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.
Though I know it must be the killing time
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.