In September 1984 when I heard the Inn Square Men’s Bar was closing, my friends and I decided to attend the closing auction. My friend Dave bought the ice machine. I scored a Budweiser “Bowtie” neon sign, some beer mugs, a barstool (with an impressive array of dried chewing gum stuck under the seat), and a hand painted sign: “Positive Proof Required.”
Last year I wrote a blog post about The Idler, another bygone music club in Cambridge. I had fun interviewing former staffers and some of the musicians who played there. The fact that decades have passed hadn’t dimmed people’s fond memories.
Although it closed decades ago, The Inn Square Men’s Bar (Ladies Invited) also brings back fond memories for former staffers, guests, and musicians who played there. The Inn Square remains an important place, not just for rock ‘n’ roll, but as part of the history of the Boston area music scene.
In 1979 the readers of Boston magazine voted the Inn Square Men’s Bar “Best Neighborhood Bar.” Three years later, the Inn Square was voted “Best Dance Club, Neighborhood.” And in 1983, “Best Bar for Live Music, Rock.” But according to Didi Stewart of Didi Stewart & the Amplifiers and Girls Night Out, “It was the most eclectic music club ever. What you could see there was just wildly varied.”
The long, narrow room had a small stage opposite the bar. In front of the stage, a long stage-high table included a low row of red topped, lunch counter style stools. The bar walls were covered in dark brown faux wood that looked like rec room paneling. A large bar logo served as the visual backdrop for the stage. There was only one television on a shelf above the bar, which was lined with a row of ladder-back barstools with black Naugahyde seats. Neon signs advertised Budweiser, Narragansett, Guinness, and Miller Light. Red letters on a thin wood sign stated: “Positive Proof Required.” A Wheel of Fortune spinning wheel offered customers the chance to spin the wheel and win a free drink.
The Inn Square originally started as a men’s bar in 1964 and was frequented by Cambridge Public Works Department employees. But by the ’70s it was under new ownership, and the bar soon evolved into one of the most well-loved music clubs in town. Journalist Doug Simmons wrote, “Owned and managed by Marshall Simpkins, the Inn Square was almost too good to be true: a small, warm neighborhood bar with good taste in music. The best and the brightest of the local bands played for Simpkins; so did national acts (generally unadvertised) like the Iron City Houserockers, Garland Jeffreys, George Thorogood, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Roches, and the McGarrigle Sisters…the Inn Square was a triumph of personality—a kind of honky-tonk that was perfect because of its imperfections.”
In 1973 when Simpkins and business partner Harvey Black first looked at it, the bar business had slowed. “In those days they had men’s bars,” Marshall told me recently. “Women were not allowed. It was basically a men’s meeting place. It was open from 8 a.m. until 10 at night. They had a rule in the Department of Public Works that as soon as you finished your job, you were done for the day. So the guys would get in there early. Sometimes they’d be done by noon and they would come into the bar, have lunch, and stay ‘til like 3 or 4. That was like a standard thing.”
Bartender Bobby Keay has good memories of working the Inn Square. During the day, he told me, the clientele tended to be older and mostly locals. But by six or seven o’clock, the place would be transformed into a hard rock bar. “It was a very, very unique place. I miss it. The television was a big black and white, up in the left-hand corner above the bar. The ‘remote control’ was a ladder. You had to climb up a ladder to tune it or turn it on—or change stations. To give you an idea of what the entertainment was during the day, some of the regulars down at the end of the bar would want The Three Stooges on, so we’d put that on for them.”
For staffers, the daytime shifts weren’t the most coveted because the tips were better at night. Bobby recalled, “The staff was very close. We all went out together and did things together. It was a real family during the day and more of a business enterprise at night. The vibe there was like no place else. People got married there. We had drama there: somebody ran away with somebody, or somebody got shot. It was like a Damon Runyon kind of place, something you’d read about in the tabloids. Marshall was a terrific guy to work for. He had very good instincts about music. He was very generous. He threw parties for the staff once a year and ran a tight but at the same time very friendly ship.”
When the Department of Public Works extended the workday until 3 p.m., there were fewer visits by city workers and the guys didn’t stay as long. “Business was definitely down,” Marshall told me. But instead of being put off, he and his business partner saw it as an opportunity. The early 1970s was a time when lines at the gas pump were long and inflation was high. “It seemed like a good time to have a bar,” Marshall recalled. And he wanted a place to have music. “Music was always my thing.”
After graduating from Boston University in 1963, Marshall had worked as a film coordinator at television station WFIL in Philadelphia, home to the popular show American Bandstand. Along with friends from the station, he hosted area dances. He also worked for music magazine Crawdaddy, a precursor to Rolling Stone. During this time, Marshall worked with Philadelphia-based concert promoter Larry Magid, co-founder of Electric Factory Concerts. In 1985, Magid, along with partner Allen Spivak, produced the first Live Aid, held at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium.
As the new owners of the Inn Square Men’s Bar, Marshall and Harvey wanted to change the wording on the green metal sign out front, but they’d put every dollar they had into buying the place. So they added: “Ladies Invited.” They wanted to keep the bar’s original name, but “make sure that women were allowed and comfortable,” according to Marshall. Staffing changes were also made, creating a more balanced mix of men and women tending bar, serving food, and working security.
The first performer to appear on stage at the Inn Square was folk legend “Spider” John Koerner. Koerner also designed an early version of the stage. “At that time, we had the longest bar in Cambridge,” Marshall told me. There was a little room used as a green room for the performers, and a small office for Marshall. A back door opened onto Hampshire Street.
Marshall handled the music bookings. “Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, we had the real good bands. During the week, we would have bands that would play for the door. The place was very unique. It had great sound. Because the audience was close, it was great for bands to play there.”
The McGarrigle Sisters caught a show, then they signed up to perform at the club. Boston blues stalwart Bonnie Raitt sat in with them. “That was one of our first big music experiences. It was very exciting—very fun,” Marshall recalled. “It was written about and got a lot of attention.”
The Inman Square neighborhood was home to a variety of shops. The Inn Square Men’s Bar shared a wall with the S&S Restaurant, which opened in 1919. In 1968, Legal Seafoods opened their first restaurant nearby, an outgrowth of their Legal Cash Market, a grocery store opened in 1904. A fire in 1980 permanently closed the restaurant.
There were other places to see music in Inman Square. Joe’s Place featured Bruce Springsteen in an early gig. The Ding Ho, a Chinese restaurant on Springfield Street (now the site of Ole), presented music. In between sets at “the Ding,” stand-up comics appeared including Jimmy Tingle, Paula Poundstone, and Jay Leno. The 1369 was located on Cambridge Street, and Ryles, a popular jazz club, was close by.
A short list of Boston bands that played the Inn Square Men’s Bar in its heyday reads like a core sample of the rock and roll firmament: The Del Fuegos, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, The Incredible Casuals, The Stompers, The Dream Syndicate, and ‘Til Tuesday.
Writer Virginia Aronson told me the following story: “Sometime in the early ’80s, I went to the Inn Square Men’s Bar for the first and only time. A friend who looked like Rod Stewart, so much so that everyone told him that, invited me to see a local band perform. I’d never heard of them before, but he promised me they were worth seeing. We squeezed into the packed barroom and somehow got ourselves beers. Then we found a sliver of space in front of the stage just as the band appeared. ‘That’s Aimee Mann,’ my friend informed me. ‘Her band is called ‘Til Tuesday.’ This was before Voices Carry made Aimee a household name. And before her star turn in Hollywood—including Academy Award fame for Magnolia and an appearance in one of my favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. So I didn’t recognize her, but I would never forget her: beautiful despite hair almost totally shaved, and that powerful voice. The band rocked. The crowd loved them. I loved the bar. I planned to return, but sometime after that I heard it had closed. The Inn Square Men’s Bar will always be entwined in my memory with Aimee Mann.”
Writer Brett Milano highlighted the band in Boston Globe Magazine: “’Til Tuesday was one of Boston’s success stories—and with the photogenic Mann upfront, the band was one of Boston’s first MTV stars with 1985’s Voices Carry. Its elegant sound wasn’t typical of Boston—but then, the city’s music scene was growing in every direction. Alternative country was a good decade down the road, but well ahead of the herd were the Del Fuegos and Scruffy the Cat. Fellow roots lovers Treat Her Right rocked the blues, and Barrence Whitfield wailed some wild R&B. The Neats were big on muttered lyrics and jangly guitar sounds about a year before R.E.M. got the same idea.”
During the 1970s and ’80s, Boston radio stations WFNX and WBCN dominated the airwaves and promoted the Boston area music scene. ‘BCN’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble, a battle of the bands, was at the Inn Square Men’s Bar in 1978 when winner La Peste took the top slot and The Mechanics took second. Other bands to compete that year included Baby’s Arm, Lazers, Marc Thor, Thrills, Unnatural Axe, and The Stompers.
Stompers frontman Sal Baglio has fond memories of playing at the Inn Square. “People were right up in your face in that place. They were right there. In a lot of ways, it was a positive thing—that it was so small. It made you play right to the people and work hard. Whenever we played there the place would be packed, and I’m sure that most of those people there hadn’t heard of us yet. So we were going after them. We wanted them to come back and to follow us. That was the whole deal back then. And we worked the room… And like many people before me and after me, one of [my] great memories is jumping up on that table that was just in front of the stage and doin’ a good Chuck Berry duckwalk up and down that thing.”
After playing the Inn Square, The Stompers went on to tour with the J. Geils Band and The Beach Boys. The Stompers had numerous hits including their song “Coast to Coast,” which was used in the soundtrack for John Sayles’ 1980 movie The Return of the Secaucus Seven. “We had a good run. We were really fortunate,” Sal told me. “The shows with Geils were in New England. So we went from playing the Inn Square Men’s Bar and the other clubs to places with twenty thousand people.” After that: “the next time we played a club, you couldn’t get in. With Geils, it was a built-in audience. ‘Here’s another band from Boston!’ —and the place went crazy. Our whole approach was to burn the barn down when we went up and played, which is what J. Geils did…The Beach Boys—that was just too heavy. I’m a Brian Wilson fan and a Beach Boys fan, so when we got those gigs…I say this to a lot to different people: My life has been like a rock and roll fantasy come true. And it’s just amazing. Those shows were a lot of fun.”
Billed as a solo artist, Robert Ellis Orrall also has fond memories of playing at the Inn Square from 1979 to 1984. Originally from Winthrop, Orrall moved to Nashville, eventually coming full circle and returning home to Massachusetts. “I can tell you unequivocally: It was my favorite place to play. No doubt about it.” In 1980, Orrall signed with RCA, and he continues to work with his bandmates of more than forty years. His numerous albums include: Fixation (1981), Special Pain (1983), Contain Yourself (1984), and Flying Colors (1993). As a singer-songwriter, he penned numerous Top 40 hits. His songs have been recorded by Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Lindsay Lohan, and Katzenjammer, and he’s written number one hit songs for Shenandoah and Clay Walker. He also co-produced Taylor Swift’s multi-platinum debut album, and garnered a CMA nomination for Duo of the Year with Orrall & Wright.
Yet playing the Inn Square “was instrumental in getting us to the point where we were ready to get a record deal. It was the best atmosphere to play in.” Like others who played the club, Orrall loved that the audience was so close to the stage. “After my first or second gig, I figured out that the table that ran all the way down the middle of the room was bolted to the floor. So I could jump from the stage on to the table and use it as a stage. I started telling our sound guy, ‘Hey, give me another forty feet of microphone cable.’” One night when the place was packed and there was a line outside waiting to get in, Orrall went out the front door and sang on the sidewalk while the band kept playing inside.
“The other thing that made the Inn Square special was Marshall. The guy loved bands—and he understood. He just got it. The guy has a rock ‘n’ roll heart. You put that together: the room, the crowds, Marshall—and I thought it had the best name for a club: The Inn Square Men’s Bar (Ladies Invited). I always loved that name.”
Drummer David Stefanelli grew up a few blocks away from the Inn Square Men’s Bar. When he was fourteen, he started playing in local bands. With access to the greater Boston area, he was exposed to a wide variety of music. When he was twenty, he joined Robert Ellis Orrall’s band.
“The music business in Boston at that time was just a plethora of unbelievable creativity. I went from just a local guy playing in basic, local bands to playing with someone who was about to do something that was very important. Inman Square was this hidden gem. In those early days in the ‘80s, it was a short window for the Inman Square Men’s Bar. Right across the street from the Inn Square Men’s Bar was the Ding Ho comedy club. I gotta say that I put Marshall Simpkins in the same category as Barry Crimmins, who started the Ding Ho.” Both venues were springboards for talented artists, conduits to bigger audiences and, in many instances, national or global recognition. “They were very similar places. That whole time right there was like a special thing: Here ya go. This is gonna be magical for however long it lasts.”
When Orrall’s band got their first gig at the Inn Square, David met Marshall. “Right from the get-go, this guy was like a happy uncle or something. He was so nice to everybody. I remember that first show vividly. Our band was like a power pop band…it was like a bunch of nerdy collegiate people. Bob wrote some really cool, kind of Elvis Costello-y songs. And that place…the audiences were always so into it. It was like being a superstar. People just went nuts. It was wonderful. Everyone that worked there –all the bartenders, the waitresses, Marshall—they were all fantastic.”
After becoming a well-known presence on the Boston area music scene, Didi Stewart & the Amplifiers changed musical direction. Driving home from the movies one night, the band decided that forming a satirical all-girl group seemed like a fun idea. Girls Night Out “was just gonna be a one-night thing. Nobody thought it was going to be any more than that,” Didi recalled recently. The bandmates made a trip to the local Salvation Army “to get really bad mini dresses,” supplemented with fishnet hose.
They had all played the Inn Square before “in different aggregations.” And Marshall was open to the idea, giving them a night for Girls Night Out. He gave them many chances to develop a following. “And that’s what set him apart from everybody else.” He brought bands in and “let them have several tries with the idea of developing the band and developing the following, which was good for everybody. It worked for the band, it worked for the audience, and it worked for him. I thought that was real vision.”
The debut of Girls Night Out got rave reviews. Didi’s songs “Affair of the Heart” and “Matter of Time” were part of the set list, along with covers of songs by Mary Wells, the Ronettes, the Velvelettes, and Dusty Springfield. The place was packed, the audience went crazy. “It was just screaming and yelling from the beginning of that night until the end,” Didi told me. The wild hair idea had turned into a viable rock and roll vehicle, and the band spent several years touring throughout New England, even making stops in New York City. “But that night at the Inn Square was probably the best night of all, just because it was so raucous and so much fun.”
When new owners purchased the building, the club’s street level spot was up for grabs. There was some discussion of moving the club to the basement, but Marshall knew that was not going to work. The S&S next door had long objected to the noise. “We tried to get the old Legal [Seafoods] building and the city wouldn’t allow it. So, we just said enough and got out of the business.”
The end came in the fall of 1984 when the club’s liquor license expired. In a Harvard Crimson article, Mary C. Calnan, the licensing board’s chairman stated that, “the main ground for the license denial was the fierce opposition among area residents, who feared that the bar’s new location would increase noise in the neighborhood and require extra parking.”
Soon after the beloved bar closed, the S&S Restaurant took over the space. Sometimes I sit on my Inn Square Men’s Bar barstool and stare at my Positive Proof sign and remember the good times. Let me know if you have any memories you’d like to share.