To look around Boston’s Kenmore Square today — with its book store and pizza chains and tony hotel — it’s hard to believe that at one time nocturnal pleasure seekers mobbed the place, and that a clutch of music venues and dance clubs in and around the square catered to their hedonistic needs.
Even harder to believe is that a Kenmore dance club audacious even by today’s “Jersey Shore” standards was home to a weekly heavy-metal throwdown that lasted more than 10 years.
“Kenmore Square is where you went for entertainment,” says Jimmy Olson, who as general manager of the Kenmore Club complex that housed Narcissus and Celebration, had a great view of the square’s wild heyday. Olson managed the venues for 14 years, departing in 1992, a year before Boston University bought the building and the clubs closed.
And it was a time when “entertainment” was pretty indiscriminate. So Olson was open- minded when in 1982, Mike Jones, a DJ playing heavy metal on Emerson College’s WERS-FM, and Jim Blute, a Kenmore Club employee, approached him about booking metal bands on a weekly basis. They started booking metal acts on Tuesday nights in the smaller Celebration club in the lower level of the building.
“The first four or five months were painful,” Olson recalls. “But then it became an underground thing, and after about nine months it got pretty big.”
When the mid-week metal crowds outnumbered the dancers, Olson moved the music up to the larger Narcissus nightclub and switched the shows to Wednesdays; a full-fledged scene was born, one that lasted until the club closed.
On Saturday a Narcissus Heavy Metal Wednesday reunion is happening at Showcase Live in Foxborough. Flesh, Fortune, In the Pink, Jealous Dogs, Love Pollution, Blue Tiger, Mass, Steel Assassin, and Sweet Cheater are on the bill. The show is a benefit for Best Buddies of Massachusetts.
Heavy Metal Wednesday was both a stepping stone for local bands and a place to catch touring bands, and it encouraged other Boston clubs such as the Channel and Bunratty’s to set up metal showcases.
“When I was 17, all I wanted was to be 18 so I could get into Narcissus for heavy metal night. That was stage one,” says Jealous Dogs drummer Dave Christensen. “The second stage was getting together a band worthy enough to play there. That was your entry card to being a real band. Your first time was going on at 7 o’clock and playing for eight minutes. But we built our base and got to eventually headline and open for nationals.”
Jealous Dogs came along at the tail end of HMW’s run, playing there between 1990 and ’92. Kevin Curran of Steel Assassin remembers the beginnings. Blute, one of HMW’s founders, also managed Steel Assassin, and was responsible for that band’s allegiance to the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
“Jim came back from a trip to England with a suitcase full of records. The record on top was Iron Maiden’s first album,” Curran recalls.
That influence gave Steel Assassin its identity, and through Blute the band brought that underground sound to Kenmore Square.
Even as the more melodic “hair bands” started overtaking HMW, Curran says the club provided a community for fans and musicians alike.
“Every Halloween, all of the musicians from different bands would get together and we’d do a tribute show. We’d do all covers, but it got everyone out of their comfort zones and you saw the camaraderie,” says Curran, who is still active with Steel Assassin.
The wild nights and big crowds — which Olson says could surpass 1,000 people — provided more than just good times. In the case of Flesh, it taught the band how to hone its craft. And one HMW performance for the band Mass led to a record contract.
“The first time we performed we were so new we didn’t have a name. The sound guy asked what were called, and bassist told him ‘Flesh.’ That was one name we were kicking around and we just said, ‘What the hell, we can change it later,’” recalls Mark Cherone who played guitar in the band through its run from 1986 to 1996 (and in a 2006 reunion).
Cherone and his brother Gary, who also played HMW with his band Extreme, today perform together in the Who tribute SlipKid and in the original outfit Hurtsmile.
“We honed our craft on that big stage,” Cherone says of the Narcissus layout. “We could imitate our idols there. We were ‘Kiss Alive II’ in that room.”
Mass singer Louis St. August describes HMW as a supportive home base as the band built its national reputation.
“Around 1987 we left RCA Records. Carter Alan at WBCN supported the band, so he had record labels come see us at Narcissus where we played to packed houses. Enigma Records came and two days later we had a contract,” recalls St. August, who still fronts the band.
Olson stayed in the club and restaurant industry following his departure from the Kenmore Club. But he never saw anything quite like HMW again.
“I’ve worked in nightclubs for a long time, and I know what happens when you put 1,500 or 2,000 people in a building with alcohol,” he says. “There were never any issues at metal night. These kids weren’t nuns and priests, but nothing serious ever happened. For them, the music was the most important thing.
gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottMcLennan1