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Saunders makes no apologies for the alcohol segregation. "It's an all-ages club, not a bar," he says. "Ninety-five percent of the time, it's kids at the show. Finish your beer and then go have fun."
Saunders made the same sort of sacrifice. During sets he would have loved to watch, he was behind the bar. When the Dropkick Murphys played, El Torreon patrons chugged $2,800 of liquor in four hours, and Saunders' fingers bled from popping tabs. The converted coffee urn that served as his tip jar read "Don't be a cheap fuck; tip your bartender." The urn now sits on a kitchen shelf at his house; its contents usually went to pay the bands.
Missing performances to open cans wasn't the only downside of Saunders' tenure at El Torreon. Although he loved dealing with local acts -- watching Tanka Ray mature, seeing Descension become an unlikely fixture, tapping Big Iron to be Fugazi's opener -- he had less-pleasant exchanges with booking agents. One advantage of the DIY world is that the musicians are just thankful to play. They'll gig with busted equipment or missing members -- anything to get their songs out -- and they'll gratefully accept any form of compensation. Label-backed bands have greater expectations.
"You've got to smooth-talk these bands, caress them, then yell at them to leave," Saunders explains. "You've got these booking agents that tell me, 'This band is huge. They'll pack the place.' I tell them, 'We'll get sixty kids.' I know. They'll ask for barricades, and I'll just laugh at them. This is a punk club.
"Some of the groups won't allow you to have local openers, either," he continues. "Like Alkaline Trio. And the Donnas won't let you put another girl band on the bill. It's ridiculous. Don't these bands remember how they got started? The saddest thing is when these local kids request to play with some certain group, thinking they're going to impress their idols, [but] 99 times out of 100 [the headliner will] just be hanging out in the van when the kids are playing."
Also, the bigger the band, the more complaints about the sound, which could be noisy and bass-heavy. In recent months, the spoiled rock stars might have had a point. Arguments about the soundman led to other clashes between Haddad and Saunders -- eventually bringing about the climactic conversation about raising the rent.
El Torreon remains open under Haddad's guidance, but its calendar, which listed three to four shows a week as recently as June, now offers only a handful each month. The biggest draws, Descension on August 9 and Moire on September 27, are metal groups. A number of punk outfits, from local stalwarts such as Tanka Ray to touring acts like Sixer, have vowed to avoid the venue now that Saunders is no longer involved.
For years, punks mourned the Daily Grind and campaigned for a replacement. When El Torreon, one of the longest-running all-ages venues in the city's history, didn't meet all their expectations, some of them abandoned it.
Now, as the search for a new space begins again, the scene hovers dangerously close to 1996 levels.
Within the past month, the medical center and furniture shed have ceased to exist as music venues. Both spaces had originally become available because someone had family connections, but one of the families moved, and the other's members became increasingly concerned about the risks involved in hosting unchaperoned events. Even if hard-line punks wanted to fall back on El Torreon in the interim, until some family connection frees up another lobby or warehouse, there's not much left on the schedule.