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August 27th, 2014 JAY HORTON | Music Stories
 

Van Lear Rosebud

Ten years after Jack White and Loretta Lynn’s tryst in “Portland, Oregon,” WW attempts to solve its greatest mystery.

culturefeat_4043ILLUSTRATION: Adam Krueger
     
Tags: portland, bars

Until 2004, a sloe gin fizz usually meant a nasty hangover and some collegiate fumbling. But following that year’s release of Van Lear Rose—the epochal collaboration between dispossessed Queen of Country Loretta Lynn and garage savant Jack White—the drink would forevermore suggest a particularly bittersweet realm of human drama. 

“Well, Portland, Oregon, and sloe gin fizz/ If that ain’t love then tell me what is…” 

In a single stanza of that album’s signature single, the sloe gin fizz attached itself permanently to Portland, Oregon, just as the city hopped forward into the national consciousness.

While “Portland, Oregon” deserves neither credit nor blame for all that’s since happened to fair Puddletown, it’s pretty hard to argue against the song as de facto civic anthem—like “I Love L.A.” or “New York, New York”—and it’s rather more difficult to find a Portlander who’s not a fan, however grudgingly.

But why would a son of Detroit and a daughter of Kentucky sing of Portland in the first place? Why sloe gin fizz? And where in the hell can you order it “by the pitcher and not by the glass”?

We decided to look at three contenders—the then-relevant Shanghai Tunnel, the long-shuttered Flower Drum and the possibility that it’s just a passive-aggressive revenge fantasy.


The Case for Shanghai Tunnel

While Lynn has played through town only a handful of times in the past few decades, Jack White has been a regular visitor, and evidently maintains some kinship with the tune and the town. “Portland, Oregon” opened Dead Weather’s 2010 set at the Crystal Ballroom, led the encore for his solo show at Theater of the Clouds two years back and will surely be heard this week at McMenamins Edgefield.

One of White’s first local appearances was in spring 2001. With the White Stripes’ second album, De Stijl, slowly making the rounds, only a few dozen celebrants were on hand at Berbati’s Pan, and the reception felt strained between gals thrilled by his preternatural presence onstage and the rocker faithful grumbling about the absence of bass.

At the time, adjoining dive Shanghai Tunnel served as all-purpose green room for Berbati’s and, among other experiments with grimy lounge-chic fare, some regulars recall a brief flirtation with small pitchers of sloe gin fizz. In its heyday, Lord knows, the subterranean confines played host to many rising stars and expressly aided the indulgence of all conceivable urges. Whatever actually occurred when White made his pilgrimage to Lynn’s ranch for the initial round of songcraft—their stated remembrances differ greatly from interview to interview—mightn’t we suspect the young producer threw out a few ideas of his own to spark Lynn’s long-dormant songwriting engine?

The counterpunch, of course, is that Lynn, not White, is credited with writing the song. But make no mistake: “Portland, Oregon” is a collaboration in the best sense of the word. Lynn’s vocals don’t even arrive until after more than a minute and a half of simmering guitar work—playful, sprung, smirky yet respectful of conventions—and even then, her ageless tones seem stronger when set against his unashamed reediness. It’s fairly plain the song wouldn’t have existed without the steady shove of White—and possibly one sodden night at Shanghai Tunnel.


The Case for the Flower Drum

That said, it’s still Loretta Lynn’s song. So here’s another theory.

The Pacific Northwest has long held its share of country-music stars. They just tend not to stick around that long. (Willie Nelson, who recorded his first single at a Portland studio, fled to Fort Worth, Texas, once the record started selling and remains that city’s patron saint.) Raised a coal miner’s daughter, Lynn was also a failed lumberjack’s wife, and she spent more than a decade raising a family in northern Washington before finding success with her early band, the Trailblazers.

Between the 1960 release of her first single, “Honky Tonk Girl,” and her arrival in Nashville as first-lady-in-waiting, Lynn and her husband, Doolittle or “Doo,” spent the early ’60s driving between a constant flurry of radio spots and local bills in a general PR blitz. Portland, purportedly the only U.S. city with a population below 600,000 to boast two country stations at that time, would’ve certainly been a target, and country musicians inevitably found their way to the Flower Drum—an expansive Chinese restaurant (technically, at least) at Southeast 146th Avenue and Division Street that served as our premier honky-tonk from 1963 onward because the Division Street Corral country-music venue, located 25 blocks east, didn’t have a liquor license. Charley Pride, George Strait, Tammy Wynette and countless others graced the Corral’s stage, and then filled the Flower Drum’s booths later.

Even after Fred Meyer bought the property in 1985, the club simply moved across the street, shortened its name, and sustained an infamous reputation for the best sorts of bad behavior. Through the ’90s, just about every pair of boots to stroll through town still frequented the Drum for such decidedly un-Portland attractions as a mechanical bull, line-dancing classes and—they say—free-flowing pitchers of sloe gin fizz garnished with four cherries and an orange slice. 

As should sadly be expected, few records remain of the old days, and we’ve no way of knowing for sure whether Loretta Lynn ever entered Portland’s signature country joint or came to associate its altogether unique drink special with the city itself.


The Case for Holiday Inn

All of this is, clearly, nothing more than speculation.

As it happens, a deep dig into Lynn’s work turns out a passage about the writing of the song, published before the song was even released. In her 2002 autobiography, Still Woman Enough, Lynn describes a daft infidelity prank dreamt up with tourmate Cal Smith at a Portland Holiday Inn to spoil her husband’s golf vacation. Doo, who died in 1996, had come to Portland to play in a golf tournament; Lynn was bored and pissed. She and her bandmate came up with the idea for a fake affair—she sat down to write the lyrics, and the melody followed.

Since the song became a surprise late-career hit, she’s allowed the mystery to fester.

We choose to believe the song was inspired, if not by true events—a public tryst between Lynn and White, aged some 40 years apart, doesn’t seem likely—then by a real place here in town.

If this article is just another exercise in mythmaking, though, the artists and their subject do lend themselves to the task. When Jack White first met Loretta Lynn, it was with Meg, his ex-wife, whom, at the time, he insistently described as his sister. Recent discoveries about Lynn’s birthdate, for that matter, have laid bare the still-sorta-startling revelation that she pretended to be three years younger than her age for nearly half a century, though this mislabeled her husband a pedophile—albeit one winningly played by Tommy Lee Jones—for most of his life. 

There are truths and there are truths in this business we call show, and the Portland, Oregon, that’s grown up in the shadow of “Portland, Oregon” understands this completely.

“And a pitcher to go...”


SEE IT: Jack White plays McMenamins Edgefield, 2126 SW Halsey St., Troutdale, with Curtis Harding, on Wednesday, Aug. 27. 6:30 pm. Sold out.

 
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