Anyone that has been to Churchill’s Pub in Little Haiti has a story to tell.
First-timers and people who never went back will warn you about thick-tongued men who ooze out of darkness and, trembling, offer to watch your car for a dollar. Regulars know the implied threat — “watch” means “not break into” — is usually a bluff. Some even know the men’s names or at least the handles they’ve adopted for use in this parking lot and the myriad other shadowy places they congregate at around the neighborhood.
Mr. C, the bar’s doorman and bombastic, mascot-like head of security, is the up-to-date source on flare ups (irregular and boring fights, cars that crash into the club, bum politics), show turnouts, and, if not a little gossip, then certainly a healthy, good-spirited shit-shooting. His station is the northeast corner of N.E. Second Avenue and 55th Street, where he sits upon an elevated bar chair with a thick ream of wristbands in hand.
Checking I.D.s. and taking money, he moves the line along with more-British-than-usual shouts of “‘Ello mates! Welcome to Churchill’s!” When the rush dies down, so does the volume of his voice. The crowd rages inside, the parking lot vagrants improvise their late-night psychoses, and Mr. C’s tales unpack themselves with a grace that counterbalances his rough-hewn exterior. The front cover of his oral history is the mammoth, close-up portrait of Sir Winston’s curmudgeonly contemplative scowl above the entrance. The back cover is the wall to his left, where “Churchill’s” is hand-painted in pseudo-Olde English next to a profile line-drawing of Churchill and the curious subtitle, “A Sort of English Pub.”
Beyond the three-door, bullet-proof entrance, Irish Nicky — who describes himself as “bartender, bouncer, sound engineer, and psychiatrist” — can tell you which bands have been hot lately. The rest of the more-or-less in-flux bar staff — who are constantly screaming over the worst band playing the worst version of the worst genre at ear-damaging volume — can tell you who’s been bombing.
Devotees boast that the club is the CBGB of the South. The long bar is inviting, the billiards reasonably competitive, the sound system loud. The stage is the perfect height, especially for crowd surfing onto. The patio, with its Carnie tent, is charming, and the Laundry Room is beautifully surreal, its every fleck of crusted grime a prized unit of narrative currency.
Detractors rant about the aforementioned parking lot’s ecosystem of filth. They can’t stand the indoor smoking. They’re creeped out by the Mos Eisley characters slithering about. And they take great offense to the bathrooms, which, adorned in aesthetically commendable schizophrenic graffiti, conjure the scene of a biological disaster.
Though Miami’s sacred dive is a subject with many self-proclaimed experts, no one can tell you more about Churchill’s Pub than Dave Daniels, the British expatriate who, via a winding crash course in the entertainment industry, moved to South Florida in 1976 and ended up opening the region’s most dependable live-music institution (32 years and counting) and one of the greatest independent venues for rock, punk, metal, singer-songwriter acoustic, and noise in The History of Bands on Stage.
Upon entering the bar a week before his 71st birthday, Daniels offers me a drink (Guinness seems appropriate) and we head the short distance to his home, an efficiency, right in the middle of the Churchill’s mini-maze back patio, where he has lived for each of the pub’s 32 years.
As soon as I sit down at Daniels’ desk, he recounts a story from this past year’s South By Southwest Festival, in Austin, Texas. None of the bands “knocked his socks off,” he says, but he was very interested in the business and logistics of the festival, especially as it has grown exponentially in size, attention, and satellite events. At one such event (Daniels can’t remember who was performing), two musicians struck up a conversation with him. When they learned he was from Miami, they asked, inevitably, if he knew anything about Churchill’s. “Well, I own it,” he said.
The duo had never visited Daniels’ estate but were well-versed in its legend: They’d heard more bands had played at Churchill’s than at any other bar in the world. Daniels suspects the pair had been talking to Juan Montoya — longtime Churchill’s regular, former guitarist for pop-metal hometown heroes Torche, and current guitarist for the equally poppy-and-lumbering MonstrO — who had helped Daniels come up with a rough estimate of 20,000 for the number of bands that had graced the Churchill’s stage in its history. (The figure does not include experimental, abstract, or open-mic performers, of which there have been many.)
I try to crunch the numbers. Dave says the club didn’t really get going with live music until the ‘80s, when it progressively expanded out from the main bar to where the stage is today, but he also mentions that local producer and experimental musician Frank “Rat Bastard” Falestra claims to have played there when it was just the lone room, prior to any construction. Daniels says he doesn’t remember the occasion but “would trust Rat with making change out of five thousand dollars spread out on a table,” and leaves the matter open as a possibility.
A Santa-like gray, plump, jolly, and bright-eyed, Daniels will be 71 years old on Wednesday. He is celebrating his birthday two days early with a special edition of Churchill’s most-loved tradition, the Monday Night Jazz Jam with Mike Wood and accompanying Theatre De Underground open-mic hosted by Benjamin Shahoulian. (“Special edition” = everyone’s first beer will cost 25 cents.)
Despite owning Miami’s most venerable and most recognized rock venue, Daniels admits he’s a jazz man at heart. “I go back before rock ‘n roll,” he says, before launching into an epically winding recount of his personal musical etymology.
Daniels started out as a regular at The Embassy, a traditional jazz club near his home in Stoke, England, when “Big Bands were still in vogue.” Despite a slow-burning cultivation of jazz appreciation, Daniels — a self-described “reasonably good” soccer player — preferred sports to music. Ultimately, though, it was sports that got him into the music business or, as he puts it, entertainment.
In 1959, Daniels’ college soccer team was trying to raise funds for an end-of-the-year trip to Ireland. The college would help them, but they had to raise a certain amount of the funds themselves. “We were putzing around with raffles,” Daniels says, recalling fondly his early days of minding the bottom line.
Daniels pulled the idea to throw a benefit concert from the ether. He had been to The Embassy, but he had never produced an event of his own. “We don’t know anything about renting dances,” his teammates told him. “But we know it makes money,” he countered.
Daniels approached the Stoke University entertainment coordinator about supporting the venture, getting the go-ahead “because,” as he puts it, “there was virtually no social life at the place.” After quashing the coordinator’s worries by getting the event’s logistics in taut order — the band (Arthur Wood and The Ceramic City Stompers) booked, bar license and liquor secured, sound system rented — the pair slapped together some posters and covered the campus in toilet-paper streamers advertising the show.
“We nearly sold out,” Daniels says, still proud decades later. “Way over capacity,” he adds, and then, eyes widening, “We made a lot of money.”
As both a promoter and an economics student at Exeter College in the early 1960s, Daniels was frustrated with the school’s wasteful entertainment committee for paying bands too much and renting fancy equipment they didn’t need. He soon became the school’s chief booking agent and has been a prolific promoter and hard-bargaining old-fashioned businessman ever since. Among his biggest accomplishments was helping to organize the 1973 Buxton Festival, which featured sets from Chuck Berry, The Faces, Mott The Hoople, and Canned Heat.
After immigrating to the U.S. in 1976, Daniels worked as a caterer for Norwegian Cruise Lines, and soon thereafter opened a bar a few blocks west of his current location. When that venture failed, in 1979, he discovered a restaurant called Charlie and Harriet’s. Keeping the initials, Daniels coined the name “Churchill’s Hideaway,” which has, in recent years, given way to “Churchill’s Pub.”
Not only has everyone played Churchill’s, they’ve played there countless times and with innumerable bands. Dave says the venue’s first steady bookings were “rubbish punk bands” (again, Daniels is a jazz man). He cites punk-and-roll dirtbag bluesman Charlie Pickett as Churchill’s first resident and the first to bring the room to overwhelming capacity. He also recalls a fire-hazard-packed night featuring surf-guitar legend Dick Dale as a notable early concert that helped develop the club’s legacy of constantly hosting touring artists and hosting live music seven nights a week.
When I ask Irish Nicky to name some of the most exciting performances he’d seen in his 10 years at the bar, he rattles off a diverse gaggle of bands off the top of his head: trad-ska ensemble The Slackers, psychedelic organ pop puppeteers Quintron And Miss Pussycat, skinhead hardcore band Agnostic Front, and rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien, who performed at one of the bar’s rare hip-hop engagements this year.
Churchill’s provides Miami with an otherwise nonexistent portal to contemporary rock, punk, metal, and experimental artists on tour, and also serves as a touchstone for always-on-tour acts like Ramones-styled rockers The Queers or pop-punkers Off With Their Heads, or repeat-reunion tours like those from 80s hardcore band The Cro-Mags. But its greatest contribution to Miami’s music scene is its multidimensional, freeform, open-door policy.
“There’s been some crazy shit on the Churchill’s stage,” says Nicky. “Any other venue would have pulled the plug in the first 30 seconds.”
This makes a good segue to Rat Bastard and his signature Churchill’s event, the International Noise Conference, which, in 2011, featured more than 100 acts performing 15-minute sets of an exceptionally wide range of experimental music genres, from nearly-accessible to positively damaging, in every nook and cranny of the pub.
Rat is the Johnny Appleseed of North American Noise, with an apparent aspiration to reach every experimental contingent in the world, and the I.N.C. is a yearly culmination of connections and collaboration. International guests have included Justice Yeldham, an Australian performer who amplifies the sound of glass being smashed against his own head, and Costes, a French aural degenerate performing G.G. Allin-like music, complete with feces and dildos on cranks (being used). After eight consecutive years, the I.N.C. is one of Churchill’s best weekends.
Way on the other end of the spectrum was “Can You Rock A Little Softer?”, a weekly music night hosted by acoustic pop duo Raffa and Rainer that, until recently, served up unplugged (or simply less-loud) performances with a side of vegan chili every Wednesday night. For a time, the series was the best place to hear Miami’s best acoustic artists, including pop-siren (and now expatriate) Rachel Goodrich, troubadour-style songsmith Jesse Jackson, and Raffa and Rainer themselves. The relaxing, yet riveting evening was a testament to both the city’s range of talent and to Churchill’s as the lodestone of the Miami music scene, attracting — and welcoming — every kind of musician one could imagine.
Daniels explains the bar’s tagline — “A Sort Of English Pub” — is a jab at naysayers who claim Churchill’s doesn’t qualify as a pub because there’s live entertainment, though, he adds, plenty of the bars he booked during his early promoting days were considered pubs. In any case, Daniels believes that Churchill’s makes the cut because the owner lives on premises (not true for other purported pubs in South Florida) and because of the atmosphere. “Some of these other pubs are more like tea rooms,” he says.
The remark betrays a true Englishman’s education in drinking-establishment classification. It also suggests the ostensible absurdity of a “Sort Of English Pub” springing up in Little Haiti 32 years ago and becoming the beating heart of Miami’s independent music scene. Of course, when you follow the thread back to a soccer team’s fundraiser in Stoke, England, it all makes perfect sense.
Matt Preira is a regular Beached Miami contributor. He runs Roofless Records, a label specializing in vinyl and cassette releases from Florida artists.