Everything O'Cayz Corral has stood for over the years can be summed up in two words: Marco Pogo.
"He's just this guy who comes in when the music starts, jumps up and down, never drinks, and then leaves quickly," says longtime O'Cayz patron Bill Jakel.
"I'm not the most sociable person," admits Pogo. "But my adrenaline just gets pumping so much. I bounce off the walls without hurting anyone, and then I usually leave right away. After I've let it all pour out it's slightly embarrassing to come down to this other level."
Pogo will occasionally attend shows at other Madison venues, but he considers O'Cayz to be his musical home. "I like to find places to hide," he says, "and this is where I feel most free."
Following in the spirit of its late founder, Cay Millard, O'Cayz Corral has long been known as the place in Madison where unusual people blaze their own musical trail. It will soon become one of the few rock clubs in America to pass the landmark of 20 years in business, meaning that it's now older than the typical UW freshman. It harks back to a day when Jimmy Carter warned of the malaise among us and current O'Cayz owner Cathy Dethmers was in second grade.
Twenty years ago, few would have thought that the onetime beer-and-sandwich bar would become a beloved rock club and its owner a champion of the local music scene. Cay Millard had no musical background herself, but she was idealistic about artistic expression and put this hole-in-the-wall on the national map as a venue for adventurous rock. The club has had its ups and downs since Millard's death, but its current managers are committed to maintaining it as a unique place for making and listening to music.
"I still remember the first time I ever saw a show here," recalls Jakel. "It was back in the early '80s. G.S. Vig's had just closed, so they rebooked the Cramps over here. It just seems to me that after that night, O'Cayz became the place in town for the best music."
It was a strange transformation for the little room at 504 E. Wilson St. Mary Merkes, the surviving daughter of Don and Cay Millard, says her parents bought the place in 1953, when it was known as the Northwestern Bar. The name referred to the Chicago & Northwestern passenger train station, which stood across Blair Street on the current site of Madison Gas and Electric.
"They changed the name to Don's Shell and later to Millard's Bar," she says.
During the '60s, the Millards also purchased the building next door to their bar. That space still operates today as Cay's Comic Strip. The two spaces were briefly united as one large bar and dance club, with a stage standing where the wall had once been, but was redivided into the Comic Strip and Millard's in the '70s.
"My parents divorced in 1977," says Merkes. "After that, my dad really had no interest in continuing to run the businesses." But for Cay, hanging onto these spaces and making them her own became the centerpiece of her life. In 1980 she remodeled Millard's Bar and tagged it with a play on her own first name - O'Cayz Corral. Her sweat equity became the foundation of the do-it-yourself ethic that has come to define O'Cayz.
"I think my mom starting doing music there because it seemed like the thing to do at that time," recalls Merkes. "Millard's was a beer bar with sandwiches, and she didn't think she could make it on that. The music scene in Madison had just started happening, so she went with it."
Millard's efforts closely parallel those of Kathy Griswold at the Mango Grill in the late '90s. Both were divorced, fiftysomething women trying to run a small bar and grill. Neither knew much about music. Both started hosting shows as a way to stabilize their businesses. And both emerged as the popular mother figures of the Madison music scene.
For help in booking music, Cay first turned to an employee named Ron Taylor. His coup was booking the Replacements for two nights in a row. Soon after he started, Taylor left to manage a rising-star local act that called themselves Timbuk 3. Today he works as a promoter in Austin, Texas.
One of the O'Cayz bartenders at the time was a just-turned-21 UW senior named Tom Layton. "Cay came up to me one day and asked if I could start helping her with the music calendar," recalls Layton.
It was a defining moment in the history of the scene. With the years he's docked at O'Cayz, Club de Wash and today at local promoter First Artists, Layton has arguably had more influence on Madison's musical menu than anyone else during the past 15 years.
Which is not to suggest that everyone has always agreed with the way Layton has done business. "Tom put himself out on a limb a lot by making guarantees to bands that he couldn't always follow through on," says Bill Jakel.
"I think Cay knew that Tom took a lot of chances that she didn't agree with, but she admired his drive and probably really wanted him to be that kind of booking person," adds Joan Wildman, who founded the Madison Music Collective and organized the Wednesday night jazz shows at the club for many years. "Cay was sort of a mother figure to everyone, but I know in particular she felt very maternal toward Tom, and Tom was very sweet to her."
Layton admits that he made a lot of mistakes during his time at O'Cayz. "Cay never wanted me to make any guarantees," he says. "She said I was stupid to do it and that the bands should just get what was collected at the door. But I was in a position to book Soul Asylum, and their manager basically said, 'No guarantee, no band.'"
So with Cay turning a blind eye, Layton began using his own money to book gigs. Despite the problems it caused, the move put O'Cayz on the national touring map.
"What really mattered to Cay was that there be a lot of different styles of music at the club," explains Wildman. "She really wanted that kind of diversity."
Enter Tate's blues jams, the Tuesday-night feature that became a staple of the O'Cayz lineup. They continue today, now headlined by Paul Filipowicz. For seven years, Wednesdays were jazz nights - a big money-loser. "But Cay believed in it," says Layton, "so she supported it."
Fast-forward to 1990. American underground music was in a state of accelerated change. Rap had emerged as a commercially viable form. Billboard magazine began to stratify its pop charts. And in Seattle, the renegade indie label SubPop announced a mission to "decentralize pop culture." One SubPop band, Nirvana, had made their O'Cayz stage debut a year earlier.
Change at O'Cayz was accelerating as well. "I don't remember Cay being sick for very long before she died," recalls Layton. "It all seemed to happen pretty fast."
On March 11, 1990, a one-paragraph story in the Wisconsin State Journal reported Millard's death. "She was a very positive, strong woman," says Wildman. "A very bright light for this community."
That year, Mary Merker became the new owner of O'Cayz Corral. "Our interest in continuing the clubs has basically been to preserve her legacy," Merker says.
But she admits that she never acquired a taste for being involved day-to-day in the business. Increasingly, she did not get along with Layton, who says he was fired in 1992. "I just took all of my connections and moved over to Club de Wash," he says.
That began a period of turbulence for O'Cayz. A series of booking agents - Tyler Jarman, Brian Brech and Ken Udell - each stayed on board only briefly. Rumors were widespread that the club was on the verge of closing, and finally, in January 1994, it did just that. Merker told The Capital Times that she didn't know if O'Cayz would reopen, and that if it did, it was unlikely to remain a rock club.
For 10 long months the plastic Indian chief sat in the dark, overlooking an empty O'Cayz dance floor. But before the legendary neon-cowboy sign was removed from the building facade, a 22-year-old UW student made a phone call to Merker.
"I just started trying to see if there was any way I could do it," recalls Cathy Dethmers, who had briefly tended bar at O'Cayz before it closed. By October, Dethmers had agreed to purchase the O'Cayz business license and assume club ownership, while Merker would continue to hold the deed to the building. Recently, building ownership was transferred to Merker's son, Jeff Dodd.
Dethmers has turned out to be one part Cay Millard, one part Tom Layton. Like Millard, she assumed the nontraditional role of female club owner, and like Layton, she came to O'Cayz as a recent UW anthropology grad, a degree lending itself well to an interest in musical subcultures.
Dethmers grew up in Brookfield and traces her earliest musical influences to her mother, who plays piano and organ and teaches music full-time. By 14, Dethmers found her way to all-ages punk shows in Milwaukee. Today she plays bass for two Madison bands, Tormentula and P.K. Ripper. Despite her clean-cut appearance, she's intensely involved in alternative music.
"I always felt there was a lot more energy and creativity to punk and alternative music," she says. "It's not this mentality of just sitting back and consuming what someone else is feeding you. With this stuff people are actually working for it, working to create it."
When she took the reins at O'Cayz five years ago, Dethmers had no way of knowing that the Madison music scene was on the brink of major retrenchment. Her peer clubs, the Chamber and Club de Wash, were both gone by 1996. Until it closed last September, the Mango Grill lingered as the only other venue catering to local and regional alternative artists.
Dethmers says that O'Cayz is no cash cow, but that it is surviving. "We have a pretty large core of regulars, many of whom are musicians themselves," she says. "We're really the only place left in town that offers at least one chance to every local band and is willing to bring in touring bands that aren't established.
"I'm still enjoying it," she continues. "I'm not sure that I'll always want to be as involved as I am now, but I'm not looking to get out."
"The furnishings are all pretty much the same," says Bill Jakel, who has arrived in time to see Men of Porn open a Friday triple-bill. "I don't really think this place has changed that much."
The posters along O'Cayz's wall and the zines on the floor offer no sign that anything about music is different today than it was, say, 10 years ago. There are no references to hip-hop, no mention of raves, no dot-com addresses luring fans to a Web site.
But Dethmers says one thing has changed since her arrival at O'Cayz. "Since alternative music broke into the mainstream in the early '90s, it doesn't seem to me that people have the same driving urge to go try out a band they've never heard before," she says. "With everyone having cable and the Internet, it's much easier for a lot of people to just stay home and find it there."
Layton adds that people are pickier now. "They're a lot more concerned about production and want to hear the music before they see it performed. The attention spans are getting shorter."
The fundamental ethic driving punk/alternative/indie rock has always been a belief that creating one's own musical experience is superior to consuming it. This do-it-yourself approach is what Marco Pogo is all about. It's what SubPop had in mind when it set out to decentralize pop culture. But in the age of MP3 and Napster, will a rock club like O'Cayz remain relevant to this ethic?
Tonight on this stage, Men of Porn are hammering away at their guitars. The pool-table crowd have stopped chalking their cues long enough to watch. A friend greets his arriving buddy by fondly flipping him off. The hundred or so people gathered here are rocking their bodies in near perfect unison.
With any luck, Marco Pogo will show up soon to stake out a place to hide and be free.