The Ongoing Search for The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill

 Published in the Mountain Gazette, November 2004

            The first time I saw The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill sign, there was an inch of slushy water on the floor, but it was only early April and we knew there would be more. There’s a pump, the realtor said.

            I was there with Weird Harold; we were contemplating buying the place. It was the basement of a big old building in Crested Butte that had once been the company store for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company that had once squeezed hell out of the biggest coal mine, the miners and most of the town. Weird Harold was a jeweler with a tenuous relationship to some money somewhere behind him; I was a local booster-press newspaper publisher who had been reading too much of my own stuff. A visit to the SBA down in Denver sobered us up pretty well – I can still hear his laugh.

            But there it was, painted on the wall in a room in the flooding basement of the former company store in Crested Butte, a quality graffiti: The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill.

            I commenced investigative journalism. The best I could do was to trace it back to the very beginning of Crested Butte’s descent into resortism, circa 1961: an Aspen refugee – one of those retreating souls who would have had the grace to stop and think, if asked: are you fleeing the empire or advancing it – he had collected a lot of stuff from around town and opened up a junk store posing as antique shoppe.

            Among the treasures he’d accumulated was an ornate bird cage, with a well-preserved air-dried dead bird in it. He was too much of an aesthete to do the proper thing; instead, he kept cage and bird intact. And people would come in, and they would admire the cage – then do a double-take. Uh.... they would start, looking toward him with raised brows.

            Yes, he would say. The bird is dead.

            That of course does nothing to explain why there was a grafitti painting on the wall of a cell down in the basement of the old company store: The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill.

            But it all continues to resonate in the labyrinths of randomness loitering in the nexus of my mind. Hemingway talked about “the moveable feast”; for me, it’s The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill – the place where I find myself from time to time remembering what life is trying to be. The last time I was in The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill, it was at the Dillon Dam Brewery in Frisco where I was harassing the editor of this publication and meeting a parade of people who found him worth seeking out. The time before that was last spring in the Eldo at Crested Butte’s annual Flauschink Ball, which usually escalates to The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill level at some point.

            There have been other episodes in recent years – the night at the Gunnison Brewery when brewmeister Kevin Alexander introduced me to C.S. Derrick, CrestedButte’s first master brewer from whom I got, on a soggy set of napkins, the whole modern history of good beer in Colorado. And another night there when El Chino was playing with one of his many bands and I got to dance with the Silver City masseuses. And an entirely different kind of evening there with a very cross-disciplinary agglomeration of academics from the college: all these diverse occasions ascended at some point to The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill.

            That basement in Crested Butte’s Company Store eventually became The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill on occasion. A couple guys who could actually afford that kind of mistake bought the building, and (after turning on the pumps) turned the basement into a bar. Their name for the place was The Tailings, which was a clever enough name for a basement bar in a former mine town. I thought at first they should have taken the name off the wall back in the little basement room, but I came to realize that it takes more than a name to vivify a myth.

            One of the times when The Tailings became The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill was Thanksgiving, circa 1970. It was one of those maddening years when the snow didn’t come and didn’t come – six or eight years before the ski area installed snowmaking stuff – and Thanksgiving was basically dry. There’s nothing in the mountains so depressing as a sunny Thanksgiving morning with no snow below 10,000 feet. If you’ve lived in the mountain towns long, you’ve been there; you know that November is the cruelest month.

            So anyway, since we couldn’t go to work and/or go skiing, which was all we wanted to do at that point, we had a big hippie potluck down in The Tailings to which even some of the hippie-hating pilgrims came; everybody brought something along with their usual insatiable appetite for everything, and we all got roaring fed and drunk and danced to the jukebox, and at some point, like the dove descending, The Tailings became The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill.

            Then somebody who had left had the good grace to come back in to tell us it was snowing upstairs, outside. So we all ran up the stairs, out into the night, to feel it snow on us as though we had never felt it on our tongues before, to throw it around and roll in it a little; Murray cranked up the volume on the juke downstairs and The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill moved out into the street. That night and the next day it snowed about 18 inches. Too late of course to salvage Thanksgiving weekend but what the hell. A typical night in The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill.

            It doesn’t even have to be a place which you know, where you are known. Up on a tour of the Olympic Peninsula once with my partner Maryo, we stopped in Everett, Washington, which had an interesting history for anyone who has done time in a sawmill; I wanted to try to talk my way into a tour of the big Simpson mill there the next day, so we found ourselves in some bar for a hamburger that night where we also discovered Full Sail Ale for the first time. It was a friendly place or at least tolerant, and it was karaoke night, an event I usually try to avoid, but that night, blessed by the veil of anonymity and the flap of the Full Sail, I fulfilled a lifelong secret desire to be Grace Slick singing “White Rabbit.” I will not call it a success because in The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill, success is irrelevant. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

            Between those blessed events of course is always the usual run-of-the-mill bar non-events. Nine times out of ten – no, 99 times out of 100, when you walk into a bar, it’s just a bar and stays that way, a convocation of semi-sodden mendicants sitting in the church of their choice waiting for the species to evolve. That’s okay: a lot of life is putting in time waiting for the species to evolve. But one continues to go in – I continue to go in with the hope that at any moment the right person or persons will walk in, sit down on the next stool or stools, the right thing or things will be said or done, the right spirits invoked or provoked in the right proportions, and all those devout gathered alcohol burners will sputter, hiss and flare, and like the dove descending we will all upshift into the overdrive of The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill.

            A lot of people actually turn into drunks nurturing that hope – thinking that somehow The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill comes from the alcohol and not the burners. I just read a good book about life in an Appalachian coal town – “Coal Run,” by a woman purportedly named Tawni O’Dell, who nevertheless has to have grown up in a place like Crested Butte when it was still coal-run, and who must have hung out with older brothers and uncles in the kinds of places where The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill was truly dying but not yet dead. She made a distinction between drunks and hard drinkers: “A hard drinker is a man who drinks to help him cope. A drunk is a man who drinks because he can’t cope.” A pretty sexist statement from Tawni – some of the best and worst hard drinkers and drunks I’ve known have been women.

            Myself, I’m neither a hard drinker nor a drunk, not yet anyway; I’m just a mendicant out on the prowl for The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill because it helps me cope – the memory, promise and hope of it helps me cope.

            A night – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill is like a good wake: a not entirely conscious but thoroughly conscientious effort to begin remaking history as it should have been – a time to start roughing out the legends behind the mere stories, roughing them out not just in word but deed, dancing deed, as well. A time when memory serves, but isn’t allowed to dictate.

            Afternoons are actually often best for seeking The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill – if you can get in and out with some semblance of grace, and don’t try to hang onto the moment so long that they have to mop you up at closing. Between the closed blue of the day sky and the pin-pricked black of night, when the sky goes translucent just after sunset – that’s the time to leave after the afternoon, to go out into that time between day and night when the sky is open to forever.

            I don’t cry much, or easily, but when tears come it is usually in that time that opens up between day and night, like after an afternoon in the Grubstake with Big Al in Crested Butte, or in the Boardwalk in Crawford with Pete Wiebe, or Kochevar’s in Crested Butte after the Flauschink parade and I’ve just had a perfect and fulfilling dance with a woman whose name I didn’t even ask, the ultimate rock-polka fusion, and I’m leaving The Bird Is Dead Bar and Grill and spiraling my way toward home weeping for what we all could be, might be, should be, maybe eventually will be. Rejoicers, celebrants, mendicants finding our wealth.

            Then I say, like anyone in a similar moment might say, like they used to say back before we got rid of kings:

            “Yes! No! The bird is dead! Long live the bird!”