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Late on a wintry Friday afternoon, Rick DeGrasse leans on the bar of the Penny Post coffee house in Old Town and crushes another cigarette into one of three overflowing ashtrays. DeGrasse is a regular here and will stay through the early morning hours, listening to the bands, drinking coffee, smoking, hanging out, fitting in.
The next afternoon, he’ll wander back in for more of the same.
His elbow scatters a few pieces of a half-completed jigsaw puzzle depicting a small, neat house nestled at the base of a mountain. The alpine tranquility of the scene presents a striking contrast to the bar surrounding it, which is decorated in a comically decadent junk-shop motif. A painted skull sits on a shelf, under a campy wagon-wheel lamp, not far from a sticker that reads “Youth With Bats” and an eclectic display of dusty, flea-market bric-a-brac.
The seaminess is a conscious attempt at an “underground” feel, right down to the derelict 1960s kitchen chairs and black-walled bandstand emblazoned with a neon flaming cross, leering skull, and single huge eyeball that stares across the cavernous, L-shaped space.
In the five years since it opened, the Penny Post has gone from neo-bohemian coffee house to the eastern Maine headquarters of the Seattle-based “grunge” movement. Some Old Town residents suspect it of harboring every hideous social abberation, from drugs to devil worship. Police monitor it closely, shooing the evening’s raucous spill-over crowd back inside and addressing noise complaints. Town officials would probably breathe easier if there weren’t such a magnet for out-of-town revelers in their midst.
DeGrasse and the other club regulars try to shrug off the image problems, but it worries them, too. On weekends, they say, the Penny Post is the only place where any group with a guitar, keyboard, drums and a combustible need for musical expression can get on stage and jam the night away. The blues, Beatles, heavy-metal, punk, alternative music — everything is welcome here and no one is booed. For whatever anyone else thinks of the place, the Penny Post loyalists say, it matters greatly in their lives.
“In Old Town, if you’re not on the football team and have the right clothes and haircut, you’re no good,” says Kirk DeGrasse, Rick’s brother. “Basically, we’re telling everyone we’re gonna do what we want to do.”
A few “new-alternative-metal-whatever” bands (devotees hate being asked for labels) come all the way from Boston to play here. Big names like Wargasm or Twisted Roots from Portland can draw as many as 250 to 300 young fans, who jam “the pit” and happily bash into each other in a post-punk dance form known as “moshing.” In the most frenzied moments, performers sometimes “stage dive” into the fray and are transported hand-to-hand above the knot of reckless bodies.
“It’s really laid back,” Rick DeGrasse says as the wood-stove door clanks shut behind him. “People just come to be themselves. We’ve never had a fight here. With the kind of dancing we do, somebody might get slugged or something, but nobody gets an attitude when it happens.”
The unofficial musical motto is “Anything Goes.” The loose approach allows the better musicians to experiment, while freeing the least talented from the restrictions of having to know much of anything about harmony or basic chord structure. As one Bangor music-store clerk puts it: “A kid who’s never played an instrument before can buy a guitar today and have his own band next week. This is the new generation of garage bands.”
Another Penny Post motto might be “The More Outrageous the Better.” When a band named Tree showed up from Boston, for example, one of its members ran around the stage waving a growling, bladeless chainsaw while the crowd whooped and shrieked.
For many young locals such as DeGrasse, a blond 21-year-old in a brown leather jacket and shredded jeans, the Penny Post also serves as a daytime social club with its pool table, puzzles, and pots of coffee. Booze and drugs are off-limits, though sobriety is not a prerequisite for admission. Jarring, head-banging music is king, and being 40 just about qualifies you for a senior-citizen discount.
DeGrasse, who lives in town with his parents and brother when he’s not plastering pools in Massachusetts, thinks of the Penny Post as a second home. He has been involved with local bands since he started playing trumpet in the fifth grade. As a freshman at Old Town High School, he dropped the trumpet, took up the guitar, and formed a band called Noble Savage.
The band began by learning “cover tunes,” the name given to popular recorded music. They played hits from Guns `N’ Roses, ZZ Top, and Metallica albums — stuff that any fledgling local group felt it had to mimic if it hoped to make it big one day.
“But after a while, that wasn’t enough,” DeGrasse says, crushing out another cigarette. “That music got old.”
Like most of the bands that have sprouted in the area in the last few years, Noble Savage decided to write its own music. The members were looking for a different sound, one that would set them apart from the pack and establish their identity in the growing local music scene.
“A simpler tune was better for us,” DeGrasse explains, adding quickly, “but just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s not deep.”
The band wrote its first original composition seven years ago. Called “Dead Girlfriend,” it has since became Noble Savage’s signature song and even spawned a sequel:
There’s my old girlfriend on the passenger door
Same old one who’s been there before
Brains splattered all over the floor
Haven’t cleaned them up since it happened before
“I wanted it to be a take-off on the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood theme song,” DeGrasse says, grinning slyly as his brother tries to keep a straight face across the bar. “Yeah, it sounds decadent and all. We were trying to be gross, that’s all. It was just for fun. I mean, nobody really thinks we beat our girlfriends. But everyone liked the song, so now we bring it out on special occasions.”
“Sunspot,” another of Noble Savage’s compositions, offers a different slant on the band’s edgy personality:
My crying eyes drown in fear
Don’t tell me lies, no outcome here
Leave me alone, I need my space
Just take me home, I’m out of place.
“Yeah, some of the lyrics sound angry when you hear them,” DeGrasse says. “Am I angry? Not when I’m playing. You can’t go out and blow everything away, so you get out your aggressions in music. If you compare music to movies, this would be horror music. We might have warped imaginations, but it’s not meant to be harmful. We’re not violent people. I try to bring out some emotion. To do that you have to whack them over the head.”
Mary Tilton has run the Penny Post since August, when its founder, Dave Cook, moved to Florida. Tilton, who works days at the animal clinic in Old Town, met Cook two years ago at a flea market. After talking with him about the coffee house, she decided to drop in.
“I had some trepidation at first, like a lot of people, but I came back a lot and fell in love with the place,” she says. “Then last summer, about two days before it was going to close, I sat right here at the bar and cried. I thought of all these kids having nowhere to go and that the bands would have nowhere to play. I just couldn’t let that happen, so I decided right then to run it.”
Bands are already booked for every weekend through February. The list reads like deranged haiku: Bludgeon, Molested Senses, Positive Fuzz, Adrenaline Mother, Bad Omen, Delusion, Naked Age, Silent Scream.
Most of them are Maine bands, and many of them are from neighboring towns. State of Annoyance, which recently changed its named from State of Confusion, is from Indian Island. Grunge is from Hermon, Gazpacho from Hampden. Tilton estimates that there are probably as many as 50 or 60 bands out there looking for a place to play. Two weeks ago, for example, a large crowd showed up to hear the Portland bands called Nicotine Sneeze, Lummox, and Big Meat Hammer.
“They’re loud. Open the door and you can hear them just about anywhere in town,” DeGrasse says of Big Meat Hammer.
“Loud?” Tilton exclaims with a chuckle. “They were playing here once and the music shattered a vase over the bar. That’s loud.”
Scott Hall, a 20-year-old who goes by the name of Skip, dropped out of high school when he unexpectedly became a father. He used to sing in Noble Savage, but now spends his time attending vocational school and looking for work to support his family. Although he misses the camraderie of being in a band, he recognizes that this type of music won’t pay the bills. In fact, it won’t even get him a gig at a high-school dance.
“Everybody out there is making tapes of their music and looking for record contracts,” Hall says. “But you just can’t make money in a band around here. The only way to do that is to be a house band at a bar or something and do a lot of cover music.”
DeGrasse shakes his head disgustedly at the thought of it: “Sure, we could go out and learn all kinds of cover tunes and play every weekend in a bar, but that wouldn’t satisfy our needs. I’ve been playing guitar for seven years. In that time I could’ve learned how to write and read music and chords and all that. But that would limit me. Some musicians would say this is just a lot of noise, but I would tell them they’re shallow. When you play your own song, it can’t be bad.”
Lacquered onto the bar are a couple of newspaper clippings that speak of the Penny Post’s rocky relationship with city officials, a portion of the public, and some downtown merchants. Although there has been only one arrest — a young man was nabbed with drug-paraphernalia in his car parked nearby — police worry that luring boisterous crowds of out-of-towners is a recipe for trouble.
Penny Post supporters say they don’t claim to be saints, but they argue that the public’s unfavorable perception of the club is far worse than what goes on inside.
“This place let’s people fulfill their dreams,” Hall says as a few young couples drift in for the evening’s entertainment. “Before this place opened, I got arrested for drunkeness and destroying property. Now I have a place to go and be with friends. And this music? This is our mainstream music. When we turn 40, this is what we’re going to be listening to.”