It's not about the house.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Best Bar. Ever.

Congratulations, Chris, for winning the Name the Best Bar contest! Although it wasn’t really fair, because he’d heard the story before. It just never occurred to me that people actually listen when I tell things to them. He’ll get his prize, but his punishment is to have to hear the whole long-winded story again from the beginning – and it’s a doozy of a one, I tell you what.

Some years ago (and just you never mind how long, precisely) I worked for a company called Hear Music. Started as a mail-order catalog, grew to a small chain of stores, eventually even started up a label of our own. You may know them now as The Sound of Starbucks. Unfortunately, I got off that train before it hit the gravy. But that’s a story for another time.

We thought we were on a mission, we Hear Music folks. To save the music industry from itself, while bringing good music back to the good folks who want to hear it – whatever their ages, and wherever their tastes might tend to lie. Hence (cough-cough) the name. As in: Hear the Music, Don’t Just Buy the Hype.

It didn’t work. Not really. But that, too, is a story for another time.

The story that I want to tell right now is about a particular trip a bunch of us Hear Music folks took to the Second City, when we were opening a store on Rush Street there. It’s closed, now, but anyhoo…

I was excited to get to go to Chicago for work, all expenses paid. I’d been there once before, when I was sixteen years old, and I liked it plenty – but back then I was with a whole gang of other sixteen-year-olds, and we were chaperoned. Quite honestly, I spent most of my time in the ballroom of the Conrad Hilton, pretending to be charmed by an a cappella Southern Gospel barbershop quartet (again, another story for another time). Finally, I had a chance to go back and, although I’d be working diligently during the days and into the evenings, my nighttimes would be more or less my own.

And there’s a lot of Music to be Heard in the Windy City.

Now, you know those whispered legends you hear about jobs where going to work is fun, you are best friends with all your coworkers, and you really believe in what it is you’re trying to accomplish? Well, there really is such a thing, and that Hear Music job was it. So when I said “my nights would be my own,” what I really meant was “after work, we would all be going out together.” But “I would insist on choosing our destination.” Because I was not going home without setting foot in Buddy Guy’s.

The place is actually called Legends, and it had only been open for about five years at that point. I’d wanted to go since I heard of its existence, and now that we were actually in Chi-town, wasn’t nobody going to keep my ass away. I informed my co-workers, they were all in, and we were off.

I’ve never held it against Buddy Guy personally, but it was atrocious. I mean, I could have put up with the swishes of blue neon, or the tasteless beer selection, or even the elbow-to-elbow crowds – I could have put up with all of that and more, even loved it as part of the character of the place, if only the music had been good. And for all I know a lot of people probably thought it was. Lots of people do seem to like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, although for the life of me I can’t fathom the reason why. White blues leave me cold, is all I’m saying. (And no, you don’t have to be white to play white blues – and no, you don’t have to be black to play real blues. But yes, Mr. Clapton, I’m also talking about you.)

It just so happened, however, that the boy I had a crush on from the office liked the Thunderbirds. A lot. And since he was so obviously perfect in every way, I figured I must be missing something. So I tried. We pushed through to the bar, ordered beers in sign language (because even the bartenders couldn’t hear over the din), then stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the crowd, attempting to not goose or be goosed by the people in front of us or behind. For almost a full half-hour I stood there – or, in other words, the length of two interminable songs – nursing my warm, green bottle of tasteless beer and trying to find something to like about this overheated frat-party.

Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that this was December, and there wasn’t even room enough to take our coats off? Everyone was sweating – and by everyone, I mean everyone. There was a fug in the air that I could literally taste.

Again, I would like to point out: these are all things I can put up with. I’m not such a prude that I expect all my entertainment to be sterile and Disneyfied. I can embrace the fug, find a way to turn the Rolling Rock to my advantage, if the show is worth it. But this one weren’t.

So I waited politely for the last lick of that endless second song, snapped my fingers in half-hearted applause while pulling with my other hand on the sleeve of my nearest office-friend. “I’m sorry I dragged you here!” I shouted in his ear over the how-can-they-love-this roar. “But I’m leaving! I can’t stand this for one more second or I’ll—”

He turned away. I thought he either hadn’t heard me or was miffed that I would bail on them so soon after being the one who got them into this in the first place. But it turned out he was just telephoning my message down the line. As soon as it came back to him, he bent down and hollered in my ear “We’re right behind you! Go!”

And so I went. Pushing through a sea of sweaty armpits as a thousand fists got raised in salute to the mock-blues that was cranking to life again under the neon sign. I held my breath and pushed and shoved and body-slammed people on my way to the door. I didn’t care. I was never going to be back here, anyway.

When we could finally see the sidewalk, we paused to regroup. There was a bit of room there by the exit, and a bit less noise, so we stopped there and conferred, and decided we weren’t ready to go back to the hotel just yet. We were in Chicago, damn it, and we wanted to do something. Something that would rinse the fug taste from our mouths, the white-blues slick from our assaulted ears. But what? If Buddy freakin’ Guy had let us down, what chance did we possibly have of figuring something else out on our own?

Just then my boss, god bless him – without announcing to any of the rest of us his plan – did probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen a person do. He walked up to the bouncer – a gigantic, jarheaded, Dolph-Lundgren-looking, well, bouncer, for crying out loud – and, with a room-encompassing wave of his gangly arms, said:

“We hate this. Where should we go?”

That bouncer, god bless him, nodded his head one time and then – also without a word – hailed us a pair of cabs. Opened the doors for us, piled us in, stuck his head in the window of the first one and, with two firm slaps on the roof like he was patting a horse’s rump, said:

“Take ’em to Kingston Mines.”

It felt like a speakeasy.

The cabby pointed us to a barred-over window where we paid our cover charge and got waved in through an unmarked door* to a yawningly-empty room. The long bar stretched back into dark, nothing recesses, and the whole place looked as though it had been busted moments ago and rapidly evacuated. Chairs pushed back from tables, an extraordinarily large number of half-full trash cans placed around, stomped-on, still-smoking cigarette butts dotting the floor.

Huh. Well, at least the music was decent, even if it was coming through the speakers, and the stage itself was as empty as the rest of the spooky place.

We bellied to the bar and ordered a round of beers. Glanced up at the TV. Noticed that the music on the stereo seemed to sync up to the video that was playing: a wizened old black dude I didn’t recognize, dressed head to toe in black leather – cowboy hat, tie, jacket, pants, boots, the works – playing bottleneck on a steel guitar that had obviously seen its share of days. TV wasn’t exactly what we’d been hoping for, but we sat there quietly a little while, wiggling our elbows, breathing in the scent-story of a whole new fug, and appreciating the fact that this music at least seemed to have some soul behind it. Then the song ended, and real, live applause erupted from an invisible crowd.

Wait. What?

Turned out there was a whole looking-glass bar – just like this one, only opposite – on the other side of the wall behind the bar. Leather-cowboy-blues-dude was not on video, he was on live feed, and his sound had not been piped in, it had just been drifting through. We picked up our beers and followed the applause-sounds to the doorway that we’d failed to notice on our way right freaking by, and there it was:

The Best Bar. Ever.

I seem to remember that waitresses came around with buckets of assorted beers, and you picked what you wanted or just took what was left, but I might have made that up. I do know for a fact that the plethora of trash cans strewn about were for smashing beer bottles into when they were empty. I know for sure it was crowded enough that we were lucky to find ourselves a table – which we did only because not everyone had bothered to sit down – but that it still felt plenty roomy in there between the elbows. And I’ll never forget how the air was at the same time reverent and relaxed, as if everybody in there knew just exactly how good Cowboy-blues-guy was. They knew it, and – through the murmur, the Marlboro-haze and the (still-present, but now-tolerable) fug – he knew they knew it, without everyone feeling the need to close their eyes and bob their heads in an attempt to out-appreciate each other.

We sat there about an hour, smoking cigarettes and smashing empty beer bottles and generally feeling like we’d been going there our entire adult lives. Wishing we could go there for the rest. Until suddenly, Cowboy-leather-blues Dude ended yet another perfect song, said “Thank you very much” in a voice that we could hardly hear because he didn’t bother to say it in the mike, and put down his guitar. The audience gave him a whoop and a holler, picked up their beers and cigarettes, and shuffled off into the other room.

Still unclear of the concept, we stayed put – in the rapidly-evacuated room with the exceedingly large number of half-full trash cans and the cigarette butts on the floor – but we weren’t alone this time. Maybe we weren’t alone the first time, either, maybe we just hadn’t noticed the group or two of people in the dark recesses who knew exactly what was going on but had reached the point in their evenings when staying put seemed like the best idea. There was, after all, no reason to pick up and move. Because soon enough the tv sets in this room flickered to life, and we and the shadow-audience watched on them as the next band – who’d been setting up and sound-checking while we were all appreciating Cowboy Dude – kicked off the next set from the looking-glass stage.

I don’t know how long we stayed, or how many times we passed through the looking glass that night. We were told the music went till 4:00 a.m. (and 5 on Saturdays), so I’m pretty sure we didn’t close the joint. We did still have work to go to in the morning, after all.

Speaking of work: what in the hell were we thinking, a bunch of music writers and retailers and A&R folks, not writing down Cowboy-Blues Dude’s name? Maybe it was the same mentality that stops me taking pictures on vacation (or used to stop me, anyway) – that idea of just wanting to enjoy the moment, not bring it to a screeching halt in an attempt to put it away for later. Whatever our reasons, though, be they blissfulness or drunkenness or just plain stupidity, I do wish now that I knew who he was. But I don’t. I’d never heard of him before that night, and – as far as I know, at least – I’ve never heard him since.

I’ve googled Kingston Mines, though. They definitely exist. So at least the whole thing was not a looking-glass inspired dream.

*At least that’s how I remember it. Kingston Mines looks different than I remember now, but I don’t know if that’s due to their recent remodel or if I made up in my head the part about the speakeasy-entrance. At any rate, the rest of my memories check out, so you can trust that everything I say after we go through the door is true.


Sparkle Plenty said...

Great story, in every respect. Glad you had that job, glad you found Kingston Mines. (Also quite delighted at the bouncer-concierge aspect.)

Anonymous said...

Does the name Luther Allison ring a bell. From what you wrote and said about the guy and music being played it sure sounds like him. I had the priviledge of seeing him many times when I lived in Mn. A friend took me to see him, raving about how good this guy was. Well, at the time I wasn't really into blues, but this guy changed my mind rather quickly. As a sad not, he passed away a few years ago, but he was still playing clubs right up til the time he died. He does have some CD"s out. They might be a bit hard to find but if you really like good blues try one you won't be disappointed.

Stephanie said...

I was THERE and I couldn't even win this contest. Maaaaaaan. I'm a loser.

EGE said...

Sparkle -- Why, thank you! I'll throw a bottle in the trash can with your name on it (the bottle, that is, not the trash can. That would be rude!)

Debbie -- Good guess, but alas, I knew who Luther Allison was before we got there, and I am positive I'd never heard of this guy before that night. If anybody else out there has any other thoughts, though, I'd love to hear them!

Steph -- Ha! Loser! (P.S. You don't remember who that guy was, do you?)

Chris said...

I'm a Winner!! I'm a Winner!!
Gotta love the hazy drunken recollections.

theotherbear said...

Fabulous story!