Welcome To The Roadhouse

Originally posted July 20, 2007

It’s the roadhouse of dreams.

Where is it? It’s nowhere and it’s everywhere, depending on the season and the memories and hopes of those sitting inside.

If you look out the window during the baking summer, you might see the flat fields and arrow-straight roads of the Delta, the humid air vibrating like a steel guitar string. The melancholy of autumn might find you near a lake in the North Woods, with the maniac cry of the loon joined by the honks of the geese leaving you behind as they head home. In winter, the roadhouse – probably named Times Gone, but we’ll see – welcomes you in from the gloom and grit of some city’s aging industrial neighborhood. Maybe it’s Gary, Indiana, or someplace on Ohio’s Lake Erie shore. The spring? Well, I think we’re in the mountains of Wyoming, or at least a place where spring comes late, making its days all the more precious and the roadhouse itself brighter inside than the windows and the lights can account for.

This is no slick place with light-colored wood finished to the texture of silk. The wood here is dark – except in those places where the varnish has been worn away – and you can feel the grain through the stain. It’s honest wood with rough-edged comfort. You know that when you slide into one of the booths on the far side of the room. And you know it even more when you lay your hands on the bar, nodding as your fingers read the nicks and dents in the bar top like a blind man reads a good story.

The bar stools are just that: bar stools, not chairs on long legs. They’ve all been reupholstered at one time or another, but always with the same red leather and brass nails. Hook your feet on the timeworn rungs if you have to anchor yourself, and don’t lean back because all you’ll find is empty air. That’s okay, though. It’s always better to lean forward, elbows on the bar, especially if you’re lost in thought, lost in memories or just lost.

In the center of the place is a dance floor, not large but big enough, with a stage off to the left end. We’ll come back there later.

On the right end of the dance floor, as you step inside the place – it seems that Times Gone is the right name for the place – is a pool table under a shaded light fixture, and on the wall, two pinball machines set back-to-back. These are pinball machines, not computers on legs. They’re old, but they still work, and they still give out that satisfying, solid “thwack!” when you win a free game. Some days – or nights, for that matter – there’s not a lot of sounds better than that one.

Just the other side of the pinball machines is a jukebox, a real mechanical jukebox with records in it. It’s packed with songs from before 1980 – a few after that time, but just a few. There’s lots of R&B from the Fifties and the Sixties, and one or two Al Green songs for the slow dances. You’ll find some rock, mostly the blues-based stuff. There are a few country records, some to dance to and some to cry along with. There’s also a little bit of pop, mostly because it brings smiles to the folks in the crowd, some for the memory and some for the irony.

And there’s the blues. From Chicago and the Delta. From Texas, Los Angeles and the Piedmont. You come into Times Gone with the blues, and we can find the right song for you. In fact, the day always starts with the blues, a fact we hope isn’t matched by life. Every morning at eleven, as Times Gone opens its door, the jukebox plays Muddy Water’s 1948 single “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” That’s not a comment on life; we just like the song.

There are a couple other songs you’ll hear every day. At five in the afternoon, the jukebox plays “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors. And just before we close the doors sometime in the early morning, Ringo Starr and his three friends bid us “Goodnight.”

We don’t rely entirely on the jukebox, as well stocked as it is. Remember the dance floor and the stage? Weekend nights, we’ve got live music. I suppose that Muddy and his old rival, Howlin’ Wolf, stop by now and then, since this is the roadhouse of dreams. And Brother Ray and Aretha must come by here too, every once in a while. But a lot of the time, the stage belongs to Delbert McClinton, a roadhouse singer if ever there was one. He’s got some records in the jukebox, to be sure, but there’s nothing like hearing him in person. The way he takes over the stage and holds the attention of the crowd on the floor, he could own the place.

It sure would be nice if somebody, somewhere, did.

Delbert McClinton – Second Wind [1978]

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