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luv a fair


End of the Luv-a-Fair

The demise of the legendary nightclub closes the door on a unique offbeat spirit -- and three decades of clandestine sex, drugs and alternative music
Kerry Gold

Saturday, February 08, 2003

When the Luv-a-Fair closed its doors for the last time last Saturday, it was the last gasp for generations of giddy club kids who craved something edgy alongside their cheap gin and tonics.

For the not yet jaded or weary, it was the Vancouver night scene's most thrilling spectacle for most of three decades. For a good many Vancouverites from disco age and younger, the heyday of the Luv-a-Fair at Seymour and Drake was the heyday of Vancouver's club scene.

The DJs played alternative music and they ruled, although there was the occasional live act, too, including Nina Hagen, Killing Joke, the Subhumans, Sonic Youth, the Violent Femmes, singer Divine, Wall of Voodoo, Nine Inch Nails (the not yet legendary band got paid $5,000 US and played to about 100 people in 1989).

Curious celebrities showed up. The Cure and U2 regularly crashed the party whenever they would play in town. As did Supergrass, Skinny Puppy, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Moe Berg, Marilyn Manson, Blur, the Pixies, Hole, Village People, Ministry and Talking Heads. And the movie people, too: Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise, Farrah Fawcett, Johnny Depp and Ray Liotta.

And of course, there was lots of sex, drugs and a little violence thrown into the party mix. Matches were made, hearts were broken. The men's washroom was notorious for drugs and promiscuity, and was one of the liveliest in Vancouver, according to the men. Legend had it that a massive skinhead named Chainsaw got into a fight with the bouncer and pulled off the front door. Drug use wasn't overt, but you didn't have to look hard if you wanted to find it.

"That's when I was introduced to the joys of amyl nitrate," says musician and author John Armstrong, referring to more commonly known "poppers." "You could just feel your brain cells dying." Armstrong -- who wrote about his debauched years as punk rocker Buck Cherry, frontman for the Modernettes, in his book Guilty of Everything -- says his induction to the city began at the Luv-a-Fair.

"The first time I ever came to Vancouver was 1976, and I went to the Luv-a-Fair with [artist Jim] Cummins," says Armstrong. "I was about 16 years old, so I felt like I'd walked into a Fellini movie.

"Do you remember Roller Girl in the movie, Boogie Nights? There was one there, except he was a tall skinny guy with a moustache. It was extremely decadent. There was tons of drugs, and we were all young and fresh faced. And the reason we all went there is because they played the import stuff."

Not that Armstrong remembers any of the DJs. "I was too busy trying to get older gay men to get me drugs and buy me drinks."

In the late '70s, early '80s, it transformed from a strictly disco-playing gay bar to punk rock and new wave sanctuary -- while every other club in town played Top 40. Through the dry ice billowing across the dance floor, you might see a mile-long drag queen lounging across one of the speakers. The speakers perfectly symbolized the place's tongue-in-cheek, see-and-be-seen philosophy. They were the display pedestal for the best-dressed, best-looking, or simply the vainest or highest.

When the Luv-a-Fair was at its peak, you felt like anything could happen, or anybody could walk through the doors.

"My fondest memory is looking across from the DJ booth one night when I was playing in the late '80s and seeing Dave Gahan and Martin Gore from Depeche Mode both dancing on the raised speakers, to their own song, Master and Servant," says former long-time Luv-a-Fair DJ David Hawkes.

Aside from an evolving state-of-the-art sound and light system, the decor never changed much.

"If it was broken or dirty we used to say, 'Paint it black,'" remembers Hawkes.

A dark DJ booth that started out on the floor was soon raised to a dark corner over the stage, and beneath it, a red digital read-out that displayed the upcoming track (this was to discourage people from bugging the DJ with requests). TVs around the downstairs bar area might loop a movie like Altered States ad nauseum, while Iggy Pop's Warm Leatherette or Trio's Da Da Da blared so loud that your chest cavity kept time with the chinking cubes of ice in your glass, which were a ghostly violet hue beneath the black lights. There was an upstairs mezzanine, with pool tables and a chain link fence. Black was the uniform; hair was ratted; fishnets torn.

"The first time I went there it was back in the late '70s, and we all got in there underage, and I saw that weird purple world that I'd only known from magazines," says author Michael Turner. "And I'd never seen it around Vancouver before. It was an indication that I was living in a contemporary world. So of course, I felt very grown up.

"But I do remember wanting to never have to go to the bathroom."

When Nick Kerasiotis and his five brothers paid about $1 million for a defunct nightclub called the Garage in 1975, they couldn't have imagined its impact on the impressionable lives of so many kids. They started it as a gay club, chose a name that fitted the scene, and soon pulled in a crowd that sought the alternative side of music, too. By the late '70s, Disco Duck and Donna Summer tunes had begun to wear out their welcome, and Hawkes believes he witnessed a pivotal moment not just in Luv-a-Fair history, but popular culture history. After the Kerasiotis brothers made the switch from beloved progressive disco DJ Richard Evans, to one who catered to a decidedly straight crowd and artists like the Cramps and the Clash, change did not come easily. In fact, it nearly caused a war. One night the disco-loving crowd chose to revolt by sitting down on the dance floor. But the Kerasiotis brothers had read the mood of popular culture, and deemed that it was time for a change. Perhaps their greatest strength was that ability to gauge the climate and choose DJs appropriately.

"The Greeks were great bosses," says George Maniatis, a former Luv-a-Fair DJ. "But this was a business to them, and they made a lot of money over the years. And if you made money, you were family. If you didn't, you were out. It was like being in the mob."

By the early '80s, because of its gritty reputation, it earned the affectionate nickname "the Scuz." Kerasiotis recalls hearing the tag in 1983, and he nods and laughs at the memory. "It was because it was the most crazy," he says simply.

Most significantly, perhaps, it was the first club to celebrate the DJ -- invisible in his opaque pulpit, the all-knowing, keenly intuitive lord and master of the evening's ceremonies. Kerasiotis is still proud of those DJs, who became known, if not at the time, then later. Hawkes DJ'd at the Luv-a-Fair from 1985 to 1987 and again from 1990 to 1997. Media personality and former MuchMusic VJ Kim Clark Champness was there in the early days. Nettwerk Records chief Terry McBride DJ'd there from the early '80s to about 1987. So did Maniatis, the artist and repertoire V-P for Nettwerk.

"From the late '70s to the '80s, you had Luv-a-Fair, Graceland, Faces. The rest of the city was inundated with Top 40 clubs," says Maniatis, who occupied the booth from 1987 to 1994. "People realized that these DJs at these really cool clubs had access to all this music that nobody else had access to," said Maniatis. "Nobody would hear this music anywhere."

The place became internationally famous for its progressive club chart. Maniatis remembers regularly informing influential New York trade magazine Rockpool of the club's playlist.

"In the early days nobody knew what alternative music was, so record companies read magazines like Rockpool and signed bands according to what DJs were playing," says Maniatis. "We would only play records at our clubs that were hits, so it was instant feedback. We were very, very important. They watched our playlists."

Turner recalls getting to the Luv-a-Fair early in the evening to witness the DJ changing gears, gauging the mood of the crowd that was emerging for the night, adjusting the sound appropriately. He went on Mondays when he busked on Robson Street with punk rock roots outfit the Hard Rock Miners, in the late '80s and early '90s. Turner hadn't written any books or art criticisms or opened the Malcolm Lowry Room yet; he was just a low-income guy in a band, knocking around ideas. So it was fitting that the cocktails were 99 cents, even if they were heavy on the mixer.

"We would take our bags of quarters and loonies and go down there and have a great time," he recalls. "And for a time there, everything that meant anything to me was intersected at that place -- and in that sense, it was definitely an important place for me."

On the outside, it remained a nondescript concrete block of a building, but on the inside, it was a sea of dressed-up kids working hard to affect a look of utter indifference, no matter how intimidated they might be feeling on the inside. Michael Barrick, a goth kid who lived in Nanaimo and would go to Vancouver in the late '80s just for the Luv-a-Fair, remembers the feeling.

"Because we were from out of town, young, and a little insecure, we generally kept to the small, raised seating area below the DJ booth," he says. "The 'real' regulars hung around on the other seating area beside the dance floor, in what came to be known as "The Goth Box." They were the ones with the great clothes that we couldn't afford or just plain couldn't get on the Island and, at the time, we were intimidated by them. Later on, once I was living in Vancouver, I discovered that they were just people, and eventually ended up spending all my time in the Goth Box as well."

It was a packed house the final night, filled with former goth kids like Barrick, as well as former and current punks, preppies, skater kids, mods, whatever, who staked out favourite tables and re-lived the glory days.

The Kerasiotis brothers still own the Plaza on Granville Street and Celebrities on Davie Street, which is re-opening in the summer after renovations. They are also owners of the Caprice, which is the follow-up to the Luv-a-Fair crowd, set to open March 15. (The Luv-a-Fair is under negotiation to be sold, and will face the wrecking ball to make way for the Yaletown area's spreading rash of condominiums.)

But the Luv-a-Fair was their first club, and the brothers owned the place until its closing bash last Saturday, so it wasn't an easy thing to see their first baby die. It was a sold-out evening, and a low-key Kerasiotis observed from a side table with friends. Kerasiotis, who came from a Greek island in his early 20s, is quiet, greying, conservative-looking and not what you'd expect as the owner of the city's most outrageous landmark.

"Yes, it is very sad," he says, nodding, looking genuinely saddened. "That was an end of an era, yes. I had a lot of people who said, 'Don't close. Stay.' But ...."

He shrugs. "But everything has an end, huh?"

After all, Luv-a-Fair's arch rival, Graceland (which the Kerasiotis brothers also owned), died first. And that's in spite of the fact that Luv-a-Fair wasn't always the coolest joint in town, falling victim to bouts of mainstream ennui, particularly in the late '90s.

But it won't be the drugs, or the sex, or the posing, or even the illustrious DJing that went on at the Luv-a-Fair that will be best remembered. Its most endearing quality was that until the end, it simply welcomed anybody, and nobody cared what you wore or who you were.

"It was just a nice safe place where you didn't run any risk of having to defend your taste in straight legged Levis," says Armstrong. "Because honestly you risked your life to get on a bus with short black hair and straight legged pants -- either you were [gay] or a punk and either way you deserved a beating."

Says Hawkes: "Luv-a-Fair was built on the open-mindedness of most of the clientele. Black lipstick and dressing like a bat never mattered. The weirdos were in the suits, and even they weren't bothered by the regulars."

For those who contributed to and cherished the offbeat spirit of the Luv-a-Fair, it was the perfect convergence of fantasy creation and role-playing escapism, a world unto itself.

"Luv-a-Fair at its best, or Graceland, these are perfect worlds," says Turner. "It was a Utopian culture, in a sense. It expressed itself, and it had to be just right. And that's a brilliant aspect of that business."



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