The mean streets of Vancouver Nightlife in the city may follow Whistler’s lead, or it may be another world By David Branigan Vancouver. This city has forever changed in the waning hours of our century. Sure it still maintains its physical prowess and the aggressive beauty of womanhood in full bloom but the gentle, nurturing spirit that drew me into her warm bosom nearly two decades past has become brittle and tight as the Asia Pacific Delilah has lost all of Samson's might. My perception that Vancouver is peopled with a more urbane, sophisticated citizenry than its alpine Whistler brethren has been violently sheared by a vehement economic downturn that has burned the fat of motherhood off a previously caring community. For years I'd seen this town as a good-hearted Shangri-La with all the cultural finery of larger centres, minus the crime and grime. The West End was a small town all growed up perty. But the ’90s has seen big money from Asia and Hollywood recreate us as a quaint servant outpost for the masters of privilege. Being born the opposite of Buddhist, with constant cravings and little appreciation for the here and now, Vancouver was the lean, mean antidote to my decade in Whistler. It was a town of tiger's eyes. It was smart, where Whistler was fun. It was sexy where Whistler was just a friend. Vangroovy was real where Whistler was an illusion, a temporary repository of happiness bought and paid for on a daily basis in the bountiful troughs of hospitality gravy. But now the braces are coming off Whistler with its Olympic dream budding breast innocence, while big sister is ageing badly and horny as a beardog. But I digress. On this pre-Christmas night in downtown Vancouver the homeless were floating about like a scene from the night of the living dead. They'd huddle like huskies in doorways to protect themselves from the driving wind. This night would freeze hope and steal the positive memories from some beach magic days when the begging was good. This night the snowkids didn't even lift their change cups knowing that the conservation of energy might get them through till morning. As I stepped out into my heart of darkness I could feel their pain and chill swirling around as the bombs dropped on Baghdad and the champagne chilled uptown. My goal, if I chose to accept it, was to take an ageing nightclub with a history of ghosts and ghastly going's on. I was to turn it into an elite Whistler-style hospitality cash cow. One problem Dorothy. We ain't in Whistler anymore. My primary nemesis were threefold. First off was the Local 40. It would appear that while the union has a heroic history as the protector of labour, the line between protection and domination has now been crossed. The high-vacancy local hotel industry was the second chink in the armour, as the city has recently seen Whistler-style growth in its bed units. I was hired unknowingly as the Messiah to carry the hotel financially through the off-season so that we could stay in business for the lucrative cruise months of summer. Of course it wasn't presented this way but it now appears that we are one of many hoteliers on the verge during this long cold winter. Winter vacancy rates down here are as high as 90 per cent and rooms are going for 30 per cent of regular rack rates. This bed unit increase combined with the collapse in the Pacific economy that the beds had been built for, plus a downturn in the natural resource-based B.C. economy, has left Vancouver's recent sheen of success matted like a street kid's dog. The third variable I hadn't considered is the power of the ultra-conservative city hall, which is either as inflexible as rigor mortis or actually long since dead. Last week the Chief License Inspector sent back our application for a 2 o'clock licence extension because our club is two blocks down from the 600-900 block Theatre Row of Granville, where city council hopes to relocate all of Vancouver's cabarets in the future, just as Whistler attempted to isolate beds and bars to the old village before handing Mitch Garfinkel a market-crushing 350-seat bundle of noise in Village North. While the city has its priorities, namely to create a Granville Entertainment District with a revamped Commodore as the jewel alongside previous GE gems of the Roxy, Fred's, the Vogue and Babalu, plus a redesigned Plaza Theatre to disguise the monopoly which will in time hold the old Luv-A-Fair and Palladium licences, Glen Clark's crew of red tape dyslexics has a different agenda. While the city manipulates the downtown clubs into a central strip primarily for policing cost effectiveness, the province is simultaneously re-inventing the licensing map. As noted previously in Pique, the government is looking to move to a one license system much like Alberta did recently. Alberta's economic miracle has been effective but not without casualties. In cutting red tape for business Ralph Klein's free-market province has moved to simplify the liquor act. The new one licence system has created a free for all with hundreds of new licensees who can serve beverage alcohol without food. It makes a cabaret license meaningless. In Alberta it has resulted in success at the top of the food chain at the expense of the majority of bars and cabarets, especially the small pubs. It is the free-market politics of scale in the United State of Alberta. This is provincial legislation with far reaching impact on Whistler that is being fast tracked under the guidance of Jo Surich who answers to that union wolf in shiny new capitalist clothing, Moe Sihota. Recent leaks have suggested that the results are a fait accompli and a victory for restaurateurs. The inside word downtown suggests that Whistler will get the nod for liquor store sales on Sundays while restaurants will be allowed a certain amount of seats to serve booze without food, which is a joke because of its complete un-enforceability. The Vancouver cabarets, which lobby under the group name of Bar Watch, are fighting this tooth and nail, as are the hoteliers whose assessed values will be greatly diminished by the devaluation of their licenses. The restaurateurs, however, consider it the best thing since sliced bread because it makes them ipso facto pubs and cabarets all wrapped into one, which allows them to choose their preferred route to revenue. The only hope the cabarets have is that they might be allowed to open until 3 a.m. even on Sundays, but that is yet to be seen. There's also the smoking ban in Victoria which will spread like butter, pushed by the allopathic pimps and zealots of the Provincial Health Ministry who push legislation for political gain from the 70 per cent non-smoking electorate. Provincial legislation driven by the Workers Compensation Board is already on-line to make all public places in Vancouver and Whistler smoke free in by Jan. 1, 2000. This despite recent studies that have shown that second hand smoke amongst full time bar workers — who are supposedly at risk — is the equivalent of smoking 2.75 cigarettes per year. Ask Victoria bars how they're doing so far in their fight to protect workers from the noxious mustard gas fumes. Many bar workers will be safely unemployed soon so the smoke shouldn't bother them nearly as much as the mounting bills, with Paul Martin's anorexic EI safety net waiting to watch them fall through. All this is pressing through my hyperspeed, angst-filled psyche as I step quickly across north Granville into the humble third world hospitality of Okee's Chinese Restaurant. The fact is Whistler remains completely unfazed by all of this. While Vancouver reels with Asia through the darkest hours of the transformation into the information age Whistler is enjoying another bumper season, thanks in part to the bountiful moist gifts of La Nina. Its continuing runaway success is completely disconnected from Vancouver's recession. I would go as far as to say that Whistler feeds Vancouver's economic discomfort, with the resort excitement drawing heavily from the limited urban disposable income. It's the displacement theory. If the average urban dweller's wallet is a bathtub full of water and the water represents the hard earned, after-tax, disposable Canadian pesos, then one weekend in Whistler pretty much empties that bathtub and Vancouver doesn't feel clean enough to go out for the next month. It's not that Whistler licenses are a license to print money — ask the White Wolf. You can fail in Whistler, too. But on the Higher Ground of Megacorp. International the intention is to spend, which gives you the opportunity to do exceedingly well if you offer a solid product. These days in the city everyone from the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts to the strip clubs are struggling, with success stories like the Roxy, Bar None and Sonar the exception rather than the rule. Bar wars with dirt cheap drinks are starting to break out, which is a sure sign of depression — although there is a movement afoot to set a minimum price limit as in Whistler. In fact, many of the issues discussed at Bar Watch — such as the grace period of one hour after closing to avoid the mob rules bar discharge — are set upon Whistler precedent via the work done by the Whistler Food and Beverage Association, who are occasionally vilified in the village while they break trail for their cabaret cousins downtown. As another gust of chill wind cuts through my blazer it dawns on me that I have entered into the greatest challenge of my life with no guarantee of survival. All the live rooms have their backs to the wall, with the exception of the Yale and the Roxy, both of whom rise above the fray due to brand name recognition. The Starfish, the Gate, and Richard's are the three borderline viable live showcase venues left amidst a second tier of indie outlets with starvation pay and molecular profit margins, watered down by devalued drink and cover charges which don't accurately reflect the cost of doing business. Of those three, Richard's makes money based upon lucrative DJ weekends with substantial cover. The Gate is coming around due to shows like David Wilcox on Feb. 27th and the gonzo, amphetamized party cheerleading of some freak named DNA, while the Starfish appears to have Universal Concerts Canada funnelling a development budget into them to cover losses. Desperation breeds contempt, which in turn guarantees a snakepit of hypocrisy as competing agents and promoters fight virulently over the precious few profitable bands while putting cellular wolves on hold for another, "wish they'd go away" day. The fact is that Whistler gets most of the big club acts at a secondary market price, as witnessed recently by the Wailers and Jim Rose shows, but there is still not enough astute talent buyers tapped in up there to hook up Wilcox, the New Radicals or the Fun Lovin' Criminals, all of whom played Vancouver recently. One decent live venue with a 400 capacity and a bold booker would make Whistler music city, a full time loop on the touring schedule, as opposed to some saturated weeks during high season and long stretches of nothing when you need it most during the shoulder. One position at Megacorp. International devoted to entertainment would redefine live culture, but I guess they have other priorities. Back on lower ground, it strikes me that Vancouver is in the midst of the sort of massive flux that marked the industrial revolution at the turn of the last century. The class gap is widening. Those in the information, entertainment and tourism industries are generally either thriving or locked into some seasonal expectation that includes a variant of health. But heaven help those in the old school industries that represent everything outside of the cities. In Whistler sometimes you don't notice that Rural B.C. — which has raised this region and paid for its education — is suffering horribly without Intel inside. Throw in the final variable in the reality of New Vancouver as the underground economy which is thriving on Hell's Angels’ profits from cheap cocaine revenues, the ever loving bud, after-hour booze cans, undernet raves and a thousand hits of whatever the street can cook up, then you have the recipe for Mad Max style Armageddon after the lights go down and the cold wind sweeps across the mean streets of Vancouver. Down here anything goes in ’99. One minute you’re dancing with some wild eyed, pierced prettything, the next you have Bindy Johal's brains all over your margarita. One minute you're talking to Jason Priestley about chicks digging him, the next one of your Russian customers threatens a hit on your doorman after being thrown out for snorting rails on the table in plain view. Welcome to the new frontier. Except in the new gold rush era the gold is digital and chemical. Tonight is Salsa Night in my club so there is a mix of Latin speaking people of various skin tones dancing to DJ Jorgito B. The BPM is jacked, which drives the crowd to the bar and the dance floor. This is the witching hour, the payday hour. Here you see beautiful women full of passion dancing a ballsy ballroom with their revved up rico suave partners, their nostrils flared and their pupils — among other things — engorged in a primordial mating ritual. The temperature in the club is about 45 degrees F. as the 76-year-old steam heating system is losing the battle with the deep frost that has inhaled the Vancouver holiday season like a Scrooge style stoner. Still the fire burns with these wild Latinos. As another hypodermic hits the wet pavement outside there is a torrid release of Hispanic gibberish from the mike amidst the fevered beats before the final understandable salutations of "Salsa!" swish through the electric night like a toreador's cape. Then, like a dream, it is over. One o'clock and the ugly lights come up on the crowd who vanish like vampires under the garlic of light. The numbers are not what I'd hoped for but as always one has to make a distinction between the three dimensional heart and bones of the nightclub as the passion play unfolds nightly, and the one dimension ledger sheet that hypnotizes the bean counters. The chill follows me up the stairs to my cold, lonely hotel room. Somewhere up Highway 99 a new child grows in the womb of my beautiful wife while winter whistles through the thin pane of this aged glass up through the corridor that I call home. I blow a telepathic kiss goodnight to my partner, family and future offspring and I think of the sun shining off of 7th Heaven in spring to ward off the evil spirits. I awake in the middle of the night dreaming that I'm riding a raft over the powerful expanse of the mighty Yukon River of my childhood. As I emerge onto the pristinely powerful Lake Lebarge my ethereal, river rafting dream associate reminds me how clean and vibrant nature is in its pure form and I can't help believing that the river of life takes one through some dirty rapids before the power of God and nature finally brings us enlightened to the point where we coast on bliss in the Delta of our spiritual origins.