I’m here in a new bar, but it’s an old bar. The bar that was here before is old and gone, the new old bar is a lot like a bar that used to be in its place years and years ago. It’s dark and humid but the walls are yet to condense into sweat. I’m here as a homecoming, or at least to test a theory about home. Maybe home isn’t a specific place, maybe home is wherever you hang up who you think you are and stretch into the person that your skin hangs on.
So I’m here with the freaks, long hair, short skirts, denim, one-eyed, leather, awkward, coloured hair crowd. The music is loud and the drums rattle through the new sound system like fireworks in a metal bin. I’m ill and achey, but I have a writing problem, the drinks are cheap and it’s my favourite crowd to be alone in.
“We’re back home!” someone shouts, I wish they hadn’t. It kind of steps on the point of this article and sounds hack and untrue, but they do. And anyway, it is kind of home, if not here where else?
Birmingham used to have a thriving rock and alternative scene, one by one the clubs closed, got redeveloped or just plain burnt down. until there were only really two left. Scruffy Murphys by the law courts, and Subside up by the Central Library. Scruffies soon become a bolt hole for regulars, a boarded up bastion against the zombie hordes of normality outside, where people actually went to Subside for a good time.
In 2014 a compulsory purchase order was delivered to Subside, and they closed their doors in early Jan this year: since then nothing. until a Facebook group started announcing Subside’s new premises in Digbeth. The site of the Barrel Organ a traditionally rock music venue that spent many years as The Dubliner after it closed.
The rest of the bar scene in Birmingham is all gourmet food and fucking £6 cocktails. Everyone wears waistcoats and tidy beards, and the dark corners where this crowd normally flock to have all been painted eggshell blue and have had a quirky lamp put in them. The old Subside looked exactly like what is was, a cheap lap dancing club turned into a bar, dirty mirrors on the walls, threadbare carpet on the floor and the ghosts of a thousand bad life decisions floating in the air. The new place has dark crimson walls and dark stained wood throughout, it’s a balcony and piano away from being an upmarket wild west whorehouse.
It’s filling up nicely, every time somebody comes in they barely have time to shake the winter rain out of their hair, look around and smile before there’s a scream or shout of their name and someone runs up to hug them. This happens over and over. Little cliques becoming larger crowds as the people that connect them arrive, like bubbles popping together underwater.
A guy calls Dean introduces himself he looks around and smiles “Back with a vengeance eh?” I smile the bare minimum I can back. It is silly and hyperbolic language borrowed from action movies but I understand what he’s saying. English culture is still a pub culture – your community is your local. I forgive Dean, in this corner of the culture the music is AK47 full auto fast and turned up to eleven, sung by people claiming to be Satan himself: you’ve got to allow a little bit of histrionics.
Over at the bar, the till is obviously having problems, the bar manager has a phone gripped between his ear and shoulder while he and another customer lift it off the bar and a tall man in a ‘humourous’ “programmer ” T-shirt dicks around with the wires underneath. The tills have been fritzing all night, but there has been no excessive waits for drinks. No complaints, this is mainly due to the amount of bar staff, mainly women, two tiny chirpy girls, one with more experience hovering near someone with obviously very little. All of them spin around in various degrees of competence.
There is the full rainbow of the rock/alternative subculture here, the full sleeve tattoos, stretcher earplugs and backwards cap of the Hardcore fan, a full on seventies flower rocker with a velvet jacket and brown white-boy afro, a completely bald man wearing a T-shirt advertising pommade, a girl in a bra and tutu and little else throws herself around the bar hugging. Wolf T-shirts, leather and at least three cowboy hats. The plumage of the freak crowd peacocking tribal safety and strutting for mates.
A couple of the old Dubliner regulars are at the bar, they have an air that’s a mixture of tired entitlement and Englishmen abroad bemusement. It has an edge through, to them the crowd is clearly trespassing. No one is sparing them another thought, I wonder if that’s how they see it? What stories they will come away with? they’re joined by a couple more friends and they huddle together like they’re in cannibal country.
I’m drinking cheap lager and taking snuff, I’m three or four pints in and it’s warm in here, I think I’ve broken the back of the cold but I’m sitting in my own diseased sweat. And my back hurts. The screen is showing a slideshow of the old place and other rock nights the management have been involved in. A group photo catches my eye, I imagine myself in the crowd. It gets very Shining for a moment. Maybe I’m done.
My other half texts me making sure I’m getting a taxi back. I tell her “These are my people. If things get bad I will summon a mighty griffin and ride his noble back” I’m definitely done. Not that it’s unusual to spout that sort of shit. It’s that I teared up at the thought of exactly how noble my griffin would be.
My notes of that night are actually legible, but one interesting thing when talking about the crowd or the scene in general I switch from “them” to “us”, there’s an unconscious distancing that sometimes goes on when I write about this particular group, I grew up in Subside and places like it and yet the earnestness, the awkwardness, the hyperbole, is somehow embarrassing as I get older. Subside opening is like going home for christmas, embarrassing, odd, but comfortable. Instead of playing charades and a bit of casual racism I get with a family Christmas, here it’s bandannas and singing along with ‘Bad Medicine’. Outsiders, sure, but my outsiders.
Subside is open now, and if you see me buy me a drink.