Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Black Dog Memories

Damn, I miss the Black Dog.

I met my wife there one night in 2003, when I was still trying to make a living as a freelancer for the Fort Worth Weekly. Goodwin was playing the Good Show's anniversary party, and I was standing at the end of the bar, holding my beer, like always, when she came up and shoved a bulging envelope in my hand. She said that she was promoting a benefit at the Wreck Room to raise money to help a local disabled athlete travel to the Paralympics, and that she'd like to talk to me about it if I ever had ten minutes. I thought for a minute, walked over to where she was sitting, and said we could talk right then if she wanted. We went outside to sit on the stoop (the band was loud) and we're still having that conversation eight years and change later.

Tad Gaither, who owned the Black Dog, was a cantankerous old Yank from New Hampshire who'd been in the Peace Corps and served as a Military Intelligence officer in Korea during the Nam era (he said his ROTC class voted him "most likely to surrender") before going into the publishing business. When Harcourt-Brace cut him loose, he opened a bar -- why not? -- with the idea of creating the same ambiance as the Greenwich Village dives he'd frequented during his years in the Big Apple. Thus did poetry and jazz find a home in downtown Fort Worth during a time when there was no other venue for "outsider arts" in the city. 

On a good night, the original Black Dog at 903 Throckmorton was so smoky that I used to joke that "when smoking is outlawed, Tad will sell people bits of the furniture that are impregnated with nicotine," and there was a perpetual stale-beer funk about the place. The piano was perpetually out of tune, and the "self-service PA bar" was a joke among bands. But the place had character. (Someone told me once that the space had once served as headquarters for the Tarrant County Democratic Party, which if true, is perfect.)

I might have been there once the year it opened -- 1997 -- but my first real good memory of the old joint dates from when I was out of work in the spring of 2002. I'd do all my job search stuff Sunday through Wednesday, and then on Thursday afternoons, I'd go downtown at 2pm, when the bar opened, with enough change to feed the meter across the street for two hours and enough cash to buy two beers. I'd walk down the stairs -- there was an elevator that rarely worked, an irritant for many musos who played there and had to hump their gear down the stairs -- and sit in the cool, quiet room, drinking my beer and shooting the shit with the bartender (and usually getting a couple of freebies). When the happy hour crowd started rolling in, I'd leave. For a couple of hours, it was a nice sanctuary from all the things I didn't want to have to think about.

When I was freelancing for the Weekly, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the Black Dog, often listening to the Sunday jazz band, which was led by saxophonist Michael Pellecchia, then by drummer Dave Karnes, always including vibist/pianist Joey Carter and usually including either Paul Metzger (who played with Joey in Bertha Coolidge, whose Black Dog heyday I just missed) or Keith Wingate on guitar. There were always loads of sit-ins, including several vocalists, my favorite of which were Ron the train man and Oaklin Bloodworth, whom I remembered from the blues jams at the Keys Lounge. Pablo and the Hemphill 7 played some of their best shows there early on, and I remember the ecstatically dancing crowds they used to draw. Later on, Confusatron -- who'd started out playing on the street in front of the Coffee Haus at 404 Houston -- got a Black Dog residency, and some stirring times were had on their nights, as well.

Back in 1999, I'd tried to book a band there, leaving a cassette tape (remember those?) with Tad and checking back every week for about nine months. About four years later, he told me, "I finally listened to that tape," and offered me a gig. But, of course, the band no longer existed by then. When Stoogeaphilia started in 2006, Billy Wilson (bless him) gave us a monthly residency there: "I Wanna Be Your [Black] Dog Thursdays." (Once Hembree paid for an ad in the Weekly because Tad refused to -- except on New Year's Eve, to advertise free PBR. Sigh.) Sometimes our night would fall on the same night as Mike Guinn's poetry slam, and we'd have to avoid laughing loudly and clinking glasses so as not to upset the poets. Sometimes I'd load in and see my middle daughter and her friends there, acting as judges for the slam.

By that time, Tad had relocated the bar to a location on Crockett Street that was so obscure that I had to use the sign from 7th Haven next door as a landmark for a friend who was coming from out of town. Tad didn't even realize that two of his employees had websites for his place at the time. I thought his rationale for moving -- that the city was taking the parking lot on the corner, which would "kill my business" -- was ill-advised. I _never_ used that parking lot, and I believe a lot of his Sunday jazz crowd parked in Sundance Square and stopped by the Black Dog after picking up someone at the Library or the Fox and Hound, prior to heading home to take care of Serious Bizness. If he'd stayed on Throckmorton, he'd have made bank.

But of course, Tad didn't have that much time left. (He died in 2009.) When he finally folded the tent at the end of 2006, without informing his loyal employees, it caused a lot of bad blood, and I think it broke his heart. Deep down, though, I think they all still loved Tad. Besides Billy, who liked to dress up like Hunter S. Thompson, there was Shaggy McCormick, who liked to dress up like a woman, and Jem Rodriguez, the best bartender in Fort Worth, who once made me walk a line to get out of his place when I wasn't even drunk (and I still love him for it). Between them, for a minute, they made a sweet little oasis in the desert.

I don't know what Tad would make of this town since the developers created our own little bar ghetto in the neighborhood where his beloved joint went to die. I suspect he wouldn't have approved. Wherever he is, I hope they have good tobacco, cheap beer, and the sweetest music and poetry the mind can imagine.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

very nice ken. i had many good times there myself.-karl p.

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Joe Johnston said...

Well said. The Black Dog was my favorite bar in FW way back when I lived and worked in Sundance Square ('00-'02). You captured its vibe, and Tad's excellence, perfectly.

12:00 PM  

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