19 January 2009

The Derby requiem

To have something stay in your life as a constant for twelve years is an amazing thing. So I feel a sense of thankfulness for a special consistency, even as I have to say a tentative “goodbye.”

I learned tonight that The Derby, the original site of the explosion of the swing dancing scene in the late ‘90s (partially thanks to the movie Swingers, which was filmed there) will close its doors as a nightclub indefinitely as of the end of this month. The management has made it clear through the last few months that they have no interest in running a nightclub or serving patrons; after all, here it is the 18th of the month and they still haven’t updated the monthly calendar from December 2008. There’s been no upkeep on the property, with graffiti allowed to stay on the outside walls, the front sign, and the mirrors in the bathroom (come on, show some pride of damn ownership!) and huge gouges lefts in parts of the walls. Booking and payment of bands has been abysmal, promotion nonexistent. I have gone to The Derby as a regular patron for twelve years, and I started to sense back in September that the great club was on its last legs, and with no one to blame but the management.

Tonight, which was a well-attended night because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow and the excellent Jonathan Stout and His Campus Five playing, I learned that The Derby will cease functioning at the end of January. The immediate reason was an incident on a non-swing night, a Saturday, where somebody pulled a gun on somebody else. Nice job, dickweed. Ever think that other people come here to have a good time? And we don’t need to carry frickin’ guns to do it? This is why I’ve always loved the swing scene. Nobody flashes a piece. Nobody has any aggressive attitude. We love each other.

But, unfortunately, this was the moment the lazy management needed to leap out of the lease and shut the place down. And thus was it done. Next Sunday is the last Swingin’ Sunday, then it all ends.

This could have been avoided a long time ago. If the management had booked swing on either a Friday or a Saturday, gotten the good bands (instead of alienating them by stiffing them on payment), and actually promoted the night—I know, what a nutty idea—this could have continued to be a vital and important part of the L.A. music scene, not just some other bar with the same music every other bar plays. The management can try to blame the dancers for not drinking, and maybe this was true back in the late ‘90s, but not so now. The management has no one to blame but their absolute stubborn incompetence and shrill and insulting attitude toward their own patrons. Swing isn’t “bandwagon” music. It’s a part of the the American musical tradition, and if treated right is as profitable as any other form of music. Be good to it, it will be good to you.

Of course, the brainless idiot who flashed a piece one Saturday night deserves bit of the blame. The hell were you thinking?

However, this isn’t necessarily the end. If someone purchases The Derby from the current owners, they could turn the place around. Next time I post about this, I’ll go on the positive attack, and provide my advice on how to make The Derby culturally relevant again.

But, until I know that someone with the money will make the effort, I must bid the place goodbye for now. After next Sunday, the day of requiem…