Smoky, funky, dirty, unsafe, stank Detroit bars and why I love them so

Dive bars. The kind where smoke, funk, and sweat is etched into the walls so thick it fashions its own layer of wallpaper. The kind of bar where a sign reading “unsafe at any speed” should be hanging on the front door from a crooked, rusty nail.

God forgive me, but I do love those joints so. Perhaps it comes from having performed  literally hundreds of gigs in clubs like these over the course of more than 20 years in the trenches of the music business that’s got me so twisted, but I’ll be damned if I’ll apologize for it.

I’m talking about the authentic smoke-filled bars, each with their own star-studded cast of memorable, disreputable characters with names like Gray and Shamrock hunched over a beer and frowning at it, or perhaps holding court before an imaginary audience of wildly clapping fellow barflys. I’m not talking about the House of Blues cookie cutter pseudo-joints adorned with the specially-designed, tailor-made artificial funk flown in. Probably from some factory in China.

These haunts are one of the more happily perverse reasons why I love this city. No question the nose-tickling uptown scents of various and assorted Starbucks variety enterprises are shoving their way into the mix, and that’s fine. Seriously. I’m all about diversity, and you gotta have your upper crust to balance off your lower urges. But Detroit simply does not feel like Detroit without some good old throat-chokin’ grit and funk.

Like Nancy Whiskey’s over there on Spruce, for example. A true neighborhood bar, now poised on the edge of the endangered species list, where the smoke gets packed in so thick that some nights it looks like everybody’s cryin. Even the woman holding the machine gun with her foot on the runner of a big black gangstermobile  in the picture on the wall above the bar. Or take the Comet Bar off of Cass Corridor where I first saw my buddy Howard moaning the blues nearly 15 years ago with Dave Watson on drums, which was several years before I actually met the two of them and started gigging with them both for awhile.

And yeah, I still call it the Cass Corridor.

Which brings me to two things, one of which I’ve already discussed before and in the process kinda managed to piss off a friend and fellow blogger. Or at least I think I did. And didn’t mean to. But here’s the thing; I have a serious problem with any type of legislation that says cigarette smoking should be banned in bars. To me that’s like saying Coke should not be sold from vending machines.

PHOTO BY MARKO GEORGIEV FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

If you want to ban smoking from restaurants? Fine. I get that. Folks come in there to eat and no-smoking sections in restaurants are pretty much of a joke. Plus you have kids in restaurants. So I get it.

But banning smoking in bars? What the !!!@#%%$#@!! are bars for, if you can’t light up?

And for the record, I quit smoking two years ago, so this isn’t about me whining because I feel oppressed. This is about the fact that those grownups who still smoke damned sure know the risks by now, number one. Number two, they probably know the cigarette companies are run by obscenely well-paid liars who could give a fuck if their product causes cancer and other health problems. But number three, if these folks know all this and still wanna fire up, then I figure they ought to have at least one location on Earth where they can drink, puff, and relax together with other like-minded sorts.

As for the bartenders and other bar employees who took the job and now have the nerve to claim they didn’t expect there would be cigarette smoke, and that (cough, cough) this is just so very unfair, well…

Bullshit.

Because if you took a job? In a bar? Where everybody at the bar was firing up as you filled out your job application? Or as you shook hands with the owner when you agreed you could start that night? And who also had a cigarette dangling from his lips as he smiled and said see you t’nite?

And you still didn’t know??

This irritation in my gut, which is slowly escalating past the rant stage to honest pissed off status, is being sorely provoked by those up in Lansing who last month agreed to ban smoking from bars, restaurants, and workplaces, because it’s ridiculous. Like I said, restaurants I understand. The same goes for workplaces. And for that matter, if the owner of a bar wants to make his/her  place smoke free, that’s cool. It’s probably what the patrons of that particular establishment want, and God bless. But for the rest of the late night street warriors who have been shunned with the sign of the cigarette cross out of everyplace else except the neighborhood bar? No. Sorry. I’m not going for it. There are more than enough places for non-smokers to hang out these days without fear of inhaling second-hand smoke.

But there was a second thing I was supposed to get to as well, which is this great site I stumbled on which got me off on the tangent about smoking in bars in the first place. The site is Detroit.com, and the specific section that got me going was the “Detroit Local Bars, Neighborhood Bars, and Dive Bars” section. Man, this is great for the night owl reprobate that lives inside so many of us.

PHOTO BY KATY BATDORFF, GRAND RAPIDS PRESS

A lot of the bars listed I know quite well, plus a few I notice they don’t have listed. Let’s just say I understand why.

I could go on with some rather entertaining tales and remembrances about some of these establishments, but I’ll put a hold on that until another time. For now I’ll just say, in the spirit of we-all-gotta-live-together community? Live and let live.

Even if some of those alive choose to put their lives on the auction block.

SHAMELESS PLUG FOR MY WIFE: http://thedspotredeux.blogspot.com/

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~ by Keith A. Owens on July 10, 2008.

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