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. The address here would be 1722 N. High Street.

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. Actually they were constantly screwing up Damon’s order – all he ever wanted was pepper steak with no onions, but he would often receive a normal order, double onions, no peppers, you name it – but he remained a faithful customer, too.

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 Buffalo Wild Wings location once called this block home – in the same building as No. 1 Chinese. The fancy new building erected on this spot, at 2044 N High Street, currently houses a Panda Express. This strikes me as what happens when you throw all three of these elements into a blender…or maybe boil them down to a puree: take a local Chinese restaurant, add a now prominent national franchise like Bee Dubs, pour it into a modern piece of architecture.

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 researching 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 Tuesday 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.

161 N. High Street – Elevator Brewery and Draught Haus. Way back when, it was known as Bott Bros. Billiards, who actually imported their bar from the 1893 World’s Fair. Following their efforts came the Clock Restaurant, before its current incarnation.

474 N. High Street – a statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

980 N. High Street – former location of semi-legendary Chelsie’s rock club. This address now belongs to something called Mukha Custom Cosmetics. The apartments above (978 N. High I believe) look the same from the outside, but the ground floor has been radically altered.

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’s Thunderpussy

1585-87 N. High Street – once upon a time, Maxwell’s Bar and Nite Club. Though they technically ran afoul of ye liquor board gods for serving minors, really they too were just an early casualty in the Campus Partners battle.

Magnolia Thunderpussy used to offer two dollar discounts on Tuesdays. The store had a funky layout, like a pressurized H, and offbeat merchandise galore, a glass counter running the building’s length. 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.

Used Kids Records has always been the consensus champion, anyway. They too are no longer located on campus, but have managed to adapt and survive in a new location, their third. The first two of these were situated within spitting distance of one another, both on N. High, across the street from OSU. Its current iteration is kind of a “best of” package in that it combines the space of the second with the charm of the first. Still, there’s always a great deal of nostalgia attached to any treasured act’s debut, and so too this holds true with Used Kids’ initial address, though often so crammed you couldn’t move.

Divided in two, each half shares the musty stench of a century old basement, both no larger than the average master bedroom. The guys working the counter are for the most part trendy, cranky elitists, but even they cannot diminish the singular experience of shopping for slabs of music here. And at any rate are probably on average a tad more approachable than Magnolia’s help. In the left room, upright racks dominate the center of the store’s cramped quarters, with one side devoted to popular used cassettes in the three to five dollar range, the other taken up by bargain tapes for a buck.

Fleshing out the remaining space, pegboard walls hold mounted display racks, with torn, faded posters filling in the gaps. Below these, used CD bins line two walls, with a third dedicated to brand new releases in both disc and vinyl. The truncated front wall, beside a door coated thicker with rock band stickers than our beer label fridge, a counter props up the surly help, often swamped past their heads with stacks they’ve yet to file. A lost gem spins on overhead speakers, a quality cut they’re well aware no one’s heard, justifying their smugness, this refined musical pallette of theirs, for even as they’re smirking at the merchandise you select, it’s just another component of this dungeon’s abrasive charm. Between the cracks, just enough room for promotional materials near the door, freebies, championing local bands, and on the right day room to shuffle sideways around a score of equally obsessive shoppers.

One door over, the Used Kids Annex devotes itself exclusively to vinyl, much of it vintage, mint. A glass case beneath the register featuring rare autographed items and limited edition stuff, a rack by the door for used singles and another for videos. Brighter, less frequented, and a shade less dank, the annex staffs itself unfailingly with someone far more friendly than whoever’s working the other side. As if merely a minor league circuit they relegate new hires to, to cut their teeth and acquire proper smarmy attitudes, only then gaining entry into the main chamber.

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.

1710 N. High Street – for many a year, home of the String Shoppe. Currently a freaking KeyBank branch. A newly constructed Blaze Pizza building now sits where the parking lot entrance once was, where they’d tow you sometimes even while you were browsing inside of the String Shoppe. You can just barely make out the String Shoppe exterior in my picture at the top of this page, to the far right of the Newport Music Hall.

1896 N. High Street – former location for Bernie’s Bagels & Deli/The Distillery, which closed on New Year’s Eve 2015.

2040 N. High Street – former location for Larry’s Bar, which closed at the tail end of 2008 after 74 years in operation.

2084 N. High Street – once the address for curious basement dive Northberg Tavern. It was cooler there for a while than it rightly should have been. Even O.A.R. seemed partial to this place for some reason, playing there four times in 2001 alone. At street level, then and now, is a Donato’s Pizza.

2194 N. High Street – Home to the current campus Waterbeds ‘N’ Stuff (original was found further south).

Though unique in that they were decimated by fire, Waterbeds ‘N’ Stuff and Papa Joe’s  etch legacies as but the first of many disappearing university signposts. Still the incontestable center of this city’s nightlife, vague traces of an impending plague infest our beloved High Street, a blight known as Campus Partners. A committee thrown together by developers in conjunction with OSU, Campus Partners worms its insidious hands into this potential pot of gold, systematically buying block after block of south campus land. They will then demolish every last one of these buildings, all in the name of yet another strip mall. Looming like a gravestone across the street, Coeds is shuttered for good after our only visit, an early casualty in what looks a bloody war.

OSU justifies their interest by quoting the perils of underage drinking, but maybe they should worry about death by homogenization. University officials and Campus Partners members believe they’ll curtail student alcoholism by shutting down the bars, but all it really means is that everyone’s going to drive across town to imbibe instead of walking down the street. Bored fratholes will riot on their front lawns and then in five years another committee likely emerges, brainstorming for ways to curb student DUI.

“If they wanna clean up High Street, they should start with the bums,” Paul suggests, “seriously.  They’ve got a sign that says Welcome To OSU at the entrance but every night there’s some bum sacked out on that sign, in a sleeping bag.”

He’s right, of course. Not just about the guy crashing on the Welcome sign, but the derelicts in general. Sure, campus is replete with graffiti and litter, too, equally valid starting points for any clean up job. But if nothing else it’s hard to imagine the school’s recruiting department enjoys a very high success rate when someone’s eighteen year old daughter must wade through six blocks full of panhandling homeless guys just to reach the building she’s scouting out.

Not that these fellows aren’t mighty entertaining. The Native American with a ponytail down to his ass who hangs out at the corner of High and 12th, in a jean jacket with a patch on back that reads COCHISE. Cochise says, “speh some change?” in a raspy voice whenever anyone walks by, and rumor has it he’s got AIDS, that sometimes he cuts himself and tries to drip blood onto unsuspecting passerby. But we’ve not seen any of this, in fact it sounds like horseshit. The only dirt I have on Cochise, really, is that I overhear him one afternoon tell a fellow beggar he’s going to “call it a day” and “head back to the apartment.” Or the bearded black man, who stands by Used Kids Records every day, one arm in a sling, wordlessly rattling his cup full of nickels. Earning my admiration with his passive approach, and that he’s out here with far more consistency than any of his peers.

At some point I will likely get around to organizing these entries into North-South coherence up or down High Street. For now, however, I have no choice but to list them rapid fire, as they are occurring to me. First up, at the intersection of 15th and High – saturated with more foot traffic, as a rule, than any other – we face Wexner Center for the Arts across the street, its misshapen structure alone an intricate puzzle, worthy of afternoon sidewalk introspections, seated on a bench, peering over the cup of a steaming hot chocolate. Walkways that lead nowhere, and piles of red bricks stacked without reason.  White scaffolding left standing, stretching skyward to crooked infinity. Beyond these visual deterrents an art gallery and bookstore, a theater and performance space within, more conventional in shape and scope, and the stately Mershon Auditorium.

Continuing south, we pass beneath the Newport Music Hall’s wedge shaped marquee, a white background glowing beneath its black block lettering. The nation’s longest running rock club, the Newport seats 1700 and has survived like a prisoner of war held captive some thirty odd years. Scarred but defiant, its weathered ebony doors and medieval facade stand in stark contrast to much of the surrounding strip.  But a half inch coat of rock posters flanking both sides connects the Newport to its many satellites, the campus telephone poles, staple gunned with a chain mail suit of flyers heralding events both current and those years past.  On most nights boasting a show, lines of devotees extend all the way down to 12th and around the corner.

The fantastic and aptly titled Discount Paperbacks is still my number one haunt, a dark, mildew drenched catacomb replete with low ceilings and tightly woven mazes of old magazines, comic books, hardbacks, softbacks, a corner full of porn, most of it used and available on the cheap. Spider-Man painted on the front door, with a caption balloon inviting you to sink beneath ground level, descend these three steps and join him.

Singing Dog records is kind of forgotten now, but they too were once a reliable pit stop for comprehensive, mostly attitude free music purchasing. Armed with a full arsenal of new and used releases, huge sections of vinyl and posters and the current crop of fanzines. Singing Dog is more formulaic in design, but with a better selection, particularly in old LPs, and friendlier help than anything else found at the time on campus.

And lord, do I check out every one of them. On foot from the house I find Goldmine Records, much further north on High Street near Blake, tucked away in a white building resembling at first glance a dentist’s office. Helped little by its complete lack of proprietary signage, unless the tiny logo dangling from the front door’s window counts. Though specializing in classic albums from the 60s and 70s, cramped aisles and a pitiful selection, as well as some hard to place pathetic aura, almost certainly spell disaster. Used Kids shares the same space and merchandising issues, but our shopping impulses are often indefinable, what works, what doesn’t, and why; the air here is stale, oppressive somehow, and I doubt the small, bearded sage behind the counter – who gives the impression he must own this place, is possibly its sole employee – has any idea how large the likelihood is his little operation here is doomed. Feeling as if his survival depends upon the remaining shards of my tip money, I hereby justify purchasing a used Pink Floyd LP, and some assorted posters.

Jack & Benny’s sits behind a wedge of window at the corner of Hudson and High. Considering the other three corners are overrun with a fast food taco restaurant, a drive through hamburger stand, a gas station, one existing video rental megastore and another across the street from it under construction, all national chains, one gets the sense this unobtrusive mom and pop café is hanging on for dear life. Oddly enough, Jack & Benny’s began life way down at the corner of Broad and High, way back in 1954. Apparently an employee bought the rights to the name at some point and moved it up here. This is exactly the kind of weird development I find fascinating in the arc of a big city’s timeline, and a major reason this blog exists. Serving breakfast and only breakfast all day long, in a dining room no larger than one of their pancakes, rumor links them to a spotty oeuvre but I can’t find anything to complain about.

Of course, I would say this. Not as though I’m challenging myself any, picking a safe, American diner from the luxury of options lining this avenue. Accept this perfectly traditional ham and cheese omelet, glass of orange juice rather than rolling the dice on some Middle Eastern fare from Taj Mahal, induced though the eye is at every pass, by car or hoof, to its ridiculously extravagant patio.

A waist high white brick wall surrounds this lavish terrace, as black iron spears join hands above, six inches apart, for the railing. Made from this same metal, chairs and tables, wrought in lace like patterns, are held captive on the other side. All quite the calling card, if offering no idea what to expect within. Glances full of mumbling, abject horror exchange between help as their ignorant guest grapples with the exotic menu, I imagine, and anyway, I’m the kind of guy who prefers a plate glass window front to gauge in advance what lies ahead. Between the patio and the ivory fortress proper, a dozen odd steps rise to meet a broad front porch teeming with potted vegetation, and this distance exceeds my valor’s limited grasp.

I can also say as much for Indian Oven, directly across the street, its striped canopy and narrow stairwell jutting from a second floor corner like the line on a capital Q. Trepidation extending beyond unfamiliar eateries, however, to even a casual browse, for I can’t draw the nerve to enter, along this random stroll, Neo Tokyo, for instance, proudly billing itself as the Midwest’s first anime specialty store. Or an adorable organic grocery shop, squashed letter opener thin, in a block long potpourri of merchants beneath one uniform redbrick shroud. Regarding these in the same light as certain follicle trimming establishments, as though unworthiness is immediately apparent at the door, is met with curt inquiries and raised eyebrows, a qualifying exam.

 

 

 

 

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