My first encounter with a bar in Alaska was when I went there in 1965 at age eighteen to make my fortune … riiight.
Along the way to not making my fortune in Alaska, I got my first job playing with a bar band. Of course, I was too young to drink and it was illegal for me to be in the bar at all, but nobody seemed to care … so why should I?
In Sitka, I got a gig as the rhythm guitarist and lead singer, complete with electric guitar, in a bar band which was usually composed entirely of what used to be called “Indians”. Columbus wanted to believe he’d gotten to India, so he called the locals “Indians”. This led to centuries of confusion, where people had to continually be asking “You mean Indian with a dot or Indian with a feather?” So they decided to change their name. Fair enough. Here’s what the Sitka turf looks like …
It’s not politically correct to call them Indians now, I know. These days, I’m a reformed cowboy, so I use a more modern name which reflects their actual heritage. I call them “Early Asian Immigrants”, to distinguish them from the “Later Melanin-Deficient Immigrants”. I don’t generally use the term “Native Americans”, though, unless a man insists on it. According to science, they’re no more native to the Americas than any human is, and that’s not native at all.
To maintain the historical accuracy, however, I’ll use the terms of the era. The guys called themselves Indians the first time I met them. It was early one evening. They were playing in a roadside dance hall bar in Sitka. The conversation opened with something like me saying “Where’re you guys from”, and them saying “We’re Indians. Sitka tribe.” Good enough for me. They had a lead guitar, bass guitar, and drums. They were on a break. I bought them a drink. I told them I liked their music. I said I was a musician. They had a spare electric guitar, we played a few tunes, we had fun.
They told me the rhythm guitarist was in the local calaboose for a few months. He’d gotten arrested after a drunken fight. Did I want to join the band?
Well, I thought, let’s total up the pluses and minuses. First, the pay was lousy, although it included dinner as well. They got forty bucks a night plus tips. Then, that had to be split six ways. One share each for the four musicians. One for the drummer’s girlfriend who ran the soundboard. One share to the guy who actually owned the guitars and equipment. And the free dinner was rubber chicken cafeteria food. Plus acoustically, the bar sucked, the flat walls made the room ring like playing music inside a cheap cowbell. Not to mention the air was chokingly thick with cigarette smoke and sweat from the dancers.
So what’s not to like, I thought? Sign me up!
And so later that very night I found myself playing in a real, live, roadside band for money and food, albeit small money and below-average food, and best of all, people were dancing to my music. I love to see folks happy like that, it’s one reason I play. I was eighteen, living on my own. Playing dance music, standing on the stage watching folks dance their hearts out to some blazing sound that we were laying down, that was a true joy for me. I was an idiot, but I was a very contented idiot.
Unfortunately, I discovered for the first time that I was also at times a drunken idiot. As were my Indian brothers-in-arms.
The problem was, people always wanted to buy beers and drinks for the band. It was in Sitka that I started drinking what they called “Coke-High”, whiskey and coke.
Evenings with the band were a slow slide backward, by both musicians and dancers, from civilization to some much more primitive, elemental, and, well, atavistic level, to put it plainly. I began to understand why the rhythm guitarist was in jail.
After playing with the band for a few weeks, I finally figured out that he wasn’t in the Sitka jail for violence. That had just been my naive misunderstanding of the situation. The most likely reason he was in jail was that he was taking a holiday from the violence.
The evenings always started with such great promise, too. Everyone showed up early, we ate dinner on the house. No drinking alcohol with dinner, we wouldn’t do a thing like that. We were young men on a musical mission, noble and pure of heart.
Such nobility in young men, however, has a severely limited shelf-life. In our case, we usually, perhaps even often, made it through the entire first set of the evening with the temples of our bodily purity unsullied by the demon rum. We played hard, driving music, pick you up and yank you onto the dance floor music, can’t ignore it music. The dancers loved us. People did the twist and every other kind of step, we had them shaking and baking.
During the first intermission, as a reward for being so noble and pure, we might have one drink. One Coke-High. Just one, you understand.
During the second set, people were glad we were back, they’d start buying us drinks. And we’d start drinking them. Slowly. Just sipping, you understand. My throat was dry from all the singing I was doing. Plus, I wasn’t really drinking. Just wetting my whistle. And the second intermission was not entirely alcohol-free either.
Alcohol and enjoying music works fairly well. Alcohol and playing music … not so much. Fortunately, through some strange symmetry, the two tend to offset each other. As our music deteriorated, it was matched by the deteriorating musical judgment of the dancers and other drinkers. I figured we just had to stay ahead … where “ahead” meant that a majority of the dancers were drunk enough to believe that they had lost the beat, not the band.
And of course, as in many places I’ve played, the amount of violence was proportional to the average alcohol consumption. Fights were so common that the bandstand had a waist-high solid wood railing around it. The first night I played with the guys I thought oh, how nice, we have our own little kind of stage to perform in … I hadn’t realized the wall was there to protect the guitar amplifiers from the random flying chair, and to protect the lead guitarist from the drunk guy staggering backward after being punched in the mouth. I’m sure you’re surprised to learn that many of these fights were about women. Others involved long-standing feuds. The majority, however, were like random collisions of asteroids … unpredictable and without an obvious cause.
Occasionally one of my Indian brothers-in-music couldn’t stand it. His cousin or someone was getting pummeled, so he’d jump the bandstand fence and join in the fray. When that happened, of course, the whole band was honor-bound to down instruments and join in trying to rearrange some stranger’s facial molecules. Mostly I just tackled guys to stop them fighting … I could see how after a while, jail might seem like a peaceful alternative to playing in this particular rock band.
I left Sitka when the real rhythm guitarist was let out of jail. I gave him back the rhythm guitar, wished him well in all future fights, and I wound up in Kodiak.
At that time the best bar in town was at the strangest combination bar and whorehouse I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve seen many, buying sex always seemed creepy to me. But this one was in a class all its own. During the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964, the year before I got there, Kodiak had suffered huge damage.
Among the casualties of the earthquake, a small cruise ship had been washed up on shore a mile or so out of town. Some enterprising folks had refurbished the interior to the minimum acceptable standards, put beds in all of the rooms, and opened it up as a combo bar-whorehouse. They had the best prices in town.
The strange part was that when the ship had come to rest it was several degrees out of plumb. This meant that when I started drinking and I couldn’t tell if the floor was tilting underneath me … it absolutely was. Most disconcerting on an empty stomach. However, it did provide a great excuse, as in “No, man, I’m not drunk, it’s just this dang floor …”
Bars in Kodiak at that time had to close a 2 AM, and then reopen in the morning. They all opened at 9 AM, and when they did, every one of the bars would ring a bell. There were maybe three times as many bars as churches in Kodiak at the time, so it sounded like Sunday call to meeting every day at nine …
And the amazing thing was, as soon as the bells rang, a shuffling mass of humanity would appear, seemingly out of the very ground itself, and make their shambolic way to the door of the nearest ethanol purveyor for another day’s serious drinking …
I liked the bars because I could make money singing in the bars. I’d go from bar to bar, making music and passing the hat. And since I’ve sworn to be honest in all matters concerning my checkered past, I have to confess to the bad thing I did in an Alaska bar.
I was playing one evening, usual setup. Pick a quiet corner of the bar, put out my hat for donations, and start singing.
Now, a bar in Alaska at the time was generally about three words from a fight of some kind. And true to form, I was in the middle of a song when some guy paid for his drink. About the time the barkeep put his change on the bar, he made some offhand comment. His neighbor took offense, yanked him off of his feet, and knocked him out cold on the floor with one punch.
What was my misdeed?
I’m ashamed to say … I took his change, three dollars or so. By that point, I’d been in Alaska for a while. I’d lost about twenty pounds, and I was terribly hungry all of the time. But that’s mere justification. I stole his money, spent it. and I’ve rued my actions ever since.
I did learn my lesson, however.
Since that time, I have never once let myself get knocked out in a bar …
Forty years or so later, I ended up in Alaska again. This time I did make good money. I was fishing the Bristol Bay salmon gill net fishery, working out of Dillingham, which is on the Bering Sea. Unlike Sitka and Kodiak, not much in the way of mountains there …
As is true in all Alaska towns, in Dillingham alcohol is both a blessing and a curse, and usually more of the latter. I certainly enjoyed a drink after a long day’s work … but many of the nearby villages are dry, and so the locals (Yupik Eskimos mostly, not Inuit) often drink in Dillingham. And while they make up a goodly percentage of the falling-down drunks, we Melanin-Deficient folks are not doing badly in that regard either.
The strangest drunk I encountered was once when I was drinking at the Willow Tree bar. I’d been at sea for a few days fishing, and all I wanted was to drink a beer someplace where the room wasn’t pitching and rolling.
I was sitting alone at a table enjoying said adult beverage when a young guy, obviously a local Yupik, sat down beside me. He pulled a pair of fingerless leather gloves out of his pocket, and he very ostentatiously started putting them on. I found something fascinating to look at on the ceiling and managed to avoid his eyes until finally, he said “Hey!”
I acted like he was talking to the waitress.
“Hey, you,” he said in a very serious tone. He tapped me on the shoulder. I looked at him in my most pacific manner, and he said, “Would you like to punch me in the face?”
After getting over my initial shock at both the polite tone and the bizarre request, I allowed as how I’d been fishing for three days, and all I wanted was a beer. So I told him that although I greatly appreciated the offer, I was gonna have to respectfully decline.
“OK”, he said, and stood up and walked to a nearby table where he asked, “Any of you guys want to punch my face?”
Everyone at that table said no, they were having too much fun already, and although they hated to disappoint him, they were just too busy drinking.
At the third or fourth table he got lucky, however, and before long he and some equally inebriated Melanin-Deficient guy were trading blows with much more vigor than accuracy. The two bouncers soon arrived and were true to their name …
I reflected that that was indeed the very best and most proper way for a young victim of testosterone poisoning to engage in fisticuffs—don’t just punch the nearest guy (particularly when it’s me, for goodness sake), but go find someone who actually wants to be in the fight club. Emily Post would approve of that show of good manners.
Anyhow, that was my experience of the bars of Alaska … although of course, your mileage may vary …
Best to all on a lovely clear late summer’s night, with the stars blazing in all of their glory.
PS—I am reliably informed that in these politically correct times the proper term is not “Melanin-Deficient”.
According to the best modern authorities, those folks should be referred to as “Melanin-Challenged”. That way nobody gets hurty feelings from being referred to as “Deficient” in any manner …