The Abbey Lounge (1907 – November 2008)
3 Beacon Street, Somerville, MA
The Abbey closed more than eight years ago, and this is still one of the more difficult pieces I’ve decided to write. There are personal stories to this. There are very specific memories attached to it. A good friend met her husband here, for instance. That personal history is duplicated by that of hundreds if not thousands of New Englanders over the years.
The Abbey opened in 1907 and became legal after prohibition in 1933. The last major renovation probably didn’t occur later than the 70s; the era of the dirty old Boston depicted in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. That gave this place a working class nostalgia that wasn’t sickly sweet like watching Nick at Nite. It was scarred, and frequent so was the crowd. Its customers were generally well behave likely because there were very real consequences otherwise. The staff was gruff and efficient. The beer was cheap; the music loud, and the smoke hung in the air like a guillotine blade.
By the time I going there it showed its years. At least from the 90s until its closure it was mainly a venue for live music. It wasn’t special in this. There are still old rock dives around the Boston area, and untold thousands across the country, but it did have definite clout. For punk and metal, this was one of the larger (in size and reputation) clubs in the Boston area a band would play before they started breaking from unknowns into having a local following. Boston had long been a stronghold of punk rock, and the Abbey was a significant part of the area’s claim on the scene along with another defunct venue The Rat(hskeller).
The Boston scene is less so now, and I won’t be so hyperbolic to say that the loss of the Abbey was a cause of that decline, but more realistically is a symptom of it. That’s not what did the Abbey in however. That was the ill-fated and expensive expansion of the space into Z Bar, which did not net the owners much at all. Z Bar didn’t provide much of a counter point to the Abbey. I suppose it was a space for people who just wanted to drink and not have to pay the cover at the door while there were shows going on, but it didn’t offer much else. They did not serve food, or have an expanded beer list, or anything else differentiated the space for its patrons. When the economy fell apart, and the over-extended owners were left essentially bankrupt, there was nothing to be done.
If there is a saving grace to this, at least The Abbey wasn’t replaced by Starbucks or California Pizza Kitchen or some other cookie cutter national chain. Trina’s Starlite Lounge, which occupies the building now, updated the space without over polishing it. They are part sharp mid-century modern, and part rough edged rockabilly. Their bartenders are talented, and the food is modernized comfort classic that work really well, especially the corn bread and pies. Still it’s hard not to feel like the world would be a better place if The Abbey and Trina’s co-existed.
This certainly isn’t on the same level as CBGB, whose closing at the end of 2015 was mourned by people across the country, often by people who never even went there (such as myself), but in some ways the Abbey was New England’s CBGB. This is where Boston punk and hard rock and niche bands got their toe hold and in some cases went onto larger stages. Even without that it was a great bar. They did not try to make it nice and clean, or a great place to pull, or a cool hang out. They just were. It did the dive thing well.