U2, Tina Turner, the White Stripes, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Muddy Waters—this is barely the tip of the iceberg in regard to the talent that’s graced the stage of the Commodore Ballroom over the last several decades, and that likewise grace local author Aaron Chapman’s new venue-saluting book, Live at the Commodore. From the orchestra days to the rock ’n’ roll acts ushered in by Drew Burns in the late ’60s, to the room’s current incarnation, the book lovingly captures close to 85 years worth of history that’s taken place at 868 Granville. Having enjoyed the iconic venue since the ’80s as a concertgoer, and as a performer with the Real McKenzies and the Town Pants, Chapman is pretty familiar with the world-famous spot, but the massive project was nonetheless daunting.
“I think if I had screwed it up I would have been dragged down Granville Street and beaten,” he tells the Straight with a hearty, gravelly laugh. “If you screw up a book on a place that people love so much, you’re going to be run out of town. There were a lot of moments in the middle of the night while I was writing the damn thing thinking, ‘I hope I got this right,’ because it is such a beloved place.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon and Chapman is overlooking an opulent but empty ballroom from the comfort of one of its plushy cushioned booths as he explains the beginnings of Live at the Commodore. While the official book pitch came following the success of his 2012 debut Liquor, Lust, and the Law: The Story of Vancouver’s Legendary Penthouse Nightclub, he had done some major research on the Commodore a few years earlier, when he helped the spot put together a detailed online archive of concerts running as far back as the early ’70s, a feat he described as “like building the Great Wall of China out of Lego”.
“I had always thought that the Commodore would be a ripe subject to tackle. I was surprised, actually, that nobody had done it first,” he says. “There are very few places in Vancouver that span generations—some place that your grandparents could have gone to, your parents had gone to, and you can go to. You can count them on one hand: the Orpheum, maybe the Penthouse, Stanley Park, and here.”
Built by beer baron George Reifel, the venue opened as the Commodore Cabaret on December 3, 1930. While today the room regularly taps into the sounds of distorted guitars and EDM drops, the nightclub got its start during the big-band era, with orchestras including Ole Olsen and His Commodores. Despite the “hit parade” put on display by these acts, the venue served a more social function in its first few decades.
“This was a banquet hall. This is where people came for dinner and dancing music, and you weren’t necessarily coming here to see the band,” Chapman explains. “Different functions, like the Safeway staff Christmas party, the Rotarian club get-together, one after another—that’s how the club survived through the 1930s to the ’60s. I talk about it in the book, that this wasn’t necessarily where the hip people were going.”
That’s not to say the Commodore didn’t ever get rowdy. At one point, the book lays out how the Vancouver police’s “dry squad” often raided the then-liquor-licence-impaired venue in search of patrons sneaking brown-bagged hooch into their drinks.
“We think of that era as well-mannered, or staid, even though some of the music was swingin’,” Chapman said of the room’s dance-card-punching days. “At the same time, the liquor laws of the province at that time forced people to hide their liquor when they’d come in. And this was post-Prohibition, when you couldn’t drink in a public place. The Commodore was one of the bottle clubs. You’d bring a snifter of something in your pocket and pour that into your root beer that you’d bought.”
The Commodore hit a new high in the late ’60s, when it was taken over by party promoter Drew Burns. During his nearly 30 years at the helm, he switched the focus from dinner parties to rock concerts.
A major appeal of the Burns era was his devotion to booking a wide range of talent, from Dadaist bluesman Captain Beefheart to the New York Dolls, Toots and the Maytalls, Dead Kennedys, and Devo. One of the room’s most unlikely two-act bills consisted of country star Tanya Tucker and former Honeymooners actor Art Carney playing classical piano.
“All these people that were not in his wheelhouse, so to speak,” Chapman notes of the variety. “His own musical tastes were more blues, R&B, and even opera than punk rock. But if a bunch of people came in and had a good time and sold a bunch of beer, then he was in favour of that.”
There are countless gems preserved in Live at the Commodore, covering the first Vancouver appearances of U2 and the Police, as well as landmark concerts by Nirvana and the Ramones. Chapman refers to the latter’s 1977 Commodore debut as one of the defining moments in Vancouver music history.
“That night you could see the changing of the guard because of the people that all saw that show. Had you stood on the stage and watched who was going to come in that night, you would have seen the graduating class of the first wave of Vancouver punk rockers who would in turn play here. “
Other local tales threaded into the book include how a teenage Modernettes leader Buck Cherry (aka John Armstrong) was forced to stand outside to hear Willie Dixon play in the mid ’70s, and how bouncer John “Blackie” Jeunesse choked out Slow singer Tom Anselmi during a backstage melee in the ’80s. Later stories describe the dead zone the venue became when Burns’s lease ran out in 1996, leaving the space unused before it was refurbished and reopened in 1999 by House of Blues. It also brings up the death of the iconic Burns earlier this fall. “That was tough to write about. I cried as I typed that stuff about him at the end.”
Despite its bleak periods and an ever-changing Vancouver landscape, the Commodore continues to bring out the talent, both international and homegrown. While Live at the Commodore shows off the awe-inducing musical history of the building, Chapman is hoping music fans keep checking in to see what’s to come.
“There’s still something to be said for getting out, going into a room full of people, and catching a band. That’s as true from 1930 as it is to now.”