I’m probably the wrong one to eulogize Town Hall. Someone with a taste for the crowds and the suds should be sweeping the ashes, humming all the while. Town Hall was its own universe, the collective creation of its own boozy imagination, a huge cave echoing sweets and horrors. Dark, raunchy, bizarre, it was a choice booking for bands but was also the club with one of the worst reputations for violence. And what a smell! — a music all its own, harmonies of sweat and fright and hustle, stale beer and smoke, an armpit only a drunk could love. If, during the day, it was the best place to buy a sandwich, one could think of better places to eat it.
Still, there was a raw kind of exaltation about it. It was as public an environment as one could imagine. And so, the best and the worst of a university town found its way there. Whether they came because they loved it, or were curious, or lonely, or simply thirsty, they found something in the ruins. Beat, hip, black white, bullshitters of every ilk, they were a family, all right, and smack in the middle of Chapel Hill. Could the symbolism be more overt?
Four years ago, when Dave Bratten was talking about opening Town Hall, what he had in mind was more than another beer joint. It was to be what its name suggested — a place for political meetings, a focal point for the community: the craftspeople and poets and musicians and dreamers that make Chapel Hill what it is. Dave was a visionary (his other dream, New Eden, conceived as a planned, self-sufficient community in the country, lured me here in the first place) and full of seeming contradictions. Gentle, but stubborn, he was a traditionalist who resented authority, a deeply religious man who carried his Bible, discreetly, from The New Establishment, the bar he owned at the time, across the street to the new Town Hall. For a while, he called himself a Christian Democrat, which has a strange ring to American ears. But Town Hall was as American a dream as they come.
New Eden is a trailer park now. Town Hall has folded. It’s been resurrected as Cenergy, a “New Age” club, essentially gay, and open to members only. The wheel has turned again — 180 degrees, to be exact — and whether we chalk it up to the cosmic play of opposites, or the ruder social yin and yang of scheme and vision, crap and quality, the result is, depressingly enough, the same.
Town Hall had only been in business a couple of years when Dave sold his shares and left Chapel Hill, to attempt New Eden elsewhere. His partner, Mike Strong, carried on against mounting odds: the break-up of the bands that drew the largest crowds, Town Hall’s increasingly unsavory reputation, bad management. And now that Town Hall has finally expired, the bird that rises from the ashes soars heavenward for members only, Saturday if you’re gay. But why a private club in the middle of Chapel Hill? What does this tell us about ourselves, midway through the seventies, at the dawn of our third American century?
The answer to the first question seems obvious: money. Indeed, Cenergy charges more to dance to records than some bars charge for live bands. But it’s only half an answer. Those who view every “uptown” business venture as motivated solely by greed are often the same people who idealize “alternative” businesses. They miss the point. They confuse substance with form — our generational error; our human error since we dropped from the trees — and so a young man with long hair selling brown rice is assumed to be more worthy than an elderly woman selling pantyhose. This is properly, the subject of another essay. The point is that money, itself, is neutral: it can’t be anymore blamed for the uses to which it’s put than bricks can be blamed for split-level houses. To chalk up Town Hall’s demise to a greedy landlord, or Cenergy’s arrival to a businessman’s appetite, is to weave a strand of social truth into a web of illusion. Let the economic determinists — when they’ve finally figured out what happened in Russia, and what’s about to happen in China — come up with a better answer. To me, society is a mirror, and the face we see is a reflection of our own psychic blemishes, worry-lines, suspicions.
Yet, with Dave Bratten’s high ideals in mind, we ask, with William Irwin Thompson, in his new book, Evil and World Order: “How is it that when we try to do good we can often end up by creating greater evil? The Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 ended in the Reign of Terror and the rise of the dictatorship of Napoleon. The temporary dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia ended up in the permanent dictatorship of the ex-proletariat in the new bourgeoisie of the Communist Party. America fought a revolutionary war against the British empire, and then became an empire fighting to suppress a guerrilla war of national liberation in Vietnam” Town Hall becomes a private club with different cards for gays, bis, and straights. Are there mirrors in Cenergy? Shall we study our faces? The Village Advocate gushes that Chapel Hill’s West Side is an exciting place to shop. What Whitmanesque adoration! No lines does the Advocate draw between grains and nylons. At Aurora, the West Side’s new “in” place to eat, there are mirrors aplenty, and a decor to evoke the Forties; what fabulous years: I recall Hiroshima ’45.
The Woodstock generation turns in its sleep. The Woodstock mud is dust on the mirror, and on the road. One for the road, then, and to dust, returned. Thompson: “Unless the Good is seen shining in the immediacy of the act, it should not be adopted. All appeals to reason, expediency, and necessity are appeals to the very forces that wreck all ideals. One must have courage and be willing to take risks; no one can love who has not known his own terror; that is what the temptation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Christ are all about.”
A private club in the middle of Chapel Hill tells us about nothing so much as our own private hearts, for members only. It is our cross to bear: let each of us decide why, and passing Cenergy’s windows the next time stare directly through, and not just at, our reflection in the glass.
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Since writing this, I learned that Cenergy was on the verge of bankruptcy. This I interpreted as a positive omen or the most frightening instance of instant karma Chapel Hill has known, or both. So I called Mike Strong, who filled me in. Briefly, Cenergy, underwritten by investors to whom Mike turned to bail himself out, was a flop. Nobody came: the gays alienated the straights, but even the gays didn’t turn out; Franklin Street was too public for the kind of crowd that made the old electric Company such a success. I’m still unclear about the precise relationship between Cenergy and Town Hall — since Mike was still, apparently, in charge — but it’s academic. “We’re out of business,” he said, “Dave thought if you treat people right, they’ll treat you right,” he went on. “It’s a nice philosophy but I don’t know that it works too well.” He said that some $25,000 in inventory was stolen every year by employees and customers, and suggested, “You need locks to keep honest.”
Business failures notwithstanding, I suspect Dave’s philosophy is much the same, except he might put it: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Our new Franklin Street neighbor, by the way, will probably be a mini-mall with boutiques or a discount drugstore. Mike thinks it’s unlikely there will be another bar there.