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The Jay's of our lives

Last call at Missoula's rock 'n' roll clubhouse

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Hanging out at Jay’s, you got used to hearing rumors: Someone wanted to buy the place and turn it into some other kind of bar. Jay was going to knock out the back wall and build the room a little further out. Poison Idea was coming.

It’s funny now to think about all the things that were going to happen, especially since Jay’s Upstairs pretty much looks, smells and runs the same now, after 10 years and literally thousands of bands, as it did when the place first cautiously opened its doors to punk rock in late 1993. The gallery seating was added a year later and the stage has been rebuilt a few times, but most other things about Jay’s Upstairs have remained as reassuringly constant as the ritual lugging of drums and amps up the treacherous back stairs. Poison Idea never did come.

The latest news is that Jay’s will close for good after the second weekend in October. Like a lot of old Jay’s hogs, we’ll believe it when we see it—this is the third time it was supposed to close since July.

But it’s going to happen soon, anyway. And the sooner the better, if you ask us—we can’t stand airport goodbyes, everybody standing around nervously until the final boarding call comes. It’s felt long enough already.

“A mighty crack!”
I don’t even know where to start “remembering” Jay’s Upstairs. My friend Yale and I once whipped out a calculator and tried to figure out how much beer we’d consumed on the premises, and it was enough to drown us like rats in the stairwell. My personal tanker’s worth of liquid brain eraser alone makes it hard to recall certain details, which probably accounts for the Rashomon-style disparity between the various accounts by Jay’s regulars of all the things we supposedly “remember” in common.

But it’s not even the actual act of remembering that’s so difficult. It’s more what to remember in the sense of setting it down for posterity, and just as importantly what not to remember. I certainly remember doing some things there I could do with not remembering.

A few days after we heard the news that Jay’s was closing—really closing this time, not just “closing” contingent on the laughable hope of someone actually buying the place—I was sitting in the sound booth with Justin Lawrence, who also used to be in the same band with Yale and me. We were watching a group of pogoing audience members unwittingly re-enact a scale-model version of the night, years earlier, when he and I were both convinced the floor was going to collapse beneath the synchronized pogoing at a Blue Meanies show. This was nothing compared to that night, when the floor was bucking so violently that you had to get your sea-legs on as soon as you walked in the door, if you could even make it through the door. Downstairs, you could literally see the ceiling bulging, sprinkling nervous patrons with dust and bits of plaster like a mine about to cave in.

Even so, as we were sitting there watching this much smaller mob bobbing up and down, Justin and I were both sure we heard a mighty crack! come through the wall behind the sound booth, like the sound of a huge support timber breaking in half. Wouldn’t that just be perfect, I thought—Jay’s Upstairs finally collapsing on itself, right at the very last, just like in The Fall of the House of Usher.

I realized that with Jay’s going, I literally want it to be gone—blasting off into space like the castle in The Rocky Horror Picture Show or something. As it stands (literally—for now), I think it’s the idea that the building will still be there with its human guts scooped out that really bothers me—just another building haunted by memories and restless ghosts taunting fewer of us every year with what we used to be.
—Andy Smetanka, Humpy guitarist/vocalist 1993-2000

“Chins up, punks”
Jay’s has, at different times during my relationship with it (since ‘93, with a healthy two-year break from 1997-1999) been all of the following:

• A spot where inspiring rock and roll, pop, garage music, unrehearsed and improvised spasmodic radness occurs incredibly regularly.

• A kind of sad place where people drink and smoke excessively and it’s wicked hard to have a conversation.

• A well-worn, comfortable bar where I know a lot of folks.

• A place with too damn many “dirty rock” acts who play for too long.

• A place to meet people for a beer.

• A place where it’s always been incredibly easy to set up shows for bands that play hard, loud, quiet, original, weird, confrontational, spot-on tight, unrehearsed, improvisational, whatever kind of music.

And on that note, I guess my real eulogizing begins. People say “this band changed my life” too frequently for it to matter, but when I think of how Jay’s has been a pretty regular part of my life for the better part of 10 years, it would be hard not to say it’s changed me. Even when I didn’t live in Missoula, the vicarious pleasure of reading letters describing Jay’s-sponsored depravity always made me really homesick. Both of my younger brothers have played shows there. My parents have seen a show there.

I like to think of Jay’s less as a great place and more as a collection of cool people who make things happen. That’s why I’m telling myself not to be bummed out. Change is hard, but oftentimes good.

But: Jay’s is still just a place. While it’s easy to get bummed out, it’s always been smart, creative people who’ve made it happen. The behind-the-scenes (and in-front-of-the-scenes) movers and shakers. The poster-makers and the floor- and futon-sharers.

What I’m trying to say is that Jay’s has been the spot for soulful, original live music to occur. Its closure won’t end that. Look for shows with good posters and follow your noses. Chins up, punks.
—Josh Vanek, founder and CEO, Wäntage USA

“Rainbows and kittens”
Jay’s is where I first met my wife.

The No-Fi had been playing around town for a couple of months and was still a fairly enigmatic entity. So one night Lucas and I went to a show. I think it was the Disappointments. It was not uncommon for Lucas and I to hang out at Jay’s together, because we enjoyed each other’s company in that environment.

Anyway, Lucas and I are there and Andrea comes up to me and asks if I have sex with men. I think I knew that there was some speculation about Lucas’s and my relationship—not only because we would hang out together but also, I am assuming, because I am such a good dancer, if you could call what I do dancing. Anyway, I said no, and it has been nothing but rainbows (straight rainbows, mind you) and kittens since then. Jay’s will always be a special place for us.
—Mark Heimer, No-Fi Soul Rebellion composer, vocalist and dancer

“Part of the crew”
I came to Missoula a few times on vacation before I finally decided to make the move. There was one visit in particular that sealed the deal for me.

Volumen had a gig scheduled at Jay’s while I was in town. At this time the band was Shane, Doug, Sammy James and/or a drum machine. They asked me to sit in on a few songs that I knew from the old Laramie days. See, back in the day Volumen were called Shane Doug and You. Occasionally they would let me play bass on a couple of songs.

I was psyched to play at the infamous Jay’s Upstairs. At the time, I wasn’t inspired at all by music. I was wasting away in Wyoming. I got up there and played a few songs with the boys. Afterwards, I got an awesome response from people I didn’t know, telling me what a good job I did and whatnot. I had never really received much support on the Laramie rock scene. Here I was in a town that I may have visited only once or twice before, and it felt like I was already a part of the crew. Then, to top things off, a guy I didn’t even know bought me a shot of Bushmills and gave me a try at his “special smoke.” I knew then and there that I was moving to Missoula.
—Bryan Hickey, Volumen bassist

“A lot of Meatloaf”
My very first job in Montana was tending bar at Jay’s proper—the downstairs. I will always appreciate Jay hiring me because I sort of BS’d my way around the fact that I had no experience, and he knew that. Jay is one of the fairest and most generous of employers—starting wage there was head and shoulders above any other service job I could have gotten at that time. As long as you didn’t get yourself or your friends sloppy drunk on his tab, you were all right. That, and you had to bear listening to a lot of Meatloaf.

I can’t pick one defining moment that crystallizes the Jay’s experience; suffice it to say I met the most interesting people in my life there. The transient types who told me about secret caves in Blue Mountain, how to use yarrow to ward off illness (but only if it was masticated by a woman), and where the tunnels under Missoula were still intact; the regulars who taught me how to make drinks and drank my mistakes, gave me my first experience with checking a gun at the bar and helped me throw out—with threat of an electric drill—a loaded (but famous) writer. I can’t number the baby Buds or the Little Smokies I sold, or the incredible bands I saw.

I can’t say it was always the best of times, as the quality of the people and the time seemed to fluctuate with the amount of alcohol consumed. But I can say I will never forget the smell of that bar at 10 a.m., the atmosphere at 2 a.m., and the fact that most everyone always treated me like a queen.
—Julie Tompkins, former bartender

“Some pretty interesting experiences”
My firsthand involvement with the Jay’s scene was pretty minimal, actually. I’m more of the stay-at-home type. But I always felt like I knew a lot of the people involved just by reading all about their bands and adventures in a local ’zine that I used to write for. The few times I went, I had some pretty interesting experiences, a few of which I’d like to recount here in haiku form:

My need is dire,
yet I wait: Someone’s having
sex in the men’s room

Rivers of splendor
run brown with joy. Liquid of
life; Jäger on tap

Birds of rare beauty
descend in perfumed clouds, but
They’re only sixteen

Taste of cam’rad’rie
Shivers of a shared secret:
Stoned in the cooler
—Stoner Steve Bickner, poetic man of science

“An absolute minimum of mainstream attention”
The thing I always liked best about Jay’s was the sense that it was a little corner of the city that, through a combination of chance and the back-breaking labor of a changing cast of characters over the years, was transformed into one of the most important places in Missoula. I and so many other people saw great rock shows (and shows that defied classification) there, and ultimately a great rock show is just a great artistic performance. Jay’s was/is a cultural treasure cleverly and convincingly disguised as trash. For a large and ever-changing group of people, it became a combination salon, children’s clubhouse and drinking society.

When I went out on tour with the Sputniks, I realized that every city, big or small, that’s worth its musical salt needs a Jay’s—a place where national touring acts and the hot local bands and bands that formed two weeks ago in someone’s parents’ garage can coexist and rub off on each other.

It’s that interaction, repeated over and over again in a loose network in cities across the country, that creates quasi-underground music in this country, which is really one of the most vital and real pieces of our culture. For the last 100 years or so, since it became possible to record music and distribute it and really cross-pollinate various folk and indigenous forms, America has been the most important musical country in the world. You could argue that it still is, but only because places like Jay’s allow independent music to grow and mutate largely under the cover of darkness. I have always found it ironic that the most vital art form in the country is the one that receives absolutely zero support from government grants or academia and an absolute minimum of mainstream attention. So Jay’s Upstairs, in its own humble and Jägermeister-stained way, performed a service for every citizen of the land.

And for me personally, Jay’s was a place to experiment, fail, succeed and really get to know just exactly what my own musical talent consisted of. It turned out not to consist of very much, in fact, but in a weird way it’s nice to know that. And it’s amazing that I had a chance to figure that out in such a completely out-of-control, fun, supportive and (not to sound overly sappy) loving environment, among people who understood what I was trying to do because they were trying to do the same thing themselves. I’m semi-retired as a musician now, but I’ve been making a living by writing about music for four long years, and it’s no exaggeration to say that in my honest-to-God professional life I make at least as much use of what I learned at Jay’s as I do of what I learned 10 or so blocks away at the University.

I’m not overly sentimental about these things—clubs come and go. But I do hope something happens in Missoula that can be as freeform and anarchic as Jay’s was at its best.
—Zach Dundas, former Independent writer and Sputniks bassist

“Basically born at Jay’s”
As I reflect upon my time spent at Jay’s, I begin to realize that I have spent a good portion of my youth and virtually all of my young adulthood frequenting this harbor of music, mayhem and alcoholic bliss. The memories are so many that it is difficult to pinpoint just one or two.

My band (Sasshole) was basically born at Jay’s, and for that I am extremely thankful. Although Sasshole may not have drawn the biggest crowd, I feel that we have definitely participated in creating some unforgettable memories at our favorite upstairs venue. I remember dressing up like lunch ladies and serving everyone snacks; I remember when Milli poured an entire bag of kitty litter into the crowd; and I remember creating song lyrics about poop and the Mafia after a night at Jay’s was complete. I remember when Honky Sausage performed the entire KISS Destroyer album, and I remember yours truly dressing like a housewife and rapping about trailers and barbeques

I have gotten laid, fallen in love, and had the opportunity to hear some of the best music ever at Jay’s! I guess the thing I will remember most is all of the wonderful people I have gotten to know and love over the years. Cheers to all of the friends that I have made in town and from lands far away! Jay’s Upstairs is a legend—it will always be remembered and greatly missed!
—Jen Tachovsky, Sasshole drummer, who met her future husband at Jay’s Upstairs

“That’s entertainment”
My fondest memory of Jay’s was when I put on a Pat Phlymm show and he got caught up in the act and cut his forehead. We had to rush him out back to his car so he could make his getaway before all hell broke loose. Robin was freaking out and there were exactly two police cars, a fire truck and an ambulance that showed up. Now that’s entertainment! The downside was probably when our drummer Chuck died and we all congregated at Jay’s and cried in our beers.
—Charlie Beaton, semi-retired Banned guitarist/vocalist and full-time ice cream magnate

“The Volume Men”
As far as my fondest memory of that place, I’d say it was when I first tried to book a show there. Robin opened that book and asked what the name of my band was (I think she also wanted a description). I said something like, “Volumen—we are kind of nerdy pop music.”

Then I watched her write “The Volume Men.” So I said, “Actually, it’s Volumen, one word, no ‘the,’ and I think you have an extra ‘me’ and a space in there.”

She pretty much yelled back at me, “Dude, that’s just how I write it, okay?” I nodded dumbly and waited for our name to appear in the Jay’s weekly shows list as “The Volume Men.” I think we were listed like that for a few months before I got the courage to talk to her about it again.
—Shane Hickey, Volumen guitarist/vocalist

“Worst possible form of torture”
I played my first show at Jay’s Upstairs about eight years ago. My band Absolute was told we could play, but only if we had adult supervision. So my dad came down. He probably would have had to anyway, since none of us could drive and we had no way of transporting our equipment. My dad sat at the bar with the three other people in attendance and watched us play. He later commented to me that he really didn’t mind chaperoning us; he was the one who got to reap the benefits of the free-beer-for-bands policy.

It would still be four very long years until I could legally get into Jay’s Upstairs. For a Missoula teenager obsessed with music, knowing Jay’s existed and that I couldn’t get in was the worst possible form of torture. I would see posters stapled to the poles outside Rockin Rudy’s advertising shows, bearing the weirdest artwork and coolest band names ever, and just kick myself because I was so unfortunate as to have been born in 1981. I got to play quite a few times at Jay’s before I turned 18, but most of the time it was for all-ages matinee shows. It was cool and all, but it somehow lacked the dark, super rock ’n’ roll feeling the place had when I was there illegally, and very much after my curfew. The times I managed to sneak into Jay’s are some of the best memories I have from my high school years. My crowning achievement was when I got through the door with a stamp I drew on my hand with a Sharpie pen to see the Fireballs of Freedom play their final local show.

I turned 18 in 1999 and have been to so many shows at Jay’s that trying to come up with an actual figure would be pretty ridiculous. Jay’s was definitely everything I hoped it would be when going there meant cowering in the corner for fear of being discovered and kicked out (though I was never caught). And I’m sad to see it go.
—Christopher Baumann, bassist and/or vocalist for (in chronological order) Absolute, the Corruptors, the Evaders, Nation of Scholars, One Point Plan, Paul Bunyan Band, the Pleasure, Trilateral Commission, Veduta, No-Fi Soul Rebellion, Self Inheritance

“Playing to a dog”
I remember being served Alabama Slammers at age 16 before a show and then smashing a TV set in the middle of one of our songs. I remember playing to a dog, and our drummer Dave Knadler sleeping behind an amplifier as we waited to play. R.I.P. Jay’s.
—Timothy James Graham, guitarist/vocalist for Mike and Rick and many other groups

“The overpowering need to get fucked up”
You know how some bars, you walk in them, and you just feel this overpowering need to get fucked up? That sums up Jay’s Upstairs perfectly. Yet it was the singular place around which the entire Missoula rock scene rallied, and rallied fervently. A place where any—and I mean any—ragtag assemblage of derelicts with instruments who bothered to call themselves a band could easily line themselves up a show. A place where the idea of a bartender cutting somebody off for having imbibed too much was a bygone relic, or at least only a quaint formality that applied only to the yuppie bars down the street.

I’m going to go out on a limb and state for the record that I believe that my old band Humpy played more shows at Jay’s Upstairs than any other band in the history of that bar. As a conservative guess, I’d feel comfortable tossing out the number 300, although at one time it was thought to be as high as four or five hundred shows. We played shows when the place was so packed that you essentially got to third base with everybody in the place, just by sheer dint of propinquity. But the vast majority of our shows were on, like, a Tuesday night, with the bartender, the sound guy and about four people in the audience, one of whom might be a rummy septuagenarian sitting slumped over at the bar, sneezing in his beer.

During my eight or so years as an Active Missoula Rock Participant, I cultivated a pretty clear-cut love-hate thing with Jay’s Upstairs. I loved it because I knew I could set foot in there any night of the week and swill beers with my beloved and respected comrades-in-rock and watch some semblance of exciting live music. Chortle if you must—the place had an authentic feel of community going on. Everybody was somebody at Jay’s, even if (and perhaps especially when) you were a sociopathic asshole.

I started hating it only toward the end of my time in Missoula, when it seemed like Jay’s—and the scene that propped it up—really became a sort of temple of groupthink, where a band could only pass the collective muster based on how much they “rocked.” I also began to hate it because it became such a predictable thing to me; the behaviors of scenesters and all the severe levels of drunkenness and the partner-swapping became observable ritualistic conduct. It seemed like people were far more interested in acting out their Melrose Place dramas than participating in an active rock scene.

Admittedly, much of my latter-day distaste for Jay’s was brought on by one particular personal experience, and toward the end of my tenure in Missoula, I full-on refused to set foot in there altogether. But aside from my own episode, it was no secret that the “Jay’s crowd” was widely regarded as a fickle and insular bunch. I heard essentially the same complaint from several different people starting bands: In order to get your band off the ground in Missoula, you really have to be part of this secret society that gets blackout drunk five nights a week and fucks each other’s girlfriends, and if it doesn’t sound like Nashville Pussy or Zeke or Murder City Devils, then nobody will like it. Of course, most of that was sour grapes and hyperbole and so forth, but still, people wouldn’t lodge those complaints so consistently if there weren’t at least a little truth to it...
—Yale Kaul, cartographer and former drummer of Humpy, Tra-Bang! Vi Thompson Overdrive and about five other bands at once

“A sense of obligation”
The thing that I will miss the most about Jay’s is the camaraderie among the people who hang out there. The Jay’s scene has received its fair share of flak over the years from the Missoula community for being cliquish and uninviting to outsiders. I don’t think that the Jay’s crowd means to turn a cold shoulder to the outside world—however, if you walk into Jay’s for the first time it is impossible not to notice how close the regulars are. Part of the reason for this closeness, I think, is the fact that almost everyone who is a part of the Jay’s scene is in a band that plays there or has been in a band at one time or another. Being a part of the band community at Jay’s entails a sense of obligation. Most bands recognize that if they want to be supported, they have to support other bands. I have dragged myself down there on many a night when I didn’t feel like going out just to support a friend or acquaintance’s band on a Wednesday night whether I truly liked their music or not.

Also, while Jay’s has sometimes been labeled as a hipster bar, I’ve found that out-of-town bands tend to fall in love with Jay’s for the opposite reason. Compared to most hipster rock clubs throughout the country, Jay’s is different and refreshing. It has the same kind of charm as other legendary bars in Missoula like Charlie’s and Al and Vic’s, where you have a batch of college kids mixed with old timers, you have hippies and rockers and general freaks and the occasional lawyer or retired business-type. Heck, even my grandma has been to Jay’s several times.

Jay’s used to house even more diversity than it does today. People always say that the wonderful thing about Jay’s is that anyone and everyone can play anything and everything there as long as you sign up for it. This was especially true when Robin Dent was in charge of shows. Robin was anything but a scenester and didn’t know much about the punk/alternative scene. If the Melvins had called to book a show and she had already promised that night to some makeshift local act who barely knew how to play their instruments, she would have turned the Melvins down. Also, some of the pairings of bands would reach the height of diversity. On any given night you could see a hippie jam band opening for a three-chord punk band followed by a poetry reading/modern dance piece.
—Kia Liszak, Sasshole vocalist

“The ones I have long forgotten”
I remember one bartender who would do a Jägermeister shot with any person who had a throat. This was during the era of full-service bartending at Jay’s, meaning she had a tray and took drink orders from the floor. I also remember her punching my friend Nate in the face on his 21st birthday because she had been serving him alcohol for, like, a year.

I remember “The Earth Is My Grave,” the god-awful mural that ended up behind the stage during the “Corral days.”* It was basically two huge eyes peering out from behind the band with a banner reading “The Earth Is My Grave.” Any picture on any night of any band during that time period looks like any other picture of any other band on any other night during that time period, just because of that fucking picture.

I remember [Jay’s handyman and all-around mad genius] Mike Doerner eating a full-course meal of roast duck with all the trimmings in formal attire at a full table set while we played a show to almost no one else.

I remember [Oblio Joes guitarist] Stu [Simonson] falling flat on his back in a chair mid-song and then being thrust back upright by audience members without missing a single note.

I remember [someone] shooting bottle rockets at us while we played.

I remember the Corral going up.

I remember the Corral coming down.

I remember stopping downstairs at 9 a.m. the day after a show to pick up our money and finding some totally wasted guy on the floor with a bloody nose and another guy sitting at the bar saying, “You shouldn’t say that about my sister!” and the skanky bartender threatening to call the cops. No shit.

I could go on, but...my most treasured memories of Jay’s Upstairs are certainly the ones I have long forgotten.
—John Brownell, guitarist/vocalist

*“The Corral,” Yale Kaul explains, “was this bizarre and highly ill-advised wooden fence built around the perimeter of the stage at Jay’s, and much like the laundry facility downstairs, it was a source of great amusement to touring bands. Almost every band that came through had at least one member who climbed up on the Corral in some sort of Nugent-channeling exercise.” As per John Brownell’s recollection, an enthusiastic crowd tore the Corral down with its bare hands at the urging of headlining act The Hanson Brothers in February, 1998.

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