The for sale sign is up at Sammy’s Cabaret in Dunedin. It’s a steal at $240,000. You couldn’t buy Sammy’s shed for that in Auckland. From what I remember growing up in Dunedin it was never really ‘Sammy’s’ as such. The venue on the site of the old His Majesty’s Theatre was actually owned by the late Eddie Chin, who owned most of that part of town at one time or another. Sammy is his son.
Whatever, Eddie ran it is a nightclub, when that word really meant something. In the mid 1980s with pubs closing at 11pm a nightclub license meant hours of after closing time fun.
My first experience was at an after ball party for one of Dunedin’s integrated girls schools. Looking every bit the sixteen years of age we were, we made it past the distracted bouncer and set up shop drinking god knows what, but most probably Joseph Khutze or Rheineck or Miami Wine Cooler which were perpetually on special.
As if by appointment, the Police arrived not long after. We decided to make a quick but quiet exit. That was until one member of our party managed to entangle themselves in the red tablecloths that used to grace the tables and dragged it and the assembled bottles and glasses onto the floor. The then mandatory $40 underage drinking fine quickly followed.
But the real heyday of Sammys (the Cabaret tag was ditched somewhere along the line) was when the focus turned to live music. I returned not long after the Ball to see the Jesus and Mary Chain. It was the middle of my school exams, but I wasn’t going to miss my own little bit of live shoe gazing. They were loud. Very loud. We all took a step backwards. Jim Reid said thanks, once, and didn’t utter another word. I loved them and wore a trench coat and distracted look for the next year or two in tribute.
Many, many gigs followed. The Flying Nun 10th anniversary one stands out. I think I almost cried when The Clean played 'Tally Ho'. I had never heard it live, and never thought I would. My friend Jane grabbed me during the song and shoved me into the middle, my glasses went one way I went the other. I didn’t care. Later on Shayne Carter and Peter Jeffries played 'Randolph’s Going Home'. It was raw. Sorrow, anger and hurt seared through every chord and every word. I definitely cried then.
Later that year saw one of a handful of abortive attempts to go to Sammy’s gigs. Our flat got a bit over-excited about the release party for The Verlaines Juvenilia compilation. I vaguely remember leaving our flat, possibly entered the premises, definitely introduced myself to the gutter on Crawford St outside – and certainly never heard a bar of music. There were accidents and incidents over the years. I still feel bad about collapsing after a bout of enthusiastic dancing one night and sitting on Toby Mann’s hand and, I think, breaking his finger. Sorry Toby.
There were disappointments. I saw Billy Bragg there a couple of times. On his Sexuality tour I was so excited I went and saw him in Christchurch and then followed him back to Dunedin a couple of days later. He made the same jokes at exactly the same point both nights. Reality 1, Grant, 0. Pavement played in 1993. My friend John wrote a song called 'Pavement Are So Boring' about that night. He was right.
And there were moments of sheer madness and joy. The anarchic Too Many Daves (managed by the mysterious Ronald D Ponce) played there with the 3Ds and the Verlaines. The two adult bands could not agree who would play last, so they decided to let the Daves do it. It happened to be a night when David Mitchell was at his frenetic best. All hair and kinetic energy he blew the venue apart.
It was a big ask for the Daves, who were, how to put it, a bit shit to follow on from such greats. Somehow it had been decided that a certain friend of the band and now Law Professor at Otago University would sing a song. He came on and launched into an excruciating, and barely discernible version of 'You Are My Sunshine'. Remarkably, the crowd loved it, the Daves played superbly, and I convinced a couple of first years that the Daves were American, and “very alternative.”
Other nights the place was half empty- but some magic could happen. Bands like Funhouse, My Deviant Daughter, Munky Kramp all had moments where they sounded like the next big thing. Well, at least to my by now highly biased ears. Kid Eternity arrived all cartoon punk and full of fun. One night they renamed their song 'Evil Bill and Evil Ted' to be 'Evil Phil and Evil Grant' for me and my friend and we felt like we had made it in the world.
After I left Dunedin I went back to Sammy’s for various gigs over the years and I know that it has had an on or off existence as a music venue. But it was still a decent venue, and the quality of beer had improved. I wish I had a spare $240,000 to keep my memories alive. Alas I don’t. I have no idea if whoever buys it will want to keep the gigs going. I hope so. But to Eddie and his family, thanks for chance to hear the best sounds of my life.
“Someone's selling all your heroes
And it seems such a shame”
Lost In Space, Luna