An unceremonious, non-musical farewell for the Cameron Village Underground | Music Feature | Indy Week
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An unceremonious, non-musical farewell for the Cameron Village Underground 

Smile and say, "Cheesy!": Revelers at the Cameron Village Underground's farewell

Photo by Jillian Clark

Smile and say, "Cheesy!": Revelers at the Cameron Village Underground's farewell

Rod Abernethy pulled back the sheer curtain that hung beside the fashion show's future stage, took four steps forward, pointed to his right and shouted, as though he'd seen a specter.

"Well, holy shit," he exclaimed. "That's it. That has to be it."

With his 17-year-old son, Matt, at his left, Abernethy stood in front of a large white rectangle on an otherwise drab concrete wall and began to smile. At some point during the last three decades, the space had been whitewashed, its offending graffiti of anarchy signs and curse words almost obviated.

But what had been written with the thickest markers and scratched out with the heaviest pens remained. Abernethy leaned in, squinted and read off the names—Black Flag and 7 Seconds, Stillborn Christians and The Phux, The Right Profile and T.S.O.L. He took out his cell phone, snapped a photo of a faded Let's Active insignia and chuckled like a child: "I'm going to sell that to Mitch Easter."

At least he wouldn't be the only one in the room hawking the past.

Minutes before, Pat Hunnell, a publicist working for the sprawling Raleigh shopping center Cameron Village, assured Abernethy the wall no longer existed. Surely, she said, she would have noticed it while building two stages, a runway, a dance floor and a bar for the next evening's big event, an ostentatious gala named "One Night Only: The Underground Comes Alive."

Between 1972 and 1984, this subterranean space, tucked near the rear of Cameron Village, was known as "The Village Subway," or the "Underground." A network of retailers, restaurants and as many as four music clubs at any one time, the Underground became a crucial touring nexus in the Southeast and a cultural incubator for Raleigh—years before The Brewery and Berkeley Cafe, decades before Kings and The Pour House. It was a fount of area art.

Abernethy played this space at least 75 times—solo, with side projects and mostly with Arrogance, regional rock stars through the '70s. Arrogance was the first band to perform at The Pier, the Underground's staple rock room.

And now, Abernethy had found part of The Pier's backstage wall. It offered a telling sampler of the thousands of acts that played the Underground, from Iggy Pop and R.E.M. to Jimmy Buffett and Bette Midler, from The Connells and Corrosion of Conformity to The Fabulous Knobs and the dB's. Abernethy told Matt he'd written on it at some point. He was, in fact, staring at the ghost of his youth.

Hunnell, who had just given me a guided tour of the Underground, seemed surprised but pleased we'd found the wall. It was clear, however, it wouldn't be a last-minute addition to tomorrow's party of 500 paid guests. Instead, there would be free food and a fashion show, arcade games and a cover band. And mostly there would be, as the flyer advertised, "your last chance to get in the door" of what has become a bona fide urban legend.

In 2013, the Raleigh blog Candid Slice published a series of popular posts that offered glimpses into the space's hidden history—blueprints, photos, interview excerpts. People began to share their memories of the Underground or their surprise it had existed at all. One such article eventually generated more than a million hits.

To take advantage of the buzz and this sudden cachet, Cameron Village—now known more for its clothing-and-jewelry boutiques, towering new developments and two-story Chick-fil-A—hosted a free outdoor concert and charity fundraiser, "The Underground Rises," last summer. This year, they decided to take the next and final step—sell pricey tickets into the Underground before it becomes a prep kitchen for the grocery store The Fresh Market or a permanent storage space for the shopping center.

The tickets sold out in less than four hours, raising $25,000 for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.

"When you sell out any event for that much that fast, you know you've got a good fundraiser on your hands," Hunnell said. "It is the last hurrah for this space."

Indeed, the event was designed for nostalgic reassurance and the fulfillment of moribund fantasies. In the lone bright hallway of the labyrinthine and otherwise dim space, you could pose with a red-and-black train car, a joke that always highlighted the irony of the Subway's name. As paint peeled from the walls in massive flakes and curls, you could even see the name of The Frog and Nightgown, an earlier downstairs club. And across the hall, you could gaze at the clubs' marquees, still stained by the chalk the owners once used to advertise their shows.

Signs encouraged attendees to take selfies with the art and to tag the results across social networks. "Let's get it trending one more time," read one such banner, as though that had been a concern of the Underground's original denizens.

But Abernethy just wanted to see the backstage wall. Hidden behind one of two video screens, just out of sight of the seats where the party's VIPs would watch a 30-minute fashion show, the Underground's remaining relic would not be invited to its own farewell.

"For one of the only few things left of why we were really here," Abernethy said after his original excitement had dimmed a bit, "you would think they would want to play it up a little more, wouldn't you? That's too bad."

PHOTO BY JILLIAN CLARK
  • Photo by Jillian Clark

On their way into the Underground, Matt Abernethy asked his father if he was coming to the next night's big event. They were walking past large reproductions of photos from the state archives. Many of the people were old friends of Rod's, pictured playing in bands in The Pier or Cafe Déjà Vu.

"Look how skinny we all were," he said, laughing before he turned to answer Matt's question. "No, I didn't buy a ticket. They cost too much for me."

In fact, Abernethy knew very few people who would be attending. They couldn't afford it. The members of the wedding band Crush, the evening's only musical entertainment, were close friends. Some of them had even played the Underground. Like scabs at a strike, Crush had caught some flak for agreeing to be the only band playing when the acts that helped define the space hadn't been invited.

"A gig is a gig, though," Abernethy eventually said. "And I'm sure this one pays."

For a party where insulation occasionally fell from the ceiling and where errant screws and nails rose from corners of cracked floors, One Night Only was lavish, indeed. There was red carpet and a valet service, cordoned seats for the VIPs and canvas bags stuffed with gift certificates and jewelry cleaner. Souvenir catalogues rested on every table, and a professional photographer snapped your photo upon arrival and promised to have it printed (for free) in less than 30 minutes.

Each VIP received two gratis specialty cocktails, each named for one of the Underground's clubs, and an unending flow of free craft beer. Some of the arcade games, Hunnell said, had been flown in from California. Temporary ductwork wound throughout the ceiling, all connected to a 25-ton air-conditioning system parked outside for the night to keep the space at 68 degrees.

Though the concessions to comfort were manifold, the acknowledgements of the space's musical legacy were not. Photos and videos of bands playing the venues of yore flashed on a wall, but devoid of captions or context, you mostly wondered who the people that weren't R.E.M. were. And as polished and tight as they sounded, Crush were never allowed to be loud enough to be anything more than a cover band working through two long sets. They played on a black stage a few inches high and through a sound system that made them sound flat and far away, like a big boom box plunked in a corner. During the first set, including their live soundtrack to the fashion show, they worked recent hits, like "Blurred Lines," and sing-along throwbacks like "Centerfold." For the second half, they mustered a reference to The Pier's bygone days by prefacing "Our Lips are Sealed" from The Go-Go's with an explanation that the band had played there.

One Night Only, then, treated the Cameron Village Underground not as a cradle for bands that went on to bigger things and a music scene that continues to bloom but as a mausoleum with a prohibitively high cover charge. There was little celebration of what had happened there and no nods to what it helped build. The event was exploitative of a history it barely acknowledged, a convenient way to use nostalgia to make sure a benefit sold out. I suppose the fundraising ends justify such glib means, but the Underground deserved a better sendoff than drunk folks in nice clothes, occasionally dancing but more often taking selfies.

In the two years since those initial Candid Slice posts about the Underground went viral, blog founder Heather Leah has become the space's de facto historian and advocate. She's collected interviews with dozens of people who played there, assembled a trove of artifacts from people who worked there, and launched talks with the City of Raleigh Museum to host a show about the space later this year. She's even asked about finding ways to salvage what's left on the walls—the train, the marquees, maybe even The Pier's backstage area—from permanent destruction through archival photos or actually removing it for permanent display elsewhere. The discussion seemed promising at one point, but now she doesn't know if Cameron Village's ownership and management will commit the resources.

Standing in front of the train and behind a barricade, Hunnell sighed a little when I asked what will happen to the artwork. She said she was worried people would rip chunks of it from the wall on Saturday night. She seemed less concerned about the wall after the party.

"It's such an expensive undertaking," Hunnell explained, adding that her daughter is an art historian and archeologist. "It doesn't really seem to be in the cards."

A moment later, the space's one-night-only air-conditioning infrastructure clicked on. She smiled.

PHOTO BY JILLIAN CLARK
  • Photo by Jillian Clark

Grayson Haver Currin is the music editor of the Indy.

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