Music clubs, like the Lancaster Chameleon, have worked magic through the people who gather there [Unscripted column] | Entertainment

My mother was 7 years old, so 1939, probably. His much older sister never had much use for the brat. But when the older sister came home that night, she just had to tell someone.

She woke up my mother, who was sitting groggy and curious in her pajamas while my majestic future Aunt Rene, then a teenager in an oversized overcoat, gushed about that singer she had seen in a club in Norristown, that skinny kid whose name, America was about to learn, was Frank Sinatra.

People live in memories like that. Music clubs deploy them. The art created in music clubs could be tighter, rougher, and more intimate than any art humans have ever tried.

I came to Lancaster in 1990; I have fond memories of live music at the old Lancaster Dispensing Co. and its shoebox scene, the Village, Blue Star in its shambolic perfection, Strawberry Hill.

But the king of clubs here in the 90s was the Chameleon.

What is a Club?

I can’t give you an exact definition of a music club. The main point of Bryn Mawr was the first place I saw club shows as a teenager. If you look at it practically, it was a glorified after hours cafe.

What makes a club work are the people who make it up. Somewhere in the building someone has an ear for good, fresh music. And the owners gave that person a budget and a chance to make it work.

When they open the doors, come people who crave music and performance. They don’t want the artist’s radio hits; they want new tunes, risky takes, alternative progressions in the solos. The staff working there is the same; they would be in the house anyway, even on nights off.

When you were young before the internet, with tastes unshared by the masses around you in a small town somewhere, finding a music club was a lifesaver. You find yourself there, one evening, among 300 strangers, all passionate about this artist you love, the one whose songs make everyone you know shrug their shoulders.

That kind of magical potential is what turned the pokey little Main Point into a club, a club where one night Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell would be on stage, and the next night it’s seven guys from your high school trying to start a funk band.

“Down With Me”

A band in a club can fight on stage and unleash their youthful rage. Then you’re in Detroit’s Grand Ballroom, whatever night it was in 1968. The night someone recorded that live version of “Down on Me,” the night of “Joplin’s Greatest.” It’s an amazing brawl – three minutes balanced on the edge of chaos, perfectly within the structure of the song.

You don’t get that riot through “Down on Me” in a studio. It takes three weeks in dank hotels punctuated by an hour of brilliant staging in front of a crowd of people who know you and love your work. And you’re always sick of your bandmates. Then it’s the hotel again.

Others can tell better Chameleon stories than I; I came to Lancaster after 30 years, out of rambunctious age. What I can tell you is that we have been blessed. A small town like Lancaster can have a musical culture, can support a club like Chameleon. Most of them don’t.

Which is not to praise life. The musician’s road is cold gravel. At the old Brandywine Club, we saw Roger McGuinn, twenty years after “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”. He was backstage, patiently signing, one after another, old Byrds record covers for a guy who looked like he didn’t listen to music, but he knew signings were worth a bundle when artists would all be dead.

At The Chameleon, I remember Evan Dando looking at the crowd and thinking to himself, trying to figure out what state (of the union) he was in. Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, always one of my favorite interviews, used to tell me about the onerous task of getting off the road with mountains of laundry to do.

And I remember one night in our longtime haunt after night shifts at the old Intelligencer-Journal, House of Pizza, where the kitchen served hearty food and stayed open late. Chameleon acts sometimes wandered after their sets.

That cold night was Nancy Sinatra, scruffy and gloriously herself, small, hunched over, wearing black boots that weren’t made for walking, a leopard-print coat, and a thousand-yard stare. We gave him the peace and thanks of a wide berth and alleged non-recognition.

“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.

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