This weekend I found it: THE dive. The perfect dive -- a venue so complete in its craptacularity that it is difficult to imagine any other place combining so many elements of awfulness and still being open for business.
There was chlamydia in the air, adrift in the looming aroma of sweat and stale chicken wings. Even the gay people were unattractive.
I should note, in all the years I’ve been going out to see live music, I have been to a LOT of different kinds of places. Bars, clubs, shops, storefronts; theaters, concert halls, arenas; backyards and living rooms and churches. And oddly enough, some of the great shows I’ve seen were at places hidden in the dust and shadows of some pretty scary looking neighborhoods. Some of those venues could, I guess, be legitimately called “dives” in the informal dictionary definition; but in each case, the combination of great performance and earnest welcome so outshone the seediness of the surroundings, it hardly mattered that the place was a mess.
But this weekend I came across a bar that truly puts the “less” in “miserableness.”
It’s not so much that it was intrinsically worse than any other similarly appointed hole in the wall; it’s more the way in which this particular place managed to concentrate so much unpleasantness in such a relatively small space, over such a short period of time.
The biggest problem was the phony atmosphere -- the faux pub nonsense that so many bars now employ as a means of plastering over the unrelentingly dismal fraudulence of their decor. Here’s a clue: a veneer finish is supposed to overlay a patina of quality on a piece that is constructed of inferior material -- not just spread the shiny, plasticky awfulness around the entire circumference of the room.
But of course, in this particular case, that wasn’t the only problem. There was also the surly waitstaff; the lousy service; the stale foul smell of the food; the somnambulant bartender; in fact, there were really only two great positives: they book live music, and they have ample parking. Sadly, the second of these great attributes is only due to the fact that most of the stores in the sorry little strip mall where this place is located are already vacant -- and as I pulled away, I thought I could hear the empty retail husks calling out to the bar: “Join us, join us...”
There was a stage, and there were amps; there was a bar, and a few booths. A long wooden barrier separated bar from booth, and was designed to accommodate those who wished to stand and lean while listening to the performance -- or more accurately, to accommodate those who were asked by the waitstaff to vacate the booths if they were not ordering food, or finished with whatever food they had ordered.
It was an interesting approach, to toss customers who have paid a cover charge out of a seat because you assume they’re not willing to order food, and to then fail to direct them elsewhere.
Which, as things turned out, was just as well, given the oddness of the odors surrounding the eating area. It is difficult to delicately describe that peculiar scent; but let me put it this way: when you go over your notes after a show and find that you’ve written the phrase “Smells like urinal cakes” -- twice -- to describe the place’s ambiance, there is definitely something that is just not working in the venue’s approach to customer care.
But the mere odor and unfriendliness were just a start, as those in charge worked hard to live up to the sort of behavior epitomized by the motto Curly Howard spouts in the Three Stooges short “Movie Maniacs” (which just happens to be on TV as I write this): “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking until you do succeed.”
With no clear delineation between the musical performance and the regular melange of bar customers, the sounds of each frequently mixed together in a clot of pure, beautiful song and shouted inanities of introduction and puerile banter. This could have been easily avoided by providing a dedicated area for the music, segregated from the bar, rather than pointlessly segregating the bar from the eating area. As set up, it simply demonstrated how clueless the management is about how to properly present live music.
Meanwhile, the guy standing next to me -- more accurately, in front of me, where he partially obstructed my view of the stage -- was wearing a shirt that sported a logo that seemed to attest to his “toughness.” Except that it was actually a trademarked logo, which I guess actually attested to the toughness of the corporation that had trademarked it. And it was in yellow lettering. And the guy continually, mockingly “threatened” his friend with pretend punches and phony stabs of his pen.
I have seen legitimately tough guys at concerts. I remember the Motorhead show I went to a few years back; the only guys more badass than the ones drinking at the bar were the ones on the stage. And as near as I can remember, none of them were wearing a corporate logo, or pretending to punch anyone.
Of course none of this really mattered, because I got to see what I went there to see: the music that I love, by local artists whose work I admire and respect. In fact, that’s why I decided, as I drove home musing about what I might write, that I would not use the name of the venue. Any place that’s willing to pay local artists to perform deserves some benefit of the doubt, no matter how dubious its hygiene, or rude its personnel, or tacky its decor.
When I’m at a place like that, standing quietly, trying to remain focused on the performer, I take comfort in the thought that as a writer, I always get the last word. Long after the last tone sounds and the lights go dim and the key is turned in the door in the early hours of the following morning, I think back and recount all the dismal little distractions, only to find myself arriving finally, as always, at the sheer gorgeous poetry of having been there to experience the performance. For the way that poetry rings in my heart and my head long after even the longest evening, I am always willing to surmount whatever obstacles might be in my way...
© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh