Somewhere on the walls of The Milestone, Charlotte’s venerable music club on Tuckaseegee Road, punk band Black Flag has added their tag to the riot of graffiti and stickers that cover every square space. Where that is, however, is anyone’s guess.
Liz McLaughlin is explaining the hidden magic of The Milestone to a packed house — close to the venue’s 170 capacity — on a chilly Wednesday evening as people set up camp chairs and recline on blankets. The seating arrangements are a tip-off that this is not your typical Milestone crowd.
McLaughlin asks how many people have never been to the club before and a show of hands reveals that nearly 90% of the audience are newbies. Many have discovered the venue tonight thanks to Sofar Sounds, a company that promotes and presents intimate shows in non-traditional spaces.
McLaughlin, who hosts Sofar events as a side gig, has invited the attendees here to see a trailer for a work-in-progress documentary about the club that she’s producing with her partner, filmmaker and photojournalist Jason Arthurs.
In addition to screening preview footage, McLaughlin and Arthurs are filming new material for their doc. The few patrons that have been there before are encouraged to commit their personal Milestone memories to film. Milestone Confessional, an additional session to capture stories about the club on celluloid, is planned for an undetermined date later this fall.
The Sofar event’s bill includes performances by Virginia synth-rockers Rawls and local all-female punk combo Reason Define. They’ve played the venue before, and they’re in good company. In its 50-year history the club’s roster has boasted a who’s who of punk, indie and metal, ranging from Agent Orange to Violent Femmes.
Milestone stories have been passed down through the decades, attaining the burnished patina of folklore. The club started hosting live shows in 1969, four years before the legendary but now shuttered New York City punk venue CBGB’s. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana took the stage at The Milestone on May 2, 1990, for a pre-Nevermind gig.
Milestone founder and property owner Bill Flowers offered a little-known act named R.E.M. $50 dollars to play for a night, and afterward the band crashed on the stage they had performed on.
Some tales have more veracity than others. Current Milestone owner Wyley Buck Boswell is tending bar tonight, and when I ask him about a poem that R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe is rumored to have etched into the walls, Boswell tells me that’s one Milestone legend he’s never heard before.
All this history makes the evening’s gig seem like an impromptu scavenger hunt through the club’s decades-long music history, a search for rock ‘n’ roll artifacts on par with the holy grail. Many are in plain view, if you know where to look.
“It’s like a treasure hunt in there,” McLaughlin tells me. “There are layers and layers, like rings of a tree.”
As music history happens it keeps accumulating on the club’s walls, she continues, which are plastered with the stickers and graffiti from visiting bands, fans and a mix of well-known and long forgotten local musicians.
One act slated to perform tonight has been dropped from the bill, though its presence is still strongly felt. BitterHearts, a pop punk band fronted by former Milestone co-owners Jonathan and Stephanie Hughes will not be playing. On August 20, Jonathan, who purchased the club from previous owner Neal Harper in 2010 and ran it until March 2018, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in his brain. After recuperating at Atrium Health Charlotte, Hughes was moved to Carolinas Rehabilitation in Mount Holly. Tonight’s event will also serve as a fundraiser for the Hughes family to aid in Jonathan’s recovery.
But many here don’t yet know of Hughes and the club’s history, so the evening has an air of discovery and celebration. Yet for the long-time patrons in attendance there’s an underlying tension, the perception that now more than ever, the potential of losing the historic club may become reality. There’s a reason that McLaughlin and Arthurs’ doc is provisionally titled How to Save a Milestone.
In fact, the 6,014-square-foot property, comprised of two connected buildings that house the club, has been officially for sale since February 2018. An online listing by Mike Kirby of South East Commercial Real Estate Group currently lists seven lots and the two buildings at 3400 Tuckaseegee Road to be sold together for the asking price of $650,000.
“I know that offers have been made and turned down,” Boswell says. “So [it seems] they’re not coming off of that price.”
It’s evident to Boswell that the realtor doesn’t care much about The Milestone as a business or cherished piece of Charlotte history. The club’s future has been on the chopping black ever since Boswell took over as owner. In fact, he says that the same day Queen City Nerve contacted him for an interview, he got a text from Flowers’ representative stating that a sale was imminent. Boswell admits that the constant anxiety forces his mind to seesaw back and forth about the situation, balancing between the bigger picture and his daily to-do list.
“I try to spend a couple days a month focusing on the long-term,” Boswell says, “trying to have conversations with people who could potentially help us to buy the property.”
He’s also in the uncomfortable position of being on call for any prospective buyer who wants to view the property. When potential buyers ask Boswell to tell them about the place, he’s tempted to say it’s not his job to sell the property for Bill Flowers.
Boswell first crossed The Milestone’s threshold when he was 11 years old, accompanied by his father, who chaperoned him to shows. At age 14, Boswell started booking shows for his and his classmates’ bands. At the time, The Milestone had gone semi-dormant, he remembers, only hosting local bands twice a month or so. Flowers retained the property, but in 2004, he sold the club and all its intellectual properties to Neal Harper, who resumed featuring music at The Milestone full-time.
Boswell started booking shows at the venue while still in his senior year at Northwest School of the Arts. He worked the door occasionally for Harper, and also worked on street teams promoting shows. All the while, Boswell played in bands, too. In 2005, he bought a banjo, taught himself to play and started gigging and touring with artist and Milestone employee Andy Fenstermaker, who performs and records as Andy the Doorbum.
When Jonathan bought the club from Harper in 2010, he hired Boswell as full-time talent buyer, booking agent, promoter and street team manager. In 2016, Hughes attempted to buy the property from Flowers. He teamed with business management consultant Carlos Espin; whose organization Area 15 developed a successful business incubating complex of the just north of Uptown Charlotte on East 15th and North Davidson streets.
The plan was to raise money through crowdfunding to effect necessary repairs on the century-old building and then find additional investors. But in the end, the money raised was just enough to keep The Milestone open.
After the proposed plans fell through, Flowers put the property up for sale. It was then that Hughes decided he would no longer be the owner or the lease holder at The Milestone. Boswell, who counted the Hughes family as close friends, was devastated, yet after a night’s sleep, he resolved to take things over.
“I didn’t want this place to go down without a fight,” Boswell says. “I didn’t want it to fizzle out and die.”
Boswell is fully aware of the gentrification wave rolling through west Charlotte. It hasn’t reached his outpost on Tuckaseegee Road yet, but it’s only a matter of time. The surge of gentrification is responsible for a litany of club closings throughout the city. The Double Door Inn, Tremont Music Hall and Chop Shop have already succumbed, and the list is likely to get longer.
The redevelopment storm surge also concerns McLaughlin. Driving past The Milestone recently she saw the posted for sale signs and was alarmed. Concern turned to determination to tell the venue’s story through film.
“There are so many people moving [to Charlotte] every day, and a lot of them don’t even know that The Milestone is there,” McLaughlin says.
If the venue goes away, she continues, if development eventually takes The Milestone down with those other previously longstanding music venues in Charlotte, she and Arthurs want it to live on.
The filmmakers’ fervent wish to keep The Milestone alive spurred the inception of their current project. McLaughlin and Arthurs started pre-production in April and began shooting in May. They hope to have the completed documentary ready for screening by spring of next year.
“I think film is a wonderful avenue to preserve things that can’t stay around forever,” McLaughlin says. That said, her first choice is to have The Milestone go nowhere. “Our main goal is to help it stick around.”
Jonah Juarez, who is working the door for the combination screening/concert/fundraiser says that though she’s been working at The Milestone a mere six months, she’s been coming to the club much longer.
“I can be myself here,” Juarez says. “All the shows I like happen here.”
For Stephanie Hughes, the club holds powerful memories.
“I knew it was magic the first time I stepped across the threshold,” she says. “But I never imagined how big a part it would play in my life.”
Stephanie and Jonathan held their wedding reception at the club, they first announced they were going to be parents there, and they have celebrated every birthday, anniversary, New Years and Halloween at the club for as long as Stephanie can remember.
“It’s the place that means more to me than anywhere else in the world,” she says, “and the Milestone family are the best people on earth.”
Benefits to raise funds for Jonathan’s lengthy and costly rehabilitation have been held at Petra’s, Snug Harbor and Heist Brewery as well as The Milestone, Boswell says. He reveals plans for further fundraisers, including an October 21 show featuring Don Telling’s Island Mysteries, Wild Trees and Sangre Cabrona.
In the meantime, Boswell vows to continue booking the kind of shows that have made The Milestone famous. With five nights a week of original music featuring bills of three to five bands, the venue features an average of 20 performers a week, Boswell says. They join the ranks of the illustrious musicians who have stood on the Milestone’s stage — 10,000 Maniacs, Bad Brains, Black Flag, Camper Van Beethoven, Dead Boys, the Flaming Lips, Fugazi, the Go-Go’s, Hawkwind, HooDoo Gurus, Husker Du, John Cale, the Meatmen, the Melvins, Mission of Burma, NOFX, the Plastics, the Replacements and much more.
For his part, Boswell says that development at 3400 Tuckaseegee Road may not necessarily be such a bad thing.
“I think there’s a lot of potential on this particular block,” he says.
Potential buyers have discussed putting houses on three residential lots on the seven-parcel property. Others have considered repurposing the adjacent building that housed the long-shuttered Last Pitcher Show into a barbeque restaurant and turning the residential lots into a community garden, facilitating a farm-to-table pipeline for the proposed eatery.
“I’ve heard a lot of great ideas, and I know that something good can be done with [the property],” says Boswell, who hopes the parcel ends up in the right hands. “I would love for whoever buys it to be someone who wants to see The Milestone here for another 50 years.”