Monday, Oct. 5, 2009 | 7:24 p.m.
He’s shouted this question thousands of times over the years, but never for the past two. What would happen after that lapse of time, an eternity in the bar business? The club is slammed in every sense, but would the addled patrons remember how to answer?
Tommy Rocker is about to find out.
His familiar Fender Telecaster clung around his shoulder, the star of the show raises a cocktail glass of something-and-cola above his head and bellows, “WHAT TIME IS IT?”
Rightfully cascading back is, “IT’S TIME FOR A TEAM DRINK!”
A former surf bum, Rocker rides that wave all night.
Yep, they were back in prime form Saturday: Tommy Rocker’s the nightclub, Tommy Rocker the onstage alter-ego and Thomas Greenough the businessman with the Cheshire grin and a cat’s nine lives. What a ride it has been for this man, a would-be condo magnate who two years ago pitched the dice across his club on Dean Martin Drive (in the shadow of The Rio, as we like to say) and opened a topless nightclub. Tommy Rocker’s Gentlemen’s Club, it was called, from what I understand.
“I decided to do this at the precise moment the economy goes under,” Rocker said, fairly shouting to be heard over the din that was at once his bar’s relaunch celebration and 20th anniversary party. “We’d seen what places like Play It Again Sam had done by going in this direction. It didn’t work, and I knew it didn’t work when I started hating coming here myself, and so did (Rocker’s wife) Donna.”
Like so many episodes that have unfolded at Rocker’s club over the past 20 years, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I well remember a particular conversation we had one night after Rocker had finished his set and the crowd had conga-lined out of the club. This was more than three years ago, after Rocker had just finished an Austrian research-and-development tour of Viennese parking garages. The idea at that moment was for Rocker to build a 46-story high-rise condo project on the spot where his club sits, and Europe -- naturally – is the world leader in automated-garage technology. But even then, the condo idea seemed teetering, and the notion of the project being finished by late 2008 was sort of far-fetched. During the chat, Rocker casually mentioned that if the high-rise idea imploded, he had a license to operate Tommy Rocker’s Cantina as an adult club, and he would keep his gambling license, too.
And, talk of the condo tower had already eaten into Rocker’s business, as many customers wrongly thought he’d already closed the club.
“It was a good plan, except for the economy,” he said. “But we had no advertising budget, and we thought -- wrongly -- that people would come in here and play the machines, and we’d make money that way. That’s how it happens at places like Play It Again, but they’ve had years to build a clientele. We didn’t, and we weren’t going to pay cab drivers 80 to 100 bucks a head to bring people here. So it got back to us that they were saying, ‘Tommy Rocker’s is closed! Not only that, but they burned to the ground!’ ”
The change was hardly easy for a man who has never driven any vehicle but a VW Bus; the red 1970 model he still owns is his third. So after about two years on the dark side (and Rocker’s adults-only club was so dark that the one time I entered it when it was a strip club, I thought it was closed), Rocker returned to his sing-along, drink-along and conga-along format. Most important, he still controls whatever happens on that valuable single-acre parcel, and nothing significant can be built on that large, conveniently positioned parcel without his approval, something of which his neighbors are acutely aware.
Plus, he again gets to strum the guitar and sing “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” with friends and strangers alike.
“It’s about the most fun you can have,” Rocker said, motioning out toward the hordes of partygoers. “Look at this -- it’s almost all from word-of-mouth.”
Saturday was quite a party, no question, with Rocker welcoming back the band Face First, which has been around for nearly as long as he has and also had reunited with gigs at the Tailspin in Henderson. Members of Rockers band Conch’d Out were there (and how about running into KKLZ’s best bongoist, Mike O’Brian?), as was friend and guitarist Ron Futrell, once of the media FunHouse that is KTNV Channel 13. John Ensign, a frequenter of Rocker’s first club, Carlos Murphy’s on Maryland Parkway when Ensign was still just a veterinarian, said he’d show, but he did not. That might be the last place he needed to be on Saturday night, but for the rest of us, it was like cracking an amyl sulfate of giddiness.
Will the goodwill last? Who knows. The audience Saturday seemed less likely to stay out until 2 a.m. each Saturday than the crew who hung out at Carlos Murphy’s 25 years ago -- in many cases, Saturday’s patrons and those from the mid-1980s were the same people. Rocker has ambitious, even risky, plans for a regular comedy show (Cozy’s Comedy Corner; at least they didn’t go with all K’s there) each first Friday, Las Vegas country artist Seth Turner and an open-mic night with terrific Vegas singer/songwriter Joey Vitale. If every night is like Saturday -- sold!
As club-goers tossed wadded-up napkins at Rocker’s country twanger Darryl Green during the timeless “Rodeo Song” (Sample lyric: “You bleep me off! You bleeping jerk! You get on my neeeerves!”), you’re reminded of something Rocker himself has said: Today, there is only one boob onstage at Tommy Rocker’s.
Fine with us. Hey, what time is it? …
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.