Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix The Toilet Papers

By Laurie Hoffma

MARCH 16, 1998:  Sometimes the rock-and-roll dream is more like a nightmare. For every megaplatinum rock star, there are a hundred bands toiling away in dingy basement clubs -- including, early in their careers, the megaplatinum stars themselves.

The dinginess is part of what makes rock clubs what they are. And nothing is dingier than a club bathroom. As an audience member, you can try to squirm for a few hours to avoid a particularly stinky, slimy pit, but touring bands have to use them over and over. These tiny hellholes are where we do our preening, our puking, and everything in between.

So when I decided I wanted to chronicle my travels as keyboard player with the band Vision Thing, I zoomed in on the toilets. Well, I didn't exactly zoom. I bought a very cheap Polaroid camera and have used it for four years to take pictures of the gritty interiors of small clubs, of larger venues, of outhouse "changing rooms."

I'm glad I've chronicled the rock-and-roll toilets of North America, because these places won't be around forever. In the last couple of years, we've lost two of the great grotty toilets of Boston: the Rat closed late last year, and Bunratty's (more recently Local 186) is now the Wonder Bar -- with a toilet about as interesting as Wonder Bread.

I've taken 542 pictures so far, and interviewed a number of musicians about their experiences in club bathrooms. People have a lot to say -- sometimes far more than any decent person wants to hear. But who gives a damn about decency? This is rock and roll. Some rockers even have fond memories of washrooms, and assign them due weight in rock culture (check out David Byrne's and Lars Ulrich's stories). There are people, I guess, who will piss lemonade if you feed them lemons.

Lars Ulrich (drummer, Metallica):

When I think back over the last 15 years, especially in the early days of playing clubs, one thing to remember is that toilets served many purposes. Many more than just going to the bathroom. They were your sanctuary for whatever, good or bad, you wanted to get up to. When you're playing these quote-unquote toilets with toilets in them, a lot of times they are the one private office for whatever deeds you wanted to get up to. And I've been up to a lot of good and bad in toilets across the country . . . believe me. A good, roomy toilet can serve a lot of purposes.

Kim Ernst, (singer and guitarist, the Bristols):

We were playing the Living Room in Providence, opening up for the Ramones. We had the "B" dressing room, but it happened to have a bathroom. Joey Ramone really needed to use the bathroom, so we say okay and file out. He's in there a little while, and he comes out and says "All clear." So we go back in, and I guess he thought he had flushed, but the bowl was full of shit, and the shit was full of corn! So we're standing around looking and saying, "This is Joey Ramone's shit, and it's full of corn!" The poor guy -- but we were actually worshipping his shit.

Dicky Barrett (singer, Mighty Mighty Bosstones):

I think in Boston we've got some of the worst [toilets]. The Rat would be the textbook case. No doors, first of all. I have a standard I use: if somebody asked me to watch their pet monkey, would I put him in this room and ask him to use that toilet? No.

Cam Ackland (singer, Prime Movers and VooDoo Dolls):

Once I went to take a leak upstairs at the Rat. There's this big Scott towel dispenser thing for the toilet paper, and it's covered in graffiti, hieroglyphics, Inca shit all over every inch of it, and it all just blends, you're all drunk and shit. And all at once, through this mess, one thing just stands out -- someone had added a Y to the SCOTT and written WIPE ME UP, SCOTTY, and I just thought this was soooooo funny. I was laughing so hard I pissed all over my shoes. And I was such a mess I had to leave -- I just pushed past my friends and left, and I walked home to Allston.

Tanya Donelly (solo artist, ex-Belly, ex-Breeders, ex-Throwing Muses):

This one is about Kim Deal. We were in France, and all the toilets are the kind where you have to squat and pee. Kim [Deal] picked one that was actually a bidet. It activated [Tanya mimes a very surprised person being sprayed in the crotch]. She jumped up and screamed.

David Byrne (solo artist, ex-Talking Heads):

In the '80s, club toilets were the place to go. Male, female, gay, straight, all in the same john scoring, chatting, pissing, throwing up, or checking your look. There was even a club called the Toilet.

Catherine Wheel (Dave, bass; Neil, drums; Brian, guitar; Rob, voice and guitar):

Dave: I'm sure most of us have stories about toilets, but we can't tell them.

Neil: There was one involving a joint and a scrotum, but I'll tell you about that later.

Brian: Actually, there's the toilet in the Fastway Club, in Asbury Park [New Jersey]. There's a line of urinals, and there was a cubicle to shit in, but the cubicle's gone. There's just this toilet sticking up out of the floor. So if you're havin' a shit, you've got to sit next to all the guys havin' a piss. "Hi, mates." 'Cause there's no privacy. The toilet's stickin' out of the ground like a mushroom, it is.

Neil: There's never any toilet seats, either. Most unnerving for a British boy.

Rob: There are never locks on the doors, either . . . if they've got doors in the first place.

Crappy the Clown (singer, Punch Drunk Monkeys):

One place we went, the bathroom was too gross to use. I went in the basement and found a box and took a shit in it. At the end of the night they stiffed us and I said, "Left a present for you in the basement."

Paul Buckley (drummer, Orbit):

I have a million bathroom stories. The worst one was at the Bottom of the Hill, a club in San Francisco. It was sound check and I really had to go, I'm thinking, I can't make it . . . I can't make it. The bathroom was next to the stage and next to a big area where everyone was playing pool. It's just this big space, no stall. So I sit down, and one of the pool players kicks the door open -- there I am just sitting there, begging them to close the door again. We were playing with an all-girl band, Van Gogh's Daughter, and they're all laughing at me and stuff. They kept kicking the door open and I'd just sit there while everyone laughed, begging them to close the door.

Lisa Susser (singer, Vision Thing):

J.C. Dobbs in Philly. I had a migraine. We were in a rock-and-roll dive. I barely made it through a slow ballad, turned to the band and burbled out, "Vamp, play something, I'll be right back," and bolted to the bathroom, mercifully located right next to the stage. It was empty and I horfed my guts out in a private, relatively clean bathroom. I came back out and finished the set. Nirvana played this club. I wonder if Kurt Cobain puked in this toilet?

Reeves Gabrels (guitarist, David Bowie Band):

There are two bathrooms that I've found really memorable. The first is at Cain's Ballroom, in Oklahoma. When you go in the dressing room, you're trapped back there. The only way in or out is across the stage. And there's no toilet. Then there's the old bathroom at Bunratty's. I remember it being the most horrible. There was a point when there were no stalls up, so it was a bare room with a toilet and two urinals. And the door would never close. The best rule of thumb in playing clubs is to use the ladies' room when you do sound check, because it will always be better than the men's room.

R.L. Burnside (blues guitarist and singer):

Well, I was over in Italy, and I needed to go to the bathroom. They don't have no commodes, they just have these holes in the ground. I can't read the signs, because we're in Italy, so I push open a door, and there's this lady in there, and she says, "Hey, hey, this is for ladies," and I said [pretending to swing his member, grinning slyly], "Well, so is this."

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