A white pickup pulls up to the Back Bar on South Market Street in downtown San Jose. A couple men hop out, pull a ladder from the truck bed and prop it up outside the storefront. They proceed to take down a black-and-white sign bearing the bar’s name. Minutes later, they hoist it into the vehicle, casually get back in the cab and drive off.
This was the shot across the bow in San Jose’s live music venue fight.
The sign’s logo—though not the sign itself—re-appeared a couple weeks ago over the back entrance of Freddie J’s, a bar on Third Street, to the confusion of a host of show-goers. The mix-up has extended online to Facebook and Yelp, where rival pages with variations on the Back Bar name show up. A new placard with a similar monochromatic scheme recently took its place at the original Back Bar, this one with geographic designation: “Back Bar SoFA.”
While there are two Back Bars for the time being, they co-exist but do not cooperate. Both clubs claim the same handle, have the same red-and-black decor and share an ambition to host the best live music in downtown. Pierre Kouchekey, a corpulent straight-talker who has a reputation for being a bit brash, owns the SoFA joint. Dave Nevin, a rail-thin upstart, is the impresario of San Jose Rock Shop.
For the last two months, the men have been jockeying for a share of the same rock enthusiast demographic while rolling out feisty marketing campaigns. Kouchekey’s bar has been advertising its battle of the bands shows, while Nevin placed a cheeky ad in Metro last week that warned readers, “Don’t be fooled, we have moved!”
“I was here first,” Kouchekey says flatly, defending his claim that the Back Bar title belongs to him and him alone. “No question. Here since 1986. Same bar. Same name. We are the original Back Bar.”
The naming rights fight has created no small amount of confusion in the local music scene.
“I don’t think there’s any point in making this negative,” says Nevin, who was one of the two individuals to remove the SoFA Back Bar sign mentioned above. “It’s just that the concept moved. We took it somewhere else and [Kouchekey] tried to sustain it.”
Silicon Valley’s housing costs and the mostly overblown perception of danger in downtown San Jose have long been at odds with a thriving music scene. The lack of venues has made it especially difficult for musicians to carve out a living. Complaints of rowdy crowds and violence in recent years led to police and code enforcement crackdowns. And in downtown, dense development means event producers like Nevin have to obey noise curfews out of courtesy for high-rise-dwelling neighbors.
“There’s a lot you’re up against if you’re trying to cultivate music here,” he says.
Kouchekey argues that he’s responsible for sustaining the city’s rock heritage, which pre-dates his ownership of the venue. His Back Bar occupies a corner of what used to be The Cactus Club, where the stage was once graced by the likes of Nirvana, Flock of Seagulls, Suicidal Tendencies and Pearl Jam before they vaulted into the national consciousness. When vice cops and the city closed down Cactus Club a dozen years ago, the city lost its revered all-ages venue.
“It was legendary,” Kouchekey says. “But the city was having trouble with clubs all over—the fights and other problems, not just here but from everywhere in downtown. And once the city’s not on your side, it’s over.”
The Cactus shuttered in 2002 over a technicality. Its liquor license required it to cook 15 pizzas a night to keep its status as a restaurant that can serve booze while admitting an all-ages crowd. Those simple terms weren’t met and Cactus Club morphed into a de facto club, giving authorities grounds to shut it down.
Kouchekey, who ran a nightclub in Fremont, stepped in a couple years later. He renovated the building, which had taken an impressive thrashing after 14 years as an unruly rock venue, and divvied it up into a few separate clubs—Beso’s in the front, Miami Beach Club in the middle and the Back Bar on the Market Street side. The focus shifted from live rock shows to house and Latin music. Eventually, Back Bar lapsed into underuse, opening for dance parties just two to three nights a week.
Last fall, Nevin approached Kouchekey about reviving the Back Bar as a live music stage. Since opening in 2008, the Rock Shop has become a successful all-ages platform for rock shows. But it lacks a liquor license, which means the live-show experience is a strictly sober affair.
“They weren’t doing much with it at the time,” Nevin says of Kouchekey’s back-of-the-club bar. “They weren’t even open most of the time.”
Nevin’s vision for the place was well received by Kouchekey.
“He said he’d bring in his own guys to work the bar, he’d bring the audience and the talent,” Kouchekey says. “I said, ‘OK, I give you the place and we can work together on this.’”
The newly envisioned Back Bar celebrated a packed re-opening in November, the day before Thanksgiving. The event doubled as a homecoming show for self-described “comedic goon-core shit punk” band Trashkannon. People knocked back beers and shots, perused an accompanying art show and listened to a few favorite local bands. At the time Nevin talked about how excited he was to add another venue to the mix, especially in the SoFA district, which he considered in dire need of an artistic revival.
But it didn’t take long for him and Kouchekey’s partnership to fall apart. Accusations flew and their vision for the place never took off.
“It was like mixing oil and water,” Nevin says.
In February, Nevin surprised Kouchekey by setting up shop behind Freddie J’s with the same name: Back Bar. The upside was location, even if the new bar lacked a stage and license to host plugged-in rock shows. Nevin’s Back Bar is straight across the street from the Rock Shop, which gives his attendees a place to grab a drink and maybe catch an acoustic set before heading across Third Street for the main act.
The Rock Shop ambitiously plans to host a summer-long music festival starting May 1. “Ninety Days of Summer” will feature 270 bands—three a night, every night, for three months—at the Sperry Station stage. Nevin says he will charge $5 at the door to pay the bands and give the city something to do every single night for three straight months.
“We got our stage all set up, a whole wall full of amps all ready to go,” Nevin says. “Our thinking was, we got this stage looking real nice, now let’s go break it. Let’s give them a show, so people can’t say there’s nothing to do in San Jose.”
Meanwhile, Kouchekey’s Back Bar is currently in the middle of a weeks-long “Rock the Block” battle of the bands. Winner takes $2,000. On the poster advertising the event, Kouchekey slapped on the old Cactus logo in an attempt, he says, to appeal to musicians’ sense of nostalgia about the place.
“I’m just trying to do my own thing and not worry about someone else,” Kouchekey says. “We have a long history here.”
To Nevin there’s no contest. “We have bigger battles to fight,” he says.
While there’s no doubt the feud rubs both men the wrong way, they agree that downtown San Jose needs more live music. If parting ways is the only way to do that, Nevin says he’s fine with that. “San Jose can use all the venues it can get,” he says.