In 1975, downtown Providence was not the magnificent metropolis that we know and love. It was a ghost town after 6pm; the rivers hadn’t moved, suburbanites feared the city’s mean streets and no one envisioned a renaissance on the horizon. Then Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel opened on September 5, 1975 – and everything changed.
Well, not exactly. But, years later, the unassuming bar at 377 Westminster Street was hailed as “The Mayflower of what would turn out be the new Providence,” by Bill Flanagan, an astute chronicler of all things Rhode Island. But before we turn back the clock and chart the historic arc of the storied club, let’s roll through a highly subjective list of 40 of the best acts that have graced the three Lupo’s stages in the last four decades – to get a sense of how the Heartbreak Hotel became a vital cultural touchstone:
Big Joe Turner. The Ramones. Muddy Waters. Talking Heads. James Brown. Graham Parker & the Rumour. The Pretenders. Emmylou Harris. Sun Ra Arkestra. Roy Orbison. Dead Kennedys. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bad Brains. Richard and Linda Thompson. Jerry Lee Lewis. Los Lobos. King Sunny Ade. Public Image Ltd. Dave Matthews Band. Wilco. Willie Nelson. Oasis. Radiohead. Beck. Weezer. Green Day. Foo Fighters. Garbage. Smashing Pumpkins. Modest Mouse. The White Stripes. Muse. Arctic Monkeys. Wu-Tang Clan. Girl Talk. Bright Eyes. The National. St. Vincent. Kacey Musgraves. Of Monsters and Men.
Impressive, yes? Okay, now the history: The Heartbreak Hotel was the brainchild of Rich Lupo, a Boston native who attended Brown (class of ‘70 with a degree in psychology) and decided to make Providence his home.
“When I was in college [at Brown], I bartended at Loddy Lod’s in Pawtucket,” Lupo says. “It was a local watering hole, but what overwhelmed me was that it was a confluence of local millworkers, college kids, bikers. It was a melting pot. It was a neighborhood bar, but it drew Brown and RISD students – it was every range of society and it was so much fun. It just developed into this great, great place.”
Post-diploma, while working as a house painter, he decided to pursue his dream of opening his own melting pot. “At the very beginning, I just wanted a place where I could play [R&B] records. And then I thought maybe twice a week we could do local bands,” he says. “And then you just can’t help but expand the idea of doing cool stuff.” Live music quickly became a staple at the Heartbreak Hotel, including the Backslap Blues Band, Banana Bunkhouse Boys and the Hamilton/Bates Blue Flames. The first national act was blues harpist Big Walter Horton.
The cool stuff – and the star power – ramped up quickly when booking agent (and then-manager of Rizzz) Jack Reich began lining up the talent; a heady mix of rock and roll pioneers, upstart punks, R&B giants, country and jazz greats. In 1978, Bo Diddley (backed by the Young Adults) played a weeklong residency. And there were a slew of new local heroes: the Young Adults, Wild Turkey, Max Creek. It was official: Providence had its first real club – a gritty, no-frills urban roadhouse which drew devoted music fans from all over the state. A few years after Lupo’s kicked the door open downtown, the Living Room, the Last Call Saloon, Rocket and various other rooms followed his lead and energized the city’s long-dormant nightlife.
But the city’s developers and powers-that-be had other notions of what downtown life should be like and, in July 1988, the club was forced to close to accommodate the building’s conversion to condos. The Heartbreak Hotel went out in grand style with five nights of music featuring many of the aforementioned locals (some of whom are playing the 40th anniversary shows in October). “If everything goes right, it should be about six months before we’re back,” Lupo said at the time. But unfortunately, things didn’t go right – he spent the next “five years looking for a new place and trying to sell the movie.”
“The movie” was Complex World, directed by Jim Wolpaw, who was Lupo’s roommate in his first year at Brown. “After I opened the club I promised Jim that if we ever made any money at all we could use it toward making a film,” Lupo says. Complex World had all the makings of a cult classic: the plot involves terrorists, a biker gang, a troubled folksinger and other misfits who converge on the club to wreak comedic havoc. The cast included Captain Lou Albano, NRBQ, the Young Adults – and Lupo as The Mayor. It was filmed in 1987 and finally got a very limited release in 1992 (though it played at the Cable Car for nearly four months), although it proved to be a financial albatross.
While shopping Complex World, Lupo looked all over the city before he found an ideal spot for his new club – a former department store at 239 Westminster, a couple of blocks up from his original site. “I immediately thought the Peerless Building was perfect,” Lupo says. “It was a concert [space] that still had the fun of a bar.” (The floor had red, blue and pink tiles – a giant Scrabble board, in homage to Rich’s obsession with the word game.) The second Heartbreak Hotel was arguably the best large music room the state has ever had, with great sight lines and sound, and more than a bit of the spirit that was a hallmark of its predecessor. (The second incarnation of the Met Café, whose first location also opened in 1975, adjoined Lupo’s II, supplying a wondrous musical overload.)
But in 1999, it was déjà vu all over again when Lupo’s new landlord wanted to oust the club and turn the site into an apartment building. In the midst of the standoff Lupo said, “I think the city is better off with Lupo’s than people living in the apartments above it. I think that because we bring about 300,000 people a year downtown, and the whole live music thing, that’s what makes the city alive.” Late in 2003, he agreed to a buyout of his lease and began sharing the space at the Strand Building at 79 Washington Street, which is also home to the Roxy dance club.
Lupo waxed pragmatic about relinquishing the personality of the first two Heartbreak Hotels when he made the move to his current room: “As a club owner I never owned any of the buildings and to a city, real estate development is more important than a nightclub. And so there was really no option other than [the Strand]. But it made sense to go from a concert club that felt like a bar to a concert club that really was a concert club. I think people still have good times there.”
There’s no small amount of symbolism in the fact that the shows celebrating Lupo’s 40th anniversary are being held at the third Met, which opened in 2010 at the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, instead of Lupo’s III. Rich noted that the Met “was an opportunity to recreate [the original Heartbreak Hotels] – to me, it’s what it’s all about. There’s just no other way to do [the 40th shows]. The experience will be much better there.”
We wrapped up with a few Big Picture questions: What were the biggest challenges in keeping the clubs afloat for 40 years. “Financially, it’s an incredibly difficult business. Live music venues are a struggle, and in Providence, it’s such a struggle because we’re a secondary market Bands just don’t want to play here as much.”
What does the future hold? “Every once in a while we’ll be going through some horrible battle, and I’ll say to Jack, ‘Whaddya think?’ And we both say, ‘Eh, maybe four or five more years’ – and that’s been going on for about 20 years now. We signed a lease [at 79 Washington Street] with options till 2035 a few months ago. And we have about 15 years of options [on the Met] – if we can stay in business, and choose to.”
What are his favorite musical memories? “Not to be cliché but Roy Orbison and James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis. One of my favorite nights was when NRBQ backed John Sebastian [of the Lovin’ Spoonful]. That was just unbelievable. And my favorite experiences have been to talk on a first-name basis with guys from The Band and Paul Butterfield – he called me ‘Richie.’ That stuff was just treasured by me.”
And despite the seismic social changes that have taken place since 1975, the most compelling reason to leave the house and go to a club – to share the experience with real live people – remains the same: “There’s still nothing like when a show works and everyone’s having a hoot,” Lupo says. “It makes it all worth it.”
Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
79 Washington Street