More Than Just A Bar: Performers, Patrons Reflect On The Union< < Back to
The Athens music community was rocked by yesterday’s news that a section of West Union Street was consumed by fire, impacting longtime music venues The Union Bar & Grill and Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery.
While Jackie O’s Brewpub plans to reopen soon (the Public House side will remain closed indefinitely), The Union’s future is uncertain, according to a post made yesterday on the bar’s Facebook page:
“To the Union extended family, I’m sad to report that early this morning a fire started on our block of Union Street. Though firefighters made heroic efforts to contain the blaze, it quickly spread down the street to us. I currently don’t know the full extent of the damage but it is very extensive. Thankfully no one was injured, but The Union as we knew it is no more. I truly appreciate all the offers of help and warm sentiments. The Union was a second home to so many of us (including myself), it makes my heart ache. As I know more I will try to keep this page updated. Hopefully the place will have a good phoenix story coming soon.”
News spread quickly via social media on Sunday and anyone with a connection to The Union, Athens or Ohio University likely had their Facebook or Twitter feeds clogged with old photos, funny stories, heartbreaking recollections and defiant “rising phoenix” statements.
A GoFundMe page has been set up by local resident Pete Shooner to raise money for employees of The Union, Jackie O’s, Uptown Dog, Kismet, Smoke Zone Smoke Shop, and Jack Neal Florist–all businesses affected by the fire.
WOUB reached out to current and former Athens musicians and Union regulars to get their thoughts on Sunday’s fire and one of the region’s most storied music venues.
UPDATE: Andrew Studniarz, co-owner of The Union, made this statement at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17:
“First and foremost, I’d like to thank everyone who has reached out to me over the last 36 hours. You have no idea how much I have appreciated your posts, texts, emails and voicemails. I would also like to thank all of those who have posted on this (Facebook) page. Your pictures and shared memories have inspired us during this very difficult time. I must also take a moment to thank the brave men and women of the Athens Police and Fire Departments who so courageously fought to keep the flames from our building. In the end, the fire was too powerful and eventually devastated the institution we all love so much.
“There has been much speculation as to what the future will hold for The Union and while there are many details to be worked out, I can assure each and every one of you that The Union will be open again for business as soon as humanly possible. Tomorrow we will meet with the structural engineers to determine what, if anything, can be salvaged. We will then meet with the architect, begin clean up and start with the construction. It will take time but I can assure you The Union will once again open its doors as one of this city’s premiere live music venues. The show will go on and Gunn and I look forward to seeing you all there.”
UPDATE: Co-owner Eric Gunn made this statement via Facebook at 11:15 p.m. on Nov. 17:
First off we’d like to thank everyone who in the last 36 hours has reached out, called, messaged, posted, shared their concern and memories, hugged and cried with us. The outpouring of concern from both near and far has been nothing short of amazing. We must also give a big thank you to all the area police and firefighters who fought to put the fire out and risked their lives making sure no one lost theirs. Buildings can be fixed or replaced, lives can not. Nineteen people will never go back to their apartments on our block, but everyone is safe and there were no serious injuries.
Secondly, The Union is going nowhere. We are gonna pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back at it. Current ownership (myself and Andy Studniarz) are 100% committed to The Union reopening in it’s current location as soon as humanly possible. We have a very long road ahead of us. Currently the building has no roof. The upstairs is a total loss. We have to wait to hear from the fire marshal and a structural architect, who will determine if the building is safe, and can be saved & repaired. We are cautiously hopeful it can, but won’t know for several weeks. But whatever needs to be done will be.
It’s been a crazy couple days, but I have never been prouder to be a part of The Union. It will take months, many months, but I am so looking forward to reopening the doors, and hosting the best f****** party this town has seen.
It is not even close to last call.
I had been going to shows at The Union since I was 14 years old. I started playing shows there in ’92. When I graduated from OU, and was about to go to Europe with The Spiveys, Lou Lenart approached me the night before with the job to take over booking the upstairs. I remember thinking what a huge responsibility that would be. I was so incredibly flattered…but honestly, scared shitless. Since then I’ve booked thousands of shows in that room. I’m thankful to have met and worked with so many incredible people there.
I’m teaching now, and that same room has been more or less a classroom for my music students. Some of these kids had never been to a small club show before, let alone given the opportunity to organize one. A good friend of mine made a point that what truly makes The Union special is how you walk in a stranger and leave with a place to call home, complete with family, for the rest of your life.
I want to mention how thankful we are for all of the support that has been given from our extended family around the world. Friends, family, venues, bands and local businesses have all been in touch to ask how they can help, and although we won’t know our next move until the the investigation and assessments are complete, we’re trying to stay positive.
I’m proud to be a part of this extended family….the island of misfit toys. I’m thankful for the opportunity that Lou and Katie gave me so many years ago, and grateful that Eric Gunn saved it from falling into the hands of anyone else. We’ve celebrated and mourned every major event in our lives at The Union. Athens lost its coolest spot yesterday, no question about it. I have spent most of my life there, and wouldn’t have it any other way. – Scott Winland
When I came to Athens in 2001 as a freshman at Ohio University I felt as I imagine a lot of kids feel: excited and confused to be out on my own, but a little out of place. That feeling was short-lived because I set foot in The Union after only being in town for a couple weeks. Instantly I felt at home.
In the 13 years since then, I have graduated and made Athens my home–a place that has become a central location for some of the most important events in my life and led to countless friendships, creative collaborations, amazing shows, and even eventually to my own wedding. The Union is an institution. Having a space like that is essential to a vibrant community. For over 90 years, people who were looking for all of the other folks who didn’t fit in found them by looking there. The Union has been a central location to my life for the last 13 years and I cannot imagine where I would be without it.
In terms of “firsts,” I had my first beer (at a bar) there and played music in front of people for the first time. It was also the first place I visited after graduating college and marrying my wife Sherri, who could be found the night of our wedding, in her wedding dress, downstairs surrounded by all our friends.
The list of great bands I saw there is endless, some from far away towns and cities and some from right down the street. I had the privilege to play shows there in every band and project I have been in and believe that I still will play on a stage at that building again.
I feel honored to be a part of that family and the Athens music community, and I believe that with the support of that community, we will be able to rebuild the home base for Athens rock and roll and make sure that institution is there for generations to come.
My thoughts are with all of those affected at this time, especially those whose homes and businesses were destroyed and all of the wonderful people who will be dealing with the loss of work as a result of the damage. The damage to all of the businesses and housing is unbelievable, and the loss of The Union and Jackie O’s Public House in the immediate future will be huge for the Athens music community and the Athens community members who work in those places. – Brian Koscho
I am from Meigs County, a very conservative area. When I was in junior high and high school I began to really get into punk rock music, and eventually started sneaking out to shows in Huntington, West Virginia. One night an older friend of mine called and asked me if I wanted to go to a punk fest in Athens. I had never been to Athens before, but I loved punk music, and the WV scene was actually pretty stale for punk rock–mostly saturated with straight edge hardcore and christian-core bands, not my thing–but it was better than country music.
She took me to For Real Fest at The Union, I think I was 16. I had a blast and subsequently we ended up returning the next year; it was all I thought about after I left. All of those crazy, wild kids going nuts for some hard, loud, local music was everything that I knew existed, but assumed was limited to large, faraway cities in California and New York. I finally felt OK being me: weird, out-there, strange me. This played a very influential part in my choice to move to Athens at 18 for school.
When I started at OU I again returned to The Union. The people, the atmosphere, the attitude…I couldnt get enough of it. I soaked the music and culture of that building in like a drug high. Which is odd to even type, a building having that effect, it sounds ridiculous.
In the five years that followed, I made friends, I laughed at enemies, I made unbreakable connections with strangers I will remember all of my life. In fact, I kissed strangers, passionately. I forgot what it was like to feel burdened by mundane everyday tasks in the thick glow of florescent lights.
I let Moss, AJ, Sarah and Gunn pour my regrets in to shot glasses, shared them with smiling friends down the bar and drank them up.
Leaving at closing was always difficult. Looking back on some nights, I know I would have given anything just to extend them even a little to match the surreal feeling of never-ending youth that place embodied.
It’s impossible to list the individual memories I made at The Union, and it might be best for some of them to go down with the ship, buried by the bricks.
I spent birthdays, anniversaries, graduation parties, rock shows, drag shows, fests, and homecomings celebrating life there. I lived nights I would like to remember, but have forgotten under the heavy fog of nicotine and whiskey. I finally felt alright just being me. Because there, weirdness wasn’t locked in a cage and shoved in the corner, it was celebrated with a hug or handshake and a stiff drink.
When my friends and I meandered uptown through empty streets on summer nights, we always found our way to The Union. Whether starting there, going back, or ending, we were always there greeted with a smile. I got special drinks made for me, tabs of 60 cents that in reality should have been 60 dollars.
I was a drunken confessional for friends and enemies alike. The people there, they have a way of making you feel alive. During my senior year, my boyfriend began working the door, so I got the privilege on many occasions to keep post at the bar while other patrons were ushered out at last-call.
When I got a job in Columbus the hardest part of moving from Athens was saying goodbye to The Union, I think we had three “last nights.” Because in many ways, The Union IS Athens. I will carry the impact of The Union’s unique culture whereever I go, and I will never forget the bonds I created there–how simple laughter and a few (or 30) good drinks changed the way I felt, and thought about so many things.
I knew I could always count on a “see you next weekend,” or a “you comin’ to the show Friday?” I knew no matter what happened, when I returned, The Union would be exactly there way I had been when I left, a time capsule, a never-ending night to be explored over and over again never losing magic.
Where will Athens’ finest, the ones who embrace the strangeness of life, who created a music culture that spread upwards and outwards through each new generation of Union patrons, go now? We certainly can’t go home. – Merri Collins
I’m devastated and in shock. So sad for my friends who work there and my friends who play amazing music there. Eric and Andy, the owners, have poured even more love into a well-loved place, and now the upstairs and stage, at least, are destroyed. It really is like my ancestral family home has been destroyed.
I’ve been rocking out there since 1989, and my band The Makebelieves could always count on Eric Gunn to let us practice up there, for free, like he did for so many other bands. Scott Winland is a world-class booking agent, and has brought us countless mind-blowing musicians for decades. This is an extremely tragic day for live music in Ohio and the World. – Al Schmidt
I attended OU from 2006-2010 and was a member of the band The Red Army throughout those years. Both The Union and Scott were and continue to be very influential in my life. I could go on and on about what that place means to me, but I really wanted to highlight a moment that stands with me daily.
Scott had asked our band to do the Big Cover Up. We prided ourselves on never doing covers, but took this as an opportunity to really challenge ourselves and do something different. From the jump, we knew we were going to do Bad Brains, and that we were going to have to practice our asses off because that shit is hard as hell to play, and we knew the level of scrutiny from the people we respected most in Athens would be watching. It wasn’t really about the students, it was about the generation before us, that Bad Brains was an installation for, the kinda stuff that The Union was built on.
Only at a place that harbored and pushed for such creativity could you have night of such talented people, with a bill that stretched from June and Johnny Cash, Modest Mouse, Primus, Bad Brains, etc. And to do this three times a year…I still have and probably never will see an institution be able to create such an atmosphere.
All in all, this was a home. I did my homework there, talked to my parents, best friends, created life plans, destroyed life plans, but all in all, I got to see people I liked and listen to music I cared about. – Austin Young
The Union was more than a venue: It was a place of shared community that shaped so many of our lives through these past decades. For me personally, that meant countless relationships and nearly 20 years of memorable performances with bands I’ve played with, and some of the most important and influential bands that defined our music scene in Athens. – Josh Antonuccio
I wasn’t a regular drinker, so I missed out on some of the goings-on, the debauchery, the pontificating and the polemic downstairs. But as a freshman music-wannabe, seeing The Laughing Hyenas (whose show I still reference–one of the most brazenly loud music shows, played by a bizarre-looking quartet led by screamer who also happened to play trumpet), 24-7 Spyz, The Snapdragons and the Voodoo Birds, all in the span of about 2 weeks, confirmed my belief I had landed at the right college town. It was weird and raw. It was OK by me.
We (Pretty Mighty Mighty, ’90s band) took band photos in the booths and trucked gear up the steps more times than I can remember. I watched my friends play shows and we had a blast with the crappy old PA and small stage and the floor flexing from the possibly illegal numbers in attendance.
We made flyers–probably half the time I didn’t even know the address of the club. It’s the Union–if you don’t know it, you probably shouldn’t be there. We traveled and were proud to call Athens and The Union our home base.
Later on, there was an expanded stage and better PA, pillars be damned. Even better shows, more room and better sound. Old speakers as lamp frames? How cool! There were certainly dark times that took the lives of some pretty serious Union characters. That sucked.
For me, it’s about upstairs. No green room. Barely useable bathroom. No seats. Ill-lit. All awesome. – Neal Schmitt
I’ve been going to The Union to watch and play shows for over half my life. And when I went there, all of those memories were still alive. It’s incredibly sad, surreal and unbelievable that all of that is gone and now relegated to memory rather than place. – Bram Riddlebarger
My bands have been coming down from Columbus to play The Union since 1990 (and maybe earlier):Econothugs, Miss May 66, Mudflap Girls from Venus, The Terrifying Experience, Gypsy Witch, Night Family and who knows what I’m forgetting.
The hospitality was always off the charts, and we made MANY life long friends in the crowd and other bands. Geraldine, ADR and any band Junebug was in, as well as all the people Scott or whoever was booking brought in.
I can spend a lot of time looking back and laughing and smiling about different times there, but one that sticks out is a particularly rowdy Econothugs load-out where a band member rode his 8×10 SVT bass cabinet down the stairs like a sled. He hit the wall at the bottom at what must have been 25mph and somehow survived and partied the rest of the night.
Hope you all find a way to deal with this and come back with something just as special. – Geoff Ortlip
Of the thousands of interesting Athenians I’ve known, it seems like all of them must have passed through The Union at one time or another. The place has been that central to the scene.
While hanging out there as a mid-’80s grad student in downstairs booths over many pitchers with many friends, it left such an indelible impression on me that later, while traveling and working in Alaska in 1988, I wrote a song about my Athens pals called “Essentially Crucial” with this line: “I dreamed last night I saw you, smiling
on your Union stool.”
I’ve also enjoyed many a good show upstairs, and was privileged to perform on the stage a bunch of times with Johnny B, Johnny Marathon, Hebdo, The Paranormals and suchlike. I’ve especially loved playing there for Lennonfest in recent years and catching everybody else’s great Beatle renditions.
It was always loose and fun at The Union. As for now, I’ve no doubt that this town will rally and help Eric and Art revive their well-loved businesses. I know folks feel bad, but there are always silver linings and lessons earned, and things aren’t always as they seem.
I believe the outpouring of love, compassion and assistance that is sure to come will help things turn out for the best somehow. That’s how Athens rolls. – Steve Zarate
So many great times, hardly any bad ones. If I had to name one place or institution that influenced me, my attitude, my outlook, my life, it’s The Union. So much more than just a “bar.”
It was where we learned to love good music, hate bad music, and realize that great music was hardly ever perfect.
It was a dingy, loud, smelly, shimmering gem of an oasis in the midst of an otherwise normal mid western existence. It was home, it was comfort, it was laughter, it was music, it was….just where you went. It was the Union. – Jack Hadley
I’m so sad about the Union Street fire. Even being hundreds of miles away, it is hitting me like a slug to the sternum.
Here is what I remember about the Union: I came to Athens, Ohio, in the early 2000s as a kind of lost and sad teenager, trying to find friends to share some kind of mutual understanding and joy. The Union was a place that allowed you to do just that, with very little judgment or pretense.
Passing through the doors of The Union time after time, it was easy to see that my story was not unique–inside I would always find others (many others) just like me, in search for their people and to get lost in the music of the band playing on that stage. To me, that stage will always be hallowed ground. – Adam Torres
When I was a kid growing up in Athens, everyone wanted to play at The Union. It was a real sign that you were a legitimate band if you got to play. It was a really big deal. When you were under drinking age all you could play was coffee shops, house parties or community shows. But if you could get your foot in the door at The Union it was a HUGE deal.
Sure, there were other bars like Swindlefish or O’Hooley’s, but The Union: That was where all of the biggest bands played. The Union has always been a symbol of Athens’ love for local music. It helped cultivate years of local kids picking up an instrument and striving for something bigger. – Majed Khurshid
Simply put, The Union was the only reason that I decided to stay in Athens after I graduated from Ohio University in 2006. I didn’t have a job lined up, and hadn’t made plans for grad school, but I had fallen in love with the Athens music scene, and specifically with The Union.
When I moved to Athens, I knew just a handful of people and none of them hung out at The Union. But I knew it was where I would meet my people. So I kept going there by myself, to show after show, hoping that someone would finally talk to me. Nearly a decade later, there are few places in the world where I feel more comfortable and know more people. My husband saw me for the first time at The Union, and it was where we fell for each other. The night that we got married, our wedding reception ended up closing down the bar. Truthfully, I think Lou might have let us stay at the bar long past 2 a.m. that night.
I have made and solidified countless friendships in those brick walls, had some of the greatest nights of my life, and seen some of the most amazing shows. I refuse to believe that this is the end for The Union. The groundswell of support that I’ve seen in the last 24 hours has been incredible, and I think it proves that Athens needs our rock n’ roll bar more than we could have imagined. The Union forever! – Sherri Oliver
I have always been impressed at the level of world-class performers that have graced the stage at The Union in my decade here–too numerous to mention them all. The closest comparison in my experience is CBGB’s in the late ’70s.
The Union was a place where you could see a set by someone like Jonathan Richman and then sit down at the bar and chat with him afterward. Shilpa Ray, Samantha Crain, Sallie Ford: You’d see these musicians onstage at the Union for $5 and then later on Letterman, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts or catch a clip of them touring Europe.
Equally impressive is the way The Union welcomed local bands, fledgling student bands, artsy cover bands, live Rocky Horror or burlesque shows, and treated each with the same respect, enthusiasm and appreciation. If a band wanted to perform, was playing all originals and no one had ever heard of them, the response was usually “no problem, here are the open dates…”
Then there were all the fests and benefits: Blackoutfest, Athens Community Music Festival, Lennonfest, etc. This loss is being felt from NYC to LA and beyond. Yesterday someone posted “We’ll raise an army to bring it back.” Count me in. – Michael Tedesco
The Union was and will remain the stronghold of the Athens, Ohio music scene, as well as the chosen alternative to mainstream Athens culture and nightlife. The building might change after the fire but the spirit of what the Union has stood for, for many many decades, will remain.
Our memories will always be with us. The stories, the music, the photos and the scars will help us retain these memories. The Union has influenced and helped shape so many people and so many friends. I am hopeful that we will all raise a glass again while standing in our favorite bar. – Tim Peacock
When I grew up in Athens, Ohio, it had an incredible music scene, which is amazing considering a town of its size. I cut my teeth as a musician with two bands: In the Night Kitchen and Push Push Carnival. In the Night Kitchen would play either O’Hooleys or The Union and Push Push would play The Union.
The Union is where I first slam danced to Slam Whitman and Blue, local hardcore bands. It was a fun, friendly environment to grow up musically in. And I did grow up–I am a professonal touring composer/musician and I cut my teeth playing at bands upstairs at The Union! – Sxip Shirey
I remember rolling into Athens on hot Sunday afternoon in May 1988. The streets where oddly semi-empty; it was the tail end of the school quarter. My childhood friend who played drums in our punk rock band in suburban New Jersey lived in an apartment on the corner of Court and Union Street above the book store. I had just graduated the day before from Bethany College in West Virginia and my father had just passed away after long illness that same month.
I showed up semi-unannounced, but was welcomed with a place to crash. My brother, who coincidentally had gotten himself kicked out of the Maine Maritime Academy for being the best 19 year old drunk they’d ever seen, had recently called me about what I was doing now I was out of school. I told him I was going to Athens to hang out for the summer.
I had always asked my friend Mick where the punk rock bands played in town, and the response was “The Union,” literally 100 yards from where I was staying. I had never been there although I had been to Athens several times in the past to visit.
Monday afternoon, I shook off the previous night and went over to The Union where I walked into a completely empty bar. Behind the counter was short guy in a completely unseasonal flannel shirt with a Ken doll haircut and cheap pair of bifocals who says to me, “Hey, you want a hot dog!” I’m like, “No man, I’m looking for the guy that books the bands.” “Well I’m the owner, Dave (Schonauer). What kind of music do you play?”
I hated that completely legitimate question even then.
“You know, rock and roll, original stuff,” I said.
Dave gave me an eye. “If you’re playing your own stuff you need to talk this guy, Mike Bushnell…I just book the cover bands.”
I got ahold of Mike Bushnell, who intentionally or not, at the time looked like the Big Boy on the sign from Frisch’s Big Boy across the street. Mike also played drums in a kick ass band I saw that very weekend called “Evil Orange.”
The next Monday I called my brother and told him to get in the van and bring out the gear. I would find us a place to live. By late August we were playing our first gig at The Union, with Mike’s Band.
When initially asked what we were called, I said I’ll get back to you on that. We came up with a name that we that we thought could dually offend and defend–we liked to say at the time, “The two biggest things that don’t exist: God and Texas.”
By the end of the year, I was working at the bar, first door man then bartender, then the following summer my brother and I moved up to Columbus because the scene up there was a lot more happening. I started working at Staches, Little Brothers on High Street.
We were still playing at The Union regularly. Mike had left, Joe Winterhalter was booking The Union. I started meeting a lot of bands at Staches who were staying at my place after gigs. I was calling Joe and setting up pickup shows during the week with bands on tour with days off after a Staches gig. That’s how Ed Hall found Athens, and that’s how The Cows first ended up in Athens.
A year or so later, I was back In Athens full-time, Dave still ran the bar, but I was booking shows, living in Athens and working at both Staches two days a week and The Union. I was meeting a lot of touring bands: I brought the Digits there, The Jesus Lizard, Hum. I almost had Nirvana there.
I got busy enough I needed help, so I enlisted the person who showed the most interest in what I was doing to help me out, the kid who worked at Haffa’s, the record store across the street. His name was Eric Gunn. Dave soon passed the torch to Lou Lenart. The Union was now on a lot of agents’ touring schedules.
Eric was working there now, too. All the bands that came through loved the bar and the town. My own band, God and Texas, had gotten pretty popular. We had our record deal and we were touring like crazy. In late 1993, I moved to Chicago. I remember thinking, “yeah this is good, but I am going miss this place.”
I accomplished pretty much what I want I wanted to do in the music business. I’m still in the audio business. With the events this past weekend, I am wondering if I would have done any of it if I hadn’t walked into The Union and been offered a hot dog. – John Humphrey
There are three reasons why I made up my mind to move to Athens, Ohio, 11 years ago: my fiercely intelligent future colleagues, Haffa’s Records, and The Union. I’ll be damned if I let a little fire take out my favorite watering hole (and music venue). Count me in for the barn raising. – Eddie Ashworth
The electronic-based dance parties thrown by the company Dave Rave made their big splash of January of 2010. Dave Rave is a company that myself and David Alexander started and found a home in The Union. This year I took over full duties for the shows in Athens. The Union is home to Dave Rave, and more importantly, DJ B-Funk
So it’s surreal to be writing this because I’m looking at a poster for the five year Anniversary Party of Dave Rave (which was supposed to be at the Union in January). I planned on announcing the party TODAY. After talking to Scott at The Union, one thing is for sure: It’s not happening at The Union and that just doesn’t seem possible.
To think that that place is gone is crazy. I have so many great memories about The Union. That was the first place I really felt like I was doing something with my music. Really honing my craft and creating something new in Athens. People were lining up to hear electronic music IN ATHENS! And it was all because of The Union’s “come as you are” attitude.
Even before I started throwing shows at The Union, I was going there for the awesome Dance or Die shows or dj’ing events there for ACRN. It was at those dance parties I was hearing everything and it clicked in my head “Why can’t I do this? I know there have to be other people who like music I like.” Sure enough, it ended up being The Union where I WAS able to throw those parties.
It just felt like The Union was up for ANYTHING. Punk, hip-hop, burlesque shows, ska, house music, jamtronica, whatever. When you walked up those stairs you felt like you were walking into something unique. I can’t really explain it but that march up those perilous stairs with muffled music blasting from the very top, it felt like you were walking into a new world of possibilities. Was it going to be a raging party? Was it too early? Was I right on time? You never knew until you paid your cover to Jim the door guy and made your way to the top and walked in.
I have met so many great people and really felt like I was part of a family while I was there. When I first started throwing shows I felt like I was the oddball because The Union is primarily known for its rock shows and I was doing this “techno thing,” but I quickly learned from Lou and then Eric that they just want people to have fun; they don’t care what the music is. I loved that feeling. I could come in the next day and grab the keys from Noel or Chris or Moss or whoever was bartending downstairs and then head upstairs and grab my stuff from the night before. it’s scary to think that I could have lost my gear like two bands did. Your whole music life just gone.
Sure, I lost some things in the fire that I had stored up there. The black lights in the ceiling Dave and I installed, a video camera we used to broadcast the crowd at our shows…but these things are so minor compared to the total loss of all your gear you saved up for.
But back to what I was saying about family: I cant tell you the number of conversations I have have had with Gunn and Scott Winland about improvements to the bar and they have always been receptive to ideas if they made sense. It’s just sad to see such an amazing hub of Athens GONE.
One of my favorite memories of that place was a show I did with Big Freedia, a transgender undisputed bounce queen from New Orleans. Gunn, Scott, and everyone was so excited and the show was so fun. Big Freedia just booty bounced and twerked her/his way accross the stage while the crowd danced on stage with him/her. Now she’s on VH1 with her own reality show about her career. That all happened because The Union wanted to take a chance on a rising talent that many had never heard of.
I hope The Union comes back and is ready to rock harder than ever. It’s crazy to think that the place was just remodeled three years ago and now it’s just GONE. But it’s been amazing to see how many people have posted about doing a fundraiser or a charity or whatever to help raise money. It really shows just how many people were touched and how much of an impression this awesome place made on all of us. I wish the best to AJ, Chris, Moss, Mark, Jim, Noel, Maceo, Scott and Gunn. There are many others I have worked with at The Union, but those guys and girls are my friends and family and I want this to all work out in the end. – Brandon Thompson (aka DJ B-Funk)
I always lament about losing good townspeople every June, but to have this spot that I always assumed would always be there taken so abruptly, it’s really wrecked my well-being.
I hope Coluadis, Gunn and Studniarz have the option to work something out. I know it will be difficult and maybe one or all of the parties will just throw their hands up and say it’s too much to undertake. I hope the music scene doesn’t suffer for long and another stage steps up to fill the void.
I remember the punk scene in the mid-’80s being a safe outlet for that early teen rebellion. It’s funny now to say at age 16 it was safe to go uptown and see live shows in a bar, but with the bar and music venue separated, you would get the big “X” on your hand to designate you as underage and that was it. It was many years before I walked through the ground level door.
Sophomore year in college I lived with Scott Winland at the end of Franklin and he was already living the music scene. Playing bass, forming bands and just absorbing as much music as he could. I was always (still am) an observer and we would sit in the living room and listen to music during the day and then it was up to The Union to see shows, have conversations, and on some special nights, see our friends play. Regardless of the night, you would always run into people and have a good time in conversation.
Even now in the present, I always look forward to Lennonfest and Keithfest. Kind of a homecoming for me. And holidays: As an Athens native you are guaranteed that if you went to The Union all those Athens friends who moved away could walk through that door at any moment.
Those were the most spontaneous evenings, just full of surprises, and even though years may have passed you just picked up the conversations like you just saw your friends last week. I hope those are not over. – Peter Kotses
To say that The Union was a big part of my experience during my time in Athens would be an understatement. To me, it’s ironic that you went upstairs to see bands at The Union because the place made you feel like you were part of the “underground.” There wasn’t necessarily a look or a style or particular vibe of anyone that you saw frequenting The Union–it was welcoming to a wide variety, all with a common love of great, live music.
I’ve always joked that you could put together a band and write some songs over a weekend, practice on Monday and Tuesday and get your first gig on Wednesday night at The Union. It was always a welcoming venue for local musicians and gave everyone a chance.
I was lucky enough to play with three bands that regularly performed on that stage from 1988 through 1994 (Zen Machine, Keystone Metermaids, Big Red Truck). I also saw some great shows from bands like 24-7 Spyz, The Royal Crescent Mob and The Love Cowboys. The Union really made you feel like you were part of an exclusive club–a club that will be truly missed. – Don Bedell
To me, The Union embodies the strength of the community of Athens. It may be funny to say that about a bar, but if you worked in the service industry uptown, then you know exactly what I am talking about.
One memory clearly illustrates this point for me. While working lunch one afternoon at O’Betty’s, I received a phone call from Chandra at The Union that a friend and co-worker of mine, who was having a particularly rough spell, was sleeping in the office there and had asked her to call me for him.
When my shift was over, I made the trek to The Union. Chandra directed me through the kitchen to Lou’s office in the back where I found my buddy sprawled out comfortably on a small futon. He wasn’t inebriated as much as he was crippled by sadness and had nowhere to go. I helped him up and we made our way through the nearly empty bar, Chandra and Speedy both offering words of encouragement, pats on the back and hugs as we made our way out to the street, arm in arm, back up Court Street and beyond, to my house where I helped him remove his boots before he settled softly on the couch.
It wasn’t always hugs and kisses at The Union, but goddammit we looked out for each other. And sure, some of us took turns “going off” per se, but you didn’t have to be ashamed for too long. You knew you could return in a day or so, depending on the severity of your outburst, because all was either forgiven or wiped from the memory by another night’s happenings, and of course everyone wanted to reserve the same right for themselves, just in case.
Having several small children I don’t get the opportunity to frequent The Union much any more, but I have always taken solace in knowing that it is there for me when I need it. The thought of Athens without The Union, even if it is only for a couple of months, is deeply troubling to me.
I feel nostalgic for all the friends made and times had. It was always a ride that you could enter and exit at will, but not one that you ever dreamed of stopping. I hope we can rebuild it because we will never be able to replace it. – Ryan Stolz
Obviously, this tragic event is a terrible blow to the local music scene. For decades, The Union has been more than just a bar–it has been a place where very special musical things have happened.
The shows that I have seen there have been consistently amazing, and they have run the gamut of musical styles and artistry. Everything from the enchanting acoustic solo performances of poetic crooner Jonathan Richman to the strange dirty-disco of Gil Mantera’s Party Dream; from newly-formed local bands to established nationally touring acts. There has rarely been a dull moment in all the years I have been going to shows at The Union.
It is also necessary to emphasize the role The Union has had in cultivating the ability for local performers to gain exposure to wide audiences. The venue itself creates a draw because of the high quality of people who have played there over the years and, as a result, folks will attend a show there even if they know little or nothing about the bands who are playing–it is enough to know that a Union show is usually worth seeing! For a local band looking to establish a fan base, playing a show at The Union is a surefire way to do so.
The final and most important thing about The Union is the people–the staff, “the regulars” and those who wander into the place only to discover The Union’s unique atmosphere. These folks are among some of the best and brightest people in Athens and they help make it a very special town.
We have all shared so many great moments of laughter, passion and camaraderie in the bar. So many times during the intensity of a rock show have I looked to my left and to my right to see a roomful of smiling people moving in unison, glad to be alive, and full of the youthful energy that only rock and roll music can give you. Our hearts keeping time to the backbeat rhythm of the moment. Our spirits fusing together to make another unforgettable night of musical excitement
I believe deeply that The Union will rise from the ashes and again be the place for the special things mentioned above. Everyone who shares these feelings has a duty to help in rebuilding what has been lost. We need a place to congregate and express our love for music; a place to celebrate life. We have the power to overcome this unfortunate setback if we all pitch in and work together for the common good.
Long live rock! Long live friends! Long the live The Union Bar & Grill! – Matthew J. Box