It’s August 2002, and Allentown’s Crocodile Rock Cafe is celebrating its third anniversary with a concert by 1990s bands Gin Blossoms and Spin Doctors.
Squeezed against the barrier at the stage to review the show, I am the first hand available for Gin Blossoms singer Robin Wilson to grab to steady himself as he stood atop the barrier to sing. I put aside my pen and reporter’s notebook and end up holding him there the whole song.
It’s April 2011 and Croc Rock is so packed for rapper Snoop Dogg that owner Joe Clark leads me and my wife through back halls and the kitchen to get to the front of the stage so I can review the show. The marijuana smoke there is so heavy that my wife begins to wheeze and has to leave.
Those memories from two of the more than 150 shows I saw there illustrate what Allentown’s Crocodile Rock was — a rock club.
Not strictly in the type of music played there through its 16-year existence — it offered concerts of virtually all musical genres from pop to rock to rap to country — but in the way it always was so packed, and hot, and sweaty, and loud and disheveled.
In the way virtually nothing separated the audience from performers on its small stage. In the way Allentown’s fire marshal occasionally would squeeze through the crowd to tell owners to open garage doors along one wall onto a spillover patio, because it was too crowded.
In those ways, Croc Rock, as everyone knew it, personified a rock club.
The city Zoning Hearing Board on Monday approved an application by City Center Investment Corp. to demolish the former concert venue in the 500 block of downtown’s Hamilton Street. City Center wants to replace it with a six-story building of stores, offices and residential units.
That appears to be the day the music died for Croc Rock.
But fans who saw shows there from 1999-2015 will remember the rock club. Plenty of people shared in the experience. In its heyday, the club sold 50,000 tickets a year and routinely ranked among the Top 100 busiest clubs its size in the world. It occasionally ranked in the Top 25.
The best, and truest, rock clubs always have an edge. Croc Rock was no CBGB’s, the legendary hole of a club in New York’s Bowery section that produced The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie — in either its seediness or the talent it incubated. But I spent many shows at Croc Rock with water dripping around the audience from a leaky roof, and I once even alerted a security worker to a mouse scampering between patrons’ feet. He scooped it up in a beverage cup and freed it outside.
That just added to Croc Rock’s rebellious rock ’n’ roll experience.
Whatever its faults, one secret to Croc Rock’s success was in its knack for catching performers who went on to great things. Taylor Swift played there in 2007 and Wiz Khalifa in 2010.
Not all the future big acts played to big crowds. Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers remembered playing Croc Rock in 2006 as an opening act for The Veronicas. Told the club had a reputation for packing them in, Jonas said, “It wasn’t packed when we were there.”
One of my favorite shows I saw at Croc Rock was Blessid Union of Souls in 2002. The band wasn’t far past its hits “I Believe” and “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me),” but it drew fewer than 100 people.
I saw a 2012 show by Neon Trees for which the supporting act was then-little-known Walk the Moon and the opening act an unknown duo called Twenty-One Pilots. Two years later, Walk The Moon had the triple-platinum hit “Shut Up and Dance,” and 4 1/2 half years later, Twenty-One Pilots sold out the 10,000-capacity PPL Center, just two blocks away.
Croc Rock also got acts at the top of their game. Good Charlotte, Owl City and Plain White T’s all played there when their songs were hottest.
Croc Rock’s official capacity was 1,100, and 1,300 when it opened those garage doors. But it frequently seemed to test those limits. It was common for overheated concert-goers to be helped out of the packed crowd. (Croc Rock’s air conditioning was woefully inadequate.)
The venue’s flat floor and imperfect sight lines — a former store, it had pillars throughout its floor — also made it a challenge. When I took my 5-foot-2-inch daughter to Third Eye Blind there in 2003, she literally saw nothing but the bodies around her.
And the floor was almost always slippery from spilled drinks.
But many fans were happy to deal with those shortcomings to see big stars at reasonable prices. Tickets for Snoop Dogg, at $35, were among the most expensive Croc Rock ever sold.
At its peak, Croc Rock had so many good concerts that in 2009 it hosted nine of the shows on my year-end Top 50 concerts list. In 2010, it had seven.
Stan Levinstone, president of SLP Concerts, which is among the Top 100 concert promoters in the world and who presented many of the shows at Croc Rock, said Crocodile Rock was the perfect venue at the perfect time, with a sweet-spot capacity and before giant promoters bought artists’ whole tours and took them out of smaller venues.
As a music writer, I have many memories of Croc Rock: Talking with former boy band LFO before its 2009 comeback show at the venue. Getting on Gwar’s bus in 2011 to talk with singer Odorous Urungus (Dave Brockie). Interviewing Something Corporate’s William Tell and Brian Ireland as they played pool in Croc Rock’s basement before a solo show by Tell in 2006. Seeing a very sick teen singer Teddy Geiger sleeping on a sofa there that same year before getting up to play a strong show.
Croc Rock’s precipitous fall started in January 2013 when it lost its liquor license after a spate of liquor law violations and criminal assaults — including a 2009 shooting — outside the club. But Croc Rock already had started to decline before that.
It faced increasing competition from other venues such as ArtsQuest’s Musikfest Cafe, which opened in 2011, and especially Sands Bethlehem Event Center, which opened in 2012.
Croc Rock limped along for two more years, booking concerts for the under-21 crowd since it didn’t have a liquor license. It had about a dozen or so shows each in 2014 and 2015.
While Croc Rock’s days are over, officials in April announced plans for a new concert venue in the planned $250 million Five City Center complex in Allentown. That venue includes many elements similar to Croc Rock: A 1,400 capacity that could expand to 2,400 by opening onto an outdoor lawn. An aggressive schedule of 200 to 250 events a year. A mix of all genres. And an eye toward catching hot acts on their way up, or top acts looking for a one-off date.
I have no doubt the new venue will be successful.
But it won’t be a rock club like Crocodile Rock.
5 GREAT CROC ROCK SHOWS
1. SNOOP DOGG, April 27, 2011: He showed up an hour late and played just 65 minutes. But Snoop was insanely cool, with swagger other rappers can only wish for.
2. GIN BLOSSOMS AND SPIN DOCTORS, Aug. 10, 2002: Croc Rock’s third anniversary show offered two bands trying to prove themselves again. And they did.
3. BRET MICHAELS, July 14, 2010: Talk about a comeback. Michaels showed off his health in his first solo outing after a brain hemorrhage three months earlier. And he flat-out rocked the show.
4. NEON TREES, WALK THE MOON AND TWENTY-ONE PILOTS, Aug. 21, 2012: A great show, but even better in retrospect because the openers were little-known acts. Walk the Moon would go on to have the huge hit “Shut Up and Dance.” And 4 1/2 years later, Twenty-One Pilots would sell out the 10,000-capacity PPL Center in Allentown.
5. JACK’S MANNEQUIN, Aug. 19, 2008: This was Andrew McMahon’s second band at its peak, playing seasoned versions of songs from its debut album as well as covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”