Letters to Cleo's Kay Hanley Bids Farewell to Iconic Boston Rock Club TT the Bear's Place

Chris Norton
Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo performing at TT the Bear's Place in Boston in 2008.

My quintessential TT the Bear's Place memory?

Maybe it was the big black X marks that Jeanne drew on each of my hands with that big, stinky magic marker between every soundcheck and show I played in the late 80's before I turned 21. Or the time I looked out into the sparse audience on that Wednesday night gig and saw someone I didn't know singing all the words to our songs. Wait, it must be the time in 1997 that USA Mike proposed to me after soundcheck and I took the TT's stage as a newly engaged gal. Or the time in 2008 that the entire Boston music community -- including Letters to Cleo -- rallied around TT's co-owner Jeanne Connolly to play benefit concerts to help defray the cost of her cancer treatment.

Actually, now I know what it was. 1993: Letters to Cleo's swinging-from-the-rafters record-release party for the original Cherrydisc version of our first album, Aurora Gory Alice. Our show that night was fire-code smashing mayhem and so was that of Chicago's Red Red Meat, who were playing next door at the Middle East. When the clubs let out with a mad, sweaty crush of grungy musicians and fans, Cambridge's Finest were in in rare form and in no mood for a mouthy Dorchester rock chick defending the honor (and the gear and the cargo vans) of all the bands loading onto Brookline Ave that night. Naturally, I was arrested -- for assault and battery on a police officer. Hours later, Jeannie and co-owner Bonney Bouley, having gone back to TT's and cleaned out the till, returned to Cambridge jail and sprung me from the clink.

So yeah, I have a history with TT the Bear's Place. Not an I-lived-at-that-club-in-the-'90s history. More like: That building and those people altered the course of my life forever.

At 18, most kids were heading off to college. I couldn't afford school, so I waited tables, joined my cousin Greg McKenna's rock band and started playing Boston's many clubs. Our first band, Rebbecca Lula, brought in enough tickets and beer-chugging Dot Rats [natives of nearby Dorchester] that the club was always happy to have us even if our music was some '80s aural clusterf-- of The Jam, Devo and The English Beat. During those years, TT's became our rock'n'roll mothership and Jeanne and Bonney loyal stewards of our band's unlikely prospects. None of the other clubs in town thought we were anything special, but etching out our own little piece of the rock dream at TT's made us feel like we belonged, and we flourished under their care while nobody was watching.

In 1990, Greg and I narrowed our focus to better reflect what was going on around us, not the least of which was the incredible music emanating from the local music scene -- Gigolo Aunts, O Positive and Gravel Pit all earned their chops at TT's -- and the miraculous radio waves of WFNX. We de-dorkified our sound, recorded an EP at Fort Apache (home of our new heroes, Pixies) and renamed ourselves Letters To Cleo with killer new bandmates USA Mike, Stacy Jones, and Scott Riebling. Jeannie and Bonney gave us our first gig. And our second. And all the local ones that mattered thereafter until we got a song on the radio ["Here and Now," which reached No. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1995] and headed over to Landsdowne Street, where we were welcomed as more famous, better-paid hooligans.

Please believe that the swagger, confidence and, yes, humility we learned from slugging it out at TT's served us well, and we continued to play small shows there at every opportunity until the band split in 2000.

In 2008, Jeanne was diagnosed with cancer and the Boston music community came together to help her with her medical costs. Everyone in Letters to Cleo happened to be in town, and we decided with a few hours' notice, not having played a note together in nearly 10 years, to jump onstage and wing it for the lady who gave us every chance we ever got in our early days.

A year later, Jeanne passed. I don't think I can possibly overstate how much that woman meant, not just to me, but the entire Boston music scene. By extension, maybe the American '90s alt-rock revolution owes a debt beyond valuation to her balls, kindness and passionate dedication to bands and fans alike. She loved me and I loved her. We greeted each other with the warmth and closeness of sisters every time I walked through the giant wooden doors of TT's. If you had to count how many times that was, it would easily be into the hundreds.

And now TT's is closing. I don't know how to feel about that, and maybe I'm not supposed to know. Bonney has done more for the city of Cambridge than any Harvard or MIT billionaire with a checkbook. For 40 years, she has given us art and music and soul and cold beer in plastic cups. If I close my eyes, I can still summon the unmistakable feeling of my Doc Martens bouncing on the sticky floor of TT's to a Gravel Pit song. For that alone, I am grateful beyond words.

Kay Hanley is the former lead singer of Boston alt-rock band Letters to Cleo.

A version of this article first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of Billboard.