A few days after the Great White tragedy in Rhode Island, I ran into my friend Jamie McLendon at the Sleepies show at Bully's Basement. He looked ashen and uncomfortable. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he was still completely freaked out about the fire in Rhode Island that killed 99 people. His eyes seemed to be darting around the room, maybe checking for open flames--there were none, and the Basement feels like a safe venue to me (though the steam that comes out of the toilets is slightly unsettling). But McLendon's band, Dom Casual, has played venues all over the Triangle, and he's such a sweet and responsible chap that the specter of an audience trapped in a cloud of toxic smoke had really shaken him.
"This has definitely made me think of what would happen if any type of fire would break out," he told me later. "Unfortunately, there are few places where I think chances of survival are pretty good. Most places are set up with a front door and a back door, but then you have a huge space in between where there wouldn't be much anyone could do. If either exit was blocked by fire, people would be trampled. And if there are narrow enclosed staircases involved, you can forget about it."
Fire marshals are making the rounds at Triangle clubs in a wave of increased vigilance that will hopefully make us all a bit safer. But some more extreme steps are also being taken that could significantly affect the local rock scene.
Chapel Hill is considering a proposal from Fire Chief Dan Jones that would require clubs to install sprinkler systems--which could cost a 5,000-square-foot club upward of $20,000. Any new venue would have to have sprinklers in place, and existing clubs would have to install them within five years under the proposal. No such proposals are being considered so far in Raleigh or Durham.
The alt.music.chapel-hill listserv was buzzing all week about the plan. Some people proposed that the town should create a fund to help clubs pay for sprinkler systems--
otherwise, the clubs would simply go bankrupt. Others wondered if this wasn't an overreaction. Most bands playing small clubs don't use pyrotechnics.
"I think tighter fire inspections at this point would be the most helpful," McLendon said. "The cost of installing the systems is going to put most places out of business, which could spell the end of our local music scene. I think the big issue here is just common sense. Obviously, no one is going to set off fireworks in the Cave. There is no way the management would allow that."
Club owners and musicians obviously share vital interests, but bands can sometimes find themselves in a vulnerable spot. I asked the prolific David Cantwell (who plays in the bands Razzle, Cold Sides, and Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan) what he thought about the fire safety issue, and if there were any local venues where he didn't feel safe. "Frankly, I think that Ringside is a disaster waiting to happen," he told me. "But, in most places I've felt safe."
At Ringside last weekend, a flyer explained the locations of fire extinguishers and exits. "Commit to your memory the layout of this building and the route to an exit," read the note. "As a last resort every window in this building is operational." Safety is also up to the guest. "There are ashtrays throughout the club. In the light of recent events, failure to use them will result in immediate expulsion."
Michael Penny, owner of Ringside, said he made up the flyers out of concern for customers at his labyrinthine four-story building in downtown Durham. "I was very concerned when all that crazy stuff happened and I wanted to make sure people were aware that there is an exit in the back of the building."
He said fire marshals have inspected the club five times in two years, most recently the week before the Chicago club fire, and after telling him to get rid of a few extension cords, gave the place a pass. "You just can't be casual about it. You have to really be vigilant."
Cantwell hasn't seen any antics on stage that have made him worry. "I saw a very modest display at Kings in Raleigh once," he recalled. "One member lit his chest hair on fire and another member lit her cigarette off the flames. But I didn't really feel unsafe--it just smelled really bad."
He also sees this as an issue of common sense. "I obviously thought it was tragic," he said of the Rhode Island club fire, "but I also suspected that there was something very stupid going on." He said the pyrotechnics display "might have been appropriate for a Great White show in 1984--when they were playing in arenas and shit--but it's totally irresponsible in the small clubs that has-been bands are relegated to playing nowadays."
He doesn't think sprinklers are the way to go. "I think it will probably bankrupt small venues who could reasonably get by with a portable tank-style fire extinguisher. It strikes me as well-intentioned, but not taking into account that most bands are not obsolete hair bands trying to impress their audiences into thinking that they still 'have it.'"
Right now, the Chapel Hill Town Council is gearing up for a March 24 public hearing on the sprinkler proposal. If you feel strongly about safety, or are concerned about your favorite village venue's survival, now's a good time to drop them a line. Meanwhile, please be careful where you shake your ash.