What defines a city's musical identity is its clubs. It's not just a matter of taking a town's musical pulse; it has to do with expressing an attitude and defining a style.
Maybe that's why the best-known clubs carry a cachet that goes well beyond whoever happens to be playing there at the moment. Think of CBGB's in New York, the Marquee in London, the Troubador in Los Angeles.
Think of Hammerjacks.
From its spot on South Howard Street beneath the Interstate 395 overpass, Hammerjacks has defined the Baltimore popular music scene for almost a dozen years. Every kind of band has played there, from Cyndi Lauper to the Cycle Sluts from Hell, and over the years, the club has played host to some of the biggest names in popular music: Guns N' Roses, Nine Inch Nails, Kiss, Coolio, Marilyn Manson, Marky Mark, Roxette, Rage Against the Machine, Oasis, the Pretenders, Edie Brickell and Soundgarden.
In the process, it has attracted an astonishing array of music fans. Despite the club's late-'80s image as a haven for big-haired, scantily dressed hard-rock gals and their long-haired boyfriends in tight jeans, Hammerjacks' appeal was far broader. These days, in fact, the club draws a large and hip urban music crowd, ranging from dance-happy yuppies to dedicated hip-hop kids.
But all that will be coming to an end soon. On Tuesday, the Maryland Stadium Authority approved a $3.1 million agreement to buy the Hammerjacks complex (which includes the Hammerjacks Concert Hall and Louie Louie's Nightclub), and an adjoining warehouse, to make room for more stadium parking.
To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they're going to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
Although a closing date has yet to be set (the club will be open Thursday through Sunday nights at least until the end of the month), owner Lou Principio insists this is the end for Hammerjacks. "There never can be another Hammerjacks," he says. "It's not over because I wouldn't do another one; it's over because I can't create those ingredients to make that cake again."
Principio is talking size and location. As he sees it, part of what made Hammerjacks such a success was that the club managed to be in the heart of the city while effectively being in the middle of nowhere.
"It was an old brewery, built in the 1890s, I think," he says of the South Howard Street site that became Hammerjacks. When he first looked at the building, he says, "that area was completely industrial blight. I picked the area purposely because it was industrial and out-of-the-way, because I didn't want to disturb any residential neighborhoods."
This was a lesson he had learned with the club's first incarnation, in a converted rowhouse on South Charles Street in Federal Hill.
"I discovered from our previous location that the biggest problem nightclubs and entertainment complexes have is that the neighbors have complaints due to the noise, and overflow of the crowd, and traffic. And rightly so. I felt that this was a good location, because I had the highway right there, and I had the parking. [Patrons] could exit without going through any residential neighborhoods."
Making sure a lot of people could get in and out easily was important, because Hammerjacks is huge. Between the concert hall and the club, Principio's palace could easily contain 3,000 people -- nearly 20 percent more than the Meyerhoff, and more than 10 times the capacity of the nearby 8x10 Club.
Raising the roof
Turning that old brewery into a nightclub was no small task. "We re-did that whole building," Principio says. "I needed to do a two-floor structure with balconies, and I literally had to go in with bulldozers and tear up the first floor and dig it 30 inches down, because I couldn't raise the roof. And the reason I bought the building was because of the roof structure. The roof was an old wooden truss system, like something that would be used for old wooden bridges. I said, 'Man, you could never build that today.' "
Principio had a reason for wanting a two-story structure. "I didn't like the old nightclubs of 25 years ago, where when you walked to the back where the bathrooms were, you had to come back the same way and everybody was looking at you," he says. "So my building was designed so that you never were intimidated by walking around."
This wasn't just to stave off rest-room anxiety, either. Hammerjacks, Principio says, was designed to be a gathering place. "It was a singles place, where singles meet," he says. "It wasn't so much an alcohol distribution center as an entertainment place where people met each other. And that's what the whole thing was laid out for."
"You have to understand that, in addition to being a promoter and an electrician, Louie is also an architect," says Bud Becker, who was Hammerjacks' national talent consultant from 1986 to 1992. "Louie's concept was, you had participants, and you had spectators. So if you were a performer, you'd get up on the bar. And if you were a spectator, you could stand on the second floor on the balconies, and see the show.
"That way, people who were exhibitionists had an outlet. But at the same time, if you came into the club and you were a little more conservative, you didn't feel funny. What you did was, you stood up on the balcony with people like you. And still, on Monday morning, you could go into work and say, 'Yeah, man, I was at Hammerjacks partying.' "
Hammerjacks opened its South Howard Street location in 1983, and it wasn't long before the Principio principle took hold. Within a couple of years, the club's reputation for wild times had spread up and down the East Coast. I can remember a New York musician telling me that she had been at the club for a New Year's party and women stripped down to their underwear and danced on the bar.
"It was the most insane thing I'd ever seen," she said --no small compliment considering she was in a band fronted by a former member of the Plasmatics, whose shows involved a lead singer in pasties who chain-sawed TV sets in half.
Rock and roll
Two years after the club opened, Principio expanded into the warehouse next door and opened the Inner Harbor Concert Hall, and Hammerjacks began booking live music for the first time. That was when the club truly got into the rock and roll business, and the Hammerjacks lifestyle appealed as much to rock bands as it did to rock fans.
"I just enjoy it," said Brett Michaels of Poison in 1989. "It's one of those clubs where every time I go there, I just have a really good time. But if I was married or engaged, I'd never go there. It's the wrong place to be if you're married or engaged."
It was also the wrong place to be if you'd had too much too drink, as Izzy Stradlin of Guns N' Roses learned one night in 1988. GNR was only just becoming known among hard-rock fans -- this was just before their first hit single, "Sweet Child o' Mine" -- when the group got its first headlining show at Hammerjacks.
As was often the case in those days, the band killed time before the show by getting drunk. "Me and Izzy got really [messed] up," recalled GNR guitarist Slash a couple years ago. "I play well when I'm [messed] up. Izzy, on the other hand " Being drunk was only the beginning, though. "We were in the office, because the manager wasn't in there," says Slash. "And Izzy peed on the floor."
Needless to say, this did not go over well with the Hammerjacks management. "Actually, I think the security guys threw him out or something," says Becker. "Of course, nobody knew what the band was going to become at that point, or they'd probably have invited him to urinate on stage!"
Hammerjacks may have been a metal mecca in the late '80s, but metal wasn't all the club booked. There were mainstream rock shows featuring the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Samantha Fox and Roxette, country concerts with Charlie Daniels, Waylon Jennings and the Kentucky Headhunters, rap shows with Run-D.M.C., KRS-One and House of Pain, and alternative bills ranging from Debbie Harry to Cracker to the Butthole Surfers.
And Hammerjacks was able to deliver sell-out crowds across the board, for everything from Living Colour to Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. Everybody, it seemed, went to Hammerjacks at one point or another.
"There's no magic ticket to getting that success," says Principio. "It's just a lot of work, 12- or 15-hour days, seven days a week, and always fixing something, and always delivering the goods, and always coming through, and always being on top of everything."
Hammerjacks made another change in 1992, when Principio turned his back on the hard-rock market. Some of that had to do with changing tastes and the fact that many of the old-line rock bands just weren't drawing the way they used to, but most of it had to do with "moshing."
"I couldn't stand it," says Principio. "Moshers don't do anything except physically abuse one another. So whether they're getting in a circle or putting people over their own heads, they're making a conscious decision to do some physical harm to their own selves. Which is really an absurd statement. What level of human being would do that to themselves?
"Moshing's what told me I'm not doing no more rock and roll. That's when I got completely out of rock and roll, and went DJ, dance, adult black and hip-hop."
These days, Hammerjacks caters to four basic audiences: A college and young professional crowd one night; an adult, black contemporary crowd the next; a young hip-hop crowd on Sundays; and what Principio calls an "urban" audience.
"It's a mixture of black and white, with a lot of the new immigrants in the city -- a lot of Koreans and Russians," he says. "That's why I call it 'urban,' because it was mostly city people, but from all ethnic groups."
Principio couldn't have been happier with the new mix. "Right now, it's very strong," he said. "We were heading into a new era. We would have been the largest adult black and young black contemporary hip-hop dance/concert venue on the East Coast, and that's mainly because myself and [local DJ] Frank Ski formed a coalition."
Unfortunately, we'll never get to see where the two could have taken the club, and what sort of scene would have grown out of the mix that met at Hammerjacks.
Hammerjacks' Inner Harbor Concert Hall opened in 1985 with a concert by Eddie Money. Here are some of the other acts that played there over the years:
Big Audio Dynamite -- 1988, 1989, 1991
Black Crows -- 1990
Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians -- 1988
Coolio -- 1994
Cracker -- 1992
Charlie Daniels Band -- 1990
Extreme -- five times between 1989-1991
Lita Ford -- 1991
Foreigner -- 1991
Samantha Fox -- 1989
Peter Frampton -- 1991
Guns N' Roses -- 1987
Waylon Jennings -- 1990
Sam Kinnison -- 1991
Kiss -- 1992
Cyndi Lauper -- 1989
Living Colour -- 1989
Marilyn Manson -- 1996
Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch -- 1992
Nine Inch Nails -- 1991
Oasis -- 1995
Joan Osbourne -- 1995
Iggy Pop -- 1990
Pretenders -- 1994
Ramones -- numerous times from 1989-1994
Roxette -- 1989
Skid Row -- 1989
Soundgarden -- 1989
Stray Cats -- 1989
Three Dog Night -- 1991
311 -- 1995
Vixen -- 1990
Hammerjacks' remaining April schedule will be Thursday-Sunday. The club opens at 9 p.m. No closing date has been set. For more information, call 410-659-7625.
Pub Date: 4/20/97