After 40 years, T.T. the Bear’s calls it a night
In 1973, when she was 31, living in her native New Hampshire, and had mostly worked as a bartender, Bonney Bouley took on a new adventure. She was in love, and she and her boyfriend opened a dive bar in Cambridge. After seven years it wasn’t working out, and they needed a second act to pay the bills. Someone suggested they turn it into a rock ’n’ roll club.
“Sure!” Bouley said, with a quick follow-up question. “What’s that? Being from New Hampshire, [I thought] there was no such thing as a rock ’n’ roll club.”
Figuring he should investigate other local rock venues, Miles Cares, Bouley’s boyfriend and business partner at the time, checked out the Channel and the Rat. He reported back to Bouley: “It’s just a floor. That’s all we need, and we’ll build a stage.”
“OK, fine,” Bouley said back then. “And that’s what we did.”
What a nonchalant start for a venue that became an integral part of the city’s live-music scene, especially for rock ’n’ roll. For more than 40 years, Bouley, 73, has owned and operated T.T. the Bear’s Place, the beloved Central Square nightclub that’s now in its final days.
Starting Friday, T.T.’s will host nine nights of farewell shows before it closes on July 25, including a recently announced surprise show by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on Saturday. (The band will be coming straight from its set opening for Foo Fighters at Fenway Park that night.) The full calendar is at www.ttthebears.com.
Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley initially played at T.T.’s with her first band, Rebecca Lula, when she was about 19, and has always been “Team T.T.’s,” as she puts it.
“I literally would not be speaking to you do if it were not for Bonney and Jeanne [Connolly, the club’s bartender and booking agent who died in 2009],” Hanley says. “They were these badass broads, and it never occurred to me that it was unusual that they owned and ran a club. Other people went to college, but I came up through the ranks at T.T.’s as a singer in a band.”
On a recent afternoon, Bouley invited a Globe reporter and photographer to her stately home on a pretty, tree-lined street in Dorchester. Ella, her sweet Pomeranian, greeted us, followed by one of Bouley’s few cats. She’s an animal lover who dreams of someday running a rescue, maybe even on the property of her second home in Albuquerque.
For the next hour, Bouley waxed nostalgic about four decades as an unlikely pioneer in the local music community, whose own musical taste skewed toward Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, and jazz. She was especially proud of her legacy as a woman who ran a nightclub.
“I think one very exceptional thing about the club was that it was to a great extent owned and operated by women, and that made the experience of playing there a uniquely different one,” says Stephen Fredette from Scruffy the Cat, which will be the last band to play T.T.’s.
It was more than a nightclub: It was a showcase for local talent (the Bosstones, Pixies, the Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom) and springboard for out-of-town acts of various genres (Indigo Girls, Arcade Fire, Nelly Furtado, Zac Brown Band). In recent years, the club was also buoyed by DJ Chris Ewen’s regular dance nights, along with the long-running Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble, the annual battle of the local bands.
With a cozy capacity around 300, it was a venue that inspired fierce loyalty among the bands who played there. As they graduated to bigger rooms and audiences, they often never forgot the first break T.T. the Bear’s gave them. The Pixies certainly remembered that and returned to the club on June 18, playing a surprise show that was announced that morning. The band even had T.T.’s-specific T-shirts and posters made for the occasion.
Bouley’s decision to shut down largely stemmed from a lease dispute with Joseph and Nabil Sater, the brothers who own the building that houses both T.T.’s and the Middle East restaurant and club complex they run next door. After purchasing the property late last year, the Saters had planned to raise Bouley’s rent by nearly 35 percent in order to cover the mortgage. The Saters have not announced their plans for the space, and Bouley says she’s taking her liquor license with her unless they buy it in a last-minute deal.
Originally on the corner of Pearl and Green streets, T.T.’s began as a rowdy bar that closed in 1978, reopening in 1980 in its current location at 10 Brookline St. A restaurant for a few years, it morphed into a full-time music club in 1984.
In the early days, Cares took care of the business side, while Bouley was considered its heart and soul. By most accounts, she ran a tight ship, insisting that bands bring in an audience for their shows and work their way up to headlining status. She taught them how to build a fanbase and make a living as a working musician. She cared about them.
“I would give bands a chance, and I would listen,” Bouley says. “I realized how important they are, and that they really matter. It’s a hard job. I hope I’m remembered for respecting what they did, and I feel very honored to have been part of that.”
A gig at T.T.’s was highly coveted among local acts, and Bouley and her staff — which over the years included the invaluable guidance of booking agents Connolly, Jodi Goodman, Randi Millman, and current general manager Kevin Patey, among many others — took deep interest in who graced the stage.
Bouley’s instincts weren’t always right, mind you. She laughs when she recalls the time Goodman booked an unknown country singer and showed Bouley the promo poster. “Who’s this?” Bouley asked, to which Goodman replied, “k.d. lang. She’s going to be really famous.” Bouley had never heard of her and demanded that Goodman cancel the booking.
Bouley has been the club’s sole owner since 2010 and brushes off a question about what happened to Cares, her former partner in and outside T.T.’s. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says, making a shoo-fly gesture toward the reporter’s digital recorder.
She has never liked the club’s name, by the way. Cares suggested T.T. the Bear’s as a joke in honor of Tough Teddy, a pet hamster they had at the time. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Bouley says she responded when Cares told her he had registered the name at City Hall.
“I find it strange that I can’t remember the first time I went to T.T.’s or played there like I can for most of the Boston-area clubs,” says Scruffy the Cat’s Fredette. “I think that might be because it would be like remembering the first time you went into your own living room or kitchen. It was kind of like being home.”