God Save the Cain's
Historical notes on the Cain's Ballroom
by Thomas Conner
Tulsa World Pop Music Critic
One day, I'm going to meet Malcolm McLaren, and I'm going to buy him a pint. Maybe two.
I owe him that, at least. He sent the Sex Pistols through Tulsa back in '78 and put T-town on the rock 'n' roll map. Well, not Tulsa, really, but certainly the Cain's Ballroom.
It was a shameless publicity stunt * McLaren always was brilliant at causing a fuss * though by the time the Pistols pulled up in front of the Cain's that winter, the gas had pretty much spewed out of the band's eight-show tour. This was the Pistols' first jaunt across America, and it would be their only one until a lame reunion tour in 1996. Instead of sending them to New York City and L.A. where they would be easily adored and scrutinized, McLaren scheduled shows throughout the Southern states * parading this snarling, angry Brit punk band before crowds who would understand them the least. The reactions were volatile, the carnage was massive and Johnny Rotten spent most of Jan. 11, 1978 hiding out in Larry Shaeffer's office at the ballroom. The night before, in Dallas, he'd destroyed a $10,000 lens belonging to a documentary camera crew, and he was a walking target.
The Sex Pistols concert at the Cain's was tepid. "They were hot for the first three numbers, then lost it," said local music maven Peter Nicholls immediately after the show. Tulsa Tribune critic Ellis Widner wrote in his review, "It was too loud, too dull, and the songs were too much alike to make a serious, lasting impact." But the quality of their performance never carried high expectations, nor was it even necessarily important in the long run. In the end, it was only relevant that the soon-legendary Pistols actually played here, and since the Cain's is the only venue from that tour that's still in operation, people know about it. The connection is made. The details are inconsequential. The Pistols played here * and that's enough to open many musicians' otherwise tired eyes and ears to a 'burg in the middle of nowhere.
This tidbit of Cain's rock 'n' roll history has been brought up by countless stars during interviews with the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune. Members of Garbage, Van Halen, the Ramones, the Blackhearts, the Plimsouls and Cake have asked something along the lines of, "Didn't the Pistols play there?" David Byrne knew about the Sex Pistols show, as well as the fact that the Cain's was originally, as he put it, "a cornerstone of western swing music." David Grohl, formerly of Nirvana and now the leader of the Foo Fighters, placed his hand in the hole that Sid Vicious allegedly punched in a backstage wall, like a kid trying to measure up to his dad's handprints. The most telling remark, though, came from Rancid guitarist-singer Lars Frederiksen: "You hear horror stories about people from Arkansas and Oklahoma, but the Sex Pistols played there, so it's got to be OK."