A Lament to Cherry

The owner of Melbourne’s soon-to-be erstwhile Cherry Bar is hard to miss: after all, he wears a big hat. (Indoors? Indoors.) Although one doesn’t really make out faces from any stage, anywhere–unless there aren’t any faces all, delivering you from the challenge–trademark silhouettes travel well, in spite of distance or dazzling lighting. Impossibly, some manner of unmistakable, unmissable ambiguity was what we aspired to devise. Being in the presence of Cherry Bar’s owner was, to mere mortals like myself, about as close as one ever got to a bona fide music-industrial episode. Presumably, otherwise inconsequential brushes with fate were needed to commune with those other people that the real decisions about what average listeners have no choice but to hear. Our longing for these brokers was so intense that we were certain that they existed – although nowadays, I am not so sure. Moving forward, the inner urban idiom–and its commercial rationale–shapes as less tolerant of the contradictions that these places and people embody, and before too long, they will be gone.

I understand that Cherry Bar is hardly long for this world in its present location, joining the begrudging exodus of live music venues from Melbourne’s centre–presumably, relocating to somewhere mildly less convenient in the inner suburban ring, just as the erstwhile Bennetts Lane before it (which was reincarnated as Brunswick’s Jazzlab). Light a candle for Cherry Bar; raise a glass to Cherry Bar. Qua urban bohèmes, we are encouraged to lament these losses more earnestly than the litany of other venues that simply go out of business. Or in the least, ones that go out of their way to seem like they were exceptional, replete with industrious, photogenic employees merrily slogging away with their distinctive hair and challenging piercings. These are deviant entrepreneurial success stories that generate (inner) urban vibrancy, the concept slash organising principle slash buzzword often described as (at best) a strange bedfellow to urban renewal. So the story goes, one simply has to pick one’s poison: squalor’s electric hum, or practicality’s wet blanket. Thus, our insatiable thirst for high-density occupation is precisely the thing that drives sanitarily bohemian enterprise from our romantic tangle of laneways and replaces it with sheer verticality. By contrast, bohemianism’s aspirations are non-Euclidean.

When a venue like Cherry Bar moves away, bohemians tend to take notice, as monoculture is an intuitive symptom of urban monotony. Conversely, we hope that heterodox urban spaces–whose darling shambles bespeak the human vagaries of uneven development, redevelopment and repurposing–promote that sort of mosaic inclusiveness wherein things that look different wind up comprising a splendid whole. Importantly, making (entirely rational) criticisms of a building or its innards–in Cherry’s case, while the carpet may be sticky under us and the grease-traps vent various contagions above us–we’re assured that we really can’t complain from anything but a birds-eye view. In this way, bohemian edifices are inevitably beyond reproach.

Elsewhere, venues have struck blows against urban renewal’s leviathan: thanks in part to planning regulations instituted in 2014, noise complaints and their proposed remedies are the responsibility of new entrants to the vicinity, rather than those that were already (demonstrably) present. Today, a sufficiently determined venue can maintain that they aren’t obliged to foot the bill for the sort of noise proofing that precludes nuisance for those developers eying adjacent lots, for example. Carping neighbours didn’t kill Brunswick’s Howler, nor could they have doomed Cherry: as best we understand, garden-variety opportunity cost will be the author of Cherry’s demise, as anticlimactic as that might be. It ought to be stressed that while one of bohemianism’s vital benedictions is enshrined in statute, without being written in the spirit of the metropolis in the form of non-bureaucratic–as popular sentiment–vibrancy can only ever be tragically fragile. Absent the auspices of an authority with the explicit responsibility of superintending vibrancy – made up of elected officials, perhaps, or some expert delegates – it will be difficult to avoid handing inner-urban environments over to the highest bidder, wholesale. All said and done, Cherry’s landlords have opted to seek a more lucrative (and presumably, less messy) tenant – so goes the urban prerogative.

In the sober light of mid-afternoon – denuded of and divorced from its nocturnal bohemians – Cherry wasn’t quite so vibrant; around that time, they haul you in for sound check. The photos commemorating various iterations of AC/DC that adorn the walls aren’t quite vibrant. Because the place isn’t open, you can actually sit down; you might sit opposite Malcolm Young’s enormous visage: enormous, but not vibrant. The thought occurs that no-one in those vaunted photographs wears a trademark hat. Although appearing to evenly bisect the room by night, the bar looks almost masochistically narrow by day. The windows are barred – something you can scarcely begrudge any street-level premises in Melbourne’s centre– and it might come as a surprise that they aren’t blacked out: rather, there’s just not much to see. Bins, mostly, and a wall. Ah! The wall: a study in paste-up archaeology, as starry-eyed also-rans and semi-professional guerrilla marketers laminate precious eye-level vantage across the way from the evening’s queueing revellers, one photocopied stratum at a time.

 I will remember Cherry Bar for its myriad patrons, even the ones without trademark hats; unwitting participants in a twenty-something-year-long costume ritual conjuring the end of the parade of those strictly rock! barsin Melbourne that Cherry ached to muster but was likely its sole constituent. (Suffice it to say, there is no de facto federation of thirsty rock dogs marching in solidarity with Cherry; that segment of patrons is, by description, too diffuse to organise.) I will remember Cherry Bar as the only place I ever thought it was a good idea to drink Jägermeister, because failing to do so came (forensically speaking) out of my paycheque. I will remember Cherry as that place where I felt like I’d made it and then, a few years later, where it became obvious to me that nobody makes it. The sort of patron it reliably attracted is, unfortunately, the kind that ceases to exist once the sun comes up, rendering its pallid advocates scarce. Just as no-one authentically supernatural needed attend the hackneyed devils-and-angels booze cruises of yore for them to boast the theme, no authentic rock and rollers were diagnosed by their coughing up cover at Cherry: if they went, they would almost certainly have gone incognito. Without them, Cherry’s claims to urban contribution are hard to measure.

And what of vibrancy? We can confidently dispense with the notion that the city’s hospitality proposition is going to buckle under the sheer weight of homogeneity: anecdotally, the place seems more populous and patronised now than ever before. The odds of the city inconspicuously drifting off for lack of diversity seem long. Rather than drift off, though, Cherry Bar opts to slip away unannounced – a manoeuvre, perhaps, befitting the proclivities of its inspirations.

Image by Kira Hartley. Used with permission.

Julian Spiller is completing a Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. After giving this a burl and that a burl, he ran out of burls.

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