By: David McPherson
Venues are a mirror into a city’s past, present, and future. They witness and document the societal changes that happen around them while concurrently adding to a locale’s history. As author Aaron Chapman, who was born and raised in Vancouver says: “They are a wonderful cultural barometer, showing us where we’ve been and where we are going.”
Chapman knows historic music venues; he wrote the book on Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. From big band and swing to punk rock, pop, jazz and blues, Vancouver’s most famous (and infamous) room has played host to the greats of every genre of music. No wonder in 2011 Billboard named it one of the Top 10 most influential venues in North America (the only Canadian spot cited) along with such iconic spots as San Francisco’s Fillmore and New York’s Bowery Ballroom. A fixture on Granville Street for nearly 90 years, the venue now hosts more than 150 public events each year — entertaining approximately 120,000 guests annually.
The Commodore was built on beer money (from the Reifel family’s breweries) and since has survived on passion, acute business sense, and a wee bit of luck. The irony of how the building was originally financed is not lost as more than a few brews have been swilled on that horsehair dance floor over its history – illegally in the early decades until it finally got a liquor license in 1969 – and legally ever since.
Billed in the local daily that day as “Vancouver’s Latest Attraction,” the venue opened as the Commodore Cabaret on Wednesday, December 3, 1930. Despite a few blips and hard times (it closed for three years from 1996-1999 before House of Blues revived it) 90 years on, the venue is still going strong — serving up live music and hosting local events six nights a week. There have been a lot of memorable rock ‘n’ roll shows at the venue since the Vancouver institution opened, but in the eyes of many, there is one that stands out. During punk’s heyday, The Clash took to the Commodore stage, on January 31, 1979. It was the first North American show for the English quartet. Forty years on it remains a seminal moment in the venue’s history.
Just ask Brad Merritt. The bassist for Vancouver’s beloved 54-40 was there.
“Bo Diddley and a local all-female punk trio (The Dishrags) opened,” he recalls. “That was a crazy show! I was dead centre in the middle of the dance floor and halfway through the show, some guy threw a beer can backwards and it hit me in the face. I had a dent in my forehead for nearly five years, but it was a badge of honour!”
The Clash show was not Merritt’s first at the fabled club. On December 2, 1978, he was 18, and saw a sold-out Blondie concert. That night was just as crazy and just as memorable.
“About midway through the show, every table had 6-8 people standing up; they all took the red tablecloths off and started whipping them around. It was one of the rowdiest shows I had ever seen in my life … that was my introduction to the Commodore Ballroom.”
When Merritt started 54-40 out of high school, along with buddy Neil Osborne, their goal was to one day play The Commodore, maybe open up for one of the groups they admired. They’ve more than surpassed that now. 54-40 holds the record of playing the Commodore more than 50 times and counting. Their Thanksgiving weekend gig (slated for October 11 this year) has become an annual tradition Vancouverites and long-time fans anticipate. The band even recorded a live DVD (This Is Here This Is Now, 2005) at the Vancouver landmark.
Merritt still recalls the first time he hit the storied stage and how nervous he was. The year was 1982. “We were part of a four-band local promotion, which included Images in Vogue, Moev, and I can’t recall the other band. There were 1,000 [people] in the room. We went on first and it was incredibly exciting.”
54-40 headlined for the first time after the release of its self-titled 1986 release (later known as the “Green Album”). The Wooden Tops from England opened. Though it’s been more than 30 years since the band’s name lit up the marquee on Granville for the first time, the allure of playing this hometown venue never fades.
“It’s still special for us and for the people who come,” Merritt explains. “It’s a celebration: for us, for our fans, and for music in Vancouver … Vancouverites take special pride in the venue.”
Merritt, along with other musicians and patrons, can thank Drew Burns for The Commodore most music lovers now know and love. The bar’s modern era took hold when Burns purchased the lease in 1969. The entrepreneur obtained a liquor license, renovated the venue and changed the name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom; the first rock act he booked was Detroit’s Mitch Ryder, who took to the famed Granville stage in July 1971. While the place was licensed for 1,000, they often crammed a lot more people into the room. Since Mitch Ryder, the Ballroom has hosted a who’s who of rock royalty: everyone from Tina Turner and Patti Smith to U2 and Tom Petty. For all these bands, playing the Commodore meant something – they all respected the room – as author Chapman reveals.
“I spoke to Benmont Tench [keyboardist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers] for my book and he said it was a big deal for them the first time they played there in 1978 … they knew about it!”
Besides writing the definitive book on The Commodore, Chapman has also played there, with one band or another, 25 times. “You are aware of it before you ever go in for the first time,” he explains of the venue’s gravitas. “If you grew up in Vancouver, your parents or grandparents most likely went to a dance there or saw some music there. It has seen every era of pop music – from big band to people slam dancing – not every city has a place like that – we are a bit spoiled.”
Kevin Kane (guitarist for The Grapes of Wrath, and more recently also a member of The Northern Pikes) has played The Commodore countless times. Growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia, in the late 1970s, he subscribed to The Georgia Straight to keep abreast of the burgeoning punk scene. “I kept seeing that all my favourite bands were always playing there, so the Commodore always held a mythic status for me,” he says.
Kane’s first time in the Commodore was when he was still in high school. He caught a ride with a friend into the city to do some import record shopping when the pair learned The Cure were at the Club doing its sound check.
“My friend and I plucked up our courage, walked up the stairs from Granville Street into the venue, and parked ourselves in a couple of chairs off in the shadows, hoping to not be seen,” he recalls. “The band were setting up their own gear and I watched transfixed as Robert Smith pulled his Jazzmaster from a road case. Smith then saw my friend and I, gave us a welcoming smile and wave, and in the seconds it took to decide if we should run over and introduce ourselves as a couple of 16-year-olds who just wanted to hear our favourite band sound check, we were spotted by security and ejected!”
Jay Semko, Kane’s bandmate in The Northern Pikes, gives us the final word of what makes The Commodore Ballroom so special:
“When the energy in the crowd reaches the ‘magic zone,’ there is no better place in Canada to be for live music,” he concludes. “The silhouettes of heads bobbing up and down on the horsehair floor, the timeless vibe when you walk through the doors – whether grooving in the audience or grooving on the stage, there is something about the Commodore that has always had a profound effect on me; it’s The Shining meets The Fillmore, and in the best way imaginable.”
Learn more about The Commodore Ballroom at www.commodoreballroom.com or via Aaron Chapman’s book: Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom.