Best Of 2003

From the multi-machine majesty of Dave and Buster's to the simplicity of the corner coffee shop, there are many places in St. Louis to play pinball. So what makes CBGB, a smallish bar with one lone machine, the best place to play? One word: atmosphere. On any night but Sunday aspiring wizards and seasoned ballers alike can enjoy a game for 25 cents a pop while drinking on the cheap and listening to a wonderfully eclectic and varied music selection (anything from Sun Ra and Coltrane to David Bowie to the Freestyle Fellowship) provided by the 100-CD carousel behind the bar. The crowd is as eclectic as the music, but everyone is fairly mellow and appears with Cheers-ish frequency -- especially people like raconteur and liver of the High Life Dancin' Larry. On a slow night, bartenders Matt Wagner and Eric Hall are usually up for challenges on the machine, but be forewarned: The majority of those high scores are Wagner's, and he gives no quarter except when asked for change.
The appeal of the Rocket Bar can be summed up in six little words: "That is a damn high stage." And it's cramped, too. When Trans Am played in the spring, there was barely enough room for them to hand off instruments to one another, and there are only three dudes in Trans Am. This is the Rocket Bar's secret weapon, this wee little stage that fills the back corner of the room, which is itself up a flight of a half-dozen stairs: Every band assumes rock-god stature when its members are perched five feet over the audience's heads, especially when the room is just an average-size club. Still, there can be no Townshendian windmills, no Pollardesque karate kicks, no Vedderistic scenery chewing on the Rocket Bar stage. Bands must fall back on their music to entertain, and when you're pressed against the edge of the stage while a guitar amp is dermabrading your face with 200 watts of squall, you're either highly entertained or severely concussed by the end of the night. (Which, for the rock crowd, is really the same thing.) Add to this a well-stocked bar and a nifty little space-themed mosaic in the front walkway, and you have all the necessary ingredients for an evening of brain damage, bonhomie and ball-busting rock.
Tangerine hasn't been the same since Roxanna Ratossa -- she of the sharp wit, sexy disposition and totally hot cigarette-stained voice -- left last year; a whole row of fawners were heartbroken. Some -- gasp! -- turned to drink and ended up sauced at home alone. Others followed Ratossa to Modesto (5257 Shaw Avenue, St. Louis; 314-772-8272), where she now helms the horseshoe bar and serves all sorts of fancy wickedness to drinkers and hangers-on. Ratossa doesn't pander, doesn't patronize; she's more than willing to call bullshit on her row of regulars, who kindly accept her point of view and order another caipirinha.
All right, the closing of the Galaxy wasn't really all that bad -- more of a mercy killing, really, after it limped and staggered through the last year. But don't remember the Galaxy as a Clear Channel outlet with a poor sound system and a stage facing the wrong way for the length of the room; remember it instead as the big club that once booked great touring bands like Queens of the Stone Age, as well as oddball local acts like Mark Deutsch and Eric Hall's Massamalgam collective, or as the only club to ever host a Western Robot show, or as the home to the best Fetish/Goth night the area had for a while there. Remember the night Third Lip Cabaret reconfigured the Galaxy with a multimedia art show, replete with installation art and video projections and a punishing Dave Stone solo performance, while just outside hordes of shiny-shirt-clad bohunks and their silicone ladies peered bemusedly in the window on their way to the chi-chi clubs that now dominate Washington Avenue. Remember the Galaxy as a cautionary tale and as a once-proud example of the diverse music scene she herself fostered. R.I.P., Galaxy; St. Louis is better for having known you.
This is the way Barry Currie does it at the Pageant, where he is a doorman and bouncer: Spotting trouble, be it a malcontent or miscreant, he puts on his best face and assumes a calm disposition, one that comes very naturally to him. He's like that horse whisperer or something. He approaches, places his hand on the evildoer's shoulder, firmly but without malice, and informs him that, sorry, time is up. "You are going to have to leave now." His size -- a solid, big-boned intimidator -- works as the unspoken Enforcer, and the calm in the heart of his eyes, which also comes naturally, serves to lower the testosterone to acceptable levels.
From the outside, this south-side pub could be the city's ugliest bar. It takes more than a little gall to paint the name of your business in lemon yellow on cheap-looking bright-blue siding. It's like something from a bad acid trip. But ignore the godawful paint job. Take a deep breath and step inside. No one will hurt you. We promise. Once inside the door, it's a completely different scene. The décor is comfortable corner tavern, with a zillion or so pennies laminated into the bar top and the requisite country-and-western mingling peacefully with hoosier rock favorites on the jukebox, which is silent when you walk in. Curious, given that there are 26 selections waiting to be made, free of charge. You order a beer and start punching buttons, only to find the volume barely at conversation level. "Can we turn it up?" you ask. No, answers the bartender, with a slight roll of her eyes. Tonight, she explains, is league night. Now you notice that the room is divided exactly in half, with a four-foot-high wall separating the bar area from a space devoted to dart players. The lighting just above the boards perfectly illuminates the bristle, and the bulls-eyes look to be in good shape, not worn by a thousand perfect shots. But only two of the bar's eight boards are being used, by no more than a half-dozen players. Plenty of room for me, you think, and so you ask for some house darts. Once again the answer is the same: No. It's league night, the clearly apologetic bartender explains. Players here change boards with each game, somewhat like bowlers who alternate lanes. Wouldn't want to be in the middle of a game when it's time for the league players to move to your board. Well, excuuuuse me, you think. So you sit. And drink. And listen to your tunes. Finally one of the league players saunters over. You half-expect him to ask that the music be turned down. Instead, he buys you a beer, says he's sorry that you couldn't play right away and invites you over to the hallowed dart side. We're done with the boards on the left, he says. Play as much as you want. Score!
Most of us have the good sense to not eat near the toilet. Unsanitary! Smoking cigarettes near gas pumps is a bad idea. Unsafe! How about letting a thousand or so hardcore bands play in your living room every day of the year? Unthinkable. There's a time and place for everything. Since 1997 the Creepy Crawl has been a well-loved repository of faster-and-louder music in St. Louis, a steadfast battleship in the harbor of pleasure boats that is our club scene. Along with hosting local and touring acts from every category and subcategory of punk, the Creepy also joyfully brings the metal. If it's loud, this club will book it. On a busy night, it can get rowdy down in front and very hot. That's as it should be -- if you're leaving without ringing ears and torn, sweat-soaked clothes, you've probably missed something.
Though there are no reported renderings of the Cheers theme song at this weekly Wednesday night warblefest, the atmosphere at Llywelyn's upstairs-bar karaoke is one in which everybody knows your name -- even if the regulars are so consistently tipsy, it's a wonder anybody remembers it. More than just an outlet for sloshed sorority girls or a showcase for American Idol wannabes, the karaoke here -- which lasts from about 10 p.m. until closing and yet often serves as the social-calendar high point for many a Wash. U. grad student, St. Louis theater scenester and off-duty Post-Dispatch reporter -- is about being and becoming friends. Social cliques bleed happily into one another, bonds are fast forged over off-key covers, bartender Amy is lusted over by men and women alike and nobody seems to leave without hooking up in the bathroom at least once. Debates about whether karaoke is cool (or distinctly uncool, or only cool when approached from a detached, ironic worldview) prove irrelevant here. At Llywelyn's, karaoke is love.
When it's the freakin' weekend, baby, and you're maneuvering down the sapphire runway that is Washington Avenue toward the matching blue Knickerbocker sign, stop at Velvet to get your dance on. After the valet and the nominal admission price, clubgoers are often greeted with not one but two or more local DJs extraordinaire -- one in the intimate Havana Lounge and the other in the back cavern. If it's big names you crave, this Washington Avenue pillar delivers those as well -- one of Moonshine's most recent Mixed Live CDs was recorded here. Need we say more? Plus, there's no live remote with a radio station cheesing up the place, just good drinks (chocolate martinis at the front bar are the best!) and great music.
The man knows more about techno and house than you do by a long shot, and mixes the two with a deftness that comes with spinning records for the better part of a decade. Andy Ford, a.k.a. Astroboy, has a collection to die for, it's true, and this past year he started working with Final Scratch Pro, the revolutionary new combo software/hardware DJ tool that allows him to load his entire music collection onto his PC, set it up at da club, toss two special records onto two standard Technics 1200s and mix live the thousands of tracks he possesses. So then what you've got is the best mixer in the city carrying the hugest collection in the city who has the best sense of what a crowd wants when they want it and how to give it to them and when to push it and when to pull it and when to totally just let loose. Seek out Astroboy when you really want to dance.