"A block north of Starry Night, on the opposite side of the street, is the city's newest club, Satyricon. A long, narrow room that widens towards the stage at the back, it was once a horse stable and, more recently, Marlena's Tavern.... Though last week was Satyricon's first week in business, it's definitely worth a visit and a close watch in the coming months."
--Willamette Week, March 12, 1984
There's classroom history. And then there's history made in dark, filthy, obscure rooms, on streets solid citizens fear to tread. Satyricon--dive bar, punk club, cultural pillar, Old Town institution, thorn in the side of Authority, unrepentant rock-and-roll throwback--saw and made a lot of the second kind over nearly 20 years.
With a long-awaited sale reportedly pending, the club shut down last week--shows canceled, booking agents out, rumors and guesses about the future of 125 NW 6th Ave. swirling in the Portland music scene. According to George Touhouliotis, whose 18-year ownership made him as much a part of Old Town as his club, keys will probably change hands by May's end.
Somehow, the abrupt (though presumably temporary) closure only seems appropriate. Satyricon never took the gentle path. The written record of the club's existence--which can amount to no more than 1 percent of the Whole Truth--is a florid tale of excess, controversy, creative chaos. And, yes, artistic greatness.
Start with two decades' headlines:
SATYRICON LICENSE THREATENED BY DRUG BUST.
"RIOT" AT SATYRICON.
AUDIENCE DANCES NAKED AT SATYRICON.
COURTNEY LOVE PASSES OUT AT SATYRICON.
SATYRICON'S DIRTY DOZEN.
POLICE SUE SIX MEN OVER
WHOSE RIOT WAS THAT, ANYWAY?
And, of course, one that could have appeared following every one of those stories and more:
SATYRICON BACK IN BUSINESS.
It wasn't just that every band worth a half-cent in the Northwest played there, though that was true: Poison Idea and Napalm Beach; Nirvana and Pearl Jam; Golden Delicious and Dharma Bums; Dead Moon and whoever; the Epoxies and Point Line Plane and the Exploding Hearts and God Himself only knows who else.
"There were plenty of great shows and crazy times," recalls Ben Munat, who once booked the club. "Naked Raygun with Soul Asylum. Mudhoney with Blood Circus. Helmet opening for Tad, all the Unsane shows, all the Jesus Lizard shows, and so many more."
It's safe to say very few 200-capacity clubs exert influence this profound and sustained on the underground and pop cultures of the nation and world. From a purely Portland perspective, however, Satyricon's true significance might lie in its sheer survival.
In 1984, there was no Pearl District, no River District, no Chinese Garden, no MAX. Instead of a sedate old folks' home, Satyricon's neighbors included a shady grocery store (later bombed) and a corner dive bar longtime Portlanders still remember with a shiver. Instead of Fellini, dolled-up rockers and living ghosts from Old Town's street scene jostled around a gyros counter oh-so-accurately named Eat or Die.
A partial, random list of clubs Satyricon outlived might read: Starry Night, X-Ray Cafe, Key Largo, East Avenue Tavern, LaLuna, EJ's, the 13th Precinct, 17 Nautical Miles, Last Hurrah, Eli's, Rockcandy, Cafe Omega, the Scream. While the city and scene mutated around it, Satyricon sailed on--left for dead, rediscovered, reinvented, revitalized and written off all over again more times, by more generations
of scenesters, than anyone could ever reckon.
(An Oregonian article titled "What Happened to Satyricon?" said: "Drop by the bar any weekend night...and you'll find some regulars there. They still show up...but some keep asking themselves why." This article appeared on Feb. 17, 1991.)
In perverse testament to the
grotty grandeur of the club's earliest days, you can still catch veterans bitching about the 1996 renovation of the club's façade and original interior, and Fellini's advent. "That place has been for nothing but yuppies for years," declared a (possibly delusional) colleague of mine last week--a sentiment, for better or worse, only a Portlander could hold.
In fact, Satyricon's glory and curse was that it never changed
colors. The club moved from being an outpost of artistic radicalism to, too often, a bastion of old-school reaction. In recent years, booking agents came and went, and other clubs seized different little chunks of an ever-more-fragmented, complex music scene.
Still, whether or not the evening's entertainment included anything "cutting edge," you could count on Satyricon for something memorable, maybe even epic. Any given night just might ascend to scene folklore, taking its place among the 1,001 Satyricon Tales: legends, events half-remembered and much embellished, undying rumors.
Did Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love really wrestle in front of the jukebox the night they met? Were you there when Portland Organic Wrestling's Harvey Hardcock flogged Oregon's boxing and wrestling commissioner on stage? What's your preferred version of the "Satyricon Riot," the Keystone Kops-go-to-Attica incident of April 29, 1990, sparked by an overzealous lawman named Rocky?
These stories weave together to form the city's secret history. So many chapters of that saga unfolded on 6th Avenue between Couch and Davis, you can't help but wonder what's coming next. An era may be over at Satyricon, but somehow it seems one of Old Town's most infamous addresses is worth a close watch in the coming months.
Newspaper articles cited or consulted for this piece come from
. Authors include John Foyston, Marty Hughley, Fred Leeson, Richard Martin, Keith Moerer, Phil Stanford and Stuart Tomlinson.