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.

 

 

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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.

The Judas Cow

The Judas Cow began life in the early 2000s as a live trio hitting some of the more prominent rock clubs around Columbus. Their style, a distinctly Midwestern, mid-tempo blend that falls somewhere between Americana and Tom Petty, seems to lend itself just as much to quiet listening sessions around the house, however, and many of us eagerly await some official recorded output.

Led by singer-guitarist-songwriter Kevin Spain, formerly of beloved local group Silo The Huskie, they would at long last release an EP in 2006, Last Summer. Prior to this, the band had circulated some demos by hand, passing Sharpie labeled discs out around town, and it’s impressive to hear how polished these songs became in the finished product. Of course, playing out constantly does help with that process. But bass player Ryan Haye had only just picked up the instrument shortly before joining the group, and you would never guess that in listening to this EP.

 

Augmented by a fourth member, Chris Bair (also a Silo alumni), they would reconvene to crank out another self-titled disc in 2008.

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.

Love Letter To Columbus

The first job I ever held was at a McDonald’s fast food restaurant in Mansfield, Ohio. At the time, whether it is still there or not, there was one of those familiar green highway signs directly in front of this establishment, announcing the mileage from here to two nearby cities:

Cleveland 73

Columbus 73

Which is itself an interesting piece of visual stimuli. But if I were to ask any random stranger from any other state (and possibly any random stranger from Ohio, as well), which of these two cities he/she is most familiar with – as in, not necessarily visited, but has heard the most about – he/she would without fail cite Cleveland. Yet Columbus is in fact the largest and most populous city in the state, it has been for decades. Columbus is the 15th largest city in the entire United States. Upon graduation from high school, if I had to handicap the skewed percentages, I would say that 20 of my classmates (at the bare minimum) moved to C-bus for every one that ended up in Cleveland, mostly because we considered the state capital a slam dunk far more interesting place to be. Serious folks with access to statistics debate whether Columbus is larger than Boston, Massachusetts, because it is just this close.

And yet no one has ever heard of Columbus, Ohio. The purpose of this blog shall be to investigate why. Also to shed a light on why I find this city so immensely compelling, nearly a decade after I last lived there, having been born nowhere near here. To this day I cannot wrap my mind around the intricate social experience that living in Columbus represented. Having grown up in such a countrified extreme that our postal address at one time read RR8 – as in, rural route eight, more useful a designation to the poor soul delivering our mail than either town name or zip code could have been – it would be easy for me to fall back on the tired shtick that I am a small town guy, always will be. Yet moving to C-bus at the age of 21 forever changed this; I will forevermore be a big city person, and nothing else will ever compare.

And I mean this quite literally, that nothing else can compare. The cultural experience, and the way your mind gets working in such complicated mechanisms, these are experiences you will never have living in the middle of nowhere. Anyone clinging to that dreary dogma about small town life has simply not experienced day-to-day existence in a major city. And possibly not even the right major city – for six years now, I have lived withing driving distance of and worked five days a week in Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet try though I might, it has proven virtually impossible for me to become seriously interested in the meta-story of Charlotte. I just can’t bring myself to really care about and dissect this place in quite the same way. More outsiders have probably heard of Charlotte than they have of Columbus, it even has the edge in major professional sports by a 2-1 margin, but I am here to tell you that these two cities are worlds apart. And the cultural hub of Cackalacki, or whatever you choose to call it, if I may spoil the trailer here, it suffers bigtime by comparison.

Let us begin this primer course, then (at least for as long as it is able to exist online, without being taken down for copyright infringement) by considering the following piece:

Dumb Century Cropped

Can you read this? If not I will find a way to upload in a better format. But basically my objective with this blog is to a) dig deeply into each of these stories, and many more, b) dissect how Columbus has managed to remained the country’s best kept secret thus far, c) divulge the inside tales I have, the personal histories as related by those I know, that will hopefully help to connect some of this material. I want the reader to eventually be able to, say, understand fully what is going on in this city from one end to the other in, like, the month of April 1979, or January 1994, or December 2006, in a way that would prove impossible via any other source.

So dig in, and enjoy! This is sure to be one wild yet informative ride.