Looking back, leaping forward

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On a Saturday night, York Street pulsates with a steady beat. It is a sound Yale students know all too well — a sweaty mosh of partiers, bumping and swaying and belting the last refrain of “Living on a Prayer” at New Haven’s party mecca: Toad’s Place.

Partiers from all around Connecticut make their pilgrimage here for the weekly Saturday night dance parties. But something about Toad’s distinguishes it from the line of other city clubs that light up Crown Street on that same Saturday night. The tradition of music at Toad’s is as rich as some of Yale’s own history. Those who remember past the current days of grimy parties to an earlier golden age say that over time, Toad’s has moved away from being a bridge between the city and university.

Tucked behind Sterling Memorial Library and nestled between Yorkside Pizza and Mory’s, Toad’s Place has remained a York Street institution for thirty-five years.

As the future of Toad’s comes under fire from a changing music industry and crackdowns on partying, can the club sustain its position as an institution? Can Toad’s still be a place for Yale and New Haven to meet in musical and social harmony? In its attempt to make Yalies feel comfortable in the sometimes menacing city nightlife scene, has the mighty concert hall fallen?

The good ol’ days are over

Toad’s Place’s history is rooted in the history of York Street, and the city itself.

“In a lot of ways [Toad’s] is a line between New Haven and Yale, and in the last ten to fifteen years that line has been blurred because of the Broadway district,” said Elihu Rubin ’99, a Professor in the School of Architecture who teaches the class “New Haven and the American City.” “Toad’s is a holdout of that line where York Street was a part of New Haven … Toad’s’ presence there has always been antithetical to the world of Yale,” he said. “It represents a whole set of values and traditions that are right next to Yale but have nothing to do with it.”

For thirty-five years, one man has been the witness to evolution of these traditions.

Brian Phelps, the owner of Toad’s Place, joined the Toad’s family in 1976, just one year after it opened. Phelps has seen it all, from when Toad’s began as a French restaurant that occasionally brought in performers, to the decades of epic shows, to the dance parties that Yalies know well.

He’s seen the Who party at Toad’s.

He’s seen the Ramones play Toad’s on all but one of their tours.

He’s seen Bob Dylan play the longest show of his career at Toad’s (just over six hours).

And he was there when Toad’s survived a 90-day shutdown five years ago after a police raid turned up hordes of underage students using fake IDs.

He’s also seen the dance club both mingle and collide with Yale. In 1985, Phelps recalled, Toad’s became the subject of an ownership battle between Yale and New Haven. The family renting the club’s building to Phelps approached Yale University Properties. Expecting Phelps to be unable to match their offer, Yale bid 30 percent more than the appraised value of the building. But Toad’s was given 30 days to match the price, and they did, becoming their own landlord.

Since that purchase, Toad’s Place’s audiences have included both New Haven residents and Yale students. But employees said there remains a divide between town and gown at Toad’s events. Wednesday night dance parties attract mostly Yale students, while concerts draw more non-Yalies. For Yale students seeking a nightlife scene that feels safer than Crown Street, Toad’s has the answer. Phelps has access to the ubiquitous Yale-wide panlist, and Greek organizations host parties there regularly.

Elis who make it to the biweekly dance parties say that there’s a reason they keep coming back.

“When you’re in there it feels like this very unique historical place, not just some other random night club,” said Kristin Heintz ’11, who said she attends Toad’s’ dance parties every few weeks. “That does create a draw even if it doesn’t have the A-list music cache that it used to.”

But Anthony “Tank” Dunbar, a bouncer at Toad’s for thirty-two years, said that one of the biggest myths about Toad’s Place is that it is a nightclub for Yale students. Yalies, he said, comprise only a small portion of the institution’s regular patrons, and prefer the events sponsored by Yale organizations.

“You don’t expect Yalies to show up during the week at concerts. There’s people that come from out of state that come there more than some Yalies [do].”

Phelps said that even if students are fans of a performer coming to Toad’s, without the guarantee of other Yalies in attendance, they are unlikely to show. Remembering the “rough” crowd that the Wu-Tang Clan concert drew, he added, “Except those DKE guys — we’ll get the crazy DKE guys. They’ll come to anything.”

The absence of Yalies at Toad’s’ music events may be an indication that the golden age of Toad’s Place has passed.

Dunbar remembers that Toad’s was voted the number one nightclub in America by Performance Magazine from 1995 to 1998. This was at a time when during the day, instead of Women’s Center forums and blood drives, Toad’s played host to press conferences and political rallies, served as headquarters for politicians on election days, and even saw President Levin stop by the occasional event. In 1989, Dunbar recalls, when John C. Daniels was elected the first African-American mayor of New Haven, he gave his victory speech at Toad’s Place.

Now, Dunbar said Toad’s no longer occupies the same central importance in the state because the rest of Connecticut is peppered with its own dance clubs. Though Phelps said he thinks Toad’s Place is one of the only clubs of its kind in the country, Dunbar said the fact that New Haven has a plethora of other bars for residents to choose from challenges the club’s dominance of the city’s nightlife.

And worse, Yalies may no longer need Toad’s, he said. Even after the events at Elevate, Dunbar said he sees Yalies finding their way into neighborhoods in New Haven that students would never previously have entered. Toad’s Place has made the line between New Haven and Yale more walkable for Yale students, Dunbar said, but that buffer zone might not be necessary anymore.

“It was that connector — not just in Connecticut, but a bridge all over the East Coast,” he said.

But has that bridge collapsed?

Standing outside Toad’s on Wednesday in line for the Lucero concert (which Phelps described as one of the more “hardcore” shows), Fair Haven resident Paul Williams said he does not often see people who seem to be Yalies at Toad’s concerts. His friend, Jim Duncan, who called himself a “Toad’s junkie” agreed that Yale students are hard to find except at the crowded Saturday night dance parties.

“Yale kids just don’t show up here, dude,” he said.

Hearing this, two girls in line behind Duncan and Williams began yelling, “Yale? Yale?” and burst into laughter.

Still, Dunbar and Jim Day, who has been Toad’s Place’s lighting director for thirty-three years, both said they have not seen a change in the number of Yale students turning up at Toad’s since the events at Elevate several weeks ago. Though Toad’s was raided the day after Elevate, Phelps, Dunbar and Day said the club is not the target of Operation Nightlife because it is distinct from the Crown Street clubs.

“They had to come and raid me or it wouldn’t have looked fair,” Phelps said of the night, which, to his knowledge, did not result in any arrests.

Dunbar said that if anything, Toad’s is a safe haven for Yale partiers. He said he sees it as part of his job to make sure Yalies get home safely after their night out.

Despite Dunbar’s watchful eye, Rubin said it still remains to be seen whether the recent police raids will cause Yale students to retreat to the safety net of social life within the walls of the college. Or the effect could be channel more Yalies into the waiting arms of Toad’s.

Yale students say that because Toad’s feels safer than other New Haven clubs, they won’t be retreating anytime soon. Zola Quao ’13, who frequents the biweekly dance parties, said that in the wake of Operation Nightlife raids she is less likely to go out. Still, Quao said she would still rather spend her nights on the Toad’s dance floor than any other off-campus partying locale — and even after a night on Crown Street, she always wants to end the night at Toad’s.

Facing an endangered city nightlife scene, attitudes like Quao’s are also in question.

“Can [Toad’s] be what it used to be in the 70s, 80s, and 90s: a place where New Haven and Yale meet in the relatively peaceful atmosphere of a rock concert?” Rubin mused. “That’s an important social function.”

The forgotten legends

For most Yalies, Toad’s is synonymous with drunken hookups and sloppy Saturdays. But signs inside the club and on the website advertise the venue with the tagline “Where the Legends Play.” Yale students who spend their Saturday nights avoiding “townies” on the dance floor and enjoying Toad’s as an extension of Yale’s own party scene are drunkenly unaware that the sticky floors they’re grinding on were once walked by legends. For Yalies, the music scene at Toad’s too often rings of unknown local bands — dotted with the occasional recognizable artist.

The walls of Toad’s have eyes, though, and these eyes ­— Phelps, Day, and Dunbar, among others — can tell stories of the nights they spent with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Phelps can recall when Cyndi Lauper performed at Toad’s two nights in a row. When Lauper and Phelps dined at Mory’s after the show, the security forces accompanying the Prime Minister of New Zealand — who was also at the restaurant — took one look at her colored hair and punky attire and “just went red alert,” Dunbar said. Once the security had calmed down, Lauper and Phelps enjoyed a meal while the Whiffenpoofs performed – when she heard them sing “Time After Time,” she asked them to perform with her at Toad’s the next day.

There is the story of the Rolling Stones’ surprise concert. The audience of 500-700 paid $1.99 to see the Stones open their 1989 world tour. Dunbar remembers throwing out a group of concert-goers that night for fighting near the stage. Once outside, they explained to him that they were dancing in a mosh pit (a concept foreign to Dunbar), and not fighting. After seeing a demonstration outside on York Street, Dunbar reluctantly let them back inside.

“It’s kinda hard to beat that night,” he said. “I got a call the next morning saying, ‘I just saw you on TV walking Mick Jagger out.’”

Have the legends abandoned Toad’s Place? A cursory glance through the posters beneath the famous green awning reveals only a few widely known names. Though some performers in the past year like Wale and Broken Social Scene have drawn bigger Yale crowds, every Yalie interviewed for this article said he/she had only been to a handful of concerts — if any — during their time at Yale so far.

“It is a question that I ask myself every every every day. Everytime I hear the lineup of who’s playing at Toad’s Place I have to ask myself, who are these people? What kind of music do they play? What kind of crowd are they gonna attract?” Dunbar said. But he added that he doesn’t want to pass judgement on the new sounds emanating from the club because the music scene is always changing. “We have to kind of bend and stretch and grow along with it.”

Though Phelps has albums full of faded pictures of a younger him posing with the likes of Hootie and the Blowfish and Meatloaf, students said the big-name artists just aren’t hitting Toad’s as often anymore. To see more popular bands, students said they typically go to Hartford or New York. But Phelps recalls a time when these bigger coliseum shows actually helped bring artists to Toad’s. Spillover after shows from the New Haven Coliseum (which closed in 2002) brought the Who to Toad’s. Both Bon Jovi and Santana made stops at Toad’s in the 1990s because they wanted to play a nightclub along their tour routes.

For Matt Eisen ’10, a former Yale tour guide (and a former editor at the News) the history of Toad’s was enough for it to merit a stop along his Visitor’s Center tour route. He sent a “Toad’s fact sheet” to the other tour guides explaining how the Stones, Dylan, U2 and Springsteen had all played the venue. Still, Eisen’s enthusiasm for Toad’s does not mirror that of Yale’s general population, he said.

“I think sometimes students completely forgot about Toad’s outside of Wednesday and Saturday night dance parties,” Eisen said.

Thomas Meyer ’13 said he would rather go to New York to see both major bands and smaller indie-rock artists. Though Meyer said he has attended four concerts in his time at Yale so far, including Wale and Wiz Khalifa, he added that Toad’s simply does not attract enough good indie artists in an average year, so to see good indie shows Yalies have to venture to New York.

“They used to get big names when they were on the rise,” Meyer said. “But Radiohead came in 1997 and the thought of that now would be just absurd.”

Although Kanye West, the Black Eyed Peas, O.A.R. and the Wu-Tang Clan have all made appearances on the Toad’s stage in the past decade, for Phelps, diversifying the acts is the most important issue, not just aiming for big-name performers. Phelps said that in inviting bands to play Toad’s, he tries to attract a wide audience across the shows instead of marketing toward one particular music type. This week alone, Toad’s was host to a jazz group, two jam bands, two indie rock groups and two hard rock groups.

Day said the change in scale of the acts Toad’s books is due to the fact that the most well-known bands of the day are simply too big or too expensive to play Toad’s now. He added that the change was also partially due to the changing music industry and the rise of new self-produced bands making their way to stardom via MySpace and Facebook as opposed to through major record labels.

But Day remembers that, with the exception of the Rolling Stones, who were already hugely popular by the time they played Toad’s in 1989, Toad’s Place nabbed artists when they were on the rise. U2, he remembers, opened for a local Connecticut band who have since faded from memory, going on to play Toad’s three times between 1980 and 1981, and later Woolsey Hall. Soon after, they began performing on the arena level.

“I think the music scene has changed. As recently as five years ago, artists could really make a good living selling albums,” Eisen said. “These mainstream guys like Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones who would have been at Toad’s – they’ve become really dependent on concerts and tours and merchandise sales.”

It goes on and on and on

Yalies know Toad’s intimately — students know how to flash a fake ID, how to navigate the bar and how to shrug off groping hands on the dance floor. The weekly e-mails reminding students of penny drinks and dance parties are woven into the fabric of campus routines. Every Wednesday and Saturday, when Yale students spill out from under the green awning onto York Street, they can happily leave the club behind and easily forget what they did that night. But also forgotten is the history behind that green awning.

Phelps sees the change Toad’s has undergone throughout the years as a positive. Diversifying the acts he brings to the venue, he said, is the way to keep the club current and to meet the demands of a new age of music and a new generation of music consumers.

“Change is the only constant,” he quipped. “Who said that, Einstein?”

The club has weathered storms in its time, but now Toad’s faces a pivotal crossroads — as the music industry changes, and as New Haven’s nightlife is threatened, the future of Toad’s is unclear. But remembering its history, Dunbar can’t help but reflect on the long lost days of Toad’s.

“It’s a different day now. But back in those days it was a big name with a big game … not only in New Haven but the whole state of Connecticut.” Dunbar remembered. “At that time, Toad’s Place could do no wrong.”

On a Monday or a Tuesday night, the lines outside Toad’s still stretch down York Street, past Mory’s and sometimes all the way to the Hall of Graduate Studies. Regardless of the quality of the music, the crowds are there, Dunbar said — no matter what. Dylan and the Stones aren’t coming. But the throngs fill the street, another fixture for cars and students to navigate their way around, as permanent as the libraries and colleges that have served as their neighbors for thirty-five years.

If you play it, they will come.

Comments

  • CrustyOldPunk

    Nicely done. Comprehensive and well written.

  • rr22

    well-written. thank you. i <3 toads and wish they would bring more bands i like for concerts.

  • anon82

    who cares. toad’s place smells like urine and theres usually some drug arrest.