For 18 months in 2005 and 2006, a certain midtown house with a crumbling foundation was the place to see awesome, freaky and occasionally awful rock and roll.
At least, that's what I hear. People converged on the literally underground rock club called the Sleeper Cellar (at 512 West 39th Terrace) for the final time in August 2006, several months before I moved to KC.
Fortunately for those of us who never made it to the party house, there's now a movie about it.
Most of the footage for the documentary Shameless in Kansas City was shot during the Sleeper Cellar's final eight months. For the past year, former Cellar residents Anne Pierson and Justin Eagan have been editing the 100-plus hours down to about one hour of highlights.
If you don't know local music, Shameless might seem like so many party shots. There's no narrator to tie the scenes together or explain the chronology. As the DVD's opening credits say, it's really just a video collage of "one year in the life of a rock-and-roll house." Bands play. People dance. Hipsters speak drunkenly into the camera.
But the concert clips offer a parade of local rockers, including Pixel Panda, Onemilliontinytinyjesuses, This Is My Condition, the Ssion, Super Black Market, the Supernauts, the Sperm and other KC and Lawrence notables.
"Everybody played there," Pierson says.
So did a lot of nobodies. The Sleeper Cellar provided an outlet for freaks and rock experimenters who couldn't land a gig anywhere else. Case in point: a woman on the video who wears a fishnet leotard and swings a phallic, plastic toy guitar around.
"Some of the bands were terrible," Pierson recalls.
And some, including the touring acts, were damn good.Trailer for the documentary Shameless in Kansas City:
Shameless features quite a few out-of-town performers, from as far away as Olympia, Washington.
Eagan says the venue's greatest success was having nurtured a following for bands that might otherwise have skipped KC. The dingy basement first exposed metro music fans to Chicago's Lord of the Yum Yum and Indianapolis' Abner Trio, both of which routinely stop here now.
Although best known for its concerts, the Sleeper Cellar was also the site of flea markets and art shows. Pierson has fond memories of roommates staying up all night working on art projects. One product of such an all-nighter, a piñata in the shape of the club, gets destroyed on the DVD. "When you live in a place like that, with no amenities, and you're young and poor, what else is there to do?" Pierson says.
Pierson is glad that they have more than memories of the time. "When you have a house like this, after it's over and done, you think: Wouldn't it have been great to have videotaped it all?"
At any given time, the Sleeper Cellar officially slept Eagan, Pierson and as many as four other young bohemians. Rent was cheap, but the old house didn't stay very warm in the winter, and a strong wind — to say nothing of rock-and-roll decibels — could have shattered the windows.
In Shameless, one partier recounts waking up in the morning to a cockroach crawling across his chest. The critter was probably drawn to the garbage that Pierson and Eagan say they couldn't stay on top of. With three to seven rock shows happening in the basement every month, no amount of cleaning was enough. The venue's biggest monthly expense was industrial-strength trash bags.
"All I remember doing is sweeping up glass," Eagan says.
Nor was there any such thing as privacy. "I couldn't put my CDs or books on a shelf. Everything was in my room, locked up," Eagan adds.
Eagan would never live at the Sleeper Cellar again. But for a while, it was home — to its official residents and to the KC scene.
Honor the memories Tuesday night during a 7:30 screening of Shameless in Kansas City at Tivoli Cinemas. Copies of the DVD will be available for $10. After the show, the party moves to The News Room, where some bands will play for free.