I can tell you about the first time I went to the Chameleon.
It was sometime in 1988, and my friends and I went to see The Ocean Blue, a local band that would soon be in regular rotation on MTV’s “120 Minutes.”
It was my first nightclub show. The concerts I had been to previously were in arenas of one size or another, and seeing a band play full-throttle in a relatively small room like that was revelatory.
Being close enough to see the musicians’ facial expressions without the help of a jumbotron screen, checking out the details of their instruments and pedals and amps – it de-mystified rock ‘n’ roll, somehow.
The club was packed for that all-ages show, mostly high school and college-age kids with a smattering of young adults. I remember singing and dancing and sweating and having the absolute best time.
I can also tell you about the last time I went to the Chameleon.
It was Dec. 8, 2017, and my friend Paul had driven up from Baltimore to join me in seeing Gary Numan, a British musician best known for ‘80s synthpop mainstay “Cars,” but whose current band played his old hits and newer material with a heavy power that perfectly suited the dystopian lyrics.
Numan was touring with a lighting rig built for much larger venues, but managed to pack it all into the Chameleon, putting on a staggeringly good performance that, with its swirls of fog and wild light show, made the Chameleon feel like an arena.
It re-mystified rock ‘n’ roll, somehow.
The club was packed for that show, too, mostly 40-somethings like me with a smattering of younger folks. I remember singing and dancing and sweating and having the absolute best time.
What I can’t tell you – because this is a newspaper column and not an infinite vortex into which I can pour 100,000 words – is the sheer scope and volume of what happened in between those shows in 1988 and 2017.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Chameleon to the music scene in Lancaster, especially in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It was THE place to go for live music if your musical taste was situated outside the mainstream. There were plenty of places to dance to Top 40, either via DJs or cover bands. But there was nothing else like the Chameleon.
That little club on Water Street booked punk and new wave, reggae and jazz fusion, heavy metal and rockabilly.
National acts looking for a stop between tour dates in major East Coast cities. Local bands on their way to wider fame. (It wasn’t just The Ocean Blue - I saw The Innocence Mission and Suddenly, Tammy! multiple times before they earned national acclaim. And of course there was Live, once arguably the most popular band in America, having started at Chameleon.)
That club was like a little sliver of New York City carved out and dropped into downtown Lancaster. Pre-internet, when the only way you could find out about live shows was by looking for posters at record stores, an absurdly wonderful playlist of alternative / indie music was happening just blocks from my apartment.
The longer I sit here and try to remember bands I saw at the Chameleon, the more memories bubble up.
The Ramones. Pixies. Bad Brains. Matthew Sweet. Psychedelic Furs. Soul Coughing. My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. Moby. Juno Reactor. Modest Mouse. Dave Wakeling. Built to Spill. And on and on and on.
I remember walking home from a Fugazi show in 1989, my roommate and I so invigorated by the intensity of the performance that we spent the entire walk excitedly trying to figure out how we could make our band sound like Fugazi. (Spoiler: We could not make our band sound like Fugazi.)
I remember seeing a rare live appearance by Ultra Vivid Scene in 1993, with the tension between band members so palpable I swore frontman Kurt Ralske would fire the rest of the band before show’s end. (Amazing performance, though!)
To this day, people are stunned when I tell them I saw Faith No More at the Chameleon as an opening act for Soundgarden, who in turn were opening for Voivod. Soundgarden was spectacularly good at that show, not too long before they became one of the most popular grunge bands in the world. (For years, I kept a guitar pick singer Chris Cornell gave me after the show.)
I could go on like this for hours.
I even had the opportunity to play on that stage myself, in two different bands.
On one of those occasions, in the mid-‘90s, we had been booked as the opening act for an Afro-pop headliner that never showed up. We played anyway, of course, meaning that we technically headlined the Chameleon – although the audience consisted of all of our friends who had been guest-listed and exactly one (1) paying customer.
But still. We were on stage at the Chameleon.
And that meant something.