Jailhouse Rock Café Book of Shows

A book about notorious Montreal music venue Jailhouse Rock Café

We spoke to the author and the venue’s former co-owner and manager about documenting an exciting chapter in the city’s punk rock and nightlife history.

If there’s beauty to be found in chaos, it was most definitely on full display in the heyday of Montreal’s Jailhouse Rock Café. 

Tucked just west of the Main on Mont-Royal Avenue, the Jailhouse played host to thousands of live shows during a 13-year run as a go-to performance hall welcoming almost anyone from local bands to foreign guests. What made the space a success, though, were the booze-soaked fans they drew into the small shambles of a rock ’n’ roll loveshack, a place its devotees and regulars called home.

A little seedy, a lot loud, kinda ugly but pretty fuckin’ hot, the chaos of the Jailhouse Rock Café has now been captured in time with a forthcoming book of posters and notes from the underground, lovingly arranged over the past half-decade by one-time owner of the club and old-school scene superintendent Domenic Castelli.

And perhaps fittingly, it’s the chaos, strangeness and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis that finally allowed Castelli to bring The Jailhouse Rock Café Book of Shows all the way home and ready for the galleys this spring.

“I really wanted to get it done this year and I wasn’t gonna be able to,” he says. “Just before the shutdown, I was (stage managing) on the ballet at Place des Arts. I was just about to join an opera for a month and then go to Italy to manage another stage for two months. I was like, ‘I’ll never get the book done,’ basically. And then the whole world stopped! So I can finish this book. I was always doing this between jobs.”

So Castelli — who booked and promoted shows in the ’90s under the mantle of Chimney Sweep Productions and ran Jailhouse with his brother Dave — is not mad at the Coronavirus.

“I fuckin’ love it!” he laughs. “I’m looking forward to travelling again but I’ve been able to finish all of these classes I’ve been dying to do, ‘cause when there’s no work, I do school. And there’s so many things I’m catching up with right now, it’s amazing. And I finished the book.”

Taking time on and off between travelling gigs, circuses, burlesque shows and more formal stage-managing contracts, Castelli learned that sourcing material for a historical document of this nature was one thing, but that getting it all together is another project entirely. 

The size and scope of recounting the visual history of one little club was no small feat, and as he collected photos and posters, he also took courses on InDesign and Photoshop, leaning to work with monochrome images and the less nuanced sides of how much of a pain in the ass a scanner can be.

“I could have made a Jailhouse Rock book about the three years my brother and I owned the bar, but that’s not history. That’s self-imposed history,” Castelli says.

“My idea — and I thought it was a simple idea at first — was to just get posters and mark down the date and time and just leave it. But it became a memory of countless people.

“You’ve got to imagine,” he continues, “it was open from 1988 until 2001. Every show had three bands, and every band probably averaged four members. Imagine how many people it affected. So I tried to make it as expansive as possible.”

He started out with what he now estimates makes up about 20 per cent of the graphics featured.

“I knew there was more stuff out there, and I was talking with and pleading for people to dig out their old photo albums and flyers and stuff. I knew Jon Spencer was out there somewhere. And I needed stuff that I never even knew existed. Finally, I had enough stuff to just do the book, which is 140 pages of just posters and pictures and very few words.”

It’s designed to look black and chaotic, Castelli says, because that’s how life at Jailhouse was. 

“The format of the book is to make you feel like you’re in the venue looking at band posters. I tried to make the book capture the beauty under chaos.”

He says that although there were several references that inspired his layout choices for the book, one book in particular — Vintage Aircraft Nose Art, with its representations of paintings of vintage warbird artwork — informed his aesthetic. While that work is cleaner, he adds, its six-panel per page format helped him see how to organize his vision.

He credits his “fucking mentor of my life” Paul Gott of the Ripcordz for helping him understand design and local historian Kristian Gravenor among those who supported his DIY drive with their experience in storytelling.

“(I stuck to images because) stories veer left and veer right depending on who’s telling them and the actual concept gets lost,” Castelli explains. “I don’t have much education when it comes to writing, so I just street-write, and my concept became, ‘Just put the posters on the wall,’ and then add to that. Mind you, I’m talking to myself!”

He then filled it out with stories from bands and managers.

“Like, I’ve got (Evenko VP) Nick Farkas (saying) ‘Did you know that we spelled Nickelback wrong?’ Nobody at the time knew Nickelback would be a famous band, and that’s what’s funny about this book. All these bands came and at the time, no one knew.”

There are plenty of gems in these pages to keep the avid rock fan, Montrealer or otherwise, wide-eyed with history and nostalgia.

“Finding Jon Spencer was really cool. Finding the metal band Overbass was great,” Castelli recalls. “Getting a Grim Skunk picture (from 1990), I was excited. I literally jumped out of my seat when I got that one.” 

The book, he says, will finally be printed when the dust settles on the pandemic situation, but it’s laid out, ready to go, and stunning in scope.

Pre-orders can be made from his website or by finding him on Facebook.

“I already have over 100 pre-orders, and pre-order now just means you tell me you want a copy. I don’t wanna be responsible for money.”

“The purpose of it all was for this history of Montreal to be kept in a library, which I’m learning to do right now,” he says. “I don’t care if I sell one book or 1,000. What matters to me is that I’m able to give a copy to every library in Montreal and to the Canadian archives so that we know the history of rock ’n’ roll in Montreal at that place.”

Castelli is, rightly, “damn proud” of this achievement, but it’s the populist pride the project captures that drove him and compels him to share it now.

“With this book, I made it happen, sure, but it was done by the community,” he states. “One thing’s for sure: Montreal’s rock ’n’ roll scene is all about each other, and caring for each other, and that’s what this book is gonna say. 

“Unless you’re a fucking douchebag. Then, you’re not in the book.” ■

For more info about The Jailhouse Rock Café Book of Shows, and to preorder, look here.

See more Montreal music coverage here.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.