It’s one of the last true D.C. spaces to sit along 14th Street, a corridor now home to more banks and corporate eateries than the pawnshops and laundromats that some of us might remember. And standing on the checkered floor, looking around the main stage of the Black Cat, you would have thought the last show cleared out just moments ago — drums still sat on the stage, glasses sat on the bar, the campy Centaur pinball machine still aglow.
Dante Ferrando, owner, operator, and D.C. native met me upstairs and we talked all things Black Cat, the changing punk scene, 9-11, coronavirus, and the future of the club. Standing over five feet with blue hair and a convivial, upbeat attitude that may have had more to do with that coffee cup he’s hardly ever seen without, Ferrando sat at his table and me at mine. And I asked him point blank: Would the club weather this storm?
“We’ll be here,” he said.
The formula for success? A mixture of a timely PPP loan, robbing his own retirement fund, and the fact that they own the building. It’s not the same building they had when it all started back in 1993; that’s a few doors down. And the whole thing got started when Ferrando, himself a drummer in a band, cobbled together a group of investors, including Foo Fighters lead Dave Grohl, to start a live-music venue in the heart of the District. The year 2001 saw the Black Cat, in a three-day move, relocate to its current location. The second day of that move was Sept. 11. Ferrando told me that “was the worst year the club experienced,” adding, “until this year.” If anything is similar between now and then, it’s the fear and apprehension that’s cast a pall over the District. And live music events are squarely in the city’s Phase Four operating plan in dealing with the virus, that is, in a post-vaccine world.
Until then, Ferrando said that “me and my wife are burning through our retirement money.” And practically everyone was let go; Ferrando even fired himself. At peak business, the Black Cat would be employing 20 to 30 people at a time — everyone from bartenders, door people, coat check, sound and lighting. They were all gone within a week.
And then there were all the shows. Given the nature of the touring industry, his stage was booked out nine months in advance, and in a matter of weeks, hundreds of thousands of tickets had to be refunded. A second round of PPP loan applications was successful. But the limitations on what the funds can be used for are too strict, Ferrando said. It did help stave off disaster for sure. But it cannot be used toward D.C. property taxes — running about $214 a day — and the city hasn’t really given a break on that. Still, though shuttered, work continues. In 2018, the Black Cat announced plans to shrink by almost half. Why? As the Washington Post put it in 2018, “punks don’t live here anymore.” It’s just not the same D.C. that produced such famed punk groups as Fugazi.
And it’s certainly not the same 14th Street as in the early 1980s, when Ferrando would dread getting stopped at the light at 14th and P, because inevitably a prostitute would jump on the back of his motorcycle. The only way to shake them was to tell them he had no money. The whole street was just “a little rougher,” he told me. Most places were boarded up, and he counted four homeless shelters within a four-block radius. But, then again, punks, and the punks who worked at the Black Cat could afford to live in the neighborhood. And the grittiness and honest texture of the club’s numerous spaces appealed to them. But by the early 1990s, businesses started filling in. And by the time the Trader Joe’s and the high-end apartments above it arrived, Ferrando no longer had staff that could walk to work. But he also saw the writing on the wall, by downsizing the club by half — closing down the cafe and the “Backstage” venue, moving the fabled “Red Room” upstairs — Ferrando is busy reworking those spaces for retail rentals, hoping the rent generated there will help bolster the Black Cat’s finances.
And no, the Black Cat is not a gay space in the strictest sense. But, like any underground punk space, it can certainly lean queer. The staff of the Black Cat like to think of the space as a sort of unofficial gay bar, and as such they never shy from producing queer events with indy beats and bents. There’s Gay Bash, though that has since moved down the street to Trade. There’s the yearly Booty Rex Pride event for queer women and gender nonconformists. That’s been selling out yearly since 2014. There’s Homo-Sonic, and the old ABBA parties, those were back in the mid-90s. And there was Shea Van Horn and Matt Bailer’s mega popular Mixtape. There’s also Furball and Rich Morel’s Hot Sauce and so many Babe Rainbow Pride nights that they all sort of blend together in a cloud of vodka sodas and Madonna floor-filling dance songs. And of course, The Black Cat being primarily a venue for live music, the space has hosted a number queer acts and artists, including Janelle Monae, Limp Wrist, The Gossip, Perfume Genius, Bikini Kill, Christeene, Le Tigre, and Erase Errata, just to name a few.
What’s it all for? “I just like weird people,” Ferrando said. “Our goal was never to sell the most drinks, as long as we can pay the bills.” Adding, “what we do here is a bit more important.” And what they do — offering a space for the quirky, an art space, a fringe space, a safe space for the underground — is still hugely important especially now given the changing dynamics of the District. The underground was always a safe and special space for the queer community, a place where the misfits fit, here in D.C. and in all major cities.
And as spaces change, let’s hope Washington will still make room for the Black Cat.