Decades ago, before the Warehouse District and Glenwood South transformed Raleigh’s downtown into a place with actual nightlife, the city’s live-music epicenter was a few miles north and west. From 1971 until 1984, Raleigh’s key place to hear live music was a subterranean space beneath Cameron Village shopping center, where nightclubs like The Pier, Deja Vu and The Frog and Nightgown made up the “Subway” district.
The Subway clubs shut down more than 30 years ago, and the space has been mostly closed to the public ever since. But Cameron Village management has secured permits to reopen it for just a few hours Saturday night, an event called “One Night Only: The Underground Comes Alive.”
Along with a fashion show, local cover band Crush will play. But the real star of the evening will be the Subway space itself. There was enough interest in getting one last look before its next incarnation (as a storage and food-preparation area for Fresh Market) that the event sold out in about 12 hours at prices ranging from $85 to $125.
Arrogance at The Pier
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The Subway’s flagship club was The Pier, and no band was more connected to it than Arrogance, which played the club’s opening night in 1973 and broke up not long before it closed. Arrogance drummer Scott Davison used to live within walking distance and was at The Pier most nights when the band was not playing elsewhere.
“The Pier was a logical stopping place between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., so we’d see a lot of acts there on the way up,” Davison said. “Chic Corea, Huey Lewis & the News; R.E.M. played there in about 1982. The variety of it was very cool, like listening to a really cool eclectic college station that would go from Led Zeppelin straight to Beethoven’s Ninth – Vassar Clements one night, some rock band the next and then Muddy Waters.”
Davison was a photographer, too, and Waters was one of many acts he took pictures of at The Pier.
Dizzy Gillespie to Barry Manilow
Davison’s Arrogance bandmate, bassist/singer Don Dixon, had some memorable close encounters at various Subway spots, too.
“I knew the owner of Frog and Nightgown, and he’d have me in there playing upright bass with female impersonators,” Dixon said. “He’d also give me the table right up by the side of the stage. So Dizzy Gillespie would come sit with us between sets. I met Barry Manilow that way, too, when he was backing up Bette Midler. She wouldn’t come sit with us, but he did.”
The Fabulous Knobs were playing the Subway just about as often as Arrogance, and they frequently crashed each other’s sets. There was even one night where the Knobs and Arrogance played each other’s songs (although there is some dispute as to how much effort one or both bands put into learning the other’s repertoire).
All things must pass
Despite the copacetic vibes, the winds of change took the Subway down in the 1980s. Over the first half of that decade, the minimum drinking age for beer went from 18 to 21 years old. And for a city with so much nightlife centered on college students, that was a grievous blow.
“That really kind of killed it,” said Davison. “The great majority of our fans back then were college students, and when we started playing the Pier, college freshmen could drink. By the mid-’80s, it was pretty much just seniors. Now, of course, all those people are in their 50s at least. Once you get into the real world with work and family, you ain’t going down to The Pier twice a week anymore anyway.”
Indeed, all things must pass.