The Years Before Punk Broke: Remembering Roland Diaz-Pérez, who put Ann Arbor's Club Heidelberg on the map in the pre-grunge era
From August 1989 through the fall of 1991, dozens of concerts occurred above the German restaurant at 215 North Main Street in Ann Arbor, often featuring national touring bands who would become household names during the grunge era.
Rolando “Roland” Diaz-Pérez and his No Bull Productions team were responsible for producing these shows at Club Heidelberg, and these concerts deeply influenced the 1990s DIY music scene in Washtenaw County.
News surfaced that Diaz-Pérez died in April 2022 in Paraguay, where he had lived for two decades, but his legacy will live on in Ann Arbor music history.
The son of a Paraguayan pathologist who worked at the University of Michigan Medical Center, Diaz-Pérez was born in Ann Arbor in 1965 and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Michigan, occasionally spending summers in Paraguay.
In a 2020 interview, Diaz-Pérez said the period he grew up in was socially and politically “tense.” When he was seven, Diaz-Pérez remembers seeing the Rainbow People’s Party excavating a “bomb crater” on the lawn of 1510 Hill Street to protest the Vietnam War. He also witnessed a college-aged radical randomly pelt his father, with a water balloon as the two walked through the West Hall Engineering Arch on the U-M campus, presumably because his dad was dressed in a suit.
By his teenage years, Diaz-Pérez had learned about Ann Arbor’s musical legacy, including The MC5 and The Stooges, which were having a renaissance due to the rise of punk and its progenitors acknowledging the influence of these bands. In the eighth grade at Tappan Middle School, Diaz-Pérez and his classmates discovered Iggy Pop was an alumnus and decided to pay tribute to him surreptitiously. He and other students working on their class yearbook slipped in a photograph of a kid named Jim Osterberg with the other student portraits, making Iggy an honorary member of their class that year. Diaz-Pérez recalled that it was commonplace then to see former Stooges members Ron and Scott Asheton around town.
By the time Diaz-Pérez was a freshman at the University of Michigan, residing at East Quad in the fall of 1983, he lamented that Ann Arbor had changed in many ways and had lost much of its edge: “It was the times, you know. Ronald Reagan was in office, and it was kind of dead … there was kind of a lot of student apathy.” Few places were open for all-ages shows, though there was the cafeteria space in the basement of East Quad known as the Halfway Inn where Diaz-Pérez spent a great deal of time. Living at East Quad led him to befriend several local musicians, including Phil Seiden and Sam Lapides who performed in the industrial punk band Tool and Die.
“I was always attracted to bands," Diaz-Pérez said. "I was never in a band. I love playing guitar and all that, but I was always very timid. I was always kind of a sidekick of a few different bands, videotaping them when they played live and just being the roadie and all that kind of stuff. One of them was Tool and Die, another was The Folkminers, and then The Opossum shows. I managed The Opossums.”
"He was a fan" of all kinds of music, Maki recalls. "He was a true fan whether it be of Sam Lapides and the Folkminers, or Ron Asheton and Iggy Pop. He was a fan of the music he booked. That fueled the passion and excitement we all felt at Club Heidelberg."
When Diaz-Pérez managed college rockers The Opossums between 1988 and 1989, the band occasionally performed in the Heidelberg's small-function room upstairs, which could hold a couple of hundred people. Several individuals had attempted to turn the space into a successful venue, which was called various names over the years: Mile High Club, The Big Beat, and then The Beat throughout the 1980s. (The room has been totally reconfigured and is now known as Club Above. It hosts concerts and events intermittently.)
In early 1989, Diaz-Pérez was sitting at a table with members of The Replacements at The Blind Pig when he met Maureen Maki who was studying art at Michigan. (The Replacements played The Michigan Theater on March 10, 1989.) The two quickly developed a romantic and professional relationship, and she became one of his partners in the new No Bull Productions venture. Diaz-Pérez had unexpectedly come into an inheritance and saw it as a unique opportunity to invest in putting on concerts at the Heidelberg.
Despite being around as an entertainment room for many years, Club Heidelberg had no stage and the PA sound system was hardly adequate for rock concerts. Diaz-Pérez met sound engineer Jim Gibbons when he commandeered the mixing board at an Opossums show at the Heidelberg sometime in 1989. He later asked Gibbons to work with him on putting together a new sound system for the Heidelberg, with Diaz-Pérez putting nearly $10,000 into the new PA and also building the stage.
Not that Diaz-Pérez was trying to make Club Heidelberg into something fancy.
"Some of the best clubs in the nation are the biggest shitholes," Diaz-Pérez told The Michigan Daily (September 6, 1990). "[The Heidelberg] attracts people who are seriously committed to music. The Heidelberg is the equivalent of The Ark for people into underground music. It's like a concert hall .... You go there to check out the bands and that's the way I'd like to keep it."
Because the main floor of The Heidelberg was a restaurant and bar, owner Fritz Kochendorfer wouldn't let the upstairs concerts happen until the dining room closed, which meant late show starts, even on weekdays.
But that was perhaps the least of Diaz-Pérez's concerns about working with Kochendorfer.
According to multiple people, Kochendorfer was allegedly a difficult person to deal with and could be intimidating if you got on his bad side.
One example of Kochendorfer's temper is when he angrily burst into the Club Heidelberg during a Laughing Hyenas performance on November 11, 1989. After failing to get Gibbons to turn down the music, Kochendorfer physically assaulted the sound engineer and then locked himself in a utility room and shut off the power to the PA system. Things got very tense in the club, but Kochendorfer eventually turned the power back on so the concert could continue.
The tension with Kochendorfe continued right to the end. According to an October 31, 1991, article in The Michigan Daily discussing the end of Club Heidelberg, Gibbons said Kochendorfer "would regularly assault my partner, Roland Diaz-Pérez, who eventually quit." Gibbons also told the newspaper he filed assault charges against Kochendorfer twice.
“[Kochendorfer] absolutely hated the atonal dissonant sounds and tons of feedback that emanated from his bar upstairs," said Diaz-Pérez, "from all these bands ... who are basically all about feedback, and screaming, screeching, and hollering, and guitars making banshee sounds."
While he may have hated the music, Kochendorfer didn't hate the money the concerts made for him, which is why he allowed the shows to go on.
At first, Diaz-Pérez booked local bands that were already playing regularly in the area, such as George Bedard and the Kingpins, Scott Morgan’s Key to the Highway, and Frank Allison and the Odd Sox. Eventually, Diaz-Pérez hooked up with promoter Peter Davis who organized tours for bands on independent record labels such as Amphetamine Reptile, Touch & Go, and Sub Pop.
These labels were on the verge of becoming household names, and many of the bands who played Club Heidelberg went on to become some of the most well-known acts of the era, including Dinosaur Jr., The Melvins, Mudhoney, Jesus Lizard, Unsane, Helmet, Killdozer, Urge Overkill, Afghan Wigs, NOFX, Royal Trux, Babes in Toyland, Tad, Helios Creed, and many more. Ray Manzarek of The Doors performed at Club Heidelberg, as did punk poet Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), whose band guest featured Ron and Scott Asheton of The Stooges. Půlnoc, featuring members of the eminent Czech rock group Plastic People of the Universe, played a gig there, and the venue was where Ann Arbor’s 1960s rock-and-soul legends The Rationals held their reunion show.
Even with national acts playing Club Heidelberg regularly, the space was also a mainstay for local bands, who were often given opening slots for out-of-town artists or sometimes booked on the coveted weekend night slots. Bands like Wig, Big Chief, Mule, Möl Triffid, Harm’s Way, and countless others cut their teeth at these shows, and over time they became some of the biggest local bands of the era.
Club Heidelberg also served as the unoffical homebase to the legendary Laughing Hyenas, whose musicians lived in Ann Arbor. The band performed there at least six times during Diaz-Pérez's tenure at the club, always filling the room.
While Diaz-Pérez's three years at Club Heidelberg helped make the venue a destination stage for touring and local bands alike, producing these shows also a tremendous amount of work. It cost a small fortune to put on all the concerts between paying guarantees to the bands, placing weekly ads in the local press, and distributing promotional flyers. Diaz-Pérez claimed he had nearly broken even with his Club Heidelberg experiment, but he was worn out by the end.
“It was not meant to be a money-making venture," he said, "and by that point, the stress of dealing with it—it was too much work."
Long after his Ann Arbor booking days came to an end, the underground scene Diaz-Pérez helped create continued to blossom in the 1990s with the rise of bands such as Jaks, Morsel, Couch, and countless other groups made up of musicians who first performed at or attended shows at Club Heidelberg. Additionally, the ethic of doing it for the music and not for profit carried on at other local DIY performance spaces, often located in people's homes in Ann Arbor, such as The Lab at 144 Hill Street, The Red Light Lounge at 1220 Prospect Street, and The West Side Laundromat at 910 West Huron Avenue, as well as The Green Room in Ypsilanti, where Ziggy’s is currently located. At these underground venues and others, musicians like Fred Thomas, Twig Harper, Aaron Dilloway, and Nate Young performed, carried on the torch, and continued to expand on what became a vibrant music scene.
Following the end of Club Heidelberg, Diaz-Pérez relocated to Detroit where he went through a difficult period before getting his life together.
He eventually moved to Paraguay in the late 1990s to be with his ailing father, and he remained there. No cause of death has not been officially released for Diaz-Pérez.
I reached out to numerous musicians and friends for their reactions about Diaz-Pérez's death and many had a similar response. Motor City Rage guitarist Razor Ray stated, “Roland was the glue to keeping our A2 music scene alive and vibrant, bringing underground music up to the streets [and giving us] a place to create beautiful memories and relationships.”
Artist Casey Sass, who played with Acme Speed Queen, wrote, “It was always exciting to run into him on the street and talk about what he had planned. He’d hand me a flyer or two and tell me about all of the bands he’d booked. It seemed like he was trying to educate me just as much as he was trying to advertise.”
John Brannon, the lead singer of The Laughing Hyenas, responded with a broken-heart emojii.
Rolando Diaz-Pérez will be remembered for his selflessness and dedication to the Ann Arbor area's creative community, which he supported tirelessly, fueled by his love for the music and the musicians who made it.
J.J. Griffin IV is chief editor at Crown Hill Press and has penned four books, including "The Job of Musicians Is Not to Create Music but to Create Culture": An Examination of Ann Arbor's Underground Music Scene in the 1990s. (It's also in the AADL catalog.) He is currently working on his latest book, Hard Times: The True Story of the Laughing Hyenas, and lives in New England with his wife and son.