The first night I spent in Charlotte, I thought, would probably be the last. It was 1989 and I was in town to interview for a job at the Observer. Earlier that week I had shown up to the Greensboro paper for an interview there, only to be told they didn’t want to talk to me after all.
The Observer was better than the Greensboro paper. So I didn’t hold out much hope. But I did a round of interviews and they told me to come back for a second day. I was too nervous to sit around my hotel room. I thumbed through Creative Loafing, looking for something to do. It turned out that Buckwheat Zydeco – a musician I loved – was playing at a place called the Double Door Inn.
I drove over there and, for the first of many times at the Double Door, had trouble finding a place to park. It was early, and a few folks were posted up at the long bar to the left. I bought a beer from Mike or George – back then, if you bought a beer at the Double Door, it was always from Mike or George. I walked through to the back room where some guys were playing foosball. One of them was Bill O’Connor, an editor I’d interviewed with that day. He saw me and picked up his longneck and hollered “Heyyyyyyy!”
I didn’t know it then, but I was home.
So often our world feels plastic and phony. One of the narratives running through all our lives is the search for something real. We crave the thing that reaches in and scrapes the soul. You might find it in church, or on a river at daybreak, or around the table with people you love. For me, as much as anywhere, I have found it in live music. And as a young man in Charlotte, I found it most often at the Double Door.
For its whole run – 43 years – the Double Door has specialized in music that digs deep: blues, soul, jazz, the country/rock/folk blend that we now call Americana. From the outside it looks more like a house than a club. It always feels like you’re coming over to visit with friends, they happen to have some people in town playing music, grab a stool and listen, dance if you feel like it. The Double Door is big enough that it can turn into a tent revival, small enough that you think the singer is singing for only you.
When I was a single man, the Double Door was my go-to place for first dates. I took a beautiful young woman from Rock Hill up there one weeknight, and we just about had the band to ourselves. We kissed out back between sets, but she wasn’t much into the music and wasn’t much into me. We didn’t go out again.
Later on I met a different beautiful young woman who played Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on her stereo at home. I took her to the Double Door and stood behind her as the band started to play. She reached back and pulled my hands around her hips. We stayed together for a while.
Now I’ve taken my wife there, and old friends coming through town, and newcomers who want to learn the city. I’ve run into people I know a hundred times. But more often than not, I’ve gone alone.
One night I was there for a band out of New Orleans called the Iguanas – a little Latin, a little swamp, twin saxophones. Almost nobody was there at showtime. I heard the bass player on the pay phone – when people still used pay phones – calling somebody back home to talk about a lost night at an empty club. But Jimmy Buffett was playing that night at the big amphitheater, and when that show ended, the Double Door filled up. The Iguanas played until well past midnight and the dance floor was slick with sweat.
Another night I saw Junior Brown, who looks like a Texas sheriff and plays a thing he created called a guit-steel – half electric guitar, half steel guitar. He tore that thing up like a chicken-picking Hendrix. There was a big crowd but at some point we stopped clapping and just stood still with our mouths open, like he had opened a hole in the universe. The whole time his wife kept up with him on an acoustic. She was dressed in a cream-colored suit like she was due back soon for her job at the bank.
Tinsley Ellis, the Atlanta guitarist, stomped out the beat so hard that I thought his boot would go through the stage. Koko Taylor, the self-described Queen of the Blues, screamed so loud it made my own throat hurt. The Observer even rented out the place one night for the annual talent show we used to have. My friends Taylor and Kelvin got up on stage and did “Rapper’s Delight.” I’ll go out on a limb and say it might have been the best “Rapper’s Delight” ever performed at the Double Door. Also, probably, the only.
The years I went there most, the same staff was there every night, and Nick Karres, the owner, was hanging around the stairwell. North Carolina has a law the state enforces off and on about bars – if they don’t sell enough food, they’re called “private clubs,” and you have to buy a membership. Membership at the Double Door was one dollar. I still have the card that says I’m “a member in good standing and entitled to all privileges.” There have been a lot of privileges from going to the Double Door.
The last show is Jan. 2, and that makes me happy, that the place hung around for one more turn of the calendar. I’ll miss the place, same way I miss so many Charlotte things that have slipped away – Henry Boggan on the radio, Anderson’s for breakfast, Newsstand International way out Providence Road. There was many a night I left the Double Door and walked down the street to the Athens Restaurant, which was open 24 hours and was the most interesting place in town at 2 in the morning. The Athens is long gone, eaten by the expansion of Central Piedmont Community College, the same thing that’s happening to the Double Door. Better a building where students can learn than another Walgreens.
Either way, I’m not mourning. Forty-three years is a tremendous run for a music club – hell, for most anything other than grandmas and redwoods. The Double Door did what it was born to do. The best moments in life are when art or God or whatever you love connects you with humanity and at the same time touches you in a deep and personal way. The Double Door delivered more of those moments per square foot than any other place I know of.
If you know anything about the Double Door, you know the story about how Eric Clapton showed up one night and sat in with the band after his concert in town. My first night in town, Buckwheat Zydeco played an Eric Clapton song from his days with Derek and the Dominos: “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?”
The answer is, it’s hard to be sad with a zydeco beat. Buckwheat Zydeco sang the words about love and loss and the days we wish we could have back. But on the dance floor at the Double Door, all you could feel was joy.