Excepting the diversity and cleverness of its graffiti, the best sign of a quality all-ages venue is a feeling you get while you’re there, a combination of total (and occasionally bruise-inducing) lawlessness and ironclad camaraderie with the other patrons. When I go to a show at an independent club or bar, I want to be at least a little afraid of being donkey-kicked in the face by a crowd surfer, blinded by flying whiskey flung into the crowd by a surly performer, or abandoned for eons with some band’s T-shirts and CDs after agreeing to watch the merch table while its rightful guardian uses the bathroom. I also want to maybe dance in my socks and hang out on the stage watching old disco videos on YouTube with the staff long after the bands have packed up and gone home. I want things to feel loose and wild and possible, but also familial and sweet, the way they always did at 285 Kent, a local venue that was open from August 2010, to last night, when it ended its reign as the most fun place to see live music in New York City.
285 Kent wasn’t forced to close, but it felt imminent: Health inspectors had been lurking around, and the rents in that part of Williamsburg have been rising precipitously for more than a decade, so the owners chose to close their doors peacefully…or as peacefully as things can go at 285, which was always so good because it was staunchly rowdy as fuck—I woke up this morning with swollen, pulsating black and blue marks all over my legs from stage-diving.
285 hosted all kinds of bands and acts over the years. A couple that stick out for me are Kool Keith, who never removed his sunglasses as he rapped to a few hundred sweating adorers (including both teenagers and older fans) in the summer of 2011, and countless sets by the stoner moaner group DIIV, who often seemed to end up onstage at some point regardless of who was on the bill. But sometimes it hardly seemed to matter who was playing. If you’ve ever loved a local venue of your own, you know that in rooms like these, with their often scrappily assembled sound setups and general half-doneness, the music is only part of the point, and arguably not even the most important part. “The best nights felt like intimate family outings, but with 2 to 3 hundred people,” says Ric Leichtung, a perpetually exhausted-looking sweetheart who was, in the past few years, the main booker and organizer, more-than-occasional carpenter, and general superglue keeping 285 from crumbling into a pile of sweat-aged cinderblocks.
When bands were playing, you could feel this scuzzy, pushy vibration inside the club—half from people talking over the music and half from the stink waves coming off every surface—that made starting a conversation with somebody feel like you were disappearing, hidden from the rest of the crowd. It was a great place to fall in love, if only for a few hours. I did so many times—with Calvin Johnson, the ex–lead singer of the twee pop band Beat Happening, as he slowly and generously twirled me across the dance floor after I told him how enormous a fan I was at one of his solo shows; with my friend Tassy’s jealousy-activating T-shirt collection (his trademark is a sensual black number with Reba McEntire on the front; last night’s had what looked like a photo transfer of a bunch of kids at a bar mitzvah); and with a number of fingernail-thin guys smoking on the sunken couches in the tiny front parlor. Those couches were where most of the macking took place; in my experience, getting to Couch Level with someone usually meant you had that prospect in the bag.
The best thing about it was that you could just show up on any random night and not feel like an outsider. Olivia accompanied me last night so she could take these beautiful pictures, but in general, I’ve always preferred to go alone. Not only would I always meet new people, but I’d also run into a lot of 285-specific friends I’d built up over the past three years. Some of them (especially the people who worked there, who were so dedicated to the space) I rarely saw outside the space’s doors. The 13 billion Facebook event invites I get from them per week announcing their or their friends’ shows at other bars and clubs are the only evidence that they exist anywhere else, that they won’t disappear along with those pungent couches—which Kaitlin, 285’s main bartender, says they threw away Saturday night. When I walked in last night, I found her setting up, and we gave each other one of those consoling hugs that you give someone who has lost something—the ones where you stand perfectly straight and pat the person’s back at the end to signify “Sorry for your loss, bro.” We didn’t actually cry until later, when Fucked Up played a cover of “Blitzkreig Bop” to close out the night and I passed Kaitlin’s body over my head and into someone else’s hands. I felt like such a goddamn herb for tearing up, but quickly realize I didn’t actually care at all how I looked because I couldn’t stop sweating and laughing and dancing like Molly Ringwald in that one Breakfast Club scene, which has always more or less been my trademark emotional cocktail at 285 Kent.
The glorification of a single space will always feel funny to me because loving your local musical community is such a universal feeling—anyone who’s ever attended a show in a garage or a repurposed warehouse will be able to imagine being at any of the shows at 285. Even more than I do now, I lived inside that feeling a decade ago, in the otherwise culturally dead New Jersey hamlet where I was spawned, where I started going to all-ages shows at the age of 11. Most of the spots I haunted back then have, like 285, been shuttered—even now, I have occasional pangs for one that’s been closed for years, the Bloomfield Ave Cafe & Stage in Montclair, where I was first made to understand that a “band” could just be some classmates you knew who decided to pick up instruments. The one holdout is the Meat Locker, which I still visit when I make trips to my mom’s house. The last time I was there, someone emptied enormous bags of marshmallows onto the dance floor, gumming up the band’s equipment and cementing the audience to the ground. I remembered this moment not even 12 hours ago when, at 285, someone threw a lit sparkler that nearly hit me in the head. The feeling at both places was the same. These places always feel pretty much the same, in the most wonderful way.
As I knew it, 285 was the community meeting (and breeding) site for a perfect confluence of strangers and regulars who became pleasant, if occasional, fixtures in my life. And, whether I eventually came to be acquainted with them for longer periods of time or never saw them again, the majority of the concertgoers I met at 285 were the kinds of people I had badly wanted to know in my area, but wasn’t able to meet until I found them there—people who don’t mind taking a little whiskey to the eyeball or still smelling like smoke even after showering the next morning, if it means you get to waltz with one of your musical heroes or kiss a girl with a complicated hair-color scheme after accidentally dancing into her in the pit. Those interactions were always the best parts of the shows at 285 for me, which is why I’m not too sad about its closing, even though I was obviously very fond of it. While all the best rule-fucking DIY venues eventually have to die, the people who adore them will still be around, finding new scumholes to fill with music and conversation and vomit and wonder. As Fucked Up’s lead singer, the fabulous, gargantuan, and often shirtless Damian Abraham, reminded us from the stage, “Anyone can do this—anyone can put on a show, or start a band, or make a record.” I wonder where I’ll see everybody next, but wherever it is, I’m sure its couches will be just awful (and, of course, also the best). ♦