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Second Set: Construction never stops at Venice Cafe

This article first appered in the St. Louis Beacon, March 29, 2012 - You don’t need a phone number to find Jeff Lockheed. Most days, all you have to do is drive past the corner of Pestalozzi and Lemp. Somewhere on the premises of the Venice Cafe, Lockheed will be chipping away at a project. That might mean something as simple as potting a plant. Or tuckpointing. Or painting.

It might mean his walking around outside with his earbuds in, dragging a hose behind him, picking up scraps of trash, or talking to a neighbor about something on the block. It was actually that last activity that Lockheed was engaged in on Sunday afternoon, as I pedaled up on my bicycle and greeted him, setting up an interview for the next day.

Because the Venice is a only a short jaunt from my crib, and it lies directly between my house and notable places like Soulard Market, I feel a kinship to the place that’s pretty real. If only from happening by the place a thousand times over the years. Essentially, it’s always had the same, wild look, though little bits and bobs have emerged over time. Other elements change almost daily, like the chalkboard on the Lemp side of the building, advertising each night’s entertainment.

My first visits to the Venice Cafe aren’t just in memories. They got committed to paper.

The place was just a few months old when I wrote a cover story for the Webster University Journal, on Jan. 19, 1989. The Venice had only been open since Sept. 2, 1988, a combined production of Lockheed and his partner Pahl Cuba. At that point, the place hadn’t been in their hands for too terribly long, a former boarding house that was being turned, little by little, into one of the most bohemian coffeehouses seen in St. Louis since the days of Gaslight Square.

From the start, certain elements were in place, like the doorman, Uncle Bill Green, dubbed “the world’s most dangerous poet.” On Monday nights, Barroom Bob Putnam founded an open mic night that still exists today, almost certainly the longest-running evening of its kind in town.

A photo by Suzedie Clement, from the story “Inside/Outside.... The Venice Cafe,” features a sign bearing the message “No Booze Sold or Brought In! Thanx.” And it was a no-alcohol zone for the first six months of its existence, a fact that was hailed by the young, still-underage author of the piece: “The Venice Cafe is a carnival of sorts, a feisty coffeehouse in the shadows of the world’s largest brewery, while not selling booze. It stands as a beacon to kids sans fake i.d.’s, a place to go and talk, and listen to music, and to watch people, or play chess.”

Lockheed remembers those times differently, exhibiting his usual wit.

“It was real busy,” he says, “but we weren’t making any money. It was a real junior crowd that liked to stick gum onto everything. That only lasted for six months and we went for over-21.”

While many, many things around the Venice have changed since then, the spirit of the venue remains the same as that exhibited in 1988 and ‘89. A time when Lockheed told his first interviewer that “It’s a pretty eclectic crowd. We got little old ladies, kids, punks, old hippies.”

Sounds about right.

The Transitions of 2002

It’s been a decade since the death of Pahl Cuba, and it’s obviously a subject that still tugs at Lockheed. Asked about that time, he says, “We started the place together in 1988. And he passed away in 2002. That’s just turned 10 years, now. It’s amazing how that all happened. Pahl was running the place back then, really. I was happy to be the artist-for-hire. That was a seminal moment. Everything changed for me, as I’m sure it did for his family.”

At that point, Lockheed took on more of the day-to-day tasks of running the operation, which would see the installation of an outdoor kitchen, which complemented the continued expansion and build-out of the patio, without argument one of the most-creative spaces to sit in all of St. Louis.

If Cuba’s passing left a spiritual gap, the place also caught fire - literally - “soon after that,” Lockheed says. “That whole time period really tested my mettle.”

To walk through the space is to understand, though, that a venue of this kind, about to turn 24 years old, is bound to take on its own history. The space where the fire was most severe, for example, right in the middle of the club, was rebuilt as a full-wall gallery, dedicated to the life and music of James Crutchfield.

It’s a perfect place to give the performer a nod. The man, after all, played every Wednesday night at the Venice, from the first months of the business until his death in 2001. His legacy’s not a minor one in the lore of the Venice, and the temple to his work is full of interesting touches, with Crutchfield’s wooden leg a central, and eye-catching piece of the exhibit.

Tiny Tim, the performer whose appearances on mainstream television in the 1960s and ‘70s signaled the coming of freak culture to the airwaves, was also a performer at the Venice. Not every week, like the veteran bluesman Crutchfield, but enough that several pieces of framed art are dedicated to him, just behind the “stage” area in the main barroom.

And just a few feet away from those, another illustration hangs, featuring CD artwork of the band Funkabilly, a staple on the Venice’s musical calendar during the 1990s. To look at the men on that poster now is to see two musicians who’ve passed: percussionist Joe Longi and keyboardist Danny “Fo Jammi” Stefacek, who succubmed to cancer only just this week.

Throughout the space, other smaller memorials hang, photos of former regulars, or performers at the space. Cuba certainly has a presence on the walls, with several photos depicting him, mostly in all types of goofy antics. So while the walls famously feature lots of whimsy, there’s a real profound vibe to it all, should you choose to look for it.

The Venice, in many respects, wears this history well. Part of that has to do with the staff. Bartenders and other workers tend to stick around, like Bill Green who worked the door for the better part of a quarter-century, before recently retiring.

“Most of the people who’ve worked here have been around long-term, like 10 years,” Lockheed says. “We’ve been pretty fortunate that way. Building trust is the A-1 thing. Getting new employees means you lose a little sleep at night.”

Certain policies are mainstays, too. Even though the patio’s OK for smoking, no pipes or cigars are allowed. And there’s never, not once, not ever, been a notion of turning the place into a 3 a.m. bar, even if the neighborhood were to acquiesce.

“Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.,” Lockheed figures.

Talking about his space on Monday afternoon, Lockheed looked perfectly in place, just as you might see him any day at the Cafe, the Stag in his hand covered by a red coozie. Lockheed likes the afternoon hours at the Venice, when the sun cuts through the space in really unique ways, lighting up both the inside and outside with cool streaks of color. He semi-jokes that “I’m a happy hour type of guy. I like sunsets. I don’t see a lot of sunrises. Happy hour’s my time of day.”

He says this as he passes around a nearly mint condition Webster University Journal from January 1989. The cover’s crisp-and-clean; this copy’s been upstairs, part of a small stack of Journals he grabbed at the time of the release. On the cover, he sits with his late cat Lutoo. He’s wearing a denim jacket over a Dead Kennedy’s T-shirt. A beret covers the shoulder-length hair that falls into the upturned collars of the jacket. On the inside of the issue, he’s shed the jacket and he’s smoking, a habit long since given up.

The afternoon’s vistors can’t get enough of the piece. The newspaper, itself now nearing the quarter-century mark, gets passed around and around, and a couple of photos are taken of it. While reflecting on the time that’s passed, Lockheed winds into a story about his days as a flight attendant, the job he left to pursue building out the Venice. His story involves a gay co-worker, a trip to Omaha’s leading gay club, a prominent professional wrestler of that moment and ... well, you’ll just have to ask the man to tell you the full story, himself.

“I gotta write a book someday,” he says. “It’s been all weird, all the time.”

Of snakes and statues

That kind of statement isn’t hyperbole.

A few years back, I happened into the Venice one evening and walked up to the Explorer’s Club, the second floor bar that’s been in various stages of build-out since 1990. That night, a band was playing downstairs, while Lockheed held court upstairs, next to Vladimir Noskov, aka The Mad Russian.

As it turned out, it was the club’s birthday, and the Venice turned, I believe, 19 that very day. Lockheed was feeling a little wistful and little celebratory, as best as I can remember it. The memory’s foggy, because the drinks continued to flow, the conversations got more unusual and, eventually, the good-sized snake in the tank behind the backbar swallowed a rat.

That memory will be burned in my head for a good long while, though I’ve got at least a dozen, solid Venice Cafe stories tucked away. It seems like everyone’s who’s been to the place has at least one, or two; and as Lockheed’s the obvious person to tell them to, he gets a little bit of an earful daily.

In fact, on Sunday, not long after I ran into him on the street, he says that a young couple from Peoria were by.

“I’m out back mixing cement,” Lockheed says. “And this girl rolls up and says, ‘Please tell me you’re not closed.’ I told her we were closed every Sunday. She screamed and swore. But it was pretty neat to see a kid and her boyfriend drive three-and-a-half hours down from Peoria on a Sunday afternoon. You kinda have to wonder what fueled all that.”

Partially, it’s gotta be the chance to run into Lockheed, to see what’s next.

Over the past few weeks, parts of the patio have been sealed off and he’s been spending major time in the rear of the garden, working on a massive piece of 20,000-year-old limestone, which he’s been crafting into a very shapely female bust. He’s also been constructing high ceilings for the patio, to help keep the rain off of the heads of smokers. There’s been a wall set up, decorated with fanciful ashtrays. And there’s a plain, black wall, one that’ll be painted shortly.

Every winter, after all, Lockheed shuts down the patio and gets to work. Watching him, listening to him, you get the distinct sense that this place has moved well beyond a business. It’s a life’s work, carried out publicly, on a South City intersection that’s been made infinitely richer by Lockheed’s handiwork.

When we talk about the good old days, you can feel a little spark fly off of him. He’s proud of this place, even as there’s no intention of stopping the construction, slowing the creation of more memory-making nooks and crannies. Add in the interesting people drawn to such a space and, well, magic can happen.

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