Thursday, December 2, 2010

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

The city of Seattle is home to a unique institution, dating from the days just after Prohibition was repealed. It's the Seattle tavern.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, temperance supporters - whose influence was strong in the state of Washington - successfully passed laws mandating that liquor could only be sold in stores controlled by the state. Only beer and wine could be sold by the drink in an establishment known as a tavern. In 1948, a ballot initiative liberalized the sale of alcohol by the drink, allowing distilled spirits to be sold by the drink, but only if the establishment where it was sold earned 70% of its revenue from the sale of food, and no more than 30% of its revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages. Hotels and high-end restaurants flourished, but the law excluded taverns. This effectively ghettoized such establishments as working class joints catering to people who were just interested in cheap drinking.

1911 photo from the University of Washington archives. The doorway just beyond the car and the utility pole is where the Comet's entrance is located. Records indicate it was a tavern even then.

Taverns were cheap neighborhood watering holes. Profit margins were low, keeping the staff small and the amenities meager. If you're just selling some draft beer and cheap wine, you can't afford to install a kitchen and hire waitstaff. A bartender, a couple of pool tables, and a few booths are about all the improvements a typical tavern-owner could afford - and the patrons didn't care.

The storefront space in the 100 year old building on the corner of Pike and 11th was an Irish tavern in the '30s, but in the 1950s it was renamed the Comet Tavern. During the era of social change in the 1960s, the Comet became known as a free-wheeling place that tolerated the gay and hippie residents that began to frequent Capitol Hill.

Me with ex-boyfriend, directly across the street from the Comet Tavern, 1979.

I first visited the Comet in 1979, joining my then-boyfriend there for a beer with a friend of his, the director of an experimental theatre group that operated out of a loft across the street. The Comet was a perfect place for such an artsy and chaotic group of people. I remember it being dark, seedy, and crowded with graffiti all over the wooden surfaces of the bar, tables, booths and restrooms.

The experimental theatre folded and was replaced by a rock and roll club, the proving ground for so many grunge bands. If the opening act at Moe's sucked, you'd go across the street to the Comet for a beer, and then go back over to catch the headliner.

Seattle bands advertised their gigs by stapling flyers to utility poles. They still do.

Tad. The Accused. Skinyard. The Fastbacks. Supersuckers. Coffin Break. Gas Huffer. Flop. These are the names of some of the bands that played in the taverns and clubs of Seattle in the late '80s and early '90s. When the national media learned about it, the name Grunge was coined to categorize it, and soon it became the hottest new sound in the music scene.

The hallmarks of Grunge were the musicians' rejection both of conventional middle-class society and the values of the established commercial rock music scene. Their music expressed their feelings of social alienation. Apathy. A disenchantment with society. Rejection of contrivances, slick show-biz values, and rock and roll fame.

As Seattle's liquor laws created the tavern, they also affected the music scene. Music clubs like RKCNDY, the Re-bar, and the OK Hotel were all taverns - places that served only beer and wine, that didn't serve food. But the laws strictly forbade kids under 21 years of age from even being on the premises of a tavern.

The only way teens, who were the biggest fans of this new music, could see their favorite bands was to go to some of the all-ages venues that sprung up in town. I managed such a venue, run by the city, that showcased these bands for free concerts on Friday nights, for about 4 years, and I got to know those bands.

In the heat of summer in 1993, a musician named Mia Zapata, who played and sang lead for a band called The Gits, left the Comet after last call at 2:00 am. She visited a friend who lived nearby, and then headed out again on foot for her nearby apartment.

At 3:30 am, a hooker in the Central District reported a body lying in a quiet cul-de-sac. The cops said that if Mia hadn't died from strangulation by the cord of her hoodie, she would have died of the brutal beating she had received from her assailant.

In April of 1994, Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, committed suicide.

These losses shook the Seattle rock community. Mia Zapata's murder went unsolved until 2003, and during that time, her friends, her competitors, and other musicians and the whole scene lived with suspicion and mistrust. Her murderer was convicted in 2004. His conviction was upheld in 2009. It turned out he had never met her before the night he murdered her.

Grunge's heyday faded as quickly as it had been hyped. Capitol Hill has become gentrified. Moe's is still a music venue - now called Neumo's - with a slick, professional website. But the Comet remains.

And - at least in some aspect - it has maintained its status as a bastion of authentic sludge/punk/raw aesthetic. One recent Yelp reviewer called it "a dirty bar filled with dirty people."

On our recent visit, we returned to the Comet - a couple of 50-year-olds sidling up to the bar in the middle of the day, sitting on the cracked and patched vinyl barstools, and ordering a couple of pints of draft. Looking very square and very out of place.

The bar smelled of cleanser, stale beer, and bleach. There was no one else in the house except for the bartender - a nice looking young man with shoulder-length auburn dread-locks and a goatee - and a couple of customers seated at the bar. They wore black leather and dark Gore-tex against the cold weather, and denim jackets layered over grey sweatshirts. Knit watch caps covered long tangled hair. The guy nearest us had a gleaming pewter earring the size of a shower curtain ring.

They leaned on the rough bar, with pints of beer before them, watching the flat-screen TV hung on the wall.

There were lots of flat screens around the room - some showing football games. But the one these two guys were watching was showing the sit-com "30 Rock."

As we watched, Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski bantered about buying jeans, fair trade practices, and artisanal industries. And her butt.

The guys chuckled fondly.

On the screen, Tina Fey taunted Alec Baldwin to watch her butt as she walked out of his office.

The guys laughed.

The dread-locked bartender came in from the back room, and sat down and focused on the screen. Once again, Tina Fey walked away from the camera and everyone watched her butt. Krakowski said something sassy.

All three guys laughed.

I was incredulous. How could they do this? Weren't they members of the Seattle subculture? They shouldn't be watching a slick new sit-com! They should be watching something low-brow and retro, casting ironic and cynical eyes upon of ancient "I Love Lucy" or "Ozzie and Harriet" re-runs to poke fun at middle-class American innocence. Or they could be indulging in stoned hilarious enjoyment of "Gilligan's Island" or "The Simpsons." Or a post-modern appreciation of old Seinfeld re-runs.

I waited for some ironic repartee, or expressions of alienated disgust. It never came. These guys enjoyed "30 Rock" just as purely and as happily as the high school sophomore I once was enjoyed "Dark Shadows" or as an old aunt might gaze, rapt, at the afternoon soaps.

I wanted to shout out to them, "Turn off that junk!! You young men should be watching John Waters movies, documentaries about Robert Crumb, or bootleg music videos, for God's sake! Or even football! Not some slick network sit-com! Where are your counter-culture principles?"

Eventually, the draft beer I drank made me have to pee. I was a little leery about going to the ladies' room in a bar like the Comet. But the urge overcame my delicate sensibilities.

As I walked toward the back, the dread-locked bartender jumped up from his stool and offered to remove the mop bucket and handtruck that were blocking the door. He was very respectful. As if I were his mother.

One thing I learned is that the cleanest toilet in the world is the ladies' room in a grunge dive on a Saturday afternoon at 1:00 pm. Trust me. It's been cleaned and prepared for a night of revelry. Fully stocked paper and very clean fixtures.

Covered with graffiti, but sparkling clean!

Perhaps those young men should visit this stall in the ladies' room for a reminder of appropriate attitudes!

Photo from the UW archives from 2006. The Comet's sign is just above the roof of the SUV.

What has become of the counterculture, in these modern times?


Anonymous said...

I didn't realize the Seattle taverns were so unique. I couldn't even afford to drink in a tavern when I lived there so I never visited one. And now? I'd feel too out of place.

Are there still outposts of the counter culture? (Music artist Jan Krist has a CD about this, I think)

I know there are some venues for the underage in Olympia.

21 Wits said...

Oh I love this, and I really like the early you looking so proudly at the old love!

carmilevy said...

I've been to Seattle a number of times for work, but have never seen this slice of it described so richly. I think I need to return with a fresh set of eyes. Thank you for the inspiration.