Ke$ha told me she'd take her top off if I served her a drink after 2 a.m. and I said 'Darlin', I appreciate that and I know you're not used to hearing this... but no.' She told me she respected that."
It's late on a Thursday night and Jonathan Hughes, co-owner of The Milestone Club, is explaining to a patron that he would never risk his beloved bar by serving drinks after last call. "I don't care who you are, I love this place too much to fuck it up."
- Jonathan Hughes at The Milestone. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)
Hughes isn't the only person who loves this historic rock club on Tuckaseegee Road in west Charlotte, but he and his wife, co-owner Stephanie Hughes, have the most invested in it. Right now, they're working their hardest to keep it open. If a recently launched grassroots campaign to fund much-needed renovations at The Milestone doesn't work out, it may join a long list of venues that have recently closed their doors.
The Hugheses are hoping a recently launched GoFundMe campaign can help fund the renovations needed for The Milestone to continue hosting great local music.
The historical significance of The Milestone is well-known among the local punk scene, and music scene in general. The Ke$ha story is just one of hundreds about celebrities who have visited the club during the 45 years it's been open. Ask club founder Bill Flowers and he may tell you about drinking beer with Kurt Cobain in the parking lot or about the night he paid R.E.M. $50 to perform and then let them sleep on the stage.
You don't really even have to ask anyone to get a good idea of what's taken place there in the past. The walls and ceilings tell stories. Four and a half decades of graffiti from visiting bands and fans greets you before you can even make it through the doorway. It's plastered across every surface inside, too — tags, stickers and messages drunkenly scrawled by everyone from punk legends like Bad Brains and GG Allin to defunct local garage bands and maybe your dad who hung out here back in his glory days.
The Milestone is a piece of Charlotte history and a piece of rock-n-roll history. For almost half a century it's been a reliable tour stop for up-and-coming bands, some of whom went on to become household names. It's also been the go-to spot for every Charlottean who wants to discover new music to love, and a refuge for every counterculture kid repulsed by the mainstream, homogenous Uptown scene.
"Every city has a honky tonk bar and a dance club, but not every city has somewhere you can go and see a punk rock show," says Wyley Buck Boswell, head of booking for The Milestone. "People come here because they love music and they want to see something new or something they're not going to see anywhere else. More often than not, they leave pleasantly surprised."
- Andy the Doorbum, performer and Milestone veteran, in his usual spot, where he once recorded an LP while checking IDs. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)
Historic punk rock clubs like The Milestone are indeed a rare find in 2016. Even the place it's compared to most often — New York's iconic CBGB — was forced to close six years ago after falling victim to skyrocketing rent prices. It left behind nothing but memories and its logo emblazoned on t-shirts worn by people who will never walk through its doors. Those doors open into a high-end designer fashion boutique these days.
While The Milestone still stands like a lighthouse of defiant authenticity that's weathered storm surges of urban decay and redevelopment for three generations, it hasn't done so unscathed — and a tsunami is approaching. The Milestone's west-side neighborhood is the next stop on the Charlotte gentrification route.
Most of us who have lived in the city for a while know how the scenario will likely play out: property values will soar, landowners will cash in and independent businesses will be forced to close. To guard against that eventuality, Hughes' plan is to obtain an ownership stake in the property. He's partnering with Carlos Espin, whose organization, Area 15 is responsible for the development with the same name in NoDa.
According to Hughes, the plan is for Area 15, with the help of an investor, to purchase the building and the land it sits on from Milestone founder Bill Flowers. Hughes would become a partial owner of the property and continue to own and manage the business. There's only one bump on this rockin' road, and it's a pretty big one: the building needs major renovations before a bank or investor will touch it.
Hughes explains, "A bank wouldn't loan on this property because of the disrepair. A corner this close to Uptown is worth a lot more money than the 100-year-old building that's sitting on it, so a bank would rather level it. But, there are individuals who see it as an investment opportunity if we can show them we plan to turn it into a better version of itself."
The building has several major issues: it needs a new roof, the ceiling over the bar bows every time it rains and needs replacing, structural repairs are needed on the ground level before it can hold a new roof and — as anyone who has attended a Milestone show in mid-July will tell you — the HVAC needs replacing.
Hughes and Espin started a campaign on crowdfunding site GoFundMe to raise money for the repairs. The goal is set at $150,000. According to Hughes, the goal reflects estimates from several contractors of what it would cost to do a complete top-to-bottom renovation. If they fall short of the goal amount, the money raised will go towards the highest priority repairs. At press time, $34,000 had been raised via GoFundMe. It's an impressive amount, donated by more than 500 people, but it's nowhere near hitting the mark.
There's also no guarantee that the deal will go through even if the renovations get fully funded. The investor could back out or change the terms of the agreement.
"I have a responsibility to make the repairs no matter what," says Hughes. "Even if the deal doesn't go through, the money in the GoFundMe account will go towards fixing up The Milestone."
He says GoFundMe allows him to access the money as it's raised as opposed to waiting for the campaign to end, and he has plans to start repairs by the end of summer.
"We'll just make the repairs and keep doing what we're doing, but that's not ideal because then I don't get any help," he says.
That's an equally important aspect of The Milestone deal. As much as Hughes wants to buffer The Milestone against oncoming developers, he's equally into the idea of having some help running the place.
"There's a limit to what an individual will sacrifice, even for something they love. I need someone as invested in this place as I am — or at least close to it. I need time with my girls. I need time with my dad, who's sick and not getting any better," he says, getting choked up for a split second before continuing.
- Every inch of the wall in The Milestone is covered in (sometimes historic) graffiti and stickers. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
"At Area 15, they've got guys over there who fix things. There are carpenters and plumbers and specialists and we need them, because you don't get minor things going wrong at The Milestone," he says. "There are never fender-benders here, it's always a head-on collision. Like, when a toilet breaks here, it literally breaks. It's not a chain snapped or a pipe clogged, it's me walking in the bathroom and half the toilet's in the goddamn floor because somebody kicked it or fell into it or stood on it to put up a sticker. Hopefully, soon, when that happens I can call the guy on the team who does plumbing, instead of getting out of bed and saying 'so much for spending time with my family today.' Everything won't always fall on my shoulders."
Hughes is only the fourth owner The Milestone has had in its long history. He purchased the business from Neal Harper in 2010. Harper checks in with him regularly to see how it's going because he knows how difficult it can be to run the place. The idea to get Espin's group involved in preserving The Milestone came from Harper, whose wife once had a yoga studio inside Area 15.
Area 15, which calls itself a "small business incubator," has a 14-year track record of providing space for small local businesses to thrive in a district undergoing redevelopment and rising rent prices. Its 23,000-square-foot warehouse at the corner of 15th and North Davidson streets is home to about 20 small businesses owned by members of the surrounding community. Espin says his motivation to help ensure The Milestone remains open comes from the same set of values Area 15 is based on: "Creativity, accessibility, DIY mentality...it's not about making money, it's about having a place for creative people to express themselves. We've lost so many places like this lately and the city needs more of them, not less."
It does seem that Charlotte's constant redevelopment and "improvement" is taking an especially harsh toll on the arts scene. The galleries are only just now beginning to return to NoDa after nearly a decade of nothing but bars, condos and apartment buildings going in. And the list of venues shutting down around Charlotte — from Double Door Inn (in the near future) to Crown Station, Tremont Music Hall, Chop Shop and Tommy's Pub (all of which have already closed shop) — is made up almost entirely of clubs known for booking local, new and independent bands, as Charlotte's cultural identity slowly transforms into nothing but dance club DJs and cover bands.
A few longtime patrons of The Milestone have privately expressed concerns about what the renovations will look like. Will the club become a shiny new modern space reflective of its fancy future neighbors? Hughes says that's not the case. "A renovated Milestone will look the same as it does now. We may have to carefully take down the panels and put them over the top of new ones, but preservation is the goal. More so than renovation, this is about preserving what we have."
- A poster from a NOFX show held on August 13, 1989. (Photo credit: Punks on Paper NC Music Flier Archive)
A plethora of artists and bands have booked benefit shows throughout the summer and will donate proceeds to the preservation effort. Limited edition T-shirts have been auctioned off for the cause. Some club regulars have volunteered manual labor. "I've had a lot of humbling moments lately," says Hughes. "Just the other day I yelled at a guy and called him an asshole because he was being one. The next day he came to the bar and gave me 500 'Save The Milestone' stickers he'd printed for us for free."
Many people love The Milestone unconditionally, but Hughes says he doesn't want to just depend on them to keep it open. He believes the renovations will help attract new people who have never been to a show there. "New people are moving to the city all the time. There are punk rock kids who live in Charlotte right now who've never even been here. We just had two come in last night and they were blown away."
Hughes says that he and his wife discovered the club one night in the early 2000s while out looking for a good time. "We weren't here for a show, we just came in to see what was going on. I don't know if people still do that any more. They don't seem as adventurous."
As he says this, he surveys the bar around him. There's a young couple dressed in business formal attire who just came from a political fundraiser. There's a girl knitting. There's the big, burly lead singer of the metal band about to play to the crowd in the the next room asking for a ginger ale with "a hint of lime", and there's two dudes wearing matching hoodies emblazoned with a rapper's logo. The diversity of the group at the bar suggests that if the ceiling wasn't ready to cave in (contractors assure Hughes it will stand for two more years) a sense of adventure may not be required for a visit to The Milestone. A love of music, friendly people, cold beer or local history would be all it takes.
"We're still bringing the biggest bands that can fit in the room and selling out shows on a monthly basis," Hughes says. "There are people driving from four to five hours away to be here sometimes. When we brought Agent Orange here last February, the show sold out and there were like 50 people from Asheville here. Then there were like 60 regulars posting on Facebook they couldn't believe they were missing Agent Orange at The Milestone. Well you didn't have to, but someone from Asheville got your ticket. Everybody everywhere else is like 'The Milestone rules!' And everyone in Charlotte is like 'Oh yeah, it does rule, but we'll just go there another time, later on.'"
Later on may never come if Charlotteans don't act now. Losing The Milestone would not only mean losing an irreplaceable piece of local and rock-n-roll history, it would also mean losing one more music-focused venue in Charlotte. When you enter The Milestone, there are rules posted above the ATM machine. You really only have to follow the first one: "Don't fuck up." Hopefully, the application of this rule stretches outside The Milestone's doors and they never close for good.
MILESTONES AND HIGHLIGHTS — Some of The Milestone's more classic gigs came in the 1980s
1969 — The Milestone opened as an artist hangout in west Charlotte's Enderly Park neighborhood in a building that's stood there since 1904. By the mid-'70s, it was a full-stop music venue.
1980 — The Go-Go's, the self-proclaimed most successful all-female rock band of all time, were on stage at The Milestone one year before releasing their debut album.
1981 — An up-and-coming band out of Athens, Georgia called R.E.M. played a show at The Milestone and slept on the stage when everyone went home. When they realized they were locked in from the outside, they broke out.
1982 — Bad Brains played The Milestone with original singer Human Rights (known as H.R.) before he developed an on-again, off-again relationship with the band through the '90s.
1985 — Black Flag has played The Milestone at least twice, with photos from a 1981 performance showing a skinny Henry Rollins with a shaved head contrasting with photos from '85 showing a slightly-less-skinny Rollins swinging long locks.
1989 — NOFX is known as one of the most successful indie bands of all time, but five years before Punk in Drublic gained them national recognition, NOFX could be found at The Milestone.
1990 — Kurt Cobain is rumored to have signed his name and possibly written a poem somewhere on the wall during his time with Nirvana playing The Milestone, but you'd be hard-pressed to find it.