Last Weekend at Bernie's: Bidding farewell to one of Columbus' legendary music venues
On a Tuesday evening in late December, the feel in Bernie's Bagels & Deli/The Distillery mirrored a funeral wake, with a dozen or so patrons - most either current or former employees - sharing favored memories of the iconic basement dive, which first opened at 1896 N. High St. in January 1975.
Though Bernie's is best known for its riotous shows, the vibe was more restrained on this night, with the largely tattooed and pierced patrons trading stories of rowdy nights both past (one gentleman, introduced as Ratboy, told of the evening Marky Ramone of NYC punk legends the Ramones bestowed him with the nickname) and present. The previous evening someone managed to steal the venue's back door - a common entryway for underage customers or those looking to duck the rare door cover charge, according to multiple sources - directly off its hinges. On a wall behind a silenced jukebox, tattered and faded 7-inch record sleeves from the likes of Gaunt and Willie Phoenix served as reminders of the venue's four-decades-plus musical history, as did the layers of band stickers affixed to the pipes, ceiling and duct work that formed labyrinthine patterns overhead. One bartender proudly flashed a new forearm tattoo, procured earlier that same afternoon, depicting the club's cartoonish logo: a smiling bagel hoisting a foaming, frosty mug.
The Dec. 31 closure, fueled by campus-area redevelopment, has been in the works for more than a year, said Tony Painter, who, along with wife Roma, has owned and operated the bar since 1995.
"We wanted to retire," said Painter, 56, seated in a booth at Bernie's on a late-December afternoon. "It's a young person's business, and it's getting too hard for us to compete because I don't have the energy and motivation to do this anymore."
Plans to sell the Bernie's name and location to a prospective buyer last year were dashed when action around long-discussed High Street renovations ramped up early in 2015. In February, Campus Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by Ohio State University to redevelop commercial property around campus, unveiled its proposal for redeveloping nine acres of land around the intersection of 15th Avenue and North High Street, and in July the Columbus City Council approved rezoning that allows for mixed residential and commercial units and a hotel in the area.
"We are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revitalize this dilapidated area into a vibrant and active mixed-use district that students, faculty and the entire community can be proud of and once again enjoy," wrote Campus Partners president Amanda Hoffsis in an emailed response to an interview request. "We are most excited by the opportunity for significantly more public/civic space, specifically the improvements to Pearl Alley and the new public square."
Others are less enthused by these prospects, concerned development will scrub the area of its character, making way for a slew of interchangeable commercial chains like those prevalent in the South Campus Gateway complex, which was also developed by Campus Partners and opened in 2005.
"If you go to Louisville, the campus area looks the same as it does in Indianapolis or Cincinnati or Columbus, like there's a T-Mobile store and a Chase bank," said Ryan Vile, who worked as a sound engineer at Bernie's from 2001 to 2007. "At this point, instead of demolishing campus, you may as well just move it to Easton."
"It makes me sad, because I think campus in general has gotten pretty sterile and corporate," said Lydia Loveless, who performed some of her earliest local shows at Bernie's after moving to Columbus with her family more than a decade ago. "Everything cool is going away and it's just going to be BW3s and O'Charley's everywhere. I wonder where the kids like me are going to go now."
For the better part of Bernie's existence - the establishment celebrated its 40th anniversary in January 2015 - the space has functioned as a counterculture escape, offering haven both to individuals and entire scenes that tended to exist on the fringes.
Longtime bar manager Jack Lefton stumbled upon the ideal description of the venue's eclectic clientele while discussing the owners' hodgepodge approach to decorating the space. "It ended up being a mismatch of furniture," said Lefton, who managed the bar from 1976 through 1995. "It was kind of funky."
"It was a diverse crowd, which was amazing for me because there was not a lot of diversity where I grew up [outside Coshocton]," Loveless said. "It was like, 'Wow, now I have all these crazy, weird friends.' It was kind of a safe space for everyone."
"It was all of us that said fuck the normal way you're supposed to do things," said Anyway Records founder Bela Koe-Krompecher, who booked countless shows at Bernie's between 1991 and 1998, including the first Guided By Voices performance to take place outside Dayton, the band's hometown. "We weren't having kids. We weren't working at the Sears distribution center. Some of us were in college, but a lot of us were dropouts or had degrees that didn't qualify you to do anything but get drunk at Bernie's. It was interesting, and it provided that opportunity for a lot of people."
Painter, for his part, echoed many of these thoughts in his description of the bar's typical customer. "It's not the brass-and-class type that can go to all of the other clubs," he said. "It's a different set."
While Bernie's will be best remembered as a music venue, Bernie Caplin and business partner Phil Dreizen established the dive foremost as a bohemian deli, serving up cold cuts and cream cheese-smeared bagels in a subterranean space shared with the book seller My Back Pages and speed-reading tutorial company Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics (in the early '80s Bernie's expanded to take over the entire basement). Even so, the establishment featured entertainment from day one, and early performers included the likes of the Swimmers, a Grateful Dead-inspired jam collective, and the Ohio State Jazz Ensemble, which routinely performed on Sundays. On Thursdays, a sketch comedy troupe dubbed the Radish Guild would set up shop in the room, further adding to Bernie's reputation as a club that would take a chance on anything.
"The bar was a little lower for entry, which allowed it to accept more variety and a lot of people who needed the opportunity," said Earwig singer and guitarist Lizard McGee, who performed at the venue dozens of times throughout the '90s and even reached a handshake deal with Alamo Records just outside the bar's famously filthy bathrooms (the deal was never completed). "There was a good mix of several different scenes that helped establish what Columbus' musical identity was for that age, and they all intermingled there."
During the '90s, Bernie's emerged as a vital stop on the punk circuit, in addition to hosting concerts from then-unknown indie bands like Modest Mouse, Sunny Day Real Estate and Heatmiser, an Oregon-based group led by the late Elliott Smith. Toward the end of the decade, the venue became home to a weekly Sunday night hip-hop event hosted by DJ Przm, Pos 2 and Lozone - a first for the city and the breeding ground for a cadre of talented artists who have continued to define the Columbus sound, including but not limited to Copywrite, Blueprint, RJD2 and the late Camu Tao.
"It was the first venue that allowed hip-hop to come in regularly," said Blueprint, who remained a regular at the event until it tailed off after Przm moved to California in 2006 (the DJ died a year later, in 2007). "Prior to Bernie's, guys weren't really doing shows. We basically had the Hip-Hop Expo, which was once a year, and maybe a random show here or there. Then Bernie's came along … and all of a sudden the scene had a home for that talent to develop. All that energy was pushing into that small room, and you had the punk and hardcore kids mingling with the hip-hop crowd and the graffiti artists and the breakdancers. All these things were colliding in this small space."
Despite all the romantic notions of inclusiveness and scene-incubation drummed up by Bernie's closure, the venue wasn't without its shortcomings. Because it was in a basement - never mind the space wasn't designed to handle a high-volume bar and restaurant - plumbing issues were constant. Lefton said the bar typically kept three sump pumps in rotation: one in use pumping waste water to ground level, one in storage ready to be swapped in at the first sign of a breakdown, and one in the repair shop waiting to be fixed. Additionally, the venue's sound system, which McGee described as "two wires and an old microphone on a stand that's duct-taped together," left a lot to be desired.
"I was the sound guy there [from 2001 to 2007], which came with challenges and opportunities, I guess you could say, because every day was crisis mode," said Vile, who also met his bandmates in the Girls! while hanging out at Bernie's. "There'd be days you would come in and the entire sound system would be gone, and it was like, 'OK, what do I do?' Everyone did their best, but the budget was non-existent, so a lot of it was [utilizing] stuff people left there. 'Oh, I need cables.' Well, fortunately cables were left here. I'll just get my soldering gun."
Other times, the destruction was more widespread. Painter recalled the morning he walked into the men's room to clean the toilet, only to find it missing. He later found it stashed in a back hallway, half broken. Another morning he opened the venue following a particularly rowdy hardcore show and discovered most of the duct work had been ripped from the ceiling.
The constant abuse took a toll on the space, and for a stretch cleanliness became secondary.
"You'd go down to get a drink in the afternoon and there'd be fruit flies everywhere. And we're talking Vietnam-level fruit flies," Koe-Krompecher said. "So you would have three semi-street guys just sitting there drinking, oblivious to the fact there was this swarm of fruit flies. It was like something out of a Harvey Pekar cartoon or a [Charles] Bukowski story."
"It got pretty rough. Then I woke up one morning and said [to Roma], 'We have to change or it's going down,'" said Painter, who in more recent years focused outreach efforts on student groups, hosting events for assorted fraternities and sororities in addition to maintaining a steady slate of concerts.
As the business moved into its final week, Painter expressed little interest in a grandiose sendoff, in part because he still hopes to sell the Bernie's name and concept in the coming months. "I didn't want to go out with some big bang only to announce a month later we've got someone who wants to open Bernie's up the street," he said.
Even if these longer-term plans never come to fruition, however, Bernie's has etched its place in Columbus music history alongside once-celebrated and now-shuttered venues like Stache's and Little Brothers, and its spirit will surely carry on in whatever scene emerges next.
"You'll talk to people who will only remember the heyday of [Stache's and Little Brothers] … and then you'll talk to other people who were there closer to when it ended and they'll say, 'Well, you know, Bernie's became a real hole in the wall' or, 'Stache's wasn't bringing in the shows people really wanted to see' or, 'Little Brothers was kind of coasting on its reputation,'" said music critic andColumbus Dispatchcontributor Curt Schieber, who owned School Kids Records on High Street until 1988 and frequented Bernie's beginning in 1975. "For every scene, you can find the point where it tails off, which just reflects some change in the culture. The next one that comes along - whatever it might be - is going to reflect the culture of the people who are part of it. That's what Little Brothers did. That's what Bernie's did. So we move on to the next one, and who knows where it's going to be or what it's going to look like."