The Fruits of Freedom: Boston's Hip Night Scene

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enough history can get you hysterical. So after a day of marching along the Freedom Trail, rereading the Declaration of Independence wasn't exactly tops on the night's agenda.

It was time to find Boston after dark, to see if the hip can mix with the historical. And the indicators for a Beantown with a beat couldn't have been groovier: Thousands of students issue forth from the 50-plus colleges and universities in the area; thousands of yuppies feed off the city's booming high-tech industry.

Swigging raw oysters and beer at a little no-name raw bar down by the wharves, we poredthrough the Phoenix, Boston's version of the L. A. Weekly, except this one isn't free--it costs $1.50. Options overwhelmed us. There's a lot happening in this burg; too many choices for two out-of-towners to wade through in their search for the cool.

We asked the waitress. She'd know hip: Part of her head was shaved.

"When you walked in, I knew you two weren't the 'Cheers' types," she said, setting down another plate of pearly shellfish.

Cheers is Boston-speak for the Bull & Finch Pub on Beacon Street, the place that's supposed to have inspired the sitcom. It's become a major tourist draw--we're talking banners here--and the line to get in usually stretches up the stairs and onto the street.

We're on a quest for cool, we told her. We want someplace that doesn't sell T-shirts.

She rewarded us with the three squares: Kenmore, Central and Harvard. Armed with a list of names on a cocktail napkin and a roll of subway tokens, we set off into the Boston night.

First stop was Central Square in Cambridge for the Middle East restaurant. We'd eaten so much fish that cats were starting to follow us, so a change in menu sounded good. The Middle East, 472 Massachusetts Ave., is one of those rare places that mix being a good hangout with having good food.

As we sat dipping pita into hummus, a woman in a business suit and a man with green hair started arguing about the homeless situation. It was getting loud. He started bragging that he had actually been homeless. She said she had too. Well, sort of. She had to move out of her townhouse during a renovation. We asked for the check. They glared at us. "We're from L.A.; we're not homeless, just rootless," I explained.

Later, the Middle East would have a blues band in the back room, but we were headed for higher education: Harvard Square.

You know when you've found Harvard Square because every few feet there's someone singing like Tracy Chapman. This is Folk Heaven and the same three chords pour from every coffee shop and doorway.

A narrow entry with a playbill gives away the Nameless Coffeehouse at Zero Church St., a free showcase for budding folk and blues talent. It's about the same as you hear on the street, but with better acoustics. We split quick.

Passim at 47 Palmer St. is a little better. It was here that Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega launched their careers. We would have liked to hang out longer and listen to more songs about unrequited love and the end of the world but duty called. It was back to Boston and Kenmore Square.

The waitress had told us to check out the Rat. The Phoenix also mentioned the Rat. All we saw was the Rathskeller at 528 Commonwealth Ave. Turned out to be one and the same, but you can't call and confirm this. Their number is a pay phone that no one ever answers. That night the band was a little too metal and the crowd a little too leather. Still, the place was an early showcase for the Cars and the Talking Heads, so it couldn't be all bad. But we had left our hides at home, so we dashed around the corner to Landsdowne Street with its three clubs.

Axis at 13 Landsdowne, with a row of upside-down trees hanging above the door, usually features alternative rock. That night the band was hot and the place was packed, padded shoulder to padded shoulder.

Next door was Venus di Milo, which you can spot by its Venus statue with purple neon hula hoops. We were deep into cool now. There was no band there that night, but the house music was definitely set to dance. Decor is '60s meets medieval: zebra-striped walls, heavy wooden monastery benches.

Citi, on the other side of Axis, had elicited crossed fingers from the oyster waitress. Since this usually means, "Stay back, evil one," we walked past the chrome mouth of its entry.

It was getting close to 2 a.m. anyway, Boston's witching hour. The clubs close and the subway stops. But we had found hip Boston. Tonight we faced the music; tomorrow we could face another history lesson.

Julia Frazier contributed to this article.

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