Rock of Gibraltar: the legacy and the legend of the Hoey
SACHA MOLITORISZOctober 3, 2009
I lost my virginity at the Hopetoun Hotel. The details remain sketchy, as with so many of my memories of the "Hoey", the legendary Surry Hills venue that closed this week. Predictably, its closure has prompted a wave of reminiscing. I've been having flashbacks of musical ecstasy.
And of another, fleshier ecstasy, courtesy of an enigmatic woman who, all those years ago, took pity on a new
romantic with poodle hair. Leading him into a quiet corner, unfazed by his pastel pants and pastel shirt, she ushered him onto a couch with broken springs. The Hopetoun was that sort of place.
"I know a lot of people have clapped and cheered in the Hopetoun," says Patience Hodgson, lead singer of the Grates. "I know there have been a lot of bands born out of the Hopetoun. And children, perhaps."
She's right about the bands. The Grates scored their recording contract thanks to a gig there.
For Aussie rock'n'rollers, getting a gig at the Hoey was a major milestone. And who hasn't played there? Its shaky stage and dodgy sound system were graced by Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper, Kim Salmon, Crow, Died Pretty and the Clouds. The Hard-ons and the Celibate Rifles gave it their all; the Hoodoo Gurus played under the alias Dork Stick; and You Am I played as the Question Fruit.
On the corner of Bourke and Fitzroy, beer and music performed alchemy. Mick Thomas of Weddings Parties Anything supposedly wrote Step In, Step Out there.
With the Hoey gone, musos are mourning. Especially Dave McCormack, who has lost his second home.
"The first ever Custard gig in Sydney was there, back
in '91," says the veteran of 100 or more Hoey shows. "It was like a mecca for us. And there's that whole vibe when you walk in. There's no barrier between the band and the audience, so you can't have any rock star pretence. You can't just arrive on stage, you have to walk through the crowd. In a Venn diagram, it's all an intersection between band and audience."
No, the Hoey wasn't renowned for spoiling its acts. The rider was local beer and cheap wine. The light show was a rudimentary afterthought. There was no backstage for applying make-up, changing costumes or abusing substances.
Actually, it didn't spoil audiences either. The PA system was excellent - for feedback. The pillars and layout meant that only a few of the 150 or so punters could see or hear properly. The toilets had obviously been car-bombed. And don't even mention the lack of disabled access and security staff. (This, apparently, led to the $3000 in fines prompting the pub's owners to call time.)
And yet. And yet it was unarguably one of the most significant venues in the history of Sydney's live music, a tireless champion of the best upcoming acts, and some of the best big names too. "It's been like a Rock of Gibraltar of the Sydney music scene," McCormack says.
It was a venue run by music-lovers, for music-lovers. Sitting at a table near the back, co-owner Paul McCarthy would compare notes about singers and melodies with his bar staff, who were all musos. The pub's long-time booker, Pete Kelly, is in Decoder Ring. They were there because they love music.
The good news is that enough music-lovers - and madmen - still exist in this town to run venues. Live music isn't dead. In 2002, McCormack launched his first solo album at the Hopetoun; tonight he's launching his new one at the recently opened Notes in Newtown. The scene isn't shrinking; it's evolving. Still, there are danger signs.
"There are enough venues," says Adam Yee, a promoter who has found alternative venues for four artists he had booked into the Hoey in coming months. They include the CAD factory in Marrickville. "The problem is, as Newtown, Enmore and Surry Hills keep getting more gentrified, it's going to be all about noise complaints, so they'll polish a lot of places up. I think ultimately this will be a problem."
Suburbs are changing. In Surry Hills, rock chords and cymbal crashes are being drowned out by conversations about unpasteurised brie and property prices. The fear for the Hoey is that it will reopen as a soul-less beer barn, with polished floorboards, piped music and wall-to-wall pokies.
Venues are changing, too. Metro has a sponsorship and naming deal with Virgin Mobile. Last month the Oxford Art Factory put on a Veronicas gig presented by MasterCard. Meanwhile, a rash of illegal venues has opened.
"Most of the venues I can play as a musician in Sydney are illegal," wrote Kay Orchison in the Herald letters pages this week. "State and council regulations put too great a financial burden on venues for them to run small gigs. Now what are left are 'underground' venues that are unsanitary and unsafe. Bless them for existing but the toilets are awful, there are no easy street exits and no security. Sooner or later there will be a fire or a fight and people will die. Places such as the Hopetoun were safe enough without extra bouncers and sprinklers."
If every code and regulation were strictly enforced, most legal venues would probably be found wanting. And anyway, should these havens of artistic expression need to tick so many boxes? Venues need to be safe but they also need personality. A rock'n'roll joint needs to be, well, rock'n'roll.
Rock'n'roll is built on personality - and on myths. Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads. Keith Richards having transfusions of fresh blood in Switzerland. Major labels negotiating fair recording contracts.
The Hopetoun is a cultural sacred site. Let's pray it can be resurrected. Indeed, there's hope for the Hoey yet: a "Save the Hoey" blog has sprung up; email petitions are being organised; since Monday, 10,000 have joined the Facebook group, Save The Hopetoun Hotel.
If, on the other hand, the Hoey is gone for good, there's an upside - the Hoey's mythology would only swell. Truth and fiction would blur as the stories spread about legendary gigs, sizzling performances and seminal happenings.
Which is why I'm getting in early and putting it on the record that I was there the night Kurt Cobain stepped onto stage to play a demo of his new song Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was raw but powerful, as every one of the 30 or so punters in the room can attest, including Daniel Johns, Nick Cave and that mysterious stranger who led me downstairs. I think her name was Bjork.