When Jim Harold took over at TJ’s, a dank basement barroom in Kenmore Square, he thought about bringing in some bands to get a few more paying customers in the door.
The club, formerly known as the Rathskeller, had enjoyed some success hosting live music — the Remains, the Rockin’ Ramrods — for college students in the 1960s. Figuring he could bring back rock music as a draw, he restored the old name. Everyone just called it “The Rat.”
Harold was a businessman who could do your taxes, a guy who loved spending his free time on his boat. He also loved the nightlife; he managed a few clubs around town on the road to the Rat.
But in the mid-1970s, Jim Harold didn’t necessarily know how to identify good rock music. At his first meeting with the upstart Boston band DMZ, he took them for big stars. Guitarists JJ Rassler and Peter Greenberg both had long, curly hair and were experimenting with makeup. It was the glam era.
“He thinks you’re Led Zeppelin or something,” said a friend who was with them, Oedipus, the radio DJ who was hosting the first punk rock radio show in America at the time. Rassler instructed his friends to keep their mouths shut, and Harold booked DMZ to play a gig at the Rat as if they were some barnstorming arena rock group playing a club gig under an assumed name.
After the band played their first song, Harold leaned toward Rassler from the side of the stage and called him a couple of choice names.
“You got a full room, don’t ya?” Rassler replied.
Within a matter of months, the Rat would be well on its way toward becoming one of the world’s most renowned rock ‘n’ roll dive bars. From those early days until the club’s demise in 1997, the Rat was Boston’s answer to CBGB — a fraying urban watering hole that presented some of the best, most innovative, and least compromising music of its era.
“I was a little hustler, and he recognized that,” says Rassler of Harold, his longtime friend, who died Sunday at age 79. “He was a big hustler, and I recognized that. We were from the same tribe.”
Harold, Rassler says, “was more than willing to take more than a chance.”
New to talent booking, the club owner was a quick study. He brought a few carloads of representative bands to New York City to play CBGB — besides DMZ (led by singer Jeff “Monoman” Conolly, later the frontman of the Lyres), the bill included the Real Kids, the Infliktors, and Thundertrain. He booked the Cars before they were “The Cars.” And he brought in great bands from out of town, from the Ramones and Talking Heads to the Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
Before the local band Nervous Eaters seemed destined for national success, Harold took on a management role, effectively making them the Rat’s house band.
“He almost got us a deal with A&M [Records],” recalls Steve Cataldo, the band’s frontman. Long after he and his colleagues had moved on to a new manager, Fred Lewis (who also handled the Cars), Harold kept close tabs on the band.
“He figured we were climbing up the ladder, and he was happy for us,” says Cataldo, whose band is now enjoying a late-life revival. Harold, an imposing, mustachioed figure who was only too happy to clear the room at closing time, had a reputation as a no-nonsense club owner.
But “he was always in a good mood, with lots of laughs, with us,” Cataldo says. “He never got heavy with us, even if he had to at times. People will run over you if you let them.”
Judy Grunwald began attending shows at the Rat as an underage 17-year-old in the mid-’70s. Her fake I.D. was good enough to get her past Mitch Cirillo, the Rat’s impeccably dressed doorman.
At 21, Grunwald began playing shows at the Rat as a member of the new wave band the Maps. She went on to cofound Salem 66, an all-female trio that built a strong following in Boston and beyond during the mid-’80s.
She has fond memories of seeing Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and LA’s all-girl group the Runaways at the Rat before taking the stage at the club herself.
“Everything at the Rat was exciting, but seeing women in bands was especially exciting,” says Grunwald, who has two grown daughters with her husband, Neighborhoods frontman David Minehan.
“Any time I ever dealt with Jim, he was so sweet. He treated us like we were his daughters or something.”
James Ryan first met Jim Harold when Ryan was running the Rainbow Rib Room, at the corner of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Ave. Ryan was asked to cater a record release party for Rat Records, Harold’s short-lived enterprise. For the party, he ordered a large ice sculpture in the shape of a rat.
“I have fond memories of Jim stroking the ice sculpture at the end of the night,” Ryan recalls. “He was very amused.”
A year or so later, some of the staff from WBCN — big fans of Ryan’s barbecue — suggested he talk to Harold about bringing his menu to the first-floor barroom of the Rathskeller, above the performance space. Harold had recently bought the building.
From 1980 until 1987, Ryan ran the Hoodoo Barbecue, a no-frills eatery so beloved that Esquire magazine named it one of the best new restaurants in the country.
When they sealed the deal at the Rat, Harold told Ryan that his rent on the kitchen space would be 10 percent of his gross, with the owner taking the proceeds from liquor sales. In the beginning, Ryan says, he paid about $200 on monthly sales of $2,000; by the end, he was selling $25,000 of food each month.
“He gave me a home,” says Ryan, who fed half of Kenmore Square and kept members of the Del Fuegos, Scruffy the Cat, the Neats, and other bands on his payroll. “I can’t be more thankful for the opportunity Jimmy gave me, and the chance to foster a whole group of friends I’m still close with.”
When a representative of Boston magazine phoned Ryan to tell him they wanted to award the Rat as the city’s “best dive bar,” the guy expressed concern that Harold might take the honor the wrong way.
“No, that’s perfect,” Ryan said.
“Jimmy laughed his ass off,” he recalls. “Of course, we staged a party to celebrate.”
E-mail James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.