Farewell, Ash Street

For the last 5 months I’ve had the pleasure of working part-time as the door guy at Ash Street. This is the revered rock club that’s located in old town Portland around the corner from Voodoo Doughnuts. It opened on Halloween in 1994 and is closing on New Year’s Day 2018. The most official explanation I’ve found is this: The lease is expiring and the landlords refuse to renew it, and they do not wish to keep it going as a live music venue. So in a few short weeks, another historic downtown music icon will cease to exist after a 24 year run. The staff was told of this exit date over a year ago and announced it to all. So they have had time for a long slow goodbye, and time to plan lots of farewell shows.

I could go into the lunacy of working at Ash Street as a bouncer. I could go into the time where I got to kick out a baby (and the Mother who snuck it in). Or kicking out a musician’s girlfriend for smoking in the venue AND not having any ID on her. Or breaking up fights, physically escorting people out of the bar, grabbing a beer out of somebody’s hand as they tried to drink it illegally, extinguishing a homeless person’s lighter so they can’t smoke heroin, and a psycho felon trying to intimidate me by handing me his prison ID card. But I don’t want that to be the focus of this piece. Perhaps another time when the kids want a good bedtime story.

The Layout and the Playout

Ash Street is a truly odd setup, populated with numerous groups that don’t really commingle. The main space is the bar with some tables and booths. Then there is an open portal to the performance venue with a good size stage, and another small bar with booths and tables. There is a small room with several video poker machines. This room is, strangely, also where the bathrooms are located. There is one Buck Hunter video game, A KISS pinball game, a two person Pac-Man cocktail table game, and a bowling game. Move past the video poker room and you end up in the back patio. There are just concrete building walls back here, with no view at all.  It’s almost like a concrete brick open-air tomb where everybody sits and smokes like chimneys. The sound booth is located up a staircase off to the side of the venue space. So the sound engineers are looking down to the stage at an angle from the side. Then there is also the front patio area were there are picnic tables. Unlike most venues I work in, alcohol is allowed out there. The main problem is the mentally ill homeless population that constantly walks by and sometimes engages or hassles the patrons.

Oh, and the green room. This bastion of music venues is where band members do all the drugs and try to court groupies. The seedy little beer-soaked storage area where bands keep their purses and backpacks. The little back room where you scarf down your greasy burger and slam a Red Bull before the show. Perhaps you’ll scribble out your set list or even warm up and play some scales on your guitar in this room. The Ash Street green room is located up that long flight of stairs next to the sound booth. I don’t know what the architects had in mind, but there is a short brick wall arch that opens into a itty-bitty little room that only has enough room for a short couch. It’s totally a hobbit-hole with pipe-weed being smoked inside. You have to crouch down and duck your head to enter the archway to get into that little nook to sit on the couch. It is indeed like waking into a brick fireplace. I will never sit on this couch. I can only guess how many lost items would be in this tainted couch. Guitar picks, lighters, little nuggets of weed, bullets, desiccated French fries, ripped out pages from the Satanic Bible and The Necronomicon, and probably used condoms full of alien semen. Nothing would surprise me.

Here are the main groups of patrons that I’ve identified:

The regulars. This is a close-knit family of people who hang out here every evening. They’re here every night I’ve ever been here. They eat dinner here, and drink and socialize for hours. They are all very friendly to me and I’ve had both silly and serious conversations with all of them. When they come in people will yell their name like when Norm would walk into Cheers. They keep to themselves and don’t typically ever go into the music venue.

The musicians. Usually we have 3-4 bands playing on a bill. The musicians and their roadies, girlfriends and boyfriends, and their fans will be here solely for the music venue. Shows here are usually only $5, and the guest list is generous. So nobody ever makes a lot of money here, but its super fun and the sound is always fantastic.

The gamblers. These are the pseudo-regulars that are here solely for the video poker machines. I’ve seen people sit in that room (with the bathrooms) for hours and not win anything, and then also seen some win $200-$400. Some sweet homeless folks will come in with change they scavenged from returning bottles and ask the bartenders for dollar bills for the machines. I actually want them to win.

The service industry neighbors. People love coming to Ash Street from nearby establishments. Staff from the downtown original Voodoo Doughnuts location come in all the time. I had to learn all of their faces right away so I wouldn’t card them every single time they came in. Staff from Kells Irish Pub, The Oyster Bar, and Dante’s should have their own reserved seats. They always head to the private back patio. Always.

The tourists. Self-explanatory. People who aren’t from here wander around downtown and want to check everything out. And if they’ve heard that we’re closing soon they really want to come in and get a taste of it before it’s gone. They usually ask me about other places to go on their way out, and I get to play tour guide to downtown Portland for a few minutes.

Like I stated earlier, none of these groups really commingle much. But it works. The space is big enough for all of these groups and people with no shared activity to be there and all still have a good time. And it makes the people-watching exquisitely entertaining. As a Sociology major in college, I still love watching disparate groups of people inhabiting the same space and sometimes reaching out to each other. Watching a clean-cut conservative tourist with a pink box of donuts start a conversation with a middle-aged punk rocker with facial piercings and purple hair gives me endless pleasure. Everybody goes home with a good story to tell their friends.

Is Ash Street the best music venue in Portland? No. But is it a welcoming and accepting dive bar that hosts local and touring bands all the time? Yep. This place has heart. One of the great things about Ash Street is that, let’s be honest, it was a bit easier to get booked there. Bands typically play here early in their career and move up to bigger and better venues if they’re lucky. Or they return here because they love the people and the vibe. So many of my musician friends cut their teeth playing here over the last 23 years. And Ash Street was totally supportive of touring bands. They would even give you dinner if you were on tour from out-of-town, along with drink tickets that all bands get. Ash Street was always a stop for bands on tour.  They would accommodate these touring bands needing specific dates and let them jump on a bill with some local acts. Therefore, you would get some awesome and diverse bills where sometimes the bands didn’t make much sense playing together. And it would always sound good. The sound engineers are awesome. Even now, in the last few months of our existence, nobody has short-timers syndrome. They are still giving it their all, every show, every band. All three sound engineers will come down from the sound booth and stand in the crowd to get the true honest mix from the center of the room.

Honestly, Ash Street has booked some of the worst bands I’ve ever seen . But they got up onstage and did it, which is more than a lot of people can say. And everybody needs those first few gigs, and to be treated like seasoned veterans. Some Portland hipster bars would have people standing with their backs to the performers, scoffing or heckling them. Not here. People will applaud after every song, even if it’s hard to determine when that particular song is actually over.  I’ve watched many amazing bands here that I wish found more success. I’ve seen bands playing to an empty room, or just to the other band members and their girlfriends. I’ve also seen bands play in front of 150-200 people here. I’ve witnessed some of the weirdest, most odd acts Portland has to offer here on this stage. These artists were definitely keeping Portland weird. The majority of the acts here have usually been rock, metal, or punk. But I’ve also seen acoustic shows, industrial acts, spoken word, country, noise, alternative, dream-pop, performance art, adult puppet shows, and solo artists playing 5 instruments simultaneously. The bookers were clearly invested in giving all artists a chance to perform on a good stage with good sound.


Another nice thing about working as a bouncer at Ash Street is the perks. There’s all the usual stuff like getting paid an hourly rate in cash, getting additional tips from the overall take that night, getting a free meal on shift, and getting a free drink after your shift. Then there’s getting to meet and chat with people all night, and the people-watching. This job totally fulfils my extrovert nature.

But also there are perks involving other nearby establishments. All service industry places do this, the little tit for tat of helping each other out. The world-famous Voodoo Doughnuts original location is just around the corner from Ash Street. They are a storefront and a bakery with nowhere to actually hang out. So the Voodoo employees come over to Ash Street all the time. We even let them hang out after we have the patrons leave at closing time. And in return, any Ash Street employee can go over there and get a free donut anytime. I’ve made the mistake of mentioning the free donut perk to my kids. Now when I head off to work they ask if I’m going to Ash Street. And if I am they say, “Be sure to bring me back a donut, Dare!”
Two chocolate Tang donuts, coming right up. When I get home at 3am.

Employees from nearby Alderman’s, Kells Irish Pub, Oyster Bar, and Dante’s visit Ash Street all the time, and we probably have arrangements with them too. I have friends who work as bouncers and DJs at Kit Kat Club, which is indeed a strip club. How does one inquire about a free lap dance perk? One probably doesn’t. Directly across the from Ash Street is a killer Mexican food cart called La Piñata Takos. They don’t have their own restroom to use while they work, and we do. So the arrangement with them is that they can use our bathroom anytime they want, and we can get a free meal from them when we’re on shift. Has there been a night where I’ve collected my free perks from all the places? Have I ordered a Kick my Ash burger with fries from Ash Street, then ordered a chorizo burrito from the food cart, and then collected an Old Dirty Bastard donut from Voodoo Doughnuts? Goddamned right I have. “Nothing exceeds like excess. You should know that, Tony.”

Honestly the greatest perk has been seeing all these shows and meeting all these fellow musicians. I’ve found some great bands and become friends with these people. I’ve talked with them about how they stage their tours, how they load their gear, how they run their merch booth. Networking and studying always. I only work security in music venues because I love it above all else. You still learn a lot from watching a band that you don’t particularly like. And even more from watching bands that you love. Being around musicians all the time is such a rush. The creative energy and pride of doing what you love is infectious. It’s also a shared history. We all know and understand the grind. And we still find it worth it.

Welcome to the family

In the last few months I’ve seen birthday parties held here with the birthday family performing onstage with cake. I’ve seen father and son bands rocking out onstage. Regulars have brought in homemade food to gift to the staff. The family motif keeps returning as I think about it. The entire staff here is a family. The regulars are a family. Bartenders regularly come out from behind the bar smiling as they give someone a big hug. Regulars bring their dogs inside, and they become canine regulars. As a part-time bouncer/door guy just here for the final 5 months of Ash Street, they could have pretty much ignored me. Why bother getting to know a new guy here at the end when we’re all on our way out? Well, everybody has welcomed me in like they would any full-time long-term team member. I’ve gotten to know the bartenders and cooks and sound engineers. I’ve been invited to their birthday parties. We have our inside jokes now. I’ll clock out but remain at the bar shooting the shit with the gang. Typical conversations between us music geeks involve how you can determine what kind of person someone is by which Cure album they cite as their favorite. Comparing stories of best concerts we’ve ever seen. Telling the stories of the strangest shows we’ve seen at Ash Street. The bar even has a little wooden piece of wood with the word COCK written on it. So if you are gonna cock-block somebody you can drop an actual cock block on the bar as you do it.

One night two drunk people started punching each other right in the middle of the bar/restaurant area. I tackled one guy and bear-hugged him out of the venue and onto the sidewalk. I glanced behind me as I was moving the guy out the door and saw that my coworker had done the same with the other guy and was hauling him out behind me. This coworker was off the clock, and not a security staff. He was a bartender and cook. We de-escalated the situation and the two men calmed down and ended up hugging it out. We didn’t need even to call the Police. My coworker later said that he hoped I didn’t mind him involving himself in that situation. But even though he was off the clock, he felt like everybody there is a family and a team and should all jump in to solve a volatile and violent situation no matter what our job description is. Keep everybody safe. I thanked him and told him he could jump in to help me anytime.

Another spin on that family theme is the regulars. These staples of Ash Street often congregate out front on the sidewalk where the picnic tables are, or inside at the tables by the big bay window near the front doors. When Barret hired me, he tried to personally introduce me to each of the regulars and told me that they have a lot of history and pride in this establishment. So much so that they will even police the sidewalk area when problem people start trouble. These regulars have even been known to jump in and help the bouncers break up a fight. So on a Sunday evening when I’m the only bouncer there, if the shit goes down I know that not only will the bartenders and cooks jump in and help, but up to a dozen of the regulars would jump in and help too. I imagine some drunken bro trying to get into it with somebody outside on the sidewalk only to be faced with 15 regulars standing up from the picnic tables. They all surround him like the undead from a John Carpenter movie. Then they beat the living hell out of the guy. The band onstage might actually be playing some pulsing 80’s synth score that perfectly matches this vision. I stand inside with the bartenders with our arms crossed as we watch, smiling like around parents at their kid’s baseball game. Downtown Ash Street Gang.

Some bands decided to reunite after 10-15 years for a one-time show at Ash Street to relive their history here one more time. I’ve watched the sound engineers break into a huge smile and hug each band member as they walked in with their gear. The same way you would greet your brother you haven’t seen in a decade at the Thanksgiving meal. It is literally a reunion every night around here. And also a goodbye. Some bands get drunk onstage and have trouble leaving the stage once their set is over. Because they know it’s the last time up there ever. They howl like banshees at the top of their lungs onstage (with the mic thankfully turned off), mourning the demise of such a musical institution. They want their voices to echo off of these walls forever like in the hall of Valhalla. Every performance is a little death, after all. La petit mort, my good friends. They splash their drinks together and toast the show just completed, and the legacy that they are saying goodbye to.

My last performance at Ash Street

My personal history with Ash Street is pretty much like everybody else’s in Portland. I’ve attended many shows there, and almost every band I’ve been in has performed there as well. In the mid-90’s my first band, Sarcasm, played at Ash Street numerous times. We were based in Eugene, so to us playing at Ash Street was a really special out-of-town gig. My second band, Sleepy Hollow, somehow did not play at Ash Street. My third band, Brother Heathen, played there around 2000-2001. My fourth and current band, The Shrike, has played there 7 times since 2014. We opened for Jennie Vee on her national tour there in 2015. I filled in on drums with my friend’s band When We Met a few times recently. And I was and extra in the crowd shots of a music video shot at Ash Street by my friends in Sugar Tits (Later to change their name to Sugar Tease).

My friends Bryan and Melissa are a couple that makes up the entire band that is When We Met. They typically don’t have a drummer, as they play along with pre-programmed drum tracks onstage. When The Shrike and When We Met would play a show together, they would have me jump onstage with them for their finale song, The Pixies “Where is my Mind?”  Then they started asking me to join them even when my band wasn’t playing a show on that bill. I would just play the drum set from the band that was following them. We learned the PJ Harvey classic, “Rid of Me” and played that together too. For their final show at Ash Street they asked me if I could join them for their entire set and learn all of their originals.

So on November 7th, Election Day, we all played our last show ever on the Ash Street stage. It was definitely a fun, surreal, and melancholy performance. I smiled and sang along with some of the lyrics while playing the drums. But I was also fighting off the sadness and the tears. This was THE LAST TIME that I would ever perform music on this stage.  I was noticing the fog machine kicking out clouds for the colorful rays of light to puncture. I would spot friends’ faces smiling out in the crowd. My fiancé was beaming. I also found it truly fitting that we played two covers from the 80’s and 90’s in this set. Both songs are easy to play on drums, honestly. And they both pretty much encapsulate the quiet/loud quiet/loud pattern that so many songs do. Simple drums just gives me more opportunity to embellish and add different drum parts and fills.

So for the PJ Harvey song, Melissa puts her bass down and just sings while Bryan handles all the guitar parts. Barret is the booker/promoter/head of show security at Ash Street. He is a performing musician too, playing with God Bless America as well as solo shows. He saw us do this song in sound check and mentioned something about how it would be fun for him to pick up the bass and join us. We immediately jumped on this idea. So with zero rehearsals together and zero planning, we played “Rid of Me” onstage as a 4 piece. I had never played music with Barret before, and everybody loved having him up there to fill out the sound and change-up the stage performance. When We Met went from a 2 piece band to a 4 piece band for one song on one night.

We finished the rest of their set and ended with the classic Pixies song “Where is My Mind?”  This song has always been special to me, and obviously to Bryan and Melissa also.  There is a melancholy sadness to that song already. Then knowing that this is the last song that I’ll ever perform on this stage got to me. I kept picturing the final scene of Fight Club, where this song plays as all the corporate skyscrapers explode and start collapsing. I truly hope that the Ash Street building isn’t brought down by a wrecking ball and bulldozed to make expensive apartments or a high-end restaurant that nobody can afford to eat at. I wish we projected images of the collapsing buildings from the movie scene behind us as we played.

We leave space at the end of the song to go crazy and do a big rock ending. We gave it all we had tonight. I even hurled my drumsticks high up in the air after I hit my final cymbal crashes, which landed in the crowd somewhere. We moved off the stage and hugged and posed for some photos. Since I was playing somebody else’s drum set, I actually got to just leave the stage and talk with people instead of having to scramble to lug my drums offstage as fast as I can. Somebody returned my drumsticks to me. I felt great and thought this song was perfect for my last song played at Ash Street.

But, in a happy surprise, I was given yet another chance to perform on that stage. Barret Stolte was playing an acoustic set later in the night, and he asked me if I’d want to join him for a cover onstage. Just him and me. Guitar and drums and his voice, doing Echo and the Bunnymen’s 1984 classic “The Killing Moon.” I knew the song well and loved it. So, much like Ash Street itself getting a stay of execution for a year, I got to play one more song onstage with my friend. Again with zero rehearsal time or planning. That just added to the excitement because we didn’t really know if we would nail it or not. That kind of positive anxiety usually makes a musician focus more intensely so they stay together and get everything right. Which, luckily, we did. Remember that Barret hired me and is technically my boss. So there we are, me and my boss onstage playing an 80’s song together. That reads funny, but it didn’t feel like that at all. It was just two musicians and friends playing music together for the first time, and the last time, on this stage. Some friends filmed the song so we have that moment of history preserved. This was truly one of the most fun and exciting and emotional performances of my life. Spontaneous new collaborations onstage, and giving it our best efforts, for it will never happen again.

Too late to beg you or cancel it
Though I know it must be the killing time
Unwillingly mine
Up against your will
The killing moon
Will come too soon

This is the end, my beautiful friend

As we enter the final week of Ash Street’s existence, there are 6 farewell shows planned. Each of these is very special. The lineups are much larger than regular shows, and each one is a themed farewell to a particular musical genre. Some of these bands have played at Ash Street countless times, while some have reunited after years (or decades) just to perform at this show, on this stage, one final time. There will be amazing musical moments, laughter, tears, and memories. The special shows are Farewell to Dwight Church weekly open mic shows, Farewell to Indie Rock, Farewell to Hip Hop, Farewell to punk rock, Farewell to rock and roll, and Farewell to metal on New Year’s Eve. I get to work two of these goodbye shows and I wish I could work them all.

In 2010 another very famous music venue closed their doors. I’m talking about Satyricon.  It was very similar to Ash Street in that it was a gritty dive bar that everybody wanted to play. Touring bands and local bands always wanted to get booked there. It actually closed in 2003 but reopened as an all-ages venue in 2006. It finally closed for real in 2010 and the building was bulldozed in 2011. But the memories people had of that venue were so strong that they wanted a piece of it. People were actually going to the demolition site and climbing the chain link fence to grab one of the bricks of the old Satyricon building. I am sure that I know people who have a brick from Satyricon’s rubble on their mantle. My understanding is that the Ash Street building is not being torn down. But I wonder what people will try to steal from the venue in the final week.

One night the movie A Princess Bride was playing on the television above the pinball machines. It was a cold, mellow Sunday evening with not too many people there. I was spacing out watching the film while some doom metal band played in the venue. The scene where the two leads are traveling through the dark forest and talking about Rodents of Unusual Size. Westley says, “I don’t think they exist.” BAM! He is immediately attacked by a R.O.U.S. and rolling around fighting for his life. The sound to the TV is off, so the soundtrack was unknowingly being provided by the doom metal band. It matched up perfectly. Similar to how you can watch The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon as a soundtrack. The sync of the Black Sabbath-like music with the imagery of wrestling with a demon-monster, lighting it on fire, and stabbing it with a sword was uncanny. It completely changed the mood of the scene. No more light-hearted romance comedy tale aimed at kids. Now it’s Dungeons and Dragons doom metal by way of William Goldman. Conan the Barbarian with a soundtrack by Cathedral. This silly and brief juxtaposition actually sums of the experience of Ash Street pretty well. Accidentally putting things together that don’t go together and seeing what develops. Creating new mashup art out of old art. Bastardization and mutation. Spontaneous collaborations and bizarre weirdness that you can’t turn away from.

I shall miss you, Ash Street Saloon. This place means so much to me. I’ve been spending quality time there off and on for the last 20 years. My five months working there were amazing and I wish that I had 5 years of stories. Support local music and venues. Start your own band. Go see a show. Go play a show. Make memories.
Buy the ticket, take the ride.

And for the love of all that is holy, please burn that green room couch in a CDC cleanroom. The toxins released from burning that disgusting sponge of nasty anywhere else would kill us all.


Feeling the stage

When I work in the venue I’m primarily watching the crowd. I’m watching for specific things. These include clouds of smoke from people smoking, people showing visible signs of intoxication, people trying to go into areas they aren’t supposed to, people touching others inappropriately, and fights. Occasionally there is even barfing.  Honestly it’s like supervising little children on recess. Except they are huge, drunk, and wicked children who are able to actually cause harm. Sometimes I wish I could suggest that certain people utilize nappy-time.

Sometimes I’m just looking for things that don’t fit. Somebody asleep or passed out drunk. Someone showing symptoms of having a seizure. Strobe lights or dehydration have caused some people to drop to the ground, resulting in me calling an ambulance for them. People who don’t seem to be watching the show but are watching a specific person very intently. People looking into an area where valuables might be stored. Someone lingering by the merch booth and looking around nervously as they consider stealing something.

Tonight my attention was drawn to a young blonde woman right at the front of the stage who seemed to be freaking out a little bit. By freaking out I mean she was flopping her upper body over onto the stage and screaming a lot. Then she would lay her torso and arms on the stage and remain there. Prone. Almost like she was hugging the stage floor. She would lightly pound her hands on the stage along with the beat sometimes. All the music venues I work at have a stage that is at hip level. Most people just set their drinks on the stage and watch the performer. This woman was reminding me of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. She wasn’t on a bed, but imagine that type of agitated flopping on the stage. Then undulating on the carpeted stage floor for a while, then being still, then standing up and starting over again. And screaming in happiness.

Now I’m perfectly aware that people enjoy concerts in different ways. But I’m also aware that people take drugs and/or get drunk at concerts. Any exaggerated movements or actions like this will get the attention of the security staff. This also just didn’t quite fit the vibe of the performance. The artist was a solo singer-songwriter. He was the lead singer of a pop-punk band in the 90’s, but now is doing a stripped down solo tour with just him and his guitar. This kind of show just doesn’t bring out violent body-flopping on the front of the stage. When she would just lay her chest on the stage and fling her arms out on the stage I worried that she had exhausted herself, injured herself, or passed out. She was like a whirling dervish getting lost in her spiritual spinning. When she was stretched out on the stage she would continue to move around and almost gyrate into the edge of the stage. Her arms would move into different positions and she would push the palms of her hands into the stage floor. Sometimes she would turn her head so that her cheek was mashed against the stage carpet. This carpet has probably had gallons of alcoholic drinks spilled on it over the years. Sane people wouldn’t put their face on it. She would then turn her head so that the other cheek was then mashed against it. Some drugs enhance your sense of touch and cause you to seek repetitive tactile stimulation. This girl could have taken Ecstasy and wanted to make love to the stage.

I watched the people around her to see if they were reacting to her like she was a batshit crazy person. They seemed to be her friends and were supportive of her odd behavior. They weren’t acting like they were irritated by her in the slightest. They would occasionally put their hands on her shoulders and exchange smiles. They weren’t making faces or feeding her water like she was a drunken embarrassment. Situational cues are very helpful in moments like these.

So she wasn’t technically disrupting the performance. She wasn’t screaming over the singer during quiet moments. She wasn’t putting herself at risk of injury. She wasn’t pissing off everyone around her. She wasn’t trying to actually climb onto the stage. She wasn’t stumbling or falling or showing signs of extreme intoxication. This particular woman enjoys the show by flinging her upper body on the stage and striking a prone crucifixion pose. Ok girl, do your thing.

Who am I to tell her how to enjoy this concert? While some people stand planted like statues, others dance like it’s their last day on this planet. Others prefer to document the show on their smart phone or DSLR camera. Others smile wide and cry tears of pleasure, while others sing along with every lyric perfectly. Some people hug their friends or hold their partners close for the shared experience, others stand off by themselves not wanting to be touched by anyone so they can focus on the performance. I observe all of these different takes on being an audience member when I work. It’s so fascinating. My Sociology minor from college still fits me.

I continue to watch this woman lay her chest on the stage and love it for the remainder of the show. Once the show ended the singer put down his guitar and moved up toward the audience to shake people’s hands. I was slightly concerned that she would climb onstage and try to grab the singer, so I moved up closer behind her just in case. She got his attention and she told him, “Thank you! I’m deaf. So I was laying on the stage so I could feel your music. This was the best concert of my life, thank you.”

Deaf. Wow. That explains everything. Don’t I feel kind of stupid for assuming she was high on drugs now? This was a beautiful thing I just witnessed. The singer was very touched as well. They had a sweet conversation about her feeling the guitar chords and the rhythms and the power of his voice through the stage floor into her body. She was absorbing his music into her body by the vibrations through the wooden stage floor. Just six strings and his voice. Into her chest. Into her head. Into her heart.

She saw me and introduced herself, and told me that she was deaf and how much she enjoyed feeling that concert. She asked me if I could take some pictures on her camera of her with the singer. I was happy to. I took a ton of photos for her and her musical idol. He had to be so moved by her experience tonight. He hugged her and they said goodbye ,and she left with her friends. So many smiles.

I’ve seen a lot of great live shows in my life. Pearl Jam, Prince, Tori Amos, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Depeche Mode, David Bowie, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Some of these concerts moved me so much that I achieved an almost spiritual level of pure happiness. I’ve teared up at certain shows. I get tunnel vision and will hyper-focus on the performer, not really remembering where I was or who was around me. The shows can mesmerize me and put me in a trance. The music took me somewhere else and changed me for the better.

But of all the various shows I’ve attended, I don’t think that I enjoyed any of them as much as this young woman enjoyed this show. She literally felt the music reverberate throughout her body. She pushed her face, her breasts, her hands, and her hips against a conductor of the music. I envied her devotion and pure joy in feeling the music of this man. She didn’t even possess the one sense that the rest of us have when attending music concerts, and yet her level of connection and ecstasy was immeasurable. Tonight’s performance may have been the happiest night of her life.

It’s been many months since this concert but I think of her often. Whenever the music is so loud that I feel it through the floor. Sometimes I’ll lay my hand on the stage while a band is performing. I’ll feel the vibrations of the music. I nod to myself and smile.



Get off the damn stage

On rare nights the band will do something very unusual that is really entertaining and engaging. They will leave the stage. And I don’t mean leave the stage to go back to the green room for congratulatory tequila shots and purple Kush. I mean they leave the stage and move through the crowd, ending up at the back of the venue facing the stage like they are the audience. But they are still playing a song as they do this. Most bands aren’t able to make this happen, but if you have portable acoustic instruments and a wireless mic system (or just a really loud voice), you can pull it off.

The bands that I see do this are usually those big bands with tons of percussion instruments and about 10-12 people onstage. They will start marching off each end of the stage into the crowd while playing and singing. The crowd sings or claps along and slowly turns around to watch the band as they move through the audience and regroup at the back. It’s a really cool moment, and it definitely gets people to look up from their damned smart phones and appreciate the performance. Psychologically and physically it tears down the wall between performer and audience member. People sometimes dance with one of the musicians, clap them on the back, take a quick selfie, etc. It can also be a true ‘fan moment’, when you are suddenly just inches away from one of your musical idols.  I love when bands do this.

Some bands will continue the dance party mood of their stage show and just play a song with their acoustic guitars, a ton of percussion instruments, and loud vocals. Other bands will bring it way down, and purposely sing very quietly so the crowd has to get quieter to hear them. It’s amazing to see a concert venue get super quiet and watch everyone excitedly change their attention level. There are no lights on the performers anymore, and the aren’t amplified or even onstage. It really becomes all about the unaltered sounds of instruments and voices in a room full of people. Like musical performances for Kings and Queens centuries ago in a candlelit castle. Sometimes there is even a jester.

On this particular night, a slight problem occurred when two women decided that they could walk up onstage to watch the band performing at the back of the room. As you know, music venues do not allow anyone onstage except the performers and their crew. You’ve undoubtedly seen security guys literally throw people off stage at rock concerts. The reasons that you cannot be onstage are obvious and numerous. Usually I’ll explain that the sound engineers, musicians, and sometimes photographers need the steps clear for access to the stage. You can’t be on the steps, nor can you be onstage. The only time I’ve ever been onstage is when I was performing in a band. Or one time the singer of a band pulled me up onstage to rock out. That was Rob Halford, the lead singer of Judas Priest, when he was touring with his industrial side project called TWO. There were maybe 10 people total at the show, and he pulled us all onstage one by one to be onstage during the final song. That sort of thing is ok. Just wandering up onstage on your own is always completely unacceptable.

So I walk up onstage and turn on my flashlight. I walk across the stage to the woman on the other side of the stage from me. I tell her she needs to get off the stage and she walks down the little stairs back to the floor. I walk back and tell the woman standing onstage on my side of the stage that she needs to get down. She says no. I look at her and my face telegraphed this sentence: Are you fucking kidding me right now?
But what I said was, “You need to leave the stage NOW.” She started giving me the usual bullshit about how she was watching the band, and how she knew the band, how she went to school with the bass player.” All I hear is “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I AM SPECIAL AND RULES DO NOT APPLY TO ME.”

I explained that nobody is ever allowed onstage, and the band is obviously coming back and need the steps clear to return to the stage. Get off the stage. I turned my flashlight on again and leaned one arm up against the wall so she wouldn’t be able to move further out on the stage. Luckily the entire crowd was turned around watching the band play at the back of the room, so they didn’t notice that there was an errant woman onstage refusing to do what security is telling her to do. She acted all offended that my arm was close to her and spouted some crap about not appreciating my strong-arm tactics. I calmly repeated, “You need to leave the stage now. You cannot be up here.”

Now the odd thing about this interaction is how we treat women and men in this situation. Had some drunk dude refused to leave the stage, I would’ve already grabbed him and removed him by now. Afterwards one of my coworkers suggested that I even could have told her that. I surmised that she knew I probably wouldn’t put my hands on her for this. Anytime you put your hands on someone non-consensually you are potentially making a bad situation worse. And of course somebody can film it on their smart phone. And that wouldn’t show the 3 minutes of polite verbal de-escalation, it would just show me manhandling a 50-year-old woman. If anybody gets hurt you can even face a lawsuit in the worst case. I’m justified here, but I felt that it’s still a shady area and could color people’s opinion of our staff and venue. The sound engineer, production manager, and bartenders were all watching how I handled it, and would be potential witnesses for me if it went badly. Again, she and I are literally onstage with the lights on us. We are the secondary performance now, a two person play about power dynamics. Oh the drama.

What I wanted to do was channel Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. “If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor.  So, pretty please… with sugar on top. Get off the fucking stage.” My impatience was spiking and this woman was pissing me off by still refusing to leave the stage. We definitely were having a Mexican standoff. A confrontation amongst two or more parties in which no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. I took the high road. I moved around her and walked down the three steps to the floor. I then looked up at her and held out my hand to help her down the stairs. Just like a gallant gentlemen helping an aristocrat across a puddle. This way I wasn’t towering over her or using my size to intimidate her off the stage. She bought it. She grabbed my hand and walked down the three steps.

And soon after that the band did return to the stage and all walked up the three steps to complete their set. Without some random woman who thinks that she has diplomatic immunity standing in their way. Jesus Christ. If any security staff asks me to stop doing something when I’m at a concert, I gladly do it. Otherwise they kick you out.

So then she felt the need to bond with me and we shook hands. She even gave me her name and asked mine. I assumed she wanted my name so she could call or write an email later complaining about me to management. I almost gave a fake name, but I’m the only white guy with dreads that works here, so it’s not hard to describe who I am. So I gave her my real name and she proceeded to try to tell me the story of her going to school with the bass player. She became way friendlier now that we were offstage. Then I got the feeling that she was flirting with me a little bit. Is she about to ask me out? Good lord, the people I meet at this job. I excused myself from this conversation and went behind the curtain to the green room. Where I just stood and laughed at the insanity.



You spin me right round, baby, right round

Most stage set ups are all the same, depending on the particular gear that the band uses. But in general, the drum kit is usually in the back of the stage, and then the amps of the guitarist and bassist are on their left and right. The singer usually is up front in the middle of the stage. Mix and match with additional instruments like keyboards, DJ turntables, the occasional stringed instruments, horns, additional backup singers, etc. The diagram of this that you send to the talent buyer or booker is called the Stage Plot. It helps the sound engineer know what to have ready when you arrive and how to properly set up all of the house equipment for what you are bringing.

The way the musicians hear themselves onstage is through several monitors set up around the front of the stage facing back at the performers. The audience doesn’t particularly hear what comes out of these monitors.  The drummer usually has their own drum monitor at the back by their drums facing them. Unfortunately I have played several venues that, for some logic-defying reason, didn’t have a drum monitor at all. I couldn’t hear shit. Just my drums. I just had to basically know where I was in the song from counting in my head and playing the songs a few hundred times. Muscle memory put to the test. I also watch my band-mates’ body language. I watch for certain lyrics or guitar solos and their accompanying body movements to know where I am in the song. It’s challenging as hell, but sometimes you have to forge ahead even when you can’t really hear the other musicians.

But when you do have monitors, and 99% of the time you do, getting the proper mix can be heavenly, and you can actually hear the songs better than you ever do during practice. Each of these monitors is a powered monitor, meaning that it can be mixed just for the individual musician that it is aiming at, to help them hear what they need to hear onstage while performing. As a drummer, I usually make sure that the vocals are highest in my personal mix, followed by the guitars. I don’t ever need to hear myself (some drummers love to have their own drums high in the mix), but I do need to hear the bass guitar prominently. The bass guitar and the drums make up the rhythm section, after all. People cue off of different things. That’s why you each want your own powered monitor to blast back exactly what you need to hear.

So on this night I noticed an unusual set up at the music venue I was working at. Instead of the guitar amp being behind the guitar played aimed out at the crowd, the amp was lined up along the front of the stage, aimed away from the crowd and directly toward the guitar player himself. He was using his amp as his own powered monitor, and had it mic’d so it would be going through all of the house speakers as well. It also had two little hinged legs to hold it up at a 45 degree angle. Amps are almost always just set level on the ground, and monitors are usually angled or come in a wedge shape so they are aimed up at the ear-level of the musician needing it. This guy was cutting out the middle man and just using his amp as a monitor. Nothing wrong with this, as long as you control any feedback onstage from other microphones that might pick up too much of a signal from his amp. I didn’t see a vocal mic for him, so the potential for ugly feedback was nil. But having the amp at the edge of the stage always seems like a bad idea to me, as the crowd is right there and could accidentally bump it, spill a beer, or worse.

Sure enough, things got weird. About and hour into the show I was standing by the curtain to backstage monitoring the crowd, and I noticed some dude dance his way right up to the front of the stage. It’s sometimes hard to determine if someone is just really enjoying the music, or is actually intoxicated. So I watched him for a few minutes. He was singing along with the lyrics and obviously was a true fan of this band. I didn’t like him dancing that close to the precariously tipped amp, but he wasn’t doing anything that the rest of the crowd wasn’t doing. A member of the opening band walked through the curtain and chatted with me for a second, so my attention strayed from the dancing dude. When I looked back, he was absent-mindedly lightly tapping on the top of the amp, along with a pretty cool drum fill. Dude knew the drum parts too, but he can’t be touching the musical equipment like that.

I walked over to him and lightly tapped him on the shoulder.  “Please don’t touch any of the equipment onstage.”  He gave me a guilty smile and his eyes got wide. He made that gesture that you make when you don’t want any trouble and are sort of apologizing. The one where you raise your hands in a sort of “I surrender” wave. He honestly acted like he was afraid of me. I just said thanks and backed up to where I was standing previously. He continued to enjoy the music.

Until he touched the amp again. I was looking at the struts holding it up at the 45 degree angle. I had no idea how strong they were. I also could see into the back of the amp and noticed the tubes. Some amps are tube amps and require little cathode light bulb looking things to amplify the sound. I won’t get into all the details of how that works, mainly because I can’t, but suffice it to say that these little bulbs are very important to the functionality of the amp. I also remember reading that amplifier circuits, even when unplugged, contain voltages that can kill you. You can see where my worried mind was taking me with this.

This time I used my tactical flashlight to spotlight him. This draws unwanted attention to the person, and also effectively blinds them for just a second. I said more loudly, “Do not touch this amp again or you will have to leave.” He nodded and actually moved away from this area of the stage. I shook my head and returned to my station. I was starting to think that he was indeed drunk, or maybe just stubborn as a mule. It’s a fine line.

Then he was back. This time he actually reached over the amp and attempted to touch the knobs on the front. He could turn the main volume knob all the way off, or all the way up, or even unplug the cable. What in the unholy hell is he thinking? I moved right up to him and as I did I noticed the guitar player onstage also moving towards the guy. The guitar player saw this dude trying to mess with his settings and lunged at the guy with his guitar, as if to skewer him with the neck of it. While playing the song and not missing a note. At that exact moment I reached him and grabbed him firmly by his shoulders. I said very loudly, “YOU ARE LEAVING.” Then I spun him around so he was now facing away from me. I grabbed his shoulders again and started pushing him through the crowd towards the exit. I could have walked him out along the side, but I was pissed off at him and wanted to make a spectacle out of him. I pushed this guy all the way through the crowd towards the door. People moved out of our way making us a path. I felt several pats on my own shoulders as I did this. Other crowd members saw him screwing with the amp and glad I was evicting him from the venue.

We got to the door and we walked through, only to have him collapse to the ground like I tripped him or something. I actually laughed out loud and stepped over him. My two co-workers saw me walk this guy out and started coming towards him to help grab him if necessary. I explained, “He was messing with the guitarist’s amp after multiple warnings to stop. He’s out.” He got up slowly and walked out with me still holding one elbow and my co-workers flanking him on either side in case he made it worse. He just kept acting shocked like he was innocent and I was just some power-tripping security guard. He walked outside complaining and whining. I saw him go to the sidewalk and flip us off. But he didn’t come back.

I walked back into the venue and even more people gave me congratulatory back slaps and shoulder taps as thanks. Everybody was quite happy that I manhandled that drunk idiot out of here after interfering with the musician’s gear during a performance. And I kept thinking, that dude paid money for this concert. He totally loved the band and knew their material. And he then proceeded to do the one thing that you never do at a concert. Screwed with the equipment. And so he got booted out for it. What a fool. I hope he left his jacket here. I hope he left his credit card here and didn’t close out his tab. And I gotta admit, when I got back to my station at the curtain I looked around at the crowd confidently and thought, “Who’s next?” There were absolutely zero problems for the rest of the night.

After the show I had a brief chat with the guitarist. He thanked me for getting that idiot out of the venue. I apologized for not getting him out sooner. I was just kind of shocked that he was actually continuing to do what I specifically warned him not to do. The guitarist was in an international touring band and had a cool accent, possibly from Denmark or Finland. I told him I thought it was amazing that he almost stabbed the guy with his guitar. He laughed heartily. I wonder if that dumbass is actually honored that the guitarist from his favorite band almost skewered him from onstage. That could make quite an album cover.




Let me stamp your wrist

I’m a security guard at several music venues around Portland, Oregon. It’s probably one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few. You come in to a music venue to see a band or a DJ perform. To dance all night, drink, flirt, and tell loud stories. To make bad decisions and have great stories to tell the next day.

I’m the guy at the door checking IDs. We are going to have a brief little moment together. Usually polite, usually friendly, almost always pretty surfacy. Our special interaction takes anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. In that time I’m trying to do several relatively simple things.

I’m trying to be friendly and welcome you to the venue. Then I’m engaging you in small talk, looking at your eyes and your gait to assess if you are already too drunk or high to allow into the club. I’m checking your ID to be sure that you are actually the person on the ID. I’m making sure that you were born before this date on 1995, and if your ID has expired. I’m examining the ID to see if it looks fake in general. I’m also trying to keep an eye on people in my peripheral vision that might be trying to sneak past while I’m engaged with you. Then, depending on the event or venue, I’m also scanning your concert ticket and giving you stamps on your wrists. Usually you get one stamp for having a valid ID and being of age, and then you get a different stamp for having a valid ticket to the concert.

I’m also the guy who escorts people out if they’re fighting, or simply are too intoxicated to be there. I answer a lot of questions. The most common things I end up saying besides the usual include, “Yes, there is re-entry. The bathroom is over there. No we don’t have a coat check. You can’t take your drinks outside. The ATM is just outside by the door. The box office is just over there. Yes the show is sold out. No there aren’t any more tickets available.”

Depending on the venue, and my specific duties that night, it is possible that I will have anywhere from 150 to 600 small interactions with patrons of the venue. We’re  going to handle all of these things as quickly as possible, and I’ll try to not ask the same questions several hundred times.

Since I’ve lived in Portland for 20 years, it is a rare night that I don’t see at least one person that I know from my various circles of friends and acquaintances while working the door.

When I ask to give you a stamp on your wrist, we have a strange little physical interaction where a complete stranger is touching your wrist and putting a little ink mark on you. It’s actually sort of intimate. I’m cradling your hand in mine with one hand, then stamping your wrist with my other hand. We’re close and looking in each other’s eyes. It’s almost the way you would cradle your lover’s hand if you were proposing. Sometimes you have to remove gloves, move bracelets, or switch your phone or beer to your other hand. Very often you have wrist tattoos that make it difficult to find a good visible place to put the stamp. And sometimes you have a scar on your wrist.

This happens far more than you would think. I look at the scar on your wrist and sometimes I know it’s from a suicide attempt. Or that you are or were a cutter. If you and I ever had a personal talk you’d probably tell me it was from a car crash. I’d probably smile and agree with you. But cuts from windshield safety glass can look like cuts from your broken wine glass in the bathtub. Or a straight-razor. If the scars go across the wrist like where your wristwatch band would be, maybe you weren’t that serious. If the scars go up the length of the forearm, you were more dedicated. If there were numerous scars of differing healing patterns, colors, and scar tissue, you might have tried a few times.

I think about all of this in the few seconds before I stamp your wrist. Occasionally I have a debate in my mind deciding if I should put the ink stamp off to the side of your scar, or directly on top of it. Some people must wonder, “Why did that door guy just stamp my scar?”  It’s a strange little moment we have where neither of us acknowledges it or says anything, but we both know what just happened. Two complete strangers now sort of share a secret. When I stamp you on your scar I think of it as a protective seal. It is a magical binding. Don’t open this again. It’s me placing my sigil of safety over your wound.

It is a sobering thought to imagine that every person who has a scar on their wrist may have been so depressed and dejected that they tried to end their life at one point. I hope I’m wrong about this. Because I see a bunch of them each night. But here you are, out and about trying to have fun. Not staying home in your apartment where the darkness can take too strong a hold of you. Don’t paint it black.

Maybe someday you’ll try to take your own life again and succeed. Maybe you’ll never try it again. Maybe that was a specific dark time in your life. Or maybe you have to fight off suicidal thoughts every day. You may be here because music is the only thing in your life that keeps you going. Or you’re here meeting the one person that you’ve met that understands you and gives you reason to keep going.

I’m just glad that you are here. And I want to see you here again. Music heals.
Maybe tomorrow morning you’ll wake up and wash the stamp off of your wrist and remember what a great night it was. And maybe you’ll think again about how that scar got there in the first place.

Maybe I’m overthinking all this and I’m just a guy putting a stamp on your wrist.

But I don’t think so.

I’ve been having this dream where dozens of people are stumbling into the venue holding their bleeding wrists out towards me. I’m supposed to suture everybody’s cuts shut but there’s too many of them and I can’t close the wounds fast enough. They all are asking me to help them and pulling up their sleeves to show me their wrists. The crowd starts pushing past me into the venue. Both wrists of every single person have been slashed open and they won’t stop bleeding.

Everybody streams past me into the venue and I hear the music start. Then a figure slowly strides through the doors and stands in front of me. This tall robed figure gently lifts up my wrist and pours candle wax on it. This doesn’t hurt. Then he stamps a sign into the wax, just like Kings in ancient times would do after sealing a private letter. I look up to see his face and I just see light. And then I wake up.