Blues Bar Memoir

The Mile High Club Takes a Dive

My friends Tim and Penelope invited me to meet them at their house and drive to a bar in Oakland. It was our first visit to Eli’s Mile High Club. A “dive” was how they pitched it. Not a dive bar because that would have been redundant. Everybody knew dive meant lowlife saloon, or a honky-tonk if there was live music. And it was taken for granted to be blues music, if not R&B, unless it was country; but a crude joint in any case. Eli’s fit that mold, rough around the edges. The neighborhood that is; but not so rough you’d expect to see a fight break out inside. Well, not unless you count Eli getting murdered by his girlfriend. Knifed or gunshot, I don’t know. It happened. But other than that, simply speaking, a dive is where you check your conceits at the door and enjoy some cheap liquor. Maybe plunge into a pity party. Often alone. Once in a while with friends. Maybe get up and dance if you’ve got the mojo.

Eli’s was indeed a blues bar, all blues all the time. I don’t recall who said so, or sang so — it might have been Muddy Waters — but playin’ the blues don’t mean you’re sad, just not satisfied. Our objective on a Friday night in 1989 was to satisfy a craving for blues, live and in the wild. Personally, I was hoping the house band included someone who could wrap his chops around a tin sandwich, a Hohner Marine Band harmonica cupped in two hands with a Fentone bullet-mic on a cord and blown clear into the next universe, with the reverberated and over-amplified sound pioneered by Little Walter: Chicago style.

The Mile High Club is a funny name for a dive that’s situated under an interchange off Highway 80 in the East Bay littoral, just a few feet above sea level. It’ll go underwater when climate change kicks in, for sure. But who knew? Eli Thornton, the guy who got murdered, opened his club in 1974. He must have had high hopes before he met his girlfriend. Maybe they met on an airplane, and that’s how he came up with the name. Or maybe he wanted to project the crapulence of his customers on a swingin’ night. Or maybe he was just sarcastic. Regardless, Eli’s drew a diverse crowd of locals and college students from Berkeley, often getting so busy that people were turned away. The Rolling Stones showed up on a packed night in 1981 but the doorman didn’t know who the hell they were and wouldn’t let them in — just some short, skinny honkies who talked funny. It made the news.

Eli’s did go underwater — financially. It’s still there. But with a recent infusion of capital its new owners cater less to the proletariat than they beckon the upscale to take a dive. Now, it really is a dive bar in the vernacular of trendiness. The club’s new slogan is “A Garbage Bar for Losers.” Yeah, right. There’s déclassé for ya! They’re marketing to young adults who grew up in the rotor wash of helicopter parents and wish to go slumming safely, a Disney-fied social descent. And with the existence of a generational détente, in abidance with full-sleeve tats and nose rings, Eli’s now entertains a virtually all-white clientele, comfortable eating and drinking at picnic tables on the patio out back. At least the investors didn’t turn it into a speakeasy, another nostalgic misappropriation from the language of the strung-out. Thankfully, they don’t try to imitate the atavistic glamour of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition gangsterism while proffering $18 cocktails, top-shelf spirits, and amuse-bouche. Instead, it’s now a frat boys’ garage party with a bar still serving shot glasses spilling over with booze and cold beer in cans. But no more blues. Just punk.

For those who came to appreciate Eli’s authenticity as a venue for blues, long before punk was associated with nihilistic rock ’n’ roll, the word still carries a less romanticized connotation about personal worthlessness, as in, I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? That was Dirty Harry’s take around that time.

When we arrived, Tim and Penelope were concerned about leaving their car on the street at night, too far from the club, so we drove around until we found a parking spot under a lamppost. It was of dubious value because, if not for the light, we wouldn’t have seen the nuggets of glass glittering on the curb. Right on cue a middle-age Barney Fife appeared in a khaki security-guard uniform, two sizes too big and bedizened with iffy insignia. His hair hung from under a peaked cap like ribbons that had been zip-curled with the edge of a scissors. To further deter villains he was armed with a fully loaded billyclub. Obviously, this entrepreneur/crime-buster invested in his outfit to snag gratuities from the likes of us, for keeping his eyes peeled on parked cars. Behind the wheel, Penelope followed his gestures to execute a perfect parallel-parking job. She got soaked for ten bucks. Worth it.

Sauntering into the club (saunter is what you do), padding across the sticky floor, the smell of stale beer, cigarettes, and sweat slammed memories up my nose from a time when that wasn’t all that went up my nose. I was a cocky young photographer who wore lots of jewelry that scratched the paint off my Nikons. I was shooting rock ’n’ roll and blues bands at venues all over LA, my home base until I came north in 1987. B.B. King once introduced me to his soulmate, Lucille, while he was adjusting her G string backstage at the Forum. I felt right at home at Eli’s.

The decor was Post-modern Mendicant. Low-watt lightbulbs hung from the ceiling, their filaments struggling cowardly against the dark, pulsing to the heartbeat of the music. Loose wiring. Clouds of smoke obscured old and dead Black men peering down from 8x10 glossies thumbtacked to nicotine-encrusted walls. Ambiance reflected the extent of one’s inebriation.

A high-amplitude twang at the apex of an ascending minor-seventh-chord caught my ear and held it, then pulled my eyes toward the source: a steel wire garroting the neck of a Fender Telecaster. The man just killing it was bent over backward on the bandstand, wringing an E out of the stratosphere. He further bent the note itself, up toward E-sharp, poignant with harmonic overtones that resounded into feedback hovering octaves above my brain. I was close enough to see his calloused fingertips, deeply scored by the needle-thin strings strung across the frets of his guitar. How did he not bleed? I was reminded of the little harp-like gadget my mother used in the kitchen to slice hard-boiled eggs. Meanwhile, the bass and drums were in the pocket, laying down a riff in 4/4 time punctuated with a hi-hat and a kick on the backbeat. The bandleader, on piano, launched into a chorus and then nodded to the trumpet player, who took that as his cue for vocal solo. He moved out front and sang under an improvised spotlight, a bare bulb in front of a pie tin that shone just brightly enough to see his face implode into a recollection of heartache. It’s hard to believe a man could shut his eyes so tight, wincing under the weight of his brow.

The barmaid, whom I took for Jamaican when she took my order, gamboled over to the bandstand and cued up a short segue to reggae, carrying off some Dancehall “riddims” while balancing a dozen empty beer bottles on a tray atop her head. No hands. She danced in heels, wearing a tube top and short-shorts — honestly not much at all. Tippled men dressed in suits ambled up and, on their tiptoes, pushed dollar bills halfway down the bottlenecks. Other men, defending their tables, waved her over to receive a reward. Even some of their dates or wives participated in that practice.

The trumpet-playing singer took a break to watch this sexy sideshow, leaning his shoulder against the wall separating the kitchen door from the stage. Watching him watching her watching him, I could see they had a choreographic groove going on, mirroring body language, stealing glances. With his thumb and forefinger he cocked his beret over an eye and blew her a kiss through bugled lips that looked like a cut of raw liver, from years of blowing on a hard brass mouthpiece. She sashayed over and gave his buckle a shine.

As the entertainment continued, I sipped shots of rye whisky chased with a Schlitz, and contributed to the razing of Fidel Castro’s crops by setting fire to a delicious Montecristo Especial Nº2 brought along for this occasion. A good time was had by all. But I never did get to hear that blues harp, also known as a Mississippi saxophone.

ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Fate follows the path of least resistance. Success follows the path of maximum persistence.

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