When Joe King — aka Joe Queer — returned home from a spring tour of Europe with his band, The Queers, he checked his phone to find a message from an old friend. Dawn-Marie Pierre had called to ask the singer/guitarist if the band would participate in a concert commemorating the 20th anniversary of the closing of the World Famous Elvis Room, the legendary former coffee shop and music club in downtown Portsmouth.
“And then, I’m not kidding you, about 10 minutes later, (former band mate) Wimpy (Rutherford), texts me and says, ‘Did you hear about Dawn-Marie?’” King said. “I don’t take my phone with me when the band goes to Europe, so I had just heard these messages from her. She must have called me a day or so before she died.”
Formed in Portsmouth, The Queers were one of the biggest pop-punk bands of the 1990s, frequently mentioned in the same breath as famed labelmates like Green Day, Screeching Weasel, and Operation Ivy. They continue to tour the world constantly. But King still has a special fondness for the band’s early shows and the scene surrounding the Elvis Room.
“That was kind of ground zero for us,” he said during a recent phone interview with PortsmouthNH.com.
Before the Elvis Room, King reminisced, the band mainly performed — and got screwed out of money — at house parties around Kittery and Portsmouth. Punk-rock shows around the Seacoast were scarce, King said in an obscenity-laced rant.
“We helped bring a lot of people, with Gandhi’s Lunchbox, to a house party near the old Portsmouth Herald building on Woodbury (Avenue). And they wouldn’t pay us!” King said. “I asked for $35 so (former Queers drummer) Hugh (O’Neill) could get home to Somerville, and the owner of the house goes, ‘No, no.’ They could have thrown us a bone, but they were just doing it to be mean.”
There were few venues for The Queers to play when they started in the 1980s and early ’90s. They played Norton’s in Kittery, “until Jumpin’ Johnny put his head through the wall,” King said. “Then we got blackballed from there.” They also played at Cybernaculum in Portland and The Rat in Boston. They sometimes opened for bands like NOFX at the University of New Hampshire, but it wasn’t until the Elvis Room opened in 1993 that The Queers finally found a home.
“We would always start and end our tours at the Elvis Room. We always had great shows there on those tours.” — Joe King of The Queers
By then, the lineup of King, O’Neill, and bassist Chris “B-Face” Barnard had already built a decent fanbase. That same year, they released their seminal album, “Love Songs for the Retarded,” on Lookout! Records.They also embarked on a tour with Screeching Weasel and Rancid.
But while the band was gaining new fans around the country, King said, the Elvis Room became such a preferred venue that they no longer needed to constantly travel to Portland or Boston.
“We would always start and end our tours at the Elvis Room,” King said. “We always had great shows there on those tours.”
Through the mid-’90s, as The Queers continued to tour ambitiously throughout North America, other bands started asking about the Elvis Room. King said he would offer to let touring punk groups like the Swingin’ Utters, The Mr. T Experience, and others stay at his apartment in the Sheafe Street Inn so they could play the venue.
“It was a great place for mid-week shows,” King said. “Bands would always play Boston on the weekends if they were on tour, but (the Elvis Room) was a great mid-week place because everyone would come.”
King also brushed up against some of his idols at the Elvis Room. He recalled playing downstairs at the Middle East rock club in Cambridge the same night that Ween was playing upstairs. After the show, King hung out with the crew from Ween and swapped stories.
“Then, one night, I was walking past the Elvis Room and I saw a poster that said, “Members of Ween with Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground,” King said. “So I went up to the Ween guys and they introduced me to Moe, who was one of my heroes. I played it cool but I was really in awe.”
On another occasion, King stopped by the Elvis Room to say hi to Dawn-Marie and saw the inimitable El Vez, guitarist of The Zeros, performing a sound check.
“I go, ‘Hey, Robert!’ — his real name is Robert Lopez,” King laughed. “And he goes, ‘Shhhh, El Vez, El Vez.’ … You never knew who was gonna play there but there were always great bands.”
“Whether it was a Monday night or a Saturday night, the place was always packed. It was just a positive experience for me. I have nothing but good memories of that place.” — Joe King
In 1996, things started changing for The Queers. After releasing three highly successful albums for Lookout!, they recorded “Don’t Back Down.” The album generated a flood of reviews and new fans flocked to the band, eventually attracting the attention of Brett Gurewitz, an original member of Bad Religion and owner of Epitaph Records. According to King, the band shook hands on a three-album deal, but as they were waiting for the official contract, tensions between bandmates grew.
“One of the last weekends as a band, we went out to Illinois for three shows and we fought the whole way down,” said King. “I wanted to leave Lookout. I thought we went as far as we could with Lookout. But (O’Neill and Barnard) didn’t want to go.”
Despite their success, the band kept running into obstacles. Barnard packed up his gear and left. King and O’Neill were both getting clean from addictions to drugs and alcohol. Then O’Neill was diagnosed with a brain tumor, to which he would eventually succumb.
With his rhythm section no longer around, King rebuilt The Queers with Chris Fields and Dave Swain from the band Jon Cougar Concentration Camp. But when King finally got through to someone at Epitaph, he learned that Gurewitz had left the label unexpectedly to battle his own drug addictions.
“They said, ‘Mr. Brett went AWOL,’” King said. “They didn’t even have the keys to the Epitaph office.”
Through the turmoil, King still attended shows at the Elvis Room as a casual fan. But he was hesitant about bringing the new lineup on stage.
“We had some big shows there, but with B-Face and Hugh, we all grew up with the audience at the Elvis Room,” he said. “I didn’t want to play too much there. We were winding down as an Elvis Room band.”
By the time the Elvis Room closed in 1999, The Queers were touring around the globe and continuing to make records. But King was committed to staying in touch with the people who made the club happen. Pierre, who co-owned the Elvis Room with Barbara Steinbach, died following a stroke in April while living in Florida. She was 59.
“I was very close to (Pierre) and would see her when we were in Florida, so that was a huge loss in my life,” said King. “I loved Dawn-Marie. She was a bundle of energy. We were on the same wavelength. I became close to Barb, who I’m still in touch with now. I was able to meet her son, which was awesome.”
King now lives with his wife near Atlanta, but his love for New Hampshire and the World Famous Elvis Room still comes out in his stories.
“Whether it was a Monday night or a Saturday night, the place was always packed,” he said. “It was just a positive experience for me. I have nothing but good memories of that place.”
A number of events are taking place across the Seacoast this month to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Elvis Room. The Queers will perform with Laramie Dean and The Cretins at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth on Saturday, Oct. 5 (learn more here). For a full schedule of Elvis Room 20 events, click here.