Where Have Melbourne’s Dive Bars Gone?

Cherry Bar by Mary Boukouvalas

You had to be there; and if you were, then perhaps you’re the one who lived to tell.

Cherry Bar circa 2002 was the calm before the storm – a refuge for a rock’n’roll thirsty ratpack who came for the mango margaritas, stayed for the tequila shots and got their kicks on vinyl anthems of yesteryear.

Back then, Cherry Bar was tucked down Corporation Lane, a cobbled downward spiral off Flinders Lane – barely a curated mural among those dingy laneways to be found.

Instead, laneways were sprayed with graffiti and paste-ups – this is where artist Rone roamed before he became famous, an era of pre-Instagram hashtags that didn’t make a visitor must-do list on a City of Melbourne website.

More than 20 years ago, I could sneakily park my car on Corporation Lane outside Cherry Bar for a weekend. DJ Max Crawdaddy’s mean machine dubbed the Bourbon Express was also a regular to park there.

Photography by Mary Boukouvalas.

Parking fines were a thing, but nobody dared disturb the lesser-known laneways of this end of town which also housed a newly opened Honky Tonks. It was a year after 9/11; the world was focused on other threats – not rockers congregating in a dingy city dive bar to drown the tabloid noise and crank it to 11 instead.

Cherry didn’t come with a neon sign; a non-descript heavy grey metal door scuffed in graffiti opened onto the stickiest, smelliest carpet this side of The Tote in Collingwood.  It was a vortex of mayhem.

It was the era of rock’n’roll’s second coming, and reason enough for rock lovers to bond over music that gave them faith in the future.

When bar owner and former Cosmic Psychos drummer Bill Walsh decided to open Cherry in 1999 – the original rock dive bar of this city -he took his cues from New York’s defunct Motor City in the Lower East Side, his time spent visiting dive bars while on tour in the USA with his friends in bands like The Mobile Homos, and hung on every sticky service bar’s kitsch cool of rock memorabilia, loud tunes and classic booze. It was a simple formula and it worked.

Cherry Bar pic by Mary Boukouvalas.

I once organised a fashion shoot with the late Judith Durham of The Seekers inside the venue for The Age; Catherine Britt filmed a video clip for her burgeoning country music career at the time and the members of Norwegian punks Turbonegro turned a post-gig drink into a three-day bender. Many hearts were broken.

Grungy Melbourne laneways old school 2002….pic by Mary Boukouvalas.
For those about to rock…by Mary Boukouvalas
Max Crawdaddy on the decks. Pic by Mary Boukouvalas.
Pic by Mary Boukouvalas.

The Strokes turned up for a private party after a gig in which they invited legions of female fans who were each given special pass to present to us at the door; it meant they’d been chosen to party because their beauty scored them extra time with the native New Yorkers.

Wayne the Train Hancock brought his rollicking blues to the stage over several steamy nights, the late Mark Lanegan [a friend of Bill’s] would play solo striped back shows for adoring fans  while Nick Oliveri took time out from Queens of the Stone Age to pedal his Mondo Generator angst. The Detroit Cobras did the cha cha twist on more than one occasion and Jack Black came after his New Year’s Eve Luna Park show which saw him dance until the wee hours in the Jenny Bar [a leopard tiki inspired off shoot] out the back. It came with a jukebox of 45s that Bill and I would add to while on trips to the States. G’Buy T’Jane by Slade was one of them.

The dive bar is intricately a part of an American counter culture hangout, but in Melbourne, it was something new and nobody had quite done it before. Bill had hit the jackpot. He would tour obscure or underground punk bands and have his mother Janet Walsh cater for them backstage at the bar – her famous sausage rolls a satisfying staple for hungry touring musicians.

At the time, it wasn’t just the rock stars who came for the high kicks – then SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin, tennis player John McEnroe and Olympic champion Cathy Freeman all visited on separate occasions.

The time Noel Gallagher from Oasis partied long and hard at the bar, even begging Bill Walsh to buy the venue from him is well documented.

In essence, Cherry spawned an identity for rock’s disaffected and spurred a camaraderie that became the glue that held the misfits together each and every weekend here.  And then came the Bermuda Triangle as it was known to the regulars who would drunkenly steer themselves from Cherry to Pony and Ding Dong Lounge [the sister bar to its NY original started by Bill Nolan and also a second venue for Bill Walsh].

The laneway’s name was changed to AC/DC with Lord Mayor John So in 2004; Bon Scott’s Melbourne son settled into the bar on the day of the change-over, unassuming and quiet. The press and photographers were busy taking pics of the new sign…little did they know who was inside.

For every unassuming star, there were plenty who  made their entrance felt – when Joel O’Keefe, the front man of Airbourne stood on the graffitied bar to play his guitar, his wild curly hair lashed waves of his sweat onto all who dared gather close.

Jet wrote Rollover D.J. about Hall of Fame’s Music Victoria inductee and now Brunswick Ballroom band booker Mary Mihelakos – she spun vinyl there in the early 2000s until the crack of daylight, while the late and great DJ Pierre Baroni became known for Thursday’s Soul in the Basement over 19 years with DJ Vince Peach, with legions 60s Motown loving 20-somethings hanging onto every 45 they deliriously cued.

The early 2000s were a unique time in Melbourne’s laneway bar scene; where has it gone? Everything is chic, slick, an Instagram moment – it’s a clickbait listing and nothing is hidden or undiscovered like this period in time.

The dive bar formula isn’t rocket science. It’s about loud rock’n’roll, where the classics are churned – from Thin Lizzy’s I’m A Rocker to T Rex’s Get It On and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell – debauchery wasn’t filmed in this era of Melbourne, rock stars could hang at Cherry Bar without fear of being stalked by their fans. In fact they’d have a drink with them!

It’s not often you see Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder hold a coin between his butt cheeks aiming for a bucket on a stage, but these crazy drinking game shenanigans shifted from tour bus antics to Cherry bar lock-in laughs. Oh the humble dive bar has seen it all.

Cherry was also a popular hospitality pitstop – staff from Il Solito Posto around the corner  and the original crew at Movida which had opened in the early 2000s, all fell in love with Cherry’s loose ambition.

Google dive bars these days and you might cry with laughter. There’s those who try to keep the rock spirit alive in Melbourne and thank goodness they do. But let’s hope the generation to come will revive it, because heck knows if we wanna be a rock’n’ roll capital of Australia, we need the dive bar to hold our deepest secrets.

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