The security guards at the City and County Building looked ready for an invasion Monday night. At around 6:30 p.m., legions of tattooed, multicolored music types arrived en masse for a public hearing on a Denver City Council ordinance that would open the city's 350-plus cabarets to anyone over the age of sixteen. But before they could head up to the fourth floor, they had to clear the metal detector, a sensitive device whose designers probably didn't have belly-button rings and septum piercings in mind when they built the machine. At one point, a particularly befuddled guard was told that the only reason the machine beeped when it was placed over one young man's skull was because he had small metallic ball bearings inserted there. Well, duh.
Inside, the city council chambers were crammed with urban-rainbow-warrior types: If the council had sold tickets, it could have made a fortune. It took a while to get to the real show, though. After hours of shifting on wooden benches presumably constructed in the Jamestown colony, audience members who'd signed up to speak before the council regarding the all-ages issue were finally invited to do so around 9:30 p.m. It was a parade of punditry with as many speakers in opposition as in support. Detractors included a trio of twenty-somethings who claimed that living near the Ogden Theatre had become a messy proposition, one that would surely worsen if sixteen-year-olds were regularly folded into the audience mix. "I have people urinating near my steps all the time," said one speaker. "And I can't say for 100 percent, but they aren't forty-year-olds." The Denver Police Department argued that the city should figure out how to revamp its cabaret-licensing system as a whole before adopting a quick-fix ordinance that may disappear after a six-month trial. The DPD, they said, does not have the resources to keep up with the public-safety issues created by having "children" intermingle with drinking adults; at one point, a DPD spokeswoman suggested that gang activity -- as well as crimes against young women -- might increase with the ordinance's passage. "It's not just the music fans who are going to show up to these clubs," she said. "You are going to have the Crips and the Bloods and everyone else attending these events and preying on the young."
Yet to some, the ordinance's potential shortcomings were far outweighed by its benefits. Colorado Music Association president Dolly Zander argued that "this age group needs to practice being grownups." Concerts provide the perfect vehicle for that exercise, she said, adding, "There's far less of a chance for a young person to obtain drugs at an all-ages concert than on the street or in the schoolyard." Rock Island owner David Clamage pointed out that it is the responsibility of the club owners and their staffers to be sure that existing liquor and safety codes are followed, no matter who is inside. "Selling liquor to minors is illegal and will continue to be illegal, with or without an ordinance," he said.
The hearing was not without bits of culture-clash-induced comedy: At one point, a young musician sporting a "Talk Is Poison" T-shirt endeavored to explain "hardcore" music to Councilman Dennis Gallagher. "It's a very loud, aggressive, punk-rock style," he said. "We try to focus on the positive things in life." Councilman Ed Thomas wondered why the city had made it illegal for people under 21 to enjoy dinner and pan flutes at El Noa Noa if its real concern was "the danger of them going to go see the Dead Kennedys." (The city's existing ordinance preventing the under-21 contingent from being in any establishment that served liquor and featured live music -- including restaurants -- appeared to be one of the most persuasive arguments for councilmembers that the city needed to tweak its cabaret code.) And, contrary to the experience of some of the Ogden-area residents, Councilwoman Joyce Foster said she had seen "lots of people who are thirty, forty, fifty years old urinating in public...I don't think that's an activity that is specific to age."
No one was laughing, however, when it came time to vote. After a round of comments by the thirteen councilmembers, roll call was taken: Five (Gallagher, Polly Flobeck, Ted Hackworth, Martinez and Deborah Ortega) opposed the measure, while eight (Kathleen MacKenzie, Cathy Reynolds, Susan Barnes-Gelt, Joyce Foster, Charlie Brown, Happy Haynes, Ed Thomas and Elbra Wedgeworth) approved it. That's a majority -- which means, kids, that you can now lawfully enter most of the city's entertainment venues. Carefully.
"If you prove me wrong and we come back here in December," warned Reynolds, "there will be no one to prevail on your behalf, so don't screw it up."
And don't pee on anyone's car.
As the all-ages debacle illustrates, Denver's music community has been lacking a certain sort of leadership over the past couple of years; had a heavy-hitter told Mayor Wellington Webb back in April that shutting kids out of concerts was a very, very bad idea, we might have avoided all of this city council jibber-jabber.
Enter Barry Fey, who pretty much held Denver's concert industry in his large hands from the mid-'60s until he sold his company and signed a non-compete contract in 1997. Two years early, Fey is returning to the promotional fray with his buyers' blessing -- as head of House of Blues Concerts in Colorado. It's a combustible development, one that will surely cause execs at Clear Channel/SFX to squirm around the conference table. The parent company of Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents, the Fillmore Auditorium and Clear Channel Concerts seems to be aiming its buying juggernaut directly at the heart of the House of Blues operation, and Fey's re-entry is certain to throw a wrench in those works.
Yet after a four-year "sleep" that involved a little consulting and lots of L.A. Law watching, Fey admits to a mixture of trepidation and excitement. "I feel like the Allied Expeditionary landing at Normandy on D-Day," he says. "You know you are big and powerful and strong, but you don't know what's waiting for you on the beach, and you know you are going to take a few losses."
Fey says his initial plans for his new post -- which takes effect immediately -- involve working toward lowering ticket prices, making sure the non-computer-savvy have access to tickets even if they can't log on to retail ticket Web sites and, of course, putting a face on the battle to protect the few non-SFX entertainment vestiges that are left. "I feel like the industry that I helped to build has changed in the four years that I've been out of it," he says. "I want to help put the heart back and the soul back in it. Because it's gone."
Mr. Fey, we're glad you're not.
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