High Street

Newport Music Hall in Columbus, OH

Columbus Ohio’s Newport Music Hall, the longest continually running rock club in the US

At the time, it seemed kind of weird and cheesy to be lurking around snapping these pictures. I mean, who walked around in the late 90s taking pictures of buildings, with a camera that used actual film? But now, I definitely wish I had taken a whole lot more of them. As it stands, I only have a couple. Here’s the exterior of the Newport Music Hall circa I think 1999. And then below is the building which housed our treasured Maxwell’s Bar, and the original location for Magnolia Thunderpussy, before Campus Partners came along and completely demolished this entire district:

demolished building which once housed Maxwell's & Magnolia's

Shaffer building on High Street, home to Maxwell’s Bar and the original location for Magnolia Thunderpussy

Magnolia used to offer two dollar discounts on Tuesdays. The help was often the expected hipster class who’d ignore you at the counter and loathe to answer questions or show interest in anything even remotely mainstream – yet in some weird way, you kind of liked this. Now they are located in posher digs down the road, at 1155 N High Street, and have Taylor Swift at the top of their home page. It’s difficult to argue this is better.

Skully’s is another fascinating beast which has evolved to survive the Campus Partners wrecking ball. They too have transplanted to the Short North, landing at 1151 N High Street – right next door to Magnolia’s! Though there was an interim café location way up at Morse and High, they actually began life as an underground dive bar (literally, a subterranean location accessed from the sidewalk) on the OSU campus. In those days it was pretty much just a dank pool hall with four or five couches and an all-German Metallica tribute album on the jukebox. Now of course Skully’s represents an amazing and spacious music hall featuring live acts as well as themed dance parties.

Then there was The Edge. Another underground establishment along the bustling south fringe of campus, The Edge was OSU’s nighttime mecca, the spot to be in a locale chock full of them. During this era, the sidewalks along campus are lined with taut, waist high ropes and everywhere you look there are cops in riot gear hanging out by their paddy wagons, waiting for the next drunken fight, the next public intox. More often than not, the springboard for all this action is The Edge.

Standing in line the first time for that bar, I eye the cops, with their polished helmets reflecting shafts of overhead streetlight, their equally shiny badges, their perfectly pressed uniforms, their holsters, their guns. Rather than acting as some sort of deterrent, the menace they imply and the general atmosphere of mayhem lends an air of static electricity to the scene. That you are in the midst of something heavy, that this is the place to be.

Coeds also had its charms. That first trip to The Edge, actually, we grew tired of freezing our nuts off in the cold, and never made it inside on that particular occasion. We spy a plain, unadorned club right next door, a place called Coeds. And aside from the Swiss villa wooden decor of its front facade, its tucked away status lends it a feel of best kept secret, forcing our hand.

Curiosity piqued, we step inside. A swarm of bodies, and flashing lights of a thousand hues punctuate the dark. Two stories tall, there’s a dance floor upon each level, each teeming with a mob of females gyrating to Prince’s Pussy Control. Within their midst, we’re still treated as slime, pond scum or worse, but to see all of these girls in one place, from cute secretarial types, to sluts in tight black pants or miniskirts, punk rock chicks with spiky hair and eyeliner, you name it, seeing them all here offers some measure of encouragement. Music so loud conversation’s a technical impracticality, faces visible only as passing blurs – recognizable within a tight circle of maybe ten feet, but beyond that a rippling, anonymous ocean.

Upstairs, in the attic loft, there are mirror lined walls and a brass rail surrounding this packed dance floor. Swirling pinspot lights of every color throb along with the ferocious, ass shaking beats stemming from the DJ booth. Rising heat from the floor below, oblivious to that frozen tundra outside, warms the limbs and throat even while standing still, leaning against the railing as we drink beer and ogle females. Paul even gave this place his stamp of approval, an uncommon seal in those days.

We do eventually make it to The Edge, too, however, about a week later. Like most south campus clubs, The Edge is open only from Thursday to Sunday, yet this limited window of opportunity hasn’t damaged its appeal. On the contrary, interest in this hotspot is at an all time high, its cache bordering on the fanatical. The line’s halfway up the block again and on this occasion, as we’re standing in wait, it occurs to me that with all these bodies trapped in a basement bar with just one exit, if a fire breaks out we’re all seriously fucked. They’d be sorting out charred remains for days.

Pool tables were found just to the left of the entrance, offering one potential refuge. Meanwhile the standard sea of mirrors and strobe lighting take up the entire northern half of this trendy cavern.

Sadly, if my research is correct, it appears that the No. 1 Chinese restaurant at 2036 N. High Street is now gone also. ‘Tis a shame in many respects. Though only dining here for one solid year and a half of my life, that stretch in all likelihood means that I’ve eaten there more than any other restaurant in the city. During my heyday I’d walk in and the counter girl would laugh, say, “General Tso chicken?” To which I would respond in the affirmative.

It was decent, and it was cheap, which were about the only two qualities that mattered at the time. Although one night shortly after this period of my life ended, my girlfriend Jill and I were watching the news and they rated this the worst restaurant in Columbus. She started cracking up and asked, “isn’t that the place where you guys ate all time?”

Yes indeed. And poor rating or not, I can’t say a bad word about No. 1 Chinese. Whenever a former haunt goes out of business, however, it’s hard to avoid feeling a little guilty, like if you’d patronized it more, they might still be around. So sorry, guys – hopefully there are no hard feelings. But we can’t all live on campus forever.

The first ever BW3 location once called this same block home – in the same building as No. 1 Chinese, more or less. Though you do read some conflicting reports on this topic, the original restaurant was absolutely opened at the corner of Woodruff and High in 1982. A pair of transplanted New Yorkers, Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery were apparently hanging out at Kent State University when they came up with the idea. However, anything stating that BW3 – then known as Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, preposterously enough, a name which would, even crazier, last almost 20 years – initially opened up shop at Kent State, this is simply untrue.

Even as of the late 90s, when I first begin frequenting this location, there are still printed materials around the building trumpeting its status as franchise numero uno. Sadly, just like the original Wendy’s location downtown (shuttered in March 2007), C-bus figureheads displayed little interest in preserving this semi-seminal piece of history, and it has since bit the dust. Sure, there is something at that address now, but it’s a completely different building, and it sure ain’t BW3.

To step back in the time machine a minute, as of early 1997, Tuesdays at Woodruff and High meant twenty cent wing nights with lines literally out the door, and nary a spare seat in the house. But we were always much more interested in the Wednesdays, where they clear out the space by a front window for this open stage acoustic jam night.

Nowadays what I suppose you might call the “replacement” location sits about two blocks north, just past Lane Avenue on High Street. Representing for all intents and purposes the heart of campus – the major campus intersection, if you will – this plot of land makes sense, the operation is snazzy and I’m sure it’s doing well. And time must march on. Still, with mostly flat and wide open land stretching in every direction, it isn’t as if Columbus represents limited space, an island like Manhattan where buildings must constantly be leveled in the name of progress. As such, you can’t help but lament the obliteration of these landmarks.

Speaking of obliteration, another mini-empire which seems to have completely disappeared is the whole Not Al’s series of bars around campus. Even my lazy efforts at research them online just now have turned up nothing about its origins or its fate. But at one time, just off the top of my head, I know there was a Not Al’s, a Not Al’s Too, and a Not Al’s Rockers, all close enough that one could theoretically stagger on foot to each of them within the same mad drinking spree.

Not Al’s Rockers was probably the most intriguing of the three – and my apologies to any locations I never knew of and/or have forgotten about. Located near the end of the line, where campus attractions begin to steadily thin south of Eighth, it’s a live music dive bar in every sense of both extremes. Live music a surprisingly difficult find at the time, the muted thud oozing through its pores is like a siren song to us the first occasion where we pass this place. Three dollars at the door and we’re ushered inside, privy to the Local Color experience.

A bohemian outfit gracing the minuscule stage, Local Color somehow cram a small army upon its meager surface. Just left of the entrance, amidst a sea of swirling red and green pinspots that would make Pink Floyd jealous, the band is flailing away, half a dozen strong. Fittingly, these dislocated hippies are slithering through Floyd’s seldom heard gem Fearless like ripples on a pond, and as we stumble our way past the queued throng beside the ladies room door, our eyes never leave the stage.

For a small time local act, it’s immediately apparent these cats have their ducks in a row. More than the half assed combos gearing up at Ruby’s each night, though for all I know Local Color plays there too. It would certainly seem their ideal locale, sticking, as they do, to golden 60s nuggets by the Dead and Country Joe. Normally this music drives us bonkers, but they pull it off with such splendid grace, often bettering the originals, that we’re hopelessly drawn into their hazy web.

Tight and musically competent, I feel they could do with a slimmer roster than that of the lead guitarist, the singer who strums an acoustic, the bass player, the saxophonist who picks up a rhythm axe when not blowing his horn, the keyboardist and the drummer, but whatever the particulars they impress. Their craggy faces, impenetrable and unreadable behind tinted glasses and facial hair, stake wordless claims upon the years these songs cover. Ponytails and jeans and faded tee shirts worn like badges of honor, war medals, further strengthening their unspoken bond with the crowd.

As for the crowd, words can never do this mob justice. Body odor hanging in a ripe fog, whether male or female those wearing dreadlocks and overalls prevail in equal proportions. These chicks are by no means averse to sporting rampant armpit hair, nor are the guys opposed to donning what I’m guessing to be potato sacks with holes cut out for the arms and head.

“Look at the way they dance!” Damon howls, pinpointing a handful of specimens with the precision of those swirling red and green lights.

Truly a sight to behold, this jig. Pervasive enough to make us wonder whether someone at the door is passing out booklets detailing this single particular maneuver, and we’ve failed to pick one up. Throughout the bar everyone else except us is operating under the same mysterious spell, dancing in a like manner. Arms raised slightly, elbows bent, they shimmer their bodies up and down, swaying side to side, with an occasional three hundred and sixty degree turn thrown in for good measure. When inspiration strikes they elevate their arms and hold them there, though only as high as their heads. Then it’s back to the same routine.

Uncomfortable, we slide onto the only seating we can find, at a picnic table located near the sound booth. Situated in the center of the bar, it affords an enviable view of Not Al’s Rockers, in every direction, confirming our initial suspicions that this is in fact the only piece of furniture in the house. Aside from the bar, along one wall, and its few token stools, Not Al’s unfurls as one large concrete slab, whereby its occupants either dance or stand along the rear wall. Making no effort to conceal their continuous daisy chain of joints, those situated furthest from the stage lean against the wall with giant dopey grins, suffusing the room in that sharp aroma just a notch below the foul armpit smell.

Together, these elements lend the occasion more the feel of an outdoor festival than a Monday night at some run of the mill tavern. We stick out here like the proverbial bulls in a china shop, but care not the least, and in fact find this unfamiliarity, the newness of a community such as this, of unmitigated interest. Wholly fascinating, this submersion into their hippie subculture, if only for one night.

Local Color finishes Shakedown Street, and we respond with modest hand claps, with respectable hollers. But here, these cliched responses stand out like an animal activist’s paint splashed against a fur coat. They have the clapping thing down, but we’re not about to hear a woo! or an oh yeah! anytime soon, we’ll perish before someone sets forth the first whistle. Instead of what we’ve come to characterize as the standard classic rock response, these peculiar beasts toss off wild kingdom shrieks, and what might be snatches of bird song.

“What was that, a mating call?” Alan jokes, just before hooting like an owl.

But as we’re sitting on the picnic table, the fever and an all purpose weariness are crushing me, I can barely kept my head aloft. My left hand accidentally grazes someone else’s beer bottle and sends it spilling out all over the table, onto the floor, but the goodwill vibe of the place is such that the guy isn’t the least bit angry. Such that I would hand him a twenty, tell him to buy himself another drink, on me.

“I can’t believe you just did that!”  Damon gasps, eyes wide.

But the guy has a face I feel I can trust and sure enough, he returns with my change, thanks me.  No problem, brother. Maybe these hippies aren’t really our scene but their laidback kindness sure beats the snooty bitches we’ve encountered to date at those other clubs, and the assholes surrounding them.

 

 

 

 

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Panini’s Bar & Grill

Panini’s Bar & Grill was another warmly recalled haunt, formerly located at the corner of High Street and West 10th Avenue on campus.  We loved them because they not only served sandwiches late into the night, but didn’t even card at the door most nights. Sometimes you did have to endure a little smarminess from the help, but hey, that’s true almost anywhere in this town, particularly around campus.

“Why don’t you get a haircut consistent with the century you live in?” one clean cut, bespectacled wiseass of a bartender once challenged a friend of mine, during our first ever visit to the place, as soon as we sat down at the bar.

Still, Panini’s does grow on us. A moderately upscale joint near the southern tip of campus, it almost has the feel of a New York City deli – at least during the week. When the weekend comes all those tables in the center will find themselves jostled against the wall and a DJ’s bound to arrive, as this joint magically morphs into a dance club. One with pisspoor ventilation and even worse music, maybe, and yet this place works its way into our regular rotation just the same, regardless of the day.

Ruby Tuesday

Not to be confused with the (overpriced) (semi-nasty) national restaurant chain, the Ruby Tuesday at 1978 Summit Street is an OSU campus institution. A mellow dive, Ruby’s is basically your proper English pub, outfitted almost entirely with wood and a dark, smoky atmosphere that grows incrementally warmer the foggier it becomes. A creaky wooden beer stained floor and matching bar, matching tables and chairs and stage further accentuate this idyll, not to mention the mostly killer jukebox. Above it a chalkboard calendar charts the musical acts due up this month, horrendous though most of them are. Two pool tables near the front door and real darts, an elaborately stained glass window on the other half of the bar and the kind of chattering hippie clientele that unites the thread of conversation, on quiet nights like these, from one end of the building to the other.

When we first become aware of the joint, we’re living within stumbling distance at 1990 1/2 Summit Street, and are regular patrons soon enough. We walk two doors down to Ruby’s, where the rustic ambience blasts away our cabin fever. Here the sun slants through the stained glass of their elaborate front window, in warm shades reminiscent of a roaring campfire. More than anything, Ruby’s is a western saloon from the end of the 19th century, and if they’d only replace the jukebox with a beer soaked piano, the illusion would stand complete. Sometimes I imagine that I’ll glance through a pane of that multicolored window and feast my eyes upon a rutted dirt road with horse drawn carriages, a few stray tumbleweeds.

Were this the case, then our favorite Ruby’s regular would assuredly hold the post of town marshal. Unfailingly attired in cowboy boots and faded jeans, a thick salt and pepper mustache and button down shirt, he occasionally adopts a brown leather vest and ten gallon hat as well. Roaring down Summit Street in his enormous yellow 1970s auto, its muffler painfully ineffective, he parks in front of Ruby’s, breezes through the door arm in arm with his gloriously middle aged wife. Smiling in benign abstraction at everyone she encounters, the lady I peg as our mining boomtown’s lone seamstress, or perhaps the proprietor of its thriving whorehouse. A coy flapper girl perhaps, should she dress the part, were she twenty years younger.

As the sun sinks into purple twilight, this bluesy hillbilly outfit takes the stage. Pitchers of beer abound, and the air is alive with a dozen disparate conversations, audible alongside the band without drowning it out. On this side of the bar, they dim the lights down to accommodate a flickering candle atop each table, and we’re reclined here absorbing the group’s twangy wares. Though quite competent at what they do, this isn’t exactly our cup of tea, and we await the moment our quarters come up on one of the two pool tables.

The band finishes its first set, yet this ungodly feedback fills the air, leaving the guitarist onstage to investigate its source YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE and as Alan descends a flight of stairs to the basement restroom, the guitarist inspects his axe EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE he inspects his amplifier. He stands there literally scratching his head, but this voluminous, continuous squeal divides the atmosphere like a bandsaw EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE and the din grinds down to absolute standstill, pin drop quiet if not for the banshee shriek. Miffed by this mysterious malfunction, the guitarist begins unplugging their equipment, walking off with a shrug.

It is only when our mustachioed town marshal spins around from his bar stool to face the crowd do we divine the genesis of this marathon wail. Drawing deep within his powerhouse lungs for one last triumphant hurrah, he concludes this raucous endorsement HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWW!  and grins with obvious delight, knocking off the dregs of his beer mug. He stands and grabs a pool stick as the bar explodes with laughter, and the conversation eventually swells back to life.

“What the fuck was that?”  Alan asks, returning from below.

“It was him!” I cheer, pointing at our friend.

Christ that was loud,” Alan declares.

His wife showering smiles from her own barstool, our hillbilly friend rustles up a redneck partner and in tandem, they own the table. Our quarters come up and we meet them head on, but they eat up an hour draining our pockets, reigning triumphant. And yet within this window of fierce struggle, while the first band wraps up its show and a second nearly identical group begins, we manage just three games.

In shooting the breeze with his fellow patrons, pausing for giant gulps of draft beer, the average time elapsed between the arrival of his turn and that which he actually shoots approaches five minutes.  With every female entering the saloon, regardless of age or appearance, our goodwill ambassador slings an eardrum puncturing whistle in her direction. He lines up to take a shot, then straightens, turns to somebody at the bar behind him in resurrecting a prior conversation.

“Anyway, as I was saying……”

Maddening, if not so hysterical.

1990 1/2 Summit Street

 

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The three of us move into 1990 ½ Summit in January of 1997, and are the last people to call this address home. Examining the evidence, one might reasonably conclude that this was probably a good idea.

The dingy green and white tile of our kitchen floor is crudded over with black, ditto the bathroom. Whoever rented the place immediately before us – a bunch of skate punks, judging from the scuffed up hardwood floors and various stickers plastered all over the refrigerator – seriously ran 1990 ½ Summit Street to seed. Inexplicably, they left a dozen bags of kitty litter behind, too, but also this intricately carved wooden floor lamp that I swiftly claim as my own.

Mushrooms are growing in the light sockets; our bathroom window is nothing but a taped up sheet of plywood, and raccoon tracks are discernible along its eastern wall, between the sink and commode. Wiring proves a joke – we blow light bulbs at a record clip as days go by – and in the master bedroom, a leak is soon discovered so severe that Alan nearly kills himself one afternoon climbing all over the roof trying to remedy it.

A sad setup we’ve willed ourselves into, though typical of the campus area. By chopping up this once beautiful, spacious house, that faceless someone from decades past has rendered these four bizarrely construed apartments. In our case this means Alan, who owns a large bed and really nice stereo and more stuff than Damon and I combined, is to be given the master second floor bedroom. In actuality, with an ornamental marble fireplace and all, this should be the living room, but we’re not concerned with such trivialities.

Along the long hall which leads from the stair landing and the filthy bathroom, filthy kitchen, in between these and Alan’s room, my own tidy corner of the galaxy lays. A snug little twelve by twelve alcove, hardwood floors but more or less warm, tucked, as it is, in the middle of our apartment. Drifting further, up a second flight of stairs which begins across the hall from my room, a third bedroom looms above, and a fourth beyond it. In the summer months this upper floor will turn unbearably hot, but for now this third floor’s a source of much welcome warmth.

Hack musicians all, the three of us compile our assorted equipment in the first of these rooms and dub it our jamming facility. Damon claims the other, in the deepest reaches of the third floor and directly above Alan’s quarters. His window, like the two in Alan’s room, looks down upon the steady roaring traffic of Summit Street, US 23, as it tears its way through campus en route to downtown.

In case you’re wondering, here’s the view of a dumpster pushed up against the back wall of a house, so that its residents might theoretically launch trash straight down rather than carry it out:

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If such a thing were to theoretically happen, that is. This is what the scene might look like. On a similar note, here’s what a kitchen at, say, 1990 1/2 Summit Street of a city called Columbus, Ohio could resemble if your roommate bought a store mannequin and you decided to attack it with duct tape and spaghetti:

Meanwhile, this is what the bottom of our stairs looked like, just inside the front door, following a night where we decided to launch potatoes and other food items from the landing above. Incidentally, this is not how the smoke detector ended up here. I don’t remember this, but Paul tells me I came home from the bar and was cooking some late night grub for us on the stove. The smoke detector started going off, which was on the wall just above, and while continuing to stir with my left hand, apparently I smacked it off the wall with my right hand without really missing a beat. It skittered around and somehow landed down on that first step. What can I say, that was a long time ago. I might not remember it, but that sounds about right.

 

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Damon does replace a number of electrical outlets that aren’t working, and mounts a fluorescent light on our kitchen wall in lieu of a bum overhead one, but our attempts at home improvement really extend no further. Unless, that is, you count the Bob Marley poster Damon stole from some hall at OSU, hanging in our kitchen with a bogus signature:

Thanks boys for the memories. Bob.

 

 

Watershed

When I once remarked that I liked local band Watershed, a friend of mine agreed that they were good but that all the songs tended to sound the same after a while, and that they weren’t very original to start with. But I don’t know. Though seeing them play live twice and admittedly walking out in the middle of their set the first of those occasions, I have to kind of disagree with his assessment. And I know that they never were considered cool enough among Columbus’s taste making elite, so my support for them is surely a real eye roller. But I still think they were better than many of their massively hyped contemporaries, and I wasn’t alone in believing this. After all, Sony signed them to their Epic label at a time this was considered a very big deal indeed, releasing both a live EP and full studio album by the band.

Three Chords And A Cloud Of Dust, the live one, is a fascinating document just for its liner notes alone. Though owning this CD for a while now, I always forget that it was actually recorded in Columbus, at the Newport Music Hall, on January 14, 1994. The marquee depicted inside the disc has Watershed’s name in lights playing the Newport this particular Friday, with another local staple, Ekoostik Hookah, booked for the following Wednesday. Thank yous take up an entire page of the packaging and amount to a virtual C-bus who’s who of people and places, from music venues such as Bernie’s to the Used Kids record store to popular DJ Andyman at independent radio station CD101, musicians such as Willie Phoenix, hometown heavyweight champion Buster Douglas, and everyone else they loved down to the “sandwich artists” at a treasured Subway franchise. Naturally, the roll call would not be complete without a “fuck you” to Michigan basketball players Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard; meanwhile, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, on an opposite page this EP is dedicated to Terry Paul, who died the morning that show was recorded, without whom “the Newport will not be the same.”

This being 1994, there is no mention of a website. Similarly documenting these times in telling detail would be the subdued, black and white packaging, the presence of Spin Doctors producer Frankie LaRocka as co-helmsman (he had also kickstarted that band’s major label career with a 6 song live EP), and of course the songs themselves. Written by frontman/guitarist Colin Gawel and bassist slash forklift driver (according to the liner notes) Joe Oestreich, brought to life on stage with the assistance of drummer Herb Schupp, true, these aren’t the most groundbreaking songs then in existence, maybe, but certainly are catchy and played with a ton of enthusiasm. They call to mind a mix somewhere between the Smithereens and that loping, distinctly Midwestern take on punk rock – slower, less obviously snotty, but just as angst riddled. Gawel’s voice is perfectly pleasant and serviceable, although I find myself enjoying the moments he passes the torch briefly to Oestreich on a couple of tracks. The best selection of the set is one such number, How Do You Feel, which somehow adds an almost No Depression-esque Americana twinge to the proceedings, has a great opening riff and catchy chorus. An audience singalong in the closing moments doesn’t hurt, either.

They probably could have stood a little more variation in tempo on this selection, but you know it translated even better live than it sounds on here, and anyway, after a handful of listens most of these numbers are going to be stuck in that hummable place in your head exactly as they are. So consider this a job well done. I don’t really get nostalgic much for bygone eras, although listening to this does fill me with equal parts sadness and fascination, that a major media corporation was willing to spend money on these guys, and had faith that they just might be the next worldwide phenomenon.

Larry’s Open Mic Night

Does anyone else remember open mic poetry night at Larry’s, an OSU campus institution? For all I know, it may no longer be there – or maybe it is, and open mic night is still going strong as well – but my wheelhouse with this establishment was Monday nights in the late 1990’s, back when it was unquestionably one of the best kept semi-underground secrets in the university area.

It took me months upon months of reading about it in The Other Paper and Columbus Alive, their local happenings listings, before I finally worked up enough nerve to head down there one night in November. A cold night with bitter wind whipping around me, I walk/half jog down E. Woodruff Avenue and around the corner to this joint, grabbed a seat, timidly, at the bar. I order a Rolling Rock and survey the scene. Part of my reservation, I must admit, was hearing rumors now and then that Larry’s was secretly a gay bar…which itself was often countered by others insisting, no, the regulars just like to spread rumors that it’s a gay bar to keep it from being mobbed by frathole clowns and underage drinkers like all the other watering holes on campus. At any rate, my first impression is that Larry’s looks like your run of the mill dive, which I’m sure is just how the regulars like it. A cozy, almost coffeehouse vibe pervades this place, actually, and I can imagine becoming a protective aficionado myself after a few visits.

The guest of honor this particular evening is an out of town poet named Pamela Steed Hall. Open mic night runs from 7-9, and it seems that I’ve arrived just as festivities are about to begin. Mrs. Steed Hill takes the stage first, although it’s really just a cleared out section of the normal floor in back, and begins reading a number of selections from her recently published poetry collection. Her reading style is only okay, in my estimation, but the writing itself can only be described as awesome.

Following her, the host of this event – a funny, old school hipster guy with graying hair and one seriously dry sense of humor – gets up to read off a winning raffle number, with the prize being some underground poet’s chapbook, also recently published. Though this poetry night is partially funded by the Ohio Arts endowment, they also sell tickets for $1 each, by appearances a weekly ritual. When the graybeard had made his rounds moments earlier, I too had shelled out for a single entry, figuring why not support the arts, eh? The result for this particular drawing makes someone else happy, but not yours truly, which is to be expected.

Once this is finished, a number of local amateurs take turns upon the microphone. I wanted to see how this thing went before working up the nerve to perform myself, with an eye on possibly doing so the next time I visit. It turns out there’s a totally quotidian process involving a lined sheet of notebook paper on a table, and the first number of poets to sign it per night get to recite, with everyone else left off and missing their chances at immortality, at least for another seven nights.

First up among the locals this time around is a tall bearded lad named Colin Dearth. Reminiscent somewhat in appearance of Jim Morrison, Dearth approaches the podium accompanied by this short, pale and skinny sidekick named Victor. Much like those old silent movie actors, Victor says nothing but cracks me up anyway with his facial expressions, at one turn silent and brooding, the next smiles – not to mention the pressing question of what is he doing up there, anyhow, itself a riotous concern.

Even more hilarious is Dearth’s choice of material, though. He (with possibly an assist from Victor) had picked out a recent sports page article from The Columbus Dispatch to read, a piece celebrating the OSU basketball team’s most recent victory, and now Colin begins reading it. Reads it with a passion, too, particularly the catch phrase “ball in the basket,” which crops up at least three times in the piece. Grinning coyly, Dearth raises his voice every time it occurs during the course of his recitation. A sample:

“I’m real proud of our team,” coach Jim O’Brien said, “they played real well and put the BALL IN THE BASKET.”

Throughout, meanwhile, Victor either makes his mournful faces, or nods when this central slogan rears its head.

Dearth leaves the podium after threatening to get up again next week, and Victor trails dutifully behind him. Up next is a somewhat serious cat in glasses, balding despite his young age, name John Glover. “I’m going to read two poems. One is 19 lines long, the other is 4,” he explains, then does just that. His style I would characterize as decent though unremarkable. Following him is a serious scholar with greyish black hair and beard, even thicker glasses than the host. This would be Frank Richardson. He recites slowly, in a deep, resonant voice, and his poems are long, crammed with all manner of obscure and forgotten words. Good stuff.

The middle section is for the most part boring – a black girl, Rita Baker, who’s too singsong-y for my tastes, then a flat out dull 60’s leftover named Elizabeth James. After that you have some kid named Dale Williams, whose reading abilities are strong even while employing only so-so source material, and Barbara Goodall, a grandmotherly old lady who fares about average, though better than expected.

Two final poets close out the night in strong fashion. Ken McCauley, a college age white boy whose style and material were both excellent, has one especially good piece about an existential type character being “discharged from the bus” as it comes to a stop. I’m taking a wild stab here that this one is highly autobiographical. Then there’s Christopher Apple, who in my mind had the greatest poem I heard all night. He’s a serious looking black kid with melodic, poetry slam worthy flow, and tonight’s highlight was a selection titled Something. The repeating refrain to this long, cleverly worded poem is, “something…I don’t know,” a phrase he returns to often.

The following Monday, I work up enough nerve to head down there with the intent of reading my own stuff. Technically speaking I haven’t written any poetry, ever, but do have a spiral bound notebook of crappy song lyrics, which will suffice. The whole point of this exercise is to force myself to get up there on stage. Giving speeches back in school, or getting up in front of a crowd to sing or play an instrument never really bothered me, but this seemed more personal somehow and I could feel my heart speed up just to think about it. So I stop at the Wendy’s next door first, for a bite to eat but also to steel my nerves before entering that shrine of the spoken word.

Colin Dearth is actually the featured performer this week, which suits me just fine – I find his material excellent (no mere sports page recital this time!) and his delivery even better. Plus, as an added bonus, he typically launches into extended monologues between each selection, and these might be the cream of the crop. He talks about his first poetry reading ever, which seems to be a significant instance of synchronicity relating to my own struggle, squirming in the chair, that he would broach this topic. That night, the occasion of his maiden recital, he had staggered in wasted, possibly not even aware a poetry session was underway, and stumbled up to the podium to recite a few insane lines off the top of his head. Since then, his approach has become slightly more refined. Warmly reminisces about recitals past, here and elsewhere, of “blowin’ a doob in back” before making his way to the stage, and once reading from a room in the rear of the building via a walkie talkie placed on the podium. All in all, I felt I could have listened to him read and talk for hours.

But of course, I have bigger fish to fry – namely, getting up and reading my own singsongy stanzas. After Dearth is finished, they have anyone interested waltz up and sign in, with only the first twelve earning a slot tonight. Initially I’m thinking to myself, in copout escape hatch fashion, “hey, I’ll wait and see if there are any slots left after everyone else signs up, then maybe add my name to the list.” But after a tortured second or two decide, screw that, I’d come here to read and would not be denied. Good thing I make that call when I do, too, for I wind up being exactly the twelfth person to put my name in the proverbial hat. Yet when the slots themselves are assigned, I am saddled with an early one, either second or third, which is fortunate in the sense that I don’t have an opportunity to lose my nerve.

Everything and everyone else is pretty much a blur. I remember clutching my blue notebook with these two typewritten sheets inside, the ones I’d transcribed to my computer and printed earlier to avoid fumbling through handwritten pages. I remember cautioning everyone before I begin, too, with the disclaimer that this is my first ever performance. They applaud before syllable one, then, which does help ease the nerves a bit. And my delivery is without question a wooden monotone, although the words themselves are not bad, as I rattle off the lyrics to Vibraphone and Fall Away Like Dust. Then it’s over. People clap and I hustle back to my dark back corner – and as I pass his table in front, Victor gives me the a silent thumbs up and nod of the head, which is all the approval I need.