Saturday, June 20, 2015

Interview with Allan Pepper (The Bottom Line)

While we mostly interview artists for our NoiseTrade One-on-Ones, it's always an interesting experience to interview someone from the legions of off-stage roles that encompass the music industry. Allan Pepper co-founded the legendary Greenwich Village music club The Bottom Line in 1974. Pepper ran The Bottom Line (along with the other co-founder Stanley Snadowsky) in the bustling New York City music scene for an impressive (and absolutely star-studded) 30-year run. We chatted with Pepper about The Bottom Line's earliest days, The Bottom Line Archive Series releases, and Bruce Springsteen's mythical pre-Born to Run 10-show stand at the club in the summer of 1975.

NoiseTrade: When you first opened The Bottom Line back in 1974, there’s no way that you could’ve envisioned the depth and range of talent that would continually grace its stage over the next three decades. What was the initial vibe of the club like upon first opening its doors?

Allan Pepper: When people ask me about the success of the club, I always talk about the fact that the stage was blessed on opening night by three musical wizards. There was a jam with Dr. John, Stevie Wonder, and Johnny Winter in front of an audience that included Mick Jagger, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Don Kirshner, Rip Torn, Geraldine Page, James Darren, Charles Mingus, Janis Ian, and a host of other notable celebrities. Because of the opening night notoriety, we kind of hit the ground running.

The other thing that always drew attention was that our booking policy was so varied. We always wanted to present the best talent of the time that was available. And because of the range of music, it always kept people curious. We never envisioned ourselves as a specific kind of room – not as a jazz club or rock club or a cabaret. We always saw ourselves as a music room open to booking beyond one specific genre.

NT: Do you remember the first moment or the first artist that made you say “Hold on, I think we’ve really got something special going on here at The Bottom Line”?

Pepper: When we opened The Bottom Line, Stanley and I were both 31. To finally open the club was a dream come true for both of us. We had been working towards that goal since our early 20s. So when that opening night jam occurred that I referenced in your first question, and those sparks coming off that stage in front of this kind of audience, I turned to Stanley and said, “Holy shit, this is just the first night”.

At the time we opened, clubs in general booked long engagements - meaning a week to two weeks at a time - and we wanted to be more flexible. We would book an act for as many days as they could be available. I didn’t know if that would work or not. One day, I got a call to see if we would be interested in booking Rick Nelson for a Friday and Saturday night, and then 10 minutes later, I got a call from a different agent asking if I would be interested in booking The Strawbs for the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week. It was at that moment that I knew our approach was going to work.

NT: As a huge Springsteen fan, his 10-sold-out-show stand at The Bottom Line in August of 1975 is pure musical mythos for me. What can you tell us anything about those 10 career-launching shows and about what you remember of that inexhaustible, 26-year-old, pre-stardom Bruce and his E Street Band?

Pepper: The first thing I can tell you is that it was every bit as magical as everybody said it was. The Born To Run Tour was the second time Bruce appeared at the club. He played at the club a year before that. Truthfully, on that first engagement, I didn’t get it. Part of it was because his show was evolving. And in fact, it wasn’t the E Street Band that we know today. And so, on this engagement a year later, when I was bringing in the crowd that had been waiting outside, a couple at the head of the line said Bruce Springsteen had ruined live music. I asked them what they meant by that, and they said, since they had seen him, they couldn’t go and see anyone else live because no one else could measure up. After seeing Bruce’s 10 shows, I knew exactly what they meant.

NT: The Bottom Line was known to be an intimate venue with an “official” seating capacity of 400. As it was routinely known to run well over that number, what were some of the most packed-out shows that you remember?

Pepper: Legion of Mary with Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders, David Bromberg, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Springsteen's Born To Run tour, and Billy Idol – to name a few. The Legion of Mary show was our first real experience with that kind of overflow audience. People camped out on the street the night before to buy tickets. I actually slept at the venue that night. I figured, if they were gonna do it, so would I. I also wanted to make sure tickets went on sale when they were supposed to.

NT: Although the club closed in 2004, you have recently reignited the spirit of the legendary venue with The Bottom Line Archive Series. You released three live albums this past March and have four more planned for release on June 30 (Harry Chapin, Janis Ian, and two star-studded compilations featuring Joey Ramone, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, and more). How do you go about selecting which shows to releases and what can we expect from The Bottom Line Archive Series going forward?

Pepper: There are many factors that go into making these decisions. The physical shape of the tape (some have mold or some disintegrate when you pick them up), the sonic quality of the tape (how the tape actually sounds – meaning can you hear stuff clearly), and the performance on the tape. We have some tapes that we would not release because Gregg Bendian, the series producer and a musician himself, felt the performances were not up to a level that the artist would be comfortable with. He has transferred 3 different tapes we didn’t even send to the artist for their approval, because Gregg, as a musician and producer, did not feel they would be happy with their level of performance.

There’s a lot of consideration for how an artist sounds when making a decision as to what will be released. And yet, there are other tapes where the performances aren’t pristine, but the spirit and energy of the show captures something very special and that’s worth preserving. And then of course, you have to be able to get the rights to these performances which sometimes go beyond the musicians themselves. Currently, we are in discussions with either the artist manager or estates of some of the following: Waylon Jennings, Rory Gallagher, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, Jack Bruce, and Doc Watson.

NT: Finally, there have been countless examples of shows played at The Bottom Line that are important to the overarching musical culture-at-large. However, on a truly personal level, what’s an example of a moment at The Bottom Line that you have held the closest and in the fondest light over all these years?

Pepper: There are the obvious ones – the opening night with Dr. John, and certainly Bruce Springsteen and of course Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Meatloaf, Lyle Lovett, and Doc Watson, but there’s also Barry Manilow’s first appearance, Dolly Parton, Flo & Eddie, and most certainly, the first production of Leader of the Pack, every episode of In Their Own Words, and without a doubt, the Downtown Messiah.

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