummed out, and having to piss. I walk into the Continental, and aside from two bartenders, a sound guy picking up cords, and a drunk passed out on the bar, the joint is completely empty, during CMJ, on a Friday night, at 1a.m., in New York City. Except I notice a lone, very tall figure hanging near the stage, unmistakable, if unbelievable in my mind. I walk up, and yup, it’s Joey Ramone.
“Hey, I know you hear this all the time, but you’re fucking awesome, the Ramones rule, and thank you for all the music.”
Time will probably even out all the pros and cons of The Continental too, though right now, the consensus seems to be predominantly con. Its proponents will try to convince you that the place was the last L.E.S. heir apparent to CBGB. And sure enough, as during that club’s last days, when someone boo-hoos over its closing, you ask them, “So when’s the last time you went there?”
“Uh, like six years ago.”
In response to Continental memory requests from a number of musicians and nightlife denizens, the answers have landed somewhere between, “It’s still open?!” to “Whatever, fuck that place.” Chalk that up to those racist rumors; and the owner, Trigger Smith, who had a notoriously, uh, challenging reputation and a big pointy hat.
Currently DJing and living the trash world historian life in L.A., Howie Pyro was in D Generation and working at Coney Island High in the early ’90s, around the corner from the Continental. (Fellow D Generation mate and current L.E.S. rock club maven, Jesse Malin, is putting together the Continental’s party this past Saturday.) Pyro’s initial reaction to The Continental closing?
“Good riddance. So many bottles hitting heads! But I have good memories of that place, pre-pointy hat. I have some funny anecdotes about the very early Continental days, like back to Johnny Thunders and a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins show.” What those anecdotes are will have to wait for the book that Howie should write, toot sweet! As should longtime L.E.S. fixture, Lisa Lush.
“I don’t have many good memories of The Continental,” says Lush, “except for one person that worked there. Back in ‘95 when I was an annoying squatter kid, a good friend, Raybeez (singer, Warzone), worked the door there and at Coney Island High. He would let me and my boyfriend Jon in for shows without paying, ‘cuse when you’re homeless, hey, your priorities aren’t money for shows. He was a great man! He took me in for several weeks once when my boyfriend got arrested for breaking the glass window out at a bodega ‘cause the counter guy sexually assaulted me. He was the only great memory I have of that place. The shows are mostly a blur, nothing I can remember as really special. Besides, I left NYC in ’96, and didn’t move back until I got cleaned up. That wasn’t until the early 2000’s, so by then, The Continental wasn’t really the hottest place to hang out.”
Over frequent trips to The City as the ‘90s wore on, I popped into The Continental for a few nitecaps. And in fact, we had, in my estimation, one of the Top 10 New Bomb Turks shows ever there, circa 1994. For the underground garage punk scene going on in the ‘90s, the Continental became a staple stop. By the time I moved to NYC in 2004, I was able to catch a couple great Candy Snatchers gigs there. The Continental was perfect for that crazy, bottles and guitar-throwing punk crew from Virginia. Singer Larry May:
“Many a wild night in that place. Beer, blood, fire, and unfortunately, dead fish! Some dudes from Brooklyn asked me if I would mind them getting on stage and hitting me with a giant fish. I assumed they were kidding. They weren’t. It got pretty gnarly when it started getting flung all over the joint. Fish guts. Woo-hoo! Oh, and I tried to buy Jerry Hall a shot of whiskey once. She declined.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jerry Hall was probably the only person to ever refuse a drink at the Continental. Longtime local singer and drink slinger, “Jukebox” Jodi Ham, might concur. “Here’s a fond memory of when I lived on St. Marks around the corner from Continental,” says Ham. “Chloe Sweeney and I were in there one night for a show, and we wound up staying super late after hours with Darrell, Kemp, and Roger. They liked to play a game called “Drink It or Wear It”. If Chloe and I didn’t drink the shots they laid in front of us, they would spray us with Coca-Cola from the soda gun and throw the Jagermister on ours heads. We got to do the same to them. They would even let us behind the bar to do it to them. One night this went on until about 9 o’clock in the morning. We left Continental laughing our asses off walking down the street in broad daylight as people are going to work looking like two freaking Carrie’s. Sticky messes! That was a long shower! Loved playing there when Noel (Ford) was running the show instead of Trigger. Noel was great and paid us well. Trigger, not so much.
“I started going there in 1988-90,” recalls Suke Yawata (guitarist, Born Loose, Snuka, Candy Snatchers), “right before the ‘neo-punk’ thing was blowing up. Most of the bands were still hard rock, biker, and metal bands, except for the Devil Dogs and some others. Got to meet Dee Dee Ramone there, who complimented my guitar playing. That was a huge moment for me. Best shows there were Candy Snatchers, every time, including when I played with them and Willy beat Matt up. Nashville Pussy’s first show, Devil Dogs (every time), and the very last Devil Dogs show in New York City, I think it was New Year’s Eve with the Candy Snatchers, Teengenerate was probably the best show I’ve ever seen there, got to play with them. So many touring bands came through, hard to recall them all.”
Lee Greenfeld, who ended up opening and closing his own excellent NYC club, Magnetic Field, in Brooklyn, spent many nights at the Continental. “Despite constantly having some of the local bands I disliked the most playing there weekly, I saw countless great shows at The Continental. I always had a total blast dodging flying bottles when the Candy Snatchers’ played; being blown away by truly under-appreciated local acts like The Blue Chieftains and Simon & The Bar Sinisters; or seeing Murphy’s Law bring the party. They were always firing on all cylinders in that room. I do recall the guitar player from an unnamed punk-rock band telling the singer of another unnamed band how much he dug them, and how he was honored to play on the same bill with them. When the unnamed singer was dismissive of the compliment in a not so pleasant way, the guitar player punched him in the face, which knocked him on his ass in front of the club. That kind of sums up The Continental.”
DJ Dave “the Spazz” Abramson is another Big Apple underbelly rock mainstay who spent many a silly evening at the Continental. “I haven’t been to that dump in years,” he admits, “but I love it and hate it to death. Continental served food (yeecchh) and was known in the ads in The Voice as “Continental Divide.” They had 3-D dinosaur signage, a poor man’s version of the Lone Star’s rooftop iguana just a few blocks to the west. Continental was always a fun place to play and from ‘89 to ‘99 I played there many times, mostly with the Sea Monkeys and a couple of times with The Shemps. I liked the height of the stage and the sound was generally good. My favorite show was the Sea Monkeys 10th anniversary show when I sewed together curtains from cheap Indian tapestries that I bought at Azuma so we could begin our set with the curtain dropping to reveal lit candles burning on top of our heads. Turns out you need a curtain for stuff like that to be a surprise. And some of the shows I saw! The Fells, criminally playing to five people on a Sunday night, The Spaceshits, criminally playing to five people on a Sunday night, and other incredible acts that played to between five people and a packed house on the better nights. The Lone Wolves, Mental Decay, The Plungers, Pig Pen, Rats of Unusual Size, The Jet Boys when lead singer/ guitarist Onoching stripped naked and ran completely around the block during the encore in the dead of winter. Other crazy Japanese bands–the 5678s, the unfortunately named C***-A-Go Go, punk rock ventriloquist Magnatone, and other nutso outfits. Not my favorite show but it’s hard to forget the night that the crazy bassist from Nashville Pussy spit a Jack Daniels infused fireball across the tin ceiling which burnt the ends of my eyebrows. I’m probably leaving out a mess of amazing shows. I briefly dj’d at Continental in the late 90s and it was as stupid as it sounds. My dj’ing low point in the past 35 years would have to be that night when I was told that crap-metal band Clowns For Progress didn’t like my records and did I bring any glam with me? The soundman, who hooked me up with the dj gig and booked the Sea Monkeys a lot, was always a standup guy even if his boss was, well, not. The Sea Monkeys stopped playing there after a member of my band witnessed the boss allegedly tossing some poor guy roughly out onto the Third Avenue sidewalk. With the McDonald’s opening up next door and the Starbucks across the street, the frat boy bridge and tunnel crowd sidled up to the bar and never left. That’s when I knew it was time to leave.
Dean Rispler worked door at the Continental, but it’s his stellar guitar slinging that’s made him a NYC scene staple for decades now.
“When I was in the Homewreckers with Todd Youth,” Rispler recalls, “we opened for Wayne Kramer. As if that wasn’t awesome enough, Todd and I got to hang with Brother Wayne in the basement just bullshitting for over an hour. That’s pretty fucking cool. Yeah, there were plenty of negatives that I won’t get into. Everyone who went there knew about those. Since it’s the holiday season, I want to focus on the positive. I had friends who worked there – Ingrid Aman, Mick Stitch, Tyler Lenane (whom I still work with today!), Todd Youth (R.I.P.), Sara Nelson, Kimberly Valsamis, George Chambers, and a host of others I am forgetting. Noel Ford was always a fixture there. Noel cut his teeth working with a very temperamental sound system in that room. And he did it well enough to currently be on the road with several different professional bands and artists. And of course, there was Trigger. It seems I know way too many people who have had, or still have, major problems with Trigger. I had a minor one, but that passed quickly. The Continental was a special place for me.”
Like CBGB, The Continental’s booking just got lazy, and the decision to quit booking live music dovetailed with the insta-gentrification that ramped up in the mid-2000s. The animus towards The Continental – and there’s a lot of it, especially concerning its post-live music phase – is in part entwined with the fate of St. Marks. The Continental was and remained, after all, a reliable place to get drunk while non-Top 40 music plays in the background. But those racist accusations have stuck stronger than the spilled shots on the floor.
“I was lucky enough to play the last night of live music at The Continental,” says Dean Rispler, “with what was at that very moment, The Handsome Dick Manitoba Band. After that, I never set foot back in the place again. Once the music was gone, it seemed as if all the magic disappeared as well. And, disappointingly, that magic disappeared from the whole East Village as well. I will miss those times, and I know most of those who witnessed what I did will too.”
Hey, it’s New York City — there’s always another bar and another place to see bands, and those places have increasingly popped up a borough away. As we’ve become adept at doing here in NYC, after so many closings of so many beloved joints, you have to stand back and look at the big picture, or go nuts. The building that houses the Continental is not exactly the Taj Mahal. No one’s going to miss the McDonald’s next door. It will all be razed for – say it with me – “a mixed-use structure” of offices and retail — as if retail is a better investment than a dive bar in 2018.