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So long, Hammerjacks Ending: For years, the club defined the city's popular music scene. Now the site is slated to become a parking lot.

April 20, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

"You have to understand that, in addition to being a promoter and an electrician, Louie is also an architect," says Bud Becker, who was Hammerjacks' national talent consultant from 1986 to 1992. "Louie's concept was, you had participants, and you had spectators. So if you were a performer, you'd get up on the bar. And if you were a spectator, you could stand on the second floor on the balconies, and see the show.

"That way, people who were exhibitionists had an outlet. But at the same time, if you came into the club and you were a little more conservative, you didn't feel funny. What you did was, you stood up on the balcony with people like you. And still, on Monday morning, you could go into work and say, 'Yeah, man, I was at Hammerjacks partying.' "

Party on

Hammerjacks opened its South Howard Street location in 1983, and it wasn't long before the Principio principle took hold. Within a couple of years, the club's reputation for wild times had spread up and down the East Coast. I can remember a New York musician telling me that she had been at the club for a New Year's party and women stripped down to their underwear and danced on the bar.

"It was the most insane thing I'd ever seen," she said --no small compliment considering she was in a band fronted by a former member of the Plasmatics, whose shows involved a lead singer in pasties who chain-sawed TV sets in half.

Rock and roll

Two years after the club opened, Principio expanded into the warehouse next door and opened the Inner Harbor Concert Hall, and Hammerjacks began booking live music for the first time. That was when the club truly got into the rock and roll business, and the Hammerjacks lifestyle appealed as much to rock bands as it did to rock fans.

"I just enjoy it," said Brett Michaels of Poison in 1989. "It's one of those clubs where every time I go there, I just have a really good time. But if I was married or engaged, I'd never go there. It's the wrong place to be if you're married or engaged."

It was also the wrong place to be if you'd had too much too drink, as Izzy Stradlin of Guns N' Roses learned one night in 1988. GNR was only just becoming known among hard-rock fans -- this was just before their first hit single, "Sweet Child o' Mine" -- when the group got its first headlining show at Hammerjacks.

As was often the case in those days, the band killed time before the show by getting drunk. "Me and Izzy got really [messed] up," recalled GNR guitarist Slash a couple years ago. "I play well when I'm [messed] up. Izzy, on the other hand " Being drunk was only the beginning, though. "We were in the office, because the manager wasn't in there," says Slash. "And Izzy peed on the floor."

Needless to say, this did not go over well with the Hammerjacks management. "Actually, I think the security guys threw him out or something," says Becker. "Of course, nobody knew what the band was going to become at that point, or they'd probably have invited him to urinate on stage!"

Hammerjacks may have been a metal mecca in the late '80s, but metal wasn't all the club booked. There were mainstream rock shows featuring the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Samantha Fox and Roxette, country concerts with Charlie Daniels, Waylon Jennings and the Kentucky Headhunters, rap shows with Run-D.M.C., KRS-One and House of Pain, and alternative bills ranging from Debbie Harry to Cracker to the Butthole Surfers.

And Hammerjacks was able to deliver sell-out crowds across the board, for everything from Living Colour to Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. Everybody, it seemed, went to Hammerjacks at one point or another.

"There's no magic ticket to getting that success," says Principio. "It's just a lot of work, 12- or 15-hour days, seven days a week, and always fixing something, and always delivering the goods, and always coming through, and always being on top of everything."

Looking ahead

Hammerjacks made another change in 1992, when Principio turned his back on the hard-rock market. Some of that had to do with changing tastes and the fact that many of the old-line rock bands just weren't drawing the way they used to, but most of it had to do with "moshing."

"I couldn't stand it," says Principio. "Moshers don't do anything except physically abuse one another. So whether they're getting in a circle or putting people over their own heads, they're making a conscious decision to do some physical harm to their own selves. Which is really an absurd statement. What level of human being would do that to themselves?

"Moshing's what told me I'm not doing no more rock and roll. That's when I got completely out of rock and roll, and went DJ, dance, adult black and hip-hop."

These days, Hammerjacks caters to four basic audiences: A college and young professional crowd one night; an adult, black contemporary crowd the next; a young hip-hop crowd on Sundays; and what Principio calls an "urban" audience.

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