PORTLAND, Maine — It’s been a bleak five months for music venues in the city. Some have called it quits since the worldwide coronavirus pandemic raged into Maine last March, shuttering their doors. Others are squeaking by thanks to online fundraising. The future of all live music is uncertain for everyone, everywhere — from the Portland Symphony Orchestra on down to your neighborhood garage band.
Now, into this darkness comes a naked, glowing act of hope against a dismal-looking future.
Maine-native and longtime bartender Kathryn Taylor, 39, just bought Portland’s oldest and most storied music bar: Geno’s Rock Club. What’s more, she’s not interested in turning it into a precious, upscale craft cocktail lounge. She likes it just the way it is — dim, grungy and loud as hell.
“I am heavily aware of the responsibility. It’s a little insane,” Taylor said. “I love this place.”
By Taylor’s side in this venture is her faithful social media hype man and Portland bartending fixture Carl Currie, also 39. He actually helped broker the deal.
But first, a Geno’s history lesson.
Geno D’Alessandro opened his namesake club in a windowless, subterranean space on Brown Street in 1983. It quickly became a haven for rockers as D’Alessandro was willing to let anyone play. He even let them play original, freaky music — a rarity in those days of top 40 cover bands. Geno’s deafening, three-band punk and metal package nights became legendary.
The scene almost came to an end in 2005 when the building’s upper floors were condo-ized. Roaring, raucous bands were no longer welcome. That’s when D’Alessandro moved his club into a former pornographic cinema at 625 Congress St., where it stands today.
D’Alessandro died a year later, in 2006, and his son, J.R. took over the bar. The new space was larger and already set up for performances. It was a lot more visible, right on the main drag, and Geno’s fame grew. It was still hosting three band nights, off-the-wall experimental theater and burlesque shows when the pandemic hit in March.
Now, back to the sale.
Both being in the bar business, Currie and J.R. have been friends for a long time. During a recent phone conversation, J.R. confided he was thinking of selling Geno’s. He asked if Currie was interested.
“I was shocked when he offered it to me,” Currie said.
Currie told J.R. there was no way he could swing it, financially, but he knew someone who might be willing to take over.
“Kathryn lives right next door to me and I went right over to her house and told her J.R. wanted to sell the bar,” Currie said.
“You were like, ‘Is there someplace secret we can talk?'” Taylor remembered.
After some negotiations and many sleepless nights, Taylor bought the bar on August 1, for an undisclosed sum of money. She now owns a slice of Portland history — hallowed ground for punks and metalheads.
Taylor said everyone wants to know if she’s out of her mind, buying a bar in the middle of the pandemic.
“Honestly, I think it’s from a sense of mortality I’ve been feeling lately,” Taylor said. “If not now, when? If I don’t do it, it will close and this is something I’ve always wanted to do. I think we’ll be fine. Carl and I are so overflowing with energy and ideas — it would feel silly not to do it, even though the timing is terrible.”
Like Geno’s itself, Currie and Taylor have their own origin story. It’s pretty punk.
They met something like 15 years ago on a park bench in front of the Old Port Tavern, just after last call. She was nursing a bottle in a brown paper bag and had just sat down to watch the action.
This was back in the day when Portland’s Police Department would chase tipsy pedestrians off Wharf Street’s cobblestones with a water truck on Saturday nights after the bars were closed.
“The street cleaner would come and hose everyone down,” Taylor said, “and I got great joy out of that. It was good clean fun, very affordable — and that’s where I met Carl, smoking filterless Lucky Strikes.”
Currie plopped beside her on the wooden slats, striking up a conversation. It turned out that they both liked punk music, and Black Flag in particular. They’ve been friends ever since.
Now they’re committed to saving Geno’s together, though Currie is keeping his job as head bartender at Blackstone’s.
Taylor is financing the deal with her life savings and said she has enough cash on hand to pay the rent — which is in the thousands-per-month range — into next year. She’s also still bartending at two other restaurants in town.
“Worst case scenario is that I can Airbnb my apartment, sell my car and live here, in the green room,” Taylor said.
In the meantime, she’s applying for a liquor license and making a few small upgrades to the restrooms and the front doors — nothing that would change the classic Geno’s vibe. The pool table, the cigarette machine and the orange bar are staying put.
Currie sees saving Geno’s as a kind of defiant middle finger thrown at a rapidly-gentrifying city. He wants it to remind people of the “old, weird” Portland’s lost watering holes of yore like Rickey’s, Sangillo’s, Zootz and the Elvis Room.
“That’s what Geno’s still represents,” he said, “a part of Portland that so many people have forgotten. A lot of people under 30 don’t realize what these four walls mean to people. They can’t, if people don’t tell them about it.”
Taylor and Currie would love to open this fall and said they could keep the bar afloat with just their regulars — spread out, of course — until they could safely have bands again.
“We just need people to hang out and drink,” Taylor said.
Looking into the far-flung future, they envision a blowout party on the anniversary of re-opening the doors, whenever that happens.
“That would be dope,” Taylor said.