By Mary Brooks 

The Casbah has been a regional institution enriching arts and culture throughout San Diego by creating a space that both attracts exciting and emerging acts from all around the world but also cultivates local talent. I know that the Casbah makes San Diego a much cooler city, which is what we’re all striving for.

– Todd Gloria, interim mayor of San Diego, upon declaring January 14 “Casbah Day” in the City of San Diego

Kettner and Laurel is an unassuming corner in Middletown, directly under the San Diego International Airport flight path. A mish-mash of businesses, the block is flanked by parking structures and car rental lots. Any number of visitors to our fair city pass by it every day, glancing sideways at a building with a blood-red exterior, chrome flames and an iconic crescent sign as they wait for lights to change from red to green. Little do they know they’re actually looking at what is arguably the epicenter of the San Diego music scene, sheltered within the four walls of the Casbah.

When you walk inside, you’re essentially engaging in a living history of the San Diego music scene. It’s small, it’s gritty and it’s exactly the kind of place you want to pop into for good music, cheap drinks and great conversation. The Casbah is about artists and music lovers, community and connections. It’s about passion. But it’s first and foremost about mind-blowing musical experiences.

This year, the iconic institution turns 25, causing music fans and bands from around the city to become nostalgic. Nostalgic and celebratory… and it’s turned into quite a party. But we’ll get to that later.

First, let’s delve into the archives … through the milestones and the memories, the interviews and snapshots of greatness and music and connection that, when pieced together, create the tapestry of awesome that defines the Casbah’s first 25 years.

Hang on, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

Rumor Has It

So the story goes something like this…

Eddie Vedder paid a visit to the Casbah in the early 90s to see Jonathan Richman perform and then joined Casbah owner Tim Mays for a couple of drinks and a few rounds of pool after the show. Tim and Eddie were kicking off a game when Tim proposed a friendly wager: The Casbah against Eddie’s record royalties. Sounds fair. (At least to us!)

A agreement was made. A game was played and lo and behold, Eddie Won.

Fast forward a few months and Tim started hearing whisperings on the street that Eddie Vedder now owns the Casbah. Apparently Eddie had shared the story during a radio interview and you can guess what happened next.

Just to clear things up: Eddie never settled the bet… at least not yet.

In the Beginning

You had the Spirit Club, which is now Brick by Brick. Then there were smaller places that we were playing, like Kelly’s Pub. SOMA was around, too. There were other ones, but The Casbah definitely filled a niche in town.

– Steve Poltz, solo musician and co-founder of the Rugburns, in a 2008 City Beat magazine interview

There was a huge shift in music happening in 1989. The industry was turning its eyes from L.A.’s rock scene to the grungier sounds of Seattle. Indie and alternative rock bands were making names for themselves, and San Diego was showing up on the radar as the next darling of the music scene. There was only one small problem: The bands didn’t have anywhere local to play. Something needed to be done.

Enter three friends—Tim Mays, Bob Bennett and Peter English—who were tired of driving to L.A. to catch good bands. The solution: They dove in headfirst to open a little place called the Casbah.

(Now before we go any further, let’s just go ahead and dispel one myth: The name is NOT a nod to the Clash classic “Rock the Casbah.” It’s simply named after Bennett’s favorite club in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.)

How did it all come about?

In 1989, the old Casbah location (a few blocks up Kettner) came up for sale and we decided to buy it so we could host live entertainment. But our original idea was to feature R&B, roots, swing, acoustic, etc. After about six months we started getting calls from both booking agents and bands looking for a place to play, and the rest is history.

– Tim Mays in the San Diego Urbanist Guide, 2014

That location could host a cozy 75 people who would be served beer, wine and, for a short time, espresso. The crowds were quick to catch on, and the Casbah was on the fast track to become a full-blown rock club, featuring bands seven nights a week.

The first show to be played in the original space featured C.L.A. and Romy Kaye and The Swingin’ Gates. It was St. Patrick’s Day, 1989.

I was there within the first week or so of it opening. It was a tiny little joint. You walk in and the bar was to your left and the stage was to your right, and I mean there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot else. I loved it. I lost some of my best hearing in that place.

– Pete Markall, KCR College Radio DJ, 2008 City Beat interview

The Casbah hit its stride quickly, and the bands that played that small, original space marked a special time for the venue, setting a precedent for the caliber of music that would be hosted throughout the Casbah’s history. Early memories speak of performances by (then) up-and-coming bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. Local legends, including Rocket from the Crypt, Three Mile Pilot and the Dragons, cut their teeth within that intimate and unassuming space.

The Casbah had bands that no one would have—Nirvana, Melvins, Jesus Lizard and John Spencer all played the tiny old Casbah. The shows were just small, intimate affairs a lot of the time, but there was really a sense of excitement for it—an anticipation that one of the touring bands was going to skewer your face, and a lot of the time, they did just that. The ultimate carne con face asada, for sure.

– Mario Rubalcaba, drummer for many San Diego bands including the internationally acclaimed Rocket from the Crypt, 2008 City Beat interview

When a bar a quarter mile down the street became available, the partners jumped at the opportunity to almost triple the venue’s capacity. That, along with the liquor license that came with the sale, made the move a no-brainer.

The current Casbah used to be called Bulc. You know, “Club” backwards, and it was in its day a notorious gay leather bar. I think there are still hooks and harnesses somewhere in the club that are leftover from those days, but I’m sure they gave it a nice scrub down. [Laughs.]

– Tim Pyles, San Diego rock radio legend, 2008 City Beat interview

The lease was signed, the move was made, and the owners did their best to create a space that preserved the very things that patrons loved about the original space. It didn’t take long for people to embrace the new location and the two bars and patio that came along with it.

The Casbah became a gathering place for musicians who had long-awaited just the right place to play, connect and to call their own. They built a network … a tight-knit community that not only played shows together but supported each other as they navigated the sometimes challenging moments that every musician encountered. They became a family.

Everybody would go see each others’ bands play. You’d go there any night and the audience would be three other bands who weren’t playing that night. Yeah, it was a big group. It was [a place] where you’d walk in and you knew 80 percent of the people on any given night.

– Tim Mays, 2013 Union Tribune newspaper interview

Nothing has really changed, although the Casbah’s reputation has transformed the location from a local venue to a destination for bands from across the country and beyond looking to connect with San Diego’s organic fan base.

We made it a point to treat them fairly and with respect, and take care of them and make sure they were, you know, dealt with honestly. And it just kept building. The booking agents who I was working with back then are still around, a lot of them, and they started off a little small, working out of their dorm room in the college. And now some of these are the biggest booking agents in the country. We’ve both grown in the same thing, you know.

– Tim Mays, 2013 Union Tribune interview

The list of artists who have darkened the doorway of the club reads like a who’s who of musical royalty. From the Cult and Mudhoney to Vampire Weekend and Fitz and the Tantrums, it seems that even the most prolific of musicians can’t pass up the opportunity to play a song or two on the Casbah’s stage. And they just keep coming. 

The tradition of kick-ass music and strong drinks isn’t the only thing you can depend on from the Casbah. Let’s take a moment to tip our hats to the people who make the magic happen … the family that makes up the Casbah’s 35-member staff. 

Almost half of them have been working at the venue for more than 10 years, and a number have been there for 20 years or more. This in itself is a testament to the kind of business that takes place on that oh-so-nondescript corner of downtown, and we think it says it all.

Growing Up Casbah

We’ve always wanted to cultivate local bands. Our goal is to have a local band start playing there and get them to where they could headline the club and maybe even do two nights.

– Tim Mays, KPBS interview, 2014

Talk with any music-loving San Diegan, and you will likely discover that they have their own special connection to the Casbah. Many grew up there. It was the go-to place when you had a music itch that needed to be scratched, and it gave people the opportunity to connect with others they could relate to because of their collective love of music. Many would agree that the Casbah has been as important to those people and their own personal histories as it has been to the bands that have graced its stage.

For local musicians, playing the Casbah is a rite of passage. Selling out the Casbah is a sure sign that you’re getting somewhere.

Playing at the Casbah was like … it just felt a little more like what I was doing was legitimized. It’s like:‘This is it. We’re a real band, we’re the real thing now.’

– John Reis, leader of San Diego’s Rocket From The Crypt and Hot Snakes, in a 2013 Union Tribune interview

Throughout the club’s history, and on any given night, local talent has had a place to grow their roots. There’s something about the Casbah that makes those roots thrive … just ask the likes of Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Three Mile Pilot, Creedle, the Rugburns, Jewel, the Dragons, Blackheart Procession and Pinback; all local acts that have given the city of San Diego, as well as the Casbah, something to be very, very proud of.

At the Center of It All

In the eye of this musical storm, you will always find one constant: co-founder and owner Tim Mays. After all this time, you will still find him booking most of the talent, reviewing riders and ensuring that the experience every artist and guest has at the venue lives up to the Casbah’s reputation. Mays has become a fairy godfather, of sorts, for local bands. His knack for identifying up-and-coming talent is uncanny, and his ear for the next big thing, indisputable.

Tim is a huge fan of music and has incredible taste, and he dedicated himself years ago to presenting it to San Diego. Obviously, there were other kingpins and factors that contributed, but the early to mid-’90s scene that I was a part of simply wouldn’t have happened without his presence.

– Andrew McKeag of Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver and Presidents of the United States of America, 2008 City Beat interview

When asked in a recent interview how long he planned to continue this level of involvement in the Casbah’s operations, Mays remained vague, taking a “we’ll see where things go” stance. Regardless, the legacy he has created will no doubt create a foundation of excellence that will carry the Casbah through the next 25 years and beyond.

So here we are … 25 years in. The month of January was a whirlwind of sold-out shows, hand-picked to blow the roof off the place. It’s also given the bands that cut their teeth on the San Diego music scene the opportunity to perform in homage to the very institution that took off their training wheels. The entire hoopla can be likened to a musical homecoming party.

The celebration brought local favorites front and center once again and inspired iconic bands like the Dragons and the Penetrators to reunite in honor of this amazing milestone. (In fact, the Penetrator’s lead singer Gary Heffern flew in from Finland for the gig!) Other performances included Three Mile Pilot, Black Heart Procession, Switchfoot, Creedle, Fluf, and Sprung Monkey, just to name a few.

A highlight of the month was the intimate “An Evening with Tim Mays and Friends” at the North Park Birch Theatre on Jan. 23. Produced and hosted by Leslee Schaffer, the evening included a mix of music and history, with Mays sharing his experiences, insights and memories as 25 years come to a close. Local artists and special guests paid tribute to Mays and the Casbah through storytelling and song. In a word, the night kicked ass.

As the month-long celebration came to a close, the final night’s festivities featured performances by San Diego favorites Rocket from the Crypt, Styletones and the Downs Family… a show that sold out in one minute and, subsequently, blew the minds of everyone in attendance.

At the end of it all, one thing was for certain: Everyone caught a little Casbah fever, including the City of San Diego. This year, Jan. 14 was named “Casbah Day” in the city, an honor that represents the magnitude of the influence that the club has had and will continue to have over San Diego’s music community.

All that’s left is to say “Thank you.” Thank you for giving local musicians a place to learn and grow and flourish. Thank you for giving music lovers a place to go and belong. Thank you for making San Diego a place where artists are taken seriously. And, most of all, thank you for our extended family, our community and, of course, for the music.

Seriously, even more important than showcasing so much great national and international talent over the years, the Casbah has been an invaluable incubator for at least two generations of gifted San Diego musicians.

– George Varga, veteran pop music critic with UT San Diego, in a 2008 City Beat interview