‘Ottawa’ So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish: a Farewell to Zaphod Beeblebrox
Ryan MacDonald could feel the weight of the moment, the spirits of legends and lesser-lights alike who had graced the stage at Zaphod’s. That beer-soaked, sweat-stained stage at the legendary “nightclub at the edge of the universe.”
His band, the Thunder Bay-based Honest Heart Collective, would perform the final rock show at the venue on May 6, following the abrupt announcement from the club’s new owners, who had only recently assumed ownership from longtime impresario Eugene Haslam, that the ByWard Market club’s final curtain would come down on Sunday.
“You could feel the energy in the room,” MacDonald said. “It was incredible. We almost treated it like an Irish wake. We all wore black. We treated it like we had to put on the best show we’ve ever put on. The venue deserved it.”
MacDonald had a special connection to Zaphod Beeblebrox as a college student, following a move to Ottawa from Thunder Bay to study at Algonquin.
“I really didn’t have any sense of home, and it felt weird and strange, and when I finally went to Zaphod’s it just felt like home. For me, there’s something about the energy in that place.
“The atmosphere, the room, the music, the bar, that floor you’d stick to if you stayed still too long — it just seemed like this place for misfit kids to go and be themselves.”
Tom Stewart was one of those misfit kids who fit right in with Zaphod’s through each era, since Haslam first settled into the York Street location in March 1992.
The frontman for iconic local rockers Furnaceface cut his teeth there in all his musical incarnations, from his metal outfit Manpower to his Slo’ Tom and the Handsome Devils.
He’s also manned the controls at the soundboard for years, and too many shows to recall them all.
“One of the things I loved about it was I always felt for a club of that size — 250 capacity — you really got a show. It had the high stage, the real lights, the good sound,” said Stewart. “Comparing it to a million other clubs across North America that I’ve played at or seen bands at … it was more than just seeing a band. It always felt like a big show.”
Zaphod’s became known, largely through Haslam’s efforts and his ear firmly pressed to the ground, as a place to catch the acts on the cutting edge — “Heard before the herd,” became its slogan. (Haslam has declined interviews during a tumultuous time for the club.)
This was the first place bands like Junkhouse or Our Lady Peace would play long before they had hit singles, where Yo La Tengo and Meat Puppets and The Dandy Warhols and Ben Harper would pay their first, and in some cases only visit to the nation’s capital.
Where formative local bands like Wooden Stars and Black Boot Trio and Furnaceface called their home turf.
“Some of my favourite moments came from local acts that just blew my mind,” said Stewart. “I would see a singer-songwriter acoustic guy just about every night, then I saw Brock Zeman for the first time and it was on a completely different level. This was like the Ottawa Valley gold. And I had seen dozens of guys like him.
“The Sheepdogs were one of those bands, and I’ll never forget it. They always played these Monday nights, which were showcase nights, and the first time they played there was like three people in the crowd. And the second time there was about six people, so it was like, ‘All right, they’re making progress.’ And then the third time it was back to two people.
“But they were one of those bands where you could see they had their stuff together, they sounded so good, and you could just tell these guys were totally cool.”
Stewart, like many in the city’s community of musicians and music lovers, will lament the passing of Zaphod Beeblebrox.
“It’s too bad, but 26 years is a long time for anybody to do that job. And when it came time for Eugene to move on, it was very difficult for anybody else to pick that up,” said Stewart.
“People always say, ‘How can this place go down?’ But really, it’s such an exception that a rock bar has stayed open this long. So rather than despairing over it closing, it’s really time to celebrate the fact it lasted this long and that Ottawa audiences were able to support something like this, and were treated to some great music along the way. That’s the exception, not the rule.”
TALES FROM THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE
Sandy Sharkey, The Rolling Stones’ Streets of Love video shoot, Aug. 29, 2005:
“It was kind of Ottawa’s worst-kept secret that something was up at Zaphod’s.
“I had been working at the radio station (BOB-FM) on the morning show, and just on a lark I told my boss, ‘I’m going to try to get in.’ I got onto the patio next door and it was really fortuitous, because the next thing we knew barricades were going up and people were being denied access.
“Then I noticed all these beautiful people started showing up – these 20-something model-types being shepherded into the back alley, and so I just got up and went with them. Nobody seemed to know each other, so I figured nobody would know that I’m not supposed to be there. Then a woman with a clipboard started calling names for wardrobe, so I was just acting like I should be there, and at the end, she just said, ‘The rest of you, if you haven’t seen wardrobe, let’s go!’ Then I knew I was in.
“So I got dressed, got in the bar and the floor director grabs me a puts me right on the floor. And then all of a sudden The Stones come in and they walked by, like, four inches from me. They got up on stage and played Streets of Love for six or seven takes, and then there was a technical delay, so they just started to jam. That was honestly one of the musical highlights of my life.”
Mary Jelley, Warner Music Canada, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill release, June 20, 1995:
“When I was looking for a venue to do a release party, with Eugene it didn’t matter who the artist was, he was willing to take a chance. Alanis had her earlier (dance-pop) albums, and we had our work cut out for us trying to work around the stigma. I would go around to radio stations and play Jagged without telling them who it was.
“Once she hit stage, there were definitely a few jaws dropped. They didn’t realize it at the time, but they were witnessing something special. You just felt it, you knew this was going to be a big moment.
“Alanis was so thrilled and excited to unleash what she had been working on for all those months. She also knew that she felt that this was it. It was very special. It’s one of those moments you get shivers, your hair stands on end. The fury on stage, the passion. It was intensely, amazingly good.”