The King of the Casbah

Art Brut and the Hold Steady both want deli trays. Casbah owner Tim Mays and his manager Andrew review the contract from each band’s management the day before both are set to play a show at ’Canes in Mission Beach. It is one of the many shows each month that Mays puts on outside the Casbah to accommodate bands that draw crowds in excess of 200 people, which is capacity of the space on Kettner and Laurel.

But that room, the one whose exterior is painted red with chrome flames licking up the sides like a tricked-out hotrod, is where the deli-tray negotiations take place. This is the place where every important band in the independent music world comes to play when it hits San Diego, the place where acts such as Nirvana, the White Stripes, and the Strokes played before they became household names. It is every local band’s dream to play at the Casbah, and many veteran artists of the past 20 years call it their home base in San Diego. Ask any record company, music magazine, touring rock ’n’ roll band, or indie pop geek across the U.S. for the one name synonymous with San Diego, and they will all say the Casbah.

New York City has its Mercury Lounge, Washington, D.C., has the 9:30 Club, San Francisco has Slim’s, Seattle has the Showbox, and Austin has Emo’s. San Diego has the Casbah. With bigger venues being swallowed and homogenized by corporations, the Casbah may be San Diego’s only icon in the music world.

But that doesn’t mean Tim Mays can pay for superfluous deli trays for bands that will roll in at 4:30 p.m. only to turn around and use their $250 dinner stipend a few hours later. “Let’s see if we can talk them into just [getting] the drinks, the fruit plate, and the vegetables,” Mays says as he looks over the rider. The cases of beer and bottles of premium liquor are standard. It’s the little things, like salami and Brie, which probably won’t get eaten, that Mays tries to control as much as possible. “If a band really wants something, we try to get it for them,” he says. Even if it’s an extravagance, like Van Halen’s infamous request for no brown M&Ms in their dressing room? “Sure. I like to make the bands happy.” Except the Casbah doesn’t have a dressing room. “We let bands use the office if they need to change or just want to get away from the crowd. Obviously only three or four people can fit in here.”

In fact, Mays says he prefers it when a band is particular about what sort of refreshments it wants. “It makes it easier. If you’re going to the store, just looking for, like, ‘chips and dip,’ that could mean anything, there’s so many choices.” So what some people see as diva-esque pickiness, Mays sees as convenient specificity. Maybe that’s part of what makes him the kind of boss people stay loyal to for 10, 15, and 20 years, as is the case with many of the staff at the Casbah. But don’t ask them about it — they’re not talking.

None of Mays’s staff will agree to talk with me.

There does not appear to be any reason for this reluctance — it’s just that everyone is content to let Mays be the mouthpiece. The standard response to my requests is “Uh…I think Tim’s the best person to ask about that.”

He laughs when I tell him about the staff’s reticence. “That’s funny. Who’d you talk to? I haven’t talked to them about it. I don’t know, we’ve all worked around each other for so long, I guess they don’t need to say anything.”

The office is a tiny space crammed with a beat-up black desk, chair, file cabinets, a dusty fax machine, a small upholstered banquette covered with a serape, and a Shop Vac 16-gallon drum for a wastebasket. All four walls and the ceiling are covered with band posters, pictures, record covers, and dozens of handwritten notes from artists, from the staff, to themselves, to Mays, and to each other.

“Tim, Keep on rockin’ in the free world! — Juliette Lewis”

“To all staff: If you hear the toilet running at the end of the night, please do something — don’t just leave to run all night long!”

“Andrew, you need to buy a new light for the front bar and one for over the front door. — B”

“Hey bartenders, I’m real horny to cover your shift, if need be. — Thaddeus”

“DON’T FORGET YOU’RE HERE FOREVER.”

It always feels like Christmas at the Casbah. This might be due to the generous use of Christmas lights, some in working order, some not, all over the joint. And the first time I walk in during daylight hours, I see that the dominant color scheme is indeed red and green. The walls are plastered with posters advertising the acts who will play there soon. The doors and moldings are festooned with layers of vinyl band decals, so thick from years of piling on top of each other they may as well be linoleum. It’s a constant battle to see who can pepper the place with the most stickers, and right now a band called the Willowz is winning.

I see co-owner Bob. Always the first one in the door, he turns on the lights and meets the purveyors. I’ve been coming to shows at the Casbah for over 14 years, and Bob is as much of a fixture as the buttoned black leather banquettes that line the back wall of the stage. He doesn’t say much but points me toward the office to meet with Mays. With his short hair, Levi’s, rock T-shirt, and black Pumas, Tim Mays looks like an older version of most of the guys in the crowd at the Casbah on any given night.

The Crest Beverage delivery guy drops off the week’s supply of Sierra Nevada. The pest-control guy is here for his periodic spraydown of the interiors. Another man comes in wearing a similar uniform, but he is not here on official business. He asks if he can use the restroom, then asks, “What type of bar is this?”

“Rock ’n’ roll,” Mays says.

“Rock ’n’ roll, so, like, Led Zeppelin?”

“Nah, more punk rock stuff, more modern.”

“Huh. Pretty cool crowd here?”

“Oh yeah, definitely.”

Mays started his music-promoting career in the ’80s, after he left San Diego State. “I started doing it just as a fan and as a hobby, and I always had other jobs.” Back when he was known as Tim Maze, he booked local and national punk bands at the North Park Lion’s Club, Wabash Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, and the Jackie Robinson YMCA. Pall Jenkins of the Black Heart Procession and Three Mile Pilot remembers, “I used to go to Maze Productions shows back when I was 14 or 15 — going to punk shows like GBH, DRI, Black Flag, Bad Brains...” Mario Escovedo of the Dragons and MEX, says, “I first heard about Tim from his early promoting days with my brother in the Zeros, and then I got to meet him…as I formed a band and got to play the Casbah.”

Mays purchased a bar called the Pink Panther in 1986. “After I bought the Pink Panther, I worked at the Broadway downtown the first year we were open. Then I took a leave of absence one Halloween because we were doing some event, and by that time the Pink Panther got so busy that I never had to go back to work [at the Broadway]. So ever since, like, ’87 I guess, I haven’t had a day job.”

I ask Mays how he’s been able to consistently book obscure bands that later go on to greater success. “I did a radio show with George Varga the other day on Sign-On San Diego and gave him a playlist of songs that I’ve liked…since I was a kid. He was asking me how do I stay on top of the taste and all the new bands and stuff, and it’s super hard. You can’t listen to them all, there are so many. But again, I work with a lot of good booking agents, and I trust their taste because they’ve been doing it as long as I have…So I think, If they’re representing this band, then there must be something good about them, and more often than not, there is. It’s a very symbiotic relationship because we enable them to book those new bands, and I on the other hand look to them to bring those new bands to me. So without one or the other, the whole thing wouldn’t work.”

Mays says there are only two types of band he won’t book — reggae acts and “bands like Sublime…I just don’t like reggae. I think the whole thing was co-opted in the late ’70s and ’80s by a bunch of white frat boys, beach dudes, and so I don’t like it at all.” Beyond that, he’s had to widen his musical horizons over the years. “I learned a long time ago, I can’t just book what I like because you’d go bankrupt.” He talks about the evolution of rock music since he’s been in business. “We started out with bands like the Jesus Lizard or the Didjits, and [the booking agents] have now progressed to bands like Antony and the Johnsons. Also the record labels, like Sub Pop or Touch ’n’ Go Records, labels like that — 20 years ago, if your band was on Sub Pop, you knew what they were going to sound like, pretty much. Now, that’s not the case because they’ve branched out, and we’ve branched out our musical offerings too over the years because you have to, and because these people that I work with and trust have.”

“It’s funny,” says Mays, “because the staff here, the more we keep doing this and the bigger we get, the more we sometimes have to have a band with more commercial appeal, and the staff here is super spoiled…they get bummed out, and I actually have to sit them down and say, ‘Look…it’s a job, the band is what it is, and I don’t care if you don’t like the band or you don’t like the people they bring. They’re still here to have a good time, and you’ve got to make sure they have a good time!’ I try to book the stuff I like, but sometimes there’s a hole in the schedule you’ve got to fill, or you’ve got to do a favor for somebody. Yeah, I’ll book something I don’t like. But no reggae and no bad ’80s metal-type stuff. Other than that, pretty much anything. And that’s good because then different people come in and see the place, and maybe they’ll come back for something else and check it out.”

I speak with Mays on a Wednesday morning during his “office hours,” the time he sets aside each week to answer the phones and return emails, although he admits he returns emails from home throughout the week as well. “Since I opened my new place [the Starlite Lounge],” he says, “I’m not here as often as I used to be, which is good. It’s funny, because I spend a lot of time at the Starlite now, three or four nights a week I’m there. And now when I do come back over here at night, the music is so loud! I’m not used to it anymore. It’s weird, because this was my primary work environment for so many years…and I don’t have to do that anymore. I like being here, and I like seeing the bands. So when I’m here now, it’s more special.”

In the few hours I am with Mays, he meets with his accountant, shows the plumber a leaky toilet (“It’s like a toy toilet,” he explains), looks for a lost handbag for a woman calling in, books two bands, counts the previous night’s take from three cash registers, signs off on two liquor deliveries, and returns numerous emails. His accountant, Lori Hurt, is a new addition to his team — so new that when he starts to write her a check, he has to ask, “Lori, what’s your last name again?” Hurt says, “He used to be a lot more hands-on, but lately he is so much busier than he used to be. All this stuff I do, he used to do himself, all the books.” Mays insists that his other businesses, which include the Turf Supper Club, Krakatoa, and the Live Wire, don’t demand that much of his time. “I spend a couple days there [at the Turf Club] doing daytime stuff…the coffee shop, one day a week. The Starlite, I’m there a lot just because it’s new. Most of my time is spent doing work between [the Casbah] and the Starlite.”

At the Casbah, Mays credits his longtime staff with handling the lion’s share of the work. “I can probably go a whole month without being here at night…it’s just gotten to the point where I don’t need to be here because all of my stuff’s done, booking the bands, and making sure the whole thing works. But I still make a point of being here at least one night a week.”

With all of the artists who have graced the stage here, I expect Mays to have loads of colorful anecdotes about wild rock ’n’ roll debauchery. He tells me that none spring to mind, so I ask if he remembers the first time the Strokes played here in the summer of 2001. Halfway into the set, singer Julian Casablancas got a bit overzealous with his drunken Johnny Thunders impression and broke the head of the microphone right off its stand — on the forehead of a girl in the front row. That girl was me. Mays doesn’t remember this incident but thanks me for not suing the club. “I do remember him [Casablancas] puking outside and almost passing out.”

I ask about who has been the biggest diva. Hasn’t anyone just been an asshole? “Not that I can remember, really,” he says. “I think the hardest person I’ve ever dealt with is Crispin Glover. Yeah, he was really difficult. He’s difficult because he had a show that he put together that was super exacting, and he knew what he needed to do. But there was a miscommunication, communicating to us what he needed to make his show work. He got to a point where…I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his movies, but he’s really like that!

“He was showing a film, reading out of a book, and doing a spoken-word thing, and he’d missed a couple of flights so he was really late. We had chairs set up out there, we had to rent a projector, all this stuff, and this was in ’94 I think, so this was pretty new to us. All we did was punk rock shows, so this was a pretty major production. So he got here, and we had to change everything around. Unbolt tables from the floor, move seats around, make an aisle, so if anybody got up to go to the bathroom you wouldn’t stand in the beam of his film — just, you know, super-difficult stuff. Then, at one point, I’d misread the rider. He needed a wireless mike, but he needed a clip-on one, to keep his hands free, and I had got him a hand-held, and he had a meltdown. But by that time we’d been there all day waiting for him, like Waiting for Godot or Waiting for Guffman or something. My friend Sam was down at the airport waiting for him — Sam wanted to meet him, so I said, sure, go pick him up. Sam’s sitting there for six hours. So at that point, when [Glover] is, like, ‘I need this mike, it is imperative for my performance that I have this mike!’…I had to walk away because I was ready to say, ‘Take off. You know what, I don’t want to do this.’ But my sound guy came and fashioned something out of a little drum mike with a paperclip, and it all worked out fine. But it was tense, very tense.

“Then, there was a guy in a band called Material Issue, a long time ago, they were popular, like, in the mid-’80s, early ’90s. And they played here; they had a bus, but there wasn’t a huge crowd or anything. The guy in the band’s kind of a prima donna, and he did something onstage where his guitar almost hit my friend in the face. So my friend just pushed the guitar out of the way. And the guy came over and started yelling at him, started yelling at my door guy, and basically this guy ended up having to jump offstage and run to his tour bus because people wanted to kick his ass! He was just rude and a prima donna…there were, like, 100 people here, and he’s used to playing at places for, like, 2000 or something. So he was just a jerk. He was out in the bus yelling out of the window, and people were yelling at him, throwing stuff at him. The guy later committed suicide for some reason, so maybe his career didn’t go the way he wanted. They were a horrible band anyway.”

We are outside the Modest Mouse show, a Casbah production being staged at club SOMA. Mays stands backstage in a black leather jacket, his breath visible in the early evening chill. Everyone else is dressed in multiple layers of sweats and knit caps with big gloves. Mays directs his staff, asks the runner to take dinner orders for the crew, and doles out pay at the end of the night. In between, he’s talking with one of his guys about how great the Art Brut CD is and how clever the lyrics are. “That one song about ‘drinking Hennessy with Morrissey’!” Mays’s son ambles over with two friends who are clearly stoked to be backstage for one of their favorite bands. At 14, Keith stands a good five or six inches taller than his dad, a fact that does not go unnoticed. Two people will ask Mays, “So, where does your son get his height?” before the night is over.

Later, after giving the three kids their “WORKING” access passes, Keith will lope back to pull his dad aside. He shakes his shaggy blond hair off his forehead. Apparently a few more friends have shown up — can he get a few more passes? Then, after the show, he asks for a Modest Mouse T-shirt. Mays gives him a look. “How much are they?” he asks. “Twenty-five bucks.” Mays could probably get a free shirt and more from the merchandise guy with no problem. But he pulls a couple of bills out of his jacket pocket instead. At the end of the night, all the teenagers will walk away sweaty and smiling, with CDs autographed by the whole band, and I wonder if there is any kid at their school with a cooler dad than Tim Mays.

— Jennifer Cooke

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