As families and friends of the Station fire victims wend their way through the grieving process, legislators are seeking to enact substantial new regulations that could drastically alter the local club scene.
In the three weeks since the fire, there have been a myriad of temporary club closings due to code violations. The inspections are necessary and welcome in the wake of the tragedy, but many establishments are being forced to meet unreasonably strict new standards.
Everyone involved in the industry needs to take a long, hard look at how such egregious oversights and misdeeds can be prevented from ever happening again.
But what repercussions will now occur? What changes will be enacted? What will the Station fire mean to the future of Rhode Islandís nightlife? How will you be affected?
To help us envision that future, and to examine the ramifications of the pending legislation, we assembled a panel of local professionals for a roundtable discussion:
Kevin Cummings: Owner/manager of Cats and KCís Tap in Pawtucket for seven years.
Kevin Finnegan: Owner/manager of the Ocean Mist in South Kingstown, Finnegan has operated the beachfront restaurant and club for 16 years.
Jason Kendall: The respected vocalist, formerly with the Amazing Crowns and with his new band, the Deterrents, has been "in every shoebox honky-tonk 300 days a year," he says.
Rich Lupo: The veteran club owner on the scene in Providence, Lupo has run his Heartbreak Hotel (at two locations) since 1975.
Neal Vitullo: A mainstay of the regional R&B/blues scene with his band Young Neal and the Vipers, guitarist Vitullo has forged a career spanning three decades.
Q: What were your first reactions when you heard about the fire at the Station?
Kevin Cummings: People at my club didnít know till later in the night. Bands playing, people watching sports.
Neal Vitullo: Woke up at 7 a.m. and I was just shocked. I was pretty numb to the whole thing. How do you react? By noon the casualties were around 50 and they kept going up. As for business, itís tough enough without that.
Rich Lupo: Like Neal, I turned on the TV at 7 a.m. Like the other guys, Iíve been in the position of that cameraman [WPRIís Brian Butler] hundreds of times. I was just numb.
Then I went to the club to work and the phone was off the hook with calls from parents who wondered if it was safe for their kids to go to one of our upcoming shows. You got right into running your business. You have all these feelings, but [we] got right into the business and havenít stopped since.
Q: What were your experiences on the job the weekend after the fire?
Kevin Cummings: Entertainers showed up, staff showed up, but there was that underlying feeling that was there all night. Low energy, somber note. Come the end of the night, business was transacted but nobody really cared.
Neal Vitullo: I played out that Friday night in Wallingford [Connecticut] and it was definitely somber, especially when people realized [we were] from Rhode Island. By the second show, we had a great house, but people started filtering out. They didnít feel comfortable in that situation.
Rich Lupo: We care about as much as anybody about the rock and roll tragedy that just took place. But right now, weíre fighting for our own survival.
Kevin Finnegan: As Rich said, thereís no time. You have to go back to reality and work on the perception of our problem. I donít know how to fight that fear or prejudice. Itís invisible.
Rich Lupo: Two days after the fire, I was listening to talk radio and some guy called in and said what a shithole firetrap Lupoís was. That got other callers upset. So now thereís a backlash. We were suddenly the enemy.
Kevin Finnegan: That first day or two, I was worried as a club owner. But now the blame seems to be spreading out.
Q: Did you view your own place differently after the fire? Did your perception of your building change?
Kevin Finnegan: Iíve always considered the Ocean Mist a safe place. Still do. I hope this meeting helps us get our message out there. Rich can put 1500 people in a club and have it be a safe night. The South Kingstown fire marshal calls me up and says, "Iím not here to hang you by the balls. I just want to come out and educate you further on safety issues." That was a good thing. We can work together.
Neal Vitullo: Iíve made a living playing guitar in clubs for over 20 years. Itís my job. You donít give it a thought. Iíve played the Station a half-dozen times. Then again, I donít set fireworks off in small clubs. If I did, Iíd take responsibility for it.
Q: Have you all been visited by fire people the last two weeks? (All three club owners say "Yes.")
Kevin Finnegan: I didnít have any problems. But we were reduced to a capacity of 182. The fire definitely brought it down. Thatís down from 301, where we were for 11 years. We were at 475 before that. This was all with the same size room. [Depending on the business] itís either seven square feet per person, 10 square feet, or 15 square feet per person. If I was a gym or some other assembly hall, I could put 350 in the place. But because I serve alcohol, you go to a lower number. As alcohol servers, you start at seven square feet per person.
Q: What will the consequences be if the legislation goes through? (Rhode Island officials have filed a bill that would require the presence of two police officers at a club when there are more than 200 clubgoers present; it would also require two on-duty cops for any show that admits patrons under age 21.)
Kevin Cummings: Some of the larger acts will stop playing some of the smaller places. Rich can do the nationals and semi-nationals. But at 182, Kevin canít get the numbers to make it. I canít get enough people in my place to do that. We canít accommodate.
Neal Vitullo: In a lot of cases, Iíll end up staying home. Iíve got to earn a living, but if the moneyís not there, itís not there. Thatís the root of the whole thing. Right from the beginning itís the numbers and the way the clubs get squeezed in every aspect. All small businesses get squeezed. Itís at the heart of this country and you canít even be in a small business these days.
Rich Lupo: Thereís this general view of club owners taking this extra money. People donít appreciate how hard this business is and how difficult it is to make a living doing it.
Kevin Cummings: Rich, let me tell you: "Youíre all set, you own a club." Jason, "Youíre all set, you guys are rock stars." Is that not the perception?
Rich Lupo: Iíve already seen two squeezes. Thereís a lack of advertising money from beer companies; theyíre going to stay away from spending advertising money with clubs. We also lost a radio-backed show we were going to put on because they lost their advertisers. There are lots of implications. Cigarette companies and other large corporations will stop advertising.
Kevin Cummings: I have had one promotion pulled, but one guy stepped up and offered money to contribute to the benefit. After the fire, they came forward to contribute money for advertising to show that they support the scene. These are people who never offered me anything before. Distributors. So while I Xed one supporter out, two others filled in. I look at it as a contribution to the scene.
Rich Lupo: There will be a decrease in national [presence] around here.
Kevin Cummings: Nationally, correct. Locally, there will be more opportunities at shows. The scene seems to be doing something right now. The bands and advertisers are more active now and coming together. Where before I saw small cliques doing separate things, now I see people working together saying, "Hey, dude, what can I do to help?"
Q: In the Phoenix the week after the fire, an ad for Jarrodís (a club in Attleboro, Massachusetts) noted that they would be charging more for admission "to pay for onsite fire patrol." Is that something you would consider doing?
Kevin Finnegan: If thereís more than 100 people, I have to have a cop at the door. If I could charge $50 a head for 182 people, it still wouldnít work ó 182 people at the Ocean Mist would be boring. When youíre dining, you want some space. But in a club you want there to be a crowd. Iíd rather go see Buddy Guy at Lupoís than a big hall where you have to sit in a chair. It can be safe and crowded. You still want a crowd for the vibe and the feel.
If they start demanding too much from us, then itíll be like, "Well, why donít they make everybody stay home after 7 p.m.?" Not to make light of what happened, but how many people die in cars? Well, do you get rid of all cars?
Rich Lupo: If you have to have a fire marshal, wouldnít it be simpler and cheaper to put in a $20,000 sprinkler system and pay that off every week? The fire marshal would prefer that, Iím sure.
Kevin Finnegan: In South Kingstown, there are some well-run places. Weíre as good as the computer business next door, the clothing business. Weíre an important part of the fabric of the town. Ten to 15 years ago it would have been, "Get rid of that place!" Now thereís more respect.
Q: Is it true, Rich, that you now make safety announcements at shows?
Rich Lupo: Yes, we now run an announcement at shows to notify people of the fire exits. I had someone come in the other day and talk to my staff about how to funnel crowds out. My biggest fear in the days after the fire is not that there would be a fire, but that there would be panic. I wouldnít be surprised if someone threw a firecracker to be an asshole in the ensuing days. We had a sell-out a few days after the fire, the Common show, and the crowd was fine. It was back to normal.
Kevin Finnegan: We had a line out the door [for Badfish, a Sublime tribute band, on February 28]. We turned away 200 people. The line was out there for a while. I said to them, "Thereís no way youíre going to get in here. Just go home." But they were bullshit about the lower capacity. We met our capacity early that night. I asked them, "Do you even see the news? There was a fire, dude!" More than a disaster, though, Iím worried about having a small fire in the kitchen, and setting the sprinklers off. I worry about the crowd freaking out and stampeding to the exits. You could have five fire marshals and a wrestling team there and people would still get trampled.
Neal Vitullo: I played in nine different clubs since the fire and I have not felt in danger whatsoever. People ask me, "Do you look for the fire exits? Are you scared?" No, Iím not scared. Iíve never felt in danger. Itís a safe industry. Itís like sitting down in any restaurant and having a pizza. Itís a safe industry and people are very responsible. Itís a tragic accident, like a plane crash. The whole industry is not dangerous. Millions and millions of people go out all the time and come home safe. Thereís no reason to be persecuting and closing these small businesses.
Kevin Cummings: Why not try to make it safer without putting a third of the club owners out of business?
Kevin Finnegan: Iíve been in business for 16 years and I havenít even had a fight. Not a fight! I booked 900 bands last year, two or three a night.
Kevin Cummings: As owners, to give people a vote of confidence, the best thing to do would be to take care of those things you were thinking about doing, but never got to. Take care of things that you really didnít have to take care of. Clean things up, make íem look better. Make it look like youíre aware that thereís a certain perception and weíre trying to be accountable.
Rich Lupo: The way things are right now, youíre gonna get closed down if youíre not up to code.
Kevin Finnegan: The codeís the easy part. Give us the code and weíll meet it or exceed it ó as long as the code is fair, no problem. But having 182 people in a place the size of the Ocean Mist is absurd. Absurd. If youíre worried about safety in that situation, you might as well just stay home.
Rich Lupo: Every inspector, every fire marshal is dealing with the same liability issue now that we are. They canít give anyone a break. No one can do anything right now other than whatís allowed by the strictest interpretation of the codes. Because everyone is liable right now.
Kevin Cummings: Weíre here to entertain people and the fire marshals are around to serve and protect them. We all have our own interpretations of those codes. But as far as catching a break? Weíve all caught a break now and then. Grandfathering? Well, Iím not going to grandfather my kids in terms of safety and stop holding their hand when they cross the street. Iím gonna hold their hands while theyíre young and need to cross the street. You canít grandfather them across the street. Especially when a facility changes hands. The new corporation must adhere to the present-day codes.
Q: Will 18-plus shows be affected?
Rich Lupo: Eighteen-plus was a state bill. The only change going into the new bill is having an automatic detail of two policemen. A lot of clubs would go out of business with this new bill.
Kevin Finnegan: I run some 18-plus or all-ages shows. Iíve been doing two cops and two extra doormen for years at those shows. I have a close relationship with the police department in town. The old school townies wanted me to have a police detail ó one police officer for four hours. At all-ages shows, we decided to have one walking around inside.
Q: How have you changed your booking policies?
Kevin Finnegan: Stopped them completely. I would have had all my bands booked, all my big shows set until September right now. If I had all those contracts signed and had all those deposits out there, I wouldnít have gotten them back. I couldnít make any money at those shows with my adjusted capacity. I would have been out $40,000. Except for the $300 bands, Iíve stopped booking.
Q: Are you worried that youíre going to go out of business?
Kevin Finnegan: The way it is right now, absolutely. In three to six months, I will be out of business. No question. If I donít change gears, Iím done.
Rich Lupo: Well, a lot of these codes are subjective. Thereís a possibility that maybe down the line I might have to give up the Met. The landlord is trying to get our club to move to a new location, so there are complications there, too.
Kevin Finnegan: I expected to be in this business 20 more years, but now I donít think I could do it. My attorney called me after the fire and he told me to sell the place right now and get out of the business. I own my [property], Rich leases. When lightning strikes, who do you blame?
Rich Lupo: That reminds me of another problem. My landlord was considering bringing suit against the club because heís afraid of liability on his real estate. Down the line, whoís gonna wanna lease to a rock and roll club? If you could be named in a suit, would you rent to a rock club?
Q: Neal, have you had trouble booking gigs the last couple of weeks?
Neal Vitullo: Iím trying to book gigs, but getting anyone on the phone these last two weeks has been impossible. Nobody wants to book gigs right now. Thereís a ripple effect throughout New England. Theyíre dealing with fire marshals throughout the Northeast. One club had put fire-retardant carpeting in, but the fire marshal said it wasnít the right carpet, so they had to rip it up and do it again. Everybodyís scrambling.
Rich Lupo: Itís hysteria. Iím not saying itís overreaction, but itís a state of hysteria thatís going on right now.
Kevin Cummings: With pending legislation and reactions, the changes are going to come. As far as how we run it, weíll have to adapt to changes if those changes happen. We try to go in as partners with the bands. We work with them for a successful night, but we donít have big guarantees.
Rich Lupo: Weíve booked a few shows in the last two weeks, but not much. On a band level, it doesnít take much for a tour to fall apart. A band books a national tour, they can cancel a tour, a couple of cities fall out, they put pressure on you to get more money, somehow you end up paying more and the ticket prices go up. I think youíre gonna see higher ticket prices in order for everyone to survive. I donít wanna see it. But I think it will happen.
Kevin Finnegan: I can deal with the math of it. If I get 100 people less through the door, then the ticket price goes up a dollar or the drink prices get bumped up 50 cents. But the wrench in the works is when I get these hysterical 911 calls, because thereís the perception that my club is overcrowded. What can I do about that?
Q: How will you deal with the stricter fire code?
Kevin Finnegan: I tried to put sprinklers in back in the day, but it was $27,000. Today I can afford it more with loans, or grants from the government. I do what I have to to bring my place up to code.
Kevin Cummings: Bring places up to code. Thatís it right there, guys. Just that statement: the codes are there for all of us. We take on certain responsibility by opening our doors and saying, "Come on and play here, people. Eat, drink, dance, and have a good time." If [we believe] the codes are unrealistic in some cases, letís work together and meet in the middle. Small businesses fuel our economy. The government has to work with us, especially if weíre willing to work with them. Canít we get together on all of this? I think we can.
Kevin Finnegan: Itís still about perception. It took me 16 years in South Kingstown to get across the idea that on Sunday night Marcia Ball plays the Ocean Mist, and on Monday she plays the White House. Or an act plays Letterman one night and comes to the Ocean Mist the next night. Thatís a cool thing that people donít even realize. Weíre still trying to overcome the stigma of the biker bar-type place the last owners had from the í60s. The perception of these clubs from the old school is that people come and get hammered and start fights. If I could run a club by selling Coke I would. In the í70s, we used to sell a case of non-alcoholic beer a year. Now we sell 25 cases a week! People eat, drink and be merry, but itís not like it used to be. Clubs are safe!
Rich Lupo: People that like music and like going out know that, but thereís a different perception of us among people who donít do those things. Thereís a stern, anti-liquor sentiment out there.
Kevin Finnegan: Two hundred years ago tavern owners were pillars of society like bankers and lawyers. Today, weíre sleazy, pot-smokiní, book-makiní lowlifes. How do you get rid of that perception?
Kevin Cummings: I talked earlier about our reaction to the publicís reaction. Whatever the bureaucracy does or says, weíre going to have to conform to it. Either that, or you go out of business. That said, we have to take whatís already in place, look at it, apply it, and hopefully weíll be all right. We are aware of whatís going on and we are trying to make it OK. Weíve been trying to do it right for years. But right now, theyíre trying to put legislation through that is fueled by societyís emotion. What sense is it to have three bands on a Wednesday night playing to 30 people and [require] a fire marshal? Does that make sense?
Rich Lupo: There are two bills right now. The first is to have a sprinkler system for every club over 100 capacity. The second one says that you have to have two policemen on duty if you have anyone under 21 or your capacity is over 200. My question is, how many club owners will go out of business because of these laws? Iím not saying this is wrong legislation. But how many clubs will not be able to swing this?
Kevin Cummings: What will happen is, if the club canít do it, weíll make the change from live music to breakfast, lunch, and pizza. Simple as that.
Neal Vitullo: If this were the fishing industry, everybody would be up in arms saying, "Oh, we have to help the fishermen. Theyíre hurting." Weíre small businessmen just like they are. For me, if these changes happen, playing music will shift from a job to a hobby. We donít have a lobby like the fishermen that sit up there and fight that stuff. That could be disastrous. We need a strong voice.
Jason Kendall: The scene in Providence used to be so much better 10 years ago than it is today. If this legislation passes, the scene will become a total backwater.
Kevin Finnegan: If it doesnít change, weíll be a breakfast/pub-type place. The stage just wonít be as important to the mix because we [wonít be able to] afford it.
Q: Where do we go from here? What do you hope for?
Kevin Cummings: Itís about awareness. We have to be aware that this has happened and we canít change it. The flipside is that if there are some changes and we have to change our format, well, we have to change or cease to exist.
Kevin Finnegan: Voters and taxpayers that go to the Ocean Mist, who have been to lots of safe shows, great shows, crowded shows, need to speak up so they wonít lose that experience. They need to speak. I was always quiet. The complainers speak. They get on the news. They call the police. I get a phone call complaining from one person and I have to jump? What about the other 300 people who come in day in and day out and have a ball in a safe environment? Itís time for them to speak.
Jason Kendall: Going out to see a show thatís not too packed is a great feeling. If people were to lose it, it would be a shame. If these new bills do pass and they put small and medium-size clubs out of business, it would be horrible for whatever scene we have left. There wonít be bands getting bigger around here, traveling, bringing bands back. Weíll become culturally desolate.
Rich Lupo: I agree with all of these guys totally. I think that a nightclub is just as safe as a restaurant. But I do think the rock industry is going to shrink. Itís happening right now. The implications are far-reaching. It will affect the whole state.
Neal Vitullo: If you stop bringing in national acts because you canít accommodate them, imagine what effect itís going to have on the scene and on the kids. If I didnít see Son Seals and other guys playing guitar at clubs when I was growing up, I wouldnít have picked up a guitar myself. If the kids donít have the exposure, our entire music scene will suffer, from the kids on up.
Itís as safe as itís ever been and will continue to be safe. The guys with the big mouths have to understand that this is peopleís livelihoods. Weíre small businessmen. This country is all about us. Weíve all worked hard to enjoy the lives that weíve lived.
I donít want to be selfish about that just because music is my livelihood. The people who died that night went out [to have] a good time and it was a series of mishaps that caused this, like any other accident.