Culture

Ten Legends of the Commodore Ballroom

We don't always get it right in Vancouver, but we surely did with this place.

By Aaron Chapman 11 Dec 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Aaron Chapman is a writer, historian, and musician with a special interest in Vancouver's entertainment and crime history. He is also the author of Liquor, Lust and the Law.

After my first book, Liquor, Lust, and The Law: The Story of Vancouver's Legendary Penthouse Nightclub, it felt like the time was right to tackle the story of the fabled Commodore Ballroom. But how does one begin to tell the story of the thousands of shows and bands, and of the dance floor that's seen millions of people, over the music venue's near 85-year history?

The Commodore's history extends back to the 1930s when Vancouverites danced into the night to swing orchestras. In the '70s, under the leadership of legendary owner Drew Burns, the Commodore became a full-on music club, a must-stop for breakout bands and the latest in punk, new wave, blues, heavy metal and rock. Everyone from the New York Dolls, KISS, the Police, the Clash, INXS, David Bowie, Nirvana and the Pixies have played there.

Vancouverites have lived with the Commodore so long, it's difficult to imagine the city without it -- yet they got a taste of that in the late '90s. But the ballroom bounced back, managing to outlast other nightspots in the city lost to gentrification. 

We don't always get it right in Vancouver, but we surely did with this place. Here's a list of 10 nights, or periods, over the Commodore Ballroom's long history that have made it one of the most venerated concert halls in North America. 

1. Built by beer money

Vancouver may have a modern, health conscious image of itself, but the truth is that since Gassy Jack Deighton paddled his canoe up to the shores on the south side of Burrard Inlet -- offering the local sawmill workers all they could drink in one sitting if they helped him build a saloon (and the town and city that would eventually grow around it) -- Vancouver owes much of its existence, and most significant places, to liquor and partying. 

Like the Lions Gate Bridge, built by investments from the Guinness family, the Commodore was made possible by the profits from beer, thanks to the Reifel family whose Vancouver breweries experienced exponential profits during the era of U.S. prohibition. George Reifel took the money made in alcohol and branched into real estate, bankrolling the construction of the Commodore. While the Depression caused other significant building projects like the Hotel Vancouver to stop construction, the Reifel's brewery profits guaranteed completion. 

2. Opening night, a romantic escape

When the Commodore opened on Dec. 3, 1930, it made headlines. With its glamorous art-deco design and English-style ballroom sprung dance floor, there was nothing quite like it in town. Back then Vancouver was a very different place, with two-thirds of city streets still gravel and dirt roads. The city even smelled differently, with the industry that belched smoke in nearby False Creek. For many, a night out at the Commodore meant an escape from the drudgery of home or work. The music and lighting were romantic, and compared to most people's homes the venue was glamorous and beautiful. Society then was much more mannered; local beer parlours even had separate entrances for men and women. A night on the ballroom floor offered a chance to hold someone close in a perfectly innocent setting, with the promise of something more. 

3. Sabotaging the 'dry squad' raids

The Commodore is remembered as one of the great "bottle clubs" of Vancouver in an era before liquor licenses, when drinking in public, even in a restaurant or nightclub, was illegal. The Vancouver Police Department regularly staged dry squad raids at various nightspots to see if anybody was committing the crime of drinking at a table with friends. "You took your bottle and put it under the table," recalls Jean Bain, now in her eighties. "I never did it, of course," she said, adopting a particularly prim tone, "but my date would. The police would come in but never found anything."

Why not? The answer may have been the Commodore's long staircase from its front door. By the time police entered the building from Granville Street, the doormen would signal a buzzer to the upstairs, which in turn notified the band on stage who would stop the song and launch into "Roll out The Barrel," warning the audience of a police raid. By the time the police got to the second floor, the mickeys of gin and whiskey were well-hidden under the tablecloths. 

4. Drew Burns takes over

It's safe to say that if someone like Drew Burns hadn't come along, the club might have been closed, converted into a different business, or suffered demolition like other now lost or forgotten dance ballrooms. A man with strong instincts and an often ribald sense of humour, Burns had the energy and vision to navigate the Commodore into a new era. Perhaps his best skill was knowing how to make sure people had a good time; he certainly knew how to have a good time himself. In the late 1960s, Burns caught the eye of the Commodore's owner who was looking to sell the business. Burns was busy throwing parties with a singles group called the Fifth Day Club. It was Tinder for the Mad Men crowd, bringing together single men and women to party at places like the Bayshore Hotel, Hotel Vancouver, and the Commodore itself, so often that management suggested he took over the place.

582px version of Drew Burns
Drew Burns, former owner. Photo credit: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun.

In Nov. 1969 a deal was struck, and the night Burns picked up the keys he did something that few have done: he stood silently and alone in the venue. "You'll find lots of people who've been in the Commodore with a full house, but there are very few people who have been in the room all by themselves. I stood there that night thinking, 'What am I going to do with his place? But I planned it out in my mind, dreaming about all the acts I would like to see in this room that could hold 1,000 people,'" he said.

5. I said Captain!

Much of Burns' success was giving the right people the right chance at the right time. In Feb. 1973, 20-something Paul Mercs had never promoted a concert in his life when, after returning home from a trip bumming around in the U.K. working as a stagehand at concert festivals, he got the idea that he might be able to put on a concert in Vancouver. He'd been to the Commodore once before when Burns had booked Mitch Ryder in 1971, and so he dropped into the venue's office to approach Burns about his idea. "[Burns and the Commodore management] looked at me like I was from Mars. I mean, I was a hippie, and [Burns] and those guys were definitely not from the same generation! I was surprised they didn't say no," Mercs said. With 11 days to the show date, Mercs booked Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band at the Commodore. Mercs ended up selling out not one, but two sold-out nights at the Commodore that March, and launched himself into a career in the concert business that continues today, handling tours from Heart to Pearl Jam.

6. The great summer of '77

The summer of 1977 was a pivotal period in the cultural landscape of Vancouver. On July 30, 1977, a handful of people witnessed Vancouver's first punk rock show at the Japanese Hall on Alexander Street. A week later, four New Yorkers staying at the Castle Hotel grabbed their leather jackets, left the hotel, and walked one block to meet the 600 punk rock fans and curiosity seekers who awaited them at the Commodore Ballroom. It was the Vancouver debut of the Ramones. It was that night, in retrospect, that seemed to herald a changing of the guard. The Commodore's bar staff, more used to folk rock and blues audiences, stood gloomily and open-mouthed at the audience of young freaks who showed up to see the Ramones. If any further omen was needed that rock-and-roll music was ready for a shake-up and times were changing, a week later Elvis Presley was dead. 

582px version of Blondie
Blondie at the Commodore, 1979. Photo credit: Ron Obvious Vermeulen.

7. January 1979

While it's difficult to single out any one period as the Commodore's most notable or remarkable, the month of Jan. 1979 might earn that distinction. It began on Jan. 2 when Blondie appeared to a packed house. The Ramones returned a few days later on Jan. 6, and this time Vancouver was ready when 1,000 pogo'ing punk rock fans hit the dance floor. Yet the Ramones might have looked quaint compared to Devo, which took the stage on Jan. 12 and played both an 8 p.m. and midnight show. While Devo may be regarded today as a kitschy '80s group, the band struck audiences as controversial in its early years. Rolling Stone magazine notoriously found their sound, imagery and disdainfully "devolutionary" worldview threatening enough to call them fascists. 

BB King and Tower of Power also performed that month, but it was the Clash making its North American debut at the Commodore on Jan. 31 where Vancouverites could see for themselves that despite the bombast -- the Clash were called "The Only Band That Matters" -- they were at their root a terrific live band.

"The Commodore made the world very small," said John Armstrong, who would go in the span of a few years from Commodore audience member to playing the stage regularly as Buck Cherry, the singer and guitarist of The Modernettes. "You'd read articles about bands from other places, and the four months later they'd be playing in your city. In January 1979, I pretty much blew my welfare cheque on Commodore shows. There was no money left for food."

8. Up Perryscope

The late '70s and early '80s saw the rise of Vancouver-based Perryscope Concerts, which began to regularly produce shows at the Commodore. Thanks to some of the fledgling company's booking contacts overseas, Perryscope brought in bands that Burns did not have connections to, often as part of its "Cheap Thrills" concert series which brought in acts under very inexpensive ticket prices. The March 24, 1981 show by a relatively unknown Irish band named U2, with tickets just under $5, is perhaps the most legendary example. U2 was then so new it didn't have enough songs for a full night, and ended up playing "I Will Follow" once in their set and again in their encore. U2 returned to Vancouver in 2009 on their 360 Tour at BC Place, and between songs Bono asked the stadium crowd if anybody had seen them at their first Vancouver show at the Commodore Ballroom all those years ago. The audience of 50,000 all positively cheered an impossible "yes!"

582px version of Kurt Cobain at the Commodore
Nirvana thrilled the Commodore in 1991. Photo credit: Charles Peterson.

9. The door is (briefly) shut

After over 25 years managing the Commodore, in 1996 Burns fell into a protracted legal dispute with the owners of the building when his lease ended. At the time, he was already considering retirement and selling the business. Burns lawyer filed an injunction and the matter went to Provincial Court in front of Judge Wally Oppal, who despite being sympathetic to Burns' situation could not legally rule in his favour.

Burns left the Commodore that July and the doors were shuttered. For the next three years, Vancouverites who walked down Granville Street passed the Commodore's once-welcoming double doors, locked and tagged by graffiti artists. As the late writer Dave Watson observed, "It's incredible how two small doors can leave such a huge gap in the city of Vancouver when they're locked up tight. Until they're open again, we can only remember."

The closure was unquestionably detrimental to the local concert landscape, because there were no comparable venues of its size in Vancouver. Many tours suddenly skipped playing Vancouver. "When the Commodore closed, up-and-coming acts didn't have a really great place to play," says musician Jim Byrnes. "The place was an anchor for [bands doing] western Canadian tours; if they couldn't anchor four or five nights in a proper place, they just quit coming -- and it seemed they forgot we were here."

10. It's not last call yet

The Commodore reopened on Nov. 12, 1999 with Blue Rodeo kicking off the opening night. The venue had undergone $4 million in renovations. In the coming months and years, Canadian bands like 54-40, Big Sugar, Colin James, Nomeansno and Spirit of the West all returned to play the venue, and touring acts from NOFX, Fishbone, Richard Thompson, Ween, Midnight Oil, Maceo Parker would also play. The Commodore was back. The Tom Waits show in 2004, his first club date in decades, is now remembered mythically, and since then the room continues to be a stop on the way up for new bands and performers, everyone from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga to Muse and The Black Keys. 

Will it be there for another 85 years? That's difficult to tell. From the Cave to the Town Pump, Vancouver has not held onto its legendary nightclubs, making the fact that the Commodore is still there on Granville Street all the more remarkable. But for now, the venue that has seen everything from the foxtrot to moshing looks like there's still some music and dancing to take in. 

Aaron Chapman's new book, Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver's Historic Commodore Ballroom, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, is available at bookstores now.  [Tyee]

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