Music News

Madison Bar Forever

In the event of a nuclear holocaust, one that would leave nothing standing save for a few insects, some grass and a few varieties of moss and algae, there in the smoldering ruins in downtown Phoenix would stand the Madison Bar. Of course, it would remain. And it would still be inhabited by the surrendered, the jolly and the lost, the ones drinking in silence while looking at nothing and ignoring it. Others, too: some laughing, some coughing or spinning yarns--lots of drunken gibberish, all that. But the Madison would be there. Still.

And what a noble sight it would be, the dove-colored Madison Bar with its adjoining hotel and deli hanging on, covered in radioactive dust while the city would be given to ruin. A last apparition on a last block after the last blast, full of the last drunks. At last call. How I would see it, anyway.

One midnight inside the Madison looks like this: Old-time regulars with rooms in the next-door hotels--the St. James and the Madison--are sparsely scattered along the Formica bar, or in the booths against the west wall. Most are unaware of one another, strangely unexcited and quietly concentrating on their drinking, oblivious.

The Madison has the appearance of something projected through old film onto a cracked screen. The room is large with a ceiling of tiles, some yellowing, and the furnishings have no real shape, no color, no gloss. Two televisions, one in each corner behind the bar, show movies. Tonight's fare is some distorted Kung Fu farce. Various hand-scribbled signs provide entertaining reading like: "ANYONE ABUSING POOL TABLE WILL BE 86'D FOREVER." The Madison is an old man bar in the most glorious sense. A romantic Bukowskian dream.

Richard Nelson, a septuagenarian, sits on a stool, maybe 135 pounds, if he's lucky. A stare like a data sheet, and gray hair fixed under a cap that reads "Madison Bar." A bottle of Bud in front, a cane on the side for balance, or, perhaps, breaking skulls, and unreadable blue eyes. Richard's face is frozen in a kind of glorious road map, maybe a down mood, one that knows 10,000 hangovers at least. A fact he acknowledges up front. "I'm a drunk," Richard says, barely moving from his stare.

"Where are you from?" I ask him.
"South Dakota," he tells me.
"How old are you?" I ask, expecting a whack from his cane any second.

He turns and unexpectedly smiles, the lines in his face moving in time with his lips in a kind of musical symmetry. The effect suddenly turns him into some sort of pickled Kriss Kringle. "Ain't gonna tell ya."

I buy Richard a beer, and he reaches for my hand. "Hey, you got a good handshake," he says.

"It's from masturbating," laughs Turbo, the sometime Madison barback who sat down on a nearby stool. Turbo has a tendency to ramble on like an express railroad, straight forward and taking no passengers. Around here it is said he hasn't been taking his medicine, a blunder that allows him to lapse into the absurd at any given moment. Turbo is a young drunk in his early 30s, peculiar with good teeth, good hair and good looks--like he was well-mothered for a time. Turbo's remark has Les the bartender and others around chortling.

"No, no, no, no," laughs Richard, mildly insulted with the language. The man is obviously a gentleman. "That's an insult. Ya bunch of jerks."

Richard turns and asks me what I do. "Not much," I reply. "I write once in a while. Drink."

"You're a writer?" he asks, lifting his head up in interest.
"You ever read any Trotsky? he asks. "Do any of you know Trotsky?"

"Ya mean the Russian revolutionary guy," I answer, feeling like an idiot. "The guy Stalin had killed? Is that who ya mean?"

"Trotsky," he demands. He swivels his stool a half turn and asks a few others in the bar, "Does anybody know Trotsky?" The few listening don't respond.

"Ya mean Tolstoy?" I ask with an eye on his cane.
"No," he says, and shakes his head impatiently, blowing out a chest full of resignation. "No, no." He turns back around to his beer and resumes silence.

Moments later, Richard suddenly grabs his cane, stands and announces he's going up to his room for a snort of whiskey. He moves out through the door. We all say goodbye.

Behind the bar are rows of neatly lined-up bottles and dollar bills pinned up, some of them signed by many of the patrons who have done time here. Les Bland is manning the bar, a spotlessly groomed bartender. He was once a male model and graced the cover of Teen magazine in 1970. Later he was a stunt man on hit television series like The Fall Guy, The Six Million Dollar Man and The A-Team. He has the looks to match his past.

"How's the Madison, Les?" I ask him while ordering another round.
"I like it here," he says, putting the beer down in front of me.
"I just enjoy the different styles and types of people that come in here." Then he leans in a little closer and laughs, "We're talking crust, heavy crust, and I'm not talking about a pie either."

A few stone-faced liquor pros come in. The open door sends in an ungodly chill, and through it I catch a glimpse of downtown Phoenix lighted ornately for Christmas. It is a scene that is almost warm.

"But we also get a Mercedes crowd that comes in here," says Les looking at those who had just entered. "Plus the baseball and hockey crowds are good."

Turbo takes a lengthy swill of his canned Budweiser, sets it down, looks at me oddly and out of nowhere launches into a series of non-sequitur cut-up prose, worthy of Burroughs: "It's a place I heard of. I went to the school of knocks in search of rainbows. He's disabled, I know that, as I am. I don't have the right chemistry plus my multiple head injuries. But I've been a gentlemen, an Irish gentleman or a bohemian gentleman, a whatever else gentleman. It comes from being short and sleepy."

"Huh?" I say as Les rolls his eyes and moves to serve the newly arrived.
They say Turbo gets a monthly check from somewhere--what somebody referred to as a "nut check"--probably from the government. I wondered about his medication as he talked at me. Then I started thinking about poetry.

". . . I got all the injuries, I come here right from Chicago looking for my best friend I had known since I was 4-years-old. He's from West Virginia, a Czechoslovakian. His wife was from Arizona or New Mexico, El Paso, worked for the railroad, her grandfather from World War II, ya know from WW II, they called him Woody--he only got one leg. The railroad worker guys were Indian and Irish, well that's his grandfather, he was 70-years-old in the '70s. He took on his wife's name 'cause she's an American. He must have had the blues to take on his wife's name. . . ."

I nod along in agreement, particularly the last bit about having the blues. Les reappears as the clock approaches 1 a.m., closing time. Les takes charge. Turbo clips the patter, bless his heart.

So I ask him finally, "Les, is it true you went out with John Wayne's daughter?"

He stands up straight and says, "That was a short, good deal, a long, long time ago. Her old man wasn't that keen to it. I heard later she got married to a doctor. . . . She has got to be 46, 47 now. Ieesa, Ieesa Wayne is her name."

Les lives at the Madison Hotel and tends bar. He rides around in cabs. At the Madison he serves the bent and the poor, the sport freak and the rich. He and the other bartenders there see it all. And the Madison is certainly one of the last vestiges around here where one has an opportunity to witness the same old show, the routine, the way it was meant to be: just a bar, a stool, drinks and a story. Not everybody gets it. And that, friends, is a beautiful thing.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith