By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
Readers unfortunate enough to be born after April 15, 1980, take heed: You have about ten days to soak up as many punk shows, club nights, karaoke contests and rock concerts as you can possibly cram into your soon-to-be depleted social dance cards. Come Easter Sunday, youngish individuals who like music -- and who fall squarely in the largest music-buying demographic in North America -- will find their live entertainment options severely limited, thanks to a policy change by a squadron of City of Denver officials who are stark raving mad about Ecstasy and committed to cutting its use off at the pass.
In its own furious spasm of spring cleaning, the Department of Excise and Licenses has decided to clean the cobwebs off its municipal code by revoking a policy that has, for a decade, allowed local establishments that offer both entertainment and alcohol to host all-ages crowds. The decision follows last month's announcement that three clubs in Denver -- the Church, the Aztlan and the Ogden -- had had their mixed-crowd privileges suspended following a series of drug stings that resulted in various arrests, most of them Ecstasy-related; the city then cast the net even wider, effectively putting a citywide kibosh on every cabaret licensee that opened its doors to the under-21 crowd. (Those businesses, the department noted as a concession, are still welcome to host strict teen nights, events open to all ages at which alcohol sales -- to anyone -- are forbidden. So cheer up, kiddo!) But the city is quick to remind us that this is not a ban on all-ages or a new law -- if it were the latter, it might have actually meant that businesses and individuals affected by it would have had a chance to plead their case -- but rather a uniform enforcement of what's already on the books.
"We have been thinking about this for months," says Excise and Licenses director Helen Gonzales. "The [split-premises] policy extended what the ordinance allowed, and I don't think that's good practice. The way we're doing it now, it just makes it cleaner. We will enforce the law across the board, to everyone, with no exceptions. I know that we have good licensees who have been carrying out their part of the policy. But with this recent activity with the police department and the Ecstasy stings, which were probably the convincing factor, it was just a case of a couple of people spoiling it for everyone else."
Note the sound of the baby going down with the bathwater. In this case, "everyone else" includes the Bluebird Theater and the Cat, two venues where mixed crowds have regularly enjoyed the very same stage show from very different sides of the room. As anyone who's ever attended an all-ages show at one of these venues can attest, the ages do not mix easily: At the Bluebird, kids are usually relegated to the balcony immediately after walking through the entrance, where they can enjoy Cokes, smokes and a diminished view; if you want to drink at the Cat (and are old enough to do so), you make an immediate right at the door; a chain-link fence that runs down the center of the room pretty much ensures that you will not be cavorting with the sober young things on the other side. Alas, these arrangements will be no more once April 15. And while those in the over-21 set may feel that they have nothing to fear in the policy reversal, some local music folks see a dim prognosis for the scene as a whole.
"I think that whether it's us or the Bluebird or the Ogden, aside from the obvious -- that there's just going to be way fewer local all-ages shows -- it will be a trickle-down effect," says Mike Barsch of Soda Jerk Records, who's booked shows in both the Raven and the Cat. "The type of show that draws 150 to 200 people might just go away altogether, except in a few places. A lot of the people are not going to like the idea of going to a dry show. And in order to make it off of the wholly under-21 crowd, we would either have to completely jack the admission charge or start charging $7 for a Coke. Whichever way you decided to go, whether you do it all-ages or 21-and-up, you immediately are cut off from half of your audience."
And when you can offer a band only half an audience, it isn't likely to bother making the trip at all.
"I would say 75 percent of the bands prefer to play to an all-ages audience, whether it's a touring act or a local act," says Barsch. "I can't fault anybody for preferring it that way. It's the best concept. You get kids who come just because they love music and crave a live experience, and you balance it with the older people who want to go out and have some drinks. Without that option of adding alcohol sales to the mix, its just not viable for many promoters to host a strict all-ages night."
Mary Robertson of the Gothic Theatre agrees. Though her club has an Englewood zip code, which makes it immune to Denver law (and thus able to continue hosting sixteen- and eighteen-and-over events), she sees the city's action as a palpable blow to the music-loving citizens of Denver, especially the young ones. (Gothic owner Steve Schalk is reportedly curtailing the club's under-eighteen access of his own volition.)
"So many bands rely on all-ages audiences for their survival. They absolutely require that that be part of their contract. When you limit the number of places that can offer that to them -- or you let them offer it, but at the expense of any alcohol sales -- they are likely to just pass us over completely. And that is really sad for this group of kids -- the ones who are in those weird twilight years between eighteen and 21 -- because it means their options of live music just go way down. There will be way less that people in local music can be exposed to. We'll get nothing but radio bands that everyone knows and who can sell out any room. And that's just sad. What do they want kids in that age range to do? Go to the movies for three years?"
Barsch foresees a more sinister outcome.
"I think what you are going to see, realistically, is really small shows moving into basements and warehouses," he says. "They're going to revert back to illegal operations."
Of course, the most bothersome part about all of this, for Barsch, Roberston and many, many others, is that the city, in its haste to eradicate a little pill called Ecstasy, is sticking its mitts where they don't belong -- in establishments that don't have even a tangential relationship to the club-drug community. Considering that two of the most high-profile X-related accidents of recent memory -- the deaths of Brittney Chambers and Jared Snyder -- involved drug use either at home (Chambers) or in an all-ages setting where no alcohol was served (Snyder), the city's efforts seem misplaced, if well intentioned. Neither incident would have been the slightest bit affected by the change in policy, and there's no evidence to suggest that, say, a Blonde Redhead show at the Bluebird Theater is the kind of place where Denver's X-hungry kids are going to score.
"It's frustrating to me, because the point is that this whole thing is being motivated by a desire to stop drug activity," says Robertson. "And I don't believe all-ages shows are the place where that activity is really going on. I just see it as two different issues. All-ages shows and teen drug use are two separate issues."
"I almost think it's funny, because [the media] is showing images of clubs that don't have anything to do with the scene that's being most affected by this," adds Barsch. "In the soundbites on TV, you see some guy doing drugs and pounding beers. That just does not go on. For as long as I've been involved in this, I've rarely seen drugs in this scene. I can think of maybe one time that I smelled pot in a [rock] club. It just doesn't happen."
Obviously, this is not the end of the discussion. Backwash sincerely welcomes general reader feedback on this issue.
Arriving at the office Monday morning, Backwash was surprised to note that the security guard was sporting a shirt with "This Is Not a Fugazi T-Shirt" on it -- but then figured he'd snagged the shirt off eBay during the tedium of the pre-dawn hours. Deeper in the building, things grew more curious: The dry erase board in the business department was adorned with the likeness of Fugazi vocalist Ian MacKaye; in the conference room, a series of pamphlets lined the table, embossed with the slogan "Dischord Records and Westword Newspaper: A Partnership for a New America"; and in the kitchen, the publisher was humming the melody to "Promises" while refilling his coffee cup.
Sensing that something was up, Backwash snuck into the security surveillance tower and began screening tapes from the weekend. Hours of nothing, and then pow! -- caught on video was a live performance by Fugazi, the prototypical D.C. DIY band, in town for two nights of triumph at the Ogden Theatre and now smack dab in the middle of the Westword office. It was a slightly disconcerting show, with MacKaye quipping from his microphone-headset (borrowed from the Classified department) about how much he hoped Denver could land the Boeing operation and how he kills time in the tour van by reading segments of the Savage Love column out loud. Still, everyone in attendance -- from mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson to furniture maven/ad-rate crusader Jake Jabs and Go-Go Magazine editor Chris Magyar -- seemed to enjoy the proceedings, which had been publicized only in an April Fool's mention in the most recent edition of Go-Go. Next time, Chris, can we get Captain Beefheart, or maybe Cat Stevens?
The Fugazi fete wasn't the first time a Go-Go staffer has appeared at a Westword event, mythical or otherwise. A young fellow hauling a stack of that freshly printed tabloid dropped into last week's Best of Denver bash at Vinyl, apparently oblivious to the purpose of the party in progress. He was congratulated on his bravery by Colorado Music Association president Dolly Zander, who identified herself to the young courier as editor Patricia Calhoun. The paperboy fled quickly (obviously forgetting to check for telltale cowboy boots).
Alas, the Best of Denver is not all fun and games. Sometimes we goof, as Backwash did in an award for Herman's Hideaway, one of many the venerable club has won over the years. Owner Allan Roth, who's booked live music at Herman's for over two decades, called to point out that the New Talent Showcase that earned Herman's an award as the Best Place to Probe the Unknown takes place on Wednesday nights, not Thursdays. Backwash apologizes for the error and looks forward to personally probing many fine Herman's bands on future Wednesdays.