Downtown: Nightclubbing, we're nightclubbing

In the next instalment of our yearlong Vancouver Special series coming out Friday, the Courier spotlights downtown. It's the Vancouver neighbourhood our newsroom is most familiar with - or at least our 20 and 30-something selves. All of us have spent time there.

While the word downtown might inspire some to start singing a certain Petula Clark song, what poured out of the mouths of newsroom staffers recently were memories of long gone clubs where we undoubtedly killed a few brain cells, damaged our ear drums, enjoyed fantastic music and were kicked to the curb for bad behaviour. I mention no names. (If only all story meetings could be that much fun - and titillating. Learned a few things about certain co-workers, I did.)

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While the premier downtown club to catch a band remains the Commodore Ballroom, back in the day (the '90s and early noughts for me) the clubs booking the best indie and alternative acts or just for dancing were the Starfish Room (formerly Club Soda), Dick's on Dicks, Luv Affair, Graceland, 86 th Street, the Railway Club, Sugar Refinery, the Odyssey, the Vogue Theatre, Pic Pub and Babalu's, where supercrooner Michael Buble started out. Then, of course, there was the hipster hideaway on Homer Street better known as the "World Famous" Marine Club. It was on the second floor of a rundown building where the now-deceased Frank played the organ (I think it was an organ - my memory is fading, but so was Frank by the time I first paid the establishment a visit in the early '90s). I didn't get to the Marine Club often, but it certainly ranks as an unforgettable, atmospheric, impossible-to-duplicate place. I don't think I ever learned Frank's surname.

When the Arts Club had a theatre at Seymour and Davie, I'm told amazing bands used to perform there in the '80s (before my time in Vancouver), including Green River, whose members went on to form Pearl Jam and Mudhoney.

Except for the Commodore, Railway Club and Vogue Theatre, where Billy Bragg once sang me happy birthday backstage (I have eyewitnesses), most of the aforementioned clubs no longer exist while some others have been rebranded.

Clubs on Homer, Richards, Seymour and Howe streets were shuttered to fit in with a new city council policy of concentrating bars and clubs in what is now known as the Granville Entertainment District and dedicating those other downtown streets for residential use (i.e. pricey condos). I'm not sure it was an entirely good idea. I've heard police officers on the Granville beat on Fridays and Saturday nights prefer they worked elsewhere. It must get tiresome dealing with the bridge and tunnel young drunks (men and women) causing disturbances, fighting, puking and urinating in public.

I never used to fear for my safety on Granville Street, but the last time I ventured to the "Entertainment District" a few years ago, the undercurrent of violence was palpable. Anger filled the air and everyone appeared ready for a fight if you looked at them the wrong way.

Of all the downtown clubs I frequented that are now gone, the Starfish Room and Richard's on Richards stand out for the sheer number of times I stepped through their doors to hear stellar music from new acts and legends. A perk of being entertainment editor at the time enabled me to catch so many fine shows for free. Living in the West End at the time, I didn't have far to travel to catch a band at 11 p.m. and get home to bed by 12: 30 to get up for work at 7 a.m. I'd often go alone but typically run into a writer from another paper.

The joys of seeing bands in such intimate spaces leaves me with little desire to see a rock show at Rogers Arena or B.C. Place - even if it's a band I love. I just can't do it.

I'm not the only one who misses the Starfish Room. A Facebook page dedicated to memories of the Starfish Room and Gastown's Town Pump was created years ago for locals to share memories and post pics of old ticket stubs.

I don't get out much these days (except for the folk fest), but that's the way it usually is when you have kids under the age of 10, you work full-time, you're in your 40s and disposable income is at a premium. But I love live shows too much to say those days are over. There's just something indescribably visceral about catching a band you love that makes you feel alive, and downtown back then provided that experience. Going downtown on a Friday or Saturday nights is part of almost everyone's younger years and with places like the Commodore Ballroom, those experiences never need end. fhughes@vancourier.com twitter.com/HughesFiona

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