Art Brut and the Hold Steady both want deli trays. Casbah owner Tim Mays and his manager Andrew review the contract from each band’s management the day before both are set to play a show at ’Canes in Mission Beach. It is one of the many shows each month that Mays puts on outside the Casbah to accommodate bands that draw crowds in excess of 200 people, which is capacity of the space on Kettner and Laurel.
But that room, the one whose exterior is painted red with chrome flames licking up the sides like a tricked-out hotrod, is where the deli-tray negotiations take place. This is the place where every important band in the independent music world comes to play when it hits San Diego, the place where acts such as Nirvana, the White Stripes, and the Strokes played before they became household names. It is every local band’s dream to play at the Casbah, and many veteran artists of the past 20 years call it their home base in San Diego. Ask any record company, music magazine, touring rock ’n’ roll band, or indie pop geek across the U.S. for the one name synonymous with San Diego, and they will all say the Casbah.
New York City has its Mercury Lounge, Washington, D.C., has the 9:30 Club, San Francisco has Slim’s, Seattle has the Showbox, and Austin has Emo’s. San Diego has the Casbah. With bigger venues being swallowed and homogenized by corporations, the Casbah may be San Diego’s only icon in the music world.
But that doesn’t mean Tim Mays can pay for superfluous deli trays for bands that will roll in at 4:30 p.m. only to turn around and use their $250 dinner stipend a few hours later. “Let’s see if we can talk them into just [getting] the drinks, the fruit plate, and the vegetables,” Mays says as he looks over the rider. The cases of beer and bottles of premium liquor are standard. It’s the little things, like salami and Brie, which probably won’t get eaten, that Mays tries to control as much as possible. “If a band really wants something, we try to get it for them,” he says. Even if it’s an extravagance, like Van Halen’s infamous request for no brown M&Ms in their dressing room? “Sure. I like to make the bands happy.” Except the Casbah doesn’t have a dressing room. “We let bands use the office if they need to change or just want to get away from the crowd. Obviously only three or four people can fit in here.”
In fact, Mays says he prefers it when a band is particular about what sort of refreshments it wants. “It makes it easier. If you’re going to the store, just looking for, like, ‘chips and dip,’ that could mean anything, there’s so many choices.” So what some people see as diva-esque pickiness, Mays sees as convenient specificity. Maybe that’s part of what makes him the kind of boss people stay loyal to for 10, 15, and 20 years, as is the case with many of the staff at the Casbah. But don’t ask them about it — they’re not talking.
None of Mays’s staff will agree to talk with me.
There does not appear to be any reason for this reluctance — it’s just that everyone is content to let Mays be the mouthpiece. The standard response to my requests is “Uh…I think Tim’s the best person to ask about that.”
He laughs when I tell him about the staff’s reticence. “That’s funny. Who’d you talk to? I haven’t talked to them about it. I don’t know, we’ve all worked around each other for so long, I guess they don’t need to say anything.”
The office is a tiny space crammed with a beat-up black desk, chair, file cabinets, a dusty fax machine, a small upholstered banquette covered with a serape, and a Shop Vac 16-gallon drum for a wastebasket. All four walls and the ceiling are covered with band posters, pictures, record covers, and dozens of handwritten notes from artists, from the staff, to themselves, to Mays, and to each other.
“Tim, Keep on rockin’ in the free world! — Juliette Lewis”
“To all staff: If you hear the toilet running at the end of the night, please do something — don’t just leave to run all night long!”
“Andrew, you need to buy a new light for the front bar and one for over the front door. — B”
“Hey bartenders, I’m real horny to cover your shift, if need be. — Thaddeus”
“DON’T FORGET YOU’RE HERE FOREVER.”
It always feels like Christmas at the Casbah. This might be due to the generous use of Christmas lights, some in working order, some not, all over the joint. And the first time I walk in during daylight hours, I see that the dominant color scheme is indeed red and green. The walls are plastered with posters advertising the acts who will play there soon. The doors and moldings are festooned with layers of vinyl band decals, so thick from years of piling on top of each other they may as well be linoleum. It’s a constant battle to see who can pepper the place with the most stickers, and right now a band called the Willowz is winning.
I see co-owner Bob. Always the first one in the door, he turns on the lights and meets the purveyors. I’ve been coming to shows at the Casbah for over 14 years, and Bob is as much of a fixture as the buttoned black leather banquettes that line the back wall of the stage. He doesn’t say much but points me toward the office to meet with Mays. With his short hair, Levi’s, rock T-shirt, and black Pumas, Tim Mays looks like an older version of most of the guys in the crowd at the Casbah on any given night.
The Crest Beverage delivery guy drops off the week’s supply of Sierra Nevada. The pest-control guy is here for his periodic spraydown of the interiors. Another man comes in wearing a similar uniform, but he is not here on official business. He asks if he can use the restroom, then asks, “What type of bar is this?”