In my late 20s and early 30s I spent every Thursday night in a ritualized drinking effort with friends, where we'd start at the huge marble bar at the much missed Les Auteurs and end up at Gusoline Alley, which we'd close. It was often debauched, always fun, and never dull. I miss a lot about life in the pre-9/11 world, because the tone of living is now nearly fever pitched. Everything, all the time. And everything seems to get harder lately. Younger people seem angrier than we were, and more anxious.
We certainly drank to get drunk, but it was more than that. It was a weekly existential outing in the Midwestern winter, creating an opportunity where you literally did not know what would transpire, and how it would end. I've always been a bit of a kochleffel (Yiddish for pot-stirrer), so the combustible personalities and absinthe-like concoctions we drank suited the situation by my lights.
Like a lot of things I used to do, the drinking had to come to an end. Children, and family life in general, require an emotional consistency and a psychological equilibrium that binge drinking doesn't include, although that never stopped my parents much. However I did stop into Gus's the other night, maybe the first time I've been back there in 15 years. I don't drink anymore, but I loved it all over again--little about the place had changed.
Royal Oak is now a faux-Greenwich Village, six streets of restaurants, leather and bohemian suburbia. But Gus's remains a regular welcome spot, a drunkard's dream: the stools are still low, the drinks are still cheap, the waitress is still kind, the door man is still Pat and still friendly, the bathroom is still easy to find and the jukebox remains the conscience of the place.
I first wrote about Gus's 18 years ago, and unlike much else in today's world, it still applies to the neighborhood bar of my once and future dreams: On any given night, it seems that every song that punches its way through the thick air can be a quiet reminder of the formerly sober you, of a drunken emotion, of a love lost or found, of a better time, or a far worse time, or of just another loud song smothering you chatting up a girl. To many, it's the latter.
Though Gus`s was once a dumpy and secluded neighborhood bar for regulars who were musicians, writers, weirdos and artists--kind of a mutant Shriner's club--it now attracts the college/yuppie thing and what I can only call the hard core pierced and tattooed. It's a testing ground for not not judging a book by its cover.
Or maybe I'm not the first young songwriter who just drank way too much and romanticized a favorite watering hole. I'm no fan of the whole Bukowski Boho rap, so Gus's to me is no stand-in for the bar in Barfly or some "necessary" stop along some mythical historical trip because of who once hung out there. I was there when it was the Center Street Bar, and there the first night Gus bought it, and it was never necessary, just fun. And all of us musicians and writers and starlets (yes Detroit has starlets) who hung out there did so because it was then the only place to go, not a place to be seen.
I remember so many nights floating away with the music in there. Patsy Cline was in then out, now in; Roxy was a constant. Both Elvis's, The Femmes, and Glenn Miller ("I've Got A Girl In Kalamazoo") shared the same stage. The records of neighborhood musicians were heard here. That's the best part about it--the staff regularly rotated the selections, involving things previously thought impossible with spinning discs in a public place--spontaneity and immediacy. And they'd quickly change the song if something lame was selected--music criticism in action! The Clash always sounded good there, as did Johnny Cash.
If it sounds like I spend too much time looking back on the innovations of a jukebox at a local bar, I ask you this: Where else in this world could you hear Sinatra's "Summer Wind" followed by the Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Tell Lies" right after The Fleshtone's "Ride Your Pony?" Or Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" after The Beatles' "There's a Place?" It was at least worth a drink and a listen.
Gusoline Alley remains an oasis in a tough town. From the speechless & nameless outta work sunlight drunks to the big haired rock chicks to the pastel wearing Birmingham Biff and Bloomfield Sally; from the wordless old men, the aging bikers and perky young artists, to the unloved and lost forever; from the mascaraed femme fatales and it-grrrls to the beer bellied softball jocks and well-past-it frat boys, to the oh so weary auto workers who now have all day to sit and drink...it’s a place to sit and drink and hear a good song.
There we all were, 20 years later. And they all drink and linger or drink and leave or drink alone or drink and talk or drink and laugh and listen, while they wait for work or rain or peace or snow or, simply, closin' time. Some things are built to last.