From Chicago to San Francisco to L.A. to Manila to Taipei to places beyond and between, my favorite places to drink are dive bars; unpretentious, bread n’ butter, good old-fashioned “watering holes.” The drinks are cheap and equitable, the bartender is vaguely congenial but no-nonsense, and the regulars seem like a rough bunch of characters, but once you get to know them, they’re a bunch of fluffy kittens. Most importantly, nobody is there to “make the scene.” A dive bar is the antithesis of a scene.
Over the course of a drinking career, every sports bar and nightclub has a time and a place – you’ll see me at Slammer’s and the Foo Foo Lounge, too. The object of the game is to make myself comfortable anywhere booze is available. I like to think that just about anywhere I go is a potential drinking establishment. Anyway, the term “dive bar” never carried a stigma or negative connotation, and at least some of my affection for the low-rent atmosphere came from reading Hemingway and Bukowski, and falling for the romance of functional alcoholism.
My favorite dive bars have two things besides booze: Pinball and a jukebox. If we can smoke inside, even better, but not necessarily a deal-breaker in temperate climates where smoking out on the sidewalk isn’t a form of nicotine-shaming.
The jukebox accepts bills, the pinball machine does not. A dive bar by definition shouldn’t have a bill changer. The till usually has a decent supply of quarters, but it’s always a good idea to have some on hand – at least a buck’s worth – just in case. There’s a 24-hour Laundromat just up the street if you’re in a pinch.
Other than music, pinball has been my longest running joint. I went through phases with video games – particularly, Asteroids – but I always came back to pinball. In the mid-70s, my family took a camping trip in southern Colorado and stayed at a series of KOA campgrounds. At every stop there was a small recreation center with a vending machine and couple of arcade games for the kids. We’d have a couple of hours to kill before lights out, so I’d head up to the rec center and spend my candy money on pinball. The first game I clearly remember playing and getting good at was Action Baseball (Williams Mfg. Co., 1971).
As the years went by, pinball became my game of choice at Showbiz Pizza and Chuck E. Cheese, where half of all peer-based birthday parties were held in Darien, Illinois, circa 1980. With the emergence of major amusement parks, we’d go to Six Flags’ Great America at least twice a year. Much to my parents’ aggravation, I’d spend most of my time in the video game arcade.
No matter if it was Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Disneyland, Kings Island, Busch Gardens, Old Chicago, Noah’s Ark at Wisconsin Dells, Santa’s Workshop, or Six Flags’ St. Louis. The lines for the rides were unacceptable. I didn’t have the patience to wait an hour for a two-minute rollercoaster, sweating like a slave, especially when it was nice and cool inside the air-conditioned arcade. During the average Six Flags visit, I’d maybe hit Logger’s Run for a splash of cool water, and take a couple of spins at Winner’s Circle Go Karts. The Roto-Rooter was also amusing and there was never a line for that joint. But then it was back to the arcade.
Most of all, I liked the physicality of pinball, that you could use your body to influence the playing field – it’s a matter of finesse; ride the machine too hard – meaning, move it around too much – and you’re going to tilt, and lose a ball. After a while, you learn how to “feel” the ball on the flipper and how to dislodge a ball from a stuck bumper without tilting. Pinball was one of those games where I could be content to play without any social interaction whatsoever, except maybe to order a slice of pizza and get more quarters from Mr. Munch at the cash register when the bill changer was out of order.
Pittsburgh’s Pub in the Outer Sunset District of San Francisco is probably my favorite dive bar of all-time, mainly because I spent more time there than any other joint in my life – the better part of five years. Like everything else, there were stretches of weeks and months where I avoided the bar, which was pretty hard to do considering its location: 173 sober steps from my apartment.
The other reason I loved Pittsburgh’s: They had pinball and a jukebox. Actually, they had several different pinball machines over the years, but Theater of Magic and Star Trek: Next Generation had the longest tenure. Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure and World Cup Soccer came and went on several occasions. And – and! Depending upon the bartender, if you were welcome to stay for after-hours, you were allowed to smoke inside. In fact, we had to smoke inside because they had to shut and lock the front door. Genius. After-hours were great. But that’s a different subject.
During my run in the neighborhood (2003-2008), Pittsburgh’s had something of an unsavory reputation, especially among people who remembered the bar from the early and mid-90s when it was operating under a different name. The joint wasn’t particularly known for physical violence or shit getting really out of hand, but everything else was on the table. There was a persistent yet almost comfortable element of vice on Friday and Saturday nights – it was there if you wanted it.
My closest friends who didn’t live in the Sunset frowned upon the joint, and never – not once – accepted one of the invitations to meet me at Pittsburgh’s for a drink, which stopped coming after a couple of years. Eventually, I befriended a crew of local regulars – the after-hours set – and that took on its own social orbit, separate from my pre-existing life, which had another division of friends between work and being in a band. Among my friends from the bar, we called it The Pit.
The Pit was also home to the just-about quintessential dive bar jukebox. It had everything you would expect a watering hole to have: Hank Williams Sr. to Little Richard to The Clash to Blue Oyster Cult. In fact, it was a little heavy on the B.O.C.; when simply a greatest hits compilation would have sufficed, we had two or three albums to choose from. And I loved B.O.C. – when I was 12. Sure, “Godzilla” is a great jam, and “Burnin’ for You” is a fun, senseless, one-groove boogie track. If you were a teenager in the 1980s. But then there’s this…
Blue Oyster Cult – Shooting Shark
Please do me a favor. I really want you to watch the B.O.C. video for at least the first minute. Number one, it’s a casino in Michigan. Number two, band introductions? Don’t get me started on that shit. So I’m not even going to post the video where they do a Macarena dance during the guitar solo intro to “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. Google it. The clip is from the same show. Anyway, THIS is why rock music blows. It’s because of THESE guys.
Just stop already. Get a hobby. Learn a skill.
And so like every jukebox, The Pit’s had its share of stinkers; some people really really like Bon Jovi, and they have to hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” one more time, even though Slippery When Wet is cued up in the cassette deck of their ’84 IROC parked right out front. They also like Asia, Starship, Kansas, Dire Straits, Foreigner, Guns n’ Roses, Dokken, Metallica, Pat Travers Band, Robin Trower, Uriah Heep, Y&T, George Thorogood, and Deep Purple. Who am I to begrudge them?
This documentary on Deep Purple’s 1975 tour of New Zealand is one of the most neckbeard, Spın̈al Tap things I’ve ever seen in my life. No, seriously. Check out drummer Ian Paice’s neckbeard. At the same time, David Coverdale is actually pretty damn cool. He oozes rock star. [For Purple fans only: Bear in mind that this is from the Mark III era, so there’s no Ritchie Blackmore.] And it’s got a bitchin’ intro.
“Auckland International Airport, 9:00 a.m., November 13. A yellow Boeing 707 freighter lumbers to a parking space on the tarmac. About the same time the plane lands, in a stadium not ten miles from the airport, men race the clock to build a giant outdoor stage. The yellow plane is being chartered for five weeks by English rock band Deep Purple. Cost: a quarter of a million dollars.”
At any rate, The Pit’s jukebox was a little quirky but satisfactory by even my malaise-faire personal standards.
The narcissistic appeal of the jukebox never dawned on me until I started drinking and hanging out places like The Pit. Why would people pay to hear music in a joint that’s already charging them to be there? Early on it seemed to me that he onus of entertainment fell on the operator of the establishment; the atmosphere of the joint should be included in the price of the drink. Either that or there’s a cover charge for live music. At any rate, perhaps a year into my drinking career, I had a minor revelation: Nothing is free and you get what you pay for.
Consider arcade games. A dive bar owner is basically trying to squeeze every last quarter out of the joint. It’s not that he’s necessarily greedy, but he’s running a business, not a fraternity. Likewise, many dive bar patrons need something to do. Billiards, darts, pinball, foosball and first-person shooter video games are the perfect distractions. Generally speaking, these activities are never free – ever – even if your buddy has a pool table in his parents’ basement, somebody paid for it.
For one thing, if the jukebox were free, some sour jackass is going to jam us with Diana Ross and the Supremes all night. And there is nothing worse than a dive bar with Frank Sinatra on the jukebox – meaning all of them. There’s always that one closet case macho man with a crush on Frank. That shit makes my skin crawl. Sinatra is great – in elevators and beer commercials – but I don’t want to hear “Luck Be a Lady” tonight or any other night. Take that nonsense somewhere else, like Bingo Night at the Elks Club.
It’s a fact: You can’t throw a party and let just any old drunk have access to the sound system.
Consequentially, I did not begin to appreciate the value and power of the jukebox until I was in my late teens, early 20s. Traditional jukeboxes with vinyl records had long been a thing of the past – except at Johnny Rocket’s, and what the hell are you doing in that patch of tourist quicksand? Did you get turned away at the Hard Rock Café? Geez. And half the time, those old machines malfunctioned, so you’d program “Let’s Go” by the Cars and it would play “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by Bachmann-Turner Overdrive – and talk about getting ripped off. It only cost me a couple of quarters before I learned the lesson; if I want to hear something, I can do it at home.
Right, so when I started getting into jukeboxes, it was all CDs – and you got to see the cover art and a track list. The entire experience was a dramatic improvement over the old school way.
Nowadays, most joints have digital audio players and the bartender usually creates the sonic atmosphere. I’m sure it varies. When I was hanging out at Sam’s Club, they had cable music programming coming through the flat screen and house speakers, and they’d always let me pick the station. There’s a joint in Taipei called Roxy Rocker that has a DJ who takes requests, which by definition is what a true DJ should do. Ask Bob and Ron.
Speaking of Bob and Ron and their delightful Record Club, I’d like to congratulate them upon reaching a milestone – their 50th podcast on the Steve Dahl Network. Here’s my favorite Bob and Ron episode from the archives.
Back to the jukebox. Having the power to dictate the music in a semi-public setting is a type of self-expression that is equal parts share and show-off. And then there’s just wanting to hear “Runnin’ on Empty” while sipping your Budweiser and playing Gin Rummy with Wanda. At any rate, you have no more than three minutes and thirty seconds to make a point or set the tone.
When you’re on the public transportation and there’s some kid blasting music on his headphones or smartphone – God forbid, an old school boom box – he’s not doing it because he wants to turn you on to the hottest and latest joint from Wu-Tang; he doing it to show his contempt and utter lack of respect for everybody in the vicinity. When you’re driving down the road and stopped at a light when a dude rolls up in a monster truck with a 5,000-watt P.A. system in the bed, and the deafening thuds of Nickelback are rattling your doors – again – this cat isn’t saying, “Hey y’all, you should hear this cut. It’s smokin’!” No, he’s saying something more along the lines of, “I have self-esteem issues.”
When you’re putting ostensibly hard-earned money in a jukebox, you’re making a slightly magnanimous gesture to your fellow bar patrons. You might be thinking, “Let’s liven this place up a lil bit!” Or: “If there’s any Sex Pistols in this muh-fuh…” There’s never any Sex Pistols in the jukebox anyway, but that’s not the point. You’re willing to shell out a few quid on everybody’s behalf so we all don’t have overhear our exceedingly inane conversations.
On the other hand, the issue of controlling the tempo, setting the pace, and imposing your will on the people is obvious, but you’re not really thinking that when you’re flipping through the jams, making your selections. At least, I know that’s not what I’m thinking.
No matter how weak or shallow the range of selections may be, I try to go as deep as possible. For instance, if – and this is a huge sloppy if – the jukebox happens to have The Velvet Underground’s Loaded (1970), I’m going to skip “Rock n’ Roll” and “Sweet Jane” and get right to “Cool It Down”, which is partially motivated by desire to show off my knowledge and familiarity with VU. At the same time, it’s a super sweet jam – probably my favorite on the record. My compadres will feel its groovy vibration. “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” is another sleeper that doesn’t get much airplay.
The Velvet Underground – Cool it Down
My m.o. during those years was to post-up at The Pit just after midnight, having worked a shift at the restaurant gig, and puting a couple of tallboys in the tank during the 45-minute Muni crawl from Embarcadero to the Outer Sunset. The years when I was driving, I would go home first, drain a bottle of wine and then roll up on The Pit. Either way, I’d come in, shake off the cold, say hello to the regulars, Ray or Kelly would crack open a beer and set it on the bar, and I’d make a beeline for the pinball machine, provided someone wasn’t playing already. In that case, I’d wobble over to the jukebox and look for something that hadn’t been played a million times.
Over the years, I can recall making a few friends at the jukebox. Every so often, someone would wander over and ask, “Hey, whatcha gonna play?” or I would do the same – if I was feeling social, which happened from time to time. I had my moments. Up until mid-2004, I had never made a friend over pinball. It just wasn’t part of my routine. I drank, played the game, and kept to myself. There were a few occasions where another pinball enthusiast had invited me to go two-player, but 95% of the time it was just me and the machine. Pinball was such a personal experience – somewhat like masturbation, I guess – that you don’t want someone looking over your shoulder while you’re playing. It’s not a spectator sport. Besides, watching someone play pinball is just below knitting on the scale of visual experience.
One night I came in to find a vaguely familiar-looking guy playing Theater of Magic, which by the way, is probably the most beloved classic game in pinball history [Bally Mfg. Co., 1995]. So this guy, he’d recently started appearing in the neighborhood. He always wore a frumpy denim jacket – that was how I spotted him out on Judah Street, down by Java Beach Cafe. My first impression was: Sloppy but cultured – world-weary yet not inapproachable. I guessed him to be around 27-32 years old, and definitely not a native Californian. It was the first time I’d seen him in The Pit, so I took more notice than usual.
Anyway, he had the machine and a free game coming to him, so rather than intrude, I hung out at the bar and waited for my turn. Eventually this new guy balled out and went to get another beer. When he returned I drifted over and introduced myself and asked if he was interested in two-player. He was.
Max Edwards was the first reasonably sane person I ever met who could consistently out-play me in pinball and that became clear from the beginning. Most of the pinball wizards I’ve met are out of their minds. There was one regular named Johnny who was a bonafide wizard – he held the top five high scores on every pinball machine they ever had. And Johnny was certifiably insane.
Over the course of a few weeks, Max and I became drinking-slash-pinball buddies. He turned out to be a very erudite and articulate cat, hailing from Minnesota by way of Tampa, Florida – I’m not sure in which order he descended. What we had in common was living within crawling distance of The Pit and we both liked to stay up late. We’d play Theater of Magic until bar time, and occasionally stayed for after-hours. If he wasn’t there, I’d just drink and play by myself, since hardly anybody except for me, Max, and Johnny ever touched the machine.
It wasn’t until several months later that Max told me he was a musician and played in a band. That was as far as it went. Our conversations hardly went beyond the game or “Ready for another beer?” However, at some point we began commandeering the jukebox, which was right next to the pinball machine.
This added the world of music to the unfolding dynamic of our friendship. We clashed almost immediately. Max likes Bob Dylan, I do not. Etc., etc., etc.
And so one night, I told Max that I too was in a band right here in San Francisco. He said something about, “I just assumed you were a musician.” And again, the conversation trailed off to something else. It seemed like neither one of us wanted to talk about our musical pursuits. Everything that happened in The Pit was completely unrelated to our everyday lives. It was a dive bar. There was one clock on the wall and it was always ten minutes fast.
Sometime late spring of 2005, Max mentioned that his band, Lifestyle of Wigs, was based in Minneapolis, and he was going back to play a few shows. He explained that he’d followed his girlfriend out to S.F. when she took new job. He took a miserable, low-esteem gig with a P.R. firm, and it wasn’t working out. Something like that. Anyway, Lifestyle of Wigs was recording and playing shows up until the time Max left. That’s all I knew
As for the other members of the band, drummer Ryan Lovan (Roma di Luna, Minor Kingdom & Brad Senne, Haley Bonar, Mandrew) and bassist Taras Ostroushko, Max didn’t say much except that he missed playing with them, and implied that the band was no longer together.
Not long after that, we began hanging out more often, particularly after bar time – 2:00 a.m. – usually at my place, since I lived alone and we could make as much noise as we wanted. We listened to records and talked about stuff, but we’d both be hammered by that point and none of the conversations are memorable on my end, except that we had them. But I’ll never forget the very first night we were at my house and Max picked up my acoustic steel string.
“Hey Christian, do you mind if I re-tune this thing?”
‘Not at all. Have at it.”
He tuned the guitar to a version of Open F# – with no 5th on the 6th string. So it went: F# F# C# F# A# C#. And then he proceeded to play an original song, which sounded pretty good.
My band at the time, Henry Miller Sextet, had gone through some shit and we sort of spun out in late ‘04 – early ‘05, just as we’d finished making a new record. So I started concentrating on Aztec Hearts. I had a bunch of songs that didn’t really work for HMS, in my estimation. These were written in standard tuning on guitar, or piano. After reviewing the demos, I decided that only a few of those jams were keepers – I needed more songs.
One night, probably a week after Max’s first visit to my crib, I heard something in my head and reached for a guitar to snuff it out. Grabbing the Max-tuned acoustic, I instinctively formed an E-chord, fully expecting to hear a standard E major. Wait a minute. That ain’t right. It’s kind of cool, but it ain’t right. Oh…Max.
The guitar itself had sat unmolested for a week, but the tuning had pitched up a half-step, due to temperature and humidity changes.
And thus my love affair with Open G tuning was born. But that’s a different story. What’s essential to this story is that if not for Max, I probably would not have truly embraced this “alternate” tuning as tightly as I did. Believe me, I’d experimented with guitar tunings, a bunch of ‘em. But I heard some of the melodies Max was coaxing from the instrument and I thought, “I could use that.” Ultimately, I kept that guitar tuned to Open G exclusively.
Three months or so passed. Max went back to Minneapolis and upon his return mentioned the shows in passing, but he gave me the impression that LoW was done and buried. Taras, the bass player, had left the band. Anyway, it was good to have a real friend in the neighborhood. Then I invited Max to see my band play at Bottom of the Hill, and it was probably a decent show – in terms of how we played. The joint was probably empty, I dunno. Honestly, I can hardly recall bits and pieces of shows here and there. From 1989 to 2007 is basically one show, and nobody came.
Out of the blue, Max asked if I’d be interested in playing bass for LoW during a couple of shows this coming September.
Max gave me a copy of the LoW EP – along with a couple of studio tracks – and I was immediately impressed. Recorded live at the Turf Club in St. Paul, the EP is a document of an edgy and electric performance. It wasn’t perfect, in fact, it was a little messy at times, but Lifestyle of Wigs was a band that I would listen to even if Max were not my friend. They were utterly original but I heard traces of Television, Neil Young, Palace Brothers, Guided By Voices, Fugazi, Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Big Star and even hometown heroes, Hüsker Dü.
Lifestyle of Wigs EP (2005)
It had been a fairly decent stretch of time since a friend had given me one or more of his CDs and said, “Tell me what you think.” Max didn’t even really say that, either. He said, “I need someone who can play like Taras [the original bass player].”
OK, I’ll try. I guarantee I’ll try. So it was settled. We booked our flight for early September and I spent the next month learning the jams.
Upon arrival in Minneapolis, we had two practice sessions as a group before playing the Turf Club in St. Paul, opening for Rank Strangers – one of Max’s favorite local bands – and a groovy outfit called Little Man. Max was pretty nervous, and I think Ryan was, too, but I was cool over there on bass. Didn’t even have to worry about backup vocals.
The next day we played a live radio show called The Current on Minneapolis Public Radio. And then the last night we played the Hexagon Bar with two phenomenal bands, Duplomacy and Seawhores. The shows were good. Max and Ryan didn’t seem too pumped though. That was just my impression. I think they missed having their pal Taras on bass.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience for me. First, I got to play bass almost anonymously in a band that I dug and respected. Second, who doesn’t like traveling? It had been seven or eight years since I’d been to Minneapolis. Furthermore, we stayed at Ryan’s house, which is where I met his wife Sarah, who would wind up singing on the first Aztec Hearts record, literally a month later. Meanwhile, most of Max and Ryan’s friends were super cool – truly beautiful people – and it was just a party from start to finish.
On Sunday night, Max and I flew back to San Francisco and that was the end of that.
Max and I went back to the routine of playing pinball at The Pit and after-hours at my crib, until a month or two later, he moved down to L.A. with his lady. He came back and stayed with me for a couple of weeks before moving on again – I think he went to Tampa. He’s in St. Paul these days.
It turned out to be a one-off thing, but I had a blast playing with Max and drummer Ryan Lovan. No matter what, “Triptic” will be one of my all-time favorite jams. [Just to clarify, that’s not me on bass; it’s Taras Oustrushko.] The band may be long gone, but the music of Lifestyle of Wigs – what little of it survives – deserves to be heard and shared.