The city shook a little when it was announced last week that the fabled Railway Club was closing its doors for good. Vancouver is a much different place without the snug and always faintly hazardous upstairs venue, where legends were forged (k.d. lang) while others were sent packing (Radiohead, rather famously) by a crowd that was always rowdy seemingly by virtue of just being there. It was the closest thing to a nightly Mardi Gras that No Fun City ever mustered.
Perhaps even more important than the big names who passed through—something that really began when Bob Williams bought the joint in 1980—was the fact that the Railway Club was always the best gig in town for the thousands of local musicians who mounted that comically small but exalted stage. There wasn't another room in the city that usually guaranteed an audience and a decent pay-out, and it was the only place on Earth where Billy Cowsill might provide impromptu piano accompaniment (as the late star often did in the '90s.)
Further to that, what bar in Vancouver is so roundly and affectionately identified, as we see in the oral history below, by its unique vibe, weird architecture, and music-crazy doorman?
"I have many memories of the Railway Club. But rather than highlight one in particular, I would point instead to what all of them are rooted in, and that is the Williams and Forsyth family, who owned and operated this paradise for over a quarter-century and, as such, set the stage every night for whatever we wanted to put out there in the name of art, music and literature. God bless 'em!" - Michael Turner, author and former frontman for the Hard Rock Miners
"I’ve had many dozens of blurry evenings at the Railway. I have no idea what band it was, but I saw one singer do 40 pushups with the mic on the floor, yelling into it. I think I played there at least five or six times. Always Johnny Wildcat on the sound board, squeezing effortlessly between cramped sweaty people to get to the stage. I saw Kevin Kane play there. Leeroy Stagger, Alphababy (now known as Yukon Blonde), Hannah Georgas, Octoberman-many, many more. For a time, I slanged CDs at the Seymour Street A&B Sound, and it was the regular joint for post-shift beers. Everyone who worked there was in bands, and tended to play there. I remember asking the bartender who I should talk to about getting a gig. Landing my first show there was a huge victory. During one gig, my friend Fran drunkenly (and awkwardly) gave me a fist bump in the middle of a song and then wandered directly to the back stairwell and fell right down them and spent the rest of the night in the hospital. Those stairs were deadly. I will not miss loading amps and drum kits up those stairs, but I will most definitely miss the Railway." - Dan Mangan, songwriter and famously nice guy
"I have a lot of memories from the Railway Club. Some were intentional, as in shows... Others about ending up there and not really leaving. But I'm sure the music ones are more interesting. I recall an amazing night seeing Jerry Dale McFadden and learning how to do a proper "Yee-haw." I had one of those coveted tables right near "the stage." I may have over done the yee-haws at a certain point. And then there's my Nardwuar story. He and his band Thee Goblins were playing. I got to the Railway late and saw my friends up front so I lingered by the bar... just close enough to be asked to join the band for a dance around the club. I sat down feeling safe that I wouldn't be asked again—wrong. I'm a game spirit, it seems." - Lisa Christiansen, CBC host
"The Railway Club was literally the first bar I went to when I came out west for the first time in 1993. I didn't know Vancouver at all, I basically came to the city like a bumpkin but I was lucky enough to stumble into the Railway. I can't recall every member on stage that night but I know Mike Van Eyes was playing piano, Harold Nix was on guitar, and Steve Taylor was playing drums (funny that I still play with some of those fellas today!) I was blown to say the least! What a club, what a band, what a crowd!!! It was like the epicentre of the Canadian roots/rock’n’roll/country scene. Toronto had a pretty vibrant roots community at the time, but the Railway and its crowd really overshadowed what i had known up until then. After I had relocated out West, it soon became my watering hole and my home away from home. It was the first room I ever had a sell-out show, the first place I saw Ray Condo perform, and the first place I would take folks who were visiting from abroad. Music was played, friendships were made, and hearts were broken. I will miss it. RIP the Railway Club." - Paul Pigat, guitar genius
"I was most surely underage when I first made my way up those stairs and snuck into the Rail—probably for a CiTR Shindig. By the time I was 19 though, I’d gone from fingers-crossed buzzing at the door to having my own key and membership, and a delightfully eclectic coterie of drinking buddies. In the late-eighties, downtown Vancouver was still pretty quirky and that was epitomized at the Rail, where my cocktail hour drinking companions grew to include artists and musicians, punks and office workers, couriers and stockbrokers, reporters, architects and tattoo artists. Over thirty years, I forged many a friendship and saw many a band at the Railway, more than I could list (or remember) of either. A lot of great memories, but the most poignant are tinged with melancholy for dead friends: Fridays after work with Paul and Nigel, or drinking beer and bourbon with Jim Green at the Saturday afternoon rockabilly jam. Of all the great people and shows though, my favourite memory: quiet reveries in the corner window table, a weekday afternoon with open windows and a sunny breeze rustling the cherry blossom trees." - Pete Fry, Vancouver-based creative, community advocate and politician
"The memories from my time at the Railway are coming back in waves with the recent closure. To be sure, a few nights of drinking as the club was hard to leave...and some brilliant nights of music that will forever be remembered. From the earlier days of The Visible Targets (with guitar hero/producer Mick Ronson on-site ), Bolera Lava, The Beverly Sisters, Poisoned, The Enigmas, The Odds plus plus plus to The Modern Lovers, T-Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips, Blue Rodeo, S.O.T.W., and the Hip. Add so many more super talented local musicians and it really was a special place and a great room to see music. Janet was extremely good with her booking policies.The environment was one of comfort and familiarity...thousands of people will continue to carry a piece of the Railway near to their hearts." - Steve Forsyth, former owner of the Railway with sister Janet, brewer extraordinaire at Off the Rail Brewing Co.
"The Modernettes must have played the Rail 20-30 times and one of the best moments came when one of the bar staff came up to us after our soundcheck and said, "Do you know you're almost as loud as a jet taking off?" [Bassist] Mary [Mary-Jo Kopechne] said, "Really. How loud is a rocket?" Protestation we had missed the point fell on, literally, deaf ears. And one time the president of Polygram came to see us, making noises about signing us. He was upset after the first set, because I was drinking, smoking, and talking to the audience between songs. I said, 'You don;t understand. This place is like my living room. You're lucky I'm wearing pants.' I would like to thank Janet Forsythe, Steve (is he also Forsythe?), and the rest of the old staff for their patience with me over the years." -John Armstrong, singer-guitarist for the late and seriously great Modernettes
"The first thing that pops into my mind when I think of the Railway Club is the stairs. On many occasions I've pushed, pulled, slid on, and struggled with almost every make of amplifier, keyboard, drum kit and, on one ill-advised occasion, a Leslie speaker, up and down those stairs. I've been at the Railway too many times to count. I played one of my first Vancouver shows (Shindig, and won!), got blisteringly drunk, danced, saw a million great bands, got dumped, got picked up, watched that little train circle the building a billion times, and at the end of the day the thing that sticks out to me the most are those stairs. RIP Railway Club. You offered me a ton of fun and you will be missed. Those stairs though, good riddance." - Adam Fink, drummer, Gang Signs
"The very first time I got a gig of my own, it was opening for the Modelos at the Railway Club. I remember having such terrible stage fright, I had to run to the ladies room to be sick. I thought a good way to calm myself would be to read all the writing on the bathroom walls. I might even find the meaning of life, scrawled in Sharpie, right before my eyes at the historic Railway Club! I got up on stage, and before I started, I said, 'I told my Uncle if my singing bombed, I'd tell jokes. If my jokes fell flat, I'd just dance, and start removing my clothes... So it's weird he hasn't shown up, because whose uncle DOESN'T want to see them naked! I guess maybe I'm just not pretty enough?' The audience laughed and clapped, but I heard my dad's voice say, 'Oh no. Oh boy!' Then I met a fella who told me that back in the old days at the Railway Club, it was always a party, and musicians were treated like royalty. He said you'd be sitting in the back before your gig, and someone would just bring you lines! I said, 'Oh, gosh, I wish I'd been part of things back then! If someone else had been writing all my stage banter, I might not say such embarrassing things!' He looked at me all bewildered, and said, 'Not those kind of lines!' I kept going back to the Railway Club, playing shows, as well as going down to the jams to play with the incredible people I still play with today. I'm eternally grateful for the time I spent, and the people I met at the Railway Club." - Kelly Haigh, musician and ace hair stylist
"My most exciting event at the Rail was the debut performance of The Day Trippers, a Beatles cover band comprised of a few of the better players on the local scene. This show was memorable because there must have been upwards of 150 people jammed into the main show space. They were everywhere, 2 layers deep on the bench seating. I couldn't move at all. I remember a friend being in the center of the room, so I kept in visual contact with him as to how the mix was working. I've never seen it so packed in there". - Shawn (TRouBLe) Gommer, Railway Club soundman
"Once the Rail could stay open ‘til three, things got real. Despite that, I always wanted to start playing our set by 12 midnight, 'cause I knew we'd lose the crowd otherwise. One night we played a particularly raucous set, fuelled by trays of Jack Daniels shots that were in constant circulation throughout the night. The crowd was wall to wall, a total sweatbox. It seemed to me like every time we would wear them out a new crop of people would show up to carry on the festivities and they simply would not let us leave. I think we did about six or seven encores. The staff was loving it because people were drinking like mad. The lights finally came on at 3:15 but I swear we could have kept it going if we'd been allowed. That was the Rail." – Rich Hope, musician, barber, epicurean
"Memories? Well they're fuzzy and I was definitely a repeat offender so we'll go montage style:
- My first time (with The Vinaigrettes). We arrived early. There was still jazz on Saturday afternoons and we witnessed the frantic band leader use the bar phone (they had a phone on the bar!) to call another bar to find the drummer and say, "Where are you? Downbeat was 10 minutes ago!"--a phrase we totally adopted for life!
- Like Geoff Berner said, the feeling of when you "graduated" to being a weekend band.
- Being asked to be the musician for poetry night and drinking espresso martinis, which were both life-saving and lethal, with my best friend J. McLaughlin and having a huge church giggles laugh attack when the woman before us introduced a song like this: "This is a song about my friend Martha's porch, which is a very good place for me to be... It's called Martha's Porch."
- Door Man Stan's unwavering devotion to the band Love.
- Watching Amy Honey sing her song, "At the Railway Club That's when I fell in love" with heart eyes looking upon her future betrothed Andrew Pearson.
- The sudden and sinking ice-heart feeling when, at the end of the night, the new owners handed me something called "a tab".
- The temptation of wanting to bash my teeth into the cement owl by the back bar.
-The tiny John Malkovich band-room
- The "helpful" door hobos - Carolyn Mark, Victoria-based singer-songwriter and ace raconteur
"The first bar I ever went to in Vancouver was the Railway. Some friends in Montreal hooked me up with some locals when I moved here and I had met some other people on Myspace (which was normal back then), it turned out they all knew each other and were going to be at the Rail that night, I think Swank was playing. Montreal doesn't have any "working men’s clubs" as far as I know, so it was a different vibe than what I was used to. It looked like it was from an entirely different era and pretty out of place in its surroundings, but that gave it charm. I made my way back to the smoking room, someone swiftly bought me a shot of Jäger and then everyone at the table cheers-ed to my arrival in town. I remember thinking, "Damn this place is friendly!" After that I spent quite a few nights in that back room, until they banned smoking. I bet if they had never closed the smoking room they would have done better financially. Seriously though the people I met that night are still good friends to this day. There's something to be said for a real local where people know each other, feel part of a community, and make it a point to come out and support. It's sad to see the place go, but hopefully people realize what's at stake and continue to support other venues in Vancouver and help them to cover those ridiculously high rents." – Melissa James, filmmaker, No Fun City
"I've played many shows at the Railway over the years, in my solo project, with The Jardines and with Stone Poets. I've watched countless bands, solos, duos, trios, and more. There’s so much talent in this city. I get pretty emotional thinking about The Railway closing. The saddest thing is it's probably going to be ripped down and made into more high priced condos. The best memory I have of the Railway is after a Blue Rodeo show—I think at the Orpheum—the guys made arrangements to do a private show at the Railway. Being friends with the band, I was included on the door list. Blue Rodeo all lovingly squished together on that stage… [it was] pure magic. So sad to see you go, Railway. It's getting harder and harder for indie bands to find cool venues in this town. We just lost a musical treasure." - Cherelle Jardine, lead singer of Head, formerly of The Jardines and Stone Poets
"So many fond memories of so many great shows, both as a performer and as an audience member. The amount of money I spent there was probably in the realm of tithing, at least in the '80s, '90s and '00s... I could go on forever, but immediate contender for all time favourite memory – at least one that's printable in a newspaper – would have to be of Swank's album release party for Campfire Psalms. The album came with a bonus karaoke disc of our music with Spencer's voice taken out. For the middle set of the evening we had a bunch of local heavyweights come up and sing karaoke versions of the songs from the album. Watching and listening to Brian "Wimpy Roy" Goble – a teenage hero of mine – belt out a song I co-wrote was an absolute thrill. And I met the love of my life there when I was playing banjo at the HRM singalong." - Douglas J. Liddle, former guitarist for Swank
"Whatever this arguably fucked up thing is I do musically, it wouldn't have happened without the Railway Club. My earliest gigs were there and it was where I played shows locally for nearly a decade. I learned how to play with a band there, how to sound check, what to say and not to say to a sound person, how to properly use a microphone, how to restring and tune my guitar onstage mid show, how to perform in front of an audience, how to deal with obnoxious drunks sans punching them in the face, how to throw up in the can, rinse your mouth, wash your face and jump onstage with just you and your guitar and hold an audience for 45 minutes, etc And as un-fucking-believable as it is these days, I actually paid my rent on a few occasions from what I earned at the Railway in a month. I released a few CDs there, met nearly every musician I've played, recorded, and toured with there. It was the Railway where I met Richard Chapman and joined his label Northern Electric Records which released several of my albums. I met great singer-songwriters who changed me as an artist and made me a better songwriter like Herald Nix, Ronnie Heyward, Linda McCrae, Carolyn Mark, Geoff Berner, Doug Andrew and others. I'm sure I played well over a hundred shows there and saw even more and I'm just one of many, many more accomplished singer-songwriters/musicians who can say the same thing. Wherever I've played in Canada people would ask about the Railway Club. It was legendary. And personally it was where I became a musician." - Rodney DeCroo, songwriter and poet
"My favorite memory was when my son Ben's band Thee Manipulators opened for Pierced Arrows, I had never seen the Railway club so full. There was a line up, up the stairs and down the stairs and out on the street. It was one of those sweaty packed in like Sardines nights. Even though it was so crazy busy you didn't care. There was a great feel in the air. I was so proud that my son's band was on the same bill as Fred Cole who was in the bands the Weeds and Dead Moon." – Rob Frith, owner, Neptoon Records
"When I was a young punk back in the eighties my friends and I used to refer to the Railway as the place where all the old punks went to die. We were too damn cool for the smokey, beer stained, brown wood joint where secretaries drank after work and guys like Buck Cherry and Ian Tiles would hold court at night. I was first lured to the Railway in 1987 by Valeria, drummer of cub, to see No Fun at one of their Sunday night residencies. Soon I was a regular singing along to “Work, Drink, Fuck, Die” and “Be Like Us” while munching on Gorgo, a Japanese lime toffee the band liked to promote. Sunday night at the Rail was fun because it was a low key place to drink off your Saturday night hangover. Besides No Fun, the Frank Frink Five were Sunday night regulars. I used to enjoy their eclectic sets of cover tunes and occasionally I sat in on clarinet for numbers like “Un Paloma Blanca” and “The Happy Wanderer”. For me the most memorable thing about the Railway was the excellent local entertainment, and of course Stan the friendly door man. I was never an official member but he always let me in at member’s price. I was in a band called the Power Failures for a while and have fond memories of playing shows with bands like the Bughouse 5 and the Royal Grand Prix. I spent many blurry nights over the years at Hard Rock Miners singalongs and at the amazing Rockabilly Saturday afternoon jams featuring such talent as Butch Murphy and Jimmy Roy. Those afternoons almost always turned into allnighters. I quit drinking ten years ago; I decided I didn’t want to be one of those old punk rockers who died at the Railway, so I wasn’t privy to the club’s demise. Before I stopped frequenting the place my act Canned Hamm had a few memorable yet fuzzy performances at that venerable old haunt. We performed one of our second ever legendary Christmas shows opening for Carolyn Mark. At another of our Railway performance my now ex-wife was in attendance. She confessed to me after a few years of marital bliss that she had been drinking at the back of the club that night when one of her friends came up to her and said, “You gotta see what’s going on up front.” She made her way to the front of the club to witness us on stage during the part of the show where we did a strip tease: Lil Hamm (aka Robert Dayton) at this point down on the ground wearing only his satin undies and thick wool socks. He was lifting his legs towards me and I was passionately ripping the socks from his feet. Upon laying eyes on the spectacle she turned to her friend and said: “I’m going to marry that man!” " – Stephen Hamm, musician, podcaster, legend
"The Railway brings many memories but here's one that stands out: Dimwit, the main drummer for D.O.A. died and we had his memorial there. He played there many times and so many friends came out to say goodbye. I've played there and gone to many a wild night. Sad to see it go." - Jan Berman, former partner of DOA's late Brian Goble, music teacher, musician
"I spent so many nights at the Railway when I was 19 and had just moved to the city. From gigs by friends, to comedy shows to movie nights. I went on awkward dates there and it's where I first introduced my friends to my now husband. Now that I'm gone I see the city shifting into its new wealthy reality and it wounds me that the Vancouver I first loved is no more. The Railway was that odd, friendly heart of the city." - Jessica Lyric, musician, member of the Hit Points, former Vancouverite
"I can't believe The Railway Club is shutting its doors! Beyond all the fabulous shows I've seen there over the years, that's where my wife (of 10 years) put the moves on me. I was ordering drinks at the bar when, to my surprise, Jessica leaned in and kissed me. Easily one of the best days of my life! And that's why I'll never forget The Railway Club." - Todd Hancock, former CFOX host, podcaster
"I celebrated my 18th birthday there. I guess nobody can get in trouble for that now. When my first band Terror of Tiny Town was filling the place and Stan started letting us in for free, that was an award. That was huge. One night me and Paul Alexander wandered in there with no plan for the evening and Ford Pier was playing solo. The first lyric we heard was "I can't believe how effectively she decapitated James Earle Jones' foremost henchman." and we both turned to each other, "who IS this guy?" we were enraptured by what Ford was doing. Then the Show Business Giants played. We had just discovered 2 genius acts we'd never heard of. But we took it for granted that this was the sort of thing that happened all the time at the Railway, because it did." - Geoff Berner, songwriter and rabble rouser