By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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In talking about Rock Island, the LoDo club he owns, David Clamage offers kudos to a such a long list of past and present employees and associates that he sounds like Sally Field on Oscar night. But his excitement is understandable. After all, on Thursday, October 31, Rock Island will celebrate its tenth anniversary--and in the fast-changing, trend-happy world of Denver nightspots, that's an eternity. "We've seen a lot of our competitors come and go," he says. "But we're still here--and we're enjoying it more than ever."
The idea for the venue was born in 1986. Clamage, who owns a variety of properties in the city, was looking for something to do with a building at 1614 15th Street. Back then, this address, only a few feet from a now-demolished viaduct, was singularly unpromising. When asked to describe the neighborhood where it was located, Clamage says, "In one word: the Bowery. It was a seedy, rundown area that had been abandoned by the city and the community. There were very few businesses down here. The Wazee Supper Club was here, and City Spirit had just opened, but aside from some light manufacturing businesses and abandoned warehouses, that was pretty much it."
Indeed, few folks felt safe even going near this portion of LoDo--but Clamage felt that clubgoers would brave the block if they were given a good enough excuse. "We thought that people into what we now call the alternative-music scene were an underserved demographic in Denver," he says. So after checking out several appropriately vivid spaces in New York City, Clamage and his design team (including Charles Callaway, Alfredo Garcia-Lucio and Wendy Watson) created a room with an edgier personality than that exhibited by other Denver clubs of the era. "We set out to make it raw and unpretentious," Clamage notes. "Our motto was that it was a place where 'you can dance as loud as you want.'"
The concept took off quickly, attracting a notably loyal clientele. Nonetheless, the operation suffered the usual ups and downs over the years that followed. Clamage points to 1989 as Rock Island's roughest year--and he takes much of the blame for the downturn. "At the time, we thought the market was going to go more upscale," he reports. "We'd been hit hard by the opening of 23 Parrish; we were seeing fewer and fewer bodies. And since lower downtown was just being discovered, we thought we'd come up with something new." But this variation, dubbed Club No-No, proved to be, in Clamage's words, "a miserable failure. Not enough new people came, and our core audience was extraordinarily vocal about not liking it. I got letters, postcards, phone calls and everything else from people who said, 'You've screwed up by drifting from the original vision.' And they were right. So we abandoned Club No-No after a six-month run and went back to what we'd been in the first place."
Although numerous live acts (including Skinny Puppy, firehose, Soundgarden and MC 900 Ft. Jesus) have created a ruckus on the Rock Island stage, the venue is best known as a dance club where fun-seekers of every color, gender and sexual persuasion are welcome. However, a handful of residents at Edbrooke Lofts, an upscale residential structure that was established in a building across the alley from Rock Island around the time that LoDo was just beginning to boom, haven't been so hospitable. Since the early Nineties, Rock Island has been a focus of their complaints, a fact that definitely gets under Clamage's skin. "A lot of people who moved down here like the urban feel, but they also want the quiet and cleanliness of a pastoral setting--like Parker," he says. "I think most of them have unrealistic expectations about what it's like to live in an urban environment."
Rock Island has also come under heat from self-appointed moralists who, according to Clamage, "see young people with spiky hair and nose rings and think they're all drug abusers and rapists." Several years ago an acquaintance showed him a video distributed by a right-wing Christian organization that included scenes shot outside and inside the club during a Warlock Pinchers appearance. "Anybody who's ever been to a Pinchers show knows that everything they do is all in fun," Clamage says. "This Christian organization had twisted what they saw into the implication that these kids were worshiping the devil. But the truth is, they were just good people trying to have a good time in their own way."
Annoyances like these would prompt most businessmen to try to sell such a controversial structure as soon as possible--and Clamage admits that of all of his investments, "Rock Island is the one that contributes the least to my wallet. We make enough money to pay our employees and keep the doors open, but that's about it." The reason Rock Island still exists, then, has everything to do with the amount of enjoyment Clamage derives from it. As he puts it, "If I didn't own the place, I'd be down here all the time anyhow. I just like it."
The extravagance of the club's tenth-anniversary celebration is an indicator of Clamage's devotion. A slew of DJs, including Paul Italiano, Michael Miller, John Chapman and John Chamie will be spinning late into Halloween night--but they're hardly the only attractions. "The theme of the evening is old slasher movies from the Fifties and Sixties," Clamage enthuses. "We're going to re-create the shower scene from Psycho, have wild costumes and do all kinds of other bizarre things. We're also going to have a huge mechanical spider climbing the front of the building--and we'll have fire-breathers and even a parade." When asked about the route for this assemblage, Clamage laughs: "We'll probably just parade up and down the alley--but we're going to have fun with it anyway."