There are very few cities where a place with a name so fuzzy-wuzzy cuddly that it sounds like a children’s stuffed-animal boutique in an up-scale suburb could in fact be a creative nexus for some of the most ass-kicking bands in the known universe. Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of those cities and T.T. the Bear’s Place proved it.
Known as “T.T. the Bear’s” or just “TT’s” by locals, for 31 years it fit the description above to a tee. And while TT’s was a rock club to its core, it was eclectic in the truest sense of the word in that it was impossible to pin down as “this kind” or “that kind” of rock club. Unlike more narrowly focused venues, TT’s was unique in its equal-opportunity approach to booking acts across the spectrum of rock’s sub-genres from mainstream, punk, roots and funk to indie, alternative, ska, pop and electronica.
TT’s origin story is a thoroughly refreshing and inspiring tale of entrepreneurship and resilience. Although the venue itself opened in 1984, its seeds were planted between 1973 and 1978 when Bonney Bouley, a New Hampshire native, and her partner Miles Cares opened and operated what she readily, laughingly, almost proudly admits was a “dive bar” at the corner of Pearl and Green Streets in Cambridge, right around the corner from TT’s future location, 10 Brookline Street, Central Square, where she and Cares opened a restaurant in 1981. Buried in back taxes, however, Bouley filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1982 and it took two years to dig herself out of debt.
In early 1984, with no dive bar, no restaurant, and one bankruptcy on her record, Bouley said she and Cares were at a loss about what their future held until Cares’ daughter, who was dating Boston-based rock quartet The Outlets’ drummer, Walter Gustafson, suggested they open a rock club. Having no experience in the music business, as reconnaissance for their newest venture Cares and his daughter went to the Channel, the Rathskeller and Bunratty’s to inspect the layouts so that Cares could redesign the restaurant accordingly. As Bouley recalled in a 2015 interview on WBUR, after Cares had reviewed the other clubs’ designs she asked him what they had to do in terms of major renovations and he replied “Nothin’. I’m just going to build a stage over there and take the tables and chairs out.”
Next, the new club needed a name. Wanting something unlike any other music spot, they discarded “Miles’ & Bonney’s” immediately as too pedestrian and chose to name their latest venture after their pet hamster, Tough Teddy, who they both thought looked like a teddy bear. That decided, T.T. the Bear’s Place opened in 1984 to become a staple of Boston’s music scene and a defining feature in the Central Square landscape along with two competing clubs, The Middle East and Manray, both within shouting distance of TT’s.
As cozy as its adorable name suggested with a capacity of just 300, TT’s held about 250 shows per year on average and between 2011 and 2015 it hosted the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble, a “battle of the bands” which began in 1979 and has been held at a variety of other Boston venues including the Orpheum, the Paradise Rock Club and Harper’s Ferry. TT’s held two long-running dance nights, the goth- and industrial-centered Xmortis and the new wave-themed Heroes, and the Girls Rock Campaign Boston, which ran rock-music workshops for girls and young women, hosted several events at the venue. In 2008, Boston magazine awarded TT’s its Best Live Music Venue (small) Award, and in 2009 its Best Music Venue (small) Award.
During its three-decade existence an eye-popping number of bands playing an expansive range of rock genres have thrilled TT patrons in their own distinctive ways, many of them with deep New England roots including rockers Peter Wolf, Dinosaur Jr., Blake Babies, The Dogmatics, The Outlets, The Neighborhoods, Lyres, Orbit and The Fools; alt-rockers Pixies, O Positive, Morphine, Letters to Cleo, The Lemonheads, Willie Alexander and Scarce; new-wave sensation ‘Til Tuesday; indie-rockers Tanya Donelly (of Throwing Muses) and Wheat; post-punkers Mission of Burma; Beatles-style power pop group The Push Kings; boogie-woogie dynamo Preacher Jack; indie-folk singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord; indie-pop groups The Magnetic Fields and Fuzzy; roots-country favorites Scruffy the Cat; ska punks The Mighty Mighty Bosstones; Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys; the funk ensemble Chucklehead; and the impossible-to-categorize Young Astronauts Club.
Acts from outside the region also played TT’s, of course, both from North America and Europe, including rockers Joan Jett (Philadelphia), Jane’s Addiction (Los Angeles), Sloan (Halifax, Nova Scotia) and Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer, Los Angeles); alt-rockers Arcade Fire (Montreal), Smashing Pumpkins (Chicago) and Tommy Stinson (of The Replacements, Minneapolis); folk-rockers Indigo Girls (Atlanta); ska-punkers Sublime; punkers Bikini Kill (Olympia, Washington) and Mike Watt (of The Stooges, Detroit); pop vocalist Nelly Furtado (Victoria, British Columbia); pop band Collapsis (Chapel Hill, North Carolina); neo-psychedelia septet The Brian Jonestown Massacre (San Francisco); progressive blues quintet Headband (Adelaide, Australia); indie-rockers Plain Jane Automobile (Orlando, Florida), Bettie Serveert (the Netherlands) and The Shins (Albuquerque, New Mexico); indie-pop group Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (Springfield, Missouri); indie-folk singer-songwriter Gregory and the Hawk (New York City); and electro-industrial band Crocodile Shop (Berlin, Germany).
Unlike its origin story, the tale of TT’s demise is neither refreshing nor inspiring. In December 2014, the owners of The Middle East purchased 10 Brookline Street, which TT had rented for 30 years, and announced a substantial hike in rent in addition to demanding a five-year lease. Unwilling to pay the higher rent and sign what she thought was an unreasonably long tenancy agreement, in May 2015 Bouley decided to close TT’s since selling the core business to a third party wasn’t an option without first agreeing to the new rental fee and lease terms.
On Saturday, July 25, 2015, TT’s held its last show, headlined by O-Positive and Scruffy the Cat, with David Minehan of The Neighborhoods sitting in on guitar and vocals for the late Charlie Chesterman. Bouley personally selected Scruffy to play at the event since she’d developed close relationships with the band members over TT’s 31 years in business. A somewhat choked-up Bouley addressed the crowd at the end of the show, saying “The talent that is in this town and comes through this town is unbelievable. It’s been a wonderful journey and I hope to see you down the road,” adding that she hoped the venue “won’t go all corporate now.”
On March 31, 2017, the venue reopened as a fully renovated live-music venue called Sonia, one of The Middle East’s group companies.
(by D.S. Monahan)