At fifty-three, Lupo rarely comes to the club after dark these days. He says that he's too old to be spending his nights in a smoky bar, that the music passed him by long ago. He'd rather be watching the Red Sox on television, he insists, or drinking wine with his friends who call themselves the "curmudgeon club." Or playing in the local Scrabble league he organized. Lately he's been consumed by a battle with his landlord, who happens to be one of the city's dominant developers and wants to turn the building that houses Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel into upscale lofts. Lupo feels increasingly threatened by those who see the club as a relic of an old Providence whose time has passed. And he's picked up rumors that city officials are planning to make his life miserable by rigidly enforcing sound ordinances and fire codes. "I feel," he says, "like my club is the state of Israel, constantly attacked from all sides."
Has the time come, Lupo wonders, to abandon downtown Providence and start over in a rundown neighborhood on the southern edge of the city? Or maybe it's time to retire. Get married and start a family. Maybe it's time to grow up.
ON A FREEZING SATURDAY night in mid-December, the first snow of the season falls in fits and starts onto Providence streets. Inside Lupo's, as the club is best known, the 1980s hair band Tesla is heating up the crowd with a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." The concert, sponsored by a local radio station, sold out in three days, and there's barely room to move. Two bearded, overweight men nearly trade blows over a square of floor behind the sound booth - a spot from which the stage is barely visible. Threats fly. Beer spills. Most of the crowd, however, is focused on the band and is singing along to nearly every lyric. People stomp, scream, and pump their fists in the air - all for a band whose biggest hit was another cover, the 1960s antiestablishment anthem "Signs."
Invisible in this sea of stone-washed denim, flannel, and leather, Lupo slouches against a pillar near the back of the club holding a cup of Bud Light. He likes what he sees. "I never heard of them before," Lupo, who doesn't own a record minted after 1975, says of the band. "I hate the music, but I like the crowd. It works. I mean, look at the people, they're just so happy."
Lupo is also pleased because the radio station paid for the band and, he explains, a working-class crowd outdrinks yuppies and college kids any night. "When I see mullets, I'm happy," he jokes about the hairstyle favored by many of the men around him. "Mullets mean money."
Nearly bald, with a waning half-moon of gray hair, Lupo has a puffy face with small, bright blue eyes, a wide, freckled forehead, and a stubbed-end nose. Although he stands six-foot-one, he seems shorter, and he looks slimmer than his 210 pounds. He favors sweatshirts and jeans over the slick suits and black leather of the stereotypical club owner. (Until five years ago, Lupo dressed almost exclusively in corduroys - he says it's impossible to find them anymore. He switched to jeans only after his final four pairs of cords, which he'd found at Goodwill, grew so threadbare you could see through them.) Tonight he looks almost formal in a faded green polo shirt, black jeans, and white New Balance sneakers. Lupo's insouciance toward flash also extends to his choice of car and home: he drives a 1989 Mazda 323 (with a twenty-year-old Scrabble board in the backseat, its box held together with duct tape) and lives in a slightly shabby single-family home overlooking Roger Williams Park.
Restless, Lupo climbs a set of stairs to an L-shaped balcony and scans the length of the club, a long rectangular space that was once the Peerless department store; outside, portraits of rock 'n' roll legends have replaced mannequins in the display windows. Gazing down on the crowded club floor through a haze of cigarette smoke, Lupo sounds almost wistful for "the early days." "This is what the club was like in the '70s," he says.
WHEN THE ORIGINAL Heartbreak Hotel opened in July 1975 Lupo figured the jukebox would supply most of the music. But he quickly realized that live music attracted a steady crowd, and within two months local bands were playing the bar six nights a week. Soon regular customers began offering Lupo access to bigger bands - at first Boston blues acts and later such national blues figures as harp player Big Walter Horton. Blues became a mainstay, leading to an association with blues-and-roots label Alligator Records. Jack Reich, who was then the manager of the popular Rhode Island band Rizzz, became Lupo's full-time booking agent, bringing in younger, more current acts such as the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Police, the Pretenders, the Go-Gos, and Squeeze.
The bar solidified its reputation in 1978, after a customer helped Lupo book renowned bluesman Bo Diddley. Lupo couldn't believe it. (Years earlier, as an overweight eighteen-year-old freshman, he had confided to a friend: "I'm going to open a bar, and Bo Diddley's going to play there.") Over the years, Diddley was followed by the likes of Muddy Waters, James Brown, Professor Longhair, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Albert King, and Carl Perkins - acts revered by Lupo but overlooked as pass} by other club owners. All the while, Lupo maintained a commitment to local musicians, booking them on weeknights or as opening acts for better-known bands. "It's hard to think of someone who wasn't there," says Tony Lioce '68, the Providence Journal's music critic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Really. The Stones weren't there. The Who weren't there. But pretty much everyone else was."
The music at Lupo's was so consistently good that crowds - including many Brown students - would show up on a Friday night without any idea who would actually be playing. They just knew the music would be good and the beer and the cover charge would be cheap. "It was one of those great rock 'n' roll barrooms you read about, like Tipitina's [the legendary New Orleans club]," Lioce says. "But it was in Providence, which was the most improbable place."
During the 1970s most people didn't venture into downtown Providence at night unless they had to. Asphalt covered the rivers. Train tracks scarred the city. Downtown was known mainly for its collection of porn shops, strip clubs, and dive bars. "It was a little worse than Dresden," Lupo says, only half-joking.
Lupo's gave music fans a reason to brave the urban frontier. "He's one of the reasons for the downtown renaissance," says local newspaper columnist Rudy Cheeks, whose former band, the Young Adults, played Lupo's regularly. "He started drawing people down there when a lot of things were dead."
Well-known bands helped Lupo underwrite appearances by the acts he wanted to see. In September 1985 he booked New Orleans songwriter, producer, and pianist Allen Toussaint for a rare live performance. Toussaint was unknown to most music fans even though bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Fleetwood Mac were recording his songs. Lupo didn't care who showed up to hear him.
"This is what separates the men club owners from the boy club owners," he told former Providence Journal rock critic Mike Boehm during the show in the half-empty club.
"Whatever else he'd done," Boehm recalls, "the Rhode Island debut of Allen Toussaint had happened in his club, and that was more important than turning a profit."
LUPO GREW UP in and around Boston, the youngest of three children born to a housewife and a singing bartender. From an early age he filled his head with the show tunes and operatic numbers his father practiced on the piano. But it was the early R&B hits issuing from the radio that captured Lupo's imagination. By the age of ten or eleven he was trolling Boston record stores for 45s.
A self-described nerd, Lupo turned to music as a social outlet. But there was a problem: no one really wanted to listen to his records. In high school his friends were listening to the Beach Boys and early 1960s rock 'n' roll, while Lupo grooved to "The Train Kept A Rollin' " by Johnny Burnette & the Rock 'n' Roll Trio. At Brown one of Lupo's favorite nighttime activities was sitting around the record player. "I can remember, you know, thinking about what to do on Friday night and saying [to friends], ԙYou want to play records?' " Lupo recalls. "And people just looked at me: ԗWell, maybe not tonight.' "
Lupo, who'd arrived on campus as a 280-pound freshman, walked onto the football team and was picked to play defensive tackle. He enjoyed the game but believed his physique was stifling his love life. "I got tired of looking at my stomach when I was lying down," he says, and by the beginning of his sophomore year he had lost ninety pounds, limiting himself to 1,400 calories a day. "Everyone thought I was a drug freak because I was thin, and it was the late '60s and everyone was doing drugs," he says. "I kept trying to explain that I was just counting my calories." Lupo maintains nearly the same fanatical discipline about eating to this day, slicing and weighing a loaf of bread before freezing it to calculate the calories.
"I was kind of a lost soul," he recalls of his years at Brown. "I felt everything. I felt the jock thing. I felt the hippie thing. You know, I really saw both sides of everything."
Lupo graduated in 1970 with a degree in psychology and plans to work with troubled youth. He says that idea lasted about a week. He spent the next few years drifting around Providence, painting houses when he needed money and trying to disabuse himself of the notion of opening his ideal bar. He worried that his dream would be a waste of his education, that his widowed mother would be embarrassed to have a glorified bartender for a son. In retrospect, his friends say it's hard to believe that he ever considered doing anything else.
"Until he opened the bar, he didn't really seem to fit anywhere," says his freshman-year roommate, Jim Wolpaw '70.
THE ORIGINAL LUPO'S, at the southern end of Westminster Street, Providence's main downtown corridor, was dirty, crowded, and loud, the kind of place where you avoided using the bathroom at all costs. In the early days, Lupo served as bartender, janitor, and cook. For a time he even lived there, bunking up in the balcony at night.The club's air stank of sweat and stale beer. The band room was little more than a low-ceilinged closet in the basement, often with three inches of standing water on the floor and beer bottles stacked all around. When the Ramones played the club in 1976, Joey Ramone called it the most disgusting band room he'd ever seen. Lupo was flattered.
Lioce remembers Lupo calling him one Christmas morning to ask whether he would write an article about The Band if Lupo managed to book them. Lupo, who is Jewish, didn't understand why Lioce was annoyed at the timing of his call. "The guy was a complete lunatic," Lioce says. "He lived for that place. That bar was his whole life."
"[Lupo] set the tone for the place," Boehm says. "It was very earthy and yet very astute and attuned to music. A place that was maybe more unpretentious than it needed to be, but a place that when you walked in you knew it was about the music."
Above all, Lupo's was inviting to musicians. Joe Jackson came in for a drink and ended up onstage, as did Ray Davies and Mick Avory of the Kinks. Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played there before jumping to bigger venues, dropped by after a show at the Providence Civic Center and wound up performing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, which included his older brother, Jimmie.
Lupo's dreams kept coming true. In the early 1980s he managed to book bluesman Paul Butterfield, the first musician he had ever seen perform live. (He'd been a high school sophomore at the time.) But at Lupo's, Butterfield suffered a bad case of stage fright, and when Lupo went to check on him, the musician demanded that he pray with him. The two men dropped to their knees on the grimy basement floor and linked hands for fifteen minutes.
Prayer, however, couldn't save the club in July 1988 after the landlord converted the building into apartments. NRBQ headlined an emotional final show. It was past 2 a.m. when Lupo ordered the crowd to get out. But first they wanted a memento of Providence music history. They tore plaster from the ceiling and woodwork off the walls. "Signs, stools, tables, beer pitchers - they all go," the Providence Journal reported. "In the parking lot two guys battle over a Lupo's chair like hyenas fighting over the kill."
Five years passed before Lupo was able to reopen the club a few blocks north on Westminster Street. The new Heartbreak Hotel represented something of a philosophical change for Lupo. "The old club was a bar that had concerts, while this is a concert club," Lupo explains. The new Lupo's is bigger and cleaner than its predecessor, but it retains the same unpretentious roadhouse feel. Like the old club, the stage faces the short side of the bar, making it easier for the audience to get closer to the bands. In an homage to Scrabble (which Lupo began playing competitively after the first club closed), the floor is inlaid with an array of blue, pink, and red tiles - the world's largest permanent Scrabble board, Lupo boasts. Next door he runs a small sister club, the Met Cafe, which features local acts and up-and-coming artists. Everclear, Oasis, and Dave Matthews all played the Met before breaking out.
The musical mix at Lupo's remains eclectic, but alternative and pop now dominate the lineup, which also includes some occasional blues, world beat, reggae, funk, and jazz. Lupo's reputation for attracting a wide range of high-quality acts has enabled the club to maintain its independence while other midsize clubs have folded in the increasingly cutthroat and corporate music and club scenes.
"He's followed tastes and basically brought bands into the club that are going to sell," says Roomful of Blues manager Bob Bell. "And I think a lot of people in this business go out of business because they book people they want to listen to."
IT'S JUST AFTER NOON on an unusually warm December day, and Lupo is holed up in his office, a narrow hallway tucked behind the main bar. The walls are covered with signed photos of bands that have played at the club. A $700 contract for Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble from August 1981 is taped to one wall. A large picture of Neil Young playing at the Grammys a few years ago hangs on the opposite wall. Young wears a Lupo's T-shirt.
Lupo leans over his battered desk, counting a thick stack of cash - the bar receipts from the previous five nights. After a few minutes the club's manager, Marc Roberts, lumbers into the office. Roberts, who has known Lupo since the mid-1970s, when they played on opposing softball teams, used to work at the bar as a cook, janitor, and bartender. He looks like a workingman's Nick Nolte. Lupo tells Roberts that the bar is out of red wine. They talk briefly about switching to a better brand but dismiss the idea after concluding that they'd be giving business to a local distributor who they think is a jerk. Then the topic switches to Lupo's current obsession: his battle with his landlord, Arnold "Buff" Chace.
Lupo is distraught. He is worried that that the Providence Journal is going to throw its weight behind Chace's vision of transforming Providence's still-haggard urban core into an upscale commercial and residential district modeled after Boston's Newbury Street. "This neighborhood will probably not happen," the newspaper opined in June, "and the residential projects already under way could easily wither, if hard rock remains as the next-door neighbor."
Even Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., whom Lupo has long supported, has joined the chorus calling for Lupo to abandon his downtown club. "I think [the club] should remain but not [downtown]; it's very difficult to put housing and an art district in with all the loud noise" that the club generates, Cianci says in a phone interview weeks later. "I'm the last person that wants to see Lupo's close. I will sit and defend his right to run his club. I think it makes the city alive. The question is, ԗWhere?' "
Lupo says he would prefer to stay downtown. His lease was recently upheld by a court decision - Chace's appeal has been postponed twice and is now scheduled for April - but Lupo is so convinced the odds are stacked against him that he's seriously considering Chace's offer of a buyout. (Chace declined to comment for this article, citing the continuing court case.)
"Now we're fighting City Hall, the Providence Journal, and all the property owners," Lupo tells Roberts. "I don't know. I don't feel good about the situation."
"Now I'm bummed," Roberts says. "I've never heard you so fatalistic about it all."
LUPO NEEDS A CUP OF COFFEE. He's been talking about it for an hour. He walks a few doors down to a bakery, orders a cup, and sits by the large front window. After a few minutes, Lupo spots Umberto "Bert" Crenca, the artistic director of AS220, a downtown artists' cooperative, walking down the street. He signals for Crenca to come into the cafe.
"This is one of my favorite guys," Lupo says.
Crenca, who sports a shaved head and bushy gray goatee that would make ZZ Top jealous, sits down, and the two begin to talk about meeting for dinner. Soon the topic switches to Lupo's struggle with Chace, whom Crenca has cultivated as a donor.
"I don't know. [Chace] owns everything around us," Crenca says. "He owns that. He owns that," he says, pointing up and down the street. "He owns yours. Why not take the money?"
"Because this is my life," Lupo says. "This is what I do."
Days later, Lupo approaches Chace to suggest a partnership, an idea that quickly collapses. Lupo begins to scour properties around the city for a new Heartbreak Hotel. Two stand out: a six-acre site on Providence's industrial waterfront, and a defunct automobile dealership in South Providence. Both have easy highway access and plenty of room for parking.
Walking around one of the dealership's vast repair bays on a cold late-January morning, Lupo begins to imagine the space filled with music fans. A stage flush against one wall. Three bars running along the room's other walls.
"I'm excited about this drain," he says, pointing at a grate that splits the concrete floor in two. "You could just hose down the floor. My janitor would love it."
But Lupo is getting ahead of himself. First he has to convince the local city councilman that the club would be a good neighbor. Then there's a settlement to negotiate with Chace and financing to secure. Still, he thinks it could all be worth it for the chance to trailblaze a new part of the city and cement his legacy: "This could be the next frontier, South Providence," he says, beginning to fantasize again. "It could be artsy. A hipster restaurant. A music store. A sound studio "
Zachary Block is the BAM's staff writer.