Down at the Discotheque

by Gillian Pasley | Town & Gown | Fall 2018

Images from the Fall 2018 issue

Forty years in ’Sco history.

Forty years and hundreds of thousands of wristbands later, it’s remarkable that at first glance the “Dionysus Disco” still looks like an empty room. If you don’t believe me, enter through the double doors early in the evening, before anyone arrives. Hand Shirley your ID, walk across the hardwood floor past the rust-colored pillars and blue high-top tables pushed against the wall, to the bar facing the slightly elevated stage. When the room is empty, nothing about the space asserts its storied history—it’s a blank slate. The ’Sco is humble, perhaps to its detriment. Yet there is a certain magic about the space, for those who’ve known it well—a sense of a chaos and catharsis in its history of late nights and tall tales. There are ghosts in the ’Sco, ghosts that linger onstage and on the floor long after the house lights go up at one o’clock and “Mama ’Sco” yells for everyone to get the hell off the ramp. The stories are in the air there—when you start to see them, it begins to look a bit less like an empty room and a bit more like a vibrant collection of reconstructed memories, gathered over years and years of dancing and drinking and listening. As a booker, I have my own ghosts, my own stories—but the ’Sco has meant something different to each and every person who has worked, danced, or played there. Its legacy is built from all those discrete memories and meanings, some true, some untrue, all largely unverifiable. It’s impossible, then, to construct a “true” history of a place that is so based on individual experience, selective and transformed memory. A linear history is hazy at best. But there are so many stories.

“It will be a place for the people who want to dance,” said Clark Drummond, former Associate Dean of Students to the Oberlin Review. It was September of 1978 and disco fever had hit Oberlin. Drummond noted an instance during the previous academic year when “the music was turned up in the lobby of Wilder [and] everyone started dancing.” So in the fall semester of ’78, a disco opened in the basement of Wilder Hall, forcing a beloved game room to move to Hales. In typical Oberlin fashion, many were unhappy with the move. “These people are behaving like feudal lords ruling their own private fiefs,” wrote a student in the Review. “This new ‘disco’ will be open only three hours a night for several days a week, and the game room is to be ejected to Hales Gym—where is that?” And although it sounds silly in hindsight, the frustrations of these game-lovers make a certain amount of sense. There was no budget, no beer, no real plan to speak of. Nothing but a hardwood floor, some speakers, and the idea of dancing.

It’s hard to imagine the ’Sco as it was—no live shows, no bar. “It was basically just one big empty room,” said Gareth Fenley ’83, who arrived on campus in 1979 to word of the new “disco.” But the student DJs played their music and sure enough, the room became the place for those who wanted to dance. “During that period, it was a dance club, not a music venue,” said Josh Rubin ’85. Jeff Hagan ’86, who worked at the ’Sco from 1983–1986, remembers that “we opened at 10:00 PM and closed at 1:00 AM and in those three hours you had such a cross-section of Oberlin… At about a minute after ten, someone would come over after just studying for hours at Mudd, dance by herself for 40 minutes, and then leave when everyone else arrived. It felt like one of the few places most of the campus came to.” The ’Sco was a place to meet, to hang out with friends in a time when texting was not an option. “The only way you could leave a message for your friend was to write a note and tape it to their mailbox,” explained Chris Baymiller, who worked for 32 years as the Associate Director of the Student Union. “So people would come by, and it would say ‘meet me in the ’Sco tonight.’” Although it was mostly a space for socializing, there were some live concerts in the space during these days, but they were infrequent and mostly Oberlin bands or local acts. There was no money to pay for artists or sound, and people seemed happy enough just dancing. Programming was “just basically DJs,” said Shirley. Shirley has worked at the ’Sco for 33 years. “Fridays and Saturdays we used to have security here, because we’d have lines out the back door,” she remembered.

To make matters even more unfamiliar, Oberlin was technically a “dry” town at the time. The only alcohol that could be sold was “3.2 beer,” which was, of course, only 3.2% alcoholic. The Rathskeller offered beer for students to purchase, but Chris Baymiller saw an opportunity. “We had this keg that was being run by food service,” he explained. “It was pathetic. I kept saying, ‘you guys have gotta do something more than have this friggin’ keg here.’” He urged Dining Services to do more with the 3.2 beer operation, but “they said [they] can’t make money. Who can’t make money on a bar? Come on. So it was like, give it to me, I’ll take it over.” When the town finally began to allow alcohol sales, the ’Sco was quick to meet the demand. “We started getting microbrew beers and everything,” said Baymiller. “The place exploded.”

In many ways, Chris Baymiller was the catalyst in the ’Sco’s transformation into the storied music venue it is today. In the beginning, he says, things were sparse. They needed to build an empire. “We had no money,” he laughed. “We had no sound, we had nothing.” The trick, then, was in the budgeting. “It did help that I was in charge of the budgets,” he confessed. “Within a number of years, we kept pumping up our own budget.” It wasn’t overnight, but a transformation occurred. Eventually they were buying $60,000 sound boards for Concert Sound. “We had systems that were second to none.” Thus ’Sco’s reputation as a venue began to kick off, as Baymiller and his team of student bookers worked to bring national touring acts to the big room in the basement.

We take this for granted now. Concerts are just a part of what the ’Sco is. Sometimes people come, sometimes people don’t. But at the time, what they were doing was somewhat revolutionary. While touring bands would sometimes set up in dining halls or town bars at other schools to play shows, Oberlin was the first to establish what was essentially a student-run nightclub and music venue on campus. “What was cool about it was not only were you the booker, other students that reported to me were doing the sound… That was so unique, nationwide,” Baymiller explained. “There was no college putting on shows like we were doing… It was an all in-house production. It was a great learning experience.” As a current ’Sco booker, I can attest to the magic of pulling off a show—some of my shows have led to my most treasured Oberlin memories. Last November, for instance, I brought Jonathan Richman, my all-time favorite songwriter, who played to a packed house before finding his van had been towed—at which point I had to drive my musical hero to a junkyard in Elyria, where we became actual friends. It’s moments like that that I feel myself mythologizing, even one year out—so one can only imagine how much reminiscing goes on after decades.

These sorts of beloved memories are especially important for ’Sco genealogy—regardless of their factual accuracy. Chip Vhite, a former booker, relayed one such memory, recalling that “the ’Sco was the first place outside of New England that Phish played. This was back in ’89 or ’90 or so. I was on Concert Board at the time, and Phish sent us this janky homemade press kit with a cassette, photo, and one-page write-up of the band. We listened to it, decided they sounded quirky and interesting, and I called up their manager, whose first response was ‘Wow, the mailing worked!’” Of course, if you consult the well-kept archives of die-hard Phish fans, you’ll find that Oberlin was not anywhere close to the first place Phish played outside of New England. But in a way, I don’t think that matters. This story, this memory, this individual or collective idea is part of the ’Sco’s constructed history. If the space is built from memories, it doesn’t necessarily make a difference if the memories are entirely accurate. What is remembered becomes true, becomes legacy. That’s how ’Sco history works.

At its height in the ’90s and ’00s, the ’Sco was hosting upwards of 60 shows per year. Bands like Guided By Voices and The Black Keys packed the house—as an advisor to SUPC, Baymiller liked to encourage bookers to “pull the trigger on [booking] a big band.” But the bookers were also willing to take risks on unestablished artists with promise. “We were able to get really early hip-hop shows, with Common and Mos Def,” said Baymiller. “Other colleges didn’t want them.” As humble as it may appear, the ‘Sco has traditionally been on the cutting edge in terms of booking—for many alumni, the shows they stumbled into might well be the shows they brag about to this day. Shows that became legendary for their importance in hindsight were often not wildly out of the ordinary in the moment. Acts that could now play for thousands were not always easily recognized. When Blink-182 played in 1997, the same week they hit MTV, the “room wasn’t even full,” said Shirley. “People hadn’t heard of them. They’re all over MTV but nobody had heard of them.” Sleater-Kinney, with a little-known band called The White Stripes opening, were famously turned away from a party after their show in 2000, because the house was “too full—as if there were a legal capacity to which they were adhering and only so many rubbery vegan hot dogs and red Solo cups to go around,” Carrie Brownstein wrote in her 2015 memoir. And when Kendrick Lamar played the ’Sco in 2011 before he released his first album, the Review reported that “Kendrick may not have been ready for Oberlin. Sure, he’s worthy of praise, but at this early stage, I think it’s too hard to tell just how much.” Knowing what we know now, I would be willing to bet that the Review reporter might tell that story a bit differently in hindsight.

For a venue with such poorly kept official records, it’s remarkable how every ’Sco patron retains their own version of events, their own ’Sco mythos and favorite, or “top five” favorite shows. And for some, those memories mark life-changing moments. Ashley Roberts ’10 recalls seeing Cat Power at the ’Sco when she visiting as a prospective student—“she had everyone in the ’Sco sit around her in a circle, cross-legged like children, because it made her feel less anxious,” she recounted. She fussed over the lighting, the tuning of her instrument, implored audience members to bring her a beer, which they did. And then she gave this incredible performance, with all of us rooting her on. After that day I remember saying to [my friend who hosted me] ‘you found our people!’ and to the person at admissions that interviewed me later on ‘I found my people!’”

This is what ’Sco history is made of—not a list of shows, not a rise or a fall, but moments like these. A true chronology of the ’Sco cannot exist, because each student, each DJ, each bartender, each booker knows it differently. A show that someone left to smoke on the ramp or go to a party changed someone else’s life. And therein lies the magic. An archive couldn’t do that justice.

The “Disco” began in 1978 as many Oberlin institutions do, in a strategic move from the administration to meet some perceived student need. In this case, the Associate Dean thought that the students needed a place to dance. And dance they did. Over the years, the ’Sco has strived to meet the needs of the students at that time, but I think it’s important to note how much those needs have evolved. For instance, the ’Sco of the ’80s, complete with student DJs playing their favorite records every night and kegs of 3.2 beer, would simply not be viable today—the needs of students are just not the same. Less inclined to stop by to just dance to a student’s playlist on the way back from the library, today’s students are much more committed to creative programming, so the ’Sco tries to evolve with its patrons. With each new cohort of students, each new generation, the ’Sco is reconstructed, and takes on a new meaning. For the most part, students today don’t have any sense of the groundbreaking history of the ’Sco, we don’t have pride in the legacy we’re contributing to, and in some ways, perhaps that’s a shame. This room, this ugly, magic room and all that it stands for and has stood for, exists largely in the memories of the individuals who’ve been here through the years. So while those memories are treasured by many, they often fade from common ’Sco knowledge once a couple of years pass, and are relegated to alumni get-togethers and unintentionally kept far from current students. But on the other hand, there’s something so wonderful about a place that exists only in memories, that is defined only by the people who frequent the room. “I enjoy my job here, I enjoy working with you all because you are fascinating,” said Shirley. “You are some of the most fascinating people on the planet.” Ultimately, it’s these fascinating people who write their own ’Sco histories. The room empties out at the end of the night and is swept and mopped and born anew, ready to take on a new meaning.

So what is the ’Sco, really? It’s a bar, it’s a music venue, it’s a dance hall, it’s a big empty room in the basement of Wilder. These things are all true. But more than any of that, I think that the ’Sco is a collection of stories—and over the past 40 years, there have been a lot of them. But as long as someone’s remembering that time in the mosh pit, that one time at Splitchers, that great show freshman year, that time their world turned upside down and everything felt right, or wrong, or something—the space is alive, and learning, and growing. The stories are in the air there—in the corners, at the bar, on the stage. Try to see them, next time. They fill the room. 

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