There’s something about the written word that adds finality to a subject. Contracts are finished with a signature, newspapers are often considered bastions of truth and obituaries often put a person’s death in perspective for their loved ones. Perhaps this is why I put off writing this story for so long; I didn’t want to admit the truth: at the end of the year, two of the most important places in my life will cease to be. The Mad Hatter has already shuttered its doors and the Southgate House is closing after Saturday. And I can’t quite bring myself to accept that.
In high school, I was the token weird kid. Some of my peers flourished on the football field, in the class room, or in the school theater. But for me, I was the kid who listened to the loud music but didn’t have the musical skill to play it himself. Going to a small, private school in a Cincinnati suburb, this inclination was met with every sort of response, usually in the realm of confusion. The kids didn’t get it, the teachers didn’t get it, and I didn’t really understand it either. To say high school was a period of transition is the definition of understatement. It’s not that I didn’t fit in; it’s just that I was never totally comfortable at school. But there were two places where I was: the Mad Hatter and the Southgate House. While many of my peers only went to national shows at Bogarts or U.S. Bank Arena, I began to venture to smaller, local shows and I developed an intense love for both venues. While classmates gushed about Rascal Flatts concerts, I was going to horror punk and hardcore shows. They’d show up to school with $30 tour shirts; I’d come in with bruises and ringing ears. I loved both local venues for two vastly different reasons however: Southgate House’s stability and the Mad Hatter’s volatility.
Going to the Mad Hatter was an event and setting every detail was part of the ritual. Mad Hatter was a destination that had to be prepared for, but you were always in for some fantastic highs or some rock-bottom lows, often both in the same night. You had to check the website for the show’s start time (usually wrong), price at the door (usually wrong), who all is on the bill (usually wrong) and then gather your friends and head down to the show. The Mad Hatter also had a habit for adding tons of local bands to national acts, often making the shows super long. If you stayed from beginning to end, you’d be in then for long haul most nights. But if you’re a fan of local music, then you got a ton of music for a cheap price. The Mad Hatter was where I had a drink with a member of my favorite band, saw all (and I mean all) of Banderas for the first time and drunkenly punched a brick wall. I’ve done some very stupid things within the Mad Hatter’s walls and I’ve seen even dumber things. To this day, the Mad Hatter is the only bar that I can say I’ve witnessed sex, drugs and rock and roll, all in one night. Every memory I have the place, and there are many, is extreme and vivid. The Mad Hatter had no room for mediocrity; you either had the time of your life or wanted to die by last call. But that was part of its charm for me. I never knew what to expect, I was constantly surprised by what I saw, heard, smelled and tasted (thank you heavy-handed bartenders). No matter what end of the spectrum presented itself that particular night, the Mad Hatter never failed to deliver a memorable time.
In many ways, the Southgate House was the antithesis of the Mad Hatter. That old house feels like home in many ways. I’ve gotten to the point where I can walk in, shake the hand of the door man and stroll to my destination for the night, often just the lounge bar to just enjoy a drink. It’s a constant in my life: when other plans fail, the Southgate House is there, waiting with a Sailor and coke. It also has the aesthetics of a grandparents’ house, if your grandparents collected neon signs for booze. The old-time feeling just added to the welcoming atmosphere. The bartenders completed the package; they’re always courteous, remember their regulars and are forever grateful, even if a poor college graduate (hint: me) can barely tip 15%. The music was always important, but often was icing on the cake. When Southgate House closes, I will certainly the music, but I’ll also remember the parlour’s unisex bathroom, missing Reverand Horton Heat in favor of story time with a beautiful blonde and singing Danzig at karaoke. While the Mad Hatter was delightfully unstable, the Southgate House was like a rock. When I worked at the Levee, I often capped off a night at work with a trip to Southgate House. Awash in a sea of fake tans, short skirts and Ed Hardy shirts, the Southgate House is a bastion for authenticity in the area and I’m not sure that anything can fill that void. It was a place to escape the insanity of the Levee. After eight hours of dealing with drunk, high or just plain inconsiderate customers, having a place to sit down, drink a few memories away and enjoy some honky-tonk is immeasurably beneficial. If some new venue tries to copy or replace this feeling, I don’t know if I can ever accept it.
There are rumors that Southgate House’s management and staff are opening a new venue in Newport, with the house receiving renovations. The Mad Hatter is slated to reopen under a new name and owner. I’ve been following the news and rumors swirling around both venues since they arose and began to take shape, but I still cannot pin down my feelings. On one hand, I agree with legendary local musician, David Rhodes Brown, who said that it is not a building that creates a community, but the people within it. But at the same time, both of these venues are symbols of years of the formative period of my life. I grew up in both of these places and to see them change in any way, shape, or form is terrifying to me. I don’t know how to let go and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to do so completely. The owner of Bangarangs (Mad Hatter’s replacement) has stated that they hope to run the establishment better than the Hatter, with several improvements on policies on everything from moshing to pricing. And Southgate Houses’ staff seems excited about the new venue, leading me to believe that big things could be coming down the pipe very soon. But with so much of the situation being untested and uncertain, all I’m left with right now are memories of over half a decade, taking place in venues that will cease to be in a few short days.
No matter what the outcome is, however, I will always have
my memories: the highs, the lows, the sadness, and the joy. When the final,
last call rolls around on New Year’s Eve, I’ll lift my glass to all that was
and hope that there is still more to come. If these venues mean anything
similar to you, please do the same. Our memories will guarantee that neither
venue will every truly die.
(A shortened version of this essay ran in CityBeat's "Year in Film and Music" issue, Dec. 21)