A run-down three-level bar and restaurant in Kenmore Square, the Rathskeller had hosted live music sporadically in the ’60s without changing the world. But in 1974 —when Jimmy Harold bought the club (which by then was called T.J.’s), brought the old name back, and opened the basement room to bands —an alchemical change occurred: The Rat became the go-to club for new, original rock and the burgeoning social scene around it.
When R.E.M. wanted to play a club, the night after headlining a show at Harvard, they dropped in on the Rat. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in town for a gig at the Harvard Square Theater in 1977 and wanted to hear some music, they hung out there. Although the club’s reputation had declined before its 1997 closing, by then the grungy music room had hosted the likes of The Police, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Joan Jett, Husker Du, Metallica, and a thousand local bands — including some, like The Cars, that would go on to worldwide fame.
Longtime Boston rocker Richie Parsons was in five of those bands. One of the Dorchester native’s first Rat gigs, with Unnatural Axe, in 1978, was opening for The Police. He was 18. “We all thought Frank, our bass player, was the best, and then we saw Sting at sound check.” He laughs. “It was an eye-opener.”
Why the Rat became a creative crucible, where a rock-centered scene coalesced, is debatable. One theory points to its layout: In addition to the basement, the Rat had the upstairs bars, where music lovers and other creative types could spend time without paying a cover. (The high-end Hotel Commonwealth now occupies the site.)
Lilli Dennison was visiting a friend in 1979 when she stopped into the club and asked for a job. Over the next eight years, she became the scene’s self-described social director, progressing from waitressing to managing bands like the Del Fuegos, one of the Rat headliners that went on to release albums nationally (even if they are probably best remembered today for their Miller beer commercial.)
“You could go there every night of the week. All the bands were hanging out,” says Dennison, who now DJs as Trickbag Record Party in Seattle. “It was a clubhouse.”
Another theory points to the time. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the mainstream music industry hadn’t yet learned how to capitalize on the American punk/garage rock scene. This left room for independent record labels and nonprofit college radio, supporting a do-it-yourself atmosphere that also fed the visual arts and alternative press.
“There wasn’t yet a music business for this kind of music, it was being invented,” says Tom Johnston, director of programs for the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. A former Rat bar-back, he had first snuck into Rat shows as a teen while attending the Center for Alternative Education across the street. “Having to create it made people engage in a deeper level,” he says.
“That was the appeal,” says Parsons, whose fifth band, Tomato Monkey, played the club’s final night, along with local favorites Gang Green. “You went down the stairs and you opened up this secret world.”
Clea Simon’s work as a music critic for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, and numerous music magazines forms the basis for her upcoming novel “World Enough,” to be published by Severn House this fall. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.