It's Thursday around midnight in Belltown. At this hour, most of the faintly lit streets acquiesce to the night. A few pedestrians stroll toward home

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Crocodile Rocks

How a nightclub overcame fierce competition and adapted to the gentrification of its neighborhood to thrive for 10 years—and counting.

It's Thursday around midnight in Belltown. At this hour, most of the faintly lit streets acquiesce to the night. A few pedestrians stroll toward home or on to their next destination. An occasional car cruises by, the traffic stopping and going in an uneven flow, obeying signals that change haphazardly as if to invite disorder. But there's little room for disorder in the Belltown of the 21st century. This neighborhood once teemed with drunks, drug dealers, and only slightly less unsavory characters, but the high-tech boom and earnest development have left it as sterile as a village in a Disney theme park. The chic restaurants that dot the streetscape have cute, naturalistic names like Falling Waters and Mistral, in a part of town where the only reference to nature used to be "It's the Water" spelled out in neon on Olympia beer ads. On the stretch of Second Avenue between Bell and Blanchard, however, a drunken, bloody scene makes this Thursday night look more like Belltown circa 1990. A wheelchair-bound man clenches a fist, his fingers poking through holes in bicycle gloves. He's bleeding profusely, with darkened blots surfacing around his nose, mouth, and eyes. A few feet away, a security guard attempts to quell another man's rage. He's drunk, maybe, or adrenalized from being inside the rock club. It's tense, and it's a sign that whatever gentrification Belltown has under- gone doesn't apply at the Crocodile.

An hour later, Kevin Watson is overseeing the audience's exit after an otherwise peaceful show. The solidly built 29-year-old head of security says such violent incidents are rare—he estimates that a member of the crowd gets out of hand once a month at most—but he's keenly aware of how quickly things can escalate. Last year, a melee at the front door that started with an out-of-control patron taking a swing at him ended with Watson suffering a broken ankle. This evening's incident began when the alleged culprit began fondling women and hitting other customers. As security struggled to remove the rogue patron from the club, the man in the wheelchair was accidentally knocked over and trampled. He was later treated by medical professionals. Watson still seems rattled. "I'm OK . . . now," he says, flashing a cautious smile. Security is one of only dozens of concerns at a nightclub like the Crocodile, the Belltown institution that celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. Most clubs its size don't endure because subtle changes in the neighborhood or the staff upset the balance, or the owner gets burned out, or the taste of the booking agent (sometimes known as the talent buyer) falls out of step with the music community.

But the Crocodile inspires loyalty in both its customers and its staff. Watson has worked the door and watched over the crowds for five years. He replaced the original head of security, Bill Koonce, a Navy man who left only after being transferred to the Bay Area. Watson says he still enjoys his job even though he's been punched, bitten, head-butted, scratched, and had a finger and that ankle broken in the line of duty. Anytime you put a few hundred people in a building with live music and alcohol, he notes, "you're going to have some kind of conflict. Not everyone is going to get along."

WHAT'S AMAZING about the Crocodile is that for 10 years, almost everyone has not only gotten along, but treated the three spacious rooms at 2200 Second Avenue as a sort of central meeting place for Seattle's world famous music scene. It's more a clubhouse than a nightclub, where rock stars, accountants, doctors, waiters, critics, exotic dancers, and poets come to drink, eat, and to check out the bands. It's been a launching pad for the Presidents, Zeke, Modest Mouse, and Death Cab for Cutie. It's the type of club where Kim Thayil of Soundgarden and Krist Noveselic of Nirvana can throw together a band and play covers. One recent bill featured Britain's ascending psychedelic rock group Doves and the New York garage-pop purveyors the Strokes, who signed to a major label contract a few weeks after thrilling the sold-out crowd at the Crocodile.

"It's become synonymous with Seattle indie rock," Sean Haskins, booking agent for the Showbox, says of the Croc.

The woman whose idea bloomed into the Crocodile, Stephanie Dorgan, sits alone at a table in the empty dining room on a recent Monday, the only day of the week the club is closed. She's surrounded by a dog-eared memo pad, a stuffed datebook, a cell phone, a cup of coffee, and a glass of water. The red, orange, and violet hues of her flowery blouse are sharpened by the light pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows. She's in a reflective mood; it's 10 years to the day since the club first opened its doors, hosting a show by the Posies (playing under the pseudonym P.O.T., for Posies on Tour).

In one sweeping 10-minute narrative, during which she pauses only to take the most-needed breaths and to ward off would-be lunchtime patrons unaware that the restaurant is closed Mondays, Dorgan recounts the events that led to the club's opening in late April 1991. The oldest of four siblings from the Tri Cities in Eastern Washington, Dorgan attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, moving on to law school at Berkeley. As a young lawyer for Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle, she worked on cases involving the First Amendment by day, but at night she attended rock shows and played darts in downtown establishments like the Frontier Room and the Vogue.

One day at the office, a fellow attorney asked if Dorgan would be interested in contributing seed money to a group of recent University of Washington grads who'd started Club Belltown and were looking to open a larger dance club. "And I just had this epiphany—I did—and it's the only time I ever had it," she says, leaning forward and tilting the unbalanced table. "I sure didn't have [an epiphany] about law. I thought, well, I love live music. If they can graduate from college and open a dance club, I could do a live music club."

Dorgan began scouting spaces in Belltown during walks from her apartment below the Market, back when Belltown was still a neighborhood of dilapidated buildings and artist squats. She fell in love with one space on First Avenue, but it was already a bar called the Tradewinds. Next she found the site of the former Athens, a Greek restaurant that had hosted occasional live punk shows before closing abruptly in the mid-'80s. "It had this weird meant-to-be thing," Dorgan recalls, noting that she couldn't even see inside when she decided to pursue the space that would eventually become the Crocodile. (She'd originally wanted to call it the Live Bait Lounge featuring the Crocodile Caf鬠but she received a polite letter from owners of a bar in New York City informing her that they held the nationwide trademark on the Live Bait name and planned on operating a chain. The chain never developed, and the last trace of the Live Bait name is a neon sign in the Crocodile's back bar.)

In late 1990 and early 1991, when Dorgan and her associates began working on the new restaurant, bar, and nightclub, the stretch of Second Avenue between Bell and Blanchard was nearly devoid of businesses. Mama's had been serving Mexican food on one corner for years, but other than the shabby watering hole Hawaii West, in the space that's now the Lava Lounge, the street could hardly be called business-friendly. Most of the live music clubs that hosted local bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains were down in Pioneer Square, and these acts' growing legion of fans already had bumped them up from midsized clubs like the Vogue or the Central to cavernous halls like the Moore. The Off Ramp had begun booking bands that would lead a second wave of soon-to-be juggernauts such as Mudhoney, but the scene didn't appear starved for another rock club.

Blissfully ignorant, Dorgan formed a limited partnership and spent $65,000 renovating and decorating the space. She and former Chez Shea chef Craig Packard went to restaurant auctions and bought the furnishings that fill the Crocodile today. "The economy was really in a slump," giving them access to bargains, she remembers. "The countertop for the back bar came from a caf頩n Everett. Those big weird chandeliers came from a restaurant called Tiffany's in the Ballard General Hospital. . . . And of course Trader Vic's went under, which is how we got all our booths and monkey paw tables and our light fixtures in the band room."

The Croc's opening, as it turned out, came at a fortuitous time. Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten were beginning to catch on nationwide, shining a spotlight on Seattle's rock scene. Young wanna-be rock stars and scenesters began descending, if not to live here then just to see what all the fuss was about.

Within a few years, the Crocodile would be ground zero. Nirvana and Mudhoney would play a secret show there (on October 4, 1992, with Nirvana billed as Pen Cap Chew). Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows would have exposed the club to touring bands and brought in top local acts during a stint as booking agent.

"We were getting busloads of tourists in looking for the next Nirvana," recalls Pete English, one of the Croc's former booking agents.

BUT BEFORE THE CROCODILE could take advantage of anything so nebulous as the burgeoning music scene, Dorgan had more mundane specifics to deal with, like removing the blue carpet and fake low ceiling from what is now the dining room, soundproofing the band area, setting up the restaurant, and procuring a liquor license. Almost as an afterthought, she realized she needed a sound system and someone to run it. Jim Anderson had been overseeing the soundboard at the Central, which had just been sold to owners who intended to focus on live blues rather than rock. Dorgan says she "wooed" Anderson, who was almost too anxious to start. "We were being really low-key with the neighbors," she says, "because back then, if they complained to the Liquor Board, we wouldn't have gotten our license. In the middle of the day, Jim pulls up in this big semi with all the sound equipment and I was like, 'No!' So he came back at night and we loaded it in through the alley."

Anderson would be one of several long-term allies who would help her not only start the Crocodile but put it on the path to longevity. In the summer of 1992, Dorgan met her future husband, Peter Buck. Buck's Georgia-based group R.E.M. were in town mixing the album Automatic for the People at the Belltown studio Bad Animals. McCaughey brought the guitarist to the then year-old club, and Dorgan and Buck hit it off. He soon separated from his wife in Georgia and moved to Seattle. The couple are now married and have twin girls, Zoe and Zelda, who are nearly 7 years old.

Buck's association brought further recognition to the club. Many of the young musicians who would play the Crocodile over the next decade had learned to play guitar by memorizing Buck's riffs from R.E.M. songs like "Radio Free Europe" or "Can't Get There From Here," and were flattered to play in the club owned by his wife. Dorgan says this isn't always helpful; some people assume that Buck started and owns the club.

Two other key employees came on board shortly after the Crocodile opened: talent buyer Christine Wood started out working the door in 1992; a year later, Dorgan's sister Constance signed on as general manager. Most live music clubs experience high turnover rates, as managers become jaded from day-to-day dealings with egotistical musicians and hard-bargaining music industry workers. The schedule's grueling as well, requiring daytime hours to take care of scheduling, equipment, and publicity, and nighttime hours to ensure that shows run smoothly and artists get paid. In many ways, it's a thankless job; in the end, the very thing that lures people to the business, live music, is something that the manager or talent buyer is too busy to even experience.

"The everyday grind of working in the busy club scene can make you lose interest in the music," says English, who left the Crocodile to start his own events-oriented company, PET Productions.

Though neither Wood nor Constance Dorgan had ever run a nightclub before, both proved sharp-minded. They operated from a simple principle: Treat the artist with respect.

"I've always tried to maintain that we wouldn't be a club if it weren't for the bands," says Wood, 32. "It's not, 'you're lucky to play here'; it's more like, 'we're lucky to have you play here.'"

"We go out of our way to treat bands well," adds Constance Dorgan, also 32. "They're on the road for two to three months. We try to be nice to them while they're here."

This attitude—or lack of attitude—helped forge a bond with the local and touring community that would come in handy when the Crocodile began to face competition. Ironically, the toughest threat came from three of the club's original investors, Craig Graham, Jerry Everard, and Erik Shirley. The three had been bought out by Dorgan shortly after the Croc opened, and they then converted a Capitol Hill building into a multiroom rock club. In 1994, they opened Moe's Mo' Roc'n Caf鬠a restaurant and bar that would book the same type of local and national rock acts. Along with Belltown's Sit & Spin, which opened in 1993, Moe's presented an alternative to rock bands looking for a place to play.

Moe's succeeded in luring away some bands that would usually play the Crocodile, but the owners closed the club in 1998, and it would next become the dance-oriented ARO.space. Wood explains that the relationships she's built with national booking agents and with the bands themselves has allowed her to weather difficult periods when the competition gets fierce. Even now, when many of the bands she's helped nurture are moving on to attract larger audiences requiring them to play bigger venues such as the Showbox, she doesn't hold a grudge.

"There are bands that are aware of clubs that have been supportive of them," she says, then, after a long pause, adds: "On a business level, it's frustrating. But I can understand. Why play two nights here when you can play one at the Showbox? On a personal level, you can only be happy for [the bands]."

WHATEVER CUTTHROAT competition that existed in the mid-'90s has faded, and Seattle now possesses one of the healthiest rock club environments of any city in America; the competition still exists, but it's now of a more amicable sort. The Crocodile's multiroom layout makes it an ideal social environment that's adaptable to a variety of audiences, from the cardigan-wearing indie rock set, to the ripped jeans and Mohawked punk crowd, to more "mature" fans of adult-oriented acts. While some might argue that the Crocodile was slow to react to the rising popularity of dance and electronic music or that it's ignored hip-hop, it could also be said that the club has wisely stuck to what it knows best.

"Clubs do what they can make money from," says David Meinert, booking agent for Sit & Spin and a band manager. Meinert himself books Sunday hip-hop shows at Sit & Spin, but he doesn't fault the Crocodile for sitting on the sidelines. "You can only support a community that supports itself. If I were going to criticize, it'd be the hip-hop community."

Wood understands that the Crocodile community centers around rock. This is important not only for the health of Dorgan's business, but for the up-and-coming bands who look to obtain credibility by playing on the Crocodile stage. Jim Anderson, a revered soundman who often shares his expertise with young musicians during sound checks, says that watching local bands progress is one of the reasons he's stuck around so long.

"It's really cool for me having the perspective of seeing a young band like Death Cab for Cutie coming down from Bellingham to play on a Tuesday night bill, through to them moving here and getting to the point where they can sell out a few shows on their own on the weekend," he says.

Death Cab for Cutie are one of several local bands who usually split their local shows between high-profile appearances at the spacious Showbox and old-time's-sake gigs at the Croc. The Supersuckers are another, and their booking agent Julianne Andersen says much of the appeal is knowing that the Croc will attract a sell-out crowd and that her band will be treated well. "For the Supersuckers, it's kind of like playing their living room," she says.

The Supersuckers illustrate the loose connection among the local clubs that has strengthened the scene; when frontman Eddie Spaghetti and company want to showcase their country side, they'll diverge from the Croc/Showbox axis and play the Tractor Tavern in Ballard. Add to these clubs the garage and punk-oriented Graceland (in the old Off Ramp space) and the dance and hip-hop heavy I-Spy, and Seattle's club climate has never seemed so steady (though two longtime clubs, the Fenix and the OK Hotel, recently succumbed to earthquake-related damage).

"Any competition is a very friendly competition," says Sit & Spin's Meinert. "Rarely is there conflict."

Andersen suggests that Seattle looks especially appealing compared to the more established, less congenial club scenes in New York and Chicago, and hints that the Crocodile has been a primary influence. "The clubs in Seattle were built around the live music scene," she says. "The Croc's the jewel in the crown, pretty much."

FOR ALL THE POSITIVITY floating around the Crocodile during its 10th anniversary month, there's also an air of wistfulness. The high-tech boom of the past few years has dramatically altered the neighborhood, turning Belltown from a sleepy, artsy neighborhood perched at the edge of downtown to a condo-riddled playground for the nouveau-est of the nouveau riche. Expensive restaurants abound; you can't throw a drumstick without hitting a joint where entr饠prices start at around 20 bucks.

"Belltown has been getting developed in a way that breaks my heart," says Dorgan. "A lot of the good, artistic people who lived here are gone."

She and her sister Constance lament the conversion of potentially historic buildings to cookie-cutter housing units. "I'm glad there are more people living in Belltown," Constance Dorgan says, "but I'm sorry to see all the buildings go."

The only member of the Croc's 30-plus staff that might enjoy the gentrifying of Belltown is Kevin Watson, whose security duties have become less arduous. "In the last year and a half, there've been a lot less problems," he says.

Even if the neighborhood continues its transition from eccentric to civilized, from rough-hewn to streamlined, you get the sense that the Crocodile will march forward with the same offbeat charm that's taken it this far. Watson's still an anachronism at the door—a polite, efficient club security guard with a warm smile. Wood and Constance Dorgan are nearly inseparable, lurking at the edge of the crowd to ensure everything's running smoothly. Anderson's perched behind the bamboo-framed soundboard in the back of the band room, twiddling knobs and remaining nearly invisible to the crowd. In the back bar, manager Val Kiossovski leads a group of efficiency-minded bartenders—including Theodore, the beanpole-thin blond dandy—who admonish anyone in line who isn't quick to order their drinks. And when the long night is over, you can make your way past frenetic publicist Frank Nieto, who seems to have befriended half the audience, and come back in the morning to have brunch in a restaurant run by a slightly gruff, goateed guy named Babe (DuFresne). It sounds more like the makings of a Fox sitcom than the formula for business success and longevity, but it's worked so far.

"I'd like to see it here another 10 years," Stephanie Dorgan says a bit hesitantly. "It's a good thing for the community. It's not all about me. I'm lucky to be the conduit for it."

Asked how she responded to her sister's announcement 10 years ago that she'd given up law to open a rock club, Constance replies, "I thought it was a good idea." Then, looking around a room filled with mismatched furniture, abstract art, and band posters, she adds, "Who knew it would turn into this?"

rmartin@seattleweekly.com

 
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