Clubland: The Bay State Hotel was the place to be

  • At Forbes Library in Northampton, archivists Callie Sieh and Jill Emmons sort through memorabilia from the former Bay State Hotel, the funky live music venue in the city from 1992 to 2002. Photo by Mallory Strider

  • Flyers, posters, zines and other material that chronicles the music scene at the Bay State Hotel in Northampton in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Photo by Jill Emmons

Published: 8/15/2018 4:03:02 PM

The Bay State Hotel was many things — living space upstairs, bar/restaurant downstairs, with smoke-stained atmosphere and flowery wallpaper. But when the calendar flipped to 1993 and Mal Thursday began booking local and national indie bands for shows in the back dining room, the Bay State turned into the hip place to be.

It’s where local acts like Scud Mountain Boys became talks of the town, and where bands from Boston, DC, Chicago and beyond rocked out, directly in front of you — indie faves you’d read about in Alternative Press or Spin or zines, now just an arm’s length away. 

There was no stage. Musicians played in front of the curtained bay window in the corner of the carpeted room. Colored cloth napkins were placed over the wall lamps for mood lighting. One local writer in the ‘90s described it thusly: “Your chance to see one of the area’s scrappy rock or pop bands in a setting visually better suited to blue hair and meatloaf specials.”

The place is local legend now, but Dylan Gaffney knew its world well. He attended the first Bay State Cabaret shows, and lived on the top floor of the building in the late ‘90s, where he said pigeons sometimes ended up in his room. 

Here in 2018, Gaffney is a full-time paralibrarian at Forbes Library in Northampton. While attending an all-day oral history workshop, he was asked what his dream project would be — “What would you like to have been preserved that you didn’t preserve?” — and he thought about Northampton’s rock scene in the ‘90s, specifically the Bay State, and how it was, for a time, the lively nucleus of inspiration and action. He’d found his dream project. 

Gaffney spoke about it with two fellow Forbes paralibrarians: Jill Emmons, who started seeing Bay State shows near the end of the venue’s run, and Callie Sieh, who moved to the Valley five years ago but knows the indie rock scene of today, playing in the band Strange Fate.

Now, with the help of a grant from the Northampton Arts Council and assistance from Northampton Community Television and Forbes itself, the three staffers have begun creating the Bay State Hotel Music History Archive. 

It’s a multi-year project in its earliest stage: collecting flyers, posters, set lists, audio and video recordings and more to document the period from 1992-2002. 

They’re also filming interviews with the musicians, showgoers, bar regulars, employees and others who experienced the Bay State firsthand in all its unassuming glory. The raw interviews will go into the Forbes library archive, while video and audio highlights will be edited into a short documentary film.

During a recent interview, Gaffney and his coworkers said that early on they’d been agreeing “how great it would be to get people’s memories, and foremost in our mind was that we’d already lost some key people — Ed Vadas, Ray Neades, Steve Rand, Teri Morris, Mark Sturm … and this was before Bow Bow [J. Scott Brandon of the Drunk Stuntmen] passed away. It brought home the urgency of the project.”

One of the archival team’s latest acquisitions was what Emmons called “the biggest treasure trove so far”: a box of 60 cassettes of live performances, all recorded by engineer Dan Richardson while he ran sound at the venue in the mid 1990s.

“It makes it very real — you can hear the room,” said Gaffney. The team will be digitizing all the cassettes; Richardson said he’s “beyond delighted.”

“It was a really comfortable little room, where anything could happen,” he added. “I particularly enjoyed that it could be pin-drop quiet for the Scud Mountain Boys, and it could absolutely roar for The Unband, and both things worked. So many great shows.”

Sieh is in charge of doing the video interviews. “I’m not closely connected with the scene, so I can talk to people without them asking me back if they’re remembering it right,” she said.

Six interviews have been completed so far; the first was with Mal Thursday. “It seemed like the right place to start,” said Gaffney, who learned through the interview that the Bay State Cabaret shows originally started as a result of a Northampton Arts Council grant.

The team is excited about getting submissions of Bay State memorabilia, but recording people’s stories, warts and all, is a key goal. “We want to talk to people, do video interviews with as many people as possible, whether they played in a band or not,” said Gaffney, who points out that it’s easy to forget what life was like 25 years ago, and how important a central spot like the Bay State could be, in the days before the internet was in everyone’s pocket.

“With cell phones you can constantly communicate with each other. There’s not the feeling that there was then: ‘Where is everybody? I’ll go to the Bay State and somebody will be there. And I’ll have a little community for the hour and a half before the bar closes.’ ”

That important sense of community is a thread that runs through all the interviews so far, and it was in evidence at the Bay State until the very end. In the early 2000s, a weekly highlight was the Sunday open mic night, where songwriters often performed new material, inspired by their fellow musicians doing the same. 

During the venue’s very last open mic, late on a frozen January eve, Spouse frontman and ex-Valley resident Jose Ayerve showed up. He’d just driven three hours during a snowstorm to sing something he’d written in an emotional burst earlier that night at his Maine home.

“All of this was mine / all of this was yours / all of this was ours / even if I leave / my heart stays behind / at the Bay State,” he sang passionately, with only his distorted bass guitar for accompaniment. The song was called “Long Live the Bay State.” 

Gaffney, Emmons and Sieh need your help to make sure the unique nightspot lives on. Said the crew, “We love to talk about all things Bay State, so even if you aren’t sure how you can help, we’d love to hear from you.”

You can contact the Bay State Hotel Music History Archive team at baystatehotel@forbeslibrary.org.




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