When tales are told of the downtown "rock blocks" that once cultivated a burgeoning Portland music scene, the Ash Street Saloon doesn't often take center stage.
Open-door booking policies, a roadhouse-express atmosphere and signature events of a keening silliness—bacon wrestling, pirate festivals—somehow failed to inspire the romantic reveries that sustain the legend of other bygone venues. Ash Street would never boast Satyricon's unassailable punk cred, nor attract the glittering alt-heroes of Berbati's Pan.
But soldiering on for decades with genre-spanning live acts 363 days a year served a function just as vital—and one, we suspect, far harder to replace. As the venerable club enters its final week of shows, we asked a few former mainstays to share favored memories of Old Town's last gleaming.
Former Ash Street bartender Ashley McGarr: Before it was the Ash Street, I believe the space was a Korean karaoke bar. It was just the bar room with a small stage over by the windows. That [brick archway] was just a wall.
Street performer John "Elvis" Shroder: They did have a small stage there where the tables are now, but the venue side used to be a card shop.
Current Ash Street bartender Mandy Freund: Camel had paid for a mural [on former brick wall] to encompass the whole club, so there was a woman onstage with a guitar and a cigarette sticking out. When the wall came down, people wanted to take a swing at that ugly fucking mural.
McGarr: The backyard's always been there. When I was first working here with Megan and Amber, people had to ring a bell out on the bar if they wanted a drink because we'd all be on the roof suntanning.
Freund: There used to be stairs that led up to the roof in the backyard.
McGarr: I can't remember the woman's name, but she took a tumble and that was the end of the stairs and the deck. Legally, I'm sure we weren't even supposed to be up there.
Former Ash Street bartender Tracy Nyari: People would come here for years and have no idea that back patio is there. It's a goddamn gem in downtown, [whereas] the green room looks like you're crawling into a fireplace.
Freund: When Bar 71 was next door, a lot of the bands would go up the staircase to the green room and make fun of the people down on the dancefloor and kinda throw shit at them.
Weaklings/P.R.O.B.L.E.M.S. frontman Bradly Battin: I used to like opening up the window in the green room…and peeing on the people dancing at the club next door. That was always a good time.
Nyari: At this point, we've all discussed plans for the couch. Maybe we should just donate it to OHSU, and they can do some testing. Seriously, I don't know how they'll get it out of there. How'd they even get it in?
Freund: That's a mystery because the staircase that's there now didn't then exist. I think it probably should be preserved, if you could figure out a way to decontaminate. That is a disgusting fucking couch.
Portland hip-hop legend Mic Crenshaw: If a venue could be a family member, I would consider the Ash Street my favorite rambunctious-but-reliable cousin who stayed downtown—always there to support and have a good time.
Battin: The Ash Street was always a place that any band could play. It wasn't a metal club. It wasn't a punk club. It wasn't a hippie club. They catered to everybody. If you were rolling through town, your show fell through and you needed a place to play, you could always hit up the Ash Street to jump on a bill.
Capt. Ankeny's bartender Brian Cook: I mean, there's been a lot of crazy shit that's happened down here through the years—a lot of weird fights. Some kid got his head kicked through the window. Drive-by shootings. We were all working the night there was a shooting at Kells. One night, I came in here mid-shift to have a drink, and Kenny G. was sitting at the bar.
Nyari: Norman Stanley, our psychotic homeless neighborhood friend, would come in, and we'd make him check his weapons at the bar—then he was allowed to have a drink. Apparently, as the story goes, he used to be around here in the late '80s, and a bunch of the bar owners around town all threw in money to give him a one-way bus ticket to Miami. They sent him out of town, and it took him like 10 or 15 years to get back. He's missed. Lefty is missed. Biker Nick is missed. There are plaques at the end of the bar for those guys.
Freund: I was in here having drinks on a Sunday afternoon a couple weeks ago, and some crazy, crazy lady lost her shit and threw a mug at the mirror over the bar. That's terrible for the bartender, but it kind of warmed my heart to know there's still that crazy left in this neighborhood. I don't want them to be able to push it all out. I don't want Old Town to be all families waiting in line for Voodoo Donuts.
Freund: [The landlords] don't want a place with music and won't renew the venue. They have a different vision.
McGarr: Ankeny's lease was up before this place, and they just wouldn't let 'em re-sign.
Bacon Cup impresario Ray McMillin: There are venues that put up with industrial music, venues that put up with joke rap, venues that put up with strippers, wrestling, even lard. Thanks to the closing of Ash Street, finding a venue to allow all of these things at once will no longer be a possibility.
Crenshaw: It's been a fearless pillar of support for punk, hip-hop, metal and underground music. We need places like Ash Street for organic culture to thrive.
Cook: I mean, I've got to be honest, some of the worst music I've ever seen has been played at the Ash Street, but it was kind of awesome that any band could get a chance. Even if you have a terrible show, you might be going somewhere good down the road, and you need that opportunity to play. That's going to be a hard fucking void to fill. I don't know where you'll get a show now without much of a reputation.
Battin: Downtown's losing another open-minded, no-frills venue able to put up a band any night of the week. We're losing another small, cozy venue, which sucks for bands that ain't gonna fill up a 500-person place. The Ash Street had music seven days a week, so we're losing that, exactly that, and there's not much more of that going around.
SEE IT: Ash Street Saloon's final week of shows begins Tuesday, Dec. 26. Go here for a complete schedule.