Second Set: The Grove is booming, but the AMP is missed
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2012 - There was a time when visiting the gay and lesbian clubs of Manchester Avenue came without a lot of branding or fanfare. If memory serves correctly, the Strip was a mixed bag of venues between Vandeventer on the east and (roughly) Tower Grove on the west. There were no neon signs to greet you, no high-profile bike races, no GroveFest.
Though insiders might tell a different story, it feels as if the arrival of the Atomic Cowboy fueled the new vibe. As the club moved waaaaay east on Manchester from its old home in Maplewood, Chip Schloss took an ownership interest and things were off to the races, at least until the economic downturn nipped the booming rehab market in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood that surrounds the Grove.
The neighborhood’s still an interesting puzzle. There are some daytime businesses and services, from a bank and a post office to a used bicycle shop. You’ve got the kind of ethnic restaurants that frequently crop up in rising areas. On weekend nights and after 1:30 a.m., the area hums with bar-goers. But on off-nights and during slow periods of the week, there’s still a sense of unrealized potential.
On this past Monday evening, there was plenty of realized fun. A trio of stops showed the possibilities for a different kind of evening out on Manchester.
At Rehab, a room that’s changed names over the years, a night of karaoke was taking shape, though technical difficulties were slowing the progress. Quips were flying everywhere. When the emcee asked patience, a gent down the bar deadpanned, “As a doctor, I always have lots of patients.” Ba-da-bing. Then Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” came onto the jukebox, which brought “OK, it’s time for couples skate. Everybody go into your corner.” Another well-delivered and -timed line. Gosh, they kept coming. Rehab’s always been that place where the mood’s relatively calm, but there’s a sense of goodwill. And weeknights, especially, seem to be when the righteous stuff happens.
Down the block at Novak’s, the Kingsgiving show had wrapped, the night’s drag kings slowly leaving the club with their costumes and oversize makeup and prop boxes. The DJ had turned the evening into the nightly dance party and was playing hits old (The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”) and new (Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”). One young fella was fired up to the point that he paused from his fist-bumping for a few seconds, jumping onto the bar, grabbing the dance pole. He was quickly shooed, but the exuberance was admirable. This crowd was young, easily half of them under the age of 25, with one, large, self-conscious group dancing in a pack on the club’s dance riser, their bodies moving in front of the passing traffic.
Off to Attitudes.
There, each patron sat in rapt attention as RuPaul’s All-Stars Drag Race showed on every TV monitor in the house. This was an education. I didn’t know the show, didn’t even know the Logo network on which it aired. But part of an hour watching RuPaul school and scold drag queens was enough to figure out the basic mechanics of the show, which airs every Monday night at Attitudes, quieting the dance floor for the run of the program.
Beyond the show, played at concert volume, this was good people-watching, starting with the bartender, who was sort of a young, better-looking Abraham Lincoln, a beanie replacing the top hat, but the wrap-around beard, green work shirt and suspenders gave an overall Honest Abe look. He was friendly, attentive; and upon our departure, he gave the most-amazing hand gesture, bringing them together, moving them in toward his heart, then sending the love back out with extended palms. It was a move that’s going to be stolen.
It was a good night on Manchester’s ... er, The Grove. It really was.
It was a night that missed only one thing.
Back in the day, I passed the Alternative Music Pub for a few weeks, seeing its sandwich board outside the club. “Alternative Music Pub” it said, simply enough. At the time, my thought was the cliched “Oh, how nice. Defining a place as alternative by putting the name in the title.” The criticism proved lame once I finally rolled into the spot. The place was plenty alternative.
As has been true with many of the places I’ve been describing, I found myself at AMP with a buddy, Kurt. We went on a random afternoon. In theory, my mission was to come back with a bar review, as I contributing those to the Post-Dispatch on a weekly during the early part of the last decade. Without too much prompting, we were served a carrot cake shot, a most-amazing drink. That might have set in motion the drinking of one, possibly two more. Not a shot drinker by nature, AMP’s carrot cake changed that reality all too often.
They were served by co-proprietor Neil Harris, who’d left a job in the airline industry to open the place with his partner Rusty Woody, also a regular behind the bar there. By the time we’d left, we had the story of the place, figuring that any club with that kind of good mood on a random weekday would only have that much more on the weekends.
And that was true.
One visit became two. Two became dozens.
Harris recalls the timeline as such: AMP opened in May 2004. It stayed at the corner of Boyle and Manchester for three years, moving catty-corner in May 2007, into a newly rehabbed space. Harris left the business and St. Louis later that year, a precursor to the club’s closure in early 2008. While the new venue was, in fact, bigger and newer and cleaner, the old room had the magic dust, sprinkled liberally through the room.
It was a dark bar, the lights giving you just enough sense of who was in, who was arriving, who was departing. And that people mix ranged well beyond any pre-conceived notion of the Grove’s usual patrons. Yeah, the GLBT crowd was the base of the business, but this was a cool place for cool people of all stripes. (Note the word “cool” here, as opposed to “hip.”) In a town that doesn’t always mix well, AMP was a corner bar that was open to all.
That is, all who enjoyed the music of the ‘80s and ‘90s. One of the interesting things about the club in the earlier room was that the monitors constantly played (and with no complaints) edited versions of the old MTV staple “120 Minutes.” So every trip to AMP was a time-travel to a decade-and-change prior, with groups like Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Cure, Love and Rockets and Siouxsie & The Banshees on something of a constant loop.
Like the low lighting and come-as-you-are dress code, the music added to the overall vibe of the spot. It wasn’t a pick-up club, or a place to impress. (Though those who scored the low, leather couches along the outside wall always reigned as the night’s winning crew.) AMP was AMP, with a small staff, a relaxed feel and the tastiest shots in town, mixed and served in liberal doses. Always to a great soundtrack.
With a quick check-in, Harris writes that, “I could use the old 'It seemed like such a good idea at the time' line, but I really wouldn't have changed a thing except maybe staying at the old building. AMP ended-up being a disaster in a lot of ways (personally, financially et al) but, BOY, was it fun for a while.”
Boy was it.
Whether, or not, The Grove turns some corner, becomes much more than it currently is, the place has the potential to continue serving as an incubator for interesting new concepts. That’d be nice.
To date, the diversity in rooms has come in fits and starts. The rooms left by AMP have become Premium Lounge and Erney’s 32 Degrees. (An AMP devotee, still, I’ve never been able to bring myself to enter either place.) The final location of Grandma’s is open, and you can only hope that the funkiness of Tim Craddock’s old place would be mildly hinted at in whatever moves into that bar. Other spots have come and gone, some thriving, like the Handle Bar, which itself replaced the Church Key.
Bar districts are places of flux, where people meet, make memories, call the place their own.
In my 30s, I had AMP. The kids at Attitudes and Novak’s, they have those spots to build on. If, for whatever reason, they close, they’ll even take on that much more meaning for the regulars.
Good luck, kids. Make those memories golden.