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Legendary Satyricon club offered sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, epitomized a Portland that is gone forever

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Satyricon in 2010, shortly before its second incarnation closed down.
Satyricon in 2010, shortly before its second incarnation closed down. In its heyday, the club was the foremost showcase for Portland's underground-music scene. Photo Gallery

Satyricon was easy to overlook. Its storefront, shoved next to a rundown grocery, faded into the grittiest part of Old Town.

Its reputation, however, glowed like the White Stag sign. Portlanders of every age and outlook knew what went on behind its narrow front door – or thought they did.

The club opened late in 1983 and quickly became the unofficial headquarters of the city’s punk scene. It had a reputation for being a dangerous place, but it wasn’t as simple as that. Satyricon also offered whimsy. One night you might stumble upon a band that dressed “like space-alien aborigines,” as one habitu’e put it; on another you’d find yourself participating in an earnest Poetry Night.

Some of the biggest names of 1990s alternative rock slouched through its dank corridors in the months and years before they hit the big time. Which just might have heralded the club’s doom.

***

Satyricon has been gone for 10 years now – longer if you don’t count its all-ages second incarnation. Yet it also lives on for music fans of a not-so-creaky vintage, the name conjuring potent memories of both the freedom of their youth and a Portland that is no longer.

“That was when downtown was still fun to go to,” says Steve Carder, a regular during the club’s late-stage heyday and now the general manager at Slow Bar. “That was when you could live there for $200 a month.”

The rent was cheap, of course, because much of the business district and adjacent Old Town neighborhood was a dump. What’s now known as the Pearl District was dotted with moldering warehouses and sketchy men slouching in doorways.

“When I go through that part of town now, it doesn’t look anything like it did,” says longtime Portland musician Joe Wickstrom, who played bass in Anzio Bridgehead and various other popular local bands during this period. “There were drug dealers lining the street back then.”

Satyricon, at 125 N.W. Sixth Avenue, stood at the center of this world.

Its owner, George Touhouliotis, had run a tavern near Civic Stadium that occasionally offered live music. Noise complaints from neighbors led him to the dusty abandoned space on Sixth, and he named his new venture after the famous Fellini movie.

It was just a redecorated old bar, but Touhouliotis managed to create something different there. Every month the Pander brothers and other local artists painted the wall behind the stage. The street poet Walt Curtis often could be found declaiming at the club.

Satyricon had a “vibe,” an “aura” – regulars from the 1980s and ’90s struggle to put their finger on it, but they feel it even now, like a tingle in the extremities.

It was a “judgement-free place,” Carder says. “It was a cool family of weirdos. Within a month I was considered a regular. Once they recognized you, they’d pull you forward, have your drink waiting.”

Wickstrom uses almost exactly the same words when he describes the atmosphere.

“It was a safe place for weirdos,” he says. “Everyone was welcome. It wasn’t uncommon to see drag queens, strippers, metal dudes, dudes in suits.”

Adds Ben Munat, a local musician who evolved into the club’s booker: “Once you were one of us, you were one of us.”

Touhouliotis, then in his 30s, wasn’t a big music fan, but he was drawn to creative people; and he liked being a part of the younger generation’s search for something new.

“God loves freshness,” he says.

Few of the bands that played Satyricon in the early days ever thought about hitting it big. Talent usually wasn’t why they were getting up on stage.

“There were really good bands there and bands that could barely play,” Wickstrom says. “George was willing to give people a chance to express themselves, to blow off steam outside of whatever home life or [terrible] job or suburban hell they were dealing with.”

Touhouliotis sought diversity in the kinds of music on offer, “but hard rock, punk, dominated,” he says. “That’s what they wanted.”

He realized this – and decided to embrace it – after the band The Mentors played “and three people broke their legs or ankles, it was such a wild, crazy mosh thing.”

The physical dimensions of his club, its tight hallways and low ceilings, seemed perfectly attuned to the punk attitude in this post-disco, burgeoning New Wave era.

“You’d go through the bar, the performance room was in the back, it was kind of a funnel,” Wickstrom says.

That room sucked you in like a back draft; people heaved against the stage, banged it with their fists.

One of them was Michelle M. Rose, who landed in Portland in 1989. She was 19 and had followed her musician boyfriend from California. The city felt alive like nowhere she’d been before.

A punk girl with dyed jet-black hair, she immediately heard about Satyricon and started figuring out ways to sneak in with friends.

She found the club exciting but “really intimidating.” She recalls coming into Satyricon, her heart pounding in her ears, thinking, “Oh, my God, we’re here now. What’s going to happen?”

That was a good question to ask as you made your way into the dark, graffitied venue. There was music, yes, but also there were still poetry readings, cabaret shows, visual-art exhibits. And, of course, drugs and sex.

“To be frank, there was a lot of drug use,” Munat says.

The bathrooms at Satyricon became private bacchanals, a shared snort or arm jab sometimes leading to a grunting, clothes-twisting grapple.

“Syringecon,” they called Satyricon. And “Slutyricon.”

The club managed to intersect with strands of some of the city’s darkest phenomena during this period, starting with heroin chic. Skinheads frequented Satyricon. This included the young racists who in 1988 would murder Ethiopian college student Mulugeta Seraw.

“Skinheads were a problem,” Touhouliotis admits. “They caused most of the fights.”

A few years later, a girl ended up getting in a car with serial killer Cesar Barone after seeing Wickstrom’s band at the club. She had asked the band for a ride, but they were going the other direction.

“We talked to the detectives after,” Wickstrom says. “It was horrible.”

The best-known incident of this down-and-dirty phase of the club’s history came in April 1990 when Touhouliotis stepped into the vacant lot next to the club to take a leak.

A plainclothes police officer took issue with the fouling of an already foul spot of weedy urbanity. (“My mistake, I guess,” Touhouliotis said later.) The club owner, not realizing this was a cop pestering him rather than a drug dealer or love seeker, told the officer to get lost, zipped up and headed back toward the building. The officer followed, leading to Satyricon’s bouncer getting involved. Word spread quickly inside the club.

A claque of uniformed officers arrived in riot gear, punches and various objects were thrown, arrests made. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission suspended the club’s liquor license.

Rose, now a designer and musician in Oakland, remembers hearing about the “Satyricon riot” the next day and not being at all surprised.

“It felt like the end of something,” she says. “It was getting more violent, scarier.”

She was right. It was the end of something – namely, Satyricon’s anarchic, mostly low-profile early days. The Big Time was coming on hard and fast.

***

“NIRVANA AT SATYRICON: Nirvana is the name of a rock band from Seattle. The state of being at this club probably will be closer to mania, as Hitting Birth, Caustic Soda, Thrill Hammer and Roger Nusic join Nirvana to bash the spirit of the New Year into submission. Suffice it to say, Guy Lombardo would hate this.” – The Oregonian

Ben Munat saw the future at that 1990 New Year’s Eve show. The very near future.

Kurt Cobain “did his whole, rolling-around-on-the-floor thing,” he says. “They just blew everyone away.”

Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” would be released nine months later, and it took off across the country.

So did the story that the late Cobain and Hole frontwoman Courtney Love had met at “a small, dimly lit nightclub in Portland” called Satyricon. They’d go on marry in 1992, becoming rock’s grungy royal couple.

“She was wild,” Touhouliotis says of Love, who had worked as a dancer at the nearby topless joint Mary’s Club in the ’80s. “But she was all right. I enjoy people who are lively.”

The mainstream success of what had come to be known as “grunge” was intoxicating, but also confusing. Suddenly alternative rock wasn’t alternative anymore.

“When Nirvana broke out,” remembers Rose, “we all thought, ‘Oh, everybody knows about this now.'”

A&E execs, having already blitzed Seattle, where the sound originated, descended on Portland.

“There was intense competition to find the next Nirvana,” Munat says.

Adds Wickstrom: “I remember being bummed out that that world was focused on our town.”

He wasn’t the only one feeling conflicted. Satyricon was now busier than ever, but Touhouliotis was losing interest. “The ’80s, I think, was a lot more exciting, a lot more experimental,” he says. “The newness of it.”

Whether there during the punk-dominated but eclectic 1980s or the mainstream-ish ’90s, everyone who spent time at Satyricon has a memory of seeing a band or bands that knocked them out: Dead Moon, Dharma Bums, Jesus Lizard, The Fluid, Napalm Beach, The Obituaries, Alcoholics Unanimous. The list goes on.

“I still get sad thinking about the last show I saw there,” Carder says.

He recently went looking for a photo of the club to put up in Slow Bar’s bathroom, a memory to hold onto every day as he goes about his life.

Munat, now a software engineer, feels the same pull of the past.

“For me and a lot of my friends, it was a focal point of our lives,” he says. “I don’t think there will ever be anything like it again.”

By the late-1990s, the area surrounding Satyricon was starting to spruce up. Rents were rising, corporate outposts and franchisees moving in.

Longtime Satyricon fans weren’t too happy about it. The seediness was the point, or part of the point.

Business dropped off, and by then Touhouliotis couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to find a new way forward.

“The place lost its passion,” he says.

He finally shuttered Satyricon in May 2003. (He wasn’t involved in the revived all-ages version of the club that took the space from 2006 until the building’s demise four years later.)

It was just a rock club that managed to last longer than most, no reason to shed tears for it, right? Right, but for those who grew up there, who staked their claim there, it was much more than a scuzzy music venue that caught lighting in a bottle.

Satyricon held tight to a Portland that had a small national footprint but was alive and vital even though the New York Times didn’t want to write about it.

“What people miss is the feeling of community,” says Wickstrom, who helped make a 2013 documentary about the club. “Everybody knew each other, or had one degree of separation. That’s gone, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.”

Touhouliotis doesn’t feel the nostalgia for the long-gone club that his former patrons do, but he’s not surprised by it.

“I understand,” he says. “When they were young and free, and they had choices.”

He ponders those days for a moment and adds:

“They felt what I felt. They felt it was their place. And it was.”

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