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A reader wrote in this morning to comment on the latest edition of Hell World and after saying some too complimentary things about me asked this:
“Do you remember the original name of Deep Ellum in Allston? Perhaps the best dive bar ever created, with a guy named Red behind the bar. His pour was deadly dangerous.”
I did not in fact remember the name anymore offhand. Although I went in once or twice the bar in question O'Malley's was mostly ahead of my time and closed in like 2003. I did however remember that it was mentioned a couple times in this weird book I wrote about Boston’s dive bars — Jesus Christ — almost ten years ago now. Please do not feel the need to purchase that book unless you’re some sort of Luke O’Neil pervert due to like 75% of the bars I wrote about in there are closed now and many of the rest are unlikely to make it through the pandemic! On top of that I won’t get any money from the sale if you do buy it I haven’t seen a check from the publisher in years.
I went back to look through it just now because I remembered O'Malley's being mentioned in a few of the interviews I did throughout the book and so because I have absolutely nothing else to do I decided to share a few of them in here. The people I talked to about Boston and dive bars in general were a strange but somehow logical mix including Dennis Lehane and James Lynch of the Dropkick Murphys and… Amanda Palmer! The Lehane interview was particularly interesting I thought.
If you missed this Hell World from a few weeks ago about the closing of another beloved dive bar Great Scott check it out.
Ok here’s the shit from the book including the introduction. I dunno man who cares.
What is a dive bar?
A dive bar is a series of contradictions. It's usually an objectively bad bar in terms of service, product, and décor, but it's also the best bar you know. It's a place where you might recognize all the regulars, but one where you can drink in peace and blend into the scenery without anyone casting judgment.
A dive bar can simultaneously be the regular haunt of college-age kids getting their first taste of the drinking world as well as the old-timers who've spent fifty years in the same stool. It's a bar colored by the demographics of the neighborhood it's in, particularly in the still relatively segregated but rapidly gentrifying parts of Boston, but also a place where certain time-honored traditions hold fast. A dive is a bar where literally anything and everything can happen on any given night, but more often than not the predictable patterns of inertia rule.
Over the course of the past year I spent researching this book (getting drunk, in other words), I found roughly 120 different bars that fit that description. We've had to omit some of them for space, but an equal number of them have closed since I began. That's a pattern that doesn't seem likely to change any time soon as real estate prices continue to climb, and many of the people who built these bars, either literally, or through their decades-long patronage, die off or are priced out of the neighborhoods. I wouldn't be surprised if a few more included here have gone under while this book goes to print. That's emblematic of the biggest contradiction that a dive embodies: it's a bar that has somehow withstood the test of time, but isn't long for the changing world.
Dorchester's Dennis Lehane, author of books like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, has built a brilliant career writing about the types of characters who inhabit Boston's seedier dive bars. I asked him about some of the bars he used as inspiration for setting in his Boston-based novels.
I feel like a lot of your characters hang out in dive bars.
Oh yeah, that would be a good description. But most of the actual dive bars I love are gone. I'm looking at an older Boston. Obviously The Rat. The Midnight Court. The Hammond was a great one with one of the best jukeboxes in the city, right out of Washington Square. That was a great one. The Cantab is still there in Central Square. Bunratty's. There was one, I think it was called Sullivan's although that's not really narrowing it down. There's Sullivan's in Charlestown, which I've spent some time at. It was in Union Square, two doors down from the Model.
O'Malley's. That's gone, they've turned it into like a hipster beer garden.
Oh no, really? It was owned by a guy, I assume he must have passed on by now. A guy named Red. He kept a map on the wall of the globe, and he had these pushpins on the map. When you went up and finally noticed and said 'What do these pushpins signify?' he'd say they were every single place he'd been in the world. He was a merchant marine.
And then if he really liked you he'd reach behind and pull out George Harrison's autobiography. He was mentioned in it because George Harrison dated his sister. Him and George Harrison went and got drunk in Germany back in the day. It was his big pride. He'd pull that out like it was the Bible. We were in there once and we said we heard this crazy rumor that he got robbed today. And he said 'I did.' Then he pointed out the bullet hole. We were like 'You're open for business?' He said 'They were punks.' I loved that place. Two kids came in and robbed him and he was like 'Fucking kids robbed me on a Saturday afternoon? There was no money!' But he stayed open. That was a great place.
What were some of your other favorites?
Way back in the day when it was a real brawlers bar we used to go to Midnight Court before it became Jose Mcintyre's. Just on that block of bars before you hit Faneuil Hall itself.
The funny thing about those bars is that there are more fights in them now than in most dive bars because of all the young kids.
There's a whole frat boy mentality about fighting now. These are the same fucking morons who turn over cars when we win the World Series. Back then it was known as a gun runner bar. They used to run guns for the IRA. They used to keep this hose behind the bar, literally, to hose off the blood. If you walked in the door and screamed 'INS!' they went out the windows like rats. This was the late eighties. We were doing social services work. It was the only place you could go in after a day of work. They had really cheap beer too.
What makes a dive bar a dive?
There has to be a difference between a dive bar and a skeevy bar. Like a skeevy bar you wouldn't go in with a woman on a bet. The Rat would scare off women, but if it didn't you knew she was cool. I used to blind date test people that way. I assume that's the reason I never got laid.
The difference between a dive bar and a skeevy bar is in a dive what you get is lack of pretension. You get a good solid bar that serves good drinks. But it's not doing anything else. It's not trying to serve you any sort of froufrou appetizers or a microbrew. It's got a pool table usually with a short stick half the time. It's got really good music. A skeevy bar is just a dirty bar, where you don't feel safe and you certainly don't feel safe for your girlfriend. I would say that's the crucial difference.
I would say that's the job of your book, to really define the difference. Another one, used to be called the Lincoln, on that little stretch called Birmingham Parkway in Brighton. That one went through like nineteen different names. I remember when it was the Lincoln, for one year, it was a great dive. It would scare the shit out of a lot of people that walked in there, and you'd be like, 'No this is a dive, not a dangerous bar.' Then they did a couple of personnel changes and it became a dangerous bar overnight. I stopped going there. I loved going when it was a good shit hole. Beyond that I wouldn't know how to define it. Except it's like pornography you kind of know it when you know it.
It seems like it's a lot less dangerous in general now at dive bars. I feel like now anywhere you go, you just walk in and drink your beer and mind your business and you'll be fine. But I get the impression that back in your day in South Boston or Dorchester you could walk into a place and it would be like the record scratching and everyone would look at you like who the fuck is this guy?
That would have been true back in the days of Triple O's and Streetlights. What you're seeing is the price of gentrification. If you went into Sully's or the Iron Horse in Charlestown, even when I moved back there in the early nineties, that was some rough trade. It was like don't fuck it up. And now... I just saw The Iron Horse today and it looks like The Kells.
I think what happened...there was one bar where I remember it was the end of Southie as we know it. The first of the nice Irish bars. It was called The Abbey. It was the first one where you were like, well someone put some real money into this bar. It was meant to look like Ireland, not like Irish America. That was the beginning, and then the trend just blew up across Southie. And now Southie is gone, it's gentrified. Every now and again you'll see it like on St Patrick's Day. The old Southie will come back if you hang out after the parade. You'll see these feral kids moving in packs ready to fuck you up because you're not from Southie.
What about Dorchester where a lot of your books are set?
I am very proprietary about Dorchester, so I don't want to speak about something I don't understand anymore. I don't drink on Dot Ave anymore. All my friends left, my family left. I go back every now and then to see an old friend, but it's not like I'm hanging at the Banshee. The last time I was in Dot I was in Donovan's up in Savin Hill. This was five years ago.
I think most of these places if you go in and act like an asshole, then yeah, maybe... We were in some place in the North End last year, and my wife had some acquaintances with her, they weren't even friends. They started getting loud, and I was like, 'Do you guys understand what kind of bar you're in? I know it seems all cute and colorful to you, but you're in the middle of a Scorsese film.' You can still find those places. Certainly I think Tom English's in Dorchester, that was always known very much as a local bar. They had no desire to have outsiders come in. They weren't like, 'We have a great jukebox, try our Guinness!'
So many places, like that one in particular, you look across the street and there are these new condos going up.
I do think the new gilded age isn't over. We're still in it. We thought it went with the stock market bust, but urban areas are just pricing out the cool people.
You mention a lot of bars in Darkness, Take My Hand. TT the Bear's, Harper's Ferry. You must have been a big rock and roll fan.
Oh yeah. Harper's was great because they'd get these great unheard of blues acts in there. The other connection you'll find in almost every bar I liked was a pool table. We used to call it the Mo-del. They had the most infamous short stick. The worst fucking angle on a pool table. It was like shooting pool in your friend's small closet. But it was great. You could tell guys who were shooting there forever by the way they handled that short stick. The Rat used to have great pool tables upstairs. That was my big thing, pool tables and jukeboxes.
The art of the jukebox is dead now with all the internet jukeboxes. There's something to be said for a limited selection.
You knew the taste of the bar owner, and it was really cool. It was like, wow, this guy is into things nobody has ever heard of except for us hipsters. And it was really cool. It's the problem with an iPod, when do you sit and listen to a full CD anymore?
What does your fictional Black Emerald bar look like?
It's what the Banshee used to be. Before the Banshee it was called Bonds. It was a straight up dive bar. They nailed it on the original hard cover of that book. It amazed me. I said this is the bar. You walked in and there was just a bar to the left. Tight squeeze, a rubber tile floor, a bunch of bar stools. A bar rack on the wall to the right. It just went straight back like a shotgun bar. Man, that was a dive. It was beyond a dive, it was a scary place. I think that's where I got the idea. Now the Banshee is beautiful. It's got Irish breakfast on Sunday.
Is that where you got the idea for the underworld stuff?
Yeah there was that. My dad was taking me to bars since I was nine years old. He's supposed to be at the farmer's market. He'd buy all the vegetables in five minutes then we'd go to Pete and Dick's on Dot Ave.
There's a quote in Shutter Island that I think sums up what I'm thinking about in terms of gentrification of the city: “What do you lose when you sweep a floor, Teddy? Dust. Crumbs that would otherwise draw ants. But what of the earring she misplaced? Is that in the trash now too?”
Without a doubt that's originally what that line applied to. I originally came up with that image when I was thinking about Mystic River. I even wrote in an op ed in the Globe in a piece about gentrification, I said what do you lose when you sweep the floor?
I don't want to romanticize the old Boston by any means. There was a lot of it that was grungy and racist and violently provincial. And there's nothing good to be said about that. But at the same time, the note I had when I was writing Mystic River and I was living in Charlestown was I said 'What happens when Pat's Pizza becomes a Starbucks?' And that's what happened. It's not so much gentrification, it's globalization, and it's just killing character man, it's wiping it out. I wish I could put a positive spin on it, it's great for crime rates and all. You see that this is going on in urban areas all over the country and it's really depressing. I came back here last night and I was looking out at the city thinking about how much of my life has been fashioned by nights running through this city. We all lived downtown and we were poor as shit. I just don't think that's possible now.
James Lynch of the Dropkick Murphys
The Dropkick Murphys are pretty much the embodiment of Boston bar culture in musical form. I asked James Lynch, guitarist in the band, about his favorite dives in the city.
So what do you think makes a dive bar a dive?
I think a dive bar is more a family environment than just any other bar you pop into you know what I mean? My favorite dive bar was O'Malleys in Union Square in Allston. It was the closest thing to a second family I had. You know who is gonna be there every night. You know exactly what's gonna happen. You have your drink waiting for you on the bar, you know what's gonna be on the TV.
That place closed in 2003, right?
Yeah, and me and the rest of the regulars scurried across the street to the Silhouette at that point.
A neighborhood bar is an institution. Like I said, it's like a family thing, and once it's gone, it's gone. The place that took over where O'Malley's [Deep Ellum] used to be couldn't be any less of a dive bar.
Do you think eventually all the character is going to be gone from Allston at some point?
I certainly hope not. My wife owns a tattoo shop on Harvard Ave, so we've been right in the middle of it watching it disappear. All the places that have been there forever, Marty's Liquors, Economy Hardware... are gone. The streets are getting vacant. People can't afford to pay the rent out there anymore. As more of those little businesses disappear, the more the personality of the area goes right with it.
The tattoo shop is right near O'Briens. That used to be a real shitty dive rock venue. Now it looks kind of nice.
I still like going in there because it's still O'Briens. I always joke that it looks they bought one of those bathroom refinishing kits and just put it over the old O'Briens. You know what's still in there, and you know it's the same joint, it's just got a prettier face on it. I think they tried to make up for the old bathroom by making a wicked nice bathroom.
What other spots do the band like?
We love TC's Lounge down off of Mass Ave. Once again, it's a classic dive. It's dark in there, they've got pinball, it's just a good place to sit in the corner and be left alone.
Do you think that, or the Silhouette are good examples of an ironic dive, where the kids are like “Hey look at us! We're in a dive bar!”?
The day I turned 21 I went to the Sill. Some people are attracted to it. You can tell the people that are there because they think it's ironic and the people that are there because it's home. I see people on a regular basis come in and like “Oh look at this place!” Like it's a novelty. I definitely think there's that crowd. That crowd might be the people that are keeping the places open.
Family businesses like a lot of these dives are hard to keep open these days.
If everyone in there is drinking on the cuff then no one's gonna make any money.
Has Boston's bar culture changed since the band first started out?
It's changed without question. We were just talking about Kenmore Square. The band started at the Rat. That's a perfect example of how dramatically everything has changed. It's a completely different place than it was back then. You really couldn't have replaced it with anything more the complete opposite of what was there [Eastern Standard]. I guess that's what they were going for.
I think it's like just like punk rock. There's mainstream punk rock – you hear about it in the news and they pretty it up and everything, but there's always gonna be an underground, real punk rock scene. You're always gonna be able to find a scary, shitty bar. You just gotta know where to look.
Amanda Palmer is one of the best examples of a rock star we've got living in the city right now. I asked her about what makes a dive a dive, and some of her favorites in the city.
What are some of your favorite dive bars in Boston?
How broadly are you classifying dive bars? Depending on how you're defining it there are a couple of places to come to mind. One that I consider that was the most obvious was the Abbey Lounge. It was awesome in its unabashed embrace of its own diveyness, which is odd for Boston, because it usually isn't very meta about life. I loved the fact that the Abbey was like the dive bar with the website that tooted its own horn about how divey it was. It kind of made you love it.
Right, it was kind of a dive website.What about places that are still around?
One of my favorite places, you could certainly classify it as a dive in that it's a place that you can get liquor and food without feeling like you've been financially raped, is Deluxe, which is not far from where I live in the South End. It's not the Franklin Cafe, and it's got a funk, without over-charging you for stuff. It's exactly my style. Places like that that are covered from floor to ceiling with a visual explosion I feel right at home. I'm a packrat and I love constant stimulation. I remember sitting there and really studying the record album covers they have on the walls. That's the type of thing that can feel educational, you go in there and you're getting an education on sixties albums covers. I'm a dorky musician but that turns me on.
You don't normally think of dives when you think of the South End, but there are a few holdouts. Like Wally's.
I'm touring all the time so I'm not always going to these places, but Wally's definitely doesn't change much. Most people who aren't in the neighborhood or Berklee types wouldn't deliberately head there. But that place is a joint. It's a serious joint. The most interesting thing about that place is you get this weird fucked up combination of students and black people from the neighborhood who have nothing in common, but they both wind up there. Depending on the night it can feel like one or the other of those groups are acting like tourists and the other are acting like regulars. You get full on dive joint treatment when you go there. I love that.
Do you find the dives in Boston to be different than the ones you see on tour?
Every city has its own bar culture. Boston's bar culture from place to place is kind of unique. I used to live in Germany and there is like the universal way that a bar would present itself from the outside to say “this is a local bar for old guys you don't come in here if you're looking to have a beer with your friends, and we are going to indicate this by this, this and this.” There's a way a bar in Boston presents itself from the outside that invites or disinvites people and it has to do with beer signs and Keno signs or this, that and the other thing. But it's funny, hipsters are weird because they can adopt a dive bar for a while. It's funny to watch the collision of the crusty old guys sitting at the bar and the hipsters ordering PBR deciding this is their new bar.
I have a hard time finding bars I like. You think for a city this size with this many students and this many people and different kinds of people there would be some places that would be funkier. I feel like it's a choice between all these chichi places with people I have nothing in common with and I feel like an alien or it's...I don't even know. I go to other cities and the other bars are more friendlier. I think the Middle East is the closest thing that everybody knows where the young people come out.