Friday, April 04, 2008

April Fifth, Two Thousand Two (fiction)

I hadn’t set foot in the Elkhorn for an open stage night since the early 90’s. It had been a proper dinner club palais in the 40’s and 50’s, a Legion Hall through the 60’s and 70’s, and a dance club/concert hall after ''81 when the Legion moved north onto Violin Rd. I'd been a regular during their all-ages dance parties in the 80's with nothing in my pocket other than the admission price and subway fare to get me home.

I eventually grew past the dancing stage and went back for the concerts, most of them very raw but with touches of greatness. Davey Steed played there when he was still touring; I saw him in an afternoon set that produced innumerable (and expensive) bootlegs before the internet opened them up to every Steed fan in existence. Polyamber played their first public gigs at the Elkhorn and recorded their first demos on a rainy Sunday afternoon in April ’97. Arrow played 3 disastrous shows over a long weekend before taking their act to Belfast (where the rest is history) and Silent Scrimshaw used the Elkhorn’s weird acoustics as the model for their Aleutian sound design.

I respected the place and spent a few very good evenings there, but I wasn’t an Elkhorn aficionado. You'd know the hardcore followers to see them – they still wear the buttons with the black-ink stamp of an elk’s horn (it was never a place for deep symbolism). Most of these buttons show the abrasion and rust that comes with age. The originals are collectors items for those who care about that kind of thing; you could buy reproductions for awhile in the late 90’s but they were looked upon with great scorn by those who considered themselves the bona fide.

2002 wasn't working out for a lot of people - 9/11 was on everyone's mind and nobody had a job. Especially me. I felt much too old not to have a job and went to the Elkhorn with some buddies for cheap beer rather than out of any sense of nostalgia. I'd drained three or four pints without effort or enthusiasm when the first act came on: three deadpan guys without instruments came on stage dressed as an approximation of Nirvana at their Unplugged concert.

They stood in front of a single microphone with the Cobain surrogate in the middle, where each one pulled a straw boater from behind their backs, placed it on their heads, and started to sing an arrangement of All Apologies in the slow, lilting style of a traditional barbershop quartet.

The audience didn't know what to do with this. There were more than a few chuckles – some people thought that hilarity was about to ensue and wanted to be ready when it came – but the antiquated harmonies were surprisingly complex and well sung, so the whole endeavour came across as elegiac rather than high camp. They sang without winking or cracking a smile, creating something indisputably weird and deeply sincere. Impossible to get a grasp on.

This means a lot to somebody, I thought, unable to fathom to whom or why it was held so dear.

When they reached the All alone is all we all are refrain, they lifted their hands together as if preparing to bow. Then the Grohl copy and Novoselic's proxy simply let go and walked offstage, leaving the Cobain surrogate singing alone as the spotlight dimmed and both he and his voice faded into nothing.

There was no applause and no encore.

The next act was a drunkish guy who set up his bass while saying “That surely really was something, I guess,” which broke the half-spun spell. I ignored him as soon as I noticed the faux Nirvana a few minutes later in their street clothes as they headed towards the Exit sign. I almost followed them into the street just to find out exactly what they were trying to prove. Best left to the imagination, I thought, and stayed at the bar.

The rest of the evening was simply another loud night at the crowded and tinny Elkhorn. We drank more beer and rushed to catch the last subway shortly before 1:30am. If you drank enough and forgot about the previous seven months, it almost felt like 1993. Thirty days later, the Elkhorn closed forever. 60 days later it was transformed into a well-attended parking lot.

Rock is finite. Accept it. Davey Steed has moved into discordant roots music and adapting HP Lovecraft stories into something you might call an opera. Polyamber self-destructed in London long after heroin chic was well past its prime. Arrow couldn't be taken seriously by the time they financed their own reality TV show, and Silent Scrimshaw would rather reinvent audiology than record any more music.

And that blurred, dark photo of Cobain leaving the Elkhorn is of dubious authenticity, regardless of the number of street vendors that hawked it on t-shirts through the 90’s. It's true that Cobain caught a few acts at the Elkhorn back in the day, he even talked about it at length in a Wave interview while he was still holed up in Rome. But he probably didn’t play at open stage before or after Nirvana was together. Ninety-nine percent of the people who claim to have seen him there are delusional or trying to impress like-minded souls.

In the end, it only matters to the faithful. Those three guys who decided to pay homage in two thousand and two didn't give us the details of why, unapologetically. The song notwithstanding. That’s madness. Or respect. I really can’t decide.

- April 2008


Anonymous said...

This is really fine, Michael. Kind of eerie and the description is first-rate. Only thing is, near the end you mention four guys, but it was only three singing. Are you counting the half-drunk bass player who followed them?

Mike D. said...

@ James - No significant meaning, just a pure typo through and through. Thanks for pointing it out.

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