Kendra Meinert column: Legendary music bar Lefty's lives again for two-night salute

12:14 PM, Apr. 4, 2013  |  Comments
Lefty's on Main Street was a live music destination for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay college crowd in the '70s and '80s. It gets a two-night salute this weekend at Phat Headz.
Lefty's on Main Street was a live music destination for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay college crowd in the '70s and '80s. It gets a two-night salute this weekend at Phat Headz.
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Don't believe Tom Parrott when he says, "I forgot more than I remember about a lot of those shows.''

When the topic of Lefty's comes up, he can still rattle off how much he paid bands like the Violent Femmes, Soul Asylum and Atlanta Rhythm Section to play the Green Bay bar back in the late '70s and '80s. In fact, that latter one still stings a little.

He shelled out $1,500 for ARS, the Southern rock band from Georgia that charted with hits like "Imaginary Lover'' and "Champagne Jam,'' and took in just $700 at the doors.

"I lost my butt,'' he said with a laugh. "I remember the band coming in and going, 'What are we doing in this dump?'''

But there's hardly a memory from the glory days of Lefty's that Parrott doesn't think about with fondness. The bar's run from 1978 to 1988 was a bit of a golden age for both owner and regulars - a live music venue that some argue rivaled the Pack and the Hounds for the title of "best Green Bay bar ever.''

Count among those Tom Smith, the longtime Green Bay music promoter, who was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in the '80s and a regular at Lefty's.

"Lefty's had a different slant to it - what we called college rock at the time, what people would call indie now,'' Smith said. "You've got to remember that time in the '80s was when rednecks liked to beat up punk rockers. I think people on the Green Bay underground scene always appreciated that they were welcomed there. Of all the things they gave a fair shake there, punk rock was one of them. Lefty's is really interwoven with my college experience.''

So it's appropriate then that it's Smith, after seeing the way in which readers of this column last year remembered the Pack and the Hounds, who decided to host a proper salute to Lefty's, which has been closed for 25 years. He's assembled two nights of bands with ties to Lefty's who will play Friday and Saturday nights at Phat Headz, 420 N. Clay St.

Parrott is so excited he made up 250 pins with the original logo that pay homage to "Leftovers,'' the nickname for Lefty's diehards, that he'll be handing out at the shows.

"It's going to be crazy, I'm telling you. It's going to be wild,'' Parrott said. "I can see where people would miss it. I had a different perspective about it, because I owned it. I think I would've really liked it being a customer, looking back on it. But I had mixed feelings, because it would depend on how I did that night, because it was a business.''

Parrott is the first to admit he was willing to try anything when it came to live entertainment at the place he and two partners opened at 1031 Main St. back when the legal drinking age was still 18. Lefty's was a favorite with the bar-hopping University of Wisconsin-Green Bay crowd, which was open to a diverse slate of music and willing to pay a cover charge.

"I was pretty cutting edge. I would try anything if it was reasonable. I liked being different,'' said Parrott, who started out just playing jazz music on a record player. "One night I'd have rockabilly, one night I'd have blues, the next night I'd have punk. Local bands would play there a lot, because it was a cool venue. ... Anybody could play for the door.

"I never really knew what I was going to get sometimes,'' he said. "Boy, there was some wild stuff.''

Green Bay's Fun w/ Atoms became the unofficial house band, but Parrott remembers Tony Brown, Bryan Lee, Bo Ramsey & The Sliders and Worlds being regular players. Local band The Duanes had the place so packed one Tuesday night, Parrott had to jump in and work because he didn't have enough staff on. (He still remembers The Duanes-inspired graffiti in the bathrooms: "Duane the bathtub I'm dwowning.'') Trip Shakespeare and The Suburbs made the frequent trip over from the Twin Cities.

Smith can come up with an endless list of acts who graced the stage there: Plasticland, Dash Rip Rock, Naked Prey, Phantom Tollbooth, Depo Provera, Rebel Waltz, Boy Dirt Car, Insane War Tomatoes, Cherry Cake, Rifle Sport, Twistin' Egyptians ...

Parrot recalls a young Soul Asylum, still a punk band before their mainstream radio success, playing for as little as $200. "Just so they made money for Taco Bell afterward they didn't really care,'' he said.

(Trivia: That's the floor at Lefty's on the back of Soul Asylum's 1988 "Hang Time'' CD.)

The Violent Femmes' asking price for their first gig at Lefty's was $250 and 100 percent of the take at the door. Parrott charged $3 cover and had to shoehorn people in from as far away as Eau Claire and Wisconsin Rapids for a packed show with openers Fun w/ Atoms.

The Femmes also had in their contract they would be fed a meal, so Parrott, who frequently took bands to nearby Jake's Pizza, had a friend make salmon and salad at his house, and the band ate with his family. A good idea, until Parrott discovered they didn't eat fish. He made sure he served quiche when he had them back the second time for $1,000 and $5 cover.

"When they started to do 'Blister in the Sun,' I remember (hollering), 'Get out the plastic!'' Because I had glass pitchers. I didn't know everyone was gonna start slam dancing and every head would be bobbing up and down,'' Parrott said.

A year and a half after that first gig, the band's asking price had skyrocketed to $10,000, he said.

And there was the night local musician Darryl St. John said he'd try to get Cheap Trick (he was friends with them from the Pack and the Hounds days) to stop in at Lefty's after playing the Brown County Fair. Low and behold, he walked in with lead singer Robin Zander.

"He comes in and I'm like, 'Oh my God, dude, is there any way you'd come up and sing a song? He goes, 'No, I don't think so,''' Parrott said. "It wasn't 3 minutes later and he comes up to me and says, 'I'll tell you what. Give me one of those Lefty's T-shirts and a glass of Jack Daniels and I'll do it.' I was like, 'You drive a hard bargain, but OK.'''

But Lefty's didn't just limit itself to bands. Heart of La Crosse, an improv comedy troupe that did shows at a church in La Crosse, found its way to the bar via one of the member's brothers in Green Bay. "It was just hilarious. People loved it.''

UWGB theater students and faculty did alternative theater at Lefty's as Pub Theatre. "People could smoke and drink and watch a play right in their face,'' said Parrott, who would sometimes watch shows from above on a couch on a private balcony accessible by a pull-down ladder.

So what brought the Lefty's era to an end? It was a combination of factors, Parrott said, including the drinking age increasing to 21, stricter drunk driving laws and increased rent on the building. But he jokes that a 10-year run for a bar is "probably three times the national average.''

All that's left of Lefty's is its original wooden sign, which hangs in Billy Goats Pub - that and a whole lot of great memories from Lefty's lovers like Tom Smith, who has no doubts that if it had stuck around into the '90s, the early grunge bands would've played there.

"Me booking shows today in 2013 is still an offshoot of Lefty's,'' Smith said. "I saw a void of what music I wanted to see (after it closed). It made me realize if what I want to hear isn't playing in Green Bay, make it happen. The place just totally inspired me to do what I do.''

Parrott said he's honored that Lefty's was so revered its getting its own salute all these years later.

"I look back on it, and I have really fond memories,'' he said. "It's kind of like remembering your mom. I'll never forget her. I don't know if that's a good example, but that's how I feel about the place. It warms my heart to think people liked it enough to come up with this idea. I can't wait to go.''

Do it

What: Salute to Lefty's

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Who's playing: On Friday: Midwest Beat, Rev. Norb & The Onions, Holly & The Nice Lions, Life, Sedated. On Saturday: Midwest Beat, Beach Patrol, Fun w/ Atoms, Scrap Heap Kings, Sonic Angels (from France)

Where: Phat Headz, 420 N. Clay St., Green Bay

Tickets: No cover

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