Page 6 of 8
Every few minutes, someone taps him on the shoulder and thanks him. These shows of appreciation touch and befuddle him. "I just wanted to see these bands," he says.
A new landscape surrounds El Torreon. An upscale liquor store has just opened across the street at 31st Street and Gillham Road, and the nearby Velvet Dog and Empire Room attract a steady stream of suburbanites. Even Ed's Dainty Corsages, once a defunct business where visiting bands would pose for campy photos, has arisen from its dirt nap. Three years ago, Saunders and his staff pleaded with local panhandlers not to harass the club's patrons; now they patrol the parking lot to make sure martini sippers aren't hogging their spots.
In the beginning, the rough neighborhood might have enhanced El Torreon's credibility, but Saunders' management was what made it a legitimate punk establishment. On countless occasions, he paid bands out of his own pocket when shows bombed. He invited fading legends like U.K. Subs, the Vibrators, Vice Squad -- knowing that they wouldn't meet their guarantee and that he'd have to chip in -- just so local punks would have the chance to see these icons. And when a show was canceled, often through no fault of his own, he'd contact the groups and offer them gas money and dinner.
Throughout its history, El Torreon struggled with eccentric crowds, but in the past six months, Saunders says, no show lost money.
In June, though, Saunders says Haddad informed him that nightly rent would soon spike from $200 to $500. Saunders usually set aside $225 from the door draw, then gave the bands 80 percent of the remainder (often supplying some of the balance himself).
Before pulling out permanently, Saunders says, he made Haddad a counteroffer to rent the space on a monthly basis.
"We came in low, because that's what you do," he says. "I know exactly what's being made down there. Well, I thought I knew. It must have been more, because it came back to me that we lowballed him and insulted him. Then I didn't hear anything for weeks, and it was really frustrating. I won't fix a sink in the house for years, but when it comes to music and punk rock, I want to do things right away." Haddad was unavailable for comment.
For Saunders, there had been other disappointments. During one of his first visits to El Torreon, back when Alison was practicing with Sister Mary, he noticed that the second floor, with its arched ceilings, could boast amazing acoustics. It was cluttered with scooters, jukeboxes, chairs and cars, but Haddad told him he had big plans for the space. In 2000, Saunders told the Pitch that Haddad planned to restore the ballroom so that bands such as Metallica or AC/DC -- groups "who want that big ballroom sound," he said -- could make stage recordings there. This never materialized, nor did a later proposal to construct an indoor skate park. The second floor remains a junk heap.
"I felt like Sisyphus pushing sound equipment up a hill," Saunders quips.
The first floor, for that matter, is at best lovably ugly. Columns impair views in both the main room (where Fugazi once played to a full house) and the regular room, site of the July 4 show. Though grittier punks enjoyed its greasy, garagelike ambience, many visitors never warmed to its uninviting layout. And most drinkers didn't appreciate the quarantined bar, which offered an obscured view of the stage through a chain-link fence.