There were rooms before Cave 9. There were four walls and a ticket-taker at the door; somebody that wouldn’t get paid to mop the sticky floor.
Rooms like the Tuxedo Junction Ballroom, right there where Birmingham’s music history began: a place that earned its name from neighboring Tuxedo Park in Ensley and became famous with the notes from the eponymous tune that Erskine Hawkins played. Long after its final jazz improvisation, it was just a room. A room where punk rock shows happened in Birmingham. Propagandhi played there once.
There were clubs and record shops before Cave 9, too. Places like Big Dan’s Fantastic Planet and American Beat Records and Unity. And, of course, there were always The Nick and Zydeco, the Rasputin and Magellan of do-it-yourself Birmingham. We’re generously talking about a seven-year run, after all. Bottletree followed, and that evolved into Birmingham’s most ambitious do-it-yourself room, Saturn. The Forge followed. The Firehouse and Syndicate Lounge followed. Ten years from now and 20 years from then, something else will come and go, and someone else and some other scene will experience its own moment in time.
But on March 8, 2002, Aaron Hamilton opened Cave 9 at 2237 Magnolia Ave. on Birmingham’s southside with help from Angelica Hankins, and Birmingham punk rock kids born between 1980 and 1990 greeted their own moment in time.
“I might be biased because I was at the perfect age,” said Lee Bains III, of the rock group Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. “But for me, it was peculiar in its ability to build a sense of community and be a port in a storm. Most DIY venues before it and since have been marked by instability or uncertainty or tumult for any number of reasons, mostly financial ones. It’s hard to keep something like that open for very long in Birmingham. The city can be really hard on all-ages venues. [Cave 9’s] most notable quality was that it was present and involved and as active as it was for so long.”
And being a punk rock kid in Birmingham may have been more difficult than being a punk rock kid anywhere because even kids at the punk rock shows were way into football.
“The hardcore kids were jocks, and then there were the punk kids,” said Matt Whitson, music producer and creator of the Alabama Public Television series We Have Signal and its successor Subcarrier, as well as current owner of the Firehouse.
Cave 9 held about 175 people.
“In high school, we were the weirdos,” said Waxhatachee’s Katie Crutchfield. Katie and her twin sister Allison left Birmingham shortly after high school for Philadelphia and New York, where they each began critically praised independent music careers; their first club gig was as a sister act — The Ackleys — at Cave 9. “We were the ones that got picked on and made fun of. In a certain sense, once we started going to Cave 9, nobody at our school could really touch us,” Katie said. “It gave us this sense of community and it made everybody feel like people cared about them. It took everybody who was weird and into music and art and stuff — it took you from being the outsider to feeling like you were inside of something.”
Cave 9 was the first time that community was fully realized. It was the first real stage that a lot of those kids played on. And while there were others before and others after, it was vital to helping Birmingham find its identity.
“Once I started going there, there was such a strong sense of community,” said Allison Crutchfield, who is releasing Tourist in This Town, a solo album under her own name, on January 27. “Aaron and Renee [Clay] and Will Butler and that whole crew… But from the outside, it was a hard nut to crack. As a teenager, it could seem intimidating because everyone was in there, and it seemed exclusive or maybe those people were too cool. But that wasn’t the vibe once you got inside at all. I was nervous; I thought, ‘Oh, those are the cool punk kids.’ But when I got inside, it was like, ‘Wait, no. These are my people.’”
“This place was for everyone,” said Michael Shackleford of Future Elevators, formerly of The Grenadines — both Birmingham-based bands. “People would stand outside and talk about the shows, skate, make new friends… And the ones that were old enough were usually drinking beer or liquor from Solo cups. It was as punk rock as anything you’d hear about CBGB or the Chukker, but it wasn’t limited to being 21-and-up. There was always a more youthful, edgy, free-spirited element that can only authentically be portrayed through including that crowd.”
Its most enduring legacy will be rooting out the punk rock kids that left town and got distribution deals with well-respected labels and toured both coasts: the Crutchfield sisters, Lee Bains III, The Grenadines, and the pieces that became Wray, Future Elevators, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
“It was really lonely,” Katie Crutchfield recalls of life before Cave 9’s opening. “Allison and I didn’t really have any friends before we started playing shows at Cave 9. It’s funny because a lot of the people that we ended up being friends with were also people that went to our school [Oak Mountain High School], that also played in bands and went to Cave 9. It was isolating and it felt like there was no common ground.
“When you’re that age and you’re insecure and you’re doing something creative — maybe deep within you, you think, ‘This is cool, maybe somebody will like this!’ [But] there’s always that voice in the back of your head that thinks, ‘Nobody is going to like this. Nobody thinks that this is cool.’ Cave 9 broke that ice for a lot of young people. It gave people a place to freely express what they were doing. It was such a good medium for that. I hate to say it was ‘cutting your teeth,’ because it’s not like everyone was gunning for success in a traditional sense, but it was a really great place for you to just forget about that weird insecurity. It attracted people that wanted to make music and people that wanted to hear music.”
If we’re being technical about it, Cave 9 was the third show that the Crutchfield sisters played. First there was a house party at which they performed five songs, and then there was a performance at the Fifth Quarter — a chaperoned Friday night post-game gathering at a church. Still, if it weren’t for their third performance at Cave 9 — and Hamilton’s encouragement — neither may have realized their own potential and pursued the careers they each currently enjoy.
Their band was The Ackleys, and they shared the Fifth Quarter bill with Cinnamon Oblivion (comprised of Brad Lightfoot, a longtime fixture at BottleTree who departed the Magic City for Seattle, and Carter Wilson, who has spent time as the drummer for Fake Tyrants, Coliseum, Heavy User, Null, and Dan Sartain — he’d also drum for The Ackleys). Wilson encouraged The Ackleys to join them for a show at Cave 9 — an eclectic bill that included around five bands for five bucks. That’s when Hamilton saw the band and decided that they needed to record. It was 2004. The Crutchfields were 15.
“They had a connection to that music, and you could tell they weren’t just doing it for fun,” said Hamilton. “There were other people that played great music, but you could tell they weren’t as invested.”
So he sent them to Whitson; he of his own rock bands — notably the punk band Fake Tyrants — and the aforementioned, award-winning television projects like We Have Signal and Subcarrier that can be seen today on Alabama Public Television.
“I felt like it would be me nursing high school kids through a [expletive] demo,” Whitson said. “But it turned out to be a fantastic record.”
Hamilton recalls it selling around 100 copies. It led to the first P.S. Eliot record — another joint musical project from the Crutchfields; this one, their first taste of national success — which led to their individual projects, Katie’s Waxahatchee and Allison’s Swearin’.
Cave 9 was do-it-yourself, so much so that the first show featuring Blue-Eyed Boy Mr. Death (a band also recorded by Whitson), The Haunted Stepdaughters, Death or El Dona, This Day Will Burn, and High Speed Comet Collector was a fundraiser for buying the venue a P.A. The room would host Hopes Fall, and the promoter talked the band into playing two sets because the demand was so high. Against Me! played a set there when Laura Jane Grace was known as Thomas James Gabel. Allison remembers being at that one. The next night, she saw Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.
While the club’s legacy is carried by the scene that it left behind and the young musicians that it influenced, its most important work is often forgotten and largely the unsympathetic cause of its eventual demise.
In 2006, Cave 9 Music and Arts Project, Inc. officially became a nonprofit organization. The venue and the community that supported it had already been assisting kids in the Magic City with tutoring and trade classes, and through its newfound legitimacy, it partnered with Scrollworks to allow kids a space to learn how to play music.
There was red tape. And red tape is difficult to manage when no one is making any money. Hamilton was audited, and that process was the death knell that forced the scene to migrate elsewhere.
And it did — it moved to the Forge and Firehouse and the other house shows and clubs that will presumably carry Birmingham’s DIY scene for many years after this one is gone. But there was something different about Cave 9, a legacy that went beyond the music — a legacy that Hamilton carries with him today.
“Cave 9 was totally unpretentious in a way that Unity never was,” said Whitson. “The group of people that surrounded Cave 9 fostered that.”
Bains recalls his first trip to Cave 9 was with his band, the Shut-Ins. He also recalls that he grew to know his wife at the same club.
“I went to school in New York, which is so potentially overwhelming for a kid from Birmingham,” Bains said. “But I felt like I was already a part of the cultural conversation thanks to Aaron. I didn’t see anything in New York that shocked me because I spent a couple of years at Cave 9. I felt like the world and its culture had been brought to us.”
Allison also recalls that her first show was also the first one she played; the third public set by The Ackleys.
“Aaron literally taught us how to be a band,” said Allison Crutchfield. “He put out our first record. He drove us on our first tour; at 16. He booked it; he drove us. He taught us how to be in a band and how to get involved in the DIY community. He really did teach me and teach us so much about radical politics and about punk and being a touring band and how to be a grateful musician.”
Hamilton was just 26 years old when he opened that club. The physical space certainly allowed kids to see things they’d never seen, but Hamilton’s guidance and mentorship were the indelible mark he left on a scene that now represents the Magic City from coast-to-coast; from the City of Brotherly Love to the ATL.
“All of the friends that I made,” Hamilton cites the most important thing that he took from his time at Cave 9. “There are people to this day that I love dearly and keep as friends. It was a day-by-day thing at the time where we were just trying to do something good for people – to put on a good show and to give someone some information about something that may be useful to them. Looking back, we must have made some sort of impact.”